Rupert Goodwins' Diary

It's possible to get a camera to Titan but can anyone see the pictures? Rupert finds frustration among the stars, but all is not lost when there's a green laser around...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 17/1/2005
Huygens was a terrific success. The public relations side was not. We sat and waited in the Royal Society. There was news -- and then there was none. There'd been a successful acquisition of the Huygens radio signal by Cassini, but one channel was missing. Data had been returned without a single error -- but half had been lost. Um. Right.

All through this the video feed from Darmstadt was full of European bureaucrats and journalists, with the occasional break for science.

The high point of this circus of ineptitude came with the arrival of the first picture. Since Titan's discovery 340 years ago, no telescope had penetrated the cloud cover: an image of the surface would be one of the crowning achievements of ESA's scientific research. The word came back from an excited mission control: "We have the first images of Titan: they've come in in the past three minutes and here they are!" The hall full of journalists erupted in applause as they peered up at the screens -- meanwhile, back in London and around the planet, bemusement gave way to laughter and then some anger -- the cameras in Darnstadt remained fixed on the clapping hacks.

Eventually, someone noticed and up popped the image. But this was to be the theme of the rest of the afternoon -- information arrived late if at all while the ESA publicity machine concentrated almost exclusively on ministers, heads of department and other notables saying how happy they were. The science was an afterthought.

The picture online was just as woeful -- we were promised loads, then not so many, then one. Another arrived just as they were closing down the meeting.

Which made what happened later that weekend so exciting. At some point on Saturday, the entire set of Huygens images appeared on a US Web site to be eagerly gobbled up by the space geeks. Since God in his wisdom has ensured that our planet is now well equipped with computers and picture editing software, it was mere hours before mosaics, animations, 3D projections and other compilations appeared.

The ESA scientists should take their time over delivering results. If you've been working for 10 years on a one-off billion dollar experiment that lasts two hours, gratifying the geeks is not and should not be high on the list of things to do. Likewise, you don't want your raw data to be out there too soon -- a hiatus while you do your work before others can leap in is reasonable. But the sort of things that came out over the weekend as a result of eager amateurs should have been encouraged -- if not actually organised -- by the ESA. While the raw images were exciting, that extra work generated a strong feeling that we had found and started to explore a new world unlike any other we'd seen -- except, curiously, our own. Shorelines, flowing liquid, clouds, even waves: after 20 years of gas giants, arid deserts and tumbling asteroids this was a flashback to the golden age, where Mars had canals and Venus steaming jungles.

Money for space will only come while it generates enthusiasm and participation, and the remote, bureaucratic and slightly incompetent image that the ESA projected during the Huygens landing is actively harmful. When the scientists and the science were put on screen, the clouds lifted: too much of the day was overcast.

Tuesday 18/1/2005
My journey of exploration with the little green laser pointer continues -- taking care, as always, not to dazzle or upset the innocent. There is something of the jewel about it: it triggers atavistic acquisition tendencies in even the most level-headed. It also means I tend to visit friends who have bathrooms with lots of mirrors and shiny tiles. [And it's just so much fun in the office - Ed. ]

My fear of arrest for terrorism has somewhat abated, too. Far from being devices of evil you can buy on a market stall for a quid and then use to bring a 747 down in seconds, lasers are now officially tools for preventing terrorism. The North American Defense Command NORAD -- you know, Strangelove, War Room, the Big Board -- has said that it will be using red and green lasers shone into the cockpits of planes to warn them when they're entering a restricted area. It thinks this is a better way to grab the attention of pilots who aren't answering their radios than the current, expensive method of flying a fighter alongside the errant aircraft and dropping some flares.

Unsurprisingly, pilots are less than thrilled. How can they tell the difference between the 'good' lasers and the bad ones, they ask? Easy, says NORAD, the good ones will flash red-red-green. At the time of writing, no bad people with lasers could be contacted to find out whether they too were capable of flashing red-red-green, but there is some fear they might find out and learn how to mimic this behaviour. Well, say the pilots, how can we know that the good lasers won't blind us? Ah, specially designed not to, says NORAD. A physicist who muttered 'a laser is a laser and you can't get much less harmful than those little pocket devices that run on two teeny batteries' was later invited to a free holiday in Cuba.

And so the nonsense continues. At least RyanAir has stopped its ridiculous ban on 'laser powered devices' on its flights: despite asking crew and ground staff alike, I was never able to find out just what one of these were. I once saw a small model of a proposed spacecraft that was kept aloft by high power laser pulses up its jacksie: that took far more lab equipment than you could ever get on as hand luggage. And then there's the US anti-missile laser system that sits in the nose of a 747 and can never, ever work: it might, however, bring down a Ryan 737. Perhaps they know something we don't.

Wednesday 19/1/2005
Let me warn you against 'detox', the pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo that makers of bottled water and other snake-oil salesmen peddle at us during this time of year. As the endless drought of January wears on, there are many good reasons to take a break from one's bad habits, but detoxification ain't one. What toxins, precisely, do these people mean? Who came up with the 'eight glasses of water a day' nonsense? Aren't our kidneys and other lights more than capable of removing that which needs to be removed without the aid of expensive addenda?

It's all nonsense. What does 'detox' mean? Insomnia and turds like granite pebbles. But there are advantages too -- a less frequently emptied wallet, a clear head in the morning with which to enjoy London Transport's delightful range of experiences, and a chance to experience the best in late night radio. That used to be shortwave, but now the city is so full of digital devices that the ionosphere is drowned beneath crackles, buzzes and bleeps from leaking processors. I would point out that this disables a lot of amateur radio, which is often the only communications service to keep going during major disasters, but I'm sure we'll find this out in due course.

What technology takes with one tentacle, it sometimes gives back with another. In this case, DAB digital radio means that I can listen to Radio 5 Live without the late night medium wave patina of distant noises. Tonight, Malcolm, they're talking about ears. And the best news I've heard for a long time is that science may save me from the consequences of another of my long-term vices: loud music.

There's a lot of hearing impairment among the young and not-so-young as the Walkman Generation starts to work its way through middle age. I was in headphones before I was out of nappies, and odd notches appeared in my hearing at around 6kHz before I was 20. Another couple of decades indulging in loud noises in dodgy gigs and on portable equipment and the degradation is obvious. And that would normally be that -- once you've killed off the microscopic cilia that transform sound to nerve impulses, they don't grow back.

Until now. Some bright spark spotted that the analogous hairs in reptiles and amphibians do indeed grow back if they're lost -- it's just mammals that stay deaf. Much peering into the matter later, and the appropriate mutation has been isolated and patched in a set of lab mice. Who calmly and without fuss,promptly grew back their missing internal whiskers.

Ten to 20 years, the bloke on the wireless reckoned, and we'll have a genetic therapy for ourselves. Igor! More volume!

Thursday 20/1/2005
It was one of those discussions where nobody's too willing to give too much away. Peer-to-peer file sharing is going through changes, and people are moving ever more quickly from the big public areas to the private online clubs of the darknet. I was talking to a few techies about this, all of whom knew quite a lot about the ins and outs about such things but were curiously reticent about the details.

"One of the big problems", said one, "is that there are so many fake files out there from the record companies. You can get checksums and digital signatures, but those can be faked too." "What we need," said another, "is some way of guaranteeing the content of the files and preventing people from tinkering with it…" The conversation fell silent as they realised they were on the brink of reinventing DRM. An open source DRM that worked? Sillier ideas have gone to war.

Things are going to move ever more quickly with peer-to-peer this year. The machinations of the legal system in the US have finally propelled the question of whether P2P should be legal up to the Supreme Court, who should be delivering their final answer on this later in 2005. Meanwhile, and despite ever more frantic takedown action by the movie and music people, the amount of file sharing that's going on is going up. As, curiously, is the amount of movies and music that people are paying for.

It's clear that in a world where HP can put regionalisation locks on inkjet cartridges we shouldn't hold out too much hope for corporate sanity in the face of people acting as they wish. However, one must remain cheerful and pray that the "You're going to make more money by giving people what they want" argument eventually gets through. There is cause to think it might -- even Sony is now on record as saying it realises that its concentration on proprietary formats and DRM has cost it the market that the iPod now owns.

By the end of 2005, we'll know.

Friday 21/1/2005
Someone at the European Union has been listening to Tubthumping, the Chumbawamba hymn to non-stop erotic drinking with the chorus "I get knocked down, and I get up again. Ain't never going to keep me down." Despite every sign that nobody outside a select group of interested parties actually wants software patents, the controversial measure to legalise them is going onto a list of things to be approved by a meeting of the Ministers of Agriculture on Monday. According to the FFII, this addition to the meeting happened 13 days after the deadline for such things, and in the face of continued and substantive opposition by the majority of representatives.

As Groklaw points out, it's not hard to guess what's happening when naked political manoeuvring like that is combined with unparsable statements like this from David Ellard, one of the officials behind the proposal: "It will not make it possible to patent 'computer programs as such', but it will ensure that computer-implemented inventions are patentable -- consistent with general patent practice." These people do not want debate or oversight, they want their own ideas pushed through without opposition or analysis. People do that when they know what they have to do is unpopular and, furthermore, that they have no chance of making them so.

With recent surveys showing that nearly 30 percent of patents contradict others and the rate of dispute increasing exponentially in the US, even the keenest booster of protecting innovation by taxing invention should be keen on a bit more discussion and a little less haste. Better to get it right first time than have to reform it later, when entrenched and well-funded interests are liable to get in the way. But no, software patents are so essential for the EU that they have to be voted on by farmers. Now. This instant. I think I'm going back to my loud music.

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