Tech Universe: Monday 22 July 2013
- A NEW SPIN: The silk that comes from Spiber in Japan hasn’t been spun by silkworms. The material is tougher than kevlar, lighter than steel, and can be stretched 40% beyond its original length without breaking. The protein fibroin gives silk its resilience. Spiber use bioengineered bacteria to replicate artificial fibroin that can take the form of a film, gel, sponge, powder or nanofibres. The new material could be used in spacesuits, cars or perhaps for artificial blood vessels. Or how about shirts? Inhabitat.
- TIRED CAM: It’s been a very long day and you’re driving, feeling tired, but keen to get home. That’s a recipe for a car accident, of course. One Swiss student has developed a video analysis algorithm that can tell by how much a driver’s eyelids are drooping how tired they are. Now a prototype is being tested in real driving conditions. A single infrared camera behind the wheel measures the percentage of time that the pupil is at least 80% covered by the eyelid during a predetermined timespan. The algorithm can distinguish an open eye from a closed one and deal with confusing effects of changing light and the variety of eye shapes. The biggest challenge is the frame rate, as unconscious blinks of the eye occur within 100 to 150 milliseconds. I guess 30 frames per second isn’t much use in that case. EPFL.
- DON’T HIT THE WALL: Imagine touching an ordinary whiteboard but having it react as though it were touch-sensitive. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are working on vibration sensors that can be attached to any surface, such as wood, aluminium, steel, glass and plastic. A light touch on the surface causes vibrations to ripple out and hit the sensors. The system can pinpoint the spot that was touched by calculating the difference in time it takes the vibrations to reach the various sensors. That could mean that an image could be projected on a wall and viewers could interact with it by tapping on the wall. It could definitely make doorbells obsolete, and more interesting. GigaOm.
- KICKING ALONG: AlterG’s 3.6 Kg Bionic Leg is intended for those who have injured their leg or knee, or perhaps suffered a stroke, and need some help with rehabilitation. An insole that contains 4 pressure sensors fits into an ordinary shoe. The pressure of your foot combined with the effort exerted by your knee provide crucial information about whether you’re sitting, standing, climbing stairs and so on. The Bionic Leg provides motorised assistance with extension, flexion and swinging the leg forward between steps. The device can easily be set to provide full or limited assistance, while a battery pack keeps the leg working. It makes things easy that the insole fits in a normal shoe. Gizmodo.
- SMOKE SIGNALS: Surgeons use electrosurgical knives to cut and cauterise blood vessels. Those knives create smoke whose lipid profiles reflect what kind of tissue is being cut. That means, for example, that smoke from a tumour can be differentiated from that from other tissue. The hitch is that it takes a mass spectrometer to tell the difference. A team from Imperial College London have created an intelligent surgical knife. It captures the smoke from the tissue it cuts and sends it through a mass spectrometer. Lights on a display indicate within 3 seconds what kind of tissue it is. Ultimately the aim is for surgeons to be easily able to cut out all of a tumour while leaving behind healthy tissue. Meanwhile patients may need less time under anesthesia. More confidence, lower costs. sounds like a win all round. Science.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 23 July 2013
- A NEW STEP IN SKATING: As skateboards go the Stair-Rover is an odd looking thing, with its 8 wheels, four each at front and back. The board’s designed to adapt to the environment of cities, with all their variable surfaces, including concrete steps. And that’s where the extra wheels do their job, as they bounce up and down independently and conform to the shape of each step. The boards weigh 5 Kg and are 88 x 27 x 15 cm. Now it’s bumping instead of jumping. Stair-Rover.
- SPARKS OF CHANGE: Around 66% of Peru’s 24 million people have access to electricity, but that’s changing for the better. The National Photovoltaic Household Electrification Program aims to bring solar energy to more than two million of Peru’s poorest residents. 1600 solar panels have already been installed in the northeast of Peru, but more are planned. The programme’s aim is for 95% of Peruvians to have access to electricity by the end of 2016. It’s a great goal to bring power to all the people. Latin American Herald Tribune.
- RINGS OF CHANGE: Chemists from the USA and Japan have synthesised the first example of a new form of carbon which consists of many identical pieces of grossly warped graphene. The molecules are known as grossly warped nanographenes. The new material contains exactly 80 carbon atoms joined together in a network of 26 rings, with 30 hydrogen atoms decorating the rim. It’s more soluble than 2D nanographene and has a different colour. Let’s hope it’s also useful for something. Boston College.
- SPEEDIER LIGHT: Researchers at the University of Bath demonstrated that graphene could respond a hundred times faster than current materials when used as an optical switch. Such switches are an important part of communications systems such as the Internet as they convert signals into a series of light pulses. That could mean big increases in speed for telecommunications. We like faster comms. University of Bath.
- SMOOTHING THE WAY: We have a long history of discovering that incredibly useful materials have their down side, with effects on the atmosphere, plants and animals, the oceans, and our own bodies. Graphene may soon be immensely valuable in electronic devices, solar cells, batteries, and medical devices. It’s strong, flexible, stretchy, conductive, and self-cooling, and only a single atom thick. But that thinness is where danger lies. Brown University researchers found that graphene has jagged edges that can easily pierce and disrupt cells. That means if it finds its way inside our bodies, perhaps during manufacturing processes, it could do some real damage. It sounds like some polishing of the rough edges is required. io9.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 24 July 2013
- THIS LUNCH LOOKS OFF: Apparently to a shark a human being in a traditional black wetsuit can look just like lunch. Research shows though that sharks have several weaknesses in their visual system, such as that they see in black and white. That’s why Shark Attack Mitigation Systems now have wetsuit and other designs that make the wearers look dangerous or camouflage them against the background. One style is effectively black and white stripes that make the wearer look like something sharks would rather avoid. The other is a blue and white disrupted pattern that make the wearer difficult for sharks to see in the water. If it’s just a matter of colours and patterns that could make a difference it sounds like your next wetsuit should use this. Shark Attack Mitigation Systems.
- YOUR SHIRT IS CALLING: OMsignal shirts include a 3-axis accelerometer, an EKG and a breathing sensor that measures ribcage extension and contraction. The sensors continuously monitor heart rate, breathing, calories burned and daily steps, along with Heart Rate Variability and stores the information on a memory card. A Bluetooth connection sends the information to a smartphone app. The smartphone in turn displays graphical interpretations and alerts users if a sharp increase in bio signals is detected, such as an abnormal heart rate or unusual breathing pattern. Data is retained on the memory card for 7 days, while the battery lasts 16 hours, and can be recharged via USB. Clothing is just getting smarter all round. OMsignal.
- HOT AND COLD: Many industrial processes create heat that’s just wasted. One example is power stations, though car exhausts are a more everyday example. Thermocells harness that difference in temperature between two surfaces and convert it into electricity. A small team of researchers at Monash University has developed an ionic liquid-based thermocell that has high power outputs but doesn’t create CO2. The device is cheap and flexible, and works at temperatures of around 100 to 200 C. Why waste heat when you can exploit it? Monash University.
- CHEAP CHEEPS: Scientists from the University of Puerto Rico have put iPods to good use: wrapped up in a waterproof case, with a cheap microphone and an antenna that can transmit data to a base station up to 40 Km away, along with a solar panel and a car battery for power, the units are part of a project to study biodiversity. The sounds they record are analysed by machine-learning algorithms that scan the frequencies for patterns that indicate a specific species. This automated remote biodiversity monitoring network aims to get around the problem of researchers not having enough time to make best use of the extensive recordings they have. The team who created the system say the devices are like biodiversity weather stations that have already accumulated important data about a local endangered frog. Let’s just monitor all the things. Wired.
- LIKE LASERS FOR INTERNET: I think we’d all be happy to get our Internet at 31 terabits per second — until the bill comes in, of course. Researchers from Bell Labs successfully sent data at speeds of 31 Terabits per second over 7200 Km, the highest ever capacity for undersea data transmission on a single fibre. The experiment used 155 lasers, each operating at a different frequency and carrying 200 Gbit/s over a 50 GHz frequency grid. Now, of course, they have to shift from doing that once in an experiment to making it routine in the real world, but it’s nice to dream. Alcatel-Lucent.
Tech Universe: Thursday 25 July 2013
- RESEARCH AT A CRAWL: The Crabster CR200 is a robot exploration vehicle from Korea, designed for turbulent coastal waters. Rather than using the propellers that drive other vehicles it has 6 articulated legs. It also has thrusters so it can fly just above the sea floor. The front two legs can be used as manipulator arms so the robot can pick up and store items of interest. The legs allow the vehicle to navigate even in the strong currents that would cause propeller-driven vehicles to drift off course. The whole thing is about the size of a Smart car. It must be the legs that make it much scarier though. Gizmodo.
- PHONE WITH A VIEW: The Surround-See prototype is a very interesting idea. A student at the University of Alberta modified his smartphone by adding an omni-directional camera that enables peripheral vision around the device. Meanwhile the software allows the phone to use what the camera sees and learn from it. The phone can detect, for example, that the user is in a car and warn them not to use the phone while driving, or allow the user to control the volume of nearby speakers with a wave. It can even simply report on its location. The camera adds an inconvenient lump to the phone, but if it could be better integrated such a device could be very powerful. Discovery News.
- THIS TOUCHSCREEN LIKES FINGERPRINTS: Security is a problem many are concerned with these days. Biometric measures such as fingerprints could be useful in areas like banking apps, but fingerprint readers are a whole separate device. The Fiberio from the University of Potsdam is a touch screen that also reads fingerprints. It’s a rear-projected tabletop system that identifies users based on their fingerprints during each interaction, such as when approving invoices. At the heart of the system is a fibre optic plate that diffuses light on transmission, allowing it to act as projection surface. It also reflects light allowing for fingerprint recognition. The setup requires a high-res camera, a projector and a light source. Provided the glass doesn’t smear from all the fingerprints, that kind of device could be very useful for bank tellers. Hasso Plattner Institute.
- OPEN AND SHUT: People with diabetes need to monitor their blood sugar levels and use insulin to keep things in balance. Researchers at North Carolina State developed a special sponge that could deliver drugs as they’re needed. The researchers created a spherical sponge-like matrix that surrounds a reservoir of insulin. The whole thing is only 250 micrometers in diameter and can be injected. An increase in blood sugar triggers a reaction in the sponge, essentially making the holes larger, allowing insulin to escape into the bloodstream. When blood sugar drops again the sponge closes up and the flow of insulin stops. The technique has been shown to work in lab mice and could perhaps be used for delivering cancer drugs by adapting the sponge. Anything to make the process easier. North Carolina State.
- BUMPS SMOOTH THE RIDE: United Airlines are adding a little something to their planes in order to save fuel and money; Along with a winglet, or upturned end on the wings, they’re adding a ventral strake that goes under the fuselage. The additions help smooth the passage of air round the body of the plane and cut down on turbulent flow and drag. That in turn reduces fuel consumption. Tiny tweaks with a massive effect. Forbes.
Note: Friday’s Tech Universe was published on Monday 29 July 2013.
Tech Universe: Monday 15 July 2013
- NODDING ALONG: You may use a wheelchair, but if you’re paralysed from the neck down controlling it is a challenge. Unless you go for the new GyroSet system. It does away with things like chin-controlled joysticks or puffer tubes that make talking almost impossible. Instead the wheelchair user wears a headset. The headset constantly detects the position of the head, sending data wirelessly to an Android tablet that interprets the movements and signals the electric wheelchair to move. It’s just a tilt to the left and a lean to the right. GyroSet.
- USE A MAP: Here you are relaxing on your way home as your car drives itself when it suddenly comes to a dead stop. You look around to see you’re in a tunnel. The car lost its GPS signal and no longer knows where it is. Do you a) walk to the nearest exit? That scenario could be a bit of an oops. A team at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago realised it would be helpful for a car to scan its surroundings as it drives itself and then compare what it sees to a map. Two cameras on the car feed images to an app that compares the route to a map from OpenStreetMap. Intersections, bends in the road and a motion sensor all help determine where the car is at any given moment. It takes only 20 seconds of driving on average to work out where the car is. When tested in Karlsruhe, Germany, the system placed the car to within 3 metres of its actual position as measured by a GPS unit. It’s night time and you’re relaxing as your car drives itself … New Scientist.
- PIPES ALIVE: Nuclear power plants are complex places with some very dangerous and often radioactive parts. Nevertheless, to keep them working well it’s a good idea to inspect them carefully. It’s the kind of job a snake robot from the Carnegie Mellon Biorobotics Lab can handle superbly. The robots carry a camera so they can send images back to base and can go around multiple bends in pipes, unlike conventional borescopes. Hmm, presumably if the robot snake has been inside a radioactive chamber it will be radioactive itself: different snakes for different pipes. GigaOm.
- POWER TO THE PEOPLE: The Akademik Lomonosov won’t be so much a ship as a floating nuclear power plant — the first of a series. By 2016 the Russian vessel will be able to provide energy and heat to hard to reach areas as well as drinking water to arid regions. The floating power plant displaces 21,500 tons, carries a crew of 69 and can power a city of 200,000. The vessel can also be modified to work as a desalination plant producing 240,000 cubic metres of fresh water per day. It can’t propel itself though so has to be towed to its destination. I guess they’ll need robot snakes too. RT News.
- CANNED HEAT: Scared off by the price of solar panels, or that these days they seem to be full of nanotech? One enterprising resident of Seattle made his own panels from recycled drink cans and some plastic tubing. He uses the system to keep his home office warm. It took 275 cans, flat black spray paint, a couple of fans from old computers and some Plexiglass. The solar-powered fans suck cold air from the office into a frame, the sun heats the air as it passes through the cans and then warm air flows into the office. That’s pretty clever. Fair Companies.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 16 July 2013
- TIME BALL: The Bradley is a wristwatch. It has neither digital display nor hands though: instead it has a couple of magnetic balls that indicate hour and minute to those who touch or look at it. The watch face has ridges that mark out 12 hours. The hour ball runs around a channel on the side of the watch, and the minute ball uses a channel on the top. If the magnetic connection is lost a gentle shake restores it. Eone.
- TOUCHING TONES: Imagine if the exact position of your fingers on a piano key could affect the sound that was produced. TouchKeys add a capacitive surface to keys on any piano-style keyboard. Sensor overlays precisely measure the location, contact area and even pressure of the player’s fingers on the key surfaces. Data goes via USB to a computer to control synthesis software to create expressive effects including vibrato, pitch bends, timbre changes and improved emulations of non-keyboard instruments. Learning to play keyboard could have just become a lot harder. TouchKeys.
- HEAD SHOT: Those who play sports are liable to suffer impacts to the head. But how serious is that impact? The Reebok Checklight is a cap that can be work under a helmet or on its own. A green light on a tab at the back shows the cap is on and functioning. A yellow light reports a moderate impact, while a red light indicates a severe impact. The cap’s gyroscope, accelerometers, and microprocessor are connected through flexible electronics for a real-time impact display. With the light behind the head, an audible alarm could be a handy thing too. Reebok.
- COUGH HERE: Pneumonia kills many children all round the world, yet it’s easy to treat with antibiotics. Part of the problem is that in some places it’s not easy to get access to a trained healthcare worker who can diagnose the distinctive cough by listening to it. Researchers from Australia and Indonesia recorded children with and without pneumonia coughing then trained a computer algorithm to tell the difference. The algorithm is very accurate and requires only a microphone and small computer. In fact, it would make an ideal smartphone app. It’s starting to seem as though one of the most effective forms of aid to some developing countries would be smartphones and the services they need to support them. Healthline.
- OFF BY ONE: How long is a year, a day, a second? Scientists need an incredibly accurate measure. Since 1967, the second has been defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the microwave radiation absorbed or emitted when a caesium atom jumps between two particular energy states. Special clocks called Caesium atomic-fountain clocks are used to measure this frequency and set national time standards. But these clocks aren’t accurate enough: after 100 million years they may be out by as much as one second. Now scientists are working with optical lattice clocks that measure the average emission frequency from several thousand trapped atoms, rather than just a single atom. There’s no room for rough and ready estimations in that work. Nature.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 17 July 2013
- SPY TRICKS: There’s been no doubt recently that communications via the Internet or even just computers are wide open to being spied on. We still need to get messages across space and time though, and can’t always hold a private conversation in a sealed room. Apparently Russia’s handling this by buying electric typewriters to prepare top-secret documents. They seem to realise that won’t stop leaks though, with their statement that ‘every typewriter has its own individual pattern of type so it is possible to link every document to a machine used to type it’. We need a worldwide Cone of Silence. AFP.
- CHAT FOR DUMMIES: That 14 year old girl chatting online may not only not be 14, or a girl, she may in fact not even be a person. Negobot is a chatbot from the Spanish University of Deusto whose purpose is to fool sexual predators into believing she is real. The bot starts off as a passive and neutral participant in general online chatter. If groomed though the bot relies on game theory to provide convincing conversation that is not flat and predictable in the way chatbots usually are. What’s more her chat is designed to use typos, and language errors typical of teenage girls. Negobot has already been implemented and trialled actively on Google’s chat service. Make her adult and there are clear possibilities for a useful service that clients would pay for. Independent.
- THE THINKING ARM: The wearer of a Modular Prosthetic Limb controls the robotic arm with their thoughts. The modular limb can replace the natural arm’s motor and sensory function and includes 100 sensors that feed back temperature, pressure, joint angles and acceleration. Where nerves and muscles are still viable the prosthesis makes use of them. Quadriplegics though need cortical implants to convey neuronal information to electronic sensors in the prosthesis. Those who wear the limb need to do up to to 30 minutes a day of mental imagery exercises to re-establish the cortical signals that control the arm and hand. Surely daily use would cover that exercise? University of Arizona.
- LEGS OF GOLD: Our human skin can simultaneously sense touch, humidity and temperature, but at the moment artificial skin can detect only touch. That means that someone with a prosthetic limb is missing out on useful sensations. A team at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is working on a flexible sensor that could add those sensations to artificial limbs. Their sensor uses gold nanoparticles laid on a plastic substrate. How thick the substrate is and how it bends allow it to detect pressure and sensitivity. The new system is at least 10 times more sensitive in touch than current touch-based e-skin systems. Little by little prosthetic limbs are closing in on the real thing. American Technion Society.
- ATLAS UNBOUND: ATLAS is a 2 metre tall 150 Kg bipedal robot that may go to work for the US military. Hydraulically driven joints allow it to not only carry heavy objects but adjust very quickly if it loses its balance. The head includes a lidar so it can create a 3D map of its surroundings. At the moment it has a tether for power and cooling water, but the developers aim to make a version without a tether. DARPA say its purpose will be humanitarian rather than adversarial. Our favourite robots. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Thursday 18 July 2013
- 5 BY 5: That last hard drive you bought may well have been a 3 terabyte monster, but researchers at the University of Southampton hope to increase that to 360 terabytes on a medium that can withstand heat up to 1000 C and last forever. The data is recorded via self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz, using polarised light to write files with a laser in layers of nanostructured dots separated by 5 millionths of a metre. The information encoding is realised in 5 dimensions: the size and orientation in addition to the three dimensional position of these nanostructures. The fives have it. University of Southampton.
- A FORK ON THE ROAD: The first thing you may notice about the Strassenfeger II, Querschläger II and Brandstifter II electric bicycles from Electrolyte is that instead of two front forks there is only one rather bulky fork. That fork though contains a 250 watt motor, 320 Wh battery pack and electrical controller that can drive the bike for between 60 and 100 Km at up to 25 Kph. Having all that gear in the fork protects it from weather and dirt and also shaves some 10 Kg off the weight compared with similar electric bikes. You have to wonder why there’s no right fork to spread the load. Gizmag.
- SCOOTS AND LEAVES: The Belgian Be.e is a frameless bio-composite electric scooter, with a monocoque body made from plants instead of plastic and steel. The monocoque body’s external skin supports the load without needing a frame or plastic panels. The even better news is that the flax and bio-resin used in the body are sustainable, lightweight and strong. Waarmakers. Video:
- DOG DISCUSSIONS: The FIDO system is wearable technology for dogs. Imagine you’re an emergency responder whose dog is searching rubble. Wouldn’t it be useful if the dog could send back detailed messages such as that a person they’ve located is dead or alive? One early test device equipped a dog vest with an Arduino microprocessor and 4 different sensors. The dogs could activate the sensors to set off a tone by biting, tugging or just putting their mouth nearby. Next up is obviously to train the dogs to assess injuries too. Technology Review.
- SENSOR ON A STICK: It’s very useful to be able to sense and measure temperature and humidity in the environment, but if sensors are large, bulky and costly that’s definitely a hindrance. Researchers in Japan have created a small, thin stick-on sensor that also costs comparatively little, and even powers itself. The devices include a highly integrated MEMS sensor, an antenna and a power generation and storage layer made from an organic semiconductor nanofibre that’s still being developed. Each sensor becomes part of a wireless network that sends data to a central processor. Sensors can detect various environmental factors such as CO2, temperature, infrared light, dust, and even electromagnetic field strength. The question is though, what surfaces will they stick to, and will they too readily fall off? Phys.org.
Tech Universe: Friday 19 July 2013
- UPLIFTING SOUNDS: Sound waves with frequencies just above human hearing can levitate tiny particles and liquid droplets and even move them around. Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology found a way to move droplets of liquid by using multiple vibrating plates, each generating its own sound frequency. Varying the frequency allowed them to move the acoustic field and the liquid trapped inside. The team were also able to merge liquids with solids, dissolving coffee in a water droplet, and to lift and spin larger objects, such as toothpicks. They aim to eventually move dense objects such as steel by changing the shape of the reflecting surface to create a stronger acoustic force. This technique could perhaps be developed to allow chemical components to be combined without touching hard surfaces that could contaminate them, or in working with DNA. A sound prospect. Science.
- BOTS IN BALANCE: The gymnast spins round the horizontal bar, releases, and executes a perfect landing. This isn’t the Olympic Games though, but a bipedal robot gymnast capable of executing flips, handsprings, and high-bar acrobatics. Now I want to see them on the rings. io9.
- PUZZLE PROOF: Jigsaw puzzles for kids have a few large pieces, while those for adults have many and more delicate parts. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology though used sophisticated injection moulding tools to create a jigsaw puzzle that has only 3 pieces, each less than 1 mm in size. They used lithography, electrodeposition, and moulding, while the moulds themselves are created with the help of X-ray deep-etch lithography. The puzzle pieces prove a highly accurate precision process for producing microstructures from various metals, ceramics, or plastics. Such tiny parts may be used in watches, engines, or medical products. And tiny jigsaw puzzles. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
- JUST ADD WATER: Cube satellites orbiting Earth have become popular recently, but how about sending the tiny spacecraft deeper into space? That’s the idea behind the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster — to send a 5 kg satellite into deep space to explore asteroids and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but at 1/1000th the cost of previous missions. The propellant for the thruster is unusual: water, ionised into a superheated plasma and exhausted behind the craft to drive it forwards. The thrust is low, but long in duration and very efficient. The spacecraft will be launched into low Earth orbit then climb into deep space in a spiral pattern to escape Earth. CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster.
- DEEP MARS: The Mars Express spacecraft carries High Resolution Stereo Cameras as part of its mission to study the martian atmosphere and climate, mineralogy and geology, and to search for traces of water. Thanks to those cameras we can now fly through Hebes Chasma in the northernmost part of Valles Marineris in high resolution. The almost 5 minute movie starts by zooming in on the whole planet to locate the 8 Km deep Hebes Chasma not far from the equator on Mars and then tours the area in stunning detail. That’s a superb way to make what could be dry data real. European Space Agency.
In Flashes, floaters and fog I wrote about problems that suddenly cropped up with my left eye recently. My optometrist though I had a
vitreous detachment and referred me on to a specialist ophthalmologist.
Yesterday I took a bus up to Kelburn, near the University, and had my eye examined.
Step one was a bit of a chat, then the specialist put eye drops in my left eye to dilate the pupil. When the optometrist did that I had to wait for 15 minutes or so for the drops to take effect. This time I was sent back to the waiting room and every two or three minutes the specialist appeared to add more drops. That happened a couple of times and then I went back into his consulting room.
He did the same visual inspection my optometrist had done. I had to rest my chin on the device so he could shine an extremely bright light in my eye while having me look up, down, to the left, and so on. I’m pretty sure the light was much brighter than the one the optometrist used.
The specialist said he was pretty happy with that inspection and that things were OK in my eye. To be sure though he wanted to do a further check.
He took out a small briefcase and put on a headset with a lamp and maybe a magnifying glass. I’m not sure as I had my glasses off and could see very little with any clarity out of my left eye, and not a lot of detail with my right.
He also took out a small device a little like the kind of eyepiece you use with a telescope, though smaller. He explained that it was a kind of contact lens with mirrors that would let him see inside my eye in detail.
He also mentioned it would sting a bit so he added an anaesthetic drop to the other drops in my eye.
I guess he put the lens directly on my eye — I have no idea. More intensely bright light while he had a good look around, and then that was it.
He declared that there weren’t any tears or anything that needed to be laser welded back together, that he’d write to my optometrist and we were done.
However, my left eye was, and still is, a bit foggy in spots. That was what I was really hoping he would fix, so I asked him about it.
As far as I can recall he said the problem is the vitreous gel changes consistency, causing the fog, and it should eventually sort itself out.
I paid my bill and wandered off, pretty much unable to see anything out of my left eye, thanks to the various drops and whatnot. It was a gorgeous day so I strolled at a leisurely pace down through the Botanic Gardens and through town, stopping for lunch, to Kent Terrace where I needed to pick up our car.
When I arrived home a couple of hours later I took a good look at my eyes in the mirror. My left pupil was incredibly dilated — no wonder I couldn’t focus on anything with that eye. It was almost 12 hours before the pupil returned to its normal size.
So today I can actually see better than I have for the last week or two. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on. Perhaps:
- my eye is getting better and the vitreous is settling down; or
- I’m adjusting to the slightly blurry vision in the left eye and seeing ‘around’ it; or
- the blurry patches are still there, but drifting to the bottom and out of sight as the eye specialist suggested they might.
Another theory I have is that the intensely bright light the specialist used shocked my eye into submission.
In any case, there’s no physical damage and I don’t need laser surgery, so that’s good news. Now I just need the patch of fog to clear.
About a week ago in the evening my left eye suddenly started misbehaving. For one thing, a huge floater, shaped like the number 7, appeared then drifted across and out of my view. That was followed by numerous small black dots, as though someone had shaken pepper across my eye. Then there were a few small flashes off to the side.
There was no pain, but my eye felt a bit weird and my vision was blurry.
I can’t remember if I already had a headache, but the next week was miserable, with fierce headaches, blurred vision and a foggy head. I had trouble reading, writing and thinking but persevered with work. Sometimes life is just like that, for me, anyway, with foggy brain, headaches and not seeing too clearly.
Public Service Announcement: apparently if you suddenly see lots of floaters, flashing lights or a shadow obscuring part of your vision you should seek immediate help.
I tried getting more sleep, temporarily stopping my nasal spray for hayfever, and using some eyedrops from the local pharmacy.
When my vision didn’t clear up after a few days though I made an appointment with my regular optometrist. Late Friday afternoon she examined both eyes and decided I had
vitreous detachment in my left eye. My next step is to see a specialist in such things.
This highly technical info for health professionals explains vitreous detachment:
The vitreous makes up about 80% of ocular volume. It consists mostly of water (99%), the remainder being hyaluronic acid and collagen fibrils. These fibrils connect the vitreous to the retina. Some areas (at the disc, the fovea and around the periphery anteriorly) are more adherent than others. The concentration of hyaluronic acid decreases with age and the vitreous liquefies (synchysis) and reduces in volume, causing it to fall away from the retina and cause a vitreous detachment. In doing so, it may pull on the retina (particularly if one of the more adherent areas has become detached) and a retinal tear may result. If fluid seeps under a retinal tear, a retinal detachment ensues.
Fortunately the headaches finally stopped and my brain cleared. My eye remains partly foggy, so detailed work, like reading, is tiring, though watching movies is just fine. I find as I read or write my right eye also gets a bit ‘foggy’ from time to time. I suspect it’s either
going out in sympathy or just reacting to the poor focus in my left eye.
Apparently it’s pretty common for older people to have this problem, and even more common for people with myopia, otherwise known in New Zealand as being short-sighted, or apparently, in the US, as being near-sighted. It’s to do with the shape of the eyeball that tugs the vitreous gel away from the retina.
I’ve been wearing glasses for short-sightedness since I was about 11 or 12.
Tomorrow I have a specialist appointment. How lucky I am to live in a place where highly qualified medical specialists are only a short bus ride away.
For the last 3 years I’ve been painstakingly building up an emergency fund, though I had to dip into it recently for some unexpected expenses. I have no idea how much a specialist costs, or, if I require treatment, how much that will set me back. It sounds as though treatment is fairly high tech, with lasers that weld the bits of the eye back together, but reasonably quick and easy.
Still, my eyes are very precious to me — I use them almost every waking moment of every day. Even if I wipe out my emergency fund altogether it will be worth it. I just hope this foggy left eye can become clear again.
I grew up with Star Trek: the Original Series which surely fuelled my abiding interest in space and the universe. I later went on to watch the subsequent series, of which Voyager is my favourite.
The premise of the series is based on the original 5-year voyage. The original series ended three years into the journey. Vic and his team are starting this new series right where the original left off.
These days of course it all looks and feel pretty hokey — times have changed and modern TV shows are much slicker and faster, and benefit enormously from CGI techniques.
When I was a kid though Star Trek and shows like it inspired me to think beyond our planet, to consider the strange and the different. I still love space opera and space-based scifi today, though it’s woefully hard to find.
I believe I’m going to enjoy watching this web series.
The new shows come courtesy of Farragut Films who’ve also made a series called Starship Farragut:
Starship Farragut is a Classic Star Trek Webseries based on the Starship Farragut and her crew. The series follows Captain John Carter and the crew of the Farragut in classic trek adventures!
I haven’t watched any of that one yet, but I’m off to explore.
Update: I’ve now watched
Star Trek Continues E01 “Pilgrim of Eternity”. I really enjoyed it and was very impressed. Obviously these are different actors, but the episode could easily have been part of the original series. If you ever enjoyed the original Star Trek then this is definitely one to watch!
I enjoyed it so much I went in search of, and found, a donation button. Obviously producing something like this doesn’t come cheap.
We have had a huge, positive response from fans about our first episode. Our production makes no money as required by the copyrights held by CBS/Paramount. So, up until now, the Executive Producers and others on our team have helped to make this production a reality. We decided when we started this effort that we did not want to solicit donations for the first episode. Instead, we wanted to show you what we can do – a sort of “proof of concept.”
Since releasing “Pilgrim of Eternity,” we have had an enormous outpouring of support and fans asking how they can help with the expenses. To answer that call, we have decided to add a donate button for your convenience.
Tech Universe: Monday 08 July 2013
- MINED ON THE JOB: Unexploded landmines are still a huge problem around the world, and people are out there all the time risking their lives to clear them. One UK designer is experimenting with 3D printed electronic mines as training devices. Handle them incorrectly and they’ll detonate, but harmlessly with a red flash and a loud noise. The purpose of the fake mine is to teach deminers about pressure and sensitivity. For training, mines are laid in pairs, with one above ground that uses light and sound to warn that the mine below ground is close to its trigger pressure as the deminer probes around. That definitely beats learning by experience of the real thing. New Scientist.
- HELLO YELLOW: Generally when farmers spray herbicides they may be targeting the weeds but the crops get their fair share of spray too. The Danish ASETA project is exploring the idea that a drone aircraft could identify patches of weed by their colour and send lightweight automated ground vehicles to target the weedkiller to the weeds alone. This could reduce consumption of weedkiller, reduce potential damage on the ground and reduce fuel use for ground vehicles. On the aircraft, a camera is tuned to pick up parts of the light spectrum that correspond to the reflective signatures of particular weeds and crops. For example, thistle absorbs yellow light more than surrounding beet plants. The craft sends data back to a central computer that analyses the images and dispatches ground craft with sprayers. One day the drone will do the whole job. New Scientist.
- SPEED RING: While companies are busy laying out fibre optic cables to bring high-speed broadband to the masses the DSL Rings system claims to achieve the same thing at a fraction of the cost and without all the disruption. The system effectively bonds together the copper cables currently in use to create a single large channel rather than multiple small channels. Then it uses a RING configuration from each house to the cable that is claimed to bring higher speed and more bandwidth. The key thing is that DSL speeds drop off over distance, and some houses are further from the all-important box on the street than others. Meanwhile the distance between houses is fairly constant, so speeds can be maintained. There’s a great power in clubbing together. Genesis Technical Systems.
- THE GLASS CEILING: It seems a bit wasteful to put a roof on a building and then put solar panels on top of that. Couldn’t a roof be made of solar panels? Corning’s Willow glass might make that possible. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US made flexible solar cells out of Willow glass that could perhaps be used as a roof instead of on it. Being made of glass such roof shingles could be long-lasting and durable, strong and resilient. The glass also makes it possible to use cadmium telluride, rather than silicon, as the solar cell material. Unfortunately the researchers were testing the idea rather than producing commercial solar panels, but maybe the idea will be picked up by others. Technology Review.
- VOICES IN YOUR HEAD: If you’re on a train in Germany soon and start to hear voices in your head, don’t worry — it might be the window talking to you. One ad company is considering using bone conduction technology to transmit ads directly into the heads of those who lean against the train windows. The Talking Window campaign relies on a special transmitter attached to the window that sends out inaudible high frequency vibrations. When a passenger leans their head against the window they hear audio, such as an advertising message. I’d bet the transmitters won’t last more than a day before they disappear or malfunction, with a little help, of course. BBC.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 09 July 2013
- INTO THE SKIN: Computer generated characters in movies have come a long way in recent years, looking more and more like real live people and creatures. But not quite, if you look really closely — the skin is often just too perfect. Researchers at the University of Southern California aim to create simulated CGI skin, faithful down to the level of individual cells. They developed a special lighting system and camera and took photos of real skin at a resolution of about 10 micrometres. That level of detail spreads one skin cell across 3 pixels. Then they created a 3D model of skin and applied an algorithm to simulate light reflecting and scattering off the surface. The result was highly realistic CGI skin complete with pores and tiny wrinkles. This CGI skin could obviously be used in movies, but the technique could also be used at make-up counters to show how different cosmetics would look. No-one at a make-up counter will want to see all their otherwise invisible pores and wrinkles. New Scientist.
- TOP THAT: Not only does Mount Everest have cellphone service, it now has 4G service up to 5,200 metres above sea level. Huawei has been providing GSM coverage to the mountain since 2007 to help keep climbers safe, but now streaming video won’t be a problem either. I guess battery life is now a big problem for climbers though. Huawei.
- CAR UNDER A HOT ROOF: Solar powered cars tend to be single-seaters, and rather compact at that. Stella is a low-slung family-sized solar car from the Solar Team Eindhoven. It’s made of lightweight carbon and aluminium and can travel around 600 Km on a single charge. What’s more the solar panels generate more energy than needed to drive the car. That’s surplus that can be sent back into the power grid. The car has a somewhat aerodynamic shape and looks to be about a metre tall, with the roof covered in solar panels. Stella will participate in the World Solar Challenge in Australia this October. Gizmodo.
- LIGHT AND SOUND: Did you know that some diseases, such as malaria, can alter the shape of red blood cells? That means that if a doctor can assess the shape of blood cells they may be able to more quickly make a diagnosis. A photoacoustics scientist at Ryerson University in Toronto developed a laser that pulses every 760 nanoseconds. When a material absorbs light from a pulsing light source it produces sound waves. When the laser is directed at red blood cells they emit sound waves with frequencies of more than 100MHz and reveal the tiniest details about the shapes of the cells. The approach could accurately distinguish malaria from sickle cell anemia and requires as few as 21 red blood cells. The technique shaves hours off a standard blood test and could save lives when transfusions are needed. The downside though is the high cost of the equipment. Sadly that implies that the equipment will be least available where it’s most useful. ScienceNOW.
- NOW HEAR THIS: Millions of people around the world are affected by hearing loss. Hearing aids can help many, but are often quite expensive, and getting them correctly adjusted can be time consuming. Sound World Solutions has devised a low cost aid that works in conjunction with a smartphone and a Bluetooth connection. The low cost CS10 Personal Sound Amplifier fits in the ear, and looks like any Bluetooth headset, but can be adjusted manually or via a smartphone app. The device increases sound volume, but also helps make speech more intelligible and reduces ambient noise, thanks to its tunable settings. Tech seems to get cheaper every day. NPR.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 10 July 2013
- SMELLING SORTS: What if we could capture smells as easily as we capture photos, especially since they’re so evocative? Designer Amy Radcliffe is working on a smell camera she calls the Madeleine. A funnel covers the object whose scent should be captured, while a pump sucks the air across an odour trap. The trap’s made of a porous polymer resin that captures the volatile particles that make up the smell. Then a gas chromatography–mass spectrometer processes the particles and produces a graph-like formula that represents the smell. The precise odour can then be reproduced artificially, and the graph recorded for posterity. It’ll be a while before this all happens in your smartphone though. The Guardian. Video:
- COOKED BY SUNSHINE: Here’s one for the caravan: the SunOven. The SunOven is a small oven in a box, and with reflector panels to catch the sun. Put the food in, close the glass door and point the insulated box towards the sun. Adjust the position every 30 minutes or so to allow for the sun’s movement and after a while the food is cooked. Temperatures inside the box reach around 175 C. The direct sunlight is what counts, rather than outside temperature, so the oven can cook year round. The oven doesn’t get hot on the outside and folds up to the size of a small suitcase. There’s a new challenge for the TV cooking competitions. SunOven.
- EYES FRONT: It can be enormously useful to have a GPS in the car to help you figure out how to get to where you’re going. Attaching it in the best place to see it can be a problem though. The Garmin HUD avoids that problem by projecting directions onto a transparent film on the windshield or an attached reflector lens so drivers can keep their eyes on the road. The HUD receives its navigation information from a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, and displays turn arrows, distance to the next turn, current speed and speed limit, as well as estimated time of arrival. The smartphone or a Bluetooth connected speaker can also play spoken turn by turn directions. You still have to secure the projector to the dash though. Garmin.
- THE SUGAR SCAN: Medical workers may inject someone with radioactive material before an MRI scan to detect cancerous tumours. But radioactive materials are never a good thing, so how about if they could be replaced by sugar? Scientists at the University College of London realised that to sustain their growth tumours consume much more glucose than normal healthy tissues. Then they tuned an MRI scanner to be more sensitive to glucose uptake and found that tumours appeared as bright images on MRI scans of mice. This finding could mean people who need more scans than most can avoid the additional exposure to radiation. See, sugar can be good for you. University College London.
- HOLE IN TWO: Imagine a window with holes in it. The holes let air in, but keep noise out, meaning inner city dwellers could enjoy fresh air without having to hear the traffic. South Korean researchers designed a sound resonance chamber that stops sound from passing through. The way sound moves within the chamber and small holes in the walls allows sound in but strongly attenuates it before it can get out. meanwhile the holes allow air to pass through freely. Tests using a wall of building blocks made in this way showed sound levels reduced by 20 to 35 decibels over a sound range of 700 Hz to 2,200 Hz. The researchers say that changing the size of the holes could tune the windows to screen out only certain frequencies, perhaps blocking out machinery noise while letting in the sound of the ocean. Now, about the car fumes for those inner city dwellers … Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Thursday 11 July 2013
- BLACK NIGHT WHITE LIGHT: Bright city lights might keep you from seeing the wonders of the night sky, but Starry Lights lamps can still give you a glimpse of the stars. They’re manufactured by hand in Hungary. The LED lamp itself sends a warm white light downwards, while constellation-patterned holes in the hemispheric shade allow a soft indirect light to project stars on the ceiling. The patterns represent what is actually visible on a dark night at 45 degrees North, but the shades can be custom-made with other skies too. The inner surface of the shade includes subtle lines marking out the constellations. All that handcrafted realism doesn’t come cheap though. How about preserving the real thing instead? Starry Lights.
- WISH THE LADS WERE CLEANER: One Latvian designer aims to reduce water use while encouraging men to wash their hands after using the bathroom so he’s redesigned the urinal. His Stand design puts the sink right above the urinal. A hands-free sensor-activated tap encourages hand washing and then the waste water flushes the urinal below. It seems very economical. NPR.
- THE POWER OF WIND: The London Array is a massive wind farm off the coasts of Kent and Essex that can provide 630MW of electricity per year to power over half-a-million homes. The farm that took 4 years to build with 175 huge wind turbines spread over 100 square kilometres has now been inaugurated. That’s a lot of homes the farm powers, but there are millions more to feed too. GigaOm.
- WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?: The Power Jacket MK3 from Japan’s Sagawa Electronics is a 2.25 metre tall exoskeleton. This larger than life device weighs 25 Kg thanks to the aluminium and carbon fibre frame. A person is strapped in to the frame so when they move their arms and legs the exoskeleton moves accordingly. The arms can lift 15 Kg, but the hands can also pick up an egg without breaking it. The suit’s a novelty item with its root in anime, but you never know where something like that can end up. Gizmag.
- RELAX, DON’T DO IT: We all know how stressful life can be, though we don’t always realise just how very stressed we are. Our body reacts to stress in many ways. One giveaway is that blood rushes to the extremities and causes us to sweat more. That changes the conductivity of the skin. The PIP is a tiny gadget held between the thumb and forefinger. It measures the skin’s galvanic response and sends data to a smartphone or tablet to assess our stress levels. The smartphone connection offers games, where to go faster, for example, the player has to relax, or a lie detector game where untruthful answers are revealed by increased stress. The PIP could be used just for fun, or by parents or doctors to help deal with stress. Just don’t crush the device. The PIP.
Tech Universe: Friday 12 July 2013
- ALL IN THE HEAD: Measuring physical characteristics of the brain is tricky, yet it’s important to know if a brain is swelling, whether from disease or injury. Usually doctors have to drill a small hole in the skull and insert a catheter to find out what’s going on. That’s a risky business though as it opens the skull up to possible infection. HeadSense are taking a different approach. Disposable earbuds emit a series of low-pitch beeps and record changes to the signals after they cross the brain. The headphones send the data via Bluetooth link to an app that instantly converts signal modulations to units of intracranial pressure. I hope the app has alerts such as “Warning, your head may explode”. GE Reports.
- DATA IS META: Researchers gather extremely useful information from tracking birds and animals. A new Environmental-Data Automated Track Annotation system can handle millions of data points and serve a hundred scientists simultaneously by combining GPS tracking with weather and land information. In a case study, the system tracked individual birds via GPS and combined that information with satellite data on weather patterns and chlorophyll concentrations in the ocean associated with food sources. The additional data helped explain features of the migration pattern. It’s always about combining the data. North Carolina State University.
- CODED SIGNALS: Parents: one more thing to do when you change the baby’s nappies: haul out the smartphone and grab a photo of a QR code. The Smart Diapers project adds a colour-coded QR code to the outside of a diaper. Scan that code with a smartphone to track urinary tract infection, prolonged dehydration and developing kidney problems. The code is included on a reagent panel that doesn’t actually come into contact with the baby’s skin but that reveals information about the urine. It sounds simple enough. Smart Diapers.
- HARD BUBBLES: Plastic bubble wrap is lightweight and fun to play with but it doesn’t stand up very well to heat or chemicals. Sheets of metal on the other hand are tough, but they’re heavy, thick and hard to bend. A new metallic bubble wrap could perhaps be used for the wing edges of planes, in motorcycle helmets or panels of cars. It’s thin, light and flexible, as well as strong and inexpensive to produce. Thin sheets of aluminium are bonded together, but a foaming agent between them produces the bubbles. The technique could be applied to other metals too. I’m not sure I’d want even metal bubble wrap on the wings of a plane. North Carolina State University.
- STEAM CLEAN: Even in remote areas doctors need to sterilise instruments. Those same areas though may not have electricity to power an autoclave, or even very clean water. Rice University created a solar-powered sanitiser out of off-the-shelf parts and nanotechnology. A parabolic mirror focuses the sun onto a chamber full of water and nanoparticles of carbon and metal. The particles have a large surface area so they transfer a lot of heat to the water. Leaving the heavy nanoparticles behind, steam then passes through simple pipes to a pressure chamber where it sterilises anything inside. The now pure water could be cycled again through the system or used for another purpose. A similar system could be used to treat sewage on a small scale too. It sounds as though the only hard part is the nanoparticles. Discovery News.
Tech Universe: Monday 01 July 2013
- HIGH STEPPERS: A new running shoe from Adidas will add a spring to your step — literally. Polymer blades cover the sole of the Springblade shoe, calibrated to suit the average weight of a person wearing it. The rear blades are thicker than those at the front of the foot. The blades compress as your foot strikes the ground and add explosive energy to the liftoff. You probably won’t want to take these near mud. Gizmodo.
- A SENSOR OF SMELL: It seems melanoma cells have a unique odour that can be detected and distinguished from normal cells by carbon nanotubes coated with strands of DNA. Recent studies have proven the concept and could lead to the development of a handheld sensor that may even be able to detect other diseases too. Dogs did it first. Monell Center.
- DRY SHIRTS: If you’re the kind of person who invariably spills their lunch down their shirt then perhaps you should invest in a can or two of NeverWet. Spray on a couple of layers of basecoat and a couple of layers of topcoat then food and drink won’t stick to your shirt again. The superhydrophobic coating completely repels water and heavy oils. The product’s available in some US stores. No word though on how long a coating lasts. NeverWet.
- THE QUICK NET: The O3b project aims to bring the Internet to people in nearly 180 under-connected countries via 12 satellites. The first four satellites were launched recently to help cover a region between the latitudes of 45 degrees North and 45 degrees South. The O3b satellites will orbit at 8,062 Km and weigh only 650 Kg each. Their comparative small size and proximity to Earth will make communications fast and relatively cheap, and allow the “other 3 billion” people with restricted Internet access to join those of us with good connections. With the Internet availability in place it’s then just a question of finding devices and power. PhysOrg.
- FLAT CHANCE: There are times when large numbers of people suddenly need accommodation — refugees are one example. Commonly tents are used but they tend to be hot in summer, cold in winter and not very durable. Refugee families may need to stay in a camp for years while a tent may last only 6 months. IKEA and the UNHCR have developed a flatpack house for refugees. A metal frame of pipes, wires and connectors can be assembled without special tools. Lightweight, durable, insulated panels attach to the frame. Roof sections include solar panels for lights and cooking. For those with nothing this could be a very important something. IKEA Foundation.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 02 July 2013
- COOL TORCH: Looking for something down behind the stereo? You may reach for a torch and hope the batteries haven’t gone flat since the last time you used it. But how about if just holding a torch in your hand could generate enough electricity to power the light? 15 year old Ann Makosinski from Canada has invented just such a thermoelectric torch. The key to her success was to use a hollow tube that allows air to flow freely and cool one side of the Peltier tiles that make the system work. Peltier tiles produce electricity when heated on one side and cooled on the other. Because the flashlight relies on temperature differences it works best when the ambient air is cooler. Which leaves you wondering what other devices could exploit this principle. CBC.ca
- MOVING PICTURES: Wi-Vi isn’t a typo, but rather a new way to see through walls. Researchers at MIT are working on a system that uses WiFi to track moving objects through walls. The system works rather like radar, sending two WiFi signals through a wall and measuring the way they bounce back. The signals are encoded in such a way that they cancel each other out when one signal hits a stationary object. If a person’s moving behind the wall though the signals don’t cancel each other out and the device creates a real-time display of the movements. The researchers suggest such a system could even be built into a smartphone. This could be useful for rescue services and police, but as always, who monitors the monitors? IT World.
- CAP THE SOUND: You may think of hearing aids as devices you stick in your ears, but the Cynaps Enhance is a baseball cap that does the job. Instead of transmitting sound through the eardrum, the cap uses bone conduction to send vibrations directly to the inner ear. Dual microphones in the bill allow the wearer to pinpoint the location of amplified sounds, such as oncoming traffic or voices which aren’t necessarily in their direct line of sight. Meanwhile a Bluetooth connection means phone calls and streaming audio can be transmitted through the cap too. People who can hear just fine may choose to wear the cap with earplugs to keep out environmental noise while receiving specific sounds they want. All that and the cap provides shelter from sun and rain too. Max Virtual.
- BIKE LIGHTS FOREVER: Rydon’s Pixio solar-powered bike light can be permanently mounted to any bike frame. The light is fully sealed, water resistant and a rubber casing makes it impact resistant too. The solar panel stores energy during the summer for cycling at night. After 5 days of sunlight the batteries are charged with 75 hours worth of light — enough for roughly 2 years of use without sunlight. A locking mechanism on the strap can only be released with a special tool, making the light resistant to theft. The big question, of course, is how bright is the light? Rydon.
- IMAGINARY STRANGERS: People have anxieties about all kinds of things, such as using public transport, shopping, talking to strangers in places like museums. The University of East Anglia has tested whether virtual environments and green screen video techniques could help them overcome their anxieties. Participants saw their own life-size image projected into specially scripted real-time video scenes. The virtual environments encouraged participants to practice small-talk, maintain eye contact, test beliefs that they wouldn’t know what to say, and resist safety behaviour such as looking at the floor or being hyper-vigilant. Further research is needed now to see if this is in fact a useful technique. It sounds like a great way to practice things that are normally scary. University of East Anglia. Video:
Tech Universe: Wednesday 03 July 2013
- BETTER THAN BEEPS: In the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador ambulances carry low-power broadcast antennas that override all AM and FM stations within a one kilometre radius of the vehicle. The ambulance can broadcast a message telling drivers to make way. That means that even if drivers have the windows rolled up and the radio turned up loud they still can’t overlook the emergency vehicle nearby. Ambulance response time has risen 40% as a result. That’s a very clever approach. Gizmodo.
- WHAT’S THAT LIGHT FOR?: Brake lights are handy. When they illuminate on the car in front of you it’s clear you need to slow or stop. But what say you can’t see the lights because the car ahead is round a curve? Ford are here to help. Their experimental Electronic Brake Light sends a wireless signal to illuminate a dashboard light on following vehicles. A study found the technology could enable drivers following behind to brake earlier and potentially avoid a collision. Surely that kind of data transmission could be more comprehensive and more useful, including things like speed and direction of travel. Ford.
- IT’S A SHAME TO WASTE WASTE: In Spain Chiclana de la Frontera’s sewage plant will soon combine wastewater, sunlight and algae to produce renewable biofuel. The 200 square metre plant harvested its first crop of algae last month and expects to fuel its first car by December. The project is expected to grow to cover 10 hectares and fuel 200 cars or 10 city garbage trucks per year. One key point is that the sewage plant is cheaper to set up and run than a conventional plant. It may not produce a lot of fuel, but if the plant’s cheaper then it definitely makes sense. Reuters.
- BAGS OF INK: Now you can handle much of the paperwork for a flight electronically, thanks to smartphone apps and etickets. Check a bag though and it still has to have a paper tag printed off and attached by hand. British Airways hope to replace those paper tags with a reusable e-ink luggage tag that connects with your smartphone. An app will send your destination and a barcode to the e-paper screen. The new tag remains compatible with current systems and could speed up checkin and bag drop enormously. Or learn to travel light and avoid the whole problem. Wired.
- KONNICHI WA: Kirobo and Mirata are two new astronauts for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. They should head into space in August. These two can recognise faces and voices and communicate in Japanese. That’s not bad for a couple of robots. The two tiny robots, each around 30 cm tall, judging by the video, are part of the Kibo Robot Project which aims to test human-robot interactions and to inspire humans back on Earth by showing how well a robot can converse in difficult circumstances. And who needs giant robots anyway? Discovery News.
Tech Universe: Thursday 04 July 2013
- HARK HARK A BARK: Looking for a project for your Raspberry Pi computer? One Irish inventor wanted his dog to be able to let itself out and in through the door, so he rigged up a bark detector. The dog barks at the door, the Raspberry Pi recognises the bark, releases a latch and allows a counterweight to swing the door open. That’s a nice bit of fun, but it doesn’t seem to close the door again. DavidHunt.com.
- UNDER ONE ROOF: 1.7 million square metres is pretty big for a building. In fact, China’s New Century Global Center could fit in 20 Sydney Opera Houses. That’s what makes it the world’s largest free standing building. The New Century is 500 metres long, 400 metres wide and 100 metres high and houses business offices, movie theatres, shopping malls, a theme park and even a fake Mediterranean village. That’s 170 hectares or 420 acres. You could probably live there and never see the outside world at all. CNN.
- TURN THE WIND: There’s wind energy and tidal current energy, so how about combining the two? The world’s first hybrid wind-current power generation system will be installed off the coast of Japan later this year. The wind turbine will be 47 metres above sea level. The tidal turbine will have a diameter of 15 metres. The two sections will be connected by a power generator that should produce enough electricity for 300 households. Testing begins soon. It seems logical to combine the two forms of energy generation. CBS.
- AN EYE ON THE SUN: NASA’s IRIS spacecraft is on a mission to understand the area between the photosphere and corona of the sun. Most of the sun’s ultraviolet emissions come from the region IRIS is studying , and those emissions affect Earth’s climate. IRIS will use spectrometry and imaging to explore the area, sending back data that can be used to create a 3D model. Its rocket placed IRIS into a sun-synchronous polar orbit that will allow it to make almost continuous solar observations during its two-year mission. Presumably that’s one eye that can look directly at the sun. IRIS.
- GOODBYE SALT: Chemists in Germany and the US have found a new way to take the salt out of seawater. Their technique is simple and takes less energy than conventional desalination. The discovery could make a lifesaving difference to the millions of people who live near the coast but have little clean drinking water. The trick is to apply a small voltage to the junction of a microchannel with two branches on a plastic chip filled with seawater. The voltage neutralises some of the chloride ions in the seawater, changing the electric field so it redirect salts into one branch and desalinated water into the other. At the moment their desalination device is tiny and inefficient, but the chemists are confident it can be scaled up to create a commercial device. Add a solar panel for the power supply and millions of people could benefit. University of Texas.
Tech Universe: Friday 05 July 2013
- WASH AND GO: If you have a washing machine it’s a fair bet it’s large, heavy and plumbed in to the laundry. That’s no help if you need to wash clothes on the go. Pu Qingliang, a student in China, created a folding, portable washing machine that weighs only 3 Kg. The machine has a base on which is a foldable tube that expands to become a washing barrel with a wave wheel and rotating shaft connected to a small electric motor. The motor spins an impeller that spins the water to wash the clothes. The whole thing can handle up to 5 items of clothing at a time, so don’t expect to be doing a family wash. It’d be great on a caravan trip though. Daily Mail.
- ACRONYMS WITHOUT BORDERS: GPS is actually an American thing, while Glonass belongs to Russia, and some countries would prefer to control their own version. India has launched their first dedicated navigation satellite, the IRNSS-1A. By 2015 the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System should have 7 satellites in orbit and the system will be fully operational. It’s a regional service that will provide an all-weather absolute position over the Indian landmass and 1,500 Km beyond its geo-political boundary. At least the redundancy could be helpful. Forbes India.
- RE CYCLING: So you just disposed of your old broken cellphone for a shiny new one, but where did that old one go? It may have ended up on the streets of a developing nation where residents burned it to extract the precious metals. While doing that they would have inhaled toxic smoke and released heavy metals into their environment. One Harvard undergrad wanted to do something about that problem so she created Bicyclean, a pedal-powered grindstone that pulverises entire circuit boards inside a polycarbonate enclosure, capturing the dust. Bicycles are very common in developing countries where hazardous electronic waste is a problem and the bicycle powered grinder is something the locals could make for themselves. It’s a clever idea, but even low cost could be a significant barrier. Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
- NO PRESSURE: Turning nitrogen into ammonia so it can be used as fertiliser takes massive amounts of energy under high pressure. Some estimates say 2% of the world’s energy goes to transforming nitrogen into fertiliser. Or, you could use tiny industrial diamonds, hydrogen and light. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin coated synthetic industrial diamonds with hydrogen and exposed them to deep ultraviolet light creating a stream of electrons into water. That reactant liquid then reduced nitrogen to ammonia. The technique could prove useful, and save energy, though the deep ultraviolet light could be a problem. It’s definitely the seed of an idea. University of Wisconsin.
- GOING UP: Steel cables are often used for high stress jobs such as lifting lifts or loads on cranes or holding up bridges. Because of the stress they have to be inspected regularly, and how better to do that than by robot? The FluxCrawler crawls along cables scanning the steel surface and detecting defects by means of a magnetic flux leakage test. The test exposes the cable to a magnetic field that is disrupted by any defect. The 70 cm robot scans cylinder-shaped surfaces by revolving around the cable.The robot can check cables between 4 and 20 cm in diameter and reports exact details of any crack or fissure. Think about those possible cable defects next time you’re in a lift. Fraunhofer Institute.
I have an Arts degree from university, but have always been interested in science and technology.
Do you follow my daily Tech Universe column? If you’re reading this blog post it’s sure to interest you.
The last time I formally learned any science was at high school about 40 years ago. That means I’ve either forgotten most of what I learned or it’s well out of date anyway.
Now though I get my science fix in many ways, such as with this and other videos from @minutephysics — Where is the True North Pole?
In the podcast realm, I never miss an episode of the Canadian Quirks & Quarks whose topics are diverse and various and always interesting.
One slightly unexpected source of interesting science stuff is io9, with items on physics, biotechnology, space, zoology, chemistry and all kinds of things. That site also has the added bonus of publishing interesting items about the kinds of TV shows I may be interest in, such as scifi and the like.
But back to videos, with the surprisingly interesting Periodic Table of Videos, such as this one about Platinum:
And for a side-trip into Maths (or Math, if you prefer), there’s Numberphile, which is usually about numbers, but I specially like this video, Is it Math or Maths?:
Where do you get your sciencey learning from?
Three years ago on 08 June 2010 I wrote my first Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald Online. It was, shall we say, brief. Over time though the column has grown to average more like 500 words per day, and is published every weekday, except for public holidays or if I’m on leave for some reason.
In 2012 I wrote 226 columns — around 113,000 words. That almost as much as two average length novels.
A Tech Universe column consists of 5 brief items that effectively summarise articles published elsewhere about a specific topic in technology. Each item links to the source material.
The topics cover a huge and diverse range: robotics, ecology, alternative energy, medical advances that involve technology, transport, space travel, chemistry, architecture, inventions, sewage treatment, bionics, physics, networking, machinery, engineering … If technology is involved, the list is actually infinite.
How I write Tech Universe
Every day, sometimes twice a day, I scan through several hundred items in the RSS Feeds I subscribe to. When I find an item that may potentially be useful for Tech Universe I save it to Instapaper. Once I’ve scanned all the items — a process that can take between 45 minutes and more than an hour I mark all the items read. I prefer to do this step on my iPad.
A few items also come to me via my Twitter feed, or on very rare occasions from an email I receive.
The next step is to work through my saved items. I open Instapaper in my browser and open an item in a new browser tab. I read the item and decide whether or not to use it. Some items just aren’t interesting, or they’re silly, or they’re vague, or they’re so poorly written they annoy me, or they’re so full of jargon and so badly expressed that I have no idea what they’re about.
A few I abandon because the science is very complex, or because I simply don’t understand it.
My secret confession
Now I need to share a secret: guess what! I’m not actually an expert in any of those things. I’m a writer with a deep interest in technology and science. I also like to think I’m a reasonably intelligent person, with a decent but general education, and who has read widely, both fiction and non-fiction.
In that way, I probably represent a fairly large proportion of my readers.
My research process
It’s not my job to research the technology itself, verify findings, check the science or anything of that sort. My job is to write about interesting things others have written about. What I do usually do is try to track down to the source of an item.
For example, I often read items on Inhabitat. They have generally sourced their item from somewhere else, so I go to their source. That source in turn may link to another, and from there to another, and so on. I usually try to track down to the origin, but can’t always do that. Sometimes the ultimate source is written in a language I don’t read or speak, such as Korean.
This can take quite a while.
Crafting the words
Then I need to take the gist of the item and express it in my own words, summarising as I go. To do this I have to actually understand the important parts of the article — not always easy with some of the more scientific items.
I often incorporate phrases from an item though, usually via copy and paste. After all, if I’m quoting the specifications of a building, for example, I can’t be very original with
The New Century is 500 metres long, 400 metres wide and 100 metres high. There’s a line between plagiarism, copyright infringement and referring to another article that I have to pay attention to.
I do this part of the work in my favourite text editor, BBEdit. I often refer to the same sources over and over again, so TextExpander helps me out, with abbreviations that expand into phrases such as
Technology Review or
Also helpful are the multiple clipboards Launchbar makes available to me, so I can go back and paste again something I copied several copies ago.
Once I’ve written a plain language summary that aims to be true to the original, and accurate, within a tight word count, I need to add a closing ‘remark’ and an appropriate ‘headline’. Those are often the hardest parts of each item and can take a while to produce.
The actual writing part of any one day’s Tech Universe generally takes between one and three hours. Some days everything flows. Others grind along with lumps and bumps and hurdles every step of the way.
What I really hate is crafting an item only to decide afterwards that it’s not ‘right’, so I delete it and write another.
Preparing the text
Once I have 5 items, with catchy headlines and closing remarks I reread them and fix typos, edit a few words to tighten things up, perhaps change the sequence of items.
Then I run half a dozen Applescripts and Keyboard Maestro macros that prepare the column to email the editor, to save in a file of all the columns I write, to add it to the weekly digest I publish on this blog, to set up a tweet for each day. Those scripts save me a heap of time.
I save the email for sending early in the morning of the day the column will be published, and then go about whatever other work I have on for the day.
How Tech Universe is published
Any time from about 5.30 am onwards I send the email I’ve prepared the previous day. Someone at the Herald then processes the column, finds an image to illustrate it, and finally publishes it around 8.15 am, but sometimes later.
I check the Technology page until I see the article has been published. I’m commonly eating breakfast between 8 and 9 so I may not see it for a while. I have a Google Alert set up though that emails me, usually within minutes, once the item is live.
I make a PDF of the published page and save it in Evernote, along with the URL. Again, TextExpander and Keyboard Maestro speed things up here. I also paste the URL into my file of all the columns, and add it to the file which will become the Digest of the week’s columns.
Finally I add the URL to the tweet I prepared the day before and send it out on Twitter.
Generally that complete’s a day’s cycle of Tech Universe, though sometimes, occasionally, a reader or someone whose product I’ve linked to, sends me a comment. But that’s another story all together …
We own a Honda Jazz that’s now about 8 years old and going strong. It’s perfect for around town, nippy, with a great turning circle and good petrol consumption. It has a modest 1.3 litre engine.
Each year Honda ring me and ask me to test drive their latest vehicle. This year they offered a chance to win a new car or some petrol vouchers, so even though we have no intention of buying I took the new 2013 Honda Jazz Hybrid for a 45 minute test drive.
I was impressed, so I thought I’d write about it.
In Wellington you need a car that can handle hills and narrow winding roads. In any city a car will have to handle stop signs, traffic lights and queues of cars. I have no idea how much petrol is wasted when idling at the lights or in a queue, but it must mount up.
The thing is, the Hybrid Jazz effectively has 2 sources of motive power: a petrol engine for the main part and a battery that helps out.
If you need some extra power, for example, when going up a hill, the battery kicks in to lend a hand. A display on the dash shows power going from the battery to the car, while power is also going from the petrol engine to the car.
That makes the car very zippy. It certainly went up Wellington’s hills more speedily than our current Jazz does. I also noticed it when I put my foot down on the straight. In our current car that tends to mean a bit of a pause and then a little extra speed. The Hybrid just got on with the job in the way our bigger and more powerful 2.4 litre Mazda does.
On the other hand, the car feeds the battery when the car brakes, so you never have to actively plug in to a source of electricity to charge the battery:
The theory behind IMA is to use regenerative braking to recapture some of the energy lost through deceleration, and reuse that energy later on to help accelerate the vehicle. This has two effects: it increases the rate of acceleration, and it reduces the work required of the petrol engine. The acceleration boost is important as it allows the engine to be scaled down to a smaller but more fuel-efficient variant while retaining the power of a traditional engine. This smaller engine is the primary reason cars equipped with IMA get better highway mileage than their more conventional counterparts.
Then there’s the thing the dealer warned me about before I drove off. Luckily, or I may have thought the car had a major defect. When you stop and keep your foot on the brake the petrol engine, already very quiet, cuts out. However, the moment you take your foot off the brake it cuts back in.
It doesn’t take seconds as when you start the car from scratch, but is instant. It’s more like you’ve
paused the engine while the car’s standing still.
Additionally, vehicles equipped with IMA can shut off their engine when the vehicle stops and use the electric motor to rapidly spin it back up when the driver releases the brake pedal. They also have a conventional starter as a backup, making it the only production petrol/electric hybrid system that can operate with its high voltage electric system disabled, using only its engine like a traditional vehicle.
As Honda’s web page points out, the subtleties of power savings and lowered emissions are more complex than I’ve described above. They use a clever combination of the electric battery and the petrol engine to maximise power while minimising the use of petrol and the pollution it causes.
The downside of the battery is that it takes up some of the space in the boot. It definitely looked as though there were less space available than in our 2005 Jazz, whose boot holds a surprisingly large amount. It would still hold a lot of shopping though, and the car itself has clever seats that fold up every which way for holding baggage.
I’m no car expert, and not even a car aficionado. I care about the car being able to do what I need it to, the cost to my bank balance and the cost to the environment.
I love the idea of electric vehicles, but we live down a footpath, a long way from the road and have no garage. It would be impossible for us to charge an electric vehicle at home.
I also really like our current Honda Jazz. It’s very different from the 13 year old Mazda People Mover we bought when we suddenly frequently needed to take 2 people, 2 dogs and loads of gear to our new property 100 Km away from Wellington.
The big Mazda has heaps of power and guzzles petrol as you’d guess. It’s great on the open road and holds heaps of stuff. Just yesterday I discovered it easily fit a kayak, with room to spare. It has a terrible turning circle though — I now choose my spots carefully in places like supermarket car parks. It’s not that great at handling Wellington’s narrow, winding roads either, being large and heavy, though it charges up the hills.
On the other hand our little Jazz is easy on the petrol, scoots round corners nippily and turns in tight places. It’s a superb city car, easy to park.
If I were in the market for a new city car I’d definitely choose the Hybrid Honda Jazz. It’s just like our current Jazz but better. It drives a bit better, has more zip, is quieter, and the claimed fuel consumption is better too.
Now all we need is to win the draw for a free car.
Tech Universe: Monday 24 June 2013
- STEP UP: How many ways are there to generate electricity? A lot, obviously. Now add one: the SolePower shoe insole that charges portable electronics while you walk. The generating device is built into a standard insole. The charging cable can be threaded with the laces and a small battery can be worn around the ankle or attached to the top of the shoe. As you walk or run the battery charges. When you need to charge your phone or other device plug it in to the battery. Nice: now a long walk with GPS active on your phone needn’t leave you with a dead phone at the end. SolePower.
- CHEMICAL WARS: The human body is full of sodium and potassium, while computer devices use a lot of silicon. Unfortunately those chemicals don’t mix well, making it tricky to use silicon based devices such as sensors in and around humans. Such sensors could be particularly useful, for example, in detecting whether a patient is likely to reject a newly transplanted organ. Now researchers at Ohio State University have found that an aluminium oxide coating can protect a silicon sensor inside the body for up to 24 hours. Unfortunately the body still sees the coating as a foreign object, but it could be a short-term solution that makes some medical tests possible. That’s a little progress that could make a lot of difference to some people. GigaOm.
- ARMOURED PHONE: Applying a plastic screen protector to phones and tablets has always been a hassle and they tend to reduce image quality. Liquid Armor is a nanotech coating that bonds to the surface at the molecular level, making it more resistant to water, dirt and scratches. So why aren’t manufacturers already coating screens with this? Liquid Armor.
- A TWIST ON CORK: How to seal up bottles of wine? There’s the screw cap, or the cork you have to take a corkscrew to. Soon, though, there will also be the screw cork that has a thread matching a thread on the inside of the bottle top. Twist it out, and then twist it back in to save the rest of the wine. The Helix cork and bottle create an airtight seal and are the product of 4 years of testing and research. Let’s drink to that. The Drinks Business.
- BIG GREEN: The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has produced an interactive cloud-free map of the world’s vegetation. The map is created from satellite data. Four of the 17 recorded channels generate 2 terabytes of data each week, and each week’s 80,000 x 40,000 pixel image is around 13 gigabytes in size, with a resolution of 500 metres per pixel. Pixel by pixel analysis of vegetation changes from week to week may give early warning for outbreaks of drought, hazardous fire conditions, or even when malaria may break out in Sub-Saharan Africa. I’m sure the big agencies will be using that map regularly. Green Vegetation.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 25 June 2013
- NOW HEAR THIS: Sometimes you’d just like everyone around you to be quiet. But 3 year old Grayson Clamp in the US was thrilled to hear for the first time. Grayson didn’t receive hearing aids though. The problem was he was born without the crucial cochlear nerves that carry auditory signals from the inner ear to the brain. Doctors instead placed a microchip on his brain stem to bypass the cochlear nerves altogether. Adults have received such aids before to help them hear better but this is the first time it’s been used on someone who’s completely deaf. Doctors hope Grayson’s young brain will be able to adapt to use the implant to replace normal hearing. Kids these days can do almost anything it seems. CBS News.
- BRAINS: The brain is a massively complex organ that researchers are studying closely. The European Human Brain project has spent 10 years cutting one donated brain into 7,400 slices and scanning each slice. The scans have created the BigBrain Atlas, an accessible, highly accurate 3D anatomical model of the human brain available to researchers. Each slice took about 1000 hours of nearly continuous labour to prepare and scan. The BigBrain Atlas is only one smaller part of the larger Human Brain project. That’s a very intensive scanning project. MedGadget. Video:
- THE FABRIC TRAP: Bed bugs are particularly unpleasant and seem to be a growing problem. Thanks to a special material created by researchers at Stony Brook University though they may soon be less of a problem. A new Fibertrap fabric acts as a web of microfibres 50 times thinner than a human hair which entangle and trap bed bugs and other insects. The microfibres trap bed bugs by attaching to microstructures on their legs. That stops them moving, which prevents them from feeding and reproducing. The microfibres are safe for humans and pets, and unlike with chemical treatments the insects cannot develop a resistance. It’d be interesting to know if using the fabric in mosquito nets would help control mosquitoes too. Stony Brook University. Video:
- HERE COMES THE SUN: SunnyBot is a lamp with a difference. Rather than shining a bulb on your work it captures and reflects actual sunlight towards any point you direct it to. The robot uses a fully automated intelligent optical positioning system to identify the position of the Sun and track it throughout the day. It rotates the mirror via two linear actuators to ensure your selected target is always illuminated. If the weather turns bad the robot puts itself on standby or turns itself off. Built-in solar cells keep the robot working. That first adjustment to point it to the right spot could be the tricky one. SunnyBot.
- SWAP AND DRIVE: It takes a few minutes at a petrol station to refuel a car, while an electric vehicle can take hours to charge. A Tesla Model S though will be ready to go quicker than any other car. Pull into any suitably equipped Tesla station where the battery is replaced with a fully charged unit. It takes only a couple of minutes. The Tesla car is driven over a charging point. Automated equipment comes up under the car, unbolts the discharged battery and bolts in a charged one, tightening the bolts to factory specifications. Pay and drive away. Better hope they have a good supply of already charged batteries. Tesla.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 26 June 2013
- GREEN ON THE GROUND: Planes do two main things. They fly through the air for the most part, needing powerful engines to do so. But they also spend a chunk of time moving around on the ground as they taxi into position or line up with the terminal. For taxiing they don’t need so much power — in fact, small electric motors could often do the job, saving on jet fuel, pollution and overall costs. The Electric Green Taxiing System powers electric motors on the aircraft’s main wheels. Power electronics and system controllers give pilots total control of the aircraft’s speed and direction during taxi operations. In some of those huge airports around the world using electric motors for taxiing could make a lot of difference. Green Taxiing.
- IN THE FLOW: So you’re on your motorbike and need a bit of help with directions. Do you stop and unfold a paper map or haul out the GPS unit? Or do you simply issue a voice command to your helmet and see the information directly on your visor? Moscow-based LiveMap are going with an augmented reality GPS system built directly into a carbon fibre bike helmet. The system provides a full-colour, translucent picture projected right on the visor as in an F-35 fighter helmet. It provides an unobstructed view that doesn’t distract the rider. The developers are working on a prototype at the moment, and aim to release the helmet in the English-speaking world first, as that’s where voice recognition is best right now. I bet Ngauranga Gorge and Manukau don’t do well with voice recognition. LiveMap.
- A SILENT RIDE: If you’re in the Special Forces the noise of a regular motor vehicle won’t help you sneak up on the bad guys. The Zero MMX electric motorcycle will though because it’s pretty much silent. Its heat signature is minimal and an override switch lets the headlight be turned off. The bike’s rugged enough to go through a metre of water, while a keyless ignition makes for quick starts. The battery packs can be swapped out in under a minute for the long distance missions but will carry a rider for a couple of hours at up to 135 Kph. Now, in the hands of the bad guys… Wired.
- ON THE SPOT: At one time asbestos was very popular as an insulation material. Now it’s known to be dangerous to health, but is still present in many buildings. One problem is to know if asbestos fibres are floating around in the air, especially if tradespeople are working on a building, potentially stirring up fibres. Current methods mean hours of waiting, but a team from the University of Hertfordshire has created a low cost portable asbestos detector that gives on the spot results. The new devices shines a laser whose light is scattered by asbestos fibres in a pattern that gives them away. Presumably you have the point the thing in the right direction in the first place. Business Wire.
- ROCKING THE ICE: What’s underneath all the Antarctic ice? A rocky landscape of mountains, rolling plains, gorges and valleys is the answer. In some spots that ice is 3 Km thick. The ice doesn’t just lie around on the landscape though. In many places it flows to the sea which can have an effect on sea levels around the planet. Bedmap2 is a map of the landscape beneath the ice. The map has been created by combining millions of data points from satellites, laser readings and ground measurements over two decades. Scientists will be able to use the map to model the behaviour of the ice sheet in the future, making more accurate predictions of behaviours that could affect the daily lives of each of us. Three kilometres of ice is almost impossible to imagine. British Antarctic Survey.
Tech Universe: Thursday 27 June 2013
- A WALK IN THE PARK: Volvo would like to save you the agony of driving round a huge car park looking for an empty spot. Their concept car finds and parks in a vacant space all by itself, without the driver inside. It’s also smart enough to interact with other cars and pedestrians without calamities. Transmitters in the road let the driver know the service is available. The driver activates Autonomous Parking from a smartphone then walks away from the car. They can pick the car up later at the same place. That could be so handy in parking buildings. Volvo Car Group.
- BOTTLE, WHAT BOTTLE?: Look, if it’s a frosty cold drink you’re after then why not just make the bottle out of ice? In Colombia, known to be rather warm, Coke have launched a bottle made out of ice. No need to deal with an empty can, glass or plastic bottle, just drop it on the ground when you’re done. It’s an eco-friendly bottle, for sure, unless you consider how much energy it must take to keep the bottles frozen from factory to end customer. Adverblog.
- SUN AND WIND: Wind turbine? Solar power? Why choose? The McCamley turbine encases wind turbine blades in an outer frame topped with solar cells. The structure is friendly to bats and birds too as the outer frame keeps them away from the blades. The lightweight turbines are designed for cities and intended to go on top of buildings, with several legs to distribute the load. The design is compact and makes hardly any noise. There are so many options these days for alternative power University of Bath.
- SIMPLY LIGHT: It seems everyone wants to bring light to developing countries so they can get away from kerosene lamps. The S1 Solar LED Lamp is another contender. A day’s charge with the integrated solar panel allow the LEDs to provide 4 hours of light. Or, with access to grid power, a couple of hours charging will do the trick. The light has an adjustable handle so it can point towards the sun in the day or hang from a wall or stand on a table at night. Maybe they could add in a tiny wind power generator too? D.light Design.
- UP, DOWN, UP: How often does your electricity go out? It’s a nuisance when it does, but after all, in places like New Zealand the power supply is pretty reliable. Of course, you may lose Internet for a bit, but the power comes back, your modem flashes its lights and all’s well. Not so in places like Africa where the electricity supply is really unreliable. That’s where the BRCK modem comes in to keep you online whatever happens. It works like a mobile phone, switching between wi-fi and 3G when a fixed line network is down. Add a SIM card to connect anywhere in reach of a cell tower. An 8 hour battery and an antenna to boost signal strength mean it can work almost anywhere. It’d be very handy for disaster relief too. BBC.
Tech Universe: Friday 28 June 2013
- SPIN DRIFT: The Rosphere from the Technical University of Madrid is intended to travel regularly around fields to monitor conditions and tell farmers the best time to water or otherwise tend their crops. As a sphere though it needs a way to make it move and keep it going if it’s not on a slope. The trick, it seems, is to have control systems swing on a spindle at the centre of the hollow device. The swing of the electronics inside makes the sphere roll. Drive wheels at either end of the spindle allow for setting the ball in motion, or for steering by moving just one drive wheel. Cameras, sensors and comms form the working parts of the sphere which can also be remote controlled. It would be interesting to add a mechanism like that to a football just for fun. BBC.
- POWER HUNGRY: If you’re travelling with your laptop you may want to conserve as much battery juice as possible. But on the other hand perhaps you really need to plug in that USB peripheral you’ve been toting along. Maybe it would help to know just how much power each device draws. The Centech USB Power Meter plugs into the computer’s USB port and then you plug the peripheral into it. An integrated LED display shows you just how much power that device is drawing. It has several modes, including real-time, per second average, maximum and minimum. Knowing how power hungry a device is and then being able to do something about it are unfortunately very different things. Everything USB.
- BRIGHT EYES: Facial recognition is popping up everywhere these days in the name of safety and security, or even just thanks to casual photos by folks on the street. The privacy glasses being developed by Japan’s National Institute of Informatics aim to help. Light from near-infrared LEDs on the glasses can’t be seen by the human eye, but appears bright on an image recorded by a camera. Eleven lights are placed near the eyes and nose as these are crucial for facial recognition. Of course, for cameras that aren’t affected by infra-red light this particular method won’t work. Just look for the person in the weird glasses, you can’t miss her! DigInfo TV.
- COOL RUNNING: The TriMet Portland-Milwaukie light rail line in the USA has been designed to capture power from braking trains and use it for accelerating trains. As trains brake the energy released is stored in a supercapacitor, rather than being lost as heat. When demand spikes, such as when trains accelerate, the supercapacitor delivers instantaneously. Lose some, win some. Wired.
- FLIGHT PATHS: Unlike buses, or planes for that matter, trains assemble a group of carriages to be towed by one engine. The carriages can hold passengers or cargo, can be dropped off by one engine and picked up by another to reach the correct destination. Clip-Air wants to apply that concept to air travel. A pilot would be in charge of engines, wings and a framework that can pick up modules. Passengers or cargo would be assembled into modules to be carried by a plane. In that way an aircraft could carry perhaps two modules of passengers and one of cargo, leaving each at a different airport along a route and picking up other modules. And best of all, perhaps we cattle class customers wouldn’t have to suffer the business class with their leg room, beds and fancy meals as they could be segregated into a module on their own. Clip-Air.
Take Control of TextExpander (Book Review)
Until I read Take Control of TextExpander I thought I was an expert user of the software. Now that I’ve found out how much more I could be doing with it I realise I’m just a long-standing user who had quite a bit to learn. Newbie or old-hand: this book will teach you how to really make your Mac do the typing for you.
TextExpander cuts down the typing
I’ve been using TextExpander for such a long time now that certain abbreviations have become second nature. For example, I never type my email address in full, but only ever the letters
zmz. That abbreviation expands to
I have dozens of such abbreviations.
One piece of work I do for a client regularly requires me to send standard emails to their customers. Each email is several paragraphs long, and many include URLs that may change according to circumstances. Each of these emails types itself out after I input a 2 or 3 letter abbreviation.
TextExpander itself tells me that in the time since I last installed a clean set of preferences for it I’ve saved at least 40 hours of typing. And I probably last restarted the stats around 12 months ago. [Hmmm, shouldn't I be taking those 40 hours as a holiday?]
Update Tuesday, 25 June 2013: in the 2 years since I wrote this review that number of hours saved has jumped to a massive 118! These text expansions, automatic typo corrections and handy scripts are no laughing matter for those who want to get real work done.
I think though that in all my years of using TextExpander I have probably never read the manual. That’s why when I noticed Take Control of TextExpander I asked for a review copy. The Take Control books always teach me something I should know. And boy was I right in that thinking!
Take Control of TextExpander
I’m an experienced user of the software so when I received the ebook I first looked at the table of contents and jumped immediately to page 76,
Script with Snippets.
TextExpander triggers a timesaving script
Page 76 and following talk about using TextExpander to run AppleScripts — a fairly advanced topic. I use AppleScript extensively in my work and thought this section might have something of interest for me.
And indeed the script at the top of Page 77 has already saved me probably 5 minutes per day since I started using it. That means my work has been speeded up by several hours, which in turn means I earn more for slightly less work.
Thanks to that 5 line script, working in conjunction with TextExpander, I can now add the URL of the front Safari window to the piece of text I’m writing, simply by typing a couple of letters.
I do this simple thing at least 5 times a day when I write my Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald online. That’s at least 25 times a week I no longer have to switch to Safari, copy the URL, switch back to BBEdit and paste.
Of course, I sometimes also want to grab the URL of the front Safari window when I’m writing an email or developing another article or blog post. This new technique is such a simple thing, yet has a big impact on my work.
Filenames with dates — the easy way
Every day when my Tech Universe column appears online I save it as a PDF with a filename that includes the date. I don’t know why I’d never thought of using TextExpander to enter the filename and current date for me. Previously I had rather laboriously changed the name and typed in the date by hand.
The silly thing is that I do use TextExpander to do some date maths for me. If I need to enter yesterday’s or tomorrow’s date I already have abbreviations set up to do that for me.
date+1 gets me tomorrow’s date, like this:
Monday, 1 August 2011. Meanwhile
date-1 gets me yesterday:
Saturday, 30 July 2011. Can you tell that as I write it’s
Sunday, 31 July 2011? I could also enter that as
31-Jul-11 — which is the format I need in a spreadsheet I work on.
It’s easy to set up any date you like: in 2 weeks time, in 12 months, 2 days ago …
Once again Take Control of TextExpander has saved me perhaps a minute and a great deal of irritation each and every weekday. Page 31, Include Dates and Times, reminded me that I already use TextExpander to help me with dates. Why wasn’t I using this to help me with those filenames?
A minute doesn’t sound like much? One minute per weekday equals around 260 minutes per year — around 4 hours. That’s enough time to watch a movie and grab a coffee afterwards.
It’s a book for newbies too
OK, so as an experienced user of the software I just jumped right in to the middle of the book and was instantly rewarded with timesaving tips I either hadn’t known about or hand’t thought of. Obviously other experienced users of TextExpander are likely to learn something useful too.
But once I’d got over the excitement of playing with these new tools I went back and started reading from the beginning.
Cohen has written a book that’s perfect for new users. It takes the reader easily and gently through the process of creating their first expansion and abbreviation. It explains the importance and usefulness of clear labels — something it took me a long time to learn about.
It also shows how to import ready-made groups of expansions, how to share them with others — or just with yourself to use with TextExpander touch on an iPhone or iPad.
The book also explains different ways of working with the program — for example by using the menu icon rather than the window, and of course, how to set the preferences to suit your style of working.
Then there are the handy Hotkeys that you can set up or ignore as you prefer. Now I’ve discovered it, I frequently use the Hotkey to help find an abbreviation I want to use.
This is essential software and a book to make the most of it
TextExpander itself is one of my most essential apps. Take Control of TextExpander is an invaluable companion whose tips will save you the cost of the book in no time.
If you do any kind of writing on your Mac I urge you to buy both TextExpander and Take Control of TextExpander and then use both. You may save time; you may save money; you’ll almost certainly save both.
Take Control of TextExpander
- By Michael E. Cohen
- 100 pages
- Version 1.1
- Updated Jul 31, 2012
- 2.0 MB download
- ISBN: 9781615421374
- Free sample with Table of Contents, Intro, Quick Start, and section starts.
I originally published this review at MacTips on 4 July 2011 under a Creative Commons licence. It has been edited slightly to appear here. The review refers to Version 1.0, Published Jun 01, 2011, but the book was updated in July 2012 for version 4 of TextExpander. I’ve included a fresh screenshot with stats going back to May 2012, and showing a massive 118 hours saved.
Buy the books and software
Products you buy through this site help me pay my mortgage. I only do affiliate sales for products I believe in, and usually, have used myself. Please use the affiliate links below to buy these and other Take Control books.
- Buy the book Take Control of TextExpander.
- Buy the app TextExpander 4.
- Buy the app TextExpander 4 Family Pack.
Or take a look at the whole Take Control ebooks catalogue (affiliate link). I do some of my best learning from this series.
Take Control of BBEdit (Book Review)
It’s around 5 years since I started using the BBEdit text editor from BareBones software. As a writer, I have this app open whenever my Mac is running, or in other words, all the time.
BBedit’s power scales with your needs
It’s the kind of software that adapts to your level of proficiency — you could use it straight after download just like the Mac’s built-in TextEdit and without needing any special features. Or, as your demands increase, you can begin to use its enormous power and sophistication.
I use it for writing straight text, and for coding up HTML and CSS, and occasionally even PHP for web pages.
As a writer I find a text editor far more useful than a word processor. Text editors deal with plain text; BBEdit doesn’t do bold, or italics, or assorted fonts. It doesn’t display images or wrap text round an image, or any of those things. It just does words (and code). So when I write, I focus on the words and don’t get distracted playing with the pretty colours and arrangements of things.
The manual’s a handy reference
Because the software’s so powerful its massive 380 page manual explains everything BBEdit can do. That can be rather daunting for us average users who don’t want to do everything but rather just the few things we need it to do.
Which is why Glenn Fleishman’s Take Control of BBEdit is the book you should buy to help you make better use of the app.
Take Control of BBEdit
Glenn works on the very practical assumption that readers of his book will want to set up the software to fit their way of working, write and edit text, code and work with HTML. He dedicates sections and chapters to each of those areas of work.
As with all Take Control books, this one is well-written and, above all, useful.
Since I’m a longstanding user of the software I’ve developed patterns and blindspots in my use of it. By Page 27 though I’d discovered a setting that’s always been right in front of my eyes, but I’d never noticed it… No longer need I simply open a document into the same window as the other documents I’m working on. Now I can set the
Open In pop-up menu to open it into its own window. Hooray!
I already had one project file I work with every day, but thanks to reading about project files I now have a couple of others that collect together some ‘working’ files I’ve had open for months now. I just hadn’t thought to do that before.
There are handy explanations of keyboard shortcuts for moving to or selecting text, along with the info you need to make these work in Lion.
Another item that was helpful to me was the discussion of Clippings — handy chunks of clever text that BBEdit can insert for you. These bits of text are clever enough to wrap a selection, set the Insertion Point, and include the Clipboard or a date or time.
I’d been using Clippings, but thanks to this book realised they weren’t popping up as autocomplete suggestions. Once I moved my handful of Clippings from a specially named
miraz folder into the
Universal Items folder everything started working correctly.
The book’s full of this kind of utterly useful stuff and proves its worth to both new and experienced users.
Another example: I discovered the floating palette for HTML Entities. That will be extremely useful for me.
What that palette did though was trigger one of my rare emails to BBEdit Support, a query that was answered within minutes.
You see, I found the text in the palette just a bit too small for comfort. I’d like it just a smidgeon larger (at least). After roaming round the BBEdit Manual, settings and menus I couldn’t find any way to enlarge it. Alas, the official answer is that the text size can’t be increased, so I’ve logged it as a feature request.
As with any book, there were some pages I just skimmed through, as that part of the content just wasn’t relevant to how I use the software.
If you’re a writer or make websites you should seriously consider using BBEdit as part of your software toolbox. There’s a free demo, so you can try it out first.
If you use BBEdit at all then buy Take Control of BBEdit, either for a head start or as a tune-up for your existing work habits. At just shy of 200 pages it’s not an enormously long read, but the information it contains is immensely practical and useful. You’re sure to find what you learn recoups the tiny cost.
Take Control of BBEdit Version 1.0 (affiliate link) by Glenn Fleishman. Published: 06 March 2012, 199 pages. It is available as
a paperback for US$17.99, or as an ebook for US$10. ISBN: 9781615424016.
I originally published this review at MacTips on 17 March 2012 under a Creative Commons licence. It may have been edited slightly to appear here. Update: the print-on-demand option is no longer available.
Wellington is no stranger to storms and fierce winds but on the night of Thursday 20 and Friday 21 June 2013 we had a real doozy.
The country’s capital continues to be battered by the fiercest storm in years, which has ripped up roads, toppled trees, damaged houses, crippled public transport and cut power to some 28,000 customers. …
Winds gusts reached 140km/h in the capital overnight and 200km/h on Mt Kaukau near Khandallah, while sea swells in the Cook Strait rose to at least 10m.
Our house faces South where the wind was coming from, but we were fortunate and suffered no damage. For the first time ever though I was concerned about our very large south-facing window being blown in. It creaked a bit, but held fast.
On Friday and Saturday the storm gradually wound down, until on Sunday we had a calm and even sunny and moderately warm day.
That’s when I took the dogs for a walk down Alexandra Road, closed because of a slip. How wonderful to stroll down the road without worrying about the cars that always travel too fast along there.
There was plenty of scrappy stuff over the road as a result of the storm.
People who want pine cones and some free firewood would do well to go out and collect it now.
But all along the road the huge 80 year old pines and macrocarpa had not fared well, with large branches torn off and even whole trees blown over.
The road was closed because of a slip further down towards Newtown, just North of the old Chest Hospital. Workers had actually cleared the slip and tree so I’m not sure why the road was still closed. Perhaps there is still danger of trees and branches falling.
On the West side of the road was a large hole in the bank, and evidence of the slip. The bank at that point is well above head height — perhaps 10 metres high
Across the road was mud and on the East side were remains of the giant that had fallen.
The tree had been cut up, to some extent, and parts of it must have been removed already.
Just by our house, to the West, a couple of huge trees had been blown down. They are down below the road, so I imagine they’ll just be left to rot as they aren’t in anyone’s way, although they’ve blocked an unofficial track that goes from our footpath to the road. People will find a new way around, I’m sure.
I’ve already noticed how much more light comes in without the trees there. In summer it’ll mean some extra sun for us. I may also have a better view through my telescope for stars and other objects lower in the West.
I’m not sad about the loss of these pines and macrocarpa. They were mainly planted as a work scheme during the depression. [Photo of labourers building Alexandra Road]
While I wouldn’t want Mt Victoria to return to the barrenness that early images show, it would be wonderful to replace all those trees with natives such as pohutukawa, rata or cabbage trees and flax.
As it is, the pines release clouds of pollen in summer, drop needles that clog up our gutters and block sunshine.
I’ll grant they also block the wind, but then they do seem vulnerable to the gales.
There was no Tech Universe between 10 and 13 June.
Tech Universe: Friday 14 June 2013
- OH, H2: There’s one thing we have plenty of on this planet, and that’s the ocean. So wouldn’t it be useful if we could use seawater to power our homes and vehicles? Australian scientists have produced an artificial chlorophyll on a conductive plastic film that acts as a catalyst to begin splitting water. That’s the first step to producing hydrogen for power. The research team say 5 litres of seawater could power an average-sized home and an electric car for a day, and their flexible catalyst could be used in portable devices. That daily dip in the ocean could perhaps refresh both you and your gadgets. University of Wollongong.
- LOW FLYING TRAIN: On the Bullet Train it’s a quick trip from Tokyo to Nagoya: a mere 90 minutes. Before too long though that trip will take only 40 minutes. Japan’s L0 Series trains use magnetic levitation technology, and will eventually carry 1,000 passengers at a time at up to 500 Kph. The first tests have taken place and the trains should be ready for passengers in 2027. No watching the countryside go by at that speed. The Telegraph.
- SPECCY 5 EYES: Monash University are working on a pair of glasses that will send signals directly into the brain. The glasses contain a camera and an eye movement sensor to direct the camera. Processors in the side of the glasses will modify images from the camera and send them wirelessly to an implant under the skull that will stimulate the brain’s visual cortex. The final result will be to help people with impaired vision to see better, including those with glaucoma or macular degeneration. Researchers have produced a prototype and trials begin next year. At least most of the equipment could be easily upgraded as required, though the implant will be harder to update. Monash University.
- SMART AND DIM: If you’re driving on the open road you probably want the headlights on high, but having to dim them every time there’s another car around is annoying. BMW’s Highbeam Assistant handles that for you. An image sensor on the inside of the front mirror checks the traffic and light conditions as you drive and sends control signals to the headlights. When you travel behind another car the headlights move to create a dark area immediately behind the car, so avoiding blinding the driver. Similarly, when oncoming traffic is detected the headlights move or dim to prevent glare. This one is long overdue. BMW.
- GO SOLAR: There are electric wheelchairs, and then there are solar powered electric wheelchairs. A student team at the University of Virginia designed a solar-powered wheelchair with retractable panels. The chair uses lightweight and robust materials and high-efficiency solar cells. The solar panels charge batteries even when it’s cloudy and offer shade on sunny days. A USB connection allows the user to charge devices on the go, while the panels provide around 4 or 5 hours of power for the chair to travel at 8 Kph. At low speeds it can run indefinitely without using the battery. Thanks to the folding solar panels, the wheelchair need take no more space than one without the panels. Be the envy of all your wheelchair using friends. University of Virginia.
Tech Universe: Monday 17 June 2013
- CONNECT UP: Live in a remote part of Canterbury with no Internet access? Google are fixing that for you with Project Loon, an experiment with using high-flying balloons to deliver Internet connections to everyone. Google are launching a pilot test of 30 balloons, each 15 metres in diameter, to fly 20 Km high over Canterbury. At that height the balloons are above aircraft and the weather but can be steered by using layers of wind that travel in different directions. The balloons communicate with specialised antennas on the ground, and also to nearby balloons. Solar power keeps the electronics attached to the balloons going. Connections speeds are comparable to 3G cellphone speeds. It’s worth a try. Project Loon.
- SAFETY IN NUMBERS: Vaccines have played a huge role around the world in preventing disease and saving lives. But vaccines are generally liquid and have to be carefully cooled, stored and transported, which may be a significant problem in many developing countries. What’s more, keeping needles clean and safe is also a challenge. Australian researchers have developed a skin patch that delivers dry vaccine to a layer just beneath the skin, rather than into the muscle as current vaccines are. Rather than using a single large needle, thousands of tiny projections in the patch release the vaccine just below the skin. And the take up and response in that part of the body are so good that only one hundredth of the traditional dose is required. You may feel a thousand small stings. BBC.
- IN THE MONEY: Nowadays we know better than to just dump old electronics in the trash. But disposing of them properly can still be a bit of a hassle. ecoATM are dealing to that, in the USA at least, by making it easy to recycle old phones, MP3 players and tablets in exchange for cash. After verifying your identity, perhaps with a driver’s licence, you place your old device in the kiosk which scans it and offers a cash price. You can get your device back or take the money. Devices may be recycled or sold on to a new owner. Now the ATMs just need to expand to devices like hard drives, cameras and the like. ecoATM.
- JUST BREATHE: Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology may be onto a way to detect serious diseases such as diabetes or lung cancer with a quick breath test. They used tin dioxide nanofibres and catalytic platinum nanoparticles to create a tiny sensor that could potentially be attached to a smartphone. The breath analyser senses specific volatile organic compounds that predict specific diseases. The prototype now needs to be widely tested, before a device could be developed for testing breath for diseases, or perhaps to detect hazardous chemicals or gas at factories. Such devices could make a huge difference in people’s lives. KurzweilAI.
- QUICKER THAN A FLASH: The memory in computers relies on determining the presence or absence of an electric charge, represented by a 0 or 1. RAM is fast but transient, while storage memory, for example on a hard drive, is slower but enduring. Now researchers have used a material called bismuth ferrite to create a memory device that’s fast, enduring and draws very little power. The material has a photovoltaic response to visible light, which means the researchers can read stored data simply by shining a polarised light on it. It’s around 10,000 times faster than Flash RAM and draws only around 20% of the power. The bad news is that this device will need to be made a lot smaller before it can be incorporated in our gadgets. Someone is sure to get right onto that. Nature.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 18 June 2013
- HUGE ON THE SEAS: The largest ship in the world is the container ship Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller. It’s designed for slower speeds and maximum efficiency, emitting 50% less CO2 per container moved than the current average on the Asia-Europe route. The Triple-E class vessel carries 18,000 twenty-foot containers and is 400 metres long, 59 metres wide and 73 metres high. A waste heat recovery system saves up to 10% of main engine power. That’s a lot of cargo in one place. Video:
- WHEELING ALONG: Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute aim to make it easier for some people who use electric wheelchairs to both control their wheelchairs and to communicate. The new device hooks in to the wheelchair’s CAN bus, where all wheelchair data converges, and provides Bluetooth connections to smartphones and other gadgets. It allows users to check emails, surf the web, find accessible toilets and routes and to check how the chair’s battery is doing so they have enough power for their next journey. Future development could allow users to work with home automation systems too. Wheelchair as hub sounds very practical and useful. Fraunhofer Institute.
- COOL BLUES: Tired of fruit in the fridge going bad too quickly? Add a few ultraviolet LEDs and the fruit may last longer. US researchers tested exposing strawberries in a fridge to light from energy efficient UV-LEDs that work well in chilly conditions. After 9 days the strawberries showed no mould, retained most of their moisture and still had good colour. The UV light can be hazardous though so if fridge makers incorporate it they will have to ensure the light shines only when the door’s closed. That shouldn’t be too hard. New Scientist.
- ROUND AND ROUND: The Whetar urban wind turbine can apparently produce 5 times more power than standard wind turbines, while creating little noise and little vibration. The trick is in the 2 double contra-rotating rotors encased in a specially constructed housing duct. The two rotors cancel each other out, as far as noise and vibration are concerned, while accelerating the air to produce more power. The turbines also take much less space than others and can be mounted on lighting poles, the roof or even the front lawn. Start working on that second mortgage. Poduhvat Hydrokinetics.
- BIKE UNDERGROUND: In places like Tokyo space is precious and while cycles are a great way to travel about parking them at your destination can really clutter up the streets. So how about underground bike parks? Eco-Cycle Underground Parks whisk your bike away to secure storage out of the weather and away from potential thieves. Set up an account and attach a small tag to the front forks. When you arrive at a parking station the front wheel is clamped in place and the machinery draws the bike into the system. An elevator takes the bike down to an empty storage slot. To retrieve the bike swipe your membership card and the bike is returned. That definitely beats carrying a lock and finding a spot to lean your bike against. Giken Seisakusho.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 19 June 2013
- IN CHARGE IN THE CHAIR: iPortal from Kiwi company Dynamic Controls lets those who use a powered wheelchair connect up their iPhone or iPad to the chair then use the chair’s joystick, switch or head array to control the phone. Users can browse the web, make phonecalls and use other apps, along with seeing key information about their chair, such as seating and battery capacity. It’s all go in the world of wheelchair controls it seems. Dynamic Controls.
- SAVE THE OIL: GROW A MUSHROOM: Plastic transformed our world in both the best and the worst ways. It gives us lightweight durable products and packaging, but at the same time it accumulates in the environment and causes all kinds of harm. Ecovative’s products aim to replace plastics with materials made from agricultural byproducts and mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells. In other words, they take agricultural plant waste, add mushrooms, darkness and time, then harvest a replacement for plastic and foam. The process also makes sure to stop growth so the end product won’t be harmful to health. The products can be used for packaging, insulation, in car bumpers and seats, and in other applications. When they’re of no further use they can be composted or mulched. Thus creating an endless cycle. Good one! Ecovative.
- KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BAG: When you end up in one town after a flight and your luggage somewhere else no one’s very happy. With the Airbus Bag2Go app and smartbag though you can track your bag for yourself. The bag also has built-in scales so you can avoid overloading it, while an RFID chip inside the bag works with many airport baggage handling systems for tracking and routing too. Bags are also equipped with GPS and a 2G-based cellular phone system. While only a prototype at this stage, the bags could also be rented and customers could perhaps use an optional door-to-door courier service to take bags to and from the airport. Or even better: learn to travel light. Australian Business Traveller. Video:
- FIRE AHEAD: Firefighters go into danger every time they enter a burning building. Knowing beforehand what they’re facing could make their job a little easier. A firefighting robot developed by the University of California is essentially a small Segway with stereo RGB and infrared cameras. The robot can climb stairs thanks to a central leg that lifts the wheels off the floor. The wheels act as counterbalancing flywheels so the robot can balance on the single leg. A computer processes the images returned by the robot to give firefighters a virtual reality picture that includes a 3D map and temperature data. Meanwhile other onboard sensors can collect data about gases, structural integrity and other crucial information. University of California.
- HIGH LIGHTS: The summer sun is high and hot. It streams into buildings mercilessly, heating the room and fading the carpets. On the other hand the winter sun is low and weak, and we want it to warm and light our rooms. Curtains or blinds help keep the sun out, but Sumitomo Chemical have another idea. They’ve created a double transparent sheet that attaches to the window and still lets you look at the outside world. The sheet reflects any light that arrives from an angle greater than a certain degree, such as that from the sun high in the sky. Meanwhile it allows light from a low angle through. Changing the angle between the sheets affects which light is reflected. What happens to light going out through the window, I wonder? TechOn.
Tech Universe: Thursday 20 June 2013
- WATCH THE BLOOD PRESSURE : What say you need to constantly monitor someone’s blood pressure? Perhaps a catheter is inserted into the artery or medical staff have to use a pump-up cuff around the arm every 15 minutes. It’s tedious and time-consuming. A new device from Switzerland is worn on the wrist and continuously records blood pressure. Several sensors simultaneously measure the contact pressure, pulse and blood flow on the surface of the skin near the wrist. As the device may move around though a sensor made from piezo-resistive fibres in the wristband measures the contact pressure of the device on the skin and corrections can be calculated. Clinical trials are already underway. Now it needs the smartphone app for data collection, monitoring and the inevitable sharing. Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.
- BAGS ON BIKES: Bicycles are great for swooping around town or having a fun ride, but add in kids and a load of shopping and you’ll probably head straight back to the bus or car. The elMundo BionX bike from Yuba Bikes is designed to carry kids and cargo. It adds a 48 volt battery pack to drive a 21 speed drive train and the 455 Watt brushless motor. An integrated luggage rack that carries up to 200 Kg and sideloaders give a lot of space for whatever you need to carry and attachment points let you add extras like child seats. Now, what about the family dog? Yuba Bikes.
- OUT FOR THE DUCK: If you’re out in the forest hunting animals you need a steady hand to pull the trigger. One US hunting enthusiast lost the use of his arms in an accident though, so he created the Equalizer Shooting System that lets him aim his rifle by toggling a joystick with his chin, and fire with a puffer switch. But then who collects the kill? Medgadget.
- STEEL GO FAR: Lifts get to go up and down thanks to steel cables that hold them firmly. But the problem with steel is that it’s heavy, so the sheer weight of the cable means lifts can’t really go past 500 metres. With the extra tall new buildings going up around the world such as the over 800 metre tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai, lifts now need to go higher. That’s why Finnish engineers have developed a super-light and super-strong lift-hoisting cable that can lift things up to a kilometre. Their UltraRope has 4 carbon-fibre tapes sealed in transparent plastic about 4 centimetres wide and 4 millimetres thick. It’s stronger than steel but weighs only one seventh as much. That could also reduce the electricity needed to haul lifts up and down by around 10%. It’s easy to imagine other uses too, such as ships hawsers and cranes on construction sites. New Scientist.
- MIX AND MATCH: Demolition and construction sites produce huge amounts of waste that could be recycled — if it’s correctly sorted. But sorting metal, wood and stone is laborious and dangerous work. Finnish company ZenRobotics now have a robot on the job. The ZenRobotics Recycler uses weight measurement, 3-D scanning, tactile assessment and spectrometer analysis to assess each item and then move it into an appropriate bin. That’s an ideal job for a robot. CNN.
Tech Universe: Friday 21 June 2013
- LASER GUIDED FRUIT: Those sticky labels on fruit are a nuisance. In the EU though they may soon be replaced by tattoos laser-printed on the skin. The lasered marks can contain barcodes or fruit information, while iron oxides and hydroxides can be used in the process to enhance the contrast of the mark. That takes one more paper annoyance out of the environment. Daily Mail.
- SKINNY BATTERIES: These days we pretty much want batteries in everything. US researchers have used 3D printing to create a battery thinner than a human hair. The printer used a 30 micron wide nozzle to deposit layers of nanoparticle-packed paste in a comb-like shape. A second printed comb interlocks with it. Each comb functions as an electrode. The whole assembly is then placed in a tiny container filled with solution. The completed 3D printed lithium-ion battery is dense and thick enough to compete with a traditional battery, and could be invaluable in objects such as hearing aids or tiny drones. The hardest thing about replacing it though will be finding and grasping it. GigaOm.
- SKINNY WINDOWS: The screens in our smartphones and tablets are made from thin but tough and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass from Corning. Now think what would happen if cars used Gorilla Glass too in their windows. It would save a lot of weight and change the centre of mass for a car and that would improve fuel economy. It could also make for a quieter ride. Or at least, so Corning say. With a lower centre of mass it should affect handling too. Technology Review.
- KICKING AROUND: There are many high-tech artificial legs around but the Kickstart Walking System takes a new approach: it uses a spring, making it an orthotic that helps, rather than a prosthetic that replaces. The Kickstart is a leg brace to help people who’ve had a stroke or spinal cord injury. It uses a pulley system and a long spring aligned to the front of the leg. As the walker pulls their leg back it stretches the spring. That coiled energy is released when the leg is lifted, causing the spring to contract and help power the leg forward. More research though aims to add features such as sensing when the foot is on the ground. Walk this way. Live Science.
- OFF THE WIRE: Blind rats are in luck: a new solar-powered retinal implant can help them see again. Unlike other implants the chip is inserted into the sub-retinal layers of the eye and receives images wirelessly from special glasses. Infrared images from the glasses power the implants. Eventually the implants may make their way from rats to people, of course. In the meantime, it may not pay to ask how the rats came to be blind in the first place. Medical Daily.
Gladys Lillian was born in London, England, on 24 June 1918. That’s almost 95 years ago. During World War 1, in fact. Here she is in the class photo at Tollington Park Central School in June 1930 when I guess she was around 12.
In 1940, while working as a typist in World War 2 she married my father, Leonard Douglas Jordan. I believe they had known one another since they were kids, growing up on the same street.
Not long after that Dad was shipped off to fight. In February 1942 he was one of thousands of soldiers who became prisoners of war in the Fall of Singapore. He was one of many forced into labour on the railway through Thailand, or as he referred to it, Siam.
But this post should be about my Mum, Gladys.
After the war my parents lived in Muswell Hill in north London, where they raised 3 children: my older sister and brother, and me.
I remember little about my childhood in England, but have vague memories of Mum taking me to the shops, string bag for groceries in her hand. Sometimes we listened to the radio: Listen With Mother.
Sometimes our family would visit Mum’s parents (who I liked) or Dad’s mother (who I didn’t like so much, for some unknown childish reason), or other friends or family.
Things changed in 1963 though, when Mum and Dad decided to pack up and leave behind their families to travel to New Zealand by cargo ship, the Port Townsville. Dad had visited New Zealand in 1956 on a business trip, sparking his idea to emigrate.
For months beforehand Mum put her typing skills to good use. She owned a manual typewriter — she claimed her handwriting was terrible and would type letters to distant family — and typed up thousands of mailing labels to earn extra cash. It was for some competition or other. The organisers had to let participants know their entry had been received. They would send lists of names and addresses and it was Mum’s job to type up the labels to go on the envelopes.
Our voyage took 6 weeks, and we arrived in Auckland in August 1963. Once our little Austin A50 car was unloaded from the ship we packed all 5 of us and our bags into and onto the car. Then we drove down to Wellington and caught a ferry to Lyttelton. Our new home was to be in Christchurch, the most English of New Zealand cities.
Dad drove: Mum never learned and we 3 kids were all too young.
Before too long, after staying in a motel for a bit, we moved into a house near Jellie Park. Dad found a job, my brother and sister were both old enough to find work, I went to school and Mum looked after things at home. She’d brought her typewriter and would type letters regularly to family in England. Some of Dad’s siblings were in Canada and Australia, and Mum wrote to them too.
You know, that was the 60s and 70s. Back then you kept in touch with distant family by letter — aerogrammes, often. The single sheet of blue paper folded to create its own envelope, and had gummed tabs to stick down and seal the missive.
On very very rare and special occasions there would be a phonecall ‘home’. Back then, for my parents as for so many people, England was
home. But long distance calls were horribly expensive. And you couldn’t just pick up the phone and dial a number. Instead you had to book a call ahead of time with an operator. When the call eventually came through the sound was echoey and far away. There was a lag that made conversations difficult. And the expense was always a concern.
I think now that taking Mum so far away from her friends and family didn’t work out well for her. Mum and Dad both led the family in being
at home — the place they’d chosen to leave.
I think it was the 80s when they returned
home to visit family and were confronted with the reality of the England they’d chosen to leave. It was a good reminder for both of them of what they didn’t like about
When I was still a teenager, so in the 70s, I guess, Mum and Dad bought a draper’s shop in Ilam, a 10 minute bike ride for me from home. That’s an old-fashioned word now. The shop sold cloth, elastic, buttons, and that kind of thing.
Mum and Dad both worked in the shop at various times, and Mum made friends with a couple of women who were already working there. One of them, who died when I was at university, became a sort of surrogate aunty for me for a few years.
The shop was sold after a few years though. It may be that Mum worked at the nearby Post Office for a bit, or maybe I’ve made up that memory. But after that she was back to being a housewife, shopping, knitting, reading Mills & Boon and watching the soaps on TV.
It may be a bit unusual, but Dad and Mum both cooked meals together, and Dad sewed dresses for Mum. She hated cooking and sewing — something I inherited from her.
Perhaps like many of her generation, Mum didn’t like change. As I grew into adulthood I tried to encourage her to go places, do things, try new foods. Mum resisted. If you’ve ever met me and found me stubborn, you should know I inherited that from Mum too. I learned from her the power of simply saying
Mum didn’t smoke, unlike Dad, and didn’t drink, except for sometimes a single small glass of Ginger Wine on a Saturday night. When I asked her once about that she said something about her Dad, or maybe her uncles drinking when she was a kid, and I had the idea that was a negative experience. She chose not to drink.
Mum and my sister remained quite close, although I drifted away from the family. From the mid-70s I travelled overseas then moved to another town in New Zealand. My sister though would visit with Mum, go shopping and involve Mum with her kids. There was a long time where I didn’t often visit or speak with my parents beyond an occasional phonecall.
In 1994 Dad died and I started phoning Mum every couple of weeks just to make contact. My sister helped Mum sell her house and move to a smaller place.
Sometimes I’d travel down to Christchurch and visit for a few hours. Mum spent time with my sister and would chat with a neighbour, but didn’t have many friends nearby. I’d begin my phonecall with
Hi, it’s me.
At some point something strange happened. One day she asked me something odd:
What season is it where you are? I was in Wellington; she was a 45 minute plane ride away in Christchurch. The season was the same for both places.
Other strange questions popped up too, such as:
What time is it where you are?
Then Mum started asking me the same things over and over during each phonecall.
Eventually, and after Mum had had an unexplained fall or two, she was assessed as having dementia and needing to be in care. My sister moved Mum into a rest home in around 2003. Mum was in her 80s by then.
Mum didn’t like the Rest Home, partly because everything was new and unfamiliar. With the dementia too it was hard for her to put together what was going on. She didn’t really know where she was or why, and I found her distressed when I visited. There was no point phoning her any more: she didn’t really know who I was. I suspect she thought I was her sister in England.
One day on a visit I shocked her as we were chatting. Somehow my age came up and I said I was 50. She was totally taken aback as she knew that if I was her daughter and I was 50 then she was older than that. By that time she’d created a story for herself that made some sense: she was on holiday and would soon be going home. In her mind though she was aged about 20 and ‘home’ meant to her parents’ house. How could she have a 50 year old daughter?
Over the next few years Mum gradually deteriorated and was moved to another rest home and hospital that could cater to her needs. She stopped being able to walk, even with a walker. For years she had complained about her legs and knees.
She also lost track of who I was and where I fit in. She’d give me a big smile when I arrived, but I suspect it was because she thought she recognised me without having any idea how or where from.
She started losing her speech, which devolved into something of a mumble, very hard to hear against the background noise of the rest home hospital. In the last year or so she would make sounds that had the overall intonation patterns of sentences, without any discernible words. For a while there would still be occasional phrases I could make out, such as one of Mum’s favourites:
I don’t know. Sometimes Mum would laugh or smile, as you do in a conversation, but I think it reflected a general communication pattern rather than being an act of participation.
Mum also lost weight and shrank, as old people do. I noticed in the last year she no longer wore her glasses. By which I mean the staff didn’t bother to put her glasses on. It had been years since Mum was able to read anything, and I don’t think she could follow or attend to the TV.
Photos I won’t include show her as very frail and having lost a lot of weight. After 2011 she declined a great deal.
During a visit in the latter part of 2012 Mum was very animated when I arrived, ‘chatted’ for maybe 5 minutes, then dozed off a few times, and was fast asleep within 15 minutes. A similar thing happened when I visited in early May this year. I wasn’t sure the first time if I’d offended her, but wiser friends pointed out that at her age she would need a lot of sleep and grow very tired very quickly.
Then the weekend before last my sister told me Mum was very ill and the staff didn’t expect her to last long. Within a few hours I’d caught a plane to Christchurch and was sitting by Mum’s bedside. She was unconscious, pale, and her hand, out of the covers, was cool.
I stayed all afternoon. The staff kindly brought me dinner at tea time. I stayed for a few more hours, chatting to Mum, keeping her company. She didn’t seem to be noticeably getting worse and I elected to go off to the nearby motel I was staying at.
A few hours later the nurse rang to say Mum had passed away. It was 09 June 2013, and a couple of weeks short of Mum’s 95th birthday.
Mum had a long life, like her parents before her. She was born during World War 1, survived the bombing of London as a young adult in World War 2, moved to the other side of the planet in her 40s. She brought up 3 kids, and helped with various grandchildren. She hung in there for two decades after her husband of 50-odd years died.
She also chose her own way, living her life how she saw fit, whatever I, or perhaps others, thought. There’s a strength there I hadn’t appreciated before now.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 04 June 2013
- BLINK TO CLICK: The transparent electrodes used in touchscreens and LEDs are commonly made from indium tin oxide. Unfortunately they are brittle, crack easily, degrade over time and are expensive. A hybrid material of silver nanowires combined with graphene created by South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology though is flexible and stretchable, as well as thin and transparent. Electrodes made from such a material could perhaps make possible a contact lens that can scan and take photos. And folks are worried about Google Glass? Asia Research News.
- CAMERAS IN EVERYTHING: Quite often we want to take photos when the light isn’t very good, and that’s a challenge for any camera. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University created a sensor from pure graphene. The sensor is highly sensitive to broad spectrum light, from the visible to mid-infrared. It’s 1,000 times more sensitive than current low-cost imaging sensors, operates at lower voltages and uses only 10% of the energy. When mass produced the sensors should also be only one fifth the price. All of that could mean much cheaper cameras with long battery life. The sensors could be useful in infrared cameras, traffic speed cameras and satellite imaging. And perhaps for astronomy too? Nanyang Technological University.
- TRACK IN PLACE: The Marauder’s Map system developed by researchers Carnegie Mellon University can track people by analysing security camera footage. Its algorithm combines facial recognition, colour matching of clothing, and a person’s expected position based on their last known location. They tested the system on 13 people who moved through a nursing home over several minutes. The system accurately tracked them to within 1 metre of their actual position. Every day crime shows become just a little more reality-based. New Scientist.
- BACKDROP EARTH: The ARKYD space telescope is one you can control, and it will even take a picture of you (or at least your photo) hovering above Planet Earth. Planetary Resources is launching the 15 Kg telescope to be publicly-accessible by students, scientists and others. The 200 mm main optic is designed to take high-resolution photos of objects in space, while an external screen and camera arm make it possible to take pictures of the ARKYD as it orbits Earth. It can detect objects to visual magnitude 19, has a 5 megapixel image sensor and uses active image stabilisation to produce high quality photos. The more generous folks can also donate their time to students and scientists. Gifts in space. ARKYD.
- ON THE FLY: One particular insect, the Ormia ochracea, has very sensitive ears and hears in the same way we do by sensing sound pressure on its eardrums. It’s particularly good at directional hearing. Researchers at Binghamton University have based a new microphone design on the insect’s ears. The sensitive new microphone uses electronic damping on a tiny diaphragm that rotates about a central pivot in response to sound pressure gradients. The new design could make a difference to hearing aids, cellphones and acoustic noise control systems, and could even be as tiny at the fly’s ear. Maybe walls do have ears, or at least, the flies on the walls. Acoustical Society of America.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 05 June 2013
- BUS ZAPS: Battery powered vehicles are quiet and don’t in themselves discharge polluting gases into the air, but recharging them is always a problem. For public transport, such as buses, another approach is to string up trolley bus wires overhead, creating visual pollution. In Geneva, Switzerland, a pilot project will instead put fast-charge stations at certain bus stops. When the 135-seater bus stops to let off or pick up passengers it receives a 15-second energy boost via an automatic flash-charging mechanism. The system uses a laser-controlled moving arm, which connects to an overhead receptacle for charging at bus shelters, instead of the usual trolley poles to overhead lines. At the end of the bus line a 3 to 4 minute boost allows for a full recharge of the batteries. And they could always incorporate the charger into a bus stop as part of the shelter too. ABB.
- A DARK CHARGE: So you know to be careful what apps you put on your phone, and to watch out for shady websites, but who would expect that malware could arrive simply by charging the device? Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology successfully injected arbitrary software into current-generation Apple devices running the latest operating system software. The software can be installed within a minute of the phone being plugged in to the charger. The researchers created a proof-of-concept charger using some special hardware to achieve this malicious feat. Luckily, these are good guys and we don’t have to worry about such threats right away, but it definitely makes you think. BlackHat.
- BAND MAGIC: Heading off to DisneyWorld? The rubberised plastic bracelets they issue when you buy your tickets will let you check in at certain points by tapping the band against a reader. The MagicBands use Bluetooth and other radio frequencies to keep track of your park passes and can even be used as hotel room keys. The band also associates your photo with your ticket and can be used to pay for items within the park. Disney can use the bands to track and monitor traffic flows, and to personalise the visitor experience, perhaps with a character actor calling a child by name. Magic for the kids, to be sure. The Next Web.
- HANDS ALIVE: With an interactive system from the University of Tokyo you may be able to see, and feel, a keyboard on your hand. A projection beams the outline of computer keyboards or cellphone keys onto any object, such as your hand. Meanwhile ultrasonic wave emitters cause precise spots on your hand to tingle, making it seem as though you can feel those keyboard keys being pressed. The remarkable achievement in all of this though is that the system can precisely track a moving object such as a hand so that the projected image can be locked on. These projections could be useful for medical applications or in gaming. Imagine this kind of projection being part of two-factor authentication, no separate gadget required. New Scientist.
- SKIN TEST: As folks in the northern hemisphere head on into summer some are worried about exposure to the sun. The Japanese have a gadget for that. Beauty Sign PLUS is a small handheld device that can measure the condition of your skin and the intensity of solar ultraviolet rays. Point the device towards the sun to check the UV levels, or press the tip to your skin to find out if your skin is drying out. It should be powered by sunshine too, surely. Akihabara News.
Tech Universe: Thursday 06 June 2013
- WHALE OF AN APP: From time to time both ships and whales try to occupy the same bit of the ocean at the same time, and it usually doesn’t end well for the whales. This is a particular problem in the mile-wide shipping lanes that funnel maritime traffic into the San Francisco Bay and to the ports in the Los Angeles area. Now the shipping lanes are being changed at the same time that monitoring is being increased. One key element is a smartphone app that allows anyone to record whale sightings, while flights and observers will also monitor whales in certain areas. Couldn’t ships install sensors to monitor for whales and other vessels too, in the way that some cars can watch for pedestrians? Wired.
- IN THE DRINK: The Dotonbori Canal is in Osaka, Japan. The area was once a disused waterfront, but it has now been renovated and is known for its thriving nightlife. Now there are plans to create the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool in the canal. Although the canal itself is polluted, an area 12 metres wide by 800 metres long will be filled with purified city water. The pool will be open during the summer from 2015. I guess if you were going to fall in the canal, it would be wise to choose your spot. Inhabitat.
- I THINK THEREFORE I PRINT: 3D printing and controlling things with your mind are both very popular topics at the moment, but the two don’t usually go together. Thinker Thing are changing that. They combine an EmotivEPOC headset with a MakerBot Industries Replicator loaded up with ABS plastic. The idea is to capture the headset wearer’s thought patterns and emotions and turn them into a 3D printed object. In particular Thinker Thing hope to make it possible for young children to create objects directly from their imagination. Don’t just dream it; print it. Thinker Thing.
- TWIST AND SHAPE: Shapeways handle 3D printing for the public. A new material they’re working on is a flexible, rubbery plastic called Elasto Plastic. The laser sinted powder elasto-polymer can be slightly compressed and return to its shape, is flexible, but doesn’t extend when pulled unless the geometry of the item is created for extension. That means the material can take more stress and impact than other standard materials. With 3D printing becoming increasingly popular a broad range of materials is a very useful thing. Shapeways.
- SUDSY SPANS: When you think of recycling plastic you probably don’t imagine the material being used in bridges. The Onion Ditch Bridge in Ohio though is one of many bridges made from 80% post consumer plastic such as lotion and detergent bottles and 20% recycled car bumpers and dashboards. The materials in the bridge don’t absorb moisture, they don’t rot and they are impervious to insect infestations. The bridge itself is expected to last for 50 years. How many detergent bottles does it take to make one bridge? Inhabitat.
Tech Universe: Friday 07 June 2013
- TRACKING DOG: Is your dog a laid-back couch potato dog or the hyperactive, always active kind? The Whistle Activity Monitor fits on your dog’s collar to collect data on its activities all day. The data then displays in an app on your phone and you can send it on to the vet if you need to. The 16 gram device contains a 3-axis accelerometer, a rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery, and has Bluetooth 4.0 Dual Mode and Wi-Fi capability. Of course you can also share events and photos with others too. But fair’s fair, you should wear a fitness tracker too. Whistle.
- HANDY ROBOT: Sally the robot has 4 wheels, a torso, 2 arms with hands and a couple of cameras to help her deal with potential explosives. A remote operator wears telepresence gloves to control Sally’s arms and hands. The operator’s hand movements are carried out by Sally’s hands. A motion tracking headset provides stereoscopic vision too, moving Sally’s cameras in response. Sally’s work roster could include IED disposal, vehicle searches, and checking out vehicles and people at checkpoints. Her movements are surprisingly human. Gizmodo.
- BOOMING FLIGHT: The Concorde supersonic jet had its day, but now the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are working on a supersonic plane that can travel quietly faster than the speed of sound. So far they have an 8 metre long model they plan to test later this year in Sweden. Continuing the great global tradition of testing potentially dangerous things outside one’s own country. The Japan News.
- PHONE TREES: It’s really hard to stop illegal logging of huge tracts of remote forest. Usually it’s only satellite images after the fact that reveal the crime. But what could happen if you took some cellphones, gave them solar panels, and left them listening full time? If they detected a sound an app could decide if it was a chainsaw and contact base to alert the rangers. In western Sumatra the organisation Rainforest Connection are testing this idea with 15 phone rigs in the 25,000 hectare Air Tarusan reserve. Each phone should have a listening radius of half a kilometre. Which could work nicely until the loggers either start using jamming devices or checking trees for phones before they start up their chainsaws. New Scientist.
- SMALL STEPS: That robots can walk at all is a huge triumph of science and engineering, but they don’t actually walk very fluidly. So researchers at Waseda University are giving their WABIAN-2R robot a better pair of legs and feet. Rather than being flat, this robot’s feet have a curving arch and flexible toes, land heel-first and lift off at the toes. The lower leg has been made shorter and includes an ankle joint to allow for yaw. Trials with the robot walking in place were a success; next comes forward walking. Then maybe backwards, sideways, and dance competitions. IEEE Spectrum.
The dogs and I were walking along the beach yesterday up at Waikawa Beach when I noticed a small blobby mass of something by the water’s edge. I drew closer and bent down to study it.
Fortunately I had my iPhone with me, and a reasonable 3G signal. Wikipedia helpfully informed me the pile of bluish stuff was a Portuguese man o’ war:
Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis), also known as the Portuguese man-of-war, Man-Of-War, or bluebottle, is a jellyfish-like marine cnidarian of the family Physaliidae. Its venomous tentacles can deliver a powerful sting.
Despite its outward appearance, the man o’ war is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore, which differs from jellyfish in that it is not actually a single organism, but a colonial organism made up of many minute individuals called zooids. …
The name “man o’ war” comes from the man-of-war, an 18th-century armed sailing ship, and the cnidarian’s supposed resemblance to the Portuguese version at full sail.
I quickly made sure the dogs didn’t get too close as apparently (Wikipedia again):
Detached tentacles and dead specimens (including those that wash up on shore) can sting just as painfully as the live organism in the water and may remain potent for hours or even days after the death of the organism or the detachment of the tentacle.
Having noticed one, I then noticed a few more at the water’s edge, and then more, and then more blobby bits higher up the beach. In fact, they were all over the place.
They’re curious things, seeming almost random piles of gloop, with the inflated bladder reminiscent of the finger of a latex glove, and a small sail-like structure.
I was glad I had my boots on, but watched the dogs carefully, as I didn’t want them being stung on account of a carelessly placed paw.
Tech Universe: Monday, 27 May 2013
- OLD FOLKS GONE: Roke Manor Research in the UK have a new tracking tag that could help keep tabs on old folk with dementia, lifejackets or even livestock. The Agitate device is made from two plates, one of metal, the other of a charged material. Even the slightest movement between the two creates electrical energy that powers a radio pulse lasting just a few nanoseconds. The signal may be short but is very powerful and can be picked up at least 20 kilometres away. There are no batteries: all the power is derived from jolting the device. Ear tags work nicely for livestock, but what about the old folks? New Scientist..
- SLIP SLIDING AWAY: A new coating from the University of Michigan is mostly air, but it can keep liquids such as coffee, soy sauce or vegetable oil from staining your clothes. The superomniphobic coating is applied to surfaces by electrospinning — using an electric charge to create fine particles of solid from a liquid solution. The coating is a mixture of rubbery plastic particles and liquid-resisting nanoscale cubes. Between 95% and 99% of the coating is actually air pockets, so any liquid that comes in contact with it is barely touching a solid surface. That means droplets have no incentive to spread and roll off the surface. While a coating like this would be handy for regular shirts and trousers it could help protect soldiers and scientists from chemicals, and lead to advanced waterproof paints that dramatically reduce drag on ships. Just don’t let the politicians near it. University of Michigan.
- HARD DRIVING: Driving along in your 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and feel you might need a break? That’s OK, the car can take over some of the driving for you. In the right conditions the car can steer itself through city traffic or drive on the open road without your input. It uses radar, infrared and optical sensors to track lane markings or the car ahead, and can also park itself, brake automatically to avoid hitting humans or other cars and sense when the driver is becoming fatigued. It’s so tiring watching others work. New York Times.
- VIEW FROM THE TOP: Your cellphone may have a rotten signal down at the beach but try video calling from the top of Mt Everest and you’ll be right. A British mountaineer recently made the first video call from the top of the mountain using a smartphone. The call was part of an effort to raise money for charity. The climber made the call using Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network service. So maybe it’s just a matter of getting the phone high enough. The Verge.
- MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: It’s a bit of a pain remembering to take medication: you have to take the right pills or potions at the right time for maximum effect. AdhereTech’s new smart bottle is here to help, with its automated phone calls or text messages. The bottle has a 3G chip for communications and is programmed by the pharmacist who loads it with medications. The bottle senses when it was opened and how many pills were removed then sends its data to a server. The server compares the data to the patient’s prescription and can send text alerts or phonecalls to caregivers. The data has an open API so can be used by the patient or medical staff. Is that your pill bottle calling? AdhereTech.
Tech Universe: Tuesday, 28 May 2013
- SPEED CHARGE: Charging a cellphone seems to have grown quicker over the years, but Eesha Khare of California thinks it should take only 20 seconds. She’s invented a tiny flexible supercapacitor that can last for 10,000 charge-recharge cycles, compared with 1,000 cycles for conventional rechargeable batteries. So far she’s only used her supercapacitor to power an LED but she says it could fit inside cellphones and other portable electronics. There’s only one question: how soon? NBC News.
- GROW YOUR OWN GRAPHENE: What do hemp and graphene have in common? It turns out you can make one from the other, according to researchers at the University of Alberta. Graphene is ideal for use as electrodes in batteries and supercapacitors, but it costs a lot to produce. Hemp is relatively inexpensive because the plant grows quickly and easily. One part of the plant called bast is usually just wasted, but process it the right way and it separates into nanosheets similar to graphene. Bingo, the hemp can be used as an electrode. So, that makes all parts of the plant useful then? Chemical & Engineering News.
- TRUCK IN A BOX: The Ox is a truck designed for Africa. 6 of the trucks fit into a single shipping container when packed flat. Then each truck takes 3 people less than 12 hours using standard tools to assemble — no high-tech engineering degree required. The low-cost front-wheel drive vehicle is powered by a 2.2 litre diesel engine, weighs 1.7 tons, and can carry a maximum payload of 2.2 tons. It also has a wide track, high ground clearance, short front and rear overhangs, and can apparently drive through water nearly a meter deep. It sounds as though it would also be easy to fix and maintain. Jalopnik.
- WATER IN THE TANK: It’s all very well having a wind farm out at sea, but ensuring a constant and steady supply of electricity is tricky. Norwegian scientists have suggested using an underwater battery system. A tank sits on the seabed at a depth of 400 to 800 metres. Open a valve and water flows in to start the turbine turning, generating electricity. When the tanks are full electricity is used to pump the water out again, perhaps taking excess energy from wind turbines or solar panels. The deeper the tanks are sited the greater the water pressure difference and the more energy is stored. One has to wonder how fish fare in all of this. Phys.org.
- MIX AND MATCH: Wind energy or ocean power? In Japan they’re not choosing between the two, but incorporating both into a single turbine. Mitsui Ocean Development & Engineering Company’s hybrid system combines a floating vertical-axis wind turbine with an underwater turbine that generates power from ocean currents. The hybrid effectively doubles the efficiency of a typical wind or ocean current turbine. The wind turbine portion is expected to be 47 metres tall, while the underwater portion will be 15 metres in diameter. Each turbine could generate enough energy for 300 households. Go on, add some solar panels. Inhabitat.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 29 May 2013
- IN THE BALL: A new smart soccer ball and soccer boot from Adidas report back statistical data to a tablet or computer. A dedicated app can pull up info such as speed, rotation, distance and direction of the ball. The ball contains motion sensors, to detect pressure, angle, and which foot you kicked it with. You do need to remember to charge the ball before a game. Soon there will be nothing left in life that doesn’t need charging. Engadget.
- ON WATCH: Aeryon’s SkyRanger drone can fly for 50 minutes, recording visible light or infrared images as it goes. It takes off and lands vertically, and can hover for precise observations. The drone grabs 15 megapixel still images and streams 1080p video with embedded geotags and metadata. What’s more the whole thing weighs only 2.4 kg and folds up to fit in a small carry bag. You never know now who or what is watching you. SkyRanger.
- STEAMING BIKE: It takes a certain kind of person to strap a hydrogen peroxide-powered rocket to their bicycle. The other day in France one cyclist did just this and reached a top speed of 262 Kph. The highly concentrated liquid hydrogen peroxide mixes with a catalyst, breaking down into heat, water and oxygen. That creates steam that’s almost 350 degrees C. When pushed through a rocket nozzle it propels the bike, fast. So really the bike’s just a way to hold the rocket. Discovery News.
- BEE COOL: As Kiwis we have a fondness for buzzy bees, but that usually refers to the wooden toys. A new Buzzy bee from the US was developed specially to help distract kids (or adults) when they need an injection or have to have blood drawn. Buzzy is a small vibrating bee-shaped device with a unique ice pack. It crowds out pain by sending stronger motion and temperature sensations down the nerves instead. Along with the buzzing bee there are game cards to help keep kids distracted while blood’s being drawn. Clever. Buzzy4shots.com.
- DEAD TREES: The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere is steadily increasing. At Columbia University researchers have created filters made from a plastic material that absorb large amounts of CO2 when they’re dry and give it back when they’re wet. The CO2 filled filters could be particularly useful for glasshouses that are sealed to avoid losing water and heat. Plants respond well to CO2 and it’s often used to enhance growth. It seems an indirect route since plants take up CO2 anyway and have other benefits for the environment. Columbia University.
Tech Universe: Thursday 30 May 2013
- CAPS AWAY: If you’re the kind of driver who has trouble with routine tasks such as checking the oil, water or washer fluid, and you drive a Ford then you’re likely to find the augmented reality app from Inglobe Technologies pretty useful. Hold your iPad so its camera can see the engine compartment and an overlay shows where the crucial items are and how to access them, even including which way to unscrew the cap. Perhaps this would be most useful on rental cars. Gizmodo.
- PHONE SPECTRUM: Whip out your smartphone and quickly test for environmental toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses and other molecules. Well, maybe you can’t do that right now, but thanks to researchers at the University of Illinois such capabilities aren’t far away. They’ve developed a cradle and app that use the phone’s built-in camera and processing power as a biosensor. The cradle contains various lenses and filters and keeps the phone’s camera correctly aligned. It also has a slot for a normal microscope slide that must be correctly prepared. The phone measures the spectrum of light from the slide and reports the data, just as a larger and much more expensive high resolution spectrophotometer would. Scientific field work seems to be growing easier and cheaper all the time, thanks to smartphones. University of Illinois.
- SWIMMING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT: Can’t bear to go swimming because you’ll miss out on listening to your tunes? The FINIS Neptune MP3 player doesn’t use earbuds. Instead it transmits audio through the cheekbone directly into the inner ear via bone conduction. Attach the 2 side speakers to your goggles straps with spring clips and rest them on your cheekbones. meanwhile the player sits at the back of your head. The player has a high contrast OLED screen that makes it easy to choose what to play. The unit is waterproof to 3 metres and holds about 60 hours of playback, while the battery lasts more than 8 hours so should suit most swimmers. Meanwhile, without earbuds you can still hear what’s going on around you. Which could be rather handy. Finis.
- POWER TO THE PEOPLE: The River Congo is the second largest river in the world, dumping 42,000 cubic metres of water every second at Inga Falls. A new hydroelectric project plans to take advantage of that volume to generate 40,000 MW of electricity, starting with a smaller project to generate just 10% of the full amount. The energy though will go to the Congolese copper mines, South Africa and potentially Nigeria, Egypt and even Europe. The Congolese people are unlikely to use any themselves, since they are generally far from any power grids. The potential is there, it just won’t be very evenly distributed. New Scientist.
- THINKING OUTSIDE THE ORBIT: Thanks to orbiting satellites GPS lets us work out our position on Earth quite accurately. But spacecraft can’t really use Earth-based techniques for working out their position. For one thing, the margin of error increases with distance from Earth so a spacecraft out at the edge of the solar system could be as much as 500 Km away from where it’s supposed to be. One idea is to use pulsars that emit x-rays. By measuring the arrival time of pulses from 3 different pulsars a craft could work out its position in 3D space with an accuracy of around 5 Km, even beyond the solar system. Ahh, the optimism. Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Friday 31 May 2013
- WATCHING ME WATCHING YOU: Most big telescopes are on Earth or in space looking outward. But the International Lunar Observatory precursor by Moon Express will be on the Moon looking at Earth. And not just that, but the public will be able to go online, manouevre the telescope and view the Earth from the lunar surface. The software has already been tested with the telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. The developers aim to have the telescope in place by the end of 2015. And the ‘precursor’ in the name? It signals a more permanent lunar telescope to be installed on the moon’s south pole in the future. It seems an odd viewing target for a telescope that’s off-planet. CBC.
- ANY BIKE YOU LIKE: If you need to get around in New York you might consider joining up with Citi Bike. Thousands of bikes are available for hire at hundreds of stations around New York. Each station has a touchscreen kiosk, a map of the area, and a docking system that releases bikes for rental with a card or key. Buy a 24-hour or 7-day pass, or sign up for an annual membership. Then use your code to release any bike, adjust the seat and ride to your destination. At the other end dock the bike again at any station. What a great way to see a new city. Citi Bike.
- SEEING EYE TRUCK: It’s a bad thing to nod off when you’re driving any vehicle, but in a huge truck with a massive load it’s particularly perilous. Caterpillar has a system to spot when a truck driver is about to fall asleep. A camera detects a driver’s pupil size, how frequently they blink, and how long they keep their eyes shut. It also tracks where the user’s mouth is, to work out when the driver isn’t looking at the road. An accelerometer and GPS confirm the truck is actually in motion and a computer analyses all the data. If the system decides the driver has nodded off an alarm sounds and the seat vibrates. Video is also streamed back to base so the driver can be monitored. It wouldn’t hurt to flash the lights too so others know to get out of the way. BBC.
- ROLL YOUR OWN DISPLAY: The Monkey Light Pro is a set of 256 ultra-bright, full color LEDs that clip on a bike’s spokes as a set of strips. They’re not just static lights though, rather you can send them images and animations via Bluetooth. The images are already loaded into the lights or you can create and use your own. A lithium-ion battery keeps the lights running for up to 8 hours before you need to recharge them via USB cable. Just watch out for the distracted drivers looking at your bike wheels. Monkeylectric.
- A LIGHT CURL: A graphene-based hydrogel created by scientists at the University of California curls up when you shine a laser on it. The process is similar to plants bending towards a light source because cells on the side farthest from the light elongate. The laser light causes proteins in the hydrogel to release water and dry out, creating a curl. When the laser’s turned off the gel uncurls again. The curl can be repeated more than 100 times. That just has to be useful. Wired.
We’ve been visiting friends in Auckland the last few days. Fortunately we didn’t spend much time in the central city, first taking the ferry to Devonport. That was a brief trip of maybe 15 or 20 minutes to a quiet, leafy suburb, where we had an excellent Italian meal.
The next day we went up to Matheson’s Bay, around an hour’s drive north. Our friends own a small tree-filled block of land above the Bay. Their house is nestled in amongst protected native trees, including many young kauri. The sunlight is filtered by those trees, making the house a shady retreat.
It was a quiet stay, marked by a walk with the dog down through the trees to a stream that flows to the beach.
After that we came back to Auckland to visit other friends who live out near the Waitakere ranges on another tree-filled piece of land.
Their house has plenty of large, clean windows, and on a rainy, thundery day there was a sudden thump. A tiny waxeye had flown into the glass and fallen stunned to the deck.
Our friend Heidi studied it for a bit, then seeing it was stunned, picked it up and warmed it gently in her hands. After a few moments she let it sit on her hand until it was ready to fly away.
The bird stayed perched on her hand for a few minutes, then eventually peered around and took off for the nearest tree.
It was quite a special moment: usually wax eyes flit around quickly and are too fast moving to easily catch in a photo.
The day remained cold, thundery and rainy so our planned trip to Piha Beach was cancelled. It was a day to sit in front of the fire, cosy and warm, while writing blog posts.