Archive for October, 2011

Mini-bots in motion

October 30, 2011
There are three magnetic mini-robots in front of the coin - can you see them? Picture courtesy of Scientific American

There are three magnetic mini-robots in front of the coin - can you see them? Picture courtesy of Scientific American

I have commented before about nano-motion devices, but time marches on and Scientific American have a report (with videos) on a new design of magnetically-levitated mini robot – just a few millimetres in size.

You can also see the videos here:

Now I admit I found it impossible to understand either exactly how they worked, or what they were doing! But simply watching the videos of the robots scooting around was amazing and I felt like I was looking at something out of the future.

SRI is the company that invented SIRI,  the voice recognition technology used in my new iPhone. Below is general purpose video of the kinds of toys robots they are working with.  I found their ‘surgical’ devices particularly fascinating.

Enjoy 🙂


My New iPhone

October 28, 2011
Me and my iPhone.

Me and my iPhone.

Re-assured by the news of a Danish study reporting no evidence for increased rates of brain tumours in mobile phone users, even over 17 years of use (full paper here), I finally bought an iPhone. The SAR rating of 1.17 watts per kilogram is not the lowest, but it seemed acceptable to me, and so I took the plunge.

I am still coming to terms with the way I have had to to re-organise my life in order to cope with the phone’s ways of doing things, but I have survived the weekend. I had thought the phone would fit in with my life, but having talked with other smart phone ‘victims’, I now realise that this was a naive hope.

Sadly, a building near my school which housed several phone masts has been dismantled and so mobile phone reception at home is rubbish. Oh how I wish they would build more phone masts.;-)

Incidentally, my first ‘app’ was ‘UK Energy‘ which plugs into the ELEXON database to extract real time data on the source of electricity generation. Having previously lost hours of my life on the Elexon site, I am really grateful to Tom Weightman for writing this app.

A Warming World

October 25, 2011

The estimated change in the average temperature of the Earth (in degrees Celsius) compared with a baseline average temperature over the period 1960 to 1970. The new analysis extends back to 1800. Picture from the BBC. Click for larger verison.

The BBC last week reported on a pre-publication draft of a new study of historical temperature records which essentially confirms what all previous studies have shown: the Earth appears to be getting warmer.

Actually, most people already believed that , but that had not stopped many  vitriolic attacks on the scientists who struggled on very limited funds to establish the techniques for creating such an estimate.  I will just pause now to allow time for them to glow with vindication….

The Berkeley team deliberately used different techniques and included more data than previous studies – including using data previous studies had rejected for reasons of quality or provenance. And it made no difference. Although this result is something of a ‘me too’ result, the study is still significant important.

Most interesting is effect on climate ‘skeptics’. So far I have enjoyed the The Register’s reporting on the issue: they report that Berkeley team  had ‘been concerned that University of East Anglia had been concealing discordant data‘ but have in fact confirmed that team’s conclusions. Even hyper-contrarian ‘überskeptics’ such as Anthony Watts are now busy trying to find any way to criticise this new work while stating that they always thought the Earth was warming in the first place! The Global Warming Policy Foundation have had to front up and say they were never denying the Earth was warming in the first place, but even so they still disagree with the new research anyway!

I predict that the general tack of Climate Change deniers will be to say that the important question to ask now is ‘How much warming – if any – is associated with human influences?’. Mmmm. This is an interesting question, but the wrong one. It’s like asking ‘The car I am in is going to crash, I wonder if it is my fault?’. In this case, the  correct question to ask is ‘Can I stop the car before anything bad happens?’ And in the case of global warming the questions we should be asking are similar. But if, as is most likely the case, the warming observed in these studies derives from increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, then it is already too late to stop further warming.

Even stopping carbon dioxide emissions right now, we would still most probably have committed the Earth to hundreds more years of warming. So I think the most important question we should ask is this:

  • Are we ever going to take this issue seriously?’

Despite our government’s commitments, and the existence of a Department of Climate Change, I am not yet convinced that we are really serious about this. A Warming World is not a comfortable place to live.

Fuel Poverty

October 24, 2011

The Department of Energy and Climate Change consider a household as being in ‘fuel poverty’ if it spends more than 10% of its income on energy in order to keep one room at 21 °C and the other rooms at 18 °C. As DECC, and this ‘Poverty‘ site make clear, fuel poverty has three causes:

  1. The cost of energy.
  2. The energy efficiency of the property (and therefore, the energy required to heat and power the home)
  3. Household income.

At the moment, popular focus immediately falls on item 1 – gas and electricity prices. But as I have mentioned before, it is hard to imagine that fuel prices are going to do anything other than rise in coming years. Artificially reducing the price of energy for vulnerable groups may seem like a smart idea, and may be an appropriate short term compassionate gesture. But ultimately reducing the cost of something encourages people to use more of it!

In a recession it is easy to blame the situation on item 3 – household income. Sadly, eliminating ‘poverty’ is something that is unlikely to be achieved in the near term. But although many ‘poor’ people are also in ‘fuel poverty’, that is not the whole story. As the 2007 – 2009 data below shows, the majority (60%) of ‘poor’ people (i.e. people n the bottom 20% of household income) are not in ‘fuel poverty’. So simply being ‘poor’ does not automatically cause ‘fuel poverty.’

The risk of fuel poverty rises sharply as household income falls and, for example, very few households with above-average incomes are in fuel poverty: averaging across 2007 to 2009, around two-fifths of households in the poorest fifth after deducting housing costs were in fuel poverty.  Even so, a majority of households in the poorest fifth were not in fuel poverty and, furthermore, there were a substantial number of households who are not in the poorest fifth but who are nevertheless in fuel poverty (around half of the total number in fuel poverty).  Clearly, therefore, there are factors other than household income which affect whether a household is in fuel poverty or not.

The risk of fuel poverty rises as household income falls. Around 40% of households in the poorest fifth after deducting housing costs were in fuel poverty. Even so, a majority of households in the poorest fifth were not in fuel poverty. Also, there were a substantial number of households who are not in the poorest fifth but who are nevertheless in fuel poverty (around half of the total number in fuel poverty). Clearly, there are factors other than household income which affect whether a household is in fuel poverty or not. Click for larger version. Source www.

The real culprit is item 2, the energy efficiency of houses. If people have modest incomes, but a house which leaks heat, then they will find themselves in fuel poverty. It’s like saying that people in leaky boats will find themselves wet.

It is the poor condition of UK housing that causes fuel poverty. In a modern well-insulated house, almost no heating is required except in the depths of winter. The responsibility for improving this stock falls on the owners of the houses: the government (i.e. us) in the case of public housing; private landlords in the case of rented housing; and owner occupiers.

The best use of government money is not in subsidising the cost of energy, or battling to eliminate poverty (noble though that cause may be). The best use of subsidies is to make it cheaper and easier to insulate the existing poorly-built housing stock. This subsidy will save individuals money, and reduce demand, which will save us all money and carbon emissions in the future.

Who scribbled on the sky?

October 22, 2011
I woke up this morning, and somebody had scribbled on the sky!

I woke up this morning, and somebody had scribbled on the sky!

I woke up this morning and looked out my window and was saddened to see that almost every cloud in the sky was derived from a condensation trail (contrail).

Clouds trap heat below them, and also reflect sunlight back into space, and nobody knows which of these effects is dominant. However, during the night (when there is sunlight to reflect) clouds definitely warm the Earth, even high cold clouds such as these.

However, it was a beautiful dawn – and despite all anxieties about the climate, it is good to occasionally tune into the transcendent beauty around us. Have a nice day :-).

A beautiful dawn

A beautiful dawn

EPSRC Investment Areas

October 21, 2011
EPSRC graphic showing 'investments' in research areas.

EPSRC graphic showing 'investments' in Physical Sciences research areas. Click for larger version.

The EPSRC – the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – is the quango which funds most research in Physics in UK universities. It was formed in 1965 as the SRC (Science Research Council) which in 1981 became SERC  (Science and Engineering Research Council) and then in 1995 evolved into EPSRC. Perhaps you can spot the trend?

A colleague highlighted the above figure on the EPSRC web site (here) which summarises EPSRC’s ‘investments’ in various areas: the size of blobs represents the amount of money ‘invested’ and the colour represents whether they want to grow (green) or reduce (yellow) investment in a subject area. Most areas (blue green) are ‘under review’.

I don’t have much to say about this picture but I was just struck by its apparent randomness and worried by the use of the word ‘investment’. I think the lack of coherence is basically a good thing, indicating – I hope – that EPSRC is responding to diverse requests for funding from across the research ‘universe’. This randomness is (IMHO) essential to keeping academia alive.

Artificial Humanity

October 19, 2011
A Fukushima refugee cuddles PARO robot - designed to evoking caring responses in the elderly. Click picture to link for news story.

A Fukushima refugee cuddles PARO robot - designed to evoking caring responses in the elderly. Click picture to link for news story.

I hate inanimate devices which talk to me.

When I used to commute, I felt affronted by the machines on trains that told me to ‘collect all my belongings’ before I left the train and I detested lifts which instructed me to ‘mind the doors’. Now I find that the friendly and helpful human beings who used to help me at Tesco have been replaced by machines that cannot help telling me what to do, even when I have done it one hundred times before. If I had written the laws of robotics, number one would have been that robots should ‘be quiet, and never tell a human what to do.’

Last year the BBC reported on the nightmarish prospect of robotic seals (No, I am not making this up!) being used to evoke caring responses in elderly Japanese people. These are devices designed to  ‘evoke brain wave enhancement’ in the elderly.

And now, Apple have introduced SIRI which has all the hallmarks of a technology which will become ubiquitous. It is beguilingly clever, and a triumph of artificial intelligence.

I predict that soon, I will be obliged to converse with a computer system when I visit a supermarket. The ‘personality’ of the software will be carefully chosen to optimise the experience from a business perspective. The people that worked there will be made redundant, and presumably, supermarket items will become slightly cheaper as a result. Clever as this technology is – I detest it.

When I share a remark about the weather with a person on the supermarket checkout, momentarily we genuinely share our experiences – albeit rather superficially. Our shared moment is a tiny moment, and an insignificant moment in many ways. But in that moment we are equals. If I commented on the weather to a SIRI-based checkout assistant, no doubt SIRI would reply appropriately – but it would mean nothing. It would re-inforce my isolation rather than diminishing it. If these mudane inetractions with people are replaced by computer interfaces, we will all be the poorer.

Electricity Prices: The long view

October 18, 2011
A random picture from the internet.

A random picture from the internet.

The BBC reports that the energy secretary has called for us all to switch electricity suppliers to optain cheaper electricity. His detailed statement reads:

There is an iceberg up ahead – we must act decisively to re-organise the deck chairs on this ship. Mr Miliband says he wants the chairs on the left of the ship and Mr Cameron says he wants them on the right. Only the liberal democrats will keep the deck chairs firmly in the middle of the ship.

The price that we pay for electricity can very roughly be divided into two parts. One part pays for fuel related costs, and the other part pays for the infrastructure – the power stations and the distribution system that brings the electricity to our homes and places of work.

The increasing number of humans on the planet is likely to lead to long term pressure on all sources of fuel – most of which is based on fossilised carbon. So in the long term, fuel prices are likely to rise relative to other costs. There is a genuinely global market in fuel.

The infrastructure cost is new to the UK . Prior to 1990, the power stations and the electricity grid were owned by the government i.e. us. In those ‘olden days’, investment was funded in part from electricity prices, but mainly from central government – i.e. taxation. Twenty years on from privatisation,we have collectively enjoyed the fruits of the sale of this infrastructure, but we have not recently invested in new generating or distribution capacity. Now we need to raise significant amounts of investment to build new power stations and grid facilities. These facilities are now privately owned and the investment has only one source: increased electricity prices.

We are now asking multinational companies to build facilities in the UK. These facilities will cost billions of pounds, take many years to construct, and the companies will receive pay back over decades. In the case of nuclear power stations – our only chance of keeping carbon emissions level – the cost is more than 10 billion pounds for each station! If these companies choose not to invest in the UK, then in the coming years, in the depths of winter when demand in highest, somebody will switch on their lights – and nothing will happen. And if these companies even suspect that after investing billions they will not be allowed to reap the profits of their investment for decades to come, then they will not build in the UK. There are other places to invest.

Honesty.  That is what I ask from Mr Huhne. Honesty in explaining that – to the extent that we can foresee future events at all – we expect electricity prices to continue to rise for years if not decades to come. If we want the cheapest, most polluting technology available, then our electricity prices will not rise quite so much. But if we choose to generate electricity from low carbon sources – renewably and from nuclear power – electricity prices will rise even more to pay for that investment.

Age Limits for Car Hire

October 17, 2011
Excerpt from Car Hire Reservation. Note the Upper age limit

Excerpt from Car Hire Reservation. Note the upper age limit

I just wanted to pointlessly record that my car hire reservation for a trip tomorrow arrived just now stating:

Driver age must be minimum 21 maximum 999

A Universal Language: the triumph of the SI

October 17, 2011
The World Standards Day Poster.

The World Standards Day Poster.

A Universal Language – a language that would allow genuine communication among all of humanity – has been a dream for as long as languages have existed. For spoken language, I suspect that this will remain a dream, and indeed the diversity of language is probably a cause for celebration. Scientifically, English is undoubtedly the current lingua franca, but scientists in many countries publish their findings in other languages, notably Russian, Chinese, French and German. However, when it comes to scientific measurement, there is an amazing and near universal agreement: the International System of Units – the SI – is the agreed system of measurement units amongst almost all the scientists in almost every country on Earth.

Just like a spoken language, the shared use of the language of measurement enables communication and indicates the existence of shared culture. I am writing this because this is a truly remarkable achievement which is largely uncommented upon. Despite the astonishing diversity of languages and cultures, there is almost universal use of the SI system of units when scientists communicate their results.

To be sure, there are still exceptions. Many subgroups of scientists value their own group culture above the ability to communicate universally. Typically they say they find their familiar units ‘more convenient’ or ‘more natural’. But time is not on their side . Whereas we are all losers when a spoken language is lost, we are all winners when people abandoned the use of angstroms and chose to use nanometres instead.

The SI system may appear to be essentially unchanging, but like all ‘languages’ it evolves with the culture it supports. I once spoke with Richard Davis, at that time the Executive Secretary of CCT, about the difference between the SI and the previous systems of units – the CGS system (centimetre – gram – second) and the MKS system (metre-kilogram-second). ‘Basically‘ he said, ‘the SI is the MKS system, but it has people who care about it‘.

Measurement may be defined as ‘quantitative comparison of an unknown quantity with a standard quantity’, and practically this requires people to agree about the standard quantities and exactly how they are realised – something which changes with time and technology – and how the comparisons are made. So there is an extensive system of committees which discuss points of  detail which affect the minutiae of the measurement system. But the existence of these committees keeps the system of units ‘alive’.

Whereas ‘globalisation’ is a contentious issue when it comes to manufacturing and industry, when considering the language of science, there is no doubt in my mind that it is an unequivocally positive process. And I think it is worth pausing, perhaps just for a moment, to reflect that occasionally people can cooperate in a global scale and achieve great things.

Pause… … …

Bring on Global Warming!

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