June 9th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links


  • At Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait makes the necessary point that the unusual lack of the predicted acetylene on Titan's surface doesn't automatically indicate that Titan hosts life.

  • Beyond the Beyond' Bruce Sterling reports on how a French trader accused of massive, illegal trading is planning on defending himself by arguing that's what the bank expected of him.

  • Language Log examines how dialects of North American English and social networks map onto each other.

  • The Numerati's Steve Baker argues that it's a good idea for students of foreign languages, instead of picking up major international languages like Spanish and French, to learn relatively minor languages like Czech or Vietnamese and Danish. His theory is that native speakers of these languages will respond very well to foreigners who speak their language.

  • Savage Minds' Rex considers how the clash of interests in Papua New Guinea between a government interested in exploiting the country's mines and forests and peoples violently opposed to this is read and misread, as a conflict involving indigenous peoples instead of representing a failure of the state to engage its citizens.

[LINK] "Japanese Spacecraft Deploys First Ever Solar Sail"

One of the first science fiction books that I bought was the Brin- and Clarke-edited 1986 anthology Project Solar Sail. A collection of short stories and essays and whatnot relating to solar sails--briefly, spacecraft propelled by the impact of photos emitted by the sun on large sails to move--it impressed me. (Robert Forward's suggestion that arrays of lasers could propel solar sail starshipsreally interested me.) Now, Wired Science's Alexis Madrigal reports that the first solar sail has been deployed by the Japanese space agency.

According to JAXA’s blog posts and photos from the event, the IKAROS spacecraft’s sail appears to be in place. It’s a big step in its attempt to travel driven only by sunlight.

“This is the first sail ever deployed in space, and if they succeed in using it for solar sail flight — it’ll still be a few weeks before we know that — it’ll be a milestone,” said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, an organization dedicated to promoting space exploration, which is readying its own solar sailing mission.

A solar sail uses the pressure from photons striking its surface to push the spacecraft through space. Materially, the 650 square-foot sail is made of incredibly thin aluminized plastic that’s only 0.0003 inches thick, a little thicker than spider silk, or about the diameter of a red blood cell. When a photon strikes its surface, it bounces off, imparting its momentum to the sail. Each photon might not deliver much thrust, but over time, all that light adds up.

“The actual force might be just a few millionths of a G, but because it acts continuously, it allows you to build up large velocity changes over time,” Friedman said. “That’s where a sail really does its work is long missions.”

The Japanese sail also has thin-film solar cells built into it. They could be used to generate electricity to drive an engine that would work alongside the sail.

The key difficulty with such a thin and large object is that it’s hard to deploy. “The things we’re watching for are all their dynamical behaviors that you ultimately can’t model and that might cause undue stress on the material,” Friedman said.

In the IKAROS design, the sail was unfurled by using centrifugal force generated by spinning the craft.

Space travel proponents are particularly interested in the technology because it doesn’t require fuel, which makes it the leading (and basically) only candidate for very long-distance travel.

[LINK] "G20 summit forces Bay Street to move house"

You have to admit, the irony of this news--the financial district that depends on the proper functioning of the global economy is getting shut down by the meeting of the heads of government responsible for the proper functioning of the global economy--is pretty funny.

The heart of Canadian finance will shift from the gleaming towers of downtown Toronto to a series of non-descript buildings around the city's fringes to keep markets pumping during the G20 summit.

Banks and law firms that negotiate and broker deals are concerned less with G20 protesters causing violence during the June 26-27 leaders' summit, and more with the troubles that crowds and security would cause for employees getting to work.

The people that can are being told to work from home, or to take time off. But for many traders and other key deal makers enmeshed in non-stop global transactions, it's not that simple.

Law firms headquartered downtown are making plans such as booking hotel rooms for crucial “deal teams” who are working on time-sensitive negotiations that can't stop for protests. Financial behemoths such as Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Montreal are prepared to move hundreds of their traders to secret backup locations scattered around Toronto, where full trading floors are ready and waiting for just such an evacuation.

Alpha Group, which runs the country's second-largest stock market from offices just outside the inner G20 security perimeter, is also shifting to its full business-continuity plan and will move much of its 40-person operation to a backup site about 40 kilometres from downtown, said Chief Executive Officer Jos Schmitt. The facility, at a location Alpha won't disclose, offers all the equipment necessary to continue trading, he said.

“This is an interesting opportunity to test the entire process,” said Mr. Schmitt, who said that Alpha usually runs through its contingency plan once a year anyway.

[LINK] "‘What would Napoleon do?’"

Martin Patriquin of MacLean's had an interesting article up describing the peculiar identification of many Québécois with Napoleon. They could empathize with this Frenchman who had been defeated, coqnuered, by the British.

“Napoleon is in the cultural DNA of French Canadians,” says [Senator Serge] Joyal, whose work on Napoleon’s influence on Quebec will be published this fall. “When the British defeated Napoleonic France, French Canadians were put in a situation where commerce, international relations, leadership were in British hands. So in order for them to maintain their language, culture and institutions, they had to constantly affirm their identity. The person who best personified this resistance was Napoleon. Very quickly, they took up Napoleon as a hero in their battle against the English.”

[. . .]

For an abiding example of Quebec’s Napoleon mania, consider this: Boucherville native Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, technically the country’s first prime minister and early resister against British might, fashioned himself after Napoleon, even tucking his hand inside his coat while promenading on the streets of Montreal, London and Paris—where he was often mistaken for Napoleon. Portrait artists, says historian Desmond Morton, knew to draw LaFontaine with Napoleon in mind, if only to ensure their patron’s favour. And LaFontaine’s Napoleonic affliction continued even after he broke with Quebec’s nationalist ranks and made peace with the British.

Quebec premier Honoré Mercier, meanwhile, wrote a 60-page treatise on how Napoleon was a victim of the British. His frequent, fiery speeches on the subject—he was premier between 1886 and 1892—would become an enduring strain of Quebec nationalist thought. (There is a certain irony in this: as emperor, Napoleon was opposed to the nationalist movement in his native Corsica.)

In the years immediately following the emperor’s death, “Napoleon” became the most popular given name for boys in Quebec. (Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, was the nom du jour for young girls.) There were no Napoleons serving in Quebec’s legislative assembly in 1821; by 1867 nearly two dozen had passed through. Quebec City had two mayors named Napoleon, while journalist Napoléon Bourassa served in the Quebec legislature, Canada’s House of Commons and Montreal’s nationalist Société St Jean Baptiste. “We all had Uncle Napoleons and Aunt Josephines in our family,” says Joyal.