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Archive for December 1st, 2012

World’s oldest digital computer functional again at age 60

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The Harwell Dekatron computer is a 1950s computer having roughly the weight and size of a Hummer H3 and the computing power of a four-function pocket calculator. Having been restored to its original operating condition using 95 percent original parts, it is now the oldest functioning programmable digital computer in the world. Guinness might have been onto something, when, in 1973, they named the Dekatron the Most Durable Computer in the World.

The Harwell computer was built in the early 1950s for the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Never intended to be a state-of-the-art general-purpose computer, the Harwell was developed to perform simple but repetitive calculations continuously and without error. Its computational rate is about 0.1 FLOPS, similar to that of a pocket calculator, but the computer operates for long periods of time without human intervention.

The computational needs of the Establishment soon outstripped the Harwell, and in 1957 Wolverhampton University was offered the machine to train students about computing. The Harwell was relaunched as the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), and helped a generation of students learn about computing. But by 1974, Wolverhampton decided that the WITCH was obsolete. They donated the computer to the Museum of Science and Industry in Birmingham, where it was on display until the museum closed in 1997.

Then, once again evading disposal, the computer was disassembled and stored in the Birmingham City Council Museums Collection Centre. Rediscovered quite by accident in 2008 by Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the National Museum of Computing, it was moved to its current home at that museum, where it’s been restored to full functionality…

A dekatron was the simplest base-10 counter able to add and subtract while generating carry digits. Common dekatrons were based on decimal counting, and could switch reliably at speeds in excess of 10 kHz. Dekatrons are triggered to consecutively light a set of ten positions in a cold-cathode tube.

Surely a delightful example of change and efficiency in technology. There are beaucoup constructions that haven’t changed greatly in size because what they store or manipulate hasn’t changed, e.g., automobiles and homes. But, manipulating data to draw conclusions has probably changed more dramatically than any other construct over time.

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When autism may be an advantage

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Thorkil Sonne and his son Lars at home in Ringsted, Denmark

When Thorkil Sonne and his wife, Annette, learned that their 3-year-old son, Lars, had autism, they did what any parent who has faith in reason and research would do: They started reading. At first they were relieved that so much was written on the topic. “Then came sadness,” Annette says. Lars would have difficulty navigating the social world, they learned, and might never be completely independent. The bleak accounts of autistic adults who had to rely on their parents made them fear the future.

What they read, however, didn’t square with the Lars they came home to every day. He was a happy, curious boy, and as he grew, he amazed them with his quirky and astonishing abilities…To his father, Lars seemed less defined by deficits than by his unusual skills. And those skills, like intense focus and careful execution, were exactly the ones that Sonne, who was the technical director at a spinoff of TDC, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company, often looked for in his own employees…

Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars — and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization — he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family’s home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists,” on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.

For nearly a decade, the company has been modest in size — it employs 35 high-functioning autistic workers who are hired out as consultants, as they are called, to 19 companies in Denmark — but it has grand ambitions….At the World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin in September, he was named one of 26 winners of a global social entrepreneurship award. Specialisterne has inspired start-ups and has five of its own, around the world. In the next few months, Sonne plans to move with his family to the United States, where the number of autistic adults — roughly 50,000 turn 18 every year — as well as a large technology sector suggests a good market for expansion…

For previously unemployable people — one recent study found that more than half of Americans with an autism diagnosis do not attend college or find jobs within two years of graduating from high school — Sonne’s idea holds out the possibility of self-sufficiency.

A long, fascinating article. The concept isn’t original – except to the demographic defined by Sonne’s experience with his son. One of my close kin was born profoundly deaf and when she and her family won the battle of mainstreaming and getting an education, the question of employment remained. The avenue she discovered – during the era of loud, irritating IBM keyboards – was data entry. Eventually, her experience with the content she read and turned into digital data led to a career managing and administering contracts based on that data.

Still, this can be a wider search and a daunting task. The emotional and social baggage associated with autism can be greater than a traditional “handicap”. The tale of Thorkil Sonne and Lars is inspirational and an education in and of itself.

Written by Ed Campbell

December 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Sea snails begin to show impact of more acidic ocean

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Wing foot pteropod

The shells of some marine snails in the seas around Antarctica are dissolving as the water becomes more acidic, threatening the food chain, said a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience…

Oceans soak up about a quarter of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year and as CO2 levels in the atmosphere increase from burning fossil fuels, so do ocean levels, making seas more acidic.

Ocean acidification is one of the effects of climate change and threatens coral reefs, marine ecosystems and wildlife.

The shell of the pteropod sea snail in the Southern Ocean was severely dissolved by more acidic surface water, the researchers from the British Antarctic Survey, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research…NOAA and other institutions found.

And although the snails did not necessarily die, it increased their vulnerability to predators and infection which could affect other parts of the food chain.

“The corrosive properties of the water caused shells of live animals to be severely dissolved and this demonstrates how vulnerable pteropods are,” said lead author Nina Bednaršek, from the NOAA.

…Until now, there has been little evidence of the impact of ocean acidification on such live organisms in their natural environment and the study supports predictions that acidification could have a significant effect on marine ecosystems…

Climate models forecast more intense winds in the Southern Ocean this century if CO2 continues to increase, which will make the mixing of deep water with more acidic surface waters more frequent, the study said.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by 30 percent, according to NOAA research.

The authors of the study predict surface waters could be 150 % more acidic by the end of this century.

Keep messing with my scungilli and I’m getting really pissed off!

Written by Ed Campbell

December 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm

The Republicans’ urban problem

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The turnout in Paul Ryan’s Milwaukee – for President Obama

In a post-election interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, said “the president should get credit for achieving record-breaking turnout numbers from urban areas for the most part, and that did win the election for him.” Ryan’s critics noted that President Barack Obama also fared well in states like Iowa, where the urban vote is relatively small. Some even suggested that Ryan’s remarks were a kind of racial code, in which “urban areas” served as a stand-in for black and Latino voters. Yet Ryan’s observation speaks to a deeper truth that should trouble Republicans.

Although rural regions dominate the map of the contiguous United States, an overwhelming majority of Americans live in urban and suburban areas. Democrats have long dominated dense urban cores. But Democrats increasingly dominate dense inner suburbs—as opposed to sprawling outer suburbs, where Republicans still hold their own—as well, and the share of the population concentrated in dense suburban counties is steadily increasing. This is true not only among Latino, black, and Asian voters living in these communities, but of white voters as well…

Rather than fixate on ethnicity, conservatives would do well to think more about urbanity. What is it about life in America’s densest, most productive, and most economically stratified metropolitan areas that persuades voters to back Democrats? When this phenomenon was limited to the populous coastal metropolitan areas, it could reasonably be explained away as a product of regional political polarization. But the leftward trend in urban areas is chipping away at the GOP’s advantage in the South and the Mountain West as well.

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Written by Ed Campbell

December 1, 2012 at 8:00 am

Bread lasting 60 days to cut food waste – brains might help, too

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An American company has developed a technique that it says can make bread stay mould-free for 60 days. The bread is zapped in a sophisticated microwave array which kills the spores that cause the problem.

The company claims it could significantly reduce the amount of wasted bread – in the UK alone, almost a third of loaves purchased.

The technique can also be used with a wide range of foods including fresh turkey and many fruits and vegetables.

Food waste is a massive problem in most developed countries. In the US, figures released this year suggest that the average American family throws away 40% of the food they purchase – which adds up to $165 billion annually.

Bread is a major culprit, with 32% of loaves purchased in the UK thrown out as waste when they could be eaten, according to figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs…

In normal conditions, bread will go mouldy in around 10 days. But an American company called Microzap says it has developed a technique that will keep the bread mould free for two months.

At its laboratory on the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, chief executive Don Stull showed off the long, metallic microwave device…Originally designed to kill bacteria such as MRSA and salmonella, the researchers discovered it could kill the mould spores in bread in around 10 seconds.

“We treated a slice of bread in the device, we then checked the mould that was in that bread over time against a control, ” he explained. “And at 60 days it had the same mould content as it had when it came out of the oven…”

…There is also a concern that consumers might not take to bread that lasts for so long. Mr Stull acknowledges it might be difficult to convince some people of the benefits.

NSS! If it wasn’t a concern – we’d already be using less-expensive gamma radiation to produce the same result. My friends in the organic wing of the foodie religion are thoroughly capable of crapping their jeans over any scientific method of destroying harmful critters in our food.

It doesn’t matter how many tests demonstrate no residue left behind from any sort of radiation used to sterilize a food product. They will remain convinced that little atomic rays are still whizzing about inside the bread crust ready to turn us into green mutants with vestigial gill covers. Lazy-ass journalists and editors will slop their fears out into the general public because, after all, tales of panic are profitable.

Not wasting food might be worth considering, as well. Naw. That’s probably unAmerican.

Written by Ed Campbell

December 1, 2012 at 2:00 am

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