Redditors find the future in the present

What are the most mindblowing recent advancements most people still don't know about?

The hive mind of r/AskReddit has spat out a great thread on the quiet breakthroughs being made all over the world. mrfujidoesacid asked "Tech savvy folks of Reddit, what are the most mindblowing recent advancements most people still don't know about?" As ever with Reddit, for the full experience of in-jokes, bizarre conversations, and impenetrable interface, click through to the whole thread; but the best posts are collected below.

moby323 says:

I work in a hospital laboratory. The advancement of PCR technology is pretty damn amazing.

Before, to identify the source of an infection or illness (i.e. which bacteria) we had to harvest the organism and then grow it on Petri dishes containing different nutrients and inhibitors. By seeing in which dishes it grew, and its characteristics, we could narrow it down. Then we would perform many biochemical tests (does it turn blue when we add this, does it fizz when we add this etc. ) until we could finally identify the organism. This process can take several days and requires a fair amount of expertise by the lab tech.

Now, for some the most common pathogens, we have a Polymerase chain reaction machine. What it does is amplify and measure the organism's DNA so it can determine with high precision exactly which organism it is causing the infection. It can detect the organism even if there is only a single strand of its DNA present.

How simple it is to use is fucking insane: you swab the patient with a sterile q-tip, then you stick the q-tip in a cartridge. Then you pop the cartridge in the machine and close it. Come back in about 30 minutes for your answer. It is hardly more difficult to operate than a Keurig and it is the size of a microwave. I still sometimes just look at the thing and shake my head in wonder.

Fluerr writes:

Nuclear reactors. Specifically, molten salt reactors (MSRs). MORE specifically, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs, pronounced "lifters").

Imagine a nuclear power plant that

  • can't blow up
  • can't have fuel stolen to make a nuclear bomb
  • produces zero carbon emissions
  • produces almost ZERO nuclear waste
  • of the waste it produces, it lasts on the order of 100 years (as opposed to 100,000 years)
  • the byproduct of mining the fuel for this reactor is precious earth metals used in solar cells and wind turbines (and currently bought from China, who owns >80% of the world's supply of rare earth metals)

This is the future. MSRs have been proven to work since the 1960s (the MSRBE {Molten Salt Breeder Reactor Experiment} at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee). The first LFTR may go online in 3-5 years in Alabama.

Edit: Probably should have realized the bee's nest I poked with this comment. I'll try answering questions to the best of my abilities! I'm not a nuclear engineer, but I have experience/degrees in health physics (radiation protection) and a little bit of nuclear environmental engineering. I've also done a few specialized research proposals on MSRs, but if other NucEs want to step up they can.

Double Edit: /u/ProjectGO commented below about the "can't blow up" portion of MSRs/LFTRs (also known as "passive safety"). I've copied his post verbatim here, but if you find it interesting please make sure to upvote his comment appropriately.

At the bottom of the reactor chamber, there's a plug made out of salt. The plug is constantly cooled by pipes running refrigerant around it. If anything happens that causes the plant to lose power (for example, getting hit by a tsunami) the cooling system stops working. The molten salt in the reactor melts the plug, and drains out into a number of storage tanks, all sized to hold too little fuel to sustain the reaction.

I believe the term for it is "walk-away safe", since you could literally walk away and it would safely shut down on it's own if something went wrong.

IrTechthrowaway discusses… well, IR tech:

3d facial imaging and recognition. There's a "stealth mode" company that has developed an Infrared (invisible) laser (lidar) face scanner that can accurately scan your face while you're walking from 100 feet away, without you knowing.

3d facial recognition was all the rage about 10 years ago in the wake of 9/11, but died off because it didn't work very well. This company has kept plugging away at it, and they've got it working. You know those license plate scanners the police are starting to use everywhere? This system can do the same thing, but with faces.

For the tech folks: the lidar scanner can create a 10,000 point mesh of your face, with a simultaneously captured and aligned high res texture from a camera. It takes less than a second, and compensates for movement automatically. The laser range (depth) precision is under 1mm, even at 100 feet away. In fact, the laser is so fast and accurate that if you leave it pointed at a single spot on the neck, it can detect a pulse.

lordnikkon writes:

graphene supercapcitors With new ways of making graphene that are finally cheap enough for mass production we may soon see large supercapacitors that make electric cars really viable. A super capactior can hold that same amount of electricity as a battery but yet only takes a few seconds to charge. Imagine an electric car that had few hundred mile range and you could pull into a charge station and fully recharge in 60 seconds.

Super capacitors will replace batteries within the next 10 or 20 years. The only down side of a capacitor is it slowly drains even if not in use. Currently the charges can last for few weeks or even a month without any use or charging. But even things like your cell phone will become lighter and you will be able to charge them in seconds

Although others disagree with the potential for supercapacitors, with tophermeyer writing:

Capacitors tend to fail pretty spectacularly. And, by nature, they have the ability to fully discharge really quickly. Making them failure resistant is one the the key things that will need to happen before they're widely adopted as power sources.

Imagine an automobile's capacitor being damaged in an accident and rapidly discharging. Or a smartphone in someone's pocket.

Akefay adds:

[A few weeks to a month] is how long it lasts when not in use. As in you charge your car on Friday, leave it in the garage over the weekend, and Monday it's at 70%.

Batteries self discharge also, but not nearly that fast.

Edit: Yes, I know you can top it up! I'm not criticizing, I'm just pointing out that "charge lasts up to a month" doesn't mean you can drive for a month between charges.

And diamondjo pours a lot more cold water on the promise:

…that's actually a lot of wastage. You would still need to pay for the electricity and that energy has to come from somewhere. Imagine if you filled up your car with $50 worth of fuel on Friday night and $15 worth had slowly evaporated by the time you came to drive to work on Monday morning.

Edit: sorry, you all seem to be missing the point I'm actually trying to make and that's entirely my fault for putting dollar values on there. I was just trying to illustrate my point using gas because that's something we would notice if it went missing because it's relatively valuable.

What I'm saying is, from an engineering perspective, a 30% loss over a few days (all without performing any work) is hugely wasteful and inefficient. Wherever it came from, that energy is now entropy and can never be used again. Fine, you say, electricity is cheap. Well, watch what happens when everyone has electric cars and demand for it goes up. Suddenly, if a city of 3 million people are all pouring 20-30kWh down the drain every few days, it's kind of a big deal. Even where I live today, our power company cracks the shits if we all use our air conditioners at the same time.

Also, capacitors charge quickly, yes, but only as fast as the power source will allow. Not many people have 3 phase power in their house, so you're limited to 2.4kW. Even a slow car will max out at around 60kW. But let's say on our morning commute, we average around a third of that over the hour it takes us to get there and back: 20kWh. Your home electricity supply would require a good 8 hours to supply that at full capacity. So for this to scale, we need infrastructure; if not to our homes then to charging stations (who you can bet will charge a premium for the prodigious number of amps they can deliver)

So yeah, for you personally, 30% is fine, but the technology won't scale yet, that's one of the problems they need to work out and why we can't have it right now.

A PCR machine in use in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage