Thursday, May 14, 2009

Space

Today was the launch day of the Herschel and Planck satellites (I have as much trouble spelling the word satellite as I do spelling the word disposable!). I followed it on twitter. It's the first time I've followed anything happening that quickly on twitter and the excitement of the teams was very clearly shining through in their tweets during the hour or so from just before launch to first signal from the satellites once in space.

Of course, the satellites have a long way to travel. L2 is a long way from earth, and even travelling at that many kilometres per second, it's going to take a while to get there.

To paraphrase the wonderful Carl Sagan from the opening line of his book "Cosmos"...

"Space is big"

It's enormous. And it's got a lot of stuff in it. No matter which direction you look in, there will be an enormous amount of stuff laid out in front of you. Some of it you can see, and some of it you can't. But that doesn't mean it's not there - simply that it's so far away that your eyes can't quite make it out.

Personally, I find it impossible to think about space without feeling a certain sense of awe. There's so much of it, and so little of it we know about - and even littler of it that we've explored in any detail.

Pluto is, in cosmological terms, really not that far away. It's small, admittedly, but it's only in recent years that we have known what colour the surface is. Even now, we know that there's a darker bit around the middle of Pluto but aren't quite sure what it is.

I guess the whole field holds a certain romantic interest for me. Staring into space is, literally, staring into a great unknown and I find that fascinating. Who knows what new discoveries - in the field of physics, or even biology, lie out there just beyond our reach.

Watching the rocket take the satellites up today is watching an enormous engineering achievement. Making something that big go that fast, and that high, is an achievement of great cost both in terms of the money spent to build - and in the time and brain power spent to design it. But we have gone nowhere in space yet. If the Earth is our home, then we haven't thrown our footballs any further than our own back garden yet - and in terms of where we've walked; we've not even stepped off the patio by the back door.

There probably is other life in the universe. But, when talking on the scale of time and space of the universe, the word "is" doesn't really make sense. There probably was, or will be, life elsewhere in the universe - but if that life ever does send a signal to us, the civilisation which sent it will undoubtedly be long gone before we receive it. They may have sent the telegram, but they are all dead and gone before it arrives - let alone before we have chance to reply.

But maybe I'm being pessimistic. Maybe our understanding of physics is limited, and maybe there are some loopholes in the prevention of faster-than-light travel which we've yet to find but which may already have been cracked and exploited somewhere out there.

I bought a telescope recently. I'm not expecting to see little green men waving at me when I look down it. Nor am I expecting to glimpse the bumper sticker of a spaceship making its retreat after a vacation on Earth. But I am expecting to see Jupiter. And Saturn. And Mars. And for me, that is enough. For now :-)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What does it mean to be disposable..?

Last night, I was considering what it means to be disposable. We're all familiar with the concept of disposable razors, disposable pens and disposable nappies - but what would it mean to have a disposable mobile phone, or a disposable computer?

Disposable means, in the purest sense, something which can be thrown away - but of course, anything can be thrown away so that's not a good definition.

How about if we look at those things which are designed to be thrown away rather than repaired. Well that applies to almost everything we have in our homes - we don't tend to repair a rug if it gets worn, yet we wouldn't describe a rug as disposable.

You can buy razors which you sharpen or replace the blades in. You can buy pens to which you add more ink when they are empty. And you can buy nappies you put in the washing machine rather than throw away. So maybe the distinction lies in the fact that rather than spend extra money on the item in question (by replacing a part of it, or by washing it) you simply throw it away and buy another one.

In order for this to work, disposable things have to be cheap - and maybe we should define disposability in terms of the cost of the item rather than by its intended lifespan. If an item is so cheap that when it's exhausted/used it is cheaper to buy a new one than to repair it, then we could describe the item as disposable.

But even that doesn't quite work. For instance, in IKEA you can buy six wine glasses more cheaply than you can buy six plastic disposable wine glasses. But you wouldn't think of throwing away the glass ones when you'd finished with them after a party - even though the economics would suggesting that you could.

Even describing something as disposable if you use it once and throw it away has problems. Would you describe teabags as disposable?

So I'm still confused by this, and I'm afraid I'm not going to propose an answer this time around.

I was planning to write out my thoughts on disposable mobile phones - but as yet, I don't know what that would mean - so it's going to have to wait...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I do stupid things

I like to think of myself as relatively bright. I can prove that pi is irrational or do a cryptic crossword.

So why do I do stupid things?

I'm not talking about making mistakes - that's only human - but there are some things which run contrary to everything I know to be true - yet I can't help myself from believing them.

Don't worry - this isn't going to turn into anything deep, although it was heading in that direction.

Earlier this evening, I cooked myself some lamb. The oven needed to be hot, but not at the maximum temperature. I know how thermostats work, and I know how ovens use thermostats to keep at the correct temperature. Yet, if I want the oven at 180, I still turn it up to 220 in the hope that it'll heat up more quickly. I know it doesn't work. I know that. But it doesn't stop me doing it.

Censorship

It's long been a problem for those who run shops to strike a balance between catering to the widest possible market and running the risk of causing offence to others.

Most recently, it's been Apple who've been in the news for trying to strike this balance. In one case banning The Sun newspaper and in another refusing an entry to the App Store from a pop group.

And of course, before that, there was the case of the application which involved shaking your phone until the baby stopped crying.

Whilst one could question the mind of someone who's write such an application, we shouldn't let emotion come in the way of deciding whether it's the place of the App Store to dictate the content of the applications being sold.

This isn't an Apple-specific problem, of course, it's just that they have had the most recent examples - maybe by virtue of having the highest profile App Store for mobile.

Those who take a conservative line on the censorship of applications being sold online would point to the fact that adult books are not sold in a children's book store. But the point is that a children's book store is designed for children and so it would not only be inappropriate, but wouldn't make sense, to stock adult books. Maybe a more striking example is how newsagents manage to stock both jars of sweets, freezers full of ice-cream, comic books - and a top-shelf full of adult magazines.

It's not only a metaphor to say that the children don't see the adult magazines in this case, it's literally true. They are available, but only in a place where those who should not access them cannot see them.

Of course, an application store (or a video store, or a music shop) is not designed solely for children, and so there will inevitably be material therein which is deemed inappropriate for children to see. So how to deal with that? And whose problem is it?

In recent years, here in the UK, there has been a discussion around what it means to be a publisher in the digital age. First it was child pornography which was the catalyst for the discussion and more recently it's been terrorist information. But the argument was the same in both cases - if an ISP (or server hosting company, or whatever) has some material on their servers which is inappropriate (or even illegal) then are they acting as the publisher of the information, and hence are they responsible for its content?

But I believe that the answer lies in the top-shelf approach where the magazines which may cause offence are wrapped in brown paper and kept out of the way of those who don't want to see them. At some point, we have to allow the user to decide the content they want on their phone rather than trying to mandate a set of morals on behalf of the server from which they download the applications.

Of course, the example of a baby-shaking application is extreme, but it would be easy to extend the argument to less extreme - but still contentious - issues. There are the issues they say you should never discuss with strangers - religion and politics - which are guaranteed to polarise opinion. If a political party created an application to run on your phone, then should this be included in the application store? What if that party was the British National Party? What if a religious organisation created an application to be run on mobile devices? Would which religion the organisation belonged to influence your thinking on whether the application should be published or not?

To know where to draw the line is difficult. Almost everyone could think of where they would draw the line, but that line would fall in a different place to the next person to asked, which would in turn fall in a different place to the line of the next person. No matter where you draw the line between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" you will find yourself being attacked by those who feel it's in the wrong place.

But why draw the line at all? It's a decision to be made early in the process of opening a shop - be it online or offline - as randomly applied censorship can generate worse publicity than taking either a very liberal or very conservative approach (as Apple are discovering at the moment). Is it acceptable for an online store to make it clear that they take no responsibility for the content of the applications they are selling?

Morally, I think it is acceptable - but I don't think it works that ideally in a commercial world. There are competing pressures here. The market for violent/adult computer games is enormous yet hanging a sign saying "some of the things I sell are suitable for adults only" on the front door of your shop may turn away customers who would otherwise have come in to buy more innocent wares. Again, I believe in the top-shelf approach - in pure commercial terms, the business lost to those who refuse to patronise your business because of some of your wares no matter how well you segregate it will be outweighed by the extra business you will gain from stocking the extra items.

So, to return finally to the moral stance - is it acceptable to make money from material which is deemed offensive? Ultimately the answer is "no" - in my mind anyway - yet it's important to remember that whilst almost everyone would agree that an application which involves shaking a baby to stop it crying is on the wrong side of the line, the exact positioning of the line will be different for almost everyone you talk to...