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Space Technology

Space Elevators Face Wobble Problem 244

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the all-part-of-the-ride dept.
NewScientist is reporting that while the strength of the tether has long been considered the main problem in building a space elevator, a new study suggests that a dangerous wobbling problem may also be a serious obstacle. "Previous studies have noted that gravitational tugs from the Moon and Sun, as well as pressure from gusts of solar wind, would shake the tether. That could potentially make it veer into space traffic, including satellites and bits of space debris. A collision could cut the tether and wreck the space elevator."
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Space Elevators Face Wobble Problem

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  • by kcbanner (929309) * on Friday March 28, 2008 @03:55PM (#22898786) Homepage Journal

    A collision could cut the tether and wreck the space elevator.
    Not to mention hurling whomever/whatever is the payload into space with the force of the largest man-made slingshot.
    • Not to mention hurling whomever/whatever is the payload into space with the force of the largest man-made slingshot.

      Sounds like something I remember seeing as a kid. So the passengers either end up on a planet very much like Earth, but where they're tiny and everyone else is a giant, or they end up lost on an alien planet with a mechanical sounding robot and stow-away agent who's scared of everything (including work).
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by CRCulver (715279)

      Not to mention hurling whomever/whatever is the payload into space with the force of the largest man-made slingshot...

      This idea appears in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars [amazon.com] when an elevator is cut and the asteroid at the far terminus of the space elevator is flung out towards the orbit of Jupiter.

  • by CaptainPatent (1087643) on Friday March 28, 2008 @03:55PM (#22898788) Journal
    Because escalators don't break... they just become stairs.
    • by eln (21727) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:03PM (#22898922) Homepage
      A broken space escalator would become a stairway to heaven, and if Led Zeppelin has taught us anything, it's that a Stairway to Heaven doesn't make any damn sense at all unless you're already so high you're practically in space already.
      • by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:16PM (#22899136) Homepage
        if Led Zeppelin has taught us anything, it's that a Stairway to Heaven doesn't make any damn sense at all unless you're already so high you're practically in space already.

        Well it makes perfect sense to me!
      • Any articles about space elevators should be part of the "Sci-Fi" or "humor" section. Space elevators make as much sense as trans-continental conveyor belts.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by mweather (1089505)
          Or a tunnel from England to France.
          • by sgage (109086)
            Yes, after all, since making a difficult-ish long tunnel was achieved, ANYTHING AT ALL is possible and feasible.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by yog (19073) *
          If men were meant to fly, they'd have wings.

          One man's nonsense is another man's dream. Why dismiss something that's considered technically feasible? NASA scientists are taking it seriously [nasa.gov], too.

          Once this structure has been built, and a few satellites loaded into orbit, it will begin to make sense even to the extreme skeptics. It would be nearly silent in operation, safer than riding a missile into orbit, and much cheaper once the initial construction cost is covered.

          The materials are almost the
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by sgage (109086)
            What's lacking is the unobtainium.

            Your post is a statement of religious belief. This WILL happen, and that WILL happen. Why? Because you say so?

      • by operagost (62405) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:37PM (#22899432) Homepage Journal
        No Stairway? DENIED!
      • and spellbinding, death spiral to the ground if it stops going up. Gives a new meaning to "vertigo", since you will VERTICALLY GO down on this spin...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tribbin (565963)
      Elevators don't break; they just become spaceships.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Sounds like this is a job for the Tower of Kalidasa [wikipedia.org].
  • You'll end up somewhere very improbable.
  • Why would somebody want to prevent that? Free fall would be the most amazing part of the ride.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Pojut (1027544)
      Once, when I was about 8 years old, I asked my step-dad if jumping off a cliff hurts. His answer?

      "It's not the jumping part that hurts...it's the sudden stop at the end."
  • In good company (Score:3, Interesting)

    by xPsi (851544) * on Friday March 28, 2008 @03:59PM (#22898848)
    Funny that. Another piece of science fiction engineering, Ringworld, is unstable too [wikipedia.org]. Nevertheless, I still think the space elevator is a ponder-worthy pipe dream.
    • by slew (2918) on Friday March 28, 2008 @06:26PM (#22900712)
      Just because it's unstable doesn't mean it's impossible to get working.

      For instance most modern fighter aircraft are aerodynamically unstable, but they still fly. For example, the F16 was deliberatly designed to be unstable (to gain better manuverability). Of course the F16 has a computer control system to make it flyable by humans, but if the computer dies, well, unstable tumble modes ahead... I've also antecdodally heard that some modern bridges and tall-buildings are also not inherently stable (and are actively stabilized by computer control systems).

      But to be honest, I think the engineering of a space elevator is pretty much beyond our forseeable technical ability (material science, control systems, assembly techniques, not to mention project management, risk/return estimation, and financing/underwriting).

      If you think the problems are merely about waiting for technology, just think of the chunnel. It was imagined for a long time, but even after they got all the science and technology and assembly issues under control, the project management, risk/return estimation and financing/underwriting issues managed to kill a few companies before if finally got done.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        This will be very useful in elevator vs elevator combat.
      • by Nyeerrmm (940927)
        The difference between trying to stabilize an aircraft like the F-16 vs. stabilizing a spacecraft in an unstable position is primarily a question of consumables.

        An aircraft's controls are primarily aerodynamic, so you don't have to worry much about the cost of those controls, since its just a bit of electricity. However, for maintaining a spacecrafts center of mass (where reaction wheels and shifting masses won't help), the only modern way to maintain control is with rockets/jets of some sort, with the use
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by clonan (64380)
          Not true....Inside the moons orbit, especially low earth orbit to geo-sync you can use reaction-less propulsion.

          Specifically if you have a tether you can feed a charge onto it and it will either get pulled in or pushed out by the earths magnetic field.

          This may be useful for stabilizing portions of the tether and controlling any vibrations that develop.
  • by genesus (1049556) <john@johntennyson.com> on Friday March 28, 2008 @03:59PM (#22898860)
    During a speech he once gave, someone in the audience asked Arthur C. Clarke when the space elevator would become a reality.

    "Clarke answered, 'Probably about 50 years after everybody quits laughing,'" related Pearson. "He's got a point. Once you stop dismissing something as unattainable, then you start working on its development. This is exciting!"

    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2000/ast07sep_1.htm [nasa.gov]
    • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:31PM (#22899366)
      "I predict flying cars by year 2000^h^h^h^h2010^h^h^h^h2020". Prediction is the easy bit. Actually engineering a flying car or space elevator or whatever is the hard bit. There are a lot of very significant obstacles to overcome.

      The old well worn bridge analogy: In theory it's pretty easy to built a bridge, but you need to only look at the Tacoma Narrows bridge to see that engineering a viable structure takes a bit more than str theory is prettSame deal with a space elevator. The theory is pretty straightforward, but the actual engineering to make a reliable structure is something else.

    • by StikyPad (445176)
      Holy space bees, the space elevator is heading straight for our space truck! If we don't get some space between it and us, we're gonna be turned into space bloats! Man, it's space times like this I wish I'd sprung for those space engines instead of relying on space-slings. Buckle your space belts!
  • by The Ancients (626689) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:00PM (#22898868) Homepage

    any who has ever seen cartoons as a kid would know this :p

  • Space Elevators are not simple to build!
    I never saw that one coming!
  • by Black Art (3335) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:00PM (#22898886)
    I would be more concerned about the space elevator becoming a giant van degraff generator. Something that long would present some very interesting problems. Huge frikin lightning rod might be a better description.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Naughty Bob (1004174) *
      It would be cool if we could harvest that built up charge to help run the damn thing.
      • They tried to do that once and failed [nasa.gov], so they're skittish about the whole current carrying tether thing.

        In order to make a power available from a space elevator you'd need superconductors. Even on a relatively short (12.5 mile) cable they got 3500 volts@amp.

        Actually on second thought, I'm not sure they would get ANY current to flow. The reason current flows is because the conductor is traveling with respect to the magnetic field. That probably doesn't apply to a stationary space elevator. A skyhook, or
        • Dude, you didn't even read your own link. You said "Actually on second thought, I'm not sure they would get ANY current to flow." The link said-

          ...the observed dynamo current grew at the predicted rate...

          It failed because the materials sucked. I can see the headline now- 'Revolutionary Idea fails at first attempt, scientists return home to re-train'.

          I'm not saying that space elevators are going to cut it one day, but that current is usable for sure, if only to make the fucker glow, or to discourage the squ

    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by geekoid (135745)
      Lighting rods repel lighting, not draw it.
      • by Changa_MC (827317)

        Lighting rods repel lighting, not draw it.
        Nope, sorry. Lightning Rods [wikipedia.org] attract electrical current, thereby drawing it away from other structures that would be damaged by it.

        This is why wooden lightning rods are a bad idea, kids.

        • by JesseMcDonald (536341) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:46PM (#22899550) Homepage

          Lighting rods repel lighting, not draw it.

          Nope, sorry. Lightning Rods attract electrical current, thereby drawing it away from other structures that would be damaged by it.

          They do both. As the storm builds up the lightning rods help to diffuse the charge. This is one reason why they have sharp ends; electrons leave a charged conductor more readily at points of higher curvature. The pathway thus created then becomes the preferred (low-resistance) route to ground in the event of an actual lightning strike.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by ma1wrbu5tr (1066262)
        Did ya go to one of those "intelligent design" science classes?
  • by TheCoders (955280) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:04PM (#22898948) Homepage
    I don't think anybody really thought building a space elevator would be as simple as reeling out some cable and strapping on a cabin. There are a million complications, even before we get to solar winds or tidal pulls. How about something as simple as airplane traffic? Birds? Squirrels, for goodness sake!?

    Plus a million things we haven't thought of, and won't think of until the product is built. When train tracks were first laid down, they were too close together, because nobody had heard of the Bernoulli effect. Trains were getting slammed against each-other by their own created air pressure. What did people do? They learned from it, and moved the tracks further apart. We take trains for granted, but they were not without their technological hurdles to overcome.

    Of course something like a space elevator is not an easy accomplishment. Does that mean we shouldn't try?

    What do you think?
    • by Gat0r30y (957941) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:19PM (#22899180) Homepage Journal

      Of course something like a space elevator is not an easy accomplishment. Does that mean we shouldn't try?
      I think we should and probably will at least give it a shot. Also, as you note, there are a LOT of complications. Complications I look forward to seeing innovative and cool solutions to. First and foremost though, we gotta get the material engineering issue solved, until we have a material which can withstand the forces involved, were stuck with regular elevators. Nanotubes look promising, and this gives us an excuse to invest in the research.
    • by nguy (1207026)
      Squirrels, for goodness sake!?

      Space squirrels? Are they at least mean space squirrels? With laser beams on their heads?
    • Of course something like a space elevator is not an easy accomplishment. Does that mean we shouldn't try?

      What Space Elevator proponents always overlook is that the Miracle Material (cue angelic singing) that makes it possible also drastically improves the cost of POR[tm] (Plain Ol' Rockets). That'll make the space elevator make even less sense if the material was that cheap and plentiful.

      And no, we shouldn't even try unless the engineering gets a lot more feasible.

  • You really mean to tell me this batshit crazy idea that requires massive advances in materials science even to become technically feasible might just possibly not be entirely practical?? Say it ain't so.
  • IANASEE (...Space Elevator Engineer). But it would seem that the solution to this particular issue would be multiple end-points in space. It would dampen the wobble, and also provide a degree of redundancy...
  • by iamlucky13 (795185) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:07PM (#22898998)

    .But Perek says that may not be enough. "Previous proposals for a passive tether controlled from the ground do not seem stable to me," he told New Scientist. Anders Jorgensen of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, US, who has previously studied the problem, agrees that stability is a concern for space elevators. But he says the new paper does not provide a quantitative analysis of the issue, and is not convinced that thrusters would be needed to stabilize the cables.

    Basically, the problem has been noted before this Perek guy's paper, but not studied in any detail. Perek reiterates and perhaps expands upon the concern, but doesn't do any analysis to establish the actual likelihood of a problem. It's basically an opinion.

    Atmospheric oscillations should be extremely well damped by drag. Oscillations due to gravity from the sun and moon may be a greater concern, because there is no drag, although including conductive paths in the cable may allow the earth's magnetic field to suitably damp the oscillations.

    An IEEE article on the topic discussed the related issue of harmonics. If these oscillations propogate through the cable at a rate that syncs up well with the rotation of the earth, gravity of either the moon or sun may amplify them. The tensile component can be tuned by adjusted the mass and tensile stiffness of the cable, and even better, the mass of the counterweight, allowing you to tune it by changing the tension, like an incredibly huge guitar string. The will also be a pendulum like motion due to the fact that the earth is on a tilted axis. This seems to be the concern discussed in the article.

    I personally am not at all convinced that oscillation of the cable alone (waves) is a problem due to it's low density, but oscillation of the combined cable and counterweight (pendulum) may be. If so, thrusters on the counterweight are much simpler to attach and refuel than they would be at intermediate altitudes on the cable.

    • allowing you to tune it by changing the tension, like an incredibly huge guitar string

      Great. So now instead of wobble we have to worry about hiss and distortion!

      Not to mention that every dork who strolls by will be trying to pluck out a tune on it. The base station will need an incredibly huge "NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN" sign.

  • wreck the elevator (Score:5, Insightful)

    by alta (1263) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:09PM (#22899032) Homepage Journal
    Looking at the sheer size of this, I'd say that 'wreck the elevator' is a major understatement. Look at all the other stuff that would be wrecked. I remember reading a Ben Bova book a while back where terrorists sabotaged an elevator. They went to the top and severed the connection to the counterweight. The rest of the thing toppled like a flimsy tree, wrapping itself 1/2 way around the earth. Yeah, scifi, but it could happen.
    • by argent (18001)
      They went to the top and severed the connection to the counterweight. The rest of the thing toppled like a flimsy tree, wrapping itself 1/2 way around the earth.

      It was even more spectacular when Kim Stanley Robinson did it to Mars.
    • by ArsonSmith (13997)
      actually no, Just like how the WTC Towers didn't fall over they collapsed on them selves. The cable would just turn into a giant mount of cable, probably at the bottom of the sea.
      • by alta (1263) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:28PM (#22899308) Homepage Journal
        Actually, no. The rotation of the earth would cause the ribbon to wrap around the earth in an easterly direction. To refute myself as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator#In_the_event_of_failure [wikipedia.org] says that most of it would burn up on re-entry and that which doesn't will have less force than a piece of paper. So, please disregard my statements, but it sounded impressive the first time I said it ;)
        • by Otter (3800)
          Wouldn't you get a whip-cracking effect at the end of the tether? And it seems like the "would burn up" and the "terminal velocity would be really slow" contradict.
          • by Yetihehe (971185)
            Pieces above or in upper atmosphere would burn. Pieces which are near ground or survive reentry would just fall like paper. You wouldn't get whip cracking effect, for this last fragment of a tether should be travelling up.
        • by wattrlz (1162603)
          Yeah, but think of what all that CO2 would do to the global climate.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by TooMuchToDo (882796)
            *looks on Terrapass website for "In the event of destruction of your space elevator" carbon offset*
        • So, please disregard my statements, but it sounded impressive the first time I said it ;)

          Hey, somebody has to play this role every time a space elevator article gets posted, and they get modded all the way up.

          We typically point them to Wikipedia and write them off as 'the new guy'. Hey, wait a second!
        • by merreborn (853723) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:59PM (#22899726) Journal

          Actually, no. The rotation of the earth would cause the ribbon to wrap around the earth in an easterly direction
          If what you propose were true, a pin balanced on its end would always fall over to the east as well, as would a perfectly symmetrical tree, or a falling skyscraper.

          They don't, because all these things, a space elevator included, travel through space at the same speed as the earth's rotation. Why would it suddenly, magically lose that momentum, were it severed from its counterweight?
          • by sconeu (64226)
            Because the center of gravity would no longer be at GEO. At that point, the CG is moving too slow to maintain "orbit" and will fall.
          • If what you propose were true, a pin balanced on its end would always fall over to the east as well, as would a perfectly symmetrical tree, or a falling skyscraper.

            Go ahead...balance a pin on its end. If you can do that, it will be affected far more by breezes in the room than by the earths rotation.
            A perfectly symmetrical tree? No such thing.
            Falling skyscraper? Again, no such thing as a perfectly symmetrical collapse.

            The far end of the space elevator is in fact moving quite a bit faster than the ancho
          • by Yetihehe (971185)
            It would be just like dancer retracting arms. Tether would KEEP it's angular momentum, but would be closer to center of rotation, so would be moving faster. Earth rotates in direction of east, so tether would also go east (till atmospheric effects kicked in and it would burn in upper atmosphere and lower sections (about 50km) would just fall).
          • by Fëanáro (130986) on Friday March 28, 2008 @06:04PM (#22900494)

            Actually, no. The rotation of the earth would cause the ribbon to wrap around the earth in an easterly direction
            If what you propose were true, a pin balanced on its end would always fall over to the east as well, as would a perfectly symmetrical tree, or a falling skyscraper.
            There is no tipping or balancing involved here

            The top of an intact space elevator in orbit would move eastwards, just like the ground under it does.
            The top would move at a much greater speed than the ground, since it is further from the center of the earth and has to cover a greater distance for a full circle.

            As any part of this elevator falls towards earth, it would keep its greater eastward speed and therefore overtake its anchor point quickly.

          • Insightful? (Score:3, Informative)

            by dreamchaser (49529)
            How is someone who shows a total lack of understanding of basic physics 'Insightful'? As the cable gets closer to the Earth it speeds up relative to the surface. It's called conservation of angular momentum. It will indeed wrap around half the planet, though much of it will probably burn up in the atmosphere on it's way down.
        • by gfody (514448)
          If Japanese Anime has any basis in reality I would expect the cable to become super-heated on the way back and pass completely through our planet, whip the base station through the center of the earth and out into space with the cable following. Then, moments after, the entire planet splits in half.. the two halves drift away from each other slowly exposing the earth's core which violently explodes, engulfing the two halves of earth and finally disappearing completely into a gaseous haze.
  • by Lucas123 (935744) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:10PM (#22899046) Homepage
    getting stuck in an elevator in a NYC skyscraper, imagine a brownout halfway between here and the moon.
  • From the reference point of the earth, a space elevator will stay above its base on earth, co-rotating with it and vibrating somewhat(we hope). The problem is that satellites orbit the earth and gradually sweep across all earth spots allowed by their inclination (in general). Thus, given long enough, satellites (other than geo-sync ones) may cross the elevator.

    A practical elevator is going to need a lot of armor to protect it from debris for a considerable portion of the low earth orbital space.

    • That's no longer considered a critical problem. First, everything that's in orbit and over 10 cm in size is already being tracked, and they're working on bringing that down to 1 cm. Therefore, if it's know what's on a collision course with the ribbon in advance, it's possible to simply move the ribbon out of the way in advance by moving the anchor at its base. One of the things that makes this approach feasible if the fact that most satellites and orbital debris is at 500-1700 km altitude -- a small fractio
  • Couldn't we just hook up adjustable tuned mass dampers every few hundred meters? It works for cars and skyscrapers.
    • by Kohath (38547)
      Too heavy.
    • by FridayBob (619244)
      Nope. That would weigh it down too much. The whole concept is only possible because, even if it's many thousands of kilometers long, a carbon-nanotube tether is still strong enough to support its own weight. Sure, it will be possible for it to support a few such counterweights if necessary -- a few more as extra tethers are added for strength -- but never as many as you suggest.
  • Just make it out of Scrith, that should be strong enough to withstand debris impacts.
  • Conservation of energy and momentum would require the orbital "head-end" to slow down as a elevator ascends. This is easy to see with a self-propelled payload.

    What is less clear is how eneregy and momentum would be recovered on a payload descent. Perhaps balanced by an ascending load on pulleys.

  • by MrSteveSD (801820) on Friday March 28, 2008 @04:39PM (#22899454)
    is surely the biggest problem :)
  • The resonate frequency of the 'wobble' would be extremely low. Therefore, it would be possibly be imperceptible without the use of instrumentation. However, over time this resonance may build up over time, requiring an extremely small amount of thrust to correct. The (cycle) period would be in days and depending on design, harmonic and overtone activity would be lower than the fundamental by a considerable amount, at least six dB an octave. (Which would be very serious if only odd harmonics were produced.;)
  • "Yo, I was like going up in da space elevator with my hommies and E-lek-tronic Dawg when the whole thing started goin' all Wibbly Wobbly like. I pulled out my Sa-honic Screwdriv'ah an dun popped a sonic cap it the monofiliment resonator. After that is was all like that bitch Sarah Jane, smooth as her backside was 30 years ago when she was still hawt, ya' know what I mean G? "

  • This is like worrying now about what to wear on your 250th birthday. We won't see space elevators in my lifetime, in your lifetime, or in the lifetime of your grandchildren. We can't even come close to constructing even a tiny fraction of a percent of the material of the required strength for a space elevator. A bit of wobble is neither here nor there. And when we do have the technology to make such material in bulk, we'll have already figured out countless solutions to the problem of wobble and most humans
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by IdeaMan (216340)
      Not true, if we alter some of your basic premises.

      #1> You don't have to go all the way to orbit.
      There are several ways to split this up. Skyhooks [wikipedia.org], Partial elevators etc. The cool part about these are that they aren't nearly as vulnerable to terrorists due to their high altitude.

      #2> The space elevator can be active. See Space Fountain [wikipedia.org]
      • On the one hand, I find the alternatives you point out even more implausible, especially the Hyde design space fountain. On the other hand, those wikipedia links connect to a fun little network of wacky science fiction ideas that I hadn't heard of before, and for that, I thank you heartily.
  • launch loops (Score:5, Informative)

    by nguy (1207026) on Friday March 28, 2008 @05:07PM (#22899834)
    It seems to me that, at this point, launch loops [wikipedia.org] are a much more realistic and practical choice for a launch structure than space elevators.

    Unlike space eleveators, launch loops require no exotic materials (just iron and steel), are essentially self-erecting, are anchored, and accelerate people quickly through the radiation belt.

    We could probably build a launch loop in a decade or two, if we embarked on an Apollo-like program.
    • by IdeaMan (216340)
      Nice. I'd forgotten about those.

      I wonder if you could use a miniature version of that to transport goods. We could sort of work up to space capability: use small ones to throw & catch cargo across increasingly long distances. You could reduce drag using Hydrogen Injection [islandone.org].

      Come to think of it, could you use a mini space fountain to enable VTOL in your back yard? Entry would be near vertical, and the abort scenario would be for the computer to execute an immediate pull-up in case of latch-on failure t
  • by curmudgeon99 (1040054) on Friday March 28, 2008 @05:08PM (#22899842)

    The Stealth Nighthawk fighter could not be controlled by a human, it is so aerodynamically unstable. But with the help of some good software, that plane flies. The same is true of the B-2 Batwing bomber, it only flies because a computer stabilizes it.

    There will be controllable vanes (for the atmosphere) and thrusters (for space) to control the car's behavior. The wobble would be predictable and all the traffic would be required to avoid it, in the same way power boats are required to steer around sailboat.

  • by GeneralEmergency (240687) on Friday March 28, 2008 @05:54PM (#22900412) Journal

    ...is having to listen to bad instrumental versions of "The Girl From Ipanema" for three days straight.
  • They should try bracing the structure with these. [wikipedia.org] As I understand it, they wobble but do not fall down.
  • Euler think they would have thought about that. I've heard it's all the mode these days.
  • So then? (Score:3, Funny)

    by PPH (736903) on Friday March 28, 2008 @07:12PM (#22901094)

    They've solved the elevator music problem?

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