5 Intriguing Things: Monday, 12/16

A new rover on the Moon, Theorizing the Web, unstable orbits, oral histories of craft, and a phone-answering competition

1. China landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the moon. If you're under the age of 37, this is the first time in your life that photos are being sent back from the surface of our satellite

"The 1-ton Chang'e 3 lander relied on auto-control for its descent to the moon and became the first spacecraft to soft-land on the lunar surface since the former Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976.

The lander hovered some 300 feet (100 meters) altitude above the lunar landscape as it scanned for a safe and sound landing point. The vehicle then throttled down its engine, free-falling to a legged landing.

The lander itself carries scientific gear capable of observing the Earth as well as other celestial objects and is designed to serve for 12 months."


2. If you think seriously about the web, you may want to present at or attend Cyborgology's Theorizing the Web conference.

"We are looking for contributions that advance clear theoretical arguments; represent a diverse range of perspectives; embrace accessibility by demystifying jargon rather than using it as a crutch; and which, importantly, appeal to concerns of power, social (in)equality, and justice—themes that will also be emphasized in a keynote panel on race and social media."


3. Turns out the planets' orbits may be less stable than we residents of Earth have thought since we noticed we  were circling the sun

"'The terrestrial planets, they are not totally stable,' Morbidelli says. That instantly captures my attention: Earth is one of the four terrestrial planets. 'Mercury is on the edge of the instability, and it could go nuts, start to encounter Venus, then the orbits of Venus and the Earth could become unstable themselves.' From there, Venus could collide with Earth, or Earth could go careening off on a totally new orbit, sterilizing the planet. The odds are not great, but they’re not all that small either—about 1 percent over the next few billion years.

I question Morbidelli to make sure I’m understating him correctly. A 1 percent chance of disaster is surprisingly high odds in the cosmic-doomsday business. He sets down the phone for a moment and I hear him in the distance, double-checking with someone else in his office ('Do you know the probability that Mercury gets crazy?'). Then he’s back on the line: 'Yes, 1 percent.' And he warns that the subtle divergences that would set the whole cataclysm in motion are like the weather, chaotic and impossible to forecast far in advance. They could be building up right now."


4. A craft, art, and design oral history archive

"These makers come from many fields: studio craft in wood, ceramics, fiber, metal, glass, and mixed media; architectural, industrial, graphic, fashion, and costume design; and sculpture and installation art. Topics discussed include background and education, aesthetics, goals, career choices, and the marketplace. Interviews range in focus and length; some concentrate on specific projects, while others recount life histories."


5. The annual Japanese phone-answering competition has concluded in Sendai.

"For over a half-century, office workers from companies across Japan have gathered each year to battle it out for the title of Japan’s best phone answerer.

The competition, which is dominated by women, is an impressive showcase of feminine politeness and eloquence, but it is also a reminder of the clerical positions Japanese women — often referred to as 'office ladies,' or 'O.L.’s' — still serve in Japanese offices.

This year, a record 12,613 office workers from across Japan sought to compete in the national contest. Sixty finalists made it, all but four of them women.

Now in its 52nd year, the contest has surged in popularity in recent years. That is a puzzling development in a digital age dominated by emails and instant messaging and one in which Japanese women — ever so slowly — are finding more opportunities in the workplace."


Point of Order: I'm starting a new feature of the newsletter. Each edition of 5IT, will include one word from Margaret Nicholson's A Dictionary of American-English Usage, which was published in 1957. This book works as a time machine in so many different ways.   

Yes, words have acquired or lost meanings and connotations and pronunciations over the last 56 years. But an entire way of thinking about language has also been destabilized. Much of the commentary is related to how to speak respectable, classy English. Not just grammatical but correct

Nicholson was once the Head of the Publishing Department of Oxford University Press. Her style is wry, verging on nasty.

For example, here's her gloss on hotel.

hotel. The old-fashioned pronunciation with the h silent (cf. humble, humour, humorous) is certainly doomed, & is not worth fighting for. A hotel usually; but still sometimes, esp. Brit., an hotel

You will come to love her. 

These words will not be counted as one of the five intriguing things. But they will delight you, anyway. We're starting with the As.

aboard. Originally on board or into or onto a ship, & still sometimes so restricted in England; but generally it is now used also of trains & even busses and planes. 

Even busses and planes.


Thanks, Rena and Matthew


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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