Money can buy privacy… and surveillance

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2009

CCTV camerasThe world may be becoming something of a panopticon, but you can always buy yourself a safe haven… provided you’ve got the necessary cash, of course. Russian billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich isn’t feeling the credit crunch, it seems, as one of the latest additions to his private “yacht” (which looks bigger than most commercial passenger ferries, to be honest) is a laser-screening system for preventing sneaky photography:

The 557-foot boat Eclipse, the price tag of which has almost doubled since original plans were drawn to almost $1.2 billion, set sail this week with a slew of show-off features, from two helipads, two swimming pools and six-foot movie screens in all guest cabins, to a mini-submarine and missile-proof windows to combat piracy.

It might not seem like somebody with such ostentatious tastes would crave privacy, but along with these expensive toys, Ambramovich has installed an anti-paparazzi “shield”. Lasers sweep the surroundings and when they detect a CCD, they fire a bolt of light right at the camera to obliterate any photograph. According to the Times, these don’t run all the time, so friends and guests should still be able to grab snaps. Instead, they will be activated when guards spot the scourge of professional photography, paparazzi, loitering nearby.

Now, you’ll not see me shedding any tears for the poor paparazzi, but that’s some potentially nasty technology right there. For example, the UK government has become obsessively paranoid about photography of late – where might they decide to install something similar? Y’know, to prevent terrorism?

Somewhat further down the financial scale (and hence more accessible to the anxious middle classes), technologies are now available to surveil your own children at all times – like a GPS-enabled wristwatch that will plot your youngster’s location on Google Maps [via SlashDot]:

The watch, which is designed in bright colours to appeal to children, can be tightly fastened to a child’s wrist and sends an alert if forcibly removed.

Parents can see the location of their child on Google maps by clicking ‘where r you’ on a secure website or texting ‘wru’ to a special number. Safe zones can also be programmed with parents being alerted if their child strays outside this zone.

The makers of the num8 watch claim it gives peace of mind to parents and makes children more independent but critics say tagging children like this is a step too far in paranoia about child safety.

File me under the latter bracket, please – although I suppose tracking your kids via GPS is slightly preferable to keeping them shut in the house all the time in response to tabloid-inflated fears about predators. Whichever smart and exploitative bugger manages to mash up this technology with an overlay map of suspected paedophiles will be raking in the money… probably enough to buy a photo-screened yacht. [image by killbox]

Which highlights the real problem, I think – the supposed security of real-time surveillance, and the immunity to it, are both functions of affluence.  Will the gap between rich and poor become increasingly defined by the degree to which one can chose one’s place in the panopticon?


Project Icarus: an eye in the sky for just $150

Paul Raven @ 14-09-2009

The popped Project Icarus balloon on its way back to EarthIf the $8000 TubeSat kits we mentioned last month are still to pricey for your pocketbook, never fear – you can still muck about on the edge of space, provided you can scrape up a few hundred bucks. A group of MIT students under the aegis of the Icarus Project have managed to take digital photographs from 17.5 miles above the surface of the Earth using nothing but off-the-shelf components… for a mere $150. [via Hack A Day]

The GPS receiver was a Motorola i290 “Boost Mobile” prepaid phone with internet and GPS capability (set up with Accutracking to constantly report its GPS location).

We bought a AA-battery cell phone charger to sustain the phone’s power over the duration of the flight, and we used Energizer lithium batteries (rated to operate at temperatures are low as -40F) to power both this charger as well as our camera.

As a further safeguard against electronic/battery failure due to low temperature, we utilitzed Coleman disposable hand warmers (placed near our electronics) to help keep our equipment warm in the cold of the stratosphere.

We loaded a Canon A470 camera (bought used on Amazon) with CHDK open source software to enable a feature which allowed the camera to take pictures continuously (intervalometer). Using this feature, we set the camera to take a picture every 5 seconds at a 1/800 second shutter speed. With an 8GB card, the camera was able to chronicle the whole journey of the balloon from launch to retrieval. (~5 hours)

OK, so it’s not exactly the most complex payload ever sent aloft, but it’s a clear demonstration that ingenuity gets things done… as is the example of Armadillo Aerospace, who’ve just taken the Level 2 prize of $1million for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge with their Scorpius vehicle.

And given that NASA has been warned that it needs to constrain its goals unless it can increase its budget, that’s good to know; I’m more convinced than ever that the next big steps in space will not be achieved by government agencies, though they may retain a political space on the game-board by commissioning more prize challenges.


High-speed photography

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2009

I’ve been a sucker for this stuff ever since seeing some grainy black and white broadcast on the Open University as a kid… remember the one where they’d photograph the droplet of paint hitting the rest of the liquid (which seems to be the only eighties TV ad that hasn’t made it onto YouTube yet)? Well, high-speed photography has come a fair way since the advent of silicon ubiquity, and as such this will be a pure eye-candy post.

There’s a few seconds of advert beforehand, but then you can watch this little hummingbird doing its hover-and-guzzle routine; there’s more details about the process (and videos, of course) over at Wired.


Atomic fireballs: the man with the pics

Tom James @ 20-05-2009

tumbler_snapper_bombThought ya’ll might get a kick of the old sensawunda out of these “rapatronic” high-speed photos of nuclear bombs exploding:

The exposures were often as short as 10 nanoseconds, and each Rapatronic camera would take exactly one photograph.

A bank of four to ten or more such cameras were arranged at tests to record different moments of early fireball growth.

They provide technical information about the device’s disassembly.

Some really awesome images captured here. More on rapatronics here.

[via Sachs Report][image from the page]


DIY space photos

Tom James @ 19-03-2009

stratosphereThis is really neat, via Slashdot, some Spanish students have sent a camera on a balloon up into the stratosphere, with excellent results:

Taking atmospheric readings and photographs 20 miles above the ground, the Meteotek team of IES La Bisbal school in Catalonia completed their incredible experiment at the end of February this year.

Building the electronic sensor components from scratch, Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort managed to send their heavy duty £43 latex balloon to the edge of space and take readings of its ascent.

Read and see more here.

[from the Telegraph, via Slashdot]


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