String theory, canine capture, E&T goes quiet and more: best of the week's news
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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
While some people might argue that calling guitar strings a ‘sonic miracle’ is overstating their role somewhat, it’s true that without them guitarists of the world would be left holding nothing more than an attractively shaped yet resolutely silent piece of wood.
This article’s recap of the basic facts about guitar strings should help beginners and the casual observer feel better informed about the science, technology and engineering surrounding string performance - how they work, how they're made, what to choose - although this is an area of music technology that has been largely unchanged since Chuck Berry first duck-walked across a stage. If you haven't been paying attention for the last few decades, you honestly haven't missed much. As I found out when visiting the Rotosound factory in 2009, traditional methods - augmented with a dash of modern automation - still rule the string-winding roost.
About the only major innovation in guitar strings in the last 20 years has been Elixir’s nano-coated strings, which were designed to sound fresher and last longer than their traditional counterparts. Guitarists being a surprisingly skittish bunch, easily spooked by anything that might mess with their mojo, even this incremental improvement has proved too revolutionary for many players.
Plank-spankers the world over have their favourite players, the heroes that inspired them, and they can spend a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect tone as heard on beloved records or in their heads. You want to sound like George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, BB King, Rory Gallagher, George Benson, David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, The Edge, Kurt Cobain etc? Good news - you can still buy what are to all intents and purposes the very same strings today that the legends of guitar wound onto their instruments in their heyday. In many cases, you can even fit those strings to an exhaustively detailed and pre-aged (‘relic’ed’) signature model reproduction of a player’s most famous instrument. With so much retro-vintage nostalgia at play, the guitar string industry has no incentive to radically change its methods - which is no criticism whatsoever. Long may this string-winding song remain the same.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Both these stories describe projects that have secured funding in the government-backed ‘First Of A Kind’ scheme to encourage railway innovation. That’s undoubtedly a worthy aspiration, but it’s no secret that small and new businesses find it difficult to get a toehold in an industry that has very few customers (what former Rail Regulator Sir Tom Winsor used to describe as a monopsony), is highly regulated and provides a very harsh working environment that is unfriendly to technology not designed for it. That’s why the power electronics being developed to incorporate renewables into the railway will be based on devices already proven in that sector. Some of the other projects are similarly grounded in real-world needs; others, I suspect, are destined to provide someone with some interesting research but nothing more.
Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor
Back when I was at university, I visited a film set where they were using a motion-capture suit on an absolutely gorgeous greyhound. The poor dog clearly didn’t feel comfortable in the suit and was whining. A handler was feeding her treats to help calm her down. She wasn’t in the suit for very long, and her mood soared as soon as she was taken out of it. I spoke to a runner about whether there were any alternatives to using a suit – he said there were none.
That was six years ago. Thankfully, technology has evolved since then. Now, computer scientists from CAMERA, a motion-capture research centre at the University of Bath, have developed technology that enables users to digitise a dog without the need for a suit.
The researchers say that this tech could help not only those within the entertainment world, but also vets who need to detect lameness and measure recovery in our canine companions.
Initially for their research, they put 14 different breeds into the capture motion suits and filmed them doing a range of enrichment activities with their handlers. They then used the data from the suits to create a computer model that can accurately predict and replicate the poses of dogs when they’re filmed without wearing a suit.
This would be an excellent replacement for the suits if adopted within the entertainment industry. Some humans are more than happy to wear one of these suits as part of their roles, like Andy Serkis in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, but you can imagine that some animals might not be so keen. The last thing you’d want is to see a dog in distress – much like I had witnessed six-odd years ago.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
There are many effects of lockdown, some of which will turn out to be permanent. Living in lockdown has been lonely and difficult for some more than others. But it has been quiet for just about everybody stuck at home - no wild nights out, fewer pneumatic drills, less clatter of public transport and less traffic noise on our city streets. To find streets this quiet you'd have to go back to the 1960s or 1950s. Would you like it kept that way or do you crave a return to more bustling, more polluted but more exciting times? In our latest issue, now all online, we talk about noise. Are the birds louder or quieter? Is there more to global quieting that we can't hear? How’s the music industry coping, where are best acoustics in the world, and will drones become the next noise polluter after cars have gone electric?
Ben Heubl, associate editor
OGUK has pledged to make changes to avoid flaring and venting. I looked into flaring for an investigation recently and what struck me was that levels haven’t really budged at all in the past two decades. For the future, experts have set ambitious goals. One is the sustainable development scenario, SDS, under which flaring should phased out in less than five years.
Among the largest emitters is, as with everything oil related, the US. Together with Russia, Iraq, Iran, together they account for nearly half of flaring globally. Flaring is a considerable burden for the climate because when gas is flared (burned) in the process of oil production - a measure to ensure safety when there’s a build-up in gas pressure – carbon dioxide is released.
Tracking flaring is essential. But often tracking measures and rules to stifle it are too lax. At night, experts can use satellite images. During the day open-source satellite images with multispectral data can spot them.
We need better tracking and enforcement of rules, but here is a caveat: if rigid limits on flaring are enforced, companies might revert to a much more dangerous alternative. To vent it as methane into the atmosphere, a far more potent greenhouse gas. That’s much harder to track.
So enforcement remains tricky. There are other options to get rid of the gas. One is pumping it back into the ground. Another is selling it, but small companies in particular struggle with that because, for instance, transport can be expensive. Inversely it helps their flaring, and presumably their venting efforts, to spiral.
The answer to all this is complicated. One solution is to create incentivises for oil companies to sell their extra gas. In the US, where flaring is a particular problem, policy makers must come up with such solutions. Other countries must emulate. Without these efforts the current sustainability goals designed to ensure flaring rates drop rapidly and reach zero by 2025, remain in jeopardy.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Like most of us, I am feeling increasingly sick and tired of the UK government’s medical, strategic, technological and many other forms of ineptitude in dealing with the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. The delay of the much-hyped contact-tracing app (which I have repeatedly predicted) is the latest in the long chain of boo-boos, failures and sheer disasters that have led to the UK, once the world’s fourth largest economy, consistently displaying the world’s worst statistics in tackling the global outbreak.
It started of course with the memorable government-approved piece of medical advice about the uselessness of face masks and the inexcusable delays with introducing the lockdown. Now it’s what the residents of my Hertfordshire town keep talking about in the streets (whilst maintaining the required ‘social distance’), with the mildest and politest interjection describing the government’s efforts being “What a horrible mess!”
Tired of being permanently angry, I woke this morning with a smile on my face, having suddenly remembered the fictitious Russian town of Pishcheslav (literally ‘glory to food’), created by the irrepressible imagination of my two favourite writers of all time: the tandem of brilliant 1920-30s satirists Ilya If and Evgeny Petrov. Pishcheslav, however, features in a much less known work of the two writers – in their novella ‘Svetlaya Lichnost’ (‘Bright Personality’), never translated into English.
In the novella, the most famous citizen of Pishcheslav – a mad inventor called Babsky (“a tall lanky old man, with fat shoulders and a beard, full of powder and rubbish, out of which a mouse was once seen jumping”) – creates a meat-dumpling-making machine, with a productive capacity of no less than two million dumplings per hour! It could probably make more, but never fewer than two million! As a result, within a week, the whole town is buried under the piles of rotting dumplings that had to be taken by lorries to the rubbish dump as a matter of urgency.
Babsky’s other notable inventions were a wooden bicycle, which rattled like thunder but didn’t actually move very much; a ‘vaccine’, which, when injected into a boot-top, made the whole of the high-boot fire-resistant; and a perpetuum mobile, consisting of a cuckoo clock and an old samovar (a traditional Russian tea cistern). Yet his most successful and long-lasting invention was ‘Babsky’s Vesnulin’ – an anti-freckle soap bar, the side effect of which was that the person who used it became completely transparent! When confronted with such a bluntly obvious (even if invisible) drawback of his invention, Babsky retorted that it was still true to the specifications, for with the users’ disappearances, their freckles would disappear too - the iron logic!
And that was what caused me to smile sadly this morning – the uncanny resemblance of Boris Johnson (and his government) to the inventor Babsky in their nice-sounding, yet so far all but useless, techno attempts to end the crisis, of which the forever delayed and potentially unusable contact-tracing app is the latest example.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Now that electric cars are becoming affordable enough to compete in everyday consumers’ minds with petrol vehicles, and range anxiety is less of an issue, I can’t help suspecting that this is the kind of initiative that could really tip the balance in favour of greener transport.
Whatever you think of the idea of ‘virtue signalling’ – and I’m not keen on the whole concept of it when it’s used in a pejorative context – nothing persuades most people to get on board with sustainable measures like the thought that they’re going to get a few benefits other than just feeling they’re doing the right thing. A green flash on your number plate to show your emissions are lower than others sitting in a traffic jam is one thing, the idea that it could allow you to swing into a less busy lane reserved for EVs is definitely another, possibly more attractive one.
Of course, we’re only talking about ‘greener’ in the sense of being less polluting than alternative methods of personal transport. Bus lanes have existed for decades and provide the same advantages of cost, speed and convenience. Yet we don’t look at passengers and think how much more virtuous they are than other road users.
Stick with the specially marked number plates, yes. But at the same time how about slashing the cost of public transport and taking measures to change perceptions so that the people who choose to use it are as proud to make themselves known as electric car owners?
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