Archive for March, 2010

UK company developing a new spaceplane

30/03/2010 Leave a comment

Skylon Spaceplane

Skylon Spaceplane

The Shuttle is due to be put in to retirement shortly.  This will lead to a need for a means of supplying the International Space Station, NASA awarded to the companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation in 2008.  Several companies are planning for a replacement to the Shuttle.  It is interesting that we now look towards companies, rather than governments to fund leading edge development.

One company which is drawing much interest is Reaction Engines, in the UK, and their proposed Skylon Spaceplane.  The term Spaceplane refers to the fact that it takes off and lands like a conventional plane, but can also fly in to orbit taking a payload of over 12 tonnes.

The managing director is well known in aviation circles, Alan Bond – in the 1980s he was behind the ill-fated HOTOL project.  He was also involved with Blue Streak in the late 1950s, when the UK was a leader in the space race – until the UK pulled the plug on the funding and cancelled the project.  This time the European Union is putting money in to the project.  Their interest is in the Skylon’s key concept, its Sabre propulsion system.  It is part jet engine, part rocket engine. It burns hydrogen and oxygen to provide thrust – but in the lower atmosphere this oxygen is taken from the atmosphere.  The ‘challenge’ is that gasses at entry are at 1000 deg C, but in 1/100 of a second are cooled to just 130 deg C, prior to being compressed and burnt with the hydrogen.  The engine is capable of very high speed, with excellent thrust over the entire flight, from the ground to very high altitude, with high efficiency throughout.  In addition, unlike scramjets or ramjets the engine can be easily tested on the ground, which massively cuts testing costs.

There are two versions of the Reaction Engines design, the suborbital London to Sydney trip in 90min version and the Mach25 orbiter version.  What is currently called the A2, the Reaction Engine design for the ESA hypersonics projects, has been praised by ESA.  It may even threaten the development of the space elevator – see my earlier post.

ESA already posses a reliable rocket in the form of the Ariane rocket.  However, the future lies in spaceplanes.  Cheaper and easier to operate, and fully re-usable.  UK science minister Lord Drayson recently told the BBC “Britain is well placed here. The Skylon project is a good example; but I’d also point to Surrey Satellite Technology Limited with their micro-satellites that are a fraction of the price of conventional satellites.  We’re in a promising position as a country to be working on those areas of technology that are applicable to the future of space research”.  The key to any nations success in this arena is is to use a truly reusable space-plane, which can take off from an airport, climb directly into space, deliver its satellite payload and automatically return safely to Earth.


Jolicloud – a good OS (operating system) for netbooks

29/03/2010 Leave a comment



I have something of a reputation of being an early adopter.  This is not true, having only just bought my first Blu-ray player, I did not buy the first generation of the iPhone and I have not rushed out to buy a Nexus phone or order an iPad.  Having said that, one device which caught my early attention was the Asus EEE PC.  I quickly bought one and indeed persuaded my boss that we should buy one for any of our 60 staff who wanted one.

I specified the Linux version, and most staff were very pleased with what was for many their first use of Linux (Xandros Linux).  Several of us wiped it to install Ubuntu, and since then I have tried many other distributions such as Open Suse, Linux Mint, Mandriva – amongst others.  At last I have found a version which has been designed for the Netbook PC from the outset.  It is called Jolicloud, and is now in final pre-release version .  The interface is very similar to that of Ubuntu NBR, but I have found it to be much quicker, especially running the Chrome browser.  I am also pleased with the screen resolution which brings my Asus 901 to life (by the way, this is probably my favourite gadget and one I use every day).

There is a particular focus on cloud computing and social networking.  The inteface for installing additional applications is very easy to use. A constant bar at the top of the screen shows a great deal of useful information.  The opening screen has a panel on the left showing groups or categories of applications, and the right-hand panel shows all the locations that the computer is connected to.  All of this customisable, at least to a certain extent.

Tariq Krim and his team in Paris have done an impressive job on this OS.  If you have a Netbook, but are running Windows, then go to the Jolicloud web site and download a version to run off a memory stick.  This will allow you to boot from it, run Jolicloud and all its applications without touching your installed copy of Windows.   Linux has come of age, allowing the user to install, automatically pick up the drivers required and to use without any recourse to either a command line interface or a compiler.  I can thoroughly recommend Jolicloud. (Oh, did I mention in boots in 15 seconds?)

Categories: Computing, Gadgets

A free HUD (head up display) for your car

28/03/2010 Leave a comment



If you would like a fee HUD, there is only one requirement, apart from owning a car.  iHUDlite (not to be confused with a different app called iHUD) is a app for the iPhone.  As with many apps, it comes both as a free version and a pay for version.  It works very simply.  It uses the GPS capability to of the iPhone to determine your altitude, direction and speed.  The clever part comes in the way in which the display can be configured.

One of the options is to choose to display the speed only (in one of three different colours) and then to reverse the display, as a mirror image.  The iPhone is placed on the dashboard and the image is reflected off the windscreen.

Having tried the software, I found it works well at night, but the image is far too weak to be clearly seen in daylight.  Also, the glass in my windscreen is double-glazed, giving me two images.  The other problem is stopping your iPhone sliding around on your dashboard.  I am off to the Pound Shop tomorrow to get one of those non-slip mats you can put on your dashboard.  The app also has a database of the speed cameras in the UK, but I have yet to try this feature out.

Categories: Gadgets, Transport

It’s not what you type, but how you type it

27/03/2010 Leave a comment

Cyber Security

Cyber Security

Research by Prof Roy Maxion of Carnegie Mellon University claims to be able to tell a great deal about a person by the way they type.  His research claims that “As soon as you type ten numbers or letters he can work out your sex, your culture, your age and whether you have any hand injuries.”  He believes that this can be achieved with a 95% accuracy.

In the UK, where Prof Maxion is an Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle,  it is hoped research based on these findings will be able to identify paedophiles posing as children on social networking sites.   Phil Butler, head of the university’s Cyber Crime and Computer Security department and a former Northumbria Police Detective chief inspector, believes the new technique has the potential for being a valuable weapon in their arsenal.   He states, “We’re looking at the application of the research, particularly in relation to internet grooming. If children are talking to each other on Windows Live or MSN Messenger, we are looking at ways of providing the chatroom moderators with the technology to be able to see whether an adult is on there by the way they type.”

The university is planning to submit a proposal to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to fund further research. It is thought the technology could also be used to prevent fraud at devices such as cash machines.

Categories: Internet, Security

Swiss chips

26/03/2010 Leave a comment

Swiss Army Knife

Swiss Army Knife

For many years the Swiss Army Knife has been the pocket tool which has everything – including the tool for getting stones out of horses hooves.  For some while it has come with a memory stick, but it has now been re-launched with a new version of the memory stick.

Victorinox, who make the Swiss Army Knife, say that their memory stick can not be hacked.  Indeed, they go on to claim that if the stick detects an attempt at unauthorised access it will “self destruct”.  They must be confident of their claims as they are putting their money ( a “six figure” sum) where their mouth is.  Hackers have been invited to visit their London shop and to put the memory stick to the test.  The stick employs sophisticated encryption techniques to encode its contents.  In addition it uses a fingerprint scanner to gain access to the contents.  However, rather creepily it is claimed that it uses an oxygen and heat detector in order to determine if the finger is attached to a live person.

The cheapest version of the new pocket knife, the 8GB version costs £100. The most expensive is the 32GB version and costs £315. Unfortunately, it is compatible with Windows PCs only.

Categories: Gadgets, Security

Technology convergence – the statistics

24/03/2010 Leave a comment

I came across an interesting video on the “The Future of Learning” web site.  The sources are all referenced, and look reputable.  Although the statistics are largely USA centric, they make interesting reading nonetheless.

  • In excess of 1 000 000 000 books are published each year, a Google book search scanner can digitize 1 000 pages an hour
  • Americans have access to 1 000 000 000 000 web pages, 65 000 iPhone apps, 10 500 radio stations, 5 500 magazines, 200+ cable TV channels (near identical to the UK, apart from the radio channels, if you exclude web radio channels)
  • Newspaper circulation in the USA is down by 7 million in the last 25 years, but in the last 5 years unique readers of online newspapers are up by 30 million
  • In the last 2 months more video was uploaded to YouTube than if all the major US broadcasters had been broadcasting 24hrs a day, 365 days a week, since 1948
  • The same broadcasters get 10 million visitors a month to their websites.  In that period FaceBook, YouTube and MySpace receive 250 million (none of these sites existed 6 years ago).
  • 95% of all the music downloaded last year was not paid for.
  • Wikipedia launched in 2001, has 13 million articles, in 200 languages and worldwide employs just 12 full-time staff (no, that was not a typo).
  • Cisco’s Nexus 7000 data switch could move all of Wikipedia in just 0.001 of a second
  • The average American teenager sends 2 272 text messages a month, one of  my daughters regularly sends 4 000 a month
  • Nokia is manufacturing 13 mobile phones every second
  • 93% of Americans own a mobile phone.
  • 1/3 of mobile phone users feel it is unsafe to use them to make purchases.  So much for the ‘digital wallet’.
  • In 2007 Dell claim to have earned $3 million from Twitter posts
  • In February 2008 John McCain attended fund raising events for his presidential campaign and raised $11 million.  In the same period Barack Obama attended no such events.  Instead his campaign team used social networks to raise $55 million in 29 days.
  • 90% of the 200 billion emails sent each year are spam
  • By 2020 the mobile device will be the primary device for accessing the Web
  • The computer embedded in your mobile phone is a million times cheaper, a thousand times more powerful and a hundred thousand times smaller than the single mainframe owned by MIT in 1965
  • The computer that once filled a building now fits in your pocket, and in 25 years from now will be small enough to fit in a blood cell.

The link to the original video is in the bottom right of this page.

How to drop your mobile phone in water and keep smiling

15/03/2010 5 comments

Wet Mobile Phone

Wet Mobile Phone

It is possible to drop your phone in water, and with a little bit of effort on your part to still have a working phone after the event.  As with many of these things, the advice is obvious when you see it written down, but a little less obvious in those first few moments of blind panic.

The most important thing is remove the battery, don’t pause to think about it – just do it !  The battery can be put to one side and dried off with a cloth.  It is not a good idea to apply a source of heat to ‘encourage’ the drying process.  At the same time remove the Sim card, the contents may be as valuable as the phone itself.  If the phone was dropped in sea water, remove the battery and Sim card and rinse the phone in distilled water.  Tap water will have to do if distilled water is not available, but it is important to remove the salt crystals.

Gently shake your phone to remove excess water.  Dry it off as much as possible with a towel.  If you have to use a paper towel, be careful not to clog up crevices with wet paper.  Remove as many covers and plugs as possible to allow drying.  Continue the drying process with a vacuum cleaner and NOT a hair dryer.  You want to pull water out of the phone, not push it deeper in to every crevice.

NEVER attempt to dry your phone in a microwave oven.  You had realised that anyway, hadn’t you?

If you have access to any desiccant material, small beads which absorb humidity, you should place your phone in a sealed jar of the material.  If not use rice.  Do you need to be told it should be uncooked rice?  The phone should be left in the sealed jar for at least 24 hrs.

When you take the phone out of the jar make sure it is completely dry.  If not, put the phone back in the jar again.  If the phone appears to be dry re-assemble it.  Turn it on to see if it works.  If not, try taking the battery out and turn the phone on connected to the charger instead.  If you still have no joy, and you are confident and have the right tools (probably Torx screwdrivers size 4, 5 and 6), take the phone apart and dry out every crevice.  Phones are designed to be water resistant so can be used outside in light showers of rain.  The very seals designed to keep water out, will keep the water in if it has got passed the seals.  If you know a physics teacher, placing your phone in a vacuum jar for about 30mins will help it dry out thoroughly.

From the time you drop your phone in water to the time you start taking the remedial action listed above is about ten seconds.  However, don’t panic and with a bit of luck you may be able to rescue the situation.  If not, you always have your household insurance policy.

Categories: Gadgets, Mobile Phones