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The Best Essay Ever - On Cable Laying??

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How did Neal Stephenson do it? Way back in 1996, he managed to make what's clearly the most boring subject on Earth -- transcontinental data cable installation -- into a clever, engaging 56-page article. Well, he probably did in the same way he made cryptography exciting in Cryptonomicon and a dystopian corporate future funny in Snow Crash: by being a super smart guy writing about stuff that's actually interesting, beneath its veneer of super-dorkitude.

In Mother Earth Mother Board, Stephenson declares himself the "hacker tourist," as he "ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth." Discussed: the insane past, present, and future of data cables; mastery of slack; Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords; more. Here are some selected bits from the article:

[On the laying of redundant "FLAG" cables to connect the same points.] This raises questions. The questions turn out to have interesting answers. I'll summarize them first and then go into detail.

Q: Why bother running two widely separated routes over the Malay Peninsula?

A: Because Thailand, like everywhere else in the world, is full of idiots with backhoes.

Q: Isn't that a pain in the ass?

A: You have no idea.

Q: Why not just go south around Singapore and keep the cable in the water, then?

A: Because Singapore is controlled by the enemy.

Q: Who is the enemy?

A: FLAG's enemies are legion. ...

Dr. Wildman Whitehouse and his 5-foot-long induction coils were the first hazard to destroy a submarine cable but hardly the last. It sometimes seems as though every force of nature, every flaw in the human character, and every biological organism on the planet is engaged in a competition to see which can sever the most cables. The Museum of Submarine Telegraphy in Porthcurno, England, has a display of wrecked cables bracketed to a slab of wood. Each is labeled with its cause of failure, some of which sound dramatic, some cryptic, some both: trawler maul, spewed core, intermittent disconnection, strained core, teredo worms, crab's nest, perished core, fish bite, even "spliced by Italians." The teredo worm is like a science fiction creature, a bivalve with a rasp-edged shell that it uses like a buzz saw to cut through wood - or through submarine cables. Cable companies learned the hard way, early on, that it likes to eat gutta-percha, and subsequent cables received a helical wrapping of copper tape to stop it. ...

In 1870, a new cable was laid between England and France, and Napoleon III used it to send a congratulatory message to Queen Victoria. Hours later, a French fisherman hauled the cable up into his boat, identified it as either the tail of a sea monster or a new species of gold-bearing seaweed, and cut off a chunk to take home. Thus was inaugurated an almost incredibly hostile relationship between the cable industry and fishermen. Almost anyone in the cable business will be glad, even eager, to tell you that since 1870 the intelligence and civic responsibility of fisherman have only degraded. Fishermen, for their part, tend to see everyone in the cable business as hard-hearted bluebloods out to screw the common man. ...

I encourage you -- no, I urge you -- to go read Stephenson's essay. Print it out, block out a few hours, and prepare for some wonderfully geeky edutainment. (Note: above I've linked to the printer-friendly version; there's also a standard version, but it requires clicking "next" 56 times.)

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Health
Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Design
Glow-in-the-Dark Paths Come to Singapore
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Studio Roosegaarde's Van Gogh path in the Netherlands in 2014.

Glow-in-the-dark materials are no longer for toys. Photoluminescence can help cities feel safer at night, whether it’s part of a mural, a bike lane, or a highway. Glow-in-the-dark paths have been tested in several European cities (the above is a Van Gogh-inspired bike path by the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde) and in Texas, but now, the technology may be coming to Singapore. The city-state is currently developing a 15-mile greenway called the Rail Corridor, and it now has a glow-in-the-dark path, as Mashable reports.

The 328-foot stretch of glowing path is part of a test of multiple surface materials that might eventually be used throughout the park, depending on public opinion. In addition to the strontium aluminate-beaded path that glows at night, there are also three other 328-foot stretches of the path that are paved with fine gravel, cement aggregate, and part-grass/part-gravel. The glow-in-the-dark material embedded in the walkway absorbs UV light from the sun during the day and can emit light for up to eight hours once the sun goes down.

However, in practice, glow-in-the-dark paths can be less dazzling than they seem. Mashable’s reporter called the glowing effect on Singapore’s path “disappointingly feeble.” In 2014, a glowing highway-markings pilot by Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands revealed that the first road markings faded after exposure to heavy rains. When it comes to glowing roads, the renderings tend to look better than the actual result, and there are still kinks to work out. (The studio worked the issue out eventually.) While a person walking or biking down Singapore’s glowing path might be able to tell that they were staying on the path better than if they were fumbling along dark pavement, it’s not the equivalent of a streetlight, for sure.

The trial paths opened to the public on July 12. The government is still gathering survey responses on people’s reactions to the different surfaces to determine how to proceed with the rest of the development. If the glow-in-the-dark path proves popular with visitors, the material could eventually spread to all the paths throughout the Rail Corridor. You can see what the glowing path looks like in action in the video below from The Straits Times.

[h/t Mashable]

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