Weekend news roundup

27 Jun 2011

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A summary of some of the tech articles in the weekend newspapers, including how e-book publishing is disruptive for the wrong reasons, the future of rail travel, the death of privacy and Irish women on eBay in recessionary times.

The future of rail travel

The Independent on Sunday carried an article about a revolutionary new design called ‘Moving Platforms’ that could allow high-speed trains to run across a country without slowing down, according to its designer.

The concept, which has been created by London-based design agency Priestmangoode and revealed this month, hypothesises using tram-like trains to collect passengers before speeding up and "connecting" to high-speed trains to allow passengers to move from one to the other.

Travellers would be able to both board and disembark at speed, allowing seamless connections from almost any street to any other street in cities equipped with the docking trams.

In theory, the idea could also be used to connect high-speed trains, removing the need for getting off the train and changing trains, for instance, and could eventually be used for international services.

Priestmangoode’s idea effectively removes the need for trains to ever slow down – something which Paul Priestman says is more appropriate for the technology travellers have access to today.

Privacy will be a booming business for lawyers

The Sunday Independent reported how privacy is a growth sector for lawyers, and it is not hard to see why, it said, pointing to the fact that wherever there is drama there is almost certainly a camera and someone willing to post it on YouTube.

The article pointed to the recent furore over the ‘kiss’ photo of a young couple at the Vancouver hockey riots, how a woman achieved internet notoriety after she was filmed berating a train conductor and how a young woman found images of her lifted from her Facebook site and used on a fake blog about a lesbian in Syria.

Judges will increasingly have to draw lines between freedom of expression and intrusion into people’s lives. In the YouTube clip of that woman on the New York train, she herself angrily claims the conductor has intruded into a private conversation she was having, one in which she allegedly used loud profanities that the conductor complains in turn were an intrusion into the privacy of other passengers.

And the difficulties of taking effective action to protect privacy on the internet are underlined by the fact the YouTube video of the train incident continues to be available elsewhere on the internet, even after it has been taken off the original YouTube site, reportedly after the person who posted it shut down their own Facebook account.

A nose for the weather

The Financial Times, in a weekend science special, showed that despite advances in technology, human instinct and ability is still critical in forecasting weather patterns.

For all the prodigious processing power and observational resources of the worldwide meteorological system, forecasting decisions still come down to human skill and experience. The Met Office would never rely solely on a computer-generated forecast, says chief forecaster Martin Young, who has worked there for 32 years.

For Young’s boss, chief meteorologist Ewen McCallum, today’s uncertainty about what will happen in three days’ time illustrates the improvement in forecasting over the past generation. When he joined the Met Office 37 years ago, forecasters frequently faced similar or worse uncertainty about what would happen the next day.

“A four-day forecast today is about as accurate as a one-day forecast was when I started,” says McCallum. “Then, we had no operational access to weather satellites, no radar and very slow computers.”

Published and be damned

The Observer posed a question that while the Kindle has opened up publishing to the masses, but how many e-books are the authors’ own work?

It’s as easy as falling off a log. First, you write your "book" using Microsoft Word in the usual way but avoiding bullet points, special fonts, headers and footers, and inserting a page break at the end of every chapter. Next, save the document using Word’s "save as web page" facility. Then download a special program from Amazon which converts your document into Kindle format. Run it through Amazon’s Kindle Previewer (another free downloadable program) to check that it will look OK on the Kindle. If it looks acceptable, then upload the file to Amazon and your book will appear for sale on the Kindle store about 24 hours after clicking "save and publish."

Suddenly, the world can see your hitherto unrecognised talent in all its glory. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Er, up to a point. This e-book technology has proved so successful that Amazon now claims to be selling more electronic publications than conventional printed ones. The company is clearly surfing a wave. According to one industry expert, for example, nearly 2.8m non-traditional books, including e-books, were published in the United States in 2010, while just more than 316,000 traditional books came out. That compares with 1.33m e-books and 302,000 printed books in 2009.

Impressive, eh? It’s only when one peruses the cornucopia of literary productions available on the Kindle store that one detects the first scent of rodent.

Straightened times remove the need for hair straighteners

The Sunday Independent reported that Irish women are opting for a more natural look, thanks to the recession, and have stopped buying hair straighteners on eBay.

Searches for hair straighteners, priced at up to €138, plummeted by 124pc compared to March-June last year, according to online auction firm eBay.ie.

Flawless skin and funky nails are also fashionable, with foundation and nail art ranking the site’s first and second most-sold items.

The bold and beautiful eyelashes look is also in, with searches for false eyelashes up by a whopping 237pc since 2010 and those for eye shadow up by 65pc.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com