A New Mars Rover, A New Librarian of Congress, and A Problem With New Lightbulbs | Vol. 3 / No. 38


Mars 2020

NASA has officially given the green light (the “phase-C” go-ahead) to the next Mars rover program, meaning the next time we talk about this little critter, it’ll have a real name, like “Curiosity” or “Opportunity.” Built on the same platform as Curiosity, it’ll look really similar. It’ll even land the same way, with the same “seven minutes of terror” as it pulls off the most Hollywood landing a rover has ever seen. But this time the rover’s going with a new mission: to look for signs of past life. Curiosity found that life could well have been possible due to the wet conditions; Mars 2020 is going to try to find signs that life was there to take advantage of those conditions. To that end it’s going to have a few different instruments from Curiosity, designed to look for organic biosignatures. The mission now has the funding allocated for construction, and is set to launch in July or August of 2020, to land in February 2021. Check out the Planetary Society for more on the latest news, and NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover website for details about the rover itself and its instruments.

New Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden | Photo: Library of Congress, CC0 (public domain)
New Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden | Photo: Library of Congress, (government work)

Carla Hayden

Despite widespread suspicions that obstructionism would rule the day, the US Senate this week surprisingly confirmed Carla Hayden as the new Librarian of Congress. This is great news for two reasons: first, Hayden is the first woman of colour and in fact the first woman at all to hold the much-esteemed position, and second, she’s an actual librarian (someone trained in library science hasn’t held the job since Lawrence Quincy Mumford retired from the post in 1974). Hayden will hold the position for ten years, being the first non-life-appointee in history. In 2015 an act was passed to limit the position’s tenure after the… well let’s call them “technology problems” with the former Librarian of Congress’s 28 years in the position — he didn’t use e-mail, barely used a cellphone, and repeatedly refused to hire a chief information officer to create digital policies, for which he faced repeated and mounting criticisms over the years. The Library of Congress is responsible for hundreds of thousands of research requests from Congress every year so that its members can (ostensibly) make the best laws with the most basis in actual fact. On top of that, it’s responsible for creating and maintaining the Library of Congress (over 160 million items and growing) and the cataloguing system used by a vast majority of universities in the US and Canada and many others worldwide (for larger collections it’s at least treated as the gold standard, compared with the Dewey Decimal system probably used by your local library). With any luck, having a trained librarian at the helm should help pull one of the most important libraries in the world into the 21st century, and maybe even improve the governance of this country (but maybe don’t count on the latter one just yet). At least she’s on the books as being in favour of technology. The Hill has more on the story, and if you’re interested, the ALA has a little explanation of the difference between the LC and Dewey systems of organization.

LED lightbulbs are greener, for now | Photo: Anton Fomkin, CC BY 2.0
LED lightbulbs are greener, for now | Photo: Anton Fomkin, CC BY 2.0

“Socket Saturation” and Planned Obsolescence

A new piece out in the New Yorker this week discusses the growing problem faced by lightbulb manufacturers in an age of ever-lengthening lightbulb lifespans. Incandescents — those heat-generating, enegry-sucking, filament-based bulbs you grew up with — are quickly losing market share to LEDs, which, as you might’ve noticed, last a whole heck of a lot longer. Some estimates place them at something like 42 years of normal household use (though that’s at something like 1.6 hours a day). So what’s an industry to do, especially when its focus for the past ninety-odd years has been to deliberately limit the lifespan of its product? Well the article’s author J. B. MacKinnon has a few points on what is being done, at least in the lighting industry (see also “Internet of Things” and lightbulbs that spy on you) but it’s a problem in other industries as well. Already cures for diseases that were more profitably (for the drug companies) managed have seen their prices set sky-high by the companies that are replacing long-term customers with short-term ones. A course of the drug that cures Heptatitis C, for instance, retails at $84,000. And while your cellphone probably works “fine” the way it is, it won’t in a few years — the race for more features drives the development of cellphone operating systems that require more powerful cellphones to run, which is why that latest iOS “upgrade” feels like a downgrade. This technically speaking isn’t “planned obsolescence,” but it’s obsolescence the companies plan for, because the market doesn’t reward long-lasting products, especially not innovative ones. Overall, I’m not sure what the solution is, but like the growing roboticization of employment, it’s one were probably going to have to address in the coming decades. Check out the New Yorker for more.


In case you missed it, here’s what we got up to here at This Week In Tomorrow since the last news roundup:

If you missed any of this week’s posts, go check them out!

Best of the Rest

As is the case every week, there’s so much more to cover than a couple of part-timers can handle. So here, as is true every Sunday, is your weekly linkspam:

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.