Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Experts try to save life of gravely injured baby bottlenose dolphin

"The news from Indian River Lagoon was too familiar: another dolphin gravely injured because of human action.

But marine scientist Steve McCulloch immediately saw this rescue was unique. The baby bottlenose dolphin lost her tail, but perhaps her life could be saved.

McCulloch, director of dolphin and whale research at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, decided to channel his anger into a solution.

The solution for the dolphin — dubbed Winter — may be a prosthetic tail.  If the logistics can be worked out, Winter's prosthesis would be the first for a dolphin who lost its tail and the key joint that allows it to move in powerful up-and-down strokes.

"There's never been a dolphin like her," said Dana Zucker, chief operating officer of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is now Winter's home. A dolphin in Japan has a prosthesis, the first in the world, to replace a missing part of its tail.

Winter was a frail, dehydrated 3-month-old when she came to the animal rescue center in December. A fisherman found her tangled in the buoy line of a crab trap in Indian River Lagoon near Cape Canaveral. The line tightened around her tail as she tried to swim away, strangling the blood supply to her tail flukes. "It looked like paper," Zucker said of Winter's tail. "Bit by bit over the weeks it just fell off." Winter was left with a rounded stump.

A team of more than 150 volunteers and veterinarians spent months nursing Winter back to health. Zucker and her family cuddled with Winter and fed her a special mix of infant formula and pureed fish in the aquarium's rescue pool. Winter learned how to swim without her tail, amazing her handlers with a combination of moves that resemble an alligator's undulations and a shark's side-to-side tail swipes. She uses her flippers, normally employed for steering and braking, to get moving. Winter can't keep up with wild dolphins that can swim up to 25 mph with strokes of their tail flukes. She will be a permanent resident at the aquarium, even if she gets a prosthetic tail.

In the tank, she swims and plays with another dolphin, rolling and diving and surfacing to demand belly rubs and fish from her caretakers.

Uncharted territory

Zucker has formed a team to discuss the prospects of designing a tail for Winter. It has been consulting with a diving gear manufacturer, a tire company and the Navy, which has experience attaching items to dolphins for military research. It's uncharted territory. Fuji, an elderly dolphin who lives at an aquarium in Okinawa, Japan, had part of his tail remaining on which to attach a prosthesis. Winter doesn't. Both her tail flukes and peduncle, a wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin's tail to move up and down, were lost to necrosis. It is not clear how the prosthetic tail would be attached to her stump, but it would need to be tough.

"The dolphin's tail fin is the most powerful swimming mechanism Mother Nature ever designed," McCulloch said.  "When you see how much pressure they put on their flukes, the prosthesis is going to take a marvel of modern engineering." Veterinarians are unsure if a prosthesis will be beneficial or harmful in the long term. Swimming without a tail may ultimately wear on Winter's spine. She would need at least three tails as she grows. She is now about 4 feet long and weighs 110 pounds. When she is full grown at age 15, Winter will be twice as long and four times as heavy.

The cost of the prosthetic tail is unknown. "All I know is Fuji's tail cost $100,000 — and that was in 2004," McCulloch said. That's equal to the entire monthly operating budget of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Zucker said. The small animal hospital relies mostly on volunteer workers; its roof leaks in heavy rains.

"We're a mom and pop shop," Zucker said. "It's a labor of love." She expects the design cost of the tail will be underwritten by the company that creates it. It's the cost of the long-term care of Winter — and the other injured animals in her care — that worry her.

Winter is a living reminder for humans to be careful about what they leave in the water. "The kids get it right away. It's the adults, more creatures of habit, who take more persuasion," McCulloch said. "You can't outlaw fishing line, but you can educate a fisherman not to use careless techniques such as tossing out line."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ancient Pet Cemeteries Found in Peru

Ancient Pet Cemeteries Found in Peru:
Even in ancient Peru, it seems dogs were a man's best friend. Peruvian investigators have discovered a pre-Columbian culture of dog lovers who built pet cemeteries and buried their pets with warm blankets and even treats for the afterlife.

"They are dogs that were thanked and recognized for their social and familial contribution," anthropologist Sonia Guillen said. "These dogs were not sacrificed."

Since 1993, researchers have unearthed 82 dog tombs in pet cemetery plots, laid alongside human mummy tombs of the Chiribaya people in the fertile Osmore River valley, 540 miles southeast of Lima. The Chiribaya were farmers who lived from A.D. 900 to 1350 before the rise of Peru's Inca Empire.

"We have found that in all the cemeteries, always, in between the human tombs there are others dedicated to the dogs, full-grown and puppies," said Guillen, who specializes in the study of mummies. "They have their own grave and in some cases they are buried with blankets and food."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Unknown Writing System Uncovered On Ancient Olmec Tablet

"Science magazine this week details the discovery of a stone block in Veracruz, Mexico, that contains a previously unknown system of writing; believed by archeologists to be the earliest in the Americas.

The slab - named the Cascajal block - dates to the early first millennium BCE and has features that indicate it comes from the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica. One of the archaeologists behind the discovery, Brown University's Stephen D. Houston, said that the block and its ancient script "link the Olmec civilization to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to this civilization."

"It's a tantalizing discovery. I think it could be the beginning of a new era of focus on Olmec civilization," explained Houston. "It's telling us that these records probably exist and that many remain to be found. If we can decode their content, these earliest voices of Mesoamerican civilization will speak to us today."

Construction workers discovered the Cascajal block in a pile of debris in the community of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the late 1990s. Surrounding the piece were ceramic shards, clay figurine fragments, and broken artifacts of ground stone, which have helped the team date the block and its text to the San Lorenzo phase, ending about 900 BCE; approximately 400 years before writing was thought to have first appeared in the Western hemisphere.

The block weighs about 26 pounds and measures 36 cm x 21 cm x 13 cm. The text itself consists of 62 signs, some of which are repeated up to four times. There is no doubt that the piece is a written work, say the archaeologists. "As products of a writing system, the sequences would, by definition, reflect patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependent word order," they explain.

Interestingly, the surface containing the text appears to be concave and the team believes the block has been carved repeatedly and erased - an unprecedented discovery according to Houston, who added that several paired sequences of signs could even indicate poetic couplets."

Source: Brown University

Pics courtesy Science

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics

Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics | Chicago Tribune:
Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics

Published September 17, 2006

We're living in an age of word crimes, and Bob Dylan is the latest alleged felon.

With his new best-selling album, "Modern Times," Dylan stands accused of the enduring crime of word theft. His alleged victim is one Henry Timrod, a Southern Civil War poet who died in 1867.

When I read about Dylan in The New York Times last week (please note I'm attributing my source), I wasn't persuaded to convict him of plagiarism based on the primary example in the story.

From Dylan's lyrics: "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours."

From a Timrod poem: "A round of precious hours/ Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked/ And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers."

If rhyming "flowers" and "hours" were proof of plagiarism, we'd have to round up every 4th-grade poet in America.

As for "frailer than flowers," it's a sweet alliteration but I wouldn't be surprised if it also has spontaneously leaked out of the pens of a few moody college sophomores.

Nevertheless, several other examples added up to a persuasive case that Timrod's ghost had crooned next to Dylan as he composed.

Timrod: "How then, O weary one! Explain/The sources of that hidden pain?"

Dylan: "Can't explain/The sources of this hidden pain."

I hear an echo, but I don't hear a crime.

Stories of plagiarism are often mystery stories. Did the accused plagiarize or didn't he? If he didn't, how did that similarity happen?

Did he read something and unconsciously summon it up when writing? If so, does that qualify as crime or merely as an understandable WUI--writing under the influence of someone else?

All words are mysteries. It's amazing that with a limited number of symbols and sounds you and I can give shape to thoughts, can make them visible and possible to hear, can trade the contents of our minds. How amazing that if I learn the word "Gracias" I can communicate with a person who doesn't understand "Thanks."

It's precisely because words are so mysterious, so mystical, that I'm not amazed when it turns out that two people have expressed uncannily similar thoughts in uncannily similar ways.

By their nature, words are uncanny.

Sometimes what seem like word crimes are just coincidences. Two writers reach into the zeitgeist and, from our common pool of feelings, ideas and phrases, pluck the same ones.

An example. Recently when Barack Obama was touring Africa, feted like a king, I thought of writing a column about a phenomenon with a name I'd invented: Obamania.

I had the foresight to google my clever new word first. Sure enough, there it was out there in the ether, used by other people who probably believed that they, too, were originals.

Wittingly or not, we all express ourselves under the influence of others. Sometimes the influence is so diffused in the culture that similarities of expression can be chalked up to coincidence. Sometimes that influence is so distinct and pervasive that its presence should be labeled theft.

But sometimes it's somewhere in between. Beyond coincidence, short of crime. An artist takes scraps of other people's expression and makes something entirely new, something that, mysteriously, is more beautiful and compelling than the odds and ends it came from. Songwriters have more license in that regard than journalists.

And, of course, words are also commodities--for sale in books, newspapers, CDs. It's that fact, I think, more than artistic purity, that animates our recent crusades against word crimes. Word sellers don't want to be ripped off. Buyers don't want used goods.

But our modern fixation on words as commodities, as property, as instruments of crime doesn't do justice to their messiness and their mysteries.

It's only honorable to acknowledge your influences, to the extent that you recognize them. Bob Dylan could have saved himself some trouble by mentioning Henry Timrod in his liner notes. The fact that he didn't doesn't make him criminal.

In case no one else has ever said this: Even the most original people aren't entirely original.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Giant, ultralight planet baffles scientists:

WASHINGTON - Scientists have discovered an unusually large and light planet orbiting a star that could force them to re-examine theories about how planets are formed.

The planet, dubbed HAT-P-1, is roughly one-third larger than Jupiter but weighs only half as much, astronomers with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said Thursday.

The planet is about one-quarter the density of water, Harvard-Smithsonian fellow Gaspar Bakos in a statement. “It’s lighter than a giant ball of cork,” he said.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Scientists find Neanderthals’ last refuge - LiveScience - MSNBC.com:
Neanderthals might have held out in isolated refuges for thousands of years longer than previously thought, scientists reported Wednesday.

Researchers say the species survived at what seems to have been their last refuge in Gibraltar for far longer after the arrival of modern humans than once believed — suggesting that the ancestors of modern human may not have driven the Neanderthals to extinction after all. Instead, they speculate that the Neanderthals fell victim to a cooling of the climate that deteriorated their environment too rapidly for them to adapt.

"While the rest of where they lived was getting colder, down here at the southernmost tip of Europe there were still little pockets of Mediterranean climate, so the world of the Neanderthals there didn't change that much," researcher Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary biologist at the Gibraltar Museum, told LiveScience.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Humans strange, Neanderthals normal

"Neanderthals are often thought of as the stray branch in the human family tree, but research now suggests the modern human is likely the odd man out.

"What people tend to do is draw a line from our ancestors straight to ourselves, and any group that doesn't seem to fit on that line is divergent, distinct, unusual, strange," researcher Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told LiveScience. "But in terms of evolution of our family tree, the genus Homo, we're the outliers and the Neanderthals are more toward the core."

Humans are not at the inevitable end of a sequence, Trinkaus said. "It just happens that we happen to be alive today and Neanderthals are not."

Trinkaus spent decades examining fossil skeletons and over time realized that maybe researchers looked at Neanderthals the wrong way. Over the last two years, he systematically combed through fossils, comparing Neanderthal and modern human skull, jaw, tooth, arm, leg traits with those of the earliest members of the genus Homo in terms of their shape.

"I wanted to see to what extent Neanderthals are derived, that is distinct, from the ancestral form. I also wanted to see the extent to which modern humans are derived relative to the ancestral form," Trinkaus said.

Trinkaus focused on skeletal features that seemed most strongly linked to genetics, as opposed to any traits that might get influenced by lifestyle, environment or wear and tear.

When compared with our common ancestors, Trinkaus discovered modern humans have roughly twice as many uniquely distinct traits as Neanderthals. In other words, Neanderthals are more like the other members of our family tree than modern humans are.

"In the broader sweep of human evolution, the more unusual group is not Neanderthals, whom we tend to look at as strange, weird and unusual, but it's us, modern humans," Trinkaus said.

Modern humans, for example, are the only members of our family tree who lack brow ridges, Trinkaus said. "We are the only ones who have seriously shortened faces. We are the only ones with very reduced internal nasal cavities. We also have a number of detailed features of the limb skeleton that are unique."

Trinkaus published his findings in the August 2006 issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Dylan's New Album Hits No. 1 on Charts

Bob Dylan is back at the top of the charts - for the first time in 30 years. His new album, "Modern Times," reached No. 1 on the album sales chart, selling 192,000 units in its first week of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures released Wednesday.

The critically acclaimed disc is Dylan's first No. 1 album since 1976's "Desire.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

In praise of things old and inconvenient

"Someone left a beautiful blue box on the front porch of our church recently. A note on the top said 'For Gordon.' I opened the box and inside was an elegant, blue fountain pen with gold bands.

The pen was left by an Episcopal priest named Cristopher (yes, that's the correct spelling) whom I met in a coffee shop several weeks ago. We had one of those 'You're a minister? Me too! Isn't preaching wonderful except when it's awful?' conversations that ministers often have. The next time I saw him there, I noticed he was writing with a fountain pen. And since he is left-handed, there was ink smeared all over his hand.

Writing with a fountain pen is a choice. And to do so as a left hander, meaning you will always be dragging your left hand through wet ink, indicates a serious commitment. It's like me using my grandfather's pocket watch, which loses about 6 minutes a day. It's not practical, nor does it make sense in an age when cheap quartz watches lose less than a second a month.

And yet I enjoy winding my grandfather's watch, setting the time and carrying the timepiece in the little pocket made for pocket watches that is still included—amazingly—in every pair of jeans I buy.

As it turns out, Cristopher writes with fountain pens because he loves them. He loves the feel of the ink flowing through the nib and onto the paper. He loves that they are old fashioned. They remind him of a day when people wrote to each other on paper and with distinctive handwriting styles.

I write mostly on the computer. If I have to write by hand, I use little felt-tip pens that I buy in boxes of 12. But by the end of our conversation, my new friend had talked me into entering his dreamy world of quills, parchments, ink blotters and romance. I imagined opening a letter from my beloved that has taken a month to arrive. The thick paper of the envelope pops open, breaking the wax seal. The letter unfolds with the rustle of paper on paper. I recognize the handwriting of my love and my heart breaks a little.

I found myself thinking about buying a fountain pen. But I didn't buy one. After Cristopher left the coffee shop, I went back to writing on my computer, and within a day or so, the magic was gone.

Then the pen showed up on the porch of my church, and now I'm back into a fountain pen frame of mind. You can't believe the dark line of glistening ink this pen lays down. It moves across paper like a wet fingertip on ice. It's seductive and a little intoxicating and it makes me want to write. I've fallen in love with it, and now my wife wants one too.

But really, what is a fountain pen going to do for me? It's a hassle to use, and because it's expensive, I have to be careful lest I lose it. So why do I carry it with me now and use it every day?

Perhaps because there is something intangible in the pen and the paper and in the feel of these things. It is an awesome thought to know that someone will read your words and hold your thoughts in her mind. Something about the fountain pen settles me and brings me down into a writing kind of place.

Things like fountain pens, old tools and pocket watches transcend the reality of their inefficiency (at least these days) and ascend to a higher plane of existence. They bring to mind bygone eras. They have a rich quality that is worth the trouble, certainly worth a little ink on your fingers from time to time. These old, well-made items of quality feel good in our hands. They feel solid. They leave stains on our fingers and marks on our souls. It is good to use them."

Tabling Tennis - New York Times

"AS the United States Open continues this week, all eyes are on Andre Agassi, who at the ripe old age of 36 has announced that this will be his last hurrah in competitive tennis.

But what about that other tennis game? You know, the one that’s played on a table and, according to the International Olympic Committee, happens to be the world’s largest participation sport.

In the United States we call the sport Ping-Pong, and we relegate it to the attics and basements of our nation. But what most of us don’t know is that there are hundreds of millions of casual players and 40 million competitive table tennis players worldwide. That means more people played in a table tennis tournament last year than live in the state of California. For a game that started as a distraction for monks in 11th century France — using a hairball and homemade leather mitts — that’s a lot of pong.

So why doesn’t America care? Why don’t we root for international table tennis living legends like Werner Schlager of Austria and Timo Boll of Germany with the same enthusiasm we reserve for, say, Maria Sharapova? O.K., bad example, but you know what I mean.
The answer is simple. Table tennis is the most un-American of American sports.

For one, table tennis knows no age or shape. We fancy our athletes as the lightning-fast, preternaturally strong crest of human evolution. Table tennis is about hand quickness. It is about how fast you can shuffle your feet from one end of the table to the other. Size and date of birth don’t matter in table tennis. At the last United States Nationals I watched a large, middle-aged man rally with a little girl in an official match. And sorry to tell you this, Andre, but the reigning men’s United States champion is 38 years old. Of course, the problem is that, in America, you can’t put a 38-year-old’s face on a billboard or a cereal box.

Table tennis is also nonviolent. There are no neck-breaking collisions, no chance of a human bursting into flames. The only sports-induced widows in table tennis are those who lose their spouses to the table tennis hall each week. The biggest smash-ups are between a 40-millimeter celluloid ball flying 70 miles per hour and a pad of compressed sponge and rubber. No, if table tennis had play-by-play announcers they would not make metaphors relating table tennis to any battlefield or warlike activity. Table tennis is more Zen than blood sport, and we know how Americans love to see blood.

In addition, there are no drugs — at least as far as we know — in table tennis. Any American sport worth the price of admission has a drug issue. Unfortunately for its popularity, according to the tournament director of North American Table Tennis, the sport is squeaky clean.

Table tennis also can keep you fit and active your entire life. We Americans prefer sports like football and baseball that we quit the day we graduate from high school. What most people don’t realize is that table tennis, if played the right way, makes you sweat — a lot. Ron Joseph, a professional body builder, uses table tennis as his primary means of conditioning.

Table tennis can even help keep your brain fit. In his book “Making a Good Brain Great,” Daniel G. Amen argues that playing table tennis can increase brain activity.

And then there’s the issue of money. There are no million-dollar prizes. There are only a few commercially endorsed players in America, and they don’t get much more than a pair of shorts and a few paddles every year. What sane-headed American parents would steer their children to a sport that can’t make them rich?

Over the next month at halls across America, there will be serious table tennis tournaments. There won’t be camera crews, and there’s almost no chance that an athlete will purposely break his paddle over his knee as Dmitry Tursunov once did to his racket during a tennis match. Should the average basement player show up to play, expecting to dominate the game, he will be beaten, and probably badly.

But Americans should consider turning off their televisions and resisting the temptation to watch the millionaire athletes who will be dancing across the courts of Flushing over the next several days. They should actually do the sweating themselves and help make table tennis accepted in the one country in which it is ignored.

Jesse Scaccia co-produced a documentary about an American table tennis player."

Read about my own adventure here.