An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week’s net, technology and science news
by Alan Lenton
Quite a collection this week. Driverless trucks, the Thames barrier, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One, a space missions map, solar flares and auroras, the UK’s Royal Society, MRI, an asymmetrical universe, the GateKeeper Chain, a really cool door system, a Lego tunnel borer, one ring, and a 3D metal printing robot. And, if that’s not enough, there are URL pointing to material on Dungeons & Dragons, a honeycomb book hive, 60 million scanned newspapers, Nokia’s cheapest Asha phone, and a 3D chip-stacking breakthrough from Intel.
Pretty good going, I think. I’m still catching up on stuff from the last fortnight, so this week is mostly smaller geeky things – normal service will be resumed with next week’s edition.
Incidentally, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons game. Must be nearly time for a mid-life crisis! Happy birthday to the game that has had more influence on games, computer and otherwise, than any other single game! Check the Scanner section for a URL to an interesting article on D&D.
Earlier last month the US army achieved what could well be seen in the future to be a landmark accomplishment. They succeeded in driving a whole convoy of driverless trucks through what is described as an ‘urban area’. Furthermore, they did this without hitting any pedestrians or crashing into any other vehicles.
To give the army its due, that’s quite an achievement, although, of course driving along roads is a good deal easier than more rugged terrain. Nonetheless this represents a distinct step forward in the development of full autonomous transport vehicles.
My non-UK readers may have seen pictures of the serious flooding in the UK recently, but what you may not have realized is that large chunks of London are also below sea level. That’s because London is mostly built on reclaimed marshland. As recently as Roman times London was a marsh with just a few hills where you could keep dry (assuming it wasn’t raining).
After the last bout of major flooding in 1952, work started on building the Thames Barrier to stop future flooding, and this year it paid off in spades (or maybe in gallons). Without the Barrier large chunks of London would have been flooded – including the bit where I live.
The Thames Barrier is, rightly in my opinion, often considered to be one of the engineering wonders of the modern world. Recently the BBC published an article on how it works, and that explanation is well worth reading.
No wonder when they do test closings in the summer people take their kids down to watch it and picnic. (Incidentally, last time I went down there to watch them raise the barrier, one of the kids got his head stuck in the railings. They had to get local fire brigade to come and free him, which was interesting to watch in its own right!)
The heat is on for the new generation of game consoles. When Sony launched the PlayStation 4 in Japan it sold a staggering 322,083 units in two days. Before that, according to Sony it had already sold 5.3 million units. The Wii U managed a solid 308,570 units in Japan in its two days. So far the Xbox One (which is confusingly the third generation of Microsoft’s game console) has shipped 3.9 million units to retailers in 2013, a pretty respectable total, but will it be enough to keep it in the race?
Microsoft has already announced a price cut for Xbox One in the UK, although it’s still £50 (about US$80) more expensive than Sony’s offering. It’s interesting to see what looks like the start of a price war this early in the life cycle of the latest consoles – only time will tell where it is going to end up.
Take a look at the picture pointed to by the URL attached to this piece. It’s a ‘map’ of all the current active space missions and where they are now. I’d just love a six foot paper version to hang on my wall!
The last day or so has seen some pretty spectacular auroras. So here are some pics of where it came from and what is probably the most fantastic picture of the aurora from space. It’s the fifth one down in the ‘Universe Today’ URL. The Huffington URL has a video showing the solar flare that caused the auroras.
The UK’s Royal Society puts on a lot of interesting lectures at its London HQ. They’re all free, and it’s a chance to hear some of the top people in a speciality talk about their work. I went to a few of them when I worked in London, and they were well worth the time spent. They video most of the main lectures and stream them and make the lectures available as videos or radio a short time later. If you are ever in London it’s worth checking what’s available. If you’re not in London any time soon, then the internet streaming is worth considering.
Whichever you choose, I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of lectures. On 4 March Professor Lynn Gladden is talking about Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Most people have heard of MRI in hospitals, but the talk is about the use of MRI for other types of research. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get to the lecture, but I plan to watch the video later. I also plan to make time to listen to a lecture about asymmetry in nature and the universe, which took place at the end of January.
I think this little gadget is brilliant – it’s a key chain fob that automatically locks your computer when you move away from it. I’ve worked in a number of places where there are requirements to lock your computer when you are away from it. I was always forgetting until I got several yards away and had to go back , which was a pain.
But the really great thing is the other side of it – it can be set to automatically unlock the computer when you enter the room or sit down in front of the computer! Fantastic. Of course this makes for a device which had better not be lost, or else...
Do you want some really cool doors in your house/apartment/ basement/garret/hovel? Take a look at the URL for a really new concept in doors!
Yea! Lego! A massive new underground rail system is being built deep in the bowels of London, and, of course, the rule is that any major engineering project should have its Lego version. The Crossrail tunnel is no exception, so take a look at the Lego version of the giant tunnel boring machine.
You just have to see this little entry on Amazon.com. Especially if you are a hobbit freak. The item is rather amusing, but the customer reviews are classic – totally classic. The best laugh I’ve had for a long time!
3D printing? Pah! Old hat for readers of this mag. Seen it all.
Well... Maybe not. How about a 3D printing robot that builds freestanding metal structures? Yes – METAL, and freestanding. Steel, stainless steel, aluminium, bronze and copper are all grist to the mill. I wasn’t that impressed by the stuff it’s currently printing, but I suspect that’s just because it’s early days. I’ve no idea what the tensile strength of the printed material is, not good I suspect, but no doubt that will improve with experience. I think this could be important for the future, though it’s got a long way to go before it becomes a commercial proposition.
Scanner: Other stories
Dungeons and Dragons: The 40 year quest for a game that breaks all the rules
Honeycomb book hive celebrates library’s 400th anniversary
Search 60 million scanned newspaper pages
Nokia’s cheapest Asha till date: Asha 220
Intel, Sun vet births fast, inexpensive 3D chip-stacking breakthrough
Thanks to readers Asti, Barb and Fi for drawing my attention to material for Winding Down.
Please send suggestions for stories to email@example.com and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Thunderbird spam filter...
2 March 2014
Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist, the order of which depends on what he is currently working on! His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/index.html.
Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.