Archive for the ‘ Technology ’ Category

High-speed double-decker Mercury train

Mercury train

This is awesome. Don’t just talk about it. Build it. Immediately. I will come to Britain just to ride on it. Thank you.

http://gizmodo.com/5587918/britains-train-expert-unveils-his-next-transportation-icon

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iPhone 3G upgraded to iOS4 – update

I’ve had the “redsn0w 0.9.5 beta” jailbreak on my iPhone 3G for a few days now so I thought I’d give my impressions. I’ll admit that there is a slight performance reduction but only on some functions and on balance I still think having the multi-tasking is well worth it. Strangely, the 2 functions that seem to suffer the most performance anxiety are the iPod and Phone functions. Opening iPod takes slightly longer than before and it demonstrates some reluctance to start playing with a hint of lag. Phone also has a bit of lag that it didn’t display before, taking some extra time when ending a call before it reverts back to the previous function. Allowing phone to remain open in the multitasking quicklaunch window affects performance the most so I just make sure I close it when I’ve finished my phone call. I don’t actually use my iPhone for making phone calls that often if I’m honest…

Other than this occasional lag I’ve found the performance to be much the same if not better than before. When you are in an application everything still works smoothly and instantly. And since yesterday the Facebook app has been updated to fully support multitasking which means that it is instantly available. Given that this was quite a slow loading app before multitasking that is definitely a win. I refer to Facebook quite a lot during the day… sad I know. Flicking to Twitter, Mail or Safari is also smooth and instant. My most used apps are Mail, Safari, Twitter, and Facebook and I tend to leave them open all the time. Other apps that I use occasionally such as Phone or iPod I will generally close afterwards to reduce the load on the processor. One does have to accept that the 3G wasn’t designed for this and some accommodations must be made.

So in summary, yes there is some small performance reduction in a few areas but on balance the multitasking is worthwhile. And I will be saving a lot of time because I no longer have to wait for Facebook to load!

iPhone 3G upgraded to iOS4

iPhone 4

Because I live in Belgium and we are usually the last country to receive updated products from the House of Apple I was fretting slightly about the upcoming iPhone4 launch and the fact that I would be forced to wait. I began plotting and scheming to either travel to France where they sell unlocked phones or to the UK when I heard that they are also offering unlocked versions. I was prepared to do anything to get one quickly. Anyone who read my previous rants about my iPhone might have noticed that I implied that I would never buy another Apple product. Yeah, I didn’t believe me either…

In the meantime, before iPhone4 launched, iOS4 was made available for download. This is the latest operating system for all of Apple’s mobile platforms, the various iPhones and the iPad and it can be installed on my old 3G. In the past I might have been found loitering around the Apple website poised to click on download the second the shiny new OS became available. However, this time I didn’t bother as I know from previous experience that the Apple website usually slows to a crawl or crashes during those first few hours as all the other (more dedicated than me) fanboys suck up all the bandwidth. Instead I stayed in bed.

In the morning, when it had been available for a few hours and was already installed on hundreds of thousands of iPhones around the world I got up a little early hoping to do the install before going to work. I downloaded the file in a few seconds via iTunes, plugged in my iPhone and clicked “Yes, I would like a shiny new operating system please” or words to the same effect… There was a warning message that this might take up to an hour but I hoped it would be quicker. Anyway, I left it running and went to take a shower and get ready for work expecting that it would at least be substantially done by the time I was ready.

You can see where this is going can’t you. Yep, it wasn’t. Not even close. It’s not the installation that takes time, it’s the damn full back-up that it insists on doing before it will begin the installation, something I don’t understand given that the iPhone is supposedly backed up every time you synchronise it with your PC. The little green indicator had barely moved and a quick mental extrapolation based on time passed vs back-up quantity achieved indicated that it would be finished at 8:32pm sometime in September 2012. I didn’t think work would appreciate me being quite that late so I cancelled it. Thwarted.

After suffering through a day at work knowing that I was currently one of the have-nots, I rushed home and began again. Again, the back-up began at a glacial pace. Empires have been built and overthrown in less time than this back-up was taking. And staring at the little green bar didn’t appear to be making it go any faster. I took a deep breath and decided to watch a movie to pass the time. I forget which movie it was as I was too busy checking the status of the excruciatingly slow-moving green bar over my shoulder.

Graphical representation of eternity

After about an hour, when the aforementioned green bar representing the back-up status reached half-way, the back-up was complete. Wait, what? Ahhh now I understand. Apple have employed the same technology in their green back-up status indicator that was in the fuel gauge of my 1980 Datsun Sunny. That would also move slowly through a smooth, confidence-inspiring arc from Full to Half Full as you drove along, at which point it would pause for a few miles before flicking straight to Empty accompanied by a coughing, spluttering sound from the engine as the car ran out of fuel… again. Clever.

With the back-up complete my iPhone began a complicated process of installing, rebooting, installing some more, and rebooting again until suddenly (magically if you believe Steve Jobs) it was finished. With trembling hands and a degree of trepidation I swiped to unlock and see what had become of my 3G with it’s new soul. If I’m honest, at that point, other than a new graphic under the lowest row of apps, it didn’t look any different. No wait, the calculator app has a redesigned icon! Woohoo!

Now I knew not to expect a huge difference as I’d already read that, although the 3G would get iOS4, some of the features would be disabled because it doesn’t have the processing power of the 3GS or the iPhone4. So no multi-tasking unfortunately. Having more than one application running at the same time on a 3G would make it too slow says Apple. It’s a pity as the lack of multi-tasking is my biggest bugbear on the 3G and the main reason I want to upgrade to the iPhone4. Hang on…

The other missing feature that is bundled into the multitasking functionality is the screen orientation lock, a very useful feature that I covet. This simple little feature locks the screen in portrait orientation so that if you are reading something lying on your side the screen doesn’t keep switching to landscape mode. Handy but also absent.

My iPhone

I’d been reading on various technology blogs how people were finding the performance of iOS4 on the 3G and it was a mixed bag. Some people complained that their 3G slowed to a crawl, others noted no difference either way, whilst some reported a slight increase in performance. I am happy to report that I fell into the latter camp and my 3G did in fact feel a little snappier in its transitions between screens and when opening applications. Still far slower than a 3GS but certainly no worse than it was before. And I am now able to arrange my apps into folders, a very convenient feature that reduces the number of screens I have to flick through to find my apps. I spent many happy hours organising and reorganising until everything was just so.

So you might think this is it, my 3G has been upgraded to iOS4 with no noticeable blunting of performance, and I have an extra couple of features that His Jobsness deems suitable for my out-of-date iPhone. I should be happy. And for a week, I was. But then yesterday I was reading Gizmodo, my favourite tech blog and I discovered a new jailbreak that enables multitasking on the 3G running iOS4! I scanned the comments to see how other people were finding this hack and there didn’t seem to be any horror stories. My confidence was buoyed by the fact that A, my 3G seems to perform quite well with iOS4 and B, I can always restore it back to factory if it all goes to hell.

So I downloaded the patch, followed the instructions (which incidentally require a level of button-pressing coordination that I usually only possess on Wednesdays), and installed “redsn0w 0.9.5 beta”. This went smoothly and took far less time than installing iOS4. And voila, my 3G now has multitasking and no, it has not become particularly laggy or slow. Swiping through the screens is still snappy and not at all like dragging my finger through treacle. Some screen transitions are maybe not quite as smooth as they were before but everything still works smartly even with 4 or 5 apps open at once and while listening to music. This really emphasises the over-controlling nature of Apple when it comes to product releases. I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t have released iOS4 for all iPhones with the proviso that performance on the 3G could be compromised and then allowed the users to choose if they wished to enable multitasking or not. Instead they simply deny us choice and force us to go for a black-market solution or jailbreak.

It is worth noting that at this point in time not all apps are properly enabled for multitasking, an issue that even iPhone4 owners will experience. Some like the Mail app, Safari, and Twitter are fully iOS4 compatible and when you switch away from them and then back again they are open immediately and exactly where you left them. Others, such as Facebook seem to need to reload each time even though they remain in the quick access multitasking window. I assume that more and more apps will be updated to be compatible with multitasking over the coming weeks.

Anyway, as I mentioned at the beginning of this missive, I was hankering after the new iPhone4. I don’t think I am in such a rush anymore. I still want it because I know it will be faster than mine and it has yet more features such as video recording and a superior camera. But my 3G no longer feels like it is missing essential features and I am more content. There have also been reports of significant issues with the iPhone4 such as reception problems, yellow spots or bands on screens, and the fact that they seem to shatter very easily if you drop them. Not that surprising given that they are made of glass I guess. I haven’t dropped my 3G in the 18 months I’ve owned it so that doesn’t worry me too much but I would like to wait and see what happens with the other issues before I cough up another 600€+.

And of course I should really be resisting such rampant consumerism for the sake of the planet. So for now, I’m happy with my illegitimately enhanced iPhone 3G. Let’s see how long that lasts….

His Jobsness

Clean energy research lags behind military research

US Air Force Experimental Fighter Jet

Source: http://gizmodo.com/5559874/bill-gates-and-friends-urge-us-government-to-triple-energy-research-spend

This is a scandalous discrepancy when, as mentioned in the article, you consider that there will be nothing worth protecting in a few decades if our addiction to fossil fuels is not curbed.

Instead such funding should be diverted to investigating technology like cloud-seeding, solar-power generation, renewable energy grids or even beaming energy from the Moon. All of these options have to be more constructive than designing new and more effective ways of blowing things up. It seems to me that we already have so many effective and proven options for generating enough energy in a clean and sustainable way but the political will and ability to organise ourselves is what is lacking.

Cloud seeding ship

Solar power beamed from the Moon

I’ve written recently about the potential to generate electricity via solar power generation in the deserts of northern Africa that can then be transmitted to and consumed by Europe. Now there is a new, somewhat less realistic but nonetheless intriguing, proposal by Shimizu Corporation in japan to generate electricity on the Moon and then beam it back to Earth. The Luna Ring.

The proposal would be to establish a band of solar cells around the Equator of the Moon, the area which, like on Earth, is exposed to the most sunlight throughout the year. Such a band would need to be 11,000kms long to completely circumnavigate our nearest neighbour and the proposal is for it to be up to 400km wide.

The electricity generated would be transmitted to a point on the near side of the Moon (the Moon is in synchronous rotation around Earth, always showing the same face to us) where it could be converted to microwave or laser before being beamed back to Earth. These beams would be aimed at collectors on Earth which would convert it back to electricity and feed it into the grid. Obviously the Moon does not stay above the same part of the Earth at all times so the collectors would need to be distributed around the planet. In addition, a guidance beacon would ensure the laser/microwaves are hitting their intended target otherwise the power would be cut. It is not difficult to imagine scenes of a giant space laser cutting a swathe through New York City (it’s always NYC in the movies) without such a safety device.

A solar belt around the Moon would theoretically provide more than enough clean energy for all of humanity.

You might wonder why we don’t just build solar farms all around the Earth’s Equator instead as surely that would be simpler than trying to do it on the Moon. There are several reasons.

  1. The Earth has a thick atmosphere which significantly reduces the amount of the Sun’s energy reaching the surface (luckily for us) whereas the Moon does not. Solar generation on the Moon would thus be vastly more efficient.
  2. 70% of the Earth is covered with water and at the Equator that figure is actually 78.7% water. This makes for a fairly intermittent solar belt.
  3. The Equatorial land is largely all in use already. Countries in Central America and South-East Asia are densely populated. The northern African deserts are about the only options.

The plan is that most of the infrastructure on the Moon could be built by robots using materials sourced there such as silica to avoid the cost and difficulty of shipping materials from Earth. It’s likely that such an endeavour will not be undertaken in the next 100 years but I applaud the concept and feel that we should always be looking ahead to future solutions even while we work on current solutions with the technology at our disposal.

There have already been concepts involving large solar energy collecting satellites that would also beam the energy back to Earth and these could perhaps be implemented in the shorter term. Meanwhile we must persist with finding more terrestrial solutions for clean energy generation. Certainly don’t dismiss any of these ideas as crazy as people from 100 years ago would never have been able to imagine the technology we have today.

Source: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/06/luna-ring-solar-power-plant-on-the-moon.php

Source: http://www.shimz.co.jp/english/theme/dream/lunaring.html

Highspeed Rail – Melbourne to Sydney

Air routes worldwide

Which air routes do you think would be amongst the busiest in the world? London to Paris? NYC to LA? Atlanta (world’s busiest airport) to Philadelphia? Nope, wrong. It’s Sydney to Melbourne in Australia with 950 flights per week, beaten only by Barcelona to Madrid and Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. Interestingly, Sydney to Brisbane is only slightly further down the list in 9th place with 590 flights per week. This is impressive for a country with a total population of only 20 million people but can be largely explained by geography. Australia is a country of vast distances with the population almost entirely focussed on 5 major cities around the circumference.

Wikipedia states that “The busiest air routes in the world appear to involve pairs of large cities in close proximity, but which rely more on air transport due to a lack of viable transport infrastructure for other modes, and the distance is large enough to discourage car driving.

Melbourne

Well Melbourne and Sydney are certainly too far apart for driving on any regular basis. Not only is it a good 10 hour drive but there is next to nothing in between, such is the nature of the Australian Outback. So, you might think, at least you would be able to drive fast given the emptiness of the surroundings and the straightness of the highways? Ah no, not recommended. The speed limit of 100 or occasionally 110kph is rigorously enforced and penalties are harsh.

Both cities are certainly large at between 4 and 5 million people each and there is an enormous amount of interaction between them, both business and tourist. This explains why 9 million people made the trip in 2009 and why that number is expected to rise 70% by 2020. The populations of both cities and Australia as a whole are predicted to increase dramatically in the next couple of decades.

Sydney

As for the lack of viable public transport… well, you can take a train but it takes about 11 hours and stops dozens of times. Or a bus. Which isn’t any quicker. Needless to say those options aren’t very popular when the flying time is only 1 hour.

But what is wrong with flying you might ask? You’re kidding right? Setting aside the environmental impact (shifting most passengers on the route from air to rail would save at least 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year), flying has become a harried, stressful, and often-times, inconvenient means of transportation. Anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously glancing nostalgically back to aviation’s romantic past, not the present (or they can afford to fly business class…). A quick analysis of the benefits of high-speed rail over flying is needed:

  1. Melbourne & Sydney airports are far outside their city centres. In Sydney this means an expensive taxi ride or metro ride. In Melbourne it’s an expensive taxi ride or a cheaper but still not inexpensive bus ride. Due to the lack of foresight of the Kennett government there isn’t, and likely never will be, a train link to the airport. High-speed rail as experienced in cities like London or Paris on the other hand, will take you directly into the heart of the city. No need for a separate transfer.
  2. Long queues to check in at airports, generally not at train stations.
  3. Long queues at security. There often isn’t any security for trains or it’s a lot less stringent.
  4. Don’t forget to remove your laptop from your bag at the airport. Not at the train station.
  5. You need to be at the airport early to guarantee you can check in, go through security, and make it to the gate lounge in time to wait the obligatory half hour or so. In my experience with high-speed rail in Europe it has been more of a case of turning up and getting on the train, usually not earlier than half an hour before departure.
  6. On a train you can leave your electronics turned on all the time including your mobile phone.
  7. You have more room on a train than you do in economy class on a plane and more freedom to move around.
  8. Trains cannot be delayed by fog, volcanic ash or other weather-related events (except fluffy snow – I’m looking at you Eurostar).
  9. Travelling by train you can watch the scenery out the window as it whizzes by. From an aeroplane you aren’t likely to see much at all.
  10. And, for most travellers, the most important aspect is the time taken, probably the reason not many people endure the current 11 hour trip. In Europe, Japan and China journeys of up to 800kms city centre to city centre are faster than air travel. Up to 1,000kms remain competitive. It’s 713kms as the crow flies between Melbourne and Sydney.

Bombardier High-Speed Train

The reasons for travelling by high-speed train instead of flying seem compelling so why hasn’t the infrastructure already been built? Obviously this would require a sizeable investment in infrastructure, around $15 billion for the line and the initial trains based on the French experience. But even at this cost a one-way economy fare of less than $150 and a business class fare of less than $300 should be possible. This compares very favourably with airfares, particularly when you take into account taxi rides to the airport or the cost of parking your car there.

Based on existing train technology a centre to centre journey time of less than 3 hours is possible. This could certainly not be matched by flying. And a single train can carry 900 passengers compared to around 160 passengers in a typical short-haul jet such as a Boeing 737. High-speed rail lines can safely accommodate 1 train in each direction every 15 minutes. So there is ample capacity for present and future demand.

In other cases where cities have been connected by high-speed rail the air services have virtually disappeared which demonstrates that passengers really prefer the hassle-free, point-to-point nature of rail travel. For example, since the Eurostar between Paris and London opened more than 70% of travel between them is by train, even though Heathrow is a European airline hub. So this is certainly a case of “build it and they will come”. All we need to do now is find the political will to make it happen.

Source article: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/very-fast-rail-travel-figures-add-up-20100521-w1n2.html

Apple whinge – update

Wet iPhone

I received my iPhone 3G back via Mobistar without any issue. It was completely dead flat so I’m not convinced that Dynafix even attempted to charge it before announcing it was water damaged. Anyway, I took it home and gave it a full overnight charge and it is functioning normally. The surprising thing is that the battery actually seems to be lasting longer now. Maybe it just needed a holiday. I can generally get through a full day at work (bearing in mind I don’t actually use it much at work) as it goes red about 4pm but then gets a top-up in my car charger so that there is enough juice for my gym session. I use the frankly brilliant iFitness application to record my workouts.

So anyway, long story short, I haven’t bothered to replace the battery or open the phone. While it is still functioning adequately I’ll leave it alone. If the battery life drops again like it did in the past then I will do something about it. I’m sure none of you will be surprised to hear that Dynafix completely ignored all subsequent emails requesting contact details to make a complaint. Very unprofessional and I’ve heard from a friend who works at an authorised Apple reseller that Dynafix are a nightmare to deal with and they have constant complaints from customers whose warranty claims have been rejected due to water damage.

Anyway, the new iPhone will likely be announced officially in the next few weeks so I am holding out for that. I know, sucker for punishment, but aside from the battery issues my 3G has been just so damn useful! Before I make any decision I will at least take a look at some of the new Android phones… and then I’ll buy another iPhone.