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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era