Monday Miscellany: data mining, monarchs, and Mercury
Today NASA’s space probe MESSENGER made a flyby of the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury. The probe, whose name is both an acronym for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging and a reference to Mercury’s role as the messenger of the Roman gods, took photographs of previously unseen areas of the planet’s surface and numerous other readings that scientists are now eagerly studying. This is the second of three flybys of Mercury, each of them serves to slow down the spacecraft to the point that it can enter orbit in 2011; it also got such gravity assists from Venus and from the Earth itself. Somewhat counter intuitively to a layman, going to Mercury is a lot harder than going to Mars, due to the very large change in velocity needed to enter orbit (or land on the planet, which no spacecraft has ever done and which is not part of MESSENGER’s mission). For more information on the mission, including many more photos, check out their official site.
The Economist has an excellent series of articles covering all aspects of the American presidential election. They also have a non-scientific online poll of their readers to see who would win the election if the electoral college were global and each country allocated its electors on a winner-take-all basis. Currently, Barack Obama is ahead 8375–15. McCain is ahead only in Georgia (the country, not the state), Macedonia, and Andorra. He is probably glad that this is just a poll of Economist.com visitors and not a real poll of public opinion in those countries, but, given that he’d probably still lose a worldwide popularity contest, he is probably very glad that this has no constitutional standing.
Speaking of the Economist, they have a thought-provoking article on “Data mining and the state.” It discusses how all the information that the government collects about us and processes can be used both to increase security and safety and to decrease our privacy and liberties. They discuss the future of such data mining and don’t pretend to offer clear answers as to when and how such technology should be used.
And speaking of the presidential race, linguists have analyzed the candidates’ remarks at the vice presidential debate (which I blogged about at some length here). They found that Palin spoke at the level of a 9.5th grader and Biden at that of a 7.8th grader. Palin, who spoke 5235 words, used the passive voice in 8% of her sentences; Biden spoke 5492 words and used the passive voice only 5% of the time. They both averaged 4.4 letters per word and were statistically tied on the length of their paragraphs; Biden’s averaged 2.7 sentences and Palin’s each had about 2.6 sentences. In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln spoke at an 11th grade level, they report—quite interesting, when you consider how much less education people had back then—though the level on which a person speaks doesn’t necessarily make what they say any better or clearer.
In wackier news, Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s company that will take paying customers into space, has rejected an offer of $1 million to use their spacecraft for filming two people having sex in space. “That was money we had to refuse, I’m afraid,” said company president Will Whitehorn (which, now that I’ve written it, sounds kind of like a male porn star’s name). If not for the fact that the company making the offer was unidentified, I would say that this was simply a publicity stunt. Virgin Galactic will probably begin flights in 2009 or 2010 and their spacecraft will carry six passengers in addition to two pilots. Tickets will cost $200,000. Even assuming that the $1 million was in addition to the $1.2 million that Virgin Galactic would pull in on a full flight it wouldn’t be worth the likely bad publicity that they would get. Besides, I’m sure a porn company could make much more than $1 million if they were the first to release a porn film of people having sex in zero gravity. Wait… maybe this is a publicity stunt, for Virgin Galactic. If so, it’s worked: I’m blogging about it.
The Russian Supreme Court has declared that Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed illegally and are entitled to rehabilitation by the state. This involves formally exonerating them and declaring them victims of communist repression; over four million Russians have been rehabilitated since the collapse of the Soviet Union; The Tsar’s descendants have been trying for years to have him exonerated and were surprised at the ruling. Hopefully this will help Russia’s process of coming to terms with its past. However, I somehow don’t think that knowing he would be declared a victim of communist repression 90 years later would have been much comfort to Nicholas as he and his family were gunned down and bayoneted.