Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012

Modern methods of news delivery are rough on the sensibilities. At around eightish last night a notification surfaced on my iPhone from the NYT app; At 82, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, dead. Then that odd sense of personal loss when the death occurs of someone who you didn't really know, had never met, but very much admired.

For people my age the loss of Armstrong closes a chapter strongly associated with the wonder of childhood and the sense of burgeoning possibility, that you too might be an astronaut and Space generally was going to be ours for the sampling. Remember that game around in the seventies, Careers? The best one was being an astronaut. Later you found out that actually this wasn't a job choice for you, but really for an elite within an elite, the very best pilots who were also tremendous scientists and analytical thinkers. It helped to be an American, or a Russian, or at least from a country that got on with them very well.

The original Gemini and Apollo astronauts were great fliers, but the factor that recommended Armstrong and his kin to NASA, and to the rest of us, was nerve. The Saturn V, and I have stood next to one lying flat on its side like a stricken white dinosaur, does not look safe. It is not safe. It is the nearest a vehicle can come to a controlled explosion. There was an escape system - you can see the handle on the schematics and it's featured in the film Apollo 13, but pulling it was unthinkable, I would guess. It wasn’t done. Nobody did it.

Armstrong and his brethren were the steely concentrated point of a spear thrown by a rattled superpower; Kennedy recognised that it was unacceptable for the Russians to pootle around space unchallenged with their spunky sputniks. He needed a Grand Slam to re-establish the proper order of things, ie with the USA at the top of the interstellar food chain. Hence the space programme, target: The Moon, developed at breakneck speed, with casualties along the way.

Armstrong had nerve, but was of the breed or maybe the generation of people who don’t bother speaking of it. Nothing much about NASA was safe. The training was particularly dangerous; NASA’s attempt to simulate the Lunar landing module was to build a kind of bedstead with a rocket in the middle and thrusters on the side; a pure deathtrap which Armstrong had to eject out of as it turned over and exploded. Most people would go home at that point, but not him, he just shrugged and got on with it. 

Did going to the Moon matter? I don’t think the Moon in itself matters a jot. Not to them at the time, or to us now. There was an audit of moon rock recently, the stuff dragged home in plastic bags at awe inspiring expense; some of it has gone missing. Nobody cares. It’s just geology. That’s what the astronauts did when they got there; bounced around with hammers examining the dust. And once they’d got there, and done this for a while, nobody cared to go back.

The shelved Space Programme illustrates how supremely self interested we are as a species; humans just wanted to know that they could get to such a place. The place itself was not important, the achievement of the journey was the thing. It was the madness of it that gripped. Images persist - at the end, out of fuel, hundreds of feet above the deadly lunar surface, far from rescue, the tiny computer going wonky, Armstrong standing at the window looking for a place to just put the Eagle down. He didn’t go on about it afterwards, leaving us to marvel at it all.

Armstrong and his colleagues dissatisfied in a modern way; having been a locked down individual, married to the mission, its challenges listed by countless dry checklists, he and the others found it problematic to communicate the wonder of it to those of us left down on the ground. Military men, trained to the nth degree, often find it tricky to emote in the right way for the media. He refused to be a trained seal, went off, lectured at a University and farmed. Others in the NASA astronaut office found it harder to come back to earth; divorces, drugs and other hazy questionable stuff sometimes ensued. You could see that making an alteration in our perspective was tricky for the people doing the altering.
Now it’s us that need to alter our perspectives once more; Armstrong and his generation are slowly leaving us. Must his kind of adventure be a thing of the past? It seems unthinkable but when you look at the bill for a manned Mars mission reality kicks in. If humans care to go to Mars ourselves, rather than sending clever cars with cameras (truly that planet is crying out for street view) it can’t be as a national mission done by one power or another for prestige; it must be a joint enterprise, because the cost and risk will be prohibitive. To pick up Armstrong’s gauntlet, national self-interest must be put aside. That would be some legacy.      

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Olympics, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Games

Here's where I have to admit that I called the Olympics wrong. In common with a few others I saw them approaching with a real sense of dread. That was for a number of reasons; the triumph that was Beijing (how could we compete with all those drummers?), the rickety nature of London's public transport (it can't even get Londoners home on a bad day, never mind millions of Olympic extras), the well known elitism of the IOC - an organisation that seems to be able to take over cities with more facility than the average armoured division.

I suspected I was wrong when I sat in front of the telly and saw the Geese at the opening ceremony. At that point I realised that something was up, and when the Queen parachuted in with Bond, well that was unforgettable, a work of utter genius. This was going not to be awful. It was going to be great.

As Keynes once remarked, when the facts change, I change my mind. So it was a case of banging the LOCOG website for tickets in common with half the UK population. People slagged off the site but really it stood up pretty well considering the millions of hits it must have been taking. We went to the Volleyball and wonder of wonder, bagged tickets for the Athletics by doing something deeply unpleasant to my Credit Card one evening.

The trick that LOCOG pulled off was to make the Games work on both levels, the big stuff like the venues, well designed and delivered on time, and also on the human scale - the volunteer staff, the catering and all the rest of the things that make a spectator event worth attending. The coverage was revolutionary in nature. Make no mistake the digital streaming of up to seventeen simultaneous events to mobile devices is a massive achievement and points the way to an exciting future for sports broadcasting.

Bolt in action on the Tuesday   credit:me
I wondered if I'd enjoy watching sports I don't normally pay to see. But instead I found I liked them more than the sport I normally pay to see. This was down to lots of things, but factors like the military doing the security was great - really two minutes from start to finish - the volunteers, who were everywhere and did a great job, and the enthusiasm of punters in the venues just lifted everything several notches above, say City v Stoke on a wet Wednesday evening.

People have been comparing footballers to the Olympic athletes and the country's most overpaid sportsmen are not coming out well. It's a bit facile to put the Olympic sporting festival next to football, which is in reality a fully fledged industry in our country, and one that pays its own way rather than relying on Lottery funding. But the spoilt and violent nature of some of the characters in the Premier League is in sharp contrast to the way the GB and other team members came over during the Games. The stark lesson for football players here, if they choose to absorb it, is that these are changed times and top footballers need to give more back - in the way they behave on and off the field. Some players, like Craig Bellamy, run charities that do great work but lets face it, he's very much an exception. The PR people who work with their pampered clients need to get a grip, because it may well be that the wind changed for football this summer.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Apple's Challenge

I've had an iphone for a few years now and bought an ipad on the first day they came out. Apple changed the game for phones, effectively invented the tablet market and I've been a huge fan; I'm on my second ipad and will probably get an iphone 5. Yet I don't really entertain any notion that the new iphone will be much of an improvement on the iphone 4, which pretty much ticks all my boxes. I think the android/ios device arms race is now in stalemate; beyond incremental improvements in memory and chip speed there's probably not too much they can do to these things to make one vastly superior to the other. One of my friends has got himself a Nexus; while I'm yet to ambush him to get my fingers on it, I'm sure he's right that the Nexus is an excellent device at a brilliant price.

But one side is going to lose this race eventually and I think it will be Apple. Someone on one of the tech blogs was writing that Google's mastery of systems will eventually see it win through and I reckon that's right. We're getting to the point that the device is almost irrelevant, it's all about the OS, the user-experience and the content - and the Google cloud experience is immeasurably superior to Apple's. I have quite a fast PC and it really struggles with itunes. The icloud seems to resent me intruding to alter things; the Chrome browser by contrast is immeasurably better written and unites your internet self with your real self pretty effortlessly. I expect android is much the same.

The App store has been a big help to Apple, but now I wonder if the App Explosion is over. So many are just gimmicks; I install one, play with a bit, throw it out, rinse and repeat. Maps,twitter, instagaram - Android has the essentials that Ios has. There' s the fracturing of android which some say is an issue, and some issues with app quality on android, but few people say that's a massive problem.

This may well be the last iphone I buy because really Apple are selling a pair of devices to me now, a partnership of phone and tablet, and a cloud experience to unite them. If Google start to nudge seriously ahead - the Nexus won't be their last tablet - and their cloud experience continues to improve, and nothing radical happens to itunes, then I may well desert the Jobs temple and I won't be on my own. This Nexus is a real declaration of intent; cheap and effective. The next one will have more memory and probably pack 3G. By contrast Apple's rumoured change to the charger, which makes a number of devices in my house partially redundant, is aggravating and Apple no longer enjoys the tech-lead which would have allowed them to inflict this change painlessly. There is an arrogance there which doesn't fit with the tough spending decisions many people in their target markets are having to make. Apple executives are rich with their options and may not have heard about double dip recessions. This may be a problem, over time.

The iphone 5 is a real defining point. It has to be something great that puts it ahead of Samsung's brilliantly received Galaxy II, and by some margin. The future for me as a consumer is lightweight computing that allows me to unite with my content, work and fun wherever I am , whichever of my gadgets I have, and with a minimum of fuss. Apple gets there but I'm starting to wonder if Google and Android aren't starting to do it better, and crucially, cheaper.