NASA’s Dawn spacecraft sends close-up of giant asteroid Vesta

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has returned the first close-up image after beginning its orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta. On Friday, July 15, Dawn became the first probe to enter orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The image taken for navigation purposes shows Vesta in greater detail than ever before. When Vesta captured Dawn into its orbit, there were approximately 16,000 kilometers between the spacecraft and asteroid. Engineers estimate the orbit capture took place at 10 p.m. PDT Friday, July 15.

Vesta is 530 kilometers in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. Ground- and space-based telescopes have obtained images of Vesta for about two centuries, but they have not been able to see much detail on its surface.

We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system,” said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles. “This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta’s history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons…”

Although orbit capture is complete, the approach phase will continue for about three weeks. During approach, the Dawn team will continue a search for possible moons around the asteroid; obtain more images for navigation; observe Vesta’s physical properties; and obtain calibration data…

Rock on, folks! Keep us ordinary folks up with what we need to keep our space curiosity bump happy.

Another “family values” Republican resigns – usual reasons!

An embattled Cincinnati-area state representative quit yesterday afternoon, caught up in controversy after being arrested for drunken driving in Indiana with a stripper in his car and Viagra in his system.

By making his resignation effective Aug. 2, Robert Mecklenborg, R-Green Township, ensured himself that he will be paid for all of July; if he had quit this month, his legislative salary would have been prorated. He also gets a bit more from the state retirement system…

His two-sentence resignation letter to House Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, was sent electronically yesterday, although it had been in the works since Saturday, said Mike Dittoe, spokesman for House Republicans…

The latest blow against the GOP representative came last week when it was revealed that four days after he was charged with DUI, Mecklenborg signed a driver’s-license application in Ohio saying that he did not have any outstanding traffic citations. Mecklenborg, 59, had an expired driver’s license when he was pulled over by an Indiana state trooper on April 23…

…A dashboard camera video showed him repeatedly telling the trooper that he had not had anything to drink, even as he failed three field sobriety tests

Mecklenborg was chairman of the House State Government and Elections Committee and sponsored a controversial bill that would require Ohioans to provide a photo ID before being allowed to vote. He also belonged to the Judiciary and Ethics Committee.

Mecklenborg was a good little loyal soldier in the Republican Army of hypocrites. He raised the family values flag every chance he had – supporting legislation against civil rights, against women having any choice or family planning opportunities, never heard of a war he couldn’t approve or a budget for working families and their children he wouldn’t cut.

Republicans for balanced budget – just can’t explain how?

History of modern American deficits: 1962 – 2007 Congressional Budget Office

Congressional Republicans are clear in their demand for a constitutional amendment forcing the government to balance its budget. What they’re not offering is clarity on how to get there.

It’s politically popular to line up behind such an amendment; laying out specific cuts is less appealing.

Almost all Republicans and some Democrats will vote to alter the Constitution when the issue comes up as early as this week. Almost none, including a leading co-sponsor of the Senate measure, Orrin Hatch, and Bill Flores of Texas, a co-sponsor of the House measure, say how they’d slash Medicare, eliminate federal programs or shrink education, law enforcement or national defense. Republicans agree that tax increases shouldn’t be part of the equation.

It’s a misleading political cheap shot,” Bill Hoagland, a budget adviser to Republican congressional leaders from 1982 to 2007, said of the proposed amendment. “We all agree we should have a balanced budget, but that’s the process of budgeting and governing. They are paid to come to town and make decisions…”

Hatch, a Utah Republican facing re-election in 2012, wouldn’t offer specifics on entitlement cuts or say which federal departments he would close to reach a balanced budget.

“When the time comes, I’ll name them,” said Hatch. “I don’t want to do it right now, because we have to pass that amendment…”

He also needs to get his butt re-elected. Something that might not happen if he admitted he wants to destroy Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Representative Flores, a freshman Republican, said he couldn’t name specific cuts “off the top of my head.”

Asked what reductions he would make to comply with a constitutional amendment, Representative Allen West, a first- year Republican from Florida, didn’t cite specific programs yet…said he noticed the military is starting “to be careful about buying toilet paper in the barracks…”

Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina co-sponsored Toomey’s budget and said it would reach balance in 10 years…DeMint said specifics on cuts to meet a constitutional requirement would come later.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri called the balanced-budget amendment “political posturing. I find it hard to believe that anybody with a straight face voted to keep giving subsidies to Big Oil and then thinks we have to do a balanced-budget amendment,” she said.

Which is worse? Liars or hypocrites? Today’s Republican Party doesn’t even represent all of corporate America, the breadth of Wall Street investment banks. Like the US Chamber of Commerce, they work to keep Big Oil, Big Pharma, the biggest insurance companies warm in bed.

Small businesses, progressive 21st Century corporations out to build products that might revive the United States economy are not invited into the inner circle of gilded politicians. Republicans use the phalanx of ignorant Kool Aid populists to pretend to working class, middle class sensibilities. But, that’s like pretending to be all-American by riding a Harley-Davidson. Another “American” product which couldn’t get around the block if you removed the foreign-made components which make it run.

Google prepares to transform Search into a game for news junkies

In Google’s ongoing quest to become more social, the search giant has released a new feature called Google News badges that tracks what users read and allows them to share their badges with Google contacts to see what interests they have in common.

The badges bring a bit of social gaming into news reading…

“The more you read, the higher level badge you’ll receive, starting with Bronze, then moving up the ladder to Silver, Gold, Platinum and finally, Ultimate,” said Natasha Mohanty, an engineer working on Google News, in a company blog post. “We have more than 500 badges available, so no matter what kind of news you’re into, there’s a badge out there for you…”

“Your badges are private by default, but if you want, you can share your badges with your friends,” she said. “Tell them about your news interests, display your expertise, start a conversation or just plain brag about how well-read you are.”

While the badges show off what topics a person is interested in, they don’t offer information on what specific articles a user reads — that’s always left private, Mohanty said.

In a very Google+ Sparks-like addition, users will also be able to tailor news feeds directly in Google News relating to their reading interests and the badges can help users figure out just what it is they read a lot about, she said…

The badges are in their first iteration as of now, and more social features could be coming soon, she said. If a user reads a few articles on the same topic every day, it should take about a week to earn their first badge, Google said.

“Once we see how badges are used and shared, we look forward to taking this feature to the next level,” Mohanty said.

Whatever that might mean?

Discovery of importance of vitamin C in the eye and the brain

Nerve cells in the eye require vitamin C in order to function properly — a surprising discovery that may mean vitamin C is required elsewhere in the brain for its proper functioning, according to a study by scientists at Oregon Health & Science University…

“We found that cells in the retina need to be ‘bathed’ in relatively high doses of vitamin C, inside and out, to function properly,” said Henrique von Gersdorff, Ph.D…a co-author of the study. “Because the retina is part of the central nervous system, this suggests there’s likely an important role for vitamin C throughout our brains, to a degree we had not realized before.”

The brain has special receptors, called GABA-type receptors, that help modulate the rapid communication between cells in the brain. GABA receptors in the brain act as an inhibitory “brake” on excitatory neurons in the brain. The OHSU researchers found that these GABA-type receptors in the retinal cells stopped functioning properly when vitamin C was removed.

Because retinal cells are a kind of very accessible brain cell, it’s likely that GABA receptors elsewhere in the brain also require vitamin C to function properly, von Gersdorff said. And because vitamin C is a major natural antioxidant, it may be that it essentially ‘preserves’ the receptors and cells from premature breakdown, von Gersdorff said…

The findings could have implications for other diseases, like glaucoma and epilepsy.

So much yet to learn, so many fools who reject basic research because it doesn’t look like there’s a quantifiable benefit ready to turn a profit for some corporation or other. Today.

Computers learn world domination by reading the manual

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have been able to create computers that learn language by doing something that many people consider a last resort when tackling an unfamiliar task – reading the manual (or RTBM). Beginning with virtually no prior knowledge, one machine-learning system was able to infer the meanings of words by reviewing instructions posted on Microsoft’s website detailing how to install a piece of software on a Windows PC, while another was able to learn how to play Sid Meier’s empire-building Civilization II strategy computer game by reading the gameplay manual.

Without so much as an idea of the task they were intended to perform or the language in which the instructions were written, the two similar systems were initially provided only with a list of possible actions they could take, such as moving the cursor or performing right or left clicks. They also had access to the information displayed on the screen and were able to gauge their success, be it successfully installing the software or winning the game. But they didn’t know what actions corresponded to what words in the instructions, or what the objects in the game world represent.

Predictably, this means that initially the behavior of the system is pretty random, but as it performs various actions and words appear on the screen it looks for instances of that word in the instruction set as well as searching the surrounding text for associated words. In this way it is able to make assumptions about what actions the words correspond to and assumptions that consistently lead to good results are given greater credence, while those that consistently lead to bad results are abandoned.

Using this method, the system attempting to install software was able to reproduce 80 percent of the steps that a person reading the same instructions would carry out. Meanwhile, the system playing Civilization II ended up winning 79 percent of the games it played, compared to a winning rate of 46 percent for a version of the system that didn’t rely on the written instructions.

What makes the results even more impressive for the Civilization II-playing system is that the manual only provided instructions on how to play the game.

They don’t tell you how to win. They just give you very general advice and suggestions, and you have to figure out a lot of other things on your own…”

How many students in your local high school can do as well?