The decline of email

March 14, 2012

I like the new version of the site stats for WordPress blog authors, especially the geographical stats. I am more international than I realised ! As usual I am a tad behind Telescoper. Apparently he reaches about a hundred countries and I reach about fifty. Meanwhile in Twitterland I have 759 followers. Gulp. Who are all these people ? And a steady stream of people are joining Facebook and want to be my fwiend. Everybody is speaking to everybody else ! Its ballooning out of control ! But … I seem to get significantly less email than I used to …

Is this a well known thing, or just me ? And is it connected with the rise of Blogs Twitter and Facebleuuchhh ? Like most scientists, I started using email in the early 80s. At first it was mostly inside my own institution (RGO at that time). Then there was growing chatter between Starlink nodes. Next, thanks to Decnet and SPAN, it started being possible to send emails to Oz and Yankland and so on. That was magic. Then TCP/IP and SMTP took over, every scientist had an email address of the same form, and the world really became transparent.

The next bit wasn’t so groovy. Microsoft made email so easy (Outlook was one of their best products) that  it was discovered by our University administrators. Suddenly they could pester you and demand stuff thirty times a day. Then your auntie and all your cousins found out about email (Outlook Express…). Clearly, email was going exponential, and it was getting to be a serious problem. I noticed that senior people learned to write three sentence emails, whereas postdocs and administrators sent you six screenfuls of stuff.

But now the tide seems to be going out. Natural feedback cycle ? Everybody going bonkers on Twitter instead ? Or have I just become less popular ?

World Wide Telescope : coming soon

February 29, 2008

At a TED conference in Monterrey, Roy Gould from the Science Education Department of CfA just gave a glitzy talk plugging Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope software. This is Jim Gray’s legacy, following on from his work with Alex Szalay and Sky Server. It sounds like its going to be very nice, maybe smoother and faster than Google Sky. But you can’t get it yet .. its promised for “Spring 2008”. When it is ready, it will be downloadable from the worldwidetelescope web site. Meanwhile that web site has pix of kids gawping cutely etc.

Apparently its so good it made Robert Scoble cry.

Google Sky : gateway drug

September 30, 2007

I just came back from the twice yearly Virtual Observatory Geeks meeting, otherwise known as the IVOA interoperability workshop. I am on the Exec, which means of course other people do the work and we pontificate a lot. We approved eight standards. Progress ! In an “Applications Showcase” session there were several talks on Google Sky and its possibilities, including one from Ryan Scranton, who created the beast together with Andy Connolly, while on special leave from Pittsburgh U. where they worked on a NASA predecessor called “NASA Worldwind“.

Obviously Google Sky is wonderful fun for Joe Public, and kinda cool for many amateur astronomers, but is it of any interest to professional astronomers ? Ryan thought yes – he said he thought of it as a cannabis-like “gateway drug” which many pros would play with, and then find themselves sucked into the crack-cocaine world of cone-searches, ADQL queries, workflows and so on. So where is the link ? Well several other VO stalwarts have already found ways to do VO-Google-Sky mashups of various kinds.

Example One is VOEvent. This is an IVOA protocol which gives a standard way to pass round messages from alerts made by gamma ray burst satellites, NEOs spotted by small telescopes, etc. There is a service run out of Caltech called “VO event net” which feeds these messages in various formats. Roy Williams showed they can be spat out as KML and so appear as push pins on your Google Sky.

Example Two is the PLASTIC Hub. This is a method which allows VO tools to interoperate, so that for example when you have found an image using Astroscope (from AstroGrid) you can pass it straight to Aladin (from CDS). Alasdair Allan showed how you can PLASTICise Google Sky, so that if you select a flagged object it will automatically move the cursor to the right place in the image you have open in Aladin, or whatever.

This is all very cute but I am still sure how useful it is. And as Bob Hanisch stressed a couple of times, Google Sky starts to get very confusing, and ambiguous, once you have a lot of stuff overlaid. Does this matter, if it is primarily fun for families, or Ryan’s gateway drug ? Well maybe suggested Bob, as high school teachers and kids are likely to start relying heavily on Google Sky.

By the way, there are alternatives, present or imminent. Wiki Sky performs a similar function, and is very good. ESO have a plan to use the excellent Stellarium planetarium software as a front end for VO tools. And Microsoft have been working for ages on a Google Sky equivalent, called the World Wide Telescope. Its one of the things Jim Gray was working on before he disappeared. I would never have guessed this a few years back, but I am starting to feel almost sorry for Microsoft. They have had a Google Earth equivalent for ages but it just hasn’t had the PR success of Google Earth. It was launched as “Virtual Earth” but then last year re-branded as part of “Live Search“. Its fast as well as well designed, and has an optional 3D interface.