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Archive for the ‘tech’ Category

It’s one of life’s guilty pleasures. We can’t remember when we first did it, but we do it every time.

Popping bubble wrap.

We find it everywhere, protecting our Amazon orders, wrapping Mum’s vase, safe-guarding Granny’s pictures. How often have we eagerly opened a parcel to find that the bubble wrap is more entertaining than the item contained therein?

Most of us don’t know that bubble wrap was a failed 3D wallpaper design. And yes, it really was created by two blokes in a garage – Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes. They were clearly very talented chaps but with absolutely no idea about interior design. Seriously, how could anyone have ever thought that using bubble wrap was a good idea? Can you imagine Osborne & Little suggesting you use it on the walls of your living room? (Yes, okay, perhaps in this age of austerity you can.)

Creative sorts have attempted to rehabilitate its DIY origins and suggest using it for insulation. Bubble wrap has been given its own special day – Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (the last Monday in January as I am sure you all know).

However, it is for that satisfying popping sound and the sensation of a mini-explosion that we cause just by squeezing our fingers that we love the stuff. So much so that we even recognise its therapeutic qualities. The ever-inventive Japanese have even designed a take-anywhere everlasting bubble wrap-popping keyfob to simulate the experience.

Step forward Comedy Imaginator Eric Buss. He has taken the bubble wrap-popping experience to a whole new level. Look at this video and tell me you don’t want a go!

And finally, for those stuck in front of their computers without any bubble wrap to hand, there is always this.

Ahhhh…

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Chinese researchers have made a phenomenal breakthrough in stem cell research.

Duanqing Pei and his team from Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health have  found a way to coerce stem cells collected from urine to become induced pluripotent stem cells that can be used to generate other types of cell. They have demonstrated this potential by making teeth, though they could also make cells for other major organs.

The team are quick to point out that this technology is still very experimental, with the teeth produced not yet as hard as the teeth that humans are born with and a success rate currently running at 30%.

Their research is published in the  online open access journal Cell Regeneration.

The potential is incredible, particularly in terms of immune system responses. Just think, in future you might literally pee out the foundation for your new teeth!

It certainly lends a whole new meaning to the phrase “taking the piss”…

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As a kid, I was hooked on computers. (Yeah, okay, I still am.) When I got my third computer, a ZX Spectrum +2, I spent several days programming it to play Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca.

That was pretty much the height of my artistic endeavours. Since then I have toyed with the idea of making music, downloading software for the PC and apps for my phone. I have thought about making films in game (like the superlative Winter, an old favourite of mine from Everquest 2, showing just how powerful these game engines can be). I’ve toyed around with creating pictures, too, or morphing photographs. I don’t have the stick-ability though. Writing, it seems, is where creativity is at for me.

Stickability is not a problem for Hal Lasko.

A 97 year-old WWII veteran from Ohio, Hal’s creative eye saw him drafted in to create specialist maps for bombing raids. After the war he became a typographer, creating fonts for printers from scratch. In retirement, but still needing to scratch that creative itch, his family introduced him to Microsoft Paint. And that is what he uses now to create his pictures.

But it’s not just that Hal is 97. He is also legally blind. Each picture is created pixel by pixel, zooming in to a level he can see. The result is a spectacular mix of pointillism and 8-bit art.

His age, his condition, not to mention a life that has spanned WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf I, Gulf II and Afghanistan, tell me that some of us should learn to make a hell of a lot more of the remarkable opportunities we have. Time, perhaps, to stop looking for reasons why we can’t and time to realise we can. More often than not it’s down to us.

Hal is selling prints of his art online in aid of veterans programmes. Enjoy this small selection below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And if you want to find out more about Hal, take a look at this excerpt from a documentary made some years ago by Josh Bogdan.

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There are plenty of ways to get your opinion out there on the ‘net in this day and age. This generally means throwing your opinions out there for the world to see on Twitter, blogs and Facebook. However, some cunning folks have realised the potential for making more targeted, localised statements, by renaming their WiFi.

I am not sure how I missed this phenomena, but it seems there are even sites given over to helping you name your wifi.

Some of the best can be found on WiFi LOL. My favourite is probably this one. Who knew that flamingos could cause such neighbour strife?

For my part, I think my own network, currently – and poetically – named ‘Requiem’ is about to become ‘getyoursoddingkidsoffmylawnok’.

 

 

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saturn

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On 23rd July, NASA published a picture of Earth taken from the dark side of Saturn by its Cassini spacecraft. It is, apparently, only the third time that Earth has been photographed from the outer reaches of the solar system. The picture was taken in a photo session of Earth that occurred on 19th July between 2:27 to 2:42 pm PDT (9.27 to 9.42 pm in the UK). We have the technology to take that kind of picture from almost 900 million miles away.

Look at that amazing picture and think about it just for a moment.

Where were you and what were you doing between 9.27 and 9.42 pm?

I was eating my tea, having walked home through Gloucester Park after a trip to the cinema and a showing of Pacific Rim. It had been a beautiful evening – I posted a picture on Facebook – and I spoke to Laura on my way.

I’m on that dot. We are all on that dot. All of us together.

Suddenly, we all seem very insignificant.

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I’m not in the business of promoting random apps or plug-ins. Anyway, I rarely come across anything that warrants sharing with others. This is a bit different.

I often want to make notes on the fly when I am browsing, but I don’t want anything as sophisticated (or fiddly!) as Evernote. I usually just want to put down a word or two (e.g. song titles, books to read or keywords for blogs), have them all in one place and have them accessible whether I am at work or at home or on the move.

Step up Chrome Notepad which does exactly that. It is an extension that gives you a clickable button next to the address bar which opens a very basic text editor.

Definitely worth it for all those who blog, write and use Chrome as their principal browser.

chromenote

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I imagine that many of you are familiar with this one.

The phone line clicks, there is a long pause and then an individual with a very strong accent, usually from the Indian sub-continent, checks your name and then announces that he is called “Frank” and is calling you from Microsoft (!) because their servers (!!) have detected that your computer has a very bad problem (!!!).

A quick scan on the ‘net reveals that it is a tried and tested scam, with commentators as varied as Mumsnet, the Nuisance Call police and the tech geeks of the anti-virus forums at AVG all reporting this particular con.

It basically involves trading on a combination of fear and people’s ignorance about the way the Internet and their computers work. You receive a patient explanation that “they” have detected unusual activity on your computer which is probably a serious virus. They then offer to remove it for a fee and, if you are doubtful and not yet persuaded, they offer to set up remote-control of your machine to show you exactly what they are talking about. All of which  looks mightily impressive if you don’t know what you are being shown, but which is invariably misleading, inaccurate or irrelevant.

I guess their hope is that, by this time, the expectation is that you are suitably terrified that your computer could be remotely hacking the Pentagon or running a zombie network. You will be panicking so much that you will hand over your hard-earned shekels to “Frank”, probably in the form of your credit card details (you numpty!), eternally grateful that at least someone is looking out for you. (And, of course, impressed by Microsoft’s unmatched level of customer engagement.)

I suppose I have received this call on  thirty or so occasions over the years and have had varying amounts of fun responding to it. The other day, however, I received a novel variation which left me unsure whether to be impressed at the sheer chutzpah of our man “Frank”, or in despair at the general level of ignorance that means this scam has any viability whatsoever.

As on previous occasions, there was the familiar pause, the familiar accent (I actually think I might quite like “Frank” in other circumstances and could envisage sitting down to dinner and a cold beverage to discuss life, the universe and the finer points of telephone harassment), the confirmatory introduction and then…

“Mr Williams… I am calling you from the technical department of the World Wide Web.”

Think about that for the moment and the cultural implications of such a statement. It suggests that the World Wide Web, that we all use daily, has taken on a transcendental state of existence as a unified, identifiable entity that we all simply accept (and clearly accept without question in considerable numbers). It conjures a vision of Willy Wonka-esque workers, striving tirelessly to ensure that the World Wide Web is kept running 24/7/365.

It was the strangest experience – a little like being called by the plumbing department of Heaven.

I decided that, as this was a Significant Call, the only thing to do was to explore the issue in tones of grateful incredulity. At last, after a lengthy explanation of what had been detected, I asked “Frank” earnestly for the password. I didn’t explain what the password was for. I had no idea what it was for, either. I simply stated that I could see how serious it was and that as it definitely needed addressing it was now time for him to give me the password.

“Frank” was confused. He was definitely not amused.

I don’t blame him particularly. I don’t suppose I would be too amused if I was working that sort of scam on a phone farm and came up against a smug smart arse who clearly new something about how his computer works and wasn’t going to be taken for a ride. It will not surprise you to learn that we parted on less than happy terms and so I don’t suppose we will be sharing that drink any time soon.

So are we so gullible in our unquestioning embrace of technology that we could believe that we might get a call from the web’s technical department? Or is “Frank” actually a quiet revolutionary, out to subvert this scam by making random calls in such nonsense terms that the whole conceit collapses under the weight of its own absurdity?

Perhaps “Frank” is merely as bored with the script as the rest of us and so tried a little improvisation.

Kudos, “Frank”, if so.

And “Frank”, next time you call, don’t be surprised if you are greeted by a very excitable me:

“Oh, Wow! This is such a coincidence! You’re calling from the technical department of the World Wide Web! And you’ve just called the technical department of the Internet!”

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20120806-curiosityThe rover Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral on 26 November 2011 and landed in Gale Crater, Mars, on 6 August 2012. Those of us who spend our days in the whirl of headlines about politics and sport and celebrities may have missed the steady stream of quiet but sensational revelations from the latest robot sent by NASA to investigate Mars, our nearest planetary neighbour.

A month or so ago there was a brief flurry of international media interest after a strange metallic-looking object was discovered. This provoked a wealth of chatter on the Internet, with conspiracy theorists revisiting the wilder realms of speculation. (Afficionados of Internet conspiracies may recall the flurry of posts when NASA pulled this photo from the batch of official photos released from Curiosity just after it landed.)

All of which is fun for techno geeks like me, but misses the crucial point of the Curiosity mission and its potential significance.

Since landing, Curiosity has been picking its way over the arid surface of Mars, attempting to assess whether conditions have ever existed that could have supported microbial life. To that end it has been looking for evidence of any role played by water in the planet’s history, not least of all because it is no secret that this mission has been created with a view to a potential manned exploration and scientists want a better understanding of the Martian environment.

Today, the BBC reported on the incredible discovery of rock that confirms earlier findings from Curiosity that neutral water once existed in the Gale Crater. NASA’s own website  contains this pretty stunning admission: “Curiosity’s analyzed rock sample proves ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.” NASA confidently proclaim that Curiosity is now seeing a trend in water presence on Mars.

Why does all this matter?

Because the revelation that life could exist elsewhere other than Earth strikes at the theological and philosophical heart of thinking that has informed the way we organise our societies for millennia. Everything, from myriad individual personal destinies (tragic and otherwise), to the political, judicial, economic and social organisation of communities, nations and entire civilisations, has been affected by the belief that life has only ever existed here, in this one special place: Earth.

How do the major religions of the world respond if it is proved conclusively that life once existed elsewhere in our Solar System, let alone the Milky Way or the Universe? Could they adapt to accommodate a revelation at least as shattering to established world views as the Copernican revolution – or would they continue to maintain a position like that of the Heliocentrists, becoming increasingly irrelevant and absurd over time?

We might not think it matters – but there was a time when recognition that our Sun orbited the Earth was axiomatic to an assessment of the authenticity of belief. Could those who profess faith adjust to accommodate the enormity of the truth that life once existed elsewhere – and might exist now elsewhere – without seeing the entire edifice of that faith crumble?

I suspect those who claim truth only in the most fundamentalist of interpretations will have the hardest journeys of all.

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“Electronic junk narrows our life space…”

Maxim Kamanin

Sometimes it feels like Hollywood is running to catch up with real life. And sometimes, real life seems even less believable than Hollywood’s penchant for technological exaggeration.

From the middle of nowhere comes an invention that might just revolutionise the way we interact with technology – in pretty much every way. Maxim Kamanin, a youngster from a remote village in southern Russia, is the inventor of a new form of display that may eliminate the need for computer screens entirely, freeing us up to work far more creatively with technology.

Displair literally puts digital images into the air, creating fully penetrable 3D images which can be viewed and manipulated. It is completely astonishing – like something out of Star Trek. It uses a cloud-inspired technology (and not cloud as it is usually thought of in computer tech terms) which somehow remains remarkably stable across varying temperatures. The Displair wiki entry goes into more detail.

From artists, architects and designers, to teachers, surgeons and inventors, the creative ways in which it could be used are immense.

The web-film site Focus Forward Films has a video of this astonishing invention in operation:

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It may sound like Day of the Triffids in reverse, but it might just be that mushrooms are about to save the planet.

Bloomberg Business Week reports on the work of Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre and the innovative work on plastic substitutes that they have been doing with mushroom fibres:

It starts with a mash of corn stalks and vegetable husks impregnated with mushroom spores. The fungus eats the plant nutrients, then grows a complex root network that fills the shapes of the molds. The final product is a foam that looks something like a big wafer of nougat candy. It is placed in an oven to stop the spores from growing and to give the material the proper texture, hardness, and elasticity.

“The products literally grow themselves. In the dark. With little to no human contact,” says McIntyre. Each mold can be treated to create a material with different qualities. Home insulation must be fire-retardant and energy efficient; cabinets have to be sturdy; a car dashboard or bumper has to be strong but with give.”

And to get rid of it?

Simply throw it on the compost heap and it is gone in weeks.

The reason this is so important?

Polystyrene.

Polystyrene is non-biodegradable and so takes hundreds of years to disappear. The blowing agents that are used to expand it can be highly flammable. Some versions of it are made with hydrofluorocarbons that are over a thousand times more potent in terms of global warming potential than carbon dioxide. It is also regularly excluded from recycling services as it is uneconomical to collect and compact (due to its lack of density versus the space it occupies).

The company behind the mushroom fibre revolution, Ecovative Design, has just signed a deal with the packaging behemoth Sealed Air, the company responsible for Bubble Wrap and Cryovac. Both Dell and Steelcase are already using the material for packaging and it promises a biodegradable revolution in how we ship stuff.

I wonder if this is something that the impressive Centre for Process Innovation should pick up here in the UK? They are the increasingly impressive outfit based in Redcar. In their own words:

“CPI helps companies to prove and scale up processes to manufacture new products and create more sustainable, efficient and economic industries of the future.”

There is some real talent out there in the British economy, particularly in the emerging green and high-tech industries. A UK angle on this would help boost manufacturing, jobs and the wider economy, whilst at the same time helping to tackle the huge waste problem there is with packaging.

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