Showing posts with label technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label technology. Show all posts

26 January 2015

A man with a mission

Actually, a man with a whole series of missions. Elon Musk has done some extraordinary things in his life so far. He has affected the lives of most of us; if you've used PayPal he's affected your life. Here's a summary of his major achievements. A glance through the list below will give some sense of the scale of this man's ambitions.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk
Blastar - At the age of twelve, Elon Musk sold the computer code for a video game called Blastar for $500. He had already taught himself programming and created the game. Very few of us have sold software at the age of twelve. I wonder what he did with the money?

Zip2 - When he was twenty-four, he started the company Zip2 with his brother, creating an internet guide for the newspaper industry. Four years later the company was sold to Compaq and Elon made $22 million as a result.

PayPal - Musk started an online finance and payment company called that merged with Confinity a year later. Their main product, PayPal, was the major focus and was acquired by eBay in 2002 - Musk left with $165 million in his pocket.

SpaceX - Elon Musk put $100 million into starting his next company, SpaceX. In 2009, after several failures, the first successful private launch to Earth orbit flew and the company survived. Musk has said that one further launch failure at that point would have finished SpaceX.

But the company is still operating - building and flying ever-better vehicles and selling the flights commercially. A NASA contract to fly cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) has helped support these developments with Dragon, and a crewed version is in the pipeline. The Falcon Heavy rocket is due to make its first test flight in 2015/16, and methane-burning engines for a much larger rocket are under development.

SpaceX is currently valued at about $10 billion.

Tesla - This company builds electric cars and was founded in 2003, Musk joined the venture as chairman in 2004. Following the financial crisis in 2008, he then became CEO and Product Architect and has steered Tesla into the release of three car models with more in the pipeline, he has also offered to supply power-chains to other car makers and allow them access to Tesla's patent portfolio.

Solar City - The idea was Musk's, but the company was founded and is run by others. However, Elon Musk is the largest shareholder. Solar City installs domestic solar power systems free of charge, recouping the investment by taking a share of the proceeds from selling the power produced over a fixed time period.

Tesla and Solar City are cooperating to use electric vehicle batteries to balance out grid power, storing spare capacity by day and drawing power back at night.

Gigafactory - The Gigafactory, part of Tesla, is intended to turn out large numbers of cheap batteries for use in electric vehicles, for power storage for the grid and for other purposes. The initial goal is to reduce the cost of batteries for Tesla vehicles, and the plant is currently under construction.

Hyperloop - Musk proposed the Hyperloop as a new form of transport infrastructure, initially to link Los Angeles and San Francisco. Partially evacuated tunnels and air suspension would allow pods to travel with little resistance and at higher speeds than aircraft. Third parties are designing pods, while Elon Musk plans to build a five-mile test track.

Satellites - Recently, Elon Musk has proposed repeating SpaceX's rocketry and spacecraft success with cheap and reliable satellite design and production. He plans to create a facility for this in Seattle, and co-operate with Google and others in building large numbers of internet-providing satellites in low Earth orbit. Google has become an investor and partner as part of this process.

Mars Colony - Musk has long-term plans to live and die on Mars. The Mars Colonial Transporter will be designed and built to carry 100 tonnes of cargo to Mars at a time. It would also be capable of carrying 100 passengers. The plans involve creating a self-sustaining colony on the surface of Mars, with a population of at least 80 000.

25 November 2013

Reusable launchers

If Falcon 9 launches the SES-8 communications satellite successfully, this will be a doubly historic day in the life of SpaceX and for spaceflight in general. It is SpaceX's first attempt at a geostationary transfer orbit, and it's the second flight of their new partly reusable rocket.

The first Falcon 9 1.1 launch
The first Falcon 9 1.1 launch
Today is a very special day. SpaceX plans to launch its first mission to put a commercial satellite into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

This is what all launcher companies aspire to, and it's the core of their business.

From GTO a communications satellite can make its own way to geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), the place it needs to be if it's a TV relay or a weather satellite.

Today's projected launch is for a satellite called SES-8, flying to provide communications links for South-East Asia.

A new, reusable rocket - This is also the second launch for SpaceX's Falcon 9 1.1, a new and more powerful design that has replaced the original version of Falcon 9. Uniquely among current launch vehicles, Falcon 9 1.1 is designed to be reusable; after stage separation and ignition of the second stage and the payload, all other first stages simply re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, break up under aerodynamic stresses, and crash into the sea.

But Falcon 9 1.1 is intended to rotate, fire three of its nine engines to slow and control its descent, and finally use a single engine to land back at the launch pad. The cost savings will be immense if first stages can be re-used.

SpaceX will not attempt a return this time, though on the first flight they did so [Tweet it!] (and almost succeeded). The idea was to simulate a landing on the sea's surface and then ditch the stage.

But early next year, SpaceX would like to try again using a Falcon 9 1.1 equipped with deployable landing legs. Eventual success will transform the space launch industry very dramatically.

Watch this space! (No pun intended.)


  • Reusable rockets would greatly reduce costs to orbit (think in terms of around one tenth the cost or less) What might cheaper access to space make possible?
  • Do you think humans will one day live in places other than the Earth? (See, for example, Mars One.)

See also: 

11 October 2013

Understanding science and technology

Truth is truth, and we have to deal with that, even if it seems terribly inconvenient. In particular, scientific facts are truth in the sense that they are demonstrable (by the scientific method) and effective (because they lead to technology that works).

George Boole
George Boole
Denying something that is a well-established theory and has stood years, decades or even centuries of attempts to disprove it is, well, foolish. Yet this is often what believers do (of all faiths) when faced with a scientific finding that seems to contradict articles of their faith.

And the technologies that work for us every day include some that demonstrate the effectiveness of those disputed scientific findings.

Some examples - The science around evolution, for example, underpins some effective technologies in plant and animal breeding, agriculture and medicine.

The science of geology explains the ancient origin of rocks and the movement of the continents but also underpins the petroleum and mineral extraction industries.

And the hotly disputed science around climate change is providing predictive technologies that are already showing their worth in longer term forecasting. Although this is not a religious argument per se, it is being argued in similar ways to the conflict over evolution.

Some of the earlier science/religion debates that were once high profile are now long-forgotten. Few people would argue today that the Catholic church was correct and Galileo wrong about the earth not being at the centre of everything.

Accepting science and religion - And here's something else that's interesting. Why are certain scientific ideas argued against so vehemently while others attract little or no attention? For example, Joshua 10:12-13 tells us that the sun and moon stood still in the sky. Yet this is not leading to a mass denial of angular momentum, classical mechanics or orbital mechanics which clearly show such a thing to be impossible.

Can we not accept that science attempts to describe and explain the physical universe while religion attempts to describe and explain the spiritual realm? The physical universe is known and understood by observation, experiment, and careful thought. The spiritual realm is known and understood by revelation. Why should science and religion be seen as in conflict? Science deals with that which is provable, religion deals with that which is not.

(The photo shows George Boole, who developed the mathematics for processing values of true and false. His work underpins some of the theoretical aspects of modern computing.)


  • Is it helpful to keep science and religion separate in our minds?
  • Why is there no widespread science of "religiology"?
  • Why is there no widespread religion of "sciencism"?
  • Does it make sense to begin with a conclusion and then look for supporting evidence? In a court of law? In science? In religion?

See also:

20 March 2013

Elon Musk at TED

Elon Musk is an extraordinary entrepreneur. He is behind SpaceX and several other ground-breaking companies. Interviewed here for TED he explains how he has achieved such success. It seems that it essentially depends on beginning with sound principles, aiming high and taking risks.

This rocket is landing, not taking off!
Sometimes a truly extraordinary event or person comes along and changes everything. Elon Musk is one of those people.

He was a co-founder of PayPal and sold his share in the company for a considerable fortune.

Wanting to devote his life to things that would solve major issues for the human race, he went on to develop a company building electric cars to reduce our need for fossil fuels (Tesla), a company to dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight (SpaceX) and a solar power company  (SolarCity) to eliminate the fossil fuel industry.

Elon Musk hopes to make humanity a multi-planet species by making it possible to colonise Mars.

How does he do it? - Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED Talks, interviewed Elon to find out what makes him tick and exactly what it is that has enabled him to succeed repeatedly. Chris would also like to know whether the essential factors can be identified and encouraged in others. Can Elon Musk become a sort of 'template' or guide for success with extreme projects?

The answer is, quite possibly, 'Yes'. The keys seem to be to aim high, take risks, base new ventures on the underlying principles and work up from there. It's also useful to pay close attention to negative feedback from friends.

Watch the interview for yourself. It is short, fascinating, and informative.


  • What most astonishes you about Elon Musk's achievements?
  • What is the most interesting part of his thinking? What is fundamental?
  • How might you use the underlying principles in business, church, politics, education... ?
  • What are you waiting for?

See also:

03 March 2013

Ecotricity - greener, greener, green

Ecotricity builds wind and solar generating systems. They also supply green energy to commercial and domestic customers in the UK. Starting from small beginnings they have made a significant impact in the market and continue to grow rapidly in capacity and popularity.

Turbine blades transported by road
Ecotricity was started by Dale Vince who built a small windmill generator from reclaimed components for his own use.

Friends asked him to build similar generators and eventually he made a much larger one for a local farmer.

He then wanted to build something even larger to connect to the grid, but hit all kinds of difficulties and additional costs imposed by the larger companies and distributors.

Through persistent effort he managed to negotiate a deal and since then Ecotricity, the world's first green electricity company, has built many more large wind turbines and wind farms.

Innovation - Dale has had many interesting and innovative business ideas and has never been willing to take 'no' for an answer. He raises extra finance by issuing bonds, his company also sells wind and solar generated power to end users and offers (at slightly higher cost) a 100% renewable deal.

They have a policy of not having shareholders; instead, profits are ploughed back into building additional generating capacity. The company encourages new customers to sign up so as to use their power bills wisely, in other words to help build additional capacity. Their customer service is exceptionally good, polite and helpful.

More recently Ecotricity has also developed a green gas plant, generating methane by biodigestion of waste. Dale has built record breaking electric vehicles, both a motorcycle and a high performance car that recently set a new world land speed record for electric vehicles.

Caring for the planet - Surely we have a duty to care for the planet on which we live? Dale Vince is certainly doing his part to reduce environmental damage. If you live in the UK you could help simply by changing your electricity and/or gas supplier to Ecotricity.

In other parts of the world you may be able to help in other ways. We can all do our part by reducing our use of energy, by walking or cycling instead of driving, by flying less often, by taking the train, insulating our homes, turning down the thermostat, showering more quickly - the list is long.

But many small actions by large numbers of people add up to a significant difference.

Making the switch - You can switch to Ecotricity online (if you use this link I'll get a partner contribution from the company). If you prefer to speak to them by phone call 08000 302 302 and quote 'SCI1' and I'll still receive the contribution.


  • Have you heard of Ecotricity before?
  • Are you doing all you can to reduce your household and business energy use?
  • Are you using green sources of energy where available?

See also:

06 January 2013

How does science work?

The universe, Part 2
< Introducing the universeSeries index | In the beginning >

We need to understand the basis upon which science operates and justifies its findings. Without this basis we would be unable to understand and describe the universe in any meaningful way. We see that science has a rigorous method and underpins reliable technology.

The famous Miller-Urey experimentBefore we look at the story of the universe, there's some groundwork we need to put in place. In the previous part I explained why I wanted to embark on this project and why I thought I'm suited to it. But this time I want to address science itself.

How do we know science works? Why should we accept its claims, for the universe or for anything else?

There are two lines of argument that should encourage us to accept the ability of science to produce valid conclusions. One is theoretical and is based on how science works. The other is practical and looks for evidence that science has worked.

How does science work? - At its most basic, science is pretty straightforward. It's really just good observation, making a best guess as to what might account for the observation, devising an experiment to test the guess, and then either rejecting the guess because it failed or making a new guess and trying again.

When a guess (science calls it an hypothesis) has been tested for a prolonged period of time and has passed every single test thrown at it, we become convinced it really is correct and then science calls it a theory. And we're not talking about ten tests, or a hundred. It may take fifty years or more of serious effort before a theory is widely accepted.

The words 'observation', 'hypothesis', 'experiment' and 'theory' are scientific jargon and should not be taken to have their everyday meanings. In the area of science they have precise definitions that we must keep in mind if we want to understand scientific debate and writing. 'Theory' in particular is commonly misunderstood.

(That is a simplified description of science, for a more thorough version read the Wikipedia article on the scientific method.)

The image above is a diagram of the apparatus used in the famous Milley-Urey experiment. This experiment disproved the hypothesis that organic chemicals could not form naturally in early planetary atmospheres.

So what does science look like in practice? - An example will help.

Let's say we notice that grass doesn't grow well underneath mature trees. That's an observation.

We might guess that grass doesn't like to be covered in dead leaves. That's an hypothesis.

We decide to grow grass in pots and then cover some of the pots with dead leaves gathered from the woods. That's an experiment.

We let the experiment run for some time and then come to look at the results. All the grass is still growing happily. So it looks as if the hypothesis was wrong, there must be some other reason that grass doesn't grow under trees. The hypothesis can't become a theory because we've shown it was wrong.

Suppose instead that we had guessed that grass needs plenty of light to grow. This time we'd find we couldn't disprove the guess. We might do dozens of different experiments and find grass always dies if it doesn't get plenty of light. We could now make a theory - 'grass needs plenty of light to grow'.

We can now say that grass almost certainly needs plenty of light to grow, and dead leaves definitely don't prevent it from growing. That's an advance in scientific knowledge.

Because of the way science works there is little room for argument. A single negative result kills an hypothesis stone dead. Hypotheses become reliable theories when they have passed many unsuccessful challenges. For example general relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics and electro-magnetism are regarded as theories. They have very, very high likelihoods of being correct and long histories of passing experimental tests.

Technology stands on the shoulders of science - Technology also gives us great confidence in the results of science. Technology often depends on the results of scientific understanding in order to make something useful or to make it more efficiently. If the underlying science was wrong, the technology based on it would fail.

The fact that technology works as well as it does is strong, additional evidence that the scientific method produces reliable and correct results. We are surrounded by proof that science is trustworthy. Cars, ships, computers, TV sets, radio communications, plastics, medicines, heart pacemakers, electricity, fridges, washing machines, microwaves, air conditioning, central heating, felt pens, emulsion paint, rubber, plant and animal breeding - all these technologies and many, many more depend on the reliability of science.

There are also examples of technology that failed because it was not based on sound science. The best example is plant breeding in the Soviet Union during the cold war. It was based on Lysenkoism, a falsified theory of inheritance.

If we can be sure science is reliable and produces correct results, then we can also be confident about what it tells us about the universe.

  • If science is purely well-tested observation, on what grounds can we question it?
  • The nature of the universe makes technology possible, what can we conclude from that?
  • Can you imagine a world in which there were no underlying rules?

See also:

< Introducing the universeSeries index | In the beginning >

27 September 2012

Grasshopper at SpaceX

Reusing spacecraft instead of throwing them away after each launch would massively reduce costs per launch and costs per kilogram of payload. The Space Shuttle was largely reusable, but the work involved in making that possible was costly and safety was jeopardised.

SpaceX's Grasshopper
SpaceX have a number of projects going on in parallel. Perhaps they are best known for launching their Dragon spacecraft in May, successfully docking with the International Space Station (ISS), delivering cargo, and bringing a return cargo safely back to Earth. They plan to fly their first contracted operational flight to the ISS for NASA on 7th October.

But one of their objectives is to further reduce the cost of launching spacecraft. Their Falcon range of launchers are already cheap enough to take launch contracts from other operators, including Ariane. But to make a further reduction in costs SpaceX have always expressed the importance of making Falcon stages reusable.

Normally, the launcher stages plunge back to earth and are destroyed on impact with the ocean. The one exception to this in the past was the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters that descended by parachute and were refurbished, refilled with solid fuel, and restacked for another launch.

SpaceX is working on returning Falcon stages under rocket power (the 'Grasshopper' project) and the first test last week involved lifting a first stage tank structure to a height of just six feet and landing again. The test was a success and will lead to higher and longer flights attempting a return to the launch area.

If they can develop a commercial version of this powered recovery technique with the first stage (and it will be a major challenge), the company will then focus on techniques to recover the second stage of the launcher.

This will be a far greater challenge as the speeds, altitudes and horizontal distances involved will all be much larger.

03 August 2012

Curiosity reaches Mars

NASA's next attempt to land a rover on Mars will be made on 6th August. It's going to be a scary process but if it's successful the results will soon begin to stream home from Curiosity on the floor of Gale Crater.

Three generations of Mars rovers
In a few days time, at 05:31 UT on August 6th, NASA will attempt a landing on Mars. The Curiosity rover is the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne. The objective is to gently place it on the ground inside Gale Crater.

The image shows NASA staff with engineering versions of Curiosity (the large rover on the right) and two earlier generations, Opportunity on the left and little Sojourner at the bottom.

The journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the ground will take about seven minutes. During this time, the spacecraft has to decelerate from nearly 6 kilometres per second to zero and leave the rover in the right place and undamaged.

You can see how this is intended to work 1n the NASA video 'The Challenges of Getting to Mars'.

It may not work out well, although I hope and expect that it will. If so, we're in for a treat as the rover begins its prime mission, exploring the interior of Gale Crater in detail and looking for signs that the conditions might once have been suitable for life.

27 April 2012

SpaceX takes another step

SpaceX plans to send its Dragon spacecraft to dock with the space station, perhaps as soon as Monday 7th May. If successful this will be a major step forward for the comapny.

Dragon at the ISS (artist's impression)I've been following the development of SpaceX's launcher and spacecraft hardware with great interest. On Monday 7th May, unless there's a further schedule change, the privately owned company will make its first attempt to fly a Dragon spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station (ISS).

The launcher - Falcon 9 has flown only twice so far, both launches were successful. On its first flight the rocket carried a dummy Dragon to orbit. On the second flight a fully functioning Dragon was orbited and made a successful splashdown and recovery off the Californian coast.

Two successes out of two attempts is a great performance, but tells us almost nothing about levels of reliability. A third success would boost confidence, a failure would be a serious setback.

Falcon 9 (and the smaller Falcon 1) both have commercial orders booked for the satellite launch business. In the case of Falcon 9 those bookings alrready represent a considerable part of the worldwide launch business. If the launcher continues to fly successfully it will quickly become proven as flight frequency ratchets up. At least four further launches are planned in 2012, both for freight delivery to ISS and for commercial customers.

The spacecraft - Dragon has flown once before, this time it needs to repeat the success, navigate to the ISS, and automatically fly to within a few metres of the station. If it manages this, the station's remote manipulator arm will dock it to one of the modules and the ISS astronauts will open it, unload the cargo, and load Dragon with experimental material for return to Earth.

Finally, SpaceX will fly the craft back to splashdown in the Pacific and the capsule and its cargo will be recovered.

A difficult mission - We shouldn't underestimate the difficulties faced by SpaceX. The mission is complex and much of it goes further than the company has ever gone before. It will not be suprising if the mission fails in some or all of its objectives. Nevertheless I think the chances of success are quite good, and I wish SpaceX well with the mission.

What next? - If the flight is a success, NASA has a contract with SpaceX for further cargo flights to the ISS. This would involve two or more flights annually for several years. As mentioned above, there are also contracts with other companies and organisations to fly a variety of other spacecraft. Furthermore, SpaceX is offering commercial Dragon flights (DragonLab) for science and technology payloads for return to Earth.

Expect to see a new version of Dragon for crewed NASA flights to the ISS (or indeed for other organisations). SpaceX is already well along in developing the necessary hardware for this.

And there is a much larger launcher in the pipeline too, Falcon Heavy. This is scheduled for its first test flight later this year, though it may slip to 2013.

For more on SpaceX and their plans see their Google+ page.

31 March 2012

Conquering the fear of failure

The paralysing fear of failure is the biggest block to action. You belong to the King, don't let fear stop you from doing the King's work!

DARPA HeadquartersHere's a great TED Talk by Regina Dugan. She asks, 'What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?' Her talk draws on her experience at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the USA.

It's worth posing the question again, in bigger letters.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

Regina Dugan points out that fear of failure is what prevents people from trying what seems impossible. She is right. But as a follower of Jesus I should know that I cannot fail providing I'm obedient to him.

When I am afraid, am I afraid of appearing foolish, of pain, of death, of letting others down, or just of lack of faith? Or am I simply afraid of failure?

John writes, 'Perfect love drives out fear' (1 John 4:15-18). So we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).

With life in Christ in mind, here are a few more quotes from the TED Talk. In some places I have replaced 'scientists and engineers' with [followers of Jesus].
  • [Followers of Jesus] change the world.
  • [Followers of Jesus] defy the impossible and refuse to fear failure.
  • When you remove the fear of failure, impossible things suddenly become possible.
  • The fear of failure constrains you, it keeps [you] from attempting great things.
  • Testing [is] an appropriate part of achieving something great.
  • To fly faster and further we have to believe in impossible things and refuse to fear failure.
  • You can't learn to fly unless you fly.
  • Failure is part of creating new and amazing things
Are you fearless? Are you a hero? Will you defy the impossible? Are you willing to be unafraid of failure? Are you as fearless as a little child? Do you believe in impossible things? Were you born to change the world? What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? Will you help others believe?

These are the things Jesus did. These are the things the disciples did. Will you?

10 March 2012

The Earth at night

Seeing the Earth from a new perspective is always worthwhile. If you are interested in astronomy and spaceflight you may have seen this before, but if not you might be astonished at the beauty and sheer excitement of these moving images. Most of them show the Earth at night.

The Earth by nightI've been unable to find time to blog recently, but I hope to get back to it again soon. Meanwhile here's a treat for the senses, a series of time-lapse videos from the International Space Station (ISS) set to music.

You will see yellow city lights at night, blue-white lightning flashes, beautiful green aurorae and more. It is just glorious and gives a real sense of the Earth's pulse. It seems as though the planet itself is alive! This material comes courtesy of NASA via the APOD website.

Chances are, you have never seen the Earth in this way before. Enjoy it and marvel at the beauty, colour, and sheer dynamism of the planet you live upon.

21 February 2012

Greening the city

This article considers ways of improving the city or town environment. There are some big projects here, growing trees and plants in the heart of our urban world. But there are also ways forward for smaller groups to run projects for themselves, right where they live.

Built to support a vertical forestCities already have parks, private gardens, urban farms, landscaped roadside verges and large buildings with atria containing tropical plants, but what else can we do to bring greenery into the city? There are some surprisingly innovative ideas out there.

Milan's 'Bosco verticale' project is currently under construction and will consist of two residential towers supporting ornamental woodland and shrubbery.

New York's Highline converted railway line has become a much-loved green space for walking and relaxing right in the heart of the city. It was inspired by an earlier project in Paris, the 'Promenade Plantée'.

In London, an old building has found a new use as a vertical garden.

Verge gardens get a write up in Australia, these use small urban spaces and are managed by the local people.

There's lots of scope for individual and group action. Contact your local town council. Form a local community project. There are some good ideas in Groundwork's toolbox document. On the whole group action may be best, you can plan together, work on the planting and maintenance together, enjoy the space together, eat together, become a real community in the process of creating a cared-for green space in your environment. What could be better?

10 January 2012

Great design and usability

Good design combines clean looks with smooth and intuitive usability. The best devices are the result of a great deal of thought and planning effort, the iPhone for example more or less rewrote the rules for mobile phones. Here are some more great ideas.

The WVIL concept cameraThis is the WVIL concept camera (pronounced 'weevil' apparently). It's a very cool idea, separating the lens assembly with integral 31-megapixel CCD and the wireless 'viewfinder'.

Rather than explain it, just go to the website and look at the WVIL video, that makes it very clear.

While you're there, take a look at some of the other ideas. I particularly like the SWYP printer.

There's something about ideas that are just 'right'. Artefact (the company behind WVIL and SWYP) have taken artifacts (everyday objects) and seriously thought about how we use them. They're not the only people doing this, however.

Several years ago Donna and I needed a new set of bathroom scales, we decided to spend a bit more on the new ones and chose one from Withings. It seems they now offer a baby monitor and a blood pressure system as well. Their stuff is similarly well-designed and they are not a concept company, this is real stuff you can buy - today.

And another company, Nest, have similarly redesigned and re-engineered the room thermostat. Very nicely done.

Then of course there's the Eglu - really good if you're a chicken...

26 December 2011

Recycling Christmas tree lights

In China, waste Christmas tree lights are converted into chopped copper and brass for reuse and plastic feedstock for slipper soles.

Christmas tree lightsChina has become a powerhouse for recycling, and they're now making great strides in terms of cleaner, more environmentally-friendly recycling.

The insulation on junked electrical cable used to be burned off so that the copper could be extracted for refining and reuse. But today, in China, the plastic insulation is recovered and sold as a feedstock for shoe sole manufacturers. Even the water used in the processing is reused in the plant, nothing is dumped back into the environment.

The factory described in this article and video on 'The Atlantic' website takes in unwanted Christmas tree lights, sells copper, brass and plastic feedstock,  and consumes only electrical energy and a modest amount of water which is returned to the atmosphere as vapour.

That is a shining (groan) example of how waste can, and should, be handled. The biggest downside I can see in this is the energy cost of shipping the material halfway around the world rather than disposing of it locally.

23 December 2011

Atlas detector built in Lego

A Lego model of the huge ATLAS detector at CERN has been built by Sascha Mehlhase. The model itself is intricate and took a lot of work to design and build.

ATLAS in Lego
ATLAS has been in the news recently. It's a huge particle detector at the European particle physics lab CERN on the Swiss/French border. It's been in the news because it has found encouraging evidence for the Higgs boson, a much sought-after fundamental particle predicted by the leading theory of particle physics, the Standard Model. That model stands or falls on the existence or absence of the Higgs.

The detection of the Higgs is fundamental in every sense of the word, but it is not yet secure. The evidence from ATLAS is not yet adequate - a strong hint rather than a definite find. But ATLAS will collect more data next year and that should be enough to decide for sure.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a vast machine and ATLAS (just one of the LHC's detectors) is itself a very large and expensive multi-storey construction.

Sascha Mehlhase has built a model of Atlas entirely of Lego bricks, quite an achievement in itself. The design and construction took more than eighty hours work and contains nearly ten thousand bricks.

02 December 2011

Doctors and patients, a lesson for the church?

Watch and listen as Abraham Verghese shares some thoughts on doctors, patients, and the relationship between the two. Could there be a valuable lesson here for the church?

Abraham VergheseI have just watched a TED Talk by Abraham Verghese; it was an experience to remember. In eighteen minutes of deeply significant sharing, Professor Verghese conveys the basis of an excellent relationship between doctor and patient. In his opinion it's a relationship at risk. I think he's right.

I must say that I was deeply struck by some parallels between how medicine is practiced and how we do church. It really was one of those precious 'Aha' moments that we all have from time to time.

I suggest you watch the video first and then take a look at the questions I've added below. While watching, if you follow Jesus, please bear in mind how you relate to those who do not. Otherwise, just enjoy the talk for whatever good things you may draw from it.

(If the video doesn't appear you can try this link.)

Now for those questions.
  • Can you think of attributes of doctors and patients that might be relevant as we seek to introduce people to Jesus?
  • Touch is an important aspect of the doctor/patient relationship. What might be equivalent to touch in the spiritual realm?
  • Trust is another critical factor. How can a physician build a patient's trust? Is this relevant spiritually?
  • What might be the spiritual equivalent of technical medical equipment?
  • Any other thoughts?
Please comment and include your answers to these questions. I will revisit this topic again in a few days time but hopefully we can have a useful discussion here first.

26 November 2011

Recovering a portrait of da Vinci

Here's a great example of image recovery, a sketched self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci was discovered a couple of years ago, obscured when he reused the page as writing material.

Leonardo da VinciThe image has been recovered twice, once by professionals and then more recently (and much more quickly) by Amelia Carolina Sparavigna using freely downloadable software from the internet. You can read the story and see the results of her efforts on MIT's 'Technology Review'.

The self portrait shows Leonardo as a young man, the only other existing self-portrait is one he made when he was old (this is the image shown here).

It's fascinating how the text can be removed and at every point automatically replaced by an average of the surrounding area. That's what Amelia Carolina Sparavigna did using the packages she downloaded. She used The Gimp (image processing software) to superimpose the young face on the old face to check whether the eyes, nose and mouth showed the same relative spacings. They did! This helps to confirm that both portraits are of the same person - we may get wrinkles as we age but the proportions of our face remain the same.

Kudos to Amelia, but also to the science journalist who first noticed the presence of a portrait underlying da Vinci's text on bird flight.

07 November 2011

RESPONSE - The nature of technology

I've just finished a book called 'The Nature of Technology' by W Brian Arthur. It's an interesting read and unexpectedly sparked some thoughts about how we perceive the nature of the church.

The book's cover'The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves' examines technology as a subject. It goes way beyond any other treatments of technology that I've read. There are many books about particular technologies (the steam engine, the computer, molecular engineering) but Brian Arthur has analysed the nature of technology itself.

Towards the end of the book, Professor Arthur discusses our ambivalent attitudes towards technology. At one time technology was seen to bring order and was regarded as almost heroic.
In the time of Descartes we began to interpret the world in terms of the perceived qualities of technology: its mechanical linkages, its formal order, its motive power, its simple geometry, its clean surfaces, its beautiful clockwork exactness. These qualities have projected themselves on culture and thought as ideals to be used for explanation and emulation.
But since those days, further development has resulted in technology that is fundamentally more fluid, organic, and adaptable. If you want to understand why you will have to read the book, there is no room to give the necessary detail here. But Arthur writes
Our interpretation of the world is ... becoming more open and organic; and ... technology has a part in this shift. ... Not only is our understanding of the economy changing to reflect a more open, organic view. Our interpretation of the world is also becoming more open and organic; and again technology has a part in this shift.
Interestingly, I think we can see the same trend in our attitude to church life.

In Victorian times church was highly structured and hierarchical. Clergy (at least the better ones) worked hard to create learned, reasoned sermons, missions were like well-oiled machines. Military precision was applied to the task of meeting social need; the Salvation Army and the Church Army went so far as to adopt military-style uniforms as well as military names and ranks.

But by the 1960s there were early signs of change as some people began experimenting with informal, organic, more flexible ways of meeting. The home environment and smaller groups were popular on the developing fringes of church. This trend has accelerated during the last five decades as George Barna's recent statistics show very clearly in the USA. But the trend is affecting church life in many other parts of the world too.

Here's Brian Arthur again.
... we are now aware that as mechanisms become interconnected and complicated, the worlds they reveal are complex. They are open, evolving, and yield emergent properties that are not predictable from their parts. The view we are moving to is no longer one of pure order. It is one of wholeness, an organic wholeness, and imperfection.
That final sentence seems very relevant to church life in 2011 - 'an organic wholeness' coexisting with the imperfect. Perfection is in Christ, and Christ in us. Without him there is no perfection - not in me nor in us corporately. And quoting again.
We are replacing our image of perfection with an image of wholeness, and within that wholeness a messy vitality. This shift in thinking has more to do with the influence of evolutionary biology and the exhaustion of the simple mechanistic view than with any influence from modern technology. But it is reinforced nonetheless by the qualities of modern technology: its connectedness, its adaptiveness, its tendency to evolve, its organic quality.
And reading about the early church in Acts, and even the embryonic 'church' during Jesus' lifetime, we can see an absence of perfection but a very clear 'messy vitality'. Perhaps it's also true to say that we have exhausted simple, mechanistic approaches to being church. Maybe the words connectedness, adaptiveness, and organic are very suitable ones to apply to church today.

Here's another short extract in which I've replaced the word 'technology' with the word 'church'. 'Instead of fitting itself to the world, church seeks to fit the world to itself.'

Hasn't this been true historically? We have tried to force the world into our mould. But that doesn't work; it cannot work. We had better learn to fit ourselves to the world instead. Isn't that what Jesus did, and the early church? Jesus  was always relevant to people in their ordinary lives - fishermen, tax collectors, adulterers, foreigners, farmers, bridegrooms who'd ordered insufficient wine, the hungry, the sick, even Roman officers. This was in stark contrast with the stuffy, arcane, restrictive teachings of the religious establishment at that time.

What do you think? I welcome your comments.

(By the way, I highly recommend 'The Nature of Technology' for its wonderful analysis of technology and the economy. What I have written above is merely a diversion, some thoughts on another topic sparked by reading the book.)

29 October 2011

TECHNOLOGY - Ecotricity

Ecotricity is the utilities company that Donna and I use for our gas and electricity supplies. They are a company with a difference, quite unlike any other energy company in the UK and perhaps in the world - unless you know different...

Part of ecotricity's websiteWe switched to 'ecotricity' some years ago when they were smaller than they are now. They're still far smaller than their competitors and getting started in competition with international giants was no walk in the park.

But Dale Vince who founded and runs 'ecotricity' is full of unusual and effective ideas. He's also determined to make a difference and change the way we obtain and sell energy. Read Dale's blog for more on his thinking about green energy.

'Ecotricity' is different from the rest because it was built around a green and clean model. Take a look at their awards page to see how well they have been doing with that objective.

For electricity, their current mix is about 60% green (mostly wind energy). For customers like us who opt for a slightly higher cost plan, it's 100% green. And the profit earned by the company goes into new green generating capacity.

If you live in the UK please consider switching to 'ecotricity'. And if you live elsewhere in the world maybe you could build a windmill and go into business yourself!

23 October 2011

TECHNOLOGY - Robotic cyclist

A Japanese hobbyist has built a robot cyclist. The video is quite amazing to watch.

The robot is much smaller than human size and this will account in part for the sometimes erratic and wobbly ride. But it's an impressive achievement. It's not the first time a robotic cyclist has been built, but as far as I know this is the smallest.

One day, no model railway will be complete with tiny robotic pedestrians, cyclists and road vehicles moving around the tiny landscape. Now there's a thought!


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