All posts by JustinP

Sarko in space

French President Nicolas SarkozyWith France assuming the (rotating) presidency of the European Union, the BBC reports on a potential shift in European space policy;

President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s well-known admiration for all things American now extends to space exploration. Speaking to the BBC, a senior official involved in French space policy said that it was time to shake up the European Space Agency and make it more like the US space agency (NASA) by giving it a new, politically-led direction

The official said that Europe was in danger of becoming redundant in global space terms and it needed an agency that followed a clear political agenda.

“The United States, Russia, China and Japan would not do what they do in space without a political motivation; Europe has only had a scientific motivation until now. So what we are saying is, let’s get the same chances as the others.

But while the BBC reads this shift in emphasis as from ‘scientific’ to ‘political’, the Financial Times focused on the small print – interpreting the announcement as a move towards a ‘military angle for space strategy’;

French ambitions range from setting up an EU spy satellite system to joining a manned US mission to Mars.

Paris wants to exploit synergies with existing civilian space projects. For example, Galileo, the €3.4bn ($5.4bn, £2.7bn) rival to the UScontrolled global positioning system, is classed as a transport project, although it could be used for military operations.

Hmm. The European Space Agency’s most recent press release on Gallileo mentions nothing of military applications, focusing instead on the five civilian services;

the Open Service, the Safety of Life Service, the Commercial Service, the Public Regulated Service, and the Search and Rescue Service.

Now, why does this make me uneasy?*

[image by thewritingzone]

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[ * Only kidding – I’m a total Galileo fanboy. Of course, if Sarkozy were a Doctor Who / Bond villain, Bruce Sterling’s obsession with said Gallic premier could be explained as the result of some kind of sinister mind control laser… ]

More biomimetics – whales and wind turbines

Biomimetics: design solutions from the natural world. Futurismic has covered this kind of thing before, but the examples we’ve blogged about were relatively intuitive.

Iridescent beetle shells as inspiration for a photonic crystal? Fine. Robotic dragonflies for surveillance solutions? Okay. But the appendages of a humpback whale as inspiration for wind turbine design? Bit of a creative leap, surely?

Those knobby flippers were long considered one of the oddities of the sea, found on no other earthly creature.

But after years of study, starting with a whale that washed up on a New Jersey beach, Frank Fish thinks he knows their secret. The bumps cause water to flow over the flippers more smoothly, giving the giant mammal the ability to swim tight circles around its prey.

What works in the ocean seems to work in air. Already a flipperlike prototype is generating energy on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, with twin, bumpy-edged blades knifing through the air. And this summer, an industrial fan company plans to roll out its own whale-inspired model – moving the same amount of air with half the usual number of blades and thus a smaller, energy-saving motor.

So, there you have it – appropriately-named university professor finds application for cetacean hydrodynamics.


Holy titanium bones, Batman!

Earlier this week, the Guardian reported on engineer-turned-entrepreneur Dr. Siavash Mahdavi‘s combination of sintering and AI optimisation software. Potential applications, according to Mahdavi, include the rapid manufacture of ‘made-to-measure orthopedic implants’

“A surgeon will have the existing bone MRI scanned. This information is passed via a CAD programme to the 3D printer. By the time the patient gets to the operating theatre, we will have printed out a medical-grade titanium bone which is an identical match to the one being replaced.”

But can we be sure they will be as reliable as existing implants? “Better,” insists Mahdavi. “Firstly, they are much lighter as, like human bone, they are porous rather than solid. And having an internal mesh means you can fuse the implant to the bone, so the natural bone will grow into the holes and lock itself in. Because it’s a porous structure, you can x-ray the implant and see how the natural bone is melding with the implant. And, though these e-manufactured implants are only a quarter of the weight of solid ones, the laser makes a finer material than cast metal – so is it is actually stronger than the current technology.

From the look of their website, Mahdavi’s company – Complex Matters – is making the most of the technology, capitalising on its applications in a variety of projects.

Revenge of the Sneakernet

sneakers-from-powerlinesBuilding on Paul’s post on writing and piracy, I thought I’d flag an article by Rasmus Fleisher (of Sweden’s Piratbyrån) on the future of copyright;

According to one recent study 95 percent of British youth engage in file sharing via burned CDs, instant messaging clients, mobile phones, USB sticks, e-mail, and portable hard drives.

Such practices constitute the “darknet,” a term popularized by four Microsoft-affiliated researchers in a brilliant 2002 paper [opens pdf]. Their thesis is simply that people who have information and want to exchange it with each other will do just that, forming spontaneous networks which may be large or small, online or offline…

One early darknet has been termed the “sneakernet”: walking by foot to your friend carrying video cassettes or floppy discs. Nor is the sneakernet purely a technology of the past. The capacity of portable storage devices is increasing exponentially, much faster than Internet bandwidth, according to a principle known as “Kryder’s Law.” The information in our pockets yesterday was measured in megabytes, today in gigabytes, tomorrow in terabytes and in a few years probably in petabytes (an incredible amount of data)…

In other words: The sneakernet will come back if needed. “I believe this is a ‘wild card’ that most people in the music industry are not seeing at all,” writes Swedish filesharing researcher Daniel Johansson. “When music fans can say, ‘I have all the music from 1950-2010, do you want a copy?’ – what kind of business models will be viable in such a reality?”

And there’s something about the idea of the sneakernet which, particularly when approached from a speculative angle, really captures my imagination.

Imagine – five years from now. With the internet collapsing under the bandwidth-distorting weight of iPlayer streams and mobile videoblogs, you watch the sun rise from the dovecot, anxiously fiddling with your (slightly battered) GPS-enabled iPhone as you await the feathernet delivery of a USB primed with the entirity of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks collection. For many, the most important question – was the USB in ordered directly from the publishers, or a copy from a mate?

[Image by kookalamanza]

“Tech support? I need a plumber.”

In an attempt to pre-empt the engineering problems posed by the relentless march (or final splutterings) of Moore’s law, IBM has unveiled plans for an very different kind of hydraulic computing;

A network of tiny pipes of water could be used to cool next-generation PC chips, researchers … have said.

Scientists at the firm have shown off a prototype device layered with thousands of “hair-width” cooling arteries.

They believe it could be a solution to the increasing amount of heat pumped out by chips as they become smaller and more densely packed with components.

So – let me get this straight – give it five years, and to support my ultra-powerful palmtop, I’ll have to plumb the darned thing into the domestic water supply or ensure a steady supply of bottled mineral water? Either way, surely that’d negate the whole portability issue?

[Image and story via the BBC]