Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Japan Mixes Robotics With Tea Time

"Japan is pretty serious about robotics. If the droids are going to fit in, they probably need to learn the Japanese custom of serving tea.

Fortunately, researchers at the University of Tokyo are exploring just that. In a demonstration this week, a humanoid with camera eyes made by Kawada Industries Inc. poured tea from a bottle into a cup.

Then another robot on wheels delivered the cup of tea in an experimental room that has sensors embedded in the floor and sofa as well as cameras on the ceiling, to simulate life with robot technology.

"A human being may be faster, but you'd have to say 'Thank you,'" said University of Tokyo professor Tomomasa Sato. "That's the best part about a robot. You don't have to feel bad about asking it to do things."

Sato believes Japan, a rapidly aging society where more than a fifth of the population is 65 or older, will lead the world in designing robots to care for the elderly, sick and bedridden.

Already, monitoring technologies, such as sensors that automatically turn on lights when people enter a room, are becoming widespread in Japan. The walking, child-size Asimo from Honda Motor Co. (HMC) greets people at showrooms. NEC Corp. (NIPNY) has developed a smaller companion robot-on-wheels called Papero. A seal robot available since 2004 can entertain the elderly and others in need of fuzzy companionship.

Sato says his experimental room is raising awareness about privacy questions that may arise when electronic devices monitor a person's movements down to the smallest detail. On the bright side, the tea-pouring humanoid has been programmed to do the dishes."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Chimps Use Spears to Hunt Bushbabies

"Researchers have witnessed a chimpanzee skewering a lemur-like creature for supper, but it's unclear whether the spectacle was a bit of luck or an indication that chimps have a more advanced ability to hunt than was thought.

A team led by Iowa State University anthropology professor Jill Pruetz witnessed the spearing of a bushbaby in Fongoli, Senegal, during an observation of chimpanzees from March 2005 to July 2006. In a study being released Thursday in the online version of the journal Current Biology, Pruetz documents 22 cases of chimps using spear-like tools to hunt bushbabies - a small primate that lives in hollow branches or tree trunks.

"It's not uncommon to have chimps use tools. But to use them in the context of hunting" is nearly unheard of, she said.

Pruetz said the practice is most common among adolescent females, ages 10 to 13, which must compete against physically superior males.

"It's a way of accessing protein or meat that is a creative solution to this problem," she said.

Pruetz said the chimpanzees stripped leaves from tree branches and modified the tip with their incisors, "effectively making a point." Then the chimpanzees jabbed the tool into a cavity to snag a bushbaby.

Only once did researchers observe a chimpanzee extracting a bushbaby by using a spear, and that has some scientists questioning whether the chimp was actually hunting. Chimpanzees commonly use sticks to fish for food, such as termites, said Ian Gilby, a postdoctoral fellow who studies chimpanzee hunting at Harvard University.

"You frequently see chimps sticking sticks into holes or trees, so they can make the hole bigger so they can put their arm in," said Gilby, who hadn't read the study.

Gilby said he's seen this tactic used to get honey and small birds from holes in his work in Gombe, Tanzania.

"If it's clear they're making a point" on a branch tip, he said, then that "does appear to be slightly different from what we see at other sites."

David DeGusta, an assistant professor of anthropological sciences at Stanford University, lauded Pruetz's work because of the rarity of studying chimpanzees outside Gombe, where renowned researcher Jane Goodall did her work. It's hard to get animals accustomed to human presence and willing to carry on naturally, DeGusta said.

"The more populations that are studied, the more we learn about how their behavior can vary," said DeGusta, who also hadn't read the study.

Pruetz's study was funded by Iowa State University and the National Geographic Society.

Her Iowa State graduate students continue to observe other emerging patterns among chimpanzees in Senegal.

"In a million years I never would've predicted that I would've seen (hunting)," she said. 'I'm going to plug along and see what unfolds.'"

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Glenn says Space Station needs help

"The country is not getting its money's worth out of the international space station, John Glenn said Tuesday, the 45th anniversary of the day he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Diverting money from the orbiting research outpost to President Bush's goal of sending astronauts back to the moon and eventually on to Mars is preventing some scientific experiments on the space station, Glenn told an audience of about 300 high school students and space enthusiasts at the COSI Columbus science center.

"To not utilize that station the way I think it ought to be utilized is just wrong," said Glenn, 85, also a former U.S. senator.

Glenn made three trips around the planet inside his Friendship 7 capsule on Feb. 20, 1962, making him a national hero and proving that the nascent NASA space program was competitive with the Soviet Union, which had accomplished a manned orbital flight a year earlier.

In 1998, Glenn, then 77, flew on the shuttle Discovery and became the oldest person ever in space.

He said he supports the president's moon and Mars goals but not at the expense of the space station, which is only two-thirds complete.

NASA and its international partners, including Canada, Japan and Russia, hope to finish the space station in 2010, but no decision has been made to extend its operation past 2016.

Glenn, a Democrat who represented Ohio from 1975 to 1999, said the station shouldn't be abandoned, especially after costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

"We will not even begin to realize its potential," he said.

A White House spokesman said Tuesday night that officials were not prepared to comment. Messages were left after business hours at NASA headquarters."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Watches Lose Ground to Cell Phones

"Allison Elliott occasionally wears the delicate gold windup watch that belonged to her grandmother. But it's really just for show.

Elliott, who's 27, is much more likely to get the time from the clock in her car, the one on her cable TV box or cell phone or from the bottom right-hand of her computer at the University of Kentucky, where she works.

Paul Dryden is much the same. "To be honest, I can't remember the last time I wore a watch - I'm guessing early in high school," says the 21-year-old senior at Connecticut College. The busy student's cell phone often doubles as an alarm clock because "it goes everywhere I go."

In other words, the way we track time is changing with the times.

Market researchers say more people are carrying electronic devices that also tell time, whether a phone, an iPod or a BlackBerry. They're also finding that young people, in particular, are more interested in spending their money on other kinds of accessories, such as shoes and hand bags.

In a survey last fall, investment bank Piper Jaffray & Co. found that nearly two-thirds of teens never wear a watch - and only about one in 10 wears one every day.

Experian Simmons Research also discovered that, while Americans spent more than $5.9 billion on watches in 2006, that figure was down 17 percent when compared with five years earlier.

In response, some watchmakers have begun to add more functions to their time pieces, with models that have everything from heart rate monitors to GPS trackers.

Luxury watches, such as Rolex, remain popular. But even then, the watch is often more about fashion than function, says Max Kilger of Experian Simmons.

"It really is an anchor point - and that's the end of it," says Kilger, the research firm's chief behavioral scientist. "A cell phone is one step up from that; it begins to help you manage your time. And a BlackBerry is one level up from that."

Some have found the trend convenient, if a little stressful.

"I don't check my watch anymore. My watch checks me," says Sean MacPhedran, a 27-year-old from Ottawa, Ontario, who works in advertising. He's referring to the beeps and vibrations his BlackBerry makes to remind him of his obligations.

"On the one hand, I've become a slave to its beeps," he says. "But on the other hand, it automates a lot of things that I would have to do manually otherwise, like try to remember when I'm supposed to go learn how to cha-cha or call a client."

MacPhedran does wear a watch when he wants to look "put together." But it's become so much more an accessory than a necessity that he's developed a habit of taking it off unconsciously and leaving it places.

"When I was little, I took off my socks because they were constraining," he says. "I think I take my watch off for the same reason."

Before she joined the ranks of telecommuters and stopped wearing a watch, 35-year-old working mom Jeannine Fallon Anckaitis also thought of her watch as "a handcuff" that she'd immediately remove when returning home.

"Even if I went out to dinner straight from work, I'd dump the watch into my purse to free my wrist," says Anckaitis, who lives in Swarthmore, Pa., and now works from home for an online auto site. "Taking off the watch symbolized being done with the pressure-filled commitments of the day, and settling into a pace where the time matters far less."

Indeed, the watch is a symbol of stress for many people. But it's not really time itself that's the problem, says historian James Hoopes.

"It's that we live in an increasingly synchronized world," says Hoopes, a professor in the division of history and society at Babson College in Massachusetts.

"You don't really relieve all the stress unless you get out of the world where time synchronization is so important."

He notes that, historically, the obsession with synchronization took hold in the railroad era, when watches were often kept in a pocket.

By World War I, watches began moving to the wrist, as a means of efficiency.

"The wrist watch was really a response to stress - the stress of battle," Hoopes says.

In today's age of globalization, he says, synchronization has only increased in scope.

Glen Stone gets a sense of that every working day at the World Trade Centre Toronto, as he walks by a wall of clocks that show times from around the world.

But as important as time is at the busy Toronto Board of Trade, even he has given up on wearing his own watch.

The 48-year-old Canadian says every time piece he's owned - including the first one he got at age 8 - has either broken or irritated his skin, whether they were cheap or expensive watches, digital, leather-strapped or metal.

He asks: 'Know anyone who wants a drawer full of broken watches?'"

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Ancient coin dulls Cleopatra's beauty

"So maybe Mark Antony loved Cleopatra for her mind. That is the conclusion being drawn by academics at Britain's University of Newcastle from a Roman denarius coin which depicts the celebrated queen of Egypt as a sharp-nosed, thin-lipped woman with a protruding chin.

Antony & Cleopatra

In short, a fair match for the hook-nosed, thick-necked Mark Antony on the other side of the coin, which went on public display Wednesday at the university's Shefton Museum.

"The image on the coin is far from being that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton," said Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of archaeological museums at the university, recalling the 1963 film "Cleopatra", which ignited the tempestuous romance between the two stars.

The notion that Cleopatra was not in Taylor's league was hailed as a revelation in British newspapers on Valentine's Day, though the image is hardly a discovery.

Replicas of the denarius can be found on eBay, and images on other ancient coins are no more flattering.

Cleopatra's legend has grown over the centuries.

Plutarch, in the "Life of Antony" written a century after the great romance, said of Cleopatra: "her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her."

"But the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice ..."

Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, described her as "fair as is the rose in May."

Shakespeare outdid them all: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety; other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies.'"

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Large squid lights up for attack

"Big deep-sea squid emit blinding flashes of light as they attack their prey, research shows.

Taningia danae's spectacular light show was revealed in video footage taken in deep waters off Chichijima Island in the North Pacific.

Japanese scientists believe the creatures use the bright flashes to disorientate potential victims.

Writing in a Royal Society journal, they say the squid are far from the sluggish, inactive beasts once thought.

In fact, the footage, taken in 2005 - the first time T. danae had been captured on camera in their natural environment - reveals them to be aggressive predators.

The squid, which can measure over 2m (7ft) in length, deftly swim backwards and forwards by flapping their large, muscular fins. They are able to alter their direction rapidly by bending their flexible bodies.

The films, taken at depths of 240m to 940m (790 to 3,080ft), also show the cephalopods reaching speeds of up to 2.5m (8ft) per second as they attack the bait, capturing it with their eight tentacles.

Blinding flashes

However, the intense pulses of light that accompanied the ferocious attacks surprised the research team.

Dr Tsunemi Kubodera from the National Science Museum in Tokyo, who led the research, told the BBC News website: "No-one had ever seen such bioluminescence behaviour during hunting of deep-sea large squid."

The footage reveals the creatures emitting short flashes from light-producing organs, called photophores, on their arms.

Writing in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the team said: "[The bioluminescence] might act as a blinding flash for prey."

The light would disorientate the squid's intended prey, disrupting their defences, they added.

It could also act, the scientists commented, "as a means of illumination and measuring target distance in an otherwise dark environment."

However, further investigation revealed the light bursts may also serve another, quite different, purpose away from the hunting field - courtship.

As the squid drifted around torches that had been attached to the bait rig, they emanated long and short pulses of light.

The team believe the torch lights may have resembled another glowing T. danae, and the squid were possibly emitting light as courtship behaviour.

Difficult subjects

Deep-sea squid - once thought to be legendary monsters of the sea - are notoriously difficult to study, and little is known about their ecology and biology. Several species prowl the ocean depths.

T. danae is thought to be abundant in the tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. The largest reported measured 2.3m (7.5ft) in length and weighed nearly 61.4kg (134.5lbs).

Larger species of giant squid belong to the Architeuthidae family: females are thought to measure up to 13m (43ft) in length.

But the aptly named colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is thought to be the largest of all - possibly reaching up to 14m (46ft) long."

See a short video here

Dylan Double Grammy Win

"Bob Dylan's "Modern Times" won the Grammy for best contemporary folk/Americana album, at the 49th Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, last night (February 11).

Dylan's 32nd studio LP "Modern Times" debuted at No 1 in the US Pop charts at the time of it's release last autumn, making the singer, at 65 years-old, the oldest living musician to do so.

Dylan, who did not attend the event, also picked up a Grammy for best solo rock vocal performance for the song "Someday Baby." The track from "Modern Times" was featured in an Apple Ipod commercial, starring Dylan himself.

The song's form is based on that of Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More", and was originally made famous by the Allman Brothers Band.

"Someday Baby" was also nominated for best rock song, but lost out to Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Dani California."

Dylan has picked up ten Grammys in his career, he won best album for 2002's "Love And Theft" and the contemporary folk award for 1998's 'Time Out Of Mind.'"

See the iPod commercial here

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bob Dylan Wins First Grammy Awarded in New Folk Category, Best Contemporary/Americana Album

"On Sunday night Bob Dylan won the first GRAMMY Award in the genre of Contemporary Folk/Americana, with his album, Modern Times (Columbia).

Other nominees for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album (vocal or instrumental) were Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 by Jackson Browne (Inside Recordings), Black Cadillac by Rosanne Cash (Capitol), Workbench Songs by Guy Clark (Dualtone Music Group) and All The Roadrunning by Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros./Nonesuch).

"Bob Dylan set the stage for the current Americana genre as a folk pioneer in the 60s. His GRAMMY win for Modern Times as Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album is just another example of his continuing vitality as an artist,” said Americana Music Association President Tamara Saviano. “We’re excited to celebrate Dylan as Americana’s first GRAMMY win.”

Americana is American roots music based on the traditions of country with influences ranging from hillbilly and R&B to folk and bluegrass and blues. The radio format developed during the 1990s to counter the highly polished mainstream music sound of the decade. Dylan's Modern Times spent six weeks at #1 on the national Americana/R&R chart.

Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album was among the awards that were presented Sunday night during the 49th GRAMMY Awards. The GRAMMY Awards honor recordings in 108 categories across 31 fields, from rap to classical.

The Americana Music Association is a professional trade organization that provides a forum for the advocacy of Americana music and promotes public awareness of the genre to support the creative and economic viability of professionals in the field. Upcoming is its 8th Annual Americana Music Conference Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 2007 in Nashville."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Navy May Deploy Anti-Terrorism Dolphins

"Dozens of dolphins and sea lions trained to detect and apprehend waterborne attackers could be sent to patrol a military base in Washington state, the Navy said Monday. In a notice published in this week's Federal Register, the Navy said it needs to bolster security at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, on the Puget Sound close to Seattle.

The base is home to submarines, ships and laboratories and is potentially vulnerable to attack by terrorist swimmers and scuba divers, the notice states.

Several options are under consideration, but the preferred plan would be to send as many as 30 California sea lions and Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins from the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, based in San Diego.

"These animals have the capabilities for what needs to be done for this particular mission," said Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Program.

LaPuzza said that because of their astonishing sonar abilities, dolphins are excellent at patrolling for swimmers and divers. When a Navy dolphin detects a person in the water, it drops a beacon. This tells a human interception team where to find the suspicious swimmer.

Dolphins also are trained to detect underwater mines; they were sent to do this in the Iraqi harbor of Umm Qasr in 2003. The last time the animals were used operationally in San Diego was in 1996, when they patrolled the bay during the Republican National Convention.

Sea lions can carry in their mouths special cuffs attached to long ropes. If the animal finds a rogue swimmer, it can clamp the cuff around the person's leg. The individual can then be reeled in for questioning.

The Navy is seeking public comment for an environmental impact statement on the proposal.

The Navy wanted to deploy marine animals to the Northwest in 1989, LaPuzza said, but a federal judge sided with animal-rights activists concerned about the effects of cooler water, as well as how the creatures would affect the environment. Water in the Puget Sound is about 10 degrees cooler than in San Diego Harbor, which has an average temperature of about 58 degrees, LaPuzza said.

Since then, the Navy has taken the dolphins and sea lions to cold-water places like Alaska and Scandinavia to see how they cope.

"They did very well," LaPuzza said. If the animals are sent to Washington, the dolphins would be housed in heated enclosures and would patrol the bay only for periods of about two hours.

Stephanie Boyles, a marine biologist and spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said that sea mammals do not provide a reliable defense system, and that they should not be kept in small enclosures.

"We believe the United States' citizens deserve the very best defense possible, and this just isn't it," Boyles said, adding that dolphins are easily distracted once in open water. "They don't understand the consequences of what will happen if they don't carry out the mission."

Dolphins can live as long as 30 years. LaPuzza said the Navy occasionally gives its retired animals to marine parks but generally keeps them until they die of old age.

The Navy has been training marine mammals since the 1960s and keeps about 100 dolphins and sea lions. Most are in San Diego, but about 20 are deployed at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga.

The Navy hopes eventually to downsize its marine mammal program and replace the animals with machines.

"But the technology just isn't there yet," LaPuzza said. 'The value of the marine mammals is we've been doing this for 35 years, and we've ironed out all the kinks.'"

On the Net:

Navy Marine Mammal Program

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Death on the High Seas

"When the QE2 docked at Southampton on January 2, the liner was one passenger short: a 62-year-old German woman was missing. She is just one of a growing list of people who have disappeared from cruise ships in mysterious circumstances. Some of these deaths may be suicides, writes Gwyn Topham, but others appear more sinister. And of course there are no police out on the ocean . . ."

Click on the title to read more