By Vanessa Hill
Happy Fascination of Plants Day! That is, if you’re not too busy celebrating Sea Monkey Day, Museum Day, or preparing for Pick Strawberries Day on Monday. It’s true there are many ‘days’ competing for our attention. But unlike picking strawberries, appreciating plants only takes a few moments. And plants are seriously amazing.
As a city dweller, plants were something I never really appreciated. Once I tried to grow a veggie patch on my balcony and I got a rash as soon as I put my hand within an inch of the tomato vine. I’m sure many city dwellers are plant aficionados, so maybe “naive urbanite” is a more fitting title for me.
Anyway, a few years back I moved to the Northern Territory. When I was walking to pick up the keys to my house I was fascinated, and somewhat confused, at the plants lining the footpath. The bush looked almost dead, but had an odd ‘flower’ on it. At the time I could only describe this as “a cotton bud”. Like the ones you buy in a packet from Coles. When I expressed my surprise to my new colleagues, they laughed at me. A lot.
I had no idea what a cotton plant looked like. I was just beginning a postgraduate degree in Environmental Management, and I only had a vague idea of where my food came from. Or how my clothing was made. I felt silly, and quite ignorant. As I spoke to more people about it, I realised it’s a common problem.
Generally people don’t have a strong appreciation of what plants do for us. We know that they convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, provide food, clothing and building materials. But we don’t appreciate this as these processes are so foreign, because our food comes from Coles, our clothes from Myer and our building materials from Bunnings. The appreciation in lost in not knowing how food travels from farm to plate, how fibres like cotton are spun into fabric.
Cotton, for example, has been cultivated for over 5,000 years all around the world. Despite the geographic divide between cotton farmers, the crop has been cleaned, spun and weaved in the same manner everywhere. Tiny cotton seeds are super durable, and can survive been blown for thousands of kilometres and even across bodies of water. And if you don’t think cotton is sexy, it’s a relative of the hibiscus, both belong to the Gossypium genus of plants.
CSIRO have been researching and growing cotton in country NSW for 40 years. Over that time, our research has improved yield, disease resistance and fibre quality. All while supporting a rural economy.
Next time you think plants are boring, think again. Think about what you had for breakfast, what your clothing is made out of and the amazing fact that they actually convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Plants are seriously fascinating.
For many of us, a ‘good hack’ might seem like a foreign and almost illegal concept. Some may even find the subject a little bit dirty.
We are tackling this misconception head-on through our new Apps4Broadband competition, aimed at helping Australians better understand what is possible through the smart use of broadband. It also hopes to help accelerate the ability of Australian developers to realise these new business opportunities and connect with service providers, technology partners and end users to build game-changing apps.
As part of the competition we are running two ‘Hack Days’. These are a fun and practical way for developers and other people interested in participating in the competition to come along, work on their projects, find other potential collaborators, meet with industry experts and advisers, and present their ideas and prototypes at the end of the day over drinks.
We recently spoke with the host of our Hack Days, John Allsopp (the organiser of the influential web directions and Code conferences), to try and de-code what this hacking business is all about and find out if it really is dirty business.
What is a hack day and how do you run them?
Hack days are about bringing together people to hack on things. Whether they’re designers, developers, domain experts, whatever their expertise. The idea is to get people to explore problems, and possible solutions. For example, GovHack focusses on working with government data, or providing services and applications that help citizens better interact with governments. Random Hacks of Kindness brings together people to work on solving problems to make the world a better place. Many hack events, including these, are about getting a working prototype or demo of a solution up and running in a few hours. The Apps4Broadband event is more open ended as it looks to help people explore ideas and opportunities they may then further develop over time.
Is hacking really a dirty word?
The popular understanding of hacking certainly is more negative than positive. It is often something associated with illegal or anti-social behaviour such as hacking into banking systems, and other networks. In the developer world, the term has been used in a positive way since the 1960s, (the term “crackers” is sometimes used by this community refer to what in popular terms are called “hackers”.)
Perhaps the earliest definition of hacker in this sense come from a legendary compendium of developer terminology known as the Jargon File (and otherwise known as the Hackers Dictionary). Here, a hacker is one “who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary”.
Among developers, hacking, hackers and hacks are far from negative things.
Why is failing an important part of hacking?
Traditional, more enterprise oriented IT projects are what I call the “fail slowly” approach. Requirements are gathered, specifications are put together, development takes place, then testing, then deployment. And it’s often only at the end of the project that we find out whether the project was a good idea. Of course, this is the right model for many types of projects. But in less well defined fields, exploring the problem space, developing some possible solutions and then quickly testing them can be a very powerful way to come up with possible solutions. Does the technology to achieve this actually exist? What existing products and services already address this issue? Is there a viable business model? What pathways to market might there be for this?
All this is about asking questions in order to knock down ideas, rather than taking forward ideas that really should be dismissed as unfeasible for all kinds of possible reasons.
On a hack day, you might generate several possible ideas, and dismiss most, before taking one forward, and this “fail fast” approach is an important part of this winnowing process.
Do you believe next generation broadband networks will drive innovation in app development?
The glib answer I tend to give is “I don’t know”. But in truth, predicting the future, even a short way out (ask any economist) is basically impossible. The future of the 1950s and 1960s, as exemplified by the Jetsons was all about flying cars, immersive video conferencing, and yet an essentially unchanged social structure.
In the 1950s, futurists imagined a world of holidays in space, and colonies on mars and the moon, but not a globally connected network enabling anyone to connect to anyone else in real time for almost no cost.
If I were to try to make a case beyond “the future will be great with broadband, just wait!” it would be about identifying that on a world where increasingly more things are digital, things we have traditionally called film, TV, music, games, books, news media, but also physical things are becoming digital via 3D printing. The ability to upload (or to use a better term, publish) as much as to download quickly (where most of the focus on broadband typically is) will be a fundamental opportunity for creative individuals and groups to participate fully in a global digital economy.
Australia has always been heavily dependent on “uploading”, as we are such an export economy. We build multi billion dollar LPG pipelines, shipping facilities, airports, which are all about “uploading” physical exports. Just as we’ve recognised such facilities as potentially constraints on our competitive place in the world economy, network speeds are clearly such a constraint.
Beyond that, if I knew, I’d be implementing it already (well, I am working on some ideas)…
Keen to code?
Further details about the Apps4Broadband competition and the wider opportunity for broadband connected homes can be found at www.acbi.net.au/broadband4apps
Media: Dan Chamberlain. P: +61 2 9372 4491. M: 0477 708 849. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Moon Jellyfish: It is rare for these to live more than six months in the wild but they are really interesting.
All species in the genus are closely related and is hard to pick them apart except by genetic sampling.
They grow to about 25–40cm in diameter and can be recognized by its four horseshoe-shaped gonads, easily seen through the top.
It is not really a strong swimmer and it mainly drifts with the current feeding on plankton, fish eggs, small organisms and molluscs. It captures food with its tentacles and scoops it into its body for digestion.
Moon Jellyfish are found throughout most of the world’s oceans, from the tropics to as far north as latitude 70°N (runs through the middle of the US and Spain) and as far south as 40°S (runs through Tasmania).
It has also been found in waters as cool as 6C to as warm as 31C.
They do not have any respiratory parts such as gills, lungs, or trachea so it respires by diffusing oxygen from water through the thin membrane covering its body.
By Janene Brown
“So what’s it like to be a scientist or mathematician?” “What do you really do in your job?” Volunteers in the Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program have been answering these questions since 2007 through over 3200 partnerships with scientists and teachers across the nation.
During National Volunteer Week, the team at Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools want to say “Thanks a Million”.
Thanks to the scientists and mathematicians, for volunteering your knowledge and passion for your chosen field. Thanks to the teachers, for welcoming them into your classroom. Together you are making a substantial positive impact on thousands of students.
All our partnerships are unique. That’s the beauty of the program’s flexibility.
Some of our partnerships have annual visits to assist in excursions while others visit more frequently to work on a particular project. Across all partnerships, science and mathematics are made more accessible for students, transforming textbook learning into reality. Our scientists and mathematicians show the human side of their work, helping dispel the stereotypes which spring to mind when we say ‘scientist’ or ‘mathematician’.
This sentiment is best summarised by a NSW parent, “It’s fantastic that individuals are willing to offer their time to help facilitate the learning of our children. Please pass on a big thank you for being an inspiration for my son.”
Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools is an Australian Government initiative funded by Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and CSIRO.
Scientists have produced the largest flexible, plastic solar cells in Australia – 10 times the size of what they were previously able to – thanks to a new solar cell printer that has been installed at CSIRO.
The printer has allowed researchers from the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium to print organic photovoltaic cells the size of an A3 sheet of paper.
According to materials scientist Dr Scott Watkins, printing cells on such a large scale opens up a huge range of possibilities for pilot applications.
“There are so many things we can do with cells this size,” he says. “We can set them into advertising signage, powering lights and other interactive elements. We can even embed them into laptop cases to provide backup power for the machine inside.”
Using semiconducting inks, the researchers print the cells straight onto paper-thin flexible plastic or steel. With the ability to print at speeds of up to ten metres per minute, this means they can produce one cell every two seconds.
As the researchers continue to scale up their equipment, the possibilities will become even greater for this technology. Eventually they hope to see solar cells being laminated to the windows that line skyscrapers and embedded onto roofing materials.
Read more in the media release.
As you can tell, it’s a pretty high-tech setup.
The YouTube video in the post said ‘satellite dish’, but the Compact Array is actually a radio telescope, for doing astronomy.
There’s not just one dish, there’s six of them. They usually work together, as one telescope. And they can be moved around into different arrangements on the ground, like this —
The dishes are so sensitive that a mobile phone signal coming from Pluto would be really strong for them. When the scientists at the observatory want to heat their dinners, they can’t use a microwave oven if the telescope is observing at certain frequencies — any microwaves leaking out of the oven swamp the signals from the cosmos.
The Compact Array turns 25 this year. Come and party with us!
Great technology, great engineers and great scientists have made the Compact Array one of the world’s leading radio telescopes.
And it hasn’t stood still. We’ve upgraded it over the years with new panels, new software, new receiving gear — everything. It’s now better than ever.
Astronomers have to fight to use it. For every six-month observing period, about 600 people (from almost 30 countries) apply to use the telescope. There isn’t enough time for all of them to have a go, so competition is fierce.
That’s despite the telescope working around the clock, seven days a week.
Here are some of the weird and wonderful bits of the Universe the Compact Array has looked at.
Imagine you’re a disaster manager and a large earthquake has just struck off the Australian coast. You know that part of the Australian coastline is about to be inundated by a tsunami but you need more information – and quickly. But what information do you need, and how do you get it?
The following might be on your need-to-know list: What size of tsunami will be created? What area will be flooded? How many people live in the exclusion zone? How many schools, hospitals and aged-care homes are inside? Which exit roads have bridges that are likely to withstand a flood of this scale?
With a team of experts you can find and collate this information, eventually. But you might have to contact several organisations that format their information in different ways.
Now imagine how much easier things would be if technology was available to pull information from multiple sources and feed them into the software of your choice.
You might want to use one piece of software for co-ordinating the response, then a second for recovery efforts and post-event analysis, and then a third for civil engineers designing new infrastructure.
We have some of these software tools already, but to enhance them we need to make it easier for them to utilise many sources of information in an assortment of formats.
The challenge is making the information “interoperable” – transforming it into formats that integrate with different software applications and modelling tools.
In 2011, 322 natural disasters killed 30,773 people worldwide and inflicted US$366.1 billion worth of damage. Quite simply, the costs to human life and the economy make disaster management vital.
Modern disaster managers don’t just respond to events: they look at a spectrum of“Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery”.
In Australia the national strategy for disasters focuses on building resilience, which is a community’s ability to withstand and recover from disaster events.
State and territory governments are largely responsible for responding to disasters. Volunteers and community organisations also contribute to disaster response and recovery efforts.
Our research group in the Digital Productivity and Services Flagship is one of several at CSIRO involved in disaster research. CSIRO’s research into natural hazards ranges from flood modelling to bushfire research.
The focus in our group is how technology research can contribute to disaster management using an “all-hazards” approach. We’re bringing together CSIRO’s technologies for disaster management, but we also work closely with other organisations.
Using an “all-hazards” approach is important because disasters are often related. A storm that causes damage with high winds might also lead to flooding; or a bushfire and heatwave could be linked. Disaster managers need to be able to pull together data from diverse sources to consider all hazards affecting an area.
Our researchers have developed algorithms and methodologies that, when applied to data collected by various federal and state government agencies, can aid in the planning and prediction phases of managing natural hazard impacts.
In practice, this might mean rainfall data (available from the Bureau of Meteorology) in conjunction with terrain information (Geoscience Australia) can be analysed computationally to predict flooding and tsunami risk areas.
Computational and mathematical methods already contribute to disaster management; and if we can bring more data and models together in an easy-to-use system, technology could contribute better.
To do that the data has to be compatible with many software clients.
Dashboards and portals (websites that bring together information from diverse sources in a uniform way) let disaster managers make more insightful interpretations of data. Ideally they should take in a broad range of relevant details.
A fire portal could take in weather information, such as wind direction, but also information about fuel/vegetation types and topography (the lay of the land).
Such portals are already available, including one we developed that NSW Fire and Rescue is trialling. It brings together data from various federal and state agencies including Geoscience Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology.
This prototype portal gives us an idea of what can be achieved with an all-hazards software client, and lets disaster managers test it and tell us what they need.
The limitation to the portal is that it can only take in certain types of data.
A software exchange layer
To help portals use more types of data, we’re creating a something known as the Disaster Management Decision Support Platform. The platform will fit in behind the scenes, converting data and feeding it to client software including a range of dashboards and portals.
Our platform is part of an ongoing strategy with a five-year vision to enable greater integration between data, models and computational codes that relate to natural disaster knowledge building.
The platform works acts as an “exchange layer” (as per the diagram below) that will take information from data sources, transform it and feed it to the client software (which is the disaster management dashboard or portal).
The exchange layer has the job of making the data sources web accessible and converting them to formats that are interoperable between software clients.
It will also be able to integrate models, feeding data into them and then into client software. This means data can be processed in several ways before it reaches the client software.
Using the platform will allow client software designers to pull together more information in a single dashboard or portal without expending so much effort acquiring data and converting it between formats. That way more data sources can be used, making dashboards and portals better aids to decision-making.
So, to return to our original scenario, a large earthquake has just struck off the Australian coast. As the disaster manager, you have to make decisions, and quickly.
Now imagine an all-hazards portal that could use everything from government information to crowd-sourced data from mobile phones and social media, and all in real-time.
That would make your life easier, and more importantly would save countless other lives that may otherwise be lost or severely blighted.
This, in essence, is what we’re working towards.