Watching the World

Mars Spacecraft Problems

In December, NASA was unable to reestablish contact with its Mars Polar Lander after the spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere. The failure occurred only about two months after the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter, which was to help relay information from the lander to Earth. Why the lander failed is unknown. But the orbiter went astray, among other reasons, because the spacecraft’s navigation commands were in English units of measurement rather than in the more widely used metric system! This difference prevented navigation data from being transferred properly. Although disappointed at their losses, NASA scientists intend to continue pursuing their goals, says CNN. These are “to learn about the red planet’s climatic and geologic history; to look for signs of life; and to lay the groundwork for manned exploration.”

A Vanishing Chinese Writing System

A unique writing system called Nu Shu, understood only by women, has been used for centuries in a cluster of small villages in Hunan Province, southern China. It was developed by peasant women at a time when girls were denied formal education. Its script consists of an estimated 700 phonetic characters, compared with the thousands of Chinese ideographic characters. Nu Shu is written with delicate curved and tilted lines, which Yang Yueqing, a filmmaker who documented Nu Shu, describes as “very feminine and beautiful, . . . also extremely graphic because it was woven into cloth and embroidered as patterns,” reports The Sunday Times of London. The women recorded folk traditions and expressed their lot in life in songs and poems written in Nu Shu. After women were granted equality in China in 1949, the use of Nu Shu began to decline. Today, only three people are known to write the ancient script, and they are female senior citizens.

Violent Video Games

Based on a study of 600 young video-game players, researcher Brent Stafford, of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, warns that many games “are training our kids to celebrate violence.” Maclean’s magazine reports: “Some hard-core players who prefer the most violent and realistic games ‘kill’ as many as 1,000 ‘avatars’ (on-screen characters) in a single night, often in scenes of gory realism.” The research documented the extent to which violent video games are designed to appeal to a player’s emotions and to “engulf young minds in worlds that desensitize them to violence, even killing.” The video-game industry, at $17 billion a year, is “bigger than film and television combined.” Stafford urges parents to know what games their children are playing and to be alert to any tendency toward compulsion.

Reports of Wars

“There are now 27 active wars worldwide,” states Psychology Today. As reported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, over 150,000 Liberians perished in their 7-year civil war, and 500,000 people have died in the 15-year civil conflict in Angola. Clashes in Turkey have killed more than 37,000 since 1984, and war in Sri Lanka has claimed some 60,000 lives since 1983. “In all, more than 20 million people—most of them civilians—have died in war since the end of World War II,” the magazine states. “War may continue to be inevitable . . . because of economics. War is one [of] the largest industries on earth, to the tune of $800 billion in expenditures per year, and it also brings enormous spoils.” The editorial notes: “What an odd, odd species we are to be so brutal to our own kind.” The United Nations has declared this year to be an international year of peace.

Smoking and Blindness

“Smoking is a major cause of blindness,” reports the Canberra Times newspaper. Researchers at the Australian National University and Sydney University estimate that 20 percent of all blindness in Australians  over 50 years of age is due to smoking. The researchers cited studies from Australia, the United States, and Europe that indicate that smokers are two to five times as likely to develop age-related macular degeneration as nonsmokers. Dr. Wayne Smith of the Australian National University suggested that cigarette packs bear the warning: “Smoking is a major cause of blindness.”

Neglect and Child Abuse

Reported cases of child abuse in Japan soared 30 percent during fiscal 1998, compared with the previous year, says Asahi Evening News. Experts attribute this to “mounting stress borne by mothers, many of whom were carrying the entire burden of rearing their children,” as well as to “a heightened awareness among the general public” of their responsibility to report abuse or neglect. The Daily Yomiuri mentions that Japan has also seen an increase in the number of deaths of small children who were left alone at home or in parked cars. In some cases their absent parents were gambling at pachinko pinball machines. Until recently, few parents were held criminally responsible in such cases. Now, however, authorities intend to step up prosecution of seriously negligent parents.

Newborns With HIV

“Half of all babies in Africa are born infected with HIV the virus that develops into AIDS,” reports United Press International. Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, stated that HIV and AIDS have shortened life expectancy by 25 years in some parts of Africa. The report adds: “The 21 countries with the highest incidence of HIV infection are all in Africa, and in 10 of those countries, at least 10 percent of the population is infected.” Of all AIDS-related deaths worldwide, about 80 percent have occurred in Africa.

Pedal Power

“One of the most energy-efficient ways to get around may be a bicycle—not only because it uses pedal-power but because its design wastes very little energy,” says a Reuters report. Checking a computer-controlled bicycle driveline by means of an infrared camera, engineers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore noted that little heat was generated as the chain moved. “To their surprise, the engineers found the chain drive had an energy efficiency score of 98.6 percent, meaning less than 2 percent of the power used to turn the front sprocket was lost as heat,” the report said. “The worst the bicycle scored, under varying conditions, was 81 percent efficiency.” James Spicer, who led the study, said: “This was amazing to me, especially when you realize the essential construction of this chain drive hasn’t changed in more than 100 years.”

“Evil Rain”

A natural phenomenon known as evil rain occurs in Turpan, in the Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Even as dark rain clouds pass overhead, the weather may remain hot and dry on the ground, reports China Today. Rain appears to be falling from the sky, and a person can even feel the rain by waving his hand up in the air. However, in the extremely arid climate of Turpan, evaporation takes place at a much faster rate than the rain falls. Thus, the “evil rain” evaporates before it ever reaches the ground.

Deadly Diet

A veterinary surgeon in the Kutch district of western India recently removed 100 pounds [45 kg] of plastic bags from the stomach of a sick cow, reports The Week, a magazine of Kerala, India. Besides the bags, he also found cloth, coconut husks, a coil of wire, and a screw. Stray cows in India subsist mainly on garbage, and discarded plastic bags are dangerous for them. Even privately owned milk cows often eat roadside garbage when moving to their grazing areas. The veterinarian, Dr. Jadeja, says that consumption of plastic is second only to foot-and-mouth disease as a problem for the cows. The indigestible material blocks the abdomen, so that the cow cannot chew the cud. Such cows are often left to die. Dr. Jadeja was alerted to the situation by cobblers who found masses of plastic in the stomachs of dead cows when removing their hides.