News Briefs 23-11-2010

Condensed matter news, life but not as we know it.

  • The £2.2billion superlab where scientists are creating a star on Earth.
  • Research red tape contributes to the suffering and death of millions.
  • Psychopathy seems to be caused by specific mental deficiencies.
  • Why gold became money.
  • Physicist says he has found the first evidence of an eternal cyclical cosmos.
  • The secret maritime history of the Aborigines in the settling of Australia.
  • Life may be condensed matter physics.
  • Jellyfish-like star has two unusual rings.
  • Doctors mystified by case of world’s thinnest woman.
  • Breakthrough could lead to disposable e-readers.
  • Diagrams that changed the world.
  • Banking on predictability, the mind increases efficiency.
  • Researchers kick-start ancient DNA.
  • Questions arise over earliest evidence of human tool use.
  • The incredible Taiwanese skyscraper complete with floating leaf observatories.

Quote of the Day:

Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it.

Robert Heinlein

  1. Dispose of the disposables
    Re: Breakthrough could lead to disposable e-readers.

    “… We would have something that is very cheap, very fast, full-color and at the end of the day or the end of the week, you could pitch it into the trash.”

    Disposing of a paper-based e-reader, Steckl points out, is also far simpler in terms of the environmental impact.

    “In general, this is an elegant method for reducing device complexity and cost, resulting in one-time-use devices that can be totally disposed after use,” the researchers pointed out.”
    http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-11-breakthrough-disposable-e-readers.html

    That’s one small step for consumerism, one giant step back for mankind.

    Okay, that was lame. Guilty as charged. But still and all, even with that somewhat lesser ‘environmental impact’, it would seem that the very last thing we really need is another breakthrough that will ultimately end up in a landfill or floating with the rest of our refuse at sea.

    My memory may well be a little biased but… the recollection of the days (’50s-’60s) when milk jugs and soda bottles were returned for refill, is of cleaner roadsides and beaches. Back when our appliances were repaired instead of replaced on a whim, there were those quaint repair shops and the bills for fixing them were less than the cost of the item new.

    Now, I will admit that Detroit already had us by the short hairs when it came to automobiles. Designed obsolescence meant that you had no choice but replace your car after a few years. And the result was horrid… with automobile graveyards in every empty lot. They would fill up before they could be hauled off and sent to Germany or Japan as scrap to be recycled into Datsuns or VW bugs.

    It’s just an opinion but… I think we need to get back to some degree of consumerist responsibility. This means less disposable and more return for deposit.

    1. Less disposable
      Maybe the answer is some sort of compromise between the consumer and the manufacturing company. Perhaps create products that are made of better-quality materials and are easily upgradeable; and instead of “selling” them to the costumer, you make him sign a leasing contract.

      Cell phone carriers already do that with their costumers, only the replaced products would be sent to the plant or repaired, instead of thrown to the garbage, like they do now.

      PS: Last Sunday I bought me a laptop, and today I discovered a busted pixel in the screen. I immediately entered into a moral dilemma: should I return the machine or not? To 99% of costumers, this malfunction would seem completely trivial, but I’m very obsessed when it comes to visual performance —and besides, I had just bought the damn thing!

      So yes, I went to the store. Later today I’ll go to pick up the replacement; I do promise however that I’ll keep this machine for at least 4 years —my last computer lasted me 6, and I haven’t thrown it out yet!

      1. leasing
        Actually leasing has many disadvantages for the consumer.

        Since the manufacturer, or service provider, owns the equipment the consumer is using, the provider can do anything with it that it pleases. And the consumer cannot.

        This is already the case with the contracts many people have for their cell phones. It is also the case with some warranties or maintenance contracts for appliances or cars. It is effectively the goal of the entertainment industries for music and movies. The consumer pays lots of money for a product, and then doesn’t have the right to use is as (s)he sees fit.

        This is a very bad idea.

        If you look on the other side, what is wrong with using a paper display until it falls apart physically? Compare this to a display consisting of glass and metal, with a bunch of exotic trace materials. Trace materials that have to be recycled with lots of energy usage. They are heavy and cause pollution when shipped.

        Paper on the other hand can be recycled much more easily and cleanly.

        And then consider that the paper display could be the size appropriate for the purpose of viewing, as opposed to appropriate for the purpose of manufacturing.

        1. Pros and cons
          Obviously, no system is perfect, and what we understand today as “leasing” could use many improvements.

          But the basic idea is to offer the costumer an alternative to keep wasting lots and lots of money trying to keep up with technology’s rapid pace.

          And there’s no denying that as time progresses old machines require constant maintenance. When you’re stuck with an old car that keeps depreciating in value each day it stays in your garage, the temptation to buy a new one is greater —specially in Mexico, where cars that are 6 years-old (or something like that) are not allowed to travel the city streets one day of the week; either you buy a new model, or you use the bus.

          So the idea would be to give the costumer a total usufruct of the product —but with the chance to replace the product for a new one, or upgrade the older one after an X amount of time.

          Some furniture companies give their clients a “life-time maintenance” insurance. This is IMO something that should be explored further.

          See? this way companies would be forced to create better products that could actually last a lifetime, instead of cleverly fragile designs that are intended to break apart after just a few years. Maybe the client would just ask for a new “body” for the old family car, or a more efficient engine, or new seats.

          But this would also force consumers to think very carefully before making a purchase.

          1. practical experience
            I don’t see companies making products that last very long in a leasing scenario.

            Look at the situation in markets where the provider already keeps effective ownership of the device, that’s better than extrapolating from assumptions.

            Consumers think carefully about what they buy when they have to pay for maintenance or replacement. When maintenance or replacement are “free”, consumers don’t care.

            But this is missing a central point – control of the device. When you are leasing or renting something, the owner tells you what you can do with it.

            When you buy a car, you are allowed to drive it wherever you want. When you rent or lease a car, you are not.

            Same thing for a phone – when you lease or rent it, you are not allowed to use any network provider that you want, you are limited to the networks the device owner decides on.

            Same thing with computers – when it is your computer, you run the programs you want. When it is not your computer, you don’t.

          2. Cable
            And look at cable companies: wouldn’t it be great if costumers could choose which channels they DO want to receive, instead of opting between the lame basic package, and the $$$$ premium platinum superduper combo*?

            I’m not advocating for a “pie in the sky” scenario where the client gets it all for free. Obviously, some restrictions and limitations should apply in the warranty.

            What I’m talking about here is products made of much better materials, intended to last many years, instead of just 6 months, and the way to turn that into a viable business model for companies (who nowadays need to churn out as many products as they can to stay competitive) would be through leasing.

            Sure, it wouldn’t have the same freedom as totally own the product. But last time I checked, many million cell phone users are not terribly concerned or traumatized by their carrier contract —I don’t have one of those simply because I rarely speak more than 15 minutes a month on my cell phone.

            I remember there was this Israeli guy who was projecting a marketing plan to sell electric cars copying the cell phone carrier model. I think the guy was on to something very interesting.

            (*)which is composed primarily of a dozen crappy channels you’ll never watch, plus HBO 😉

          3. contracts
            Actually many phone customers are greatly distressed by the lack of quality of their carriers, and by very high prices on out-of-area usage.

            The only reason such low quality has a chance in the market is that the customers can’t switch to another product.

            Long term leasing is a great way to get a customer who has no way to stop being a customer. No need to make a good product and/or service when the customer has to continue paying, and you don’t have to fix anything.

          4. *Sigh*
            Customers had a choice at the beginning to be customers, right? it’s not like they were inherited their cell phone contract from their auntie Bertha 😛

            It’s clear you’re not willing to entertain the possibility. So let’s just keep buying more disposable crap that will end up in the bottom of the ocean.

          5. paper
            We were talking about paper products 🙂

            Much easier to recycle, and they float. They take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Wonderful stuff. Light weight, saves energy during transport – even less CO2.

          6. No
            I wasn’t talking about paper. I was talking about other consumer products —chairs, cars, washing machines, etc— I was following up on Redoubt’s justified criticism of our current consumerist tendencies (buy/use til it breaks/discard/repeat).

    1. here’s how
      Here’s how I would do this, based on the illustrations.

      The leaves will be your basic Zeppelins, with an umbilical attached to the sliding thingy (“elevator”) on the side of the building. This way the Zeppelin doesn’t need big fuel tanks. It should have small tanks good enough for maybe 15 minutes of independent flight.

      To tolerate different wind directions (Zeppelins are really bad at flying sideways), the umbilicals need to be longer than in the illustration.

      They also need to be detachable. If they are detached, the Zeppelin just lands indepently.That’s what the 15 minutes are for.

      Actually now that I think about it, the umbilicals are probably a bad idea. They will just tangle up. Replace them with something wireless, and maybe make some holographic “stems” for the leaves just to make them look attached.

      Some things in the illustration are harder to do. Like the little people standing on a 60 degree slope, they would need special shoes, probably.

      Also you would want decent weather forecasting. This won’t fly if winds are too strong. Well actually it will, but not the way you would want.

      And invest in some research to get flatter shaped Zeppelins that can fly better sideways.

      1. Blimp building
        Yeah, I too get the feeling that those observatories are intended to be very very light. Maybe lighter than air as you suggest —though I sure hope they can stay afloat for longer than 15 minutes, or that would make for a rather short and hurried inauguration ceremony, when they get that building finished 😛

        I know how the game’s played, though. The final building will suffer major radical changes compared with these cool renderings —the same way a car differs from the initial concept sketches shown at the expos.

        1. 15 mins
          Actually I meant the 15 minutes without the umbilical. The little connections in the illustrations should serve as fuel supply lines for the floats, and for communication links. The leaves have to talk to each other, or a controller. These are aircraft, so you need air traffic control.

          In some illustrations the building looks a lot taller than 1000 feet, but that’s artistic license stuff 🙂

          1. He
            That’s artistic perspective fer ya. I’ve often rendered 5-story buildings that look like skyscrapers —if you know where to place your camera 😉

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