Why do devices still have power cables?

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2010

I mean, it’s not like we don’t have loads of other fancy and elegant options for transferring power and data to our gadgets and machines, right? But as this piece at Wired points out, power cables are cheap, versatile and simple to produce by comparison to all the more advanced solutions – and that’s why we still have ’em.

It’s a good concise example of something that searching out stories for Futurismic has taught me over the years: that innovative new technology may not actually be as revolutionary as it initially appears, and that the “gadget of the future” may remain a marginal gimmick long after its fanfare’d launch at some trade show or another. Pragmatism and profit margins are very important factors in forming the shape of the future.

Of course, this is one of the arguments that favours the medium-term survival of the dead-tree book, even as the ereader manufacturers shape up for a price war. For the (possibly mythical) average consumer who reads a couple of books a year and no more, buying them as paperbacks will make a lot more sense… and there’s a lot more of those average consumers than there are rabid readers, I’m guessing.

Microfluidic diagnostic chips are (almost) child’s play

Paul Raven @ 10-11-2009

Pity us poor Brits and our ox-bow lake of eighties pop-culture – until today I had no idea what Shrinky Dinks were. But now I know… and I also know that code 6 polystyrene sheets (which is what Shrinky Dinks are made of) can be used to make single-run prototypes of microfluidic diagnostic chips, thanks to the innovative thinking of one Michelle Kine:

she whipped up a channel design in AutoCAD, printed it out on Shrinky Dink material using a laser printer, and stuck the result in a toaster oven. As the plastic shrank, the ink particles on its surface clumped together, forming tiny ridges. That was exactly the effect Khine wanted. When she poured a flexible polymer known as PDMS onto the surface of the cooled Shrinky Dink, the ink ridges created tiny channels in the surface of the polymer as it hardened. She pulled the PDMS away from the Shrinky Dink mold, and voilà: a finished microfluidic device that cost less than a fast-food meal.


She hastens to point out that Shrinky Dink microfluidics isn’t perfect–minute ink splatters from the printer, for instance, can give rise to slight irregularities in the finished channels.

Still, glitches like these don’t pose a problem for most applications. And Khine has already found a way around a more serious difficulty: PDMS can absorb proteins, throwing off the results of sensitive tests. She has begun to make chips directly out of the Shrinky Dinks by etching the design into the plastic using syringe tips. As the plastic shrinks, the channels become narrower and deeper–perfect for microfluidics. She can even make three-dimensional chips by melting several etched Shrinky Dinks together. The whole process, from design to finished chip, takes only minutes.

Kudos, Miss Kine. Even if you’re not a microfluidics researcher, this is an impressive example of finding cheap methods for making high-tech devices – the sort of favela-budget hack that takes a technology from university laboratories to the potting sheds of the globe. I wonder what the garage biohacker crowd will make of Kine’s innovation? And what might be the next lab-grade technology to be reproduced at a fragment of the normal price using off-the-shelf stuff from the supermarket? [via BoingBoing]

The end of science?

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2009

science in action?Over at The Guardian, Ehsan Mahsood wonders whether the culture of modern science is stifling the radical thinking and new discoveries that have always been science’s hallmark and driving force:

Revolutions in scientific thinking are always difficult – but perhaps one reason why we may see fewer of them in the future is because of the highly professional way in which modern science is organised. It takes a lot of courage to challenge conventionally accepted views, and it needs a certain amount of stamina to constantly battle those who want to protect the status quo. Mavericks do not do well in large organisations, which is what some scientific fields have become.

Progress in science needs researchers who are not afraid – or who are encouraged and rewarded – to ask awkward and difficult questions of theory and of new data. It is easier to question mainstream views if you are independently wealthy, as many scientists in previous ages tended to be. But I wonder how many of us would do so if we were employed by the state and our career progression depended on the validation of our peers?

Mahsood has a point here; you only have to look at the computer industry to see that the bigger a corporation gets the less likely it is to do something genuinely innovative. But it strikes me he’s overlooking the potential for unaffiliated independent scientists to work together in ways that wouldn’t be funded by cautious or conservative governments or foundations – what about all the DIY biohackers, for example?

Sure, there’s only so much they can do alone, but the internet means they have all the tools they need to network with their fellow enthusiasts, share information, collaborate… so maybe we’re not seeing the end of science as Mahsood would have it, but the end of state-funded science (at least for non-military applications). You could argue that clades of unaffiliated ‘rogue’ scientists would introduce a large element of danger, especially with regard to genetic or viral research… but then state-funded establishments have made their fair share of screw-ups, too, despite (or perhaps because of) the baroque architecture of procedural regulations. [image by neys]

But hey, let’s think positive here: at least science is opening up new channels for international diplomacy.

Growing clean energy down at the Crowd Farm

Paul Raven @ 31-07-2007

Subway stairwellHere’s a different sort of crowdsourcing. The “Crowd Farm” is the brainchild of two MIT architecture students, and it’s a system designed to harness the physical movements of large masses of people and turn it into usable electricity – imagine contributing to the metro station’s lighting by climbing the stairs, for example. It’s a great idea – and like a lot of great ideas, a couple of people have thought of it already. Let’s hope any arguments over patents don’t get in the way of something that can reduce our collective carbon footprints, eh? [Image by yeuxrouge]

Mechanical nanocomputers

Paul Raven @ 28-07-2007

Babbage-style mechanical 'difference engine'Via Bruce Sterling, we discover that a group of US physicists have produced a blueprint for a robust nanoscale microprocessor. Not such groundbreaking news, you might think – until you discover that they are entirely based on mechanical principles derived from the famous Babbage Engine, a Victorian-era mechanical computer. [Image by lorentey]

Electronic computers proliferated once semiconductors became a reliable mass-production substrate, but there are some places where electronics are too delicate to operate reliably. Which reminds me of a science fiction novel in which the military spacecraft are fitted with mechanical computers so as not to be susceptible to damage from the EMP of nuclear weapons … a big Futurismic ‘thank you’ to anyone who can remind me of the author and title.

In related news, the ubiquitous Google have added another lump sum to the annual Turing Award, the “highest award in the field of computing science” for innovative ideas.

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