Thursday, September 29, 2005

Fighting extinction

Reuters reports that, once again, some pandas have failed to mate. The reluctance this species has toward procreating may eventually spell doom for the black-and-white fuzzballs.

Shuan Shuan, 18 and born in Mexico, was flown back from Japan earlier this week, dashing hopes that a far eastern romance might get her pregnant, after attempts to spark chemistry with Beijing-born Ling Ling, 20, fizzled out.

"We couldn't get them to mate," said Mexico City zoo director Rafael Tinajero sadly. [Is it really necessary to include this adverb? What if he had been indifferent? --ed.]

The 1-1/2 year mating mission was part of a worldwide breeding program to try to bring pandas back from the brink of extinction. But Shuan Shuan and Ling Ling
didn't hit it off.

Maybe we are doing the wrong thing to push these animals so hard to reproduce. Maybe we are witnessing natural selection in process. Perhaps the panda was meant to die out. Perhaps it should not survive because it is not the fittest of animals.

But I can hear the admonishments already:
"They're so cute!"
"They're so cuddly!"
"We should save all animals!"
"Especially cute and cuddly ones!"
"After all, that zoo director was so sad when those pandas couldn't mate!"


The pandas seem to be an evolutionary dead-end. And this is not the fault of humans! In fact, we seem to be doing everything in our power to save them and they just don't seem interested in each other!

Should we be expending this much energy on animals that can't (or won't) mate and that can't seem to survive on their own?

I'm inclined to say, No.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sailing the cosmos

The thought of a solar sail deploying may not be exciting for most people, and the technology is not likely to be featured in any movie space battles (Count Dooku's use notwithstanding), but I can't believe that this technology is not getting wider coverage. Especially since, according to, it's starting to seem entirely feasible and not so much like fiction anymore.
NASA engineers and their industry partners have successfully deployed two 400-square-meter solar sails during ground testing. This is a critical milestone in the development of a unique propulsion technology that uses the Sun to propel vehicles through space.

Again, it's not all blasts and rocket fire, but solar sails may play a significant role in future space travel.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Professor Using High Tech to Detect IEDs"

This sounds like good science. For a good and timely purpose. Imagine if our soldiers can just turn on a device and detect explosives in their path.

With some modifications here and a few tweaks there, [Kansas State University nuclear engineering professor Bill] Dunn believes technology routinely used to figure soil density or measure muscle fat in meat can detect explosives.

Dunn envisions two types of sensors. One would be large and transported in a van, capable of detecting explosives several yards away. The van could be at a vehicle checkpoint and data could be fed into a computer a safe distance away.

Right now, the sensors can work up to a couple of yards, but Dunn's goal is to extend that range to at least 10 yards and be able to detect an explosive in less than 10 seconds.

After the London transit bombings in July, Dunn started work on a smaller version — about 3 feet by 2 feet — that could be wheeled around to check smaller items such as suitcases and knapsacks.

Godspeed and good luck to Dunn. Let's give our soldiers all the protection they need.

Friday, September 23, 2005

"IRA 'on the threshold' of full disarmament"

It looks like the IRA is finally playing nice.

The outlawed Irish Republican Army is on the verge of disposing of its stockpiled arms in a long-sought peace move, Sinn Fein leaders said Friday after their first meeting with the Irish government in eight months.

The British and Irish governments have also forecast that the IRA could confirm it has scrapped its weapons arsenal by the middle of next week.

So close. Let's hope they're not blowing smoke up our asses.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Revealing the new vehicle

Here it is, the new space vehicle to replace the space shuttle.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, is slightly less than imaginative in design (it's rocket-shaped), but the functionality and safety are what's most important. According to NASA, it "will be 10 times safer than the shuttle, due to an escape rocket on top of the capsule that can quickly blast the CEV if problems ... develop during takeoff." [ed.: I think they meant to say "... blast off the CEV ..."]

Good. Let's get those astronauts up there.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Impugning a perfectly good word, part II

Michael Quinion at World Wide Words has a good entry on the beating that the word "refugee" has gotten after the Katrina disaster. He thinks the word is being used in a perfectly good way that captures the situation aptly. I tend to agree.
Evacuee implies an orderly and organised process. Refugee implies a desperate, involuntary and unplanned move. The former doesn’t have the emotive implications or emotional force of the latter. Whatever its dictionary sense, or the definitions of the international aid organisations, or the plaints of politicians, or the lexical views of dictionaries and pedants, for most people refugee sums up the situation of the sufferers more accurately than any other.

As I said previously, it's too bad when sensitivities effectively ban a neutral and descriptive word. The English language as a whole suffers for it.

Friday, September 16, 2005

"NASA to unveil plan for moon mission in 2018"

It's good to see we will be back on the moon soon. And after that, Mars. What with all the developments we have been seeing lately (Mars rovers, private space flights, space elevators, Saturn probes, asteroid probes, etc.), it looks like we're on the threshold of a new age of space exploration.

Exciting stuff.

UPDATE: Truly exciting stuff, especially when some people have a vision like this: "New Company Sets Goal of Settling Mars".

I hope these guys are serious, though I am afraid they might fail. Still, you can't help admiring their spirit.

[4Frontiers Corp. co-founder Bruce] Mackenzie, a software developer, has devoted much of his energy to a nonprofit group called the Mars Foundation, which aims to advance knowledge about how to colonize the planet. But he decided a private venture like 4Frontiers also would be necessary, to drive things forward.

Although President Bush has called for a manned mission to Mars, Mackenzie believes big bureaucracies might never get the job done right.

"It's better to have lots of groups out there, all trying things," Mackenzie says.

Amen. And good luck.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"Japan's Probe Within 12 Miles of Asteroid"

Did I mention this was cool?

What's really cool is how the Japanese plan to collect samples of the asteroid. They're going to shoot the rock!

When Hayabusa moves in for the rendezvous, expected to be over in a matter of seconds, it will pull up close enough to fire a small bullet into the asteroid and collect the ejected fragments in a funnel-like device. It won't be coming back with much — the amount of material planners hope to capture wouldn't even fill a teaspoon. [emphasis added]

That's a small amount of asteroid dirt. But I'm sure it will keep scientists busy for a long time.

More information here at the Web site for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

"Gillette ups the ante, unveils 5-blade razor"

Two blades have always been ample for me. But, if someone wants to shave with the equivalent of a set of sharp mini-blinds, who am I to disparage such an invention?

Monday, September 12, 2005

"Japanese Space Probe Reaches Asteroid"

This is so cool. They're actually going to land a space probe (called "Hayabusa") on an asteroid (called "Itokawa"), take samples, ...

... and then take off again!

I wish the Japanese all the luck in this endeavor.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A crane

Nothing but a picture of a crane.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"Deep Impact probe shows a fragile, empty comet"

I guess comets really are dirty snowballs. At least, according to this article from Reuters.

"The comet is mostly empty, mostly porous," said Michael A'Hearn, a comet specialist at the University of Maryland. "Probably all the way in, there is no bulk ice. The ice is all in the form of tiny grains."

The material on the comet's surface, down to a depth of several dozen yards (meters) is "unbelievably fragile, less strong than a snowbank," A'Hearn said in a telephone news briefing to release early findings from the mission.

I hope this means they should be pretty easy to destroy if they ever threaten Earth. And that maybe this book got it wrong.

Impugning a perfectly good word

It's too bad when sensitivities effectively ban the use of certain words. This year's top victim is surely "refugee".

The Associated Press has a good article by Jocelyn Noveck about the recent commotion regarding the use of "refugee" to describe New Orleans residents left homeless by Katrina. I've got to agree with William Safire on this one: how does this word imply race at all?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Trying something new

I tried one of those new aluminum bottles. It was Michelob Light, and the look and feel of the bottle was truly interesting.

But I fail to see the point. The beer still tasted like beer.

At least it isn't as silly as Keystone Light's glass-lined cans.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

"Anti-rape condom aims to stop attacks"

All I have to say to this is, "ouch"!

An inventor developed an anti-rape condom for women, which she envisions will help prevent rapes in South Africa. The operative words are "hooks" and "shafts of sharp barbs".

And, she calls it the "rapex".

Not surprisingly, some people have objected to the "rapex".

But the "rapex" has raised fears amongst anti-rape activists that it could escalate violence against women.

"If a victim is wearing such a device it may enrage the attacker further and possibly result in more harm being caused," said Sam Waterhouse, advocacy coordinator for Rape Crisis.

Other critics say the condom is medieval and barbaric -- an accusation [inventor Sonette] Ehlers says should be directed rather at the act of rape.

Can't argue with that.