Thursday, November 18, 2010

Do you want to fly with dignity?

Check out this subredit:

Operation GrabAss is in effect.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Scientists find damage to coral near BP well

For the first time, federal scientists have found damage to deep sea coral and other marine life on the ocean floor several miles from the blown-out BP well - a strong indication that damage from the spill could be significantly greater than officials had previously acknowledged.
Tests are needed to verify that the coral died from oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, but the chief scientist who led the government-funded expedition said Friday he was convinced it was related.
"What we have at this point is the smoking gun," said Charles Fisher, a biologist with Penn State University who led the expedition aboard the Ronald Brown, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel.
"There is an abundance of circumstantial data that suggests that what happened is related to the recent oil spill," Fisher said.
For the government, the findings were a departure from earlier statements. Until now, federal teams have painted relatively rosy pictures about the spill's effect on the sea and its ecosystem, saying they had not found any damage on the ocean floor.
In early August, a federal report said that nearly 70 percent of the 170 million gallons of oil that gushed from the well into the sea had dissolved naturally, or was burned, skimmed, dispersed or captured, with almost nothing left to see - at least on top of the water. The report was blasted by scientists.
Most of the Gulf's bottom is muddy, but coral colonies that pop up every once in a while are vital oases for marine life in the chilly ocean depths.
Coral is essential to the Gulf because it provides a habitat for fish and other organisms such as snails and crabs, making any large-scale death of coral a problem for many species. It might need years, or even decades, to grow back.
"It's cold on the bottom, and things don't grow as quickly," said Paul Montagna, a marine scientist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. He was not on the expedition.
Montagna said the affected area is so large, and scientists' ability to explore it with underwater robots so limited that "we'll never be able to see everything that happened down there."
Using a robot called Jason II, researchers found the dead coral in an area measuring up to 130 feet by 50 feet, about 4,600 feet under the surface.
"These kinds of coral are normally beautiful, brightly colored," Fisher said. "What you saw was a field of brown corals with exposed skeleton - white, brittle stars tightly wound around the skeleton, not waving their arms like they usually do."
Fisher described the soft and hard coral they found seven miles southwest of the well as an underwater graveyard. He said oil probably passed over the coral and killed it.
The coral has "been dying for months," he said. "What we are looking at is a combination of dead gooey tissues and sediment. Gunk is a good word for what it is."
Eric Cordes, a Temple University marine scientist on the expedition, said his colleagues have identified about 25 other sites in the vicinity of the well where similar damage may have occurred. An expedition is planned for next month to explore those sites.
When coral is threatened, its first reaction is to release large amounts of mucus, "and anything drifting by in the water column would get bound up in this mucus," Cordes said. "And that is what this (brown) substance would be: A variety of things bound up in the mucus."
About 90 percent of the large coral was damaged, Fisher said.
The expedition was funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The mission was part of a four-year study of the Gulf's depths, but it was expanded this year to look at oil spill damage.
In a statement released Thursday night, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said the expedition underscored that the damage to marine life from the oil spill is "not easily seen." She added that more research was needed to gain a "comprehensive understanding of impacts to the Gulf."
"Given the toxic nature of oil, and the unprecedented amount of oil spilled, it would be surprising if we did not find damage," she said.
NOAA did not provide any officials or scientists of its own who went on the expedition. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said its researcher on the expedition was unavailable.
Cordes said that the expedition did not find dramatic visual evidence of coral damage in other sites north of the well. But he said it was premature to say coral elsewhere in the Gulf was not damaged.
The new findings, though, could mean long-term trouble for the coral southwest of the well, where computer models and research cruises mapped much of the deepwater oil.
Referring to one type of coral known as "gorgonians," Cordes said he had never seen them "come back from having lost so much tissue. It would have to be re-colonization from scratch."

Friday, November 5, 2010

$2,000 bounty put on open source drivers for Microsoft's Kinect

It’s only just been released in North America and already there is a move to hack Microsoft’s Kinect motion controller to allow it to be used on systems other than the Xbox 360. As part of its Open Kinect (OK) project, New York-based open-source hardware developer, Adafruit, is offering a US$2,000 bounty to anyone who can produce some open source drivers capable of getting the RGB out and distance values captured by the USB device.

To claim the “OK prize,” the winner must demonstrate the driver by also writing an application with one window showing video and one window showing depth. The driver and/or application can run on any operating system, but they must be completely documented and under an open source license. The first person or team to accomplish this and upload everything to GitHub will claim the $2,000 prize.

Adafruit has thrown the competition open to anyone around the world, cheekily including people at Microsoft. However, judging by comments from a company spokesman to CNET there aren’t likely to be too many Microsoft employees taking up the challenge.

“Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products. With Kinect, Microsoft built in numerous hardware and software safeguards designed to reduce the chances of product tampering. Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.”

It's not a surprising response, but while voiding the warranty is one thing, there's something not quite right (and potentially downright scary) about the concept of companies trying to define how you use the hardware you legally purchased. Ingenuity is a pretty hard thing to strangle.

That hasn’t fazed Adafruit though with the company doubling its original $1,000 bounty after learning of the comments.

There’s speculation that Microsoft will extend compatibility of Kinect to the Windows platform at some point in the future but the folk at Adafruit are keen to reverse engineer the device so it can be used for Mac, Linux, embedded systems and even robotics.

With the staggered release of the Kinect it looks like North American entrants will get a head start as other markets await its release later this month. If you’re keen to take a stab at the title and the prize money, head along to the Adafruit site.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Smart people SLEEP LATE

Sleep is a fundamental component of animal biology. New evidence confirms that, in humans, its timing reflects intelligence. People with higher IQ's (intelligence quotients) tend to be more active nocturnally, going to bed later, whereas those with lower IQ's usually retire to bed sooner after nightfall.

The precise function of sleep is arguable. But, accumulating evidence shows that lack of sleep in humans and animals can result in obesity, high blood pressure and reduced life spans. Drowsiness impairs mental performance. For instance, 37 per cent of all motor vehicle accidents are caused by drowsy motorists, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. Even minor sleep deficiencies impact on body chemistry.

According to Juliette Faraco of Stanford University, sleep loss generates a proportionate need for "sleep rebound".

One of the most controversial and significant recent findings is the correlation in humans between the earliness/lateness of sleep preferences and intelligence.

Robert Bolizs at Semmelweist University, and his coworkers, have shown that encephalograms during sleep illustrate how sleep elements are directly related to "wakeful cognitive performance." Studies by researchers H. Aliasson and colleagues show the timing of intervals of sleep "correlates closely" with student academic achievement.

Extensive research by Satoshi Kanazawa and colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science have uncovered significant differences in sleep-timing preferences among people, depending on their IQ scores.

People with higher IQ's are more apt to be nocturnal night-owls. Those with lower IQ's tend to restrict their activities primarily to daytime.

People who prefer to go to bed early, and who are early-risers, demonstrate "morningness," whereas those whose sleep patterns are shifted later demonstrate "eveningness." Researchers say eveningness tends to be a characteristic of those with higher IQ's.

According to Kanazawa, ancestral humans were typically diurnal, and that a shift towards more nocturnal activities is an "evolutionarily novel preference" of the type normally found in more intelligent individuals, demonstrating "a higher level of cognitive complexity" in the practitioners.

Recent studies at the University of Bologna suggest early-risers are comparatively more conscientious people. Related studies indicate eveningness is often age-related and that eveningness usually peaks at between 17-21 years of age; thereafter morningness becomes more prevalent.

A 2008 study by psychologist Marina Giamnietro and colleagues indicates evening-types tend to be less reliable, less emotionally stable and more apt to suffer from depression, addictions and eating disorders.

Morningness or eveningness are often genetically-based, according to researchers Lambertus Klei at Carnegie Mellon Univesity, Patrick Rietz at the University of Pittsburgh and their associates. In 2008, studies at Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry demonstrated sleep-time preferences are often inherited, and subsequent data indicates that 50 per cent of sleep-time choices are dictated by genetic factors.

"Hypocretins" are inextricably linked to sleep/wakefulness, according to Stanford University research. Hypocretins react with "wake-up" cell groups, including dopamine.

Sleep parameters vary among animals. Cows, for instance, sleep open-eyed. Horses sleep standing up. Some birds can sleep in flight, others while standing. Dolphins sleep in one-half of their brain while the other half remains awake. Bats need 19.9 hours of sleep every 24 hours, lions need 13.5, rats 13, cats 12.5, whales 5.3, deer 3.1, giraffes 1.9, most birds three to eight and donkeys three.

Robert Alison has a PhD in zoology and is based in Victoria, B.C.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Did somebody just try to buy the British government?

Hansard is the official printed transcript of the proceedings of the houses of parliament — in other words, the working log of the British government.

It is an authoritative primary source, and records every speech made in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Interestingly, it also records words spoken under parliamentary privilege.

So when an eminent member of the House of Lords stands up six hours into a debate and blows the gaff on a shadowy foreign Foundation making a bid to buy the British state, and this is recorded in Hansard, one tends to sit up and take notice. And one takes even more notice when His Lordship tip-toes around actually naming the Foundation in question, especially after the throw-away about money-laundering for the IRA on behalf of the Bank of England. Parliamentary privilege only stretches so far, it seems, and Foundation X is beyond its reach. I'm going to quote at length below the cut — if you want to read the original, search for "1 Nov 2010 : Column 1538" which is where things begin to tip-toe into Robert Ludlum territory.

(NB: The venue is the House of Lords, at 10:42pm on November 1st, 2010.)

Lord James of Blackheath: At this point, I am going to have to make a very big apology to my noble friend Lord Sassoon [Treasury Minister], because I am about to raise a subject that I should not raise and which is going to be one which I think is now time to put on a higher awareness, and to explain to the House as a whole, as I do not think your Lordships have any knowledge of it. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde [Leader of the House] is not with us at the moment, because this deeply concerns him also.
For the past 20 weeks I have been engaged in a very strange dialogue with the two noble Lords, in the course of which I have been trying to bring to their attention the willing availability of a strange organisation which wishes to make a great deal of money available to assist the recovery of the economy in this country. For want of a better name, I shall call it foundation X. That is not its real name, but it will do for the moment. Foundation X was introduced to me 20 weeks ago last week by an eminent City firm, which is FSA controlled. Its chairman came to me and said, "We have this extraordinary request to assist in a major financial reconstruction. It is megabucks, but we need your help to assist us in understanding whether this business is legitimate". I had the biggest put-down of my life from my noble friend Lord Strathclyde when I told him this story. He said, "Why you? You're not important enough to have the answer to a question like that". He is quite right, I am not important enough, but the answer to the next question was, "You haven't got the experience for it". Yes I do. I have had one of the biggest experiences in the laundering of terrorist money and funny money that anyone has had in the City. I have handled billions of pounds of terrorist money.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham [Labour]: Where did it go to?

Lord James of Blackheath: Not into my pocket. My biggest terrorist client was the IRA and I am pleased to say that I managed to write off more than £1 billion of its money. I have also had extensive connections with north African terrorists, but that was of a far nastier nature, and I do not want to talk about that because it is still a security issue. I hasten to add that it is no good getting the police in, because I shall immediately call the Bank of England as my defence witness, given that it put me in to deal with these problems.

The point is that when I was in the course of doing this strange activity, I had an interesting set of phone numbers and references that I could go to for help when I needed it. So people in the City have known that if they want to check out anything that looks at all odd, they can come to me and I can press a few phone numbers to obtain a reference. The City firm came to me and asked whether I could get a reference and a clearance on foundation X. For 20 weeks, I have been endeavouring to do that. I have come to the absolute conclusion that foundation X is completely genuine and sincere and that it directly wishes to make the United Kingdom one of the principal points that it will use to disseminate its extraordinarily great wealth into the world at this present moment, as part of an attempt to seek the recovery of the global economy.

I made the phone call to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde on a Sunday afternoon—I think he was sitting on his lawn, poor man—and he did the quickest ball pass that I have ever witnessed. If England can do anything like it at Twickenham on Saturday, we will have a chance against the All Blacks. The next think I knew, I had my noble friend Lord Sassoon on the phone. From the outset, he took the proper defensive attitude of total scepticism, and said, "This cannot possibly be right". During the following weeks, my noble friend said, "Go and talk to the Bank of England". So I phoned the governor and asked whether he could check this out for me. After about three days, he came back and said, "You can get lost. I'm not touching this with a bargepole; it is far too difficult. Take it back to the Treasury". So I did. Within another day, my noble friend Lord Sassoon had come back and said, "This is rubbish. It can't possibly be right". I said, "I am going to work more on it". Then I brought one of the senior executives from foundation X to meet my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. I have to say that, as first dates go, it was not a great success. Neither of them ended up by inviting the other out for a coffee or drink at the end of the evening, and they did not exchange telephone numbers in order to follow up the meeting.

I found myself between a rock and a hard place that were totally paranoid about each other, because the foundation X people have an amazing obsession with their own security. They expect to be contacted only by someone equal to head of state status or someone with an international security rating equal to the top six people in the world. This is a strange situation. My noble friends Lord Sassoon and Lord Strathclyde both came up with what should have been an absolute killer argument as to why this could not be true and that we should forget it. My noble friend Lord Sassoon's argument was that these people claimed to have evidence that last year they had lodged £5 billion with British banks. They gave transfer dates and the details of these transfers. As my noble friend Lord Sassoon, said, if that were true it would stick out like a sore thumb. You could not have £5 billion popping out of a bank account without it disrupting the balance sheet completely. But I remember that at about the same time as those transfers were being made the noble Lord, Lord Myners [former Labour Treasury Minister], was indulging in his game of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic of the British banking community. If he had three banks at that time, which had had, say, a deficiency of £1.5 million each, then you would pretty well have absorbed the entire £5 billion, and you would not have had the sore thumb stick out at that time; you would have taken £1.5 billion into each of three banks and you would have absorbed the lot. That would be a logical explanation—I do not know.

My noble friend Lord Strathclyde came up with a very different argument. He said that this cannot be right because these people said at the meeting with him that they were still effectively on the gold standard from back in the 1920s and that their entire currency holdings throughout the world, which were very large, were backed by bullion. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde came back and said to me that he had an analyst working on it and that this had to be stuff and nonsense. He said that they had come up with a figure for the amount of bullion that would be needed to cover their currency reserves, as claimed, which would be more than the entire value of bullion that had ever been mined in the history of the world. I am sorry but my noble friend Lord Strathclyde is wrong; his analysts are wrong. He had tapped into the sources that are available and there is only one definitive source for the amount of bullion that has ever been taken from the earth's crust. That was a National Geographic magazine article 12 years ago. Whatever figure it was that was quoted was then quoted again on six other sites on the internet—on Google. Everyone is quoting one original source; there is no other confirming authority. But if you tap into the Vatican accounts—of the Vatican bank--— come up with a claim of total bullion—

Lord De Mauley [Government Whip]: The noble Lord is into his fifteenth minute. I wonder whether he can draw his remarks to a conclusion.

Lord James of Blackheath: The total value of the Vatican bank reserves would claim to be more than the entire value of gold ever mined in the history of the world. My point on all of this is that we have not proven any of this. Foundation X is saying at this moment that it is prepared to put up the entire £5 billion for the funding of the three Is recreation; the British Government can have the entire independent management and control of it—foundation X does not want anything to do with it; there will be no interest charged; and, by the way, if the British Government would like it as well, if it will help, the foundation will be prepared to put up money for funding hospitals, schools, the building of Crossrail immediately with £17 billion transfer by Christmas, if requested, and all these other things. These things can be done, if wished, but a senior member of the Government has to accept the invitation to a phone call to the chairman of foundation X—and then we can get into business. This is too big an issue. I am just an ageing, obsessive old Peer and I am easily dispensable, but getting to the truth is not. We need to know what really is happening here. We must find out the truth of this situation.

I am left rubbing my eyes.

Did a not-obviously-insane member of the government — a corporate troubleshooter and Conservative life peer — really just stand up in the House of Lords and announce that a shadowy Foundation (that might or might not represent the Vatican) was offering the British government an investment of umpty-billion pounds in order to reboot the economy — free, gratis, with no strings attached?

Or am I just imagining the "no strings attached" clause?