Monday, January 31, 2005

Spacewalk thruster incident alarms NASA -- Coordination breakdown could have led to toxic exposure

By James Oberg
NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
Updated: 4:01 p.m. ET Jan. 31, 2005

HOUSTON - "The two men aboard the international space station could have been exposed to an unexpectedly hazardous situation during their otherwise highly successful spacewalk last week, has learned.

Behind closed doors, the origin of what one source called a “major close-call incident” and NASA’s reaction to it are the subject of high-level dispute within the space agency and between the space station's U.S. and Russian partners.

U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov spent five and a half hours working outside the space station last Thursday, performing a series of assembly and inspection tasks. It was the first spacewalk of the mission for the pair, who are halfway through their six-month stay on the station.

During the spacewalk, the station turned slightly and needed to be readjusted periodically by firing rocket thrusters located on the Russian half of the station. On at least one occasion, and contrary to agreed upon mission rules, these thrusters were activated when the two crew members were working dangerously close to them.

This put them at risk of both thermal damage from the thrusters themselves and, more likely, to chemical contamination from the fuel used by the thrusters. Even in small amounts, any fuel splashed on the space suits could render the air toxic in the station when the men returned from their spacewalk.

That neither of those events actually happened isn't reassuring to those at NASA who want to know why safety measures weren't more closely followed. Engineers at NASA who have spoken privately with say they are studying the incident all the more intently because the next scheduled spacewalk, in March, could expose the crew to even more hazards of this kind.

Russian mission control in charge
At a press conference prior to the spacewalk, NASA flight director Derek Hassman commented on the difficulties that reduction to a two-person crew since the Columbia disaster had created.

“One of the challenges of the two-person spacewalk is we don’t have the third crew member inside to respond to unforeseen situations or circumstances that, although unlikely, may arise,” he said. Events on the spacewalk would confirm his prescience.

Because this spacewalk used Russian suits, was from the Russian airlock, and involved work on the outside of the Russian module, the Moscow mission control center was in charge of all activities. The NASA center in Houston was staffed on an advisory level but had no operational authority.

Chiao used the “Orlan” suit with serial number 26, used four times by the previous American on ISS, Michael Fincke. Sharipov had suit number 27, which had never been used before. Although the Russians usually use suits with different colored stripes –- red or blue lines on the legs and arms -– for some reason no blue-lined suit was available, so aside from some small patches on their arms, the men looked identical.

Another unusual factor appeared just prior to the spacewalk. Because of the station’s orientation to the sun, the gearbox of the pointable dish antenna used for hi-speed communications had gotten too cold to safely operate. So although voice and telemetry signals could still be transmitted via smaller antennas, no television images were expected.

The spacewalk was authorized to proceed without television coverage.

“TV is highly desirable, but is not a hard requirement,” a NASA commentator explained. In Moscow, a Russian spokesman voiced the same sentiments to a Novosti reporter: “This trouble will not affect the fulfillment of the planned extravehicular activity,” he said.

Once the spacewalk began, however, television scenes were received intermittently, as the antenna temperature fluctuated near the critical limit and as the line-of-sight to relay satellites suffered frequent blockages from station structures. In Houston, controllers closely watched the images whenever they became available, but in Moscow, in would turn out, they did not.

Enter the thrusters
The spacewalk ended successfully after 5 hours and 38 minutes. The planned equipment had been deployed, and in an important discovery, the crewmen had noted some strange "goo" around the dump ports from Russian life support equipment that had been mysteriously malfunctioning in recent months.

But those who followed the spacewalk live on NASA TV, or later watched the tape, noticed some other strange events. Less than an hour into the spacewalk, the gyroscopes that keep the space station oriented had become overloaded and needed assistance.

“The Russian thrusters are now back in control of the space station,” the NASA commentator announced. “The crew is taking a pause to allow the thrusters to reestablish control” against what he called “a slight deviance” that was “nothing significant.”

“Now I can see the thruster firing,” one of the spacewalkers commented a few minutes later, as reported by an interpreter (both men were speaking Russian). Speaking to the other spacewalker, he continued: “It is very interesting to watch the thrusters firing right behind your back.”

Over the remaining hours of the spacewalk, while the men worked at various locations on the outside of the space station, the thrusters came on again and again. Television views would show the men in one area, and brief white thruster plumes appearing on another section of the module. But no audio discussion over the NASA TV channel gave any indication of any concern.

NASA’s internal status report, which is not distributed to the public, later contained a cryptic paragraph on thruster activity during the spacewalk: “Attitude control momentum again was observed to build up in the US [Control Moment Gyros] from reacting to external torques,” the report stated. This “required control authority transfer to [Russia’s Service Module] thrusters to permit gyro desaturation.” After a brief period, “control then returned to the CMGs”.

That is, the station was, as in normal, kept in position by spinning up or slowing down heavy gyroscopes on the U.S. section. But when something "torqued" (or forced to turn) the station to a degree beyond the ability of the gyroscopes to handle, rocket thrusters on the Russian side had to be turned on to relieve the load on the gyroscopes.

NASA’s official public report made no mention of the orientation control issue or of the Russian thruster firings near the spacewalkers.

NASA warning reportedly ignored
However, within hours of the apparently uneventful completion of the spacewalk, the halls at NASA’s Johnson Space Center were abuzz with rumors about a serious contingency that had come up.

“You might want to ask about turning on a Russian thruster when the crew is in the keep-out zone,” one contact e-mailed me, “and the U.S. flight director is telling [the Russian] not to because they are [too close].”

Subsequent private inquiries obtained several different -– and sometimes conflicting –- accounts of the incident. Requests for additional information from NASA officials in Houston have not been answered.

Sources explained that the Russian thrusters that control the station’s orientation are in two sets. For pitching and yawing (turning the station up-down and side-to-side), the thrusters of the docked Progress supply ship are wired into the station’s autopilot. But for rolling the station along its long axis, the Progress thrusters are too weak, so the main thrusters along the back rim of the Russian service module are used. Since rotation control involves the thruster pushing largely parallel to the station’s rim, the thruster plume sweeps out a large area near the station skin.

“Yes, a major close-call incident occurred,” one source claimed. While installing one experiment, he continued, the crew had to work close to a thruster. By prior agreement, when crewmen were in this zone, the Russian thrusters were supposed to remain disarmed. But if the thrusters were urgently needed, the crew was to be instructed to remain outside a "keep-out zone" until they could again be disarmed.

During a brief period when television views had become available, Houston controllers saw the crew move to a worksite within such a zone. They then heard Moscow announce that the thrusters would be armed to respond to another orientation deviation.

According to multiple sources, Hassman, the NASA flight director, told his Moscow counterpart that the crew was too close to the thruster. Moscow disagreed and told Hassman that the crew was safely at another worksite. But the NASA team could see on television that this wasn’t the case. It became clear that since they had assumed that no television would be available for the spacewalk, the Russians were not even looking at the NASA video feed.

Witnesses delicately described “an exchange” between the two flight directors in Houston and Moscow, but the net result was that the Russian ground controllers did not tell the spacewalkers to leave the forbidden area, nor did they disarm the thrusters for more than ten minutes, until proper orientation had been restored. During this period, say sources, the crew reported thrusters firing near them.

Although some NASA engineers insisted that the crew would have to assume they had been contaminated, and should be instructed to inspect their suits and to make sure all sides of the suits were bathed in sunlight long enough to "bake out" any contamination, NASA eventually decided to assume that there had been no contamination. No special measures were requested. The Russians, meantime, continued to insist that nothing at all had happened.

The mysterious 'phantom torque'
In Houston, NASA officials have set up a special team to investigate the incident. The group will determine what changes may be needed in U.S.-Russian control procedures before the next spacewalk in two months.

Meanwhile, neither side can agree on what is causing the so-called "phantom torque" that is pushing the station out of alignment during spacewalks to begin with.

While the NASA TV commentator described the “phantom torque” as appearing “when the crew is imparting a force” to the outside of the station, a simple familiarity with Newton's Laws of Motions shows that this explanation is spurious.

There is no force without a counterbalancing force. Any push on the outside of the station that made the station turn away from its desired orientation, would require the pushing party -– the astronaut –- to go flying off into space. Just banging on the outside, as long as you are securely attached, creates no rotational forces.

What is actually happening is that something besides the spacewalkers’ motion is creating a genuine force against the side of the station. Somehow, a small amount of material is being sprayed away from the station, enough that over time the station builds up an unwanted rotation.

As reported on last year by, NASA believes this force comes from water vapor sprayed out the back of the Russian-made spacesuits to keep them cool. The Russians, however, do not want to blame their suits, and insist the force comes from slight air leakage from their airlock.

“Until it is resolved,” a source e-mailed, “we’ll continue to have this problem for every [Russian] EVA.”

Almost all of the work to be conducted during the crew’s second (and final) spacewalk will take place at the far end of the Russian segment, where the disturbing torques from their spacesuits will be greatest -– and where they will be closest to the Russian rocket thrusters that will have to be activated to counter these forces.

At the very least, NASA will likely redefine its authority for spacewalker safety with its Russian partners. It also may reconsider its nonchalant attitude toward performing such spacewalks without television coverage.

And as analysts more closely examine exactly where the crew was in relation to the Russian thrusters when they fired, NASA may also need to question the real-time thinking that led controllers to assume, in the absence of proof, that there had been no contamination. This is the opposite of the proper attitude of assuming the worst until a better appraisal could be justified. Such a culture remains too frighteningly similar to the one that failed to prevent and then failed to recognize the factors that killed seven astronauts only two years ago this week. "
© 2005 MSNBC Interactive

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Joy Over New Shuttle Eases Columbia Pain


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Two years after Columbia's demise, excitement over the space shuttle fleet's return to the skies in just a few short months is finally overtaking the agony of the accident.

In the past few weeks, two special deliveries have boosted morale among shuttle workers and provided tangible evidence they are rounding the corner.

One is a special tool to inspect the next shuttle while in orbit for any damage to its thermal-protective skin. The other is a brand new fuel tank guaranteed by NASA not to shed big chunks of foam insulation that could harm the shuttle.

Those are two of the biggest technical changes resulting from a lengthy review of what destroyed Columbia and killed seven astronauts on that still painfully vivid Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2003.

It's appropriate, workers say, that two of the most crucial items for safely going into space again are finally at Kennedy Space Center, just in time for the second anniversary of the tragedy.

'We won't ever forget that. But when we have something like this to work on, it gives us a lot of enthusiasm and pride to focus on the future,' said payload operations manager David Schubert. He was standing next to a 50-foot inspection boom, the new tool astronauts will use to make sure the shuttle has reached space unscathed.

For the first time since Columbia went down, 'we're in pretty much known territory,' said NASA's top spaceflight official, Bill Readdy, a former space shuttle commander. 'We know how to process vehicles. We know how to get to the launch pad from here.'

'You can just feel it in the air,' observed shuttle program manager Bill Parsons. Especially satisfying, he said, is knowing that this spring's flight will help the two men aboard the international space station. The shuttle Discovery will deliver much-needed groceries and replacement parts.

For virtually everyone, the next launch - possibly as early as May 12 - is deeply personal.

'We all want to do this in memory of the crew,' said Sandy Coleman, project manager over the fuel tank. 'This is for them and this is what they would have wanted us to do. We knew them. They knew the dangers of spaceflight, and if it had been reversed, they would have been doing it for us.'

The fuel tank will be mounted to a pair of booster rockets in just over a week, and Discovery will be attached to the towering threesome in March for the long-awaited trip to the launch pad.

If Discovery is not flying by early June, NASA will have to wait until mid-July because of the unwavering requirement to launch the shuttle in daylight. That's to make sure NASA gets clear photos of the launch to make sure no damage occurred.

NASA guarantees that after two solid years of scrutiny and re-engineering, nothing bigger than a dinner roll will come off the fuel tank's foam exterior at liftoff, too small to do the kind of damage that brought down Columbia.

Compare that with the suitcase-size chunk of foam insulation that ripped away during Columbia's launch and gouged a sizable hole in the left wing. The hole was harmless in orbit, but during re-entry let in atmospheric gases hot enough to melt the wing from the inside out. The shuttle came apart over Texas, just 16 minutes from the Cape Canaveral landing strip where the astronauts' families and NASA hotshots - like Readdy - were waiting.

The bottom line, according to Readdy, is that even though a dinner roll is the maximum allowable size for flyaway foam, any pieces that do pop off will likely be more along the size of an inconsequential corn flake or two.

NASA is still trying to figure out just how small a piece of foam could cause catastrophic damage. It seems the shuttle is even more vulnerable than engineers thought. Mathematical models used to sort that out, however, tend to 'pile worst upon worst upon worst,' Readdy is quick to point out.

This time around, NASA has backup-upon-backup-upon-backup plans - just in case it's wrong about the fuel tank losing foam.

Discovery's seven astronauts will have a hole-repair kit, albeit rudimentary and not nearly as sophisticated as engineers had hoped. They also will have the option of moving into the space station to await rescue by shuttle Atlantis.

Most important, they will have the new fuel tank and the new laser-eyed inspection boom.

For Discovery's commander, Eileen Collins, it all comes down to this: 'If it wasn't safe, I wouldn't get on it.'

Unlike the Columbia astronauts, 'we've got a lot of things going in our favor,' said her co-pilot, James Kelly. 'When you're on a crew, whether it's an airplane or on the space shuttle, if you know the health of your vehicle, then you can start making intelligent decisions about what you need to do.'"

Table tennis stars auction trophies



"Table tennis stars auction trophies: "HONG KONG (AP) - Hong Kong's table tennis stars are auctioning off recently won trophies from Europe to raise money for tsunami survivors.

Doubles partners Li Ching and Ko Lai-chak, who won silver at the Olympics Games in Athens last year, will sell their trophies from recent wins in Slovenia and Croatia, the Hong Kong Table Tennis Association said in a statement Thursday. The trophies will be auctioned before the final match of a local tournament on Sunday.

Other items used by the Hong Kong table tennis team will also be sold, it said. Proceeds will be donated to the Hong Kong Red Cross."

Saturday, January 29, 2005

PENMANSHIP: Write it right even if your computer crippled you


"On the table before them lay a large sheet of parchment, the ''unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.'' Yet on that August day in 1776 the delegates, black flies nibbling at their legs, squandered little time on ceremony in the stifling room. Congress president John Hancock picked up a quill and, with a quick flourish, signed his name. The simple gesture produced the most familiar bit of penmanship in U.S. history, a signature as synonym, corporate logo and, now during National Handwriting Week, gentle reminder to mind our P's and Q's

The week honors what would have been Hancock's 268th birthday, but it also calls attention to a skill that many of us -- keyboard-dependent, e-mail and instant-message graphophobes who barely can scrawl their names on a credit-card receipt -- no longer practice with much pleasure or verve. ''We're raising generations of children who won't write anything,'' etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige says from her home in Washington, the words brittle with exasperation. 'If they wrote a thank-you note on a lawnmower it would be great rather than nothing at all. What it is is going on record, . . . and that's something we haven't taught our children. We think, `Oh, a telephone call will do,' . . . but it doesn't. . . .''

Still, Baldrige, who served as Jacqueline Kennedy's White House chief of staff and has written several books on how to navigate the sometimes treacherous social currents of diplomatic, corporate and personal life, is no sanctimonious scold. She eagerly bends some rules and breaks others. Given the pressures of today's world, she says, well-mannered people may now type thank-you letters, even condolence notes on their computers, provided they print them out on good paper and take a few seconds to sprinkle some handwritten words along with a signature at the bottom.

''Especially if you have handwriting like I do,'' Baldrige says. 'My handwriting was never very good to begin with, and I had eight years of Sacred Heart nuns on my back. They insisted that no young lady was a real young lady unless she wrote beautifully. And so my handwriting was bad then, and now that I have arthritis, it's terrible. So I put everything on a computer, but I also write something personal at the bottom, and I always say, `I'm sorry. Because of arthritis I couldn't hand write this. I apologize.' ''

Baldrige, who was born in Miami Beach, might be comforted to know that South Florida public-school third-graders, like many of their parents and grandparents, still study the traditional Palmer Method of cursive handwriting. ''Everyone has to know how to sign their names,'' says Shezette Blue-Small, curriculum specialist with Broward County Schools. ``And in order to do that they have to know how to write in cursive. It's also a quicker way to write. We know that everybody's using computers, but if you have to take notes and don't have shorthand in your background, then cursive is much quicker.''

With any luck, at least some of these children, learning to trace their AaBbCc's at a time when more people than ever are scribbling poems and keeping journals, will, like Hancock, polish their loops and downstrokes all their lives.

''I'm picturing his signature as controlled and very even, and it's artistic, isn't it? And doesn't it have all kinds of visual flair?'' asks Lena Rivkin, a graphologist from Studio City, Calif., who advises Fortune 500 companies on the attributes and quirks that lie embedded in the handwriting of employees and job applicants. And while it is unlikely that a modern-day boss would hire even an ex-Founding Father solely on the basis of his elongated J, elaborately looped K and fancy underscoring -- ''Your signature doesn't say that much,'' Rivkin insists -- Hancock's John Hancock, archaically flamboyant and large enough for England's King George to read without his spectacles, still seems self-aware, decisive and grand.

The Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association reports that U.S. consumers bought $4.5 billion worth of pens, pencils and markers in 2002, the last year for which figures are available, up 3.7 percent from 2001. ''About half the pens we sell are fountain pens,'' says Steve Leveen, founder of Levenger, the Delray Beach-based supplier of instruments and accessories for writers and readers. The grandson of an itinerant penmanship instructor, Leveen is steeped, rather charmingly, in the history of the writing arts, from ''The first replacement for the natural feather came about 1825 when, in the Industrial Revolution in the United States, they started producing, God forbid, steel-nib pens. . . . '' to ``the disposable ballpoint pen that we can now find at the Holiday Inn is the answer to our prayers, but. . . . ''

No surprise, then, that even in his business dealings, Leveen often writes by hand. ''I write correspondence cards, because I find that I can write a few sentences to a customer or an associate as fast as I can do an e-mail,'' he says `` . . . I use a broad fountain pen, because people who love fountain pens recognize when you write with one, and they appreciate it. And also it's just fun.''

Close Human Relative Nearly Extinct

"A close relative to the chimpanzee that is thought to be the closest human relative may be on the verge of extinction, scientists say.

Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, have been hunted so extensively that their survival is at risk, warn officials at the World Wildlife Fund.

"The world could soon lose the primate species that shares the greatest genetic connection to humans," said Richard Carroll, a primatologist and director of WWF's Central Africa program. "Bonobos are fascinating creatures and little understood. They have the only great ape society led by females, with a sophisticated social structure that encourages cooperation and peace and settles disputes through sex."

Found only in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, bonobos were believed to once number as many as 50,000. But preliminary results from the first systematic survey of a known bonobo stronghold found more evidence of poachers than bonobos, indicating that there may be as few as 10,000 left in the wild.

Bonobos, along with other species, are targeted by hunters for meat for personal consumption and for the commercial bushmeat trade.

The survey was conducted in Congo's 90,000-square-mile Salonga National Park, a protected area the size of Holland. The first data available, from about a third of the park, show evidence of very few bonobos. No bonobos were encountered, and nests and dung were seen in only a quarter of the area surveyed, at lower densities than previously measured.

"These preliminary results are obviously disturbing," Carroll said. "Salonga National Park was created in 1970 specifically to safeguard bonobos and we thought it was the least disturbed and best protected habitat for the bonobo. Based on how bad it looks here, we can assume that across the Congo, bonobos are in crisis."

Photo Credit: WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Universal Translator Might be Needed to Understand ET

By Douglas Vakoch
SETI Institute

"Will we ever find a primer for decoding messages from extraterrestrials? Last month, anthropologists who gathered for a major conference in Atlanta, Georgia heard some news that will be sobering for SETI enthusiasts: it may be much more difficult to understand extraterrestrials than many scientists have thought before.

Among the sessions held during December’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association was one called "Anthropology, Archaeology, and Interstellar Communication: Science and the Knowledge of Distant Worlds." The session included papers by scholars from such diverse fields as astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, and psychology. Is there a Cosmic Rosetta Stone, they asked, drawing parallels to Earth’s own Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics? Will we ever find a comparable primer for decrypting any messages we might receive some day from extraterrestrials?
Universal Translator

Thirty years ago, a message was beamed to the stars from the world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, written in the language of math and science. But could another civilization understand such a message? In the search for a universal language to overcome cultural differences between humans and extraterrestrials, many have emphasized knowledge that would be shared by extraterrestrial scientists. For example, the metal plaques borne on two Pioneer spacecraft, launched by NASA in the 1970s, indicate our location in the galaxy relative to prominent pulsars that slowly and systematically change frequency over time—locating the spacecrafts’ launch in both time and space. And indeed, for an extraterrestrial civilization that values technical intelligence over social intelligence, such a description might be the start of an ideal message.

But not everyone is so sanguine about using science and math as universal languages. Anthropologist Ben Finney of the University of Hawai’i challenged the standard assumptions several years ago, by drawing on lessons learned from decoding Egyptian and Mayan hieroglypics—a story recounted in Atlanta. "SETI scientists reasoned that advanced ET would de-encrypt their messages through prime numbers, pi, the Planck constant and other presumed cosmic universals so that new members of the Galactic club could immediately begin deciphering them," Finney explained. "I questioned this reasoning on the basis of terrestrial experience in deciphering ancient Egyptian and Mayan inscriptions."

On closer examination of the process of decoding these scripts, Finney concluded that when initial assumptions are wrong, the decryption can be delayed for a long time. "These tasks were long held up by Plotinus’ fallacy of treating each hieroglyph as an idea or concept in itself without reference to language, and were only accomplished with the aid of such keys as the Rosetta Stone and by studying modern forms of Egyptian and Mayan." The lesson for SETI, it seems, is to remain flexible in our initial interpretations of messages from other worlds.

"The archaeological search for peoples from another time and place offers some analogy to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence," said Paul Wason, an archaeologist at the John Templeton Foundation. "Without benefit of direct contact with living beings, without the aid of understandable written communications, … prehistoric archaeologists rely on inferences drawn mainly from material traces of past activity."
We Come in … Peace?

Astronomer Frank Drake, who conducted the first SETI experiment in 1960, emphasized the ambiguities of communicating with those who encounter reality in very different ways. He cited examples from interstellar messages that have been drafted already, as well as initial planning to communicate with future generations of humans here on Earth – through radioactive waste site markers. According to Drake, "probably the most intensive and extensive efforts to communicate with intelligent creatures quite different from contemporary humans have been the program which placed a multi-media record on two of the Voyager spacecraft, and the plan to place fail-safe hazard markers at long-lived radioactive waste repositories."

As one of the designers of these two messages, Drake is well aware of the challenges of tapping into concepts that could be interpreted without error. "In both cases, the development of message content in these projects ran into enormous problems of potential misinterpretation," he explained. "The developers recognized that the interpretation of the message contents would surely take place in a context much different from the present, and unknowable to them. Attempting to construct messages which are unambiguous in such circumstances is extremely difficult and inevitably fraught with error."

As an example, Drake highlighted the ambiguity of the pictures of a man and woman etched onto the Pioneer plaques. "Is the depiction of a man holding an arm upraised to be taken as a friendly gesture of greeting, or as a threat of aggression?" Even supposing the recipients could discern that we are showing images of our species, how could they infer our intentions?
Intelligent Intentions

Perhaps SETI scientists can get some guidance in understanding other civilizations from social scientists. As archaeologists try to distinguish between rudimentary stone tools and rocks chipped by natural processes, their methods may provide insights that will help SETI scientists distinguish between naturally occurring cosmic static and signals from intelligent civilizations, whose purpose is to send intentional greetings.

"Archaeology regularly engages in the search for intelligence, intentionality, purpose and design broadly," Wason explained, "even as our deeper goal is recovering concrete detail concerning what, specifically, those intentions and purposes were." The resulting insights might inform the ways we structure messages, he suggested. "This is relevant for message construction from our end, reinforcing the view that we should give attention to all aspects of message form and context, not just its content. It is also relevant for identifying signs of purpose and intentionality beyond our planet."
Other Worlds

The fields of anthropology and archaeology also offer analogies to understanding "the Other," beings radically different from ourselves. In the process, they may provide insights into communicating broader notions of culture, thereby increasing the likelihood that messages will be intelligible. Simulations based on anthropological models of first contact between terrestrial cultures, for example, might help evaluate the adequacy of current protocols that guide responses to detecting a signal from extraterrestrials.

And yet, the delay of centuries or millennia between each exchange makes interstellar dialogue impossible, except as a dialogue across generations. In this scenario, initial misunderstandings could go uncorrected for a long time. "Without the Other’s dialogic input," said archaeologist Kathryn Denning of York University, "their responses to our misunderstandings, and answers to our questions, then the burden of self-correction falls to us. Perhaps then the challenge for both SETI and archaeology is that of recognizing and shedding enough of our own assumptions. Can we make ourselves unassumed, unfamiliar… indeed, alien?"

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Rockers Start Writing, Writers Rock

The entire piece can be read by clicking on the title link above.


Folk singer and songwriter Bob Dylan plays the harmonica and acoustic guitar in March 1963 at an unknown lU.S. location. A murky, rare 1960 recording of an Dylan playing guitar and singing folk songs has been donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. He was born in Minnesota in 1941 as Robert Allen Zimmerman. (AP Photo)

NEW YORK (AP) - In 2001, Martin Amis, Rick Moody and other authors and artists gathered in New York to honor a peer they regarded as a giant of the times. They compared him to Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Arthur Rimbaud. They called him a bard, a shaman and a master of 'art as revenge.'

That man was Bob Dylan. Had he lived in England, he'd be Sir Bob Dylan, maybe even Lord. Scholarly books have compared him to Dante and Keats; admirers lobby for him to get the Nobel Prize. At a 1997 Kennedy Center ceremony, where fellow honorees included dancer Edward Villela and opera star Jessye Norman, President Clinton thanked Dylan for a 'lifetime of stirring the conscience of the nation.'

Now, Dylan has been knighted by the nation's book reviewers. His memoir, 'Chronicles, Vol. 1,' was among the finalists announced last weekend by the National Book Critics Circle, which has given awards to such writers as John Updike and Philip Roth. Dylan's competitors this year include Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespearean scholar and author of the best-selling 'Will in the World'; and historian Ron Chernow, cited for 'Alexander Hamilton.'

'Bob Dylan is unfairly talented. I've written a lot of books and after reading Dylan's book, I realized I would never write a book that good,' says critic Greil Marcus, a former NBCC finalist whose Dylan book, 'Like a Rolling Stone,' comes out this spring.

'I expected a big, oversized book with lots of pictures and memorabilia. Instead, here is this modest object, with no illustrations. It's not very long. Its tone is humble. It's literate. This is a real book, written out of an immersion in literature.'

In 'Chronicles,' Dylan not only celebrates the influence of Woody Guthrie and other musicians, but states that he recorded an entire album, which he does not identify, based on some stories by Chekhov. Elsewhere he praises Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke and others as 'visionaries, revolutionaries.'"

Dylan unlikely to attend ceremony

"Canadian Press

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Bob Dylan.(AP Archive/Rogelio Solis)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Bob Dylan, whose memoir Chronicles, Vol. I is nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize, will likely be too busy with his day job to attend the March 18 ceremony.

'Bob Dylan is honoured by the NBC nomination, however, he'll be on a concert tour in March,' Simon & Schuster spokeswoman Victoria Meyer said Tuesday. Meyer added that the publisher would 'work with his office to see if there's any way he can come to the NBC ceremony.'

Chronicles was nominated Saturday in the biography/autobiography category, with other finalists including Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton and a biography of Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World.

Virtually all literary efforts by rock stars, from the Kinks' Ray Davies to Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, are laughed off by critics, but Dylan has been praised for an unusually rich and engaging book, writing passionately about influences such as Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson and recalling his years as a young singer-songwriter in New York's Greenwich Village.

Dylan's book, published last fall, also has enjoyed commercial success. Two more volumes are planned.

The National Book Critics Circle is a not-for-profit organization of about 600 book editors and critics.

The Canadian Press 2005"

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Bob Dylan nominated for major book award

"[World News]: New York, Jan 25 : Rock legend Bob Dylan has been nominated along with literary giants Philip Roth and Adrienne Rich for the National Book Critics Circle awards.

Dylan's memoir 'Chronicles, Vol. 1' which has been an instant success is among the finalists for biography/autobiography along with best sellers - Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton and Stephen Greenblatt's biography of Shakespeare, 'Will in the World,' according to

Dylan has been toasted for a brilliant effort at analysing his life and times and influences on his stunning music. The book carries the Dylan story from the time he was a young singer-songwriter in Greenwich Village to being acknowledged as the songster of an entire generation. "

Scientists Create Petrified Wood in Days

"YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - Researchers at a national science laboratory in south-central Washington have found a way to achieve in days what takes Mother Nature millions of years - converting wood to mineral.

The ability to make petrified wood could hold promise for separating industrial chemicals, filtering pollutants and soaking up contamination, said Yongsoon Shin, research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

'Wood petrified is very hard and very porous material - it's not really a wood component,' Shin said Monday in a telephone interview. As a mineral product, petrified wood has a large, hard surface and a porous inside, making it ideal to soak up or separate substances or act as a catalyst in other processes, he said.

Natural petrified wood occurs when trees are buried without oxygen, then leach their wood components and soak up the soil's minerals. For instance, at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest, a state park on the west shore of the Columbia River in central Washington, trees were believed to have been buried without oxygen beneath molten lava millions of years ago.

To create petrified wood, the researchers bought pine and poplar boards at a lumber yard. They gave a half-inch cube of wood an acid bath, then soaked it in a silica solution for days. The wood was air-dried, cooked in an argon-filled furnace at temperatures as high as 1,400 degrees and cooled in argon to room temperature.

The colorless, odorless element argon is sometimes used as a protective atmosphere for growing certain crystals.

The result was a new silicon carbide that exactly replicates petrified wood, Shin said.

The results of the research were published in the latest edition of the journal Advanced Materials.

The researchers now are focused on trying to create narrow, ordered pores in the silicon carbide to make the material even more porous, which would make it even more useful in the industrial world, Shin said.

'If pores are too big or too small, it's not too useful,' he said.

The Richland lab is a research center operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. It works on complex problems in energy, national security, the environment and life sciences. The laboratory employees nearly 4,000 people and has a $650 million annual budget. "

Tuesday, January 18, 2005 News - How Rare Pen Let Great War Soldier Be Laid to Rest at Last

"Tue 18 Jan 2005
12:50pm (UK)
How Rare Pen Let Great War Soldier Be Laid to Rest at Last

By Alison Purdy, PA

A First World War soldier was given a full military burial nearly 90 years after his death thanks to the dedicated research of a military enthusiast.

Peter Last, 61, of Great Wakering, Essex, identified Lance Corporal John Brown by a fountain pen found near his body which was embossed with the words Postman’s Gazette Pen.

The remains of several soldiers were discovered near the village of Loos, northern France, during a road widening scheme three years ago.

A friend of Mr Last sent him photographs of artefacts found with the bodies of the soldiers including the pen.

Mr Last, who has compiled a list of all the soldiers who died during the Battle of Loos in 1915, contacted the Post Office in London whose archive section held the names of all the employees who failed to return from the Great War.

A comparison of the two lists showed John Brown appeared on both.

“World War I was such a horrendous war that thousands and thousands of men were lost never to be found, but even if they were found only nine out of 10 were identifiable.

“If they weren’t identified they were buried in an anonymous grave,” he said.

Mr Last, who is the chairman of the Southend branch of The Western Front Association, discovered that John Brown was a postman from the Glasgow area and during a trip to Scotland he managed to track down his relatives.

He said he was pleased that his research had enabled Mr Brown’s relatives to attend his funeral which was held in France last October.

“John Brown died on his 20th birthday. Nearly 90 years after he died he was given a full military funeral and his coffin was draped in the Union Flag. I’m glad that thanks to a rare pen his relatives will now be able to visit his grave,” Mr Last said.

Mr Brown was buried in the village cemetery in Loos."

ESA Portal - Huygens lands in Titanian mud

Clicking the title will link you to a Macromedia Flash 'animation', comprising photos from the Huygens probe as it descends to Titan's surface.

"18 January 2005
This short animation is made up from a sequence of images taken by the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR) instrument on board ESA's Huygens probe, during its successful descent to Titan on 14 January 2005.

It shows what a passenger riding on Huygens would have seen. The sequence starts from an altitude of 152 kilometres and initially only shows a hazy view looking into thick cloud. As the probe descends, ground features can be discerned and Huygens emerges from the clouds at around 30 kilometres altitude. The ground features seem to rotate as Huygens spins slowly under its parachute.

The DISR consists of a downward-looking High Resolution Imager (HRI), a Medium Resolution Imager (MRI) which looks out at an angle, and a Side Looking Imager (SLI). For this animation, most images used were captured by the HRI and MRI. Once on the ground, the final landing scene was captured by the SLI.

Credits: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona"

Monday, January 17, 2005

PBS airs Bob Dylan documentary

"PBS airs Bob Dylan documentary
Scorsese makes noble attempt to decipher rock icon
By BILL BRIOUX -- Toronto Sun

CAN Martin Scorsese unravel the enigma that is Bob Dylan? The esteemed director will try in No Direction Home. Part of PBS's American Masters series, the authorized, four-hour portrait of the '60s music icon isn't scheduled until July.

Airing over two nights, the film will look at the Minnesota-born singer/songwriter from his Greenwich Village roots to his 1966 motorcycle accident.

Scorsese, who edited Woodstock in 1970 and chronicled Dylan's mates The Band in The Last Waltz, knows this turf.

He's currently working on a similar '60s music project with Mick Jagger.

He had access to over 20 hours of audio and video interviews (conducted by Dylan's manager, Jeff Rosen) but never met the man, preferring to search for the story through the music and poetry.

'I'm looking for clarity,' Scorsese told reporters Saturday at Universal City, Calif.

That's been an elusive target where Dylan is concerned.

Scorsese says Dylan (born Zimmerman) even quibbles with the long-held notion that he took his professional name from the poet Dylan Thomas.

'Dylan just says basically, 'I really don't care what I said then and I honestly don't care what I say now, either,' ' says Scorsese.

The film will include rare footage from a Canadian documentary shot in the '60s. Scorsese praised filmmaker Daryl Duke as 'an interesting director,' adding his footage of Dylan singing and strumming while walking through a logging community was 'quite moving at times.'

Scorsese says Dylan's 'flirtation and dancing with celebrity' is as fascinating as his music.

Everything came crashing down with the motorcycle accident, which makes it the perfect place to stop.

He doesn't see this as a TV show but as a film.

'I just feel that it's nonfiction -- maybe.'

With Dylan, you never know."

Friday, January 14, 2005

The New York Times > After 7 Years, Craft Set for Descent Onto Mysterious Saturn Moon


DARMSTADT, Germany, Jan. 13 - At the European Space Operations Center here, scientists and engineers are tracking a spacecraft around Mars, one monitoring Earth's atmosphere and another on the way to orbit a comet. But the mission very much of the moment is the attempt Friday morning to plunge through the hazy atmosphere and land on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

The European Space Agency's Huygens spacecraft is scheduled to begin its two-and-a-half-hour descent through Titan's dense and mysterious atmosphere shortly after 11 a.m. here (5 a.m. Eastern time). It will be at least five hours before the first relayed data are received; pictures will come still later.

'We have good hope that we will survive the touchdown,' said Dr. Jean-Pierre Lebreton, the mission manager. 'I'm quite confident we will have something special.'

At a news briefing Thursday, Dr. Martin G. Tomasko of the University of Arizona, a Huygens scientist, said the craft's camera and science instruments were expected to provide 'a spectacularly new view of Titan and an understanding of this mysterious world.'

If Huygens succeeds, it will give scientists their first peek inside one of the most intriguing atmospheres in the solar system. Its dense hydrocarbon smog suggests complex chemical processes like those that led to life on Earth. Dr. Tomasko said previous observations indicated that the atmosphere would appear green at higher altitudes and then turn orange closer to the surface.

This atmosphere has also been frustrating. The perpetual smoggy veil has limited any view of Titan's surface to little more than a vague patchwork of light and dark regions, with only some hints of rugged topography.

Mission officials acknowledge the risks that Huygens runs. All of the spacecraft's parachutes must deploy flawlessly. No one can predict the effects of Titan's stiff winds on the craft's stability. And if the craft makes it to the surface intact, its batteries will be running low - time enough for no more than 30 minutes to 2 hours of observations and picture taking.

It would be the first landing of a spacecraft on the moon of another planet. And Titan is no ordinary moon, but a body larger than the planets Mercury and Pluto, and almost the size of Mars.

The 700-pound Huygens, built and operated by the European Space Agency, had help reaching this climactic moment. The mission is part of a $3.2 billion undertaking by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, ESA and the Italian Space Agency.

Huygens (named for the 17th-century Dutch astronomer) rode piggyback on NASA's six-ton Cassini spacecraft for the seven-year journey to the wide-ranging orbit of Saturn. On the night of Dec. 24-25, Cassini released its fellow traveler for its solo cruise on course for Titan and is now in a position to relay all the data sent from Huygens during the descent and landing.

The possibility remains that a design flaw in Cassini's radio receiver system will hopelessly scramble the data. Engineers anticipated that signals from the wind-tossed Huygens would vary widely in frequency and strength, and thus compensated for it in the receiver's design. But they had failed to take into account frequency shifts that would also throw off the timing of the encoded data, leaving it a garbled mess.

In early 2000, an ESA engineer recognized the problem. Finally, ESA and NASA engineers found a way to reduce the frequency shifts to acceptable levels by altering the trajectory and orientation of Cassini during the critical maneuvers."

Thursday, January 13, 2005 Opportunity Spots Curious Object On Mars

By Leonard David
Senior Science Writer
posted: 13 January 2005
12:08 pm ET

"NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover has come across an interesting object -- perhaps a meteorite sitting out in the open at Meridiani Planum. Initial data taken by the robot’s Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) is suggestive that the odd-looking “rock” is made of metal.

The curious-looking object stands out in the parking-lot like landscape of Meridiani Planum.

“We're curious about it too. We have Mini-TES data on it now, and they suggest that it may actually be made of metal,” said Steve Squyres, lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover mission from Cornell University.

“So we are beginning to suspect that it may be a meteorite. I stress that this is very preliminary!”, Squyres told

Opportunity has been busy at work inspecting entry debris -- hardware that fell to Mars during the robot’s entry, descent, and landing over a year ago.

Not too distant from the debris field, the odd-looking rock sits alone atop the sandy terrain.

Squyres cautioned that it is too early to identify the rock as a meteorite.

The next step by rover scientists is to carefully examine the object with Opportunity’s Instrument Deployment Device, or IDD. This robot arm is tipped with scientific instruments.

Once extended out to the object, the arm-mounted devices can study the object’s structure in great detail. The instruments on the IDD are the Microscopic Imager, the Mössbauer Spectrometer, the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, and a Rock Abrasion Tool.

“We're going to look at it carefully with the IDD instruments next, and that should enable us to determine for sure what it is,” Squyres said."

The New York Times > Chess Players Give 'Check' a New Meaning

The New York Times
January 13, 2005
Chess Players Give 'Check' a New Meaning

JAY BONIN, an international chess master who lives in New York, is one of the busiest players in the country. He takes part in face-to-face tournament matches every week and also regularly participates in games of speed chess at, the Internet Chess Club. He estimated that he has played more than 20,000 games online in the last three or four years.

Mr. Bonin is much more active than most elite players, but he is doing what most serious players have long thought is necessary: playing frequently to stay in peak form. Now, however, because of the widespread availability of databases of games and the growing strength of chess software, such activity may actually be making it easier to beat him.

Mr. Bonin said that he recently lost a tournament game to a weaker player who had not competed in years, but who had sprung a surprise move on him in one of Mr. Bonin's favorite openings.

"The line he played reeked of preparation," he said.

The problem for elite players is that while practice is important, so too is study and preparation - knowing the best moves and knowing what opponents like to play.

There are many ways to play a chess game, particularly in the opening sequences, and some players may have studied the first 15 or 20 moves of their favorite openings, like the Kings Indian defense, the Ruy Lopez or hundreds of others that are known by shorthand names.

Game databases, many of which are online, give players information about what opening strategies their opponents use. And rapidly improving chess computer programs can analyze games and make suggestions about what to play. In many cases, electronic game collections are replacing books as chess players' primary source of information.

Using computers and databases during tournament matches is not allowed, and most players say that cheating is rare. But using such systems to help prepare has become ubiquitous.

Gregory Shahade, an international master, said he has used databases, partly because everyone else does, too. Mr. Shahade said that he did not think that he had ever lost a game because an opponent prepared a special opening, but that he felt computers and databases have made chess more predictable and probably less fun. "It seems there is less creativity now," he said.

Garry Kasparov, a former world champion and still the world's top ranked player, agreed that electronic aids may have stifled creativity, at least in the openings.

It certainly has made things more difficult for the more innovative players. Before people started using databases, a player who came up with a new move in an opening might be able to use it several times before enough people found out about it to start preparing for it. Now innovations are known almost as soon as they are played. "The profit maybe is very small," Mr. Kasparov said. "You can only use it one game."

Mr. Kasparov himself may be most responsible for the widespread adoption of electronic aids by chess players.

André Schulz, editor of Chessbase (, an online database and news site based in Hamburg, Germany, said that Mr. Kasparov met one of the company's founders, Matthias Wullenweber, in 1985, when Mr. Kasparov was preparing for his second world championship match against Anatoly Karpov. With suggestions from Mr. Kasparov, Mr. Wullenweber created a program that would allow someone to search a database of games based on different specifications, like player names, positions and opening names.

Mr. Kasparov was enthusiastic about the resulting program and when Mr. Wullenweber started selling it, Mr. Kasparov gave it an endorsement sure to catch the attention of other players. "It's the greatest development for chess since the invention of the printing press," Mr. Kasparov said., which now has more than three million games, is updated every week. Mr. Schulz said that many of the new games are supplied by tournament directors who collect them from the players. Most of the games are in the public domain, so there is no cost to acquire them. The games are entered using notation that has a designation for each piece and each square.

Many games are from elite players - including some played hundreds of years ago - but there are also a great many games from average players. That way, Mr. Schulz said, it is possible to look up games played by your next opponent.

Mr. Schulz, who is about master strength, plays in a league in Hamburg and knew who his likely opponent was going to be in a match Monday. Although his opponent was ranked lower than him, Mr. Schulz found some of his opponent's games to see what he usually plays. Their game ended in a draw.

Mr. Schulz said that in this match and others, having access to archived games was useful. "I have a better feeling now than if I come to the board cold," he said, adding that he was not worried that opponents probably prepare for him in the same way.

Not all players are so unconcerned.

For the last three years, Mr. Shahade has organized a tournament, the New York Masters, every Tuesday night at the Marshall Chess Club in the West Village in Lower Manhattan. One game from each round can be seen live on the Internet Chess Club. Mr. Shahade said one prominent player, whom he did not identify, had complained because he did not want people seeing what he plays.

The Internet Chess Club, which is based in Pittsburgh, archives all of the games from top players who play at the site, which is one reason so many people know what Mr. Bonin plays. Hal Bogner, a consultant to the site, said players can preserve anonymity if they log on as a guest. Although no one knows how often that happens, Nigel Short, a British grandmaster, wrote in an article several years ago that he was certain that a guest he played at the site was the former world champion Bobby Fischer.

While databases have changed preparation, chess programs may be changing how people play.

Alexander Shabalov, 37, a grandmaster, said he had noticed that players ages 15 to 25 play differently than older players because they have spent so much time going up against computers. Because computers are so good at tactics, younger players are more tactical, Mr. Shabalov said, and more willing to take risks.

"They will take a pawn or a piece if they don't see the refutation," Mr. Shabalov said. "When I was younger, I assumed that stronger opponents knew what they were doing and I wouldn't do that. The computers make them bolder. They defend better."

Not all strong players believe that electronic aids are equalizers.

Jaan Ehlvest, 42, an Estonian grandmaster, said that better players are more able to take advantage of the abundant information provided by computers and databases because they have the expertise to identify the ideas that are worth pursuing. For lesser players, he said, computers can actually slow development because they cannnot separate the good ideas from the bad.

Mr. Ehlvest added that in any case he did not believe that computers made people better than they otherwise would be. Instead, they can help them reach their potential sooner.

"Now you see 14-year-old grandmasters because they accumulate information much faster than in my day," he said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

NASA - Get Ready for the Largest Demolition Derby on the Planet

"Scientists say Slow-Motion Collision Near Antarctic Research Station Imminent"

"It is an event so large that the best seat in the house is in space: a massive iceberg is on a collision course with a floating glacier near the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. NASA satellites have witnessed the 100-mile-long B-15A iceberg moving steadily towards the Drygalski Ice Tongue. Though the iceberg's pace has slowed in recent days, NASA scientists expect a collision to occur no later than January 15, 2005."

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The New York Times > Is It Dutch? Japanese? Why Not Ask the Rat?

Is It Dutch? Japanese? Why Not Ask the Rat?

Published: January 11, 2005

If you talk to a rat, you will not get an answer. But a team of Spanish neuroscientists has shown that a well-trained rat may be able to determine what language you are speaking.

Every language has distinctive rhythms and intonations, and awareness of them is an important step in acquiring language. Only humans can learn to speak, but it has been demonstrated that tamarin monkeys, like newborn human infants, can distinguish the unique rhythms of a language even though meaning escapes them.

In other words, they know when someone is speaking their language, even though they have no idea what is being said. Researchers have theorized that this ability extends to other mammals as well, but until now no nonprimate has ever demonstrated the capacity.

In the new study, led by Juan Toro, a doctoral candidate at the University of Barcelona, researchers found that rats trained in either Dutch or Japanese appeared able to distinguish the two languages. The rats were trained by having them listen to synthesized sentences in the languages. Dutch and Japanese were chosen because of their vastly different rhythms. The sentences had no semantic content, but were intended to reproduce the rhythms of the language without using any real words.

This simplified form of language, when spoken in a synthesized voice, leaves only rhythm as a cue, eliminating complicating factors like semantic content or the quality of the voice of a particular speaker.

For the Dutch group, the rats were rewarded with food only when they pressed a lever after hearing Dutch sentences. The Japanese group was rewarded only after hearing Japanese sentences. Eventually, both groups learned to press the lever only when hearing a sentence in their own languages.

Next, the rats listened to four synthesized sentences in the language they had not learned. When the Dutch mice were presented with Japanese sentences, they showed no recognition; when the Japanese mice were presented with Dutch, they were similarly baffled. But when presented with a sentence in their own languages, even a sentence they had never heard before, the rats recognized the characteristic rhythm and pressed the lever correctly.

The researchers said the rats appeared to have generalized some of the rules of their language and, at least in this limited way, were able to understand an entirely new sentence, a distinctive mark of language acquisition. When the researchers played the same sentences with the tape running backward, the rats were unable to understand what language was being spoken - exactly what happens with tamarins and human infants.

Rats, of course, have limitations. They had considerably more difficulty in telling one language from another when listening to normal speech, especially when uttered by different speakers, the researchers found. The multiplicity of cues in ordinary conversation - intonation, the speaker's sex, pitch and so on - utterly confused them.

Human infants have some difficulty with different voices, too, but they quickly overcome it, learning to recognize their own language no matter who is talking and however varied the pitch and intonation. 'What these results suggest,' Mr. Toro said in an e-mail interview, 'is that we share with other animals the ability to perceive some regularities, such as rhythm, in the speech signal. This is interesting because several studies with human infants have shown that these regularities may open the door to language acquisition.'

Does this mean rats and monkeys have the potential to understand human speech? No, said Mr. Toro. But he added, 'Even though human language is special and does not seem to have parallels in the communicative systems of other species, some basic abilities we use for acquiring it may be present in other animals.'"

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A simple 'thank you' accomplishes so much

For the Concord Monitor

"Last week, after the Christmas gifts had been put away and the last of the leftovers consumed, I sat down at the oak table in my dining room with my list, fountain pen and note cards to write thank-you notes.

It wasn't long before I was transported, as I often am when I undertake this chore, to the kitchen of the house where I grew up. The table I sat at then had a red Formica surface edged with aluminum. My mother was often in the room baking or cooking dinner. And I was faced with a list, a pen and note cards.

Even then I understood why a thank-you note was needed sometimes. My father's boss often sent a gift, and when my mother asked, 'How will he know you received it and liked it if you don't tell him?' I could see her point. So, while I grumbled, I wrote.

'But what about Aunt Bernie and Uncle Al?' I'd argue. Aunt Bernie worked in a factory that made pajamas, and my Christmas present every year was a pair of warm flannel pj's. Aunt Bernie and Uncle Al spent every Christmas Eve with us; they were there when I opened their gift, and they had been thanked and hugged as enthusiastically as a child who has just received pajamas for Christmas could manage.

My mother would sigh. 'Manners,' she'd say. 'When someone goes out of his way to do something nice for you, it's polite to say thank you in writing. Just get it done.'
She was right, of course, and I've had plenty of reasons as an adult to be grateful for that early training. And I've received more than enough thank-you notes myself to be able to attest to the lift they can give to the spirit of the giver.

For 35 years, I was a teacher. Notes from students written on stationery, on index cards, on pages torn from spiral notebooks have long since overflowed their drawer in my antique desk. College freshmen wrote their thanks for being disciplined as writers. Students wrote their gratitude for a lesson that spoke to them, for having someone listen, for being understood. Sometimes a parent would write about a change in confidence or ability visible in a son or daughter and say, 'Thank you.'

On days in those 35 years when I was exhausted and out of ideas and it seemed nobody wanted to buy what I had to sell, I would sit on the floor by that desk, pull out a random handful of those notes and read myself back into the optimism without which good teachers cannot function. Those notes, some written no doubt during a few odd moments in study hall, had an impact far greater than their writers could know.

So is it worth it, in this age of e-mail and voice mail and instant message, to fight the battle of the thank-you notes with our kids?

You bet it is, and here's why:

First, on the practical side, it will help turn our kids into writers. Practice still makes perfect, and the emotions and abbreviated spellings that dot our e-mails are not acceptable in college application essays, academic papers and most adult writing.

In addition, the thank-you letter itself is far from obsolete. Many career counselors urge job applicants to write their thanks for an interview, for example. And a professional's career network is created in part by gratitude expressed for an introduction to a prospective employer or a term of mentoring.

Second, writing thank-you notes, even under duress, reinforces the habits of awareness of others and gratitude that are the foundation of good manners.

One of the most impeccably mannered Americans in my lifetime was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When she died, Time magazine published an article about her that included the observation that her manners 'were the tribute she paid to those who shared the world with her.' In other words, she behaved as if every human being deserved respect. My mother called this behavior 'manners'; others have called it 'grace' or 'tolerance' or 'humanity.'

And there are, certainly, worse habits than saying 'thank you' to a harried clerk at the deli counter or to the neighbor who took your sheets off the line when it started to rain.

Third, and most important, writing our thanks makes us aware of what the world doesn't owe us but provides anyway.

The first gifts we recognize as such come wrapped in colored paper and tied up with bows. Hopefully, we grow from that stage to an awareness of gifts that don't come in packages: a job that brings satisfaction as well as money, a shared conversation about something that matters, a hand with a spare tire in the breakdown lane of a busy highway.

I even find myself wondering, as I seal my notes, if people who have learned to recognize and be grateful for the small gifts that arrive almost daily are not only more polite than their fellows but actually happier.

The people I've known who saw the world as owing them all sorts of things were perpetually whining about its failure to deliver them. The people who understand that they are owed very few things - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come to mind - are often more aware of the good things life has provided. They're grateful for them all, and they say so."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Dolphin Rescued 10 Days After Tsunami

"Jan 5, 2:09 PM (ET)


KHAO LAK, Thailand (AP) - An Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin that was dumped into a small lagoon by the Asian tsunami was returned to the Andaman Sea on Wednesday after three rescue attempts - a rare story of survival 10 days after the massive disaster.

But the fate of a second, smaller dolphin also spotted in the murky, stagnating water was unclear.

"She's out!" Edwin Wiek, a Dutchman who is director of the Wildlife Friends of Thailand Rescue Center, said jubilantly after the older dolphin swam away. "I think she's going to survive."

The dolphins, spotted Monday about a half mile from the beach by a man searching for his missing wife, had become a symbol of hope amid the death and destruction after towering waves crushed posh tourist resorts in the surrounding Khao Lak area, uprooting trees throughout the area.

But rescue efforts Monday and Tuesday failed, first because the nets were too small, then because trees and other debris on the bottom of the lagoon apparently tore holes in the nets and allowed the pink-and-gray dolphin to slip out.

The smaller dolphin wasn't seen during the rescue Wednesday, said Wiek, who planned to the lagoon Thursday.

Officials had planned to wait until Saturday to make another dolphin rescue attempt, but local fishermen and soldiers showed up Wednesday afternoon with a double net.

As about 150 people watched, soldiers lined the length of the nets, splashing to herd the dolphin into a corner of the lagoon. It jumped the first net and became trapped in between.

"She seemed to be pretty exhausted at the end, so she actually drove herself into the net," Wiek said.

The soldiers put the dolphin on a stretcher and pulled it up the muddy bank and into a pickup truck, where it was laid on an air mattress and driven to the sea.

Wiek said the dolphin, which originally was spotted with a shallow wound on her back, suffered some small injuries from the net. It was given an injection of antibiotics, which also were smeared on the wounds.

The net caught the dolphin's fins awkwardly, and the mammal, estimated at 13 to 15 years old, appeared to be crying, he added.

The rescuers carried the dolphin from the truck, walked out into the sea and released it.

"She went off like a rocket," Wiek said.

Local fishermen also managed Tuesday to trap and free a dugong - a tropical sea mammal that lives along the shores of the Indian Ocean - that had been trapped in a lagoon near a navy base in Phang Nga province.

About 500 to 600 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins are believed to inhabit the seas around Thailand, migrating between the Indian and Pacific oceans."

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

New Scientist - Mystery of Mars rover's 'carwash' rolls on

" * 11:26 23 December 2004
* Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
* Philip Cohen

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity seems to have stumbled into something akin to a carwash that has left its solar panels much cleaner than those of its twin rover, Spirit. A Martian carwash would account for a series of unexpected boosts in the electrical power produced by Opportunity's solar panels.

The rovers landed on Mars in January 2004 with solar cells capable of providing more than 900 watt-hours of electricity per day. Spirit's output has dropped to about 400 watt-hours, partly because Martian dust has caked its solar panels.

Opportunity's output also declined at first - to around 500 watt-hours - but over the past six months it has regained power (New Scientist print edition, 30 October). Lately, its solar cells have been delivering just over 900 watt-hours.

Rover team leader Jim Erickson at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told New Scientist that a process still not understood has repeatedly removed dust from the solar panels. "These exciting and unexplained cleaning events have kept Opportunity in really great shape," he says.

Whatever the process, it has taken place while Opportunity was parked during the Martian night. On at least four occasions over a six-month period, the rover's power output increased by up to 5% overnight. At the time, the team speculated that wind may have swept the dust off the panels or frost may have caused it to clump, exposing more of the panels.
Self inspection

Now an inspection of the rover's surface using its own camera has confirmed that dust has been removed from the vehicle. Erickson estimates that the cleaning accounts for about 15% of the difference between Spirit's and Opportunity's power output. Most of the remaining disparity is due to the difference in sunshine in their two locations.

But the mystery of why only Opportunity has been cleaned remains. The answer might lie in the nature of the two rovers' missions. Spirit has been prospecting in an area called Columbia Hills, while Opportunity has been exploring the wall of Endurance crater.

While climbing, Opportunity spent a lot of time with its solar panels tilted, which could have caused any dust to tumble off. And the researchers suspect the shape of the crater may encourage the development of dust devils or other wind patterns that could help scrub the panels.

If the crater does provide a natural, wind-driven car wash then Opportunity's days as a clean machine could be at an end. On 12 December, it drove out of the crater to explore the terrain beyond. "If in three or four months Opportunity is still operating and hasn't had another power boost that would suggest the crater was the key," Erickson says."

Elephants Saved Tourists from Tsunami

"Jan 3, 9:11 AM (ET)

By Mark Bendeich

KHAO LAK, Thailand (Reuters) - Agitated elephants felt the tsunami coming, and their sensitivity saved about a dozen foreign tourists from the fate of thousands killed by the giant waves.

"I was surprised because the elephants had never cried before," mahout Dang Salangam said on Sunday on Khao Lak beach at the eight-elephant business offering rides to tourists.

The elephants started trumpeting -- in a way Dang, 36, and his wife Kulada, 24, said could only be described as crying -- at first light, about the time an earthquake measured at a magnitude of 9.0 cracked open the sea bed off Indonesia's Sumatra island.

The elephants soon calmed down. But they started wailing again about an hour later and this time they could not be comforted despite their mahouts' attempts at reassurance.

"The elephants didn't believe the mahouts. They just kept running for the hill," said Wit Aniwat, 24, who takes the money from tourists and helps them on to the back of elephants from a sturdy wooden platform.

Those with tourists aboard headed for the jungle-clad hill behind the resort beach where at least 3,800 people, more than half of them foreigners, would soon be killed. The elephants that were not working broke their hefty chains.

"Then we saw the big wave coming and we started running," Wit said.

Around a dozen tourists were also running toward the hill from the Khao Lak Merlin Resort, one of a line of hotels strung along the 10 km (6-mile) beach especially popular with Scandinavians and Germans.

"The mahouts managed to turn the elephants to lift the tourists onto their backs," Kulada said.

She used her hands to describe how the huge beasts used their trunks to pluck the foreigners from the ground and deposit them on their backs.

The elephants charged up the hill through the jungle, then stopped.

The tsunami drove up to 1 km (1,000 yards) inshore from the gently sloping beach which had been so safe for children it made Khao Lak an ideal place for a family holiday. But it stopped short of where the elephants stood.

On Sunday, the elephants were back at work giving rides to the tourists on whom the area depends.

German Ewald Heeg, who said he came from a small town near Frankfurt, said his charter company had offered his family -- wife, two daughters and one of their boyfriends -- the chance to go straight home, but he had turned it down.

"Our family is OK so we stay here to make our holiday," he said.

"Today, we make a safari. We go by elephants at first, then we make a boat trip."

Monday, January 03, 2005

Tsunami Traps Rare Dolphins in Lagoon

"Jan 3, 9:10 PM (ET)


KHAO LAK, Thailand (AP) - Men recovering the bodies of tsunami victims in Thailand were working Monday to keep two special survivors alive: a humpback dolphin and her calf swept into a small lagoon by powerful waves.

The animals, believed to be an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and her roughly 3-year-old offspring, were spotted Monday by a man searching for his wife more than a mile from the coast. The larger dolphin, about 7 feet long, appeared to have a back injury.

"I reckon ... they came in with the initial wave, and when the water retreated, they couldn't get back again," said Edwin Wiek, a Dutchman who is director of the Wildlife Friends of Thailand Rescue Center. He said the two might survive only a few days without live fish to feed on.

"We need to get them out," he said.

With the search for survivors on Thailand's devastated southwestern coast basically turning into recovery of bodies, the discovery of the dolphins energized workers.

"That's why we hope we get them out. That would be the only survivor story," Wiek said. "We need one."

About two dozen Greek divers tried to corner the dolphins Monday in what used to be a small valley before the tsunami swept in and left a lagoon about 16 feet deep. The goal was to get the mammals into black and green nets so they could be put into carriers and hauled to the sea.

But after a failed attempt, a marine biologist told them the nets were too small. A radio broadcast went out asking fishermen to bring larger nets to the area.

While the rescue attempt went on, volunteers spotted the bodies of several people in the nearby vegetation, and one body in the lake.

The divers quit Monday because of darkness, but planned to try again early Tuesday using a larger net. They also were seeking the help of a dolphin expert.

Wiek said there are about 500-600 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in the seas around Thailand, and that they migrate between the Indian and Pacific oceans."

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Iceland tells U.S. to butt out; Fischer still welcome

"REYKJAVIK (AP) Iceland has rejected a U.S. request to drop the offer of a residency permit for former American chess champion Bobby Fischer, officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. ambassador to Iceland, James Gadsden, asked the country last week to withdraw its offer because Fischer is wanted in the United States on criminal charges.

Fischer, who is being held in Japan, is wanted in the United States on charges of violating U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia when he played a chess match there in 1992.

But on Monday, Foreign Secretary David Oddsson invited Gadsden to a meeting and told the U.S. ambassador that the Icelandic government stood by its offer, Icelandic officials said.

Gadsden was told that Iceland wanted to recognize its historic connection with Fischer, who has been held in great esteem here since winning the chess World Championship in Reykjavik in 1972.

Oddsson also told Gadsden that Fischer's alleged crime had exceeded Iceland's statute of limitations, and for that reason Iceland would not be bound by a U.S. extradition request if the chess player moved from Japan to Iceland.

Gunnar Smari Gunnarsson, Iceland's permanent secretary of state, said in an interview Tuesday: "Nothing has been withdrawn. It is now up to the Japanese government. We are not pressing the matter, but if Fischer comes here, he will be let into the country."

Fischer, 61, is being held in detention in Japan, where he was caught trying to board a flight for the Philippines with an invalid passport in July after the United States revoked his passport.

Fischer, who has said he would like to move to Iceland, is fighting a deportation order to the United States."