Kepler and the search for other planets

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on March 14, 2009 by jon

I was down in Florida last week for the launch of Kepler, a space-based telescope which will hunt for Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of stars like our sun. The satellite is currently cruising thousands of kilometres (1,155,000 km at the last count) behind our planet in an Earth-trailing solar orbit with it’s camera aimed squarely at the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra. My colleagues at the BBC covered the launch here.

Blast off

Blast off

I would have blogged about the launch at the time, but I ran into computer problems (my laptop took a fatal tumble). However, I wanted to put up a post anyway, as I managed to grab some pictures and audio that I was pretty pleased with and wanted to share.

The day of the launch I was lucky enough to get access to Pad 17 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I spent some time walking around the pad as the crew finished their preparations and then watched the roll-back of the gantry. My pictures give you some sense of the occasion.

In the end I didn’t watch the launch of from the press site (a local journalist told me that I’d get a much better view from Jetty Park at the end of Cocoa Beach). It didn’t disappoint. We had an incredible view as the Delta II Rocket roared into the sky. Amongst the whooping and cheering from the crowd, I overheard one guy describe it as if “the sky was being torn in two”. I managed to record it, so now you can make up your own mind.

Listen to the audio of the Kepler Launch

Watch this space…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 6, 2009 by jon

This made me laugh when I saw it in my friends twitter feed recently.

Although I haven’t gone as far as telling people what I eat for breakfast, I do find I spend more and more of my online life updating Flickr, Twitter, delicious Facebook etc. As a result, I’ve tended to neglect this blog – you may have noticed if you’re one of the 6 people who read the MIT atom. So, I now have a dilemma: do I continue with this blog or not?

On the one hand, I find that these other sites give me a more immersive – and clearly more immediate – experience. And for anyone trying to keep up with what I am doing, they will give you a much more detailed and granular view (see my FriendFeed to the right). However, the blog gives me an opportunity to write in more detail and, perhaps, in a more considered way.

So, the only answer to my question is: I don’t know. I guess you’ll just have to watch this space…

A Google view of the world

Posted in Uncategorized on December 23, 2008 by jon

Could Google distort what newspaper’s write? Hal Roberts, sometimes of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, thinks it’s a possibility. In a seminar about Google and surveillance, he suggested that the dominance of the search engine’s ad-serving services could warp what is written online.

His thesis goes something like this: Google controls a vast amount of content that is served up to audiences by the algorithms and methods it uses in its search engines. It also controls a vast amount of online advertising. For example, Google’s AdWords system serves ads alongside about a quarter of all web traffic. However, the ads it serves up are simple text, stripped of all the nuances and subtleties associated with normal print, TV and billboard advertising. As a result, he says, the context and meaning for these ads comes from the articles they appear alongside. So if you are advertising a perfume, then the text advert will no longer relate the particular scent to an aspirational lifestyle – it can’t. Instead, the article on which it is advertised will perhaps provide that meaning.

Therefore, he argues, there could be a tendency for certain media outlets to deliver articles that fit well with advertising campaigns. This increases ad-revenue for the site and reinforces the practice. Eventually, you can imagine a situation where stories are written to serve the purposes of the advertisers rather than the readers or the news agenda.

The result, Hal says, “is a mysterious mechanization of meaning in the Google brain which plays a central role in the creation of social discourse online.”

I am sceptical about elements of this theory – mainly because I think it underestimates the editorial integrity of most newspapers and also because I think there is a danger of oversimplifying cause and effect. I don’t think the New York Times will necessarily start writing more prominent articles about digital SLR cameras just because that’s what Google associates with the brand. Instead, I would argue that its brand (based on high-quality journalism) and, more importantly, its demographic, is what appeals to advertisers. I suppose this is the context or “meaning” that Roberts talks about. However, a paper risks losing these – and therefore the reason why advertisers come to it in the first place – if it simply churns out content in line with ad campaigns. This would seem like a foolhardy long-term strategy (but then, in the current climate, maybe it’s a luxury to think long-term).

Either way, hopefully we will soon know the answer. Hal plans to study this question as part of the Media Cloud project at Berkman. In the meantime, you can hear what he had to say by watching the webcast of his talk.

“Socially interesting, technologically boring”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2008 by jon

“Technology only becomes socially interesting once it has become technologically boring” says Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody. It is an adage that neatly fits the world of mobile phones.

From a standing start in 1979, the number of mobile phones around the world has exploded. According to the ITU, there will be more than 4bn mobile phone subscriptions before the end of the year. They are even inviting people to guess on which day the milestone will be achieved.

Much of this growth has happened in the Developing World and the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies. For example, China shot past the 600m mark by mid-2008, whilst India had 296m mobile subscribers. BRIC economies alone are expected to account for over 1.3 billion mobile subscribers by the end of 2008. However, it is Africa which has the highest annual growth rate with 65m new subscribers during 2007, according to the ITU.

Of course, the number of subscriptions does not simply translate into number of people with access to the technology: some people have multiple phones, and in other cases multiple people use a single phone. This latter phenomenon is seen in rural Bangladesh, for example, where the hugely successful Grameen phone often serves entire villages.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that the last three decades have been a period of phenomenal growth, which has brought with it huge changes. As mobile technology has edged closer and closer to ubiquity, people have found new and interesting ways of using it, particularly in the developing world. In Shirky’s words, the technology has become socially more interesting. I have written about innovative uses of mobile phones before, such as the anti-counterfeit drug application M-pedigree, the crisis-information reporting project Ushahidi and the free, large-scale text-messaging application Frontline SMS.

Today, I went to see the next generation of mobile applications like these. They had all been designed by MIT students taking part in Nextlab, “a hands-on design course in which students research, develop and deploy mobile technologies for the next billion mobile users in developing countries”.

There were seven applications on show; many of which addressed issues that others have looked into before, such as telemedicine, microfinance and the dissemination of agricultural information.

All were of an exceptionally high standard (what else would you expect from MIT?), had been developed for different platforms (including Google’s Android platform) and were at different stages of completeness. But two really stood out for me: NextMap, for disaster management and environmental monitoring, and an m-shop, to allow remote villagers and shopkeepers to order supplies via SMS.

The latter, built on work by MIT start-up United Villages. UV originally started as a “store-and-forward” service, putting short-range Wi-Fi antennas and a hard disk on board bikes, trucks and buses travelling around rural India. Villagers could then drop off emails and other information at solar-powered internet kiosks to be picked up by these e-postmen who would upload the data when they got back to the nearest city, and hence net connection.

Image courtesy of NextLab

Image courtesy of NextLab

Since then, the company has diversified and now offers Commerce to villagers. At the moment, this is done by distributing a paper catalogue to villages; people place an order by phoning a call centre. However, this is an expensive, time-consuming process and often orders are wrong. So, the NextLab students designed a Java-based electronic catalogue which runs on virtually any phone (although not the iPhone!). Shopkeepers use the application to browse and choose items, which are then ordered by SMS. A conformation SMS is sent back to the purchaser. The application was up and running when I saw it this morning, although the real test begins in January when the students head out to India to test the application in the field.

NextMap is also partially aimed at India. The application, which mashes together several technologies, such as Twitter and Frontline SMS, has many uses. The one which impressed me was an ad-hoc disaster warning system. Users could subscribe to the service by texting “follow nextmap” to 40404. A user then locates themselves by texting “L:” and their location. When a disaster occurs, users can text in their reports which can be mapped and monitored by aid agencies and pumped out to subscriber’s phones. The developers believe it could be useful in areas of India, such as Bihar, which are prone to flooding. In areas such as this, they say, there can be an 8 hour lag between upstream flooding and the waters reaching urban areas. The SMS alerts from people upstream (e.g. “waters are rising in x”) could give people valuable time to evacuate an area about to be hit.

This is just one of the uses of NextMap. You can find out more about how it is being used for environmental data collection in Vietnam, as well as the six other NextLab projects, here.

Celestial trio

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 2, 2008 by jon

If you had looked up to the night sky tonight you would have seen the Moon, Venus and Jupiter huddled tightly together. The conjunction, as it is known, tends to happen about once a year. But, according to New Scientist, the planetary pairing often occurs “too close to the Sun to be observed”.

Venus and Jupiter got close earlier this year, but the next event won’t take place until 11 May 2011.

The Moon, Venus and Jupiter

The Moon, Venus and Jupiter

I managed to snap this picture earlier. It has has also been used by New Scientist and Now Public. You can see more pictures of the celestial trio at both sites and over at the BBC.

OLPC begins advertising push

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by jon

Last night marked a new era for the One Laptop per Child group: it has started to advertise its low-cost, green and white machine on television. The 30 second ad ran during House on Fox. It was shot in South Africa and tells the story of Zimi, a child in South Africa, who has one of the XO laptops.

I was given a preview of the ad last night at an event with Nicholas Negroponte. Unfortunately the session was off the record, because it was one of the most honest chats I have ever heard with him. During the session he showed us a second ad. It shows images of child prostitutes, a young boy down a mine and a child soldier letting go with an AK-47. Text near the end states: children are fast learners, “let’s give them the right tools”. It is much more provocative, evoking the days of Benetton’s controversial adverts. As yet, it has not run on TV or appeared on YouTube.

In the meantime, a competition has been launched on Daily Motion for people to come up with their own. The winner will win a TV spot.

This push is an attempt to boost sales through OLPC’s Give One Get One (G1G1) scheme, which allows a person in the US or Europe to buy one machine for themselves and another for a school child in a developing nation. Laptops will be donated to countries such as Haiti and Rwanda.

It is a complete departure from Negroponte’s original vision of selling the laptops in lots of one million or more to governments. However, if successful it is potentially a more powerful way of getting the machines out to kids as OLPC controls which countries get the machines and can ensure that distribution follows the organisations five guiding principles. Supposedly, not all countries have been willing to adopt these, hence the appearance of Windows XP on the machines.

Following distributon problems associated with 2007’s G1G1 push, OLPC has teamed up with Amazon to get the laptops out to people this year. Although they only went on sale on Monday, some people have already received their orders. If you fancy getting hold of one of the rugged, little devices, you can order one or even hundreds here. Or, you can wait until 2010 for the XO2.

Mapping violence in Congo

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2008 by jon

Earlier this year, violence erupted in Kenya following the disputed presidential elections between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. Hundreds of supporters on both sides were caught up in the fighting and many died. As the violence raged, a team of developers from across Africa and elsewhere joined together to build a platform to document the troubles. (I met one of the team – Erik Hersman – at Pop!Tech a few weeks ago). The crowd-sourcing project became known as Ushahidi and allowed anyone to submit “crisis information” via text messaging, email or the web. The incidents, which included riots, looting, rape and humanitarian efforts, were plotted on a google map for all to see. Since then, the platform has also been used to document anti-emigrant violence in South Africa.

Now the team has turned their attention to the continuing problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have launched a new version of the tool to document what is going on in the country. People in the DRC can submit reports of displacement, peace efforts, looting. violence and a whole host of other things via the website or by sending an SMS to 0992592111. People can also sign up for text or email alerts when an incident happens within 20km of a given location.

At the moment, the map details reports of displaced people, disease (such as a cholera outbreak in Kirotsche) and humanitarian efforts. Thankfully, the most recent report from Goma said it had been a “quiet day” with shops “beginning to open up again” and “a feeling of adequate protection”. Let’s hope it continues.