Opinion » Cybernaut

Cybernaut

Planet Mitchell

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When it comes to immortality, the best a guy of my means can realistically hope for is a brass plaque on a park bench, and that’s if I start saving tomorrow.

The chances of a public statue in my image or a hospital wing in my name are getting slimmer every year. There’s an outside chance I’ll contract some new disease or syndrome, but I can’t count on that happening.

Luckily there’s the Internet. Thanks to a group of scientists and astronomers I have an outside chance of having a whole new planet named after me.

The latest exercise in collaborative networking – basically hooking your computer up to a network of other computers to form a kind of super computer, is called PlanetQuest (www.planetquest.org). If you sign up for the program, your computer will be used to help sift through the mountains of data collected by dozens of telescopes in the search for extrasolar planets. That is planets outside of our own solar system.

About 136 extrasolar planets have already been discovered, mostly using a technique that detects the wobble of distant stars as a result of the gravitational forces of a circling planet or planets.

PlanetQuest is slightly different in that it will look at the variations in brightness of a star to detect whether a planet is passing across the surface. Right now this is our best hope of finding an earth-like planet outside of our own solar system – the wobble system is only refined enough to detect massive planets in relatively close orbits around a star.

Unlike other collaborative networking projects that go to work when your computer is in sleep mode or the screensaver comes up, you can actually sit back and watch PlanetQuest do its stuff on your desktop. The system’s designer felt the project was more educational this way, and makes participants feel closer to the experiment. It also increases the amount of time your computer spends sifting through the data.

The best part of PlanetQuest is the shot at immortality – if your computer discovers an extrasolar planet, you get to name it.

I’m thinking Mitchell Prime, or possibly Andrupiter.

Better weather reports?

Weather is everything in Whistler, but predicting the weather is a hair puller at the best of times.

Mountainous areas are generally harder to forecast for than other regions, and Whistler’s situation is made more complicated by our proximity to the nearby coastal system.

Environment Canada’s predictions for Whistler are pretty good for the most part, but sometimes the timing is off, and long-term forecasts are often rendered useless by unexpected changes – a long range forecast made on Tuesday calling for snow on Saturday could be calling for sun by the time Friday rolls around.

According to The Globe and Mail, Canada is about to get a new type of forecasting technology called 4DVAR, which stands for four-dimensional variational data assimilation. Basically it’s a new processing technology that adds the dimension of time to the normal mathematical models used by forecasters.

Right now Environment Canada’s predictions are about 91 per cent accurate for the temperature one day out, give or take about three degrees. That level of accuracy drops to 86 per cent two days out, 71 per cent three days out, and 66 per cent four days away. Five days away, the maximum for Environment Canada forecasts, the predictions are about 61 per cent right.

The 4DVAR technology is expected to improve the accuracy of every forecast significantly – a four day forecast will be about as reliable as a three day prediction, according to tests, or about five per cent more accurate. That will make it easier for Canadians to plan their lives around the weather, while allowing regions to more properly prepare for weather events.

4DVAR is extremely powerful, consisting of a network of 936 processors in 30 servers, making it the 74 th most powerful supercomputer in the world.

In addition to more accurate forecasting, 4DVAR is also more accurate on a regional scale by using a grid with 15 kilometre squares, compared to the existing 24 kilometre square system.

The new technology is expected to start replacing the old system in the next few weeks, by the summer at the latest.

You can get Environment Canada’s weather forecasts online at http://weatheroffice.ec.gc.ca/canada_e.html.

Canadian video game sales up

The video game market in Canada continues to grow, with sales of games for computers, consoles and portable players reaching $776 million in 2004. That’s five per cent higher than the previous year, and another upward notch on a growth curve that shows no signs of levelling out.

Part of the boost was attributed to the release of popular titles like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 for PC, Halo 2 for Xbox and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the Playstation 2.

The release of next generation portable games, like the Nintendo DS and Playstation Portable, is expected to further increase sales, as is the imminent release of next generation Xbox and PS3 consoles.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, Canadians aren’t outgrowing their gaming habits either – the average age of players has risen to 29.