Normally I try to stick to more positive news stories, but it’s a mixed bag of truth and tragedy this week, with a climate satellite launch contract that may never happen, lip-reading AI, and the death of a much-loved actor. It’s the weekly roundup for Sunday, November 27.
SpaceX, NASA, and Global Warming
SpaceX has landed a really good contract to deliver NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography vehicle (SWOT) in 2021. The deal is for $112 million and it signals a lot of confidence in the still-new (and currently grounded) spaceflight company. That’s the good news. The bad news is that that money, as far as I can tell, would have to come from NASA’s Earth sciences budget, which — because of the intense climate change denialism in the Trump-led Republican party — looks to be eliminated. Not shrunk, reoriented, or refocused: Trump and his fundamentalist cronies want to stop NASA from studying Earth’s changing climate at all. As Phil Plait has said, “if this slashing of NASA Earth science comes to pass, it will be a disaster for humanity. This is no exaggeration: NASA is the leading agency in studying the effects of global warming on the planet, in measuring the changes in our atmosphere, our oceans, the weather, and yes, the climate as temperatures increase. They have a fleet of spacecraft observing the Earth, and plans for more to better understand our environment. That’s all on the chopping block now.” Apparently they’re cutting it because studying climate change is “politicized science,” which is true — because the Republican party has spent decades politicizing it. But hey, whatever, it’s not like it’s winter in the Arctic and the sea ice is still melting or anything. Oh wait. So anyway, congrats to SpaceX, but we’ll see if it actually happens.
Read My Lips
Google has announced that a team of Oxford scientists and engineers have used its DeepMind AI to create a program that can lip-read a hell of a lot better than well-trained humans can, after having it watch over 5000 hours of BBC programming like Breakfast, Newsnight, World Today, and Question Time. While the accuracy is still only 46.8% for individual words, the Verge reports that by comparison trained human lip-readers could only get it right 12.4% of the time (remember this is without context, which usually helps human lip readers greatly). The software isn’t likely to replace closed-captioning software, which transcribes based on sound (and at much higher accuracy rates), but it could perhaps be used to augment such software in the future, or could be used to try to caption video for which the audio has been lost or never recorded. Or, of course, it could be used by intelligence agencies to spy on your conversations. Time to close the blinds if you want to have a private conversation, I suppose. The study, “Lip Reading Sentences in the Wild,” is published over at arXiv.org.
The Worthier Part
The actor Ron Glass passed away on Friday at age 71, gutting a community of science fiction lovers who spent endless hours watching and re-watching as he played the earnest and humble Shepherd Derrial Book aboard the Serenity. While he was famous for many other roles — a detective in Barney Miller (1975-1982), one half of the 1980s Odd Couple reboot that cast black actors in the starring roles — for fans of Firefly he’ll always be the man of the cloth with the mysterious past who fell in with the wrong crowd, or, more likely, the right one. It’s an odd kind of immortality to achieve, being remembered by millions as a character you played, but it’s no less important for that. Glass was, I’m told, a Buddhist. I hope he gets a good stint somewhere in the next life.
Happy rebirth, dear Ron Glass.
Among the kindest and gentlest souls to have walked this earth with us.https://t.co/rF1bDPxeRa
— Adam Baldwin (@AdamBaldwin) November 26, 2016
Ron Glass was one of the greatest actors to work with. His laugh was beyond infectious and his generosity was ever present. #ripronglass
— alan tudyk (@AlanTudyk) November 26, 2016
"Shepard, don't move."
"Won't go far."
We love you, Ron Glass. Don't go far. https://t.co/BAzpzTBLLv
— Nathan Fillion (@NathanFillion) November 26, 2016
He got there with grace, humor & enormous heart. He was, among so many other things, my Shepherd. Raise, appropriately, a glass. Rest, Ron. pic.twitter.com/yzPly7TmgE
— Joss Whedon (@joss) November 26, 2016
This is me acting like an idiot just so I could hear Ron Glass laugh.
He was the kind of person… https://t.co/2ioYNHMBzz
— Jewel Staite (@JewelStaite) November 26, 2016
In case you weren’t following along from home, this is what we got up to here in this slightly irregular week:
- On Monday (as ever) it wasn’t aliens
- On Tuesday I talked about Canada’s commitment to stopping fake news
- On Wednesday I talked about Tesla’s SolarCity purchase
- On Friday, I talked about the “Holiday Hole” the folks at Cards Against Humanity are digging, and
- On Saturday, Elle talked about the warm and fuzzy feeling of so-called “spite activism”
If you missed any of them, go on and check them out. I’ll wait here.
Best of the Rest
- No Man’s Sky got some long-awaited gameplay updates
- The New Horizons team revealed what they think is going on under Pluto’s surface
- New analysis suggests that the doomed ESA Schiaparelli lander may have thought it was below ground (which is why it turned off its rockets)
- Someone made an incredibly intricate lego factory for building little paper boxes
- And five years ago today, NASA launched Curiosity toward Mars, where it’s still going strong
That’s all for today folks, thanks for reading! Except for the very *very* occasional tip (we take Venmo now!), I only get paid in my own (and your) enthusiasm, so please like This Week In Tomorrow on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @TWITomorrow, and tell your friends about the site!
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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.