Monday, January 28, 2013

The World's Most, car, building, country...who knew?

NOTE: Below are a few samples from a series of articles I compiled, researched and wrote for an IT magazine:

The world’s most advanced camera

Enhanced imaging improves our capacity to understand ourselves and the world.
BY  Nick van der Leek 

Napoleon once said: “A good sketch is better than a long speech.”

Russian writer Ivan Turgenev said it even better: “A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound.”

Blessed with the same binocular visualisation processes as the higher predators, human beings equate seeing enhanced images with insight and increased perception. It is because we associate intelligence with ‘seeing clearly’ that we appreciate high-resolution images, and nowhere is this more apparent than in photography.

Consider the recently released images of the Lunar Renaissance Orbiter. Despite moving 30km above the surface of the moon, the special high-resolution, wide-angle camera delivered details of the moon as small as 25cm across. By contrast, the 1966 missions provided images resolved to 60m. The LRO was able to capture the tread marks left by golf car-like lunar rovers. Apollo 17’s lunar roving vehicle itself can also be clearly seen where it was parked near the last landing site. Careful scrutiny shows the rover wheels protruding slightly to the left.More.

The world’s most advanced aircraft

Composite materials technology means flying further, faster and in more comfort.
BY  Nick van der Leek 
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is capable of reaching twice the speed of sound, or 2 410 km/h.The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is capable of reaching twice the speed of sound, or 2 410 km/h.

In 1777, a young Joseph Montgolfier observed laundry drying over a fire. That simple observation, of hot air billowing into shirts, was the source code that would lead to modern aviation.

Five years later, the Montgolfier brothers launched their globe aérostatique (a hot air balloon) from Paris’ western fringe. The balloon climbed over 900 vertical metres and flew for 25 minutes, covering a distance of nine kilometres, before landing between windmills on a hill. The fire on board released embers that occasionally floated upward, setting the balloon material on fire (wet sponges were used to prevent the fabric from burning.) Eventually the pilot removed his coat to beat down the flames. One year passed. Then a hydrogen balloon was piloted for two and a half hours across the English Channel by the American Dr John Jeffries and a French colleague. More than a century went by, however, before a heavier-than-air craft (powered, and controlled) took flight in Kitty Hawk, USA. Just 66 years later, Neil Armstrong, who grew up a short distance from Kitty Hawk, and had his flying licence before his driving licence, flew to the moon for a two-and-a-half-hour walk. Since the moon landings, aviation has evolved at breakneck speed, but despite the sophistication of modern aircraft design, the public attitude towards intercontinental air travel has become facile. Advances in aviation are mostly due to improving materials technology built over the platform of super-energetic fuels.

The world’s most advanced country

Natural resources are important to a country’s happiness.
BY  Nick van der Leek 
National Geographic has described Norway’s fjords (such as this, the Sognefjord) as the world’s number-one heritage site.National Geographic has described Norway’s fjords (such as this, the Sognefjord) as the world’s number-one heritage site.

In 1993, Japan was widely considered the world’s most advanced country. In two decades, a lot has changed. Japan has seen the incomes and overall prospects of its citizens shrink, while competing nations such as South Korea have advanced in leaps and bounds.

Even so, Japan’s technological capacity is exceptional. Over the next three years, Japan will produce the most advanced eco-town in the world. The site for the 1 000-home development is at Fugisawa, a coastal city 50km west of Tokyo. For the first time, smart grids will be used based on ‘entire solutions’ technology developed by Panasonic.

With the world’s population having recently tipped over seven billion, and concerns of resources and climate at a peak, nine companies are partnering to make the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town as energy-efficient as possible. Fugisawa’s suburbs will be capable of producing solar electricity. Batteries in each individual home will store surplus energy. And by integrating various smart grid technologies, Fugisawa hopes to reduce CO2 emissions by 70 percent (with 1990 as a baseline).

Shinkansen train in TokyoShinkansen train in Tokyo
While Fugisawa seems impressive, one of the reasons behind its development is undoubtedly a growing concern over Japan’s energy future. After the Fukushimadisaster, Japan must reinvent itself, retrofitting cities and suburbs, transforming these spaces into far greener, ultra-energy-efficient grids. Japan has some of the world’s most technologically advanced transport systems, and perhaps one of the most highly-educated populations, but the country as a whole is far from the world’s most advanced.

One way to gauge the living conditions between countries is to examine a composite statistic known as the Human Development Index (HDI). Various formulas are employed, that calculate average levels of life expectancy, education, income and a few other factors. According to HDI arithmetic, Japan, a small, overpopulated, polluted series of islands, is currently the 12th most advanced nation. Australia and New Zealand feature far more prominently. The top slot goes to Norway, a country that has remained at the top of the HDI list for most of the last decade. Other contenders include Canada and Iceland.

Kabukicho in TokyoKabukicho in Tokyo
A cursory look at the leading candidate countries immediately offers insights into what ingredients are key to advancing a country’s prospects. These include relatively low population size, a homogeneous population, good governance, an abundance of resources, technologically advanced transport and communication infrastructures, energy independence and relative isolation.

Norway matches all of these criteria.  More.

The world’s most advanced car

Futurist William Gibson said: “The future is here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
BY  Nick van der Leek 
The Bugatti Veyron costs a whopping $2.4 million.The Bugatti Veyron costs a whopping $2.4 million.

If you’re a president, it’s important to make sure you get from A to B in one piece. While a white Range Rover may be more than sufficient for the average Youth League president, the leader of a superpower needs something special. It needs to be a substantial improvement, for example, on the 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible sedan that was President JF Kennedy’s last ride in 1963. Cut to the present and America’s President Obama isn’t taking any chances in the back seat. Cadillac One, the Presidential State Car, has five-inch-thick armour along with bullet-proof glass. Its doors have that solid feel and weight of a Boeing 757 cabin door. Since the cabin is sealed (air-tight and soundproof), roadside cheering is conducted via an exterior microphone to on-board speakers. In the boot is a blood bank with President Obama’s blood type, along with a self-contained oxygen supply. There are more advanced features, like a fire-fighting system and an integrated weapons system with grenade launcher, but the exact details are classified.


As good as Cadillac One appears to be, those in the know know that there are even better, more advanced vehicles out there. There is, after all, far more to automotive excellence than merely staying alive.
Pagani Zonda Cinque Roadster will set you back a cool $1.85 million.Pagani Zonda Cinque Roadster will set you back a cool $1.85 million.
A good place to start sniffing around for the world’s best car is at the world’s largest oil company.  More.

The world’s most advanced submarine

The world’s fate could be decided from the depths of the ocean.
BY  Nick van der Leek
The HMS Astute’s hull is made of acoustic tiles that render it ‘virtually undetectable’.The HMS Astute’s hull is made of acoustic tiles that render it ‘virtually undetectable’.

Britain’s Telegraph newspaper has called the $1.88-billion HMS Astute ‘the world’s most advanced nuclear submarine’. Unfortunately, an Astute ran aground off the northwest Scottish coast in 2010, and had to rely on tug boats to haul it into deeper water, along with a rising tide. While the Astute does not carry nuclear warheads, the hull is comprised of acoustic tiles that render it ‘virtually undetectable’ underwater, according to Andy Coles, its commander. But even if the design and development of Britain’s first three Astute-class submarines carry an impressive price tag ($6.1 billion), running aground ‘for unknown reasons’ does not inspire confidence.

Across the Atlantic, the SSN-774 class, also known as a Virginia class nuclear attack submarine, is more deserving of the accolade. The SSN-774 is 115 metres long, ten metres wide, and weighs a gargantuan 7 900 metric tons. Capable of moving at a brisk 46km/h, the Virginia class bristles with armaments, including 12 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and four torpedo tubes for 38 torpedoes and missiles. The 774, which carries a 134-man crew, has a modest maximum diving depth of just 240 metres. Commissioned in late 2004, the SSN-774 costs $3 billion.

The USS North Carolina, one of eight SSN-774s in active duty today, sports a sonar room filled with large, bright, flat-screen monitors that display imagery via camera and imaging sensors. Interestingly, the SSN-774 does away with the traditional periscope completely. With no eyepiece, visuals are relayed directly to several banks of monitors. The digital system is less physically constrained than its precursor, allowing for a larger control room that is no longer restricted by the traditional necessity of being directly below the periscope or below the sail (the dorsal tower that appears on top of the submarine hull). More.

The world’s most advanced (extraterrestrial) rover

Curiosity is mankind’s best chance of finding life on Mars.
BY  Nick van der Leek
The sky crane manoeuvring during the descent of the rover to the Martian surface.The sky crane manoeuvring during the descent of the rover to the Martian surface.

An Atlas V 541 rocket launched just after 10h00 on November 26, 2011 from the Florida headland of Cape Canaveral. Its destination: Mars, the same red planet that forms the backdrop to the $250 million Disney flick John Carter. More than a century ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined 12-foottall, four-armed barbarians, raw energy fields, wormholes, dual lives on different worlds and many other themes, which are rumoured to have filtered down into yet more famous science fiction, including  Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix and Avatar. But the central premise of Burroughs’ yarn (which spawned a series of ten novels), and indeed all science fiction, is this: is there life elsewhere in the universe? Burroughs found a practical roost for these fantasies on Mars, a planet that a modern rocket ship can reach in seven to eight months.

Mars missions

Now, NASA’s ambitious car-sized Curiosity Rover has been sent to ponder just how different Mars is from the landscapes of Utah, where John Carter was filmed. Curiosity is not only the biggest robot sent to explore a neighbouring planet, but also the best equipped. Curiosity’s primary mission objective is to find out whether Mars does (or did) support forms of life. More.

The world’s most advanced building

Intuitively, less is more when it comes to skyscrapers.
BY  Nick van der Leek 
Dubai's Burj Khalifa is currently the world's tallest building.| photos: Kjersti Joergensenphotos: Kjersti JoergensenDubai's Burj Khalifa is currently the world's tallest building.

Skyscrapers are the most sophisticated of buildings. They’re not easy to build, which is why the world’s first skyscraper, the Great Pyramid of Giza, 146m tall, remained the tallest for tens of thousands of years. The pyramid, constructed around 2500 BC, was superseded only in 14 AD by England’s Lincoln Cathedral, which remained the world’s tallest for the next 249 years. John Ruskin, a prominent social critic of the Victorian era, called the Lincoln Cathedral ‘the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles’. Precious though it was, and as impressive as the pyramids remain, neither of these structures was designed for human habitation.

Two ingredients are necessary to design a skyscraper: structural steel and elevators. The world’s first iron-framed, glass-clad structure arose in Liverpool, in 1864. The Oriel Chambers was ostensibly an office building, five storeys high. Twenty years later, the world’s first genuine skyscraper emerged in Chicago, the ten-storey Home Insurance Building. The steel frame chassis both distributed and bore the essential weight of the structure. The outer skin of the building, liberated by the load-bearing skeleton, could henceforth be made of anything, from tiles to glass.

Louis Sullivan accentuated the height of his Wainwright Building with vertical gridlines, which became another staple among subsequent designers. The Chrysler Building, named after the automaker, rose in New York in 1930, and the equally iconic Empire State Building the following year. The Empire State’s spire was intended as a docking station for airships, but updraughts caused by the building itself made this too dangerous. More.

The world’s most advanced wristwatch

The form and function of modern timepieces continue to amaze.
BY  Nick van der Leek 
The Polar RS600X (above), and (below, from right) the Timex FLIX and Garmin Forerunner 450 are just three examples of today’s state-of-the-art wristwatch technology.The Polar RS600X (above), and (below, from right) the Timex FLIX and Garmin Forerunner 450 are just three examples of today’s state-of-the-art wristwatch technology.

Show time: that’s the primary purpose of a wristwatch. We are all, after all, obsessed with time. Traffic, commutes, office hours, deadlines, pay cheques, they’re all built around a common clock.

This life-by-numbers has been accelerated through digital technology, which has not only widened the channels and variety of media, but the sort of personal information an individual might need. Satellite tracking has added a neat dimension to the life of the ordinary mortal who simply wishes to measure his or her jogging route. And it’s probably in this area that wristwatches have evolved the most.

Sports watches

The Timex FLIX is an iconic timepiece, once the most versatile in the world, with 20 bulleted features. While modernists might say cellphones will kill the wristwatch industry, the chronograph (or stopwatch) is a function that sits particularly well on the wrist, as opposed to a handheld device. While the FLIX is impressive, more specialised gadgets have appeared that are so advanced, the term ‘wristwatch’ seems too bland, and too broad a description.

The world’s most advanced bicycle

The ultimate answer to our fuel efficiency needs?
BY  Nick van der Leek 
In March 2011, Formula One’s McLaren and bicycle manufacturer Specialized released the Specialized McLaren Venge.In March 2011, Formula One’s McLaren and bicycle manufacturer Specialized released the Specialized McLaren Venge.

Right now, the global bicycle market is a $61 billion industry: 130 million bicycles are sold annually around the world; two thirds are made in China.

As recently as 1965, the production of bicycles and cars was the same, at 20 million each. Today, there are around one billion bicycles in the world, or twice as many cyclists as drivers.

Curiously, early bicycles tended to be adopted by the fashionable elite, a form of conspicuous consumption. The introduction of accessories (often more expensive than the original product) also first appeared in the bicycle industry.

The invention of the bicycle predates both the automobile and the aeroplane, and advances in bicycle tech – including ball bearings, spoke-tensioned wheels, chain-driven sprockets, gears and pneumatic tyres – eventually played a key role in the development of both. The birth of the bicycle says much about not just the accelerating pace of human innovation, but also where the mother of invention, necessity, can ultimately lead us. More.

Cutting-edge eyewear

Advances in materials technology take seeing to a new, hard-to-believe reality.
BY  Nick van der Leek 

Photochromatic lenses, which darken when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, were first developed in the ‘60s by a company known as Corning.

This innovative 150-year-old company developed the glass for Thomas Edison’s light bulb, the fi rst durable microwavable glass dinnerware, and today, Corning is the world leader in glass development for LCD displays. Its product is so exceptional that every window of every US-manned space vehicle is supplied by Corning. Even the glass template for the Hubble Space Telescope’s primary mirror is a Corning product.

Although glass is optically a perfect product, it is both heavy and dangerous around the sensitive human apparatus that is the eye, so most spectacles are made of plastic.

In 1991, the revolution to plastic eyewear went into high gear, when Transitions Optical launched the first commercially successful photochromatic plastic lens. More.

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