Saturday, 29 March 2014

Always look on the bright side

The headlines this week have all been about how Britain will keep the lights on in the midst of the government’s failure on long term energy policy and blatant profiteering by the country’s big six energy suppliers.

But this evening an estimated 10 million people in Britain will turn their lights off voluntarily as part of Earth Hour, a symbolic gesture to show support for environmental issues.

Now in its eighth year, the mass participation world-wide event comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepares to launch its latest report in Japan on Monday, outlining how climate change will affect wildlife, food supplies, water and the weather.

"It's fortuitous timing that as millions of people around the world take part in WWF's Earth Hour, the world's leading scientists release the latest IPCC report, which highlights the various impacts of climate change," said Colin Butfield, director of public engagement and campaigns at WWF-UK.

"The significance of these two events is massive. Climate change is the biggest environmental threat facing our planet – it's real, it's happening right now, and we need to act fast."

Among the world's famous landmarks that will dim their lights are the Empire State building in New York, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow, the Bosphorus Bridge in Turkey and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

In the UK, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and the London Eye will all dim their lights, with an estimated 10 million Britons expected to take part.

Launched in Australia in 2007, WWF says Earth Hour has now grown to become the world's biggest environmental event, mobilising people around a range of issues from deforestation to energy efficiency. Last year saw more than 7,000 towns and cities in 154 countries take part.

A survey commissioned by WWF-UK this week found that almost half (47%) of respondents said they would be willing to switch their political allegiance to a different party based on the strength of environmental policies, with 73% saying the leaders of the UK's main political parties are not currently giving enough emphasis to the environment.

Tonight from 08.25 pm the WWF website will be live-streaming highlights of Earth Hour, from the spectacular London and global landmark switch offs to a special performance from Sophie Ellis Bextor -

For further illuminating reading see - The end of night and Fear of the dark

Monday, 24 March 2014

Word perfect - almost

It is confession time. The Lighthouse Keeper has ended his short affair. Well, maybe you’d describe as more of a fling.

But I’ve dusted things down and listed it as one of life’s experiences. Sometimes you just get caught up in these things and, blinkered by the moment, fail to appreciate that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

You see, my beautifully slim and elegantly crafted MacBook Air laptop - purchased from the online Apple store at the turn of the year - has now gone off to a new and loving home where were all things Apple are properly appreciated.

For now, I’ve made up with my trusty and familiar Toshiba Satellite laptop and, along with it, Corel’s WordPerfect office suite.

I tried to make things work - even emulating the Windows 7 operating system on the MacBook using a trial version of the rather neat Parallels program.

And all went reasonably well. But WordPerfect, my bread and butter program, was still not quite the smooth operator it should have been.

The number of people worldwide who prefer WordPerfect is an almost unnoticeably tiny fraction of the millions using MS Word - but those that do tend to be intensely loyal.

In the United States, especially, the suite is widely used in law and government offices, and also by writers and editors who have drafted and amended their pros in WordPerfect since the time before Microsoft.

Without going into tedious detail, Word Perfect remains one of the best and most intuitive instruments for writing and formatting text.

Nothing matches its ability to pull together multi-chapter documents from separately editable files, or import research from multiple sources without compromising pre-set formats. And, of course, there is the classic Alt F3 ‘reveal codes’ feature...

Operating systems and word processor programs aside, the MacBook Air had another surprise in store - delivering a seemingly innocuous but frustrating omission for a writer and editor.

The stylish, backlit keyboard lacks a proper one-stroke ‘delete’ key - it’s single direction only version working like the Back Space key on a Windows keyboard.

Despite being tempted by the ‘Apple’, I eventually decided it wasn’t all about looks - or even a battery that would go the full distance of a trans-Atlantic flight.

Life is complicated enough without the bother of sticking plaster operating systems, software incompatibility and keyboard quirks, even before I get down to doing any real work. So, it’s back to what I know and trust.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Space without frontiers

Preparations for tomorrow morning’s landing in Kazakhstan of two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut continue unabated against a backdrop of increasing tensions over Russia's armed incursion into Ukraine.

And NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a potential diplomatic roadblock thanks to its reliance on Russia for transporting its astronauts to Earth orbit and back.

Nearly two dozen NASA officials and medical personnel are in Kazakhstan to greet the three man crew, which is led by veteran Russian commander Oleg Kotov, a native of the Crimea region.

The NASA team joins the Russian-led recovery crew, a fleet of helicopters, fixed-wing surveillance aircraft and all-terrain ground vehicles to quickly reach the Soyuz capsule after it parachutes to Earth.

This month's comings and goings at the International Space Station (ISS) highlight the interdependence of the US and Russian space efforts.
Just two weeks after tomorrow’s landing NASA's Steven Swanson is to ride another Russian Soyuz craft up to the station, again in the company of two Russians.

Under current arrangements, NASA astronauts can only get to and from the ISS with Russian help, due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011 before an alternative US launcher was in place. Russia charges NASA $70 million for each astronaut round trip.

If Russia's confrontation with Ukraine and the West does develop into the worst diplomatic crisis of our generation it could have potential consequences for space exploration, though based on past experience it looks unlikely - at least for the timing being.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated last week that the space station programme had so far been “resilient to international crises” since Russian formally joined the effort in 1993.

"I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the ISS now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has taken us through multiple international crises," he said.

The three returning space farers – Kotov, his fellow Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins - have now completed their final weekend of a 166-day mission aboard the ISS.

They launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 25 September and arrived at the 450-ton orbiting outpost six hours later.

The first phase of their return to Earth starts this evening when they will enter their Soyuz TMA-10M capsule and close hatches with the space station at around 2045 GMT.

Undocking is set for two minutes after midnight, followed by a burn of the Soyuz rocket thrusters at 0230 GMT to slow the craft's velocity enough to fall back into the atmosphere.

Touchdown - southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan - is scheduled for 0324 GMT (0924 am local time at the landing site).

Monday, 3 March 2014

Gravity - it's the real thing

The technical prowess of Alfonso Cuarón's sci-fi drama ‘Gravity’ meant it took seven Oscars at the 86th Academy Awards last night, including visual effects, sound editing, sound mixing, cinematography, editing and original score. 

In the Warner Bros movie two astronauts find themselves adrift in space and struggling for survival after their spacecraft is destroyed by space debris. 

The scenario makes for gripping Hollywood entertainment and is not million miles from reality - NASA actively works to protect its astronauts and vehicles from such dangers and has occasionally had to adjust its orbit to avoid colliding with items in its path.

From protective material coating the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) to meticulous training on the ground and in space, covering everything from spacewalking to fires or decompression inside the station itself, NASA's ground crews and astronauts are as prepared as they can be for potential anomaly.

Back in September NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (Expedition 26) spoke with actress Sandra Bullock to discuss Bullock’s character in the movie. The two had previously conversed while Coleman was onboard the orbiting space station.

Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning 'Gravity'.
Of course, featured alongside Bullock and George Clooney, ‘Gravity’ has another major star - the International Space Station itself. 

Look closely during the film’s interior shots of the space station and you may get a glimpse into what’s really going on 240 miles above Earth. 

To focus on the facts behind the fiction, Coleman recalled her own experience living and working in space aboard the orbiting laboratory after an advanced screening of the film.  “This isn’t a documentary - it’s a movie,” she said.  “It transports people from this planet into space. I am really lucky, as an astronaut, to get to go and live there.”

Observant viewers of the movie may have noticed that free water forms spheres in space. Although special effects helped this occur in the film, this is a true phenomenon and is the result of surface tension.

Onboard the space station and experiment called the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) is helping predict liquid behavior in microgravity. 

Such findings provide help improve ground water transportation on Earth, better cooling capabilities for electronics using heat pipes, as well as benefiting the design for fuel tanks in spacecraft for long duration exploration.

Fire also plays a role in the movie, and two studies underway on the space station touch on this topic - the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS) investigation and the Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX). 

Findings from BASS may contribute to improved fire suppression methods for spacecraft and FLEX may lead to improved fuel efficiency on Earth and minimise pollutants associated with combustion in Earth’s atmosphere.

Space station research will continue for years to come as the findings from the many studies build on the current collection of human knowledge. The work done aboard the ISS goes far beyond entertainment value, Coleman pointed out, touching on the nature of the human spirit. 

“Our planet sits in a neighbourhood within the universe, and we are all space explorers," said Coleman. 

"I think space movies, in general, bring that message home to us. Whether we live with our feet on the planet or whether we live on the space station, we are all space travellers and we are a people of space exploration.”

A bright sun greets the International Space Station in this view from the Russian 
section of the orbital outpost, photographed by one of the STS-129 crew members in 2009.