Cars, Science, Tech, Transport, Uncategorized

Running on Sunshine

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctric...

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctrica por tecnología de torre, la primera en el mundo explotada comercialmente. Solucar PS10 is the first solar thermal power plant based on tower in the world that generate electricity in a commercial way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am interested in cars, nice cars.  I’d particularly like a new Jaguar F-Type, an orange one, if anyone’s feeling generous.  I’m telling you this in case you think this post is in some way biased.

I’ve just read yet another article about another designer with “eco” credentials planning a zero-emission or in this case emission-free car.  This one was a hydrogen powered car but others have been fully electric.  I have a little issue with the idea that these cars have zero-emissions.  It’s a case of semantics.  Petrol, diesel and hybrid cars have a pipe at the back that makes you cough like you have a forty-a-day habit if you wrap your lips around it, electric and hydrogen cars don’t, hydrogen cars even put water back into the environment, combining the hydrogen with oxygen in the power production process.

All good yes?  Well, apart from indirect emissions.  Electric cars are charged from the mains which at the moment requires mostly fossil-fuel powered generation.  Hydrogen, although common in the universe has to be extracted here on Earth and that takes…  electricity, fossil-fuel, etc.

I’m discounting the environmental impacts of building the cars in the first place as even the advocates of these technologies don’t deny that.

The thing is that cars won’t be truly zero-emission until we can generate power widely without emissions.  Some nations are fortunate to have abundant geothermal or hydroelectric power resources but for the rest of us we need to look elsewhere.  Nuclear power is still controversial, though the technology is still being refined to be safer in the long-term and new thorium reactors can even use previously created waste plutonium.  Personally, for cars at least, I think hydrogen is the way forward and another emerging technology is the way to make it.  In hotter countries such as Spain large solar power stations (see above) have been built that focus the sun’s immense power onto arrays of receivers which can be used to heat water to drive generators and generate electricity.  If you use that electricity to power a plant that creates hydrogen then the power created from the Sun’s energy is portable beyond the locality of the power station.

To places like this where we’re enjoying our couple of weeks of sunshine.

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Nature, Science, Society

The Needs for Bees

bee eating

bee eating (Photo credit: acidpix)

It is said that if you ask the question “where does our food come from?” today you’ll get the answer “the supermarket” more often than not and it’s true that many people are increasingly further along the supply chain from the raw produce than ever before – I am guilty of this myself, for convenience’s sake I eat much frozen and processed foods and it would be easy to not realise which animal beef comes from or that potatoes are grown in the ground or peas are pulled from one natural packet before being shoved into an artificial one.

The thing is that so much of our food still relies on nature to help in its production, despite irrigation systems, spray-on pesticides and nutrients.  Sometimes an apparently insignificant change in nature can have catastrophic implications that science can’t (yet) get round effectively – the most extreme example of this effect on our food being the novel The Death of Grass by John Christopher in which a devastating plant virus wipes out all species of grasses – including wheat leaving us without cereal crops for either us or our livestock to eat with the result of a rapid breakdown of society to a barbarous state of desperation for survival.

But it’s just science fiction isn’t it, we’re ok.  Aren’t we?  Well, to a point.  Bees are one of the main pollinators of plants, we need them in order to grow our food crops as well as gardens full of pretty flowers but they have been, across the world, in decline in recent years and scientists don’t fully know why.  It is thought that if we lost the bees the knock on effect would be the loss of up to a third of our regular diet. 

Various theories have been put forward such as mites like the tracheal mites that killed off all native British bees during World War I – which needed to be replaced by imported Dutch and Italian bees.   It is also theorised that, ironically, pesticides and other chemicals used to protect the crops the bees are pollinating are responsible.

So what can be done?  Well another possible contributing factor is that people are either removing wild flower areas that supported the bees or concreting over gardens and having low-maintenance patios and so on that have no flowers at all or only plants that are no use to bees whatsoever.  So while science tries to find out why the decline is happening and the debate over pesticides rumbles on consider how that humble bee sitting on your windowsill ultimately affects your life, it’s not as insignificant as it may seem.  There are lots of posts on Facebook at the moment advising helping out struggling bees with drops of sugar-water and more importantly the planting of bee-friendly plants.

At the front of our factory is an area that hadn’t been cleared of wild plants and flowers for some time and as I was making a mug of tea the other day I noticed it was a hive of bee activity, so to speak, so we’re doing our bit, in a tiny way.

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Meta, Science, Society, Tech

Format This

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch flopp...

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch floppy disks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people reading this may have at some point wondered why the hard drive in their computer is the C: drive, not A or B, not the first but third.  The answer of course is obsolescence, not planned but natural as technology has progressed.

I remember computers at school where the whole front of what would today be considered a desktop computer was just a pair of floppy disk drives, 5 1/4″ drives they were at the time, flat black plastic flexible squares that needed to be handled with care and would probably today just about hold a single grainy picture from a basic cameraphone.  I also remember the rise of 3 1/2″ floppy disks, the 1.44Mb disks which were the HD of their day – High Density that was.  These were the contents of the now abandoned A: and B: drives.   The problems of getting Windows 3.0 to read a new-fangled CD-ROM drive is a story for another time.

The thing is that today if I wanted to read something from one of these 5 1/4″ disks it would be difficult, if not impossible.  You can still buy external drives to read 3 1/2″ disks but how long before they’re gone too?  Admittedly much of the information I still have on these old disks is past its prime and most of the really important stuff I still have on my laptop today but some of it would be as good as gone forever if I didn’t transfer it to today’s media.  Even today’s storage has a finite life; hard drives die, home-burned CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs don’t last forever although new developments are on the horizon that claim to make disks that last for 1,000 years – we’ll see, or rather we won’t, but someone on a future edition of Time Team will and they’ll laugh at our clothes and feeble social networks and search engines.

Or will they?  The other problem with that old data on floppy disks is whether we have something to read it with.  Years ago we had a plethora of different wordprocessor file formats, spreadsheet formats, image formats and some of them, like JustWrite are as illegible to Microsoft Word today as Spanish is to me.  Qué?   Unless someone bothers to devise a universal convertor to rescue all these obscure file formats then the data is doomed.

I still have the ability to install the old software and manually copy over the text to LibreOffice which I use because it uses what has to be the future of our data – standardised formats and structures.  Many software packages still use proprietary formats for the raw data but can output a sharable and standard format – like JPEG images or MP4 video, whilst many office packages are moving to open standards like the Open Document Format which should extend the amount of time our letters and journals, notes and novels remain readable.  Then there’s the cloud again, services like Google Docs, Flickr, Facebook or Evernote storing data for you without needing to worry about file formats.  As long as the host is still there and the internet is still there your data could exist indefinitely if your account is passed down with the inheritance when you leave for the cloud yourself.

Which is a sobering thought, better get the to do list finished or it could become a puzzling historical artefact.

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Science, Tech

Future Filters

English: Drop of water falling into a glass of...

English: Drop of water falling into a glass of water with a green paper background. Italiano: Goccia fotografata mentre cade in un bicchiere d’acqua su sfondo di carta verde (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have in my kitchen a Brita filter jug.  I don’t use it for some health reason but because, generally, without it the water around here tastes awful.  It’s a choice I make and a not particularly life and death one, the worst situation I’d find myself in is getting home gasping for a cuppa.

Elsewhere in the world clean water is more of a priority and recently a number of advances have been made in getting clean water to people who need it the most including a water carrier that cleans the contents via reverse osmosis – using the motion of the barrel as it’s rolled along the ground to force the water through membranes which allow water molecules to pass but stop larger impurities.  Reverse osmosis processes to desalinate water typically need high pressures and much energy to operate.

The latest development though uses sheets of the 21st century wonder-material – graphene, which, at a single atom thick, are  500 times thinner than the best desalination filter on the market, allowing the process to operate with pressures 100 times lower.  As Gizmodo reports these filters are being developed and rushed to production by Lockheed-Martin though as a commenter points out MIT has also been working on the same solution.

Some have said that the process also filters out minerals from the water but given the choice I think most people would choose mineral, and contaminant-free water over no water at all.

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Food, Random, Science

Drinking Is Not The Answer…

A glass of red wine. Photo taken in Montreal C...

A glass of red wine. Photo taken in Montreal Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the question is “what will get rid of my cold?”  This post relates to my personal viral episode.

Gizmodo recently scientifically challenged the theories that alcohol can cure a cold.  Firstly they explained that to have enough alcohol in your bloodstream to kill the virus (60%-80% ethyl alcohol) you’d kill yourself first, as usually a concentration of 0.2% will render most of us insensible.

Then they showed that the alcohol doesn’t disinfect your throat, or soothe it but in fact simply numbs your pain response and can actually further dry out the tissues of the throat, making things worse.  Concluding with an “amusing anecdote” about a submariner gargling with 99% alcohol.

Lastly they reported on a study by Carnegie Mellon University in 1993 on the relationship between smoking, drinking and the common cold.  Those who smoked got sick more often, smoking and drinking brought average results whereas drinkers got sick less – with those who drank 14 glasses of wine per week, especially red wine, being 60% less susceptible to colds.  This is probably down to the antioxidants in wine and dark beers like Guiness – which is good news for me, I enjoy a good dark beer.

Roll on Friday!

[Gizmodo UK]

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Nature, Science, Transport

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.

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Cars, Psychology, Science, Society

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.

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Psychology, Science, Society, Tech

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.

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Nature, Outdoors, Science, Tech

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.

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Business, Science, Tech, Transport

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]

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