Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ugly Typeface Slows Reading Yet Increases Retention

Introduction:  "Font" is the typeface used in written communication.  Most business and nearly all books published in English use a formal, standard, easy-to-distinguish font like "Times New Roman," as this text itself is.  It is a "serif" font because the letters have little "feet" at the bottom. as if the little vertical sticks were slightly melted at the ends, especially at the bottom.

A "sans serif" type has no little feet (or "arms") sticking out.  Therefore there are fewer clues to the eyes -- it has to be read a little slower.  Sans serif fonts often thus appear "uglier" to us.  But there is a story there and a reason to use a clumsy font anyway.  Read on (the article below is itself using "Comic Sans Serif" font):

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Ugly Font May Improve Learning
By Madeleine Genner and Darren Osborne
ABC News, May 30, 2011

Inspired by comic strips and hated by font designers, new research suggests Comic Sans may help people remember what they read.

Comic Sans was released by Microsoft in 1994, as a font that looked friendly and childlike but most importantly did not look 'techie'.

But the font does not enjoy overwhelming support. A few years ago there was an internet campaign to have it banned, and there are forums where designers and typographers whinge about the font's awkward weighting and haphazard kerning.

US researchers from Princeton University and Indiana University decided to test what affect 'difficult to read' fonts such as Comic Sans have on learning and retention.
They recruited 28 volunteers to complete a task that involved remembering a set of features for three fictional characters.

One group received the list in 16-point Arial font, while the other two groups received lists printed using 12-point Comic Sans MS or 12-point Bodoni MT.

Connor Diemand-Yauman, lead author of the study published in the journal Cognition, says the results showed Comic Sans has its advantages.

"The study in our paper found that in a very controlled laboratory setting we could improve our subject's memory of certain facts by having them read information that was written in a font that was slightly more difficult to read," he told ABC Radio National.
"Participants remembered the information significantly better if it was in a font that was harder to read. We were real excited by this finding."

In the second part of their study, Mr Diemand-Yauman and colleagues moved their experiment into the classroom.

"For the second study all we did was take the reading material of students from six different classes, over 220 students, and we just changed the fonts to make it a little more difficult to read," Mr Diemand-Yauman said.

Students were randomly assigned to a disfluent group and given reading material in a hard-to-read font such as Comic Sans or Monotype Corsiva, or to a control group.
"Students [in the disfluent group] significantly remembered the information better because it felt slightly more difficult," Mr Diemand-Yauman said.

Challenging our visual cortex

Jonah Lehrer is a neuroscience writer and a contributing editor to Wired Magazine. He fears that e-readers, with their crisp fonts and clear display, could make our brains lazy.
"I do worry that it will become so easy for the brain to read on an e-reader that we may actually start to see a decrease in what we remember and take away from a book," Mr Lehrer told ABC Radio National.

"This is all just speculation, but what really interests me is this surprising link between the difficulty of reading and what we actually remember from it."

But according to Mr Lehrer our brains are likely to adapt in order to deal with the new technology, we just do not know how that will happen.

"It's important to remember that a good third of our visual cortex ... is devoted to literacy, reading. This 5000-year-old cultural invention has usurped a huge chunk of the brain," he said.

"One of the trade-offs of this is that people who can read are a little worse at 'quote-unquote' reading the natural world and remembering objects such as plants and animals, because so much of our visual vortex is devoted to letters, syllables, and words."

Mr Lehrer suggests using cognitive psychology studies such as Mr Diemand-Yauman's to improve our learning.

"Maybe we should read every book on an e-reader in Comic Sans," he said.

"Little things like that could help us do a better job of dealing with the inevitable tradeoffs."


Monday, May 30, 2011

China and India Lease Vast Arable African Lands

African Land Grab Could Lead to Future Water Conflicts
New Science May 26, 2011 by Anil Ananthaswamy

IS THIS the face of future water conflicts? China, India and Saudi Arabia have lately leased vast tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa at knockdown prices. Their primary aim is to grow food abroad using the water that African countries don't have the infrastructure to exploit. Doing so is cheaper and easier than using water resources back home. But it is a plan that could well backfire.

"There is no doubt that this is not just about land, this is about water," says Philip Woodhouse of the University of Manchester, UK.

Take Saudi Arabia, for instance. Between 2004 and 2009, it leased 376,000 hectares of land in Sudan to grow wheat and rice. At the same time the country cut back on wheat production on home soil, which is irrigated with water from aquifers that are no longer replenished - a finite resource.

Meanwhile, firms from China and India have leased hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland in Ethiopia. Both China and India have well-developed irrigation systems, but Woodhouse says their further development - moving water from the water-rich south to northern China, for instance - is likely to be more costly than leasing land in Africa, making the land-grab a tempting option.

But why bother leasing land instead of simply importing food? Such imports are equivalent to importing "virtual water", since food production accounts for nearly 80 per cent of annual freshwater usage. A new study into how this virtual water moves around the world offers an explanation for the leasing strategy. Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe of Princeton University and Samir Suweis of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have built the first mathematical model of the global virtual water trade network, using the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's data on trade in barley, corn, rice, soya beans, wheat, beef, pork, and poultry in 2000. They combined this with a fine-grained hydrological model (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2011GL046837).

The model shows that a small number of countries have a large number of connections to other countries, offering them a steady and cheap supply of virtual water even if some connections are compromised by drought or political upheaval. A much larger number of countries have very few connections and so are vulnerable to market forces.

Most importantly, the model shows that about 80 per cent of the water flows over only about 4 per cent of the links, which Rodriguez-Iturbe calls the "rich club phenomenon". In total, the model shows that in 2000, there were 6033 links between 166 nations. Yet 5 per cent of worldwide water flow was channelled through just one link between two "rich club" members - the US and Japan.

The power of the rich club may yet increase. The model allows the team to forecast future scenarios - for example, how the network will change as droughts and spells of violent precipitation intensify due to climate change. Predictably, this will only intensify the monopoly, says Suweis. "The rich get richer."

China and India are not currently major players in the virtual water network on a per capita basis, and as the network evolves they could find themselves increasingly vulnerable to market forces and end up paying more for the food they import. Leasing land elsewhere is an attempt to secure their food and water supply in a changing world. But it could be a short-sighted move.

Last year, Paolo D'Odorico of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville showed that a rise in the virtual water trade makes societies less resilient to severe droughts (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2010GL043167). "[It] causes a disconnect between societies and the water they use," says D'Odorico. The net effect is that populations in nations that import water can grow without restraint since they are not limited by water scarcity at home.

Although this could be seen as a good thing, it will lead to greater exploitation of the world's fresh water. The unused supplies in some areas that are crucial in case of major droughts in other areas will dry up. "In case of major droughts we [will] have less resources available to cope with the water crisis," says D'Odorico.

In the end, then, the hunt for water that is driving emerging economies to rent African land to grow their crops could come back to haunt them.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

How Much Water Does the Moon Have?

Space.com  – May 26, 2011

Moon's Interior Wet As

Earth's, Rocks Indicate

Just when we were starting to get over the shock that parts of the moon's surface are wetter than the Sahara Desert, a new study reports that the lunar interior is sopping wet, too.

Last October, scientists announced that a crater near the lunar south pole is jam-packed with water ice, likely holding a billion gallons of the stuff. Now, new research has found that the moon's insides are likely as wet as the Earth's upper mantle, the region just below its miles-thick surface crust.

This discovery, made by studying pieces of lunar magma hurled to the surface by ancient volcanic eruptions, comes as a big surprise.

The prevailing theory of the moon's formation holds that it coalesced from pieces of the early Earth blasted into space by a collision with a Mars-size object long ago. Scientists had thought the massive energy produced by such a titanic impact would have baked the water out of the bits that became the moon. But
that appears not to be the case. [Video: How The Moon Was Made]

"You really would not expect, based on what we know about this model, to have any water present in the moon at all," said the study's lead author, Erik Hauri, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "The fact that these [samples] have terrestrial levels of water is really a stunner."

Studying Apollo moon rocks

Hauri and his team looked at bits of rock brought back to Earth in 1972 by astronauts on NASA's Apollo 17 mission. Specifically, the researchers analyzed pieces called melt inclusions, which are minuscule globules of lunar magma encased within solid crystals.

These crystals prevented the magma's water from gassing out during the eruption, thereby largely preserving the original water content of the underground rock.

"These samples provide the best window we have on the amount of water in the interior of the moon," study co-author James Van Orman, of Case Western Reserve University, said in a statement.

So melt inclusions are special. They're also rare, and finding the tiny structures in the small store of moon rocks available to researchers was by no means a given. But co-author Thomas Weinreich, at the time a freshman at Brown University, spotted some while poring over the Apollo 17 samples.

"A kid a year out of high school found these for us," Hauri told SPACE.com "That was pretty amazing in and of itself."

Other researchers had found melt inclusions in lunar samples before, but until now nobody had been able to measure their water content. Using a specialized ion microprobe, the team scrutinized seven melt inclusions, the largest just 30 microns across — smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

They found water contents ranging from 615 to 1,410 parts per million. Those levels are about 100 times higher than previous studies of lunar magma had suggested, and they're comparable to the concentrations found in the Earth's upper mantle. The melt inclusions also harbored Earth-like levels of chlorine, fluorine and sulfur.

"We were really, really surprised," Hauri said.

The researchers reported their results today (May 26) in the journal Science.

Rethinking models of moon's origins

The team's findings don't cast serious doubt on the theory that a gigantic collision created the moon, Hauri said. But the results indicate that researchers' models of this cataclysmic event need a lot of work.

The models could be failing in their estimation of the energy released during the impact, according to Hauri. The collision may have been less dramatic than scientists think, leaving some blasted-off Earth chunks incompletely cooked. These pieces may have been able to hold onto some of their water before coalescing to form the moon.

But tweaking the energy levels downward wouldn't necessarily explain everything.

"Certainly some of this [ejected] material has to have melted, so in that scenario it's still kind of hard to imagine that both the Earth and the moon have the same amount of water," Hauri said.

Conversely — and somewhat counterintuitively — perhaps the impact was even more violent and energetic than researchers had imagined. If that's the case, it's possible that the collision vaporized some of the ejected rock, producing a thin but dense atmosphere that kept some water from escaping into space.

But this idea is no silver bullet, either, Hauri said. At the moment, it's just difficult to account for the Earth-like levels of water — and chlorine, fluorine and sulfur — in the moon's interior.

The new study "requires us to think hard about understanding the giant impact process at a level that's anything more than superficial," Hauri said.

Where did the moon's surface water come from?

Most scientists think that the moon's prodigious stores of surface ice, which are chiefly concentrated in permanently shadowed craters near the poles, were deposited by cometsand asteriods in the relatively recent past.

But the new study suggests that some of the stuff may be water from the lunar interior that was ejected by volcanic eruptions.

Most of the moon's volcanism took place between 3.2 billion and 3.8 billion years ago. So any surface water originally from the moon's innards would be very, very old. That may be possible, as long as the moon's orientation has remained stable for a long time, keeping the ice-bearing craters shadowed for billions of years.

Researchers will likely need a sample-return mission to figure out where the surface water actually came from, Hauri said.

"If we had a little of that water back on Earth, we could do some measurements on it that would be able to tell pretty quickly what the origin of that stuff is," Hauri said.

The rock samples the researchers studied are deposits formed by explosive volcanism. Similar deposits are known to exist on many solar system bodies, including Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Jupiter moon Io, Hauri said.

So he thinks future exploration missions to other worlds should make it a priority to investigate these deposits — and perhaps try to bring some home to Earth.

"We've shown in our study that this is really the best way to get at the water content of a planetary interior, and be able to tell whether a planet is actually capable of creating an ocean or an atmosphere through volcanic processes," Hauri said. "We would really advocate pretty strongly that any sample-return mission should focus on this type of material."


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Boeing Builds and Flies an Unmanned Fighter

Phantom Ray: Unmanned, Fighter-Size Jet Makes First Flight

By Ned Smith, BusinessNewsDaily Senior Writer
04 May 2011

The Boeing Phantom Ray unmanned airborne system (UAS) made its first solo flight April 27 at NASA's Dryden Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The first flight of the fighter-size jet under its own power lasted 17 minutes. The Phantom Ray reached an altitude of 7,500 feet and a speed of 178 knots (or a little over 200 miles per hour). The flight followed a series of high-speed taxi tests conducted in March to validate ground guidance, navigation and control and verified mission planning, pilot interface and operational procedures.

The successful flight demonstrated Phantom Ray's basic airworthiness and set the stage for additional flights over the next few weeks.The announcement of the flight was the first time the tight veil of security that was thrown over the program was lifted. The Phantom Ray is considered to be a test bed for the development of a series of unmanned stealthy, carrier-based strike aircraft for the U.S. Navy.

Once the aircraft becomes operational, potential missions may include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic attack, strike and autonomous air refueling.
"The first flight moves us father into the next phase of unmanned aircraft," Craig Brown, Phantom Ray program manager for Boeing, said in a statement.

"Autonomous fighter-size unmanned aircraft are real, and the UAS bar has been raised. Now I'm eager to see how high that bar will go."

The last time the stealth jet was airborne was on Dec. 13 when it was ferried to Edwards atop a modified Boeing 747 from Boeing's Phantom Works facility in St. Louis, Mo. The Phantom Works is Boeing’s own "skunk works," whose mission is to build near-operational prototypes to get airplanes flying more quickly.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Navy Using Games To Develop Anti-Pirate Strategies

Navy Uses Massive Multiplayer Online Game to Develop Anti-Pirate Strategy

By InnovationNewsDaily Staff
09 May 2011

To fight piracy off the coast of Africa, the U.S. Navy has deployed advanced warships, robotic drones and even elite special forces. The Navy has now added a new weapon to that fight: a "World of Warcraft"-like multiplayer game called MMOWGLI. The game brings experts from around the government into a virtual environment where they can work together in developing strategies to thwart modern-day buccaneers.

MMOWGLI, an acronym contracted from "Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet," has undergone years of development within the Office of Naval Research (ONR). ONR scientists hope to expand the program beyond piracy, and use it to solve some of the world’s most intractable military problems.

"MMOWGLI is an online game designed to find and collectively grow breakthrough ideas to some of the Navy's most complex problems — those 21st-century threats that demand new forms of collaboration and truly outlying ideas," said Dr. Larry Schuette, ONR's director of Innovation, whose office is managing the project.

Essentially a giant game version of selective crowd sourcing, the initial MMOWGLI test will run for three weeks while the ONR recruits online players from across the government to suggest ways of combating piracy off the coast of Somalia.

ONR intends to produce varying results from a diverse group of players drawn from the ranks of academia, defense, and government and nongovernment organizations. The plan is for MMOWGLI to identify solutions to difficult challenges by tapping into the intellectual capital of a broader community.

The piracy scenario was chosen as a means to demonstrate the platform, but MMOWGLI itself can be applied to any scenario, officials said. MMOWGLI will also be a template for aiding future users faced with their own complex problems, said Garth Jensen, director of innovation Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock division, who is leading the project.


Footnote by the blog author: "Mowgli" (rhymes with "now, glee!") was the baby raised to a man by wolves in the Indian jungle of Kipling’s Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Very Positive Quiddity: Genuinely Abundant and Clean Energy

The Elegant Answer to Clean Energy
By the blog author

Laser induced intermittent nuclear fusion is a process that drops a deuterium pellet into a sphere. As the pellet approaches the center of the sphere, dozens of lasers fire from all three dimensions.

The pellet implodes with such force that neutrons are ejected, along with tremendous energy and photons. The deuterium in the pellet is converted from "heavy hydrogen" to inert helium.

No fossil fuels are used.

No plutonium or radioactive heavy metals are involved.

Eventually, the concrete containment sphere becomes lightly radioactive, but this is nothing compared to existing nuclear facilities, the heavy metal toxicity of a coal plant, or a petroleum refinery.

Neither CO2, CO, ash, CFCs nor the ingredients of acid rain are produced. There are no rods to melt down. Environmentally pure MASSIVE amounts of electricity can be produced, as if we were turning on the sun for a little burst of energy with each pellet. The "plant" can be shut down by simply shutting off the lasers and not feeding the sphere any more pellets.

The energy supply is estimated at 30 million years of deuterium.

Neutron ejection was first achieved in 1971. Since the founding of the Energy Department in 1977, research has twitched and shivered and continued in a halting way. Major developments in lasers and accurate clocking mechanisms, as well as astonishing progress in semiconductor technology, most of it occurring in the private sector, have moved this technology from the distant future to something likely within 20 more years.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Potential of Hydrogen Fusion for Power

RealClearScience May 16, 2011

Dreams of Fusion Power: I'm Not the Only One

By Steven Pomeroy
I like thinking about the future -- perhaps it's the "Trekkie" in me. I like to believe that new, revolutionary technologies are on the horizon and that I will live to see them. I'm not merely talking about the next iteration of the iPhone. I'm talking about technologies that will take humanity to a higher plane. Technologies that won't simply help some of us live altered, more advanced lives, but those that will help all of us live healthy and happy lives.

We also know what an uncontrolled fusion reaction can do. The first hydrogen bomb, named "Ivy Mike," was detonated by the United States in 1952, creating a mushroom cloud over 100 miles in diameter, and a blast 6,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Needless to say, the unrivaled ability of fusion to both perpetuate and extinguish life is one of the greatest paradoxes that mankind had ever confronted.

For over fifty years, scientists have striven to control a fusion reaction with limited success. The most
noteworthy achievement occurred in 1997, when the Joint European Torus (JET) created 16 megawatts of fusion energy in a reaction that lasted for less than a second. However, within the next decade, controlled fusion may be within mankind's grasp.

Fusion vs. Fission

Nuclear fusion is the process by which two or more atomic nuclei join together to form a larger nucleus. Our current nuclear power plants use fission, the breaking apart of nuclei.

Unfortunately, nuclear fission creates toxic waste throughout the mining, refining, converting, enriching, and powering processes. In addition, the uranium and plutonium used for fission are very limited resources and are highly sought after by terror groups who seek to use them to create weapons of mass destruction.

On the other hand, nuclear fusion uses two isotopes of hydrogen and fuses them together, creating helium, a free neutron, and tons of energy (much more than fission). Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Milky Way Galaxy and helium is a harmless byproduct.

The Future

Currently, there exist two main roadblocks to creating and maintaining the fusion reaction. First, it requires immense heat (150 million degrees Celsius, to be exact). Second, it demands a massive magnetic force, like the one found in the center of a star.

Despite these tremendous requirements, work towards fusion energy continues. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently being built in southern France. On target for completion in 2018, the giant plasma reactor, or "tokamak," is intended to show the feasibility of fusion power, paving the way for fusion power plants. The estimated $16.5 billion dollar cost of the facility is being split by the European Union, India, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The level of cooperation between member nations is truly inspiring.

Even more promising work is occurring in the United States. In 2009, after twelve years of construction, the National Ignition Facility was completed in California at a cost of $3.5 billion dollars. Scientists have plans to test Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) by the end of 2012 [tomorrow’s blog post]. The NIF believes that a successful test will pave the way for fusion power plants by 2020.

Fusion, the energy of the stars, has long resided solely in the heavens above. But within the next 20 years, it may finally be within the grasp of mankind.

Steven R. Pomeroy is the co-editor of
WeCouldBeGreat.com, a website promoting the discussion of ideas to keep America great.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Thorium Fluoride Reactors

May 19, 2011
By Joseph Archer

Today’s nuclear power plants are unsafe and expensive. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. A cleverly designed plant could be both safe and cheap. Thankfully, such a design already exists. It’s called the Thorium Fluoride Reactor (TFR).

The most common nuclear power plant design, the Light Water Reactor (LWR), is nothing but a scaled up model of a reactor initially meant to power submarines. Unfortunately, this causes enormous problems, such as the need to enrich fuel, build gargantuan pressure vessels, and deal with long-lived nuclear waste. It is also tremendously expensive. In short, it was never meant to be a civilian source of electricity.

Now, following the release of radioactive material at the Fukushima plant in Japan, activists around the world threaten to eliminate nuclear power as an acceptable energy source. However, before governments indulge that knee-jerk response, they should consider the tremendous benefits of TFR.

The fuel is in the form of a fluoride salt with a melting temperature of approximately 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the system is not pressurized, any reactor breach leading to a release of fuel would be driven only by gravity. Thus, the fluoride salt, instead of being blown into the atmosphere, would cool and solidify. Hazardous radioactive material would be frozen into place in the shape of easily cleanable salt crystals.
To further guard against a catastrophic release of radioactive material, the TFR is designed to have fuel added and radioactive fission products (nuclear waste) removed on a continual basis. The fission products, therefore, do not concentrate within the fuel. This prevents the reactor from containing an excess of fuel reactivity at any given time. The most problematic waste products are gases, such as iodine and xenon, but the continual elimination of these gases and other radioactive fission products effectively eliminates the potential for catastrophe.

Additionally, far less radioactive material is needed to operate a TFR plant. Whereas conventional uranium plants create 35 gigawatt-hours of electricity per metric ton of uranium, TFR creates 11,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity per metric ton of thorium. The waste generated by TFR must be stored for only 300 years, as opposed to the thousands of years required for the waste generated by uranium plants.

In regard to expense, the TFR itself consists of little more than a low-pressure fluid circuit filled with a low-cost, molten fluoride salt. There is neither a massive high-pressure system nor thousands of fuel rods. There is also no need for a fallible decay heat removal system. Because the core essentially has no complex internal components, the power output of the reactor is limited only by how rapidly molten salt can be forced through the core. A single TFR, with the same size core as a conventional reactor, could produce literally tens of times as much energy. These two factors, simplicity of construction and an increased energy output, even suggest that TFR would be cheaper than coal-powered electricity.

If the goal of nuclear energy is to construct a failsafe, inexpensive facility, then energy policy analysts need look no further: The Thorium Fluoride Reactor is ready for business.

Joseph Archer is a professional engineer with a degree in nuclear engineering.


Safe, Cheap Nuclear: Thorium Fluoride Reactors

Monday, May 23, 2011

Volunteers Are Good Astronomers!

Citizen Scientists Making Incredible Discoveries

By Dauna Coulter (editor: Dr. Tony Philipps)

NASA -- April 22, 2011: "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known," wrote Carl Sagan.

And now you can be the one to find it, thanks to Zooniverse, a unique citizen science website. Zooniverse volunteers, who call themselves "Zooites," are working on a project called Galaxy Zoo, classifying distant galaxies imaged by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

"Not only are people better than computers at detecting the subtleties that differentiate galaxies, they can do things computers can't do, like spot things that just look interesting," explains Zooniverse director Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford.

Zooite Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch schoolteacher, discovered this strange green object floating in her cosmic soup:
When van Arkel noticed this unusual greenish object and posted an image of it on the Galaxy Zoo forum, not even the experts knew what it was.2 They named it "Voorwerp," Dutch for "object."

Another group of Zooites found green "peas" in theirs, and dubbed themselves the "Peas-Corp."

The peas turned out to be small, round green galaxies about a tenth the size of the Milky Way. These are now believed to be the most efficient star factories in the universe, forming huge numbers of stars in a hurry.

"It was easy to find 'peas' by computer once we knew they were there, but without the human factor we'd never have noticed them," says Lintott.

Lintott started Zooniverse in 2007 to solve a very large and unique problem: "I had too many galaxies on my hands," he explains.

Lintott was faced with classifying, by shape, one million galaxies imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
First he did what any self-respecting scientist would do.

"I asked a graduate student to classify them."

The student was good at it, but after he catalogued 50,000 images, it was obvious he needed help – a lot of help -- sorting the other 950,000. The solution came to Lintott and the very relieved student while they were sitting in a pub.

"Why not ask for volunteers?"

Zooniverse and its first project, Galaxy Zoo, were born.

"We were blown away by the response. We had so many hits that our web server crashed on the first morning!"

They quickly solved the server problem and the project took off. With the Hubble Space Telescope, Galaxy Zoo is taking volunteers deeper into the cosmos than ever before. And the Zooniverse team has proven that the Zooites' classifications are as good as those by professional astronomers.

"Their contributions are extremely important," says Lintott. "They're helping us learn how galaxies form and evolve. And they take their work seriously."

But that doesn't prevent them from bringing a sense of adventure and just sheer fun to the research.

"Not long ago some Zooites asked us to take them on a pilgrimage to Zooniverse's birthplace. There was quite a celebration at the pub that night!"

After Galaxy Zoo kicked off, scientists began approaching Lintott at conferences asking for help. "They realized that we'd found a great way to sort a lot of data fast."

Zooniverse now offers several citizen science projects, including three more using NASA data. Moon Zoo volunteers use data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to count craters, helping write the history of the moon. Milky Way project participants scour infrared images gathered in two NASA Spitzer Space Telescope surveys of the Milky Way's inner regions. They help astronomers catalogue intriguing features, map our galaxy, and plan future research. Zooniverse's Planet Hunters are helping NASA's Kepler telescope find stars likely to host planets.

"I'd love to confirm one of their finds and be able to send an email to someone saying, 'You've found a planet!' "

Now, please excuse this writer. She has planet hunting to do.

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To learn more about Zooniverse, visit

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Another Phony Doomsday Passes Us By

The Draw of Doomsday: Why People
Look Forward to the End

By Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer, May 16, 2011

Most people go through their daily lives assuming that tomorrow will be a lot like today. No pits of fire will open up, society won't collapse, and the world, most likely, won't end.
But for others, doom has a certain appeal.

The most famous example these days is Harold Camping, a California-based Christian radio broadcaster who believes that May 21, 2011, will mark Judgment Day, ushering in five months of torment for the unsaved until the universe finally ends on Oct. 21. Camping has bought billboards and dispatched caravans of believers around the country, warning the world of its fate. [Infographic of the history of doomsdays is available at http://www.livescience.com/14172-doomsdays-apocalypse-world-infograhpic.html ].

"It's going to be a wonderful, wonderful day," Camping told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter last June.

Camping has made this prediction before, in 1994 — it didn't pan out — but the thousands of failed doomsday predictions throughout history are no match for what Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal, calls the "apocalyptic worldview."

"It's a very persistent and potent way of understanding the world," DiTommaso told LiveScience.

Problem-solving through doomsday

According to DiTommaso, the apocalyptic worldview isn't uncommon. At the extreme end are people like Camping or Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult that carried out sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. But doomsday appeals to the secular and well-adjusted as well, through books such as Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (Knopf, 2006) and movies like "The Terminator" (1984). Meanwhile, economic hard times and crises like Japan's earthquake and tusnami have spiked interested in survivalism and "prepping," or stashing food and supplies in preparation for a coming collapse.

Apocalpytic beliefs have been on rise for the past 40 to 50 years, said DiTommaso, who has been researching doomsday believers for an upcoming book, "The Architecture of Apocalypticism." What ties these disparate groups together is a sense that the world's problems are too big to solve, DiTommaso said.
"Problems have become so big, with no solutions in sight, that we no longer see ourselves able as human beings to solve these problems," DiTommaso said. "From a biblical point of view, God is going to solve them. From other points of view, there has to be some sort of catastrophe."

The apocalyptic worldview springs from a desire to reconcile two conflicting beliefs.

"The first is that there is something dreadfully wrong with the world of human existence today," he said. "On the other hand, there is a sense that there is a higher good or some purpose for existence, a hope for a better future."

Viewing the world as a flawed place headed toward some sort of cosmic correction reconciles these two beliefs, DiTommaso said.

And because believers are certain that their sacred text can never be wrong, failed doomsday predictions only convince them that their own interpretations were flawed, opening the door to new predictions. Historically, those who have predicted doomsday, including the early Christians, have been persecuted and oppressed, so the prospect of a final judgment is comforting, DiTomasso said.

"Despite fire, death and destruction, the god of apocalypticism is a god of order, not chaos," DiTomasso said. "That's the reassurance."

TEOTWAWKI, and they feel fine

To be reassured, however, an end-of-world Jane has to expect doomsday to come soon — and has to expect to survive. Religious believers usually expect that they'll be among those saved from the torments of an ending world. Secular doomsday-fearers, on the other hand, expect to fight for their survival.

"We stress being prepared," said Jim Rawles, the proprietor of SurvivalBlog.com, an online clearinghouse of advice on survivalism and preparation. Rawles, who gives his location only as "west of the Rockies," has been involved in disaster preparedness since he was a teenager. In the 1960s, with nuclear attack fears running high, Rawles and his friends talked about preparedness a lot, he told LiveScience.

Rawles started SurvivalBlog in 2006. Since then, he said, his readership has shifted from mostly conservative
Christians and Orthodox Jews to "Birkenstock-wearing, liberal greenie-types." The Japanese earthquake and nuclear meltdown brought him more readers across the political spectrum, he said, and he now gets more than 260,000 unique visitors to his site each week.

Unlike Camping, Rawles and his readers aren't preparing for the end of the world; they're preparing for TEOTWAWKI, survivalist shorthand for "the end of the world as we know it." The end might come in the form of an economic collapse, a giant solar flare, a nuclear attack or climate change, but the end goal is the same: to be ready for anything.

"There's a great deal of satisfaction in saying, 'Oh boy, I'm ready when the bombs go off/the environment collapses/the Arabs invade/the magnetic poles reverse,'" said Richard Mitchell, an Oregon State University sociologist who spent years getting to know survivalists for his book "Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times" (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

Paranoid or prepared?

Survivalists have gotten a reputation as fringe-dwellers, Mitchell said, but viewing them as crazy is "totally incorrect." For one thing, they're everywhere: Mitchell described one man, a suburban engineer whose garage was filled floor-to-ceiling with detergents and hand wipes and toilet tissue. The man's job specialty, Mitchell said, was water systems engineering, and his concern was a loss of sanitation after a disaster.
"He's not some redneck, and he's not violent," Mitchell told LiveScience. "He wants to help keep everybody clean."

People who are into survivalism and prepping enjoy telling stories about the world turning upside-down, Mitchell said. Society's collapse is a challenge, and the reward is coming up with scenarios in which you survive.

"People will tell you five or six stories, totally different apocalyptic tales, and everybody will nod their head and say, 'Yeah, that sounds right,'" Mitchell said. "Who cares? It's the storytelling that matters."

As do the life skills. To Rawles, prepping is a way of reaching back to his family's pioneer roots, when gardening, canning and putting up food were standard procedures.

"Preparedness can in some ways be a lot of fun, because you're learning some really interesting skills," Rawles said. "And the sense of accomplishment where you can walk down to your basement and look at your pantry shelves and say, 'Yep, I did that,' you can feel good about that."


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Malawi Builds A Fart Free Utopia

Better In than Out: African Country Set to Make
Breaking Wind a Crime
By Colin Fernandez, UK Mail, January 28, 2011

Breaking wind is set to be made a crime in an African country.

The government of Malawi plan to punish persistent offenders 'who foul the air' in a bid to 'mould responsible and disciplined citizens.'

But locals fear that pinning responsibility on the crime will be difficult - and may lead to miscarriages of justice as 'criminals' attempt to blame others for their offence.

One Malawian told the website Africanews.com: 'My goodness. What happens in a public place where a group is gathered. Do they lock up half a minibus?

'And how about at meetings where it is difficult to pinpoint 'culprits'?

'Children will openly deny having passed bad air and point at an elder. Culturally, this is very embarrassing,' she said.

Another said: 'We have serious issues affecting Malawians today. I do not know how fouling the air should take priority over regulating Chinese investments which do not employ locals, serious graft amongst legislators, especially those in the ruling party, and many more.'

The crime will be enforceable in a new 'Local Court' system which will also have powers to punish a range of other crimes in the bill set to be debated in the country's parliament.

These include insulting the modesty of a woman, challenging to fight a duel, and trespassing on a burial place.
It also outlaws pretending to be a fortune teller, according to local press in the country.

Opposition leaders complain the new courts will be 'kangaroo courts'.


included in the 197 comments to this article:

The idiocy of blowing matters out of proportion before understanding where they are coming from is putting a lot of hard work in bad light. The transfer of the jurisdiction over this crime from the Magistracy to the Local courts is being portrayed as if the crime is just being introduced. For those who dont know how the provision is couched in our law: s. 198 PC - Any person who voluntarily vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the nebahood or passing along a public way, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour. Is this a strange provision, read around!!!!!!!

- Chizaso, Lilongwe, Malawi, 30/1/2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

L. A. Noire -- Is This the Future of Film?

Critics: Stunning Thriller
L.A. Noire Is Indistinguishable From a Movie
By Mike Smith
L.A. Noire (X360, PS3) video game review

Few game developers can boast a track record like Rockstar Games. Responsible for smash hits like the Grand Theft Auto series and last year's standout Red Dead Redemption, the studio is famed for output that toes the line between film and games.

With this week's release of gritty 1940s detective drama L.A. Noire for the Xbox 360 and PS3, however, Rockstar has raised the bar for what constitutes a cinematic video game experience.

Boasting groundbreaking, facial-mapping technology, an all-star cast and a lifelike recreation of
1940s Los Angeles, it's already being tipped as one of the year's best games.

"Ever since it first worked out how to assemble pixels so that they resembled something more recognisable than aliens," says The Guardian, "the games industry has dreamed of creating one thing above all else - a game that is indistinguishable from a film, except that you can control the lead character. With L.A. Noire, it just might, finally, have found the embodiment of that particular holy grail."

And writer Steve Boxer is in no doubt about where to lay the credit for that unprecedented cinematic feel.
"The new MotionScan system used to capture actors' performances simply produces more convincing facial animation than we have ever seen in a game," says Boxer, who calls the game's recreation of Los Angeles "gloriously convincing...it has all the period charm of Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men." That's unsurprising: the game's lead, detective Cole Phelps, is masterfully played by Mad Men's Aaron Staton, while a number of his AMC co-stars also crop up in the game.

Over at Destructoid, reviewer Jim Sterling is, to put it mildly, impressed.

"No game released this generation has tackled the subject matter found in L.A. Noire with the same degree of intelligence and respect," he writes, "and no game has blended gameplay from various genres so seamlessly, in a way that delivers something far more unique in experience than the sum of its parts."

Unlike Hollywood movies, however, L.A. Noire doesn't concern itself with telling the perfect tale.
"There's only one save file that the game updates automatically," points out Gamespot's Carolyn Petit, "so you can't just restart when an interrogation goes badly." In other words, if you screw up, L.A. Noire won't hesitate to confront you with the consequences of your errors. It "isn't about tidy resolutions and happy endings," says Petit, "'it's often about the cases where the truth is elusive--the cases that keep cops up at night."

So yes, it's often gruesome and depressing, but it's realism of a different sort that troubles some critics, including IGN's Hilary Goldstein.

"Things are perhaps too true to real police work - repetitive, redundant, and unsurprising," he says, though he, like many others, finds much to like in its stellar voice work and soundtrack. Still, scoring it an 8.5, Goldstein says the game "never adds up," feeling its "amazing pieces...don't quite amount to an incredible game."

A few other critics score the game in the 8s, typically citing concerns over uneven gameplay, a few control issues, and an occasional reliance on guesswork over skill. But praise for the game's storytelling and superb performances is universal, and a slew of perfect marks nudge the game's average score comfortably over the 90% line at Metacritic. We suspect that's enough to make even the most hard-boiled of noir heroes crack a self-satisfied grin.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Seven Percent of Downloads Are Malicious

Microsoft: One in 14 Downloads is MaliciousRobert McMillan Robert Mcmillan – Tue May 17, 8:40 pm ET

The next time a website says to download new software to view a movie or fix a problem, think twice. There's a pretty good chance that the program is malicious.

In fact, about one out of every 14 programs downloaded by Windows users turns out to be malicious, Microsoft said Tuesday. And even though Microsoft has a feature in its Internet Explorer browser designed to steer users away from unknown and potentially untrustworthy software, about 5 percent of users ignore the warnings and download malicious Trojan horse programs anyway.

Five years ago, it was pretty easy for criminals to sneak their code onto computers. There were plenty of browser bugs, and many users weren't very good at patching. But since then, the cat-and-mouse game of Internet security has evolved: Browsers have become more secure, and software makers can quickly and automatically push out patches when there's a known problem.

So increasingly, instead of hacking the browsers themselves, the bad guys try to hack the people using them. It's called social engineering, and it's a big problem these days. "The attackers have figured out that it's not that hard to get users to download Trojans," said Alex Stamos, a founding partner with Isec Partners, a security consultancy that's often called in to clean up the mess after companies have been hacked.

Social engineering is how the Koobface virus spreads on Facebook. Users get a message from a friend telling them to go and view a video. When they click on the link, they're then told that they need to download some sort of video playing software in order to watch. That software is actually a malicious program.
Social-engineering hackers also try to infect victims by hacking into Web pages and popping up fake antivirus warnings designed to look like messages from the operating system. Download these and you're infected. The criminals also use spam to send Trojans, and they will trick search engines into linking to malicious websites that look like they have interesting stories or video about hot news such as the royal wedding or the death of Osama bin Laden.

"The attackers are very opportunistic, and they latch onto any event that might be used to lure people," said Joshua Talbot, a manager with Symantec Security Response. When Symantec tracked the 50 most common malicious programs last year, it found that 56 percent of all attacks included Trojan horse programs.

In enterprises, a social-engineering technique called spearphishing is a serious problem. In spearphishing, the criminals take the time to figure out who they're attacking, and then they create a specially crafted program or a maliciously encoded document that the victim is likely to want to open -- materials from a conference they've attended or a planning document from an organization that they do business with.

With its new SmartScreen Filter Application Reputation screening, introduced in IE 9, Internet Explorer provides a first line of defense against Trojan horse programs, including Trojans sent in spearphishing attacks.
IE also warns users when they're being tricked into visiting malicious websites, another way that social-engineering hackers can infect computer users. In the past two years, IE's SmartScreen has blocked more than 1.5 billion Web and download attacks, according to Jeb Haber, program manager lead for

Haber agreed that better browser protection is pushing the criminals into social engineering, especially over the past two years. "You're just seeing an explosion in direct attacks on users with social engineering," he said. "We were really surprised by the volumes. The volumes have been crazy."

When the SmartScreen warning pops up to tell users that they're about to run a potentially harmful program, the odds are between 25 percent and 70 percent that the program will actually be malicious, Haber said. A typical user will only see a couple of these warnings each year, so it's best to take them very seriously.

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for

The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Astronomers Find Planets Lacking Solar Orbits

There are large gas giant plants wandering around the Milky Way galaxy with very distant orbits from a sun or with no planetary orbit at all. This challenges the notion that planets are created by dust orbits around solar bodies. It may ultimately force the word planet to be redefined.
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Possible Planets Without OrbitsBy MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer May 18, 2011

NEW YORK – Are these planets without orbits? Astronomers have found 10 potential planets as massive as Jupiter wandering through a slice of the Milky Way galaxy, following either very wide orbits or no orbit at all. And scientists think they are more common than the stars.

These mysterious bodies, apparently gaseous balls like the largest planets in our solar system, may help scientists understand how planets form.

"They're finding evidence for a lot of pretty big planets," said Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who wasn't involved in the research.

If they orbit stars, their sheer number suggests every star in the galaxy has one or two of them, "which is astounding" because that's five or 10 times the number of stars scientists had thought harbored such gas-giant planets, he said.

And if instead they are wandering free, that "would be really stunning" because it's hard to explain how they formed, he said.

If that's the case, it would give a boost to some theories that say planets can be thrown out of orbit during formation, said Lisa Kaltenegger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, another outside expert.

Other scientists have reported free-wandering objects in star-forming regions of the cosmos, but the newfound objects appear to be different, said one author of the new study, physicist David Bennett of the University of Notre Dame.

Bennett and colleagues from Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere report the finding in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. They didn't observe the objects directly. Instead, they used the fact that massive objects bend the light of distant stars with their gravity, just as a lens does. So they looked extensively for such "microlensing" events.

They found 10, each caused by one of the newfound objects. They calculated each object has about the mass of Jupiter, and estimated how common such objects are. They also found no sign of a star near these bodies, at least not within 10 times the distance from Earth to the sun. (For comparison, within our solar system that would basically rule out an orbit closer than Saturn's.)

So the newfound objects either orbit a star more distant than that, or they don't orbit a star at all, the researchers concluded. They drew on other data to determine most of the objects don't orbit a star.
Scientists believe planets are formed when disks of dust that orbit stars form clumps, so that these clumps — the planets — remain in orbit. Maybe the newfound objects started out that way, but then got tossed out of orbit or into distant orbits by the gravitational tugs of larger planets, the researchers suggest.

The work suggests that such a tossing-out process is quite common, Bennett said.

Boss said maybe the bodies formed around a pair of stars instead, one of which supplied the gravitational tug. But even that would take some explaining to produce an object without an orbit, he said. Or maybe they somehow formed outside of any orbit. So the theoretical challenge in explaining the existence of such bodies is "exciting," he said.

Boss said he suspects most of these are in a distant orbit, and that maybe they even formed at that great distance rather than being tossed outward from a closer orbit.

Kaltenegger also said the new results can't rule out the possibility that these possible planets are in orbit, and that they may only have the mass of Saturn, about a third of Jupiter's.

But if they aren't orbiting a star, she noted, they don't fit the official definition of a planet

All in all, Boss said, the new work is "pretty exciting in telling what is out there in the night sky... Lots of theories will grow in this environment."

— at least not the definition applied to objects in our own solar system.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

High Unemployment Rate in USA

Edward P. Lazear was chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers from 2006-2009. Currently he, is a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and a Hoover Institution fellow.

He had a frightening piece in the May 16, 2011, on-line version of the Wall Street Journal about unemployment in the United States. He noted that American workers are worried about the economy and don’t see it as improving, in spite of employment growth averaging 200,000 jobs a month and the unemployment rate down from a peak to 9% currently.

Lazear thinks a better measure of the labor market comes from looking at "hires and separations," or, in the bureaucratic language of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the "Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey" or JOLTS.

In February of 2009, near the economic bottom, the job market lost more than 700,000 jobs in a month where employers hired four million workers. In March of 2011, employers again fired four million workers – the same number of hires.

"We added jobs because hires exceeded separations, not because hiring increased," Lazear tells us. There were 4.7 million people separated from their jobs in February of 2009 but only 3.8 separations in March of 2011. Layoffs went down from 2.5 million in Feburary of 2009 to 1.6 million in March of 2011.

Lazear warns us not to be too cheered by the reduction of layoffs. Layoffs occur early in a recession and the
slowing of layoffs is not necessarily a harbinger of recovery. That hires exceed separations is not necessarily indicative of a healthy labor market.
The reason is that jobs "churn." At the bottom of the current recession, 3.6 million workers were hired in a month. Even in 2009, a terrible year, 45 million people were hired. There are over 150 million workers or job seekers. About one third of jobs turn over in a typical year. The labor market "creates" 200,000 jobs because 5 million were hired and 4.8 million were separated from work, "not because there were 200,000 hires and no job losses."

Back in 2006 and 2007, American firms were hiring about 5.5 million workers each month – and the current number is only 4 million. Lazear states that a recovery-level pace of hiring is "at least half a million more hires per month than we are seeing now." He notes:

The combination of low hiring and a large stock of unemployed workers, now 13.7 million, means that the competition for jobs is fierce. Because there are now many more unemployed workers, and because hiring is only about 70% of 2006 levels, a worker is about one-third as likely to find a job today as he or she was in 2006. It is no wonder that workers do not feel that the labor market has recovered.Lazear also reminds us that layoffs were higher in 2006-2007, not because layoffs are a sign of a strong economy, but because high rates of hiring and high layoffs together indicate a fluid labor market, one that churns a lot. This "generally means that workers are moving to better jobs in growing sectors that pay higher wages and away from declining sectors that pay lower wages."

This robust situation hardly describes the current job market. Lazear recommends low taxes, avoiding weighty regulation, and open markets in the USA and abroad. A clime where investment is profitable, productivity increases and employers make more money when they are hiring more workers is desired to create a strong labor market.

The entire article is at:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Flight 447 Black Box Data Downloaded

Air France Flight 447 Data Retrieved
Reuters reporter Tim Hepher prepared a report written by John Irish and edited by Elizabeth Peper in Paris today, May 16, 2011, that states data has been downloaded from both the voice and data recorders of Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic enroute from Rio de Janeiro to Paris after a thunderstorm on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 souls on board.

Before the black boxes were located, investigators said no single cause for the crash was identifiable. The black boxes were recovered from two and one-half miles below the ocean’s surface and taken to Paris. The BEA agency said it has transferred all of the information stored in the black boxes. The data consists of the final two hours of cockpit conversations as well as all the information in the flight data recorder. Both boxes were meticulously dried out at BEA laboratories outside Paris.

The BEA previously said it would announce some results an findings in 2012, but Monday it changed this deadline to six months from now. A detailed analysis of the data is underway. An interim report is expected during the summer.

The BEA is expected to make two copies of the recordings – one for its own investigation and another for French judges examining the possibility of criminal misconduct. Reuters reports that both Air France and Airbus are under formal investigation because of the crash of Flight 447.
Summarized from: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20110516/ts_nm/us_france_brazil_crash

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Master Switch" Gene for Obesity Found

Scientists Find "Master Switch" Gene for ObesitySun May 15, 2011

LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists have found that a gene linked to diabetes and cholesterol is a "master switch" that controls other genes found in fat in the body, and say it should help in the search for treatments for obesity-related diseases.

In a study published in the journal Nature Genetics, the British researchers said that since fat plays an important role in peoples' susceptibility to metabolic diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, the regulating gene could be target for drugs to treat such illnesses.

"This is the first major study that shows how small changes in one master regulator gene can cause a cascade
of other metabolic effects in other genes," said Tim Spector of King's College London, who led the study.

More than half a billion people, or one in 10 adults worldwide, are obese and the numbers have doubled since the 1980s as the obesity epidemic has spilled over from wealthy into poorer nations.

In the United States, obesity-related diseases already account for nearly 10 percent of medical spending -- an estimated $147 billion a year.

Type 2 diabetes, which is often linked to poor diet and lack of exercise, is also reaching epidemic levels worldwide as rates of obesity rise.

Scientists have already identified a gene called KLF14 as being linked to type 2 diabetes and cholesterol levels, but until now they did know what role it played.

Spector's team analyzed more than 20,000 genes in fat samples taken from under the skin of 800 British female twin volunteers. They found a link between the KLF14 gene and the levels of many other distant genes found in fat tissue, showing that KLF14 acts as a master switch to control these genes.

They then confirmed their findings in 600 fat samples from a separate group of people from Iceland.

In a report of their study, the researchers explained that other genes found to be controlled by KLF14 are linked to a range of metabolic traits, including body mass index, obesity, cholesterol, insulin and glucose levels.

"KLF14 seems to act as a master switch controlling processes that connect changes in the behavior of subcutaneous fat to disturbances in muscle and liver that contribute to diabetes and other conditions," said Mark McCarthy from Britain's Oxford University, who also worked on the study.

"We are working hard...to understand these processes and how we can use this information to improve treatment of these conditions."

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mark Heinrich)


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Human Lung Stem Cell Identified

US Researchers Identify First
Human Lung Stem Cell

WASHINGTON (AFP) – May 11, 2011 -- US researchers said Wednesday they have identified for the first time human lung stem cells that are self-renewing and could offer important clues for treating chronic lung diseases.

Previous studies have shown researchers were able to create lung cells using human embryonic stem cells, but this lung stem cell was isolated using surgical samples of adult human lung tissue.

"This research describes, for the first time, a true human lung stem cell," said Piero Anversa, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and co-author of the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"The discovery of this stem cell has the potential to offer those who suffer from chronic lung diseases a totally novel treatment option by regenerating or repairing damaged areas of the lung."

The finding qualifies as a true stem cell because it renews itself; can form different types of lung cells like bronchioles, alveoli and pulmonary vessel cells; and when injected into a mouse it could be isolated and removed and used to treat another mouse with the same results, the study said.

"These are the critical first steps in developing clinical treatments for those with lung disease for which no therapies exist," said co-author Joseph Loscalzo, chair of the BWH department of medicine.

"Further research is needed, but we are excited about the impact this discovery could have on our ability to regenerate or recreate new lung tissues to replace damaged areas of the lungs."

Stem cell therapy on lung diseases has long been elusive because the lung is a highly complex organ with a variety of cell types that can renew at different rates, experts say.

Lung disease is the third leading killer in the United States after heart disease and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Internet Is Eating Academia

Will the Internet Destroy Academic Freedom?

May 11, 2011, By Josh Fischman, The Chronicle of Higher Education

The cherished principle of academic freedom may be Googled to death, according a new article in the
journal called—appropriately—the Journal of Academic Freedom. Philo A. Hutcheson, associate professor of educational-policy studies at Georgia State University, writes that academics used to be seen as society’s experts, but the Internet makes everybody think they are experts because knowledge is at their fingertips. And if society no longer believes professors have special expertise, it may no longer grant them the ability to pursue controversial ideas that grow from it.

"As the breadth and volume of search engines’ results increase, providing a source of certainty for those building an argument," he writes, "… the validity of academics’ knowledge, the fundamental assumption of academic freedom, becomes problematic."

Mr. Hutcheson, who testified on behalf of Ward Churchill in the former University of Colorado professor’s academic freedom and unfair-dismissal lawsuit, put it this way in an interview: "Academic freedom is a privilege, not a fundamental right. It only exists as a result of professors’ ability to lay claim to a special place in determining knowledge." That specialness, he says, exists because academic information is carefully checked and footnoted. When he typed "academic freedom" into Google, on the other hand, it gave him about 11,500,000 results in 0.8 seconds, none of them verified for accuracy. (Although, he does note the second link was the American Association of University Professors, freedom’s guardian.) And that is the kind of bulk result that led a student in an online class that he just finished teaching to cite a discredited theory of human aggression.

"I can see, in the age of the smartphone, that a professor’s claim to academic freedom is no stronger than the claim of the person tapping at that phone as he walks down the street," he says.

Now, not everyone in a university believes the Internet-driven spread of knowledge is a dangerous thing. In fact, many rely on it, in crowdsourcing projects in the humanities and the sciences. But the notion that professors’ abilities to do their jobs depends, essentially, on society viewing them as smarter than everyone else is novel, and likely to be more than a little controversial.


= = = = = = = one of the best blog comments: = = = = = = = = =

The "threat" of an ever broadening "knowledge commons" is not to academic freedom but to professors' claims to privileged authority - to being gatekeepers to the Truth. So much the better. As bisscom points out, our real job should be helping students learn, and that means helping them discover how to explore that expanding commons and evaluate what they find there - not initiating them into our secret knowledge.
  • -- a comment by hmcleaver
The blog author agrees with this comment. The real job of a professor is to teach students to do research and to sniff out bad information and questionable sources. At an extreme, the real job of "hard science" professors of chemistry and physics is to teach students to do experiments, using laboratory protocols, and to sniff out bad findings and questionable techniques. Education is a quest rather than a secret club.

Positive Quiddity: Teen Research into Cystic Fibrosis

Teen Discovers Promising Cystic
Fibrosis Treatment
LiveScience, May 12, 2011

A 16-year-old from the Toronto area used a supercomputer system to find a new drug combination that shows potential in treating the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis, and won top honors for his work.

Marshall Zhang, an 11th-grade student at Richmond Hill's Bayview Secondary School, received first place Tuesday (May 10) in the 2011 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge, a contest in which students conduct their own research projects with the help of mentors.

Cystic fibrosis is a potentially fatal condition caused by a genetic mutation, or error. It causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and elsewhere. Cystic fibrosis occurs most among white people of northern European ancestry, in about 1 out of 3,000 live births. In the past, most people with cystic fibrosis died in their teens, according to the Mayo Clinic. It has no cure.

At his mentor's lab, Zhang used the Canadian SCINET supercomputing network to investigate how two promising new compounds acted against the defective protein responsible for the condition. Using computer simulations, he figured out how each of these drugs acted against the protein and discovered they acted on the protein in different spots, raising the possibility they could be used simultaneously without interfering with each other.

Zhang then tested his theory in living cells, and the results exceeded his expectations.

"They actually worked together in creating an effect that was greater than the sum of its parts," he told LiveScience.

Zhang is realistic about the future for his discovery; once tested in the human body, promising treatments can turn out to be toxic or ineffective, he said. But even if this combination of compounds doesn't ultimately help treat cystic fibrosis, he believes his research has laid important groundwork for other discoveries.

"I have identified certain chemical structures that are key in the corrective effects of these molecules, as well as identified two molecular targets on the protein for future therapeutics," he said.

His mentor, Dr. Christine Bear, a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children's Research Institute in Toronto, has invited him back to her lab to continue his work, he said.

After taking Advanced Placement Biology last year, in Grade 10, Zhang decided he wanted to do what real scientists do and began contacting professors to see if he could work in their labs.

"Most of them said 'no' because I didn't have the experience I needed," he said. "I emailed the entire list of faculty in biochemistry at the University of Toronto." The last one, Dr. Bear, said yes.

Now Zhang and a trio of Montreal students who took second place for their technique for making sorbet without gelatin move on to compete against U.S. and Australian teams at the International BioGENEius Challenge in Washington, D.C., June 27.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Human Visual Searches Are Nearly Optimal in Efficiency

The ultimate idealist would claim that all of nature and the universe exist inside the mind of God. If we change our mind, we change the world in which we exist.

But a realist says that reality exists whether we recognize it or not. A tree falls in the forest and makes noise whether we are there to hear it or not. The stars come out every night whether we understand them or not. Further, we are designed to understand and comprehend this outside reality which we also inhabit. A strong indicator that the realists have the correct approach rests with neurological findings about the way humans think. Our visual searches are nearly optimal, as if we were designed to see through camouflage to what is actually there.  -- the blog author

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Nature Neuroscience

Behavior and neural basis of near-optimal visual search

Wei Ji Ma, Vidhya Navalpakkam, Jeffrey M Beck, Ronald van den Berg & Alexandre Pouget

The ability to search efficiently for a target in a cluttered environment is one of the most remarkable functions of the nervous system. This task is difficult under natural circumstances, as the reliability of sensory information can vary greatly across space and time and is typically a priori unknown to the observer. In contrast, visual-search experiments commonly use stimuli of equal and known reliability. In a target detection task, we randomly assigned high or low reliability to each item on a trial-by-trial basis. An optimal observer would weight the observations by their trial-to-trial reliability and combine them using a specific nonlinear integration rule. We found that humans were near-optimal, regardless of whether distractors were homogeneous or heterogeneous and whether reliability was manipulated through contrast or shape. We present a neural-network implementation of near-optimal visual search based on probabilistic population coding. The network matched human performance.

Full article available on line at:
| May 8, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

"Goddamnit! I was right!"

-- the blog author, aloud, in the movie theater,
as an on-screen, indoor gunfight erupts very
late during the motion picture The Lincoln Lawyer
I live in a small town where movies are only shown weeks after they are released. The Lincoln Lawyer will probably be closed in a few weeks. Go see this picture on the big screen while you still can.

There are two overwhelming reasons why I say this. The first is that a lot of the action in the movie was filmed at night. The nighttime color cinematography is excellent. And these night shots are where the clues are. The second reason is that, like Body Heat and Chinatown, this film is one of those rare examples of great film noir shot in color. The big screen still does these kinds of late night, murky images significantly better than any home presentation.

There are a couple of other reasons to see it while it is still in a theater. Surround-sound means you can hear the incredibly crisp dialog clearly and understand it immediately. John Romano does a splendid job of converting the Michael Connelly novel to a screenplay. And there are sound effects, such as an immediately off-camera beating in which one of the characters is clubbed to within an inch of his life. Director Brad Furman has a few short scenes with furious or frantic inmates, exactly enough to show us why prison life is to be avoided at all costs. A young real estate wizard, Louis Roulet (played perfectly by Ryan Phillippe) is the defendant and Roulet’s Beverly Hills mother is splendidly portrayed by Frances Fisher. The various assistant district attorneys, bailiffs and courthouse regulars are well cast as well.

Much of the heavy lifting is done by The Lincoln Lawyer himself, amoral rogue Mickey Haller, played by Matthew McConaughey in his best role in many a year. Haller’s ex-wife, Maggie McPherson, herself a prosecutor at the courthouse, is played with unique skill by Marisa Tomei. Tomei is fantastic as a middle-aged single mother with a chip on her shoulder about her ex-husband as she carries a lot of responsibilities with tremendous common sense.

Mickey Haller knows everyone, knows what to say, and knows how to bend the law, but he’s a divorced cynic whose only real friend is his chauffeur, who expertly drives his well-maintained, mid-eighties Lincoln Town Car. Over the course of 118 minutes of film, we watch him mature as a man and as a professional.
Don’t miss this great combination of film noir edginess and courtroom drama. It deserves Oscar nominations for Romano’s screenplay adapted from a novel, cinematography, best supporting actor (Ryan Phillippe) and best supporting actress (Marisa Tomei). It’s a remarkable effort that will come back and make you think about it the day after you’ve seen it. Let justice be done though the heavens may fall! And, as usual, justice is rated R.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Positive Quiddity: Laughter and Comedy

The Advantages of Laughter
– Essential Facts You Ought to Know

By Vinita Loiselle
April 8, 2011

We laugh when there's a good joke. We laugh when we get tickled. We laugh when something meets our fancy. We laugh about something absurd, crazy or unexpected. It's inherent in the human psyche to love to laugh. We laugh at comedy movies and at comic events in real life. But aside from the amusement and life laughter gives to a party, did you know that it also brings with tremendous health and fitness benefits?

Laughter therapy classes are a flourishing area in the fitness industry. Spawned by the growing scientific proof of the benefits of laughter, these laughter-inspired classes feature long and loud laughs, giggles and cheerful chortling through jokes, recollection of fun moments and even laughing contests. True, laughter is not really all spontaneous in these classes but is often forced. But that's supported by studies: Even non-spontaneous laughter has fitness benefits for both the body and mind.

One of the benefits of laughter therapy is stress reduction. Here's something surprising: According to scientists, your body can't decipher what is genuine laughter from a forced chuckle. So even if you're really down and out and you attempt a fake chuckle, that still goes a long way towards relieving you of stress and tension. When you're under severe stress, it's counter productive to actually bottle it all in, says laughter experts. You'll only adding to the tension you feel. Instead, it is much better to vent it all out through a hearty chuckle.

Did you know that laughter can enhance blood flow by as much as 20 percent? Like cardiovascular exercise, the heart and lungs will have to work doubly hard to compensate for the increased flow of blood through the rest of the body. Together with the arteries, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems become stronger as a result. Blood pressure and blood sugar levels also get regulated.
Laughter therapy also has the added advantage of strengthening the immune system. The cells in our body that protect us from the diseases caused by harmful viruses, bacteria and free radicals are significantly lessened during long bouts of stress, says research. However, with a good laugh, they are also increased. Toxins are also removed with a hearty chuckle, increasing your body's chances of staying healthy. So to boost immune system function, give yourself the benefit of one good laugh.

Finally, laughter therapy can also be touted as a fitness regimen on its own. This is because 10 to 15 minutes of laughter can burn as many calories as jogging or some other cardio regimen since it engages key muscles in your body. If you're on the road to weight loss, then make it a point to laugh as many times as you can during the course of the entire day.

A hearty chuckle isn't really something difficult to do. If you can't find a laughter class to enroll in near your area, you can simply laugh on your own. It might seem uncomfortable to laugh by yourself at first, but get the help of comedy movie so you don't feel so awkward about it. As soon as you'll get used to laughing, it becomes easier to do so. Laugh your heart out and reap the amazing health benefits!

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[the blog author also has a list of 40 screamingly funny books at:
http://www.amazon.com/40-Funniest-Books/lm/R2TBU83CCVUHAF/ref=cm_lm_byauthor_full ]


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Negative Quiddity: Teleologists

December 08, 2009
Why all arguments against magic fail This post by Steven den Beste helps explain why it is that some people -- those driven by teleological thinking -- tend to be far more intolerant of disagreement than others.
Teleologists inherently don't believe in unintended side effects when it comes to implementing their idealistic policies. Obviously it should be possible to provide free health care to everyone without wrecking the economy; it's just how things really should be, so that's how it will be. Where will the money come from? That's the kind of question that materialists ask; teleologists don't concern themselves with such trivial. It'll happen somehow, because it's obviously how it should turn out. To say we shouldn't do it is to be heartless, uncaring -- and those things are more important than mundane claims that it won't work. If you just believe, it will work.
Of course, it won't work. The materialists are right about that. But when it fails (if it gets tried) the teleologists will blame the negative vibes of all the materialist doubters for the failure. If only they'd come on board and supported it, then it would have come out OK.
(Via Glenn Reynolds.)
While I'd love to quote the post in its entirety, I suggest reading it for yourself.
Basically, teleological thinking is a form of magical thinking. People who tend to think that if we all believe in something, it will happen.
It's teleologists who drive around with bumper stickers that say, "Imagine world peace." I can imagine it just fine. I don't expect to see it in my lifetime, though. Why would they want me to imagine it?
It's because teleologists believe that human thought truly affects things. Of course it does; thought precedes action, and actions change history, right? Yeah, but that's not the point. Teleologists believe that thought directly affects things. The mere act of thinking about something and wanting it a lot directly changes reality, even if the thought doesn't get translated into action.
An extreme and bizarre form of this was the attempted levitation of the Pentagon in 1967 by activists.
If teleologists had a hymn, I'm sure it would be John Lennon's "Imagine." (I've been patient enough to try applying "Imagine" to jihad, and even to angry bicycle riding, but I'm afraid I'm stuck in the ancient paradigm that wishing things away will not make them go away.)

While this sort of magical thinking might seem the epitome of "tolerance" because of the peace and love, Kumbaya, "we can all live together in peace" mindset, in practice it tends to be intolerant in the extreme, because it is predicated on the idea that things will only change if we all think the right way and believe. In the magic, of course.

But what about those who don't believe in the magic? What if your experience has taught you that there are bad people in this world, and that if you aren't ready to defend yourself against them, they will steal from you, or kill you, or even attack your country? The teleological school would hold that to oppose bad people is to become like them, but that allowing them to have their way will somehow cause them to change.

I'll never forget a dinner conversation I had with a woman who lectured me about how war is now obsolete because
the paradigm had changed. That the reason we were at war was because Bush and Cheney and the Neocons just didn't get it. She clearly and devoutly believed that the problem was the people who still believed in the old paradigm. Those who would defend themselves against attackers are thus no better than the attackers.

Now, I am often fascinated to hear what people think, and I have a very gentle demeanor in conversations which is often mistaken for either agreement or susceptibility to conversion. But eventually this woman was not content with my passivity, and started demanding that I tell her what I thought. I tried to be diplomatic, but when I allowed that self defense is a human right, she sensed reluctance to go along with her view of the new paradigm, and became clearly enraged. (I was reminded of another woman who first flirted with me and engaged in animated political conversation only to abruptly walk away when I told her that I belonged to the ACLU and the NRA. End. Of. Conversation.)

Perhaps I am a masochist, but I have subjected myself to numerous dinner lectures by these peace-loving, angry, John Lennon Imaginist-type teleologists, and on another occasion, I was subjected to a severe scolding by a schoolteacher who condemned all forms of self defense as part of the whole problem. Knowing that she was Jewish, I thought I would raise the example of the Jews who fought back in the Warsaw ghetto. This really infuriated her, and she raised her voice to a yell, but she still steadfastly maintained that it was just as wrong for the Jews to defend themselves as it would be for anyone else. It was also clear to her that I was part of the problem, with all my backward "old paradigm" thinking.
It's not easy to "agree to disagree" with people who believe that disagreement is evil. Also, because they are not religious, for them there is no such thing as forgiving people for bad thoughts, or praying for them to change. Little wonder that there are so many people who believe in criminalizing bad thoughts. If thinking will actually magically make things happen or not, then bad thoughts are inherently dangerous, and should be regulated, made illegal, stamped out.

By the way, this magical, teleological thinking is not limited to imagining war or self defense out of existence. I have seen it applied to people facing terminal illnesses, in what I consider a very cruel and callused manner. As my best friend lay dying of AIDS in the mid 1980s, a contingent of magical thinkers descended on him and plied him with the idea that disease is all in the mind, and that he could literally wish himself to wellness. They also brought him some herbs which they said would heal him if only he would take them and "believe" in their healing power. He knew he was going to die, and thought this was all a form of denial, and I think he was right. But the magical thinkers actually blamed him, cluck-clucking like a bunch of Puritanical scolds, and saying things like "If he really wants to get better, all he has to do is change his thinking!" and "If he dies, it will be his karma!" This reminded me of another friend (now in his 80s) who watched his father die of a ruptured appendix which could have been operated, but his devout Christian Scientist family refused surgery and prayed. (Not surprisingly, the man has been an atheist ever since.) Just as my friend's failure to recover from AIDS was considered his fault, no doubt the failure of the ruptured appendix to heal would have been evidence that the family didn't really believe in the power of prayer as they should have. (And naturally, the Pentagon failed to levitate in 1967 because of a lack of devoutness on the part of the part of the magical

In this way, failure of magic, far from disproving the magic, can be made to reinforce it, which makes magical thinking a self-fueling, closed loop. Any failure on its part to work can be blamed not only on the evil arguments against it, but on insufficient devotion on the part of its followers.

And if you think about it, that really is magic.

posted by Eric on 12.08.09 at 11:18 AM
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Story of my life.
My whole family is like that. They get very angry with me when I have the bad manners to try to talk about the ideas on their merits.

What makes me kinda angry though is that they can say the worst things about me as they refuse to debate honestly.

More than once they've laughed as they say, "He's to the right of Genghis Khan".
It's funny, I didn't think he was a fan of low taxes and limited gov't. We both agree on the importance of a strong military, but we have different uses for it.

The funniest is when my brother says I'm brainwashed and just do what Bush says.
My gay brother.
We used to live together in Portsmouth, NH. Me, him and his boyfriend. I was a member of the gay bar there, "Members Only" or something. I've liked most of his boyfriends better than him. All my friends in 1984 in Portsmouth were gay.

He knows I don't think it's the gov't's job to decide who can marry whom, I'm in favor of legalized abortion (within limits), and don't believe in a god.
And yet, I do what Bush tells me.

How do you respond to that? I've tried reason, I've tried getting angry. Now, I just point and laugh.
They don't like me any more, but at least they leave me the hell alone.

Veeshir · December 8, 2009 11:47 AM

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The best goof on teleological politics used to be the conservative 1960s button/bumper sticker "Don't let THEM immanentize the eschaton!" Please note, however, the linked post is terrible and teleology as described there is mangled.

Dimitri Rotov · December 8, 2009 12:35 PM

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There is magical thinking and then there is Magic.

All men dream but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that is was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

We actually owe more to engineers than scientists. Sure - scientists discovered the principle of the Electric motor. But engineering is why you have a washing machine.

All the best engineers I know are dreamers. Tempered by practical matters - like making thins work. Showing a profit.

M. Simon · December 8, 2009 1:13 PM

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Thank you, Eric.

Regarding the teleologists' hymn:

An alternate version of "Imagine" by A Perfect Circle turns Lennon's idiotic meaning on its head.
Lennon meant that the world would be better if there was nothing to die for.

By making the music more dirge-like, the meaning becomes the world would be worse if there was nothing to die for.

You Tube has several versions. Here is one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ktv2C9vnRKU

Bill Lever · December 9, 2009 1:12 AM

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The simplest argument against utopianists:
The problem with utopia is that you need 100% enlightnede participation. It takes only one self-centered jerk to screw it up for everyone else. Since human nature pretty much guarantees the presence of at least one self-centered jerk, utopias are just not possible. Thus we need to create our societial rules as if there will not be 100% enlightenment in the population. Hence the need for police, armies, etc.

Richard · December 9, 2009 2:01 PM

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The simplest argument against utopianists:
The problem with utopia is that you need 100% enlightned participation. It takes only one self-centered jerk to screw it up for everyone else. Since human nature pretty much guarantees the presence of at least one self-centered jerk, utopias are just not possible. Thus we need to create our societial rules as if there will not be 100% enlightenment in the population. Hence the need for police, armies, etc.

Richard · December 9, 2009 2:13 PM

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This is a very common scenario for me. I rarely raise political issues, which are controversial by nature, at social gatherings. Leftists, however, do so all the time, become offended at contradiction, and then refuse to give their interlocutor a respectful hearing and rebuttal.

Instead, they get bent out of shape and excoriate their fellow citizen who does no more than disagree with their views. Their distress is your fault.

Apparently they only brought up politics in order to make sure their opponents are flushed out and shamed. Such children have no business at a gathering of adults.

Taking offense when none is intended is a flourishing skill on the left. It is bullying.

Brett · December 11, 2009 8:02 AM

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blog nattative and comments all unedited from this link:

T.E. Lawrence