Thursday, January 29, 2004

Modern use of Latin

I enjoyed this article on, well, the modern use of Latin.

It also gives a reference to the Vatican's new "Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis," which might be nice to get, although it's $116 and translates into Italian, rather than into English. Still, it's just the place to turn to for translating the latest Vatican enciclical, in case you come across the phrase sonorarum visualiumque taeniarum cistellula for "videocassette."

On condition of anonymity...

A friend just passed along this item from the AP wires. Read it carefully:

On Thursday, Blair's official spokesman repeated calls for the
broadcaster to apologize.

"We still want an apology,'' he said, briefing reporters on condition of
anonymity. "The BBC should apologize for broadcasting a false allegation
which was unfounded.''


After I caught the little twist there, I thought this was hilarious. The only thing that could make it more perfect would be if it were the BBC writing this report.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

It was ALL ABOUT OIL!!!

...at least for France. The United Press is reporting today that the new Iraqi government has documents showing that Hussein essentially(?) "bribed" various foreigners and foreign organizations into opposing the US-led war. This was bribery with oil, so I don't know exactly how this was set up. I would suspect that it wasn't sending over a free tanker-full so much as letting them in on business deals.
Then again, the list includes some figures I wouldn't think could take advantage of oil contracts per se. The list includes

officials in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Sudan, China, Austria and France, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Communist Party, India's Congress Party and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Russian Orthodox Church?! There's something I didn't expect to see. Now I wonder if an "oil bribe" is just that--a free amount of oil, which the bribee would just resell on the market, maybe not even seeing the physical object there. Maybe that makes more sense than supposing all of these officials were getting business deals.

Interesting, but not surprising. I wonder if heads will roll over this, at least in the Western or more developed countries. Then again, has George Galloway been prosecuted? I haven't heard much about him lately. Part of the complication might have been that a newspaper got the documents on him, rather than the British government getting them, and perhaps he'll say it was all fabricated. But I would think that somebody would be bringing bribery or treason charges or something similar, or at least conducting a criminal investigation, that there would be enough suspicion to start the process with.

A new memorial day: NASA's "Day of Rememberance"

I just got this e-mail. It seems that NASA is instituting its own memorial day to honor the memories of the lost crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. Starting this Thursday, January 29, and from now on, the last Thursday of each January will be NASA's "Day of Rememberance." I've included the e-mail below:



Date: Wed, 28 Jan 2004 10:51:39 -0500
From: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center xxxxx
To: xxxxx
Subject: Center Director Recognizes Day of Remembrance on Thursday, January 29
Parts/Attachments:
1 OK 62 lines Text
2 Shown 60 lines Text
----------------------------------------

Colleagues:
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has declared that this Thursday, January
29, will be a Day of Remembrance when we in the NASA family will take
time to remember not only the brave crew of Columbia, but also those
aboard Challenger and Apollo 1, and all those who made the ultimate
sacrifice in the exploration of space.
From this day onward, the final Thursday in January will be a Day of
Remembrance for NASA, a day when we pay tribute to these men and women,
so we will never forget them.  On this day, every year, we will renew our
solemn pledge to carry out the awe-inspiring mission of exploration and
discovery that the American people have entrusted to us and recommit
ourselves to doing it safely.

On Thursday, Administrator O'Keefe will hold a special NASA Update from
Headquarters to speak to the NASA family on this first Day of
Remembrance, and take questions from the Centers. I would like to invite
you to join me at 11:30 a.m. in the Goett Auditorium to take part in the
program, which will air on NASA Television. Following the Administrator's
address, I will take your questions and discuss with you what this day
means to us here at Goddard.

As we reflect on the activities of this remarkable agency over the past
45 years, we see shining moments of extraordinary achievement, alongside
moments of devastating tragedy and loss.

We have put men on the Moon and returned them safely to the Earth. We
have taken astonishing pictures of stars and galaxies with the Hubble
Space Telescope that touch our very souls.  The WMAP mission has taken us
back in time and space to the very infancy of the universe. Humans are
living and working in the first international space station.  And today,
our intrepid explorers Spirit and Opportunity are roaming the surface of
Mars.

But our accomplishments have not come without terrible cost.  As we
reached to the heavens, we endured the loss of test pilots, scientists,
technicians along with the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia.
They have given what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion,"
in the cause of exploration, knowledge and discovery.

At Goddard, we are proud of our history as a Center devoted to scientific
research and discovery. We are privileged to be able to add to the
Nation's storehouse of knowledge and to make lasting contributions to
mankind's understanding of the Universe and our own planet Earth.

We have much to be proud of, but we know we can do better.  We must do
better.

As the Administrator said in his remarks following the President's
announcement of a new vision for the exploration of the Moon, Mars and
the Solar System, we have been entrusted by the American people to carry
out this mission of exploration and discovery on their behalf. It is a
mission we relish.

Our success will depend on our continued commitment to excellence, a
promise to learn from our past failures, and a pledge from each and every
one of us to do our absolute best. The American public will accept no
less.  I know we expect no less of ourselves.

Please join me on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. with Administrator O'Keefe for
NASA's first Day of Remembrance.  The finest way to honor the men and
women who have given their lives in the cause of exploration is to
continue the journey with renewed dedication and commitment.

A. V. Diaz



I like the idea, and I don't even mind the Lincoln quote.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Would you ever have thought...

Flipping through channels, I just came across (for the first time) Dennis Miller's new show on CNBC. At this moment, he's interviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger on California's budget (coincidentally, at the same time, AMC is showing the original Terminator).

If you had fallen asleep in, say, 1990, when Schwarzenegger was in between Terminator roles and Miller did the Weekend Update skit on SNL, and you'd not woken up until this instant... and the first thing you saw on waking up was Miller doing a real news/interview show and talking to Governor Schwarzenegger about California bond initiatives... would you really believe what you were seeing?

Or would it seem more like an aftereffect of your coma?

Heh, heh...and it's not that I'm making fun of either one of them, mind you, but it's like that game friends and I played in the early 1990s, imagining a Rip van Winkle waking up then and finding out that the USSR had disintegrated ("Republic of Kyrgizwhat?!"), Germany was reunited, and most of the Warsaw Pact had joined NATO.

UPDATE: Miller just had a line I had to think about (not unusual)--"If you go down to the border at night with a pair of night-vision goggles, it's like the start of the Boston Marathonn in ponchos." There was a slight pause, then gradually-increasing chuckles from the camera crew and the governor.

WMD: No, no, no--that's not what he said!

This weekend, I heard former head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, on NPR giving his first broadcast interview since resigning a few days ago. This interview is itself making headlines, in part because of his opinion about the existence of Iraqi WMD.

What many, or perhaps most, of the stories about the interview claim is that Kay says there are "no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction" (I just heard Chicago's WGN put it this way).

No, no, NO! What he said, more than once, was that he does not believe that Iraq had "large stockpiles of weapons." In fact, he corrected himself to emphasize the adjective "large." He put it exactly this way again, later in the interview.

People in the press have got to be more careful about misreporting these things. Little words like "large" are very important. And they have got to keep straight what all has already been found. After all, the Danes have found actual chemical weapons now. They were old ones (pre-1991), but Hussein was supposed to have destroyed them, and he hadn't.

I enjoyed the NPR interview (now, there's a statement you don't often hear from me!). The interviewer went into detail, and Kay did a great job of answering. The interviewer tried to get him to blame Bush for misleading the country before the Iraqi war, but Kay said that it wasn't Bush who owed the country an apology, but the intelligence services who owed Bush one!

Now, he didn't come down hard on the CIA, etc., in general, emphasizing that after all, we weren't there on the ground, in the country beforehand, and that all of the major countries' intelligence services agreed that Hussein had these weapons.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

President Morgan Freeman...

I just finished watching Deep Impact on CBS. I had seen it at the theater when it first came out and really enjoyed it. Morgan Freeman plays the President, and he closes the movie with a good post-disaster speech that includes the lines,

Cities fall, but they are rebuilt.
And heroes die, but they are remembered.


That's not a bad way of expressing things in our current era, either. Deep Impact came out in 1998, I reckon, well before the terrorist attacks.

There is a scene in which people are fleeing the coast in preparation for the mother of all tidal waves (100' high and traveling at Mach 1). There are only hours left, and we see the interstate absolutely jammed for miles. I was reminded of an old political cartoon showing a bunch of military officers and politicians running a Cold War city evacuation drill and looking at a map, saying, "As you can see, the interstates are completely jammed, and traffic is in chaos. Gentlemen, I consider this drill a complete success!" Of course, that probably would happen in any real emergency (hey--think of how hard it is to get out of D.C. at 5:00 on a normal weekday!), so I got a bit of a chuckle out of this scene in the movie. I turned, smiling, to my date to see if she was enjoying this, and she was absolutely in tears! I felt kind of bad about smiling at that point (at least to the extent she could see me). Oh, well, part of the difference between boys and girls, I reckon.

Incidentally, Morgan Freeman is a fellow Tennesseean. I always enjoy finding a compatriot in the movies. I still remember seeing him in "The Electric Company," when I was a kid. It was for some years after that that I hadn't seen him in anything and one day (maybe after seeing Robin Hood?) suddenly made the connection.

Opportunity Knocks (and the Spirit is Revived)

~12:10---Sorry, couldn't help the joke in the headline there. Fox News is reporting now that NASA's "Opportunity" rover has landed successfully on Mars!

12:13--Now I'm looking at CNN. Is that Al Gore in the control room? Yes. Yes, it is. And there's the Governator, as well. Man, I've never seen Schwartzenegger and Gore in the same room together. Not that I thought they were the same man, in a Superman/Clark Kent sort of way... ...hold on a sec...could that really be?! I mean, Gore does have that stiff, Kent-like nerdiness about him, and Schwartzenegger...

Now I see Fearless Leader, Sean O'Keefe, very happily shaking hands in the same room. A real contrast to the last one of these I watched live, the 1999(?) lander mission we lost, when Dan Whatshisname (then-NASA Administrator) was looking really glum in the JPL control room. I was watching that one on the big screen TV at Space Telescope with a good-sized crowd there. Man, what a depressing day.

Oh, and to top it all off, JPL announced earlier today that they've identified the problem with Spirit (flash memory) and have upgraded its status from "critical" to "serious." It started obeying some commands today. Whew!

Saturday, January 24, 2004

The first jet airplane

While visiting a Romanian friend, she eagerly pointed out to me some Romanian aviation pioneers, including Henri Coanda. He invented the jet airplane, and I remembered seeing photos of it some time ago. However, I'd misremembered the date, thinking he built it in the late 1920s.

Nope. 1910! Think about this--it was just seven years after the Wright brothers first flew, and we already had a flying jet airplane. It flew only once. With Coanda himself at the controls (I think he was intending only to do a static engine test, but the large thrust pulled the plane into flight), it flew but went into a sideslip, crashed, and burned. He noticed that the (hot) exhaust gases hugged the sides of the fabric-covered airplane, and that might have cause the fire. His later studies of this effect (now known as the Coanda Effect) led to great progress in fluid dynamics and aeronautics.

I've found some websites with photos of this plane, named the "Coanda-1910." Take a look here for two photos, here for a good diagram and stats, and here for some more information.

My reaction to the appearance of the plane is that it's very skinny and looks nose-heavy. At the same time, it makes me think of something out of Jules Verne--a forward-looking anachronism alongside its contemporaries, which look very much as being of their time. The compressor and jet are underneath a fairly modern-looking cowling, so there's a streamlined appearance to the nose. Take a look.

Two ideas for the future

Contributor Jeff e-mails with a couple of good ideas:

Right after Galileo's antenna stuck, I started asking why we don't put a little arm with a tiny camera on it on every satellite. A few million dollars spent developing a "standard arm" that could attach to any spacecraft would have increased the science return from Galileo multifold. Whack the $%^# antenna, and zoom, it opens!

This is what it means to not have any real infrastructure in space. FWIW, my worthless opinion is that a big pile of money ought to be spent to develop "standard buses" for Mars missions, one for orbiters, one for landers, one for rovers. Wanna have a lander on Mars? Fine, it'll look like this, and you're responsible for fitting your instruments on it. We'd not only get a little economy of scale, but we'd have the chance to debug the design over the course of a decade or so. In the end, we'd have what should be robust, dependable designs. When each new spacecraft is a one-off, there's no chance to learn how to optimize a single design. It's the difference between having fun designing new toys every year, half of which break, and having something that you can trust to work.


I think these are great ideas, for exactly the reasons Jeff lays out. If we want to take a "Faster, Cheaper, ummm...Better" philosophy to space exploration, why not save our money by standardizing a few things and gaining the experience with them to make sure they work reliably?

Friday, January 16, 2004

More on Hubble's servicing

Regarding my post immediately below, I should point out that Servicing Mission 4 was probably cancelled not so much because Hubble itself is being phased out (although we are getting closer to the planned end of the mission anyway) but because the Space Shuttle itself is being phased out. Hubble servicing missions are shuttle flights. The astronauts themselves do the repairs and installation of cameras. So since NASA has announced that the shuttle is going to leave service in a few years, and the remaining flights are going to support the space station (I think), then the loss to Hubble is a consequence of that.

I'm still disappointed, but this makes me think that the James Webb Space Telescope, which will require no manned missions to support it, is relatively safe. With all of these sudden shake-ups, let's hope this Moon/Mars idea actually goes somewhere!

Hubble loses out to Mars

The e-mails are flying over the announcement that the Fourth Hubble Servicing Mission (SM4) has been cancelled, due to the restructuring of NASA's mission to support a Mars initiative. For the record, I like the idea of a manned mission to Mars, but Hubble has been an incredibly profitable project for NASA in terms of the science achieved and the public interest it has generated. I think it is a mistake to cut that servicing mission from the schedule. On SM4 would have gone two new cameras, the COS (Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, an ultraviolet instrument) and the WFC3 (Wide Field Camera 3, an optical/infrared camera), and the usual maintenance and repairs would have been done to extend Hubble's life.

Still, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, formerly NGST--"Next Generation Space Telescope"--seriously!) is coming up, and I haven't heard that that has been cancelled. Hubble isn't being shut down now; this will just reduce its lifespan. All is not lost, but I'm still disappointed.

Here is an e-mail from the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, announcing the decision:



Subject: SM4
Date: Fri, 16 Jan 2004 12:56:34 -0500
From: Steven Beckwith xxxxx
xxxxx
To: xxxxx@stsci.edu

Colleagues,

A few minutes ago, we concluded a meeting at which Sean
O'Keefe, the NASA Administrator, announced his decision to
cancel SM4, the next servicing mission to Hubble. It was his
decision alone, and I will discuss the details with your
personally. I will be holding a town-hall meeting in the
auditorium at 3:00 pm today for everyone who is interested to
answer your questions about the decision and talk about the
future.

Steve

Go NASA!

I have not read the President's address to NASA yet, but upon reading Tim's comments, I thought I'd throw in my own. (Keep in mind that I am providing speculation here, not fact.) At first glance, it seems a waste of resources to take off from the moon when we have the technology here on Earth capable of space launches. But when you look a little deeper into what's going on, the idea of launching from the moon does not seem so ludicrous after all.

We're talking about long-term NASA goals here, not something that is expected to happen next week or next year. There are steps in a progression of science - and I believe the people who oppose Moon launches are not aware of these steps. Before we think of landing on Mars, shouldn't we test interplanetary space craft by traveling to the closest astronomical object, the moon? It has been years since an attempt for a moon landing was made, and therefore we need up to date information for our new technology on flight and spacecraft. Some might be thinking..."our technology has come so far that we don't need to test, that's what simulation programs are for, just launch straight to Mars!" Ummm...no thanks. There's an inherent risk involved for astronauts and space exploration. As many precautions as possible need to be brainstormed and implemented. Traveling to Mars is an incredibly high risk factor, since it's never been done before. One mistake, one wrong part or bad pipeline, and the entire mission could be jeopardized. Astronaut lives could be needlessly lost and efforts for future exploration diminished. By traveling to the moon (and back again) first, we establish safety guidelines for space travel, we increase the public's awareness of space travel, and most importantly, we prove to the world that NASA can provide reliable, safe space travel. If you can prove this by traveling to the Moon, you'll have that much more support to explore further.

So now you're thinking..."well, you still haven't convinced me we should launch from the Moon." OK, ok it's coming. To diverge a little bit, one of the major world issues at this time is the availability of natural resources. There are large efforts to conserve our natural resources, this includes fuels. At the moment (and this is not to say a new type of power would be developed by the time we enter interplanetary travel) it takes an enormous amount of resources to build the rockets and to provide fuel to propel the space craft through the Earth's atmosphere. Every launch is very expensive, limits our designs of space craft, and adds to the problems of resource conservation. Now let's look at what would happen if you launched from the Moon. Less fuel would be required to lift off the moon (because of gravity and lack of atmosphere) and therefore a reduced number of rockets for launch (if any needed at all.) This would also reduce the weight of the space craft, allowing more room for food supplies, etc. Of course the space craft would probably need to be assembled on the moon (but by then we should have a number of Moon flights) but it would have more options in space craft design. Overall this would be more cost effective than launching from the Earth, which in itself is reason enough to launch from the Moon.

Whew...jumping off my soap box. If you have any comments on this, I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Bush's Speech at NASA HQ

The President's address yesterday on long-range NASA goals caused a lot of e-mail discussion at Goddard Space Flight Center. The liberals were criticising him for saying we could use the Moon as a launch site for interplanetary space flights, arguing that it would not provide any benefit over launching them from the Earth. And to be honest, I've been skeptical of such concepts in the past, although there could be a benefit if you were to launch all of the materials separately in smaller rockets and assemble them into a single rocket to take off from the Moon.

However, when you look at this part of the speech in context, it is clear that this is just one part of what I think is a much more sensible plan. The President suggested using a lunar base to give us practice for living on Mars.

I'll look for the text of the speech and post it here later.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Iraqi Blister-Agent Warheads Confirmed

The apparent chemical warheads uncovered by the Danes the other day have been confirmed as containing blister agents. (Link via NRO.) These are thought to date from before the first Persian Gulf War. However, I've read that Iraq was supposed to have destroyed all such weapons years ago, and Hussein claimed that they had done so. Nope!

Big surprise--Hussein was lying to us.

According to the Fox News report I just heard, the "Coalition Military Authority" (did I get that right?) said that these are not "Weapons of Mass Destruction," just chemical warheads. I don't get that. I thought that chemical weapons of any kind were considered WMD. Nonetheless, these are weapons he was banned from having and that he had lied about destroying.

Thinking of this subject, I ought to say that in 2002, and up until Gen. Powell's UN speech, I didn't think that the then-current possession of WMD was the strongest argument to make against Iraq. Rather, I thought that the greatest danger from Iraq wasn't what weapons they had then but the fact that as long as Hussein or his regime was in power, we would never be able to trust them not to develop such weapons. Hussein's proven untrustworthiness, combined with his proven desire to obtain and use these weapons, meant that we and our allies in the region could never be safe with him in power.

I thought that counts of his existing stockpiles were less important, because those would or could change over time (and mostly, I mean that they might grow), so they didn't tell us predict what we'd face in a long-term or strategic sense. Plus, I wasn't sure how well we knew what he actually had on hand, anyway.

However, Powell's UN speech laid out some evidence and logic that made me think the then-current stockpiles were worth adding into the argument. Principally, he explained how we figured what he had on hand: we had a count of what he possessed a decade ago, and we had a count of what we'd confirmed him destroying. The latter did not add up to the former, and there was no reason to believe that, after trying to thwart the UN inspectors at every turn, he would voluntarily destroy more weapons, in secret, when no-one was looking, after he barred the inspectors in 1998. Thus keeping the sanctions in place, when he could have let the UN confirm the destruction and have them lifted.

So for months, we've been having trouble finding these supposed stockpiles, until, perhaps, now. I, for one, believe that Hussein either had or thought he had the weapons we've accused him of having. It makes absolutely no sense for him to have ordered their destruction when he couldn't take any advantage from it, and to do so in a way that, in fact, put him at an even worse disadvantage. I think the idea that his own weapons scientists were making a fool of him, by keeping the programs in existence only on paper, is plausible. It'll take a lot more digging, both in the sand and through what files exist, to tell whether that's the case or not.

But none of this changes the fact that Hussein's untrustworthiness and desire for WMD provided plenty of argument by themselves. Oh--and the fact that he'd violated the terms of the 1991 cease-fire. If you're the kind of person who likes "legal" technicalities to be observed in international relations, there's all the justification that's needed. I don't actually care that much, but it's good enough for me, too.

Friday, January 02, 2004

What's going on with the trans-Atlantic flights?

So yet another British Airways flight to America has been cancelled this morning, due to intelligence on terrorism. Oddly, the passengers have been rebooked onto a different flight and will still be able to make their trips, if a little delayed.

As some others have asked, what is the point of cancelling the flight itself if the passengers who are on it simply get onto a different plane? Some have suggested this is a dumb idea, but the fact that it's such an obvious objection makes me think that our intelligence agencies know more about this than we do.

First of all, the question presumes that the passengers constitute the entirety of the threat. If that were the case, then putting all of the passengers on a different airplane wouldn't solve the problem, unless you're giving them extra-close scrutiny in the process (but then why not use the same airplane?). So this suggests that the airplane itself is part of the equation.

What if, as I have suggested below, al Qaeda agents have already hidden hijacking materials (knives, pointy sticks, etc.) or explosives (perhaps plastic explosives without any suspicious electronics attached) on a particular plane? Then the agents boarding these flights for the actual attack could do so without carrying anything that would attract attention. If this were the case, then putting them onto a different airplane would at least temporarily solve the problem.

My suspicions on this are even higher since I heard that the same British Airways flight was cancelled (or tightly scrutinized) two days in a row. There are multiple (three?) BA flights each day, and although we're dealing with small-number statistics, it gives me the feeling that there's something going on with the plane itself.

Thinking more about the idea of explosives on board: it should be noted that the terrorists on September 11 didn't exactly hijack the planes with box cutters. Yes, they did injure or kill some stewardesses with them, but they also told the passengers they were carrying bombs (hinting they'd blow the plane up if anybody rushed them). A man carrying a short knife in a narrow, enclosed space can probably be attacked without getting yourself killed. You can use a seat cushion, food tray, or maybe a stack of in-flight magazines to protect yourself, and the terrorist doesn't have much room to maneouver around you. I believe it was instead the (false) threat of bombs that led to the successful hijackings.

But al Qaeda specializes in coordinated attacks, and what terrorist is going to risk spoiling the entire operation by trying to sneak a bomb on board? Multiple planes, all with smuggled explosives, all getting through security on the same day? Just one being found would ruin the coordination and probably lead to close scrutiny of other flights.

So pre-positioning any explosives would work best. Maybe you could sneak the explosive itself on without being found--no wires, timers, or other such things that would alert the x-ray technician. And after planting it under a seat, then somebody else later comes on board with the electronics. Without any explosives, would a timer or battery make it onto the plane? Maybe. Then at a later date, the hijacker himself gets on the flight, not carrying anything incriminating, and assembles the bomb.

This is just one scenario, but I think it gives an indication of how moving passengers from one plane to another could actually be useful. There's been a lot of this attention to trans-Atlantic flights this week. Let's pray our guys continue to be successful at thwarting these attacks.