2009-01-31

Taiwan Films 2008

2008 was a landmark year for Taiwanese film, but the success of this past year didn't come from nowhere. Brian Hu reports in Asia Pacific Arts:

Years ago, 'support local films' was a flimsy government slogan akin to propaganda. Now, 'support local films' is something movie fans tell each other, pumping ticket sales and curbing piracy. As a result, Cape No. 7 pulled in over US$7 million in Taipei alone, while other films like Orz Boyz and The Legend of Formosa in 1895 rode Cape No. 7's momentum to impressive box office.

But Taiwan's Cape fever monopolized the discourse on Taiwanese cinema, making it seem that Taiwanese cinema should be split into pre-Cape and post-Cape eras. The film was heralded as such a revolution that most forgot that Taiwanese cinema in 2008 was not just a sudden shock to the system, but that it followed 2007, 2006, 2005, etc, emerging out of past aesthetic and thematic trends, and a result of various government policies, financing patterns, and phenomena of transnational distribution.


Hu then offers his own Top Ten films for the year. Here, for inclusion on your Netflix lists and your subsequent future enjoyment, are the films.

1. Drifting Flowers 漂浪青春
director: Zero Chou 周美玲

2. Candy Rain 花吃了那女孩
director: Chen Hung-I 陳宏一

3. Orz Boyz 冏男孩
director: Yang Ya-che 楊雅喆

4. Winds of September 九降風
director: Tom Lin Shu-yu 林書宇

5. Cape No. 7 海角七號
director: Wei Te-sheng 魏德聖

6. Parking 停車
director: Chung Mong-hong 鍾孟宏

7. God Man Dog 流浪神狗人
director: Singing Chen 陳芯宜

8. Soul of a Demon 蝴蝶
director: Chang Tso-chi 張作驥

9. What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?! 情非得已之生存之道
director: Doze Niu 鈕承澤

10. Miao Miao 渺渺
director: Cheng Hsiao-tse 程孝澤


The complete article, with excellent discussion of each film, appears at the site of
Asia Pacific Arts published by UCLA.

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2009-01-28

How Taiwan spawned Pacific civilisation


Ocean-going peoples first established settlements in Taiwan over 6,000 years ago. In subsequent centuries, their descendants established human society throughout Indonesia, the Philippines, and the far-flung islands of the Pacific. New research into this odyssey of the human species confirms the role of Taiwan as an important cradle of world civilisation.

From the full report at Science Daily:
New research into language evolution suggests most Pacific populations originated in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Scientists at The University of Auckland have used sophisticated computer analyses on vocabulary from 400 Austronesian languages to uncover how the Pacific was settled.
. . . .
The Austronesians arose in Taiwan around 5,200 years ago. Before entering the Philippines, they paused for around a thousand years, and then spread rapidly across the 7,000km from the Philippines to Polynesia in less than one thousand years. After settling Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the Austronesians paused again for another thousand years, before finally spreading further into Polynesia eventually reaching as far as New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.
"We can link these expansion pulses to the development of new technology, such as better canoes and social techniques to deal with the great distances between islands in Polynesia," says Research Fellow Simon Greenhill. "Using these new technologies the Austronesians and Polynesians were able to rapidly spread through the Pacific in one of the greatest human migrations ever. This suggests that technological advances have played a major role in the spread of people throughout the world."
A more journalistic treatment of the story appeared earlier this week in the Taipei Times.

Not all the kids left the nest 7,000 years ago, of course. The descendants of Taiwan's original inhabitants still live here. A good introduction to their culture may be found on the Internet courtesy of the Yang-Grivot Collection.
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2009-01-21

Obama's Speech Censored in China

See what China's citizens saw. President Barack Obama's inauguration speech is being broadcast live on CCTV. He mentions Americans who 'faced down fascism and communism.' The translation (woman's voice) renders his words in Mandarin. The translation audio is abruptly cut off and the volume for Obama's speech is muted. A studio reporter appears on-screen and hastily tosses a question to her unprepared colleague.

The CCTV video capture is posted on Taiwan YouTube.

BBC's Michael Bristow reports on the Chinese government's censorship of yesterday's speech:

In his inauguration address, President Obama said: "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions."

That entire passage was retained for an English-language version of the speech that appeared on the website of state-run Xinhua news agency. But in the Chinese-language version, the word "communism" was taken out.

President Obama's comments addressed to world leaders who "blame their society's ills on the West" also fell foul of the censor's red pen. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history," the president said.

Once again, Xinhua included the passage in full in its English version, but the sentence was taken out of the Chinese translation.

Bristow's full report appears at the BBC site. James Reynolds, BBC's Beijing correspondent, offers additional comments in his blog.

Obama's complete statement, in each case:
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.
_

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
In another development, a new law in the eastern Chinese city of Xuzhou attempts to crack down on a form of citizen vigilantism that exposes corrupt officials.

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Obama's Inauguration Address

Barack Obama has been sworn into office as America's 44th president.

The following is the full text of his inauguration address. (Source: White House blog; headings mine.)


My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you've bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.

So it has been; so it must be with this generation of Americans.

Crisis and Unity

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many -- and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Work to be done

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

Safety and Ideals

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man -- a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.

And so, to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken -- you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the role that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who at this very hour patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

We honor them not only because they are the guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service -- a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.

Challenges and Values

And yet at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At the moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people:

Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].

America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

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2009-01-16

Andrew Wyeth

The celebrated painter Andrew Wyeth died early today in his sleep at age 91. Wyeth's austere images of rustic life have long made him one of America's best known twentieth-century artists. The Associated Press reports that the Philadelphia Museum of Art attracted more than 175,000 visitors to its Wyeth retrospective in 2006, making the draw 'the highest-ever attendance at the museum for a living artist.' Chadds Ford, the artist's residence in Pennsylvania, is also home to the Brandywine River Museum, a converted mill that displays many Wyeth family paintings. In 2007 Wyeth was awarded his country's National Medal of Arts.

Michael Kimmelman. 'Andrew Wyeth, Painter, Dies at 91.'
New York Times, 2009.01.16

Associated Press. 'Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World painter, dies at 91.'
Wall Street Journal, 2009.01.16

Terry Teachout. 'Weighing Andrew Wyeth.'
Wall Street Journal, 2009.01.16

Larry Rochter. 'For Wyeth, Both Praise and Doubt.'
New York Times, 2009.01.16

John Wilmerding. 'Wyeth's White Wonder: Snow Hill'
Wall Street Journal, 2009.01.23

Slide show. 'A Populist's Legacy.'
New York Times, 2009.01.16


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2009-01-10

High Quality Audio, and Apple

Lossless download audio is finally here. HDtracks specializes in such formats. The HDtracks site offers downloads in CD-quality AIFF and FLAC formats. Audio is also available in the not-so-high-end-but-better-than-the usual 320 kbps MP3 format. The universal compatibility of the latter enables the audio to be played on all devices: portable music players, computers, home music servers. Files in the lossless FLAC format are now increasingly available as well at The Classical Shop, Linn Records, and DG online stores. The FLAC format is high-resolution and captures all the audio information from a CD.

iPod users are stuck for now with the fact that the device, for all its design innovation, wasn't invented for audiophiles. Scott Foglesong of the San Francisco Examiner offers advice for the Apple-dependent (the links are his):

There is really very little reason not to buy a lossless or uncompressed file in preference to an mp3, unless download speeds or storage space remain a concern for you.

One word here about the popular FLAC format and Macintosh users: iTunes doesn't play FLAC natively so you can't just import the files into iTunes and hit the Play button. Drat.

However, you have a number of options for dealing with the issue.

  • You can use a player which understands FLAC natively; consider the popular open-source VLC.
  • You can add a FLAC codec to QuickTime and play the FLAC files as QuickTime movies. There's a little program called Fluke that can help you with that.
  • You can covert the FLAC files to Apple Lossless or uncompressed files in AIFF or WAV format.

Of these options, personally I prefer the last. A number of tools exist for that purpose; I use the open-source XLD, which renders the process extremely simple; you right-click on any set of FLAC files you wish to convert, use the "Open With..." command to pick XLD, and let it do its thing. (Set the file output format, and the destination, in the Preferences.) Import the resultant files into iTunes, and you're set.

And, if you're a command-line jockey, XLD comes in a console version, and true to its open-source nature, the source code is included in the download package should you care to make your own refinements.


The standard format for most items in the iTunes Store now is the recently introduced iTunes Plus format. The Plus format makes the 256 bit rate standard, which is not as good as the 320 MP3s and far short of FLAC but still twice the sampling rate of Apple's earlier 'highest quality' format. The new Plus format also drops DRM (Digital Rights Management) encoding, which was a bad move from the start. Backpedaling on DRM gives iTunes Plus files universal compatibility: the file can be played on devices other than iPod and with software other than iTunes.

What about those of us who have been filling our portable players with files in the (sonically inferior, restricted use) older format? Foglesong, an Apple enthusiast, puts a happy face on the situation by telling us that these files can now be upgraded at the iTunes Store "for a very reasonable 30 cents per track." Well, my iPod Classic has 10,426 tracks in the old format. Replacing those files at 30 cents each comes to a somewhat less reasonable US$3,127.80. Apple customers serious enough about music to have already filled their iPods will likely be living with the limitations of the old format a while longer.

But have you ever wondered why Apple can't call a track a track? I'm constantly disconcerted by iTunes, as it otherwise goes through its paces so crisply, telling me my Bruckner symphonies CD has four 'songs' on it. Sure it does, iTunes... and Bach's B-minor Mass is a nice little ditty. Critics of Apple design complain that the products too often cross the line between user-friendly and user-patronizing. In this case they have a point. The least Apple could do is give users a choice about this. They could put a checkbox under 'Preferences' in the iTunes menu. Check one: 'Call a track a track' and 'Treat me like a mouth breather.' Check one or the other, and the program takes it from there.

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2009-01-08

Tyzen Hsiao recognized

Composer Tyzen Hsiao was awarded Taiwan's 28th National Cultural Award yesterday by the Executive Yuan. The composer, who now resides in Los Angeles, has made a trip back to Taiwan to receive the award. An article by Luis Yu provides more welcome news: Hsiao's life will soon be the subject of a new documentary.

Hsiao's music features exquisitely lyrical melodies threaded through lush, almost decadent harmonies. Taiwanese folk music, Presbyterian hymnody and the art music of at least a dozen countries have been absorbed by the composer to create an expressive voice that is uniquely his.

Any return by Hsiao to Taiwan is the occasion of a number of celebratory performances. Conductor Apo Ching-Hsin Hsu conducted musicians from NTNU at the awards ceremony on Wednesday. Earlier this evening (Thursday) I attended a fine chamber music concert at NTNU. A highlight was the poetic piano artistry of Lina Yeh, who has been closely associated with Hsiao's music for a number of years. Tomorrow, January 9 Friday night 18:00 (6:00 pm), a concert of Hsiao's art songs will be presented in Guandu. The composer will be present. If you've never met this man, rest assured: he radiates good energy, just like his music. I encourage you to catch the performance if you can.

Details about Tyzen Hsiao appear at Wikipedia.

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2009-01-05

100 Years of Colour Photography

2009 marks the 100th anniversary of colour photography. Today, as new technologies carry the innovation into realms unimaginable in 1909, Dushko Petrovich of the Boston Globe offers a lyrical eulogy for the colour print.

Princeton University Press is marking this centennial with a beautifully illustrated book. The Dawn of the Color Photograph is a handsome document full of lush and memorable images. Most of us still picture 1909 exclusively in black and white, so it's a revelation to peer back 100 years and see such eerily bright hues. French soldiers - dressed inadvisably in red, white, and blue - carve trenches through the verdant countryside; members of the Indian aristocracy, though recently stripped of power, still gather for a portrait wrapped in a defiant regalia of lavender, gold, maroon, and orange. Back in its heyday, the Moulin Rouge is pictured truly red. The most poignant autochromes - the really haunting ones - are those where the richness of color fixes people whose ways of life are unwittingly on the verge of extinction: Farmers, shepherds, and weavers all stand still as their tools and costumes enter the afterlife through a revolutionary new medium.

To reflect on the past invites us to ponder the state of the medium in our own time.

As an object, the color print has finally been perfected. And yet, the 100th anniversary of Kahn's project isn't so much a triumphant moment as an elegiac one. Like the shepherds, the color print has nearly vanished.

. . . .

Printing is still just as easy and cheap as it ever was, but given the option, we now prefer to save - or upload - instead. That tells us something about our appetite for convenience, but even more about what we want from photographs in the first place. The object itself, no matter how crisp and permanent, how lush or mysterious, turns out to matter less than our ability to capture, store, and share an image. Without the print, photography's magical power - to freeze a moment in time - is still ours. In fact, although we continue to think of the photograph as a physical thing, we are finding out that it better serves our needs without being printed.

Petrovich then considers what we have lost in the transition as well as what we have gained. I wouldn't think of posting excerpts of this lyrical contemplation, and happily refer readers to the Globe article.


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2009-01-04

Five Years of Spirit and Opportunity


Opportunity looks back at Victoria Crater
(2008.11.20 Nasa)

Nasa's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, celebrate their fifth year on the surface of the Red Planet this month. Spirit landed on 2004 January 4. Opportunity landed on the opposite side of the planet on January 25. The machines, for their part, pay little heed to our calendar. Their schedules are arranged in sols, a sol being one Martian day.

The most remarkable thing about this milestone is that the rovers were designed to work for only three months. Their willingness to keep going long past expectations has yielded a wealth of new discoveries. Today scientists know much more about geological and weather processes on the planet and the conditions that exist at its surface. This information will be of enormous value in planning future visits to the planet by human beings.

Four weeks ago Spirit and Opportunity emerged from a period of radio silence associated with solar conjuction. During a solar conjuction the sun stands between Earth and Mars, making it impossible for mission controllers to contact the rovers. The dutiful machines stil worked on assignments. Spirit took measurements of atmospheric dust. Opportunity conducted atmospheric studies and collected chemical information about a rock.

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Nasa and JPL: Mars Exploration Rover Mission Home Page

Space.com - Amazing Mars Discoveries in 2008

Space.com - Fourth Anniversary of Spirit and Opportunity

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