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Name that tune (date 01/12/01)

How often have you been listening to a piece of music on the radio that you absolutely love only to find that the DJ refuses to read out the title of the song or the band who performed it! Quite often, I suspect. Well, scientists at Philips, the Dutch electronics company, have designed a simple system for retrieving the names of the artists and songs using the ubiquitous mobile phone. They have devised a system whereby, when the tune is playing, the listener phones a service provider, places his or her mobile next to the loudspeaker and then waits a few seconds. A huge database of songs is then trawled for a match with the data being received from the mobile phone. A text message is then sent to the phone informing the listener of the necessary details. The system works by utilising a cryptogrpaphic technique called "hashing" whereby when a message is sent it also includes unique codes that can only be produced from the correct sequence of the numbers or letters in the data being sent. When the message is received the same process is used to generate the codes from the data received. If the unique codes generated by the receiver do not tally with the unique codes generated by the transmitter then the message is deemed to have been corrupted during transmission. Philips intend to adapt this principle by dividing the sound of a song into 33 narrow frequency bands and then measuring the energy of each band. These energy signatures will then be used to generate unique hash codes that can then be used to compare against the incoming tune. The database will hold the signatures for about 100,000 commercially-available songs which should cover most of the tunes played on the playlist oriented commercial radio stations.

Source: New Scientist (01/12/01)


Foam bones? (date 25/10/01)

Orthopaedic surgeons are constantly on the look-out for new materials that might form strong enough structures that would enable bone-forming cells to attach and grow thus healing fractures, breaks and other damage caused by disease. It seems a solution may have arrived in the form of a substance that has previously been used for protecting radio antennas on F-18 jets. Traditionally bone grafts or titanium implants have been used to help repair bones but both of these techniques have their drawbacks. An ideal implant would provide a rigid scaffold on which bone-forming cells could settle and grow. Finding a material that was strong enough for the task has been difficult. The foam, composed of hollow silica spheres, called "microballooons", that are glued together using polymer-based glues, has a structure that allows air to permeate between the spheres. Altering the ratios of microballoons to polymer altered the strength of the structure, and one particular ratio produced a material with properties very similar to bone. By implanting these foam structures into rabbit bones scientists at Boeing's Phantom Works were able to demonstrate that this material would not be rejected by the animal's immune system and that when they removed the implants new blood vessels and bone cells had grown in the gaps in the foam's structure. It is believed that the ability to form new bone may be as a direct result of the fact that the material allows electromagnetic signals to be transmitted unimpeded through the foam. It is known that bone cells use electrical signals to communicate to bone-forming cells.

Source: New Scientist (25/10/01)


Light meals (date 06/10/01)

Trying to determine what has caused an outbreak of food-poisoning is at present a pretty long-winded process. Samples have to be sent off to a distant lab to be analysed and the results may take a few days to come back because it takes at least 24 hours to grow up a bacterial culture large enough to identify the miscreants. Reducing the time between inspection and diagnosis could help prevent serious illness. An extremely sensititive device, dubbed Immuno-Flow, has been developed by Bart Weimer, a microbiologist at Utah State University in Logan, USA. The Immuno-Flow works on the principle that glass beads coated with a whole range of antibodies that bind to myriad bugs will light up when luminescent antibodies in the device bind to antibody-bacteria complexes on the glass beads. A tell-tale glow indicates the presence of rogue bacteria. Though the Immuno-Flow device is too large to be portable at present the aim is to reduce its size so that it can be carried around by beady-eyed inspectors. It may also make an appearancein our homes in the future when we may be able to test whether that piece of pizza at the back of the fridge is still edible!

Source: New Scientist


Mini motors (date 15/09/01)

You wouldn't expect Microsoft to be involved in civil engineering projects, would you? However, the computing behemoth has been focussing its considerable energies on developing micro-motors that may provide the basis for switching signals on optical fibre networks, a potentially valuable process for up and coming networking strategies based on light, rather than electricity, as the communicating medium. These micromotors are already used in vehicle air bag systems to sense acceleration, but have so far not produced enough power to drive the mirrors used in optic fibres. Microsoft's solution was to use a polysilicon material which expands when a current passes through it to produce actuators that could drive microscopic cogs. These polysilicon motors produce 2000 times as much force as existing thermal actuators. The problem? The motors use a lot more electrical power and get a lot hotter! Anyone upgrading to a newer PC processor will know this drawback all too well!

Source: New Scientist


Nanotubes lap up charge (date 15/09/01)

Minimising the amount of power that laptops need to run is an important goal for computer designers, because less power means a smaller device. Up till now computer batteries have been powered by fuel cells that produce a current when oxygen and hydrogen react with electrodes. This reaction is limited by the surface area of the electrode and hence this limits the minimum size of portable devices. One solution involves using masses of nanotubes as electrodes. Nanotubes are produced by rolling sheets of graphite into cylinders just a few nanometers wide. The problem with this is that it is very difficult to get the oxygen and hydrogen into the tubes because they are so small. A researcher at NEC, Sumio Iijima, who co-invented nanotubes in 1991, has attempted to overcome this by creating nanohorns, nanotubes that have been rolled into cone shapes that are wider at one end than at the other. When bundled together these nanohorns form flower-like clusters hundreds of nanometers across. These structures are capable of holding 10 times as much charge as lithium cells of the same size.

Source: New Scientist


Land of the Blocked Sun (date 15/09/01)

Who says technology and history can't co-exist as best of friends? Mike Corporation of Tokyo has modified a traditional symbol of Japanese culture to help protect people against harmful UV rays. The folding fan has been used by Japanese women for centuries as a guard against harsh sunlight and heat as well as manipulating it to entice or put off men. Mike Corporation have adapted this traditional accessory so that pictures printed onto the surface of the fan react to UV radiation. The stronger the rays the darker the pigment on the fan. Clothes incorporating the same technology might also prove to be very popular in Japan where a pale skin colour is apparently the height of fashion.

Source: New Scientist





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