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Interesting snippets from around the globe

Driverless cars and cows on the road

When it comes to self-driving cars, the possibilities are seemingly limitless. In the past year, we've heard all kinds of interesting announcements, including prototype cars that made it all the way across the U.S.

But in many countries, notably here in New Zealand, drivers can face livestock on the road and those cud-chewers don’t generally follow the road code.

What happens when a self-driving car encounters a herd of cattle?

Well Google, being Google, has already thought of that and patented the answer too.

The patent isn’t just for cow-caused traffic jams, it’s for a system that detects when a car is stuck behind a parked car, livestock, or some other obstacle, and a way to chart its way around the problem. The system will even summon human eyes to address the problem is needed.

The trick is to develop a system that can tell when you're behind an immovable object, as opposed to just being stuck in really bad traffic or in a parking lot.

According to the report, if the car encounters something in its path, it won't necessarily be able to tell the difference between a cow, sheep, deer, or tourists who have stopped to take a photo, but it will be able to 'see' a large object. The car can then slow down or stop, and a timer will activate. If the object is still there after a certain amount of time, the car can ask its Google overlords to plot a course around the problem, even if the new path involves a rule infraction like going onto the shoulder, or moving into another lane to avoid a double-parked car.

Google isn’t about to let bovines befuddle it.

(Apr ’15)


Divorce by Facebook

Want to divorce your husband or wife but can't give them the papers in person? Just use Facebook.

The New York Daily News reports that a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice has allowed 26-year-old woman to serve her husband with divorce papers via a Facebook message.

In this rather unusual circumstance, the husband has allegedly refused to make himself available to be served with divorce papers and has only kept in touch with his wife over the phone and Facebook. Furthermore, the last address the wife for him is an apartment that he vacated in 2011, and he has told her over the phone that he has no fixed address and no place of employment.

And, the woman won't even be the one sending the message. Her lawyer has been granted permission to message the husband using her account. "This transmittal shall be repeated by plaintiff's attorney to defendant once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged," the ruling states.

Facebook might have to add “Divorce papers served” to the relationship status options.

(Apr ’15)


Alan Turing’s notebook fetches >$US1million

A notebook compiled by World War II codebreaker Alan Turing has sold for $US1,025,000 at a New York auction. It is one of very few known manuscripts from the head of the team that cracked the code on the Germans' Enigma machine, which was essentially an analogue computer.

The handwritten notes, dating from 1942 when he worked at Bletchley Park, were entrusted to mathematician Robin Gandy after Mr Turing's death. While Mr Gandy deposited Mr Turing's papers at the Archive Centre at King's College in Cambridge in 1977, he retained the 56-page notebook because of a personal message written in the blank centre pages of the notebook. 

The notes remained hidden among personal effects until after his death.

Interestingly, Turing’s notebook sold for seven times as much as a rare, original German Enigma machine. The three rotor enciphering device dates from 1944, and is in working order in its original oak box. It sold for just $US195,000.

(Apr ’15)


The $76,500 speeding fine

Finish businessman Reima Kuisla was recently caught going 65 miles per hour in a 50 zone in his home country and ended up paying a whopping fine of €56,000 ($NZD76,500). The fine was so extreme because in Finland, some traffic fines as well as fines for shoplifting and violating securities exchange laws, are assessed based on disposable income.

Unfortunately for Kuisla, his declared income was €6.5 million per year. Several years ago another executive was fined the equivalent of $NZ137,000 for going 45 mph in a 30 zone on his motorcycle.

Finland's system for calculating fines is relatively simple: It starts with an estimate of the amount of spending money a Finn has for one day, and then divides that by two. The resulting number is considered a reasonable amount of spending money to deprive the offender of. Then, based on the severity of the crime, the system has rules for how many days the offender must go without that money. Going about 15 mph over the speed limit gets you a multiplier of 12 days, and going 25 mph over carries a 22-day multiplier. Finland’s maximum multiplier is 120 days, and their is no ceiling on the possible fines themselves.

Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland also have some sliding-scale fines, or "day-fines," in place.

The Finnish system is certainly more equitable than the flat rate system we have.

(Apr ’15)


Drone delivering asparagus crashes and burns

Each year, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Netherlands marks the beginning of  the asparagus season with a publicity stunt.

In past years they have used everything from a Formula 1 racing car to a hot air balloon and a helicopter to deliver the very first asparagus of the season, and this year the owner wanted to try flying a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

So, a quadcopter drone was deployed to deliver the vegetables from the grower’s farm to the prestigious eating establishment.

The journey started well enough with the drone taking off carrying a metal can consisting of several asparagus stalks. In the interests of safety, the pilot followed in the back of a small pick-up truck so the drone was always in line-of-sight, with the stunt being filmed by a local TV channel.

Midway through the flight, the drone landed safely to get its battery changed before taking off again. However, on the second take off, the drone crashed onto a (thankfully) quiet country road, and both the drone and the asparagus it was carrying went up in flames.

No word on whether the grilled asparagus was edible.

This follows an incident back in December when TGI Friday (a bar and restaurant chain) in New York had drones carrying mistletoe hovering above patrons heads encouraging them to kiss so they could get it all on kiss-cam. Unfortunately one of those drones also crashed and sliced open a woman’s nose.

Drone popularity is catching on here too amongst the authorities and enthusiasts.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) has used them to assess earthquake damage, the Police have photographed crime scenes with drones and farmers are experimenting with them for stock management on farms.

Disaster relief agencies have also been using them over the last couple of weeks to survey the damage in Vanuatu caused by Cyclone Pam.

As the prices drop, amateur drone enthusiasts are popping up all over the country and you don’t need to prove your skills at remote flying to buy one.

Our CAA is currently working on a set of regulations for drones and their pilots.

They’d better hurry up.

(Apr ’15)


L.A. to control streetlights with a single laptop

Los Angeles will soon be able to control all its LED street lights with a single laptop.

The plan is to attach mobile chips to the existing streetlights that will connect them all via the city’s cellular network. The system will allow a city worker to turn individual lights on or off say, to accommodate a film shoot, or to brighten the lights for instance, when a public event gets out.

It will also alert the city when an individual light goes out and monitor each bulb’s energy use.

And it can all be done through a web browser. What could possibly go wrong?

Think of the fun hackers will have with this: all across town, the street lights dancing to music; or, a giant light-borne, city-wide Mexican wave revolving around city hall.

Let your imagination run wild. Yeehaw!

(Apr ’15)

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Apple buys 36,000 acre forest

Teaming up with the US Conservation Fund, Apple has bought a forest, and a big one at that – 36,000 acres (14,500 hectares).

The company is making the investment in order to ensure that the working forest is sustainably harvested, and will then ensure that Apple has a steady supply of timber for pulp and paper mills to create boxes for its iPhones and other products.

The forest is actually split over two different areas, with 32,400 acres located in Maine and 3,600 acres located in North Carolina. The diverse habitats of flora and fauna in them will protected under the Conservation Funds Working Forest Fund.

The move is part of Apple’s effort to manage its own supply chain.

(Apr ’15)


Drone-proofing the Boston marathon

To protect this year's Boston Marathon runners and spectators from drone-borne threats, the event was patrolled with drone-detecting sensors and net guns.

While the equipment was used to make this month’s race safe, no specific drone-borne threats were detected. At the 2013 Boston Marathon, pressure cooker bombs went off just before the finish line killing three and injuring 260.

The system to counter unmanned aerial vehicles consisted mainly of audio detectors designed to pick up on the specific sounds made by the remotely piloted craft, with programs to filter out false positives. 10 sensors were placed along the marathon route.

In addition, police had net guns at the ready should any hostile drones be detected. Nets are great, because they gum up a drone’s rotors but don’t really pose a major risk to anyone else (unlike shotguns or machine guns). The net guns are similar to the ones used for animal or bird control.



Neil Armstrong kept the moon landing camera

If you were the first person to set foot on the moon, wouldn't you want to keep a few mementos from the trip? Neil Armstrong certainly did.

The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum has revealed that the astronaut stored numerous items from the Apollo 11, including the 16mm Data Acquisition Camera used to record the iconic moment “one small step for man” when he reached the Lunar surface. He held on to the camera and other "odds and ends" (as he told Mission Control) on the way back to Earth, and never mentioned them when he returned.

The 20 items were discovered by his widow Carol in bag in the back of a closet. The bag and its contents are now on loan to the Museum for preservation, research and eventual public display.

Neil Armstrong died of complications associated with heart surgery in August 2012.

(Feb ’15)


…and there’s poop on the moon

Everyone knows that the Apollo astronauts left a few things behind after landing on the moon. Since the lunar module could only lift so much weight off the surface, they swapped out unwanted goods and gear for moon rocks. Among those unwanted goods were all kinds of weird and wonderful things including 96 bags of poop, pee, and puke.

Think of the moon as another landfill… or is that lunarfill?

The Apollo missions brought back a total of 383kg of moon rocks, dust and core samples on six separate missions between 1969 and 1972. That amounts to who knows how many pounds of poop, not to mention the other excrement, as well as boring old stuff like tools, golf balls, photographs, cameras, a gold-plated telescope and random symbolic objects.

There is, however, scientific value to the things left behind. Astrobiologists, for instance, hope to one day inspect that half-century-old faeces to see if the crap has undergone any genetic mutations while in space.

There’s actually an entire website devoted to trash on the moon (second link). Here’s a list of the more interesting and unusual items, aside from the 96 bags of human discharge:

More than 70 spacecraft
5 American flags, all of which are now white
12 pairs of boots
An olive branch sculpture made of gold
Used wet wipes
Space food wrappers
2 golf balls
A gold-plated telescope
A feather from Baggin,the official mascot of the Air Force Academy
A silicon disc with goodwill messages from 73 world leaders
Numerous Hasselbad cameras
A photograph of Astronaut Charlie Duke’s family (Apollo 16)

And, at the risk of being repetitive, 96 bags of poop, pee, and puke.

(Feb ’15)


Battery lasts 175 years… so far

In Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University, a bell has been ringing non-stop for 175 years. It’s powered by a single battery that was installed in 1840.

Researchers don’t know exactly what the battery is made of but are afraid that opening the bell, known as the Oxford Electric Bell, will ruin the experiment to see how long it will last.

The bell’s clapper oscillates quickly – at about 2Hz – and has rung about 10 billion times according to the University.

The battery is made of what’s called a “dry pile”, which is one of the first electric batteries, invented by a guy named Giuseppe Zamboni in the early 1800s. Dry piles use alternating discs of silver, zinc, sulphur, and other materials to generate low currents of electricity.

Fortunately, the bell is seen but not heard as the ringing is muffled in the ground floor display cabinet near the main entrance of the laboratory.

(Feb ’15)


Google Earth Pro now free

Google has long offered a Pro version of Google Earth for $US399 per year that includes some pretty cool extras not found in the free version. Now it is free.

All you have to do is download the installer, then sign in using your e-mail address (as your username) and license code GEPFREE. The Pro version has a variety of features including:

Advanced measurements: Measure parking lots and land developments with polygon area measure, or determine affected radius with circle measure.

High-resolution printing: Print images up to 4,800 x 3,200 pixel resolution.

Exclusive pro data layers with demographics and traffic count.

Spreadsheet importing: load up to 2,500 addresses at a time, assigning place marks and style templates in bulk.

While Pro was created for the business/enterprise market, let’s face it, the Pro version has a mountain of entertainment value.

(Feb ’15)


Hard drive failures

A year ago (Issue #106) we ran an article on hard disk reliablity when cloud backup service provider Backblaze published its findings for tens of thousands of disks that it operated.

Backblaze uses regular consumer-grade disks for its storage because of the cheaper cost and ‘good-enough’ reliability, but it also discovered that the failure rates of some brands were markedly higher than others.

Now, a year on, Backblaze has released more data and even more differences between the different hard disks have been found.

For the second year, the standout reliability leader was HGST. Now a wholly owned subsidiary of Western Digital, HGST inherited the technology and designs from Hitachi (which itself bought IBM's hard disk division). Across a range of models from 2 to 4 terabytes, the HGST models showed low failure rates – at worst, 2.3% failing per year. This includes some of the oldest disks among Backblaze's collection.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were Seagate disks. Last year, the two 1.5TB Seagate models (Barracudas) used by Backblaze had failure rates of 25.4% and 9.9%. Those units fared little better this time around, with up to a whopping 43.1% failure rate, in spite of an average age of just 2.2 years for that model.

That’s not good.

(Feb ’15)


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