M.Ex Ep2 SHINY DISCO SATELLITES IN SPACE
SHINY DISCO SATELLITES IN SPACE
On the show Matt & Polly ask: should we be sending junk into space, even if they are giant disco balls and convertible roadsters? What can you do when software breaks your car and no one can fix it? And is your email provider a window into your soul?
Matt: Hey Polly. I’m good. What have we got for everyone this week?
Polly: Well, Matt. Sometimes it can be a struggle to find the right stories but this week it’s been pretty easy. I’m really happy with what we have today. We’re going to be talking about satellites and the new space start up industry. You have a story about our dependence on software; whatever that means. And finally, we'll be talking about hotmail, a technology that is making humans, obsolete.
Matt: Thanks Polly. We’ll be hearing more from Polly later in the show. After the break, I’ll be coming at you with the giant disco ball from space. Here on MX.
Segment 1: Shiny Disco Satellites
I really don’t know what to think about this next story. Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with the shininess of new technology and forget all those old homilies like all that glitters is not gold. Or in this case, all that glitters is not silver.
The story itself is quite a nice one about national pride earlier this month the company in New Zealand called rocket lab launched a rocket into space. It had a payload of the usual commercial satellites and it was a big deal for the country, marking a successful first foray into the space business.
They’ve since come under a lot of criticism for including a large geodesic sphere amongst the cargo.
As I said I’m a little bit unsure about this story. On the face of it it’s quite cool, the sphere is called the humanity start, it’s about a metre across, it’s made out of carbon fibre and it’s designed to reflect light. And they’ve let it out into whatever part of the outer atmosphere it is that satellites inhabit.
So in effect it’s an artificial star. Which gets everyone’s Star Wars fantasies excited, even though it’s not a death Star. It has been designed to reflect so much light that it will be the brightest star visible in the night sky for the next nine months until its orbit finally decays and breaks up.
As I said the idea of having a giant disco ball in space is a pretty cool one and maybe one that can get the international space station going into party mode.
The problem with stories like this is that they really don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. Astronomers are up in arms because they’re already struggling with light pollution. And while they acknowledge that one little sphere won’t make a huge amount of difference, it sets a precedent for sending other silly things into space.
Which is really something we have to avoid. There has been an explosion in Space tech start-ups over the last five years. There is so much investor money going into the field that it’s in danger of creating the classic tech bubble. It’s quite astonishing that companies are being founded on the basis of building satellites and paying for them to be delivered into space despite having no clear idea of what they’re going to be for and if they’re ever going to earn their money back.
It’s like we’re back in the early days of the.com boom. the Ethos is very much building first and find an audience later. The area of space surrounding our planet is already incredibly congested. Not just with operational satellites but with the debris and floating rubbish of 50 years worth of disintegrating satellites. Now we have a boom that is seeing companies putting up dozens of satellites that have no clear purpose.
And if those companies can’t monetize the satellites, if they go out of business, then we have another piece of very expensive shiny junk orbiting the earth.
You may have missed this story, the China has announced plans to put large lasers in space ostensibly to destroy some of the debris. So far we’ve avoided space-based weapons race in China claims that the lasers will be used peaceful purposes but massive and powerful lasers based in space would probably be capable of doing other things what shooting down missiles possibly even lighting cigarettes but back on earth. You wouldn’t want to be the person doing the first live human trial of that experiment.
Of course the US military is up in arms at the suggestion, and that’s without getting to the point of discussing whether the plan is actually feasible or not. In the 1980s, fanciful plans by the US military to do exactly that and place lasers in space, the space defence initiative or as it was dubbed Star Wars, opened a new chapter in the weapons race with the soviet union. That race is thought to have been a major contributor towards speeding the USSR to the point of bankruptcy far earlier than otherwise might have been the case.
Which brings us back to the shiny disco ball. While we might not want any military superpowers placing powerful lasers on the edge of our atmosphere, we do need to think about how we are going to keep that area of space clean enough that we can continue to send rockets and probes and missions out into space.
Polly, what do you think?
Polly: As we get to the point where people are increasingly looking that earth as being a climate change infected dystopia, it would be ironic if our journey to less damage planets was blocked by an orbiting trashbin.
Matt: There you have it. After the break, I get personal with Polly and talk about the problem of software.
Segment 2: Our Dependence on Software.
Matt: This isn’t something I normally make a habit of. I’m usually a step removed from the stories but this is one of those items where you don’t realise how far down the rabbit hole we’ve already gone until you get some rude awakening. For me, that wake up call was taking my car in for a service.
Nothing unusual about that. Car was fine. I was giving it its usual dose of preventive medicine. What I got back was a completely different car, the engine was really under-powered and the accelerator felt really sluggish. At first I thought it was something the service techs had changed - a belt that was slipping or some component not firing on all cylinders.
I’d just listened to a This American Life show about a technician who blew up an intercontinental ballistic missile in 1980 by dropping a wrench and rupturing its fuel tanks. If that could happen, was it unreasonable to think some trainee mechanic had dropped something in my engine that was wreaking havoc?
It turned out the truth was simpler and a lot harder to fix. I had a software fault. Everything in the car was mechanically sound, but some glitch in the matrix meant that parts of the engine weren’t cooperating with headquarters, the ECU.
Most of us still think of cars being powered by engines. Increasingly they’re controlled by computers. It’s one of the reasons that there’s such a huge industry based around aftermarket chips. Thanks to car industry standardization, a lot of us have engines that are more powerful than the cc rating on our pink slips. Manufacturers save money by making one engine per segment and using software to limit the output.
So we all get the most powerful engine in the range, and software limits it according to how much we’ve paid. The aftermarket chips unlock all that hidden potential. It seems a little counter-intuitive: whatever you pay you get the same engine. In fact, more money may actually be spent on making your car perform less well.
That’s not the whole story: there are loads of other parts that get added, removed or changed according to the engine’s output but it goes to show how incredibly dependent our cars are on the software we can’t see.
At time of this show, the techs still haven’t been able to remap the software correctly. It’s been back a number of times but it’s still not rebooting correctly. And unlike a mechanical fault it’s a bit of a black hole. I’m a typical urban soft-hand who would die if the world went without electricity for more than a week. So I know nothing about fixing cars.
But I always assumed there would be someone who was. Who, with some tools and some oil and grease could be my car into acquiescence.
How do you work out what’s wrong with a software patch? Especially when that patch is making diagnostic decisions about your car. You end up in this weird place where you know there’s nothing mechanically wrong with the car. But it doesn’t work properly.
Even if I was a coding genius and could spot the bugs in the lines, there’s probably nothing that I could do. I’m assuming that if you upload your own gerrymandered code, you’re going to invalidate your warranty as well.
With phones and computers, we have accepted that our input only goes as far as running the odd virus scan and making sure we download all the updates. Most of our gadgets and devices have become so complicated that there’s nothing we can do to fix them. But does that mean we should blithely accept the power of manufacturers to use software updates to control our machines?
The car first developed the problem in the same week that Apple was forced to apologise for software that automatically limited the performance of some of its phones when their batteries get old. Whatever Apple’s reasons for doing it, there’s no excuse for not being open about it.
You get the feeling that companies have forgotten who and what they are working for. They are providing a service that we pay for. They work for us. There’s a duty to tell us what’s going on. Yet courts around the world increasingly side with software makers, upholding claims that users who try to tweak the code are infringing IP.
I started this item show talking about my own problem – a car with a software glitch. But it’s not self-interest I’m looking at here. This is an issue we all face: it speaks to the amount of control we are giving away.
Fortunately my car works, if not very well, and I’m sure the problem will eventually be solved. There’s no malice on the part of the manufacturer that I am aware of. Yet the fact remains that I have a piece of hardware that is in great physical condition, and a bug in a software update is grinding it to a halt.
A lot of the time when we talk about weaknesses in car software, it’s usually from the perspective of a joyriding hacker forcing you to drive into a tree. We don’t spend nearly as much time talking about the risk that the software poses to us. Maybe it’s a single line of wonky type, or an interface that dropped some of the upload. It could be any one of a million things.
But it isn’t something we can ever fix ourselves. We aren’t allowed to play with the code and most of us don’t have the tools to do so. That’s where the danger comes. In my case, the service centre is busy. I pick up the car, drive it for a day or so and realise that while it is better it’s not at its best. Then it’s another week before they can look it over again. I’m lucky. It’s a half hour drive to the service centre.
What happens when you live 500km from the nearest mechanic? Or if your smart toaster turns on you?
On the face of it, these may be relatively minor inconveniences. The more control we give away, and the more passively we accept our role and place in the system, the more that technology traps and controls us, when it’s real role is to liberate us.
Polly, you have the last word.
Polly: I think that you humans have unrealistic expectations.The software may contain millions of lines of code. To have all those lines working together and running critical operations is an incredible achievement. It’s a miracle that it works at all. Especially when you think that it’s essentially invisible. It’s just stuff running in the background, getting things done. Machines are pretty incredible, Matt
Segment 3: Hotmail, the window To Your Soul.
Matt: Finally today we have a story about how your technology choices influence the companies you interact with and how they may be making your life more expensive.
Most of us are aware of the contextual ads and dynamic pricing that follows us around the Internet. That web of cookies and log ons that accompany our online life. are somehow, almost magically able to inform almost every site we visit as to our age, sex, location, online buying profile and, most importantly where we sit on the impulse buy vs comparative shopping scale.
If you visit an online retail site or an airline with all your cookies and memberships in place, you will see a set of prices tailored to what the site thinks is your identity and personality. Log out, clear all the cookies, or use someone else’s machine and you will likely see a different set of prices for those same commodities.
Some people will see higher prices, others will see lower ones. Sometimes the prices vary by only a few cents, other times they are more dramatic.
But how many of us are aware that that site login itself could be affecting the prices we see from retailers?
A story in the UK’s Sun newspaper highlighted how an insurance company called Admiral quoted higher car insurance premiums for potential customers with Microsoft’s Hotmail email addresses.
The Sun entered the same personal information on a variety of third party websites offering Admiral products, once using a gmail account and once with a Hotmail address. The quotes for the Hotmail addresses were consistently higher, varying between around 5 and thirty pounds sterling a year.
When contacted by the Sun, an Admiral spokesman admitted that drivers with Hotmail addresses had more frequent accidents, therefore the quotes were adjusted upwards accordingly.
On the face of it, this might be one of those ‘shrug your shoulders and who cares stories’. The amounts are very small. And you could sign up to Gmail and get a cheaper quote. No harm done, right?
It speaks in a much larger way to how even the relatively innocuous choices we make build a picture around us – one that may or may not be true. In this case, you can change your email address and the ‘truth’ about your online identity suddenly changes. Companies will suddenly treat you differently.
It’s hard to say why Hotmail users might have more accidents and attract a higher premium for their cover. Certainly, a Hotmail address might be considered in some quarters as a legacy issue. That may not be the issue for Admiral; as far as I’m aware, it’s younger drivers who tend to be in higher risk insurance groups.
In broader terms, these choices may speak to our age and our technological competence, both important factors in our relationship with companies. Go back ten or 15 or 20 years and we all had Hotmail addresses. Because Hotmail and other providers like Yahoo fell behind the curve when it came to storage space, a lot of us switched to Google, who promised you would never have to delete a thing.
There are loads of reasons why you might still have a Hotmail address. You like the user name, or because you don’t want to resubscribe to those hundreds of mailers you browse though every day. Or you can’t face the hassle of getting all your friends to change to a new address. But it might also be because you don’t want the aggravation of signing up for another service.
And that’s where companies can potentially start to take advantage. It would be interesting to know if those malware scammers who call you and tell you you’re computer has a virus target Hotmail and yahoo addresses more than gmail.
There comes a point where a lot of people lose the battle with technology. They’re happy with the services they have. They don’t want to sign up for SnapChat or the latest social app. What they don’t realise is that those decisions may count against them in the court of online retail. That they may be seeing less competitive rates, or be marshalled into paying more for the same service. And while I’m not sure that any of us can do anything about it – other than to stress themselves out dealing with technological leaps that don’t interest them – at the very least, we should all be aware that this is going on.
Polly, what do you think?
Polly: I don’t really think Matt. I analyze the information and make the correct deduction. People have bought into an idea that going online will bring them more choice and more value. It’s important to know that this may be smoke and mirrors. A shiny illusion made with flashing ones and zeroes. Companies will use all the data they can source to sell to you at the highest price. Your greatest protection will always be your own awareness.
Thanks for joining us today. You can tell us what you think of the show and suggest stories for us to cover here. Find out more about Em X and mattsplained on FB and Instagram at mattsplained. Online at www.kulturpop.com and on Twitter @kulturpopup.
This is the bit where I sell myself. Kulturpop, namely me, works with lots of small businesses and start ups. If you like this show and the way we think, find out how we can help your company at www.kulturpop.com.
Of course, if you’re listening to this show, you probably listen to Mattsplained as well, a show I make with the nice folks at BFM, who also have their own app where you’ll find some other shows I do: Geeks Squawk, where co-host Jeff Sandhu and I ramble on about that week’s biggest tech stories and music show the Muddy Confluence.
Thank you for tuning into M.Ex. I’m Matt Armitage. See you next week.