Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Silver Surfers

tmp_24700-PINE-A64-Mini-PC-320x210-804007429Since the age of 17 computers have been a part of my life. At college in the late 1960s we had an ICL main frame fed with punch cards. My first job included programming a GNK Unimate robotic arm to part automate the die casting process. In the early 1980s I set up a network of ICL DRS computers to provide an IT system for a hospital engineering department.

At the same time personal computers were becoming affordable and I bought a ZX80 kit, then a Jupiter Ace and on to a whole series of desk top PCs, a TRS 80 portable, PDAs and heavyweight laptops.  Now I have a laptop,  smartphone and a tablet, but these lack the intimacy one got with the very early computers so there is also a Raspberry Pi on my desk connected to a breadboard which allows you to create and programme little circuits using quite basic components and simple scripts.

At present I’m waiting on the delivery of a Pine 64. It’s a cheap,  small computer which has been developed with the support of crowd funding.  It will continue to feed my interest long into my dotage.


Casting Light On The Truth

The EC, the government, environmental groups, the Energy Saving Trust, in fact any person with a membership card for the green brigade has been preaching the benefits of energy saving light bulbs. We have constantly been told of the need to change; they save money; last longer than traditional tungsten lamps and will save the planet, its never ending. Its almost been an evangelical journey to the point where those who do not swap their shiny 100 watt bulbs for the modern equivalent that looks like a poorly inspired bit of modern art are looked down upon as if they are hardened criminals.

Anyone who have been involved in designing, installing or maintaining lighting will tell you that fluorescent lamps have two problems; their working life is significantly reduced if they are frequently switched on and off; and the light output slowly reduces over time. In locations where these lamps are left on for long periods such as in offices, shops and other public places they can achieve life spans of many times that of the tungsten lamp. In areas where they are frequently turned off and on their life span can be reduced to a, not very impressive, life that is the same as a tungsten lamp.

Now research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology has confirmed what many of us have known for a long time, compact florescent lamps, the most common type of energy saving lamp, suffer the same problems as their bigger cousins. Manufacturers also often over state the equivalent level of output and the usable life of these lamps. Its time the EC introduced stringent standards and controls along with their plans to ban the sale of all traditional tungsten lamps and were more honest about the actual savings that can be made.

Pooper-Scooper Power

doggie-pooper-scooperAnaerobic digesters are not new, the first one was built in 1859 by lepers in a colony in India and used to produce methane gas for cooking. Since that time the production of food and, in particular meat, has become an industrial process resulting in lakes of sewage that have left the countryside polluted and the air filled with a miasma that defies description.

With the growing problem of animal and human waste and the growing need for electrical energy it was only a matter of time before producing power from poo became commonplace. Why then has it taken until now for researchers in Denmark to prove that anaerobic digestion is the most efficient way to produce energy. After all Denmark is a huge pig producer and has had a problem with farm waste for many years.

The beauty of anaerobic digestion is it can work on a small scale, all you need is a constant supply of waste matter and some relatively simple technology. A search of the internet will find many DIY solutions although most are aimed at situations in the rural parts of third world countries. I just wonder how long it will be before a commercial poo powered generator comes onto the market and all the pooper-scooping becomes more productive pastime.

A Quieter Time For Non Listeners

MP3 PlayerThe problem of noise induced deafness has been known about for many years, it was a common problem among workers in heavy industry and the subject of health and safety training in the 1970s. The news that volume limiters may be made compulsory on MP3 players seem to be a reasonable step forward, but, as is often the case, its not as simple as that.

The use of limiters is not new, even the most popular range of music players, the iPods, have been sold with a software control that allows a maximum volume level to be set and removed which makes them a bit of an irrelevance as it can, like the new proposal, be ignored. One must ask why bother in the first case if it will just be left unused.

I would suggest another area where volume levels should be controlled in some way are night clubs and music concerts. I would think the damage done to my own hearing is due to the many nights spent, during my youth, in clubs and concert venues being blasted with sound far above even the levels on the old heavy industries. Often my ears would still be ringing the next day, proof something was not right.

A Gossip Over The Digital Fence

garden fenceThere have been quite a few commentators and columnists writing about the growth and negative impact of internet based social networks. Myspace, Facebook and Twitter being a common target. The criticisms are many and varied with the use of these services by politicians being a particular focus.

There is one area that these observations have yet to explore is how the very local network structure of the past is made irrelevant by the nature of the internet. My own Twitter group covers the whole world and comprises people I have only ever conversed with by short text messages. Out of over 400 less than 10 know each other personally.

What we share are common interests in growing our own food and cooking, together with a very comical view of every aspect of our individual lives. Its the same sharing that used to take place over the garden fence and down the allotment shed. It has not replaced my local network of family and friend, but extended it to every continent in the world.

Stop Cutting And Start Capturing To Save The World

geoengineeringGeoengineering is the new climate change buzz word, its the process of artificially modifying the climate to counteract the effects of global warming. Its now thought by some engineers and scientists that it is too late to try and significantly reduce CO2 emissions and we need to start extracting the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Until now such a suggestion has been given little time by the climate change lobby, perhaps things are now changing.

The problem with this solution, and all the others proposed over recent years is one of cost. Fossil fuels are relatively cheap easy to access and convert into power and heat. Renewable energy is expensive unless you live somewhere with a geophysical advantage such as the thermal springs in Iceland or the hydroelectric systems of Norway. For most of the worlds population these low cost energy sources are unavailable.

There is no conclusive evidence to say we have reached the tipping point beyond which climate change is inevitable although many think it is now very close. When the tipping point is passed geoengineering will become essential, lets hope national governments don’t wait too long to start investing in this new technology.

New Light Through New Lamps, Well Almost

CFLToday is CFL day; the day the sale of some tungsten filament lamps became illegal, although shops may continue to sell off existing stocks. Its part of an EU directive to reduce carbon emissions that will eventually ban the sale of all tungsten filament lamps. The new compact florescent and tungsten halogen lamps are more efficient and last longer than their predecessors, but do cost a lot more.

The change is not without its critics who make a number of claims about the new lamps, including

  • They take time to reach full output
  • The light output is less than claimed
  • They do not fit many light fittings
  • They contain mercury
  • The carbon saved is minimal compared to total carbon output

All these claims are refuted by the EU and the manufacturers, however from my experience and a few simple measurements with a light meter I must agree with the first three points. Yes there are CFL that start quickly and have a good output level but they cost four to five times that of the equivalent. Most CFLs on sale are not of the high quality type, many are poor imitations, the sooner there is some form of quality control and defined standards for these lamps the quicker the public will accept them.

Watch Out There’s A TV About

mobile tvMobile TV, sounds like a good idea, TV on your phone, your MP3 player, on a mini media player, on almost anything that has a small colour screen. Industry pundits and investors have been banging on about the development for sometime, the problem is we don’t seem to share their enthusiasm or that of the Japanese and South Koreans.

Live events such as sport and news do attract mobile TV viewers but only because they happen to be away from a decent sized TV because they are probably at work or travelling. The idea of spending more than a few minutes watching a small screen is barking. There’s no detail, digital TV signals are not as forgiving as the, soon to be switched off, old analogue signal, you need a good areal and good reception or there will only be a blank screen.

There is also the problem of caring around all this technology. If its got a screen worth watching it will not fit in your pocket and will consume batteries at an alarming rate. The problem is the manufacturers current business model rely on the public continually replacing their phones and MP3 players every year. That means the technology must keep advancing and going multimedia is one choice, but probably the wrong one.

Museum Of The Present

dna chipIt’s a measure of how technology has impacted on our lives in such a short time that we now have several computer museums around the country. The one based at Bristol University has a Jupiter Ace on display the second computer I owned. It was a rather obscure bit of technology that did not make it into the best sellers list.

It used the Forth computer language instead of BASIC which was the norm for all the other machines available at the time. Being something different I felt there was an opportunity to make a few pounds from writing games programmes for the Jupiter Ace; it was a time when teenagers were making thousands of pounds writing popular computer games for the more common Sinclair ZX 81. I created all the popular games of the time, including Ace Invaders and play on the popular Space Invaders. I managed to sell a few programmes and even opened a business account under the name Forth Dimension but unfortunately after a few months the Jupiter Ace and was withdrawn for sale and with it my ambitions of fame and fortune ended.

This happened just 28 years ago which, when you think of how long it took many other major technology developments to occur, is a very short time. Befitting the nature of the technology there are many virtual computer museums on the Internet, a technology that has developed over an even shorter period. Now scientist are using cages made from DNA to help build even smaller computer chips. Its interesting to think that results of evolution are now being used to drive further advances in technology.

Preserving Digital Data

floppydisc525Digital data should be the most secure and long lived method of storing information, being just a series of 1s and 0s. However, the format in which digital data is stored is not very secure or immune from obsolescence. A neighbour has a digital problem; his important family history records are stored on 5.25 inch floppy discs.

Having upgraded from a very old Amstrad with twin 5.25 inch floppy disc drives he is left with a difficult situation. Modern PCs only have 3.5 inch drives and getting access to his data is proving difficult. A search for a new 5.25 drive has proved fruitless so now it’s down to using a company that specialises in solving these problems but at quite a cost. I also have a similar problem with computer files produced using old Dos and Windows 3.1 programmes. Fortunately they have either been converted to a later format or the original software will run under the latest version of windows.

These problems teach one to avoid storing data in file formats that are not generic. Keeping up with the storage formats is a bigger a problem. That will cost money and a commitment to continually updating computer equipment.