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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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Animals
Watch an Antarctic Minke Whale Feed in a First-of-Its-Kind Video
WWF
WWF

New research from the World Wildlife Fund is giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the mysterious minke whale. The WWF worked with Australian Antarctic researchers to tag minke whales with cameras for the first time, watching where and how the animals feed.

The camera attaches to the whale's body with suction cups. In the case of the video below, the camera accidentally slid down the side of the minke whale's body, providing an unexpected look at the way its throat moves as it feeds.

Minke whales are one of the smallest baleen whales, but they're still pretty substantial animals, growing 30 to 35 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. Unlike other baleen whales, though, they're small enough to maneuver in tight spaces like within sea ice, a helpful adaptation for living in Antarctic waters. They feed by lunging through the sea, gulping huge amounts of water along with krill and small fish, and then filtering the mix through their baleen.

The WWF video shows just how quickly the minke can process this treat-laden water. The whale could lunge, process, and lunge again every 10 seconds. "He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding," Ari Friedlaender, the lead scientist on the project, described in a press statement.

The video research, conducted under the International Whaling Commission's Southern Ocean Research Partnership, is part of WWF's efforts to protect critical feeding areas for whales in the region.

If that's not enough whale for you, you can also watch the full 13-minute research video below:

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technology
AI Could Help Scientists Detect Earthquakes More Effectively
iStock
iStock

Thanks in part to the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, earthquakes are becoming more frequent in the U.S. Even though it doesn't fall on a fault line, Oklahoma, where gas and oil drilling activity doubled between 2010 and 2013, is now a major earthquake hot spot. As our landscape shifts (literally), our earthquake-detecting technology must evolve to keep up with it. Now, a team of researchers is changing the game with a new system that uses AI to identify seismic activity, Futurism reports.

The team, led by deep learning researcher Thibaut Perol, published the study detailing their new neural network in the journal Science Advances. Dubbed ConvNetQuake, it uses an algorithm to analyze the measurements of ground movements, a.k.a. seismograms, and determines which are small earthquakes and which are just noise. Seismic noise describes the vibrations that are almost constantly running through the ground, either due to wind, traffic, or other activity at surface level. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between noise and legitimate quakes, which is why most detection methods focus on medium and large earthquakes instead of smaller ones.

But better understanding natural and manmade earthquakes means studying them at every level. With ConvNetQuake, that could soon become a reality. After testing the system in Oklahoma, the team reports it detected 17 times more earthquakes than what was recorded by the Oklahoma Geological Survey earthquake catalog.

That level of performance is more than just good news for seismologists studying quakes caused by humans. The technology could be built into current earthquake detection methods set up to alert the public to dangerous disasters. California alone is home to 400 seismic stations waiting for "The Big One." On a smaller scale, there's an app that uses a smartphone's accelerometers to detect tremors and alert the user directly. If earthquake detection methods could sense big earthquakes right as they were beginning using AI, that could afford people more potentially life-saving moments to prepare.

[h/t Futurism]

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