May 10th, 2010

[LINK] "Finding the Right Asteroid for Astronauts to Land on"

I thought I'd follow up last month's post on the US plans for a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid with a link to an article by Wired Science's Laura Sanders. Landing on an asteroid's a good idea, but which asteroid do you pick?

[R]esearchers have begun culling the list of potential candidates. Martin Elvis of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, proposed criteria for identifying “potentially visitable objects” on April 28 in Brookline, Massachusetts, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division on Dynamical Astronomy.

Asteroids come in a menagerie of sizes, shapes and trajectories. Some are little more than giant loose rubble piles, while others are densely packed. Though Obama’s proposal didn’t point to any specific destinations, Elvis says that a worthy asteroid ought to have a few key features, including a slow spin rate, no problematic satellites and a solar orbit that allows for a long and recurring launch window.

“Are they spinning rapidly? Are they elongated? Is there strange, irregular gravity?” Elvis asks. If the asteroid is “lumpy and nasty, that’s not good.”

The most important consideration, though, is that the asteroid is easy to get to. While the majority of asteroids reside in a belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, some come close to Earth. A relatively nearby asteroid that circles the sun at a speed similar to the Earth’s would be ideal, Elvis reported. So far, six of 6,699 known near-Earth asteroids seem to have amenable orbits.

For many researchers, the visit will be a mini–Mars-mission — a chance to test strategies and equipment before traveling to the red planet. A round-trip journey to a nearby asteroid might take about half a year. A mission to Mars would take more than twice as long.

“If you want to climb Mount Everest, you don’t climb K2 first,” says astronaut and astronomer John Grunsfeld of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Practicing deep space maneuvers on a nearby asteroid would be like climbing Washington’s Mount Rainier before tackling the Himalayas.

[URBAN NOTE] There be dragons north of Dupont, even though there really shouldn't be

Towards the end of my bike commute to my Dupont Street home from my midtown place of employment, I was struck by the ways in which my mental maps fail. The east-to-west Dupont Street is almost midway between Bloor Street West to the south and St. Clair Avenue West to the north. It's about ten minutes' walk south from Dupont to Bloor, and a bit longer to walk north to St. Clair, with biking times proportional. And yet, as the familiar sights of Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church and the CPR railway bridge over Dovercourt approached, I realized that I knew neighbourhoods that were well within walking distance not at all, simply because they lay on the other side of the rail line I've lived against for the past three and a half years. Weird. I should make an effort, I guess.

[LINK] "A diaspora begins"

Himal South Asian T.P. Mishra has an interesting article examining how resettled Bhutanese, Nepali Hindus ethnically cleansed during the early 1990s, may now be in a much better position to gain international attention.

Despite early misgivings, by now the majority of refugees – currently around 85,000 among a total of 108,000 – have declared their interest to leave the camps and attempt to set up new lives in the West. Resettlement countries include the US, which has agreed to take in the majority of those who want to leave, as well as Australia, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand, and potentially the UK. Within a year of the start of that process, the new diaspora’s growing presence began to be felt. In December 2009, a group of Europe-based Bhutanese exiles demonstrated in Geneva against the Thimphu government’s delegation tasked with presenting an official report before the UN’S Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights. Significantly, demonstrators were even allowed access to the meeting hall, requiring the Bhutanese delegation to present their report in the presence of members of the refugee community. The delegation was later forced to accept various recommendations put forth by the representatives of other member states on behalf of the exiled Bhutanese, including that Thimphu commit itself to resuming talks with Kathmandu regarding repatriation, and improve the human-rights situation in the country, among others.

Together, these turns of events were taken by exiles and activists as a triumph. Except for a few previous instances, due to their political status refugees had not been able to protest what they saw as Thimphu’s deceit regarding its process of democratisation. Most of the refugees belong to the Lhotshampa, the southern, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese community that has for decades been marginalised or actively persecuted by the Bhutanese state. Following a forced mass exodus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the refugees found few outlets in which to air their complaints while in exile in Nepal. However, the Kathmandu platform had its limits, as became clear in retrospect.

Durga Giri, the chief coordinator of the Bhutan Advocacy Forum Europe, which organised the Geneva protests, says the resettlement offer has already turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the pro-democracy movement. “Testimonies of human-rights violations in Bhutan are no longer confined to bamboo refugee huts in Nepal,” Giri said recently. “In fact, the perspective offered by settling into new countries has given us leverage to re-organise the movement for human rights and inclusive democracy.”

[LINK] "Apple and Yalta"

Edward Lucas wrote a brief article, published in the Economist but also on his blog, describing how post-Communist Europeans find it difficult to plug into the Apple revolution. You can buy hardware authorized resellers, sure,b but hardware isn't the only thing.

Sign up for an iTunes account, and the opening windows offer a glimmer of hope. It offers not just two kinds of Portuguese, but Polish and Russian too, as well as the mysterious “Spanish (International Sort)”. It looks fine. So—at first sight—does the iTunes store, which offers a tempting array of countries.

But some are more equal than others. Visitors from Finland, for example, are presented with a full array of music. But register with an address in Estonia, just half an hour away by plane, and you get only a list, admittedly rich, of games, gimmicks and lectures. Films and music are out of bounds.

This approach annoys a lot of people. One organisation in Poland has been berating Apple for its approach to the biggest and most advanced market in eastern Europe. It is now celebrating a partial victory (Apple has agreed to open up its distribution market). But even in Poland, the company’s offering is nothing like what you get across the border in Germany. Other countries in the region have yet to see any improvement at all.

One of those most irked by the company's approach is the iPhone-toting president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a loyal customer since 1982, when he bought an Apple IIe. Estonia, he notes, is one of the most wired countries on earth. Tallinn is the centre of NATO’s cyber-warfare research, and Estonians invented another icon of internet cool: Skype. Skype’s director of new products, Sten Tamkivi, has an iPhone, an iPad and a Mac at home. He describes the Apple rule as “a weird relic of commercial east-west segregation inside what is otherwise known as the European Union".

Why doesn’t Apple, a company so irritatingly up to date in its products and marketing, update its worldview when it comes to sales? Apple’s global headquarters did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman in Britain promised to investigate. When we get an answer, we’ll post it here.

A commenter points out that the availability of iTunes content has less to do with Apple and more to do with the intellectual property regimes of the world. Thoughyts?