Category Archives: Technology

Facebook Friendships Around The Globe

Image Showing Facebook Relationships Around The World

Click to enlarge! This shows the volume of Facebook relationships around the world, as of December 2010. The image was produced by Paul Butler, an intern on Facebook’s data infrastructure engineering team.

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Are Screenings at U.S. Airports Still “Reasonable”?

by Oleg Volk

Just before one of the most important American holidays (and peak travel season), the ferocious debate about the new full-body scanners and manual body searches at U.S. airports shows no sign of abating.

What I find most infuriating is the perplexing amount of disinformation and blatant propaganda spewed by the TSA and its supporters, to the degree where it becomes condescending and insulting to rational human beings. Continue reading

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The Facebook Diaries

I have been watching in amazement how Facebook, which now has half a billion users, is evolving into a gigantic online diary. Assuming it will be around for our entire lifetime, it has the potential to become a chronicle of our lives.

CG artist Maxime Luère plays on this notion in his amazing video:

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Mystery Missile: Cause For Concern

A Pentagon official, taken by surprise, called the incident “bizarre”. The U.S. military seems stumped, and nobody has been able to offer any explanation so far.

Last night just before dusk, a KCBS news helicopter captured footage of what appears to be a large missile launched about 35 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The launch site, destination and who launched it are part of a mystery.

Of course, this could just be a strange visual illusion — most likely the con trail of a passenger jet, illuminated by the sinking sun. But if it is not, we should be seriously concerned.

If it was indeed a missile — could it be American? Theoretically, yes, but not likely. California is home to several weapons test sites. And the state is home to several U.S. Navy surface ships and submarines capable of executing such a launch, which can be done from a submerged sub. However, the U.S. Navy has denied that any exercise or test took place in the area last night, and has denied any involvement. A spokesperson of Vandenberg Air Force Base, on the coast a little further up north, denied that the con trail originated from there. Neither Navy, nor the Air Force, NORAD or the Defense Department have been able to come up with an explanation so far. And the Federal Aviation Administration had not approved any commercial launch activity in the area on Monday, a spokesman said.

A secret weapons test seems highly unlikely because such tests are not usually conducted in plain sight of a major metropolis, and not in one of the busiest shipping routes along the U.S. West Coast. And firing a large rocket in an unrestricted, civilian airspace would be a violation of all kinds of aviation regulations. And very stupid. Furthermore: judging from the video footage, the con trails seems far too big to come from an amateur rocket.

All the above seems very improbable. Whoever did this must have anticipated (or even desired) the incident to be seen. In the absence of other likely explanations, there are not many plausible scenarios left. But all the remaining ones are all rather disconcerting.

(1) It could have been an accidental firing off a U.S. Navy vessel. (Again, highly improbable, and it would be unwise to attempt a cover-up).

(2) It could have been a demonstration of a hostile foreign nation such as North Korea, which may have secretly developed a submarine-based launch system of their own. In addition to the U.S., Britain’s Royal Navy and the French and Russian navies have the capability as well. And while the first two are allies without a need to conduct such an exercise, Russia would seem disinclined to provoke an international incident with a silly stunt. Besides, the official Russian military has no need to demonstrate their abilities in this area either. Which leaves China and India, both of which have very limited submarine-based missile capability. Both have some new systems believed to come online this year. (Obama is in India at the moment, on his first official visit there. Could this have something to do with it?)

(3) The missile may have been launched from a surface ship disguised as a cargo or shipping vessel — possibly by a terrorist organization or other cartel using a commercial weapons system clandestinely brought close to the American shore. The possible purpose? A demonstration, test or exercise of some sort.

Such systems do exist. The most dangerous I know of is a Russian system developed by Concern Morinformsystem-Agat.

Known as the “Club K Container Missile System”, it consists of 4 surface-to-surface missiles and their launch tubes, concealed in a standard 40-foot shipping container. Such containers are ubiquitous around the world. Tens of millions are traveling on ocean ships, trains and trucks at any given moment. Their sheer number means that they cannot be effectively monitored.

The Club K system is unique in that it appears to be quite autonomous and automated. Concealed within their standard shipping container, the missiles and their launch system could travel, undetected, around the world. Any regular container ship, truck or flatbed train car are possible carriers. Once the container comes within 136 miles (220 km) of its intended target (as determined by GPS), the launch system inside the container activates, erects the launch platform and fires off the missiles. And after that, there is no defense. Ingenious — and very, very difficult to neutralize.

To show how this works, here is a video simulation:

This will be a fascinating story to follow. Clear is only: unless the Pentagon knows something it is not telling the public (and that too would not be unheard of), there is a flurry of major investigations going on right now.

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Singing Android

I am fascinated with robots. One day, they could relieve us of most menial and dangerous labor and give us the freedom to dedicate more of our time to meaningful pursuits. In fact, in order to take care of the aging population in industrial countries, we might not have any other choice but to deploy robots in great numbers.

Japanese institutes and companies are making great strides in robotics and have taken the lead in android development. This video presents a Japanese android singer, along with a troupe of human performers.

The song is not just a recording. It is actually “sung” or synthesized by the machine, which could theoretically sing any song. Sure, the look and sound are not ready for Broadway just yet. But if this technology develops as fast as the automobile did since 1910, guess where we will be in 100 years!

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I Still Have Mine!

This week’s announcement of the impeding end for Sony’s venerable, classic Walkman reverberated around the world. After all, the device has revolutionized the way we listen to music — since 1979. It once provided the soundtrack to my life and was one of my most prized possessions.

My old Walkman! Photo: Reinhard Kargl. Click to enlarge.

I still have mine! It cost a quadzillion (or what seemed to be a crazy amount at the time) and was the top of the line: all-metal construction, Dolby Noise Reduction, “Disc Drive Capstan Servo Anti Rolling Mechanism” (whatever that means), and two headset jacks. The latter was very important, since it made it possible  to get close to someone special while listening to music decidedly intolerable to parents. (Hah! Take that, iPod!)

After Sony’s initial announcement caused widespread echo around the world, the Japanese concern was quick to clarify: although Walkman cassette players will no longer be sold in Japan, some models continue to be available in select markets. (However, these models are cheapo, flimsy plastic thingies of inferior quality compared to the high-end models from the 1980s).

I think I’ll pop in a Ramones cassette and see it it still works. Until then, gabba-gabba hey! Whatever.

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Rotary Speed

Here is a picture I took at Mazda’s North American headquarters in Irvine, California. The occasion was the 2010 SevenStock meet, an annual gathering for rotary engine enthusiasts.

Mazda RX-792P race car. Photo: Reinhard Kargl, 2010. (Click to enlarge).

The car pictured is the RX-792P of 1992. This particular car was not very successful on the track, but I think it remains one of the most beautiful race cars ever built. One year earlier, a similar car with the same 4-rotor Wankel engine had been victorious in one of the most grueling auto races the world has ever known: the 24 Hours of LeMans.

I am fascinated with Wankel-type rotary engines. Designed in the 1950s by the German engineer, Felix Wankel, they offer many advantages over conventional piston-engines. And yet, Wankel’s design was never universally adopted among auto makers. Today, its only global, large scale manufacturer is Japan’s Mazda Motor Corporation.

Truth be told, all types of rotary engines also have disadvantages. But it seems to me that many doubts regarding the Wankel engine’s design are based on outdated information. When the engine type was first fielded by Germany’s NSU Motorenwerke AG, its contemporaries and licensees during the 1960s, the technological prerequisites had not evolved yet. The rotary concept was simply ahead of its time.

Today, after decades of experience and with much better materials, a more thorough understanding of thermodynamics, big advances in lubricants and seals, as well as the benefits of turbo or compressor charging, fuel injection, electronic engine control and emission control technologies, things have changed.  Mazda has done quite well with getting the Wankel’s inherent problems under control.

Given more R&D funding and a better supply of skilled and experienced maintenance personnel, Wankel engines could be made ideal for sports cars, motorcycles, aircraft and — due to their high power output at a relatively small size and low weight: as auxiliary engine for hybrid cars. Audi’s A1 e-tron concept study incorporates this configuration!

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Just Published: Getting an Earful

Some schools are now using voice amplification systems in their classrooms, and I have been working on an article about their experiences. Here is the (just published) online version:

(THE Journal is a specialty publication covering technology in education).

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What Do 25,000 Oil Barrels Look Like?

Estimates of the amount of oil spilled from the still gushing BP well in the Gulf of Mexico range 25,000 to 60,000 barrels per day.

It’s hard to imagine how much this is. Here is a video simulation of 25,000 barrels, the lowest estimate. This animation was done with software normally used to produce video games. Impressive!

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Send Pictures as Postcards

The Austrian postal service is launching an innovative smart phone app.

First, take a picture on your smart phone and upload it. Then, add a recipient mailing address and a personal message. The postal service in Austria will generate a postcard, print it on paper and send it (via domestic or international mail) to the recipient.

The cost (1.99 euro for postage and postcard) can be paid via credit card or other payment options).

Now you can send your aunt Mimi a postcard from Austria, with a picture of you in Las Vegas. Just for the heck of it.

No smart phone? You can also upload pictures from a computer with Internet access. No special software is required.

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