Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Dangerous Business

Traveling to space and back is still a dangerous business. We tend to get inured to the dangers as mission follows mission and nothing happens. It barely makes the evening news. It takes a disaster like Challenger or Columbia to awaken public interest. But every time a space mission succeeds it is the result of lots of hard work and attention to detail. Also a little luck.

This weekend a Russian Soyuz capsule returned from the International Space Station with three crew members on board: Russian Yuri Malenchenko, American Peggy Whitson and South Korean Yi So-yeon. They landed safely and in good health, but it was a close call. Their Soyuz capsule, workhorse of the Russian space program for forty years, had malfunctioned.

Each Soyuz spacecraft has three sections: an orbital module on top, a descent capsule in the middle, and a propulsion module on the bottom. To land successfully, the rocket engines in the propulsion module must fire to begin the descent, then the descent capsule with the crew members inside must separate from the other two sections for reentry. Only the descent module has a heat shield and is designed to survive reentry.

Early reports indicate that on Saturday the propulsion section failed to separate normally. As the spacecraft began its fiery reentry its hatch side was facing forward instead of the heat shield. Fortunately, the propulsion module finally separated before the heat damage became critical. The capsule then made a failsafe ballistic landing instead of its normal guided descent. This subjected the crew to about twice the normal G forces - almost ten times the force of gravity. The radio antenna was destroyed by the heat, so the crew could not communicate with Moscow's Mission Control. For almost half an hour no one knew where the Soyuz had landed or even whether the crew survived. To add to their troubles, the still-hot capsule ignited a grass fire upon landing which filled the cabin with smoke for a few minutes.

The Russians train every crew for such situations, however. Despite the fact that the craft landed on its side and despite the fact that he had just endured a 10 G reentry after six months in zero G, Malenchenko managed to free himself from his seat restraints and exit the capsule. He used a satellite phone to contact Mission Control. (One has been included on each Soyuz mission for just such a purpose ever since a similar off course landing occurred in 2003.)

Since they landed 260 miles short of their target, the first people to reach them were the astonished Kazakh locals. They helped the astronauts exit the craft and unload some of their equipment. Shortly thereafter the first Russian helicopters arrived. The astronauts were returned to Star City in Russia where they were examined and found to be healthy. Their capsule will now be examined for clues to the cause of the malfunction.

Some day I hope space travel becomes as routine as air travel, but that day has not yet arrived.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Strange Behavior on Blogspot

I've noticed something strange about Blogspot. Have you seen the same thing? It's a bug in the word wrapping algorithm. This is the logic by which the software decides when to wrap to a new line within a single paragraph. It seems that the Blogspot word wrap algorithm doesn't want to start a new line with a quotation mark. To avoid this it will wrap too early and leave the previous line way too short. This is especially noticeable if the previous word is a long one. Let me see if I can create a couple of examples.

[If you follow this blog via a feed reader you will need to click the link and see this post in its original location on Geekspiel.]

With quotes:
The formatting method for quotations is incontrovertably "suboptimal" on Blogspot.

Without quotes:
The formatting method for quotations is incontrovertably suboptimal on Blogspot.

I kid you not; I did not insert the line break in the first example. Does anybody understand why this happens?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ground Truth in Iraq

If you really want to know what's going on in Iraq there's no substitute for first-hand information. I strongly recommend that you follow the reports of Michael J. Totten, an independent journalist who has embedded with the U.S. military repeatedly over the last several years. His accounts over the last year of the awakening in the Sunni province of Anbar have been excellent. I hope he gets a chance to go to Basrah soon and give us the real story there, too.

Michael Yon is another independent journalist who has repeatedly embedded with our troops. His reports tend to emphasize the military aspects of the struggle and he is more overtly opinionated in his commentary. Yet both he and Totten provide the ground truth in Iraq that is almost completely absent from reports in the major media. Most reporters sit in the Green Zone in Baghdad and write their reports from the U.S. and Iraqi press releases or perhaps a few phone calls. But these guys go straight to the front lines and tell you what really happened.

The major media obsesses over counting explosions and casualties, without bothering to investigate whether the price we are paying in money and lives is actually accomplishing anything for the average Iraqi citizen. If the only thing you know about Iraq is that a) we are spending billions and b) our guys are getting killed, you are going to have an overly negative opinion of the situation. That's just reporting all the costs and none of the gains. Totten and Yon will show you both sides.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Buran Buran

Did you know the Soviet Union had its own space shuttle? That's a picture of it to the right. It was called Buran, which means snowstorm in Russian.

The Soviets built Buran at great expense to compete with the U.S. space shuttle. Buran flew exactly once in 1988, before being permanently mothballed in the final days of the Soviet Union. The expense of the program was simply unsustainable for the cash-strapped Soviet government. Buran was in many ways technologically superior to the U.S. shuttle on which it was modeled. For instance, it was completely automated. Although it was designed to carry a crew, its maiden flight was unmanned.

Like so much of the Soviet era space hardware and facilities, Buran quickly fell into disrepair. Two were built, but one was destroyed a few years ago by the collapse of the hanger in which it was kept. Now the sole surviving model has been sold to a German museum, where it will go on permanent display. On this last trip to its final home, Buran rode on a barge this week down the Rhine river:

Monday, April 7, 2008

Art Imitates Music

I just saw this fascinating article in New Scientist:

Boléro: 'Beautiful symptom of a terrible disease'

The painting above, called Unravelling Boléro, is a measure-by-measure visual representation of Ravel's Boléro. The scientist-turned-artist who painted it, Anne Adams, was suffering from the early stages of a rare neurological disease called primary progressive aphasia. The parts of her brain responsible for speech were slowly degenerating, leaving her eventually unable to speak at all. In its early stages this disease sometimes causes a blurring of the distinctions between the different senses. Victims can also develop repetitive behaviors. Accordingly the painting, like the music, slowly builds to its climax through many variations of the theme. Remarkably, some scientists think that Ravel may also have been a victim of primary progressive aphasia. This could explain the structure of the piece that so captivated Adams. Tragically, the disease eventually cost Anne Adams her life.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Word of the Day - Crapulous

My dumpster diving into Dictionary.com turned up another gem:

crapulous - suffering the effects of gross intemperance, especially in drinking

I wouldn't call this one useless because even if your audience doesn't know what it means they'll be able to guess! They'll guess wrong, of course, but they'll still get the gist of what you're saying. Notice, too, that it's another one of those dictionary-in-hand ad hominem attack words I was talking about yesterday. Those guys really know how to tell each other off, don't they?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Useless words

There are really quite a few useless words in the English language. I saw one the other day in an online post:

tintinnabulation - the sound of ringing bells

This word is a waste of breath. Why not just say "ringing"? But it did me one favor: it sent me running to the dictionary. Do you ever spend time just flipping through the dictionary looking for words you never heard of? I do. Of course these days you can do it online. You can do everything online these days. (Well, almost everything). So I found a few more useless words I'd like to share with you:

eleemosynary - of or for charity; charitable
flagitious - disgracefully or shamefully criminal
rodomontade - vain boasting; empty bluster
scaturient - gushing forth, as a fountain

These words are useless because so few people know them that if you ever used them no one would understand you. Unless you're writing for The New Yorker.

Can you come up with some more? I have two rules. You must be able to look up the word at dictionary.reference.com. And it can't be a jargon word (medical, scientific, etc.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Caffeine and me

Two recent studies have put my beverage habits on the high ground. First we had the news that daily caffeine intake reduces the risk of Alzheimer's. Then the word comes that the rule about drinking eight glasses of water a day is pure bunk.

If caffeine helps you stay mentally sharp, I think I drink enough coffee to add about 10 IQ points. And when I'm not drinking coffee I'm usually drinking iced tea. Water is fine in a pinch or if you're really thirsty, but I had despaired of ever drinking eight glasses a day.

Starbucks, anyone?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Guy Colors

Everybody knows that women have a lot more colors than guys do. I mean, how many guys know the difference between kelly green and forest green? And who can even spell chartreuse, let alone remember what color it is? But today I realized that guys have their own colors, too. I was talking to my office mate about the pollen that has lately been covering my car every morning when I leave for work. I told him it was "snot yellow" and he knew immediately what color I was talking about. That's a guy color, of course. I have no idea what a woman would call it, but I'm pretty sure she wouldn't call it snot yellow.

There are other guy colors. How about grass stain green? Yeah, you know what I'm talking about! Think baseball uniform after a diving catch in right field. Then there's John Deere green and gun metal blue. (Sorry, city folks.) But every guy understands blood red. And candy apple red, because we all remember that Mustang we wanted as a kid.

See, we're not as clueless about color as people think. You just need to relate it to something in our experience. And I can assure you that "mauve" is not in my experience. Whatever mauve is.