Me and Nick went yesterday on a Makeshift field trip to Chilbolton Observatory. It’s one of the research facilities supported by Science & Technology Facilities Council, which occasionally organises open days at interesting places under their care.
Nick is excited by the giant radar dish
Apart from an impressive collection of meteorological instruments, Chilbolton Observatory is home to one part of the huge LOFAR connected telescope. LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) is a radio telescope which works at frequencies below the FM band. There are multiple locations for these all over Europe to provide maximum coverage of the sky, and it’s supposed to be the largest radio telescope built to date (a larger one is currently being built).
One of the LOFAR antennas arrays
Instead of dishes that can be steered, LOFAR’s antennas are omnidirectional and plentiful, and the direction in which the telescope is pointing is controlled with software instead.
In Chilbolton there are two sets of antennas. The first set looks randomly positioned, but their placement is in fact very carefully designed: they are all at different distances and angles from one another. This means that when the radio waves come in at an able and hit the antennas at different times their source can be calculated by applying a delay until the frequencies are in phase again when read.
The other set uses a different approach: over 700 antennas are tightly packed into a small space, making it possible to only use certain readings to figure out where the radio waves came from.
Antennas inside polystyrene boxes
LOFAR antennas all have precisely the same length of cable leading from the antenna to the small building where the signal is collected before being sent for processing to a supercomputer in Netherlands. This computer, callled Blue Gene, collates data from all 48 LOFAR stations across 5 countries. The delay necessary to keep readings in phase is applied using software instead of mechanically. This means that it’s possible to capture all of the available data, and then get 976 different angle readings from every set. Essentially, the telescope is ‘pointing’ at 976 different spots in the sky all at once, all through the magic of software! The antennas themselves are relatively low-cost and most functionality is made in code. Super cool.
Cables leading into an insulated box
The cables are of course the most interesting bit, and LOFAR had the most organised cabling I have seen in person. They are all exactly the same length and lead into the box where a bunch of electronics is encased in a faraday cage to prevent disruptions of the telescope readings. A fibre optic connection then transports the data to the observatory and then to Blue Gene.
LOFAR can be used ford studying the atmosphere, Earth’s geology as well as the rest of the Universe, so it’s pretty universal (see what I did there?).
Chilbolton also has plenty of radars, including the largest steerable meteorological radar (25m in diameter), and also lidar used for studying the clouds.
Nick used for scale
The radar control room has an impressive collection of servers and screens displaying current analysis of the data collected from all the radars.
Okay guys, let’s talk about Snapchat.
I know that when you try to download it, or you go to the website, you get a creepy photo of two young women excitedly taking selfies, but please ignore that for a moment. I also know that what you read on popular sites is mainly “Teens use it for sexting, I don’t understand, I am now old, should I worry”, and again, please ignore that for a moment while you imagine a whaaambulance coming over to help the commentators in distress.
Neither of those are what Snapchat is really like.
I twice rage-quit Instagram, and kept coming back for something that was an approximation of what I wanted from the service, but that wasn’t really there: a way to talk to my friends through images, that somehow, like Twitter, would feel a bit ephemeral.
But Instagram, despite feeling a little bit like it before the publicly visible profiles were launched, was never like that. It was always a permanent record of keepsakes, stylised moments, sometimes of importance, reflection, sometimes just fleeting feelings captured as mementos of the fun that’s been had.
So I made a little project while I thought about these things (I wrote about it here), and while I was making it I thought about how I craved temporality, a way to communicate present moment which didn’t require me to build up a permanent record.
Because what permanent record essentially is a representation of your persona.
This isn’t a problem, after all we all build multiple personas online all the time and as human beings it’s one of the things we enjoy–communicating facets of our identities to represent us as we understand ourselves.
But to communicate within the moment this presents an obstacle: you need to, even briefly, think about how what you are about to post fits within the persona you’ve created. After all, you are presenting yourself to an audience and creating something that will last. You make editorial choices on the content of communication, and then again on its presentation.
i wish poetry occured spontaneously, or that there were poem bins, where you could put a poem without building your identity around it
Poetrybin addresses the need to sometimes communicate with the world without creating a stylised persona by removing the identity entirely. The author is always unknown, and the words are read and understood on their own merit.
Another way to remove the need to build and maintain a persona is limiting the audience to people you know. Texting, to me anyway, was a fleeting form of communication, especially back when SIM cards could only store a limited number of messages. While you no longer have delete messages, they are still a rather immediate mode of communication. More importantly, they are private between you and the recipient, so it’s easier to not have to censor yourself–your audience is known to you, and not as asynchronous as the audience that may enjoy your Instagram feed for example.
But of course sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video even more (duration x framerate x 1000). And of course you could shoot a short video, send it to your friend via iMessage, or maybe they don’t have an iPhone too, and also maybe it seems stupid to dedicate a permanent piece of footage to something silly you just wanted to say, and maybe it doesn’t quite communicate without a caption, and maybe it’s a joke that won’t be funny anymore once a couple of days have passed and they look at it again, and…
Snapchat by design removes all obstacles to taking still or moving pictures, and by design removes all other decision making. You don’t get to edit anything, there are no filters, and you cannot load in any here’s-one-I-made-earlier images or videos. You can only capture what’s happening right now around you. Context is always present. You can add a caption, or scruffily draw over your footage, but that’s it. Once you send it, it no longer exists on your device.
But once viewed, it also no longer exists on the recipient’s device, which means you now both share the result of the communication–the memory of it–and not the piece itself. This is poignant and powerful in ways that people obsessing about teen sex don’t seem to grasp: it has some of the characteristics of spoken communication (being in the constant present, lack of permanence, contents of it can only be recalled from memory), while being mediated and enhanced by technology. And it’s beautiful.
I visited Falkirk in May as I was heading to Crieff for Scottish Ruby Conference. I was staying over at my friend’s place so naturally I asked him about interesting things in the town that I might want to see, and he told me there wasn’t anything. And then he casually remebered the boat lift. Turns out that Falkirk is the home of the only roating boat lift in the world (which makes it the only one in the observable universe).
The Falkirk Wheel connects Forth and Clyde canal with the Union Canal which are 24 metres apart (or 79 feet for those metrically challenged). It was opened in 2002 and its architect, Tony Kettle, prototyped it with his daughter’s Lego (how awesome is that?).
The lift consists of two gondolas filled with water, which makes both sides perfectly weighted - the boats push out the same weight of water as they themselves weigh, making turning the lift relatively easy. It takes a very small amount of energy (equivalent of boiling 8 kettles of water) and is very quiet.
The gondolas rotate in the opposite direction to the lift to remain level.
It’s a pretty impressive sight, the whole thing is huge and then there’s the canal just casually hanging mid-air in a middle of a field.
The canals used to be connected by a system of locks, but went into disrepair, and instead of simply renovating existing structures a decision was made to allow proposals for different approaches to be submitted, resulting in this £17.5M project. For comparison, UK spends £3.3bn annually on the upkeep of Trident, the nuclear weapons programme. If we scrapped Trident we could build 188.57 rotating boat lifts every year.
I talked about this marvel of engineering to death: twice as a lightning talk (starts at 44:18), on my podcast, and personally to everyone who would listen. Even though on my HelpMeWrite page it wasn’t the most popular idea I can’t really help myself to keep talking about it - it’s pretty awesome, so you should definitely visit it.
You can rent a whole boat for a holiday and go on the lift, or you can buy a ticket to go on one of the tourist boats that are travelling the canals. There are of course many other boat lifts around the globe but none of these rotate, and that makes Falkirk Wheel super special.
I found Stop The Cyborgs through someone on Twitter (I forget who). It’s the “official blog of the pro-human movement”, “fighting the algorithmic future one bit at a time”.
Cyborg is “a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices” (as defined in The Free Dictionary). This includes people with implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, pacemakers, cochlear implants, various brain implants, hip replacement implants and other prosthetics. You probably know a few cyborgs, but I doubt you think of them as such. They’re just your friends, family, coworkers, neighbours.
One of my best friends is a cyborg, and it helps her stay alive. By saying “let’s stop the cyborgs” the “pro-human movement” is essentially saying to me that I should not be allowed the company of my close friend. The contributors to the blog acknowledge that there are different kinds of cyborgs, and especially those living with medical devices are not the problem, until the devices themselves are networked:
Guess what? Many of them are. I have seen life-saving devices that communicate via radio with diagnostic tools which can control them, and with networked stations that send data to the device manufacturer, who then shares some of it with the medical care provider. The wearer of the device has no control over this process, and doesn’t necessarily know what data is being collected, shared, how and with whom.
This rhetoric of criticising cyborgs, rather than technologies themselves is not only not helpful, it’s actually damaging. Healthy criticism and skepticism towards technologies and their impact on society is necessary, but framing it in a way that discredits all people with body and sense enhancing technologies is othering. Yes, Stop The Cyborgs do so with caveats, but these aren’t obvious. The title is Stop The Cyborgs, not Stop Technologies That May Have Really Bad Unforeseen Consequences That We Should All Worry About.
That’s my main point — let’s talk about how various uses of technologies can affect our society, but let’s not shift the focus to people who sometimes may have no real choice whether to accept these enhancements or not (it’s not really a choice if not having an externally controlled pacemaker means a certain death for example). It’s a bit like blaming foreigners for the failure of councils to increase capacity of systems to match population growth required to maintain cities.
It’s also important to remember that technologies themselves aren’t always ethically questionable. It’s what we do with them that can be positive or contribute to suffering and misery. Sometimes the same technology can be used to help people and to simultaneously ruin lives for profit.
Cyborgs and algorithms aren’t the problem, the problem is who has control over cybernetic systems and control over design and manufacture of technology that becomes pervasive. Many things that Stop The Cyborgs talk about worry me too, surveillance and privacy being the most pressing issue. Again, these concerns have less to do with people who are aided by technology, and more with political imbalance of power between the technology users and technology owners, who retain control over tools and systems and can use them to curtail freedoms and consolidate their existing powers.
You’ve got to solder them together yourself, but they come pre-programmed with four games: Space Invaders, Breakout, Connect 4 and Simon Says type thing. You can make your own games and program the chip using an FTDI cable.
There’s an extensive wiki on GitHub to help you put it together, and of course the code is available there too. Now excuse me while I try to not lose all my lives in 30 seconds and shoot down all space invaders.