Curiosity Cam questions

On a tip from my officemate, today I checked out the live camera feed from the clean room next door where our next Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (or MSL), is being tested. MSL doesn’t launch until next fall, but they’re busy putting it through its paces right now to ensure that all of the instruments work as expected. It’s in a clean room so that we can minimize the amount of terrestrial biota it picks up prior to launch. We’d hate to inadvertently inject our own life into the pristine Martian environment — especially if we then detected it and thought it could be Martian!

As I write this, at 10:30 p.m., a technician in his bunny suit is walking around the rover, tinkering with connections and still hard at work. The video is dubbed “Curiosity Cam” because it is alliterative and because MSL acquired the name “Curiosity” as the result of a naming competition (I prefer simple old MSL).

But earlier today when I tuned in, JPL was also offering a live chat to accompany the video. Two anonymous folks in our newsroom were fielding any and all questions posed by anyone who dropped in. At first glance it seemed a bit dull — but then I started reading the comments and quickly became sucked in. How can you help but want to answer the questions of the curious public? Here are some excerpts. (Note that people who connected but didn’t log in via twitter or facebook, including me, were assigned generic “ustreamer” ids.)

The most common question (which maybe you have as well) is what the flashing blue light means. I thought it was probably just a visual signal that testing was in progress… but learned from the chat that instead it means that power is flowing to the rover.

ustreamer-43285: i’ve had 2 questions answered by jpl…this is awesome.
ustreamer-61986: i want to work for NASA!!!
ustreamer-01212: me too
Giati: me 3
ustreamer-25131: me 4
ustreamer-59789: Hell yeah, just no way im as smart as these guys. Awesome]
ustreamer-75761: yep nasa beats all other space agencys by a mile

Not a kilometer?

The two JPLers officially answering questions were named NASAJPL and NASAJPL-1. I was repeatedly impressed with how they fielded all sorts of questions, with a polite and informative tone, no matter the question.

ustreamer-33518: i hope this rover doesnt get stuck do you have a system to stop that happening?
NASAJPL: 33518, the rover’s six 20-inch wheels are designed to help maneuver out of such a situation.

One individual, 59789, was really taken with speculations about the upcoming astrobiology-related press conference on Thursday. The link he/she posted certainly falls into the “speculation” genre. I couldn’t resist chiming in to help out.

ustreamer-59789: Not at all. Thursday meetng will put that to rest. Nasa revealing they found biological life on Titan
NASAJPL-1: There are a lot of rumors about the Thursday briefing. It will NOT be an announcment of finding extraterrestrial life.
ustreamer-69544 (Me): There is a lot more to the field of astrobiology than just finding current life — we want to know about conditions conducive to life, and all of the chemistry involved, too.
NASAJPL-1: Repeat: it will NOT announce the finding of life on Titan. It’s too bad people out there are trying to get attention by running false stories.
NASAJPL-1: 69544 That is correct!

Then the questions started getting more and more interesting:

ustreamer-75761: wish ion drives were being used it would be a whole lot faster then currnent tech
ustreamer-69544 (Me): 75761, ion drives accelerate much more slowly than chemical rockets. They are good for very long trips but not for trips to Mars.
ustreamer-49140: 69544 … I understand that. But it’s still bewildering, with all our tech we have to send a FLEET of probs to mars to find out if theres life there. Surely it can be done with a single probe ?
ustreamer-69544 (Me): 49140, no one knows how to search the whole planet with a single spacecraft. But we learn more from each one sent!
ustreamer-49140: 69544. I agree, but we shouldent have to travel ALL over mars in an effort to find life. Just as someone sending a probe to earth would find life no matter where the probe landed.
ustreamer-69544 (Me): 49140, if life were as prevalent on Mars as it is on the Earth, you’re right, we would already have found it!

… and even relevant to geology!

ustreamer-02837: is it believed the lanscape on mars was created by water?
ustreamer-69544 (Me): 02837, the Martian surface has been shaped by ancient water, and aeons of wind, and episodes of volcanism.

ustreamer-77218: Earth is much bigger than Mars, but about 70 % of the Earthen surface is covered by water. On Mars there is 0 % covered. How much land compared to earth is it on Mars?
ustreamer-69544 (Me): 77218, great question! In fact the land surface on Mars is quite close to the land (non-ocean) area of the Earth.
ustreamer-77218: Thank’s “US-69544”. =) And Moon? about half of Mars?
ustreamer-69544 (Me): 77218, it looks like the Moon’s surface area is about 1/5 that of Mars.

(Actually, my quick math was a bit off — it’s between 1/4 and 1/5 that of Mars.)

After a while I started to wonder if NASAJPL and NASAJPL-1 would realize that I too was at JPL… and then I decided to get back to some real work. But wouldn’t it be fun to be the JPL expert fielding these questions?

Health care jackpot!

I approached my doctor’s office’s “Patient Online Portal” with curiosity but some skepticism: would it be yet another website and login, with only generic advice about drinking more water and exercising more often?

I was therefore delighted to discover that the HealthCare Partners site is a goldmine of exactly the data you’d hope to be able to access. It reports all of the data they’ve collected about me from every visit, including “vital signs” like weight, blood pressure, and pulse, as well as every immunization and lab test I’ve received.

The lab tests are particularly interesting and useful. I have a file folder at home with all of the printout results I’ve received over time, but having them all organized together electronically makes them much easier to browse, and any changes over time to be highlighted. Not only that, but each test is linked to an *extensive* online description of what the test is, how it is conducted, what gets measured, and what the result means. This is far more information than I ever got from mailed results, and especially handy when you go in for a generic “checkup” and come out with a battery of results from tests you didn’t specifically order. For example, apparently the albumin test detects kidney or liver disease.

Kudos to HCP for creating a well designed, informative website!

Behind the pharmacy counter

I’m used to giving tours to friends and visitors at work, but it’s not often that *I* get to take a tour of a friend’s workplace. Last Friday, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes view of a Kaiser pharmacy (thanks, Jim!).

I spotted Jim as soon as I entered the waiting room. He was not only a head taller than everyone else working behind the counter, but he also was the only one not wearing a white lab coat. I figured his brown jacket was a clever disguise to allow him to mix unnoticed with patients in the lobby, but later learned instead that it is his way of protesting the pharmacy thermostat’s 60 F setting. It’s too cold without a jacket, and too cumbersome and restrictive to wear a lab coat on top of his jacket. But the drugs are comfortable!

Most of the other people milling around were “technicians”, who fill the prescriptions via an efficiently organized assembly line. A pharmacist has to check and confirm the result of each order, and is also required whenever the really good drugs are requested, which are in a locked cabinet. They are also the ones who answer patient questions about the drug, how often to take it, what its side effects may be, etc. A technician needs only a high school diploma, while a pharmacist must press on through college and grad school and pick up a PharmD before he or she can be hired. Even without the brown jacket, Jim’s air of authority and advanced degree-ness would have marked him as the pharmacist in charge!

I was fascinated to learn that modern pharmacies also include a station where the pharmacist (and sometimes even technicians) can mix their own drugs. This comes up when a patient needs something in a non-standard strength, or to convert a solid drug into a liquid form for a child to consume. The station contains a rack of different materials for mixing, including coal tar (yes, actual tar; it’s good for skin conditions), testosterone, and magic mouthwash (a “mucositis agent”). Now I’m wondering if Pharmacy School includes labs in which you’re tested on your ability to accurately mix new concoctions (or maybe that’s taken care of in a chemistry prerequisite). This hands-on, custom-made aspect of the job (apparently only rarely called for here) intrigues me. But no doubt in a day-to-day setting one would much prefer to be able to dole out a fixed number of pre-packed pills when possible!

It’s too bad that I don’t have Kaiser health insurance now, so I’m unlikely to be back at this particular pharmacy with any regularity… and just when I’d figured out where they stash the doughnuts, too!

Sherlock Holmes encore

box-style buttonI recently discovered audiobook versions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, through the lit2go project, via iTunes University. I was inspired to download these stories by my recent reading of “A Study in Scarlet”, and now I’m wondering how I ever missed out on the whole series as a kid! Or even as an adult! These stories are great fun to read, written in the most marvelous language (and, through lit2go, shared by an excellent British-accented reader).

The first story in this collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” tells of one of the very few times Holmes failed at his game… and in this case, he was bested by a woman. Read this opening paragraph, and I challenge you not to read the whole thing:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

From there we have a sequence of excellent mysteries, my favorite so far being “The Five Orange Pips.” I didn’t know that the Ku Klux Klan took its name from the distinctive sound of a rifle being cocked—although this may be a fanciful myth (wikipedia instead claims that “The name was formed by combining the Greek kyklos (κυκλος, circle) with clan”). I also didn’t know that they were in the habit of sending dried orange bits as a dreadful warning to their next victims. According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Its [the KKK’s] outrages were usually preceded by a warning sent to the marked man in some fantastic but generally recognized shape—a sprig of oak-leaves in some parts, melon seeds or orange pips in others. On receiving this the victim might either openly abjure his former ways, or might fly from the country. If he braved the matter out, death would unfailingly come upon him, and usually in some strange and unforeseen manner.

True or not (and this is of course fiction), it certainly creates a powerful image!

I’m now on to “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” eager to find out how the mysterious blue stone could have gotten into the craw of a Christmas goose. Keep up the good work, Holmes and amanuensis Watson!

Fascinating railroad trivia

I recently finished the delightful “Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey,” which is one man’s tale of his trek via Amtrak across the U.S. in the mid-80’s — a travelogue interspersed with absolutely fascinating railroad history. Here are a few of the bits that stuck with me:

  • The first transcontinental line was laid across the Rockies, not because it was the best or cheapest or easiest route, but because of (get this) the Civil War. An easier southern route through New Mexico and Arizona was the most likely choice, but then war broke out and all of the South became distrusted. And yet the transcontinental railroad was seen as a unifying goal, critical to holding us together as one nation. And so the Union Pacific line through Denver, Cheyenne, and Salt Lake City was born. Politics can bend even iron, it seems! Trains were also used extensively to transport troops during the war, and track sabotage (and repair) was rampant.
  • Apparently there was actually a plan to put ICBMs on trains, as a way to make them mobile and therefore harder to take out preemptively. Wow.

    “As of this writing, the final decision to place intercontinental ballistic missiles on railcars has not yet been made, but the plan is far enough along that the military already has designed a ‘Rail Garrison’ logo featuring a train superimposed on a missile, with an American flag, and two strands of Nebraska wheat with the inscription ‘Peacekeeper.’ The impetus for the plan is the fear of a possible enemy first strike that might disable the 1,054 missiles located in fixed concrete silos. […] When a launch order is received from the President, the train can stop in three minutes. It takes an additional five minutes to reorient the missile’s guidance system. During this time the car’s roof doors open and the missile is raised into firing position. With a blast of steam, the missile is ejected from its canister and then fires its engines above the train and begins its flight.”

  • As late as the late 80’s (when the book was written), manual labor is/was used to adjust and repair track! A team can replace a tie in 7 minutes, which works out to 100 feet of track per day. A far cry from the 10 miles of track that Charles Crocker’s Chinese workers laid in 1869, but then that’s a record that’s never been surpassed.

And there’s so, so much more to read and enjoy in this book. Highly recommended!

Here is a great critical summary of the book, and my own review as well.

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