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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

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.

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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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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 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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This has to be the ultimate gadget junky’s toy!

Flight control specialists DJI-Innovations have released a consumer toy version of their radio-controlled flight platforms – and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

The Phantom quadcopter is a technological mini-marvel. It can hit 6m/s vertically and 10m/s horizontally, has a range of 300m, built-in GPS for fly-home programming (i.e. if it goes out of range, it’ll fly home and land itself if the GPS signal is strong enough) and a flying time of between 10 and 15 minutes. It can also automatically land itself if the battery is low.

It also comes with a mount for the phenomenal GoPro range of video cameras. Beyond the geeky fun value, the potential for amateur film-makers wanting a different perspective, or the likes of conservationists, gardeners etc. who want to see how things appear from the air looks immense.

Tech blog gizmag has an extended review.

So if anyone is feeling generous, I’ll have one of each, please.

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I’ve always been a techno-junky, at least as long as I can remember. It’s taken the rest of the world a long time to catch up, but thankfully Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Rajesh are showing the world just how cool us über-nerds are. (That’s The Big Bang Theory for anyone who spent 2012 living on Mars.)

It was Star Trek that did it, I think. Between the communicator, the tricorder and the universal translator there was never much chance for an inquisitive sort like me, who was convinced that aliens were waiting to land, if not here already. (I never bought the theory that the planet was being run by giant lizards. That seemed a little silly. Like David Icke – who I foggily remember for his sports commentary on Grandstand, not the Illuminati.) And for interest, How Stuff Works has a a fascinating article on the 100 Star Trek technologies that have come into being

I remember the first mobile phone I had.

It was Dad’s phone that he passed over to me when I started work. It was a Nokia, a 2140 on the Orange network – the only phone available on Orange when the network launched in 1994. Those of you who had one may remember the retractable antenna. I remember how cool it felt when several  people, a lot older than me, and a lot more important, needed to make phone calls whilst we were stuck in a meeting. Their surprise when I pulled out a cell phone (!) was very gratifying in a geeky, nerdy kind of way.

After that there was no stopping me. Mobile phones and mini-computing became technological areas of fascination and over the years I acquired a series of mobile phones, mini-computers and tablets.

This morning, in the cab on the way to church, a guy on Radio 5 was talking about wearable computers the size of a stud earring that he thinks will be the norm by 2040, which will contain more computing power than every device in the average home today. He was saying, quite straight-forwardly, than in 15-20 years we will have electronic circuitry printed directly onto our skin and that transaction by reading this circuitry will be quite normal. The stud earrings will create local networks to allow off-grid information exchange, ostensibly to protect privacy.

If that sounds insane, you should know that the EES (Electrical Epidermal System) is already here, designed two years ago by engineers John Rogers  and Todd Coleman to collect information on your vital organs and transmit it back wirelessly to a computer.

I wonder if the sense of incredulity I felt was anything like that of those who shook their heads and wondered why on earth I thought I needed a phone in my pocket? Perhaps such imprints and implants will indeed be the norm, even in my lifetime, and we will dispense with our mobiles and games consoles.

In the meantime, here is a gallery of the phones and associated gizmos that, over the years, have led to technology becoming hard-wired into my social and professional life.

Oh… And a small legacy of one of my favourite phones, the Nokia N70 – the picture of Portreath at the top of the blog was taken on it, a good few years ago now.

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It happens at least three times a day, according to my telephone’s log. Sometimes it can be three times an hour.

Someone I don’t know, in a place I have never been to, places a call through a robot dialler and attempts to convince me that, despite a suspiciously subcontinental accent, they are called Belinda – or jauntily assures me with a pleasant Scottish twang that I signed up to receive marketing calls from their clients (what sort of imbecile would knowingly do that?!).

Who are these people who make these calls – and how has it become socially acceptable to force yourself on someone’s time like some irresistible cyber-pedlar? When did it become okay to ignore the pitifully ineffective Telephone Preference Service system so that a student in Glasgow or a housewife in Bangalore can drag you out of the loo, only for you to hear the ghost in the machine click and the line fall dead, your tormentor waiting until you resume your thronely duties to try again?

Sometimes, in my more conspiratorial moments, I wonder if TPS sells lists of numbers just to piss us off.

It is yet another mark of the slow and painful death of manners in the modern age (see Kino rage: the death of cinema etiquette (or… Be quiet!)). It strikes me as quite ironic, really, that while political parties – generally not the most popular of organisations – go to great lengths and expense to ensure their phone lists are TPS-compliant, following the guidance of the Information Commissioner’s Office, it is companies, sales canvassers and charities – yes, even sodding charities – that regularly show a maverick disregard for the law.

So, in an act of defiance which makes me feel a little more like Han Solo (assisting rather than leading the Rebellion), I have taken to rarely answering my land-line unless I recognise the number – or I want a little sport.

Callers for my ex-wife, who left ten years ago, or my ex-partner, who left a year and a half ago, are met with a stunned silence and a stifled sob, before being angrily told they have just dredged up the most painful of memories that I have spent many years trying to bury. (Just to be clear, for anyone who might be concerned I am suffering relationship-related PTSD, this is not true.) In the wrong moment, callers for “Is that Mr Williams?” may simply encounter the version of me that has suspended all rules of civility and receive a stream of epithets worthy of the bluest sergeant major. More mischievously, I might assent to their request to speak to him if they provide the right password. That can be a source of some bafflement.

Or asking extremely technical and detailed questions, before declining.

Or simply answering “yes” to every question.

And finally, those concerned people from Windows (yeah, right) who are at pains to tell me that there is a problem with my computer and that I need their very expensive computer services are usually flummoxed if I request details of the IP address they logged for my computer. Or better still, if I deny the existence of the computer at all and express my concern that there is clearly one planted in the house and operating without my knowledge and request their assistance locating it.

I don’t buy this crap about them “just doing their job”. Of course they are – but their job is intrusive and bloody annoying. If I were being paid to walk around behind people in the street in a giant sausage suit and stick Bockwurst in their ears I would be rightly pilloried for being an annoying arse. “Just doing my job” is not a defence that would get me very far – particularly if those people had paid for a service in all good faith that expressly prohibited people from following them around in giant sausage suits and sticking Bockwurst in their ears. Therefore, when you interrupt the film I am watching, or the book I am reading in the bathroom (currently the rather brilliant collection of short stories by William Trevor), or the long-range sniper shot I am just about to take on the Operation Firestorm map, you’ll have to forgive me if my reaction abandons socially acceptable norms.

In responding like this, I realise that the last laugh is probably on me. I am adopting behaviours that further erode the Blyton-esque values of trust and politeness and goodwill and friendliness that were the bedrock of my growing-up and which seem increasingly absent in many of today’s social transactions.

But they started it. They broke the rules first. Not me.

So. Game on.

Other tips for dealing with cold callers greatly appreciated.

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It is sometimes shocking to sit and think how quickly technology has come on in just a few short years. Photography is something I have always enjoyed, being brought up on Dad’s slides and even his own attempts to create a dark room in the attic.

I remember my first Kodak camera with its stacked, one-use-per-bulb flash, and how proud I was to finally be able to take my own pictures. It had no zoom, no focus and used what I regarded as proper film. (Funny how whatever it is you start with you regard as proper film, at least until you grow up and start using standard 35mm.) I remember, too, getting my first Olympus, sadly rarely used, and the pictures I took with it on my honeymoon less than ten years ago, when there was no imminent prospect of digital superseding plastics and silver salts.

Now, most of us have phones that can take better pictures than even the most expensive digital cameras of ten years ago, with top-end digital cameras such as the Canon EOS 7D or EOS 5D Mk II being so sophisticated that they can replace movie cameras, opening up the world of movie-making to amateurs the world over.

The Light Farm are an enthusiast co-operative “dedicated to the renaissance of handcrafted silver gelatin emulsions”.  They have got their hands on a historic film by Kodak, which details the process of making film.

Enjoy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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