Turbo Digital in the Twenty-First Century

5GBioShield ScamIn the latter part of the 1980s, the preeminent buzzwords in marketing were “digital”, prompted in particular by the compact disc as a music format, and “turbo”, from the exhaust-powered gizmos auto manufacturers began to use to get more zip out of tiny (compared to V-8s of a few years before) engines.  This resulted in these adjectives being plastered on products which had nothing whatsoever to do with either digital technology or turbocharging.  In the software world Borland International had a whole line of products called “Turbo Pascal”, “Turbo C”, etc., and “digital” showed up on boxes containing things whose only connection with the word was that they could be operated by fingers.  I especially remember ridiculously overpriced “digital speaker cables” which claimed they could better cope with the sound of compact discs.

Well, not to be left behind, I created my own logo in PostScript and started putting it on all of my software projects.... [Read More]

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Shakedown: Fake Products

One of my favourite YouTube channels is bigclivedotcom, who tears down and reverse-engineers electronic and other gadgets, often discovering horrors, occasionally deadly, in shoddy products mostly from China.  Yesterday, he posted a delightful analysis of a fine piece of Chinese junk, a “shake flashlight”, which is supposed to generate its own power by shaking the object in your hand.

Shake flashlights are a “green” gimmick which have been around for some time: here is an example of one for sale at Amazon.  They appeal to eco-freaks (no batteries!), the gimmick-obsessed kind of survivalist, and people who can’t solve simple problems in electromagnetism.  In the usual design, the body of the flashlight contains a tube inside which a powerful permanent magnet is free to slide back and forth.  A coil with many turns of wire is wound around the centre of the tube, and there’s usually two magnets fixed to the ends of tube which repel the moving magnet as it approaches them, reversing its motion without impact.  When you shake the flashlight, the moving magnet passes back and forth through the coil, inducing a pulse of current each time the magnetic field passes through its windings.  This current is then rectified (since its polarity alternates depending on the direction of the magnet’s motion) and stored in either a super-capacitor or rechargeable battery which, when the light is turned on, drives a light-emitting diode (usually a relatively dim low-power device that doesn’t draw much current).... [Read More]

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Book Review: Starship Grifters

“Starship Grifters” by Robert KroeseThis is the funniest science fiction novel I have read in quite a while. Set in the year 3013, not long after galactic civilisation barely escaped an artificial intelligence apocalypse and banned fully self-aware robots, the story is related by Sasha, one of a small number of Self-Arresting near Sentient Heuristic Androids built to be useful without running the risk of their taking over. SASHA robots are equipped with an impossible-to-defeat watchdog module which causes a hard reboot whenever they are on the verge of having an original thought. The limitation of the design proved a serious handicap, and all of their manufacturers went bankrupt. Our narrator, Sasha, was bought at an auction by the protagonist, Rex Nihilo, for thirty-five credits in a lot of “ASSORTED MACHINE PARTS”. Sasha is Rex’s assistant and sidekick.

Rex is an adventurer. Sasha says he “never had much of an interest in anything but self-preservation and the accumulation of wealth, the latter taking clear precedence over the former.” Sasha’s built in limitations (in addition to the new idea watchdog, she is unable to tell a lie, but if humans should draw incorrect conclusions from incomplete information she provides them, well…) pose problems in Rex’s assorted lines of work, most of which seem to involve scams, gambling, and contraband of various kinds. In fact, Rex seems to fit in very well with the universe he inhabits, which appears to be firmly grounded in Walker’s Law: “Absent evidence to the contrary, assume everything is a scam”. Evidence appears almost totally absent, and the oppressive tyranny called the Galactic Malarchy, those who supply it, the rebels who oppose it, entrepreneurs like Rex working in the cracks, organised religions and cults, and just about everybody else, appear to be on the make or on the take, looking to grift everybody else for their own account. Cosmologists attribute this to the “Strong Misanthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe exists in order to screw with us.” Rex does his part, although he usually seems to veer between broke and dangerously in debt.... [Read More]

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