Sunday, February 27, 2005

Fallen astronaut’s diary recovered -- Experts piece together notebook used by Israeli

Incredibly, an Israeli police document examiner (a forensic document specialist) has largely pieced together the diary of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who perished during the reentry of the space shuttle Columbia.

A small heap of paper somehow survived the fiery disintegration of the shuttle, a 38-mile fall to Earth and two months of exposure to rain and sun in a Texas field.

Israel Police Department / AP file

"Scientists used computer image-enhancement technology and infrared light to read the charred and tattered pages and pieced some of them together like jigsaw puzzles."

"The diary, written in black ink and pencil, covers only the first six days of the 16-day mission."

Click the article title to read the full report.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Fischer gets Iceland passport

"[World News]: Paris, Feb 23 : Iceland will grant former American chess champion Bobby Fischer, who is being held in Japan, a special passport that will allow him to travel to Western Europe, Xinhua reports.

Immigration authorities agreed to grant the passport, meant for foreigners, to the former champion who is sought in the US on charges of violating international sanctions against the former Yugoslavia by playing there in 1992.

Lawmakers in Iceland had last week rejected the 61-year-old Fischer's citizenship application, prompting his supporters to apply on his behalf for the special passport.

The document will allow him to travel freely between the 15 West European countries of the passport-free Schengen zone but not to the US, said Gudrun Ogmundsdottir, a member of Iceland's parliament general committee.

Ogmundsdottir said in Reykjavik, the Iceland capital, that Fischer's passport was being processed and would be sent to him in Japan where he was arrested six months ago for trying to board a plane to the Philippines with an invalid US passport.

She hoped the document would allow Japanese authorities to release Fischer. Tokyo wants to deport him to the US."

Sunday, February 20, 2005

ORANGE COUNTY WEEKLY: Get Sick, Get Well. Hang Around an Inkwell

"Dylan’s Volume 1 saves the best for Volume 2


I held off reading the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs for a while, afraid it’d be as muddle-headed as his prose usually is. In my first flush of love for Dylan back in my teens, I’d slogged through his first book, Tarantula, too intimidated at the time to admit its stupefying badness. Like all Dylanites, I puzzled over the liner notes to albums such as Planet Waves and John Wesley Harding, wondering if all that free-associating added up to anything. (Nope.) Though with his past two albums, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, he’s pulled off one of the latest and greatest artistic comebacks of any pop artist, I still can’t forget how distant, even solipsistic, Dylan seemed on his last tour: there he was, center stage at Staples, gazed at and revered by upward of 10,000 fans, but for all the attention he paid to putting the music across to us, he could have been going through the afternoon sound check.

Even though I kept eyeing the book at stores, I waited—waited while I kept hearing good things about it, about the book’s generosity, its evocation of time and place, its quick-draw revelations, and—surprise—its clarity. And it turns out the book is generous, evocative, revelatory and (mostly) clear. It’s also one of the strangest, most purposefully evasive and impersonal memoirs I’ve ever read, and if the Volume 1 wasn’t appended to its title, promising future chapters of his story to fill in the gaping holes he’s left, I’d be fatally confused.

For better and for worse, then, this is vintage Bob. The book could be subtitled, “My fascinating beginnings, and a lot about my least interesting years.” Here’s the structure of the book: the first two sections take us through Dylan’s by-now-mythical journey from his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, to Greenwich Village and his first years on the folk scene there. And these sections don’t disappoint. (Dylan doesn’t mark the years, incidentally: the title Chronicles is almost a joke, given Dylan’s sweet shamanistic disregard of calendar time.) Section Three is about his post-motorcycle-accident years (for non-shamans, that’s post-’66 through about 1970), when he was raising his family, avoiding his own legacy and making gentle fluff like New Morning. Section Four starts in 1986, when he hit a creative nadir touring with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, then partially worked his way back up by writing and recording Oh Mercy. The last section goes retrospective again, to Greenwich Village and his signing to Columbia Records by John Hammond.

Now, Dylan may be fucking with us here. There is hardly a word about the two most productive periods of his life: about the string of albums—from Bob Dylan in 1962 through John Wesley Harding in 1967—that re-routed folk- and rock-music history for good and about that period from 1974 through 1984 when Dylan did his historic tour with the Band; recorded great or near-great albums such as Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Infidels; and went through his he-really-needs-to-explain-this Christian period (’79 to ’82). Each time I picked up my jaw after reading Dylan pass over the most vital periods of his life and career, I thought, “He’s only writing what he feels he understands and leaving the rest for later, if ever.” What went on after Dylan boldly picked up the folk mantle from Woody Guthrie’s deathbed in 1967; what went on when he decided to fuse folk with rock at the Newport Folk Festival; what went on when he combined rock and Rimbaud in Highway 61 Revisited; what went on as he became rock’s first great image changeling in order to preserve some semblance of a private self as his fame reached epic proportions? All that is skipped.

Frustrating as hell, of course, though what he has written about is sometimes as brilliant and funny and sharply observed and bizarre and in-the-grain American as his best records are. Dylan’s a great portraitist: there are countless one-paragraph descriptions of people he met in the Village that are fabulously economical and evocative—they’re like Picasso’s tossed-off pen-and-ink sketches. He also has amazing sense memory: recalling a meeting with Lou Levy, the executive who signed him to his first publishing contract more than 40 years ago, he writes, “Levy was starting and stopping his tape machine—diamond ring gleaming off his pinky finger—cigar smoke hanging in the blue air. The place was like a room used for interrogation, a fixture like a fruit bowl hanging overhead and a couple of lamps, some brass ones on floor stands. Below my feet, a patterned wood floor.” The book is filled with this kind of description—particularly in his brilliant travelogue about New Orleans—flash images that you get a sense Dylan’s mind is stuffed with, whose meanings are unclear to him but which he’s always playing with, hoping to turn them into account, hopefully into song.

What’s even better is Dylan’s many encomiums to masters of American music who inspired and guided him. Woody Guthrie: “All these songs together . . . it made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. . . . He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. . . . He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it, and it would come out like a punch.” Robert Johnson: “I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and the patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction. . . . If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down.” Johnny Cash: “Ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious, obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with anger.” He celebrates all over the place: much of the book is a patchwork of love letters to Joan Baez, Hank Williams, Bono, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dave Van Ronk. Maybe the truest thing that emerges from Chronicles, in fact, is Dylan’s devotion to the American musical tradition—he’s still a grave and happy student who was saved from Hibbing’s slate-gray skies and stifling provinciality by music that “exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked up by it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm.”

And then again, there are all those holes. Not just the chronological ones, either—those can be, theoretically at least, addressed in future volumes. What you miss here is any genuine sense of Dylan’s inwardness outside the realm of music. This is a man who mentions his “wife” in one section, and then his “wife” in another section, and doesn’t bother to point out they’re different women. This is a man who can ramble on about playing in the snow as a boy, but can barely get a sentence out about his mother. This is a man who spends 50 pages writing about the making of the respectable but unremarkable Oh Mercy and doesn’t even suggest, “Yeah, I know, I really ought to be doing this about Blonde on Blonde.” Chronicles, Volume 1 is, again for better and worse, what we expect from Bob Dylan, who’s as pure a product of America as Huck Finn, Woody Guthrie, Dean Moriarty, Augie March and James Dean: his senses exhilaratingly blown through by the country’s wide-open spaces, his mind still innocently excited to red-hot embers by the most serendipitous of events, his heart still riotous and mysteriously unknowable—most of all, it seems, to himself."

Homesick PoWs kept up spirits with hand-made Post

"Andrew Robinson

AMONG the memorabilia handed to Bullecourt Museum is an issue of the Kriegie Edition of the Yorkshire Post, written by inmates of Stalag Luft VI, a prisoner-of-war camp at Heydekrug, Lithuania, on the bleak Baltic coast.

It was produced by Yorkshiremen in the camp – 254 in all – who had formed a White Rose Club in February 1944. (Kriegie was adapted from Kriegesfangene – prisoner-of-war).

During his time at the camp, the newspaper's former employee Richard Pape compiled and edited the book, drawing on the talents of White Rose Club members.

Mr Pape worked as an artist in the Yorkshire Post publicity department before joining the RAF. He later described in his bestseller, Boldness Be My Friend, how he hit on the idea as a way to keep spirits high among the fellow homesick PoWs.

Although spurred on by camp leader James 'Dixie' Deans, producing it was easier said than done. Pen nibs had been confiscated by the Germans due to the large amount of forged documents, so a resourceful former instrument maker made some "superb, flexible" nibs from steel tape binding from Red Cross crates.

Mr Pape told how it became an obsession. He spent from dawn until dusk compiling its contents and editing by hand the 30,000 words into 93 pages, most nights falling exhausted into bed and still wearing his boots.

Wily lookouts kept watch for German guards, calling out codewords as a warning. "Goons up" meant he had to quickly remove three floorboards to hide his papers and lie on his bed complaining of chest pains. A cry "Goons gone" and the work resumed.

It was finished in five weeks, bound using two sheets of plywood, polished with brown shoe polish to give it "the look of seasoned oak" and carved with the Yorkshire Rose. Once completed, it reached England in a little over five weeks, via Sweden by undisclosed means.

After vetting by military authorities, it went to the Yorkshire Post, which printed souvenir copies for the next-of-kin of the fliers of the White Rose Club.
Winston Churchill praised the Kriegie Edition, writing: "It is an interesting and moving record of the talent shown by these prisoners during the years of their captivity."

MSNBC - Noise pollution disrupts whale communication

An overview of how manmade noise pollution is greatly interfering with whale communication and navigation. Although not mentioned specifically in this article, there's some supposition that such interference is even responsible for some of the mass beachings of Cetaceans generally.

Click on the essay 'Beam Me In, Scotty' on the left navigation bar to read of my own experience swimming with a bottlenosed dolphin.


Following in the footsteps of the very successful (in terms of participation, if not yet results) SETI@Home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) screensaver, a similar mass-participation drive was launched today to analyze data in the search for gravity waves.

"Einstein@home is a program that uses your computer's idle time to search for spinning neutron stars (also called pulsars) using data from the LIGO and GEO gravitational wave detectors. Einstein@home is a World Year of Physics 2005 project supported by the American Physical Society (APS) and by a number of international organizations."

Just click on the title above to go to the University of Wisconsin website, where the program can be downloaded.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The New York Times > Philadelphia Hopes to Lead the Charge to Wireless Future

It appears that Philadephia is making a serious bid to become the most technologically-attuned big city in the nation (see the next entry below as well).


PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 11 - If Mayor John F. Street has his way, by next year this 135-square-mile metropolis will become one gigantic wireless hot spot, offering every neighborhood high-speed access to the Web at below-market prices in what would be the largest experiment in municipal Internet service in the country.

City officials envision a seamless mesh of broadband signals that will enable the police to download mug shots as they race to crime scenes in their patrol cars, allow truck drivers to maintain Internet access to inventories as they roam the city, and perhaps most important, let students and low-income residents get on the net.

Experts say the Philadelphia model, if successful, could provide the tipping point for a nationwide movement to make broadband affordable and accessible in every municipality. From tiny St. Francis, Kan., to tech-savvy San Francisco, more than 50 local governments have already installed or are on the verge of creating municipal broadband systems for the public.

But Philadelphia's plan has prompted a debate over who should provide the service, and whether government should compete with private industry, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas or low-income urban communities. Telecommunications and cable companies say that municipal Internet networks will not only inhibit private enterprise, but also result in poor service and wasted tax dollars. They have mounted major lobbying campaigns in several states to restrict or prohibit municipalities from establishing their own networks.

'This is a growing trend, but an ominous and disturbing one,' said Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released study criticizing the Philadelphia plan. 'The last thing I'd want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility."

Philadelphia officials say that will not happen here. Mr. Street has said he will try to raise corporate and foundation financing so the strapped city does not have to pay the network's $10 million startup costs. He also says the city will recruit private companies to help operate the system, asserting it will earn enough revenue to be self-sustaining.

Though details of Mr. Street's plan are still being developed, the city expects to install 4,000 wireless antennas along lampposts across the city in the next 18 months, creating a network of broadband signals.

City officials also hope to extend service into homes and businesses in poor neighborhoods, using nonprofit organizations to provide low-cost equipment, training and service.

"Just as highways were a critical infrastructure component of the last century, wireless Internet access must be a part of our infrastructure for the 21st century," Mr. Street said last month in a speech before the United States Conference of Mayors.

Most municipally run Internet systems are in small rural towns, many of which provide service at below-market rates. Philadelphia is proposing to charge $15 to $25 a month for its service, half of what private servers now charge, and even less for low-income users.

Industry officials say that if the program takes off, it will inevitably take customers from providers like the Comcast Corporation or Verizon Communications.

"Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?" asked David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, which is based in Philadelphia. "I don't think so."

Officials in Philadelphia and other municipalities contend they never intended to compete with private companies. Many say they want to provide Internet service only because students, small businesses and low-income residents cannot afford or obtain high-speed Internet access.

Philadelphia officials say a recent survey found that nearly 40 percent of residents did not have Internet service. But industry officials say that virtually every neighborhood in the city is wired for broadband and that many people are choosing not to buy it.

Industry officials and advocates of limited government also say providing Internet access is far more risky, complicated and expensive than government officials realize. Equipment will quickly become obsolete, and slow-moving governments will not keep pace, they say.

"Government doesn't do service well," said Eric Rabe, vice president for public relations for Verizon.

"And communications is complicated. The technology changes constantly. Verizon has 3.5 million D.S.L. subscribers," Mr. Rabe said, referring to digital subscriber lines, "and we're still trying to figure out how to make money at $30 per month."

Pushed by industry lobbyists, lawmakers in Kansas, Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Iowa, Oregon and other states have proposed legislation to restrict or prohibit local governments from offering telecommunications services. Nearly a dozen states have already enacted some restrictions.

Verizon won a victory in Pennsylvania late last year when Gov. Edward G. Rendell signed a measure requiring that cities first give the main local phone company the right to build a high-speed Internet network. If the phone company proceeds within 14 months, the city must drop its plans . Philadelphia was exempted from the law.

In Kansas, the town of St. Francis, population 1,495, began offering Internet service nearly three years ago and now has 200 subscribers.

"We could not get anybody to provide us high-speed Internet," said J. R. Landenberger, city manager. "When that didn't work, we decided to do it ourselves."

In Scottsburg, Ind., a city of 6,000 near the Kentucky border, officials say a survey conducted in 2002 found that three local companies were considering moving or expanding elsewhere because they could not get broadband service.

The officials say they urged several providers to extend a network into town, but were told it was too small or remote to justify the cost. Consultants recommended that the town build a fiber network, at a cost of $5 million. Then city officials discovered wireless.

For an initial investment of $385,000, the town's municipally owned electric utility created a wireless broadband network for the entire county. Businesses now can buy high-speed service for $200 per month, about half the cost in nearby Louisville, Ky.

The service has about 600 subscribers, more than enough to cover its costs, town officials say. "We're just as pleased as we can be," Mayor Bill Graham said. "It's the same system they put into the Pentagon after Sept. 11. It is very secure, very fast and very reliable."

In Philadelphia, the skeptics argue that running a broadband network for a small town is far different from running one for a city of 1.5 million. Though installing a network of antennas might be straightforward, creating a system for billing, marketing and fielding service complaints will be far more difficult than the city imagines, they say. The city estimates the cost of maintaining the system will be $1.5 million a year.

"The real cost will be very different than what they think," Mr. Cohen of Comcast said.

Philadelphia officials say skeptics will come around when they see the power of broadband to attract business and improve the lives of poor people.

The Philadelphia plan will allow Internet users to roam anywhere in the city and remain connected, as long as they are outdoors, said Dianah Neff, the city's chief information officer. But bringing the signal indoors will require extra equipment. To help low-income residents acquire such equipment, the city plans to recruit a network of community organizations that can provide training, inexpensive computers and wireless equipment to eligible residents.

In West Philadelphia, the People's Emergency Center, a nonprofit group, is already providing such services, including after-school computer programs, wireless access at $5 a month, Web site development for small businesses and a program that helps welfare recipients communicate with caseworkers through the Internet. The group also sells refurbished computers to eligible residents for $125.

"Acquiring low-cost computers is the smallest problem," said Tan B. Vu, manager of the center's digital inclusion program. "The bigger problem is that people don't have Internet access. And that is where the city comes in."

One of the center's clients, Denise Stoner, 32, embodies both the promise and pitfalls of the city's plans.

A recently homeless mother who has a learning disabled son and a deaf daughter, both of whom have heart problems, Ms. Stoner has a refurbished desktop computer with broadband wireless service provided by the People's Emergency Center.

But her aging computer is slow and often hampered by viruses, which she depends on the center's technicians to eradicate. And while her 9-year-old son has improved his reading and spelling skills by using the Internet, he spends most of his time online playing games.

Still, Ms. Stoner has found both information and comfort from the Internet. She has learned sign language online to converse with her 2-year-old daughter. And she has discovered chat rooms for parents of children who have the same heart problems as her children.

"I ask them how they get by," she said of her e-mail conversations with people as far away as Africa. "They say they take it one day at a time."

The New York Times > What's Next: A 3-D View of the City, Block by Block


VEHICLES that move slowly down the street, pausing regularly to take photographs with remote-controlled cameras, tend to make the police a bit nervous. But one trailer loaded with imaging equipment that made its way through the streets of central Philadelphia wasn't spying - although at first, Secret Service agents had their doubts.

Both the vehicle and a plane that flew over the same area were taking authorized pictures of each building and its surroundings, at the behest of the downtown improvement district. Now the terabytes of imaging data are being used to build a three-dimensional model of central Philadelphia, down to the last cornice, mailbox and shrub.

The city model can then be integrated with other information, like listings of shops and rental space, so that one day people who'd rather be in Philadelphia will be able to be there virtually, from their computers. Apartment seekers, for example, will be able to click their way through the neighborhood, taking a virtual walk and checking out the view from the windows of apartments that strike their fancy.

Victor Shenkar, the founder and chief executive of the company that offers the program, GeoSim Systems, based in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv, said the simulated city would offer many possibilities, among them matchmaking. 'We believe that this virtual city we are building will be a great stage for human introductions,' he said. People who visit a virtual art gallery, for example, might meet others there.

Dr. Shenkar honed his modeling and visualization tools developing a virtual Golan Heights to train Israeli pilots. He is the former head of research and development for the Israeli air force, where he served for 21 years. Now his company is busy mapping three-dimensional urban areas both abroad and in the United States, including not only the business district in Philadelphia, but soon, the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

Dennis Culhane, a professor at Penn and director of the cartographic modeling lab there, brought the project to the campus. Most of the data collection is already done. "A little trailer towed by a car went up and down the campus sidewalks, and planes flew over the same area," he said. Snow and ice have temporarily halted the progress of the trailer, but work will resume soon.

Dr. Culhane envisions many applications for the model, among them recruiting students and keeping in touch with alumni. "The university is the perfect place to create this kind of environment," he said. "There is a community of people who were once part of it and still feel attached to it, as well as potential students who want information." The model may become the basis for a new interface for the school's Web site. "Instead of a series of flat pages on the Internet site, people could navigate through the campus," he said, clicking on buildings, for example, and getting access to Web resources or encountering other people with whom they could chat. "The information would be delivered via Web pages but navigated by this three-dimensional space," he said.

The software might also be useful in campus planning, he said, including visualizing how buildings would fit into 18 acres of land the university recently acquired. "We can take architectural models of buildings and insert them into the campus model and see what they'd look like in the space," he said.

Dr. Culhane expects computer games to be another benefit of the system, when students in the University's new master's program in gaming technology begin to take advantage of the database.

"The buildings look true to life in the model, and the graphic detail is incredible," he said, making the virtual campus a good backdrop for a game.

In the central business district of Philadelphia, data collection for the model has been completed. "They've flown and driven through every single street," said Paul Levy, president of the center city business district. Dr. Levy said all had gone smoothly, except for "some hectic moments with the Secret Service" before the purpose of the trailer was clarified.

There is nothing new about three-dimensional computer modeling of buildings and their immediate surroundings, Dr. Levy said. But applying the technology to the scale of a city has historically proved expensive and labor-intensive. "Dr. Shenkar's technology vastly accelerates the speed of modeling, and does it with results that are very true to life," Dr. Levy said.

The process begins with data acquisition. Aerial photographs are taken so that each building is seen from at least four directions, Dr. Shenkar said. Ground-level photographs are collected using the trailer, which is towed by a car and loaded with a laser scanner, digital cameras and a Global Positioning System receiver. A laptop next to the driver controls the equipment.

Software integrates data from the aerial and ground images. Then the information is introduced into a commercial software package and converted to representations of 3-D forms and textures.

The operation is organized as a production line, Dr. Shenkar said, with software to streamline parts of the process as well as methods that allow people to work simultaneously. One server stores all the photographic data; it is linked to 25 work stations for the modelers. "Everyone connected to the server gets a piece of the city," he said, "and a production manager monitors the progress of the work online." The typical cost of modeling is $150,000 a square kilometer, roughly two-fifths of a square mile.

The models must be revised when the landscape changes. At Penn, Ali Malkawi, an associate professor of architecture at the school of design, expects that he will be taking on part of the job. "It is going to grow, and will have to be managed to make sure the information is updated," he said.

Dr. Levy thinks the model will have many commercial applications. "It has huge implications in terms of tenant leasing," he said. "You can click on the 13th floor of a building and check out the tenant, and also the view."

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The New York Times > Oldest Remains of Human Beings Are Identified

This has interesting implications in relation to the previous article about the possible mating of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals.


Scientists have determined that human fossils found in Ethiopia in 1967 are 65,000 years older than first thought, from about 195,000 years ago. The revised date, they said, makes the skulls and bones the earliest known remains of modern Homo sapiens.

The research reinforces the theories of an African origin for modern humans, and the earlier date gives the species more time to have evolved the cultural attributes that probably supported its spread to Asia and Europe from Africa. The new date appears to be near the early boundary for modern human emergence, as suggested in recent genetic studies.

The findings were announced today by a research team led by Dr. Ian McDougall of the Australian National University in Canberra and are being described in detail in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Dr. McDougall, a geologist, and his colleagues reported that a re-examination of the sediments in which the fossils were found and the use of more reliable dating methods showed that the two individuals lived 195,000 years ago, give or take 5,000 years, "making them the earliest well-dated anatomically modern humans yet described."

An expedition led by Richard E. Leakey, the Kenyan paleontologist, excavated the two fossil specimens 38 years ago along the Omo River in southern Ethiopia, near the town of Kibish. The fossil-bearing sediments were dated at 130,000 years, though many researchers, even the discoverers, were never sure this was a valid age for the specimens. Scientists at the time thought it unlikely that modern humans could be more that 100,000 years old.

Two years ago, scientists announced a discovery in northeast Ethiopia, at the village of Herto, that pushed back the earliest fossil evidence for modern humans to 160,000 years ago. Dr. Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, and collaborators said the skulls of two adults and a child "represent the probable immediate ancestors of anatomically modern humans."

Meanwhile, biomolecular research on the genetic diversity among human populations pointed to a common maternal ancestor in Africa, which inevitably became known as the African Eve. This genetic evidence put the origin of modern humans at 150,000 to 200,000 years ago.

Now the revised dates for the Omo fossils not only appear to push back modern human origins even further, Dr. John G. Fleagle of Stony Brook University on Long Island said in an interview, but also "bring the bones and genes into concordance."

Dr. Fleagle, an anatomist who specializes in human origin studies, and Dr. Francis H. Brown, a geologist at the University of Utah, were co-authors of the journal report.

Dr. Brown said the new research confirmed that the two Omo specimens are essentially the same age and lived within a few hundred years of each other at the same site.

Although other scientists accepted the new geological dating, there continued to be controversy over the nature of the two specimens. The skull and bones identified as Omo I are modern in nearly all respects. But Omo II, a partial skull but no limb bones, appears to be more primitive than the first modern Homo sapiens.

Dr. Richard G. Klein of Stanford University, who was not involved in the research, said the differences between the two individuals were sharp enough to suggest that "one or both are intrusions in the deposits" where the fossils were excavated. That is, Omo I could be a more recent specimen.

Dr. Fleagle acknowledged that there were several possible explanations, including that the fossils may have come higher and lower sedimentary levels. "I don't really know what to make of the dissimilar specimens," he said.

It is likely, Dr. Fleagle continued, that several populations of separate but related human groups may have lived in the area, such as the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens at a later time, or they could be examples of diversity within a single species.

"It's not neat," he said, "but there was a lot of morphological diversity in species at this time of evolution."

The New York Times >For Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, Was It De-Lovely?


Published: February 15, 2005

The scientists did not get around to the nitty-gritty question until the fourth hour of a two-and-a-half-day symposium on Neanderthals, held recently at New York University.

A strong consensus was emerging, they agreed, that the now-extinct Neanderthals were a distinct evolutionary entity from modern humans, presumably a different species. They were archaic members of the human family, robust with heavy brow ridges and forward-projecting faces, who lived in Europe and western Asia from at least 250,000 years ago until they vanished from the fossil record about 28,000 years ago.

Neanderthals may have seen their first modern Homo sapiens some 100,000 years ago in what is now Israel. The two people almost certainly came in contact in Europe in the last centuries before the dwindling Neanderthal population was replaced forever by the intruding modern humans.

Taking his turn at the symposium lectern, Dr. James C. M. Ahern, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wyoming, acknowledged: 'Neanderthals are different. The degree of difference is relatively vast, but that is not the most interesting question out there.'

The question was, he continued, 'Did Neanderthals and modern humans do it?'

There it was, out in the open again, the question that has persisted since the first fossils of these people were discovered in the Neander Valley of Germany in 1856. Could the two people with a shared distant ancestry and family resemblance have interbred? Is there any evidence that Europeans today carry some Neanderthal genes?

For the international gathering of scientists, the issue exposed the uncertainty over the definition of species. Its conventional meaning is a group of interbreeding creatures that are reproductively isolated from others. Hybridization of species is rare in mammals. One common example is the mating of an ass and a mare, producing the sterile mule.

The conferees debated, but never resolved, the possibility that Neanderthals could have been an evolutionary and anatomical species, distinct from Homo sapiens, but not strictly an isolated biological species. That is, the two species may have been enough alike to mate and produce fertile offspring.

Again, Dr. Ahern encapsulated the issue, "How much difference is too much" for viable interbreeding to occur?

Dr. Chris Stringer, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, noted that some species apparently less close than Neanderthals and modern humans can interbreed and produce hybrids. Dr. Stringer is a leading proponent of the theory that modern Homo sapiens emerged in Africa as early as 150,000 years ago and then spread to Asia and Europe, replacing the remnants of archaic humans they encountered there.

Dr. Erik Trinkaus, a Neanderthal expert at Washington University in St. Louis, who was not at the meeting, contends that the 24,500-year-old skeleton of a young boy found in Portugal appeared to be a Neanderthal-Homo sapiens hybrid. The interpretation has so far been viewed with skepticism.

Dr. Mark Stoneking of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said that he and colleagues had looked for answers in the patterns of genetic variation in contemporary human populations and the analysis of ancient DNA from fossils of Neanderthals and early modern humans. Neither approach, he said, provided any indication of interbreeding between the two species.

"That does not rule out some genetic contribution" from Neanderthals to Europeans' ancestry, Dr. Stoneking said.

Dr. David Serre of McGill University in Montreal described the analysis of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA found in 24 Neanderthals and 40 early modern human remains. The results seemed to exclude any significant contribution of Neanderthal genes to Homo sapiens, perhaps less than 1 percent. Therefore, he concluded, they were "two distinct biological species."

Dr. Katerina Harvati, also of the Planck Institute in Leipzig, recently conducted research applying a "quantitative method" to determine the degree of anatomical difference that justifies classifying specimens as different species. She and colleagues examined the variation of specific parts of the craniums and faces of modern humans and Neanderthals as well as 12 existing species of nonhuman primates. The two living species of chimpanzees, for example, appeared to be more closely related to each other than Neanderthals are to humans.

Dr. Harvati and Dr. Terry Harrison, a paleontologist at N.Y.U., organized the symposium, "Neanderthals Revisited: New Approaches and Perspectives."

More than species differences may have kept Neanderthals and humans sexually apart, if indeed that was the case. Their opportunities may have been limited.

Dr. Ahern said in an interview that it was "surprising how little overlap there was" between the two species in Europe." It had been thought that modern humans from Africa began arriving in Europe about 40,000 years ago and so could have competed with and mingled with the local population for at least 12,000 years. But the dating of fossil and archaeological evidence is now being revised, leaving much less time when the two species could have had close contact.

"It's a real scientific problem," said Dr. Randall White, an archaeologist specializing in European ice age culture at N.Y.U. "How to interpret the overlap of Neanderthals and modern humans, their interactions and cultural exchanges, the causes of Neanderthal extinction, all depends on what are the real dates of their possible contact."

Some of the most solid evidence for overlap, the researchers said, does not appear until toward the end of the Neanderthals' known existence, when their populations were probably sparse.

Dr. Stringer said some explanations for Neanderthal extinction were being re-examined. Perhaps the technological superiority of modern humans was "not as clear-cut as some of us thought," he said. Perhaps Neanderthals, though adapted to a cold climate, could not survive the rapid and repeated changes of cold and warm periods of that time.

"It was not bad genes but bad luck for the Neanderthals," Dr. Stringer said. "Modern humans may have had no direct effect on Neanderthal extinction. They actually walked into empty spaces where Neanderthals had already disappeared."

Dr. Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History was not entirely joking when he suggested that few genes were exchanged because "no self-respecting Neanderthal female would fancy a Homo sapiens male."

In making a case for the distinct differences between the two species, Dr. Tattersall showed slides of upright skeletons of the two. But skeletons are unrevealing of Paleolithic desire."

From NASA Researchers Claim Evidence of Present Life on Mars

"WASHINGTON -- A pair of NASA scientists told a group of space officials at a private meeting here Sunday that they have found strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water.

The scientists, Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, told the group that they have submitted their findings to the journal Nature for publication in May, and their paper currently is being peer reviewed.

What Stoker and Lemke have found, according to several attendees of the private meeting, is not direct proof of life on Mars, but methane signatures and other signs of possible biological activity remarkably similar to those recently discovered in caves here on Earth.

Stoker and other researchers have long theorized that the Martian subsurface could harbor biological organisms that have developed unusual strategies for existing in extreme environments. That suspicion led Stoker and a team of U.S. and Spanish researchers in 2003 to southwestern Spain to search for subsurface life near the Rio Tinto river—so-called because of its reddish tint—the product of iron being dissolved in its highly acidic water.

Stoker did not respond to messages left Tuesday on her voice mail at Ames.

Stoker told in 2003, weeks before leading the expedition to southwestern Spain, that by studying the very acidic Rio Tinto, she and other scientists hoped to characterize the potential for a “chemical bioreactor” in the subsurface – an underground microbial ecosystem of sorts that might well control the chemistry of the surface environment.

Making such a discovery at Rio Tinto, Stoker said in 2003, would mean uncovering a new, previously uncharacterized metabolic strategy for living in the subsurface. “For that reason, the search for life in the Rio Tinto is a good analog for searching for life on Mars,” she said.

Stoker told her private audience Sunday evening that by comparing discoveries made at Rio Tinto with data collected by ground-based telescopes and orbiting spacecraft, including the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, she and Lemke have made a very a strong case that life exists below Mars’ surface.

The two scientists, according to sources at the Sunday meeting, based their case in part on Mars’ fluctuating methane signatures that could be a sign of an active underground biosphere and nearby surface concentrations of the sulfate jarosite, a mineral salt found on Earth in hot springs and other acidic bodies of water like Rio Tinto that have been found to harbor life despite their inhospitable environments.

One of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity, bolstered the case for water on Mars when it discovered jarosite and other mineral salts on a rocky outcropping in Merdiani Planum, the intrepid rover’s landing site chosen because scientists believe the area was once covered by salty sea.

Stoker and Lemke’s research could lead the search for Martian biology underground, where standing water would help account for the curious methane signatures the two have been analyzing.

“They are desperate to find out what could be producing the methane,” one attendee told Space News. “Their answer is drill, drill, drill.”

NASA has no firm plans for sending a drill-equipped lander to Mars, but the agency is planning to launch a powerful new rover in 2009 that could help shed additional light on Stoker and Lemke’s intriguing findings. Dubbed the Mars Science Laboratory, the nuclear-powered rover will range farther than any of its predecessors and will be carrying an advanced mass spectrometer to sniff out methane with greater sensitivity than any instrument flown to date.

In 1996 a team of NASA and Stanford University researchers created a stir when they published findings that meteorites recovered from the Allen Hills region of Antarctica contained evidence of possible past life on Mars. Those findings remain controversial, with many researchers unconvinced that those meteorites held even possible evidence that very primitive microbial life had once existed on Mars."

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Using the new AudioBlogger feature

this is an audio post - click to play

This was my 2nd attempt using Blogger's new AudioBlogger feature. It's pretty neat! Listening to a bit of my recording of 'Beam me in, Scotty', it's obvious I could afford a little practice (a bit monotone, wouldn't you say?), but not too bad for a first try.

The sound quality was actually quite good, considering that it was recorded over a portable telephone! All one needs to do is dial a special number (I'm waiting for the long-distance charges!), and by following the prompts one can then begin recording a 5 minute segment of audio (which is why the essay was broken up in 3 it took me about 12 minutes to read).

I don't know how often I'll make use of this, but I certainly see its possibilities in recording and posting interviews to my blog. Now...if I only knew someone interesting.....

Part 3 of audio reading of 'Beam me in, Scotty'

this is an audio post - click to play

Part 2 of audio reading of 'Beam me in, Scotty'

this is an audio post - click to play

Part 1 of audio reading of 'Beam me in, Scotty'

this is an audio post - click to play

Inventor Kurzweil Aiming to Live Forever


WELLESLEY, Mass. (AP) - Ray Kurzweil doesn't tailgate. A man who plans to live forever doesn't take chances with his health on the highway, or anywhere else.

As part of his daily routine, Kurzweil ingests 250 supplements, eight to 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea. He also periodically tracks 40 to 50 fitness indicators, down to his 'tactile sensitivity.' Adjustments are made as needed.

'I do actually fine-tune my programming,' he said.

The famed inventor and computer scientist is serious about his health because if it fails him he might not live long enough to see humanity achieve immortality, a seismic development he predicts in his new book is no more than 20 years away.

It's a blink of an eye in history, but long enough for the 56-year-old Kurzweil to pay close heed to his fitness. He urges others to do the same in 'Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.'

The book is partly a health guide so people can live to benefit from a coming explosion in technology he predicts will make infinite life spans possible.

Kurzweil writes of millions of blood cell-sized robots, which he calls 'nanobots,' that will keep us forever young by swarming through the body, repairing bones, muscles, arteries and brain cells. Improvements to our genetic coding will be downloaded via the Internet. We won't even need a heart.

The claims are fantastic, but Kurzweil is no crank. He's a recipient of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize, which is billed as a sort of Academy Award for inventors, and he won the 1999 National Medal of Technology Award. He has written on the emergence of intelligent machines in publications ranging from Wired to Time magazine. The Christian Science Monitor has called him a 'modern Edison.' He was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. Perhaps the MIT graduate's most famous inventions is the first reading machine for the blind that could read any typeface.

During a recent interview in his company offices, Kurzweil sipped green tea and spoke of humanity's coming immortality as if it's as good as done. He sees human intelligence not only conquering its biological limits, including death, but completely mastering the natural world.

"In my view, we are not another animal, subject to nature's whim," he said.

Critics say Kurzweil's predictions of immortality are wild fantasies based on unjustifiable leaps from current technology.

"I'm not calling Ray a quack, but I am calling his message about immortality in line with the claims of other quacks that are out there." said Thomas Perls, a Boston University aging specialist who studies the genetics of centenarians.

Sherwin Nuland, a bioethics professor at Yale University's School of Medicine, calls Kurzweil a "genius" but also says he's a product of a narcissistic age when brilliant people are becoming obsessed with their longevity.

"They've forgotten they're acting on the basic biological fear of death and extinction, and it distorts their rational approach to the human condition," Nuland said.

Kurzweil says his critics often fail to appreciate the exponential nature of technological advance, with knowledge doubling year by year so that amazing progress eventually occurs in short periods.

His predictions, Kurzweil said, are based on carefully constructed scientific models that have proven accurate. For instance, in his 1990 book, "The Age of Intelligent Machines," Kurzweil predicted the development of a worldwide computer network and of a computer that could beat a chess champion.

"It's not just guesses," he said. "There's a methodology to this."

Kurzweil's been thinking big ever since he was little. At age 8, he developed a miniature theater in which a robotic device moved the scenery. By 16, the Queens, N.Y., native built his own computer and programmed it to compose original melodies.

His interest in health developed out of concern about his own future. Kurzweil's grandfather and father suffered from heart disease, his father dying when Kurzweil was 22. Kurzweil was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in his mid-30s.

After insulin treatments were ineffective, Kurzweil devised his own solution, including a drastic cut in fat consumption, allowing him to control his diabetes without insulin.

His rigorous health regimen is not excessive, just effective, he says, adding that his worst sickness in the last several years has been mild nasal congestion.

In the past decade, Kurzweil's interests in technology and health sciences have merged as scientists have discovered similarities.

"All the genes we have, the 20,000 to 30,000 genes, are little software programs," Kurzweil said.

In his latest book, Kurzweil defines what he calls his three bridges to immortality. The "First Bridge" is the health regimen he describes with co-author Dr. Terry Grossman to keep people fit enough to cross the "Second Bridge," a biotechnological revolution.

Kurzweil writes that humanity is on the verge of controlling how genes express themselves and ultimately changing the genes. With such technology, humanity could block disease-causing genes and introduce new ones that would slow or stop the aging process.

The "Third Bridge" is the nanotechnology and artificial intelligence revolution, which Kurzweil predicts will deliver the nanobots that work like repaving crews in our bloodstreams and brains. These intelligent machines will destroy disease, rebuild organs and obliterate known limits on human intelligence, he believes.

Immortality would leave little standing in current society, in which the inevitability of death is foundational to everything from religion to retirement planning. The planet's natural resources would be greatly stressed, and the social order shaken.

Kurzweil says he believes new technology will emerge to meet increasing human needs. And he said society will be able to control the advances he predicts as long as it makes decisions openly and democratically, without excessive government interference.

But there are no guarantees, he adds.

Meanwhile, Kurzweil refuses to concede the inevitably of his own death, even if science doesn't advance as quickly as he predicts.

"Death is a tragedy," a process of suffering that rids the world of its most tested, experienced members - people whose contributions to science and the arts could only multiply with agelessness, he said.

Kurzweil said he's no "cheerleader" for unlimited scientific progress and added he knows science can't answer questions about why eternal lives are worth living. That's left for philosophers and theologians, he said.

But to him there's no question of huge advances in things that make life worth living, such as art, cultural, music and science.

"Biological evolution passed the baton of progress to human cultural and technological development," he said.

Lee Silver, a Princeton biologist, said he'd love to believe in the future as Kurzweil sees it, but the problem is, humans are involved.

The instinct to preserve individuality, and to gain advantage for yourself and children, would survive any breakthrough into biological immortality - which Silver doesn't think is possible. The gap between the haves and have-nots would widen and Kurzweil's vision of a united humanity would become ever more elusive, he said.

"I think it would require a change in human nature," Silver said, "and I don't think people want to do that."

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

I Come from Planet Tiffany....

I'm trying to convince my wife now that it's a good thing when I say "To the Moon, Teresa!"

"Feb 8, 8:39 AM (ET)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some planets in our galaxy could harbor an unexpected treasure: a thick layer of diamonds hiding under the surface, astronomers reported on Monday.

No diamond planet exists in our solar system, but some planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way might have enough carbon to produce a diamond layer, Princeton University astronomer Marc Kuchner said in a telephone news conference.

That kind of planet would have to develop differently from Earth, Mars and Venus, so-called silicate planets made up mostly of silicon-oxygen compounds.

Carbon planets might form more like some meteorites than like Earth, which is believed to have condensed from a disk of gas orbiting the sun.

In gas with extra carbon or too little oxygen, carbon compounds like carbides and graphite could form instead of silicates, Kuchner said at a conference on extrasolar planets in Aspen, Colorado.

Any condensed graphite would change into diamond under the high pressures inside carbon planets, potentially forming diamond layers inside the planets many miles thick.

Carbon planets would be made mostly of carbides, although they might have iron cores and atmospheres. Carbides are a kind of ceramic used to line the cylinders of motorcycle engines among other things, Kuchner said.

Planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257 12 may be carbon planets, possibly forming from the disruption of a star that produced carbon as it aged, he said.

Other good candidates for carbon planets might be those located near the galaxy's center, where stars have more carbon than the sun. In fact, the galaxy as a whole is becoming richer in carbon as it gets older, raising the possibility all planets in the future may be carbon planets, Kuchner said."

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Ad campaigns that go wrong

From the San Francisco Chronicle...including one from Parker Pen in the 1930's:

"Sunday, February 6, 2005

Despite all the hype, no one can guarantee that today's Super Bowl match-up between the Patriots and Eagles will be riveting, or that Sir Paul's performance at halftime will make us forget last year's wardrobe malfunction. But there is one sure thing: It's still the Super Bowl of Advertising, as a 30- second TV spot will set you back a mere $2.4 million.

In honor of those pricey spots and the nervous ad folks who created them, we've decided to take a look at a few classic campaigns gone wrong.

Behind the Iron Curtain: Clairol in Germany

A few years back, Clairol, the hair products company, introduced a curling iron called the "Mist Stick" to the world. The vapor wand was all the rage with stylistic vunder-babes and sold like hotcakes worldwide ... except when Clairol execs brought the beauty product into Germany. Turns out that "mist" is German slang for "manure" or "excrement." And while many farmers may have had a use for a Manure Stick, fair-haired beauties did not. On a related note, Rolls-Royce had a mighty hard time marketing its "Silver Mist" coupe to Germans.

A pun in the oven: Parker pens in Latin America

In 1935, the Parker Pen Co. invented and marketed a truly innovative product: a reliable fountain pen. Most businessman of the day carried their pens in sparkling white shirts, and the Parker model offered them the promise of being able to holster those puppies without worrying whether they would leak or stain. The pen was a wonder, and the ad slogan "Avoid embarrassment, use Parker Pens," was a huge success. The next step? Go global, of course.

When they first expanded their market to Latin America, what the folks at Parker wanted to say was, "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you." Problem was that the Spanish word "embarazar" has a double-meaning; it means "to embarrass," but it also means to "impregnate." So, to some unsuspecting souls, the ad read: "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant."

You say potato: the unsuspecting guy in Miami

For every large corporation that's made a translation blunder, there are undoubtedly scores of smaller businesses that similarly messed up international opportunities. When Pope John Paul II visited Miami in September 1987, a rather enterprising gentleman thought he'd cash in by offering T- shirts with the phrase "I saw the Pope" in Spanish. Unfortunately, instead of using "el Papa" ("the Pope"), he mistakenly substituted "la Papa" ('the potato"). And while spuds everywhere rejoiced at their newfound fame, all eyes were on the businessman, who found himself the subject of everlasting public ridicule.

How you gonna clean up this mess? Electrolux in America

American companies aren't the only ones that have fumbled their ad campaigns on foreign soil. Sometimes the embarrassment is imported to our very own shores. Case in point: Electrolux, the Scandinavian electronics company. Electrolux can make one heck of a refrigerator (Frigidare) and if you need a vacuum cleaner that'll suck the chrome off a trailer hitch, they're your guys. But the company ran into a little trouble trying to persuade the American consumer of that in the early 1970s. When the company took its catchy rhyming phrase "nothing sucks like an Electrolux" and brought it to America from English-speaking markets overseas, they failed to take into consideration the fact that "sucks" had become a derogatory word in the States. The serious language barrier persuaded the firm to turn to a U.S.-based PR firm for future ad campaigns.

Character development: Coke in China*

(*Read on, Urban Legend Police)

Because Coca-Cola is one of the most famous global brands, its slipups become all the more legendary. You may have heard that the company was humiliated after the Coke name was translated into Chinese as "bite the wax tadpole," but that's not exactly true. It happened more like this: Upon first shipping the soft drink to China in the 1920s, the company attempted to group Chinese characters together that, when pronounced, would make the sound "Coca- Cola."

Although the company never officially adopted it, some shops used phrases that translated to oddities like "bite the wax tadpole" or "wax-flattened mare. " The problem was that the "la" sound meant "wax," and there was no way around using it. Undeterred, Coke researched more than 40,000 characters to find a usable phonetic equivalent and even started a contest to come up with the best translation. Finally, Coke found a combination that worked, and the new trademarked name in China loosely translates to "happiness in the mouth." Even though the urban legend surrounding this incident places a lot more blame on the company itself, the story has still come to serve as the quintessential anecdote for companies initiating global ad campaigns.

Baby Boom to Baby Bust: Procter & Gamble in Japan

In 1961, Procter & Gamble introduced the world's first disposable diaper, and landfill owners have been rejoicing ever since. But P&G's biggest overseas advertising blunder occurred a decade later when the firm introduced its Pampers brand in Japan. The corporation's ad team used an advertisement that had done well in the U.S. market, and one quite familiar to most Baby Boomers: an animated stork delivering Pampers diapers to a happy home.

Unfortunately, when dubbed into Japanese for broadcast, this cutesy commercial failed to do the trick. Japanese consumers were utterly confused as to why a bird was delivering disposable diapers. Contrary to Western folklore, storks in the Orient are not supposed to deliver babies (although if one's big enough, it may very well steal an infant from a baby carriage). Had the ad lackeys done their jobs, however, they might have found an allegory that would have worked. In Japan, a 14th century fable has it that babies arrive in giant peaches, floating peacefully along rivers and streams to deserving parents. Storks are just plain scary.

Adapted from mental_floss magazine. For more quirky fun, visit "

Friday, February 04, 2005

Astronomers Find 'Hot Spot' on Saturn


HONOLULU (AP) - Astronomers using a giant telescope atop a volcano have discovered a hot spot at the tip of Saturn's south pole.

The infrared images captured by the Keck I telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island suggest a warm polar vortex - a large-scale weather pattern likened to a jet stream on Earth that occurs in the upper atmosphere. It's the first such hot vortex ever discovered in the solar system.

The team of scientists say the images are the sharpest thermal views of Saturn ever taken from the ground. Their work will be a published in Friday's editions of the journal Science.

This warm polar cap is believed to contain the highest temperatures on Saturn; the scientists did not give a temperature estimate.

On Earth, the Arctic Polar Vortex is typically located over eastern North America in Canada and plunges cold arctic air to the northern Plains in the United States.

Polar vortices are found on Earth, Jupiter, Mars and Venus, and are colder than their surroundings. The new images from the Keck Observatory show the first evidence of a polar vortex at much warmer temperatures.

'Saturn's is the first hot polar vortex that we've seen because it's been sitting in the sunlight for about 18 years,' said Glenn S. Orton, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and lead author.

Saturn, which takes many earth years to orbit the sun, just had its summer solstice in 2002.

'If the increased southern temperatures are solely the result of seasonality, then the temperature should increase gradually with increasing latitude, but it doesn't,' Orton said. 'We see that the temperature increases abruptly by several degrees near 70 degrees south and again at 87 degrees south.

'A really hot thing within a couple degrees of the pole is something I don't understand at all,' he said.

Scientists may learn more from the data coming from the infrared spectrometer on the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn, information that is expected to complement the Keck discovery, Orton said."

First Artificial Neon Sky Show Created

This is the same Project HAARP that worries overnight listeners to the Art Bell/George Noory 'Coast to Coast' radio program, as guests have expressed concerns that we're engaged in trying to influence major weather systems directly.

Images from the HAARP camera showing speckle-like artificial optical emissions superimposed on the background natural aurora only during frames when the transmitter was on. The experiment was conducted March 10, 2004 and the results released Feb. 2, 2005.

"By shooting intense radio beams into the night sky, researchers created a modest neon light show visible from the ground. The process is not well understood, but scientists speculate it could one day be employed to light a city or generate celestial advertisements.

Researchers with the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) project in Alaska tickled the upper atmosphere to the extent that it glowed with green speckles.

The speckles were sprinkled amid a natural display known as the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. The aurora occurs when electrons from a cloud of hot gas, known as plasma, rain down from space and excite molecules in the ionosphere, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) up.

The HAARP experiment involves acres of antennas and a 1 megawatt generator. The scientists sent radio pulses skyward every 7.5 seconds, explained team leader Todd Pederson of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

'The radio waves travel up to the ionosphere, where they excite the electrons in the plasma,' Pederson told LiveScience. 'These electrons then collide with atmospheric gasses, which then give off light, as in a neon tube.'

Pederson and his colleagues missed the show, but they snapped images.

'We unfortunately were indoors watching the data on monitors during the experiment and were busy scrambling trying to make sure the effects were real and not some glitch with the equipment,' he said. 'We knew right away it was something extraordinary to show up in real time on the monitor against the natural aurora, but did not confirm that it would have been visible to the naked eye until a day or two later when we had a chance to calibrate the raw data.'

The experiment is detailed in the Feb. 2 issue of the journal Nature.

The research could improve understanding of the aurora and also help explain how the ionosphere adversely affects radio communications.

It is not yet clear if the aurora must already be active before an artificial sky show can be induced, says Karl Ziemelis, chief physics editor at the journal.

If no pre-existing aurora is required, Ziemelis said, 'we are left with the tantalizing (some would say disconcerting) possibility that such radio-fuelled emissions could form the basis of a technology for urban lighting, celestial advertising, and more.'"

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The New York Times > Science > Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respect

A fascinating, if too brief, article attesting to the latest scientific investigation into avian intelligence. It begins to shore-up many amazing anecdotal reports that I've come across over the years seeming to demonstrate real language understanding and complex problem-solving techniques as well as creation and use of tools amongst our feathered friends.


Published: February 1, 2005

Birdbrain has long been a colloquial term of ridicule. The common notion is that birds' brains are simple, or so scientists thought and taught for many years. But that notion has increasingly been called into question as crows and parrots, among other birds, have shown what appears to be behavior as intelligent as that of chimpanzees.

The clash of simple brain and complex behavior has led some neuroscientists to create a new map of the avian brain.

Today, in the journal Nature Neuroscience Reviews, an international group of avian experts is issuing what amounts to a manifesto. Nearly everything written in anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is wrong, they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any mammalian brain, they argue, and it is time to adopt a more accurate nomenclature that reflects a new understanding of the anatomies of bird and mammal brains.

'Names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way we think,' said Dr. Erich D. Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Duke University and a leader of the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium. 'Old terminology has hindered scientific progress.'

The consortium of 29 scientists from six countries met for seven years to develop new, more accurate names for structures in both avian and mammalian brains. For example, the bird's seat of intelligence or its higher brain is now termed the pallium.

'The correction of terms is a great advance,' said Dr. Jon Kaas, a leading expert in neuroanatomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who did not participate in the consortium. 'It's hard to get scientists to agree about anything.'

Scientists have come to agree that birds are indeed smart, but those who study avian intelligence differ on how birds got that way. Experts, including those in the consortium, are split into two warring camps. One holds that birds' brains make the same kinds of internal connections as do mammalian brains and that intelligence in both groups arises from these connections. The other holds that bird intelligence evolved through expanding an old part of the mammal brain and using it in new ways, and it questions how developed that intelligence is.

'There are still puzzles to be solved,' said Dr. Peter Marler, a leading authority on bird behavior at the University of California, Davis, who is not part of the consortium. But the realization that one can study mammal brains by using bird brains, he said, 'is a revolution.'

'I think that birds are going to replace the white rat as the favored subject for studying functional neuroanatomy,' he added.

The reanalysis of avian brains gives new credibility to many behaviors that seem odd coming from presumably dumb birds. Crows not only make hooks and spears of small sticks to carry on foraging expeditions, some have learned to put walnuts on roads for cars to crack. African gray parrots not only talk, they have a sense of humor and make up new words. Baby songbirds babble like human infants, using the left sides of their brains.

Avian brains got their bad reputation a century ago from the German neurobiologist Ludwig Edinger, known as the father of comparative anatomy. Edinger believed that evolution was linear, Dr. Jarvis said. Brains evolved like geologic strata. Layer upon layer, the brains evolved from old to new, from fish to amphibians to reptiles to birds to mammals. By Edinger's standards, fish were the least intelligent. Humans, created in God's image, were the most intelligent. Edinger cut up all kinds of vertebrate brains, noting similarities and differences, Dr. Jarvis said.

In mammals, the bottom third of the brain contained neurons organized in clusters. The top two-thirds of the brain, called the neocortex, consisted of a flat sheet of cells with six layers. This new brain, the seat of higher intelligence, lay over the old brain, the seat of instinctual behaviors.

In humans, the neocortex grew so immense that it was forced to assume folds and fissures, so as to fit inside the skull."

Birds' brains, in contrast, were composed entirely of clusters. Edinger concluded that without a six-layered cortex, birds could not possibly be intelligent. Rather, their brains were fully dedicated to instinctual behaviors.

This view persisted through the 20th century and is still found in most biology textbooks, said Dr. Harvey Karten, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the consortium, whose research has long challenged the classic view.

There is a bird way and a mammal way to create intelligence, Dr. Karten said. One uses clusters. One uses flat sheet cells in six layers. Each exploits the basic design of having a lower brain and a higher brain with mutual connections.

In the 1960's, Dr. Karten carried out experiments using new techniques to trace brain wiring and identify the paths taken by various brain chemicals. In humans, a chemical called dopamine is found mostly in lower brain areas, called basal ganglia, which consist of clusters.

Using the same tracing techniques in birds, Dr. Karten found that dopamine also projected primarily to lower clusters and no higher. Later studies show numerous similarities between clusters in the mammalian brain and lower clusters in the avian brain. Experts now agree that the two regions are evolutionarily older structures that lie underneath a newer mantle.

Where the experts divide is on the question of the upper clusters in a bird's brain. Agreed, they are not primitive basal ganglia. But where did they come from? How did they evolve? What is their function?

Dr. Karten and others in the consortium think these clusters are directly analogous to layers in the mammalian brain. They migrate from similar embryonic precursors and perform the same functions.

For example, in mammals, sensory information - sights, sounds, touch - flows through a lower brain region called the thalamus and enters the cortex at the fourth layer in the six-layered cortex.

In birds, sensory information flows through the thalamus and enters specific clusters that are functionally equivalent to the fourth layer. In this view, other clusters perform functions done by different layers in the mammal brain.

A second group, including Dr. Georg Striedter of the University of California, Irvine, a consortium member, believes that upper clusters in the avian brain are an elaboration of two mammalian structures - the claustrum and the amygdala. In this view, these structures look alike in bird and mammal embryos. But in birds they grow to enormous proportions and have evolved entirely new ways to support intelligence.

In mammals, the amygdala is involved in emotional systems, Dr. Striedter said. "But birds use it for integrating information," he said. "It's not emotional anymore."

Meanwhile, examples of brilliance in birds continue to flow from fields and laboratories worldwide.

Dr. Nathan Emery and Dr. Nicola Clayton at the University of Cambridge in England study comparisons between apes and corvids - crows, jays, ravens and jackdaws. Relative to its body size, the crow brain is the same size as the chimpanzee brain.

Everyone knows apes use simple tools like twigs, Dr. Emery said, selecting different ones for different purposes. But New Caledonian crows create more complex tools with their beaks and feet. They trim and sculpture twigs to fashion hooks for fetching food. They make spears out of barbed leaves, probing under leaf detritus for prey.

In a laboratory, when a crow named Betty was given metal wires of various lengths and a four-inch vertical pipe with food at the bottom, she chose a four-inch wire, made a hook and retrieved the food.

Apes and corvids are highly social. One explanation for intelligence is that it evolved to process and use social information - who is allied with whom, who is related to whom and how to use this information for deception. They also remember.

Clark nutcrackers can hide up to 30,000 seeds and recover them up to six months later.

Nutcrackers also hide and steal. If they see another bird watching them as they cache food, they return later, alone, to hide the food again. Some scientists believe this shows a rudimentary theory of mind - understanding that another bird has intentions and beliefs.

Magpies, at an earlier age than any other creature tested, develop an understanding of the fact that when an object disappears behind a curtain, it has not vanished.

At a university campus in Japan, carrion crows line up patiently at the curb waiting for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop, they hop into the crosswalk, place walnuts from nearby trees onto the road and hop back to the curb. After the light changes and cars run over the nuts, the crows wait until it is safe and hop back out for the food.

Pigeons can memorize up to 725 different visual patterns, and are capable of what looks like deception. Pigeons will pretend to have found a food source, lead other birds to it and then sneak back to the true source.

Parrots, some researchers report, can converse with humans, invent syntax and teach other parrots what they know. Researchers have claimed that Alex, an African gray, can grasp important aspects of number, color concepts, the difference between presence and absence, and physical properties of objects like their shapes and materials. He can sound out letters the same way a child does.

Like mammals, some birds are naturally smarter than others, Dr. Jarvis said. But given their range of behaviors, birds are extraordinarily flexible in their intelligence quotients. "They're right up there with hominids," he said."

High notes of the singing Neanderthals

"NEANDERTHALS have been misunderstood. The early humanoids traditionally characterised as ape-like brutes were deeply emotional beings with high-pitched voices. They may even have sung to each other, writes Jonathan Leake.

The new image has emerged from two studies of the vocal apparatus and anatomy of the creatures that occupied Europe between 200,000 and 35,000 years ago.

Neanderthal voices were loud, womanly and probably highly melodic — not the roars and grunts previously assumed by most researchers. Stephen Mithen, professor of archeology at Reading University and author of one of the studies, said: “What is emerging is a picture of an intelligent and emotionally complex creature whose most likely form of communication would have been part language and part song.”

Mithen is giving a seminar on his findings at University College London next week and will publish a book, The Singing Neanderthal: The Origin of Language, Music, Body and Mind, in June.

He studied the Neanderthal voice box and compared it with those of modern humans, monkeys and apes to work out what noises they might have made. “They must have been able to communicate complex ideas and even spirituality. Their anatomy suggests that pitch and melody would have played a key role,” he said.

Mithen’s work coincides with the first detailed study of a reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton. Anthropologists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York brought together bones and casts from several sites to re-create the creature.

Gary Sawyer, the researcher who oversaw the project, will describe the results in Horizon on BBC2 on February 10. The creature that emerges bears marked differences to humans. Neanderthals seem to have had an extremely powerful build and no discernible waist.

Professor Trenton Holliday of Tulane University in New Orleans believes they evolved their stocky body shapes to conserve heat when ice covered the world.

“A short compact body with a voluminous chest would retain heat better in a cold environment,” he said."