Sunday, November 28, 2004

Getting the intergalactic message across is easier said than done

"Scientists recently decoded the first confirmed alien transmission from outer space. It said:

'Please send 5x10 (to the 50th power) atoms of hydrogen to each of the five star systems listed below. Then, add your system to the top of the list and delete the system at the bottom. Transmit copies of this message to 100 different solar systems. If you follow these instructions, you are guaranteed that within 0.25 degrees of a galactic rotation you will receive in return sufficient hydrogen stores to power your own civilization until the universe reaches inevitable maximum entropy. This really works!'"

This is from a quite interesting piece on the present state of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). I'm collecting my hydrogen atoms now.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Trains, Pens, Arabic and Germans...

An entry from Alec Muffett's weblog, where he describes his travails in attempting to learn about Pelikan pens at Selfridges, on Bond Street, London.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Dolphins protect swimmers from shark

Just another entry in a long litany of such reports, going back thousands of years.

Click here for my own close encounter with our cetacean cousin.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

'Original' great ape discovered

'Original' great ape discovered
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

Scientists have unearthed remains of a primate that could have been ancestral not only to humans but to all great apes, including chimps and gorillas.

The partial skeleton of this 13-million-year-old "missing link" was found by palaeontologists working at a dig site near Barcelona in Spain.

Details of the sensational discovery appear in Science magazine.

The new specimen was probably male, a fruit-eater and was slightly smaller than a chimpanzee, researchers say.

It's very impressive because of its completeness
David Begun, University of Toronto
Palaeontologists were just getting started at the dig when a bulldozer churned up a tooth.

Further investigation yielded one of the most complete ape skeletons known from the Miocene Epoch (about 22 to 5.5 million years ago).

Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Miquel Crusafont Institute of Palaeontology in Barcelona and colleagues subsequently found parts of the skull, ribcage, spine, hands and feet, along with other bones.

They have assigned it to an entirely new family and species: Pierolapithecus catalaunicus .

Monkey business

Great apes are thought - on the basis of genetic and other evidence - to have separated from another primate group known as the lesser apes some time between 11 and 16 million years ago (The lesser apes include gibbons and siamang).

It is fascinating, therefore, for a specimen like Pierolapithecus to turn up right in this window.

Scientists think the creature lived after the lesser apes went their own evolutionary way, but before the great apes began their own diversification into different forms such as orang-utans, gorillas, chimps and, of course, humans.

" Pierolapithecus probably is, or is very close to, the last common ancestor of great apes and humans," said Professor Moyà-Solà.

The new ape's ribcage, lower spine and wrist display signs of specialised climbing abilities that link it with modern great apes, say the researchers.

The overall orthograde - or upright - body design of this animal and modern-day great apes is thought to be an adaptation to vertical climbing and suspending the body from branches.

The Miocene ape fossil record is patchy; so finding such a complete fossil from this time period is unprecedented.

"It's very impressive because of its completeness," David Begun, professor of palaeoanthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada, told the BBC News website.

"I think the authors are right that it fills a gap between the first apes to arrive in Europe and the fossil apes that more closely resemble those living today."

Planet of the apes

Other scientists working on fossil apes were delighted by the discovery. But not all were convinced by the conclusions drawn by the Spanish researchers.

Professor Begun considers it unlikely that Pierolapithecus was ancestral to orang-utans.

"I haven't seen the original fossils. But there are four or five important features of the face, in particular, that seem to be closer to African apes," he explained.

"To me the possibility exists that it is already on the evolutionary line to African apes and humans."

Professor David Pilbeam, director of the Peadbody Museum in Cambridge, US, was even more sceptical about the relationship of Pierolapithecus to modern great apes: "To me it's a very long stretch to link this to any of the living apes," he told the BBC News website.

"I think it's unlikely that you would find relatives of the apes that live today in equatorial Africa and Asia up in Europe.

"But it's interesting in that it appears to show some adaptations towards having a trunk that's upright because it's suspending itself [from branches].

"It also has some features that show quadrupedal (four-legged) behaviour. Not quadrupedal in the way chimps or gorillas are, but more in the way that monkeys are - putting their fingers down flat," he explained.

During the Miocene, Earth really was the planet of the apes.

As many as 100 different ape species roamed the Old World, from France to China in Eurasia and from Kenya to Namibia in Africa.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/11/18 19:01:57 GMT


Following in Pioneer's footsteps -- Calls grow for a mission to find out why old space probes are slowing down.

"Does the puzzling behaviour of the Pioneer spacecraft at the edge of the solar system reveal new laws of physics? Space scientists are calling for a deep-space mission to find out. Even if there is no revolutionary physics involved, they say that results could be vital for engineers designing future deep-space probes."

Here's a link to the original article I posted about the anomaly.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Experience Music Project museum opens Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966 on Saturday

Details the travelling exhibit which opens in Seattle this weekend. It also mentions the upcoming Martin Scorsese documentary of Dylan, which will be broadcast on the PBS series 'American Masters' in July.

Famous faces uncork a passion for wine

"Italian winemaker Antonio Terni lured Bob Dylan into a joint wine project at his family's Fattoria Le Terrazze. He even christened one of his wines Visions of J, after Dylan's Visions of Johanna album.

Last year, Terni sent some to the singer and suggested a wine collaboration. The result is a juicy blend of montepulciano and merlot called Planet Waves, made by Terni but endorsed with Dylan's signature."

Many feel that Dylan has been whining for decades.

'60s Rock God Bob Dylan Comes to Harvard - Harvard Independent - Arts

I realize that my blog this week is almost an homage to Bob Dylan -- but what are personal blogs for?

Bob Dylan: The most dangerous man in America?

From the Charlotte Observer:

Is the world spinning backwards?

You heard about the Colorado high school students who planned to perform a (very old) Bob Dylan song at their school talent show, didn't you?

The students, who called their band Coalition of the Willing, wanted to do "Masters of War," the great American songwriter's biting antiwar ballad from his album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." The album came out in 1963.

That's 41 years ago.

It was apparently too controversial for some Boulder folks in 2004. So much so, the Secret Service got involved, fearing the kids might be a threat to President Bush.

When some adults and other students heard the band rehearsing "Masters of War," they called a Boulder talk radio show and said the students were singing a song that threatened the safety of the president. Because it is illegal to threaten the president, the Secret Service was called in to investigate the complaints.

Those high school musicians just wanted to speak their minds about political issues using a classic, time-honored protest song. In America, we're supposed to be able to do that. We could in 1963, when the young Dylan wrote and passionately sang these words expressing his hatred of warmongers:

"You might say that I'm young. / You might say I'm unlearned. / But there's one thing I know, / though I'm younger than you, / even Jesus would never forgive what you do ... / And I hope that you die / and your death'll come soon. / I will follow your casket in the pale afternoon. / And I'll watch while you're lowered down to your deathbed. / And I'll stand o'er your grave 'til I'm sure that you're dead."

The students were eventually permitted to sing the song. If we ever let the reverse happen, America will stop being America.

NPR : Bob Dylan: A Conversation

Dylan's first, albeit short, recorded interview in 19 years!

My Latest Bob Dylan concert

Tuesday night I attended my 3rd Bob Dylan concert since moving to the Lehigh Valley in the autumn of 2000 (one of many I've gone to over the past 35 years). This is a very busy time for Mr. Dylan, as he wraps up his fall college tour at Harvard on the 21st (his 29th stop since October 13th!), which is just a subset of his 'Never-ending Tour', which has gone on for years now.

Events in the past several years have included, in 1997, the Kennedy Center Honors and three Grammy Awards ('Album of the Year', 'Best Male Rock Vocal Performance' and 'Best Contemporary Folk Album') for 'Time Out of Mind'; in 2001 an Oscar for best original song 'Things Have Changed' from the Michael Douglas film 'The Wonder Boys'; and repeated
nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1997.

This month also saw the release of the first book of his autobiography, entitled 'Chronicles: Volume One', and an updated edition of his complete lyrics.

Just yesterday, Rolling Stone magazine announced its '500 Greatest Songs of All Time' (compiled from votes by 172 critics and musicians), and coming in at number one was Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone', which if memory serves, has always held that position throughout the years during similar surveys.

When I've mentioned going to the concert, I've had reactions from "I thought he was dead" and (from someone who overheard that comment) , "No, he just sings like he died", to "You're so lucky! I can't imagine anyone who I'd rather see in a concert".

The songs Dylan selected to perform ran the gamut, but drew more heavily on his last album, (2001's 'Love and Theft'), than he usually does, with only one song each from the '70s, '80s and '90s!

1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (1966 'Blonde on Blonde')
2. Absolutely Sweet Marie (1966 'Blonde on Blonde')
3. Lonesome Day Blues (2001 'Love and Theft')
4. This Wheel's On Fire (1975 'The Basement Tapes')
5. Seeing The Real You At Last (1985 'Empire Burlesque')
6. Positively 4th Street (1967 'Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits')
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (2001 'Love and Theft')
8. Under The Red Sky (1990 'Under the Red Sky')
9. Bye And Bye (2001 'Love and Theft')
10. Highway 61 Revisited (1965 'Highway 61 Revisited')
11. Masters Of War (1963 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan')
not surprisingly, this got a huge crowd reaction

12. Honest With Me (2001 'Love and Theft')
13. Girl Of The North Country (1963 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan')
this was a special request from a kid named Alladin, who Dylan met that day while working out at a local gym

14. Summer Days (2001 'Love and Theft')

15. Like A Rolling Stone (1965 'Highway 61 Revisited')
the greatest song of all time according to the 'experts'

16. All Along The Watchtower (1967 'All Along the Watchtower')
always a crowd favorite, and Jimi Hendrix's greatest hit Bob Dylan Q & A: He's not sorry about the Victoria's Secret ad and not sure you should call Chronicles a book

A short interview from 'the road'. Some interesting tidbits.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Dylan Plucks No. 1 Song of All Time

...and I'll hopefully post my brief review later today of his concert here on Tuesday night!

Experimental NASA jet reaches Mach 10 - Nov 16, 2004

NASA's latest test of their scramjet reached the incredible speed of 6,600 miles per hour. This is really going to cut down on my commuting time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Miniature People Add Extra Pieces to Evolutionary Puzzle

A follow-up article in the NY Times about the Floresians -- the 'new' species of human recently found, and referred to as 'Hobbits' in my Oct. 29th entry below.

The original theory posited that they were a 'downsized' version of Homo Erectus. Now, there's a countervailing theory that they might have evolved from Homo Sapiens!

Here's the article for those who have trouble signing in to the NY Times site:

November 9, 2004
Miniature People Add Extra Pieces to Evolutionary Puzzle

The miniature people found to have lived on the Indonesian island of Flores until 13,000 years ago may well appeal to the imagination. Even their Australian discoverers refer to them with fanciful names. But the little Floresians have created something of a headache for paleoanthropologists.

The Floresians, whose existence was reported late last month, have shaken up existing views of the human past for three reasons: they are so recent, so small and apparently so smart. None of these findings fits easily into current accounts of human evolution.

The textbooks describe an increase in human brain size that parallels an increasing sophistication in stone tools. Our close cousins the chimpanzees have brains one third the size of ours, as do the Australopithecines, the apelike human ancestors who evolved after the split from the joint human-chimp ancestor six or seven million years ago. But the Australopithecines left no stone tools, and chimps, though they use natural stones to smash things, have no comprehension of fashioning a stone for a specific task.

The little Floresians seem to have made sophisticated stone tools yet did so with brains of 380 cubic centimeters, about the same size as the chimp and Australopithecine brains. This is a thumb in the eye for the tidy textbook explanations that link sophisticated technology with increasing human brain size.

The Australian and Indonesian researchers who found the Floresian bones have an explanation that raises almost as many questions as it resolves. They say the Floresians, who stood three and a half feet high, are downsized versions of Homo erectus, the archaic humans who left Africa 1.5 million years before modern humans. But some critics think the small people may have descended from modern humans - Homo sapiens.

Homo erectus had arrived on the remote island of Flores by 840,000 years ago, according to earlier findings by Dr. Mike Morwood, the Australian archaeologist on the team. The species then became subject to the strange evolutionary pressures that affect island species. If there are no predators and little food, large animals are better off being small. Homo erectus was sharply downsized, as was the pygmy elephant the little Floresians hunted.

But the Morwood theory is not universally accepted. Homo erectus is known to have made crude stone tools but is not generally thought to have spoken or been able to build boats.

Maybe Dr. Morwood's alleged stone tools were just natural pieces of rock. "Many researchers (myself included) doubted these claims," writes Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, adding that "nothing could have prepared me" for the surprise of the little Floresians.

It is surprising enough that Homo erectus managed to reach Flores. But not only have the Floresians evolved to be much more advanced than their ancestors ever were, as judged by the stone tools, but they did so at the same time that their brain was being reduced to one-third human size. Getting smaller brained and smarter at the same time is the exact reverse of the textbook progression.

The Floresians' other surprise lies in the time of their flourishing. The skeleton described in Nature lived as recently as 18,000 years ago, but Dr. Morwood said that in the most recent digging season he found six other individuals whose dates range from 95,000 to 13,000 years ago. Modern humans from Africa arrived in the Far East some time after 50,000 years ago and had reached Australia by at least 40,000 years ago.

There has been little evidence until now that Homo erectus long survived its younger cousins' arrival in the region. Modern humans probably exterminated the world's other archaic humans, the Neanderthals in Europe. Yet the little Floresians survived some 30,000 years into modern times, the only archaic human species known to have done so.

All these surprises raise an alternative explanation. What if the Floresians are descended from modern humans, not from Homo erectus?

"I think the issue of whether it derives from H. erectus or H. sapiens is difficult or impossible to answer on the morphology," says Dr. Richard Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford. And if the individual described in the Nature articles indeed made the sophisticated tools found in the same cave, "then it is more likely to be H. sapiens," he says.

The same possibility has been raised by two anthropologists at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Marta Mirazón Lahr and Dr. Robert Foley. Commenting on the sophisticated stone implements found in the cave with the Floresians, they write that "their contrast with tools found anywhere with H. erectus is very striking."

There is the basis here for a fierce dispute. Given what is on the record so far, the argument that the Floresians are descended from Homo sapiens, not erectus, has a certain parsimony. Moderns are known to have been around in the general area, and no Homo erectus is known to have made such sophisticated tools.

Dr. Morwood counters this thesis with data that he has not yet published, and which therefore does not strictly count in scientific arguments. The 95,000-year-old Floresians far antedate the arrival of modern humans in the area. There are modern human remains on Flores, Dr. Morwood says, but the earliest is 11,000 years old, suggesting there was not necessarily any overlap between the two human species.

His view is supported by Dr. G. Philip Rightmire, a paleoanthropologist at Binghamton University in New York and an expert on Homo erectus. "There is no ambiguity about the morphological pattern, and it is erectus-like," Dr. Rightmire says of the Floresian skeleton. "I'm not sure why it should be difficult to accept the reasoning that the little Floresians made progress with stone working and honed their hunting-butchering skills" during their long co-existence on Flores with the pygmy elephants, he said.

Dr. Morwood believes the little Floresians must have had language to cooperate in elephant hunts. Others are not willing to follow him so far, especially given Homo erectus's apparent lack of achievement. Even chimps can hunt cooperatively, Dr. Foley says.

Whether the Floresians' line of descent runs through Homo erectus or through Homo sapiens, a whole new line of human evolution has opened up, even though one that is now all but certainly extinct. The Floresians are not like human pygmies, which have almost normal-size brains but smaller bodies because their growth is retarded during puberty. Nor are they dwarves. The skeleton described last month could be a called a midget, in the sense of a tiny person with the head and body proportions of a full-size person, Dr. Klein said.

"I always tell my students that I've taught for 30 years and I've never given the same lecture twice. Hardly a year goes by when something new isn't found," says Dr. Leslie Aiello, a paleoanthropologist at University College London. Of the Floresian discovery she says, "It's a total knockout."

The New York Times > Technology > Even Digital Memories Can Fade

An interesting article about the fragility of our digital 'memories', and how quickly storage mediums become obsolete. I particularly liked the line "And if a CD is scratched, Mr. Hite said, it can become unusable. Unlike, say, faded but readable ink on paper, the instant a digital file becomes corrupted, or starts to degrade, it is indecipherable."

Giant hail killed more than 200 in Himalayas

From the Daily Telegraph in Britain:

"For 60 years the skeletal remains of more than 200 people, discovered in 1942 close to the glacial Roopkund Lake in the remote Himalayan Gahrwal region, have puzzled historians, scientists and archaeologists. Were they soldiers killed in battle, royal pilgrims who lost their way and succumbed to hypothermia, or Tibetan traders who died of a mysterious illness?

Now, the first forensic investigation of one of the area's most enduring mysteries has concluded that hundreds of nomads - whose frozen corpses are being disgorged from ice high in the mountain - were killed by one of the most lethal hailstorms in history.

Scientists commissioned by the National Geographic television channel to examine the corpses have discovered that they date from the 9th century - and believe that they died from sharp blows to their skulls, almost certainly by giant hailstones. "We were amazed by what we found," said Dr Pramod Joglekar, a bio-archaeologist at Deccan College, Pune, who was among the team who visited the site 16,500ft above sea level.

"In addition to skeletons, we discovered bodies with the flesh intact, perfectly preserved in the icy ground. We could see their hair and nails as well as pieces of clothing."

The most startling discovery was that many of those who died suffered fractured skulls. "We retrieved a number of skulls which showed short, deep cracks," said Dr Subhash Walimbe, a physical anthropologist at the college. "These were caused not by a landslide or an avalanche but by blunt, round objects about the size of cricket balls."

The team, whose findings will be broadcast in Britain next month, concluded that hailstones were the most likely cause of the injuries after consulting Himalayan historians and meteorological records.

Prof Wolfgang Sax, an anthropologist at Heidelberg University in Germany, cited a traditional song among Himalayan women that describes a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones "hard as iron".

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the heaviest hailstones on record weighed up to 2.2lb and killed 92 people in Bangladesh in 1986.

The National Geographic team believes that those who died at Roopkund were caught in a similar hailstorm from which they were unable to find cover. The balls of ice would have been falling at more than 100mph, killing some victims instantly. Others would have fallen, stunned and injured, and died soon afterwards of hypothermia.

"The only plausible explanation for so many people sustaining such similar injuries at the same time is something that fell from the sky," said Dr Walimbe. "The injuries were all to the top of the skull and not to other bones in the body, so they must have come from above. Our view is that death was caused by extremely large hailstones."

The scientists found glass bangles, indicating the presence of women, in addition to a ring, spear, leather shoes and bamboo staves. They estimate that as many as 600 bodies may still be buried in snow and ice by the lake.

Bone samples collected at the site were sent to the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of Oxford University, where the date of death was established about AD 850 - 400 years earlier than supposed.

The team has yet to resolve the identity of the nomads. DNA from tissue samples suggested that the group was closely related. One match pointed to a community of high-caste Brahmins in central India.

The investigators agreed that the victims were Hindu pilgrims from the plains, rather than the mountains, because of their large size and good health.

"The skeletons are of large and rugged people," said Dr Dibyendukanti Bhattacharya of Delhi University. "They are more like the actors John Wayne or Anthony Quinn. Only a few have the characteristics of the Mongoloid hill people of the Himalayas.""

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mystery power boost for Mars rover

Who says there aren't Martians?

I *thought* I saw service stations in a few of the photos.

MSNBC - Study: Anti-smoking pill helps fight obesity

They lost an average of 19 pounds over a year......were encouraged to
reduce daily caloric intact by 600 calories......which if done, would have
produced a yearly weight loss of over 62 pounds......therefore, I can only
conclude that this snakeoil *causes* weight gain!!!!!!

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Digital

Now that the Miss America pageant no longer seems to have a home on TV, the day has been saved by the Miss Digital World beauty pageant!

You can meet the 5 top contestants vying for the title of most beautiful virtual woman in the world by clicking on the title above.

All is once again right with the world.

Cosmic doomsday delayed -- Universe won't end for 24 billion years... probably.

This changes all my plans!

Monday, November 01, 2004

Beijingers unsatisfied with official services

The significant lines are:

One respondent even complained about the lack of pens available at the tax office.

He said he was trying to get a licence at a tax station in Beijing only to be confronted by rude staff.

"I discovered I had made several mistakes in the application form, but I did not have a carbon pen with me at that time.

"I asked the tax officers to borrow a carbon pen, but they said indifferently that they had only ball-point pens, which cannot be used on official forms. They said I had to go and buy a fountain pen at a nearby store.

"Couldn't they prepare several fountain pens for applicants?"