Friday, 27 April 2012

10 years since the last conversation with Pioneer 10

Today, April 27th 2012, the Space Shuttle Enterprise will arrive in New York. There'll be lots of media coverage for something so photogenic, and thousands of pictures and amateur videos of the flight will be posted on social media and online newspapers.

That's all good, but arguably the anniversary of something even more astounding in space exploration also happens today. And it probably won't get much of a mention in any of the news media.

There have been many spacecraft launched out of the earth's atmosphere. Orbiters, rockets to the moon, rockets to other planets, to asteroids, or even comets.

But few have gone on to leave the planets of the solar system and travel onwards towards ... well, the stars, basically. Just four so far; Pioneer 10 and 11, and Voyager 1 and 2, with New Horizons due to join them as the fifth escapee in a few years, once it's finished having a good look at Pluto.

Pioneer 10 was the first. Today marks the 10th anniversary of the last intelligible "conversation" between machines here on Earth, and Pioneer 10, when it transmitted 33 minutes of telemetry (clean data) from 80.22 astronomical units away.

Or, to put it another way, a spacecraft made with 60s and early 70s technology, that had been flying for over 30 years and was nearly 7.5 billion miles away, used its 28 volt power unit to successfully transmit data to Earth.

Surely this is one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements ever?

Pioneer 10/11

I'll just repeat that. Nearly 7.5 billion miles away. And the data was received. But now, if I walk just a few streets to the south of here, then my smartphone reception disappears and I can no longer receive or transmit information.

From the now-archived NASA page on Pioneer 10 (November 5th 2004):

Launched on 2 March 1972, Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to travel through the Asteroid belt, and the first spacecraft to make direct observations and obtain close-up images of Jupiter. Famed as the most remote object ever made by man through most of its mission, Pioneer 10 is now 8 billion miles away.

Pioneer 10 made its closest encounter to Jupiter some thirty years ago on 3 December 1973, passing within 81,000 miles of the cloudtops. This historic event marked humans' first approach to Jupiter and opened the way for exploration of the outer solar system - for Voyager to tour the outer planets, for Ulysses to break out of the ecliptic, for Galileo to investigate Jupiter and its satellites, and for Cassini to go to Saturn and probe Titan. During its Jupiter encounter, Pioneer 10 imaged the planet and its moons, and took measurements of Jupiter's magnetosphere, radiation belts, magnetic field, atmosphere, and interior. These measurements of the intense radiation environment near Jupiter were crucial in designing the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft.


Pioneer 10 made valuable scientific investigations in the outer regions of our solar system until the end of its science mission on 31 March 1997. The Pioneer 10 weak signal continued to be tracked by the DSN as part of an advanced concept study of communication technology in support of NASA's future interstellar probe mission. The power source on Pioneer 10 finally degraded to the point where the signal to Earth dropped below the threshold for detection in its latest contact attempt on 7 February, 2003. Pioneer 10 will continue to coast silently as a ghost ship through deep space into interstellar space, heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull). Aldebaran is about 68 light years away and it will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it.

In a few months time, Pioneer 10 will be 10 billion miles away from Earth. Here's the plaque, designed by Carl Sagan, that it carries for any curious alien races to decipher (and hopefully they won't do this):


It is good to remember that the most amazing, challenging things mankind has done in space aren't always the most visible, such as Space Shuttles roaring off launchpads. Often, it's the stuff that happens far beyond eyesight, or outside of the visible spectrum. Here's Isaac Asimov talking a bit about Pioneer 10:

The physics department at the University of Iowa did much of the monitoring of Pioneer 10 (and other spacecraft). Their page, Termination of Pioneer 10's Mission concludes with:
Pioneer 10 called home for over thirty years of spaceflight. Its future is now transferred from NASA to Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, neither of whom could be reached for comment.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Man in the Arena

April 23rd is a day notable for numerous things, such as Edmund Ironside coming to the throne (1016), King Charles II doing the same (1661), and much more recently, the 30th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum.

But it's also the anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt, fifth cousin of FDR, giving his "The Man In The Arena" speech in 1910, shortly after he finished his stint as President of the United States of America.

It's a particularly powerful speech, up there with the Gettysburg Address by Lincoln, or Kennedy's "We choose to go to the moon". The key passage is:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

In this third decade of mass Internet use, where seemingly everyone is in the cheap seats looking down to the arena floor, on social media or the comments sections of online newspapers or news channels, on a thousand service and person and industry "ratings" websites, it seems particularly apt. Everyone is a critic; "this is no good, this will not work, this is wrong, this person failed". And on the counterside, with the use of services such as Tumblr and Pinterest, everyone also point at things and say "this is good, I like it, look at it, you might like it too, I'm going to share it with you".

It's not the greatest coincidence so many websites have ratings systems, for content, services and comments, where you click an up-thumb or a down-thumb. Everyone gets to be the Roman emperor in the arena for a brief second, except that instead of a fearful and adoring crowd, and a life and death decision on a whim, the thumb-clicker merely adds or subtracts a 1 from a digital tally. It's ... not really the same. More like a field of indistinguishable rabbits, hopping around, thinking bunnily "Do I like this blade of grass, or do I not?"

Breeding like ................

But non of it is making, or achieving something. Unless you count a thousand likes on your Pinterest picture, or a thousand retweets, as something. But will you remember it in a years time? Or, if you do, even care? Or will you remember every thing that you approved/liked, or disapproved/unliked? Any of them.

The real achievements come with battle, hard work, uncertainty, dedication. Making the world a little different post-battle to how it was before. The things Teddy said, and alluded to. The things that take more than a few clicks on a thumb or 'like' icon while you're sitting on your butt, staring at the screen.

Stride into the arena. Do your thing, that thing, the thing you want to do, need to do to feel fulfilled. Risky or not, succeed or fail, you've had an adventure, made a story, made some content, an anecdote, to remember. Because you tried. The critics? Always been critics, always will be. But when you both reach old age, you'll be the one with the life story, and the satisfaction, for having fought.

Rather than the critic who just continually 'liked' or 'disliked' things in an stream of such items on the screen. You do not need their approval.

So stride into the arena...

Friday, 13 April 2012

Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide

I was delighted to get my hands on a copy of this book. Although I've never met the author, Jessamyn West, we have communicated (ironically only online), and she has been an advocate and campaigner, for many years, on library services and librarians being enablers for people to independently get the knowledge and information they need, online and off, to better their lives.

Jessamyn went to library school nearly 20 years ago, at the time of Telnet, Gopher (text-based files, structured in hierarchies) and just as websites were starting to be built. As someone who built the first library school website in the UK in 1993, to pretty much universal "what's the point?" scepticism from others in the department, those times are remembered fondly. As was the increasing rush of people over the next few years to get online, using the Web in particular, as they discovered there *was* a point. But, as Jessamyn points out, even now in 2012, Internet access and use is uneven: "And yet, I still sign people up for their first email account even now." There is still a vital need to teach and enable people of all ages in using online information effectively.

Jessamyn points out that her book "is not a manual". Rather, it discusses and addresses the root causes of the digital divide, instead of ignoring the individual nature of those not online and assuming - as many other training guides do - that there is a typical, homogenous, offline and technologically disadvantaged person. Unusually, this particular book is written from the perspective that people have reasons for being offline (which may or may not be within their control), whereas many other guides in this area is written solely from why people should be online (therefore assuming, often wrongly, that they can and have the prerequisite IT skills).

As Jessamyn discusses in the book, some of the reasons why people are not online are social or economic, and it sometimes helps to know those reasons why so they can be trained, or helped, in an appropriate way. For example, people on the lowest incomes are the least likely to have broadband access at home; these are arguably the economic demographic who need it the most. One of the works Jessamyn cites, by the American Library Association, states that 71% of libraries report that they are the only source of free access to computers and the internet in their community. In these economically turbulent times, with job hunting and CV creation and updating needing IT skills, such access isn't a luxury but a necessity for most adults. Librarians are often the main or sole facilitator of services that can make the difference between a person being employed, or unemployed.

Jessamyn discusses this in some detail, with some of the expectations and pressures put onto the library service (and therefore librarians), and how they can adapt to successfully serving the online information needs of patrons - especially as these needs inevitably change when new forms of technology become mainsteam (e.g. the uptake in Kindle ownership over the recent Christmas period). An element of dealing with patrons successfully that the book covers well is overcoming incorrect assumptions about the Internet. Just about everyone has an idea of what the net is - but that doesn't mean that their idea is correct.

This isn't JUST a book for librarians, or information professionals. Or, for people who are not yet online or able to use a computer, but feel a curiosity or need to do so. It is indeed useful for those people - arguably essential, as there is little out there that is adequately written for the many who are (still) offline. Many of these pre-existing guides are patronising, generic or dated in nature (as a side point, other books that cheerily state or imply on the front cover that the reader is a "dummy" or an "idiot" are puzzling in their approach). But, this particular book is useful for funders, policy makers, sociological researchers, politicians (especially those who strangely assume that all information is online and anyone can just somehow magically get it), teachers, the media, and members of the public who are called on by family and friends for IT help. This book is a collection of sound advice and straight facts that sometimes contradict the (often incorrect) consensus or mainstream media view on who is not "online" and why.

The book is written in an informal, but clear and accurate style e.g. "...if a computer is doing something hinky, there is a reason." This makes for a rapid and easy read, but the text is still of substantive content. Above all, the book is indeed useful for librarians and IT trainers. Not just inexperienced ones, but "old hands" who have been doing this for years. It's easy to recycle the old material, forget how every aspect of technology has changed, and forget the social or economic reasons why patrons need to get online. This book helped to overturn some assumptions I'd unknowingly accumulated after 18 years of teaching people how to get to "stuff" online, either through laziness or ignorance, and I'm hopefully a better trainer for reading it. For example, I've never thought before of telling patrons what the symbol for the on/off button is and to look out for it, despite it often being in a different place on whatever computer(s) they may use outside of the library. One of those obvious, but essential, things that slips under the training radar.

So this book serves as both an introductory guide, and a refresher, for librarians and information professionals. Despite the occasional uniquely American or possibly rural Vermont word (in all cases, easy to work out what is meant), the book is useful for librarians in other countries, based in locales both rural and urban. I've read many books and guides on how information professionals should assist those members of the public who have few or no IT or online skills; these texts vary alarmingly in quality. "Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide" is one of the very few I'd summarise as "essential" for information professionals.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

#curioussounds at #fierce2012

Sigh. I'm starting to speak in hashtags. Perhaps we all are; evolution of the wired.

To clarify; more by accident than design, I went to part of the Birmingham Fierce Festival for 2012 yesterday. This particular set of events took place in and around Birmingham Symphony Hall, with an appropriately loose theme of sound.

Preparation for balloon release

My first trip to an event at the Symphony Hall happened in 2009. It wasn't good. I went to a classical music concert with my ex. We hated each other, then and now. Plus, classical music I've always found intimidating live, due to a childhood where it was forcefully made clear to me, over and over, that I shouldn't get involved in such forms of art as I was working class (most of the kids at first two primary schools I went to were middle class - I was not). I was allowed, once, to play the triangle in the school orchestra, but as the cow of a headmistress (she used nettle stings stroked down the arms as a unique punishment) informed the audience at the time, this was only because the kid who was supposed to play it was ill.

I hope that if there is a hell, she's screaming and roasting in it. And the only sound she can hear is me playing the triangle, for all eternity.

So classical music, and everything that goes with it, and many forms of culture still bring out the simmering hatred and resentment in me. Illogical, but it's just the way it is. You are who you are.

Thankfully, Fierce Festival wasn't about posh people being snobby and exclusive and pretentious, and pretending they somehow "owned" culture because (a) it was sophisticated and (b) they were wealthy. It was pretty much a random selection of events, most of which I went to.

Feral choir

Behind the organ

This was the thing I spotted online late morning that alerted me to the event, and the specific reason I went. In the end, it turned out to be the one disappointing thing; there's nothing to see really behind the organ, though it is impressive and very tall, from the base to the top of it.

Symphony hall organ

(Look, I've edited this section over and over, and there's no way I can make it innuendo-free. Sorry.)

Feral choir

Oh, these were good. I sat on the extreme front side to get a close view, and it was interesting watching how the conductor physically coaxed the sounds out of the volunteers he had been working with. From bird songs, to sounds similar to those in 2001 (see the clip), to laughter, talking, babbling, muttering, the rule was - no singing. This worked, and it was enjoyable both listening to, and watching, the performers. Here they are:

Balloon release

Balloons, filled with helium, are released and float to the ceiling of the Symphony Hall. Each balloon is tagged with a harmonica, and so makes a one-note sound as it rises. After a few minutes, the balloon deflates and floats back down.

This was enjoyable to watch and listen to. And also to listen to with your eyes closed, as the balloon rose in front of you.

Speak and Spell

Ah, this was fun. More of this kind of art/music at events, please.

Brian Duffy set up five Speak and Spell machines, and made them "perform" as individual units, and as a kind of digital choir. Seriously. There's more on what he does and how he does it here.

Speak and Spell

This required some concentration, as to the casual listener it may have sounded like a lot of random digital beeps and squeaks. Towards the end, there was a convergence in sound, as each instrument played the same, but slightly off in timing from each other, to create some new layer of sound (there's probably a word for this). Great stuff.

See the side notes at the bottom of this post for a nudge on how to correctly promote this kind of event.

8 bit games and DJs

Wandering upstairs, I found the cool kids and their kit. This was the 8 bit crew, who combine DJing 8 bit video game (and other) music, with other kinds of digital sounds. In addition, a few of them bring along a nice array of video game consoles stretching back the last few decades, for members of the public to try.

And one of those consoles was the Sega Dreamcast, which has been, and still is, the most influential piece of technology in my life to date. There's a very long blog entry on why for another day, but I can honestly say that the Dreamcast, and the games on it, changed my life more than anything else. Including the Internet.

So I played the Dreamcast for two hours. Rez, Ecco the Dolphin, Chu Chu Rocket, Quake 3 Arena, Shenmue; heck, there was a good selection of games there. Here's me, absolutely thrashing some four year old kids at Chu Chu Rocket (picture by Pete Ashton). Like life, you don't learn anything by easily winning every game, so it was a good experience for them:

8bit Lounge at Symphony Hall 1

Various members of the public came over and either watched, often puzzled (Dreamcast games were refreshingly unconventional), or had a go, or in a couple of cases attempted to rudely push in when other people were playing. And to the parent who appeared and immediately tried an Alpha-male "My son will play this game now" when others were in mid-game, I make no apology for humiliating you in front of your children. Don't cross my path again. And never interrupt a serious games player mid-game, especially when they're 230 pounds and 6 foot 3 tall... ;-)

It's odd playing games in a very public arena and with an audience. Even stranger with DJs doing various ... things a few feet away. Possibly the most surreal experience of the year was playing the mellow and calming Ecco the Dolphin while a sweaty, jumpy DJ was repeatedly screaming the same word into an amped microphone, close to my right ear.

When I needed a break from Dreamcast play, made a small video of the consoles there. Like the other videos on this post, it was made with my "Not made for video" cheap 2004 camera, hence the quality. Or lack of.

A few side notes on the day, for organisers of this and similar events.

1. "Family events" and "Events children may like" are not quite the same. Brian's event with the Speak and Spell machines was packed with families with their children. By the time it had finished, most of them were long gone, many under the - wrong - impression that they were going to hear soothing baby melodies, lullabies, or the like (I overheard one muttering that they expected the Tellytubby theme music). It might be a good idea to make it clearer what kind of sounds may be heard at a particular event in future, so parents and children aren't dismayed when they, instead, encounter something closer to Kraftwerk on Acid (which was pretty good).

Side seat

2. Some volunteers in society perform admirable roles. Trained lifeguards; or people who can do CPR before a medic arrives. However, information-possessive pensioner women are often not good with the public but, like alcoholics, have been the bane of my life for decades. Be they secretaries of community councils ("There's no need for anyone to see the correspondance") or volunteers in the sham that are "community libraries" ("Oh, we don't want to have that kind of book on the shelf"), these people are an obstructive pain and crop up over and over. And so, a few of the volunteers at Fierce were, as several of us encountered. One in particular, who was supposed to answer questions and give directions, was ferociously keen to give as little information as possible, actively preventing me from reading the information sheets she had. I don't like to be this close (insert mental image of very small gap here) to throttling a seventy year old lady, because it never looks good, no matter how justified. Just, please, don't let these people eagerly gain "control" over information, any information, no matter how crucial or minor, as it quickly goes to their head.

But apart from those two carps; it was an enjoyable, open, creative afternoon of various events.

And long live the Dreamcast. If my DNA is ever analysed, the two strands of the spiral will probably be Sega and Nintendo. Nowt wrong with that.