Showing posts with label high tech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label high tech. Show all posts

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Modern gladiator

Yesterday evening, I watched a fascinating TV documentary about the early history of the Roman city of Lutetia, known since the 4th century as Paris. The arena still exists, in a quiet corner of greenery in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

In the heyday of Lutetia, this arena was used constantly for combats between gladiators and wild animals. Today, the outlines of the antechambers and cages are clearly visible. Among the gladiators, there was a brave and agile fellow known as a retiarius who fought with nothing more than a net and a trident. He had no shield and his only armor was a fragment of metal or leather protecting the upper part of his arm that held his three-pronged weapon.

This morning, I was intrigued to hear of the presentation of a Japanese robot, designed to protect industrial premises, which is capable of behaving a little like a retiarius. The following photo shows the robot confronted by a man who's playing the role of an intruder, and hurling a net at him:

When the robot detects the presence of a human intruder, it phones its master to let him know that it may have run into a bad guy. If the robot's master tells it to attack, the robot throws its net over the intruder, entangling him. From that point on, I'm not quite sure of what might happen next. The Japanese manufacturer has refrained from providing information concerning the device's endgame, but I would imagine that traditions are respected, and that the robot is armed with a concealed trident.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bacterial shit as fuel

The skyrocketing price of petroleum has given rise to a lot of buzz recently about revolutionary high-tech processes capable of producing cheap synthetic fuel. For a long time, hydrogen cars have sounded like the ultimate dream. It's lovely to imagine your exhaust pipe leaving no more than a trail of warm water droplets along the highway.

[Click the image to access an excellent website on this interesting theme.] Today, though, there aren't many hydrogen fuel stations studded around the countryside. So, in spite of new models of this kind that are continually being put on the market, it still remains a largely experimental and expensive approach.

There has been a lot of excitement over the last few days about announcements from a US company named Coskata, which is experimenting with a variation on the relatively classical approach that consists of using the biomass to produce ethanol. [Click the image to visit their website.] The initial step in such a process consists of transforming raw resources (maybe harvested crops or even urban garbage) into a gas mixture referred to as syngas (short for synthesis gas), whose primary contents are carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Then, the marvelous aspect of the Coskata system concerns the way in which this syngas is processed to create ethanol. They use exotic bacteria—once discovered on the bed of a lake—which consume the syngas and produce ethanol as excrement! In other words, once this technology is brought to fruition, we'll be able to fuel our automobiles with bug shit! Now, isn't that a lovely idea?

At Gamone, I use donkey and horse shit to fertilize my vegetable garden. In places such as Tibet and Mongolia, I believe they use yak shit as fuel in their cooking stoves. Ecologists inform us that our familiar cattle produce huge quantities of methane, which add to the global warming problem. Maybe the Coskata people could dream up some kind of small bug-filled device that could be attached to the backside of cows so that these dear animals would actually piss out pure gasoline. Ideally, this invention would be followed by a little bit of smart genetic engineering to breed cattle with a second set of udders. The first teats would deliver milk, as usual, whereas the second set would be used to fuel our automobiles.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Flight pioneers

Over the last year or so, there has been some discussion about the claim that the hang glider was invented by John Dickenson in Grafton, but there now appears to be an international consensus of opinion that he deserves this honor.

Click the photo to access a recently-developed and well-documented website on this question.

When his Dickenson-designed wing soared above the Clarence River on 8 September 1963, the pilot Rod Fuller was in fact being tugged by a speed boat. I've often thought that the presence of this noisy aquatic partner may have diminished the impact of these pioneering flights. Observers tend to associate the mythical dream of Icarus with an aerial and ethereal world of silence, devoid of mechanical monsters such as speedboats. We imagine the god of flight as a giant but quiet bird.

In July 2006, this Japanese aircraft powered by dry-cell batteries took off, ascended to an altitude of five meters, stayed in the air for about a minute and covered a distance of several hundred meters.

In April of this year, the Boeing corporation tested in real flight, in Spain, a tiny plane that runs on hydrogen batteries.

The propeller-driven test aircraft flew at a speed of a hundred kilometers an hour, at an altitude of about a thousand meters, for twenty minutes. Later, a spokesman for the manufacturer suggested that aviation power based upon hydrogen batteries could become a feasible technological and commercial possibility within some twenty years. In my imagination, that would be the authentic dream of Icarus.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Death in Sri Lanka of a visionary

The futuristic writer Arthur C Clarke died early this morning, at the age of 90, at Colombo in Sri Lanka, where he had been living for over half a century. In 1968, he and Stanley Kubrick created the screenplay 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the outcome was one of the most poetically breathtaking science-fiction movies of all time, which stunned me completely when I first saw it in Paris. The film's opening integrates splendidly the music of Strauss. Above all, the convincing presence of the anthropomorphic robot HAL (whose behavior was conceived apparently with wise advice from Marvin Minsky) helped to make this extraordinary work of art a cult movie.



My favorite quote from Arthur C Clarke is often applied to high-tech domains from space research and computing through to nuclear energy and genetic engineering: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Europe tomorrow

I'm always happy to see dear old Europe asserting its time-honored role as an inventor of the future. This afternoon, the European Parliament ratified the creation of the future European Institute of Innovation and Technology, designed to tackle research and development, initially, in domains such as new forms of energy, climate change and information technology. Where will it be located geographically? Rumors suggest either Poland's Wroclaw, Hungary's Budapest or Germany's Munich. Let's hope that European adolescents will soon be wearing T-shirts marked EIIT (a little harder to pronounce than MIT), and that projects for the future will blossom from the institute like edelweiss on the Alpine slopes or lavender in Provence. Europe is becoming a great continent turned towards the future. For the moment, EIIT is a humble signpost. May it soon become a sign!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Knee power

By the age of twelve or so, having grown up in a competitive cycling environment, I was perfectly capable of riding my ordinary racing bike, unattached, on a set of rollers [often referred to, particularly when the bicycle is fixed to the device, as a home trainer]. Since then, I continued this activity... even in my flat in Paris. The whirring noise was such that neighbors imagined that I was playing some kind of strange wind instrument. Friends who saw me pedaling like a crazy devil on the rollers would ask, inevitably, whether there might be some way of using all that wasted energy for some kind of noble purpose. I often imagined that it would be interesting to wire up a system, say, for frying eggs.

Apparently the authorities in Salzburg have decided to carry out research and development work in this domain. Judging from this recent photo that I found on the Internet, they've set themselves the challenge of powering up a doll house. Why not? In my article of 31 October 2007 entitled Fabulous educational project [display], I evoked the idea of using this electricity-production approach to power computers for children in developing countries.

An interesting variation on this theme has just been revealed by US and Canadian researchers who are intent upon unleashing the hidden power in the human knee.

When you think about it, it's outrageous to realize that many folk walk for the sole purpose of getting from one place to another or, worse still, for personal pleasure... when their energy could be devoted to the generation of much-needed pollution-free power. For the moment, there's a minor problem in that the walker whose knees are being used to generate electricity [more than enough, so it's said, to operate a phone or a GPS gadget] must be prepared to wander around with a device of 1.6 kg strapped to each leg. But the extra weariness at the end of a pleasant day of hiking through the mountains, say, would be compensated for by the joy of knowing that you were making a positive contribution to the exciting challenge of clean energy.

I'm convinced that imaginative scientists could think of other everyday physical activities in which wasted human energy could be harnessed by means of a few well-placed wires and state-of-the-art gadgets. As in all high-tech projects, however, there are risks. It would be silly and indeed regrettable if an especially athletic fellow were to generate such an intense burst of self-produced power that he electrocuted himself.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Nuclear energy

In my recent article entitled Australia's submarines [display], I suggested that there is insufficient political consciousness and statesmanlike imagination in Australia to envisage a big project such as the construction of a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines. In The Australian today, there are a few negative remarks on this question. For example, Opposition Senator Nick Minchin states: "Australia has no capability or expertise to build or maintain nuclear submarines and the Collins-class boats have proved that conventional submarines can do the job. Rather than have a distracting debate, Labor should just rule out the nuclear option now." Peter Briggs, president of the Submarine Institute of Australia, stated that the main problem is lack of knowledge: "I think they should rule out the nuclear option because frankly we do not have time for such a major debate if we are to deliver new submarines by 2025. Australia has no nuclear industry and no nuclear facilities at our universities, and so we don't have the personnel or the knowledge required."

I'm dismayed by this defeatist thinking, which reflects Australia's stubborn head-in-the-sand attitude towards nuclear energy. And, with Kevin Rudd now elected, it's almost certain that the nuclear-energy situation in Australia will be bleaker than ever.

Here in France, of course, nuclear energy has become an everyday affair. Technological progress and advanced expertise should normally decrease the risks of catastrophes, and relatively few people—apart from Greenpeace and a handful of environmental groups—would contend today that developments in this domain should be halted. On the contrary, the commune of Cadarache in the south of France (near Marseille) will soon be hosting a huge futuristic research program called ITER [International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor] funded by the European Union, India, Japan, the People's Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the USA.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Robotic phone message

Readers who've seen Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey will recall that the AI [artificial intelligence] creature named Hal—who looked physically like a red lamp on a firetruck—often took the initiative of speaking to the human crewman Dave.

This afternoon, I feel a little like Dave, in that I've just succeeded in coaxing the Google Android telephone to send me this text message asking if everything's OK at Gamone:

It's a small step for telephony, but a giant step for my mastery of the Google Android SDK [software development kit] and the Java programming language. What you must understand is that this telephone doesn't exist yet in flesh and blood [if I can be allowed to speak that way about a future cellphone]. So, the phone call in question was actually emulated on my MacBook, on a virtual cellphone. But that's neither here nor there, for anything that works correctly in an emulated software environment should be perfectly operational when it's transposed onto a real piece of electronic equipment.

In my article entitled iPhoney gadget, a couple of months ago [display], I illustrated the possibility of using a software gadget to see what such-and-such a website would looked like when displayed on an iPhone. In the case of my Google Android phone demo, the big difference is that the virtual phone is not merely displaying something I created on the web, but actually behaving in accordance with my precise programmed instructions. In a Kubrick setting, you might say that, not only did I receive a message from Hal, but I actually programmed Hal to send me this message.

Skeptics might be tempted to ask: "How do we know that William really programmed a virtual Google Android cellphone to display this message? Maybe he simply used Photoshop to paste this line of text into an existing image." That's a problem with emulation. I can't really prove that what I show you is authentic. But I cross my heart that I'm not cheating. On the other hand, I must admit that this demo is basically an elementary tutorial thing supplied with the Google Android documentation. But I'm thrilled to find that I could get it to work. Now I'll be able to start work on my real cellphone software project, which will be a much bigger thing...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Aerial urban surveillance

In my article of 29 August 2007 entitled Sydney skies [display], I criticized Australia's decision to place a jet fighter above the city during the APEC gathering. Funnily enough, my scenario about the possibility of an innocent private aircraft getting blasted out of the sky by this fighter almost became a reality.

Later, in my article of 6 September 2007 entitled Stadiums [display], I mentioned the vast security resources that French authorities planned to use during the Rugby World Cup.

It was only yesterday, on TV, that we had a closeup presentation of one of these resources, used in the sky at Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris. Apparently there's a tiny remote-controlled aircraft floating around constantly in the air above the great stadium, and it's video camera can see everything that's happening on the ground. In a control room, several police specialists control the movements of the robot aircraft, and watch the images it provides on a large screen on the wall. The images are so precise that you can easily distinguish human individuals, including groups of people who might be up to mischief.

The female police officer whose job consisted of "flying" the tiny noiseless aircraft explained that, if nobody gets upset about this surveillance method, it's primarily because it's invisible. She added: "Most modern police departments throughout the world are now using this technique." Hearing this, I pricked up my ears. Was the police department in Sydney actually using this approach during the APEC? If so, was the publicity about the jet fighter in Sydney's skies simply a strategy to make people forget about the presence of tiny robot aircraft equipped with video cameras? Was the ban on all other aircraft over Sydney designed to make sure that the little robotic devices would be free to glide around in an airspace free of turbulence and obstacles?

If ever it so happens that Sydney is not yet aware of this new robotic technology, then it might be a good idea if a few Australian police delegates were to visit France, at the end of the rugby matches, to see what it's all about. In making this suggestion, I'm thinking above all of the safety of private pilots wishing to take their family or friends on future joy flights over the Sydney coastline or the Blue Mountains, while unaware that the local police are protecting Important Visitors and searching for potential Troublemakers and Dangerous Terrorists. It would be so much less messy to collide with a tiny robotic drone than to get pulverized by a jet fighter belonging to the Royal Australian Air Force.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brilliant French electricity corporation

Everybody in France is familiar with EDF: Electricité de France. They're the national electricity utility, whose shares were recently made available to private investors. We think of EDF as the athletes who climb up poles after storm damage, the engineers who play around with hydroelectric dams, or their colleagues who operate France's well-known network of nuclear reactors.

Well, believe it or not: EDF is also a state-of-the-art researcher in the exotic domain of Dead Sea Scrolls archaeology. It's a long story, which I'll try to summarize...

In 1952, in the caves above Qumran, searchers on the lookout for parchments—mostly leather, sometimes papyrus—came upon two mysterious rolls of copper, known today as 3Q15, the Copper Scroll.

Needless to say, researchers were totally unaccustomed to handling ancient stuff of this kind. Finally, after much discussion, the scholars sent the rolls to the Manchester College of Technology in England, where they were cut into rectangular sections. Photos of these strips then enabled a Polish ex-priest and scrolls expert, Josef Milik [whom I had the pleasure of meeting personally, fifteen years ago, in his Paris flat], to produce a first edition of the astonishing contents of the Copper Scroll. Without going into details, let's say that the Copper Scroll seems to describe vast quantities of gold and silver that might even be the mysterious treasure of Herod's temple in the Holy City, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.

Readers might be asking by now: How, when and where does France's high-tech electricity organization step into this ancient picture? Well, on the outskirts of Paris, EDF has an avant-garde laboratory called Valectra, which is no doubt one of the world's most advanced workshops for handling ancient metallic specimens such as the Copper Scroll. Today, two bulky and expensive books relate, in French, the story of the extraordinary collaboration between Biblical scholars and EDF scientists, culminating in the restoration and preservation of the Copper Scroll... not to mention its translation. You can also use Google to find many documents describing this fantastic intellectual and industrial adventure. Probably the most spectacular aspect of the EDF Copper Scroll project has been the production of perfect metallic replicas, enabling scholars and museum-goers throughout the world to come face-to-face with artifacts that resemble ideally the real thing.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Countdown iPhone minus one

Unless you're living like a Neanderthal in a limestone cave at the foot of the cliffs in a remote place such as Choranche, you're aware of two front-page media items: first, Paris Hilton is out of jail (for the moment), and second, Apple's iPhone is coming (at least to US customers) tomorrow, Friday. The excitement generated by these two events means that poor old Gordon Brown has chosen a difficult week (in reality, the poor bugger didn't choose anything; the choosing was done for him by friends) to hit the headlines with stories about his ascension to the top job in the UK. Fortunately, neither the Kiwis nor the Swiss can win the five required America's Cup match races until a forthcoming day in the AiP (after the iPhone) era: at some time between AiP 2 (next Sunday) and AiP 5 (next Wednesday). So, there's no danger of that victory interfering with AiP 0 (tomorrow). There's also little likelihood that George W Bush will be choosing one of the early AiP days to announce a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, because he wouldn't want to be forced to share his limelight with Steve Jobs. So, apart from the coming-out of the iPhone, I think we can safely say that nothing important is likely to happen in the universe in the next few days. On the other hand, we are indeed likely to see TV footage of the glamorous ex-jailbird using her new iPhone to talk to her boyfriend about the respective hardships and joys of life as an inmate. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend Apple's excellent guided tour of the functionality of the future beast, which you can see by clicking on the following banner:

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Medieval Australia

I'm shocked by the fact that certain elected politicians in Australia are described in the local press as "Catholic MPs", as if their religious beliefs might impinge upon their political convictions and choices. Are so-called catholic MPs expected to cater for voters who might be Protestants, or Jews, or Moslems, or atheists? Or does the Catholic tag attached to such a politician mean that he/she is morally justified in ignoring non-Catholic citizens, and leaving them to rot in hell? To my mind, the expression "Catholic MP" cannot logically exist, and should not be tolerated in serious journalism. When an elected member enters the sanctuaries of the State, he/she should leave his religious beliefs in the cloakroom.

Today, no nation can claim to be adult, and no political constitution is sound from a purely human viewpoint, unless a strict separation is established, once and for all, between the supreme concept of the State (that is, in the case that concerns me, the nation of Australia), on the one hand, and the multifarious religious organizations that the land might shelter. Ideas of the latter folk should not be allowed to ooze, like medieval sewage, into the sacred domain of the Nation and the People.

Now, as if it weren't enough to have the Church—like an antiquated harlot in parrot-colored robes—trying to allure hesitant politicians in the context of the ongoing debate (not only in Australia) about research using human stem cells, there's a greater cause for concern in this domain. Apparently, a new social phenomenon is arising, described colorfully by Australia's national media organization as stem-cell tourism. What's it all about? Well, in the backwoods of Australia's great Asian neighbors, private charlatans have started to jump onto the bandwagon of stem-cell treatments by offering miraculous cures of a highly suspect nature. Their potential patients (customers) include Australians with a terminal illness or spinal injury.

Funnily, in speaking out against this quackery (a tiny voice in the wilderness), I would seem to be on the same side as the Sydney cardinal. This is an illusion. In French, there's a terse old saying: Robes don't make a monk. In Sydney parlance: Clothes don't make a drag queen. My simple advice to the cardinal (borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut's Deadeye Dick): Watch out for life. The same advice might be given to travelers of all kinds, including sexual tourists and stem-cell tourists.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Nice TV spot

Areva is a large French state-owned company in the field of nuclear energy. They handle the three fundamental aspects of this domain: the processing of uranium, the construction of nuclear reactors, and the transmission and distribution of electricity. The president of this company, with 61,000 employees throughout the world, is a French woman, Anne Lauvergeon.

The reason I'm talking about Areva is that I love their TV spot, which presents an animated display of the entire energy production cycle. To see the TV spot, you first have to display the following box, then you click the button I've indicated:

So, start out by clicking the above image.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Water warnings and phone bugs

A few years ago, when I slipped on the wet slopes of Gamone and broke my leg (while carrying my midget billy-goat Gavroche to the sheep shed, to shelter him from the rain), I had to crawl back up to the house on my hands and knees. Once there, I was able to phone for help. Since then, the portable phone has become a reality, even in such a remote place as Choranche, and I try to remember to carry it with me whenever I leave the house.

People concerned by seniors who lead a solitary existence, even in urban environments, can find it difficult at times to know whether a mishap (accident or health crisis) might have occurred. In my own case, people have often found it difficult to contact me by telephone. When it's sunny here at Gamone, for example, and I'm fiddling around outside the house, I simply don't here the phone ringing. If I then leave the house to do some shopping in Valence, the duration of my telephonic absence builds up rapidly, and people are soon ready to imagine that there might be a problem.

Yesterday, the French TV news presented an ingenious solution to the challenge of being constantly reassured that such and such a senior is OK. The idea consists of attaching an intelligent electronic alert system to the water meter of the person in question. Normally, if he/she uses water several times a day [shower, WC, dish-washer, etc], everything's OK. But, if the system were to detect that the person has not used any water whatsoever for a significant period of time, this would trigger an alert signal, to be transmitted to local agents concerned with the welfare of seniors. I find this an ingenious idea, even though it wouldn't work in the case of an unfortunate individual who slipped while under the shower and suffered a knockout blow to the head.

I've been thinking about a computerized project in this field, which would be feasible using Apple's iPhone, provided that ordinary people like me will indeed be able to develop software for this gadget, as Apple chief Steve Jobs has just promised. My idea is simple. I program my iPhone to call me several times a day. If, for any reason whatsoever, I do not react to such a standard call [by responding with some kind of an OK message], my iPhone will be programmed to send out standard alert calls to various relatives, friends or neighbors, saying: "William is not responding to his guardian angel's phone call. It might be a good idea, if possible, to check that everything's OK."

Steve Jobs has often pointed out that a basic risk, in allowing independent developers to create software for the iPhone, is the possibility that their stuff might contain bugs. I agree entirely. I can easily imagine that my guardian angel approach could start to behave crazily, because of a fault in my iPhone programming, and start phoning up all my relatives, friends and neighbors, and scaring shit out of them when there's nothing really the matter with me.

To be fair, we must admit that the same kind of situation could arise with the water-meter approach. Imagine, for example, on a hot summer's day, that I forget to have a shower, that I drink beer instead of tap water, and that I decide to have a late-evening leak outside in the moonlight, instead of urinating like a serious citizen in my WC and pulling the chain that informs everybody that I'm still alive and kicking [well, at least, pissing]. In the middle of the night, a red fire engine might arrive at Gamone with its siren blaring, and a diligent fireman might wake me up and inform me: "William, everybody was terribly worried because you haven't consumed a drop of water all day." Naturally, if this kind of situation arose too often, I would of course get around to leaving a tap dripping permanently, to avoid getting woken up in the night by firemen. But there's an obvious flaw in that "solution". I'll have to do some more intense creative thinking.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Unplugged

You know how a stage magician, having levitated a woman who's stretched out horizontally, proves that she's floating in the air, with no strings attached, by passing a metal hoop around her body, from head to toes. Well, the following researchers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] are in fact positioned in such a way as to prove that their demonstration of magic is genuine.

On the right, a light bulb is receiving energy from a metal coil. But the coil itself is not plugged in, by a cord, to any source of electricity. The coil on the right is in fact receiving electricity from the other coil, on the left. And, not only are the two coils physically unconnected, but the researchers are placed in such a way that some of them block the linear path between the two coils. It would be easy, after all, to use a laser to beam energy across to the light bulb, but that technique wouldn't work if individuals stood in the way. And the individuals in question would probably be zapped. In the case of the MIT demonstration, the electrical energy gets from the first to the second coil in a roundabout fashion, through so-called resonance.

Admittedly, the present demonstration is rather primitive, and a lot of research and technology will be required before we can power computers and communication devices, or maybe automobiles, in a remote fashion.

One day in the future, one of my descendants might come upon the blog article I'm now writing, and exclaim to his/her partner: "Isn't it weird to think that, at Gamone, poor old William didn't even have witricity!" [That new term is short or wireless electricity.] I nevertheless insist upon pointing out to those smart young buggers, here and now, that I do have a couple of sophisticated gadgets that provide me with an uninterruptible power supply when the electricity fails during a storm. I described this hardware in an article, Show me your machines, on 15 January 2007. [Click here to display that article.]