Small World, Big Planet

Antarctica - Gerlache strait

Antarctica – Gerlache strait (Photo credit: Rita Willaert)

This site’s tagline refers to the old saying that keeps getting reused that ships, then aircraft and now the internet are “shrinking the world” but although Humans have visited every continent there’s still vast areas of emptiness, much unexplored, and as for the oceans, well we’ve barely dipped a toe in the water and shivered at how cold it is so far.

To show this Gizmodo recently showcased some of the most remote research stations on the planet and even a couple of homes for those who really want to get away from it all.


Watch The Road

Person using cell phone while driving.

Person using cell phone while driving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you’re sat in a comfy seat, warm and dry, listening to a great album, singing along, thinking about dinner, or perhaps chatting to your friend, spouse or chinese takeaway it’s easy to forget you’re in over a tonne of metal travelling at speed.

When you’re learning you’re always paying attention to the road, checking your mirrors and being aware of the dangers around you.  Someone might walk into the road, some idiot might pull out in front of you (no particular brand owners mentioned, but you know who they are).  When you’ve passed your test though you might not be quite so vigilant.

Modern cars have only made the problem worse.  Even though California recently allowed texting and emailing via voice only whilst driving research has again shown that distracted driving is still dangerous.  Talking to someone places far higher mental demands on drivers, reducing their concentration on the really important task – staying between the white lines and not hitting anything.  A few years ago David Strayer and colleagues from the University of Utah compared mobile phone users to drunks in a driving simulator.  The talkie drivers showed significant impairment and slower braking reaction, roughly similar to participants who registered a .08 percent blood-alcohol content.

In tests of texters handheld typers naturally took their eyes off the road for longer periods than normal but even those using a handsfree to dictate to the phone took their eyes off the road for long periods too.  When you’re trying to concentrate on what you want to say you’re brain will focus on that rather than the outside world so your eyes will wander.  A counter-argument that drivers talk to passengers all the time is counter-countered by the facts that the conversation is often about the traffic, other drivers and so on and also that many accidents are caused when the driver is having an absorbing discussion or blazing row with the passenger alongside them and/or the kids in the back.  It is why so many accidents involve a car full of friends, loud music, and often but not exclusively young, inexperienced drivers.

Car makers haven’t helped though.  I like a car where I can alter the temperature, open a window, change the track or the volume on the MP3 player or switch on the hazard lights by reaching out to a familiar location and flicking a switch.  While it still takes some attention away from the road at least you’re still watching the road, using muscle-memory to find the control, knowing by tactile feedback if it’s set right, and then a very quick glance can confirm this.  Many cars though have just about everything set by some kind of menu, operated by a joystick so you have to watch a screen in order to set the aircon and so on.  On a recent Ferrari tested on Top Gear you even had the choice of seeing either the speedometer or satnav display – that shouldn’t have been even considered.

Voice control has been around for a while but generally only for basics like phone dialing and satnav but some manufacturers are now starting to consider advanced controls, for example the eye-tracking and Kinect-like gesture controls as seen in Hyundai’s recent HCD14 Genesis concept.

Driverless cars promise much but still have a long way to go and the technology that has made its way into cars so far such as automatic braking could easily encourage drivers to pay less attention to the road, lulled into a false sense of security that the car will save them from an accident.

I know personally that you can easily even be distracted while driving by feeling anxious or upset about something – the realisation that you’ve driven a mile down a road but can’t remember doing it is a sign of this distraction and is disturbing – but we need to remember the importance of making sure that tonne of metal doesn’t hit anything and the less things that get in the way of that the better.

Things Fall Apart…

Warranty Void if Seal Broken

Warranty Void if Seal Broken (Photo credit: eirikso)

Or at least stop working, or didn’t work when you got them, or just won’t cooperate.  But for some reason many people refuse to accept this simple fact of life.

I’ve had three jobs where I’ve had to deal with people who could not accept that what they’d bought had rebelled against them, as they saw it.  If something broke down while in warranty no problem, we’d replace it, fine.  But if it was out of warranty it sometimes became, er, difficult.  You hear “I’ve only had the computer three years, it shouldn’t have stopped working”, “I’ve only had the motorhome three years, it shouldn’t have stopped working”, “I’ve only had the windows eleven years, the seal shouldn’t have stopped working.”  You get the gist.

Yes, some things are designed to last a long time, houses, gravestones, while other things wear out but these days more and more people just won’t accept that and think that it’s unreasonable, the level of annoyance often increases with the amount of money they have. Much of the time people who know nothing about the inner workings of the item will tell you “I know it shouldn’t fail this quickly.”

Many things have a limited lifespan, but much of the time the thing’s worn out because people don’t look after things like locks and engines.  It used to be accepted that some things needed cleaning, oiling or looking after so they’d last for years but, possibly because of our throw-away society combined with so many gadgets which are hermetically sealed up to stop people tampering people are either losing the skills to do it or just feel they shouldn’t have to, even when presented with a big sticker saying “care and maintenance instructions.”   Some people just never read the er, flipping manual.

Then there’s the next difficulty which is when people expect to get a shiny brand-new warranty with the item that’s been replaced under warranty without grasping the idea that doing that could lead to the item being replaced free-of-charge from now until eternity.  “But it’s a new part,” they cry “and you’re telling me it’ll only have a three-month warranty, that’s stupid, I want to talk to your manager!”   Sigh.

I don’t know if it’s the increasing influence of the so-called “blame culture” where accidents don’t just happen, things don’t just break there has to be a reason, has to be someone to blame, someone to carry the cost for you.  There’s probably a hint of the sunk-cost fallacy where you don’t want to let go of something old, or pay more to keep it going because of what you’ve already invested in it.  But really people have to accept that in a universe which tends towards a chaotic equilibrium things decay, wear out, get clogged up with search toolbars and eventually die.

Satellites, Cows and Penguin Poop

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus...

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus patagonicus), West Falkland. Français : Un Manchot royal. Photo prise sur l’île de Falkland occidentale (ou Grande Malouine), dans les Malouines. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people worry about all the satellites up there pointing cameras down here but for scientists as well as governments they can be invaluable – particularly if you need to p p p pick up a penguin, or 9,000.

In recent years wildlife researchers have used satellite and aerial imagery to watch animal movements and behaviour.  Dr Sabine Begall, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany who had been studying magnetic sensing in animals, initially mole rats, decided to see if larger animals might have the same.  Dr Begall and colleagues used Google Earth to examine how cows stand in fields across the world (to rule out weather effects) and found that the majority faced north or south only, the effect was also seen in deer in the Czech Republic.

In 2009 a group monitoring how penguins were coping with changing environmental conditions wanted to confirm the location of breeding grounds.  Using satellite images, which didn’t have sufficient resolution to see individual birds, they were able to identify colonies due to the staining of the ground by guano – the penguins stay at the colony for around eight months.  The work confirmed the location of 26 colonies and found 10 more.

Then in December last year a team of Belgian and Swiss explorers visited one of these colonies, finding around 9,000 birds.  The article at The Atlantic has the photos.

The New Age of Sail

"Tres Hombres"

“Tres Hombres” (Photo credit: Nolleos)

If you had visited Copenhagen recently you could have seen a 32-metre long twin-masted sailing ship, a brigantine, called the Tres Hombres arriving at the dock but this wasn’t some romantic recreation of a bygone age the ship carries up to 35 tonnes of cargo, and has been doing since 2009.

As reported by the BBC this week the business is one of many new projects underway to again use sail power to transport goods.  Most freight carriers only travel at about 15 knots today, to save fuel and reduce emissions whereas ships such as the Tres Hombres travels at 10 knots which is not really much slower.  Many companies who are concerned about their energy usage and the effects of their logistics on the environment welcome the low impact nature of sail – current cargo shipping equates to being the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses on the planet.

The only problem however is the unpredictability of the wind but even this can be solved today by the use of engines when the wind isn’t cooperating.  One company, B9, is designing a large cargo ship which combines carbon-fibre high-efficiency sails with an engine that runs on bio-gas from food waste.  Modern technology even allows for the weather to be predicted so as to make the best use of the wind and engine throughout a voyage.  Models have already been tested at Southampton University and the results used to optimise routes.

Lastly Skysails, a German company, is looking at marketing systems of giant kites to provide assistance to large conventional cargo ships and in Japan the University of Tokyo is also looking at sails on cargo ships.

It is still a niche idea at the moment but as the BBCs report shows as fuel costs increase and world trade continues to increase the modernised technology may once more have its day.

[BBC News]

Ditching the Pills?

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we face more snow, it always seems to snow on my birthday these days, which is nice, and America is getting more than its fair share too, the folks at Gizmodo UK asked for the commenters’ DIY cold remedies.

The kind of cold and flu pills and powders you find in pharmacies seem to all be variations on the same drugs – pain killers, antiinflamatories, decongestants, lemon or blackcurrant flavourings – and many people are trying traditional methods instead, though many still use some medicines too.

Some, myself included, mix the powdered hot lemon drinks with honey – for its antibacterial properties; some make a honey and lemon drink using fresh fruit juice and take a paracetamol with it; others swear by whiskey.  Hot baths and wrapping up well are always popular, as is staying in bed although for many of us that’s not a viable option.

Finally a good hot curry was offered along with other drinks recipes.  I can agree with the curry option for one because you can at least taste it even if it doesn’t clear you out.

[Gizmodo UK]

Everyday Dangers

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of F...

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of Falling (Photo credit:

Jared Diamond of The New York Times provides an interesting lesson about how people in the modern world perceive dangers.  After witnessing friends in New Guinea refusing to sleep under an old, dead tree due to the risk of it falling he realised that people have begun to worry more about the bigger, more unlikely risks such as terrorist attacks, nuclear radiation, plane crashes and so on and be less vigilant towards smaller risks that are taken or encountered very often – risks that are ignored because people think “that’s not a problem, I’m careful” while often not being.

I personally have this “hypervigilant attitude towards repeated risks” or “constructive paranoia” – I watch what I’m doing when I’m descending the long flight of stairs outside, I wear well treaded shoes on snow and ice and I’m particularly careful when handling sheet glass; which can literally be lethal, or at least painful as the scars on my hands from unavoidable accidents attest.

As the article states, with access to emergency services and the assumption that help is only moments away the awareness of real dangers has become diminished and unlikely ones exaggerated.

Have a read of the full article, then be careful out there.


Retail Tales: Unpleasant and Unhygenic

"Cover Coughs, Cover Sneezes" - NARA...

“Cover Coughs, Cover Sneezes” – NARA – 514081 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been feeling under the weather again this week, which may or may not be left over infection from last week when to be honest I was glad I’d booked the days after New Years as holidays.

This started me thinking about why I seem to get colds, sore throats and so on so regularly, I thought maybe I wasn’t healthy enough, maybe it was bad diet.  The answer isn’t pleasant, it’s shop customers.  Or rather the customers who come in coughing, sneezing and spluttering and leaving germs on my door handles.

When I cash-up I have to go and wash my hands afterwards because of the grubby feeling they’re left with, I know many people who do the same.  I know many people who work in shops and supermarkets who also fall ill regularly.

Working with the public is a minefield of potential contagious illnesses coughed across the counter or handed to you on cash handled by unwashed hands from the last time they went to the loo.  If you worried about it too much it would make you run from behind the counter in search of hand sanitizer – which is handy stuff to have around but doesn’t stop the sneezes, though you could throw it at someone who does fire contamination in your direction, and don’t get me started on the number of people who cough all over you without covering their mouths, as a lady in the shop today told me happened on a recent train journey, the cougher being the conductor.

At the other end of the scale are people who obsess about having every surface 100% bacteria free, being told by adverts that there are more on a chopping board than toilet seats, that if they don’t use all these products they’re putting their kids at risk.  It’s true that you need to be careful with raw food and so on, just follow some basic rules and you’ll be fine, it is now even believed that excessive cleaning and removing all contact with bacteria could be detrimental to health.

The most ridiculous thing I’ve seen though are automatic handwash dispensers, again advertised as being essential for your family’s health.  The adverts say that handwash pumps are riddled with bacteria and every time you touch one you get infected.  True, but it’s handwash, you’re using what you’ve just pumped into your hand to wash off the bacteria you’ve just wiped onto your hand.  If you’re in a public toilet using either kind of handwash dispenser though you’re probably about to then pull open the door using the handle that the person who didn’t wash their hands has just used.  Which brings me back to my counter, my cash and my cold.

Print Anything

3D Printed Cells Bowl - Math Art by @Dizingof

3D Printed Cells Bowl – Math Art by @Dizingof (Photo credit: Dizingof)

And I mean anything.  Trust me.

Whatever new technology comes along someone will use it, or combine it with something else, to create something unique.  And this is true of 3D Printing.  The technology has been around for a while, used by designers and engineers to create prototypes and demonstrations for shows, and has now matured to the point where desktop and portable devices are soon to be available although some, like the Kickstarter-funded Formlab Form1 have come up against patent issues that are ongoing.

The idea, of slowly producing three-dimensional solid objects layer by layer by laying down material one layer on the next or selectively laser-fusing or curing liquids to form the layers, at the moment produces solid parts that can be assembled like an Airfix model kit but there has also been an intriguing chocolate 3D printer which could prove popular too. Already there are online archives of things to download and print from models of the Eiffel Tower to AK-47s – as I said, someone will always find a use for such tech.

The hope is that in future the technology could combine multiple materials in a single object, extending the technique beyond plastics and further improving the detail achievable although at the moment the printers can create tiny details, and even using the materials to replace structures like steel beams.  One amazing use is a device called a 3D Bio-Printer that can print out a hybrid natural-synthetic cartilage which once implanted acts as a support for natural tissue to regrow.

Which medical miracles brings us to two Japanese uses for the technology:  firstly a 3D photobooth that can scan your body and create a plastic mini-me, perfect for those who are so into model railways they want to be in their model railways, and secondly Fortean Times this month (FT297 pp10) reports on a clinic in Tokyo that uses a “Bio Texture” process and MRI scans to give parents-to-be a chance to see and hold their baby months before birth.  The “Shape of an Angel” service is £800 plus the cost of the MRI scan.  Imagine the scene, a family get-together, the baby photos are brought up on the wall projection to embarrass the teenager as parents sometimes do…   “This is you when you were five… ah, when you were two… look, you were only a few hours old there…  go get the box…  this was you when you were minus three months”.

Eye Control You!

Tobii-EyeTracker der Universität Hohenheim

Tobii-EyeTracker der Universität Hohenheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tobii have released a device that allows control of computers using your eyes.  The device, about the size of a pen, attaches to the bottom of your screen and monitors eye motion.  Users of prototype devices have said how it “works like a dream” with Windows 8 enabling full control of navigation, scrolling, selecting and zooming.

Combined with increasingly sophisticated voice recognition and gesture recognition these new technologies are more examples of how interacting with computers will become more intuitive and natural in the future.

The Sci-Fi films weren’t so far fetched after all.

[Gizmodo UK]