Blessed are the Cheesemakers

It seems like every town has an elderly eccentric that few have met but everyone knows. My home town has a man who cycles around on a bike with dozens of pin-wheels attached to the basket whilst wearing garish patterned trousers, like Noel Edmonds trying to recreate the flying bicycle scene from E.T. Whilst plenty of these amusing nutters will make bold assertions on behalf of the supposed creator of the Universe, only one city has taken these geriatric ramblings so seriously as to put their author in charge.

Pope Benedict XVI has been extolling wisdom, theology and questionable condom advice throughout his seven year Papacy, only now he’s joined Twitter so he can shout into an entirely new indifferent abyss. Before his befrocked Holiness had even said anything, his follower count burst past the one-million mark. These comprised a combination of devout followers and bemused heathens, primed in the off-chance his senility wasn’t being filtered through a dozen advisors and he ended up tweeting that God’s favourite creature was actually the Dairylea Dunker.

Pope's Twitter Page

It’s not even like his absurd follower count – online that is, not his absurd follower count in reality – was a case of follow-back guilt, since he’d only followed his own accounts in different languages. After that whole Tower of Babel thing, he really had no choice. In any case, a few days later he made his proper debut, in which he blessed everyone who’d shown up so far, which seems an unwise strategy, what if there were child molesters following him? Oh.

Just like Gary Glitter (albeit later found out to be fake), the sudden appearance of someone directly involved in pedophilia on a public forum has invoked the wrath of keyboard vigilantes. Pesky atheists, why can’t they just shut up and let the Catholic Church systematically abuse children in peace?

Oddly, the subject of the Pontiff shielding pedophiles in the Clergy and silencing their victims through intimidation and guilt hasn’t come up. All we’ve had so far is meaningless platitudes about faith straight from the cliché handbook. All fourteen of Benny’s tweets, at time of writing, have been vapid, ghost-written (possibly by the Holy Spirit) and barely worth the pixels they’re rendered in. However, from the response each one has had, you’d think he’d been claiming that condoms increase the risk of STIs…again.

Cool story, bro.

History doesn’t favour a heartfelt disavowal of pedophiliac priests to come any time soon. The Catholic Church neglected to acknowledge that Galileo’s “heretical” claim that the Earth orbited the Sun was, in fact, correct until 1992. Back in 2000, the incumbent Pope issued a nondescript, blanket apology for all the mistakes the Church had made. That’s a hell of a long wait just to see the horrific crimes be hand-waved off with all the sincerity of a sneering Lord throwing a penny at the foot of a beggar.

The irony of the Catholic leader using a product bearing a logo referencing original sin notwithstanding, have a good look at what we have in this video. A deteriorating husk of a human-being jabbing stupefied at a glowing rectangle at the behest of his handler. If there was any doubt left that he’s not really writing these tweets, that video should settle them; I’d be surprised if he even knew what he was doing in that clip.

Ultimately, the Pope has joined Twitter so that he can preach to the choir. Those managing the account are clearly not interested in theological debate or addressing the many issues that surround the church. Especially since, given that the abuse scandal has effectively blown over, nothing will be tweeted that hasn’t been utterly exorcised of anything substantive that may risk giving more cause for criticism. Those who lambaste the puppet account of a feeble old man spouting myopic philosophy are just wasting their time, that may be better spent defending children from the monsters he shields.

The challenge for Planetary Resources isn’t technical or financial, it’s trying to cater the most awkward dinner party in the Universe.

If our Solar System were a dinner party, we’d be the glutton who boorishly inhales his food then impatiently eyes up everyone else’s meals for the first sign of a hesitant appetite leaving a window to purloin their plates. The metaphor breaks down, of course, when you remember that we’ve long-since scared off any guests to our dinner parties, and invitations are met with either deathly silence or vague murmurings that may just be cosmic background radiation, answer-machine to the Universe. Since we can’t assume that some galactic guest is going to show up fashionably late, preferably with dessert, we’re eventually going to have to start snacking on Ferrero Rocher for sustenance.

Space: the smash-and-grab frontier

Such is the ambition of Planetary Resources, who want to try ensnaring passing asteroids and mine them for natural resources like water and metals in a bid to “expand Earth’s natural resource base”, going up against the government’s current low-cost but somewhat less effective strategy of doing sod all. It’s attracted the financial backing of various bigwigs including film director James Cameron, a man who’s directed so many space-faring disaster movies involving aliens they might as well call the first manned ship the ‘SS Human Sacrifice’. Not surprisingly, the concept has attracted pessimists sneering at the prohibitive technical and cost barriers of this venture; some have called them overly-cynical, but I don’t think they’re being cynical enough.

The biggest problem that Planetary Resources faces is not the technical difficulty or the cost, at least those can potentially be overcome. Their biggest challenge will be in trying to get any, let alone every, country on the planet to stop thinking about their own financial, political and military interests long enough to see the bigger picture.

Getting together representatives from all four corners to realise this strategy would quickly become the most awkward dinner party in the Universe, and Planetary Resources wants to do the catering! I can’t imagine the already strained atmosphere will be made any more tranquil when the guests are told that dinner will only be served once they can learn to co-operate; and, if they can’t, they’ll never eat again. Social convention must necessarily be broken by bringing the topic of conversation to politics. It’ll start out amicable but, as the wine flows, one misjudged comment and next thing you know you’re tentatively briefing your defence secretary in case your tipsy faux pas pissed off anyone powerful, we’ve all been there. It’d be incredible if anyone came out of it with the same number of limbs, let alone a cohesive plan to save the planet. Even Dave Lamb wouldn’t be able to diffuse it.

Hell, it’d be a Herculean feat in itself to get the theocracies and otherwise religiously devout nations to admit there’s a problem, given they all have something in scripture that amounts to their deities saying “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” which usually forms the basis of climate change denial. Since Jesus didn’t have enough foresight to use his magic duplication powers on anything a little more scarce than pastry and cod, it looks like we’re on our own.

Maybe the answer is in the evening’s entertainment. Turn it into a game and use the self-importance of each country against itself. It would’ve taken the Americans far longer to get to the Moon if their hubris hadn’t made them so keen to beat the USSR up there. The only thing at stake then was being the first to jab an oversized cocktail stick into a barren lump of rock that is so keen for attention it circles us like a fly. Surely the detection, capture and harvesting the gooey innards of meteorically-passing asteroids en masse represents a huge ego boost in the international dick-swinging contest.

This condescending, but effective, method of motivation will also reap untold financial gain, more than justifying the effort, but that poses a problem in itself. Whoever succeeds first will take control of the only new resource for a planet with rapidly dwindling supplies, and can quite literally hold the world to ransom like a cartoon supervillian. I can’t think of a single nation on the planet that I’d feel comfortable about having that much influence. Well, maybe Norway.

So how do we solve the myriad challenges that Planetary Resources will face? Beats me. I’m not here to propose solutions, I’m just here to piss in your cornflakes by finding fault. At the very least we should try and obtain the merchandise before we worry too much about who it belongs to. That way, even if we end up blowing each other to kingdom come over this, we’ll at least have helped lay out a good spread for whichever nation emerges victorious to dine on. Bon appétit, don’t have nightmares.

Top 5 Christmas Gadget Ideas

Everyone has a nerdy friend, this has been proven by science. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have been landed with him or her for Secret Santa (or in the off-chance you actually care about them) you’ll have been looking for present ideas to match their utter lack of ungeekiness this Christmas. Look no further, as Spark* Sci-Tech’s annual ‘Top 5 Christmas Gadgets’ list is here to help.

5. Amazon Kindle

We’re cheating a bit here since the Kindle was on the list last year, but a reworked user interface, a keyboard-ectomy and a modest price drop has made taking the first tentative steps into the eReader market even easier. The lowest price Kindle we could find was £89 by most high street shops or direct from Amazon, and the slightly pricier models come with contract-less 3G connection to download eBooks. But bear in mind that the gleeful recipient of the Kindle will still have to sink some cold, hard moolah into eBooks to deck it out with.

4. Windows Phone 7

Another slight cheat, but now that Microsoft have had time to iron out the kinks of the Windows Phone 7 operating system, and cram it into a few handsets, it’s a much more appealing prospect. Big manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung have already released the first WP7 handsets and reviews seem to be more enthused by the OS than the hardware itself. It’s become quite clear that 2012 will see phones judged on the merits of their OS rather than the wedge of plastic and glass they’ve been stuffed into. WP7 is definitely one to consider if you’re torn between the walled-garden of Apple or the lawless abandon of Android, though a somewhat lacking app store may put some people off.

3. Nintendo 3DS

Though the 3D can be a polarising feature (nerdy pun intended), there’s no denying that as the only major games platforms released these last twelve months, it stands as arguably the most up-to-date console around. The main gimmick of this particular handheld is the ability to play games in 3D without having to use glasses (though if you’re buying this for a geek that wouldn’t be an issue), but there have been numerous complains of it hurting the eyeballs after prolonged use. Regardless, it’s relatively low price, good screen and wide selection of games make it an ideal present for your local gamer that won’t break the bank or your back trying to carry it.

2. iPhone 4S

It wouldn’t be a gadget list without the JobsCo making an appearance. Apple’s long-awaited iPhone 4S shattered all rumours of new casings and new cameras and gave us…a slightly better iPhone 4. It’s most notable feature, of course, being the silver-tongued/golden-eared ‘Siri personal assistant’ application that finally shattered the prejudice associated with having conversations with inanimate objects. It’s about time. However, with rapidly upcoming competition, no Steve Jobs to fill it’s charisma-quota and a buzz that Apple have run out of ideas, it may be that come next Christmas the iPhone 4S will be incredibly out of style, and you may be stuck in a 24-month contract.

1. Angry Birds Cookbook

No, seriously. Anyone unfortunate enough to be sat in a long, boring lecture but lucky enough to have a smartphone knows the addictive draw of Angry Birds; it’s not just for geeks anymore. If your token nerd happens to be a fan, and validates the stereotype for clueless cooking skills, then this cookbook based on Angry Birds, containing mostly egg recipes (ironically provided by chef Aldo Zilli, the guy from the Optivita adverts who’s really concerned about your cholesterol) will keep your resident geek alive at least long enough to fix your computer.

The SOPA is a thinly-veiled attempt to seize control of the Internet

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: America is considering following China’s lead and debating over new legislation that will give the US government power to block websites at will. Now before you throw out poorly researched Nineteen Eighty-Four references that would make Orwell rise from the dead just to slap you, read these words very carefully: this is not an attempt to quash free speech. At least, that’s not what this bill pertains to, but the implications of it are far-reaching and, as much as I hate to dust off a journalistic chestnut, the Orwellian censorship scenario is not impossible.

The ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) is ostensibly a measure being brought in to stamp out piracy, copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property. The problem is, as I will come to explain, the measures they want to implement in order to do so seem, to my computer scientist nouse, like overkill. In a nutshell, the bill extends the definition of illegal file-sharing to include sites that provide links to third-party sites that host copyrighted video, images and the like. Previously, these sites were protected on the basis that they themselves didn’t deliver the material and simply acted as a middleman between the users and the files, usually hosted on open file-sharing sites like Megaupload and Rapidshare; though this rule did not prevent the conviction of the founders of The Pirate Bay in 2009. For any of these sites in the US, a court order can be brought against them that would obligate them to cease all illegal activities. However, so-called ‘rogue sites’ that operate in other countries are, by definition, outside of US jurisdiction and thus requesting a court order would be an ineffectual (and poorly thought-out) action. Though the US is powerless to stop these sites, the new legislation will make it possible for copyright holders to request, and give the government the power to ensure, that all access to the site within the US be blocked through removing it from DNS servers.

DNS (Domain Name System) servers contain what is essentially a list of every registered domain on the Internet, there are many DNS servers across the world that contain identical lists. It is the first port of call for your web browser when you type in a website address as it matches the domain name you’ve entered to the IP address where the webpage itself is held. Under this new bill, websites found to be in violation of this can be removed from all American DNS listings or blocked from resolving, just as the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’. Technically speaking, a DNS block is not a difficult thing to circumvent, but doing so requires a small degree of technical know-how (or an impressive memory for IP addresses) and would constitute a criminal offence.

Unsurprisingly, this bill has the full support of a myriad of film and television groups, for whom money made from selling pieces of plastic or downloads for extortionate prices is their living. I’m certainly not trying to say that these people don’t deserve to be paid for their good work, but that’s the point: their good work. Through piracy, I discovered the early episodes of The Big Bang Theory and become an instant fan; I pirate episodes because I don’t want to wait for their episodes to be shipped over here and clunkily strapped into 4oD, but I own every available season on DVD. Similarly, through piracy I caught the first few episodes of True Blood, found it to be incredibly trite and haven’t bothered with it at all since. I, as the consumer, shouldn’t be expected to sink cold, hard cash into shows that are utter tosh just for the sake of finding that out.

Opposed to the bill is practically every Internet company you could name. As the legislation also requires US companies to cease any advertising networks with that site (such as via Google’s Adsense program), strike them from search engines and exact what basically amounts to a cyber-blockade upon them. This represents a lot of cost, legal concerns and work for these companies solely to protect the interests of another industry. In a letter to the US Senate and House of Representatives, companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others wrote that the bill is “a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation’s cybersecurity.”

Bloggers, owners of independent websites and other Web users are understandably also opposing the bill. Video-sharing site YouTube has something of a trigger-happy attitude when it comes to claims of copyright infringement, wherein the offending video is automatically taken down until the uploader (the accused, not the accuser) has proven either legal right to the footage or show that copyrighted material has been used in conjunction with the ‘Fair Use’ clause of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. In most cases, use of copyrighted material can be justified if clips are used for the purposes of comment or criticism. Independent sites that reviews films, for example, may use clips from the source material spliced in. Though this would fall under ‘Fair Use’, if a similar “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude is adopted whenever a film studio cries wolf, it could lead to exhaustive legal battles, massive financial impact and loss of livelihood. Yet, the film studio will lose nothing from making a claim, the defendant stands to lose a great deal even if innocent. If YouTube, in order to keep the film industry lawyers at bay, will enforce a policy of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, then how can independents hope to grow or compete if this is the attitude of the governance in the Internet at large?

The film and television industries persist in their failure to understand that one pirated movie does not equate to one lost sale. The Internet has introduced a system of try-before-you-buy, in which the consumer can see if the show or movie is actually worth investing in. In the Information Age, their business model is antiquated and should be subject to the adapt-or-die rule, but due to the amount of money this industry has, the powers that be are bending over backwards to appease it. They must realise that piracy actively helps their industry, it encourages people to watch new shows that they may’ve missed on television, potentially become a fan and buy more episodes, DVDs and whatever cheap merchandising has been squeezed out of the show. What’s more, it creates competition and sets the bar higher for quality, as the show now has to sell itself to an audience with far more choice

If you want to extrapolate the idea of a Government having the power to block websites further, you inevitably face the prospect that this bill may be the first nail in the coffin of free speech on the Internet. This bill will set a precedence that says it’s fine for governments to block websites for any contrived reason when the one with the most money says it should. We cannot allow this, the line must be drawn.

Amazon Kindle 3 Review

Remember books? They were primitive old things, weren’t they? Cumbersome blocks of paper and glue, being lugged around only a few at a time and the pages always staying the same. Thankfully, we’ve come to our senses and done away with them; well, we haven’t yet, but given the rise of the eBook Reader in the past two years, paper books are set to become a fiction. Likewise, when e-commerce website Amazon opened its servers in the late nineties they exclusively sold books, but now sell everything from Playstations to Marmite. But, going back to their roots, the first product Amazon manufactured themselves was the eBook Reader that kicked off the reading revolution. Now in its third generation, has the Kindle done for reading what Amazon did for shopping?

Where the previous Kindle models had the tacky white casing of the lower priced MacBooks, the third generation sports a stylish graphite chassis less than a centimetre in width. Amazon have packed the keyboard and navigation buttons closer together to accommodate this sleeker casing. The page-turn buttons have been placed on either side of the Kindle’s 6-inch eInk screen, with the page-forward buttons are considerably larger than the page-back buttons, on the basis that you’ll use them more because you still read in an old-fashioned, linear fashion, you Luddite! The back-cover is a rather plain affair, but houses two speaker grilles at the top for when you’re using the text-to-speech function, because you’re too cheap to buy an audiobook. Underneath, you’ll uncover standard 3.5mm headphone jack, USB port, volume rocker and standby switch.

The new Kindle comes with Wi-Fi built in, and on the slightly pricier model comes with 3G as well. This is a major draw for bibliophiles and technophiles alike as it’s a free, contract-less, data connection that allows you to download eBooks from Amazon’s prolific store on a whim. Notably, the Kindle doesn’t support the open eBook format ePub, so you are mostly tied down to the Amazon store for getting your Tolstoy on. The Kindle also allows web browsing, but on an eInk screen this is tricky as most websites weren’t designed with greyscale in mind. Though it’s specially-adapted Wikipedia site does give the Kindle a delightful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feel, for general web browsing its poorly equipped. Predictably, the web browser is hidden behind a menu labelled “Experimental” which makes us think that if Amazon’s data bill racks up too much they may decide to pull the web-browsing feature from the Kindle altogether. The Kindle can also be linked to your Facebook and Twitter profiles and you can share passages and notes on a book, though you may lose all your friends as a result because you’ll look like a pretentious prick.

The biggest difference between eBook Readers of this ilk and their sometimes competitor, the iPad, is the eInk screen. These screens essentially burn an image onto a screen by applying a charge to negatively and positively charged particles. These displays are beautifully crisp and clear, almost as though you’re looking at a perfectly printed page, in fact you more or less are. The main benefit of this feature is that you can read for long periods of time without getting the eye-strain you’d get from perusing an LCD screen. It’s black-and-white, but, on a device that’s primary purpose is reading books, colour seems a little redundant. Secondly, the screen only draws power from the battery when the display changes and is otherwise practically off; Amazon boasts that this allows a battery life of up to a month even with frequent use. In our testing, we found the battery drained quicker when the Kindle’s on-board Wi-Fi or 3G connections are put through their paces, but otherwise the battery life was pretty good. The Kindle lacks a backlight, another battery-saving measure, but this isn’t really a drawback because neither do books; if you’re really that bothered about reading in the dark, you probably can’t read anyway, buy some crayons and a colouring book instead.

As with any massive paradigm-shift, reading the device as you would a book takes a little getting used to. It’s definitely off-putting at first to have to focus on a screen, a specific area on the device, rather than scan the whole frame as you would a book. It’s a new sensation to be looking at one page at a time rather than having two pages visible at a time, but dual-screen would’ve looked odd and been rather unnecessary on the Kindle. Oddly, when you’re reading a book, a progress bar runs along the bottom of the display and shows what percentage through the title you’ve gone; suddenly, reading has become a numbers game. All these peculiarities were easy to become accustomed to, however, and after that it felt perfectly natural to read this way, as though you’re reading a small, changeable, piece of paper rather than a hefty book. The Kindle reading experience also comes with full control over text-size and screen orientation, in case you feel like reading upside-down, and full text-to-speech functionality, in case you ever feel like being read to by the speaking clock and, let’s face it, we all have at some time.

Will the Amazon Kindle’s new incarnation write the final chapter for the printed word? No. Books are one of the oldest medium we have, and they’ve become so engrained on our culture that thinking that a single device can obliterate them in one fell swoop would be ludicrous. But could this undermine their place in our culture, usurped in the home and force them to retreat back to their secure sanctuaries: the libraries? Or will such a massive change turn out to simply be a gimmick, a niche idea that entertains the few but fails to take hold of the many? At this early stage in the life of the eBook Reader it’s very difficult to say; in fact, it’s not even worth making a prediction, time will tell.

The Amazon Kindle is available from Amazon.com, and is around £111 for the Wi-Fi only model and around £152 for the 3G and Wi-Fi model.