Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Cabin leak threatens US space shuttle launch"

This doesn't sound good.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - NASA engineers have discovered a leak in space shuttle Endeavour's cabin and are rushing to find its source to prevent a delay in the mission's launch, a US space agency spokesman said Tuesday.


"You can't launch with a cabin leak," [NASA spokesman Kyle] Herring said, adding, however, "At this point there is no delay of the launch."

Engineers are isolating valves that control cabin pressure to find the source of the leak and replace the defective item in time of the launch, he said.

Yeah, with spaceships, I guess good ol' caulk just wouldn't be sufficient.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Fighting panda extinction ...

... by selling their poop.

The Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base has come up with a dung-for-profit scheme that turns droppings from the endangered species into odor-free souvenirs ranging from bookmarks to Olympic-themed statues of the animals, state media and base officials said Monday.

The facility in the southwestern province of Sichuan houses about 40 bamboo-fed pandas who produce less than a ton of excrement a day.

"We used to spend at least 6,000 yuan ($770) a month to get rid of the droppings but now they can be lucrative," Jing Shimin, assistant to the base director, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The products will be made at a local handicraft company mostly from undigested bamboo culled from the panda waste through a special process, Xinhua said.

An official who answered the phone at the Chengdu facility said the dung is "carefully selected, smashed, dried and sterilized at 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit)." He refused to give his name but said the products will be of all colors because they will be dyed.

"They don't smell too bad because 70 percent of the dung is just remains of the bamboo that the pandas are unable to digest," Jing said.

Nice. They'll probably make a fortune, too.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Fighting panda extinction

By tracking the poop.

Xinhua News Agency said forestry researchers have identified panda droppings in areas beyond known habitats bordering northwestern Gansu province and southwestern Sichuan province.

"This indicates an expansion of the giant panda's habitat — and probably of its population, too," Huang Huali, vice director of the Baishuijiang Nature Reserve Administration, was quoted as saying.

Good news for panda lovers.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"ISS Computer Damaged On Purpose, NASA Says"

Well, this is a little weird.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A space program worker deliberately damaged a computer that is supposed to fly aboard shuttle Endeavour in less than two weeks, an act of sabotage that was caught before the equipment was loaded onto the spaceship, NASA said Thursday.

The unidentified employee, who works for a NASA subcontractor, cut wires inside the computer that is supposed to be delivered to the international space station by Endeavour, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief.

They say that the damaged computer "would have posed no danger". Nevertheless, it seems pretty mean-spirited at the least -- and I might even argue evil -- to tamper with such equipment. A stay in space is not a stay at a motel. If something goes wrong, people could die, and sabotaging a space station computer is an egregious transgression.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Thinking about the existence of English

Sasha Volokh at The Volokh Conspiracy thinks there is not really one language called English.

Eugene and I think fairly similarly in matters of language, and I don't disagree with anything he's said so far. However, I want to make a more radical statement. Perhaps Eugene agrees with it, but I want to express it more nakedly. There is no such thing as the English language. Every person speaks slightly differently, understands a slightly different set of words, uses words slightly differently. When we say that a set of people "speaks English," this is a sloppy shorthand that means that when each of them speaks the way he normally speaks, the other people in the set can mostly understand what he's saying, and the meaning he's trying to convey is more or less the meaning they get. It's just an empirical statement about the degree of overlap between each person's "language."

This is all well and good, and we can keep using the shorthand of talking about "speaking English" for most purposes. Where the shorthand reveals its sloppiness, though, is when we see different people using different forms, possibly mutually incomprehensible forms, and say that one of them is "right." [emphasis in original]

Interesting thoughts in the comments, too.

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Mars dust storms suck life out of rovers"

Well, this may be it for the rugged little rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

Scientists fear the [Martian dust] storms might continue for several days or weeks. If the sunlight is further slashed for an extended period, the rovers will not be able to generate enough power to keep warm and operate at all, even in a near-dormant state, the statement said.

The rovers use electric heaters to keep vital core electronics from becoming too cold.

"We're rooting for our rovers to survive these storms, but they were never designed for conditions this intense," said Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

They were never designed to even get this far. If they die as a result of the storms, that will be too bad. But, they have increased our knowledge of Mars in ways unthought of, and we should be thankful for that.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Anthropomorphizing a big cat?

"Zookeeper Attacked By Tiger Released From Hospital"

Maybe they should have kept him in a little longer. Then, he would be such a danger to zookeepers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Building a better spacesuit

They're working on an exciting new kind of spacesuit. Or should we start calling them "planetsuits"?

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are edging closer to a spaceworthy astronaut garment that replaces the bulky traits of current, gas-pressurized versions with flexibility and mobility. Dubbed BioSuit, the spacesuit design relies on mechanical counter pressure rather than the stiff pressurized vessels employed by astronauts in space today.


NASA's current Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits, as well as their Russian Orlan counterparts, surround their astronaut wearers in a stiff, pressurized vessel containing breathable air. Added outer layers of material, as well as a backpack-mounted life support system, can further restrict the spacesuit's mobility and require astronauts to spend the bulk of their energy fighting their own garments while toiling in space.

Both the EMU and Orlan spacesuits are designed for work in Earth orbit, not for use on planetary surfaces like those of the Moon or Mars, where walking -- not floating -- will be key.

I don't think "BioSuit" is a good name, though. I suggest calling them "exploration suits", because that's what they are truly designed for.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Arguing about English

Mark Liberman at Language Log points to a dustup (via Linguistic Mystic) regarding a post by a fellow San Antonian that says immigrants to the U.S. should learn English rather than catering to people that speak Spanish only. Whatever you view on this issue is, Liberman has a point that English owes its current existence to the presence of foreign words.
This 12-word slogan has the lovely self-refuting property that (according to the OED) all six of its content words are borrowed from other languages: petition from Spanish peticionar, modify from French modifier, native from French natif, language from French langage, include from Latin inclaudere, foreign from French forain.
I love the English language. Its complexities give it a majesty of expression that I'm not sure any other language can claim, and I don't know why anyone would refuse themselves the pleasure of speaking and reading it. That's the main reason why I think all immigrants should learn English when they come to the United States of America.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Eitzen Gas afternoon

Nothing but a picture of a ship cruising down the channel.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Confusing headline of the day

"Japan obsessed with mystery men's room money"

And in other news, China's really concerned about how international spies pay their rent.

Monday, July 09, 2007

"NAACP symbolically buries N-word"

There was a burial today.

DETROIT - There was no mourning at this funeral. Hundreds of onlookers cheered Monday afternoon as the NAACP put to rest a long-standing expression of racism by holding a public burial for the N-word during its annual convention.


"Today we're not just burying the N-word, we're taking it out of our spirit," said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. "We gather burying all the things that go with the N-word. We have to bury the 'pimps' and the 'hos' that go with it."

He continued: "Die N-word, and we don't want to see you 'round here no more."

I don't think the word will stay buried, but, while we're at it, why not deep-six a few more?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

"'Scary Storm' on Mars Could Doom Rovers"

After performing phenomenally on the surface of an alien planet, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity could now face their demise.

A giant dust storm that now covers nearly the entire southern hemisphere of Mars could permanently jeopardize the future of the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, officials told SPACE.com today.
The new and potentially bleak outlook is a stark shift from the prognosis
earlier this week. Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems said in e-mail interview that a smaller, second dust storm has recently appeared on the Red Planet, further compounding the threat to the rovers.

The largest dusty squall has reduced direct sunlight to Mars' surface by nearly 99 percent, an unprecedented threat for the solar-powered robotic explorers. If the storm keeps up and thickens with even more dust, officials fear the rovers' batteries may empty and silence the robotic explorers forever.

We've gotten way more out of these robots than was ever expected, and humanity's knowledge of the Red Planet has burgeoned because of these missions. The importance of the rovers cannot be overstated.