News for Nerds - March 9, 2012

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 3/9/2012 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - March 9, 2012

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we look into the future of wireless communication, we identify a new suspect in the sinking of the Titanic, and we explain why some people might not like your name. But first: we're off and running.

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A four-legged robot developed by a company called Boston Dynamics is now in the record books. It is officially the fastest-running robot in history.

The Cheetah -- whose design was, in fact, inspired by an actual cheetah -- hopped on a treadmill last week and ran at a pace of 18 miles per hour. That bested the decades-old record of 13.1 miles per hour, which was set back in 1981. It is unclear just how fast Rosey the Robot might have run, or if she would have been disqualified for having wheels instead of feet.

The Cheetah was funded by the American military, and the long-range goal is to use it as an advance scout or as a payload mule in battlefield or civilian crisis situations. Its speedy secret lies in its malleable back, which flexes and un-flexes with each stride (much like an actual cheetah). The entire thing is powered by a hydraulic pump, but a second, free-running prototype might be revealed later this year.

With a few tweaks, says Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert, the Cheetah might get up to speeds approaching 40 miles per hour. That's about the same as the top speed I could reach in my first car... assuming that the air conditioner was turned off and there were no passengers in the back seat.

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When it comes to a disaster on the level of the Titanic, assessing blame can be tricky. Over the years most fingers have pointed pretty squarely at the captain, while others insist that if only Kate and Leo would have knocked off all those forbidden-love shenanigans, things might have turned out a little better.

But a new theory from Texas State University introduces a surprising culprit in the great ocean liner's demise: the moon.

The theory basically states that a very rare conjunction of the Earth, the sun, and the moon may have led to unusually high tides, thus causing many icebergs to float off beaches where they had run aground in the natural course of events.

Says study author Donald Olson, "It was the closest approach of the moon to the Earth in more than 1,400 years, and this configuration maximized the moon's tide-raising forces on Earth's oceans."

It's true that ship captain Edward Smith ignored wireless messages warning of heavy iceberg traffic, essentially dooming more than 1,500 passengers. But now, thanks to the wonders of astronomy, we have a better understanding of why such an unusually high number of dangerous icebergs were in that neighborhood in the first place.

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Now this is interesting. New research shows that people have warmer feelings toward words that use mostly letters on the right side of the standard QWERTY keyboard.

In a number of experiments conducted by cognitive researchers, volunteers were asked to rate their feelings regarding a series of English, Dutch and Spanish words. Regardless of the language, and regardless of whether the volunteer was left- or right-handed, the results were the same: people had more positive feelings about words that mainly involve right-side keyboard letters.

It's not clear exactly why this is, but one theory has to do with the fact that the left hand has a bit more responsibility when it comes to typing: it's responsible for 15 letters, while the right hand is responsible for just 11.

Regardless, the research team behind the study sees some practical fallout from this discovery. They speculate that "people responsible for naming new products, brands and companies might do well to consider the potential advantages of consulting their keyboards and choosing the 'right' name."

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And finally, courtesy of Dom & Jane listener David, comes this story about a future where we could transmit an 'infinite number' of TV, radio, WiFi, and cellular channels at the same time, and over the same frequency.

But first, a quick step back. In standard wireless communications, we only modulate the angular momentum of waves. There's a lot of science wrapped up in that sentence, but the bottom line is that we are limited in the number of signals that we can send over one frequency at one time.

As a result, companies pay huge sums of money -- billions of dollars -- to get access to even a small handful of megahertz. But a Swedish scientist named Bo Thide has been working with a team in Italy to prove that it's actually possible to simultaneously transmit multiple radio channels over exactly the same wireless frequency.

If he's right, then this has huge implications... not the least of which is that our known wireless spectrum might soon be able to carry 10 to 20 times as much data. Further down the road we might well get to a point where the wireless spectrum is infinite. As the Extreme Tech story linked above points out: "To be honest, this is such a huge twist for wireless communications that the full repercussions are not yet known."

That's a pretty big concept when you consider how much of our world revolves around wireless communication. Can you hear me now?

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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