Cleaning up space debris

The proliferation of debris orbiting the Earth – primarily jettisoned rocket and satellite components – is an increasingly pressing problem for spacecraft, and it can generate huge costs.

To combat this scourge, the Swiss Space Center at EPFL aims to launch CleanSpace One, a project to develop and build the first instalment of a family of satellites specially designed to clean up space debris.

‘I’m intrigued by this idea of complexity being something adversarial, that sneaks into your life like a cockroach’

Five takeaways from the written version of a charming talk given by Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski  at the 2013 XOXO conference in Portland. Well worth a read.

I’m intrigued by this idea of complexity being something adversarial, that sneaks into your life, like a cockroach, and you have to fight to eradicate.

There’s a pernicious idea that comes out of startup culture called “fail fast”. I’ve always been a big believer in failing slowly. When you’re not in for the money, success doesn’t come to you pre-labeled. It can look just like failure. Chasing money makes it easier, because then you can quantify success unambiguously. Otherwise, you may have a hard time telling the two apart.

Writing a work diary is the only honest record of what you’re thinking at the time. Your memory will lie to you, almost immediately, about what you thought was going to happen on any given day. The only way you can trust it is to write down your state of mind – what you’re worried about, what you expect will happen. And then over time you can go back and look for patterns of thought that you might want to fix. Maybe you’re always too optimistic, or maybe you choose to work with toxic people, or chronically underestimate what things will cost. Writing it down will help you understand your mental habits, and correct for them.

It’s not our job, Thoreau argues, to fix the world. We may not have the time for that. But we can’t cooperate with injustice. If the law compels us to do something wrong, we have to break that law.

The reason I think it’s vital we act now is that this state of affairs is still shocking, still disturbing. Let it persist and it will become the new normal (in other words, the “old shitty”) and anyone trying to fight it is going to be branded a Utopian or hopelessly naive, unable to come to terms with modernity. We should commit to giving legal, financial and moral support to anyone who refuses to obey gag order, or publishes a National Security Letter. The secrecy exists because the programs it cloaks can’t withstand the light of day. One good, timely push will break them.

Read Mr Ceglowski’s talk here.

Read and compare the world’s Constitutions Homepage

From the Comparative Constitutions Project comes, a website for searching and saving the constitutions of various countries.

Constitute allows you to interact with the world’s constitutions in a few different ways.

Quickly find relevant passages. The Comparative Constitutions Project has tagged passages of each constitution with a topic — e.g., “right to privacy” or “equality regardless of gender” — so you can quickly find relevant excerpts on a particular subject, no matter how they are worded. You can browse the 300+ topics in the expandable drawer on the left of the page, or see suggested topics while typing in the search bar (which also lets you perform free-text queries).

Filter searches. Want to view results for a specific region or time period? You can limit your search by country or by date using the buttons under the search bar.

Save for further analysis. To download or print excerpts from multiple constitutions, click the “pin” button next to each expanded passage you want to save. You can then view and download your pinned excerpts in the drawer on the right.

The content on is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

‘Making time in your schedule is not enough, you also need bandwidth’

I like the distinction makes over on between scheduling time and scheduling bandwidth.

Busy people all make the same mistake: they assume they are short on time, which of course they are. But time is not their only scarce resource. They are also short on bandwidth. By bandwidth I mean basic cognitive resources — psychologists call them working memory and executive control — that we use in nearly every activity. Bandwidth is what allows us to reason, to focus, to learn new ideas, to make creative leaps and to resist our immediate impulses. We use bandwidth to be a good participant at an important meeting, to be a good boss to an employee who frustrates us and to be attentive parent or spouse.

When we schedule things, we don’t want to just show up, we want to be effective when we get there. This means we need to manage bandwidth and not just manage time… Picture yourself at dinner with a friend whose marriage is on the rocks and wants some advice. Now imagine her request comes at a time when you have a big-project deadline looming. You value her friendship so you make time for dinner, but once you’re there, you find your mind wandering back to that project…  while you’ve made time for her, you didn’t make bandwidth for her.

Read more:


Five things I love about Statistics New Zealand

What’s not to love about Statistics New Zealand? Here are a few things they do that I like:

1.  Publish under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International copyright licence (so we are free to use and share content as long as we say where it came from). This is great: a publicly funded organisation which collects information about New Zealanders is sharing that information freely with New Zealanders.

2. Offer emails that let you know when statistics are going to be released and the key points of each release when it happens. Sign up for these here.

3. Win Plain English awards — which means they make a real effort to write in an accessible way.

4. Have a whole lot of historical data online:

19th-century statistical publications Nineteenth-century statistical publications held in Statistics NZ library
Census: 1871–1916 Census of Population and Dwellings reports and results from 1871 to 1916
Yearbook collection: 1893–2010 The New Zealand Official Yearbook from 1893 to 2010

5. Do some nice infographics. An early one  celebrated 120 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (September 19, 2013) and was created in partnership with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. It points out, among other things, that the average number of children a woman had in 1893 was 5, in 1953 it was 4, and in 2013 it’s 2.

The graphic also lists notable firsts for women holding Government positions. Among them now is  Liz MacPherson, who in 2013 become New Zealand’s first woman Government Statistician.

Graphic of 120 years of women's suffrage


We’re loving video on our phones: NZ mobile use in 2013

This is an old post but I’m leaving it here for the hell of it. Failed links have been updated (where possible) or removed.

Some catch-up reading on mobile and tablet use in New Zealand in 2013.

Mobile devices now account for more than a third of TVNZ’s Ondemand service video streams | StopPress
Mobile devices now account for more than a third of TVNZ’s Ondemand service video streams and are a key part of the growth in video views. More than four million videos were watched using the service last month, an increase of 82 percent on the same month last year.

Over a third of Kiwis could own a tablet this year: Ericsson | StopPress
The [research] panel’s top uses for tablets were internet browsing at 66 percent, emailing at 58 percent and games at 53 percent. For smartphones, they were voice and SMS, internet browsing, using mobile apps, instant messaging and watching videos. “When asked about time of tablet use, most New Zealanders use their tablet at home in the evening, followed by while watching TV and in bed before sleeping,” says Chiastien. “Holiday usage is next on the list. Tablets are also commonly used as a time-killer as more than 36 percent use their tablets while waiting for something.”

Google’s 2013 ‘Our Mobile Planet’ research
A few out-takes from the research (which polled 1,000 New Zealanders aged 18-64 who identified themselves as using a smartphone to use the internet).

  • 54% search on smartphone each day
  • 27 apps installed on average (8 paid)
  • 69% watch video (17% at least once a day)
  • 74% have researched a product or service on their phone
  • 33% have purchased using smartphone (53% of those in the past month)
  • 88% of smartphone users notice mobile ads

But there are still barriers to mobile transactions, including size of screen, slowness, security concerns and difficulty comparing products and prices.

Back doors, mobile phones, persuasion: the NSA does it all

This is an old post but I’m leaving it here for the hell of it. Failed links have been updated (where possible) or removed.

The headlines about the NSA just keep on coming…

N.S.A. Foils Much Internet Encryption | NY Times
The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age, according to newly disclosed documents.

Most 2006-2009 NSA queries of a phone database broke court rules | Reuters
The National Security Agency routinely violated court-ordered privacy protections between 2006 and 2009 by examining phone numbers without sufficient intelligence tying them to associates of suspected terrorists, according to U.S. officials and documents that were declassified on Tuesday.

Privacy Scandal: NSA Can Spy on Smart Phone Data | Spiegel
SPIEGEL has learned from internal NSA documents that the US intelligence agency has the capability of tapping user data from the iPhone, devices using Android as well as BlackBerry, a system previously believed to be highly secure.

NSA shares raw intelligence including Americans’ data with Israel | Guardian
The National Security Agency routinely shares raw intelligence data with Israel without first sifting it to remove information about US citizens, a top-secret document provided to the Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals.

Google encrypts data amid backlash against NSA spying | Washington Post
Google is racing to encrypt the torrents of information that flow among its data centers around the world in a bid to thwart snooping by the NSA and the intelligence agencies of foreign governments, company officials said.

Drug Agents Use Vast Phone Trove, Eclipsing N.S.A.’s | NY Times
For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans’ phone calls — parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency’s hotly disputed collection of phone call logs.

The US government has betrayed the internet. We need to take it back | Guardian
We need to know how exactly how the NSA and other agencies are subverting routers, switches, the internet backbone, encryption technologies and cloud systems. I already have five stories from people like you, and I’ve just started collecting. I want 50. There’s safety in numbers, and this form of civil disobedience is the moral thing to do.

Part 3: Verifying Keys | Keith Ng’s how-to series on encryption | Public Address
So there’s a public key on my page. How do you know that’s *my* key? Anyone could have created that key, just like I created the John PGPKey key. For all you know, some Russian hacker could have taken over Public Address and put that key there. As a first step, you should look up my key. My key is published, so you can go to this keyserver and look up it up using my name.


‘Every employee gets virtual $10,000 to invest in ideas’

Interesting idea in David Berkus’s HBR piece on innovation. He writes that companies often think that to be innovative means they need more ideas, but really they need to be better at recognising ideas that are already there. He mentions an idea market:

Rite-Solutions has set up an “idea market” on their internal website where anyone can post an idea and list it as a “stock” on the market, called “Mutual Fun.” Every employee is also given $10,000 in virtual currency to “invest” in ideas. In addition to the investment, employees also volunteer to work on project ideas they support.

If an idea gathers enough support, the project is approved and everyone who supported it is given a share of the profits from the project.

In just a few years, the program has already produced huge gains for the company, from small incremental changes to products in whole new industries. In its first year alone, the Mutual Fun accounted for 50 percent of the company’s new business growth.

Read the rest of David Berkus’s piece here.