Well Done Little Rover

Posted Thursday July 21, 2011 by John Gunders in |

I’ve posted a few times over the years about a fairly recent habit of NASA’s to personify its robotic exploration probes. It started most overtly when the Mars Phoenix Probe got its own Twitter feed, and due to the 140 character constraint, the publicist tended to tweet in the first person. I wrote about that here.

Well this morning my RSS feed turned up a speech by John Callas, project manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project, marking the formal end of Mars rover Spirit’s mission (you might recall that Spirit, 2210 days into its 90 day mission and irretrievably stuck in soft sand, became unable to orient its solar panels for maximum power, and succumed to the Martian winter. Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, continues roving).

Callas’s speech in many ways is a eulogy to Spirit, and it ends with a heart-felt “Well done little rover. Sleep in peace.” Read the whole thing here. I suspect this tendency to treat robots as people (or maybe faithful pets) comes from a implicit need to disguise the costs of a mission that many people might consider unnecessary*. It has certainly made the mission seem more accessible to more people than it might have, were it couched in dry, scientific (and less emotionally loaded) terms.

You cannot deny the value of the science returned by the rovers. What is less definable is whether the implied personalisation has affected people’s perception of the mission. In times of budgetry constraint, I certainly hope so.

*The mission cost $820 million. By comparison, the Iraq war (to date) has cost $788 billion.

What Killed Google Wave?

Posted Sunday August 8, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Some quick personal thoughts on the imminent demise of Google Wave.

Like many people, I was really excited by Google’s first presentation of Wave in May 2009. While I don’t work in business, academics are supposed to collaborate, and this seemed like a fabulous platform on which to develop projects from simple brainstormed ideas to finished papers, without the nagging problems of version control, where everyone seems to be working off different versions of the draft.

About two years ago I was involved with a group that was organising a conference. I set up a project management account on a free platform (do you think I can remember what it was?) and it worked pretty well until people realised that they could email drafts instead of just notifying the other with a link. Before long, the whole version problem was back. We really could have used Wave at that point.

So I was excited. The problem was, whether for genuine technical reason, or to prolong the hype, you couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal an invitation. The rarity of these coveted invitations did increase the hype for a time, with the lucky few attendees at various tech conferences taunting the rest of us with their treasure, and setting up bidding wars among their friends.

At last, one of my friends (co-author Nick, as it happens) drew the conference straw and I cajoled him into giving me one of the invites. But by now it was November, and the excitement was fading. Still, I had a sign-in, and eagerly started to find my way around the application.


Social Media and Relationships

Posted Tuesday July 6, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Just so that you know that we are not all dead in memesland, I just read this article by John Birmingham on the Brisbane News website. His argument is that despite the popular stereotype of the social media user being a sad, lonely, loser, alone at a keyboard, his experience is the opposite:

The net and its various ways of connecting people is not driving us all apart. Quite the opposite. It’s creating virtual communities which can easily, and often do transform themselves into real world friendship circles or social networks, to use an uglier, more sociological term. I’ve been online for years now, and although I gathered my oldest and closest friends to me long before I sent my first tweet or wrote my first blog entry, most of my new friends, and they are real friends for the most part, have come from the unreal world of the web, from the supposedly isolating, distancing digital realms.

Most of the friends I connect with regularly on Facebook, Twitter, and other networks we have developed over the years are people I knew before the relationships moved online, the social network provides another channel to exercise that relationship. There are also people I only know through social networks, and I look forward to meeting them in person, sometime.

My eldest is an avid user of Twitter, and on turning 18 started attending the monthly meetup of Brisbane Twitter users, moving hitherto online relationships to face to face ones.

I know of research being conducted that suggests that this sort of social media use—using online mechanisms to enhance pre-existing relationships—is common. Maybe a bit more about that later…

In the meantime, Birmingham’s take is a refreshing antidote to the doom and gloom that usually surrounds social media use.

The Edge

Posted Friday March 5, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Launched on the 26 February, The Edge is a new initiative of the State Library of Queensland, with an emphasis on digital media and innovation.

The Edge is the State Library of Queensland’s newest initiative, sitting alongside its established programs and continuing the library’s growth as a cultural and knowledge destination.

It is a place for young Queenslanders; a place for experimentation and creativity, giving contemporary tools to young people to allow them to explore critical ideas, green initiatives, new design practices and media making.

The Edge enables the creation of all sorts of art and technology, research, training, mentoring and being mentored, networking, and entertaining and being entertained.

Informal spaces abound for discussion and the pursuit of individual and group activities, which foster a sense of community, a commitment to collaboration and a spirit of openness.

It runs programs devoted to innovation in craft, music, film, writing, and other areas, with workshops and presentations, as well as areas where you can just drop in and play.

It’s still early days, and it will be interesting to see how all this turns out: whether it becomes a vibrant area of digital arts in Brisbane, or whether it turns out to be a multi-million dollar (I assume) white elephant.

The early signs are promising.

20 July 1969

Posted Tuesday July 21, 2009 by John Gunders in |

There’s been a lot said about the Apollo 11 moon landing, the 40th anniversary of which was yesterday (US time). I’m not going to add anything to the extensive reminiscences already online, other than to acknowledge whoever it was at the Bundaberg Central State School who allowed this star-struck eight-year-old to go home and watch it on TV.

(My recollection is that I spent most of the afternoon in the lounge room wearing the NASA space suit that my grandmother had made me, picking up rocks with the BBQ tongs).

Of course, no discussion of the Apollo Mission’s awesome accomplishment is complete without reference to that famous (apocryphal?) quote from one of the early astronauts (variously attributed to John Glenn and Gus Grissom):

“There I was, strapped in my seat, ten seconds from launch, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was sitting on top of twenty thousand parts, every one made by the lowest bidder.”

Well done Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. You deserve the accolades.

Happy Birthday Walkman

Posted Wednesday July 1, 2009 by John Gunders in |

The Sony Walkman was released 30 years ago today, apparantly. It not only changed the way we listen to music, it played a key role in the development of that new-fangled cultural studies thingy: Doing Cultural Studies is dated, but still essential reading. Compared to the 120GB iPod with its capacity of 30,000 songs, the Walkman now looks as quaint as its gender-specific name, but in its day it was an engineering miracle.

In the spirit of nostalgia for the incredibly short-lived batteries, the tape that “wowed” every time you took a step (“Standperfectlystillman” might have been a more accurate name), and a portable listening device that held 12 songs, I provide this review courtesy of the BBC by 13 year-old, Scott Campbell, who swapped his iPod for an antique Walkman for a week. Favourite sections include:

It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.

So happy birthday, Walkman. In celebration I urge everyone to listen to the song that was inspired by the device. Of course, if you have any taste, you’ll listen to the B(if)tek cover instead.

Broadband Network

Posted Wednesday April 8, 2009 by John Gunders in |

Opposition broadband spokesman Nick Minchin quoted on the ABC News site this morning:

“We’ve got a $43 billion plan with no…evidence that people actually want 100 megabits per second of download speed.”

No Nick, that’s why so many of us stayed with dialup. Is a complete lack of understanding of the portfolio a prerequisite for being an Opposition Spokesperson, or is it just coincidence?

Elsewhere, John Quiggin suggests (based on back-of-the-envelope calculations) that somewhere around $80/month might be in the ballpark, assuming a takeup of around 5 million households/businesses. Given that that is not much more than I am currently paying for 1.5mbps, Minchin’s reading of the market might be deemed a little too pessimistic.

There’s going to be a lot more discussion about this, especially when it gets to the Senate: the Fake Steve Fielding has already tweeted that he would “block NBN in exchange for $179 trillion for family cohesion measures”, and I expect the real one will be thinking something similar. And there should be careful scrutiny of this proposal, provided it is more than the opposition’s current tactic of “oppose everything without consideration on principle”. I’m not big on the proposal to sell the company after five years, given that much of the current situation can be blamed on the privatisation of Telstra, but I suppose it will save the Coalition the bother of doing it when they are next in power.

But all in all, $43 billion sounds like a reasonable price for Australia to get middling-to-average internet speeds.

Ada Lovelace Day: Susan Calvin

Posted Tuesday March 24, 2009 by John Gunders in |

It’s Ada Lovelace Day and as promised, here is my post about “women excelling in technology”. Because this is Memes, and we have our own interests and perspectives, my take on the excellent female technician is Dr Susan Calvin of US Robotics.

Susan Calvin is, of course, fictional. She features in many of the early robot stories of Isaac Asimov. The author is slightly self-congratulatory about his creation:

You will note, by the way, that although most of the Susan Calvin stories were written at a time when male chauvinism was taken for granted in science fiction, Susan asks no favors and and beats the men at their own game. To be sure, she remains sexually unfulfilled—but you can’t have everything. (Asimov, The Complete Robot, Granada, 1982: 265)

Nice. Women can be as talented and scientifically rigorous as men, but only by suppressing their identities as sexual beings. You can have science or love, but not both, apparently.


Ada Lovelace Day

Posted Tuesday March 17, 2009 by John Gunders in |

Reposted from FindingAda.com

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.

Recent research by psychologist Penelope Lockwood discovered that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones. That’s a relatively simple problem to begin to address. If women need female role models, let’s come together to highlight the women in technology that we look up to. Let’s create new role models and make sure that whenever the question “Who are the leading women in tech?” is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues.

More here.

danah boyd publishes her phd online

Posted Monday January 19, 2009 by Nick Caldwell in |

Internet researcher and social media guru danah boyd has published her just-submitted, Creative-Commons-licenced PhD dissertation at her blog, zephoria. Congratulations to danah!