Crowdfunding space exploration

Not a lot of people know that Groupon started out life as a project to try and put a giant inflatable banana into orbit over Texas, but it did. When I first saw Andrew Mason pitch, the idea was called ThePoint and it was essentially an early version of Kickstarter whereby projects would only get funded if they reached a particular target. Â The banana project was going to cost $1.5 million.

Now the dream of putting things into space using crowdfunding seems to be coming true (not inflatable bananas yet, but it can only be a matter of time). There are quite a few projects putting CubeSats, weather balloons and other micro spacecraft into orbit and I met the people behind a project in Bristol last week that is even more ambitious and due to announce in the next few weeks. It seems that not even the most monolithic of industries can resist the crowd.
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Analog chic

I went along to see Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis exhibition at the Natural History Museum on Friday evening. It’s a wonderful and slightly overwhelming set of over 200 photographs of wildernesses around the world, from the antarctic to the wilds of western Russia and the Amazon to rural Africa. If you get a chance, I’d definitely recommend it.

As with much of Salgado’s photography, you find yourself wondering how on earth he created it. The huge black and white prints are unmistakably his style and I started wondering whether he still uses film rather than a digital camera. The answer, apparently is that even Salgado got fed up with the faff of analog camera film:

I photographed with film for many years; now that I work in digital, the difference is enormous. The quality is unbelievable: I don’t use flash, and with digital I can even work in very bad light. Also, it’s a relief not to lose photographs to x-ray machines in airports.

He uses Canon digital cameras and then the files are transferred to analog negatives and processed the way they always have been onto the huge black and white prints. Hence preserving the same signature Salgado style and graininess. Even the greats like to ‘instagram’ their images it seems.
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Larry Lessig on political finance

Larry Lessig’s TED talk posted last week is well worth a watch for two reasons. Firstly, Lessig is absolutely right and campaign finance reform would probably be the best thing for everybody in the US to get right next. I spent quite a lot of time there in the run up to the election and couldn’t quite believe how obscene the influence of small groups of political funders was. Even though the problem is on a very different scale in the UK, I think we should have the same response. I’ve posted some suggestions before on party funding reform.

Secondly, it’s a masterclass in the public presentation of ideas. I first came across Lessig in 2002 when he was giving his ‘Free Culture’ presentation. It completely changed the way I thought about Powerpoint (or more accurately Keynote I think) and made me realise how few presentations actually have that emotional impact. Charles Stross has a plot line in the Jennifer Morgue that involves a villain killing off intelligence officers by turning them into zombies through after lunch powerpoint presentations. In most cases, he’s not far wrong.

Blofeld the startup investor


I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Stross lately — particularly the Laundry series. He’s one of my favourite contemporary science fiction authors, partly because of the ambition of some of his more conceptual stuff but also because he’s very funny.

The Jennifer Morgue is the second in the Laundry series of supernatural spy thrillers and (without giving too much away) has a strong James Bond theme. You should read it but I really liked the little author’s essay at the back about the cultural significance of Bond. It includes a fictional recent interview with Ernst Blofeld — perhaps the most infamous of the the Bond villains:

Now at age seventy-two, Blofeld is a cheerful veteran of numerous high-tech start-ups, and not a few multinationals where, as a specialist in international risk management and arbitrage, he applied his unique skills to business expansion.

Beneath the humour there’s a darker point that Stross makes — that in the end it was the men of private means rather than the Governments that triumphed. I think his tongue is at least partly in his cheek when he says:

If you turn on the TV you’re likely to see one of old Ernst’s proteges being held up for praise as an object of emulation. President of Italy, captain of industry or chief executive of Enron — SPECTRE won and it’s their world that we live in, the world of the lesser evil.