The Late Movies: The Secret Life of Machines

I love The Secret Life of Machines, a late-1980s series about how everyday machines work. Presented primarily by engineer/cartoonist/artist Tim Hunkin, it's understated, funny, and deeply smart -- a gently curious investigation of how things go. Hunkin wrote about the first series:

The two sides of my life - researching stuff in books for the cartoon strip and making things, had made me realise just how much clever human activity in the world can not be explained in words or suit the format of a book, let alone fit with the publishing fashion of the day. The examples of this which seemed most immediate to me were the everyday machines around the home that everyone takes for granted. I’ve always enjoyed taking machines to bits and trying to mend them. It was always frustrating doing my cartoon strip about this sort of machine – it would be so much better if people could actually watch the machine working.

Hunkin has made loads of machines, as well as the flying pigs and sheep for Pink Floyd's Animals tour. He currently makes coin-operated machines for the Under the Pier Show in Suffolk -- which makes me really, really want to go to Suffolk. But for tonight, enjoy a few of my favorite episodes of The Secret Life of Machines. If you like these, they're all available for free online. (They're also on YouTube and various other spots, with Hunkin's permission.)

The Fax Machine

The first fax machine was patented way back in 1843 by Alexander Bain. In this 24-minute episode, Hunkin and copresenter Rex Garrod explain how the fax machine works.

The Vacuum Cleaner

The very first episode, this explains how vacuum cleaners work, with extensive animation by Hunkin. Hunkin writes:

The vacuum cleaner film was made before Dyson’s cleaners were introduced. These use an old industrial idea of sucking the air and dirt through spiral vanes. This spins the dirt and flings it to the outside of the chamber. Dyson’s version has several stages of vanes and needs no dust bag. Unfortunately the finest particles still get through so filter pads are needed over the outlet. These reduce the suction power of the machines, so I’m not sure they are any real improvement, despite the hype. There is also more awareness of the link between asthma and house dust, so all manufacturers have put more effort into the outlet filters.

The Refrigerator

The most dramatic part is around 2:45 when Hunkin blasts himself in the face with carbon dioxide.

Refrigerators are basically unchanged, but the disposal of scrap fridges is completely different. When I made the film, alternative refrigerant gases were starting to be introduced that are supposed to do less damage to the ozone layer of the atmosphere. Since then though, it has been decided that the gas trapped in the bubbles of the polyurethane foam insulation is also a problem, so now fridges have to be sent for specialist recycling, and every household waste tip has a mini fridge mountain.

Lots and Lots More

Nine of the full programs are available on this YouTube channel, the rest are easily found (in segments) by searching. You may also wish to consult Hunkin's pages on Series 1, Series 2, and Series 3 (The Secret Life of the Office). Hunkin's pages also have links to (legal) downloads of all the episodes.

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Undersea Internet Cables Could Be Key to the Future of Earthquake Detection
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Considering that 70 percent of the planet is covered by oceans, we don't have all that many underwater earthquake sensors. Though there's plenty of seismic activity that happens out in the middle of the ocean, most detection equipment is located on land, with the exception of a few offshore sensor projects in Japan, the U.S., and Canada.

To get better earthquake data for tremors and quakes that happen far from existing sensors, a group of scientists in the UK, Italy, and Malta suggest turning to the internet. As Science News reports, the fiber-optic cables already laid down to carry communication between continents could be repurposed as seismic sensors with the help of lasers.

The new study, detailed in a recent issue of Science, proposes beaming a laser into one end of the optical fiber, then measuring how that light changes. When the cable is disturbed by seismic shaking, the light will change.

This method, which the researchers tested during earthquakes in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico, would allow scientists to use data from multiple undersea cables to both detect and measure earthquake activity, including pinpointing the epicenter and estimating the magnitude. They were able to sense quakes in New Zealand and Japan from a land-based fiber-optic cable in England, and measure an earthquake in the Malta Sea from an undersea cable running between Malta and Sicily that was located more than 50 miles away from the epicenter.

A map of the world's undersea cable connections with a diagram of how lasers can measure their movement
Marra et al., Science (2018)

Seismic sensors installed on the sea floor are expensive, but they can save lives: During the deadly Japanese earthquake in 2011, the country's extensive early-warning system, including underwater sensors, was able to alert people in Tokyo of the quake 90 seconds before the shaking started.

Using existing cable links that run across the ocean floor would allow scientists to collect data on earthquakes that start in the middle of the ocean that are too weak to register on land-based seismic sensors. The fact that hundreds of thousands of miles of these cables already crisscross the globe makes this method far, far cheaper to implement than installing brand-new seismic sensors at the bottom of the ocean, giving scientists potential access to data on earthquake activity throughout the world, rather than only from the select places that already have offshore sensors installed.

The researchers haven't yet studied how the laser method works on the long fiber-optic cables that run between continents, so it's not ready for the big leagues yet. But eventually, it could help bolster tsunami detection, monitor earthquakes in remote areas like the Arctic, and more.

[h/t Science News]

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AI Remade Old Music Videos, and You'll Never See 'Sabotage' the Same Way Again
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From rewriting Harry Potter scripts to naming guinea pigs, getting artificial intelligence to do humans' bidding is the latest trend in internet entertainment. Now, we can all enjoy AI remakes of iconic music videos such as "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler, and "Take On Me" by A-Ha.

As spotted by Co.Design, these "neural remakes" were uploaded to YouTube by Mario Klingemann, an artist-in-residence at Google Arts. The AI model he created is capable of analyzing a music video and then creating its own version using similar shots lifted from a database of publicly available footage. The results are then uploaded side-by-side with the original video, with no human editing necessary.

"Sabotage," a spoof on '70s-era cop movies, might be the AI's "most effective visual match," at least by Co.Design's estimate. The AI model found accurate matches for vintage cars and foot chases—and even when it wasn't spot on, the dated clips still mesh well with the vintage feel of the original video. Check it out for yourself:

"Total Eclipse of the Heart," a bizarre video to begin with, spawned some interesting parallels when it was fed through the AI model. Jesus makes a few appearances in the AI version, as does a space shuttle launch and what appear to be Spartan warriors.

And finally, 11 years after the original rickroll, there's now a new way to annoy your friends: the AI version of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," featuring John F. Kennedy and Jesus, yet again. This one is presented on its own in full-screen rather than split-screen, but you can rewatch the original video here.

To see more videos like this, check out Klingemann's YouTube channel here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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