Saturday, April 29, 2006

Olive branch solves a Bronze Age mystery

"Compared to the well-studied world of Homer�s Iliad and Odyssey, the civilizations that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean just before Homer�s time are still cloaked in mystery.

Even the basic chronology of the region during this time has been heatedly debated. Now, a resolution has finally emerged -- initiated, quite literally, by an olive branch.

Scientists have discovered the remains of a single olive tree, buried alive during a massive volcanic eruption during the Late Bronze Age. A study that dates this tree, plus another study that dates a series of objects from before, during and after the eruption, now offer a new timeline for one of the earliest chapters of European civilization. "

click on the title to read more

Friday, April 28, 2006

Da Vinci judge's secret code revealed

"Mystery solved. It was the admiral.

A secret code embedded in the text of a court ruling in the case of Dan Brown's bestseller 'The Da Vinci Code' has been cracked, but far from revealing an ancient conspiracy it is simply an obscure reference to a Royal Navy admiral.

British High Court Justice Peter Smith, who handed down a ruling that Brown had not plagiarized his book, had embedded his own secret message in his judgment by italicizing letters scattered throughout the 71-page document.

In Brown's book, a secret code reveals an ancient conspiracy to hide facts about Jesus Christ.

The judge's own code briefly caused a wave of amused speculation when it was discovered by a lawyer this week, nearly a month after the ruling was handed down.

But the lawyer, Dan Tench, cracked it after a day of puzzling. The judge's code was based on the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical progression discussed in the book.

"After much trial and error, we found a formula which fitted," wrote Tench, who had nothing to do with the Brown case but discovered the italicized letters when studying the ruling.

The judge's secret message was: "Jackie Fisher, who are you? Dreadnought," Tench wrote in the Guardian newspaper.

Judge Smith is known as a navy buff, and Fisher was a Royal Navy admiral who developed the idea for a giant battleship called the HMS Dreadnought in the early 20th century.

Tench wrote that the judge had e-mailed him to confirm he had guessed the secret code right.

The judge later confirmed the existence of the code, and revealed that the Fibonacci sequence was indeed the secret to its solution.

"The message reveals a significant but now overlooked event that occurred virtually 100 years to the day of the start of the trial," he said in a statement.

He said that he is not normally much of a fan of puzzles, such as the Japanese number puzzles that have become an obsession of the British press.

"The preparation of the Code took about 40 minutes and its insertion another 40 minutes or so," he wrote. 'I hate crosswords and do not do Sudoku as I do not have the patience.'"

400 Dead Dolphins Found in Tanzania

"At least 400 dead dolphins were found on Zanzibar's northern coastline early Friday, alarming villagers, fishermen and tour operators, residents said.

It was not immediately clear what killed the dolphins, whose carcasses were found along a 2 1/2-mile stretch of Nungwi, a popular tourist destination in this semiautonomous Indian Ocean archipelago, said Narriman Jidawi, a marine biologist at the Institute of Marine Science in Zanzibar.

Villagers, fishermen and hotel residents found the carcasses and alerted officials, residents said.
Mussa Aboud Jumbe, Zanzibar's director of fisheries, immediately went on the state radio to warn the public against consuming meat from the dead dolphins, adding that authorities were trying to determine the cause of their death.

The mass deaths is a blow to the tourism industry in Zanzibar, where thousands of visitors go to watch and swim with wild dolphins, said Abdulsamad Melhi, owner of Sunset Bungalows that is perched atop a small cliff overlooking the beach.

Dolphin tourism has replaced hunting in Zanzibar, where they once were used as bait for shark fishing.
The Indo-Pacific bottlenose, humpback and spinner porpoises, commonly known as dolphins, are the most common species in Zanzibar's coastal waters, with bottlenose and humpback dolphins often found in mixed-species groups. "

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Songbirds May Be Able to Learn Grammar

"The simplest grammar, long thought to be one of the skills that separate man from beast, can be taught to a common songbird, new research suggests.

Starlings learned to differentiate between a regular birdsong 'sentence' and one containing a clause or another sentence of warbling, according to a study in Thursday's journal Nature. It took University of California at San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get the birds to recognize the most basic of grammar in their own bird language.

Yet what they learned may shake up the field of linguistics."

click on title to read more

Writing traced to nature, ancient shapes

"The shapes of letters in all languages are derived from common forms in nature, according to a new hypothesis.

The idea, in some ways seemingly obvious and innately human, arose however from a study of how robots see the world.

Robots employ object recognition technology to navigate a room by recognizing contours. A corner is seen as a 'Y,' for example, and a wall is recognized by the L-shape it makes where it meets the floor.

"It struck me that these junctions are typically named with letters, such as 'L,' 'T,' 'Y,' 'K,' and 'X,' and that it may not be a coincidence that the shapes of these letters look like the things they really are in nature," said Mark Changizi, a theoretical neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Changizi and his colleagues think letters and symbols in Chinese, Latin, Persian and 97 other writing systems that have been used through the ages have shapes that humans are good at seeing.

"Evolution has shaped our visual system to be good at seeing the structures we commonly encounter in nature, and culture has apparently selected our writing systems and visual signs to have these same shapes," Changizi said.

The idea is put forth in The American Naturalist magazine.

Changizi notes that a basic shape such as "L" can be easily bent to form a "V." He found 36 shapes that require just two or three contours, and he then correlated these shapes to common scenes in nature and in ancient architecture.

"So the figures we use in symbolic systems and writing systems seem to be selected because they are easy to see rather than easy to write," he concludes. "They're for the eye."

Even graphic art that is not necessarily alphabet-based conforms to the idea.

"Company logos, for example, are meant to be recognized, and we found that logos have a high correlation," Changizi said. 'Shorthand systems, which are meant to give a note-taker speed at the expense of a commonly recognizable system of symbols, do not.'"

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Scientists: Black Holes Energy-Efficient

Excite News - Scientists: Black Holes Energy-Efficient: "With gasoline hitting $3 per gallon, scientists have just found the most energy-efficient engines in the universe - black holes, those whirling super-dense centers of galaxies that suck in nearly everything.

The jets of energy spurting out of older ultra-efficient black holes also seem to be playing a crucial role as zoning cops in large galaxies, preventing too many stars from sprouting. That explains why there aren't as many burgeoning galaxies chock full of stars as previously expected, said scientists citing results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory that were released Monday.

For the first time, scientists measured both the mass of hot gas that is being sucked into nine older black holes and the unseen super-speedy jets of high energy particles spit out, which essentially form a cosmic engine. Then they determined a rate of how efficient these older black hole engines are and were awe-struck.

These black holes are 25 times more efficient than anything man has built, with nuclear power being the most efficient of man-made efforts, said study lead author Steve Allen of Stanford University and the
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

"If you could make a car engine that was as efficient as one of these black hole engines you could get about a billion miles per gallon of gas," Allen said. 'In anyone's book that would be pretty green.'"

Friday, April 21, 2006

Retiree flushes fortune down the toilet

"A German pensioner flushed bundles of old banknotes worth a small fortune down the toilet because he thought they were now worthless, police in the northern city of Kiel said Thursday.

'He flushed the cash down the loo because he didn't think it was worth anything,' said police spokesman Uwe Voigt.

Police said he dumped some 60,000 deutschemarks -- which the euro replaced in 2002 -- into the bowl, unaware they could still be exchanged for about 30,000 euros ($37,000).

Sewage workers recovered about half the sodden currency from the 64-year-old's plumbing. The remaining notes created a bottleneck in local sewers, where most were fished out.

'There may have been more cash that got away,' said Voigt.

Police said the man lived in 'spartan' circumstances and had dried out the notes and taken them to a bank. It was unclear if he had laundered the money first."

The last sentence was worth reading the whole thing. :)


"A RETIRED school teacher, who has hand-written the church electoral roll in Horsted Keynes for the last 20 years, is hanging up his pens.

Bob Cullens, 82, of Highbrook, took up the job of listing all the names and addresses of parishioners at St Giles' Church after attending an evening class in scribe work.

Though his predecessor had typed the list of 130 names, Bob said he got a lot of pleasure from his writing and every year he re-wrote the document by hand using a variety of nibs and a pot of ink.
Bob said: 'I was never good at typing, and hand-written script is one of the things I've always wanted to do.

'With all the various fonts you can get with a PC, you can get some splendid work but there was something about having it hand done. We like hand-made things, like hand knitted jumpers.'

Bob, who also makes and decorates ornate cakes on request, said he used to spend more than five hours in half hour sessions on his labour of love which could often be frustrating.

He said: 'You have to think a long way ahead because it has to be completed before a certain time and there are always people who don't think about putting their name forward until the last week, so often names have to be added at the end.'

Bob finally decided to pass the job on so he could look after his wife. He said: 'I don't think my writing is as good now. My hand is fairly steady but I'm past my prime. I decided to give up because my wife was ill and I have to spend my time with her. So I no longer go to church regularly and I'm getting out of touch.'
The role will now pass to ex-postmaster Jim Brimfield of Horsted Keynes. Bob said: 'It's up to Jim how he will present it but I expect he will type"

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Astronaut Neil Armstrong Gets Moon Rock

"Even among astronauts, Neil Armstrong gets special respect - he was, after all, the first man to walk on the moon.

On Tuesday, the Apollo 11 astronaut got a piece of the moon rock he brought back to Earth.

'I get to keep it myself only so long as I speak today. So I'm going to be talking longer than usual,' Armstrong joked at a ceremony in which NASA presented him with the rock.

The rock - about 2 grams of medium light gray, fine-grained basalt encased in clear plastic - was part of NASA's Ambassadors of Exploration award. It was created to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moon walk by Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

NASA has also designated the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs as Ambassadors of Exploration.

Armstrong accepted the award at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where it will be on permanent display. About 200 guests attended.

Armstrong enjoys his privacy and has a reputation for not liking to talk about himself or his accomplishments, and he stayed true to form. He talked at length, however, about the formation of the universe and how the 3.7 billion-year-old moon rock related to changes that occurred on Earth.

John Glenn, who has orbited Earth and has been a U.S. senator from Ohio, said he's usually not envious of others, but for Armstrong, 'I make a big exception.
'I envy Neil for that wonderful, wonderful experience,' he said. "

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Black holes thrown in Einstein's blender

"The types of black hole mergers predicted by general relativity have been accurately simulated in a computer model for the first time.

The new three-dimensional model provides a direct test of Albert Einstein's theory and could guide the hunt for gravitational waves, one of the most elusive and sought-after forms of energy in the universe.

'In the past, we've always shown animations or artists' conceptions of gravitational waves, but now we have Einstein's conception,' said Joan Centralla, head of the Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the team that created the model."

Animations can be viewed here

Monday, April 17, 2006

Falling ice perplexes scientists / Theories abound after 2 chunks land in state in a week

"The skies are raining big chunks of ice, and experts ranging from scientists to federal investigators are scrambling to learn what's going on.

For the second time in a week, California was the victim of an aerial, icy assault, the latest being early Thursday when a chunk of ice the size of a microwave oven plunged out of a cloudless sky into the San Bernardino County town of Loma Linda. The ice punched through the metal roof of a recreation center, leaving a hole up to 2 1/2 feet wide, then fragmented into opaque, brilliant white chunks, one as big as a bowling ball. No one was hurt."

Click the title to read about possible explanations

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Man Using Paper Clip to Barter for House

"Kyle MacDonald had a red paper clip and a dream: Could he use the community power of the Internet to barter that paper clip for something better, and trade that thing for something else - and so on and so on until he had a house?

After a cross-continental trading trek involving a fish-shaped pen, a town named Yahk and the Web's astonishing ability to bestow celebrity, MacDonald is getting close. He's up to one year's free rent on a house in Phoenix.

Not a bad return on an investment of one red paper clip. Yet MacDonald, 26, vows to keep going until he crosses the threshold of his very own home, wherever that might be.

'It's totally overwhelming, I'm not going to lie,' he said by phone from Montreal, where he and his girlfriend, Dominique Dupuis, live with two roommates. 'But I'm still trading for that house. It's this obsessive thing.'"

Click the title to read more of the article

Click here to go to his blog

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Real First Man In Space

"Talk about one giant leap for mankind!

Few people know it, but the first man in space wasn't an astronaut. It was test pilot Joe Kittinger.

In 1960, the little-known pioneer was part of an U.S. Air Force project called Excelsior, which was designed to test the effects of space on human beings -- and, more important, to determine whether an astronaut could survive an aborted mission, even at 20 miles above the earth.

Kittinger had the right stuff. He traveled all the way into space via balloon -- then jumped out.

'I turned over and I looked, and I could see the balloon flying into space. And then I realized the balloon was standing still and that was me that was flying straight down. Going very fast!' Kittinger told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.

What was his last thought before he leaped?

'Well,' Kittinger said, 'I just said a prayer. I said: 'Lord, take care of me now.' It was the most fervent prayer I ever said in my life.'

Kittinger's historic leaps were big news back in 1960. Life magazine did a huge spread. But Kittinger's death-defying acts soon were eclipsed by rocket-propelled space flight. He quickly became a footnote in the space race.

'Remember,' Kittinger pointed out. 'We didn't have the PR that NASA had.'

A trained fighter and test pilot, Kittinger later volunteered for combat missions in Vietnam. He flew a mind-boggling 483 combat missions during three tours."

Click the title to read more, and click here to read about the man trying to break Kittinger's 46 year old record.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Autopsy Links Policeman Death to Sept. 11

"The death of a 34-year-old police detective who developed respiratory disease after working at ground zero is 'directly related' to Sept. 11, 2001, a New Jersey coroner said in the first known ruling positively linking a death to cleanup work at the World Trade Center site.

James Zadroga's family and union released his autopsy results Tuesday, saying they were proof of the first death of a city police officer related to recovery work after the terrorist attacks.

'It is felt with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the cause of death in this case was directly related to the 9/11 incident,' wrote Gerard Breton, a pathologist at the Ocean County (N.J.) medical examiner's office in the Feb. 28 autopsy.

Zadroga died on Jan. 6 of respiratory failure and had inflammation in his lung tissue due to 'a history of exposure to toxic fumes and dust,' Breton wrote."

Click on the title to read more.

10th Planet Slightly Larger Than Pluto

"An icy ball discovered last year in the outer solar system is only slightly larger than Pluto, casting doubt on previous estimates that the so-called 10th planet was significantly larger, scientists reported Tuesday.

Previous estimates by ground-based telescopes suggested the object known as 2003 UB313 was 30 percent bigger than Pluto.

But the latest measurement by the Hubble Space Telescope has a smaller margin of error and is probably a more accurate estimate, said lead researcher Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology.

According to Hubble, UB313's diameter measures 1,490 miles, give or take 60 miles. Pluto is about 1,422 miles across.

Brown previously reported that UB313 could be up to 2,175 miles in diameter based on its brightness. He said he was surprised by Hubble's findings, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal.

The discovery of UB313, which Brown nicknamed Xena, reinvigorated the debate about what is considered a planet. Some astronomers have questioned whether Pluto should keep its planetary status, while others say UB313 should be the 10th planet because it is bigger than Pluto.

The International Astronomical Union, which oversees the naming of planets, has not taken a stance on the issue.

If it is determined to be the 10th planet, UB313 would be the farthest-known body in the solar system."

Why the ground is brown

"From space, Earth looks blue and green. But put your nose to the ground, and you'll probably see just brown.

Where does the brown ground come from? Green plants, a new study reveals.

As plants wilt and die, their leaves and limbs drop off, bringing carbon that they've stored for a living to the soil.

Tiny microbes in the earth rip the dead plants apart with specialized enzymes, which break the chemical bonds in the plant material, cutting meals into the perfect size for microbes.

The hungry microbes process a large amount of the carbon in the soil, even incorporating some of the element into their own cells.

As busy as they are, microbes can't get all the work done.

"They're not quite a hundred percent efficient," said Steven Allison, an ecologist at the University of California, Irvine. "There's carbon that doesn't get eaten by a microbe and there's carbon in their biomass. Then they die. That carbon then goes into the soil. It's a cycle, there's always carbon left over. This small bit of inefficiency accumulates over time."

The microbes' abundant leftovers, called humic materials, have piled up over thousands of years. The hoard of microbes' carbon scraps gives earth its dirty brown color. Carbon absorbs most colors in sunlight's spectrum, reflecting back only brown light."

Monday, April 10, 2006

China to build reserve for rare dolphin - Science -

"China plans to set up its first reserve for the endangered white dolphin off the coast of the southern city of Zhuhai in the southern Guangdong province, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday.

The city has allocated 460 square kilometers (178 square miles) for the reserve, to be located near Qiao Island in the Pearl River estuary, Xinhua quoted Chen Jialin, director of the reserve, as saying.

Construction on the reserve will begin this year and will focus first on establishing an emergency rescue center for the dolphins, Chen said."

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Putting pen to paper

"You would think that the pen, with the advent of the computer, was going the way of the quill-no way! There still is an aura around writing instruments, with clubs and magazines and societies devoting much passion to these instruments.

There continue to be pens with legendary names, which, to the aficionado, are as renowned as Rolls Royce, Aston Martin or Lamborghini. And for pens of this kind, connoisseurs will go to truly extraordinary lengths."

Click the title to read more

"Monster rabbit" targets vegetable patch

"It sounds like a job for Wallace and Gromit. A 'monster' rabbit has apparently been rampaging through vegetable patches in a small village in northern England, ripping up leeks, munching turnips and infuriating local gardeners.

In an uncanny resemblance to the plot of the hit animated film 'Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit,' angry horticulturists in Felton, near Newcastle, have now mounted an armed guard to protect their prized cabbages and parsnips.

'They call it the monster. It's very big -- it's nearly the size of a dog,' said Joan Smith, whose son Jeff owns one of the plots under attack.

'It's eating everything, all the vegetables,' she told Reuters. 'They are trying to shoot it. They go along hoping to catch it but I think it's too crafty.'

In the "Wallace" film, which topped both the U.S. and UK box office charts and in March won an Oscar for best animated feature film, the plasticine heroes battle a mutant rabbit bent on destroying their home town's annual Giant Vegetable Contest.

Those who say they have witnessed Felton's black and brown monster describe it as a cross between a rabbit and a hare with one ear bigger than the other.

Its antics came to public attention when Jeff Smith, 63, raised it as an issue with the local parish council.

"He came along to pay the annual fee for the allotment (vegetable patch) and he said 'ooh we've got this big cross between a hare and a rabbit,'" the council's clerk Lisa Hamlin told Reuters.

Smith himself has described it as a "brute" which had left huge pawprints.

"This is no ordinary rabbit. We are dealing with a monster," he was quoted by newspapers as saying.

"It is absolutely massive. The first time I saw it I thought to myself 'What the hell is that?'

'We have two lads here with guns who are trying to shoot it, but it is very clever.'"

Everest trek uncovers exotic species

"Mount Everest and the Himalayan mountain range conjure images of yaks and Sherpas loaded with heavy packs. But tucked into the cold shadows of the world's tallest mountain are biologically diverse hotspots filled with poorly known plants and animals found nowhere else on the globe.

Scientists from Conservation International and Disney's Animal Kingdom recently launched a two-month scientific expedition into six regions of the Tibetan 'Sacred Lands' in the mountains of southwest China and Nepal. "

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Teen takes car on 300-mile test drive

"A test drive meant more than just a spin around the block for a New Zealand teen-ager who took a car he was considering buying on a 312-mile drive.

Police in Timaru, about 62 miles southwest of Christchurch, said the 16-year-old boy returned the car after taking it on the lengthy test drive over the weekend.

The boy will not face any charges as the owner did not stipulate any conditions for the test drive, police said on Wednesday."

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Austrians build snow town hall

"Residents of an Austrian community have created a replica of their town hall out of snow and ice.

Volunteers in Arlberg, Austria, carved out the almost full-size replica 2,000 metres above sea level on the side of a mountain.

The 46ft high and 65ft long sculpture took dozens of volunteers under the leadership of sculptor Christoph Strolz hundreds of hours to make.

Skiers in the region can visit the town hall, but instead of red tape only red wine is on offer, in a replica wine cellar built underneath the town hall.

There are also copious amounts of ice wine available as well, the sweet wine served cold and made from grapes only harvested after they are shrivelled to a sixth of their size by the first frost of winter.

The town hall will remain on the mountain until the 5,000 cubic metres of snow and ice have melted."