Fed2 Star - the newsletter for the space trading game Federation 2

The weekly newsletter for Fed2
by ibgames

EARTHDATE: February 11, 2018

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An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net, technology and science news
by Alan Lenton

Lots of stuff for you this week, since I'm still trying to catch up with the stuff from early January! So here it is. We start with what must be about the blackest building on Earth, then a new strong material made from wood, and a possible prosecution of internet zombie providers, some stuff about Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR) and the structure of the eye, things that eat toxic metals, the London Metal Exchange, the question of how many people worldwide use the internet, some nice pictures taken by drones (the aircraft type gadgets, not the bees), and a quote from Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. Phew! You want more? Well, in the Scanner section, there's a wide spread of URLs to stories starting with a project to build Babbage's Analytic Engine and continuing with others about peak charging hours for electric cars, the world's steepest funicular rail line, a former CIA CTO talking on Spectre & Meltdown, spies jogging trails, a new quantum computer programming language (quantum computer not included), America’s first woman mayor, a DARPA autonomous  ship, and car security.

That should keep you going for a while!

Have a nice week, and may all your incoming missiles be Hawaii ones...


With the Winter Olympics in the news I thought I'd draw your attention to the Hyundai Pavilion - it's the blackest building on Earth - literally, not figuratively. It's been coated in something called Vantablack VBx 2, which absorbs 99% of all visible light. That's pretty dark, and the light absorption is caused by stacking carbon nanotubes in the paint. As the light hits the surface it gets trapped and bounces around until it dissipates as heat. 

Embedded in the painted walls are a series of rods, the ends of which are lit to look like stars against the blackness of space. That's the outside of the building. The inside is the opposite - it's pure glossy white with water droplets flowing though channels. The article has an explanation by the architect, Asif Khan, about what he is trying achieve...

It looks like a pretty impressive installation!

And while we are on the subject of 'exotic' new materials. here's a new one made from one of the most mundane of building materials  - wood. Researchers at the University of Maryland have come up with a version of wood that has the strength and toughness of steel, but is much lighter. The researchers are calling it 'densified wood'. Basically you take an ordinary soft-wood, treat it with a weak solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphite, and then hot compress it. The result is densified wood.

All that remains is to figure out how to scale up the process to industrial levels and we will have a new building material. The researchers seem confident they can do that.

I see that New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, has opened an investigation of a report that a firm sold fake followers to social media users. This follows a report in the New York Times on the subject concerning the activities of a firm called Devumi. Just goes to show that you need to be careful of what you get from the various social media sources.

According to the AG, "Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law. We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities." Actually, he said that on Twitter, but we can probably take it as being true!


Let's face it, Virtual Reality (VR)  is not the greatest thing around when it comes to seamless unpixelated experiences. Even leaving aside thorny problems, like how you cope with people using bi-focal contact-lenses or spectacles, it seems obvious we need more pixels. But more pixels implies more processing power.

How many more pixels are we talking about? Well the estimate is that our eyes collect about 74 gigabytes of visual data, spread over a 180 degree field of view, every second. That's a lot of data to process. So, how does the eye cope with that? It turns out that it doesn't. It 'only' processes about 125 megabytes of the incoming data.

To understand what's going on we need to look at what the eye is actually doing. When we do that, it seems that the eye uses a small part in the centre of the image  (about one degree wide) to focus on in details. The rest of the image is nothing like so detailed and it's optimised to detect movement - presumably this was so you could detect the likes of Shere Khan sneaking up on you...

So maybe we should just concentrate on the fovea? Well... Not exactly... What I just explained was the simple version, it's a lot more complex than that in reality, virtual or otherwise. If you want the full details, take a look at the URL, and in the meantime the take away is, don't expect flawless VR any time soon, whatever the VR vendors say.

Thumbing (digitally, of course) through the pages of New Atlas I came across a story about a microbe that eats toxic metals and excretes tiny nuggets of gold. It's quite interesting, and the first URL gives some of the details. However, the story reminded my about one of science fiction author Isaac Asimov's mystery stories. It's nice and short, and I found a copy on the net, it's called 'Pate de Foie Gras'. I think you'll like it. It's the second URL.

And, while we are on the subject of metals I thought that some of you (especially those who play my game, Federation II, and trade futures) might like to read about the London Metal Exchange, which is still like the big exchanges were 30 years ago, with dealers shouting the put and buy offers at one another. It also, like all the exchanges, has its own idiosyncrasies and traditions. Fascinating stuff!

Geek Stuff:

I note that the 2018 Global Digital Report suggests that there are now just over four billion internet users, more than half of the world's population. Of those, over three billion are social media users. I can't help but wonder just how many of those internet users are auto-generated bots set up to spread fake news, or boost the number of followers on social media. Also, I'm pretty certain that most people, at least in the West, have more than one account, a personal account and a work account. Many have more than that.

Maybe it would be best to just say that lots of people are online?


This week we have a selection of pictures taken from the best of the entries for SkyPixel's 2017 drone photo contest. My favourite? Difficult, very difficult, but probably the one of snow-capped mountains in Tibet!


Here's this week's quote, which I was reminded of after reading recent crypto-currency articles...

"Any fool can make a fortune. It takes a man of brains to hold onto it after it is made."
-Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt
[I guess this applies to women, too! - AL]


Plan 28 - Can Babbage's Analytical Engine be built?

Electric cars to create new peak hour when they all need a charge

World's steepest funicular rail line to open in Switzerland  [I meant to put this in several issues ago! - AL]

Former CIA CTO talks Meltdown and Spectre cost, federal threats

All your base are belong to us: Strava exercise app maps military sites, reveals where spies jog

Microsoft Q# quantum language and tool kit

Men put her on the ballot as a sexist practical joke; then she won - Susanna Salter, America’s first woman mayor

DARPA hands autonomous sub-hunter prototype over to the US Navy

Car cyber-security still sucks


Thanks to readers Barb and Fi for drawing my attention to material for Winding Down.

Please send suggestions for stories to alan@ibgames.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...

Alan Lenton
11 February 2018

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.

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