Archive for the tech Category

Will the world end on Wednesday?

Posted in news, physics, science, tech on September 8, 2008 by Philonous

So… I’m sure you’ve all heard about CERN’s new black hole machine (technical term) that could potentially end the world on Wednesday. Actually it’s a Large Hadron Collider to you ley people.

One camp thinks we’ll be fine, and even if they do make a black hole, it will be a baby one that won’t hurt us. The other camp thinks the world will get eaten up and we’ll all disappear. On Wednesday.

Makes me think of all the other prophecies and ideas that have predicted our doom- the Mayan Calendar, Nostradamus, even Mother Shipton (of Yorkshire fame).

I don’t really feel worried. Maybe it’s because I’m stressed about moving, and if the world ends, I can’t do anything about it, AND I won’t have to pack anymore- that’s not all that bad.

Also, I know someone who just worked at CERN last week (shout out to Andrew, husband of Molly) so this makes me a lot less worried. Seems more like a 9-5 job then doomsday device.

Speaking of Doomsday, I watched it on Saturday (I’m a big Neil Marshall fan- The Descent was brilliant, and I’d be happy to tell you why). Some people (my husband) think its too mental but I really enjoyed it, and not just because I have a thing for women who kick ass. Thanks to a virus, Scotland is walled off again (a la Hadrian’s Wall- how brilliant is that) and left to die. The virus resurfaces in London, about 25 years later, so they decide to go back into Scotland and find a cure in the survivors. The survivors are split between a tribal Mad Max culture (based in Glasgow, and strikingly similar to today’s residents) and a ‘civilised’ medieval kingdom, taken up residence in an old castle, using the armour, ways of life, etc.

I think both completely plausible. I defy you to find a museum curator who doesn’t secretly fantasize about using their museum collections to revert to a historic way of life. When the floods happened in Yorkshire last year one museum hauled out an antique fire truck to help pump the water.

So, in preparation for our impending doom, why not watch it on Wednesday?

By The Lodger

Acquiring target…

Posted in culture, science, tech with tags , on June 15, 2008 by Philonous

Stalking friends through facebook (hurrah!) I stumbled upon the following bit of Tai Chi for the tech-generation:

my morning ritual
Date: 2004-05-10, 9:56AM EDT I have a morning ritual that I need to share. I
call it “the terminator”. First I crouch down in the shower in the classic
“naked terminator traveling through time” pose. With my eyes closed I crouch
there for a minute, visualizing either Arnold or the guy from the second movie
(not the chick in the third one because that one sucked) and I start to hum the
terminator theme. Then I slowly rise to a standing position and open my eyes. It
helps me to proceed through my day as an emotionless, cyborg badass. The only
problem is if the shower curtain sticks to my terminator leg. It ruins the
fantasy. I think maybe I read too many comic books when I was a kid…

Having returned to my chair from the floor (which I should probably hoover one of these days) I remembered something I’d read recently about research happening at the University of Washington. Forget massive virtual reality headsets from the nineties, forget cinema specs from the noughties, think Terminator style text superimposed on the world – the contact lens display is here.

Ok, it’s not totally here yet, at the moment it’s an array of minute LEDs in a contact lens, but the possibilities are intriguing. These circuts are so small that manufacturing them by hand is impossible. Instead, somehow the team harnesses capillary action to have the components assemble themselves. This to me is a marvel in itself – that a collection of parts can somehow be designed in such a way that it is their very nature to combine in an ordered way is completely mindblowing. This is apparently old hat. The main issue was to make the lens itself biologically inert. To do this, the circuit, which is itself only nanometers thick, is sandwiched between a couple of layers of an inert polymer. Nevertheless, the lens has only been tested on rabbits so far to check for adverse effects.
No doubt this will soon be snapped up by some corporation or other for further investment. In a few years we’ll all be able to play at being Arnie…

The Space Elevator

Posted in science, tech with tags on June 8, 2008 by Philonous

One of my friends many years ago asked me if I’d heard of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. I hadn’t. Being an ardent devotee of science fiction, she had not only heard of him but was a great admirer of his forward thinking work. Here’s a brief run-down:

  • Born 1857 in the Russian Empire, died 1935.
  • Theoretical engineer/physicist/futurist.
  • Substantially self taught, as a result of childhood deafness.
  • Having seen the Eiffel tower (which was the tallest building in the world at the time) dreamt up the idea of a Space Elevator.
  • Wrote the first academic treatise on rocketry.
  • Postulated that in order to acheive orbital velocity, a multistage rocket fuelled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen would be needed.
  • Just generally a man well before his time.

For those that don’t know (and want to), the space elevator is a theoretical device for transporting objects into orbit cheaply without the need for rockets etc. The basic setup is a huge cable stretching from the earth into space. As long as the centre of mass of the cord is at the right distance from the earth, it will stay in geostationary orbit and so remain taught on its own. Check out the picture (taken from here).

The great advantage of something like this is that once buit, it would eliminate the need for rockets when launching satellites into orbit thereby cutting down significantly on costs. The main barrier to the practicality of such a scheme as far as I am aware is one of materials. In order for this to be practical in any way, an incredibly strong and light material would be needed for the tether.

Fear not! Over the past couple of decades, interest in so called carbon nanotubes has exploded. These are allotropes of carbon (like graphite, diamond, buckyballs etc) which have a tublike structure posessing great tensile strength while at the same time being incredibly light. Unfortunately, as with most pipe-dreams, these are as yet impractical on a large scale, being quite tricky to manufacture even in small quantities… Oh well, we can dream (like Tsiolkovsky).

Some links:

Artificial Ball lightning

Posted in craft, experiments, science, tech with tags , on May 1, 2008 by Philonous

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I decided to try and create artificial ball lightning in a microwave. All you need is a grape, a microwave and a knife.

WARNING: Attempting this could impair your health and that of your microwave! Approach with EXTREME CAUTION!
  1. Cut the grape in half so that there is only small piece of skin attaching the two halves together and they look like a pair of bongo drums.
  2. Take the tray out of your microwave.
  3. Put the grape in your microwave with the wet faces up.
  4. Start the microwave and have your finger on the stop button.

You should see a bright ball and maybe some licks of flame appearing within a second or two. I remember scortching the top of the microwave the last time I tried this so be sure to have a finger on the stop button.
I’m not totally sure the physics behind the whole thing. The explanation my friend had was that the microwave sets up a standing wave inside the microwave which has around the right wavelength to create a big potential difference between the two grape surfaces. Eventually, as some of the water in the grapes boils, steam is ejected. In the presence of such a large potential difference, this ionises and forms a plasma for a split second. I’m still not totally convinced that this is actually what’s going on, but I have no better explanation.

It turns out that it works even better when you have a flame in your microwave. The gas in the flame ionizes very easily and it’s even possible to contain the plasma in a vessel of some sort for some time. Here’s a video of someone trying it with a match:

Here’s what I think happens:

The microwave keeps giving electrons in the hot gas enough energy to escape their nuclei. When these electrons return, they give off a load of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, some of which is the light you see. Presumably different burning materials give different parts of the characteristic spectrum (and so different colours…)

Le Fox, I would guess that if your chimney is struck by lightning when you have a fire in the fireplace, much the same things happens…

I could well be wrong…

See here for a good explanation of a similar grape experiment (with diagrams!).

Dot Matrices

Posted in art, culture, DIY, tech with tags , on March 26, 2008 by Philonous

Remember those old screetchy printers and the paper with the holes in the edges? Well they seem to be making something of a comeback, albeit in various guises.

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a great project involving dot matrix printers used as synthesisers. Moving the head at different speeds produces different frequencies, so the idea is to computer control a printer to play electronic sounding music. Here’s a video with a push-button controller

Thank goodness someone finally harnessed the onerous noise-making capacity of dot matrix printers for good.

Dot matrix printers have also found their way into the world of protest and art in various new forms. In 2004 at the time of the Republican National Convention in New York, a student came up with a mobile dot matrix street writer mounted on a bicycle. The idea was to have people from all over the world write thought proviking slogans on the website and have them instantly written on the pavement somewhere in New York. This “Bike against Bush” was kitted out with a laptop, phone and some sort of GPS device as well as the custom chalk sprayers that made up the printer.

I remember seeing this at the time and decided to check up on the project to see what had happened since. I found the following video about the triumph of American free speech. It turned out that the Feds (or NYPD or someone…well let’s just say the man) had been tracking any signs of dissident activity from militant anarchists to church groups and anti-war protesters for a long time before with the intention of apprehending them before they had a chance to protest. Ah, it’s the world’s favourite democracy in all its characteristic glory.

The latest incarnation of dot matrix printers I’ve seen recently is Bit.fall by German artist Julius Popp. It’s a dot matrix printer for rain! The principle is the same as Bikes against Bush with a whole load of water jets with electronically controlled taps connected to a computer. Perhaps the artist could explain it better himself:

I suppose it’s all part of some sort of 80s revival…

Here are some links:

Loop sampling

Posted in music, tech with tags on March 20, 2008 by Philonous

Over the past little while, I’ve noticed a couple of quite cool videos involving one person making a whole lot of live music using a loop sampler. Here are some examples…

This is a guy called Foy Vance on a BBC Northern Ireland music show.

Initially, I thought he had a drummer and some guitarist in the background – that is until I saw him sampling his voice.

This is a guy called Shlomo who’s a UK beatboxer performing on the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage. It’s amazing how quickly he builds up the layers of sound.

Somehow having this as a voicemail answer message doesn’t seem to do it justice…


Posted in art, craft, DIY, tech with tags on January 11, 2008 by Philonous

I’ve started a darkroom. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do I suppose, but now seemed the time to do it for some reason. Ok. So it’s not a proper darkroom, but then again it’s not just a dark room…

It’s a darkroom built for pinhole camera photography! But how does one take photos with a pinhole camera?! It turns out it’s actually reasonably simple. The basic principle is as follows. An image is formed in a pinhole camera just as in any other camera so all you have to do is put some film in the right place. The standard darkroom process involves developing your film, then putting the negatives you’ve just made into an enlarger, projecting them onto photographic paper and then developing the paper. On the film, parts struck by light become dark. The same is true of photographic paper so during the process, the colours are inverted twice, giving you the original again.

So, everything is peachy. Well actually no. Enlargers are *really* expensive (the cheapest one I found was about 160 pounds without an enlarging lens, timer easel etc etc etc…). Setting up a darkroom was therefore going to be out of the question. Until I saw podcast about pinhole photography. All you do is stick a pin in a box. Then you have a pinhole camera. So how do you take the photo? Actually, the process is exactly the same as for film except instead of using film, you use photographic paper and instead of using an enlarger, you contact print.

For a grand total of 30 pounds I was all set. Watching photos appear is perhaps the coolest thing I’ve seen for a long time. Highly recommended. To see the podcast, check out:

There are lots of other cool things on the site. I find that actually, his design isnt’ all that great. The best thing I’ve tried so far is a beer can as the container with a hole punched in the side.

Play Pumps

Posted in Activism, tech on July 30, 2006 by Philonous

““We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or any of the other infectious diseases that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic health care.” Kofi Annan

There are apparently over a billion people in the world with no access to clean drinking water. Various government and non governmental organisations exist to try and alleviate the problems by providing wells and pumps to (generally rural) communities: after all, how can healthcare, education etc improve without more fundamental infrastructure. In my internet meanderings, I came across a project that seems to work mostly in South Africa which is sheer genius.

Remember the roundabouts in playgrounds when you were a kid? Get it spinning, climb on and experience dizzy ecstasy for a little while. Someone had the awesome idea of attaching a roundabout to a water pump. Kids playing on the roundabout inadvertently raise groundwater to surface storage tanks as they spin the wheel around. Placing such pumps near local schools provides free and willing labour and enough water to supply the community and even excess for agriculture. What a good idea.

Related links: The Pay Pumps website –
Water Aid website –