Why Comet Ison is not an epic fail

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary?

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary? Errant celebrities and under-performing footballers have suffered less criticism, uninformed speculation and unwanted exposure.

The pressure has been on for Comet Ison. After being hailed as the “comet of the century” by various media sources for months, the Huffington Post pulled no punches a few weeks ago, with a headline declaring that the disappointing comet “Fails to dazzle so far”. Even New Scientist had to grit its teeth to get through a period of waning faith: “Until last week, it looked like Ison might be a total dud,” the magazine reported. A couple of weeks ago, the Independent grudgingly acknowledged that things might be looking up: “Comet ISON, the much anticipated ‘comet of the century’, is finally beginning to live up to its reputation.”

Even NASA has been known to trash-talk comets. Remember 2011’s Comet Elenin? Following a spate of predictions that Elenin would be responsible for calamity on Earth, NASA representatives were quick to burst its celebrity bubble. After Elenin disintegrated in the sun’s heat, the “icy dirtball” broke up into a “trail of piffling particles” making an “unexceptional swing” through the inner solar system, according to a NASA expert. It was “gone and should be forgotten”.

They might soon say the same about Ison. Yesterday the comet came within three quarters of a million miles of the sun’s surface, and was exposed to the full force of solar heating. It appeared to break up under the pressure, and the European Space Agency declared it dead. But now it has reappeared, diminished but triumphant, like an icy Obi-Wan. It’s no longer going to be the comet of the century, though.

NASA’s observing campaign for Ison distanced itself from that epithet long ago. The Comet Ison observing campaign has noted that Comet Elenin was “ridiculously over-hyped”, and were determined that their comet shouldn’t suffer the same fate. The tremendous number of observations and science data we have already recorded from Ison means that, even with the fizzled-out hopes, labelling it an epic fail is “particularly harsh” according to the NASA campaign’s site. Scientists only discovered ISON last September, and have scrambled to assemble missions that will photograph and analyse it. Scientists want to study the comet for clues to the conditions in the Oort cloud, a sphere of icy rocks in the outer regions of the solar system. This is where most of the comets we see are thought to originate.

Ison’s final indignity will come thanks to the many scientific instruments in space; there is no danger of the comet escaping unpapped. This week its fate will be caught by no fewer than eight space-based cameras. Out there, no one can hear you scream, but everyone can see you burn bright - or fall apart.
 

Another celebrity, comet Hale-Bopp appears in the sky over Merrit Island, Florida in 1997. Photo:Getty.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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It’s 2016, so why do printers still suck?

Hewlett Packard recently prevented third-party cartridges from working in their printers, but this is just the latest chapter of home printing's dark and twisted history. 

In order to initiate their children into adulthood, the Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon weave stinging ants into gloves and ask teenage boys to wear them for a full ten minutes. The British have a similar rite of passage, though men, women, and children alike partake. At one point in their short, brutal little lives, every citizen must weep at the foot of a printer at 2am, alternatively stroking and swearing at it, before falling into a heap and repeating “But there is no paper jam” 21 times.

There are none alive that have escaped this fate, such is the unending crapness of the modern home printer. And against all odds, today printers have hit the news for becoming even worse, as a Hewlett Packard update means their machines now reject non-branded, third-party ink cartridges. Their printers now only work with the company’s own, more expensive ink.

Although it’s surprising that printers have become worse, we’re already very used to them not getting any better. The first personal printers were unleashed in 1981 and they seemingly received the same treatment as the humble umbrella: people looked at them and said, “What? No, this? No way this can be improved.”

It’s not true, of course, that printing technology has stagnated over the last 35 years. But in a world where we can 3D print clitorises, why can’t we reliably get our tax returns, Year 9 History projects, and insurance contracts from our screens onto an A4 piece of paper in less than two hours?

It’s more to do with business than it is technology. Inkjet printers are often sold at a loss, as many companies decide instead to make their money by selling ink cartridges (hence HP’s latest update). This is known as a “razor and blades” business model, whereby the initial item is sold at a low price in order to increase sales of a complementary good. It explains why your ink is so expensive, why it runs out so quickly, and the most common complaint of all: why your cyan cartridge has to be full in order to print in black and white.

But technology is complicit in the crime. HP’s new update utilises the chips on ink cartridges to tell whether a refill is one of their own, and have also previously been used to region-block cartridges so they can’t be sold on in other countries. Those little chips are also the thing that tells the printer when your ink is empty. Very good. Fine. Except in 2008, PC World found that some printers will claim the cartridges are empty when they are actually nearly half-full.

Back to business. Because this profit models means companies sell printers for so little, quality inevitably suffers. If they’re not selling them for much, companies will naturally try to keep the costs of making their printers down, and this is the reason for your “Load paper in tray two”s, your “Paper jam”s and your “Would you like to cancel this print job? Nope, sorry, too late, here are 100 copies.”

So why are printers bad at networking? This isn’t a set up to a lame joke (unless the joke is, of course, your life as you try to get your wireless printer and your PC to connect). There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to this, other than the fact that Bluetooth is still fairly patchy anyway. Some errors, just as you suspected, happen for no bloody damn good bloody reason at all.

On a bigger scale, the printers in your office are difficult because they work harder than you ever have. It’s a stressful job, for sure, and this naturally comes with errors and jams. The reason they are so hard to fix after the inevitable, however, again comes back to capitalism. Because printers don’t have a universal design, most companies will protect theirs, meaning you can’t know the specifics in order to fix a device yourself. This way, they also make money by sending out their own personal technicians.

Thankfully, although every personal printer you’ve ever bought seems to be on collaborative quest to drive you to madness, there is an easy fix. Buy a laser printer instead. Though the device and the replacement toner cartridges are more expensive, in the long-run you’ll most likely save money. In the meantime, there's only one solution: PC load letter. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.