An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net and technology news
by Alan Lenton
Global warming (or not), Windows 8, Facebook, TrapWire, JFK, slippery stuff, a retinal implant, a sunspot pic, a new mpeg standard, open source, an H.R. G(e)iger counter, drones, and Samsung’s new tablet, plus a bunch of other URLs. It’s all in this week’s Winding Down.
So, R.I.P. Harry Harrison, ace science fiction author, and creator of Soylent Green and the Stainless Steel Rat. Other books of his that I really loved as a teenager were ‘The Technicolor Time Machine’ and ‘Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers’ - the latter a wonderful tongue in cheek pastiche of E.E ‘Doc’ Smith’s novels. But now he too is gone. I guess he was making room for a new generation of sci-fi writers...
Reminder: No Winding Down next week - it’s Bank Holiday over here in the UK that weekend, and I’ll be using to debug a problem in Federation 2, my multiplayer game (over 25 years old and still going!). See you all the week after...
Over the last month or so, the news has not been too good for the climate warming brigade. It’s all a matter of data. The World meteorological Organization (WMO), produced a set of new techniques to apply to official figures some time ago. Now researchers have applied the new techniques to existing US figures. The techniques are designed to take account of the quality of the weather stations housing thermometers. When you apply the techniques there are some interesting results. For instance, over half of the global warming reported by US land-based thermometers between 1979 and 2008 simply disappears!
Even more alarming, as Andrew Orlowski points out in a piece on ‘The Register’, “The new study reveals that the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) discarded the temperature trend from the higher quality weather stations in favor of a warming temperature trend from low quality weather stations.”
In another US federal government study published in ‘Nature’, it was discovered that the earth is absorbing twice as much CO2 as it was fifty years ago. Even more interesting, though, were the fluctuations within that time period. To give one example, uptake of CO2 declined in the 1990s and then increased in the 2000 to 2010 period. What does this mean? It means that we don’t understand what is happening properly, and that we need to study the cycle of CO2 uptake before we start using them as calculations predicting global warming.
Then there was the ‘Arctic ice will vanish within a decade’ scare based on figures provided by Dr Seymour Laxon of University College London, who used figures from the Cryostat-2 satellite to make his predictions. Only one problem - the satellite only started watching the ice cap in 2010 - two years ago. Two years? What sort of time scale is that to predict even short term trends, let alone long term ones. Even the owner of the satellite, the European Space Agency, frowns on using less than four year’s data. And even four years is a pretty miserable amount of data to base predictions on, to my mind.
Then there is the Greenland ice sheet... The scenarios making the news are all about it melting rapidly and causing a huge rise in sea levels, mercilessly drowning coastal cities. But this isn’t the first time the Greenland ice started melting in this fashion - it happened in the late 80s as well. It now seems that periods of rapid melting, like the one just seen, have happened in the past - but then, rather than continuing, the apparently runaway melting simply stopped.
So, does this mean that there is no global warming? Hell, I haven’t a clue. The whole issue is so tied up with politics and economics, that it’s virtually impossible to tell anything about what’s going on. What I do know is that the discussion that there was an urgent need to spend vast amounts of money on ‘sustainable’ energy came in a period of economic boom, while the counter evidence is appearing as money becomes more scarce. Add to that the desire of governments to stop their citizens travelling and picking up ‘unhealthy’ new ideas and broadening their horizons, and you have the murkiest soup yet.
And talking about disasters, the final version of Windows 8 is now available. One thing about it that hasn’t got a lot of net time is the fact that it will not ship with DVD playback in Windows Player. If you want the feature at all then you will have to cough up for Windows 8 Media Center or Pro upgrade packs. Sneaky huh? Actually there is a much better alternative - it’s called VLC, and it’s free. Actually, I’m using it to listen to the MP3s of my music collection while I write Winding Down. And, unlike Windows Player, it’s free and it doesn’t keep trying to send me to buy stuff from Microsoft. Add the equally free ‘FreeRip’ program and you have the basis of a competent media center. Note that ripping your own CDs may be illegal in some backward countries. Highly recommended.
Facebook is in trouble with the Germans, where data protection officials have accused Facebook of “illegally compiling a vast photo database of users without their consent”. They are demanding that it destroy its archive of files based on facial recognition, since in Europe companies are required to get explicit permission from people before tagging them. Facebook is fighting the demands, but I suspect this will be a losing battle on its part. Why? Because although Facebook is a US company, it’s already in deep trouble with its investors over the fact that its share value has declined by around 50% since its IPO. Because of this it simply can’t afford to get embroiled in an extended fight with the German, and possibly other EU, authorities over its photo tagging policies.
Who’s watching you baby? Well if you are in the US, the government for a start. WikiLeaks has recently released information about a US government spy network called ‘TrapWire’. It apparently uses ordinary surveillance cameras in stores, casinos, and businesses for analysis using facial recognition. I doubt if they can do much with it at the moment - one commentator called the system ‘Defense industry welfare’ - but over time facial recognition will improve to the level where it will at least be useful for forensic tracking. And when the technology is right, the camera network will be ready and in position, with a huge data bank of faces for retrospective analysis...
There was a classic ‘incident’ at JFK airport the other week. A man, whose jet ski ran out of fuel, swam over to the airport, came ashore, climbed over an eight foot fence, walked two miles across a set of live runways, and was finally spotted by an airline employee as he walked up a terminal ramp. Note that he was spotted by a non-airport employee, not any of the $100 million system of surveillance cameras and motion detectors installed around the airport! There are just some things that you really, really, need people for, not high tech!
Since the lead article is about ice (or lack of it) this week, I thought I’d draw your attention to a new discovery. It’s a slippery surface material that’s so slippery that ice won’t form on it. Not even crude oil, which is notorious for being difficult to remove, will stick to it. Interestingly enough, the coating can, unlike other slippery technologies, be applied to rough surfaces. It relies on molecularly flat, defect-free, liquid-repellent surfaces that are almost friction-free. The invention by a team from Harvard, as well as keeping your fridge free of ice, also has important medical implications for implants, since blood won’t stick to it either.
And talking of implants, German biotechnology firm Retina Implant AG has developed a microchip that provides a useful degree of artificial vision in patients who have been blind for even long periods. The chip is only three mm square and is implanted below the surface of the retina. After successful trials in Germany, it’s now under test in Hong Kong and the UK, with US trials to follow.
It specifically targets a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa which attacks the photoreceptors while leaving the nerves intact. Take a look at the article for more information on how it works.
This week I spotted an absolutely superb picture of a sunspot. It’s the best I’ve ever seen and I’d urge you all to take a look and marvel!
Here’s a heads up. The Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) has issued a new draft standard that delivers the same video quality in only half the bandwidth you need at the moment. It’ll take a while to get out into common use, there are various hurdles, but in the long run its impact should be formidable - not in halving the bandwidth in use, but in doubling the number of streaming videos people watch!
There’s an interesting piece by Simon Phipps on the Infoworld site. He’s arguing that Open Source software is making a huge contribution to the wealth produced in the economy (specifically the US, but, in fact any industrialized country), but that the contribution doesn’t appear in any GDP or other ‘official’ figure, so politicians and economists don’t take any notice of it. As a result Open Source is constantly under threat from legislation by politicians who have no idea how much damage they can cause. Take a look, it’s an interesting point of view.
Did you rate the cool architecture of the alien spaceship in the first ‘Alien’ movie? Then you will love this H.R. G(e)iger counter! Yep, a geiger counter in the style of H.R. Giger, designer of the alien spaceship*. It’s a mass of ribs, vertebrae, and flexible hoses. A must for the cool geek.
Unmanned drones are developing apace and were on show in LA earlier this month. Want a peek at what’s in the offing? Then take a look at this video from the show. You never know, it might inspire the creative juices!
Would you like a decent tablet but don’t want to be locked into Apple’s walled garden? The it might be worth taking a look at Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, which is getting excellent reviews. I use the Galaxy Note 1 smart phone, and it’s a pretty good phone, I even use the handwriting stuff, and make a lot more use of SMS because the stylus makes it so much faster. I think I might start saving for a 10.1 in the near future.
Scanner: Other stories
RIP Harry Harrison: Stainless Steel Rat scurries no more
Twitter changes lead to online protests
People who make Twitter clients need to stop and find another business
‘Cash for comment’ journos and bloggers under spotlight in Oracle-v-Google
Microsoft patches critical security holes in Windows, Office, IE
Oracle pays off SEC to settle Indian channel bribery claims
* Not to mention the brilliant cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s ‘Karn Evil 9’ album.
Thanks to readers Andrew, Barb and Fi for drawing my attention to material used in this issue.
Please send suggestions for stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Spamato spam filter...
19 August 2012
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.
Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.
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