Daily Archives: June 26, 2009

Go help Grrrrl Scientist do something really cool

There are two ways to go to Antarctica. One is like my friend Elle, who is at this very moment in an underground bunker at the south pole with a broken limb and inadequate medial attention, where she is working on a NASA scientific expedition where they thing somehow it is a good idea to spend the WINTER there.

The other is to wait until summer then go when the weather is nice.

Well, Grrrl Scientists, from Living the Scientific Life, is currently in the running for Plan B, the summer trip to Antarctica. Go here and find out how you can help her get there! Seriously, go!

Jackson Coroner: “Cause of Death” Will Wait Weeks

The coroner’s preliminary report has come out, and it is vague.

Rather than reporting, for instance, a simple heart attack/stroke, the coroner indicates that there is no obvious cause (some physical, visible thing) of such a thing, and that actual ’cause of death’ will be specified only after toxicology screens and other tests.

The word on the street (well, actually, on my TV) is that the multi-week delay the coroner indicates will mainly be caused by being really really careful so they don’t screw this up.

In other words, SOP plus.

Various sources are also indicating that Jackson has been, essentially, “clean” over the last few months or more, with respect to alcohol and drugs. On the other hand, one of the main sources of that information may be a physician who disappeared from the scene when things got hot, and who’s car has been impounded by the LAPD.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey Alters Orbit to Study Warmer Ground

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s long-lived Mars Odyssey spacecraft has completed an eight-month adjustment of its orbit, positioning itself to look down at the day side of the planet in mid-afternoon instead of late afternoon.

This change gains sensitivity for infrared mapping of Martian minerals by the orbiter’s Thermal Emission Imaging System camera. Orbit design for Odyssey’s first seven years of observing Mars used a compromise between what worked best for the infrared mapping and for another onboard instrument.

“The orbiter is now overhead at about 3:45 in the afternoon instead of 5 p.m., so the ground is warmer and there is more thermal energy for the camera’s infrared sensors to detect,” said Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project scientist for Mars Odyssey.

Some important mineral discoveries by Odyssey stem from mapping done during six months early in the mission when the orbit geometry provided mid-afternoon overpasses. One key example: finding salt deposits apparently left behind when large bodies of water evaporated.

“The new orbit means we can now get the type of high-quality data for the rest of Mars that we got for 10 or 20 percent of the planet during those early six months,” said Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe, principal investigator for the Thermal Emission Imaging System.

Here’s the trade-off: The orbital shift to mid-afternoon will stop the use of one of three instruments in Odyssey’s Gamma Ray Spectrometer suite. The new orientation will soon result in overheating a critical component of the suite’s gamma ray detector. The suite’s neutron spectrometer and high- energy neutron detector are expected to keep operating. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer provided a dramatic 2002 discovery of water-ice near the Martian surface in large areas. The gamma ray detector has also mapped global distribution of many elements, such as iron, silicon and potassium.

Last year, before the start of a third two-year extension of the Odyssey mission, a panel of planetary scientists assembled by NASA recommended the orbit adjustment to maximize science benefits from the spacecraft in coming years.

Odyssey’s orbit is synchronized with the sun. Picture Mars rotating beneath the polar-orbiting spacecraft with the sun off to one side. The orbiter passes from near the north pole to near the south pole over the day-lit side of Mars. At each point on the Mars surface that turns beneath Odyssey, the solar time of day when the southbound spacecraft passes over is the same. During the five years prior to October 2008, that local solar time was about 5 p.m. whenever Odyssey was overhead. (Likewise, the local time was about 5 a.m. under the track of the spacecraft during the south-to-north leg of each orbit, on the night side of Mars.)

On Sept. 30, 2008, Odyssey fired thrusters for six minutes, putting the orbiter into a “drift” pattern of gradually changing the time-of-day of its overpasses during the next several months. On June 9, Odyssey’s operations team at JPL and at Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems commanded the spacecraft to fire the thrusters again. This five-and-a-half-minute burn ended the drift pattern and locked the spacecraft into the mid-afternoon overpass time.

“The maneuver went exactly as planned,” said JPL’s Gaylon McSmith, Odyssey mission manager.

In another operational change motivated by science benefits, Odyssey has begun in recent weeks making observations other then straight downward-looking. This more-flexible targeting allows imaging of some latitudes near the poles that are never directly underneath the orbiter, and allows faster filling-in of gaps not covered by previous imaging.

“We are using the spacecraft in a new way,” McSmith said.

In addition to extending its own scientific investigations, the Odyssey mission continues to serve as the radio relay for almost all data from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Odyssey’s new orbital geometry helps prepare the mission to be a relay asset for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, scheduled to put the rover Curiosity on Mars in 2012.

Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001, is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor for the project. Investigators at Arizona State University operate the Thermal Emission Imaging System. Investigators at the University of Arizona, Tucson, head operation of the Gamma Ray Spectrometer. Additional science partners are located at the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, which provided the high-energy neutron detector, and at Los Alamos National Laboratories, New Mexico, which provided the neutron spectrometer.

For more about the Mars Odyssey mission, visit here.

Dirty poor people living in slime: Missionaries and American Idol

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Actual missionaries
As you may have noticed, I have written a series of posts about missionaries in eastern Zaire in the 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on my own personal experiences. These seven posts represent only a small number of these experiences, but they are more or less representative. They are meant to underscore the down side of missionary activities in Central Africa. To some extent, the negatives you may see in these essays are part of the reason for missionary activity being illegal in many countries (although the reasons for those laws varies considerably). It is my opinion that missionary activity should never be allowed, but at the same time, missionaries can have a positive effect that would not likely happen in their absence.

Frankly, I think that the world of sceptics and non believers looks a bit asinine for not making much more of an effort to replace these positive effects in a secular way and to give the missionaries a run for their money.

One of the reasons that I’ve written these essays is because I was asked to address this issue by Mike Haubrich. Mike is the producer of Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio. The idea was that I would write a few blog posts on my experiences with missionaries, and then we would do an Atheist Talk Radio spot on the topic. As it turns out, this coming Sunday’s show will be the last Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio instalment. After this, the show will be off the air forever. So don’t miss the show! Mike is producing the upcoming show, and Stephanie Zvan will be conducting the interview.

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Do not assume that mud hut = unhappiness
One of the things that I have not sufficiently conveyed in these posts about missionaries is the broad misconception people … not just missionaries, but most people in The West … have about Africans and Africa and the nature of life there. The average American will see a photograph of a mud hut with a grass roof and a family positioned outside the hut staring into the camera and this average American will think, “Oh, those poor people” without any understanding of the fact that they could be looking at the happiest people they’ve ever seen living in relative comfort, with fulfilling lives. They are just not the lives that the average Westerner has determined, in their privileged, middle class, suburban mindset, to be ideal. But who cares what you think?

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Most likely, they are dead by now.
Or, you can look at the broadly smiling face of an African Child bursting with happiness, and think, “well, they fixed that one … he’s happy” and not have any idea that this is a kid who will die of malaria next month because the region of Africa he lives in has zero medical care because there is a war going on over access to the raw materials needed to make your cell phone. Or because he lives near a Christian mission with a medical facility but is not a Christian.

In other words, you have no clue, most likely. And not only do you have no clue, but most of the bad stuff happening to these people is your fault. And you’re probably never going to get a clue. In fact, you are going to spend your energy denying that this is all your fault instead of just doing something to undo what your civilization has done.

The reason you not likely to figure this out, and that you are most likely to keep doing the wrong this, is because the reality that you are willfully misunderstanding is actually quite complicated, but you’ve been trained by your culture and society to view Africa and Africans as rather monolithic and simple.

These posts on missionaries don’t help much in that regard. In these posts, the Africans themselves are not really featured, and though they are far from one dimensional (do look and compare the different individuals mentioned) since these posts are not directly about them, there is just not much there. But I do hope that in reading these seven essays that you will come to understand one thing: When the missionary is showing the slide show about the great work the missionaries are doing, whether you are seeing this in church or on the web or at the local community center or public school, and the missionary is asking you for your money to help do more, please do write a check.

And send it to the UN. Or to the Ituri Forest People’s fund. Or some place, but not the missions.

Here are links to the missionary posts:

On a Mission from God

Forget the Maginot Line, What About the Beer Line?

Our Research Camp as a Mission Station

The Great White Missionary

Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”

Don’t be a Jew

The good book

Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”

As I’ve mentioned previously, the study site I worked in was beyond the Peace Corps Line. It was beyond the Blender Line. And it was beyond the Beer Line. Out here in this arguably very remote area, we were never short of remoteness. Every year the study site become more and more remote, as roads deteriorated, air strips grew over, bridges became more and more questionable. Over the previous decades there had been more of a missionary presence in this area, but the missionaries had withdrawn and now only passed occasionally down the ribbon of mud we laughingly referred to as the “road.”

One day a rabid dog appeared out of nowhere, bit three or four goats, killed my cat, and bit six people.
Continue reading Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”