Monthly archives: February 2014

BBC News – World War One: The tank’s secret Lincoln origins

Some ran. Some stood and fought. But no-one forgot their first meeting with a tank. A weapon without precedent, which went on to dominate the battlefields of the 20th Century.

And it was designed by two men, in little more than two months, working out of a small hotel room in Lincoln.

via BBC News – World War One: The tank’s secret Lincoln origins.

2029: the year when robots will have the power to outsmart their makers – The Observer

Computers will be cleverer than humans by 2029, according to Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering.

The entrepreneur and futurologist has predicted that in 15 years’ time computers will be more intelligent than we are and will be able to understand what we say, learn from experience, make jokes, tell stories and even flirt.

via 2029: the year when robots will have the power to outsmart their makers | Technology | The Observer.

Australian scientists should set minds to developing bionic brain, report says –

Australian scientists should set a goal of developing the world’s first bionic brain, a report into the future of brain research recommends.

The report, Inspiring smarter brain research in Australia, calls for an investment of $250m over 10 years into interdisciplinary projects to understand the human brain.

via Australian scientists should set minds to developing bionic brain, report says | World news |

Is failure to promote the wearing of cycle helmets irresponsible? –

Some jurisdictions have taken the step of banning cycling without a helmet. In Australia for example, it is now illegal even for children to ride around without a helmet. And in Australia, cycling-related deaths have fallen. But what’s intriguing is that cycling overall has also fallen, at a faster rate than cycling-related fatalities. In other words, the rate of cyclist death has increased. More worryingly, the rate of head injuries – which one might naively expect to be more directly affected by helmet use – has not fallen as a result of legislation, again implying that the rate has gone up. (See the links here.) Put another way, if you cycle in Australia, where cycle helmets are mandatory, you’re more likely to get a head injury now than before the law was changed.

Is failure to promote the wearing of cycle helmets irresponsible? | Richard P Grant | Science |

Geoengineering side effects could be potentially disastrous, research shows –

Large-scale human engineering of the Earth’s climate to prevent catastrophic global warming would not only be ineffective but would have severe unintended side effects and could not be safely stopped, a comparison of five proposed methods has concluded.

via Geoengineering side effects could be potentially disastrous, research shows | Environment |

Rolls-Royce envisions crewless drone freight ships – Digital Trends

This is the other end of the technology spectrum from that ghost ship full of rats that was all over the internet recently. There has to be story potential in stowaways or pirates upping their game to keep up.

Rolls-Royce envisions crewless drone freight ships | Digital Trends.

Chris Boardman: “Helmets not even in top 10 of things that keep cycling safe” –

Boardman returned to an analogy he has made before, and which even he admits is a bit melodramatic, though it gets the point across

“It’s a bit like saying ‘people are sniping at you going down this street, so put some body armour on,'” he said.

Government encouragement to wear helmets was therefore “a big campaign to get people to wear body armour, by the people who should be stopping the shooting.”

via Chris Boardman: "Helmets not even in top 10 of things that keep cycling safe" |

A New Tool That Seals Bullet Wounds in Seconds With High-Tech Sponges | Wired Design |

Caught in a fire fight, a soldier might hope for air support rained down from a Predator Drone, a kitted out AR-15 assault rifle, and soon, a tube full of high-tech cotton balls. The last item on the list might seem out of place, but the XStat syringe, filled with scientifically advanced sponges, can plug a life-threatening bullet wound in a matter of seconds.

via A New Tool That Seals Bullet Wounds in Seconds With High-Tech Sponges | Wired Design |

Eurosceptics could damage British science and innovation –

Given how keen the loudest bunch of Eurosceptics are to ignore scientific findings, is this really a great surprise?

It is widely known in British science and industry that the EU’s now-impressive engine is providing a boon for UK research and innovation. The bureaucracy is being stripped away and being replaced with a “can do” attitude. Yet our current government is hardly communicating this to the British people. They have not even told our small businesses that billions of euros in competitive funds are now available from the EU for them to collaborate with universities and develop marketable products. The Conservatives have recently been accused of burying, behind flood news, government documents showing a strong positive impact of the EU on British science and business, whilst last month a Conservative think-tank bizarrely accused the EU of being “anti-science”. Add this to anti-immigration noises that scientists have long warned is damaging, and the result is that Eurosceptics are compromising critical UK innovation opportunities.

Eurosceptics could damage British science and innovation | Mike Galsworthy | Science |

Robots with human-like brains to take on Mars unaided – New Scientist

It’s hard not to read articles like this without seeing lots of Wall-E like robots roaming around the red planet.

So how do we make robot brains more like ours? One way might be to change the type of processor they use. Until now, robots have always been fitted with central processing units (CPUs), just like most PCs. Such units are very good at crunching small streams of data fast, but they can only do one thing at a time.

In contrast, graphics processing units (GPUs), which are heavily used in supercomputers and gaming, can handle larger data sets more quickly, and deal with several of them at once. This is how the human brain works, and even though we process some tasks millions of times more slowly than does a computer, the amount of information our brains can handle is vast. But until quite recently, GPUs have been too big and expensive to use in robots.

Robots with human-like brains to take on Mars unaided – tech – 19 February 2014 – New Scientist.

Grumpy in the City

Grumpy in the City, originally uploaded by spinneyhead.

This has been my favourite of all the Christmas market shops for the last
two years, and now it’s having a go at opening the rest of the year.

If you’re based in Manchester and have any arty or crafty needs, check it
out. It’s a trove of reclaimed stuff and art prints and money raised goes
toward supporting the Grumpy recycling project.

Fiction: Meka- Mystical Kingdom

Notes: Meka is the result of something my subconscious threw at me one night last year. I woke from a widescreen blockbuster of a dream and spent the rest of the day trying to reconstruct it as some sort of narrative. It was originally going to be put on hold until I could do it as a comic. But I never finish the comic projects I start and do finish some of the prose ones.

* * *

Death had come to mystical kingdom.

No tourists walking its floodlit cobbled streets- they cowered behind counters in fantasy sweete shoppes and inns. The only footsteps were of the mannequins which hunted their next victims. In the distance, the Tour The World ride looped the loop, dead passengers waving and lolling all around as they were tugged against their seat restraints.

The carnage and chaos were worst through the free standing castle gates, inside the park proper, but here in the faux-medieval square where tickets and T-shirts were sold in cobbler’s shops and inns, five figures stood guard. The knight, in full shining plate armour, was on the first step of the central well, hands clasped on the handle of a broad sword which came up to its chest plate. To its right, a black clad cowboy with dark eyes and a scruffy samurai. To its left, a pirate captain with smoking beard and golden teeth and a lean, battered boxer. They were perfectly still, until a metal gate clanged closed in the alley beside the Olde Redde Lionne.

Shadows in the alley shifted and slid into a news shape as a tall figure moved quietly toward the square. When he stepped into the light, the newcomer was a study in angular muscle. His shoulders and chest were wide, their muscles large and well defined. His head was square, chin and cheek bones sharply defined, hair cut short and eyes just deep enough in shadow to be hidden. His mouth was a thin, angry line. He wore a tight fitting black top, black combat trousers and heavy boots. There was a holster under his left armpit, the straps from which extended to form webbing from which hung pouches of ammunition and kit.

The guards shifted position to face the newcomer, moving closer together. The gunslinger’s hands rested on the polished handles of the six shooters hanging low off its belt. Samurai and pirate both clasped the handles of their swords. The figure kept moving toward them, quietly but with the suggestion of great strength.

Behind the set expression and steady gait, the stranger’s ears were full of instructions and his vision loaded with information. The mannequins arrayed before him were state of the art- for entertainment. They had high resolution eyesight and hearing and even- as part of the park’s decentralised fire detection system- basic olfactory sensors. The live rounds in the cowboy’s guns had been a very bad idea to make its sharpshooting shows more realistic, and the swords were replicas, but with enough of an edge on them to be fatal. How they had slipped their programming and gone on a murderous rampage was a mystery which could be investigated after he had brought it to an end.

Oscar Wilson was only part machine, but the bits of him that weren’t human were military grade. He had wide spectrum vision and enhanced hearing. His sense of smell hadn’t been fiddled with, but he had yet to find a tactical use for it anyway. What was left of his original body was wrapped in a custom chassis and synthetic skin that might even stop bullets. On top of that, he was getting information relayed to him from a drone flyover minutes before and a huge database in the London control room.

Laid on top of Oscar’s vision was information about the threats he faced. Each of the mannequins had their main processor’s location highlighted- anthropomorphism demanded it be in the head- as well as the all important maintenance port. “You need one of them in a condition to transmit my worm up to the central server.” a voice in his ear reminded him.

“I know. You said.” The robots all tensed at the sound of Oscar’s voice. The pirate drew its sword. Oscar’s attention was on the cowboy. He didn’t want to test how bullet-proof his skin was, so the man in black was going down first. The gunslinger’s fingers had closed around the handles of his pistols, but had yet to move to draw them.

“Drone will be back in a minute. We just need to get a view over the rest of the park to assess the damage.”

Oscar nodded. The cowboy took this as its cue to draw. It was fast, its pistols up and firing in a flash. But it was shooting at where Oscar had been. He had skipped to his right and dropped, drawing his semi automatic as he went. Before he hit the ground he fired a single shot, which hit the cowboy robot between the eyes. The mannequin froze in place as Oscar rolled.

The samurai had its sword drawn and was charging Oscar with a cry. Crouching at the end of his roll, he fired twice. One shot into the samurai’s torso slowed it and the second, to its head, destroyed its central processor. Oscar was moving out of the way of its tumble as the boxer started raining punches on him.

Parrying a succession of rights and lefts, Oscar lost his pistol. As it clattered across the stones, he swept his left leg at the boxer, which danced away from the move. Given some space, Oscar bounced back to his feet. The boxer was moving in to throw more punches and the pirate was circling around to attack from the left.

Oscar stepped forward. The boxer swung a vicious right, which Oscar caught with both hands, absorbing the force with a grunt and a grimace. He shrugged off a left to his temple and levered the boxer around by its right arm, swinging it in front of the pirate’s sword thrust. The blade stuck out the front of the boxer’s chest, but it hardly seemed to notice it. Control circuits had been damaged, and the boxer couldn’t lift its left arm any more. Oscar kicked its feet out from under it, and it twisted the sword from the pirate’s hand as it fell.

The cowboy had toppled over backwards, its pistols now pointed straight up. The boxer was struggling to stand, finding its left leg was not responding to commands along with its left arm. The pirate considered its compatriot and, pressing a foot against its back, pulled the sword from it. By the well, the knight was levering up its mighty broadsword, ready to attack.

Beside Oscar, the samurai was sprawled on the stones. As it had crashed down it had released its sword, and it still had a smaller blade sheathed on its back. Oscar drew the smaller blade and stepped back to grab the sword. As the pirate thrust at him, he parried with the sword and slashed with the long dagger.

Behind the pirate, the knight had hefted the broadsword and was wielding it in the only way possible, whirling around for an indiscriminate but mighty slash at all who surrounded it. Oscar let himself fall away from the pirate, hitting the ground with both his blades raised defensively. The pirate raised his sword for a harsh blow, only to have its sword arm severed and head split in two by the broadsword.

The knight continued its dervish direction, raising its sword as it carried on spinning. Oscar scrabbled sideways, over the inert samurai and still struggling boxer. The broadsword crashed down clumsily on the boxer, cleaving it in two from the top of its head down almost to its waist and raising sparks as metal clashed with stone. The knight’s armour resonated with the blow, and was torn open at its right elbow.

Recovering faster than the robot, Oscar sprang at it. Kicking the boxer’s upper torso and then stamping on it, he trapped the broad sword and exposed the split in the armour and jammed the smaller blade into it. A harsh twist mangled the short blade, then severed the arm. The knight was still trying to pull the broadsword loose with its left arm, swinging back and revealing another weak spot under its shoulder. Oscar jammed the samurai sword into the gap and wrenched it down.

Confused, the knight swung at Oscar, trying to slap him with the right hand that was no longer there. Its left hand had a locked grip on the broadsword, but could put little strength into pulling it out of the boxer. Oscar heaved his sword out of the knight’s shoulder and aimed a kick at the ravaged joint. With a nasty crack, the arm separated from the shoulder.

The knight staggered backwards, flailing the stump of its right arm at Oscar and trying to block him with a left arm that was no longer there. Oscar aimed another kick at its left knee, the heel of his boot bending the leg backward in a way it was never designed for. The disabled robot crashed to the cobbles and twitched. Oscar stood over it for a moment, sword raised and ready for another stab, before deciding he had done enough damage. He tossed the blade aside and dropped down onto the knight’s chest such that his knee pinned the machine.

The visor of the knight’s helm bent open under Oscar’s insistent grasp. There was no human-like face inside the helmet, but twin cameras for eyes, a speaker and, where a nose might be expected, the cover panel for various sockets and ports. Oscar flipped this open. From one of the pouches on his chest, he produced a small screen and receiver with wires dangling from it. He selected the appropriate connector and plugged it in.

Only now did Oscar become aware that the voice in his ear had been talking to him all the way through the brief battle. “Sorry, what was that?” he asked, “I got a bit distracted.”

“Nothing, never mind. I’m hooked up now.” The screen lit up. The top half was green text in a retro computer font, messages about the current state of upload and transfer and the bottom a graphical representation of how many of the park’s mannequins had been infected with the shut down virus. One dot went blue, all the others were red. “The drone will be with you again in a moment. The worm’s uploading to the server.”

Oscar spotted his gun lying a short way away. He stood off the knight, now inert on the stones and walked over to pick it up. He studied it, looking for damage, then pulled the slide back, ejecting the bullet that was in the chamber and feeding another in. The action was smooth, the damage was merely cosmetic. He was about to holster the gun when there was a noise behind him, light footsteps.

Spinning, Oscar levelled the gun at shoulder height. Then he dropped his aim to match the height of the person who had sneaked up on him. She was maybe nine or ten, a pretty little thing with blonde hair in ringlets, big blue eyes and a round pale face. Her dress was navy blue, in the elysee style- thick straps over the shoulders, open down the sides over a wing collared blouse- recently popular with a certain type of British school, set off by white stockings and matching blue pumps. She stepped back at the sight of the gun, mouth opened in an unvoiced “Oh.”

“Not a robot!” shouted the voice in Oscar’s ear. “I don’t know where she came from, but she’s not a robot! Don’t shoot her.”

Oscar lowered his gun, but didn’t holster it yet. “I’m lost.” the girl said in a light, almost musical voice. “Where am I? What happened here?”

“What…? What’s your name kid?”

The girl’s mouth opened, but the answer she thought she had didn’t come out. Confused, she looked down at her feet, which twisted to touch toe to toe. “I…. don’t know.”

Oscar put his gun away and stared at the child. “Control…. Leo, did you get that?”

“I heard. But you’ve got a bigger problem.”

There was a crashing, rending sound from the gate on the far edge of the square. Oscar spun to see the stone facing crashing to the ground, revealing the bent girders they had previously hung on. The damage had been done by a large club, wielded by a one eyed giant on the far side of the gate. The club crashed down again, tearing through the arch of the gate. The cyclops stared at the damage it had done then pushed its way through the gap it had created.

“The worm’s on the central server. It’ll cascade out to all the mannequins in the next minute or two.” Leo said in Oscar’s ear, “Just stay out of its way long enough.”

“I can do that.” The giant stomped across the square in two strides. Oscar turned, “Kid, we’ve got to run.”

But the girl wasn’t there. Oscar caught movement on the edge of his vision, then spotted the child, running for the edge of the square wielding the samurai sword. “Fee!” the giant bellowed. “Fie! Foe!” Oscar sprinted for the giant’s feet as the club started to come down. The last of the cyclops’ words was lost in the foom of the club hitting the cobbles where Oscar had been. Knocked off his feet by the concussion, Oscar stared up the giant’s legs and into its cut off shorts. He noted that it wasn’t anatomically correct as he jumped up again

The cyclops was staring at the club, buried in the paving, and making a low confused groan. Oscar was wondering whether he should clamber up the nearest leg when he spotted movement from the edge of the square. The little girl was rushing back, still wielding the samurai sword and moving faster than seemed possible. She jumped, landed on top of the well’s roof and then leapt off again, landing perfectly on the club just below the giant’s thumb.

“Oz? There’s something strange about that girl.” the voice in Oscar’s ear said.

“You think?” Oscar watched the girl rush up the giant’s arm, looking like she was innocently skipping along.

“Her body temp’s odd. I think she’s another cyborg.”

The girl reached the giant’s shoulder and leapt across from it, sword ready to be driven down into the big eye she was heading for. “No shit.” Oscar whispered, unable to take his eyes off the little figure flying in what seemed to be slow motion.

The samurai sword punctured the lens of the cyclops’ one eye. As the weight of the cyborg girl bore down on the blade it pushed deeper in and sliced through it. She held the handle with her left hand and raised her right fist to punch another hole in the lens. When she pulled the hand out again, she held cables and circuit board.

The giant grunted and raised its club. Blinded by the blade, its meagre intelligence told it to swipe at the speck that had done the damage. The girl spotted the movement as the club swung up toward her. She released her grip, slid down the giant’s bulbous nose and then leapt to the right of the club. She bounced off the giant’s right arm and tumbled through the air, crashing into the roof of a sweete shoppe and sliding off it to the ground. The giant hit itself square in the eye with its own club, driving the samurai sword into its central processor and shutting itself down.

As the cyclops fell backwards, Oscar rushed over to the little figure crumpled up on the ground before the sweete shoppe. He crouched down beside her as giant crashed to the cobbles and shook the whole square. “Kid, are you alright? Kid?” he gently touched the girl’s shoulder.

The child moved, sitting up slowly. There was a bloodless cut above her left eye as she blinked, confused, but that was the only obvious injury. “I’ve remembered my name.” she said. “Hello, I’m Meka.” she pronounced it Meeka. “What’s your name?”

* * *

The black-clad cowboy was obvious, I hope. If this had been a comic, the samurai would have looked like Frank Miller’s Ronin, the pirate was not Jack Sparrow and the boxer probably Rocky.

Best of MCR…The Buildings That Were Never Built – Manchester Confidential

THERE ARE two Manchesters.

There’s the city of flesh and blood and bricks and mortar, and there’s a shadow city of dreams never realised, of foolish ambition mixed with missed opportunity.

It’s good to get lost there sometimes. Or maybe even imagine your own designs adding to our gloriously chaotic city centre.

via Best of MCR…The Buildings That Were Never Built | Best of Manchester | Manchester Confidential.

Arctic ice may be putting US in a long, deep freeze – Ars Technica

Yes, Lord Lawson, this weather probably is the result of climate change. Do shut up.

The US is freezing.The UK is flooding. Alaska and Scandinavia are unusually warm. And, most remarkably, all of that has been going on for roughly the entire winter. It’s not just unusual weather; it’s consistently unusual.

A few years back, researchers suggested that strange weather in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere might be a consequence of changes taking place in the Arctic. Now, with a few years of additional data, some researchers are arguing that we have detected clear signs that Arctic warming is driving our weird weather.

Santa’s revenge: Arctic ice may be putting US in a long, deep freeze | Ars Technica.

It’s raining irony

This tweet-

Was followed very quickly by this tweet-

Which is hilarious.

I sometimes wonder if the spambot that calls itself Richard Carvath is a satirical AI* which has been abandoned by its creator and is now just spewing out bizarre comments because it wasn’t turned off.

Because the possibility that there are people this clueless doesn’t bear thinking about. (unless he’s a member of UKIP. This level of cluelessness seems to be a membership requirement.)

*Artificial Idiot

John Redwood is a troll

He may look more like a house elf, but John Redwood MP is that far too common online animal- a troll. In particular, he’s a climate change denying troll. Fantasising about what he was going to say whilst debating the floods with George Monbiot, he trotted out enough tired old lies that anyone playing climate change denier bingo would have shouted “House!” before they were even half way through. From “It’s cold in winter!” to “But weather forecasters get tomorrow’s forecasts wrong sometimes!”, they’re all there. The post is like a retirement home for debunked talking points.

Not only is Redwood wrong about climate change, he’s tilting at the wrong windmill. Asked about the direct causes of this year’s floods, George Monbiot is more likely to repeat his strongly argued, coherent and intelligent attack on the failings of the Common Agriculture Policy and subsidy-seeking farmers from last month.

The question is, does John Redwood really believe in his rambling collection of outdated arguments, or is he so cynically arrogant that he thinks the electorate is too stupid to see through them? He’s a politician, so I suspect it’s the latter.

Maybe Nigel Lawson is right. There can’t be global warming, because isn’t it always colder at night? – The Independent

The puzzling part is that among the scientists whose job is to study these matters, there is no disagreement that rising carbon emissions have altered the climate.

So continually debating it, as if both sides are equally valid, makes as much sense as saying: “Now for sport. In the Winter Olympics the ski jumping final takes place today, but first I’m going to talk to Bill, who says there can’t be any ski jumping because gravity doesn’t exist.”

via Maybe Nigel Lawson is right. There can’t be global warming, because isn’t it always colder at night? – Comment – Voices – The Independent.