Images from MESSENGER's third Mercury flyby to be available in just a few hours

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Get ready - it's almost 7:00 am EDT right now, and the download from MESSENGER of the images after the flyby began last night at 10:00 pm. According to that page the first images of the flyby are to be released at 10:00 am, so just a bit over three hours.

Edit: images have been released; here they are. This one in particular is interesting, showing the newly imaged area that until now had remained completely unseen. There is still quite a bit left to image, especially at the poles.


30 September: First clown in space! Guy Laliberté lifts off from Baikonur

It's done! We now officially have our first clown in space thanks to Russia. It's Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, and he paid $35 million for the 12-day trip. Money well spent for him since he's a billionaire. Ah, and he's also Canada's first space tourist too.

Here he says he'll tickle sleeping astronauts on the International Space Station.

On a related note, an article here goes over some of the interesting rituals undergone by cosmonauts before going into space, which includes urinating on the wheel of the bus near the rocket, as that's what Yuri Gagarin did in order to not soil his suit during takeoff. Since the fall of the USSR there are now black-robed Orthodox priests that bless the rocket, and a movie called The White Sun of the Desert from 1969 also has to be watched the night before the flight, among others.

For a video in French on Guy Laliberté see here. I'll add a video of the launch or anything else related to the subject if something good gets uploaded to YouTube.


What's the largest difference between the International Space Station and a manned lunar base?

In making the pitch for a permanent manned presence on the Moon it's good to keep a few things in mind on how a base on the Moon would differ from the only base we have at the moment in space.

The largest difference would probably be that of permanence. The ISS is always in a bit of a precarious state, as it circles the Earth in an orbit of continual decay, meaning that every once in a while a ship sent up to the station will need to boost it into a higher orbit in order that it not sink too low and eventually enter the Earth's atmosphere. There are even some tentative plans to de-orbit the space station in 2016 (!), just a few years after completion. That would be extremely bizarre, but that's what can happen when funding is short.

Leaving the subject of the fate of the ISS alone for a second, let's compare it with a base on the Moon. The Moon not only has a solid surface but it also has no atmosphere, meaning that a footprint made on its surface will stay there almost forever, unless something happens to impact it or an area nearby. This means that anything we build on the Moon will also be permanent. Even before manned missions are sent to the surface it should be possible to send robots over to do some basic construction on their own. One example might be the creation of a simple landing platform, since a great deal of moon dust gets kicked up when a rocket lands. Once we have a landing pad, it will remain there forever and become a permanent part of the usable infrastructure.

This applies to any type of infrastructure built by either robots or humans, so even if a manned mission were to only exist for a year or so and then have to return to Earth due to a lack of crisis we would still have all the infrastructure on the surface waiting for us to return. Habitats (probably tucked into the side of a hill to avoid micrometeorite impacts and radiation), rovers, paths/roads, signs, you name it. So it's good to remember that any money spent on colonization of the Moon would not simply be a project but also a future investment, even in the worst possible situation where funding is cut off and the mission is cut short.

Another big difference will be finding out for the first time how low gravity affects human physiology, as opposed to 0g. We have not yet had any long-term experience with this. Life on a settlement on the Moon would be vastly different from that on the ISS due to this. On the ISS astronauts sleep by tethering a sleeping bag to the wall, then curling up in that and falling asleep while floating. They can't take showers, food and drinks has to be consumed with care, objects are always floating around and becoming lost, and most importantly, special exercise stations have to be set up to work the body enough to avoid the long-term effects of zero g. On the Moon sleeping would be done on beds/the floor as on Earth, eating would be done normally, showers technically could work (but they would be a waste of water so they would probably use sponges instead), and exercise would be a much simpler task to carry out. Technically, astronauts on the Moon could exercise simply by setting up a few tools that could probably be manufactured on the surface as well: a chin-up bar, weights to hold overhead while doing squats, weights to hold on one's chest while doing sit-ups, etc.

The psychological difference in being located on a solid surface will also be interesting to note. The ISS is quite huge, but once you've reached the end of it there's no going past that point, and the only way to expand on it is by adding new sections. On the Moon an astronaut feeling a bit stressed could technically just suit up and go for a drive. Actually, depending on the type of vehicle it would be possible to drive without even suiting up, if the interior happens to be pressurized. Not recommended in the beginning, but it would technically be a possibility.

Two more links on the subject of water on the Moon worth reading are here and here. The first is by the CEO of the X Prize Foundation, on the significance of the discovery itself and the subject of private sector involvement. The second is on the water itself and has two important points to remember: the "top two millimetres" where the water has been found simply means the location that has been measured, and does not mean that water only exists in this area. The second point is that since the water is driven away from the soil somewhat during the day when the temperature rises past 100 degrees C, this implies that simply heating the soil up to a similar degree may be enough to extract the water from it.

The timing of this discovery couldn't have been any better, considering that LCROSS is embarking on a similar mission and is due to impact the Moon in just nine days. China just announced a 3D map of the Moon yesterday as well. Thanks to all this we can expect to see the subject of the Moon remain in a prominent position for at least the next two weeks.


Quebec Premier Jean Charest says high-speed rail (TGV) from Quebec to Ontario must include Quebec City

There is a proposed high-speed rail project in Canada's most populous area underway, and one of the debates is whether to construct it in one stage or two stages. One stage would mean a corridor that would extend from Quebec City in the northeast all the way down to Windsor Ontario (located just across the river from Detroit), but another idea proposed has been to work first on a shorter first stage that would simply connect the two most populous cities (Montreal and Toronto) and then work on the other areas later on. Jean Charest has said that a two-stage project would be a grave error though.

Before getting to the article first let's take a look at the map. The area from Montreal to Toronto is in red, while the lines from Montreal to Quebec and Toronto to Winsdor are in green.

Toronto has a metropolitan population of some 5.5 million, and Montreal over 3.5 million. Windsor only has a population of 250,000 or so, but also happens to be connected to Detroit. Quebec City though is kind of lying out there by itself, with a population of just a bit over 700,000 in the metro area. The exact distance between the cities is as follows:

Windsor to Toronto: 329 km
Toronto to Montreal: 515 km
Montreal to Quebec City: 230 km

Luckily for Quebec the distance from Quebec City to Montreal is not distressingly huge, and Quebec just happens to be the capital of the province as well so it's likely to get its way.

From the article:

A high-speed train from Quebec to Windsor not including Quebec City as the starting point would be "a grave error", warns the Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest.

Charest does not approve of the Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's idea to promote the high-speed train in two stages, focusing first on the Montreal-Toronto corridor, followed by an extension to Quebec and Windsor.

This would be a future election promise by the Canadian Liberal Party, which says that the project would still depend on the state of public finances in an eventual federal Liberal government.

The concept of a high-speed train in the Quebec-Windsor corridor is a project that Charest and the Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty have been working on.

"There is one thing that disappointed me in what I read and I hope it's not true: an approach that would limit the corridor to Montreal and Toronto. That would be a grave error. This is unacceptable from Quebec's point of view." said Quebec Premier Charest on Monday, who gave a press conference in Montreal on climate change.

On the point in the Liberal commitment that it would need to reflect the state of public finances in the Canadian government, Charest said that "A project like this would happen over a long period of time. And if there's one thing I remember that is even more relevant today it's that this is in the context not just of climate change but also regarding the overload of cars and trucks on our roads. If the project was a good idea during the 1990s then it's even better today."

"We want, we insist that the journey happens from Quebec to Montreal, and then from Montreal to Toronto. Because if it does not start with Quebec, the chance of it being done one day is almost nil."
"This is an absolute must, and a question of principle for the government of Quebec: the high-speed train leaves from Quebec City, our national capital."

(note: national capital here simply means the capital of Quebec.)


No long beards for teachers in Tajikistan under the age of 50

Here's something from La Presse yesterday on Tajikistan.

Teachers in Tajikistan under the age of 50 will no longer have the right to have a (long) beard, according to new rules issued Monday by the government.

"Men over 50 years of age are permitted to have a beard of over three centimetres in length, but those that are younger than that will have to shave", specified a decree from the Ministry of National Education published by the state-run journals. "As for shoes, anything that covers the foot is possible, including rubber boots", it adds.

Long beards are often considered to be suspect by the authorities in Tajikistan. The country has been plagued from 1992 to 1997 by a civil war fed by islamist movements, which resulted in tens of thousands dead, and a fragile peace afterwards.

Rubber boots are popular among rural peasants who use them for protection against frequent flood rains in the mountainous country.

An article here in English on the same subject also notes that less conservative styles of clothing have also been banned for teachers: jeans, mini-skirts and t-shirts. It says this to be a "balancing nod to conservatism" but since this only applies to teachers it looks like nothing more than a dress code to me.


Bruce Bueno de Mesquita interview on the Daily Show: 28 September 2009

The Daily Show had its first really interesting guest in a long time today, a person named Bruce Bueno de Mesquita that I had never heard of until today that (from what I understood from the interview) uses mathematical models to predict future events largely based on the desire those in power to make them happen. This is something I'm definitely in agreement with, since in spite of all the myriad factors that make up complex situations around the world many events are simply decided by personal factors - Iraq was just something the Bush administration wanted to do, so they made it happen. Details tend to get ironed out of the way when people in power want to make something happen, and so much of the time they can simply be factored out.

It turns out that he has a very positive outlook on the near future; as do I.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

He also gave a talk on in April, so time to watch this video now.


Impact crater for LCROSS lunar mission changed from Cabeus A to Cabeus proper

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

There's been a slight change in plans for LCROSS, the probe that is due to impact the south pole of the Moon in just ten days from now. The original crater selected was known as Cabeus A, but further refinements have shown Cabeus proper to be a better destination, due to this crater showing the highest hydrogen concentrations at the south pole, as well as a small valley there which will allow sunlight to illuminate the ejecta cloud, making observations that much easier.

It also notes that the ejecta will have to travel higher to be observed from Earth, but apparently lighting will result in better observation in spite of this. You can see how close this crater is to Malapert Mountain, which is where the first manned missions have been proposed due to the near continuous sunlight available there.


Support in Portugal for a union between Portugal and Spain (Iberian Union) up 15% over the past three years

These numbers among others can be seen in this article in Spanish, which has thus far acquired 110 comments - no surprise given the controversial nature of the subject. Here's a summary of the article:

It begins with an account of the first Spanish astronaut (Pedro Duque), who always tells a story to students about how no border can be seen between the two when viewed from space, since they appear to be one single land mass:

One of the main issues between the two countries is the extension of the AVE (the Spanish high-speed train), where the Portuguese government is to spend 9 billion euros for a line from the Spanish city of Vigo (just north of Portugal) to the capital of Lisbon, and thus to the Spanish capital Madrid as well. The move is controversial for those that see it as a way to make Portugal into a kind of Spanish province. That train line is to be completed in 2013.

Here are the scheduled high-speed lines in Portugal according to Wikipedia:

  • from Lisbon to Porto (300km/h new HSL expected to be finished in 2015). The two cities will be 75 minutes away.
  • from Lisbon to Madrid (350km/h mixed traffic HSL expected to be complete by 2013) bringing the countries' capital cities within 2h45 of each other.
  • from Porto to Vigo (250km/h mixed traffic new line between Braga and the border) which will connect both extremes (Porto and Vigo) in less than 45 minutes.

Back to the article: for reasons like these the word Spain has been mentioned quite a bit in the recent Portuguese elections. One recent survey (the Hispano-Luso or Spanish-Portuguese Barometer) shows that almost a third (30.3%) of those in Spain and 40% of those in Portugal are in favour of the two countries being one federation. In 2006 a poll conducted by the Portuguese weekly El Sol showed support of only 25%.

The reason given for the increase in support over the past three years has been the increase in cooperation between the two countries. Since 1994 Spain has been Portugal's main business partner, and imports from Spain alone account for over 50% of those into Portugal. The number of Spanish students in Portugal has also tripled over the past three years to 51,000.

Given the difference in size and population between the two it's no surprise that the Portuguese know more about Spain than vice-versa, with 54.9% of those in Portugal knowing the name of the Prime Minister of Spain, but only 6.9% of those in Spain knowing who the President of Portugal is. 41.8% of those in Spain can identify the colours in the Portuguese flag, whereas 54.2% of those in Portugal can identify those in the Spanish flag, and 53% of those in Spain have visited Portugual whereas 84% of those in Portugal have visited Spain.

As for the basic numbers: GDP in Spain per capita is 35,557 euros vs. 23,531 for Portugal. A union between the two would result in the largest country in the European Union (third-largest in Europe after Russia and Ukraine), a fifth of the population with 60 million (similar to that of France, the UK and Italy) and a linguistic potential reaching 608 million (Spanish plus Portuguese). Note that the two countries combined now make up 51 million so the article is likely combining their expected future population numbers to come up with this.

The numbers of those that are against (against or strongly against) a union are 30.5% in Spain and 34% in Portugal, whereas those that aren't sure are 29% in Spain and 17% in Portugal. A third being outright opposed is still quite a large number, and even Romania and Moldova with much stronger support for unification (51% for, 27% against in Romania) and the same language have failed to achieve anything substantial.

Then there would also be the problem of Spain having a king and Portugal being a republic without one.

The other interesting factor would be the fact that Iberian doesn't simply refer to Spanish and Portuguese but all the other languages in the family tree as well - Catalan, Galician, Asturian, etc. (with Basque as the exception to the family tree), so any discussions over a union might begin to take shape along the lines of not just a union between two countries but a larger union of all the Iberian languages and cultures located in most of the peninsula.


28 September 2009: MESSENGER to fly by Mercury in less than a day

Here's a quick heads up - MESSENGER is flying by Mercury later today, at 5:55 pm EDT which is just a bit over 20 hours from now. At its current distance MESSENGER has already sent back the following image:

Und alle so "yeaahh!"


Dvorak Simplified Keyboard gets a mention on the Wall Street Journal

Monday, September 28, 2009

You can see the article here - it's about Dvorak keyboard users (of which I am one) angry at Apple (a user of which I am not, for reasons like this among others) for only providing Qwerty for the iPhone. The article has a nice interactive image showing the difference in letter frequency compared to the position on the respective keyboards.

As expected, the discussion is very partisan with people both saying that the keyboard is better than Qwerty while others cite an article (it's always the same article, the one from 1996) claiming that it isn't. You can tell when an article is stretching when it takes 18 pages to make the case against a simple keyboard layout. I can provide proof for the opposite with a single link - here you go. Let's use this post to compare the two layouts:

Typing distance: 20.03 m with Q, 11.26m with D
Same hand (lower is better): Q 33.12%, D 23.11%
Same finger (here too lower is better): Q 4.006%, D 1.540%
Home row: Q 30.6%, D 66.71%

There you are, and I didn't need to type up an 18-page article to do it.


More fallout from the discovery of water on the Moon

It's been a few days into the aftermath of the discovery of water on the Moon and the effects of the news are quite interesting. Moon advocates are naturally overjoyed by the news, some who were sitting on the fence have decided that this has clinched the deal, while some are digging in their heels and still making the case for Mars. This article is one example, and attempts to make the case that the discovery of water is actually bad news for space exploration, citing the low concentration of water. It also makes an odd reference to the LCROSS mission, saying that due to these findings it "now seems likely that it will only confirm that there are trace amounts of water everywhere on the Moon". That's incorrect - the discovery has nothing to do with the permanently shadowed craters in the region where LCROSS will be impacting, where potential water may have been brought by asteroids and comets, while remaining untouched since then due to the lack of sunlight. So the distribution of water on the Moon is as follows:

-It exists everywhere in certain concentrations in the soil. We have confirmed that it exists within the top 2 mm of soil, but we do not know about deeper layers. For all we know there could be solid blocks of ice a certain depth below the surface.
-Though it exists everywhere in the soil, it is far more prevalent in the higher latitudes, making the equatorial regions even less attractive than before by comparison.
-It is likely to exist within permanently shadowed craters at the poles, and this could be a combination of water brought in from comets etc. as well as the process that creates water within the soil.

The article then concludes with the statement that the possibility of life on Mars will always make it a more attractive destination (if that's so then why not the cloudtops of Venus where life could also exist?), and then ends with "and if it's water you're really after? Mars has more of that too".

No. We're not "after water", we simply need to be able to create enough water that we won't need to ship it directly from Earth. We have plenty of water on Earth so we're not doing this for water. Saying that colonizing the Moon is because we're "after water" is like saying that a group of people that plan to build a new town somewhere are "after roofs" because they are proposing a site nearby where there are enough raw materials to build them. No, the building of these houses would require roofs, but they are not "after roofs". Once one per house is obtained the need is satisfied.

A far better article on the importance of this discovery is here.

It makes a number of good points, such as:

- In the same way that we used to see Mars as being dry and later found out more about it, we are now finding out more and more about the Moon. Ironically, we know much more about Mars than we do about the Moon itself due to the plethora of recent missions to the planet. The discovery of water would have been made much sooner if we had given the Moon more priority after the 1970s.
- Missions to the Moon do not have to cost hundreds of millions of dollars as those to Mars do, and can produce a larger scientific return at only 3 days' journey away (= remote manipulation becomes easier). Even Google's $30 million offering is enough to spur a great many companies into action, whereas this amount would be laughably insufficient for the promotion of a private mission to Mars.

One other interesting article is this one, detailing the sudden increase in confidence and prestige of India's space program. The idea of a probe to the Moon was derided as being impractical and Chandrayaan-1 also ended its mission prematurely, but all of a sudden this discovery was announced and India has been given most of the credit. Not bad for a probe only costing $79 million.

By the way, I've installed a widget on the site showing the current phase of the Moon. Scroll down and look to the right if you haven't noticed it yet.


Matthew Keil from Long Island City High School is quite the awesome Latin teacher

Here's a video I found on YouTube of a pretty great Latin teacher:

In the classroom you'll notice that he comes across not so much as just a person teaching Latin to the students but rather almost like a teacher from another country on an exchange program, who then is able to impart what he knows of the language and ancient Roman culture to the students. The focus on conversation is very important here, and he makes sure to always throw in a little Latin here and there even when explaining concepts to the students in English.

The solo interview isn't quite as rapid-fire as the conversation in class, but this is the case with any language when one is talking alone as opposed to having a give and take with someone else. Real conversation between two or more people is not so much about individuals making full statements one after another but rather a kind of collaboration in which everyone has a part, and from this comes something completely different than that produced by a single individual. Here's one example of a few people talking with/over each other; note how many incomplete sentences there are.

Compare that to the pattern one sees in a speech, with much more length and complexity in what is being said.

Also a bit of news: Latin mass returns to Seattle, with 500 people gathered at St. Alphonsus Church (among other locations) to hear it.


Barack Obama looking to extend school hours for American students

Hm, not too sure what to think about this. It seems that President Obama is interested in looking at extending school hours in order to help American kids learn more and be more competitive.

Finland is often touted as the country with the best school system in the world, and hours there are apparently quite short in comparison to many countries. The idea there is that children are only able to concentrate for a certain number of hours a day, so keep the hours low but up the quality, and teach them as much as possible during the limited time allotted.

Also, Barack Obama often brings up countries like Korea as an example of a place where students work hard for good grades but students here are usually so exhausted that they sleep through school and only fully wake up after school is over and it's time to go to the hagwon (cram school), which is more important careerwise than school anyway because those are the schools that prepare students for getting into prestigious universities. That's why the numbers in the article also need to be taken with a grain of salt, because though it says that many other Asian countries have shorter school hours than the US, this probably doesn't include cram schools in the evening.

But then again Finland is quite homogeneous, making this quite easy. The article makes a good point: that it would be a good idea to have schools stay open late and to let kids in on weekends in order to give them a safe place to go. Having a safe place to be at on the weekend can really make a big difference for many, so I'm definitely in favour of that.


Der Untergang after a cycle through Translation Party

Translation Party is this site, where you input a phrase which then is translated into Japanese, back into English, back into Japanese, back into English and so on until the phrase finally reaches equilibrium, which means being translated the same way two times in a row. Since everyone else has made a version of that scene from Der Untergang where the war is finally lost for the German side and Hitler flips out I thought I would try using that, but after first translating the original German into English using Google.

Surprisingly, it's still accurate about half of the time.

What about the other half? Here's one example:

Steiner couldn't mobilize enough men was translated into English as Steiner could not massage enough troops for an attack. Then after a few rounds in Japanese the word enough (juubun) was mistaken for 10 minutes (both are written the same way in Japanese, as 十分), and the eventual result was 10-minute massage is not to attack the Steiner forces.

You can see the original script in German here, and the original subtitles are in this video.


Ten reasons to explore the Moon first instead of Mars

Sunday, September 27, 2009

After the recent post written just a day after the announcement of water on the Moon and why this is a game changer I decided it would be a good idea to write another more structured post laying out in simple terms why we now need to focus entirely on the Moon and forget about Mars for the time being. Here are ten simply reasons why it's time to turn our attention entirely to settling on the Moon and put Mars on the back burner for now.


In spite of the recent discovery of water all over the surface of the Moon one can find comments to the effect of "eh, it's still drier than the Sahara so what's the big deal?". Well, the big deal is that even this soil that is drier than the Sahara now means that we will be able to extract water from the soil that we had assumed we would have to take from Earth before. There is likely water in the shadowed craters in the polar regions, but being able to extract water from the top 2 mm of soil is a process that can be carried out anywhere. Also, it costs $10,000 to send a kg of payload to low Earth orbit, and to the Moon (if I remember correctly) it would cost around $200,000 per kg. In other words, just 5 litres of water created on the Moon saves us $1 million that would otherwise have to be spent sending the water from Earth.

The Apollo Lunar Module had 2,353 kg of propellant for the ascent stage, all of which was made and shipped from Earth. Being able to make this fuel on the surface of the Moon instead (simply by turning the water gathered into hydrogen and oxygen) would have resulted in $470 million that wouldn't have to be spent.


The Moon's gravity is 16% that of the Earth, Mars 38% that of the Earth. Given that the human body begins to atrophy after long periods of time spent in zero gravity Mars advocates often state that Mars should be the preferred destination for long-term colonization, but this is neglecting two important points:

1) We have a great deal of experience with microgravity (0g), but no experience whatsoever as of yet with low gravity (0.16g and others). So far the record number of days spent in orbit around Earth is 437 days, so we know that even with no gravity whatsoever we can send people up into space for periods of time greater than a year. Also note that muscle atrophy is reduced by regular exercise, but exercise still needs to be a conscious effort. Low gravity, on the other hand, works on the body 24 hours a day.

2) One-way travel to Mars takes around six months. Add another six months back and any astronaut going to Mars is going to have to experience at least a year of zero g in addition to the lower gravity on the planet itself. Even if low gravity turns out to be a fatal flaw, those on the Moon can return to the Earth within three days to return to normal gravity again.

International cooperation

One of the strongest arguments for going to the Moon instead of Mars is the fact that even before the discovery of water we have had a great deal of international cooperation, with probes from Japan, India, and China in addition to the US. Eight more lunar missions are slated to happen within the next four years, compared with only three to five for Mars. When a mission to the Moon is delayed the delay is only the length of the time it takes to compensate for the delay, whereas with Mars a delay means a wait of 2.5 years until the next launch window. This has caused the Mars Science Laboratory and Phobos-Grunt missions to be delayed to 2011 from the original 2009 planned launch.

In short, emerging spacefaring nations can aid in understanding and exploring the Moon. With Mars most cannot.


In addition to the short 3-day travel time to the Moon, it is also close enough that near real-time communication between those on Earth and the Moon can take place. If you've ever watched communication between astronauts in space and mission control on the ground you know how important this can be, as astronauts converse continually with mission control in order to carry out their mission objectives as precisely as possible. Astronauts on Mars would more or less be on their own in this type of situation, and would have to wait at least 10 minutes after sending a message for it to be returned. This distance also means that robotic probes move about quite slowly on Mars, as those on the surface send it a message, wait for it to carry it out, discuss the next move, send the next message, and end up only being able to carry out a few maneuvers each day. A rover on the Moon can accomplish much more due to those on Earth being able to see the results of their commands within seconds instead of minutes.


The Moon has days and nights of 14 days in length each, but luckily it also has a few peaks of near eternal light where electricity can be gathered up to 89% of the time. Mars has weaker sunlight, no peaks of near eternal light, seasonal variation (less sunlight during the Winter), and sometimes dust storms that block a lot of the light from the sky. The rovers currently on the surface of Mars have been forced to stay still to conserve energy during these dust storms, and the image on the right shows just how large they can be, sometimes covering an entire hemisphere.

Private industry

The Moon is the only location where private industry may be able to cooperate alongside with government-run space programs. A private company could in theory set up shop on the Moon right now, gather a few thousand tons of water, collect it on the surface and then sell this water to NASA. Virgin Galactic eventually intends to send people not just on suborbital flights but also to LEO and later on to trips that go around the Moon and back. And even Google is involved in going to the Moon, with a $30 million prize known as the Google Lunar X Prize. As is the case with new spacefaring nations, private industry is also just reaching the point where it can aid us in colonizing the Moon, but Mars is beyond their ability.

Inspiration and psychological factors

The Moon can be seen in the sky just about every day, and when a colony is built there anyone on Earth will be able to look up and reflect on the fact that we don't just live on Earth but up there as well. Eventually colonies may be able to be seen with telescopes and binoculars as well. Those on the Moon as well will always have the comfort of the Earth in the sky, and let's not forget that we still know nothing about the psychological impact of being away from one's planet for any length of time. Mars, on the other hand, is a dot in the sky that cannot always be seen and most cannot even identify. Those on the surface of Mars would also see the Earth as just a dot in the sky.

Landing on the surface

One point not often brought up is that landing sufficiently large payloads on the surface of Mars is actually beyond our capability. The problem with Mars is that there is too little atmosphere to land like we do on Earth where the atmosphere slows one's fall until a parachute can be used, but too much to enable us to land using rockets alone.

Taking off from the surface

Delta-v from Earth to low Earth orbit is 9.3-10 km/s, from Mars to low Mars orbit is 4.1 km/s, and from the Moon to low Moon orbit is a mere 1.6 km/s. Add to that the lack of an atmosphere and the Moon is an ideal location from which to build and send probes to other parts of the Solar System.


Given the lack of an atmosphere the Moon is an ideal location for certain types of astronomy. A liquid telescope could even be built on the Moon (gravity + no wind makes this possible) in addition to more conventional telescopes and telescopes on the far side of the Moon that would benefit not only from the lack of an atmosphere but also the shielding provided from Earth's noisy radio signals. The 14 day night also gives an opportunity to observe over a very long term, something that just isn't possible on planets like Earth and Mars. Even the Hubble Space Telescope doesn't have this advantage as it is continuously moving from day to night in its orbit around the Earth.


Also, for those that missed it here is the press conference giving the details of the water discovered on the Moon.


The French village in Seoul: Seorae Maeul (서래마을) / Montmartre

Hidden within the sprawling city of Seoul just south of the Han River is a tiny French village where almost half of the French population of the country lives - 560 are in Seorae Maeul (서래마을, also known as Montmartre), so that would make 1400 in total throughout the country. Taking a look at this map you can see (if you can read Korean) why this location has so many people from France:

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That building in the centre there is the only French school in the city, and thus is the place where the children of many TGV employees go while they work overseas in Korea, as the high-speed train here (the KTX) is based on the TGV. Apparently the average stay in this area is about two to three years, which makes it a bit more long-term than your average English teacher but not as long term as many less economically mobile populations (Southeast Asia for example) that tend to stay for much longer.

We went to the French village a few weeks back and I took a few pictures. The overall feel is a bit subtle at first and you wouldn't know you were in a French village unless you looked around and noticed that quite a few shops had signs in French, but after continuing onwards for a bit (the street begins to go up a hill now) you'll notice French and Korean flags hung together on poles along the street and eventually the French school itself with a few hundred kids waiting outside, which is when it becomes obvious that this isn't your average street in Seoul. The government here has recently announced that it would be spending quite a bit (5 billion won, so around $4.2 million) of money to renovate the area with wider walkways and narrower roads. An article here gives some details and for some reason gives it a negative spin even though only a single resident is quoted in the article for proof.

I didn't take a great many pictures while there but here are eight:

That's a street sign. Banpo 4-dong refers to the part of the city where the village is located. Within Seoul are large sections called gu, and within those are smaller sections called dong (vowel sound rhymes with own, not long) that are then further split up into a number of smaller sections. Here we've got a 반포4동 주민센터 / Centre communal des services de Banpo 4 / Banpo 4-dong Community Service Center / 盤浦四洞居民中心. Everything else in the picture is Korean.

No text here but we do have the flags of France and Korea together. That mart in the background has the text Fresh Mart, not Marché Fraîche.

This picture didn't work out the way it should have. In front of Tom N Toms Coffee there is a towing sign which has elèvement du véhicule in addition to the Korean 견인지역. You can see a real estate agency on the left though with Agence Immobilière written on it.

Edit: found a page here with some pictures including the elèvement du véhicule sign.

That's the school. Lycée Français de Séoul / 서울 프랑스 학교 / French School of Seoul can be seen on the front. This was the afternoon and there was a huge swath of students starting from the front door there and going up the hill as they waited for the bus.

Here's another real estate agent - Sylvie Agence Immobilière.

This is the standard map one sees on the streets of Seoul now where the older maps have been replaced, and it has Korean, English, French and Japanese. You won't see French on signs in other locations throughout the city.

Another map.

Another map.

The largest site (I think) for the French community in Korea is this one, with a forum here. Another map of the area can be seen here and if you zoom out on the first map in the post you can get an idea of the size of the area.


September 2009: 43 Icelanders given jobs and cleared to move to Manitoba, Canada

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Here's the latest in a story that has been a few months in the works, on a deal between the governments of Manitoba (Canada) and Iceland to help unemployed Icelanders find jobs and immigrate to Manitoba. Now 43 Icelanders have been matched with jobs in six different companies, in the sectors of health care, construction, and education. They still have to wait for Ottawa to approve this in the form of a "positive labour market opinion", which means confirmation that no Canadians could be found to fill the positions...and hopefully the first decisions on this could be made this month and then the Icelandic population in Canada will be able to increase by 43 after a few more weeks waiting for work permits to be issued.

After all that red tape I love this comment: "Allan said Manitoba is not fast-tracking these applicants in any way". Gee, you think?

Current stats give 26,000 people of Icelandic heritage in Manitoba, though naturally most of these will not know the language. The area with the largest concentration of Icelanders is Gimli (just north of Winnipeg). Since my last post on this subject the Icelandic Wikipedia page on Gimli has also expanded a certain amount.


Top ten languages used on Twitter: English, Portuguese, Japanese, Spanish, Malay, German, Indonesian, Dutch, French, Swedish

Saturday, September 26, 2009

It turns out that after English with 61%, the second most used language is Portuguese with almost 10%, which is probably the reason why there were so many articles on this in the Portuguese media. Here's one example. The numbers were obtained by the Web Ecology Project which used Google to identify 1 million tweets.

One strange occurrence though is the lack of Persian on the list, and I suspect it lies in third place, listed as "unreliable", perhaps mixed in with Arabic if the software failed to identify which language was which. Given the huge usage of Twitter after the June 12th elections in Iran and the fact that there's no way that Persian is less common on Twitter than Galician (!), it seems safe to say that that's probably a problem with the software used to identify the languages. Even now when you do a search for Mousavi (موسوی) it turns up a full screen of results in slightly less than a day, and Tehran (تهران) a full page in 15 hours.

English - 61.925%
Portuguese - 9.509%
Unreliable - 7.623%
Japanese - 6.073%
Spanish - 2.886%
Malay - 1.575%
German - 1.484%
Indonesian - 1.232%
Dutch - 1.046%
French 0.833%
Swedish - 0.468%
Korean - 0.338%
Thai - 0.336%
Italian - 0.336%
Russian - 0.335%
Norwegian - 0.259%
Vietnamese - 0.235%
Danish - 0.216%
Finnish - 0.132%
Turkish - 0.129%
Polish - 0.123%
Galician - 0.104%
Other - 1.162%

Seven languages here could also be combined into two in terms of written mutual intelligibility: Portuguese and Galician, Malay and Indonesian, and Swedish/Norwegian/Danish. That would give the following:

English - 61.925%
Portuguese/Galician - 9.613%
Unreliable - 7.623%
Japanese - 6.073%
Spanish - 2.886%
Malaysian/Indonesian - 2.807%
German - 1.484%
Dutch - 1.046%
Swedish/Norwegian/Danish - 0.943%
French 0.833%
Korean - 0.338%
Thai - 0.336%
Italian - 0.336%
Russian - 0.335%
Vietnamese - 0.235%
Finnish - 0.132%
Turkish - 0.129%
Polish - 0.123%
Other - 1.162%


More on the desperate need in the European Union for French interpreters

Right around the same time this post was being written about a video making the pitch for becoming an interpreter into English at the EU, another video in French was being uploaded about the exact same theme, featuring discussions with interpreters working there, what is required to become an interpreter, life in/near Brussels, etc.

I found the video here embedded in a French article saying the same thing.

The article also notes a false cognate in the video - hearing the Spanish "entenderse" being translated as "s'entendre" (agree or get along with, I think) in French when "se comprendre" (understand) would have been accurate. That's what can sometimes happen with real-time interpretation when you don't have a chance to catch a breath.


Eurostat poll: adults that do not speak a foreign language most common in Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, and France

An article here in French has a blur of statistics from a recent Eurostat survey on foreign languages, which can be seen here (PDF). Some of the numbers the article references:

The French are among the back of the class in Europe in terms of knowledge of foreign language, but the future is darker in Great Britain, where one half of students in upper secondary education haven't learned a single foreign language, according to Eurostat on Thursday.

According to the office of statistics of the European Union, France, where 41.2% of adults from age 25 to 64 speak no foreign language. This is sixth from the back, and this number increases to 43% for Greece, 44% for Bulgaria, 47% in Spain, 51% in Portugal, and 74.8% (!) for Hungary.

In average, 36% of Europeans between ages 25 and 64 have not learned a foreign language, 36% speak one foreign language, and 28% say they know two or more.

The best in this class is Norway where 74.7% of adults say they have learned two or more foreign languages, followed by Slovenians (71.8%) and Belgians (51.5%). Only 22.9% of those in France say they have learned two or more foreign languages, and 35.9% say that they know one.

In most European countries, an increasing majority of students in upper secondary education (almost 100% in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia and Finland) learn at least two foreign languages. In the UK this is only 6.1%.
The article doesn't mention that the survey was incomplete though, which is why it says that Norway is the top country for adults that speak two or more foreign languages - that's because Luxembourg wasn't included in the part of the survey that featured adults. But it was in the part focusing on students which is why Luxembourg is at the top (along with some other countries) there. It would probably be best to take a look at the PDF then.

The interesting part would probably be Hungary with 74.8% of adults not speaking a foreign language, as this would seem to fly in the face of the idea that speakers of smaller languages necessarily feel the need to learn others. France, Spain and Portugal make perfect sense given their large geographic distribution, but Hungary only has 15 million speakers and official in but a single country. And even among students, Hungary is only at 41.8% in terms of those learning two or more. Perhaps the answer is just that Hungarian happens to be so awesome that you just aren't interested in other languages after knowing it. Yes, we'll go with that as the explanation.

That's also good news for those that want to learn Hungarian, since often the biggest barrier to learning a language for English speakers is the fact that it's so easy to find an English speaker. With 74.8% of adults only knowing Hungarian in Hungary that means the vast majority of the time you're likely to stumble upon someone that doesn't know English, and that's great for those that want to immerse themselves in a language.


25 September 2009: two more reasons why the NDP doesn't want an election

Here are two pieces of news on why the NDP won't be interested in bringing about an election anytime soon, which would effectively keep the Conservatives in power without having to worry about getting the support of either the Bloc or the Liberals.

#1 is simple: the latest poll shows the Conservatives now up to 37% compared to 29.9% for the Liberals. The NDP has gone down to 13.8% from 16% in the last poll.

#2 is this: Martin Cauchon has had his way and he will be able to run in Outremont in the next election. Martin Cauchon is the former Liberal justice minister and is a veteran politician, but he retired in 2004 and is now seeking a return to politics. In the meantime the NDP has managed to win the seat with Thomas Mulcair (once in a byelection and again in 2008), making it their Quebec stronghold. During the last election Mulcair won by a 5.5% margin against the Liberal challenger, which isn't all that safe a margin if he were to run against a powerhouse like Cauchon. Their best bet against Cauchon is to portray him as now being out of touch, only interested in power etc. and the longer Mulcair gets to spend serving the riding the more they'll be able to make the case that he is now their natural MP. So far he's been there for two years and eight months.

The problem with Canadian democracy though is that parties are always being pushed to conflict with one another. Bills are often tabled as confidence motions, making voting for a certain bill a very uncomfortable act for opposition parties, which then use this to make the argument that they have sold out their principles. The NDP used to make fun of the Liberals for voting with the Conservatives, now the Liberals are doing the same to them. If the NDP goes up in support and the Liberals don't then it'll be the Liberals' turn again to avoid an election and the NDP will go after them for that, and on and on. That means that for a party leader like Layton (and Ignatieff too of course) each vote is always a choice between two undesirable outcomes: supporting the government and looking like an ineffective leader / sellout, or voting against the government and possibly forcing an election. The only slightly comfortable position comes when one opposition party votes for the government and the others get to heap abuse on them. Hardly an ideal situation for anyone except the Conservatives who seem to enjoy it.


Now that water has been confirmed, it's time to focus entirely on the Moon

Friday, September 25, 2009

The press conference on the confirmation of water (and hydroxyl) in large quantities on the Moon happened last night and it was very interesting, particularly the explanation of how the discovery was confirmed using a number of probes over the years. The three main probes that contributed to the discovery were actually Deep Impact, Cassini, and Chandrayaan-1. Cassini actually had an Earth flyby almost a decade ago, but the observations of the Earth and Moon system couldn't even begin to be used for the purposes of detecting water at least until 2004 when it arrived at Saturn and had something to compare the first observations to, and the entire discovery wasn't able to take place until they had the long-term Chandrayaan-1 observations to compare with the others, so this is the explanation on why it ended up taking so long.

As for the process by which water is created on the surface of the Moon: it has to do with the day and night cycle there - 14 days of day, then 14 days of night. The greatest concentrations of water occur both at the higher latitudes away from the equator (those are the blue regions in the image to the right), and also around morning and evening. This is the reason why the rocks the Apollo astronauts brought back were so dry, because they went to the driest part of the Moon at the driest part of the day, when the heat from the Sun eliminates the majority of the water from the rocks, and that's why the total amount of water they brought back from the Moon only amounted to one teaspoon.

The water and hydroxyl itself is created by the interaction of the solar wind (charged hydrogen ions) with the oxygen in the rocks themselves, and it's a process that should occur not just on the Moon but any other object in the Solar System (and other solar systems as well) with a similar makeup, which even includes asteroids. One question I have about that (might have been answered in the Q&A but not sure as I went to bed before that as it was 4 am here in Korea) is whether the slow rotation speed also contributes to this.

One other interesting note is that the presence of water they discussed is located right at the surface, in the top two millimetres of soil. What the areas below are like are still a matter of debate, but having confirmed the presence of water right at the top is very good news for future colonization given how easy it would be to gather soil for purposes of water collection compared to having to dig huge trenches.

The subject of LCROSS (the probe that will impact the Moon's south pole two weeks from now) also came up, and the presence of ice there is probably a different phenomenon from the water discovery announced yesterday, though they still may have something to do with each other. The south pole though is likely to have water ice that simply arrived through events such as cometary impacts, which then settled into the permanently shadowed craters down there and remained undisturbed ever since. Before this discovery was made the idea was to build a colony on the peaks of eternal light at the south pole and then venture into the shadowed craters to harvest ice water to be used, but with yesterday's news that water is already present in significant amounts at higher latitudes, it may not even be necessary to venture into them; simply going from the peaks of eternal light where the colony is located into a region with a normal day/night cycle to collect water during the morning and evening periods may be enough.

As for the future implications of this: it has become quite clear that Mars simply doesn't offer any significant advantages over the Moon anymore that would justify a journey there instead. Up until about a few years ago Mars was touted as the only reasonable place for human colonization due to the presence of water and other resources needed to live off the land, while the Moon was thought to be a dry dustball in which we would have to ferry all of our supplies from Earth. Since the Moon seems to have the resources we need to colonize though, waiting 2+ years for a launch window, travelling six months there and six more months back simply isn't worth doing.

Another argument made for Mars is that its higher gravity (0.38g compared to 0.16g for the Moon) would be more suitable for human colonization due to the long-term effects of low gravity on human physiology, but this is questionable for a few reasons. One reason is that we simply have never experienced low gravity in the long term - the only gravity besides 1g that we have ever experienced has been 0g. At the moment the person that has spent the longest period of time in space is Valery Polyakov, who spent 437 days and 18 hours in space at one time. He was also healthy when he returned, even after more than a year in 0g. This means that even without any testing we are certain that humans will be able to remain in a 0.16g environment for at least two years or so, maybe more, without any physiological damage.

The other point to bear in mind is that in spite of its larger gravity, Mars necessitates a trip there and back of a year in duration, a year of no gravity at all. To the Moon this is a mere three days. Even in the worst case scenario where low gravity turns out to be damaging to human physiology and we have not yet constructed a 1g simulator on the Moon it will still be easily possible to return to the Earth within a few days. So the problem of gravity simply isn't a problem.

Micrometeorite impacts will be a problem in the short term. My eventual solution is detailed here. Since human civilization on the Moon will naturally result in the creation of waste gases, it would probably be a good idea to work towards the creation of an extremely thin atmosphere (a Triton-like atmosphere perhaps) that would keep the smallest of micrometeorites from hitting the ground. Until then extremely fortified dwellings are probably the only solution. We have no detailed knowledge of the frequency of very tiny micrometeorite impacts on the surface though so this is still an unknown factor.

Focus: it's now time to shift our focus away from Mars and back towards the Moon. No current missions on Mars should be cancelled though (such as the rovers) since they are already there and gathering valuable data, nor should any scheduled to launch soon (Mars Science Laboratory, Phobos-Grunt) be cancelled. However, completely new missions to Mars based on the idea of eventually paving the way for human settlement need to be rethought. Concepts like the Mars Gravity Biosatellite for example (MGB was cancelled, but just as an example) need to be switched to a Moon-centred concept, testing 0.16g instead of 0.38g. To name a few more examples: Germany should reinstate its lunar mission. Canada may want to rethink its Northern Light mission. India should concentrate on lunar objectives instead of its long-term plans for Mars. You can see that there are a fair amount of resources being devoted to long-term plans for Mars that could easily be diverted to the Moon instead.

As for the upcoming missions to the Moon, you can see them in this chart from Wikipedia. There are a total of eight scheduled missions by 2013, compared to five for Mars during the same time period, two of which seem a bit vague. If we are able to launch so many missions to the Moon without even a firm focus on colonizing there, what more could we accomplish if we put our minds to it?

Country Name Launch due
Russia Luna-Glob 1 2010
USA GRAIL September 6 2011
China Chang'e 2 2011
Russia Luna-Glob 2
USA ILN Node 1 2013
India Chandrayaan-2 2013
USA ILN Node 2

Mars missions:

Future missions Launch schedule
Phobos-Grunt (Russia)
Yinghuo-1 (China)

MSL Curiosity (US)
December 2011
Northern Light (Canada)
Mars mission (India)
Between 2013-2015

Here's the press conference from yesterday in full, including the Q&A session afterwards.


Ah, so that's what the Media Matters song sounds like after the first few seconds.

Anyone that has seen a number of videos from Media Matters will recognize the tune at the end of each video that plays for a few seconds:

It turns out that this isn't just a stand-alone tune but actually comes from a song you can hear here:

(still don't know what the title is though)


Results of Page F30 reader poll on Latin ability

A week has passed and the poll has just ended, with a total of 72 responses. If this is at all representative of the population at large then this bodes well for the revival of Latin, as there is a quite shallow but very wide pool of knowledge of the language.

Here are the results:

Which best describes your experience with Latin?
I'm fluent in it and/or teach it to others.
3 (4%)
Not fluent but I'm pretty good at it.
4 (5%)
Used to be quite good, now somewhat rusty.
6 (8%)
Kind of okay at it and/or studying it at the moment
3 (4%)
I've studied it a bit in school or on my own.
21 (29%)
I plan to study it soon or eventually.
11 (15%)
I'm afraid of it.
5 (6%)
I'm not really interested in learning it.
19 (26%)

Votes so far: 72

Putting them all into a chart gives us this.

Now let's take the responses and combine them into some more general categories that directly apply to the potential success of a revival of Latin. The first two categories will be combined as good, the next three will be combined as average, the one after that will be will be average, then afraid and not interested.

That gives us 7 (10%) for good, 30 (42%) for average, 11 (15%) for will be average, 5 (7%) for afraid, and 19 (26%) for not interested.

Now the chart looks like this.

This is admittedly a poll given to readers of a blog with a large portion of it devoted to languages, but nevertheless it would be hard to find results like this with a number of other languages, even fairly large ones like Portuguese, Turkish, Russian or most others. The widespread, if shallow, knowledge of the language is a big plus for Latin. As detailed in the post linked above, the best way to try to revive it as a spoken language would be to pinpoint in which part of the world it has the most support per capita (I think the eastern US might be best for this, but other locations could suffice) and focus entirely on there, in the same way that a flame can be created with a magnifying glass even on a relatively cloudy day if a good enough location is chosen and one's hand is steady enough. Divide one's efforts though (going for two, three or more locations instead of one) and nothing noteworthy will come of it.


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