May 30, 2004

» Excellent site accompanying US television's Frontline documentary on the failures of the music industry. Follow-up to their equally in-depth investigation into teen marketing

May 28, 2004

» The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers

The accolade is spoken by Dick the Butcher, a follower of anarchist Jack Cade, whom Shakespeare depicts as "the head of an army of rabble and a demagogue pandering to the ignorant," who sought to overthrow the government. Shakespeare's acknowledgment that the first thing any potential tyrant must do to eliminate freedom is to "kill all the lawyers" is, indeed, a classic and well-deserved compliment to our distinguished profession.

Today's Jack Cades can readily be found throughout the insurance industry and in manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and chemical companies. They want to dismantle the tort system. They want to disrupt the judiciary and abrogate the common law, to the detriment of the rights of individual citizens, consumers, and injured persons who deserve competent representation and adequate redress for harm done to them.

» Why Eton is a charity, Amnesty is not, and Slade Farm Donkey Sanctuary gets 14m a year

In the fiercely competitive charity world, the Slade Farm Donkey Sanctuary that inspires awe and envy in equal degrees. The 500 four-legged inhabitants of the Devon farm receive more than 14m a year in donations from the public - more than Age Concern, Mencap or the Samaritans. In an age when charities are having to cut jobs and struggle with multimillion-pound deficits, the Donkey Sanctuary is deluged with cash and bequests every day.

» Just the thing to go with my Roomba. If I only had a Roomba, of course.

While even experienced ironers take about eight minutes to press a shirt, with the Dressman robot, built by the electronics giant Siemens, it takes seconds - as long as it takes to button up the shirt and smooth out any wrinkles.

» Old London, New Troy?

The story goes that a warrior leader named Brutus, of royal Trojan lineage, set sail for Albion, as Britain was then called, with his men - known as Britons - after being shunned back home.

They reportedly founded a city on the Thames and called it Troia Newydd, or New Troy. The word London came much later, perhaps from Lud's Town.

» How to make friends on the telephone. Or you could just call Chatback.

Be sure it's clear to the person to whom you are talking that the conversation is finished. Then replace the receiver gently. A receiver banged down may seem like slamming the door in someone's face.

May 26, 2004

» Woman dies of Ebola - in Siberia. Background and scary Cold War-stylee military facility pictures

Most outbreaks have occurred in Africa, far from the Siberian lab where the senior technician was experimenting on guinea pigs when the accident happened on May 5. She died two weeks later.

Set deep in Siberia, a four-hour flight from Moscow, the state-owned Vector research center at Novosibirsk does research into deadly diseases such as SARS and anthrax.

Along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, it is one of only two places on earth with official stockpiles of smallpox, which killed around 300 million people last century.

After the accident, the woman was hospitalized in a ward specially equipped to contain virulent diseases. Anyone who came into contact with her was put under observation for three weeks.

» Hacking Area 51

So when Clark found the new generation of road sensor, Arnu drove out to help investigate further. The pair found that, at close range, they could use a handheld frequency counter to pick up the wireless signals given off by the devices as a car passes. Over the following month and half, Clark and Arnu engaged in a kind of geocaching game with the Men in Black, systematically sniffing out the road sensors with the frequency counter, exhuming them, and opening them up. They discovered that each device was coded with three-digit identifier that could be read off an internal dial, allowing Arnu to make a list that correlated each unit's ID number with its GPS coordinates, creating a virtual map of a portion of the surveillance network surrounding the Groom Lake facility. Some of the sensors were miles away from the base.

"We dug up about 30 or 40 of them on various access roads leading to the base on public land," Arnu says, insisting that he and Clark always carefully reburied each unit after logging it, and even tested it with the frequency counter to make sure it was still working before moving on to the next one.

» More about the real science of psychohistory. First article I've seen that makes the reference so explicitly, though. Me! Me! I noticed it first! Honest!

Asimov's Foundation novels - the most famous science-fiction trilogy between Lord of the Rings and Star Wars - described a new science of social behavior called psychohistory. Mixing psychology with math, psychohistory hijacked the methods of physics to precisely predict the future course of human events.

Today, Asimov's vision is no longer wholly fiction. His psychohistory exists in a loose confederation of research enterprises seeking equations that capture patterns in human behavior. These enterprises go by different names and treat different aspects of the issue. But they all share a goal of better understanding the present in order to foresee the future, and possibly help shape it.

» Astronomers discover that Earth has another quasi-moon - depending on how you count, it might have as many as 20, but this one has a particularly good claim

What makes the latest discovery, dubbed 2004 GU9, of great interest to astronomers is the remarkable stability of its orbit. It has remained a quasi-satellite of Earth for at least 600 years. Before this phase, the object traveled in a horseshoe-shaped orbit that astronomers have tracked back at least 50,000 years. According to Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, 2004 GU9 is the first object in its class to maintain a long stretch of orbital stability. Connors presented his team's study of the object at the 2004 Joint Assembly of the American and Canadian Geophysical Unions, held this week in Montreal, Canada.

» "Collided in-flight with another object"

-- Investigators found red streaks -- transfer marks, they call them -- on various pieces of the shredded Cessna pulled from the muck. The red does not match red mail bags or other objects known to be on the plane.

-- Investigators also found a small piece of black anodized aluminum embedded in the skin of Preziose's plane. The aluminum is not from the accident airplane.

Those facts led National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator Butch Wilson to conclude the Preziose's Cessna 208B Caravan "collided in-flight with an unknown object."

» And I thought I was weird. But I guess they have a much better excuse (via)

"There are very definitely strong emotional ties to the rovers," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and principal investigator for the science payload carried on each of the rovers.

"We poured our hearts and souls into these things for years, so how wouldn't there be? In fact, for me personally, it was actually a little hard just to say goodbye to them at launch. It's going to be very hard to say goodbye to them forever," Squyres told

As to how Squyres and his colleagues will deal with the eventual loss of the Mars machinery, he responded: "I don't know... ask me that when we get to that point. The sadness from losing the vehicles will be balanced, in part, by a big plus. We'll get our lives back! Flight operations have been exhausting, involving a lot of time away from our families. So, in that regard, life will certainly get easier after they're gone."

May 25, 2004

» Duckomenta. Just go look. (via)

May 23, 2004

» Self-serving marketing quiz 'reveals' that I will be dozy in the afternoon and sleepy late at night. Gosh. Best take some caffeine pills, then.

Knacker Factor graph

May 22, 2004

» More on the apocalyptic original cut of Godzilla. I really hope this gets an UK release

The long section of Gojira - nearly 15 minutes - in which the monster destroys much of Tokyo is like nothing in any science-fiction film before or since. In the American cut, there are frequent inserts of Burr, yakking away on his mike as he narrates the creature's comings and goings. The original, though, is nearly wordless. There is a Japanese TV announcer: He watches the devastation from a high tower; wonders, "Has the world been sent back two million years?"; and has time to report on his own death as Gojira moves toward his tower, closing with an earnest, "Sayonara." Elsewhere, a mother leans against a wall and whispers to her little daughter, "We'll be joining your daddy soon. Just a little longer." It's the last minute or two that is the most harrowing. The music stops, and in the silence Gojira walks between the broken buildings, the cityscape behind him aglow, seeming to contemplate his handiwork.

» George Lucas announces director's cut of THX 1138. Presumably all-white sets replaced by lavish CGI rainforest, prequels on the way

May 21, 2004

» The world's largest guns

Very Big Gun

May 20, 2004

» How do you improve traffic congestion, pedestrian safety and encourage street communities? Take away all the signs. Apparently. More here

In fact, the chaos associated with traffic in developing countries is becoming all the rage among a new wave of traffic engineers in mainland Europe and, more recently, in the United Kingdom. It's called "second generation" traffic calming, a combination of traffic engineering and urban design that also draws heavily on the fields of behavioral psychology and -- of all subjects -- evolutionary biology. Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it's a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty. In practice, it's about dismantling barriers: between the road and the sidewalk, between cars, pedestrians and cyclists and, most controversially, between moving vehicles and children at play.


But the implications, especially in the United States, are nothing less than radical. Reversing decades of conventional wisdom on traffic engineering, Hamilton-Baillie argues that the key to improving both safety and vehicular capacity is to remove traffic lights and other controls, such as stop signs and the white and yellow lines dividing streets into lanes. Without any clear right-of-way, he says, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.

» Did a 'Verneshot' kill the dinosaurs?

The name Verneshot comes from Jules Verne's book "From the Earth to the Moon" in which a huge cannon shoots astronauts into space.


The blast would trigger a magnitude 11 earthquake, bigger than any quake ever recorded.

But this would be just a prelude to the main event.

Immediately after the explosion, pressure would plummet in the pipe that carried the gases, causing it to cave in from the bottom upwards.

The collapse would travel up at hypersonic speed, erupting with unimaginable force at the surface and hurling as much as 20 gigatonnes of rock into the stratosphere.

The energy released would be equivalent to 120 billion tonnes of TNT, or seven million of the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War.

Debris would rain down from the sky, and dust would blot out the sun to cause the same kind of climate changing effects as an impact from space.

A large piece of rock from a Verneshot blast landing on the Earth would produce a crater in the same way as an asteroid or comet.

An object ejected from the Deccan Traps could explain why the Chicxulub crater, linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs, is so lopsided.

May 19, 2004

» From the department of entirely predictable news: Virtual church is over-run by Satanic trolls

Church wardens are on duty with "smite buttons" to consign blasphemers to virtual hell. But some of the worst offenders are from the US and Australia and visit in the middle of the night, when the wardens are asleep. Hackers have broken in disguised as wardens, sworn at the congregation or greeted newcomers by saying "Satan loves you".

The organisers have now closed the pulpit and apse to visitors. They have also removed the "shout" button so that worshippers can whisper to those closest to them without the whole church hearing. The number of wardens is also to be increased.

May 18, 2004

» Glancing makes it into the real world. Or to put it in Sumitspeak, eyecam (via)

ECSGlasses and eyeBlog are a video recording and publishing system that responds to human social interaction. It uses a wearable, wireless Eye-Contact Sensor to gauge when the user receives eye-contact from an onlooker. eyeBlog uses this information to record and publish face-2-face conversations without dividing the user's attention between the event being recorded, and the device being used to record it. Moreover, becasue eyeBlog uses eye-contact to start and stop recording, users do not need to sift through hours of footage to find interesting segments.

May 17, 2004

» Now will you stop going on at me about this?

Lottery winners, trust-fund babies and others who get their money without working for it do not get as much satisfaction from their cash as those who earn it, a study of the pleasure center in people's brains suggests.

» The truth about Achilles

Legend has it that our hero met Troilus, the nineteen-year-old son of King Priam, on the battlefield, and the insatiable Achilles, as he beheld the youngster grappling manfully, was overcome with Greek lust. As their thrusting swords met in furious clanks, the mighty Achilles, with his war-skirt tenting about his heroic loins, yelled: "I will kill you unless you yield to my caresses!"

May 16, 2004

» Molecular gastronomy again, but this time industrial-strength

Some tastes are harder to synthesise - 'a good coffee flavour is tough,' Hefti admits - but he relishes the challenge. In the meantime, there are always newly discovered natural tastes and smells to reproduce, thanks to Givaudan's international expedition programme. In hot-air-balloon missions over Madagascan rainforest, botanists seek out highly flavoured 'new' molecules from plants and tree bark. Its laboratories have already copied some examples for use in children's lollipops.

But do we really need 300 varieties of factory-manufactured strawberry flavouring? You might expect your strawberry yoghurt or premium ice cream to contain at least a smidgen of fruit derivatives, but that would be to underestimate the skills of the professional flavourist (not forgetting his peers specialising in colourings and preservation). Not that the catch-all term 'flavouring' on the label is designed to arouse any suspicions about the synthetic formulations within.


Manuel Marquez-Sanchez, too, has big hopes for nanotechnology. By manipulating ingredients at the nano level, and storing them in 'nanocapsules', he believes that Kraft will be able to devise such treats as an interactive, customisable drink. 'The idea is that everyone buys the same drink, but you'll be able to decide its colour, flavour, concentration and texture,' he explains enthusiastically. 'Once you have a technology to design nanocapsules, based on food-grade materials, you can offer products that put the consumer in control.' Although the industry, one presumes, will wish to retain control of everything from labelling requirements and costs to the degree of prior safety testing.

Dr Marquez-Sanchez, who works from Kraft's labs in Illinois, will not say which brands of drink he is working on, but he admits that Kraft is certainly looking to bring the resulting products to market. 'It's definitely possible,' he says. To show how serious he is, he mentions a 'shake gel' that he has developed - a drink which becomes thicker or more watery according to how hard it is shaken. 'You can choose how thick you want it - and the beautiful part is that if you change your mind it's reversible.' The tiny polymers that cause the effect are not yet food grade, but that hurdle, he says, could be overcome within two years. And by using ultrasound or radio frequencies to trigger these nanocapsules, we could determine the colour, fragrance or taste of our fruit drink or wine.

» What's the point of Thunderbirds without puppets?

Nevertheless, two films were made — with puppets. Thunderbirds Are Go cost 250,000 and flopped in 1966. Thunderbird 6 cost 300,000 and flopped in 1968. The omens don't seem good.

Except that, this time, it's real people. But lose the strings, the fixed expressions and the shiny skin — in short, the puppets — and what do you have?

A somewhat daft story about International Rescue, a charitable but secret organisation set up by a wealthy widower, Jeff Tracy. His sons keep flying around rescuing people in odd vehicles and there's a blonde It girl named Lady Penelope with a pink Rolls-Royce and a chauffeur called Parker. Somehow it made sense when they were puppets, but real people?

May 15, 2004

» Steven Johnson talks to Antonio Damasio about our two-speed minds

"We really have two systems that are totally integrated and work perfectly well with each other, but that are very different in their time constants. One is the emotional system, which is the basic regulatory system that works very slowly, with time scales of a second or more. Than you have the cognitive system, which is much faster, because of the way it's wired, and because a lot of the fiber systems are totally myelinated -- which means it works much faster. So you can do a lot of reasoning, a lot of recognition of objects, remembering names, in just a few hundredths of a second."

» Revamping Superman

Superman has always been prissily apolitical — as a resident alien, does he even vote — but that may be the missing piece. He's a metaphor for America, but an outdated, obsolete America: invulnerable to attack, always on the side of right, always ready to save the rest of the world from its villainy whether or not it wants to be saved. In the past, every decade has got the Superman it deserves, and don't worry, we'll get ours, but he will probably be flawed, more man than super. Americans don't want to be told what to aspire to anymore, who we should be. Our Superman will want to wallow in who he is and find out why he hurts. Keep your eyes on the skies. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Superman and Seinfeld

» Life imitates the Simpsons

Oklahoma police are looking for grease bandits who made off with 5,000 pounds (2268 kg) of used cooking oil and grease from three restaurants.

Police in Edmond, north of Oklahoma City, said on Thursday the grease bandits have hit an area of Mexican, Chinese and steak restaurants over the past three months.

» The Many Faces of Helen — good slideshow at Slate. More pictures of Helen

What does drop-dead beautiful look like these days? As we become increasingly convinced that beauty — and truth, and almost everything else — lies in the eye of the beholder, we're less likely to concur about how Helen should appear. Already, critics who've seen the film quibble that the Helen in Troy is not beautiful enough. This is not the fault of the casting directors, who considered Victoria's Secret models and improbable pop stars alike. How can you find — or, in the case of artists, paint — a woman who everyone will agree is the most beautiful on earth?

Frederick Sandys' portrait of Helen of Troy

May 14, 2004

» As an enthusiastic personal customer, I feel like MT's new licensing scheme is basically extortion. As a would-be commercial user (I have a site just about ready for launch), it seems like terrible customer relations — it reeks of spreadsheet logic and dumb application of the Pareto principle. I've invested a lot of effort in my sites, but I'll be looking to move ASAP. Update: Okay, they fixed it. Kinda. Best summary, I think is at kottke.

May 12, 2004

» Empathy really is about putting yourself in someone else's shoes

There are two theories as to how the brain develops its ability to predict people's actions.

One, "theory theory", argued that it was due to logical processes. But the other, "simulation theory", is the idea that we put ourselves in the shoes of other people to guess what they will do.

This means we will use the same area of the brain when predicting others' actions as when we plan our own - and this is what the Dutch scientists have found.

They scanned people's brains under two conditions - both while they were planning actions and while they were predicting the actions of another person - and found the same area of the brain lit up under both.

» You wait ten thousand years, then two come along at once

Texas: University of Texas of the Permian Basin officials will find out by the middle of this week if it will be home to a replica of Stonehenge.
Pending approval by the University of Texas at Austin's board of regents, a group of private investors want to build a close-to-life-size replica of the thousands-of-years-old megalithic site near West Amesbury, England.

"It was a pipe dream that a couple of us had, and to think it actually might happen is so incredible," said Chris Stanley, chairman of UTPB's humanities and fine arts department. Dick Gillham, Permian Basin Stonehenge coordinator, said if the UT board approves the construction, he estimates completion by June 30.

New Zealand: After the team finished surveying, it took months to fence, excavate and level the site. Late February's torrential rains in Wairarapa, in the southern half of the North Island of New Zealand, didn't help. The ditch kept collapsing. "I guess we dug heavy, sloppy, hard clay about three times, my daughter and I," says Leather, laughing now at the memory of the bad weather. "There were ducks swimming around over there."

Next they erected the pillars and lintels, hollow structures constructed using wood and cement board (hewn stone would have been too expensive and time-consuming to erect). But in a nod to the old, the finished henge will be coated with cement and covered in plaster sculpted to look like stone. Inside the "stones" will be some modern accoutrements: wires to allow a sound system to be installed. "We've already got two couples who want to get married out here," says Hall.

An obelisk inside the stone circle will mark the passage of the year as the shadow of the obelisk moves in a figure eight on a mosaic of 18,500 tiles below. The tiles will display the date and the constellations of the zodiac. Outside the circle, three pairs of standing stones will show where the sun will rise and set for each of the solstices and equinoxes. "So you can see the enormous distances the sun actually travels along the horizon," says Hall.

Every key point will have a plaque denoting its significance. "It may be a simple phrase like 'midsummer solstice sunrise.' The ones that are more seasonally oriented will have something like 'time to harvest the kumara (sweet potato),'" says Leather.

» David Reimer, biologically male, was raised as a girl as part of a horrific-sounding psychological experiment. Now he's killed himself, as his identical twin Bruce did two years ago

Bruce Reimer [sic, though I think this should actually be David Reimer, Bruce's identical twin] started to become Brenda on July 3, 1967. Physicians at Johns Hopkins surgically castrated him, and the remaining skin was used to forge a "cosmetic vaginal cleft". Money sent the family back to Winnipeg with strict instructions. "He told us not to talk about it," Ron Reimer told John Colapinto. "Not to tell [Brenda] the whole truth, and that she shouldn't know she wasn't a girl."

Things started going wrong almost immediately. Janet Reimer recalled dressing Brenda in her first dress just before the child was due to turn two. "She was ripping at it, trying to tear it off. I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, she knows she's a boy and she doesn't want girls' clothing." Brenda was bullied viciously at school. When she urinated standing up in the school lavatories, she was threatened with a knifing.


By the time Brenda reached her teens she had attempted suicide at least once; she refused further surgery but consented, though irregularly, to take oestrogen supplements to encourage the development of breasts. John Money gradually drifted from the Reimers' lives, but Brenda remained under constant psychiatric treatment. It was after one such session with a Winnipeg psychiatrist in 1980 that Ron Reimer collected his daughter in the car and, instead of taking her home, drove her to an ice-cream parlour, where he told her everything.

The upturn in Reimer's fortunes lasted several years. Brenda opted for a sex change within weeks of her father telling her the truth. Thanks to developments in phalloplasty, Brenda, taking the name David, received surgery that after five years left him with a reconstructed penis resembling a real one, with limited sensation, and usable for sex. When he was 23 he met Jane, a single mother of three, and married her soon afterwards. In 2000, he went public with his story.

» The horrible world of big tippers

Each day he also tips the man who parks his car for him in the NCP car park he uses - "Five pounds, but don't say which NCP it is or he may get into trouble with his bosses." When he visits his barber, Trumper's in Curzon Street, he gives 5 tips to the manicurist and shaver, leaving these for them at the reception desk while "the man who actually cuts your hair usually stands at the desk as you are leaving and you can give it to him direct." He also tips the maitre d' of the restaurants he patronises as part of his work - but never the doormen.

Another uninhibited tipper, who was none the less inhibited enough about his privacy not to want to be named, tells me: "I am quite unembarrassed about tipping, but I am not a lavish tipper. However, in restaurants it makes sense to tip the maitre d' before rather than after. Very smart people, or, if you want to describe them as plutocrats and big shots, tip on a different scale because they must have immaculate service. In somewhere like the Mirabelle, I have learned to get the maitre d' over as we sit down and give him 30. What's the point of tipping at the end? Everyone is giving 5% at the end, but if you give him 30 at the beginning that puts you right to the front of the queue; all you have to do is scratch your nose and you immediately stand out."

» Where is the Holy Grail? Staffordshire? Or Herefordshire? Or, y'know, perhaps somewhere in the Middle East would make sense.

Staffordshire: Carved on the base of the Shepherd's Monument, a white marble arbor at Shugborough Hall, the letters are D.O.U.O. S.V.A.V.V.M. and they have been flummoxing some of the nation's finest minds since they were put there circa 1748. Charles Darwin is said to have had a stab at decoding them, so too the local bigwig Josiah Wedgwood - both to no avail.

The mystery surrounding the uneven row of letters is seasoned with some big rumours, the most dramatic being that they may actually point to the Holy Grail. So Shugborough - the ancestral home of Lord Lichfield - has now drafted in Bletchley Park and its Second World War code-breakers.

Herefordshire: And then there are those who are convinced it is lodged in a much less romantic resting place - the vault of a branch of Lloyds TSB bank somewhere in Herefordshire, taken there for safe-keeping from its last home - a grand, if fly-blown, house in west Wales.

It is a long and winding road to Nanteos Mansion. One must cross the Black Mountains and the Cambrian Mountains and negotiate the Devil Bridge Gorges before dropping down into the soft, remote countryside of lowland Ceredigion (Cardiganshire).


For the next two centuries the cup stood behind glass, apparently performing miracles and attracting pilgrims by the hundred. Richard Wagner - who wrote the Grail opera Parsifal - made a visit to see it at the invitation of the then heir to the house, George Powell, a masochistic homosexual with a fondness for the birch and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Powell, who was friends with the poet Algernon Swinburne and fed roast monkey flesh to Guy de Maupassant, believed that the cup possessed miraculous healing powers. Water poured into it was sent around the world to those afflicted with various diseases and ailments.

» Ten interpretations of a dying sparrow

2. One title is Summer In The World It's 4 O'Clock, which is about the fact that on this tiny scale we see this little bird struggling and there is nothing we can do about it - just like there is nothing we can do about anything that is happening across the world. (Tate curator Susan May)

3. Another title for the display is Just A Single Wrong Move, which "is about how all of us can be trapped after just one mistake". (Tate curator Susan May)

4. Blocking the View, the third title is meant to be ironic. (Tate curator Susan May)

May 11, 2004

» Music to throw up by

Its first CD, Overload: The Sonic Intoxicant, contains tracks ranging from "chill out," meditative music to a piece that generates a feeling of motion sickness in some.

"I want to do something that messes with people's heads," said Lance Massey, a longtime composer of commercials and the creative director of NeuroPop.

"We've gone through all the data to find what kind of sounds or signal gets a specific response, and then we can merge it back into an existing piece of music or sound," said Seth Horowitz, chief technology officer of NeuroPop and an assistant research professor at Stony Brook University in New York.

Horowitz said that if he wants to get a certain response from a listener to a piece of music, he looks at what part of the brain is responsible for the desired response. Then, using his own data or other published literature, he looks to find what kind of stimulus makes that part of the brain active.

» Two physicists say the rate at which the universe's expansion accelerates could limit the amount of information that can be stored and processed. They also reckon it'll splat Moore's Law. Take that, Kurzweil! The original paper

The acceleration of the expansion of the universe places limits on future developments in technology according to two US cosmologists. Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman of Case Western Reserve University have shown that the acceleration could put a fundamental limit on the total amount of information that can be stored and processed in the future. They also calculate that Moore's Law will remain valid for no more than 600 years -- although workers in the semiconductor industry are more pessimistic and think that the famous law will break down in the next decade or two.

» Hubble might have just taken the first picture of an extra-solar planet

The observations were made with Hubble's infrared NICMOS camera. The infrared light from the presumed planets is not reflected light from the host stars but instead represents heat emitted by the giant worlds.

The subtle detections involved using a trick developed by other researchers. After taking the first image of a white dwarf and its surroundings, Hubble was rolled slightly in space and a second image was made. By comparing the two images, scattered light created by instrument imperfections can be removed, Debes explained. That way the star is reduced more closely to a point-like source. Remaining nearby points of light then emerge as either dim orbiting companions or background objects.

Extrasolar planet

» Cicadas, which tend to swarm every 13 or 17 years — like Brood X appearing right about now — may do so to avoid a cycle that matches predator's lifecycles

Gould, a polymath who died in 2002, was among the first to propose that the cicada's unusual lifestyle is a strategy it evolved to avoid its predators.

"Some individuals hide, others taste bad, others grow spines or thick shells, still others evolve to look conspicuously like a noxious relative," Gould wrote. Periodical cicadas, he argued, did it by evolving a highly unusual reproductive cycle.

By springing forth from the ground by the millions, cicadas help ensure that no single predator can devour them, a tactic that evolutionary biologists now call the "predator satiation" strategy.

And by emerging every 13 and 17 years, Gould argues in his 1977 book, cicadas minimize the chance that their infrequent invasions will sync with the life cycles of birds and other creatures that dine on them.

» Soundtracking the V&A. Official site

In the entrance hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I pick up a set of headphones, a bespoke MP3 player and a map to follow a trail of sounds through the galleries. Over the next few months, Britain's foremost institution of art and design will become a temple to new music. For the first time, rock stars, normally used for decorative purposes at private views, have created sounds inspired by a museum's treasures.

» The pseudonymous author of a verbless novel says it's a protest against the tyranny of the verb

The author, a doctor of literature who admits that "Thaler" is a pseudonym, and who has not previously written books under the name, said it was liberating to write without verbs, which he describes as "invaders, dictators, and usurpers of our literature".

"My book is a revolution in the history of literature. It is the first book of its kind. It's daring, modern and is to literature what the great Dada and Surrealist movements were to art," said Mr Thaler, an eccentric who refuses to reveal his real name or age, beyond admitting to being in his sixties.

"The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers," he said. "You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish.

"I am like a car driver who has smashed the windscreen so he cannot see into the future, smashed the rear-view mirror so he cannot see the past, and is travelling in the present."

» So what happens when The Smoking Gun or The Memory Hole get hold of this?

The technique he and Whelan developed involves first using a program to realign the document, which had been placed on a copying machine at a slight angle. They determined that the document had been tilted by about half a degree.

By realigning the document, it was possible to use another program Whelan had written to determine that it had been formatted in the Arial font. Next, they found the number of pixels that had been blacked out in the sentence:

» Molesworth, spirichual sukssessor to mity hero Odisius and top butler Jeeves, is fifty

But Molesworth breaks the bounds of the school story. He represents another favourite topos of fiction — the underdog who comes Topp in spite of trials and vicissitudes. From Odysseus to Superman, from Oliver Twist to Gladiator Maximus, we shout for those who face fearful odds, for the ashes (FAG) of his father, and the temples of his Gods. (Div is super becos everyone do v. bludthirsty things which are pleasing to all boys).

From Falstaff to Billy Bunter we love funny bad boys. Another stock theme is the employee who is cleverer than his theoretical master: eg, Jeeves and Bertie, Sherlock Holmes and all the amateurs of the golden age of English crime writing win against Scotland Yard, and Molesworth triumphs on a tour of the cages, or Masters one by one. In fact, Molesworth, you are in danger of becoming a national stereotype and a Marcus Aurelius of our time.

May 10, 2004

» How to start your own airline

[Repossessed planes'] owners - often banks - are keen for people to be using them, if only to avoid paying for storage, insurance and maintenance themselves, Mr Whyte says.

"You could possibly get one for free or, if not, you could lease one for an hourly rate," he suggests.

Removing all traces of the previous owners and customising the planes with your own brand will cost around 100,000 a time.

London based Aviation Economics, the firm behind the 5.5m figure, suggests those unable to find free planes will find it surprisingly easy to lease them from big firms Gecas and GATX.

It suggests you may want to rent four or five aircraft. "Most airlines will lease aircraft and will usually need two or three months deposit. That would account for about two-and-a-bit million dollars," says managing director Tim Coombs.

» China's mystery mask civilization

The discovery of the jade, which the family thought to keep secret at first, later brought archeologists, though one of them have predicted in the 1930s that this might be the capital of the ancient Shu kingdom, they still might have been startled by another accidental discovery by workers at a brick factory in 1986.

Two sacrificial pits were filled with gold masks, bronze wares,jade tablets, elephant tusks and sacred trees - and they opened a world of mystery. The discovery pushed back the date of the bronzeage in China and yet the objects made are unlike any made in any other period of Chinese civilization with the creation of human-like figures and faces particularly unique.

They left experts asking what the purpose of the objects was, where the culture came from, why there was no mention of it in historical texts and how such an ancient culture, at the origin of Chinese civilization, could be so advanced.

Theories abound, but whatever the answer, the unique part-human, part-animal masks have become the symbol of Sanxingdui and of the mysterious culture. So recently the local government invited some foreign journalists to participate in the opening of the Sanxingdui International Mask Festival at the start of the May Day holiday.

» Cargo cult undergoes violent schism

The villagers said Prophet Fred persuaded them to turn to Christianity by foreseeing a number of natural events.

He predicted that a lake at the foot of Mt Yasur would be swept into the sea. Five months later, in early 2000, the lake burst its banks and drained into the sea. Now all that remains is a black volcanic plain covered in grass where horsemen ride and cattle graze.

On Feb 15 each year villagers celebrate John Frum Day by marching in GI fatigues, complete with badges of rank and khaki forage caps.

The men paint red crosses on their backs - a legacy of the US army medics who impressed them six decades ago with free treatment.

Drawing the shape of a US flag in the volcanic sand with his finger, Chief Isaac said: "John predicted the Americans will help us. He will make the whites bring us cars, wharves, airports, everything. John will bring a better life."

» How about a free hug?

On typical Sundays, Mr. Littman is accompanied by his friend Sipai Klein, who also gives out hugs. But because of Mother's Day, Mr. Klein could not be there yesterday. Mr. Littman said he was "not in touch" with his own parents, who live in Brooklyn. The subject causes a brief, sad lull before he charges on.

"How about a free hug?" he hollered at a man, woman and small boy dressed all in black. "How about not?" the boy shot back.

"I'm trying to cut down," said a banker from Kenya.

"Nothing's free," said another man, as he brushed past with his golden retriever.


"What's your name?" Mr. Littman asked.


"My name's Jayson. Now we're not strangers."

They hugged.

"It felt O.K.," Mr. Bosarge said as he walked off. "It was kind of the half-body-contact hug versus the full frontal."

It was what Mr. Littman has termed the "duck hug," when a person ducks in and out. There is also the "three-tap hug" - a cautious, back-patting type. No matter what comes at him, Mr. Littman always seems to respond with the same calm, noninvasive embrace.

» 'Junk DNA' sequences turn out to be identical in men, dogs, chickens, mice and fish. It must be doing something

The segments, dubbed 'ultraconserved elements', lie in the large parts of the genome that do not code for any protein. Their presence adds to growing evidence that the importance of these areas, often dismissed as junk DNA, could be much more fundamental than anyone suspected.

David Haussler of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his team scanned the genome sequences of man, mouse and rat. They found more than 480 ultraconserved regions that are completely identical across the three species. That is a surprising similarity: gene sequences in mouse and man for example are on average only 85% similar. "It absolutely knocked me off my chair," says Haussler.

The regions largely match up with chicken, dog and fish sequences too, but are absent from sea squirt and fruitflies. The fact that the sections have changed so little in the 400 million years of evolution since fish and humans shared a common ancestor implies that they are essential to the descendants of these organisms. But researchers are scratching their heads over what the sequences actually do.

May 09, 2004

» The New York Times > Magazine > The Tug of the Newfangled Slot Machines If a good portion of the younger set today is hooked on video games, it seems that the over-60 crowd has its own similarly hypnotic fixation. ''For older people, it's a safe environment,'' Baerlocher says. ''There are cameras and security guards everywhere. You can go to one place and shop and eat and be in a crowd even if you don't know anybody.'' As one old Las Vegas hand put it, the country's casinos are now providing ''day care for the elderly.''
» Caution, spoilers ahead

TV creators respond in a variety of ways: some battle the gossip, others harness it as publicity. The producers of "Sex and the City" cunningly combined the two techniques. First they filmed three separate endings to the series, which went off the air in February, in order to foil leaks, and then they publicized the whole strategy, in order to build anticipation for the finale. Behind the scenes at action shows like "Angel," computer files are encrypted with special passwords, scripts are doled out with identifying codes and fake tidbits are distributed to flush out in-house moles. On "24," the final scripts are printed on red paper to make them harder to photocopy.

Other television creators have simply given in. The producers of "Friends" have publicly stated that they made no special efforts to prevent spoilers for their season finale. And many creators go the mobster route: they pay protection, letting columnists in on minor intelligence in order to keep them from revealing more shocking twists. "It's sort of `I'll wash your hand, you wash mine,' " Ms. Veitch explains. "They want to leak if the buzz has died down, and get people talking. But if things are going well, they detest spoilers."

May 08, 2004

» Silence isn't golden

For the last few months I've been writing a book, so it was easy to have a silent morning, since most of the time Sasha provides my only interaction with another mammal. But by midafternoon, I was missing even the minor human contact I usually had. I called my husband at work. After he said "Hello" and I didn't say anything, he said, "Oh, it's you. How's it going?" Pause. "That well, huh?" Pause. "I love you and you're very weird."


Because I was in the normal world and not on a retreat where we all greeted each other with virtuous gazes, I was getting enlightened as to what agony it would be to involuntarily be unable to communicate. My daughter raised a good point. No one paid money to put on blindfolds or earplugs for a few days. Yet forgoing speech was supposed to be purifying. I understood why "retreat" was as important as "silent." Fleeing from all acquaintances left me feeling less like a spiritual pilgrim and more like a fugitive.

» Barnes and Noble is proud to present a reading with Anton Chekhov (via NeilGaiman)

Right when I was just about to start the Q&A and take the first question, Store Manager Tom began walking swiftly to the stage. "Again we have just a few minutes for questions," I announced. Tom interrupted, announcing, "Very few minutes! In fact, you're done. Take it down." I was still in a position of power as I was on a raised stage and in front of the podium. I smiled at Tom and calmly addressed the crowd:

"Ladies and Gentlemen it seems we are in fact all out of time. Thank you for coming out today to hear Mr. Chekov. Please come back for future Meet the Writer programs, which happen at this store several times a week. We would like to thank Barnes and Noble Union Square for having us today. Thank you."

May 07, 2004

» After alcopops: beer slushies and other futuristic booze

When I meet him in Soho he orders my beer slushy before heading for a table covered with some of the most synthetic-looking drinks yet created. As well as WKD and Archers, there are Bacardi Breezers, bottles of Reef (a still alcoholic fruit juice), Smirnoff Ice (two flavours, both of which taste like alcoholic pear drops), and five razzle-dazzle-coloured shot glasses, arranged in a line to look like test tubes in Professor Booze's secret lab.

"They're called Screamers fruity vodka shots. We make them," Hegarty says proudly. I taste my first Screamer. My teeth turn green and the mix is so disgusting I try to scream myself, but the treacly mixture has stuck my tongue to the roof of my mouth. I work it loose with a few crunchy gulps of my beer slushy.

May 06, 2004

» Our short-term memory — 'cortical RAM' — is confined to a small area of the brain. That might have been good enough for our ancestors, but may limit our ability to perceive and process the modern world. You can test yourself, too

In one experiment, people who were walking across a college campus were asked by a stranger for directions. During the resulting chat, two men carrying a wooden door passed between the stranger and the subjects. After the door went by, the subjects were asked if they had noticed anything change.

Half of those tested failed to notice that, as the door passed by, the stranger had been substituted with a man who was of different height, of different build and who sounded different. He was also wearing different clothes.

Despite the fact that the subjects had talked to the stranger for 10-15 seconds before the swap, half of them did not detect that, after the passing of the door, they had ended up speaking to a different person. This phenomenon, called change blindness, highlights how we see much less than we think we do.

» RIP Max, South Africa's crime-fighting gorilla

A gorilla who became a cult figure in crime-ridden South Africa after he was shot confronting an armed robber on the run died on Wednesday, the Johannesburg Zoo said.

Max, a 200 kg (440 pound) ape, rose to fame in 1997 after being wounded by a terrified gunman who made the mistake of jumping a moat into his zoo enclosure while fleeing police.

Max was shot as he fiercely defended his territory. He also vented his anger on two policemen in pursuit, biting one on the buttocks and arm.

» Does this mean beauty isn't just skin deep?

The secret in making virtual skin seem real is all to do with light. Dr Jensen found that light did not just bounce from surfaces such as marble and skin.

Instead light beams penetrate below the surface and scatter at different points.

» Men in love become more like women, and vice versa

Italian researchers carried out tests on 12 men and 12 women who had fallen in love during the previous six months.

They found that men had lower levels of testosterone than normal, while the women had higher levels of the hormone than usual.

"Men, in some way, had become more like women, and women had become like men," Donatella Marazziti of the University of Pisa told New Scientist magazine.

» Flag design can be a sensitive business. But here's a less serious guide to flags of the world, reviewed and graded. Most amusing, though he disses Greenland, one of my favourites

Libyan flag

Libya: Did you even try?

Mozambiquan flag

Mozambique: Automatic weapons on a flag are especially bad.

May 05, 2004

» As it turns out, giant squid aren't clumsy: they're indiscriminate

"Until now, it was thought males injected themselves with sperm by accident during mating. But that is definitely not the case here: the sperm was clearly injected by another giant squid."

There is another possibility that cannot be totally excluded, Miske added, which is that the infusion of sperm happened during group sex.

However, that is unlikely given that chance encounters between giant squid, rare, multi-tentacled creatures which live at depths of between 300 and 1 000 metres below sea level, are few and far between.

» A rare adverse reaction to common drugs can set "fires in the flesh" of victims

A beautiful 18-year-old Tucson softball player has suffered severe burns over 80 percent of her body but has been nowhere near a fire.

In an extremely rare, often fatal and little-known severe toxic reaction to a medical drug, Samantha Grasham's body caught fire - from the inside out - blistering most of her skin, as well as her mouth, throat, esophagus and airway, perhaps leaving her scarred for life.

She spent nearly three weeks in the Burn Unit at St. Mary's Hospital, as doctors there worked to save her life and her skin.

As happens in most of these strange cases of what is known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome, there was no warning that Grasham would react so severely to a medication.

Most people never know they are at risk, and doctors often do not recognize the syndrome when they see it. Yet many common drugs - including prescription painkillers and antibiotics - even over-the-counter pain and fever medicines for children - are linked to this "fire in the flesh."

» A sneak preview of the new MOMA, which slices through an apartment building

The building will be thoroughly modern. The midtown Modern, scheduled to open in late November after being closed for two and a half years, is 630,000 square feet of straight walls, floors and ceilings with no obtrusive columns or dead-end hallways. It is a building with "a harmonic precision," Mr. Lowry said.

But simple architecture is not always simple. Making a precise, rectilinear museum in a city that refuses to bend very much requires lots of logistical contortions. To cite a small example, the builders had to cut a notch out of one of museum's facades to preserve the view of St. Thomas Church from 54th Street. And in New York City many unions are involved, each with its own schedule. That makes a precisionist structure, where quarter-inch goofs can throw off the whole thing, extremely tricky to build.


The first and biggest obstacle to the Modern's seamlessness was the 54-story residential tower between the old and the new parts of the museum. The goal was to allow visitors to pass from old to new without ever knowing they had left the museum, Mr. Lowry said. But the tower, with its 248 residents, could not be razed. So the Modern got permission to "slice through the tower," Mr. Lowry said, "to penetrate the four feet of concrete that supported the tower." To insure that the tower, pierced by the Modern's passages and escalators, would not collapse, steel braces had to be installed in the lower nine floors.

» Times Online - World Levels of two hormones that are critical to fertility are consistently higher among slim women with large breasts.They may be two to three times more likely to conceive per menstrual cycle, a study has found. This suggests that the male predilection for women with such figures has evolved as a means of choosing a mate with the greatest possible reproductive potential. "The cultural icon of Barbie as a symbol for female beauty appears to have some biological grounding," said Grazyna Jasienska, who led the study at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland.

May 04, 2004

» Ghost train
» The confessions of a high-class cat burglar

Mason doesn't try to conceal that he was motivated by class envy. "I was a poor boy brought up in West Virginia. My mother was very straight-laced and taught me morality. My father was moral too. But it didn't rub off on me too much. When our family moved to a wealthy apartment complex in Cleveland, Ohio, I developed an animosity towards those people. I was the only child and they were always giving me orders."

When setting out to steal from the rich he was careful not to think about the misery he would cause them. "I had to stay distanced. I had to keep them in the category of objects, not human beings. And that was mostly easy because so many of them were so ostentatious. I certainly had no morality about wealthy people who flaunted their jewellery."

Sometimes he succumbed to sentimentality. "Carol Channing was so sweet and nice that I couldn't do it to her. And in Palm Beach there was this couple I had my eye on, but they were in the paper talking about their 50th wedding anniversary and they came over all lovey-dovey and I thought, drop it, just drop it."

» Times fashion pundit says black is not the new black. Apparently.

[...] Unfortunately black, these days, does not mean cool and clever. It means style-free zone, loser and miserable git.

If you don't believe me, try playing this game that I did the other week. When you go out, try counting all the people dressed in black (even though the Eighties ended 14 years ago there are surprisingly large numbers of them), then, using clues such as their facial expression and the way they comport themselves, try to assess whether they seem happy in their skin. I'll bet that in almost every case the answer is no.

» Bottled animals, a test post from Flickr. Picture inside.


Animal Preserve

Originally uploaded by striatic.

Posted by sumit from Flickr.

May 03, 2004

» Ruined churches of London
» Killler whales have to shout to make themselves heard over whale-watching boats.

Beneath the calm, sheltered waters around Washington's San Juan Islands, local killer whales are trying to adapt to a new challenge: the overwhelming rumble of engine noise from a growing fleet of whale-watching boats.

Researchers studying the whales have discovered an abrupt and widespread change in the length of the animals' primary calls. It is the whale equivalent of shouting and repeating words to penetrate roaring background noise.

» New cut makes it clear that Godzilla is The Bomb

But whatever version you watch, the central theme of the film is inescapable. Just as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" grew out of the blacklist of the McCarthy Era, and "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" and "War of the Worlds" were spawned by Cold War fears of a Soviet attack, "Godzilla" reflects the nuclear nightmare.

But Godzilla isn't just the bomb -- he's hate and anger, war, the poisoned environment -- in short, he is mankind itself, the destruction wrought by the rage within us, an inner ugliness we can never quite seem to shake.

May 02, 2004

» Today's apocalypse update: The British government's chief scientist says unchecked climate change may mean Antartica is the only inhabitable continent a centry from now

Antarctica is likely to be the world's only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked, the Government's chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, said last week.

He said the Earth was entering the "first hot period" for 60 million years, when there was no ice on the planet and "the rest of the globe could not sustain human life". The warning - one of the starkest delivered by a top scientist - comes as ministers decide next week whether to weaken measures to cut the pollution that causes climate change, even though Tony Blair last week described the situation as "very, very critical indeed".

» I don't know where Bruce Sterling is, but it looks really cool. Update: He's here. And definitely not here

May 01, 2004

» Are the very rich becoming a new species?

Of course, none of these treatments will be passed along to offspring. You will have to leave money in your will for your children's hair-follicle implants and other improvements. If you had your DNA altered, however, it would be a different story. Scientists are currently looking at ways to manipulate genes to cure or prevent inherited diseases like sickle cell anemia and diabetes. Once the technology is refined, what is to prevent the eternally vain from finding cures for such traits as weak chins and lumpy noses? Could we then be on our way toward evolving into a race of supermodels?

The kind of evolution that took man from knuckle-walker to biped is over, according to Peter D. Ward, a paleontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of ''Future Evolution.'' ''Evolution only works through survival of the fittest, and today everyone survives,'' he explains. The only natural change he sees occurring is in skin color. As more and more people mate across geographical and cultural lines, ''melanin will be mixed more -- man will be a nice light-chocolate brown.''

Ward can imagine, however, an evolutionary change coming from ''a genetically managed person,'' someone who has, through gene tampering, increased his productive span as much as 200 years. It would take a wealthy person in the first place to be able to afford this process, who then, instead of having three decades of productive earning, could have ''100 years of earning capital.'' He could produce and support 30 children, who would inherit his longevity if he mated with a similarly genetically-enhanced female, and presumably he would choose to mate with only another of his kind. Since a species becomes distinct when it can no longer breed with those outside the species, Ward says, the big question is, ''Will we remain one species?''

Suddenly F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation about the very rich -- ''They are different from you and me'' -- takes on a new and chilling dimension.

» The White House is removing and altering information about womens' issues in governmental publications

[...] a fact sheet from the Centers of Disease Control that focused on the advantages of using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted disease; it was revised in December 2002 to say evidence on condoms' effectiveness in curbing these diseases was inconclusive.

The National Cancer Institute's Web site was changed in 2002 to say studies linking abortion and breast cancer were inconsistent; after an outcry from scientists, the institute later amended that to say abortion is not associated with increased breast cancer risk.

At the Labor Department's Women's Bureau Web site, the report said 25 key publications on subjects ranging from pay equity to child care to issues relating to black and Latina women and women business owners had been deleted with no explanation.

Key government offices dedicated to addressing the needs of women have been disbanded, according to the report. These include the Office of Women's Initiatives and Outreach in the White House and the President's Interagency Council on Women.