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The Big Picture: Gold

K http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/01/gold.html

Collections such as this series on the gold industry are why I am endlessly infatuated with The Big Picture - hands down, the richest and most fulfilling source of photojournalism on the web. The scaled-down images below seem like weedy thumbnails in comparison! Unmissable.

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Tomorrow's World Looks To The Eighties: An Illustrated Guide

The close of the decade is almost upon us, and so it is time for us to join Tomorrow's World, the British Broadcasting Corporations's flagship documentary programme, and look to the future of science and technology.

Tomorrow's World cover

We'll be taking you through each of the gloriously illustrated sections of this period-defining book, checking out the advances that are predicted for the 1980s and seeing how they tally up with the miserable hindsight of three decades.

Without further ado...

Lifestyle

The boundless optimism of the early silicon age shines through in Tomorrow's World's lookahead to how daily life will be transformed by the nascent technologies of integrated circuits and networked telecommunications:

"You will awaken some morning five years hence, speak a few simple words from your bed to your toaster, coffee pot and frying pan, and walk into the kitchen fifteen minutes later to a fully prepared breakfast.

"The same computer that is wired into the walls of your house and built to recognise your voice will turn on lights when you walk into the kitchen and turn them off when you leave."

Sounds idyllic. Sadly, as the authors themselves observe, such predictions are made on a regular basis. Thirty years later, countless automated housing schemes have appeared and often subsequently vanished: the Xanadu Houses (1979-2005), Japan's TRON House (1989-1992), and Honeywell's TotalHome (1992-). Integrating automation into an existing structure is difficult and expensive, and the TRON commentary describes early journalistic objections to intelligent homes, describing the experience as "like a haunted house".

However, miniaturization has today progressed and stabilized to the point where realizing many of these technologies is relatively straightforward. Smart homes and automation (under the sometime-aegis of "domics") are pushing forward, with open-source software making implementation possible for eager hackers. Even Microsoft are chasing the action.

In the living room, Tomorrow's World report on the imminent rollout of interactive television in the form of QUBE. Linking viewers to the TV stations, these home controllers allowed for live interaction for applications such as quiz shows and Comedy Store-style popularity metres. A noble idea, but a false start in this case: seven years later, the Qube network was axed in a cost-cutting exercise, and it took another decade to catch on once again. Today, we have TiVo and countless other interactive TV endeavours (including, of course, the UK's freeview monstrosity that is Rabbit Chat And Date), though it's still hardly commonplace.

Cookery's salvation is on the horizon in the form of "microwaves"; despite resulting in "sausages which are both limp and colourless" and "chicken which looks, and tastes, slightly parched", they're on the money here. However, a bleak warning is given:

The beam is inherently dangerous. Subject your hand, or worse still, your brain, to that agitation and it will be comprehensively addled.

Be careful, readers.

These's also some coverage of infra-red ovens, which it seems are currently returning to fashion.

Finally, the office has the prospect of electronic word-processing systems, capable of digitally storing text before it is printed to paper, saving on materials and obsoleting the typing pool in one fell swoop. Can't really fault this prediction.

Transport

Written shortly after the last Concorde was born, the Tomorrow's World team are a little more cautious in their transport forecasts: removable, high-capacity batteries may begin to give us electric vehicles (well, nearly), and the prototypal Advanced Passenger Train promises high-speed rail travel at over 100mph (which we finally got, two decades later, with the Pendolino, bringing us almost to where the French have been for aeons.

More exciting is their account of an in-car auto-navigation system, using induction loops laid along the length of the road system and bleeping when a turn should be taken. Being then trialled in Germany, such a system could also warn of impending fog, ice or traffic, but must first be "programmed by a traffic policeman".

Natural Power

"What will happen when the oil runs out?", asks Tomorrow's World. Thirty years later, it's still unclear. This chapter is dedicated to renewable power sources, yet it's clear to see that its optimism has thus far failed: at the turn of the millennium, only 3% of UK electricity came from renewable sources, and it's only a couple of percent higher today.

One radical idea, illustrated by this lovely diagram (above), is farming seaweed for biofuel: offshore kelp plants produce micro-organisms on a huge scale, which are then dried and fermented to produce methane. It's still being investigated today.

Inner Space

Slightly out of left-field, a whole chapter dedicated to deep-sea exploration. Perhaps it was popular at the time. First up is several pages dedicated to dredging for "nodules", accumulated nuggets of manganese, nickel, iron, and other valuable minerals which lie on the sea floor. It seems that these were a great hope at the time, but, according to Wikipedia, the prohibitive expense and proliferation of terrestrial resources caused interest in nodule extraction to wane. Shame.

We've also got the prospect of deep-sea rescue missions and the WASP submersible, for a single diver to explore the untapped wealth of the ocean. It seems it was successful in its goals, and one-man submersibles continue to look cooler and cooler.


Media and Telecoms

"One day we all may find it useful to have a facility for sending documents, writing and pictures across the telephone lines". The breathless coverage of the future of telecoms is a winner, particularly the up-and-coming Prestel technology, rolled out by the UK Post Office to provide interactive data through our television sets via telephone lines. The author describes using Prestel for such purposes as to determine whether to adopt a child, as well as for informing your wife that you are not coming home.

We are introduced to technologies such as LaserDisc, home video and the digital audio revolution. There is also a sombre page-long description of the "knuckle-whitening" thrills of the new new loop-the-loop rollercoasters.

Outer Space

Another advance which today remains in the eternal "forthcoming" pipeline is the Powersat, or space-based solar power. Collecting solar energy with satellites from outside the atmosphere and beaming it to earth via non-ionizing EM waves, the theory remains sound; earlier this year, PowerSat corp filed a new patent for space-solar tech.

Likewise the space colony (below), home to the first galactic settlers, estimated to be "well under way within fifteen years". We've had a good shot with Mir, but it's a far cry from the colonies of 10,000 described here.

Whatever Happened To..?

What really brought Tomorrow's World into its own is its championing the off-kilter and quintessentially British inventions which were to define our future age. As a rather sad closer to this look to the future, we hear back from two inventions prototyped earlier in the 1970s.

The 360 Degree Scissors, from Devonshire designer Richard Hawkins, are an ingeniusly simple (if faintly hazardous) concept: with double-sided blades, they can spin round fully to be operated equally effectively by right- or left-handed users. Hawkins took his idea to the show, making repeated journeys to the scissor-forgers of Sheffield to gather support. However, a manufacturing deal with Wilkinson Sword was thwarted at the last minute: it turns out that his idea had been patented over 50 years earlier, through a now-dormant patent, meaning that it could be freely manufactured to a US market and bypassing Hawkins.

The last news is that Hawkins was investing 5,000 of his own capital to manufacture a limited run in the UK. I can't track down any further trace; Richard Hawkins, if you're out there, I'd love to hear from you.

And finally, the Moulton Coach (above). There's no designing the streamlined elegance of this vehicle, constructed from parts in DIY assembly kits and using a simple, rigid frame. Yet, despite passing its wind-tunnel tests and being described by William Woollard as possessing "remarkable" braking power, the coach was deemed to not be cost-effective. The Moulton Coach never went into production.

Ada Lovelace day

24th March has been declared Ada Lovelace day (twitter), a blogospheric event to draw attention to groundbreaking work being done by women in technology, in homage to Babbage's undersung partner (though it must be said she has become a cause celebre in recent years). I've committed to writing something for it, which only seems fitting after the heavy influence that Sadie Plant's techno-feminist tome Zeroes and Ones had on Subtext. Many thrilling possibilities, and a good motivation to write.