Monthly Archives: September 2015

Back to the Grand Canyon

Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Diane and I are about to leave for our annual hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Though I might be able to post during the drive north today and from the hotel on the rim tonight, from Tuesday until Thursday I will be out of touch with the world of computers, a welcome break that I do need periodically.

Unlike previous trips, this time we are going with a bunch of friends. Last year I obtained a reservation for a 10-person cabin at Phantom Ranch in the Canyon so that we could all be together. Should be a lot of fun!

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SpaceX test fires its Falcon 9 upgraded first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully test-fired its Falcon 9 upgraded first stage.

The link shows the video of the test. Though not confirmed, I am pretty sure this upgrade will be used on the next Falcon 9 launch in November, which will put an communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit while also attempting to vertically land that first stage on a barge.

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Comet 67P/C-G was formed by a soft collision

Scientists, using data from Rosetta, have concluded that Comet 67P/C-G’s double lobed shape was caused by the slow-motion collision of two distinct comets.

By using high-resolution images taken between 6 August 2014 and 17 March 2015 to study the layers of material seen all over the nucleus, they have shown that the shape arose from a low-speed collision between two fully fledged, separately formed comets. “It is clear from the images that both lobes have an outer envelope of material organised in distinct layers, and we think these extend for several hundred metres below the surface,” says Matteo Massironi, lead author from the University of Padova, Italy, and an associate scientist of the OSIRIS team. “You can imagine the layering a bit like an onion, except in this case we are considering two separate onions of differing size that have grown independently before fusing together.”

While erosion continues to eat away at the comet’s surface, changing its shape, the two lobes formed separately, though in much the same way.

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The dark streaks on Mars are water

New data strongly suggests that that the seasonal dark streaks scientists have imaged running down crater slopes on Mars are heavily salted water.

The salt allows the water to flow by lowing its freezing point. The new data has confirmed the presence of those salts, strengthening the theory that the seasonal streaks are water, possibly seeping from beneath the surface or condensing out of the atmosphere.

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India launches its first space observatory

The competition heats up: India today successfully launched Astrosat, its first space telescope.

ASTROSAT, with a mission life of five years, is armed with telescopes that will simultaneously study the space in visible light, ultraviolet (UV) rays and low- and high-energy X-rays, plus an X-ray scanning sky monitor to detect transient X-ray emissions and γ-ray bursts. The observatory aims to study star-birth regions and high-energy processes, including binary star systems of neutron stars and black holes.

This space observatory fills several gaps that have existed in astronomical research since the shut down of NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer in 2012 as well as the International Ultraviolet Explorer in 1996.

The launch also put six other small satellites into orbit, demonstrating once again the reliability of India’s smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

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New EPA ozone regulations based on fantasy

We’re here to help you: New proposed EPA regulations for reducing ozone are expected to cost trillions to enforce, even though there is no evidence that the regulations will do anything to improve health.

In the name of fighting asthma, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested permission to decrease the ozone standard  — the amount of ozone allowed in the atmosphere — to a level some scientists say is physically impossible to achieve. One organization estimates the cost to implement these new rules will be $1.1 trillion. Even worse, data shows that as ozone levels in the U.S. have decreased, asthma cases have increased.

This regulation may be the most expensive in history, and bring absolutely no health benefits.

Worse, there is absolutely no scientific basis for these ozone regulations.

While average levels of ozone have decreased 33 percent since 1980, the number of asthma patients has increased over that time. The Global Asthma Report for 2014 lists environmental factors which lead to asthma, but never mentions smog or ozone. The National Institutes of Health does not list climate change or ozone as a cause of asthma mainly because the exact causes are unknown. Excessive hygiene once was considered the primary cause, but this view has been mostly refuted. “The World Health Organization report “Ambient (Outdoor) Air Quality and Health” does make the argument that ozone may trigger asthma, but it does not refute the negative correlation between improving air quality and the worsening Asthma epidemic in the US.”

While proposing the new standard, the EPA cited a study of which the agency itself had previously said “it is convenient for fitting the model, but it is not accurate.” As Tony Cox pointed out, “there is abundant historical data on ozone levels and asthma levels in U.S. cities and counties over the past 20 years,” so it is relatively easy to see if decreasing ozone has positive effects on respiratory health. It does not.

Read the whole thing. The only reason the EPA is going to try to impose this regulation, which by the way is so stringent that it will likely be impossible for anyone to meet it, is because they can. It is a power play, pure and simple, imposed by appointed fascist bureaucrats who have an ideology that they intend to force on everyone else, regardless of the harm it does.

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Boeing’s first stealth plane concept

Boeing has just released the few remaining photos and documents relating to a 1960s stealth plane concept, including pictures of a half-scale prototype.

The concept dates back to the early 1960s, with a one-half scale model of the aircraft being built sometime between 1962 and 1963. The aircraft was an exercise in utilizing specific materials and shapes to drastically reduce the radar cross-section of a tactical aircraft. From this pioneering design, five Boeing “stealth” patents were awarded, and they only appear to have shown up in public records in the early 1990s, decades after they were officially filed.

The model of Quiet Bird was said to have been tested at Boeing’s Wichita facility in 1962-1963, all of which occurred on a radar range. No actual flight testing of Quiet Bird itself was said to have happened, though. But the tests were highly successful: they proved that it was possible to drastically decrease the radar signature of a tactical aircraft.

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Using fish to study bone loss in weightlessness

A Japanese experiment on ISS, comparing the development of fish in weightlessness with those on the ground, has provided` scientists more information about bone density loss in weightlessness.

Akira Kudo at Tokyo Institute of Technology, together with scientists across Japan, have shown that medaka fish reared on the International Space Station for 56 days experienced increased osteoclast activity – bone cells involved in the re-absorption of bone tissue – likely leading to a subsequent reduction of bone density. They also found several genes that were upregulated in the fish during the space mission. The team generated fish with osteoclasts that emit a fluorescent signal. They sent 24 fish into space as juveniles, and monitored their development for 56 days under microgravity. The results were compared with a fish control group kept on Earth.

Kudo and his team found that bone mineral density in the pharyngeal bone (the jaw bone at the back of the throat) and the teeth of the fish reduced significantly, with decreased calcification by day 56 compared with the control group. This thinning of bone was accompanied by an increase in the volume and activity of osteoclasts. The team conducted whole transcriptome analysis of the fish jaws, and uncovered two strongly upregulated genes (fkbp5 and ddit4), together with 15 other mitochondria-related genes whose expression was also enhanced. Reduced movement under microgravity also has an influence. The fish began to exhibit unusual behavior towards the latter stages of their stay in space, showing motionless at day 47.

What the data mostly confirms is that long-term weightlessness is a bad thing for the development of bones, and not just in humans. Whether scientists can use these results to counter these harmful effects is not clear, however.

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66% of all surface climate data is adjusted

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of the surface global weather data, dubbed GHCN and used by NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences (GISS) to demonstrate the climate has been warming for the past century, has found that 66% of that data is adjusted or estimated and is not based on the actual raw data.

Overall, from 1880 to the present, approximately 66% of the temperature data in the adjusted GHCN temperature data consists of estimated values produced by adjustment models, while 34% of the data are raw values retained from direct measurements. The rural split is 60% estimated, 40% retained. The non-rural split is 68% estimated, 32% retained. Total non-rural measurements outpace rural measurements by a factor of 3x.

The estimates produced by NOAA for the GHNC data introduce a warming trend of approximately a quarter degree C per century. Those estimates are produced at a slightly higher rate for non-rural stations than rural stations over most of the record. During the first 60 years of the record measurements were estimated at a rate of about 75%, with the rate gradually dropping to 40% in the early 1990s, followed by a brief spike in the rate before resuming the drop to its present level.

Approximately 7% of the raw data is discarded. If this data were included as-is in the final record it would likely introduce a warming component from 1880 to 1950, followed by a cooling component from 1951 to the present.

As I have noted previously, all the adjustments cool the past and warm the present, a pattern that is just not realistic in the real world, and could only exist if the people doing the adjustment are either not recognizing their biases or are consciously manipulating the data to prove those biases.

Either way, the surface temperature data as released by GISS is simply not trustworthy for determining the changes in the Earth’s climate over the past few centuries.

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First rocket arrives at Vostochny

The competition heats up: The Russians have now delivered to Vostochny the first Soyuz rocket for launch from that spaceport.

The launch is still planned for December, though no one would be surprised if it got delayed.

One minor but interesting thing to note at the link above. The pictures of the train and the containers holding the rocket sections were taken by none other than Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister whom Putin himself has placed in charge of the construction of Vostochny. This is as if Obama put Biden in charge of NASA’s SLS program, and Biden himself took pictures of some construction event for the news media.

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Opportunity marathons on

As the rover prepares for winter, scientists hope to continue Opportunity’s survey of Marathon Valley, an east-west cut through the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

Overall the rover`s condition appears better than should be expected, considering it is now more than a decade past its expected expiration date and has been having memory problems for the past year.

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Boehner steps down

Good news: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) today announced that he will resign as speaker as of the end of October.

I’ve already seen a number of stories suggesting that Boehner’s second-in-command, Kevin McCarthy (R-California), is the likely replacement. McCarthy would not be much different than Boehner, except that he will know that the conservative wing of the Republican Party was able to force out his predecessor for not supporting conservative objectives. I expect we will thus see the House leadership develop a little more spine in future conflicts with the Democrats.

This is all part of a long term process. Every election that increases the number of conservatives in Congress increases their ability to achieve their goals. Nor is this unusual. I saw the same thing in the 1960s. At the time the public wanted Congress to pass very leftwing legislation. Congress wasn’t willing to do it. It took a decade, until the late 1970s, before Congress had followed the public’s lead and become as liberal as the public.

There is always a lag. I expect the conservative momentum to continue to accelerate in the coming years.

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Rosetta data reveals how a comet evaporates

Newly released Rosetta data has shown, for at least one area on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G, the process by which the surface ice is replaced by water ice from below as the comet rotates and sunlight causes the surface ice to evaporate away.

The data suggest that water ice on and a few centimetres below the surface ‘sublimates’ when illuminated by sunlight, turning it into gas that then flows away from the comet. Then, as the comet rotates and the same region falls into darkness, the surface rapidly cools again. However, the underlying layers remain warm owing to the sunlight they received in the previous hours, and, as a result, subsurface water ice keeps sublimating and finding its way to the surface through the comet’s porous interior.

But as soon as this ‘underground’ water vapour reaches the cold surface, it freezes again, blanketing that patch of comet surface with a thin layer of fresh ice. Eventually, as the Sun rises again over this part of the surface on the next comet day, the molecules in the newly formed ice layer are the first to sublimate and flow away from the comet, restarting the cycle.

They discovered this process when they noticed surface ice evaporating in this region during the comet’s 6-hour day and then getting resurfaced with ice during the comet’s 6-hour night.

Meanwhile, Rosetta is about to move as much as 1500 kilometers away from the comet for several weeks so that its scientists can study its coma more broadly.

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Aerojet is considering increasing its $2 billion offer to buy ULA

The competition heats up: A news report today suggests that Aeroject Rocketdyne is considering increasing its $2 billion bid to buy ULA, thus forcing that company to use its rocket engines rather than Blue Origin’s.

The article contains a lot of information that helps explain the background behind Aerojet Rocketdyne’s offer as well as ULA’s recent switch to Blue Origin. For one thing, ULA apparently dumped Aeroject because the company refused to invest any of its own money in developing a new rocket engine.

Last summer, Aerojet’s board also rejected ULA’s request that Aerojet invest $300 million to accelerate work on the AR-1 engine it is developing as an alternative to the Russian RD-180 engine that powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket, the sources said. … Aerojet’s refusal to invest more in the AR-1 engine ultimately drove ULA to opt for the BE-4 engine being developed by privately held Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon.com founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos, the sources said.

More significant, it appears that the Rocketdyne portion of the company is owned by the Russians!

An Aerojet takeover of ULA would also require Russia to give its regulatory approval and transfer a technology license for use of the RD-180 engines, according to two of the sources. Russia refused to transfer the license to Aerojet when it bought Rocketdyne from Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) unit in 2013, forcing Pratt to retain control of a small company that brokers RD-180 sales, and could be more reluctant to do so now, the sources said.

While the quote above is somewhat confusing, it certainly suggests that, with Congress banning the use of Russian-built engines in American rockets, using Aerojet Rocketdyne engines by ULA has become problematic.

In related more bad news for Aeroject Rocketdyne, the company has just agreed to pay Orbital ATK $50 million in connection with last year’s Antares launch failure. In addition, they will take back the Russian-built engines they refurshed and sold to Orbital. The agreement also ends the company’s part in Antares.

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China debuts another new rocket

The competition heats up: China successfully completed the first launch of another new rocket today, putting three technology satellites into orbit with its solid-fueled Long March 11 rocket.

The Long March-11 (Chang Zhwng-11) is a small solid-fueled quick-reaction launch vehicle developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). It’s goal is to provide an easy to operate quick-reaction launch vehicle, that can remain in storage for long period and to provide a reliably launch on short notice. Very little is known about the rocket, with only one badly taken photo available on the internet. However, LM-11 is known to be a solid-fueled launch vehicle equipped with a liquid-fueled trim stage.

Moreover, the three satellites the rocket put in orbit are cubesats designed to test formation flying technologies. This puts China in the forefront of the effort to make these tiny satellites capable of doing what larger satellites now do, thus making possible the eventual replacement of those more costly larger satellites.

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New Pluto images

thumbnail of Pluto closeup

Cool image time! The New Horizons team has released some new images. A thumbnail of what I think is the most interesting image is shown on the right. Be sure to look at the full resolution image. It shows a flat plain of what look like frozen polygon plates with a thin layer of what appear to be dunes. In the center some rocks poke out like islands, with what looks like a wind-swept wake to the right. The wake could be caused by Pluto’s very thin atmosphere. Or maybe there are currents that slowly push the frozen plates past the harder rocks (which probably are ice, which in Pluto’s very cold environment has the structural strength of granite).

These images were posted on the New Horizons website with no accompanying press release. I think the science team has decided it will just upload them, and reserve press releases for when they have accumulated enough data to announce some intelligent conclusions. Right now, they can only speculate as wildly as I from these images. It is reasonable to give them the time to assess the data more closely before announcing any explanations. At the same time, we should also congratulate them for posting the images immediately so that others can see them.

Update: a press release was released, though it really doesn’t add much except review the images.

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Obamacare causes health insurance deductibles to skyrocket

Finding out what’s in it: Health insurance deductibles have gone up seven times faster than the rate of inflation since Obamacare became law.

According to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust, the increase brings the average deductible that workers must pay for their health insurance plans to $1,077; more than triple what it was a decade ago. As reported in the L.A. Times, “That is seven times faster than wages have risen in the same period.”

Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman said, “It’s a quiet revolution. When deductibles are rising seven times faster than wages … it means that people can’t pay their rent. … They can’t buy their gas. They can’t eat.” As a comparison, “workers’ wages increased 1.9% between April 2014 and April 2015, according to federal data analyzed by the report’s authors.” The news is also bad for family plans as, the “average family plan cost workers $4,955, up 3% from last year.”.

Obviously this is the fault of the Republicans campaigning for president. Their opposition to Obama and the Democrats is certainly the reason why Obamacare continues to be such a unmitigated disaster for Americans.

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Milky Way’s central black hole is getting active

The uncertainty of science: Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-Star), the Milky Way’s supermassive central black hole, has shown signs of increased activity in recent months.

The new study reveals that Sagittarius A* (Sgr A* for short) has been producing one bright X-ray flare about every ten days. However, within the past year, there has been a ten-fold increase in the rate of bright flares from Sgr A*, at about one every day. This increase happened soon after the close approach to Sgr A* by a mysterious object called G2.

“For several years, we’ve been tracking the X-ray emission from Sgr A*. This includes also the close passage of this dusty object” said Gabriele Ponti of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. “A year or so ago, we thought it had absolutely no effect on Sgr A*, but our new data raise the possibility that that might not be the case.”

G2 was first thought to be a cloud that would be ripped apart as it passed close to Sgr A*, causing an outburst of activity. When it wasn’t ripped apart and there was no immediate increase in activity astronomers concluded that G2 was a star surrounded by dust which was generally unaffected by its close fly-by of the black hole.

The timing of this new activity now is puzzling. It comes much later than it should have if it was caused by G2, but astronomers don’t have any other explanation for it. It might be because of G2’s fly-by, or maybe the activity is just the natural variability of this poorly understand object. Either way it illustrates how little we really know about the behavior of giant black holes.

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Legal costs to university from Mauna Kea protests squeezing education budgets

Mounting legal costs forced on the University of Hawaii to fight the TNT protests has now begun taking funds from education programs.

The budget line that is paying the legal costs is normally used to pay for unexpected maintenance and education costs. Now it is instead paying lawyers.

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Boeing reveals landing sites for Starliner

The competition heats up: Boeing has revealed the prime landing sites for its manned Starliner capsule.

Boeing is still finalizing a list of five candidate landing sites in the Western United States, but the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah will initially be the prime return locations, said Chris Ferguson, deputy manager of the CST-100 Starliner program. The capsules will parachute to airbag-cushioned landings after each mission, beginning with the CST-100’s first test flights in 2017.

The article also outlines the overall status of Starliner, including what sounds to me like some scheduling and design concerns:

Boeing is taking a different approach to development of its human-rated spacecraft than SpaceX, which has already completed a pad abort test and plans an in-flight abort demo in late 2016. SpaceX is testing as it goes, while Boeing is doing more design work up front. “A lot of focus is on ensuring, at this phase, that we’ve got full rigor in all our processes and all of our designs, really trying to buy down the risk that something could come up downstream to perturbate either our design or our schedule,” Mulholland said.

Boeing plans no such in-flight escape test, and Mulholland said it can prove out the CST-100 abort system through wind tunnel analyses. “That’s our philosophy — to make sure we don’t run a test just to go run a test,” Mulholland said. “We make sure we fully understand all the requirements that we need to certify to, and we pick the best approach.”

Mulholland said the sequence of test flights in 2017 is tight, but Boeing’s schedule has margin to achieve the start of operational missions by the end of that year. Managers decided to move the pad abort test from early 2017 to August, a change that Mulholland said created more margin in the schedule leading to the first crew flight. [emphasis mine]

The lack of an in-flight test of the abort system is worrisome. This sounds just like NASA and Boeing in the shuttle era when they repeatedly made overconfident claims about the shuttle’s reliability and safety that were completely unrealistic, based not on tests but on computer simulations. The tight schedule also is a concern, especially because of the corporate culture of Boeing, which has a history of using these contracts to squeeze money from the government while putting a low priority on actually building anything.

I fear that might be what is happening here, especially since Boeing, unlike SpaceX, refused to build much of anything prior to the announcement of its Starliner contract. The company does not like to take any risks at all.

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GAO criticizes the staff and budget request of FAA’s commercial space office

A GAO report has concluded that the FAA has not provided sufficient justification for its 2016 requested budget and staff increases for its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

AST requested an additional $1.5 million more plus an increase of its staff by 13 to handle what it expects to be an increase in commercial launches. However,

The GAO report cautioned about using predictions of launches as a reason for hiring additional staff because, in recent years, “the actual number of launches during those years was much lower than what FAA projected.” In one example, the FAA projected it would license more than 40 launches and reentries in 2014, but the actual number was about 20.

The report also revealed a split among companies in the commercial launch business about the importance of increasing AST’s budget. While industry organizations like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation have expressed their support for the proposed budget increase, only three of the nine companies surveyed by the GAO believed the office has insufficient resources to deal with its workload. Three other companies thought the office has sufficient resources, and the remaining three expressed no opinion. The report did not identify which companies held those opinions, but did list the nine companies contacted by the GAO: Blue Origin, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Virgin Galactic, Vulcan Aerospace and XCOR Aerospace.

The second paragraph in the quote above suggests that a majority of the private companies that AST would regulate are not enthused about giving that government agency more resources or abilities. To me, I suspect that the phrase “We’re here to help you!” and what it usually signifies about the government has something to do with that lack of enthusiasm.

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ULA and Orbital ATK ink new rocket motor contract

The competition heats up: ULA has signed a new contract with Orbital ATK to provide solid rocket motors for its Atlas 5 and Vulcan rockets.

This deal is another nail in the coffin of Aerojet Rocketdyne, as it strongly suggests that the corporate leadership at ULA is very uninterested in doing any business with that rocket engine builder. Recently they have been taking their business every where but to Aerojet.

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Researchers push for access to confidential government records of the public

What could possibly go wrong? Researchers in a number of fields want access to the vast amount of private government data that is routinely gathered from the public.

In the past few years, administrative data have been used to investigate issues ranging from the side effects of vaccines2 to the lasting impact of a child’s neighbourhood on his or her ability to earn and prosper as an adult3. Proponents say that these rich information sources could greatly improve how governments measure the effectiveness of social programmes such as providing stipends to help families move to more resource-rich neighbourhoods.

But there is also concern that the rush to use these data could pose new threats to citizens’ privacy. “The types of protections that we’re used to thinking about have been based on the twin pillars of anonymity and informed consent, and neither of those hold in this new world,” says Julia Lane, an economist at New York University. In 2013, for instance, researchers showed that they could uncover the identities of supposedly anonymous participants in a genetic study simply by cross-referencing their data with publicly available genealogical information.

Read it all. It is terrifying to me how governments worldwide increasingly consider this private data their property to use as they wish. For example:

In the United States, the Census Bureau has been expanding its network of Research Data Centers, which currently includes 19 sites around the country at which researchers with the appropriate permissions can access confidential data from the bureau itself, as well as from other agencies. “We’re trying to explore all the available ways that we can expand access to these rich data sets,” says Ron Jarmin, the bureau’s assistant director for research and methodology.

I ask: What business is it of the Census Bureau to do this? The information they gather was originally intended solely to determine Congressional districts. Moreover, who gave them the right to release the confidential data to anyone? Have they asked anyone for this permission?

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Mangalyaan in great shape

The competition heats up: With their Mangalyaan Mars orbiter about to celebrate the completion of its first year in Mars orbit, Indian scientists noted this week that the spacecraft is in great shape and can function for years to come.

They have a large reserve of fuel on board and there are no known technical issues.

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Around the World in 80 Days

An evening pause: Hat tip to Phil Berardelli, author of the new edition of Phil’s Favorite 500: Loves of a Moviegoing Lifetime, who notes, “Producer Mike Todd lured dozens of stars to appear in cameos in his still-glorious take on the classic Jules Verne novel, and nowhere were they more delightful than in the San Francisco saloon scene.”

How many well known actors and performers can you spot doing cameos in this short clip?

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