Recovery.gov: Change We Can Believe in
We knew of President Obama's technological and Internet prowess long before we elected him, so his latest move is not a surprise. Nevertheless, anyone in favor of greater government transparency will welcome the creation of Recovery.gov. The new web site has one major mission: tracking the government spending authorized when the president signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package.
President Obama lays out the site's purpose in an introductory video. Face it, $787 billion is a lot of money, and many industries and organizations will benefit; with this much at stake, the possibilities for waste and inefficiency increase and so does the necessity to fight it. This web site allows ordinary citizens to see where the money is going. It features charts to show how the money will be distributed. It's a dynamic site; as funds are given out by federal agencies, these distributions will be added to the site.
But wait, there's more. The site also features a map that indicates how many jobs the stimulus package is expected to create in each state. An about page summarizes the bill and for those with the stamina and determination, it even includes a link to the full text of the legislation. Finally, because no web site is complete these days without some user interaction, visitors can leave a comment about how they have been affected by the economy; they can also request e-mail updates.
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Liquid Water on Mars?
We've already found ice on Mars, but according to everything we understand about biology, water needs to be able to exist as a liquid for active life to survive. And Mars is too cold for that today, right? Maybe not. Several scientists point to images taken by NASA's Phoenix lander as possible proof of the existence of liquid water on the red planet.
The controversial images include mysterious splotches of material attached to one of the lander's legs shortly after it touched down. The splotches grew in size over the next few weeks. Some scientists believe that the material consists of drops of salty water that grew in size by absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere. Indeed, 21 researchers put their name to a paper explaining this theory, to be presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.
The problem is that Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic zone, where the temperature never rose above -20 C during the lander's entire mission. The scientists argue, however, that perchlorates, a kind of salt found on Mars, could have been mixed with the water and if the solution contained a heavy concentration of perchlorates, it could have remained liquid at temperatures as cold as -70 C. At that concentration, however, even the most salt-tolerant organism we know of on earth, a fungus, cannot survive. If we find life on Mars in such a solution, it will not be life as we know it.
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Are We Digital Yet?
February 17 was the original deadline for TV stations to stop broadcasting in analog and switch over to digital signals. Naturally, not everything went smoothly. Congress allowed a grace period; as a result, some stations chose to wait until June 12 to change their signals. That might have been the right move, since confusion reportedly reigned earlier this week.
The issue is that TV viewers who lack cable or satellite TV need converter boxes to see the new signal. These boxes were subsidized by coupons available from the government. But the funding for those coupons ran out before the original deadline, so Congress extended it in the hope that everyone would be ready by June. Since they were extending the deadline for viewers, Congress also offered TV stations the option to delay. About a third took Congress up on it at which point the FCC grumpily insisted on extra conditions for some of the procrastinating stations. It only became clear on appropriately enough Friday the 13th which stations would have to switch, and which ones could wait.
Just under 650 stations made the switch this week, affecting an unknown number of TV viewers. Meanwhile, most US homes are ready to receive the new signal; Nielsen Co. estimates less than six million homes were unprepared for the change. How many of these are in areas where the switch has already occurred, however, is anyone's guess. Adding to the confusion is that several stations interpreted the law differently. Some continued broadcasting in analog up until midnight on the 17th, while others changed much earlier in the day and still others simply went off the air entirely rather than continue broadcasting an analog signal or switching. It's likely that those will be back on the air with a digital signal before too long. Viewers having problems with the transition can contact the FCC's DTV call center (1-888-CALL-FCC); more than 4,000 operators are standing by.
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