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Shuttle Leaves Space Station a Better Place

After nearly 11 days, the crew of the Discovery orbiter undocked this morning from the International Space Station, leaving the ISS a better place than they found it.

At 5:32 am EST, Pilot George Zamka backed the orbiter about 400 feet from the ISS and performed a fly-around to allow crew members to collect imagery of the station in its new configuration, according to NASA. That configuration includes the newly attached Harmony portal and a newly deployed solar power array. Both were primary tasks of the complicated mission known as STS-120. As NASA administrators said in recent days of the assignment, it was "one for the record books."

The STS-120 crew already had a challenging agenda on its hands when it docked with the space station on 25 October. They were scheduled to: load the 16-ton Harmony utility hub; connect the P6 portside truss segment and extend its solar-cell wing; examine a malfunctioning starboard solar-panel rotary joint; deliver Mission Specialist Daniel Tani, the newest ISS crew member, and pick up his returning counterpart, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson; and perform an experiment in space to test damage repair techniques on the shuttle's exterior. They were initially tasked with making five spacewalks over nine days to accomplish the technical chores.

However, the schedule began to unravel on Sunday, 28 October, when Tani opened the housing of the starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint and found metallic debris adhering to it (see our previous entry "Spacewalkers Carry On Despite New Glitch"). That's when things got a little dicey. In order to investigate the problem with the rotary joint, which keeps the starboard solar wings oriented toward the sun, NASA managers re-jiggered STS-120's priorities. The mission was extended a day, the spacewalks were reduced from five to four, the shuttle repair experiment was scrapped, and emphasis was placed on the demands of the port and starboard solar array work.

That's when the next shoe dropped. While deploying the P6 4B solar array, the material holding the delicate solar cells snagged on a guide wire and ripped in two spots, forcing ground controllers to halt the maneuver in place in order to come up with a workaround (see our previous entry "Space Station Woes Affect Shuttle Schedule"). Yesterday, Mission Specialist Scott E. Parazynski performed a daring spacewalk to repair the damaged but electrically active solar wing (which took him further from a spacecraft than anyone had ever attempted).

With the portside solar wing repaired and deployed and the starboard rotator joint further examined (with debris samples collected for analysis), NASA administrators decided the crew of STS-120 had done enough to chalk up a resoundingly successful mission and gave them the green light to head home. They are now scheduled to attempt to land at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday afternoon.

This flight to the ISS was initially publicized as an historic meeting between the first two spacecraft commanders who happen to be women, Commander Pamela A. Melroy and Commander Peggy Whitson, skippers of the shuttle and station, respectively (see our recent entry "Women Set to Take Charge of Space"). The circumstances that soon arose, however, changed the focus of the storyline to one in which astronauts and cosmonauts had to exercise quick thinking, imagination, and courage to solve problems on the fly to save the day.

It didn't matter what gender they were in the end. Both crews exhibited the "right stuff" when the going got tough, following in a long tradition. Congratulations are due to both teams.

Internet Buzz, the gPhone, and the Open Source Software of â¿¿The Open Handset Allianceâ¿¿

By last week, the anticipatory crescendo of speculation and rumors about a mythical gPhone had taken on such a fevered pitch that hardly anything Google announced today could be expected to live up to the hype (Gizmodo even posted a play-by-play of the conference call). Rather than introducing a new handset capable of bringing the (legally questionable) iPhone to its knees, Google announced the formation of The Open Handset Alliance, a group of companies that includes headset manufacturers like Motorola and LG, mobile operators like Sprint and T-Mobile, software companies, and chip manufacturers. They'll work on developing Android, what they promise will be â''the first complete, open, and free mobile platform.â''

An open and free mobile platform would allow the same kind of 3rd party innovation we've benefited from in computer software, paving the way for customized phones that go beyond the sixteen possible buttons on an iPhone. Now that the gPhone hype bubble has burst bloggers, journalists, and telecom insiders are trying to dissect what it all means (except those still waiting for an actual gPhone).

Companies outside the alliance (conspicuously including American carriers AT&T and Verizon) have tried to brush off importance of the announcement. According to the Times Online, Arun Sarin, the head of Vodafone, asked, â''What is it that is missing in life that they [Google] are going to fulfill?â''

Over at Salon.com, the Machinist Blog has a good answer:

At the moment your phone is a jail cell. It could be, depending on your model, a very nice jail cell -- the Apple iPhone is like Martha Stewart's jail cell. Still though, you can't get out. You can't do what you want. You're locked in by carriers, by handset manufacturers, and by software companies to using only approved programs in an approved way.

Worse than that, there aren't many things to do on the phone anyway, because there isn't really a software industry devoted to building programs for such devices. Why should there be if all the users are in jail?

Back in August, IEEE Spectrumâ''s Steven Cherry expained Googleâ''s hope that the 700 MHz band would â''require that any owner allow any device onto their network, and that any application be allowed to run on those devices.â'' It sounds like the Open Handset Alliance will be the next step towards those goals.

In liberating phones, it looks like Google wonâ''t even take the credit by branding any particular headset a â''gPhoneâ'' (as reported in the San Jose Mercury News):

Instead, the big news is that Google has gone generic, offering free software to anyone who wants it under the relaxed terms of an open-source license, which will allow developers to view the source code for that software. This also means there will not be a "gPhone," or any sort of phone with the Google brand on it.

Unlike Microsoft Windows or Internet Explorer, the mobile operating system and browser built by Google will not carry its brand. Indeed, it's possible that people who buy the new phones will have no idea that Google is behind their gadgets.

But just because Google will be giving away the software operating system software for free, itâ''s not an act of charity. According to Forbes, Android will give Google more of a user base to expose to its ads:

Ninety-nine percent of Google's revenues come from ads, either the ones it puts next to free Internet-based services like search and e-mail, or through syndication on third-party Web pages. The bigger the Internet gets, Google executives figure, the more pages there are for ads and the more people will need search (with more ads) to find anything.

Iâ''m skeptical that this is a really great ideaâ''have you ever noticed how small a cell phone screen is? Mine can barely describe the barebones information that makes web surfing valuable, and the last thing Iâ''d want to give up is pixel real estate for ads I donâ''t want. What I will tolerate on a twenty-inch monitor is very different from what Iâ''ll allow on my phone.

Ten things I didn't know about Facebook

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Until recently, Facebook was a tool for college and high school kids, no one else needed apply. Now itâ''s open to everyone, but many of us who are, letâ''s say, over 30, just donâ''t get it. (In fact, there is a group on Facebook called â''Over 40 is Facebook Creepyâ'' for people who donâ''t want us ever to get it.)

But I have a high school kid, and that means, whether I want to or not, that I have to deal with life in a Facebook world. At monthly parent coffees, the topic of Facebook has been coming up regularly, in the context of, â''my kid is on Facebook and I have no idea what heâ''s doing there.â''

One parent group I belong to decided it was time to understand Facebook. And since we live in Silicon Valley and are spoiled rotten by the technical talent at our doorsteps, we did the obvious thing; we called Facebook and asked them to send someone to our next get together to explain it all to us.

Since Iâ''d already spent some time checking out Facebook, I thought I understood the Facebook world. I was wrong. Here are some random things that I learned that day, that clued me in just a little more to this technology that just may be the way lots of things get done in the future, perhaps as ubiquitous as email is today.

--When you join, you identify yourself geographically. As soon as you do that, all other members similarly identified can look at your profile. Thatâ''s 45,000 people on average, a million if you live in London. (For teens under 18, itâ''s restricted to other members under 18. Thatâ''s still tens of thousands of people.)

--Company H.R. departments are checking out Facebook when hiring. At least one company reportedly gathers the Facebook login info of current staff members to use as entry to applicantsâ'' profiles. (Profile access is restricted to people belonging to the same group (MIT graduates, people who live in New York). But log in as someone in that group and youâ''re there.)

--If you lie on Facebook, youâ''re stuck with it. Lot of kids inflate their reported ages drastically to get around age restrictions on the site; they may come to regret this when theyâ''d rather not be several years older. (Yes, they could kill their account and start fresh, but after a couple of years building a network and content, thatâ''s a pretty drastic move.)

--If lie about your age, you likely wonâ''t get caught. But if you do get caught, your age will not be changed, you will simply be deleted. If you contact Facebook and ask to change your age, you will be deleted.

--Facebook has virtual walls around high school communities. Thatâ''s a good thing for Internet safety. Unfortunately, except at private schools and two or three large public schools in the U.S., the gates are somewhat open. That is, Facebook can easily verify a studentâ''s school attendance if the school issues student email addresses, most schools donâ''t. So verification consists of emailing another member at the school and asking if the person goes there.

--While Facebook has both public posts (the Wall) and private posts (mail), people under 24 or so donâ''t distinguish between the two, so lots of messages that should be private are not.

--The meaning of the term â''pokeâ'', a popular action on Facebook, is unclear. Said our Facebook rep, â''not even we at Facebook know what it means.â''

--There are 10 to 15 million photos uploaded to Facebook daily. Many of them are tagged and searchable by name; and while you can take your name off of an embarassing photo, you canâ''t make the photo go away.

--A 26-year-old engineer working at Facebook is considered a senior citizen.

--No one working at Facebook is dealing with Facebook privacy from a parentâ''s perspective, because no one is old enough to be the parent of a teen.

That last one is the scariest, because these folks are developing new features daily, and well, letâ''s say donâ''t have a particularly adult perspective on them.

Anyway, it seems that even though Iâ''d rather not spend more time on line than I already do, this is one virtual world I canâ''t hide from any longer, itâ''s time to get my own Facebook account. Besides, my husband got one last week and I canâ''t wait to poke him.

The Dog That Proved Space Flight Possible

Before men and women could travel into space, it had to be proven they could withstand the challenges of such a harsh environment. Some believed at the outset of the Space Age that no living creature could withstand the dangers posed by high levels of ionizing radiation out there. To test the possibility, the first space scientists, therefore, decided to send a dog into orbit, fifty years ago.

When I spoke with aerospace pioneer Fred Durant a couple of month's back on his memories of the launch of Sputnik 1 a half century later, one of the things he said to me last was: "We shouldn't be celebrating Sputnik 1. It was important, don't get me wrong. But Sputnik 2 was even more important. It proved that manned spaceflight was a possibility."

On 3 November 1957, the Soviet Union launched the second artificial satellite into planetary orbit. The managers of Sputnik 2 decided that, in addition to adding more sophisticated scientific instruments to the payload, they would include a small compartment in the little cone-shaped spacecraft to carry a dog into the cosmos.

Originally, she was a 2-year-old stray found wandering the streets of Moscow. Soviet authorities first nicknamed her Kudryavka (or Little Curly in English), but her handlers renamed her prior to the satellite launch in response to her peppy behavior in lab tests. They called her Laika (literally Barker).

The Samoyed-terrier mix weighed in at 13 pounds, the perfect size to fit into the pressurized "crew" compartment aboard Sputnik 2. She was strapped in and fitted with electrodes to monitor her vital signs (as well as a receptacle to collect waste). Then she was shot into orbit by a giant R-7 ICBM rocket system. Dispensers enabled her to consume gelatinized food and water on the craft.

Early telemetry from the satellite, according to the Soviets, indicated that she survived the ascent and was eating regularly as she hurtled around the planet every 103 minutes. Knowing that she would never be able to return to Earth alive, as the mission had no controlled re-entry capability, Soviet planners explained that Laika would be a martyr to the cause of science. They would initially claim that the pooch (dubbed Muttnik in the West) survived, as calculated, seven days in the void.

In 2002, though, the truth came out. Russian sources revealed that Laika had lasted only a few terrifying hours inside her tiny capsule. Neither radiation nor weightlessness caused her demise, it is thought, but rather trauma from vibration and heat (as the thermal control system had malfunctioned after lift-off). Still, during her brief existence in orbit, Laika had proved that living creatures could, if properly equipped, survive a trip into space. The rest, of course, would be history.

Tomorrow will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the original voyager's journey into the heavens. Sadly, it will also mark the day of her death. We call dogs "man's best friend." This is one dog that should always be referred to as "science's best friend." Rest in peace, Kudryavka.

Nanotechnology and the...Twinkie?

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Okay, what do you call nanotechnology and a Twinkie? Umh..a tortured analogy?

There's a joke in there somewhere, I guess. But I am not sure, and I am not too sure what the point of this video is. To be honest, I only watched half of it by which time I was driven to such distraction that I was almost tempted to eat a Twinkie.

I know, I know what's the difference between a Twinkie and nanotechnology? No, that's not it either.

Nanotechnology and Risk: What can the government do?

Congressional hearings were held yesterday before the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee to determine if enough is being done by the governmentâ''primarily in the form of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)â''in assessing the health and environmental risks of nanomaterials, like carbon nanotubes.

Back in 2005 the committee decided something needed to be done in establishing and funding a federal strategy to address these risks. A year later the committee submitted a report that was widely criticized as being too little too late.

And as recently as this past August the Nanotechnology Environmental Health Initiative (NEHI), the working group given the charge by the committee to address these issues, submitted a pared-down research prioritization list, which was also attacked by having little guidance on its implementation.

The non-governmental groups (NGOs) involved in this issue pretty much have the opinion â''if you listen to us, we can fix all the problems we see with your proposals.â'' Including restructuring the NNI so an independent body exists within the NNI to deal with environmental and health risks.

I am sure this will all get sorted out and all the parties with their fingers in the honey jar will get their taste. But really? Is creating a new department within the NNI, or having more details in the implementation plan for the required research, or even having better accounting of how much of the NNI budget goes to risk research going to be what makes us safer?

Aside from well-formulated research priorities and more funding, I would just be interested to hear how you change determining the toxicology of a substance from chemistry to size.

Open Source Software's Legal Muscle Scores a Victory

Score one for free software. As Monsoon Multimedia learned the hard way, just because software has no cost doesn't mean that it has no restrictions. Yesterday, the pro-bono legal team at the Software Freedom Law Center announced that they'd reached a settlement in the first ever lawsuit filed over the General Public License. The GPL protects open source software by allowing anyone to copy, modify and redistribute the software only if they pass those rights on to the next user.

Many companies make use of open source software in consumer products and fully comply with the GPL by posting the source code on their websites.

The software involved in this case was a program called BusyBox, a lightweight package of common Unix utilities commonly used in embedded systems. It appears that Monsoon Multimedia, the defendant, used the code in their Hava product (a Slingbox alternative that allows remote television viewing and recording via PC) without making the source code available--a violation of the GPL.

What's weird is that this violation ever required legal action. Before the Software Freedom Law Center existed, most GPL enforcement was handled by the Free Software Foundation. I've talked with former and current employees of both groups and they repeatedly emphasize that all they care about is compliance, not retribution. Most companies are happy to comply when they find out it's relatively painless and costs no money. According to Eben Moglen, the law center's chairman, who spoke to IEEE Spectrum, most violators simply misunderstand what the license requires, and comply after a little prodding.

When I heard that the lawsuit was filed, it surprised me that Monsoon hadn't been cooperative--all they had to do was make a web page that provided source code. Over at Linux-Watch, they speculated that Monsoon might actually have been looking for a legal fight:

Interestingly, Monsoon Multimedia is run by a highly experienced lawyer named Graham Radstone. According to his corporate biography, Radstone has an MA in Law from the University of Cambridge, England, and held the top legal spot at an unnamed "$1 billion private multinational company."

But it now looks like they simply bungled the situation, with the settlement requiring them to fork out an "undisclosed financial consideration." It appears that the whole thing was nothing more than a case of corporate foot-dragging and bone-headed customer relations. It's not like Monsoon was the only company misusing BusyBox--the developers used to post a "hall of shame" on their website--but Monsoon made the mistake of admitting in their own public forum that they were in violation after a user asked if Hava boxes ran Linux.

At the beginning of September, a Monsoon Multimedia representative confirmed that the device used both Linux and BusyBox, and that they planned on making the source code available. Aaron Murray, the user who started the thread back in March, told me that he began emailing tech support about the violation but got no response until the representative began the "unpleasant" forum exchange (read the thread for an example of why using "humorous" threats are a bad idea). The representative claimed that they planned to post the source code, but several weeks passed without action. The whole thing blew up when the news hit Slashdot, and the developers looked to the Software Freedom Law Center for help.

Legal director Dan Raviture told me that after a week of no replies from Monsoon, they decided to file suit. "This lawsuit was a last resort." he said. "If you wait too long you start to prejudice your own rights." In this case, the strong-arm strategy paid off--Monsoon Multimedia has now complied with the GPL and the BusyBox developers are a little richer for their trouble.

Not So Fast: Judge Stops U.S. Patent Rules Changes

Federal Judge James Cacheris of the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in favor of a motion filed by GlaxoSmithKline, which temporarily stops the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from instituting new patent rules that were due to go into effect tomorrow. For a summary of what those rules changes mean for your or your company's inventions, read "How the U.S. Patent Office's New Patent Rules Affect You."

Space Station Woes Affect Shuttle Schedule

New problems at the International Space Station (ISS) have forced the crew of the Discovery orbiter to master the art of improvisation.

During yesterday's third spacewalk, a scheduled maneuver to deploy a large solar array, astronauts discovered a tear in the material holding the solar panels. This forced NASA to halt the deployment in place until ground-based engineers could figure out how to fix the problem.

This came on the heels of another impromptu glitch that has delayed the installation of the shuttle's main payload for this mission, called STS-120. On Sunday, the newest member of the ISS's current crew, Daniel Tani, found metal debris in the housing of a rotator joint used to align the existing portside solar array to the sun. His spacewalk was also cut short so that this problem could be better understood, as well.

(See our blog entry from Monday.)

Both incidents have set back the complex timing of a spacewalk agenda that was to be highlighted by the integration of the newly arrived Harmony port module.

Now, the spacewalk construction work schedule will have to be changed on the fly, NASA announced this morning. Instead of stepping out into space to attempt to fix the starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint tomorrow, which was a workaround itself, the shuttle's astronauts are now planning to repair the nearly meter long rip in the portside solar array wing (called the P6 4B).

The American space agency said the switch gives them the option to schedule another solar-array repair spacewalk during STS-120 if needed, during a mission that has already been extended a day to overcome the initial setback.

Onboard the space station today, the commander of Discovery, Pamela Melroy, said her crew is prepared to adjust to the fluid situation as NASA managers come to grips with it. This could mean extending the shuttle's stay at the station and cramming for procedures dictated to them from Houston as they are developed (which is usually frowned upon in the well-rehearsed nature of spacewalk routines).

"I think we're kind of in the groove right now, so if the ground decides that's the right thing to do and they ask us to do it, we'll be ready to support it," Melroy said.

Stay tuned for further adventures as the ongoing drama of mission STS-120 continues.

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