Thursday, August 30, 2007

Meteorite Strike Insurance: Absolute Necessity or Needless Luxury?

Will insurance companies provide a proviso on their personal risk insurance for a phenomenon that boarder on the “Act of God”?

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

Throughout recorded history, only one person has been documented to having been hit by a meteorite from space. Fortunately, she survived. Because of this, opinions have always been divided in the insurance underwriters’ community whether the incident with Mrs. Hewlett Hodges should have been treated as a “freak occurrence.” She was extremely lucky though to have survived by being hit with a 10- pound fragment that pierced her roof and struck her left side. But first let us define which is which.

When the “rock” is still moving through the vacuum of space, it’s called a meteoroid. When the “rock” is glowing “pyrotechnically” as it enters the earth’s atmosphere, it’s called a meteor. When the said “rock” or “object” hits the earth surface, a house, or other unfortunate soul, it’s called a meteorite. These are the natural ones, while the increasingly commercial utilization of orbital space has created the problem of “space junk” that are the by - products of the launch of communication satellites which is also a possible source of meteorite strike hazard.

Concerns over the possibility of humans being injured or killed when hit by a meteorite strike usually becomes a topic of conversation during the annual meteor shower season that starts in August all through to mid –to- late November. These annual meteor showers occur in streams with established orbits. These meteor showers are named after the constellation from which they appear to radiate. Like the recent Perseid meteor shower that occurs in early August, which the one that occurred this year received heavy press coverage because of the ideal “viewing” conditions appear to radiate in the constellation Perseus. For those who missed it, don’t worry cause this coming late October the Orionid meteor shower will be radiating in the constellation of Orion. Though most of my buddies prefer the Leonid meteor shower because it’s occurrence from mid – to –late November in the constellation Leo are more likely to provide an ideal “viewing” conditions from our regular vantage point. Recent scientific studies have shown that that all recurrent meteor showers are mostly composed of debris left in the wake of comets, past or present.

Currently, Lloyds of London are the only known major insurance company that provides services on meteorite strike insurance policies. But the firm seriously advises anyone planning to purchase their meteorite strike “policies” to “think it over thoroughly” because these are somewhat expensive and meteorite strikes are statistically evaluated to a degree that their occurrence –in an average human lifetime- borders on the nonexistent. In the UK, meteor strikes (as written on their Webpage) are generally defined as an “Act of God.” According to the Website of Car Insurance in the UK ( which defines “Act of God”; as an event not caused directly by an individual that causes damage to your vehicle. An example (albeit an unlikely one) would be a meteorite strike. More often than not, “Acts of God” are uninsurable.

While the “budget” side of the insurance industry doesn’t do business when it comes to insuring our person and property against meteorite strike insurance. There is also the rigmarole that they also fail to classify meteorites that are made by man i.e. spent rocket parts and other by-products of space travel and commerce (communication satellite launches) from those that are natural i.e. left over material from the creation of our solar system. Most of these insurance companies just classify these occurrences / incidents under the “Act of God” clause.

For all intents and purposes, its in the insurance companies of the world’s best interest to provide an insurance proviso on meteorite strikes, especially objects that are a product of the commercial utilization of space like the regular launching of communication satellites used for cellular phone and Internet data traffic. The profits generated by this activity has the mathematical equitability to make the meteorite insurance proviso economically viable to the average prospective client.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hybrid Cars versus Electric Cars: Vying for Green Credentials?

The “Two Major Roads” that lead to a more environmentally friendly motoring are clamoring for our votes, which one will win and which one will you vote for?

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

The two emerging technologies that serve to power a new generation of environmentally friendly cars – namely “hybrid power plant cars” and “pure electric powered cars” – are now clamoring to prospective customers who vote with their wallets and / or checkbooks. Marketing success hinges more on which of the two technologies –hybrid cars or pure electric cars - will be adopted by the major auto- makers. Irreproachable “green credentials” is now a major issue that determines which of the two will sell, and to a more or lesser extent; simplicity of operation and running costs. So here are the merits and faults that accompany the two different technologies.

Ever since the conspiracy theory surfaced to the mainstream media surrounding the “demise” i.e. product recall of GM’s EV1, interests on this sort of technology is in vogue again. The theory states that General Motors was under behest by the “1996 Republican Majority Congress” in collusion with “Big Oil Companies” to “kill” the EV1 because it’s “miraculous” performance could end America’s dependence on “Middle Eastern Petroleum.” Back in 1996, GM’s EV1 was the first pure electric car produced in commercial quantities by a major automobile company. It had pretty good credentials under its belt despite being powered by heavy and “inefficient” lead-acid batteries that could pose it’s own environmental problems. Fully charged, the EV1 has a range of 65 miles.

A lot has happened since then, today, a car that was referred to as the spiritual descendent of the EV1 is the TESLA Roadster. The TESLA Roadster is made by TESLA Motors a small automotive start-up company in San Francisco, California. One advantage that the TESLA Roadster has over GM’s EV1 is weight – or the lack of it. The TESLA Roadster is constructed out of carbon fiber that’s modeled after the Lotus Elise so it’s five times lighter than ordinary steel cars and also five times stronger due to the carbon fiber construction. The TESLA Roadsters claim to fame is it’s advanced lithium ion / lithium polymer battery that’s not only several times lighter than the one’s used in the EV1, it is also more efficient allowing the TESLA Roadster to have a 250 mile range on a single charge. Because of the carbon fiber construction and lithium batteries, the TESLA Roadsters high power –to – weight ratio allows it to accelerate like a high- end conventional internal-combustion-engine-powered-gasoline-fueled racecar.

In the other camp, hybrid cars i.e. cars whose both powered by a fossil-fueled internal combustion engine and storage batteries that drive the electric motors, are now on an uphill battle to gain “green” credentials. The environmental merit of hybrid cars is that the internal combustion engine can be made smaller than that of “conventional” cars because it’s primarily used to recharge the batteries, thus generating lower emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Hybrid cars also have better “mileage” than “conventional” cars because only in demanding situations i.e. going uphill and/or when quick accelerations are required that the two power plants is used in conjunction with each other. The most famous and highly advertised make/model of a hybrid car is the Toyota PRIUS.

While hybrid cars are praised because theoretically they could never ran out of “juice” while on the road due to the current ubiquity of gas / petrol stations over electrical charging stations. Pure electric cars – especially ones using the latest generation of lithium ion batteries – have better performance due to their high power –to – weight ratio compared to current hybrid cars. Also -if major auto makers will start mass producing them again- pure electric cars have the advantage over hybrids in terms of environmental friendliness because it’s much easier and cheaper to place air pollution mitigating devices at the power plant as opposed to every tailpipe of every car that’s running. Borrowing from the “transistor- principle” that a system with fewer moving parts is less prone to breakdown. Pure electric cars has this advantage because it uses only simple electric motors as a primary “engine” as opposed to the hybrid car that still has a conventional internal combustion engine with an inherently inefficient –in energy terms- clutch and gear drive systems. Also pure electric cars can easily tap electricity that’s produced from sustainable and / or non-carbon dioxide generating power plants like wind farms, solar photovoltaic power plants, fuel cell based power plants, etc. Also in the not-so-distant future, carbon offsetting might be legislated to include the transportation sector. Your carbon dioxide generating hybrid car could be singled out by the taxman in the coming years. Also, hybrid cars have “dubious” resale value as reported by Jeremy Clarkson in the 2003 – 2004 season of “Top Gear” an automotive TV show reviewing budget and high-end cars. On one episode, he advises against buying a hybrid car and to choose instead on a conventional car with a better mileage because this fuel- efficient conventional car is not likely to end up lying idly on some junkyard compared to the “hybrid” competition.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Medical Marijuana: Beyond Reproach?

Is it because of the relentless highly politicized “unscientific” vilification by the Moral Majority on the true nature of cannabis sativa i.e. marijuana during the Reagan Administration that allowed the “drug” to gain it’s unjustly earned “mystique”?

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

In July 2007, the British medical journal Lancet published the result of a study that cannabis / pot users are 40% more likely to develop psychological illness like schizophrenia. Even if those conducting this recent study could refine their methods to a level of absolute certainty that’s beyond reproach, the results / data are likely to fall on deaf ears (or blind eyes) because marijuana has gained somewhat of a saint-like status that can be traced back to 1980’s America.

There are an increasing number of people –like us – who compares marijuana to a criminal who got acquitted from a prima facie case due to shoddy police work. Or maybe these are just people who grew up during the 1980’s being endlessly bombarded on the then politically-motivated-scientific-findings on the “brain-damaging” effects of delta-9 tetra hydro cannabinol, the main psychoactive component of marijuana. Back then, a book titled “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” by Jack Herer – which was secretly published in 1985 to the underground “Hemp” community is the only politically unbiased - albeit pro hemp - source of information on how marijuana affects a relatively large community. This book also serves as a manifesto that indicted the US Government’s hypocritical stance on marijuana use. During the Reagan Administration, there was an established government conspiracy to suppress findings on how hemp could be used as a viable source of BIOMASS to end America’s dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum. This came to pass despite of a well-known historical knowledge that Betsy Ross made the first US Flag “Old Glory” from hemp fiber. In 1942, the United States Department of Agriculture -with behest from the US Government – produced a 30 minute film titled “Hemp for Victory.” The film promotes the positive aspects of the Hemp Plant from the government’s own mouth.

The legislation that brought about the legalization of marijuana use – albeit for medical purpose – was due to scientific findings on it’s therapeutic effects on glaucoma. Facing relentless public pressure due to suppression of scientific results extolling the positive aspects of marijuana plus the relatively “liberal” political climate of the Clinton Administration, the US Government finally started legal proceedings allowing for the legalization of marijuana for medical use despite the protests of the “conservative” States. Though it’s been legal for a long time in “liberal” territories like the Netherlands, marijuana use – especially in the “coffee shops” of Amsterdam – are viewed as nothing more than recreational drug use by the cynical policymakers around the world. As recently as the 21st of August 2007, when a woman in Germany suffering from multiple sclerosis was prescribed with medical marijuana for pain relief after “conventional” pain medications failed to work caused an- uproar in the “conservative” community.

From the Alternative Medicine standpoint, marijuana –like the “perennially experimental” bee venom therapy for multiple sclerosis – still warrants more definitive research. This is so because the medical community could very much benefit on finding out which chemical components of cannabis sativa i.e. marijuana has genuine medicinal / therapeutic properties that can be separated from those components responsible only for psychoactive and / or narcotic effects.

To the rest of the world (except maybe the Netherlands of course), the legitimacy of medical marijuana will be found wanting due to lack of research and due to the political baggage that the plant endured under “REAGANISM.” While a large majority see “Medical Marijuana” as something really beyond reproach like Al Gore supporters conveniently overlooking Tipper Gore’s circa 1989 PMRC in the name of “Political Correctness.” Maybe Abraham Lincoln said it best: “Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason, in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and to make a crime of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.” Except that Lincoln’s GOP is a whole different animal compared to the 21st Century “incarnation.”

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Innovations in Pharmacology: An Arrested Development?

With the recent controversies surrounding the side - effects of BEXTRA and VIOXX, does this mean that recent advances in pharmacology had reached a dead end?

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

The supposedly side – effect free and more effective substitutes for aspirin – BEXTRA and VIOXX- are fast becoming a non-starter for the multi-million dollar pharmaceutical industry. By now, almost all of us are wondering if the “miracles of modern science” has recently abandoned the field of pharmacology. Is this problem truly insurmountable as implied by the latest buzz - words in pharmaceutical / pharmacological publications? Let’s cite some examples.

Before the advent of antibiotics like penicillin, the only cure available for venereal diseases are arsenical compounds (developed during the 19th Century) so toxic that the cure was more likely to kill you than cure you. Now -the problem created by the misuse of our tried-and-true arsenal of antibiotics - are the drug-resistant pathogens engendered by the improper use and administration of antibiotics. That’s why back in the 1990’s arsenicals were re-introduced as a venereal disease cure against multi drug resistant syphilis.

Back in the 1950’s, thalidomide was developed as a much safer substitute for barbiturate-based sleeping pills. It was reported back then that one woman attempted to commit suicide by taking thalidomide based pills and failed to take her own life. Then the teratogenic effects of thalidomide surfaced after the drug was already widely marketed in Europe.

Probably developed during the height of the Cold War i.e. mid to late 1950’s – pyridostigmine bromide – was developed as a substitute for atropine sulfate to counteract the effects of cholinesterase inhibitor based weaponry i.e. nerve gas / nerve agents. Atropine sulfate was known to interfere with the infantry’s physical exertion i.e. dodging bullets upon intramuscular injection. Pyridostigmine bromide was designed to avoid this “inconvenience.” But back in April 1995, pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia, while examining the nature of “Gulf War Syndrome” discovered that pyridostigmine bromide while effective at protecting soldiers against nerve agents by binding to – and shielding – the enzyme that nerve gas attacks. But it also grabs onto enzymes that help break down toxic chemicals thus the probable agent responsible for causing “Gulf War Syndrome.” This is quite the opposite of what atropine sulfate does – by increasing the body’s metabolism so that the nerve agents are flushed out of the body before it can do serious damage.

While a number of pharmaceutical companies choose to wait for unfortunate side – effects to occur before pulling their product off the market. Some – like the ASTRA ZENECA company, choose to voluntarily withdraw their product before a large number of unfortunate side – effects or fatalities could occur. ASTRA ZENECA developed the anticoagulant XIMELAGATRAN - whose trade name is EXTANTA an FDA approved oral anticoagulant - as a less toxic replacement for warfarin. XIMELAGATRAN was the first member of direct thrombin inhibitors that can be taken orally. For the benefit of those who do not know what is warfarin, it is the main ingredient in rat poison. Warfarin kills rats by making them bleed to death due to its anti coagulant effects. Also, warfarin makes a good rat poison / rodenticide because in case of accidental poisoning to humans, Vitamin K tablets can be used as a very effective antidote. In 2006, ASTRA ZENECA – the manufacturer of XIMELAGATRAN – announced that it would not attempt to market XIMELAGATRAN after reports of hepatoxicity (liver damage) during trials,and to discontinue it’s distribution in countries where the drug had been approved.

While in the last week of July 2007, the type-2 diabetes maintenance drug AVANDIA – a ROSIGLITAZONE and METFORMINE combination in one convenient pill - has been under scrutiny because recent studies of 7,500 patients have shown that 1 in 50 developed a heart attack. While some, developed fluid retention problems. One-fourth of their test subjects is aged below 50. This report has caused the stock value of GlaxoSmithKlein – AVANDIA’s manufacturer – to fall. Due to lack of a suitable replacement, and since AVANDIA had become ubiquitous with type-2 diabetes sufferers around the world. Majority of the world’s pharmaceutical regulatory bodies has just advised General Practitioners to closely monitor their patients who are presently taking AVANDIA.

This bothersome phenomena where innovations can no longer improve a trusty –but – rusty “workhorse” has finally invaded the world of pharmacology. This “phenomena” had plagued the hi-fi / audio industry for the past 20 –or so – years. It has the effect of rendering the decade –or more- advances in digital recording unable to “out – beauty” the good ol’ analogue sound recording i.e. 30 in/sec magnetic tape recording.

Will the tropanol derivative atropine – despite its negative physiological effects – be the “better” choice in protecting the fighting men and women the world over against cholinesterase inhibitor based weaponry well into the 22nd Century for the reason that replacements are proven to do more harm than good? And what about aspirin, are we just fortunate that it was discovered and marketed well before draconian laws to govern the pharmaceutical industry were legislated and enforced? From a pharmacological standpoint, it seems that chemical – based pharmaceuticals are inherently toxic to the human physiology. This is why the major pharmaceutical companies the world over are investing millions in their Research and Development department to develop drugs / agents that work using the principles of the science of genetic engineering like BENITEC’s RNA interference therapy. Presently, it seems the careful management of therapeutic regimens is the only viable option. In retrospect, the progress of the science of pharmacology has always been dependent – or hindered depending your point of view – to the current “politics” that engendered the legislation of draconian laws that regulate the pharmaceutical industry.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Does Anyone Need Climate Change Insurance?

Should we all go out and purchase “Climate Change Insurance” –like Life and Car Insurance- to protect our beachfront properties of the inevitable if-and-when?

By: Vanessa Uy

Like the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency back in 1970, there -as of yet- no existing legal precedents that allow –let alone to regulate- the sale of “Climate Change Insurance” policies to the average homeowner. Or maybe a homeowners insurance policy with a proviso for climate change / global warming caused damage "payout." These are quite as rare as "hen's teeth" but in Germany, the insurance community is abuzz with activity from Munich Re paying storm damage claims. I mean average because how many of us could afford the insurance premiums of Lloyd’s of London style insurance companies that provides coverage to risk whose mathematical evaluation borders on the non-existent? Also, the existing conservative political climate in the United States could easily allow existing insurance companies to classify the negative effects resulting from climate change –like sea level rise and increased frequency of hurricanes- as “Acts of God” which almost all existing insurance companies around the world won’t settle. And finally, is it wise to use the funds generated from “Carbon Offsetting” that’s already slated to bankroll sustainable / green development programs in “poor” countries be used as funds i.e. as an ethical form of "hedge funds" to settle the damages resulting from Climate Change?

Ever since “modern” insurance companies were established, they declared that the first essential factor in insurance is that the element of gambling must not be present. Since then, insurance companies had been eliminating the “element of gambling” by making it possible –through mathematics- to make accurate and scientific calculations of the extent of the hazard, so as to charge a fair premium. This is why it is important to study all the available scientific data to properly gauge the extent of Climate Change –now and in the future. The study can also be used to gauge if the risk must be important enough to warrant insurance. To make such a venture economically viable, the insurance company must have a large number of risks –spread out geographically- so that it will not have a concentration of risks in one area. And finally, the cost of the insurance –i.e. premiums- must be within the reach of a large number of people.

A couple of leading authorities –namely Michael Schlesinger and Natalia Andronova- professors of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that low cost climate-change insurance could help ensure a better future. By implementing a “Carbon Tax” of five US cents per gallon of gasoline and gradually increasing the tax over the next 30 years is the optimal solution, the researchers report. “You can think of the tax as a low- cost insurance policy that protects against climate change,” said Michael Schlesinger. The policy premiums –according to Professor Schlesinger- could be used to develop alternative energy technologies. Doing a little now to mitigate long-term climate change would cost much less than doing nothing and making adjustments in the future.

Because mitigation would impose immediate costs, with any long –term benefit unknown, some scientists and policy-makers have argued that nothing should be done until the “uncertainty surrounding the climate issue” is substantially reduced. But Professor Schlesinger says:” By then, however, it may be too late to and we will have foreclosed certain options. Rather, the uncertainty is the very reason we should implement a climate policy in the near term.”

Professor Michael Schlesinger’s idea of a taxation-bankrolled Climate Change insurance is somewhat similar to a State Insurance where state funds –i.e. tax revenues- are organized for the insurance of the compensation risk. To me, this is more or less similar to Social Security insurance. Like state funds, a government controlled Climate Change insurance has the advantages of costing much less than that of private organizations because no commissions are paid to brokers or agents and the work is handled by state employees. Also, some state funds may not emphasize the prevention of losses. Finally, if the premiums collected are insufficient to pay losses, the state may have to make up the difference if permitted by law.

Despite of all the rigmarole and red tape surrounding the establishment of a Climate Change insurance, the lack of legal precedents is the greatest obstacle for providing a system to mitigate the damages that might be incurred by the effects of Climate Change / Global Warming / sea-level rise. And by increasing the tax on gasoline incrementally over the years for the next 30 years could cause an- uproar to all of the petrochemical companies around the world. But –to me at least- a binding legislation of a Climate Change insurance based on the established principles of the modern insurance company / industry is probably the best solution where conservationist and the corporate / industrial world can reach a common ground.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Astronauts: NASA’s Weakest Link?

Conventional wisdom states that a system is only as strong as its weakest link. Does this mean that NASA’s greatest asset - human space explorers i.e. astronauts -are also their greatest liability?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak’s adult diaper-aided crime-of-passion / escapade became headline news, things have not been going well for NASA’s manned space exploration program. Then came the allegations of the drunkenness of shuttle astronauts slated for current missions – the “bottle to throttle” fiasco. And the most disturbing of all: the pre-flight sabotage of the vibration monitoring / detecting computer that’s slated to be installed in the International Space Station (ISS) which seems like the proverbial “last straw” that NASA won’t be able to recover. Despite a live news conference last 27th of July 2007 that aired on both BBC and CNN about the administrative action that would be taken by NASA to investigate these allegations and the establishment of a “Performance Integrity Criterion” that will be followed rigorously by the astronauts. Despite of the recent successful launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, is NASA’s reputation already tarnished beyond repair?

At the cost of almost a billion dollars per launch, the American taxpayer has every right to be mindful about the professionalism and integrity of their astronauts for a lot of reasons other that the “astronomical” cost of running the best manned space exploration program on the planet. Ever since the 1980’s, there are scientific experiments -whose benefits even includes a cure for cancer- can only be performed in the weightless conditions i.e. in space. So Americans held their astronauts with high regard like some “latter day messiah.” To me, the pre-flight sabotage of the vibration-monitoring computer is the most disturbing of all the “irregularities” that has surfaced in recent investigations. If this is true – and the “tampering” incident had been going on since NASA first started the series of “microgravity environment” experiments back in the 1980’s – then the data obtained during this experiments should be taken with a “grain of salt.” That’s billions of dollars and countless man-hours of drudgery wasted, in other words - one giant “step back” for mankind.

Recently, the “Blog-o-sphere” is abuzz with opinions/suggestions that since NASA launches more unmanned missions like the latest PHOENIX Mars robotic space probe, the administrative body should fire all of their astronauts. To me, the problem with this logic is that at present –or even in the foreseeable future- we still don’t know how to build “robots” that are smart and self-aware enough to replace our “human space explorers.” The “human versus robot” debate extends even to the nurse / caregiver camp, but this is a topic for future discussion.

There exists a “Kultur Kampf” between the two main schools of thought weather it would be ever possible that we humans can ever construct a “robot” that is self-aware and as smart as us. On one camp, Alan Turing – the Great Grandfather of our modern computer technology- believes that by the middle of the 21st Century advancements in computer technology would allow us to design and construct “computers/robots” that are self-aware and as smart as or even smarter than us. Alan Turing even designed a test named after him - the Turing Test - as an evaluation tool to see if a “computer system” has the ability for self-awareness and human like intelligence. Turing “dreamed-up” the concept back in the 1940’s by the way. In the other camp is Roger Penrose – one of the greatest living theoretical physicist today- who theorized that electronic computers can never replicate the process of the human mind that give rise to self-awareness and intelligence. To put it in overly simplistic terms, a skilled blacksmith can create a very beautiful sword but that same sword can never create a blacksmith – even a mediocre one. Sadly, I’m subscribing to Roger Penrose’s view because it’s backed up by my own day –to- day “empirical evidence.” Though the last time I heard from Roger Penrose, he was very optimistic about “quantum computers.” Even if we are fortunate enough to have developed human-like robots -10 years from now- capable of replacing NASA’s astronauts, when was the last time a space probe / robotic spacecraft had a ticker tape parade down Madison Avenue after returning from a successful mission? Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein produced “cartoons” doesn’t count by the way.

Like it or not, humans are way better designed than “robots” when it comes to tackling the unexpected nature of space exploration. The American Taxpayer and the global community of space exploration enthusiasts will just have to live with the “frailties” of our very human astronauts like tendencies to “blow out some steam” once in a while. And there is the ever- present potential to resort to “substance abuse” in an otherwise stress-filled occupation. Despite all of this, there’s one thing we humans have that won’t probably be replicated by our “faux-sentient cybernetic creations” – for centuries to come – is our ability to better ourselves. This is the raison d’être of drug rehab and alcohol treatment centers that guarantees the job security so-to-speak of their counselors and psychotherapists. And I just can’t help but re-emphasize our ability to better ourselves. As proof of this, one of the latest astronauts on the Space Shuttle Endeavor – Barbara Morgan – has transformed herself through training from a “mere” schoolteacher to a full-fledged astronaut. She had done this because current NASA policy doesn’t allow “civilians” to ride in the space shuttle since the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster over twenty years ago.

And let’s not forget that our global overpopulation problem has no other “viable” solution in the foreseeable future other than space colonization. The sooner we develop our space exploration programs into a viable space colonization endeavor the better off humanity could progress without destroying the fragile ecosystem of our planet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Satellite Gazing: An Alternative to Stargazing?

With the Leonid meteor shower slated for November still a few months away, are artificial satellites worthy targets for amateur astronomers in our increasingly light polluted urban night sky?

By: Vanessa Uy

Orbiting satellites of various shapes and functions had recently become “prime targets” for the starter-kit-astronomical-telescope-owning-amateur-astronomer in today’s increasingly light polluted urban night sky. The satellite’s much higher “relative brightness” rating when compared to other “dimmer” heavenly bodies like the planets Mars and Jupiter make these objects shine out above the orange barf glow permeating your local city’s night sky. Short of doing LASIK surgery on my trusty-but-rusty mass-market Celestron reflector, there’s not much you can do to alleviate the effects of “light pollution” especially if you live with your telescope in an urban area. I’ve read that there are certain people –especially in the United States- who genuinely believe that lighting up 10 million- candle- power street lamps has the power to render any modern assault rifle impotent and obsolete. You might be unknowingly voting for them into your local city council, so please talk sense into them on your spare time. Or send them to downtown Baghdad to test out their policies.

Ever since the launch of Sputnik back in 1957, the number of “space birds” that orbit our planet has been growing steadily. From those that were prime observing targets during their operational lifetimes like SKYLAB and the manned MIR, that had since crashed back to earth to the MIDAS reconnaissance satellites – because of their high orbits- will still be orbiting our planet 20,000 years from now. Unless somebody uses them for target practice via an anti-satellite missile launched from a high performance supersonic jet fighter flying at 90,000 feet or more.

Touted as the 20th Century invention that made the current Internet revolution possible, communication satellites are more than just a technological conveyance that allow anyone to surf the web and send e-mails across the globe. To us current generation of satellite gazers / space bird watchers, communication satellites have become a major –if not the most dazzling- part of our observational targets. Like the ever growing family of Iridium satellites whose Teflon-coated high gain antenna reflects the ambient light of the moon and the sun into an optical spectacle that never cease to amaze even the most jaded amateur astronomer.

Orbiting satellites seem to arouse interest to the amateur astronomer’s community with the same enthusiasm as Charles Messier’s catalog of 109 objects. But unlike 18th or 19th Century astronomers (they’re pretty much amateurs back then because anyone who can afford to custom built his own astronomical i.e. really big telescope is automatically an astronomer), amateur astronomers today who chooses “space bird” watching has more than 8,000 –and growing- potential targets for observation. From the International Space Station, shiny Iridium satellites to the somewhat “transient light shows” created by manned space vehicles like the space shuttle whose light displays are always eventful even for the naked eye observer. From the shuttle’s launch into the desired “orbit window” dictated by the specified NASA mission to the shuttle’s brilliant re-entry back into the Earth’s atmosphere, a “light show” that could rival the best Leonid meteor shower of recent memory.

These satellites orbiting Earth has advantage to the novice amateur astronomer / prospective “satellite gazer” – other than their relatively close distance in astronomical terms- is that these objects are highly angular in shape with fine detail in comparison to the moon and other natural heavenly bodies visible in the night sky. With this in mind, you can use their angular and detailed structure as a test bed in computing the Raleigh Criterion i.e. resolution limit of your telescope system. See how it compares to the Canary Island based “Grantecan Telescope.” Or you can test out Wien’s Law or Blackbody Radiation principles in practice, especially if you are fortunate enough to live within driving distance from the company who manufactures the specific satellite you are observing. And if you can, be able to arrange a plant tour to see –and even touch- the satellite’s twin in the plant.

For those who are a genuinely “novice” amateur astronomer, you can check out The user-friendliness of this site is comparable to the latest help desk software. On this site, you can input the latitude and longitude of your observatory i.e. “home” (or is that rooftop) and you can search the heavens-above site for the various “satellites” that can be seen from your home and which part of the night sky you should point your telescope to. The site is not only limited to observing artificial satellites, you can use the site to “ask” which part of the sky should you point your telescope from your house to see Mars, Jupiter, various stars and Messier objects etc. Also, you can check out the US Space Command’s web site at The US Space Command’s primary mission nowadays is to warn the space shuttle to avoid possible incoming meteor strikes and “space junk.” The US Space Command has the most advanced RADAR array in their Cheyenne Mountain complex that it can even “see” baseball-sized objects whose orbital path could hit the space shuttle. Or for a comprehensive list of satellites in current service, go to NSSDC Master Catalogue Spacecraft Query Form at Also check out the Satellite Tracking Web Page, which is an excellent source of element files and satellite links at

So goodbye and keep on watching the skies.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Drug Rehab and Alcohol Treatment Centers: Fame and Fortune’s Final Destinations

Not just for movie stars anymore, NASA astronauts could soon be frequenting to a local substance abuse treatment center near you.

By: Vanessa Uy

From Lindsay Loan checking into the “celebrity” substance abuse treatment center called “Promises” located in Malibu (should “they” change their name to “Vague Promises” in lieu of Lohan’s “alcohol treatment” track record) to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears’ “revolution” to establish a “Nation of Inebriation”. Will “famous people” –and these days they now include “allegedly” drunken NASA astronauts- be able to resist the temptations of substance abuse? Or is drug addiction and alcoholism a symptom of a much deeper psychosis of the Western Society’s “Culture of Avarice” that makes it an “uneasy” raison d’être for drug rehab and alcohol treatment facilities?

Older acquaintances of mine that were active feminists during the 1970’s recommended Jaqueline Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” as required reading. I’m somewhat perplexed by the relevance of the “feminist cause” to this work of literature which is more akin to “E News” / celebrity scandal type topics. It’s only recently came to me that the substance abuse described by Jaqueline Susann in “Valley of the Dolls” is a symptom of a social problem that the capitalist consumerism lifestyle breeds an unhealthy level of unhappiness to the general population. To me, she had no choice but to downplay her critique of capitalism during the time -late 1960’s early 1970’s America-were expressing such views was deemed “unpatriotic.”

After watching the entire series of documentaries on BBC World titled “The Happiness Formula.” I can safely form an opinion that some –if not all- “famous people” at some point in their lives will resort to alcohol and drug abuse as a coping mechanism in our current “Western” society which for all intents and purposes had gradually become the “Stepford Wives” “metaverse.” I can see now the wisdom of the nation of Bhutan’s reluctance to accept Western style consumerism to avoid the “unhappiness” that has plagued Western society.

In today’s hectic society ruled by capitalist consumerism, one could find that it’s getting harder and harder to resist the temptations of substance abuse. A method of ending one’s struggle with substance abuse that is widely adopted by the various “schools of thought” is by avoiding the “negative influence” of certain personal acquaintances. This “idea” is even adopted by one of the most effective “school of thought” that combat’s substance abuse namely Alcoholics Anonymous. If one takes the crucial step of restructuring their “social networks” i.e. avoiding the people who lead them to the path of drug and alcohol-based ruin.

To me, avoiding the influence of “negative people” is the path I took to achieve a relatively happy existence. I believe I’ve established my own “social infrastructure” to avoid substance abuse in the future. I -and the world at large- doesn’t need another Tomás de Torquemada as a friend. And as every counselor, psychotherapist or anyone working in today’s alcohol treatment and drug rehab facility fix society one person at a time. Their biggest wish is that they will no longer be needed when every one lives an addiction-free life.