May 30, 2004

Michelangelo a 'renaissance Rain Man'

Michelangelo may have been a Renaissance "Rain Man", according to two experts in autism.

The 16th century sculptor and painter's artistic genius could have been a mark of Asperger's syndrome, it is claimed.

People with the disorder, also known as high-functioning autism, have difficulties with communication and social interaction but often show an unusual talent or skill in a particular area.

Some display remarkable abilities in music, drawing or mathematics.

Now two leading authorities in autism are suggesting that Michelangelo met the criteria for Asperger's.

Dr Muhammad Arshad, staff psychiatrist at Five Boroughs Partnership NHS Trust, and Professor Michael Fitzgerald, from Trinity College Dublin, outline their evidence in the Journal of Medical Biography.

They argue that, like the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man, the great Renaissance artist was socially dysfunctional and obsessive.

But while Hoffman portrayed a character with an extraordinary ability to remember numbers and gamble, Michelangelo's gift was for art.

He had a troubled childhood, being frequently beaten by his father and uncles, who disapproved of his artistic interests.

Aged 14, Michelangelo began a three-year apprenticeship with the famous artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, who said the boy knew more about drawing than he did.

From these early beginnings emerged the man who sculpted the statue of David and painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

His dexterity with brush and chisel was in sharp contrast to his complete inability to conduct normal human relationships, however.

Dr Arshad and Professor Fitzgerald noted: "Michelangelo was aloof and a loner. Like the architect John Nash (1752-1835), who also had high-functioning autism, he had few friends."

The artist was unable to show emotion, as demonstrated by his failure to attend his brother's funeral.

He was also obsessive, followed repetitive routines, and sought to control every aspect of his life. Loss of control caused him "great frustration".

His highly retentive memory allowed him to generate, in a short time, many hundreds of sketches for the Sistine ceiling.

Michelangelo found communication and conversation difficult. He could not be engaged in long conversation, and would often walk off in the middle of an exchange, say the experts.

"He was bad tempered and had anger outbursts," they added.

They described him as "strange, without affect, and isolated" and "preoccupied with his own private reality".

Autism appears to have run in the artist's family, said Dr Arshad and Professor Fitzgerald. His father and grandfather, and one of his brothers, all displayed autistic tendencies.

The two experts conclude: "Michelangelo's single-minded work routine, unusual lifestyle, limited interests, poor social and communication skills, and various issues of life control appear to be features of high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome."

Posted by thinkum at 11:59 PM

May 27, 2004

Between Planets

Let the heroine carry the big gun: Seven local women writers talk about creating their own worlds- and the problems with life on Earth.



(Left to right) Lois McMaster Bujold, Patricia Wrede, Pamela Dean, Peg Kerr, Lyda Morehouse, and Caroline Stevermer (not pictured: Eleanor Arnason)

ARTS FEATURE . VOL 25 #1225 . PUBLISHED 5/26/04

By Terri Sutton

Lately, I've been visiting writer's museums. The Pushkin museum brought into focus for me something I'd been noticing subliminally for some time: that none of the writers who are presented to us in school as though they were lone geniuses were, in fact, alone. Every one of them, when I looked further, came out of a context of other writers, readers, letter writers and other correspondents, editors, artists, bright friends, and just people generally who cared enough to argue about the issues around which they wrote. --Lois McMaster Bujold

Minneapolis-St. Paul has altogether more good science fiction and fantasy writers per capita than it deserves. Credit the surplus to the state's 39-year-old Minicon science fiction and fantasy convention, or our two independent sci-fi and fantasy bookstores, DreamHaven and Uncle Hugo's (both opened in the '70s), or longtime Uncle Hugo's manager, the late Scott Imes (a one-man message board). Or it may be the many writing groups, or the continuing efforts of networkers like Eric Heideman and his magazine Tales of the Unanticipated. Perhaps the root cause is the frigid winters, which a certain kind of sensible person endures indoors, with nothing else to do but write. Most probably, credit goes to all of the above.

It may be just as difficult to figure why most of our best known and most celebrated sci-fi and fantasy writers are women. One, Eleanor Arnason, will be the guest of honor this weekend at WisCon--the world-renowned feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin. In a spirit of inquiry, we decided to round up Arnason and six other ingenious local women sci-fi/fantasy novelists for a chat outside the Anodyne Cafe. It was hardly the first time they'd met; most of them have been in writing groups together. Their zigzagging discussion visited a cosmic range of subjects: the metaphor of violence, male-on-male porn (written by lesbians), differing definitions of "conservative", and the lasting influence of Han Solo. Arnason missed the group grope and was interviewed separately at the Black Dog in St. Paul.

CITY PAGES: Many of you have written stories from the point of view of a man with a weapon: a gun or a sword. What's the attraction of this image?

ELEANOR ARNASON: One thing that's happening is that you're dealing with the stereotypes of science fiction. Which has had kinda butch guys since the 1930s pulp magazines: two-fisted, tough, and violent. The pulp tradition tends to lead to plots where problems are solved by violence. And I think we're seeing a really good example in Iraq of precisely how useful violence is in solving problems. So one of the things I've done in a lot of stories is have characters who don't manage to use violence successfully. Or who decide, when they reach the point of crisis, that violence is not an option. Ring of Swords came out of two things. One was that I wanted to write about a culture where homosexuality was normal, and heterosexuality was weird. And I also wanted to write the kind of story I would not normally write. I have no use in general for military space opera; I don't like anything that glorifies war. So it was really a thought experiment. In the end, it's a story that is set up to have a war, and the major characters decide that, instead, they're going to have a Shakespeare festival. Much better idea.

LYDA MOREHOUSE: For me it comes back to roles I didn't get to play as a kid--which I did play anyway--and that I think just leaked into my fiction. Getting to shoot the blaster was the cool part. Even my heroine carries a big gun; it's a Magnum. Which I have shot! I did one of those safety programs. And I discovered that the bigger the gun, the better shot I was.

PATRICIA WREDE: Size does matter.

PEG KERR: Conflict is the engine of plot, and warriors are about conflict. It's a chance to examine power and the way it plays out in human relationships.

WREDE: Especially when you're just getting started as a writer. What is conflict? It's people bashing each other. I find myself moving away from that as I get more interested in doing things with other kinds of conflict.

LOIS BUJOLD: I will say that with my warrior characters the worst wounds have been from words, and not from weapons. Those are the ones that don't heal after 20 years.

PAMELA DEAN: I actually decided I would just give up on weapons after my first three books. There was a war in there because fantasy novels have wars in them. But it made me nervous. I'm so completely clumsy and incapable of handling a sword or a gun that I just gave up on it.

MOREHOUSE: There's something for me that's inherently sexy about a guy with a sword. I was thinking about this in terms of me as a reader. Why did I ever pick up the fantasy genre with covers that ought not to appeal to a young woman--you know, with the big guy with the sword on the cover? Power is a big part of it. There's something about swordplay that's also a mental challenge, particularly at close range.

CAROLINE STEVEMER: There's a code, even with hardboiled detective novels. The hero abides by the code. He may not be the only good man in the world, but he's the best man in the world that he's in. I'm thinking of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler. To just have people flailing away at each other has so much less interest than whatever kind of interaction it is, according to the rules.

KERR: But also with swords, you've got the hero and the antagonist within arm's length of each other. So they have a chance to talk.

BUJOLD: Yes, there's better dialogue in swordplay than in gunfights.

CP: Is the idea that the warrior is vulnerable to words a fantasy?

DEAN: Look at all the people who came back from Vietnam and remembered with horror being spat on by protestors. The vets that I've talked to seemed to feel that that was just as bad as the other things that happened to them.

BUJOLD: "Soldier" is a role that people take off and put on. But they're people before they become soliders; they're people after they put that role down. And they're not something else in between, even if they're finding themselves caught up in something.

CP: How has feminism challenged you in your work?

STEVEMER: I [grew up in] a small-library sort of place. If it won an award, they might have the third book in the series. And I have a real fondness for "ripping yarns," like The Prisoner of Zenda. But I longed for a story with a good part for the girl. The feeble, beautiful, helpless, to-be-rescued women in these books were such a disappointment. It's probably just as well, because it kept my mind off some of the other things that were being said in these books, about colonialism and all kinds of ghastly "isms."

CP: You didn't want to be Han Solo?

MOREHOUSE: I wanted to be Han Solo!

BUJOLD: I read all these British boys' adventure yarns without ever noticing that they weren't addressed to me.


KERR: You would've been a great Han Solo, Lyda.

MOREHOUSE: I was, in fact, a great Han Solo, in my own backyard. I didn't worry about the fact that I wasn't the right gender. Princess Leia was pretty cool, but I liked kissing the girl too, so there you go. Although when I set out to write Archangel Protocol, I purposely wanted to write a strong female character that someone like myself would [hope to] find. Of course later I discovered there's tons of people writing this stuff! [Laughs] Definitely I would say that the women of the science fiction community have supported me in ways that I'd never felt anywhere else.

BUJOLD: I was hitting my first reading in the early '60s, so feminism wasn't even there yet. So I was basically oblivious as an early writer to all those issues. I did focus on the female heroes that I met in science fiction books, like "The Ship Who Sang" characters. In the fiction, that kind of equality seemed a feasible sort of thing. In the real life that was going on around me, it was not so sanguine.

DEAN: For me, there was feminism, but it was all 19th-century feminism; it was focused on getting women the vote, the right to work. And it was all over. What I didn't get was gender-role stereotyping. My first novel had been published, I was revising the second one, and I suddenly looked at it and thought, "What the hell did I do? Why are all the male characters doing this, and the female characters doing that--that's grotesque!." Now the book was a deliberate homage to people like E. Nesbitt, Edward Eager, and C.S. Lewis, all of whom were writing in a really standard tradition. I just barely had time to decide that in this society, men and women were separate but equal. So that when you had a king, everybody who did politics was male, and when you had a queen, everybody who did politics was female. But I almost put something out there that was contrary to what I thought, but had been taken unconsciously from all my reading.

WREDE: I'm the oldest of five, my mother always worked. This was the '50s, '60s. The impact of feminism for me was, "Well, so? Doesn't everybody think that?" In my family, there was no question about gender-role stereotyping. I have twin girl cousins who are fur trappers in Alaska. Did feminism impact my writing? I don't think so.

KERR: I think that one of my primary introductions to feminism was reading Pamela Sargent's series Women of Wonder. Lois says she writes about identity. I think feminism is, for women and men, trying to discover the largest identity for them possible--not allowing them to be circumscribed by gender roles. Because I'm interested in that, I write that.

ARNASON: I wrote one story ["Knapsack Poems"] that I'm very happy with in which the protagonist is essentially a single being made of eight separate people: Some are female, some male, and some neuter. That was enormously fun to write. What is a person who is all sexes at once? I do a lot of dealing with sexual stereotypes. I'd say it's probably the main thing I do. I think that one of the useful things for women writing science fiction is that most of the science fiction *ACCENT cliches are things that sort of abrade women, or prickle them. They're not the conventions that women feel 100 percent comfortable with. If you're writing a kind of fiction where you're comfortable with the conventions, it's much easier to fall into sloppy writing habits.

MOREHOUSE: I just want to know why there aren't more female characters like Han Solo in the movies. Loners with no apparent connection to small animals or children.

BUJOLD: He certainly doesn't have to call his mother every week, or at least we don't see him doing it.

WREDE: The secret diaries of Han Solo.

MOREHOUSE: "Hi, Mom..."

KERR: She must be a kick-butt woman.

BUJOLD: 'Cause he's gone as far away from her as he can. [Laughter]

CP: What, if anything, have you learned from writing from a male character's perspective?

DEAN: I'm going to parse the question. The gender of the character is really not relevant. If I were writing a contemporary novel set in the U.S. in certain subcultures that I would run screaming from, I would have to cope with it. But since it's all imaginary cultures or contemporary-looking ones where there's a little twist in reality, it simply doesn't come up.

WREDE: It's a lot harder for me switching from a medieval character, male or female, to a modern one. Unless you have a culture where the gender roles are very strong and explicit...

MOREHOUSE: Like Eleanor's done.

WREDE: ...but I've just never been interested in exploring that particular.

BUJOLD: I've written from both viewpoints, and the female characters always feel more claustrophobic to me. They're tighter, they run more safety calculations in their heads. I find that writing male characters is more free; the characters are freer to move in a way. The other difference is not so much inside the character's head, but how the world reacts to the character, whether they are male or female. The environment shapes character.

WREDE: But that's the society you've made up. If you have a truly egalitarian society, then it doesn't react differently based on gender. But that is something that seems to be extraordinarily different for anyone in this culture to imagine thoroughly or escape . .

STEVEMER: But also if you want any conflict...

WREDE: But you get conflict from other places...

KERR: That's also a great way to explore culture in fiction. Lois has a very multifaceted universe. You can learn a lot about the cultures by how they approach the same character based on their gender.

ARNASON: Well, I was very nervous about it, because I was not only writing from the point of view of a man, but of a gay man. I did a tremendous amount of background research. I read a lot of books by gay men. And I asked two friends of mine who were gay men to vet the book. The absolute fear I had was that I was going to stumble onto some kind of gay slang by accident and say something really embarrassing. I think what happens is that if a character works, at a certain point the character becomes so plausible to you that you're no longer looking at them from the outside.

MOREHOUSE: I'm actually going to cop to feeling guilty, because it hadn't occurred to me that the books after Archangel Protocol follow more men than women! One thing that happened was that I fell in love with a villain--Satan. I find him hot. In my current novel, I'm writing about a gay man. I guess it's very hard for me to write about a strong woman because like I said my reading experience was that I tended to be Han Solo.

CP: I read that a fan told Lyda that her Satan, or Morningstar, reminded her favorably of "hurt-comfort" slash. "Slash," for our readers, is a sometimes pornographic subgenre of fiction written and circulated by fans of certain books, movies, and TV shows. The classic example of slash involves Kirk and Spock discovering their mutual passion. Could someone describe the "hurt-comfort" variety?

DEAN: There's a sublimated romantic relationship, generally between people of the same sex, but not always these days. And these people either don't know, or can't talk about it, or are committed elsewhere. So you isolate them somewhere and have one of them be injured. Sometimes the romantic stuff actually becomes revealed, and sometimes it's still completely sublimated, but the act of one caring for the other is a way of expressing the underlying emotion without actually transgressing whatever it is they can't transgress.

MOREHOUSE: Wow, you explained that really succinctly! I've admitted that I was looking at slash fiction at the time [I was writing]. I went to see that godawful film, Episode One, we'll call it. I left so ready to write fan fiction. I realized that what fan fiction comes out of is a general dissatisfaction with the character and the world.

BUJOLD: You want to fix it.

MOREHOUSE: People want to write in your universe [to Lois], because they want it to continue. But there's also that other part, "This was so irritating!" So I ended up foolishly reading a bunch, and of course I found the slash. There's some Obi Wan Kenobi slash--it was bad. I think there was some secret influence there.


BUJOLD: It's a laboratory of gender studies. I think that if somebody can ever explain "hurt/comfort," you will have reached a great insight into the female gender that still eludes me. It's all over the place in fan fiction.

KERR: It doesn't appeal to you?

BUJOLD: Oh, yeah!

KERR: It's difficult to understand our attraction to it.

DEAN: It's sort of instantaneously understood--you go, "Yes, of course." But then you go...

BUJOLD: If you stop and look at it, you'd say "This is really weird." I can't help wondering if there's an element of sublimated hostility on the part of the writers because they bash the heck out of the characters, and they have such a good time doing it.

WREDE: I read an article in which the author's contention was that it was the desire to be taken care of. It was the "You'll be sorry when I'm dead only not quite because I want to be there to watch" kind of thing.

KERR: You talk about gender roles. Much of it is male-male interaction, and it's a chance to see a male character play a caretaker. We should also mention that a lot of this is primarily read by women.

MOREHOUSE: It's written by women, and it's read by women. It's also written by lesbians. There's a humongous group of lesbian slash writers who write male-male slash. That's bizarro! Apparently some people do a lot of research into whether or not some off the things they try to do are physically possible.

KERR: It's what Ellen Kushner calls "girls on boys on boys."

MOREHOUSE: There's a common, sort of odd, undercurrent of women writing about gay men. You did it, and I'm doing it. And Eleanor did it.

KERR: Lois did it, with Ethan of Athos.

DEAN: [Sci-fi writer] Joanna Russ wrote an article about slash way back in the '70s. She says that what you do--what women at least in the 1970s who were writing this stuff were doing--by having two male characters is, you level the playing field. These people are equals. They have the same social status. The same cultural status. And so you can work out a relationship that is free of the inborn hierarchical distinction made between men and women. She didn't really address why nobody wrote about two women. Possibly it was because in its origin it was fan fiction, and there were very few women in Star Trek, and they weren't the cool ones.

CP: All of you do unexpected things with romance--for instance, Caroline sneakily sticks her hunky love interest into the body of a fat old king, in College of Magics. Why is it important to have romance be a part of your writing?

ARNASON: It's an important human emotion, or drive. It probably became more important in science fiction after women started coming into the field in large numbers. In early science fiction, the emotional age of all the characters is about 14. They're really kind of pre-sexual. Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness seems to me totally charged with sexual tension. I write a lot about romances that don't quite come off. I'm reading the Princess Meredith series by Laurel Hamilton, who writes the Anita Blake vampire murder-mystery series. I'm on the third book. The first 200 pages are sex. Nothing else. I tend to think books are more erotic if you have the possibility of sex that doesn't...where the consummation is not central to the story.

MOREHOUSE: I'm actually a big romance fan. I buy those paperbacks, and I read the whole damn thing, and I enjoy it.

WREDE: What's that saying, "Trashy literature is about sex and violence; great literature is about love and death."


BUJOLD: Shakespeare has romances in all his plays! Some of them come to really bad ends, but they're always in there.

KERR: It's taking on a new role. When you are in a romance, you are confronting the Other and finding your affinity, your connections with them, and that changes you. That leads to the change that makes a character so interesting. And it's fun to write!

MOREHOUSE: Yeah, skip all the other stuff. It's just fun.

CP: So many of your books compress all this wildly raw romantic emotion into really articulate but sort of polite and reserved conversation.

MOREHOUSE: [Whispering] She's talking about fandom....


BUJOLD: Drama is more powerful than melodrama. That element of restraint gives it a focus, a power, that you can't have if you're just emoting all over the map.

STEVEMER: The big fear is being unintentionally funny.

BUJOLD: That too!

WREDE: Yeah. The reserve in my books comes largely from a deep-seated terror of committing purple prose.

ARNASON: Pamela, Pat, Lois, and Peg have all been in different writing groups together. In their cases, how they write dialogue might have something to do with learning from each other.

MOREHOUSE: I actually think it's part of our culture, if we have such a thing. I think lots of us who grew up as science fiction/fantasy readers are culturally sort of intellectuals. We have a lot of distance with roiling emotions underneath. How else could you read science fiction as a teenager? It comes naturally--reserve perhaps even filtered through intellectual debate. I was raised Unitarian, so for godsakes!

DEAN: Yes, me too!

MOREHOUSE: I have major arguments and I tell people "Wow, that was a religious experience."

KERR: I think for me part of it is that through sheer dumb luck I started keeping a journal from a very early age. So I was always an observer of my own life, as well as a participant.

MOREHOUSE: Maybe it's part of growing up as a clumsy, nerdy kid too. When I started talking, I was always putting myself at risk. Because I might say something stupid, I might just be mocked because I was the nerd of the class, or I might say something too smart. I became really aware of communication as a really intense form of human interaction.

KERR: I have a hunch that everybody around this table went through their young adulthood feeling they were a bit smarter than a lot of people around them--

MOREHOUSE: --or at least weirder!

BUJOLD: With supporting evidence!


WREDE: I don't understand real people at all well. I understand fictional people a lot better. On paper, I can make it work.

BUJOLD: Also, one of the things I like as a writer is that it's very redemptive. You can take all your mistakes and turn them into something useful. No matter how painful the experience, it can be redeemed by being transformed and put into your next book.

WREDE: But this question assumes that writing is a whole lot more conscious and deliberate than it actually is. It's like roller-skating or riding a bicycle. You're not consciously adjusting every minute. You're worried about moving forward and staying in balance.

MOREHOUSE: And I'm still learning to ride my bicycle. When you're first starting off, believe me, you're wondering if the training wheels are coming off.

WREDE: Don't look back!

CP: I find it fascinating how often the urge to merge in your books is nearly a group effort: much input, positive and negative, from other characters who are as important as the love interest. Why not just one fine romance with hero and heroine?

WREDE: There are two levels that everybody works on, the personal and the societal. You can't just leave one out unless you're going to do one of those lone-spaceman-exploring-far-planets books, which is not what we write. If you're going to write about relationship, you've got to write about all the relationships.

KERR: I think that all of us have an allergy to either/or thinking. We don't feel like you've found your romantic partner--boom!--you're done with your relational work for the rest of your life.

CP: Eleanor has talked about how Jesse Helms and the NEA controversies inspired her to write Ring of Swords. Do political situations provide fodder to you?

MOREHOUSE: They're my lifeblood!

ARNASON: That's what science fiction is about for me, it's politics. I write about war, I write about sexual prejudice, I write about race prejudice. It's all ultimately about contemporary society. I don't think you can write anything serious in the United States if you're not dealing with class and race. I would probably argue that the problem that feminist science fiction faces right now is that in order to continue growing it has to deal with racism and class prejudice. So far that hasn't happened in a really strong way.

WREDE: Everything is material. I don't think I've ever specifically gotten something from a political situation, but that says nothing really about anything.

BUJOLD: The political situation may not be current. All of us are history readers. I know that the My Lai massacre is at the root of several incidents in my books.

KERR: My second novel is certainly concerned with political concerns. I was comparing the witchcraft trials of New England with the current AIDS crisis, and showing how the roots of Puritan thinking about relationships, about sexuality, about religion, affected us in our current struggle to deal with this overwhelming health problem.

STEVEMER: I've always been interested in things that would permit me to escape from wherever I was, mentally, so the urge to write fantasy is probably a reaction. It's probably related to the reason why I don't write about what I know. As we're always told we should.

BUJOLD: By people who don't write.

KERR: But I would deny it if anyone said you're writing fantasy because you're looking for escapism. Emma Bull wrote that "fantasy is usefully subversive." Because it makes you examine things in a different way by getting around people's defenses.

MOREHOUSE: "It's an alien!"

KERR: We're talking about the Other. And that's an up-front concern for us right now. It's not escaping to examine our relation with the Other.

WREDE: The whole fantasy thing is about metaphor. In fantasy because you can make magic real--and magic is not a real thing...

STEVEMER: ...says you.

WREDE: --you can make magic work however you want. Therefore it can mean whatever you want. For me magic is a metaphor for power. In real life, you'd have to look at political power, the power of money, or charisma and personality. But in fantasy I can distill all that and say, "Here's pure power, what do you do with it?"

MOREHOUSE: That's really interesting, because when you talk about politics and money, that is exactly what I chose to write about.

WREDE: But I want to write about the underlying thing that gives them juice.

ARNASON: David Hartwell distinguishes science fiction and fantasy by saying that fantasy is conservative and pastoral and science fiction is progressive and urban. I think there's an argument for that. There's some very good fantasy. But any fiction that is sentimental about the Middle Ages has got some problems for me. You tend to be sentimental about a rigidly hierarchical class system, which has a whole bunch of peasants at the bottom, and that kinda ticks me off. I don't identify with aristocrats very much.

STEVEMER: People can argue about the conservatism side of things. I suppose you get the wrong idea because there are lords and ladies and people with social position and all that. I do think that it's more honored in the breach than in the observance--that where you get the interesting stuff is where it transcends that. I'd hate to be pigeonholed as the kind of person who only writes stories with people with titles in them. Because I really don't like them all that well myself.

WREDE: It's whether the titles are the important part or not.

STEVEMER: Well...whole panels have been done on working-class fiction and characters in fiction, and I'd much rather be on that side of the fence. I just end up over in this area with teapots and teacups. It's a kind of nostalgia that has to do with revising things. I want to go back and have a do-over.

WREDE: Saying that fantasy is conservative ignores all the egalitarianism that has been superimposed on this originally very medieval structure. In most modern [written] fantasies, you have women in the army, women doing all kinds of things that were very rare in real life.

MOREHOUSE: If I had not come across fantasy when I did, I think I'd be a very different person. Because it opened up worlds to me that were in fact very forward-thinking, very progressive--and not just in science fiction, but also in fantasy. Places that I would not have taken myself that were not "conservative" in the "put-down" sense. Whether it is a "conservation" of ideals of loyalty, the good parts of chivalry--that's not necessarily a bad thing. Those things I think we yearn for today, because they're missing.

ARNASON: I'm thinking now that we probably need to be writing in a serious fashion about the future, because we may be living at a point where everything is genuinely breaking down. And if that is so, we need to know where we want to go from here. We're basically living in a half-dozen different science fiction disaster novels right now. Maybe this is a good grim place to end. A lot of these crises, [according to] the predictions I'm seeing, are going to peak or crest in my lifetime. As I've aged, the thing I find most discouraging is that I won't be around to see how the 21st century ends. But there is stuff, huge stuff, that is probably going to happen in the next 20 years. So I'm trying to learn to take better care of myself so that I can be around to see it.


Eleanor Arnason: In 1978, Arnason published her first novel, The Sword Smith; four others followed, including the acclaimed Ring of Swords (1993), a slippery account of political negotiations between humans and a homosexual alien race, the Hwarhath. Since then, Arnason has concentrated on short stories, many about the Hwarhath: "The Potter of Bones" and "Knapsack Poems" were nominated for Nebulas this year.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Author of the Nebula-winning Miles Vorkosigan series, tricky sci-fi space opera for people who like their heroes self-conscious and their moral dilemmas well-examined. Bujold also writes a complex fantasy series, the latest installment of which is Paladin of Souls. Moved to Minneapolis from Ohio in 1995 after years of friendship with Patricia Wrede.

Pamela Dean: One of the original "Scribblies"--a writing group including Wrede, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, and Steven Brust who first started meeting in 1980. Dean's best-known Scribblies-era work was Tam Lin, a literary college tale infiltrated by Faerie. In 1998, she published Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, another contemporary story tilted by magic. Her Secret Country YA fantasy trilogy was just re-released; a sequel will follow.

Peg Kerr: Says Wrede inspired one sharply opinionated character in the gem-cutter's fantasy Emerald House Rising. Her The Wild Swans (1999) intertwines 17th-century fantasy and 1980s AIDS struggle. Kerr's husband was at Carleton with Dean and Wrede and she was mentored by Arnason. She writes with Caroline Stevermer.

Lyda Morehouse: Fashions masterful train wrecks out of hard-boiled detective fiction, angelic fantasy, cyberpunk, and apocalypse prose. Apocalypse Array, the fourth book in her near-future series, will be released later this year. "Potentially younger than the other people here," she calls Arnason a mentor.

Caroline Stevermer: Her "fantasy of manners," A College of Magics, is at once an alternative history of Europe, circa 1900, with magic and extra countries; a women's college cosy; a queasy adventure; and a topsy-turvy romance. The just-published sequel is titled A Scholar of Magics.

Patricia Wrede: Prolific inventor of flying blue donkeys and other comically fantastic stuff for her award-winning children's Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Wrede also writes fantasy in both medieval and regency settings. The epistolary novel, Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, written with Stevermer, was re-published in '03, and a sequel, The Grand Tour, is expected before the year is out. Helped midwife Bujold's entry into writing.

Posted by thinkum at 09:44 AM

May 19, 2004

Can she bake a cake?

Amelia was voted Outstanding Woman of the Year which she accepted on behalf of "all women". The French press ended an article about Amelia's accomplishment with..."can she bake a cake?" ...Amelia replied...

"So I accept these awards on behalf of the cake bakers and all of those other women who can do some things quite as important, if not more important, than flying, as well as in the name of women flying today."

Extracted from the Ellen's Place biography of Amelia Earhart.

Posted by thinkum at 03:07 PM

May 18, 2004

The future of shopping

Few industries can match retailing for cut-throat competition. Jostling for the attention of consumers, Tesco, Wal-Mart and other giant retailers are working hard to fine-tune their store formats.

Now hi-tech emerges as a tool to build market share. BBC News Online visited the "Future Store" in Rheinberg, Germany, set up by the world's fifth-largest retail group, Metro.

The intelligent scale doesn't like our bunch of bananas.

When we had put tomatoes on the scale, its digital camera took just a split second to recognise the produce, weigh it and print a bar-coded price tag.

No wait at a checkout to have them weighed. No need to find "tomatoes" on a 50-button display.

But now the scale is baffled, and offers four choices: Are we weighing bananas, chicory salad, long beans or avocados?

Touching the banana logo on the screen solves the slip-up. "The bunch of bananas was probably too large for the camera," says an apologetic shop assistant.

Welcome to Metro's Future Store.

New and old

At first glance the supermarket looks disappointingly normal.

Yes, to German shoppers the layout may be revolutionary, with wide "freshness aisles" right at the entrance, offering a vast and pleasantly displayed array of fresh fish, meats, vegetables, and the mouth-watering smell of freshly baked bread and donuts.

Nothing new here for many French and UK shoppers.

The real revolution, though, lies with nifty machines like the Intelligent Scales using IBM's Veggie Vision software.

The machines, so the claim goes, can identify most produce by sight, regardless of whether it is packed in a plastic bag or not.

Marketing the easy way

The good people of Rheinberg a town of 30,000 in the west of Germany are willing participants in this hi-tech experiment in retailing.

Not sure what to buy? In key sections - multimedia, baby care, hair colours, wine, meat, and fruit and vegetables - touchscreen terminals give in-depth information.

How a particular wine tastes, which food to have with it, and a smattering of the wine region's history - in colour, interactive, and on demand as a print-out.

Learn how to cook asparagus and skin tomatoes. Get recipes for the meat and veg available and in season (courtesy of Nestle, whose products just happen to crop up in some of the recipes).

Above the aisles, large flat screens show still pictures and videos of special offers and promotions.

"Customers buy more when we have two screens next to each other showing the same product," says Metro's Holger Schneidewindt.

A quick scan of a product barcode, a few taps on a handheld computer, and the wireless network changes the display on the large flat screen above a shelf groaning with bottles of vodka and schnapps.

For managers of the 4,000 square metre store, it is marketing the easy way.

Don't scream for ice cream

Personal Shopping Assistants (PSA) are the clincher, though - small Wincor Nixdorf tablet computers clipped to shopping trolleys and activated with a loyalty card.

Want some ice cream but don't know where to find it? Type "ice cream" on the touch screen and you are directed to the correct aisle - floor plan included.

Regular purchases show up on a favourites list, with price and location. Special offers are flagged up as you move from section to section.

Write your shopping list online - at home or work - and soon it will be automatically downloaded to the PSA.

The integrated scanner gives you both a running total of your shopping and fast-track treatment at the check-out.

Smart logistics

The shop's shelves sport 30,000 wireless electronic price labels that can be changed at the push of a button.

Smart self-scan check-outs, meanwhile, tackle fraud by comparing the weight of your shopping bag with the items you scanned and prevent underage drinking by prompting staff to check out customers scanning alcoholic products.

The Future Store's biggest potential, though, is its use of RFID tags, a kind of "talking barcodes".

With the help of software from business process expert SAP, Metro now knows in detail how supplies move from the Essen distribution centre on to trucks, into the Rheinberg store room, and on to the shop floor.

The result: the inventory is always up-to-date, shelves are rarely empty, and losses are down.

At its most revolutionary, smart shelves using RFID - currently tested on Gilette razor blades, Pantene shampoo and Philadelphia cream cheese - alert staff when the shop's shelves are getting empty or cheese packs are past their sell-by date.

Are Rheinbergers geeks?

One year into the experiment, the people of Rheinberg have taken to the store with gusto.

"Customers come to the store more frequently, store loyalty is up and sales are up 30%," says Metro spokesman Albrecht von Truchsess.

To a large part that is due to the store's new "fresh and easy" format.

But more than 70% of customers have used the various technologies at least once, and a hard core of regular users (21% for PSAs, 53% for the scales) is growing strongly.

And it is the over-60s, not just the geeks of this rural area, who are among the keenest to use the new technology.

Looking past the bottom line

But does the Future Store make a profit?

Not in the traditional sense. Ultimately, it is just a large laboratory, using customised bleeding-edge technology.

"One can't talk about return on investment for such a store," says Metro's Mr von Truchsess.

And anyway, for Metro's 45 technology partners, this is a giant "Bring Your Own Technology" party, where each partner's costs are neither disclosed nor added up.

For Metro, meanwhile, it is an opportunity to find out whether better service and a streamlined supply chain can help it compete with Germany's ultra-cheap grocery discounters like Lidl and Aldi.

But it is also a way to identify potential trouble, for example to see whether radio interference can trip over large RFID systems.

There is just one problem. Surveys suggest that some customers dazzled by the snazzy technology think prices must be higher as well.

Not so, says Metro's Mr von Truchsess.

But he admits: "There will always be certain areas where customers will not accept a high-technology store".

Posted by thinkum at 02:02 PM

Famous sex theory questioned

A popular explanation for why we have frequent sex has been challenged by a report published in Science magazine.

According to the Red Queen Hypothesis, sex exists to help organisms protect themselves against parasites.

Parasites are constantly developing new ways to take advantage, so animals need to evolve defences quickly - and sex, say some, allows them to do this.

But scientists have constructed a model, which suggests this "arms race" alone is not enough to account for sex.

Clone invasion

Evolutionary biologists are obsessed with sex and why we have it.

It is one of nature's great mysteries because there are not many obvious reasons why we should do it - but plenty why we should not.

Firstly, sex is a very inefficient way to make babies. Asexual organisms can produce twice the amount of young than their sexual counterparts.

"Clones have a tremendous advantage," explained Curt Lively, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Indiana, US.

"If you have a sexual population and you introduce a clone, that clone will have an advantage, because its intrinsic growth rate is higher. So the clones should take over."

Secondly, if being overrun by clones is not enough, sex is dangerous. You may catch a nasty disease while engaging in the messy act and, even if you don't, your offspring are likely to inherit shoddy genes from their father.

"It is a paradox why so many organisms have sex," said the paper's co-author Sarah Otto, from the University of British Colombia, Vancouver, Canada.

"If you are a parent who has survived to reproduce you probably have a good gene combination, so shuffling them about is not going to benefit you."

But sex does exist - in great abundance. Natural selection, for some reason, chose it. The clones have not taken over and the risk, big as it might be, is not big enough to make sex a bad idea.

Red Queen to the rescue?

The Red Queen Hypothesis takes its name from the character in Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking-Glass, who tells Alice she has to run as fast as she can to stay in the same place.

The idea is that organisms have to keep evolving - keep adopting new genetic combinations - to "outwit" pathogens.

"The theory states that parasites are selected to target the most common genotype, which is now this clone," Professor Lively told BBC News Online. "So if the parasites are successful, and very virulent, they can prevent that clone from taking over the sexual population.

"But for this theory to work, there have to be an awful lot of parasites about, and they have to have very dramatic effects."

And there is the rub. According a mathematical model developed by Sarah Otto and her colleague Scott Nuismer, there are not enough parasites about to explain why organisms have so much sex.

Too much sex

Having sex every now and again might be an advantage, Dr Otto believes. Doing it occasionally should fox the parasites. But doing it frequently probably just spoils winning genetic combinations.

According to her model, if evading parasites was the only objective, organisms should reproduce sexually sometimes, but asexually often.

"If you actually do the maths, the hosts that are common in the population at the current moment in time have been doing a pretty good job at evading their parasites.

"A little sex makes enough of the combinations present, but having more sex breaks apart the combinations that are working to evade the parasites."

Since we - and many other organisms - have more than a little sex, we might have to look beyond the Red Queen for the whole answer.

"What the Red Queen can't explain is why creatures have more than a minimal amount of sex," said Dr Otto. "If organisms only had sex very rarely, then it could be the case that the Red Queen could explain that."

Posted by thinkum at 01:58 PM

'Junk' throws up precious secret

A collection of mystery DNA segments, which seem to be critical for the survival of many animals, are causing great interest among scientists.

Researchers inspecting the genetic code of rats, mice and humans were surprised to find they shared many identical chunks of apparently "junk" DNA.

This implies the code is so vital that even 75 million years of evolution in these mammals could not tinker with it.

But what the DNA does, and how, is a puzzle, the journal Science reports.

Excess baggage?

Before scientists began laboriously mapping several animal life-codes, they had a rather narrow opinion about which parts of the genome were important.

According to the traditional viewpoint, the really crucial things were genes, which code for proteins - the "building blocks of life". A few other sections that regulate gene function were also considered useful.

The rest was thought to be excess baggage - or "junk" DNA.

But the new findings suggest this interpretation was somewhat wanting.

David Haussler of the University of California, Santa Cruz, US, and his team compared the genome sequences of man, mouse and rat. They found - to their astonishment - that several great stretches of DNA were identical across the three species.

To guard against this happening by coincidence, they looked for sequences that were at least 200 base-pairs (the molecules that make up DNA) in length. Statistically, a sequence of this length would almost never appear in all three by chance.

Not only did one sequence of this length appear in all three - 480 did.

Vital function

The regions largely matched up with chicken, dog and fish sequences, too; but are absent from sea squirt and fruit flies.

"It absolutely knocked me off my chair," said Professor Haussler. "It's extraordinarily exciting to think that there are these ultra-conserved elements that weren't noticed by the scientific community before."

The really interesting thing is that many of these "ultra-conserved" regions do not appear to code for protein. If it was not for the fact that they popped up in so many different species, they might have been dismissed as useless "padding".

But whatever their function is, it is clearly of great importance.

We know this because ever since rodents, humans, chickens and fish shared an ancestor - about 400 million years ago - these sequences have resisted change. This strongly suggests that any alteration would have damaged the animals' ability to survive.

"These initial findings tell us quite a lot of the genome was doing something important other than coding for proteins," Professor Haussler said.

He thinks the most likely scenario is that they control the activity of indispensable genes and embryo development.

Nearly a quarter of the sequences overlap with genes and may help slice RNA - the chemical cousin of DNA involved in protein production - into different forms, Professor Haussler believes.

The conserved elements that do not actually overlap with genes tend to cluster next to genes that play a role in embryonic development.

"The fact that the conserved elements are hanging around the most important development genes, suggests they have some role in regulating the process of development and differentiation," said Professor Haussler.

Rethinking "junk" DNA

The next step is to pin down a conclusive function for these chunks of genetic material.

One method could be to produce genetically engineered mice that have bits of the sequences "knocked out". By comparing their development with that of normal mice, scientists might be able to work out the DNA's purpose.

Despite all the questions that this research has raised, one thing is clear: scientists need to review their ideas about junk DNA.

Professor Chris Ponting, from the UK Medical Research Council's Functional Genetics Unit, told BBC News Online: "Amazingly, there were calls from some sections to only map the bits of genome that coded for protein - mapping the rest was thought to be a waste of time.

"It is very lucky that entire genomes were mapped, as this work is showing."

He added: "I think other bits of 'junk' DNA will turn out not to be junk. I think this is the tip of the iceberg, and that there will be many more similar findings."

Posted by thinkum at 01:57 PM

'Save Karyn's' charity payback

A woman who turned to the net to help her clear a $20,000 credit card debt has said she hopes to donate that amount to charity.

Former TV producer Karyn Bosnak set up the site,, having racked up big debts in the department stores of New York. She quickly got into difficulties when she lost her job.

But 20 weeks after setting up the site, enough people had sent her money to pay off all her credit cards. She has now written a book about the experience.

"It made me very aware of other people. I've been forced to really evaluate my situation - also really evaluate the way that I was living my life," she told BBC World Service's Everywoman programme.

"It was the selfish way, and I have no problem admitting that.

"I've started to give to charity much more than I ever have, and my plan is to give all the money back to charity."

Too much to pay

The New York Times Magazine named one of the best ideas of the year when it was set up in 2002.

The website now offers advice to others seeking to get out of debt.

Ms Bosnak explained that she had initially got into difficulties "purely just by shopping."

"I moved to New York from Chicago - which is a big city, but nothing like New York - and I just bought clothes, and got my hair done, and went to dinner, and just always assumed that I could pay it back."

She paid only the minimum payments on her cards and soon found out that the debt had mounted considerably.

"I didn't even realise it was that high," she said.

"I thought it was $13,000 or something. I added it up and it was over $20,000, and I was like, 'oh my goodness, what have I done?'"

She had also lost her job and did not find another for four months, making her problems worse.

"I looked in my closet and I had shoes and purses and clothes, but when I finally got a new job I couldn't afford a subway card to get to work," she stated.

"I could barely afford to eat every week, because I had to make payments of $800 to credit card companies every month in addition to my rent.

"I got with a programme and consolidated my cards, but it still was too much to pay."

She explained that she had come up with the idea of a website after her roommate saw a sign in a shop asking for $7,000.

"As a joke he came home and told me about the sign, and said 'why don't you just ask for the money?'

"So I set up a website, and I thought if 20,000 people gave me one dollar, I'd be home free."

Taking control

Ms Bosnak said she had tried to make the site amusing, including a feature called the Daily Buck which highlighted the daily ways she had tried to save a dollar.

But she said she had never "in a million years" expected it to work.

Less than five months after setting up, Ms Bosnak had received the $20,000, although it was not without a certain amount of abuse.

Criticisms were made that the $20,000 would bring clean water to parts of the world, or set up a school - rather than bail out a shopaholic.

"I got that criticism a lot - that there are people out there, charities, who need this money more than you. I completely understand that," she said.

"I was never in a position for people to truly feel sorry for me - it was joking, like 'today I had drink water from the tap, I couldn't buy a bottle of water' or 'oh no, I have to give myself a manicure.'

"It was never serious, like I was truly needy of the money."

She said some e-mails she received accused her of being "the reason people hate America."

"But for every mean one I received, I would get a nice one from somebody," she added.

"They were from all over the world."

Others would e-mail and say she had encouraged them to take control of their situation, or cut up their credit cards.

She said that she now feels it is better to give than receive, and is a reformed character.

"I still love shopping," she admitted.

"But I shop on a budget now."

Posted by thinkum at 01:55 PM

Funds sought to aid virus writer

The Sasser web worm caused trouble for thousands of net users but its author does at least have some fans.

A group called the Sasser Support Team has begun gathering cash donations for Sven Jaschan, the author of Sasser.

Following a tip-off, Mr Jaschan was arrested in Germany in early May and has since confessed to being the creator of the Sasser worm.

Mr Jaschan has now been freed while he is investigated on computer sabotage charges.

Funding drive

The Sasser worm appeared on 1 May and rapidly spread around the web crashing computers that it infected.

German police arrested Mr Jaschan on 7 May near the town of Rotenburg in northern Germany and soon after he reportedly owned up to making the virulent worm.

If found guilty of sabotage charges, Mr Jaschan could face up to five years in jail.

But the Sasser Support Team has sprung to his defence, saying the whole episode was a misunderstanding.

In an anonymous message announcing the formation of the fund sent to a computer security mailing list, the group said Mr Jaschan had a positive end in mind when he created the worm.

"Sasser was intended as a harmless wake-up call to the world," said the e-mail. "Sven did the right thing by making this alarm call."

It continued: "When will people realise that microsofts (sic) base products are not fit to be subjected to the hostile environment that the internet is these days?"

The group is accepting donations for Mr Jaschan to pay legal fees or simply to help him enjoy himself a little before he goes to court.

In e-mails to BBC News Online the Sasser Support Team said it was independent of Mr Jaschan and said it wanted to raise a lot of cash for him.

"The sky is the limit," they wrote. "However, it seems to peak at around the price for a stick of smokes and some cheap whisky."

The website set up to co-ordinate the donations has, at time of writing, collected $97.15. The highest donation is £10 and the lowest one cent.

Donations can be sent via the Paypal net payment system.

"The entire world is angry with him, so we think he could use some friends," the team wrote. "We also like sticking it to the man."

Damaging attack

Statistics gathered by security firm Trusecure found that the biggest problem Sasser caused, with 73% of those surveyed, was a surge in calls to help desks to clean up infected machines.

Also 63% of those hit by Sasser found that it stopped them using their desktop computer to get on with work.

Some 30% of those surveyed said it took 10 hours or less to clear up after the virus hit them.

Trusecure reports that most people fell victim through direct net connections. It estimates that it will cost $979m to clean up the damage done by Sasser.

Russ Cooper, chief scientist at Trusecure, said the impact of the worm could have been minimised if Microsoft had done a better job of distributing a security patch.

"If Microsoft had broken down the patch into smaller components as opposed to one large patch," he said, "numerous businesses would have been able to protect themselves more readily against the Sasser worm and the global impact of the Sasser Worm would have been significantly reduced."

Posted by thinkum at 01:52 PM

Check out the invisibility cloak

Flying cars, transparent cloaks, technology which can read minds and games played by brain waves - the stuff of fiction, surely? Not so, these seemingly far-fetched inventions - and more - are now reality.

What lies beneath the cloak

For a vision of what the future holds, thousands of nay-sayers and believers alike have got an up close and personal glimpse at NextFest, an expo in San Francisco organised by the technology magazine, Wired.

"This is a city that is always looking at what is next," says editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. "We have brought the most innovative minds and extraordinary technologies from around the world and here is what's next. These are the things that will change the way we live and work and play in the future."

The 110 exhibitors were chosen from 2,500 research and development projects underway at universities and corporations worldwide.

Some showcase new thinking; others take an existing concept and turn it on its head, such as Brainball, a computer game in which being ferociously competitive is not on.

R-e-l-a-x to win at Brainball

Co-inventor Thomas Broome, of Sweden's Interactive Institute, says it's an anti-game.

"The more relaxed you are, the more you can get unconnected to your state of winning and wanting that you actually win this game. Brainball measures your alpha waves and the person who is the most relaxed can push the ball to the other side and win."

Among the game's fans are the musician Brian Eno, yoga gurus and children with attention deficit disorders.

Back to the future

The loudest "oohs" and "aahs" are prompted by a gleaming car that wouldn't look out of place on a lavish Hollywood film set.

Skycar's inventor behind the wheel

The levitating Skycar is the brainchild of Paul Moller, who has spent $200 million trying to get his invention airborne. The car needs 35 feet to take off, but thanks to its 770hp engine can climb at 6,400 feet a minute and reach speeds of 365mph.

"The head of NASA says that in 10 years, 25% of the American population will have access to the Skycar. And he also says that in 25 years 90% of people will be using them," Mr Moller told BBC News Online.

But would-be customers will need a chunk of change to hit the skyway. The initial cost is estimated to be about $500,000 - but with fuel consumption of 20 miles to the gallon, it's almost eco-friendly compared to gas-guzzling four-wheel drives.

For those keen to look as futuristic as their mode of transport, Nextfest showcases fabrics which the wearer can change by downloading patterns from the web, and outfits which monitor health and wellbeing.

"The era of wearable electronics for fashion and health is here," says Frederic Zenhausern, of the University of Arizona's Applied NanoBioscience Centre, who works with the Science Fashion Lab on such concepts.

On the catwalk, a model struts past in a biometric bodysuit which monitors vital signs and dispenses medicine, followed by a Gulf War veteran in a camouflage uniform kitted out with pathogen detectors, a micro-fuel cell and a GPS locator so his superiors can track his whereabouts.

On the battlefield, an invisibility cloak could be just the ticket. Straight out of a Harry Potter adventure, the cloak is covered with tiny light-reflective beads. It appears to be transparent as it's fitted with cameras which project what is in front of the wearer onto the back of the cloak, and vice versa.

The material can also cover objects, says Naoki Kawakami, of the University of Tokyo. "It could be used to help pilots see through the floor of the cockpit at a runway below, or for drivers trying to see through a fender to park a car."

Read minds to detect crime

Also showcased is brain fingerprinting, which aims to help those solving crimes or interrogating terror suspects. It reads minds by measuring brain waves and the responses that someone has to trigger words or images of a specific event.

Its inventor is neuroscientist Dr Lawrence Farwell, of the Brain Fingerprinting Lab, who has worked with the CIA and FBI.

The robot has proved to be a hit

"We need something that is humane, not harmful to the people who are being tested, which gives accurate and scientific results. Brain fingerprinting provides a very scientific solution to a very difficult problem, and that is determining who is a terrorist and who is not, who has committed a specific crime and who hasn't."

Another hit is Asimo, a humanoid robot which can walk, turn, climb up and down stairs - and even dance. Its maker, Honda, believes it will be a boon to the bed-ridden, infirm, elderly, blind and disabled.

Spokesman Jeffrey Smith says making the robot mimic human movement is deliberate. "Asimo was designed to be cute and friendly-looking because we believe that the robot's design may be key to human acceptance in society."

Judging by the enthusiastic response to the inventions on show, this acceptance will not be hard to come by.

Posted by thinkum at 01:50 PM

Geological time gets a new period

Geologists have added a new period to their official calendar of Earth's history - the first in 120 years.

The Ediacaran Period covers some 50 million years of ancient time on our planet from 600 million years ago to about 542 million years ago.

It officially becomes part of the Neoproterozoic, when multi-celled life forms started to take hold on Earth.

However, Russian geologists are unhappy their own title - the Vendian - which was coined in 1952, was not chosen.

The decision was taken after a fifteen-year long period of consideration by expert geologists.

"There's always been a recognition that the last part of the Precambrian is a special time before the first shelled animals, when there are these mesh-like creatures of uncertain affinity," Professor Jim Ogg, secretary-general of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), told BBC News Online.

"Now it's an official part of the timescale."

'Snowball' Earth

The Ediacaran begins at the end of the last ice age of the Snowball Earth, or Cryogenian Period, a term given to a series of glaciations that covered most of our planet between 850-630 or 600 million years ago.

One theory proposes that these climate shocks triggered the evolution of complex, multi-celled life.

The proposal had to pass three balloting stages, first by the members of the ICS's Terminal Proterozoic Period subcommission (which was set up specifically to consider the Ediacaran question), then by the ICS itself and finally by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) which ratified the definition in March.

At each stage, the vote had to be passed by two-thirds of the voting members.

However, Russian geologists are likely to continue to call the period by its alternative name: the Vendian.

In 1952, the Russian geologist Boris Sokolov coined the term Vendian for a system of sedimentary rocks in the former Soviet Union.

The two Russian members of the Terminal Proterozoic Period subcommission and Dr Sokolov submitted a formal comment expressing their disappointment at the decision to choose the Ediacaran over the Vendian.

"This decision ignores both the priority of the name Vendian and a long tradition to use this term in the international geological literature," Sokolov, Mikhail Semikhatov and Mikhail Fedonkin wrote in their comment.

The name Ediacaran takes its name from the Ediacara Hills in the Flinders mountain range of south Australia. The name is of Australian Aboriginal origin and refers to a place where water is present.

The Enorama Creek section of Flinders was designated the "boundary stratotype" for the Ediacaran by the Terminal Proterozoic Period subcommission.

A boundary stratotype is a rock sequence defined and used as the standard comparison for all other rock sequences of its age.

Posted by thinkum at 01:35 PM

In pictures: Faberge treasures

A collection of Faberge gems and nine Imperial Eggs has gone on show at the Kremlin Museum in Moscow. Russian industrialist Viktor Vekselberg bought them from the Forbes family in New York.

Posted by thinkum at 01:31 PM

Amateur rocket fired into space

An amateur unmanned rocket has been launched into space from the Nevada desert - the first time this has been achieved by a privately-built vehicle.

The Civilian Space eXploration Team's 6.5m (21ft) GoFast rocket is understood to have exceeded an altitude of 100km.

"It just roared off the pad and flew into space," said rocketeer and CSXT avionics manager Eric Knight.

The GoFast vehicle and its payload sent back signals from space before falling down to Earth for recovery.

'Fantastic achievement'

The sending of an amateur rocket and payload into space marks a significant milestone in the exploration of space.

The GoFast rocket - named after one of the project's sponsors - lifted off from the Black Rock Desert on Monday witnessed by officials from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

A 14-second burn allowed the rocket to reach an altitude of more than 100km - the official boundary of space - in about three minutes. It reportedly spent several minutes in space before beginning its descent.

The rocket and the payload came down on separate parachutes.

Eric Knight said the team had detected the payload's telemetry beacon but had not yet reached it.

British rocketeers have praised the triumph.

"It is a fantastic achievement," Richard Osborne, from the Mars rocketry group, told BBC News Online. "I have been in Nevada with them during their previous attempts. It is a very impressive team."

The achievement comes at a time when it is widely expected that the first private astronaut will go into space in the next few weeks.

Posted by thinkum at 01:28 PM

Computer Fonts

Came across an interesting site for fonts: DaFONT

Posted by thinkum at 11:55 AM

May 17, 2004

Rabbis spark wig burning rumpus

Orthodox Jews in New York and Israel have been burning wigs made of Indian human hair after rabbis ruled they may contravene religious law.

Hundreds gathered in the Brooklyn suburb of Williamsburg on Sunday to ignite a bonfire of more than 300 wigs.

Orthodox women often wear wigs because custom requires that they cover their own hair in public once married.

Indian wigs were declared non-kosher after Israeli rabbis discovered the hair was often cut at Hindu ceremonies.

Orthodox law forbids use of any items used in what they consider to be idol worship.

Last Wednesday, a revered Israeli Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, issued the ban on wigs made with the offending hair.

'100% kosher'

In Israel, lists were drawn up of places where banned wigs were sold and, in the religious city of Bnei Brak, some people gathered up offending wigs and cast them into fires, Haaretz newspaper reported.

Wig shops in New York City, with its large Orthodox Jewish community, are facing a similar concern.

Owners said frantic customers have been phoning to check where their wigs came from.

And some women have resorted to wearing less comfortable synthetic wigs or have adopted hats or hair nets.

But it is not merely religious concerns that are prompting the panic - human hair wigs can cost up to $1,000 and it could prove expensive if a woman finds her wig does not conform to the ruling.

Not taking any chances, Yaffa's Quality Wigs shop in New York left a recorded message on its phone, reassuring customers its wigs were "100% kosher".

Posted by thinkum at 02:39 PM

Self knowledge just a click away

Personality tests proliferate on the Web

How often do you balance your checkbook? What was your best subject in high school? If you were a dog, what breed would you be?

For seekers of self-knowledge, there's a plethora of online personality tests that will help gauge everything from weighty matters like what type of mate or career would be best for you, to more frivolous concerns such as whether your personality is more like that of a Golden Retriever or a Chihuahua.

This form of self-analysis is hardly new. For decades, people have taken tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, an assessment developed in the 1940s based on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung's theories about psychological type preferences.

Less scientific quizzes have long been the hallmarks of women's magazines like Cosmopolitan, whose current issue features the multiple-choice quiz "How Seductive Are You?" with questions such as "Do you dress to draw eyes to your cleavage?"

Some of the most popular online tests are found on dating sites like or The latter offers a personality assessment as well as a "physical attraction test" that involves the physical traits -- like height or hair color -- you find appealing in a potential partner.

Many of the basic tests are free, although you're likely to get a pitch to buy more detailed reports or to subscribe to a matchmaking service once you fill out a questionnaire., formerly known as, is one site that offers about 200 tests whose basic results are available at no charge. Among them is the popular "What Breed of Dog Are You?" quiz. Chihuahuas, for example, are considered energetic, devoted, saucy and intense.

The idea behind Tickle is to tap into people's favorite subject: "themselves," said company founder and Chief Executive James Currier.

"It does it in a way that's scientific, uses the best available research out there as well as makes it fun," he said.
Just for fun's free tests are designed mostly for entertainment. But the company charges $14.95 for a premium service featuring more in-depth, "PhD certified" tests on personality, careers and relationships that the company says are drawn from the latest psychological research. The Web site also offers a matchmaking system based on compatible traits, such as intelligence and values.

Karen Schaefer, 52, an artist in Charlottesville, Virginia, said she has taken many of the personality tests on simply out of curiosity.

She met her fiance, who also is from Charlottesville, through the Web site's matchmaking system last August, a relationship that began with the two discussing the personality tests they both took. They got engaged a couple of months later and plan to get married in October.

"I think if you answer the questions honestly, or you take a pretty good stab at it, you can find out as much about yourself that you didn't know as things you did," she said.

Not surprisingly, many experts are skeptical about whether there is any true insight to be gleaned from quizzes available on the Internet.

While answering the questions can be fun, users probably shouldn't rely too much on the scores because in most cases it's not clear how the quizzes are compiled or who is tabulating the results, said Carl Weinberg, a psychoanalyst in New York.
Instant gratification

People who use quizzes to find dates online also should beware that many respondents are likely to fib to make themselves appear more desirable, Weinberg said. But, he added, self-analysis over the Internet is symbolic of Americans' love of fast results.

"People are looking for a quick answer," he said.

As with many other things on the Web, people should be cautious about how much information they give out online, said Jason Catlett, president and founder of, a privacy advocacy Web site. But he said he had not heard of any instances of privacy breeches with online quizzes.

Most of the tests are innocuous, but some, like's "Are you Naughty or Nice?" asks questions about some serious matters such as whether respondents have ever shoplifted or used drugs.

Currier said the Web site closely guards customer privacy and does not give users' personal information to third parties.

Schaefer, who says she has no privacy worries about online tests, said she continues to take new quizzes, saying they are always teaching her new things about herself.

"They're fun," she said. "I love to do logic tests -- anything that makes me investigate myself a little more."

Posted by thinkum at 12:54 PM

Cannes applauds anti-Bush film

Michael Moore's controversial anti-Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11" has debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to resounding applause from film critics.

Moore, who is facing an uphill battle to get his movie into U.S. theaters this summer as planned, offers a relentless critique of the Bush administration both before and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"You see so many movies after they've been hyped to heaven and they turn out to be complete crap, but this is a powerful film," Baz Bamigboye, a film columnist for London's Daily Mail newspaper, told The Associated Press.

"It would be a shame if Americans didn't get to see this movie about important stuff happening in their own backyard."

Even Moore's skeptics seemed impressed.

"I have a problematic relationship with some of Michael Moore's work. There's no such job as a standup journalist," said James Rocchi, film critic for DVD rental company Netflix.

But Rocchi said "Fahrenheit 9/11" contains powerful segments about losses on both sides of the Iraq war and the grief of American and Iraqi families.

"This film is at its best when it is most direct and speaks from the heart, when it shows lives torn apart," Rocchi told AP.

The film links Bush with powerful Saudi families, including that of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

It also includes pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused, as well as grisly images of dead Iraqi babies and children burned by napalm along with maimed and injured U.S. soldiers.

The film takes its title from Ray Bradbury's novel "Fahrenheit 451," which refers to the temperature needed to burn books in an anti-Utopian society. Moore calls "Fahrenheit 9/11" the "temperature at which freedom burns."

Moore, who won an Academy Award for his film "Bowling for Columbine," is sill arranging for a U.S. distributor for "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Miramax financed the movie, but parent company Disney blocked the release because of its political overtones.

Miramax bosses Harvey and Bob Weinstein are working to buy back the film and find another distributor.

Outside the Cannes theater after the first "Fahrenheit 9/11" screenings, reporters asked Harvey Weinstein if the film would be released in the United States. Weinstein responded, "Have I ever let you down?"

Last week, Moore accused the Walt Disney Company of stifling free speech by blocking the distribution of his film.

Moore told CNN that Disney had said they did not want to upset the Bush family because of the risk of jeopardizing "tens of millions of dollars" in tax incentives.

The New York Times reported that Disney executives denied the allegation. One unnamed executive told the paper it did not want to be seen taking sides in the forthcoming U.S. election and risk alienating customers of different political views.

"We just chose not to be involved," Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner said.

Moore said media companies such as Disney must allow all voices to be heard.

"We live in a free and open society where dissent is not to be stifled or silenced. They have violated that trust," he said.

"We have only got a few studios left and if we get to a point where they can decide that only these voices can be heard, how free and open is our society at that point?"

Posted by thinkum at 12:53 PM

Travel for tall people improves

Some business travelers have to put up with a lot more than others. We are talking here about tall people.

Take California publisher Everard Strong. At 6-feet 9-inches, he has had his fill of shrunken hotel room beds, leg-twisting airline seats and rental cars fit for, by comparison anyway, the diminutive.

But he also reports there are signs that some segments of the travel industry are beginning to address the problem.

Strong is the publisher of TALL Magazine, now in its second issue and in national distribution. The "lifestyle magazine for a heightened culture" specializes in unique problems faced by tall people, and carries advertising for products and services related to that community.

"I freak out ... start to get nervous whenever I have to take a flight," Strong said. "I want to be at the airport two and a half hours before the flight so I can guarantee a bulkhead or exit seat, even if it's a short flight," he said.

Tightened airport security measures have made that quest all the harder, he said, and getting to the airport early these days doesn't guarantee a comfortable seat.

"And when you check into a hotel or motel, it's always a crap shoot," Strong said, with anything smaller than a queen-sized bed guaranteeing a legs-over-the-edge night. He also tries to collect upgrade coupons for car rentals to ensure a more comfortable ride.

His troubles even extend to public transit. If he does not get a seat he can't stand up straight when using the San Francisco area's BART rapid transit system, he says.

The current issue of his magazine carries a report on the topic within the hospitality industry, where there are some signs of good news.

The Hotel Monaco group -- with properties in New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C. and Seattle - has offered "tall guestrooms" for some time. These rooms -- ranging in number from seven to 25 per property -- feature extra-high ceilings, beds that are 96 inches (243 cm) long, and raised showerheads in the bathrooms. There is no extra charge.

The hotels plan to add higher doorframes, raised vanities and toilets, longer bathrobes and in-room information on local tall clothing stores.

The Palms Casino in Las Vegas has 22 "NBA Suites" featuring doors that top out at 8 feet (2.43 metres) and beds that long, ceilings that are 10 feet (3.04 metres), and shower heads at 7 feet (2.13 metres). Other furniture in the rooms is also built especially to accommodate the tall.

Designed for use by professional basketball players by the family which owns both the casino and the Sacramento Kings franchise, the penthouse suites may be booked by anyone upon request, as long as they are available, a spokeswoman for the property said. The cost is $400 on weeknights, more for weekends.

Strong says the lodging industry in some cases fails to recognize the needs of tall people when they arrive at the front desk by not offering them an upgrade to a larger space.

TALL magazine "is something that's been on my mind for four or five years. I've been involved in magazine publishing for eight or nine years. I love the industry and was always wondering and hoping some publication would come to serve the tall community," he said.

"So I decided to combine my interests," Strong said. "There are a lot of products and services. We're not short on any material in the immediate future."

Nor does there appear to be a shortage of potential readers. Average U.S. heights have been gradually creeping up for decades, a trend seen in many parts of the world. There are now 8.8 million men over 6-feet 2-inches and 5.5 million women over 5-feet 9-inches in the United States.

Posted by thinkum at 12:52 PM

NASA's finances 'in disarray'

NASA's finances are in disarray, with significant errors in its last financial statements and inadequate documentation for $565 billion posted to its accounts, its former auditor reported.

The U.S. space agency's chief for internal financial management said the problem stemmed from a rough transition from 10 different internal accounting programs to a new integrated one.

But audit firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers noted basic accounting errors and a breakdown in NASA's financial controls.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers and NASA parted ways earlier this year, according to the space agency's inspector general, Robert Cobb.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers declined to comment, but a source familiar with the situation said the audit firm opted out of the contract because it was unhappy with the relationship.

In a scathing report on NASA's September 30, 2003, financial statement -- which got scant attention at its release but was detailed in a cover story in the May issue of CFO Magazine -- the audit firm accused the space agency of one of the cardinal sins of the accounting world: failing to record its own costs properly.

The same report said the transition to the new accounting program triggered a series of blunders that made completing the NASA audit impossible.

There were hundreds of millions of dollars of "unreconciled" funds and a $2 billion difference between what NASA said it had and what was actually in its accounts, which are held by the Treasury Department, PriceWaterhouseCoopers said in its report.
$565 billion

"The documentation NASA provided in support of its September 30, 2003, financial statements was not adequate to support $565 billion in adjustments to various financial statement accounts," the auditor wrote in a January 20 report to Cobb, NASA's inspector general.

It also noted "significant errors" in financial statements provided by NASA.

That big number -- $565 billion, with a "B" -- was the result of posting problems, new software and a "massive cleanup" of 12 years of NASA's financial records, said Patrick Ciganer, NASA's chief for integrated financial management.

Under the new system, Ciganer said in a telephone interview, errors that were discovered in the transition could show up multiple times in the accounting process: once as an erroneous credit in one column, then as a debit to delete the error, then as a credit in the correct column.

By this reckoning, a $40 billion contract that stretched over nine years and several separate NASA centers generated $120 billion worth of entries, and these were turned over to the auditors.

"They have weak controls and problems with their internal system and that would make them vulnerable to (financial) fraud, although we don't have that evidence yet," said Gregory Kutz, a director in the General Accounting Office, which is looking into NASA's accounting issues. A Senate hearing on the issue was set for Wednesday.

With a current annual budget of $16.2 billion, NASA's priorities include an ambitious multi-year mission to the moon and possibly Mars, finishing construction on the International Space Station and returning the grounded shuttle fleet to flight after the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The independent investigation of the Columbia accident, in which seven astronauts died, found NASA's culture at fault. The same spirit that fueled the early boom in space exploration in the 1950s evolved into separate parts of a sprawling agency working independently rather than cooperatively.

The same independent path extends to NASA's financial accounting, Cobb said.

"You've got an environment at the agency where there are these 10 centers which pride themselves on their independence ... and it becomes very difficult in connection with any of NASA's functional management responsibilities to have people kowtow to the folks at (NASA) headquarters who have the responsibility to pull it all together," Cobb said.

Cinager said he was hopeful that NASA's culture would change, noting a new "willingness of all of the constituencies in the agency to introspectively look at how can they improve the way they are doing their specific duties."

But Shyam Sundar, a professor in accounting with Yale School of Management, described the event as "a big mess," after seeing the auditor's report.

"If NASA would have been a public company, the management would have been fired by now," he said.

Posted by thinkum at 12:50 PM

Weather may explain Mexico UFO stir

A cluster of mysterious objects that surrounded a Mexican Air Force plane, alarming the pilots and sparking a UFO scare, could be a weather phenomenon known as ball lightning, a scientist said on Friday.

Unidentified lights appear on video taken by Mexican Air Force pilots.

The pilots grew nervous during a routine drugs surveillance flight in March when their radar detected strange objects flying nearby and an infrared camera showed 11 blobs of light, invisible to the eye, hovering or darting about their plane.

Mexico's Air Force this week released footage from the infrared camera that was shown widely on television.

As Mexican and international media published photographs of the objects, UFO Web sites saw the case as possible evidence of a new sighting of some form of extraterrestrial life.

But nuclear science researcher Julio Herrera said the blobs of light may have been nothing more than ball lightning -- glowing spheres that are little understood but often sighted near the ground during thunderstorms.

"Just as you have lightning between clouds and ground, you can also have it within the clouds and sometimes ball lightning can develop. I feel this is one of these rare events," said Herrera, based at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

"It's a very rare atmospheric phenomenon and it would be very interesting to be able to analyze all the information these pilots obtained," he told Reuters.

UFO follower Jaime Maussan said on Tuesday the objects seemed "intelligent" after they turned around to surround the plane chasing them -- but Herrera said electrical discharges in ball lightning could have been attracted to the plane as a conductor.

Posted by thinkum at 12:49 PM

Pricey omelet costs $1,000

It's not made of gold -- just eggs, lobster, caviar and a few trimmings. But an omelet on the menu of a swanky Manhattan hotel will set you back $1,000, plus tip.

"I couldn't believe it was the price when I first saw '1,000' on the menu. I thought it was the calorie count," Virginia Marnell, a customer at Norma's restaurant in Le Parker Meridien hotel on West 57th Street, told the Daily News for Monday editions.

The omelet, which debuted May 5 and is billed as the "Zillion Dollar Frittata," has six eggs, a lobster and -- here's the kicker -- 10 ounces of sevruga caviar.

The restaurant pays $65 an ounce for the caviar, according to Norma's general manager, Steven Pipes.

"Since we knew it was going to be a very expensive dish, we decided to have some fun with it," Pipes told the News. "It's not just a gimmick, though. It tastes good."

Beside the omelet's entry in the menu is the following message: "Norma dares you to expense this."

No one has ordered it yet.

A "budget" version of the omelet, containing only one ounce of caviar, sells for $100.

Posted by thinkum at 12:46 PM

While You Were Out ?

Even on Vacation, Americans Find Ways to Work

Marty Kotis insists upon taking a vacation every year ? if you can call it that.

Kotis, who owns a real estate development company in Greensboro, N.C., remains accessible to his office staff via one of two cellphones, personal digital assistant, and laptop computer. He even checked in with his office twice a day while honeymooning in France.

"For me, knowing that I'm accessible takes away stress," Kotis says. "Otherwise I would worry that something major could go wrong and I wouldn't know about it or be able to fix it."

Technology Altering Idea of ?Vacation?

While vacations were once treasured as a time to get away from the daily grind, more people today are settling for working vacations. In fact, working vacations are becoming chic, according to Lee Hecht Harrison, a global career management services company.

"People who deferred vacations during the depths of the recession for fear of seeming dispensable will finally take the time off that they're due," says Bernadette Kenny, the company's executive vice president. "But the lines between vacation and work will be increasingly blurred. Inexpensive cellphone plans and widespread Internet access have made checking in on the office and fielding pressing problems more commonplace."

A recent American Management Association survey confirms Kenny's prediction: one quarter of those surveyed claimed they would be in daily contact with their offices during vacation. Also, 40 percent planned to conduct some office-related work, and 44 percent were required to provide their offices with their itineraries and/or contact phone numbers while on vacation.

Still, there are some folks who refuse to be bothered during their annual sabbatical. Shel Horowitz, of Northampton, Mass., for one, believes in bona fide vacations. "Time off from work is truly important," says Horowitz, a communications consultant. "I learned that the hard way when my business was new and I worked a full month without a break. I was a mess by the end and I vowed never to let that happen again."

That was 21 years ago and Horowitz has kept that promise to his family and himself. In fact, he doesn't even work on weekends.

The need for a break is undeniable for anyone working a high-stress job, says Nancy Rosenburg, author of Outwitting Stress.

"Just because your body is in a new, relaxing, exotic locale doesn't mean a vacation is at hand," Rosenburg says. "In fact, the time away, spent loosely tethered to the office via phone, fax, and e-mail, can be even more stressful than actually being there in the office."

There are two clear responses to the working vacation dilemma, says Kurt Sandholtz, principal of the Extraordinary Performance Group Inc., a management-consulting firm in Orem, Utah. These responses fit into personality types described as "alternaters" and "bundlers."

"Alternaters prefer to focus on one thing at a time. They need vacations to be a clean break from work and get frustrated when an employer tries to encroach on their personal away time," says Sandholtz, coauthor of Beyond Juggling, a 2002 book on work-life balance. "Bundlers enjoy combining activities in a meaningful way. These are people who love making family vacations out of business trips, and seem to move between the two domains with ease."

No Rest for the Rest

So while Horowitz could be termed an alternater, Ken Capps, vice president of public affairs for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, is more accurately labeled a bundler.

Capps recently returned from a vacation in Hawaii. He schlepped along his laptop, cellphone, and Blackberry, checking e-mails and telephone messages regularly. He found it relaxing to drink coffee and check e-mail while his kids did belly flops in the hotel pool.

"I want to make sure that I can put out any fires that don't need to be burning while I am on vacation," he says. "It gives peace of mind knowing that everything is under control rather than showing up to the office after vacation to a crisis."

Clearly, carrying on business while away is not what was originally intended by the concept of a vacation, says Neil Martin, a labor and employment partner at the law firm Gardere Wynne Sewell in Houston. But the current thinking is that employees shouldn't let the time off become its own source of pressure as they try to play catch-up upon returning from a Detroit or Disneyland trip. "When business demands create the expectation that a worker on vacation will have time to handle a few matters while sunning on the beach, the saying, 'The best never rest' should apparently be changed to, 'The rest never rest,' " Martin says.

Thou Shalt Relax?

But Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist in New York, says working vacations display a healthy confidence in co-workers as team members who are willing to cover for one another to accommodate breaks that help prevent burnout.

"Individuals who trust their teammates will also feel more comfortable taking a vacation without being worried that Machiavellian scheming will take place in their absence," Dattner says. "Ultimately, employees should decide for themselves what is most necessary for their own peace of mind. Being commanded 'Thou shalt relax' by others can actually be quite stressful. Jay Leno hasn't taken a vacation in over 20 years, and he seems pretty happy with his career."

Posted by thinkum at 12:43 PM

Uproar as gondoliers 'cut up' their boats

Venice's gondoliers are being told to stop cutting off the tail end of their boats in a bid to help them squeeze under the city's bridges.

High tides, said to be the result of global warning and heavy rains, have prompted some boatmen to chop off their gondola's distinctive iron "risso", mounted on the stern.

The double-s shaped decoration is said to represent the curves of the city's Grand Canal.

At least 20 out of Venice's 400 gondoliers are reported to have modified their boats, despite the strict regulations that cover the vessels' shape and construction.

Tourism at risk

The change has angered traditionalists who have called it a "barbaric act".

Franco Vianello Moro, president of Ente Gondola, the boatmen's governing body, said gondoliers were mutilating their boats and putting the city's tourist industry at risk.

He said some gondoliers no longer knew how to manoeuvre their boats.

Venice's Institute for the Conservation of Gondolas, which regulates the industry, is now warning boatmen that they have until 30 June to restore the gondolas to their original state.

In a letter to the city's gondola stations to be sent out on Monday, the Institute has put forward a compromise deal.

Gondoliers are being advised they can customise their boats to allow the risso to be lowered before difficult bridges.

"You cannot just wake up one morning and decide to cut off part of your gondola," a spokesman for the Institute told BBC News Online.

"Even though some will not like this, we hope they will understand," he added.


Interesting trivia:

The gondola " is asymmetric, as its left side is larger than the right one by 24 cm and so it always navigates inclined on one side. It has its bottom flat; this allows it to cross even depth of few cm. For its construction they are used 8 different kinds of wood and it is composed of 280 pieces. The only elements in metal are the characteristic 'iron' of the head and the 'risso' of the stern."

(excerpted from Institute for the Conservation of Gondolas)

Posted by thinkum at 10:59 AM

May 16, 2004

Top 11 Things Found in the Microsoft Cafeteria

11. Age of Entrées
10. Lunch Service Pack (fixes lack of butter in mashed potatoes and leak in drinking glass)
9. IISed Tea
8. Blue Screen of Death By Chocolate Cake
7. Fat16-Free Mayo
6. Zoo Tycoon Wild Game Appetizer Sampler
5. Outlook Espresso
4. Imitation Apple Pie
3. Patch Cobbler
2. Hotmail waiters
1. Steve-ish MeatBallmers

(BBSpot Article)

Posted by thinkum at 11:41 AM

May 15, 2004

US Presidential election info

The Canadian Broadcasting Company has posted an interesting collection of material on the US Presidential elections.

Posted by thinkum at 11:16 AM

Court rejects teens' appeal to lower voting age

Two Edmonton teenagers have lost another battle to lower the legal voting age.

Christine Jairamsingh, 19, and Eryn Fitzgerald, 18, started their campaign while they were still in high school. At the time, they fought for the right for young people to cast ballots in a civic election, but lost.

On Thursday, three judges with the Alberta Court of Appeal put another damper on their fight when they upheld an earlier judgment that a youth's right to vote is not guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In 2002, Justice Erik Lefsrud of the Court of Queen's Bench agreed in principle that voting-age limits violate democratic and equality rights under the charter. But Lefsrud said the infringements are justified because they maintain the integrity of the electoral system.

Jairamsingh and Fitzgerald said they are doing this because there are close to one million 16- and 17-year-old Canadians who are being denied a fundamental democratic right.

The two women, who start university next September, are trying to decide whether they want to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Only 22.4 per cent of people between 18 and 20 voted in the 2000 federal election according to an Elections Canada study.

This year Elections Canada started a program that invites high school students to track the federal election by casting proxy votes in their schools.

Posted by thinkum at 11:11 AM

Australian weds Danish prince

Tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Copenhagen Friday as Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark married Mary Donaldson, the first Australian to stand in line for a ruling throne.

An estimated 250,000 people, many waving Danish and Australian flags, cheered as the procession of black, vintage Rolls-Royces wound through the streets of the capital.

Security was intense along the three-kilometre parade route, with 1,300 uniformed police officers, army ambulances and police helicopters keeping watch.

Wearing an ivory satin gown and an antique lace-trimmed veil, the bride was accompanied down the aisle of Copenhagen's Our Lady Lutheran Cathedral by her father, who wore a kilt to mark his Scottish heritage.

A 32-year-old marketing executive and law graduate, Donaldson is the first Australian to stand in line for a reigning throne. She met the prince, who is next in line for the Danish throne, at a bar during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

She had to give up her Australian citizenship, convert to the Lutheran Church and learn the Danish language to marry the prince.

Britain's Prince Edward and his wife Sophie attended the wedding, along with royalty from Sweden, Japan, Belgium, Thailand, Monaco and Spain.

Denmark is Europe's oldest monarchy and the royal family enjoys strong support among Danes.


Posted by thinkum at 11:10 AM

Danes cheer as prince weds Aussie

Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik has married 32-year-old Australian businesswoman Mary Donaldson in a ceremony attended by hundreds of the world's royals.

The couple exchanged vows at the city's Lutheran Cathedral in front of 800 people including film star Sir Roger Moore and the crown princes and princesses of Spain, Norway and Sweden.

Amid unprecedented security in the Danish capital, the guests filed into the 175-year-old church on Friday, stopping to wave to onlookers and TV cameras.

The couple affirmed their wedding vows twice, a Danish Lutheran wedding tradition.

"Since you have promised one another that you will live together in marriage and have now confirmed before God, and before us who are present, I declare you to be man and wife before God and all of mankind," Lutheran Bishop Erik Norman Svendsen said.

Then Frederik kissed his bride, the first time they have done so in public.

The royal wedding marks the conclusion of something of a modern fairy tale after almost four years of courtship since the couple first met at a bar during the Sydney Olympics.

Donaldson is the first Australian to join a European royal family and when Frederik's 64-year old mother, Queen Margrethe, dies she will become Queen Mary and her husband Frederik X, King of Denmark.

Donaldson loses her Australian citizenship and becomes a Dane by marrying Frederik -- who was once considered Europe's most eligible bachelor.

From Copenhagen to Sydney, the wedding was broadcast live around the world and police in the Danish capital said 250,000 people lined the route of the royal motorcade to catch their glimpse of the newly-weds' horse-drawn carriage.

A massive security operation -- the biggest in Denmark's modern history -- was in place for the wedding with a third of the nation's 10,000-strong police force on duty and the guest list kept secret until the last minute.

Royal wedding fever had gripped the country with celebrations beginning over a week ago and including military parades, receptions and banquets, rock concerts and other parties.

But celebrations were not confined to Denmark, with Australians apparently delighted one of their own is marrying into Europe's oldest royal family.

Danish media report that sales of flat-screen televisions soared in the run-up to the wedding, while there has been an increased demand for Australian products including wine, cheese, Tim Tam biscuits and Vegemite.

The nation has been obsessed with the couple since rumors of their relationship begun despite the couple doing their best to keep it secret.

For 12 months the relationship was kept out of the spotlight, with Frederick taking secret visits to Australia. Towards the end of 2001, the couple agreed that Donaldson should move to Paris. She then moved to Copenhagen in early 2003.

Then, after months of speculation, the royal palace confirmed the romance and the couple announced their engagement in October.


Posted by thinkum at 11:07 AM

Moose calls mark Newfoundland anniversary

Newfoundland is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its most famous "come from away": the moose.

On May 14, 1904, four of the animals were introduced from New Brunswick and released at Howley, on Newfoundland's west coast. The moose were brought as a source of meat.

Now with an estimated 120,000 moose on the island, there are more moose in Newfoundland than people in St. John's. The animals have made their home in the woods and even backyards of the province.

"It's a big thing as far as we're concerned because look at how they multiplied and made meals for many, many people," said Jean Kelly of Howley.

Kelly is helping to organize a celebration for the moose, including a new moose statue that will be unveiled in July where the first moose stepped onto the island.

About 20 kilometres away in Reidville, farmer Gerard Beaulieu practises his moose call and proudly displays the head and antlers of the largest moose hunted in Newfoundland.

Beaulieu is pleased the animals have made the province their home but he admits they've been a nuisance at times, eating his strawberries, and plucking cherries, plums and apples from his trees.

"They're not only a nuisance, they're a threat," said RCMP Cpl. Peter Cornick, who patrols the Trans-Canada Highway. "People have struck these moose with their cars and we've had people killed because of it."

Cornick said he loves a moose dinner and like many islanders, he has a soft spot for the gentle giants.

Posted by thinkum at 11:02 AM

Supreme Court Won't Block Gay Marriages

Supreme Court Refuses to Block State-Sanctioned Gay Marriages Set to Take Place in Mass.

WASHINGTON May 14, 2004 — The Supreme Court refused Friday to block the nation's first state-sanctioned gay marriages from taking place next week.

The justices declined without comment to intervene and block clerks from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in Massachusetts. That state's highest court had ruled in November that the state Constitution allows gay couples to marry, and declared that the process would begin on Monday.

The Supreme Court's decision, in an emergency appeal filed Friday by gay marriage opponents, does not address the merits of the claim that the state Supreme Judicial Court overstepped its bounds with the landmark decision.

A stay had been sought by a coalition of state lawmakers and conservative activists.

A federal judge ruled against them on Thursday, and the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision on Friday, setting up the Supreme Court appeal. The appeals court agreed to hear arguments on the request to bar same-sex unions in June, after several weeks of legal gay marriages.

The stay request had been filed with Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a Massachusetts native who handles appeals from the region. He referred the matter to the full nine-member court.

Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, had told justices in a filing that they were not asking the Supreme Court "to take any position on the highly politicized and personally charged issue of same-sex marriage."

Instead, Staver wrote, they wanted the court to consider whether the Massachusetts judges wrongly redefined marriage. That task should be handled by elected legislators, he said.

In the Supreme Court's last ruling involving gay rights, justices ruled last year that states may not punish gay couples for having sex. In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia complained that the court "has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda" and was inviting same-sex marriage.

Posted by thinkum at 10:56 AM

May 14, 2004

Daughter inspires funky wheelchair

A man whose company specialises in aircraft technology has just launched a 'designer' wheelchair that was originally made for his daughter.

Richard Smith was so frustrated by the lack of suitable wheelchairs that he decided that he could do a better job himself.

"A lot of companies aren't prepared to put in much production investment, but I also think there's a lack of imagination," Mr Smith told BBC News Online.

Mr Smith, from Leominster, Herefordshire, hired two graduates in industrial design and worked with them to produce the Chunc.

"I started working on this three years ago, when Sophie, who was then 12, started to have to use a much bigger wheelchair.

"And I frankly found the products that she was using too heavy, too cumbersome, not really fit for the purpose and quite stigmatising as well."

The Chunc is on show at Naidex 2004 - an exhibition of products for disabled people - at the NEC in Birmingham.

Growing chair

The HR Smith Group has come up with a wheelchair that uses bold colours and lightweight composite materials resulting in something that has a similar appeal to a Swatch, a Smart Car or a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

"All the parts are individually designed even down to the nuts and bolts, so when you put it together you have a wheelchair that actually looks as though someone's thought about it," said Mr Smith.

The chair is designed to 'grow' with the user, and will require periodical adjustments as the child develops.

It folds so that it can be carried in the boot of a family hatchback.

The Chunc has been crash-tested for people weighing up to 54kg and has just been put on the NHS list of approved wheelchairs.

Buying it privately would cost around £1500.

The next stage, according to Richard Smith, will be to refine the design and increase the maximum weight to 75kg.

"We're hoping to complete that work next year," he said.

Asked whether he has his sights on other areas of the disability market, Mr Smith said a lot of interest has been expressed in a powered version of the Chunc.

"Let's get this one right first though, and supply all of those people who've expressed an interest."

chunc1.jpg chunc2.jpg

Posted by thinkum at 02:47 PM

Berg video website shut down

The internet website that first posted video footage of an American contractor being beheaded in Iraq has been closed.

The Malaysian server for the site said it took action after the huge numbers of people trying to view the video overloaded its systems.

The company said it had been unaware of the site's contents, but would have acted sooner if it had known.

The graphic images of 26-year-old Nicholas Berg's death prompted shock and outrage the world over.

They also prompted thousands upon thousands of people to log on to the internet so they could see for themselves the entire event in all its horror.

The video was stored on a computer server belonging to a Malaysian web hosting company, Acme Commerce Sendirian Berhad.

The server had been leased to the creators of the site, They first put the film on the net, and are thought to have links to al-Qaeda.

Acme Commerce's business manager told the BBC that the volume of traffic to that one address was so great that it jammed connections to hundreds of other servers operated by the company.

Though the decision to close the website was a technical one, he said the company would have acted earlier on moral grounds if it had known the site's contents.

He said Acme had no wish to be associated with any group which had possible al-Qaeda connections, or which distributed such gruesome pictures.

Malaysia's opposition leader has called for an investigation into the possibility that the country is hosting what he called a "master network of international terrorist websites".

Posted by thinkum at 02:44 PM

US moves to ban furtive photos

The US has moved a step closer towards imposing controls on camera phones.

A bill banning so-called up-skirt photos and other forms of voyeurism has made further progress through the political machinery in Washington.

It would make the taking of covert photos in places like locker rooms or bedrooms a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and fines.

The popularity of small mobiles with cameras has made it much easier to take illicit photos without permission.

Privacy concerns

National governments, local authorities and some businesses are starting to restrict the places these devices can be used due to privacy fears.

In the US, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee has unanimously voted to support the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act.

The bill was passed by the Senate last September and now goes to the House of Representatives, which is expected to follow suit.

"This bill targets the pernicious practice of invading a person's privacy through the surreptitious use of hidden or concealed surveillance equipment," said Republican Representative Howard Coble.

There have been cases around the world of people using camera phones to take illicit photographs and more public places are moving to ban their use.

In Japan, some fitness centres ban the use of camera phones and the Italian information commissioner has issued guidelines on where and how such phones can be used.

In the UK, several councils have taken action to stop such phones being used in schools, leisure centres and swimming pools.

Posted by thinkum at 02:43 PM

Physicists probe ancient pyramid

The largest particle detector in Mexico is being built inside a pyramid in the ancient settlement of Teotihuacan.

The equipment will detect muons, tiny particles that are created when cosmic rays bombard the Earth's atmosphere.

Dr Arturo Menchaca and colleagues from Mexico's National Autonomous University hope that by tracking the muons through the pyramid, they can find cavities.

This could indicate whether the kings of the ancient people who built the site are also entombed within it.

Yellow spikes

"Down we go - and mind your head," Dr Menchaca says, as he adjusts his yellow hard-hat, and lowers himself down the rusting iron steps in to a dark 2,000-year-old tunnel running beneath the Pyramid of the Sun.

It is a 100m walk along the cramped tunnel to the team's new laboratory, a plastic shed set up in a cavern in the bowels of the structure.

Above, many thousands of tonnes of rock and earth silently press down.

The experiment is costing half a million dollars. At the moment, it resembles a large, flat metal plate, connected to a box of wires with a monitor displaying a flickering yellow line.

This is the machine that tracks the muons, sub-atomic debris left over when cosmic rays smash into molecules in the Earth's atmosphere.

They travel at near the speed of light and pass through solid objects, leaving tiny traces. When a muon hits the receptor, the yellow line leaps up and down in spikes.

Possible burials

"The idea is to try to discover density variations in the pyramid," Dr Menchaca told BBC News Online.

"In order to do that you either need to drill holes, or find something that goes across your volume.

"These cosmic rays are very penetrating radiation. Some of them go through this pyramid, and some of them are absorbed.

"The amount which is absorbed depends on the material which it finds. If we find more muons than we expect, then there is less matter in that part of the pyramid".

Less matter could indicate the cavity of a burial chamber.

This experiment taking place beneath the Pyramid of the Sun is already attracting the attention of the nation.

Urban centre

Leading daily newspaper El Universal's cultural editor, Maria Elena Matadama, believes that it will take our understanding beyond the realms of Indiana-Jones-type speculation.

"It's very important because Mexicans today see these old sites as dead cities - just as mountains of stone," she said.

"Everyone climbs up and down the pyramids without understanding what happened there. We must understand that they were cities - like the city of Mexico."

In the humid cavern, all around are traces of this early civilisation, known locally as the Teotihuacans.

Not much is known about them apart from that they inhabited this site around 700 years before the Aztecs.

The city they built here was once the largest metropolis in the Americas. It rose and fell around the same time as ancient Rome.

Touching the past

Dr Arnulfo Martinez is thrilled to be involved in an experiment which is crossing the boundaries between physics and archaeology.

He points at one rocky wall. "You see this? This is original plaster - you can see the fingerprints of the people who layered it there.

"What's exciting is that we are using cosmic debris to uncover an ancient Mexican mystery.

"The building of this place is very linked to who we are. What's important is that people get excited about science because of these kinds of projects."

It will take more than a year before any tangible results are obtained.

But then Teotihuacan, the "City of the Gods", has kept its secrets for more than two millennia. The world will have to wait just a little bit longer.

Posted by thinkum at 02:42 PM

In cyberspace, can anyone hear you pray?

Churches are having to use their imagination to attract new members. The 3D virtual-reality Church of Fools is just one idea, but does it have any chance of building a congregation?

As I took my pew, I noticed that not only was the guy next to me wearing the same clothes as me, but we had the same heads on as well. A true 21st Century faux pas.

Before you can go into the virtual church, you must choose what your character looks like. This being the first service, options are still limited - hence the coincidence of two people who fancied quiffs and baby blue Argyle jumpers.

Going into this online chapel is a little like playing a computer game - you use your mouse to indicate where you want to walk, you right-click for options such as kneeling, and your typed words appear in speech bubbles on the screen.

But while it may initially feel like a game, it is far more important than that to its creators, the Christian website Ship of Fools, and its sponsor, the Methodist Church.

It is a recognition that relying on traditional ways of attracting congregations is risky. Unless methods can be found of reaching out to new people, the fear for churches is that one day they will simply cease to exist.

The thinking is that some people may be more prepared to wander into a website than a church on the corner of the street. But for the project to be a success virtual worshippers will need to feel as if they have actually been to a service. So how does Church of Fools measure up?


It doesn't take many seconds from sitting down next to my new identical twin to realise that behind every character is a real person, on their computer somewhere in the world, all come to the same place for the same reason.

The launch is at the Sandown racecourse, as part of the Christian Resources Exhibition, but people are taking part from Birmingham, Bradford, France, Perth and New Hampshire. Most characters decide to sit in the pews - but a newbie from Wapping, who is getting used to the controls, climbs the pulpit - quite against protocol.

Among the others there does seem to be a strange feeling of reverence, not very different from the moments before a normal church service starts. "Babybear", sitting near my character, whispers on screen: "I'm physically in North Wales at the moment, but it's odd, I already feel like I'm in church."

You could easily make your character stand and shout something - just as you could in a real church - but the reserve which would prevent you from doing this in real life translates perfectly, even though people don't actually know who you are. Peer pressure works online.


Then the minister and a character looking very like the Bishop of London walk in - the bishop character is being played by the real bishop, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, who is in another office at the racecourse.

At that moment, just as he is walking towards the altar, the minister disappears. His computer, on his desk at St John's College in York, has crashed and his character is lost in cyberspace. The bishop carries on alone, and his character walks to the front of the church where he starts to preach.

A latecomer arrives and sits down. From the row behind me, someone starts talking - their words again appearing in speech bubbles. In real life I would need a ridiculous level of provocation before confronting someone, but here it is weirdly distracting and I feel no worries about telling them to shush.

The bishop starts to preach - his words appearing above his character in the pulpit. He says this new venture is like Jesus telling Simon Peter to "put out into the deep and let down our nets for a catch" - an act of faith, the rewards of which are not yet known.

And then a new character enters the church and starts swearing, accusing the worshippers of the kind of activities forbidden by Leviticus.

Real life churches often have troublemakers too - but the virtual world has an easier way of dealing with them. The moderator has the option to "smite", ejecting anyone not entering into the spirit. Peter Tatchell, who famously protested from George Carey's pulpit on Easter Day 1998, would stand no chance.


When Bishop Chartres announces the Lord's Prayer, everyone in the church starts typing it, some in traditional form, some modern, some in French some in Latin. Although it feels slightly daft, suddenly any notion that this is a game is gone. These people are praying together, and that is as real as if they were standing in the same room. That they are in a dozen different towns and countries seems a trifling matter.

The Reverend Jonathan Kerry of the Methodist Church says this experiment may teach the real churches something about what newcomers expect from them. In any case, there is no reason why churches should not go online - people comfortably conduct a large part of their lives on the web, so why shouldn't they go to church there too?

For Bishop Chartres, going online cannot be a complete substitute. "I think the more you live through the screen, the more you need face-to-face real time interaction," he said after the virtual service had ended. But whether this is a taste of the future or just an experiment, something about it felt real.

What better evidence could you need than one character asking, after the service had ended: "Right, can we get a cup of coffee now?"

Posted by thinkum at 02:40 PM

Library of Alexandria discovered

Archaeologists have found what they believe to be the site of the Library of Alexandria, often described as the world's first major seat of learning.

A Polish-Egyptian team has excavated parts of the Bruchion region of the Mediterranean city and discovered what look like lecture halls or auditoria.

Two thousand years ago, the library housed works by the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world.

Works by Plato and Socrates and many others were later destroyed in a fire.

Oldest University

Announcing their discovery at a conference being held at the University of California, Zahi Hawass, president of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that the 13 lecture halls uncovered could house as many as 5,000 students in total.

A conspicuous feature of the rooms, he said, was a central elevated podium for the lecturer to stand on.

"It is the first time ever that such a complex of lecture halls has been uncovered on any Greco-Roman site in the whole Mediterranean area," he added.

"It is perhaps the oldest university in the world."

Professor Wileke Wendrich, of the University of California, told BBC News Online that the discovery was incredibly impressive.

Alexandria was a major seat of learning in ancient times and regarded by some as the birthplace of western science.

Birthplace of geometry

It was a tiny fishing village on the Nile delta called Rhakotis when Alexander the Great chose it as the site of the new capital of his empire.

It was made Egypt's capital in 320 BC and soon became the most powerful and influential city in the region.

Its rulers built a massive lighthouse at Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the famed Library of Alexandria.

It was at the library that Archimedes invented the screw-shaped water pump that is still in use today.

At Alexandria Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth, and Euclid discovered the rules of geometry.

Ptolemy wrote the Almagest at Alexandria. It was the most influential scientific book about the nature of the Universe for 1,500 years.

The library was later destroyed, possibly by Julius Caesar who had it burned as part of his campaign to conquer the city.

Posted by thinkum at 02:39 PM

Empathy finding offers autism hope

Having empathy for other people is a much more simple and basic emotion than thought, scientists have found.

The research, by a group of Dutch scientists, may be the first step to tackling the causes of autism, and may even suggest the idea that animals can sense their owners' feelings is not entirely myth.

Experiments by scientists at the University of Groningen have shown that developing empathy is just a matter of learning which emotions go with certain events.

The brain then becomes conditioned to trigger the same response when those events involve other people.

"It's fairly basic," Dr Nerender Ramnani, a neurobiologist and research scientist at Oxford University, told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"We light up the motor system [in the brain], not only when we predict the actions of others, but also when we plan our own actions."

Practical application

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.

"That suggests that there's some support for the simulation hypothesis," Dr Ramnani said.

The research may one day have practical purposes in relation to some autistic individuals, who are unable to identify with other people's feelings. But Dr Ramnani warned that this may be some time yet.

Learning empathy

"We're starting to learn something about [autistic people's] ability; specifically, to predict the actions of other people," he said.

"But I think we're a long way off actually being able to help them."

It is not only autistic people who have a reduced ability to empathise with others - it also happens in conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

And Dr Michael Isaac, of Lewisham University Hospital in London, said that empathy was something that could be learned to an extent in some people who exhibit autistic-like behaviour.

He stated that this was possible, "if you are explicitly taught - if you are given a series of quite simple rules.

"For example, a lot of what we do is based on imitation. If somebody rises to get up and go, it's almost an automatic response to get up and rise as well... You can learn, to a large degree, to simulate empathy."

However, he added that this was not possible for "the truly autistic person", as for them another person "doesn't exist at all".

Posted by thinkum at 02:16 PM

Private spaceship almost in space

A privately built manned spacecraft has reached a record altitude of 212,000ft (64km) over California on one of its final tests before officially entering space.

SpaceShipOne was built by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan who hopes to win the Ansari X-prize of $10m (£5.7m) for the first private flight into space.

The craft has to reach an altitude of 329,000ft (100km) twice in three weeks to win - and is expected to do so next month.

Twenty-five other teams across the world are competing for the prize.

First private astronaut

In an impressive demonstration over Mojave airport, SpaceShipOne and its carrier aircraft White Knight moved a step closer to claiming the X-prize when pilot Mike Melvill took the vehicle closer to space than any non-governmental craft has been.

Its 212,000ft (64km) altitude is some four times higher than SpaceShipOne has been piloted to previously, and is within striking distance of the height required to claim the X-prize.

To win, that altitude - 329,000ft (100km), the official boundary of space - has to be reached twice in three-weeks by a three-man spacecraft.

SpaceShipOne's 13 shakedown tests have now put it into a position from which observers expect an attempt to be made within weeks.

Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites has already become the first non-governmental body to be granted a launch licence when the US Federal Aviation Authority gave it one on 1 April.

The X-prize will mark a new era in manned spaceflight when private companies are able to make short sub-orbital hops for paying customers.

It is hoped that a market for space tourism can be developed but in reality only a very few rich passengers will be able to be carried into space by one or two companies for the foreseeable future.

Posted by thinkum at 09:39 AM

Danish prince to wed Aussie love

Thousands of people have gathered in the streets of Copenhagen as Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik prepares to marry his Australian fiancee.

Mary Elizabeth Donaldson, a 32-year-old law graduate and former estate agent, will become Australia's first European princess in a reigning monarchy.

Tight security is in force in the capital, with police standing guard on the route to Copenhagen's cathedral.

The wedding ceremony will be attended by dignitaries from around the world.

Denmark has been celebrating the wedding for more than a week, with a military parade, a banquet for Danish dignitaries as well as more casual events such as boat races and rock concerts.

The streets of the capital, Copenhagen, are bedecked with Danish and Australian flags, while portraits of the couple are hanging in shop windows.

The couple met when the 35-year-old crown prince attended the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In a tale redolent of Denmark's famous storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, Ms Donaldson said she was unaware of his royal status at the time.

"I guess you could say it's a modern fairy tale," she told Denmark's Politiken newspaper in an interview this week.

Family tradition

Ms Donaldson comes from the island of Tasmania. Her father is a maths professor and her stepmother is British author Susan Moody. Her natural mother died in 1997.

In order to marry the crown prince, she has had to give up her Australian and British citizenship and convert to the Lutheran Church.

Crown Prince Frederik, the heir to the throne, is following what is becoming a family tradition by choosing a foreign spouse.

His younger brother Joachim is already married to a Hong-Kong born Briton.

Queen Margrethe herself married a Frenchman - diplomat Count Henri la Laborde de Monpezat, who later became Prince Henrik.

Many Danish people remain strong supporters of the monarchy, and Crown Prince Frederik has wide popularity.

Most of Denmark's 5.4 million people will be watching on television when the couple exchange vows at the Vor Frue Kirke cathedral.

The ceremony will begin at 1600 local time (1400 GMT).

Posted by thinkum at 09:38 AM

May 12, 2004

You're Hired

Vocation Vacation Lets Restless Workers Try Dream Jobs, Warts and All

At a case or so a minute, the bottles come rattling off the filling and corking machine at Amity Vineyards.

Jerry Gherardini wipes them off and puts them neck-down in cases that must be labeled and stacked on pallets. The machine yearns for more empties. The full ones keep coming.

The pace seems endless, and this day's run is about 4,400 bottles of off-dry Riesling. It should take six hours.

But Gherardini isn't looking ahead to a vacation.

He's taking one.

The Chicago pharmaceutical chemist and basement winemaker is on a Vocation Vacation, the brainchild of Brian Kurth of Portland. The program is designed for people who want to try out a "dream job" without risking their regular one.

Wannabe Winemaker, Chocolatier Hopeful?

Clients can choose among such outwardly attractive jobs as innkeeper, brewmaster, winemaker, horse trainer, cheesemaker, raceway manager, hunting and fishing guide, professional gardener, pastry chef or chocolatier, based around the country.

He is talking to more wineries, cattle ranchers, a sportscaster, a major distiller of Scotch whiskey, golf pros and fashion designers and would like to add news photography.

Kurth said he got the idea while he was stuck in traffic on his Chicago commute and started thinking about his lifestyle.

He lost his job in 2001 in the dot-com meltdown and spent six months touring the country.

"I was asking myself, `So what life would I rather lead if I had a choice,"' he said.

"I thought that in business many people are too nervous to just leave, but they do have vacations, time to get out of their cubicles, to test the water.

"I found a lot of people were apologizing for the jobs. They'd say something like, `Well, I'm an attorney but I'd rather be a ?'

"We're featuring dream jobs, jobs anyone can learn to do with a little initiative," he said. "Not fantasy jobs, such as a rock star. You may not be qualified to be a rock star."

Learning Vacation

It matches changes in how America puts up its feet.

In its 2004 travel outlook, the RoperReports NOP survey, which tracks a broad range of vacation trends, found that 64 percent of the 1,000 people it polled said the chance to learn new things was "very important" in planning leisure time, up from 51 percent a year earlier. Relaxation came in at 69 percent, down slightly from the previous year.

Kurth, 38, launched the business in January. Packages range from $599 for something simple to about $5,000 for the week in Alaska with an outfitter. Programs are flexible, but most run about two days.

He said he aims at smaller companies because their owners tend to be more passionate about what they do.

"People who love what they do are more willing to share it," he said.

Barbara Dau, who operates the St. Bernard Bed and Breakfast in Arch Cape, Ore., on the north coast, took in two women from Chicago and Milwaukee.

"They were slightly disillusioned," she said. "The two were fabulous, charming, well-poised, just the type of people I would want to represent my inn. But they were surprised by how much work it was.

"The atmosphere here creates a fantasy world," she added. "But down in the bowels of the place, you're doing laundry and chopping onions."

She said people often come through her inn and say "I've just dreamed of doing something like this."

"You want to tear our your hair and say 'You have no idea,"' she said.

But Dau said she will happily mentor more of the curious.

Winemaking so far is the most popular of the choices in the program, Kurth said.

Warts-and-All Look at Jobs

Kurth says he wants his clients to see their "dream jobs," warts and all.

Gherardini did more than just wrestle wine cases.

"Yesterday we tested for titratable acids, we checked for sulfur dioxide and residual sugars," he said of his stint in the winery's lab. Owner Myron Redford showed him some of the ins and outs of caring for vines.

"I can feel it in my arms, I can tell you that," Gherardini said on a break from helping on the bottling line. "And I'm going to feel it on the flight home."

He said the vineyard, fair-sized for Oregon at about 10,000 cases a year but tiny by California standards, is far more sophisticated than his basement operation.

He said he could see becoming "a gentleman winemaker, if there is such a thing."

Winemaking has exploded in Oregon, especially around the postcard-perfect hillside vineyards at Amity. When Redford began 30 years ago, there were 10 wineries in Oregon. There are 260 today, and Kurth is trolling for more of them to be mentors.

Kurth says he hopes people will see beyond the glamor.

"The fishing and outfitter package involves a trip to Alaska," he said. "They don't just guide. They set up tents, they cook."

Hands-on Horse Time

Kelly Shafer, a Fort Worth, Texas, writer, spent time with a horse trainer at Four Mountains Ranch near Portland.

"It was wonderful, I'd do it again, but it gave me a clear picture of how much work is involved," she said of the experience, which involved everything from hands-on horse time to mucking out stalls.

She says she loves horses and vacations where they are when she can.

She noted that the owners started small, with one horse, and grew from there, but says that with five kids and four dogs at home she isn't sure about trying it herself yet.

"For me, it's something I might be able to do someday, but I can't right now," she said. "It was a chance to test-drive it."

Kurth said nobody has jumped to a "dream job" as a result of his fledgling program yet, and he wouldn't want them to just on a whim.

"Be smart. Take calculated risks, but don't be foolish. This is a tool to start the process," he said.

He said some women buy packages for their husbands. "Women tend to be a little more holistic than their husbands, who are more concerned with being a provider," he said.

He said two women, both financial advisers, recently finished a package with a cheesemaker in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. A nuclear pharmacist, looking for a break from dealing with cancer patients, is coming to work with a professional gardener at the Oregon State Garden or Portland's test rose garden.

A Surprise Gift

Gail Haskett, of Vancouver, Wash., used the program as a surprise gift for her husband Steve, who has been cranking out award-winning home brew from his garage for years.

"I arranged for my husband to become brewmaster for a day at the Full Sail brewery in Hood River," she said.

She said he picked up some ideas, but found commercial brewing too chemistry-oriented.

She said she kept giving him clues, but wouldn't tell him what was coming.

"I told him it involved water. He doesn't like water, he was terrified that I had arranged for windsurfing or something," she said.

When they got to Hood River, she said, Kurth had left a brochure that said, "Congratulations, you are going to be a brewmaster for a day."

"It was the best gift I've ever given him," she said.

If You Go:

VOCATION VACATIONS: Places vacationers in "dream jobs" as innkeeper, brewmaster, winemaker, horse trainer, cheesemaker, raceway manager, hunting and fishing guide, professional gardener, pastry chef or chocolatier. Various locations. Packages range from $599 for something simple to about $5,000 for the week in Alaska with an outfitter. Programs are flexible, but most run about two days. Contact or (866) 888-6329.

AMITY VINEYARDS: 18150 Amity Vineyards Road, Amity, Ore. Contact or (888) AMITY-66.

Posted by thinkum at 12:08 PM

Pieces of the Past

Titanic Memorabilia to Hit Auction Block

An unprecedented collection of Titanic memorabilia will be up for auction in June, with hundreds of items reclaimed from the wreckage brought together for what may be the only time.

Guernsey's Auction House will hold The Titanic Auction at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York on June 10.

Three collectors, who have been gathering the memorabilia for a long time, decided the time was right to sell, said Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's Auction House.

Those interested in the merchandise should be prepared to pay handsomely for souvenirs of the tragedy. For example, there were 290 pieces created originally for the captain's table on the Titanic, and very few are left, Ettinger said. A demitasse cup and saucer from the ship's captain's table are expected to go for $20,000 to $25,000.

A deck chair from the Titanic is expected to fetch anywhere between $50,000 to $60,000, Ettinger said. Only four to five Titanic deck chairs have been authenticated as such. Three are in museums, and one will be at the auction. The chair was at the Manitoba Titanic Museum, and was recovered by a vessel at the scene of the disaster. The cane seat was replaced, but it is otherwise original, Ettinger said.

Even items that were not on the ship, such as a painting of the vessel completed for the Oscar-winning film Titanic, is expected to bring in an offer of $30,000 to $40,000.

Here is a sampling of some of the items that will be up for auction, with estimates of how much they may go for.

  • An 82-inch long model of the RMS Titanic. Estimate: $15,000 to $18,000
  • Painting of Titanic by Ken Marchall: Estimate: $30,000 to $40,000.
  • First class dinner menu from the Titanic.
  • White Star Line third class menu from the Titanic.
  • Cobalt blue and gold demitasse cup and saucer. Estimate: $20,000 to $25,000
  • Spode OSNC soup bowl: white with cobalt blue border. Estimate: $1,500 to $2,000
  • Titanic Wooden Folding Deck Chair. Estimate: $50,000 to $60,000.
  • Life jacket. Estimate: $30,000 to $40,000.
  • Two framed, full-color postcards from onboard the Titanic. Estimate: $20,000 to $25,000
  • S.S. Titanic Lifeboat Plaque and Photo: Estimate: $75,000 to $100,000.

The Gill Collection

John Gill, a second-class passenger onboard the Titanic, had courted Sarah Elizabeth Wilton Hoder for two years before he married her. On April 2, 1912, he left his bride in England and purchased a second-class ticket for the Titanic's maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. He intended to set up a new home for himself and Sarah in America. He did not survive the Titanic disaster, but some of his belongings did, and are part of the auction.

  • Canvas Bag 155, the canvas bag that held John Gill's personal belongings. Estimate: $25,000 to $30,000
  • Marriage certificate dated 2/14/1912 for the marriage of John Gill to Sarah Elizabeth Hodder. Estimate: $5,000 to $6,000
  • Letter from the solicitor to Sarah Gill. Estimate: $5,000 to $7,500
  • Gill relief fund check. Estimate: $2,500 to $3,500
  • Autographed copy of A Night To Remember signed by George Thomas (Titanic survivor). Estimate: $1,000 to $1,250

To order the catalogue or find out more details about the auction, visit the auction house's Web site,

Posted by thinkum at 12:05 PM

NBC Closes Merger With Universal

NBC Closes Merger With Universal Entertainment Business, Creating New Media Conglomerate

NBC closed its deal to merge with the Universal entertainment businesses Wednesday, creating a new media conglomerate that will take its place alongside giants such as Time Warner Inc. and Viacom Inc.

The new company, to be known as NBC Universal, will be led mainly by NBC executives including Bob Wright, the NBC chairman who will become chairman and CEO of the company. Wright will also continue as vice chairman of General Electric Co., NBC's parent company.

The deal brings together television's top-rated network among the 18-49 age group, which advertisers try hardest to reach; a major movie studio; a television production studio; a handful of cable TV channels including USA, Sci-Fi, CNBC and Bravo; and a group of 29 television stations.

Wright said the combination presented a "tremendous growth opportunity for our viewers, advertisers, employees, and GE shareowners."

While not as diverse or large as some of the other major conglomerates, NBC Universal will own several top-quality properties, not least of which is the powerful "Law & Order" franchise, a cash cow for NBC which is produced by Universal's television arm.

The deal also gives NBC a major TV studio, ensuring the network a stable pipeline of future shows and giving it more bargaining power among other media conglomerates in negotiating for shows of its own.

GE will own 80 percent of NBC Universal, while the French media and telecommunications conglomerate Vivendi Universal will own the remaining 20 percent. Vivendi is also getting $3.4 billion in cash in the deal.

Ron Meyer, the head of Universal Studios, will remain at the company as head of the Hollywood studio as well as its associated theme parks.

Several NBC executives will take on larger responsibilities in the new conglomerate, including Randy Falco, who will oversee the company's operations. Rising star Jeff Zucker will oversee all TV programming except for sports, which will be handled by NBC sports chief Dick Ebersol.

Posted by thinkum at 12:00 PM

May 11, 2004

Google stock auction: IPO revolution or disaster?

Google Inc.'s initial public offering has a lot of people salivating for a piece of the action -- an appetite that the Internet search engine leader hopes to satisfy by inviting the masses to the bidding table.

While an egalitarian auction may sound like a refreshing change after years of shady brokerage dealings, the approach could backfire if Google can't meet the intense demand or the bidding pushes the IPO price so high that the shares are perched to topple once they begin trading.

For now, most IPO and technology observers are applauding Google for being bold enough to challenge the status quo with an unorthodox system that could empower individual investors.

"Google has managed to crack the code for searching online, so maybe they can crack the code for getting the individual investor more involved in the IPO market," said Kathleen Smith, an analyst for Renaissance Capital in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The hype surrounding Google's IPO, coupled with the mass appeal the company has built through its popular search engine, is piquing the interest of people who don't normally buy stocks.

"I'm no expert, but this is something I would definitely consider," said Brian Gottlock, a 29-year-old New York lawyer who hasn't bought stock since he invested in Marvel Comics as a teenager. "This just seems like a really democratic idea. It feels less impersonal than when most other companies go public."

To be sure, Google's IPO isn't about altruism. The company wants to raise at least $2.7 billion.

By using a public auction, Google stands a better chance of getting the highest price possible for its stock by appealing to the millions of people who use -- even revere -- its search engine.
Potential outbreak of buyer's remorse

To participate in the auction, prospective bidders must open an account with one of Google's IPO bankers, Morgan Stanley or Credit Suisse First Boston.

Before the auction starts -- in late summer at the earliest -- Google will set an estimated price range for the IPO shares. The range is supposed to serve as a guide for investors, but the auction participants are free to submit higher or lower bids. The auction will be held through phone, fax and the Internet.

Google says it wants the auction to determine the price of its initial shares. Some will be distributed by Morgan Stanley and CSFB, but the majority are supposed to go to members of the public who bid at or above the price.

One of the biggest downsides to this system is a potential outbreak of buyer's remorse.

Because the auction is set up to determine the price most people are willing to pay for the stock, that theoretically means few people would buy the shares at a higher price in the first few days or weeks after they begin trading.

The scenario could cause IPO bidders to worry they overpaid for Google's stock and prompt a wave of selling that drives down the price, a phenomenon known as "the winner's curse."

Google repeatedly advises potential investors about the curse in its prospectus. It also says that if the IPO flops, its business could suffer a black eye.

"Our brand could be tarnished, and users and investors could become frustrated with us, potentially decreasing their use of our products and services," the company warns in the prospectus.

Among the handful of companies that have offered stock through the auction system, none has had Google's pedigree. Besides its wide recognition, Google is highly profitable -- earning $106 million on revenue of $982 million last year.
Scent of scandal over IPO market

An IPO auction "is something Wall Street hates to see, but no one can afford to walk away from Google," said Patrick Byrne, CEO of Inc., which used an auction in its 2002 IPO. "This could be the thing that breaks a sleazy Wall Street system."

Overstock's IPO auction rewarded its participants, although it took some time. The company's shares rose just 45 cents during their first year of trading, but the stock recently has hovered around $39 -- tripling its IPO price of $13.

Other IPO auctions haven't worked so well. Online publisher Salon Media Group Inc. went public at $10.50 per share in 1999. The perennially unprofitable company's shares crept as high as $15.15 during their first year on the market, but recently have traded for less than 15 cents.

An immediate price decline in a hot IPO like Google's would be a dramatic reversal from the frothy days of the 1990s dot-com boom.

Back then, investment bankers treated IPOs as a prize worthy of a favored few -- major institutional investors and insiders at companies that could become lucrative customers.

The IPOs of that manic era almost uniformly rocketed when the shares began trading, opening a window for the privileged investors to sell their stock at a quick and healthy profit.

The pattern raised suspicions that investment bankers purposefully underpriced IPOs to assure the initial investors would enjoy hefty gains. Securities regulators also uncovered evidence that IPO investors paid kickbacks to the investment banks, resulting in a series of fines and settlements.

The scent of scandal continues to hang over the IPO market, despite Google's attempt to introduce some fresh air.

"I'm not planning on getting in on (Google's IPO) because I don't trust Wall Street," said Farshad Foroudi, 27, of West New York, New Jersey. "I'm not sure how it will all work out, but I am pretty confident Wall Street will find a way to work it to its advantage."

Posted by thinkum at 04:53 PM

Soaps, cleaners clean off peanut allergy trigger

Most soaps and cleaners can remove tiny traces of peanut residue that can trigger an allergic attack, new research shows.

American researchers tested how well handwashing with liquid soap, bar soap or commercial wipes removed traces of Ara h 1, the main peanut allergen or trigger.

Scientists applied a teaspoon of peanut butter to the hands of 19 peanut allergy-free adult volunteers.

The wipes and soap removed the allergen but water left residue on three out of 12 hands and hand sanitizer left traces on six out of 12 hands.

The amount left on hands after using the antibacterial gel might be able to cause a reaction, said Dr. Robert Wood, a pediatric allergist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore and the study's senior author.

Although it may be more convenient to use hand sanitizers than sending students to a sink, use of the sanitizer "may not really remove the allergen, but just spread it around," Wood said in a release.

Dishwashing soap left residue on four of 12 tabletops. Woods said dish soap may create a film that is difficult to clean underneath, but even if a child licked the table, he or she probably couldn't get enough to cause a reaction.

His team also found common household cleaners appeared to remove traces of allergen from tabletops at six schools and preschools in the Baltimore area. Desks were also clean.

Traces of allergen were found on one of 13 water fountains.

In experiments designed to simulate school cafeterias, sporting events and airplanes, the researchers asked the volunteers to eat peanut butter sandwiches, shelled peanuts and unshelled peanuts.

No signs of the allergen were found in the air after the snacks, although Wood noted the measuring techniques may not have been sensitive enough.

The study appears in the May issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Posted by thinkum at 04:50 PM

Mounties object to TV commercial

A commercial designed to promote Canadian television content has been pulled from the small screen because of complaints from the RCMP.

The 30-second spot was produced by the lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.

Called Snow Gangsta, it features a fictitious American director named Buck Calder who tries to inject some U.S. street attitude into a movie with an Inuit setting.

The obnoxious filmmaker asks a native actor for the Inuit word for pimp and suggests the mountains of snow be seen as cocaine instead. Calder is played by Winnipeg comic David Huband.

A Mountie can be seen in the background, which is the bone of contention for the RCMP. The group apparently did not ask for permission to include the Mountie figure. The RCMP, which carefully guards its image, asked Friends in a letter to withdraw the ad.

Friends has in turn written to CBC, CTV, Vision TV and CHUM, asking them to stop airing the commercial because it apparently violates "proprietary marks" of the RCMP.

The commercial, which has been running on television and in movie theatres for eight months, is part of a campaign called Tell Canadian Stories, aimed at convincing the public that Canadians should be the ones telling Canadian stories in movies and on TV.

Posted by thinkum at 04:49 PM

Oscar-nominated film not considered Canadian

When the winners of this year's Genie Awards for excellence in Canadian film are announced on Saturday night, one name definitely won't be among them: Chris Hinton.

Hinton is the Montreal-based animator who made Nibbles, the whimsical short film about a fishing trip in Quebec that was up for an Oscar earlier this year.

Because the organizers of the Academy Awards recognized Hinton with a nomination, fans of Canadian cinema were expecting that he would also be included in the Genie category set aside for animated shorts.

But when the Genie nominees were announced on March 16, Hinton's name was missing. In fact, not only was Hinton not nominated, he didn't even bother to submit his creation to the competition in the first place.

That's because Nibbles, which was made entirely in this country, is not considered a Canadian film by the Genies.

"I'm in this crookedly Canadian situation where they don't consider it a Canadian film," Hinton told CBC News Online. "It's amazing."

The 4½-minute cartoon is based on a family fishing trip that Hinton took in northern Quebec with his two sons. The animation, which Hinton did by himself, was drawn on a computer in Montreal. The voicing, sound and music were also done in Montreal. Even the prints of the film were struck in Montreal. "Everything was done here, absolutely everything was done here," the filmmaker explained.

The fly in the ointment is the film's producer, Ron Diamond. Because Diamond is an American, Nibbles doesn't count as Canadian content. "That's the kick," Hinton said.

As the organizers of the Genie Awards point out, however, they're not responsible for defining what is or isn't Canadian. Instead, they rely on the definition supplied by the federal government.

"We go according to how they define it. We don't guess. That would be a little tricky," said the manager of the Genie Awards, Erin McLeod.

In order to qualify for the Genies, a film must have a certification number from either the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the federal broadcast regulator, or the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office (CAVCO), which is an arm of the Heritage Ministry

"What we require is a CRTC/CAVCO certification for every film that enters," McLeod said, adding that most of the certificates she gets are from the CRTC.

The CRTC's rules, which are posted on its website, are quite clear. They state that "the producer and certain key creative positions must be occupied by Canadians" for a film or television show to be approved.

Phillipe Tousignant, a spokesman for the CRTC, confirms that the nationality of Hinton's producer would have prevented Nibbles from being accepted. "If you're produced by an American company, you can't be a Canadian program," he said. (If a film's producer is Canadian, however, then the so-called "points" system of determining Canadian content kicks in.)

"It's not eligible. It's really weird," Hinton said. "I consider it very much Canadian. I think of it as the quintessential 'Canadian guy in the deep woods story.'"

In the past, Hinton has produced films through the National Film Board of Canada. His 1991 NFB short Blackfly, which was also nominated for an Oscar, did qualify for the Genies ? it was nominated, but lost out when the envelope was opened. The difference this time around is that Hinton turned to Diamond, a friend whose company is based in Los Angeles, for help producing the film.

"My take on it is that they don't consider it a Canadian film because it has an American producer, when in fact I took a fishing trip in Canada with my two Canadian sons to a Canadian resort," Hinton said.

In addition to being nominated for an Oscar, Hinton also got a nod for a BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Barry Grant is a professor of film studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. He believes that Nibbles being classified as non-Canadian is a case of "bureaucratic slippage."

"It's kind of absurd in a way," he said, adding that many films that do get defined as Canadian are not overtly Canadian, but ape American films.

According to Grant, the CRTC's points system has worked well in the past, but it should be modified so that it's flexible enough ? especially in this age of foreign co-productions ? to accommodate instances where a film's producer isn't Canadian. "If everything else is Canadian, then it should be Canadian," Grant said.

Grant isn't the only person who disagrees with the regulations. Jim Abbott is the Conservative party MP who serves as the Opposition heritage critic. He, too, considers Nibbles a product of this country. "In the name of logic, the answer just must be Yes," he said from Ottawa.

"My take on it is that once again, the heavy hand of number-crunching and bureaucracy and false calculations have got in the way of the legitimate recognition of something that is distinctly very Canadian."

For his part, Hinton is handling the situation in a distinctly Canadian way: he says he shrugs his shoulders, then moves on.

"At this point, I'm just content to get on with my next project and let the chips falls where they may. There's nothing I can do about it and I don't want to try and change the way things are organized in this country."

Hinton says he doesn't want to be labelled a whiner, and he's grateful for the public support he receives through the NFB.

"I'm a filmmaker, not a politician," he said.

McLeod says she has not received any complaints in the past about the Genie rules.

"No one's ever given us a problem about it."

Posted by thinkum at 04:48 PM

Pennsylvania mom delivers sextuplets

A woman gave birth to sextuplets Monday morning, and both the mother and babies were doing well, hospital officials said.

Kate Gosselin, 29, delivered her three sons and three daughters in her 30th week of pregnancy. The babies were delivered by Caesarean section at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, hospital officials said.

"I'd just like to thank the Lord," said Jonathan Gosselin, 27, the babies' father. "It was truly an amazing thing."

The father joined doctors and nurses at a late afternoon news conference, where they said the mother was in good condition and the babies in satisfactory condition. All but one of the infants were still on ventilators late Monday afternoon.

Sextuplets are rare. Hospital officials said that as of March 15, only 138 documented sets had been born worldwide. Kate Gosselin had been taking a fertility drug to conceive, her husband said.

Gosselin and her husband are also the parents of 3-year-old twins.

More than 50 doctors, nurses and other specialists were involved in the delivery, including color-coded teams that took each baby as it was delivered and cared for it.

The heaviest baby weighed 3 pounds 0.5 ounces; the lightest was 2 pounds 7.5 ounces.

Jonathan Gosselin said the family's church had offered to pay to expand their home. Various corporations have also made donations, he said.

Posted by thinkum at 04:47 PM

Mississippi: New life for Eudora Welty's garden

Walk through Eudora Welty's garden and you get a glimpse of her world.

The renowned Southern writer mentioned her garden about 150 times in her works, including this reference to her beloved camellias in her 1972 novel "The Optimist's Daughter," which won the Pulitzer Prize:

"Laurel's eyes travelled among the urns that marked the graves of the McKelvas and saw the favorite camellia of her father's, the old-fashioned Chandlerii Elegans, that he had planted on her mother's grave -- now big as a pony, saddled with unplucked bloom living and dead, standing on a facing carpet of its own flowers."

Welty died in 2001 at age 92, but more than 40 camellia shrubs still thrive in her garden today. Among them is a Pink Empress camellia that sits below the second-floor window where Welty wrote every morning.

Welty's garden was opened to the public in April after undergoing a recreation to capture its splendor between 1925 and 1945, when Welty's craft began to blossom. Her house is scheduled to open to the public in 2005. In conjunction with the garden, the site will serve as a museum interpreting Welty's life and work, which includes five novels, four short-story collections, two collections of her photographs and "One Writer's Beginnings," her best-selling 1984 memoir.

"It's kind of funny because scholars studied her work trying to figure out what she drew from, and it came from the garden," said Susan Haltom, the garden restoration consultant, who began working on the project in 1994 after Welty expressed concerns about its deterioration.

"Miss Welty saw the garden as a living thing and didn't want it to die," said Lee Threadgill, a restoration volunteer.

'A living picture'

Welty's mother, Chestina, laid out the garden in 1925 while the family's Tudor-style home was being constructed in Jackson's historic Belhaven district. She and Welty worked in the garden together until Chestina's death in 1966. Welty continued to devote time to the garden until she became too frail.

"She always called it her mother's garden," said Mary Alice White, Welty's niece. "Her mother designed the garden where there would always be a succession of bloom."

The garden stretches out over about three-quarters of an acre, and in the spring, it is filled with a colorful array of native azaleas, roses, poppies, perennials, larkspur, daylilies, sweet peas, hollyhocks and more. The perennial border contains daffodils, or as Welty called them, "Presbyterian sisters -- they hang together."

Throughout, there are benches, trellises and arbors, which were rebuilt and placed in their original locations. Many family photos were taken on the benches.

The garden is divided into sections: the front yard, the camellia garden, the upper garden, the lower garden, and the woodland garden. There are 30-plus varieties of camellias.

The cutting garden, behind the garage, includes fall and summer blossoms. Cut flowers were frequently displayed and shared in the Welty house and in her stories.

Haltom said when Welty lived in New York, her mother would cut camellia blooms and send them to her on the overnight train.

"Eudora did the same thing for her agent in New York when she moved back home," she said.

Welty recalled her mother once saying the garden shouldn't be a show garden, but "a learning experience, a living picture, always changing."
Garden diaries

A giant water oak tree towers in the front of the house. White said it was a sapling when Welty's father chose the lot to build on, and Chestina vowed it would never be cut down.

The accuracy of the restoration project was made possible by the extensive documentation of the garden by Welty and her mother. Chestina kept detailed garden diaries noting the layout of beds and bloom schedules, while Eudora -- an accomplished photographer -- took pictures, some of which were snapped from the roof of the family's house.

In one photograph, Chestina is tying sweet peas to a trellis. Written on the photo are the words, "the first spring in the garden, 1926." Another photo from the 1940s shows Eudora sitting on the steps working in the rock garden.

Haltom worked with Welty on the project for seven years before the author died, and did research for another two years before beginning the restoration. She also worked with nurseries specializing in historic plants to ensure accuracy.

"It's amazing what survived after all these years," Threadgill said.

Haltom said Welty once told her: "We used to get down on our hands and knees. The absolute contact between the hand and the earth, the intimacy of it, that is the instinct of a gardener."

Threadgill, one of many volunteers who helped prepare the garden for its opening, said even though she never met Welty, she loved her.

"I did my first term paper on her in the sixth grade. She's my childhood hero, so pulling weeds from her garden is fun for me," she said, kneeling in a flower garden. She added that she read Welty's "Delta Wedding" when she was pregnant. Her daughter Sarah's middle name is Dabney, after the heroine, Dabney Fairchild.

"I know Eudora is looking down from heaven smiling," Donna Dye, a member of the Welty Foundation said. "She loved every inch of this garden."


EUDORA WELTY'S GARDEN: 1119 Pinehurst St., Jackson, Mississippi. The garden is open for tours every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but reservations are required. Admission is free. Call (601) 353-7762.

Posted by thinkum at 04:46 PM

It's 'PandaMania' on D.C. streets

Summer art display will end with auction

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Pandas look cute, but are they sex symbols?

They are when seen through the eyes of Maggie O'Neill.

She is one of several artists who won the privilege of decorating 150 giant plastic pandas prowling the streets of the nation's capital in this summer's "PandaMania" art exhibition.

O'Neill's contribution: a buxom, swimsuit-clad blonde named "Pandela Anderson."

"I thought it would be funny to make a panda, which is so cute and androgynous and cuddly creature, a total sexual being," she said, laughing. "Public artwork should be fun for the masses."

And there's more fun where that came from. On Monday, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities kicked off PandaMania by placing the 150 bamboo-munching bears at various locations around the district, from upscale to inner-city neighborhoods.

Many of the artists drew their inspiration from puns. There's a panda mockup of Groucho Marx called "Tibet Your Life."

But there's a serious side to PandaMania as well. One blue-and-green-splotched panda named "Miracle" reflects artist Cornelia Atchley's emotions about recovering from cancer.

"I felt happy and rich and like I had a new lease on life," she said. "And it was just feeling that came from way deep down, and I'm like, 'You're not done with me yet, you guys!' "

Making summertime 'bear-able'

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities provided artists with blank pandas, studio space and a $1,500 honorarium. The exhibition winds up in September with Panda Palooza, where the city will auction off the pandas to raise money for artist's grants and education programs.

PandaMania is a follow-up to 2002's Party Animals festival, in which artists decorated plastic donkeys and elephants, the respective symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties. Mayor Anthony Williams says the auction that followed Party Animals raised more than $1 million.

"We're just a crazy city. We're into panda-monium," Williams said.

"A city without art would be a mistake. So that's why this is great," he added.

Artists hope the pandas will lift spirits and make Washington's sweltering summer months a little more "bear-able."

"It's through the message of beauty that we put a smile on people's faces, and then people have more encouragement to live a life, you know, to go to work every morning," panda-painter Karla Rodas said. "They're going to say, 'Wow! An artist put their heart and soul into this piece.' "

Posted by thinkum at 04:43 PM

500 Rare Butterflies Discovered in Oregon

About 500 Rare Butterflies Recently Discovered in Hills in Oregon, Thrilling Conservationists

CORVALLIS, Ore. May 11, 2004 ? About 500 rare butterflies were recently found thriving in the hills west of here, thrilling conservationists who hope the colorful Taylor's checkerspot will fight back from near extinction.

The new colony, along with roughly 1,000 butterflies on nearby private and county park land, account for about three-quarters of all Taylor's checkerspot known to exist. The rest are scattered across 10 sites in western Washington.

"It's extremely exciting, because this is the largest population we have on publicly managed land," said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society.

The Portland-based invertebrate conservation group has asked the federal government to declare Taylor's checkerspot an endangered species.

"We found the population where they're already trying to do habitat restoration," he said.

An ecologist found the latest population in some meadows at the county-owned Beazell Memorial Forest north of Philomath late last month.

Significant loss of upland prairie in the Willamette Valley over the past century and a half has nearly wiped out the butterfly, Hoffman Black said.

Scientists estimate less than 1 percent of this important habitat remains in isolated spots threatened by invasive weeds, encroaching fir trees and development.

"As the prairie habitat has gone, the butterfly has gone," Hoffman Black said.

The new population is a pat on the back for Benton County, which has worked to improve habitat and preserve pockets of native prairie. The butterflies feed on wild strawberry, hairy cat's ear, rosy plectritis and other native wildflowers.

"It's an excellent indicator that we're doing something correctly," county Parks Director Jerry Davis said. "This shows we have some really nice property and what we're doing is not messing it up."

The Xerces Society began working to protect the butterfly and its habitat four years ago. It has developed a close partnership with Benton County, which is trying to protect the largest population about 1,000 in and around the parks department's Fitton Green Natural Area, north of Philomath.

The plight of the butterfly persuaded the society to pursue its first-ever lawsuit. It recently filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place Taylor's checkerspot on the endangered species list.

The agency lists Taylor's checkerspot as a candidate for the list, Hoffman Black said, but often it takes pressure from environmental groups to compel the agency to formally list a species.

Hoffman Black said the species occupied more than 70 sites as recently as the mid-1970s.

"We've lost at least 60 populations in the last 30 years," he said. "So we know this butterfly is endangered and needs to be protected. We do not want to sit on our hands."

Posted by thinkum at 03:56 PM

New Gold Rush?

Entrepreneurs Stay at Home, Make a Living Through eBay

May 11, 2004 ? Around the country, eBay entrepreneurs are shunning the 9-to-5 world and finding a 21st-century gold rush on the Internet.

Steve Holt, a retired Marine, and his wife, Crystal, are film buffs who own an eBay store called Movie Magic. They live in Denison, Iowa, and like others, operate their own online store on eBay, a cyber-bazaar that allows buyers to connect with sellers and bid for the items they want.

"We sell new and factory-sealed DVDs and VHS," said Steve Holt. "Everything from newly released movies to unforgettable classics that I love and grew up with. What's wonderful is my hobby is now my career."

Crystal Holt has kept her job as a high school teacher. But running the eBay business has given both parents more time to spend with their 9-year-old son. The money isn't bad either.

"In our first full year of business, 2003, we grossed about $680,000," Steve Holt said.

Selling With a Passion

Profitable since it launched in 1995, eBay boasts nearly 105 million users and offers goods in more than 50,000 categories from computers to movies to colored gemstones.

Last year, the value of goods traded on eBay reached $23.8 billion. As it grows, the number of entrepreneurs jumping on board with their small businesses has grown, too.

In fact, last week in Washington, eBay held its first United States of eBay Conference, gathering 51 small-business owners ? one from each state, plus the District of Columbia ? who make at least part of their living by selling on eBay.

Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, said that many entrepreneurs find a category that they love. One woman she met had been interested in vintage clothing since she was a teenager and managed to turn it into a career, thanks to eBay.

"She said, 'You know what? I can make a business selling a product that I love and I care about and I know a lot about, and by the way, I can stay at home, work at home, see my daughter when she comes home from school, and at the same time earn a great living doing what I love,' " Whitman said.

Toy Cars, Big Bucks

If Whitman were going to be a seller on eBay, she would choose something she found truly engrossing.

"You might know, I have a passion for fly fishing," Whitman said. "So I would probably get into selling antique flies, antique fly rods, old fishing vests, vintage fishing clothing. But I think it's important to have a passion for what you sell."

Cheryl Celso-Weber of Perrysburg, Ohio, has been operating a business called Buddy's Toys since 1996, selling diecast collectible cars and other toys. Hot cars, especially, can fetch big bucks.

"Thanks to eBay I ordered a lot and I sold a lot," Celso-Weber said. "I sold over 700 of those cars."

Selling them for about $70 each, Celso-Weber made $50,000 in sales. Celso-Weber walked away with almost $20,000 in profit.

Susan Robbins of Portland, Maine, discovered eBay one day while she was surfing the Web in search of vintage clothes. She went from savvy shopper to super-seller, creating a business called Northstar Vintage with customers around the globe. At first, she was surprised by the international interest..

"It's people in Australia, Germany, who for whatever reason don't have access to vintage clothing like we do in the United States," Robbins said.

For many entrepreneurs, eBay isn't just changing the way they shop. It's changing the way they work.

"It gives you that chance to pursue your dreams and your goals and it gives a small entrepreneur a chance to really make the lifestyle they want to make," Crystal Holt said.

Posted by thinkum at 03:54 PM

Illegal film downloads 'triple'

The number of internet users who illegally download films and TV series has tripled over the past year, a survey has suggested.

An estimated 1.67m people download illegal film or TV files, compared with 570,000 last year, the British Video Association's survey found.

The loss to the UK video industry was calculated as £45m in 2003 DVD sales.

The findings, based on 16,000 people between 12 and 74, were an "enormous" threat to the industry, the BVA said.


Movies and TV series illegally downloaded last year included Kill Bill: Volume 1, The Sopranos and BBC's The Office.

TNS, which conducted the survey, said: "With downloading growing at such an enormous rate the industry cannot afford to be complacent."

But it added: "There are several factors that reduce the impact on the retail market - quality issues being the major one."

This referred to the fact that many considered illegally downloaded films to be of poor quality when compared to legal DVDs or television broadcasts.

Many also felt it took too long for films to download via the internet, but the growth in use of broadband - which offers faster internet connections - is changing that.

The average film or TV downloader was identified as under 35 years old and male.

He is most likely to live in the south of England, where broadband is more widely available, and to download an average of 30 films or TV episodes per year.

Lavinia Carey, from the BVA, said: "The film, TV and video industries are working closely to pre-empt the threat from online piracy.

"As long as we can continue to make our traditional product attractive and future online offers affordable and easy, we hope to avoid the worst of the damage."

The BVA also reported a 61% increase in DVD sales in 2003, the format now representing 70% of the total video market.

Total sales across the video industry rose from £2.05bn in 2002 to £2.42bn last year.

Posted by thinkum at 01:11 PM

Magnetic therapy for spine injury

Magnetic therapy may help people with spinal cord injuries.

Doctors at Imperial College London administered magnetic stimulation to the brains of people with partial damage to their spinal cord.

The therapy led to improved muscle and limb movement, and increased ability to feel sensations.

Details of the technique - known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) - are published in the journal Spinal Cord.

It works by using an electromagnet placed on the scalp to generate brief magnetic pulses, about the strength of an MRI scan.

These pulses stimulate the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex.

The technique was tested on four patients with what are known as incomplete spinal cord injuries.

This is where the spinal cord has not been entirely severed, but the patient has still lost the ability to move or feel properly below the injury point.

Brain signals

Researcher Dr Nick Davey said: "Through rTMS we may be able to help people who have suffered partial injuries to the spinal cord recover some of their movement and feeling.

"We think it works by strengthening the information leaving the brain through the undamaged neurons in the spinal cord. It may work like physiotherapy but instead of repeating a physical task, the machine activates the surviving nerves to strengthen their connections."

The patients had all sustained their injuries at least 18 months previously and had already received conventional rehabilitation including physiotherapy.

They were all considered stable in that they were no longer undergoing natural improvement.

The patients received both real and sham rTMS treatment over a three-week period.

The rTMS treatment involved five consecutive days of magnetic stimulation for one hour per day.

The researchers focused on a phenomenon called intracortical inhibition which makes it easier for mesage from the brain to pass down the spinal cord to the rest of the body.

They found rTMS treatment resulted in a 37.5% drop in intracortical inhibition, compared with normal physiotherapy.

This reduction in intracortical inhibition was accompanied by improvement in both motor and sensory function, which lasted for at least three weeks after the treatment.

Dr Davey said: "Despite this, we still need to be extremely careful in interpreting these results as we only sampled a small number of patients.

"Further studies on larger groups of patients will need to be carried out before we will know if this treatment is fully effective.

"Similarly we have no idea how long the treatment benefits will last over a longer period."

The treatment was originally designed to treat psychiatric disorders, and has been used in treating some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Posted by thinkum at 01:09 PM

Under the skin of digital crime

There was a time when hacking was something positive. It was done in the name of intellectual curiousity rather than financial reward.

As such, it is something that Professor Neil Barrett is happy to admit that he used to do.

Dr Barrett's hacking days are long past and as technical director of computer security and forensics firm IRM, he is much more likely to be helping catch and convict hackers than join them.

But Dr Barrett has stayed a hacker in at least one sense.

Hacking was originally about being intimately familiar with a system and how it can be used and abused.

Nowadays Dr Barrett's familiarity is with the way that computers are used to commit hi-tech crimes and how they are used by people when committing other crimes.

Hi-tech accomplice

This understanding extends beyond mere bits and bytes.

The book he has written, called Traces of Guilt, detailing his part in several high-profile cases, shows the emotional cost of dealing with the grim facts of investigating murder and child pornography.

The reason he was called in to help with such cases, said Dr Barrett, is that computers are now so ubiquitous that they are routinely used to plan and co-ordinate almost every crime.

This is a big change from the early days of his involvement with computer crime.

Back then it was a case of hi-tech tools for hi-tech crimes that contravened various parts of the Computer Misuse Act.

"Now," he said, "these things are automatically used by the criminal classes.

"The computer becomes their address book."

As a result, forensic examination of a suspect's computer is often key to cracking a case.

"It has become as important as protecting fingerprints and footprints and body fluid evidence at a murder scene," he said.

Anything that helps police build up a picture of a suspect's circle of contacts or what they were doing online or before the crime was committed can be enormously useful.

The growing use of computers has set a burden on the police to do a good job of handling the data on a PC.

It's all too easy, said Dr Barrett, to change the data on a PC and taint the chain of evidence that will be presented in court.

"A clumsy bobby will get the information but the important thing is to get the evidence," he said.

Hack and spend

Another trend that Dr Barrett has seen is the creeping criminality of hacking, much of which is now carried out for explicitly financial reward.

Some criminal hackers are threatening to bombard some web-based businesses with gigabytes of data unless large amounts of cash are handed over. It is extortion with a hi-tech gloss.

In Dr Barrett's experience, many of these criminal hackers have full-time jobs in technology.

"Professional hackers are professional in all senses of the word," he said, "they work in the industry."

But, he adds, although there are some criminal hackers there is still a gap between them and other career criminals.

Many malicious or criminal hackers who profit by what they do fall down when trying to spend their ill-gotten gains.

"You can be the world's best hacker but I bet you do not know how to launder or hide the fact that you have got money," he said.

"For a professional crook the object of the exercise is not to get money. It is to spend money without going to prison and that's what hackers need to learn."

He believes that the gap between hackers and criminals is breaking down not least because cash stolen on the net is easy to get away with.

"Where's the money now? It's online," he said. "Now you can steal £1m and it weighs as much as an electron weighs."

Posted by thinkum at 01:08 PM

Taming the Wild West of viruses

With a swift arrest in connection with the Sasser worm, are police finally catching up with the virus writers?

In the Wild West world of the internet, a new sheriff is in town as Microsoft puts a high price on the heads of the virus writers, offering bounties of up to $250,000 for information leading to an arrest.

So far the software giant has not had to pay out a penny.

But just the promise of rich rewards was enough to persuade friends of the German teenager to contact Microsoft and turn him in.

"It was a blatant case of profiteering by his associates. He was grassed on by his fellow virus writers," said Jack Clark, technology consultant at anti-virus firm McAfee.

But if the new era of bounty hunting can lead to arrests, then the anti-virus world is happy that Microsoft is playing a part.

"Anything that cleans up the streets of virus writers has to be welcomed," said Graham Cluley, a senior technologist at anti-virus firm Sophos.

Seeking recognition

The arrest of the German teenager could be the first of many as he could be part of a gang responsible for 28 variants of the so-called Netsky virus.

"This could be one of the most significant cybercrime arrests of all time," Mr Cluley told BBC News Online.

Although the worms are complex and sophisticated, their authors often are not, he said.

"These guys aren't geniuses and their downfall is the fact that they like to brag."

Like the murder mysteries of old, the codes written for the viruses offer tantalising clues about its author.

The writers, generally teenagers, often embed their nicknames in the virus.

Coupled with the fact that they tend to be veracious surfers, posting messages to online chat groups, it becomes clear that the search for them would not exactly tax Hercule Poirot.

Search engines such as Google can check back through years of such postings and can reveal all kinds of information about the worm writers.

A female Belgium virus writer, nicknamed Gigabyte, had a personal grudge against Mr Cluley, often including his picture in her viruses.

"It is incredible how much you can find out about her online, down to the fact that she liked horses," he said.

Hidden clues

The author of the Blaster worm, Jeffrey Parson, included a link to his website in his virus.

And in perhaps the most blatant case of ego among virus writers, the Philippino virus writer Michael Buen put a copy of his CV in his virus.

When the virus became active on a PC, it would automatically print out the CV which contained his real name, job history and contact details and threatening to unleash further viruses unless he was given a job.

Ego tends to be the single biggest factor which allows virus writers to be caught.

If a virus writer fails to leave clues and does not have mates who inform on him then the worrying truth is he simply will not get caught, said McAfee's Mr Clark.

A new school of professional virus writers is emerging, more intend on using viruses to steal money than to make a name for themselves.

This could signal worrying times for computer users.

The prevalence of internet cafes and the use of so-called zombie computers - machines that have been taken over for illegal uses - is making it harder to track down the original source of a virus infection.

But the police are becoming more sophisticated in their approach to the internet and related crime and most now have dedicated cyber crime units.

"The police are much, much better and we go out of our way to help," said Mr Clark.

And, the swiftness of the most recent arrest, is a promising sign that the authorities are catching up with the virus writers.

"From time of threat to discovery of the virus to the arrest of the author, I have never seen anything so quick," said Mr Clark, "although there was still an awful lot of damage done in between."

Posted by thinkum at 01:06 PM

X-Prize 'will be won this year'

The X-Prize, a $10m race to be the first private company to put a craft into space twice in two weeks, will be won soon, believe its organisers.

X-Prize chairman Peter Diamandis says it will be secured within five months.

A total of 26 teams are competing, with SpaceShipOne, an entry by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, considered to be the favourite to win the prize.

Other teams have already started to look at what they might do after the main challenge has been met.

Mr Diamandis was speaking at the recent 41st Space Congress held at Cape Canaveral in Florida, US.

Launch licences

The competition is to place a three-person spaceship on to a suborbital trajectory - reaching an altitude of 100km - twice in two weeks.

The first team to make such a flight will win the multi-million-dollar prize - though in reality, the entrants are likely to have spent much more to make their attempt.

Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, has already flown its spacecraft at altitudes exceeding 50,000ft (15,000m) and at supersonic speeds. Insiders speculate he could make a suborbital flight within a few months.

Other teams are also poised on the verge of a serious launch attempt. In particular, the Canadian Da Vinci team, which uses a balloon to help its craft reach altitude, is said to be making substantial progress.

Rutan may make his attempt from Mojave airport in California. The Da Vinci team has already obtained a launch licence in Canada.

As the race moves to its climax, the X-Prize Foundation has announced that it will henceforth be called the Ansari X-Prize following a multi-million dollar investment by entrepreneurs Anousheh and Amir Ansari.

The Ansari X-Prize Foundation is looking beyond the winning of the prize and considering an annual event that could be held in Florida or New Mexico.

Posted by thinkum at 01:05 PM

US criticised over web controls

The US should reopen most of the sites shut down after September 11 because of terrorism fears, a report says.

The government-funded study found that the vast majority of official sites and databases posed little security risk.

In the aftermath of September 11, the US authorities shut down some 36 sites and more than 600 public databases.

But the report by the Rand Corporation concluded that details about potential targets like airports and power plants, was readily available elsewhere.

The September 11 attacks prompted a debate on access to information on the internet.

In the weeks that followed, the US Government, some organisations and some commercial sites removed or modified information on their websites for fear that the data might be used to launch other attacks.

Some of the information that disappeared from official US websites related to hazardous chemicals.

Other data removed related to information that could help enemies of the US identify targets and plan attacks, such as the location of military bases, pipelines and power plants.

'Knee-jerk' reaction

The report, Mapping the Risks, by the Rand Corporation suggests that the censorship of the web in the months after September 11 was ill-advised.

The researchers looked at 5,000 federal web pages for the study. They found that none of the sites offered any information that was essential to a terrorist.

In any case, much of the data could be found in textbooks, non-government sites, trade journals or maps.

The same applied to virtually all of the 629 officials databases the researchers looked at.

In only four cases was there an argument to restrict prevent public access. These four databases had details about pipelines, nuclear reactors and dams.

The report appears to justify those who accused the Bush administration of acting rashly due to terrorist fears.

"It was a gigantic mistake, and I hope the study brings some rationality back to this policy," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy.

"Up to now, decisions have been made on a knee-jerk basis."

Posted by thinkum at 01:04 PM

Worm boy wonder gives Germany hope

He faces a prison term - not to mention hefty compensation claims - yet the German teenager whose Sasser worm caused global disruption is being seen as something of a boy wonder at home.

Disapproval still reigns supreme. But for a country increasingly dubbed the sick man of Europe, where growth is sluggish, unemployment doggedly high and technological skills in short supply, the arrests of both the Sasser creator and another young virus author at the weekend have stirred up a curious sense of pride.

Two years on, Germany is still reeling from the shock of the international Pisa study which placed their school children in the bottom third of 32 industrialised countries in reading, mathematics and science.

"When the Sasser worm infected millions of computers worldwide, the initial reaction of the authorities was that the programmer was probably sitting in the US or Russia," says Thomas Winkler of the Berlin daily Tageszeitung. "But what we have learnt from this episode is that German school students do not in fact live up to the reputation which the Pisa study bestowed upon them."

"The worm which brought a not inconsiderable proportion of the world to a standstill, stopped aeroplanes from taking off, paralysed a third of Taiwanese post and the European commission, originated from the first floor of a brick house in a back of beyond town with just 800 inhabitants."


There is a tongue in cheek element to some of the glowing appraisals.

Yet the tale of the youngster - who created the virus at his home in the tiny town of Waffensen - has nonetheless been seen as salutary one.

As the son of a computer repair shop owner, he spent much of his time with machines, and had been trying to get a job which would allow him to continue with his hobby.

But according to a number of reports, none of his applications came off.

This has prompted a series of tirades against underinvestment in the youth of Germany, a country which was the first to start offering visas to high-tech workers from outside both Germany and the EU - particularly from India.

"Children not Indians used to be the cry," says the Tagesspiegel's Andreas Oswald - referring to an pro-natal, anti-immigration slogan once employed in a German election campaign.

"Could it now be the case, that our children are the Indians of tomorrow? That we are underestimating the abilities of youth and the potential of our children, and fundamentally failing to appreciate their interests?"

High hopes

Others are however less impressed by the young man's skills - noting that his launch of a new version meant to limit the damage wreaked by the first three failed spectacularly.

''He did it with good intentions, but it had exactly the same damaging effects,'' said Sascha Hanke, a Microsoft data protection official in Germany.

His exact motives for unleashing the virus are still under scrutiny, although investigators have all but dismissed the heart-warming suggestion that it was done to help drum up business for his mother's computer repair shop.

He has been released pending charges, and faces a five year prison sentence when he stands trial - probably in June.

The fact that he was 17 when the crimes were committed is likely to mean a lesser sentence.

But whether on the prison computer or back home in Waffensen, there are high expectations for the country's new boy wonder.

Posted by thinkum at 01:03 PM

'I Dare You'

Madeleine L'Engle on God, 'The Da Vinci Code' and aging well

By Melinda Henneberger

May 7 - On Monday, ABC will air the first movie version of Madeleine L'Engle?s classic book, "A Wrinkle in Time," which was originally published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. According to the author's family, the project -- in various incarnations -- was 25 years in the making. L'Engle is 85 now and has published more than 50 books, including several volumes of reflections on faith. In a rare interview held in the apartment on Manhattan's West End Avenue where she has lived for decades, L'Engle talked to NEWSWEEK's Melinda Henneberger about her God, her work and her competition.

NEWSWEEK: So you've seen the movie?

Madeleine L'Engle: I've glimpsed it.

And did it meet expectations?

Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.

What are you working on at the moment?

A book about aging: enjoy it, you might as well. And it's not all bad. I can say what I want, and I don't get punished for it.

Such as?

Such as I sometimes think God is a s--t?and he wouldn't be worth it otherwise. He's much more interesting when he?s a s--t.

So to you, faith is not a comfort?

Good heavens, no. It's a challenge: I dare you to believe in God. I dare you to think [our existence] wasn't an accident.

Many people see faith as anti-intellectual.

Then they're not very bright. It takes a lot of intellect to have faith, which is why so many people only have religiosity.

Have you read the Harry Potter books?

I read one of them. It's a nice story but there's nothing underneath it. I don't want to be bothered with stuff where there's nothing underneath. Some people say, "Why do you read the Bible?" I say, "Because there's a lot of stuff underneath."

I ask about the Potter books because, like "Wrinkle," they have Christian themes yet have been criticized by some Christians, for similar reasons.

Well, the Fundalets [fundamentalist Christians] want a closed system, and I want an open system.

What were the specific objections to "Wrinkle?"

Oh, the Happy Medium, that terrified them. And Mrs Which, who is not a witch at all but a wise old woman. I felt like I was really "in" because people were condemning it right away. But they were Christians, mostly, and that made me very sad.

Because "Wrinkle" is a Christian story, isn't it?

So is "Winnie the Pooh." Is King Arthur a Christian story? Yes ? One reason I stay in the Episcopal Church I was born in is it's got the best language.

You know Andrew Greeley's argument that a lot of people stay Catholic for the poetry?

If you want the poetry, the Episcopal Church is better. It has the great writers of the 17th century.

You're such a prolific writer; what's your routine?

I just write whenever I can, catch as catch can. I get too nasty if I don't get enough time to write, so I have to take it.

Like a runner denied his runner's high. So what are you reading these days?

I just read "The Da Vinci Code," which had some fascinating things in it. I liked that whole central section about Christianity when it postulates that Jesus was a very strong character and that he and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child.

So you don't avoid best sellers on principle?

I usually let them hang around for at least six months, and if they're still there, then I'll read them. I'm reading a book on mathematics, too. I usually try to read two books at a time, one for fun and one to educate myself. "The Da Vinci Code" is fun.

Did you see there are several books coming out refuting "The Da Vinci Code"?

That's silly. It takes too much energy to be against something unless it's really important. Now if you're against evolution, that's important.

What are you against?

Narrow-mindedness. I'm against people taking the Bible absolutely literally, rather than letting some of it be real fantasy, like Jonah. You know, the whole story of David is a novel ? Faith is best expressed in story.

If the Bible is not literally true, does that mean we don't need to take it seriously?

Oh no, you do, because it's truth, not fact, and you have to take truth seriously even when it expands beyond the facts.

So when you call the Bible a book of stories, you're not diminishing it?

Anything but. Right from the beginning, from the story of Eve. Eve has gone on to be considered far worse than she is in the direct Bible story -- and David far better. I love the story of Jonah; I think it's very funny. And I like the story of Esther, as long as you stop about a quarter of the way through, before she turns into a real bloody girl.

I always felt sorry for Vashti, though -- the first Mrs. Ahasuerus. All she did was refuse to dance.

Yes, she gets forgotten. But that was a very big thing she did, refuse to dance. Enormous.

A couple of the characters in "Wrinkle," have what you call a "compulsion" to do something, for reasons they can't explain. Do you think we?re all a little psychic in that way?

Oh, yes. Society has taught us to repress it, but it's there.

"Wrinkle" was rejected repeatedly before it was published. Were you confident then you'd have a breakthrough?

No, there was a period when I thought I never would. But I kept on writing because that's what I had to do. I was compelled not to stop.

The author in 2001
George M. Gutierrez / The New York Times

Posted by thinkum at 09:24 AM

May 10, 2004

Movie pilots ready for capsule catch

Not since the Apollo missions of the 1970s has Nasa brought back extraterrestrial samples to Earth.

Now its Genesis spacecraft is set to end that dry spell by returning samples it has collected of the solar wind.

But when the capsule parachutes down to the Utah desert in September, it will be anything but a run of the mill landing, as Rachael Buchanan found out when she attended the final dress rehearsal in Utah.

It's 3.15pm and out on the white salt flats of the US Army's Dugway test range Don Sevilla once again raises his tiny binoculars and scans the cloudless skies.

Despite the blinding Sun there's a cold wind whipping across the endless Utah plains that bites through every layer of clothing and makes everyone's eyes tear up.

But Sevilla and his companions seem oblivious to the contradictory elements.

Every one of the assembled Genesis team stares up intently, awaiting the appearance of a helicopter and the start of this latest rehearsal.

This is sample return 21st-Century style. No gentle ocean splashdown - on re-entry in September, the Genesis capsule will head straight for this desert and even its two parachutes won't ensure a soft enough landing for the delicate cargo.

Swatting particles

So LA based scientists at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have borrowed some tricks and personnel from their glitzier neighbours in the Hollywood hills.

Before the capsule hits the dirt, movie stunt pilots will snatch it from the sky using an 18ftt pole and hook suspended below their helicopters. Or at least that's the plan.

As the distant thwack of rotor blades signal the chopper's approach, Sevilla anxiously raises his binoculars again.

Come September, a successful mid-air retrieval will be essential. Genesis has spent the last two-and-a-half years in space, basking in the solar wind, and on board is the collector system his team designed.

"It's like very expensive fly-paper. The collectors are wafers of silicon, sapphire, gold and diamond, tiled over several square feet and the solar particles embed into these solid materials," Sevilla said.

"But our total collection is just a few micrograms, on the order of a couple of grains of table salt."

Herein lies the reason for the mid-air ballet - the samples are miniscule and the wafers extremely delicate.

Sign of success

There's a collector for each kind of solar wind (fast, slow and coronal mass ejection) with another two constantly exposed, tasting the overall flavour of the Sun.

A hard impact could shatter the fragile tiles, mixing up the samples.

Unlike the rest of the Solar System, the Sun has kept the same composition as the cloud of dust and gas from which our planets formed.

So despite its Lilliputian scale, this sample could increase our understanding of how our corner of the galaxy evolved into the diverse planetary bodies we see today.

In the skies above, the chopper drops its cargo, which freefalls momentarily, before the rectangular parafoil inflates; slowing the descent to a lazy 10 mph.

Seven thousand feet up, the chopper lowers its boom and moves in for capture. The pole scrapes over the top of the chute and the collapse of the canopy confirms the capsule has been snagged. The second success of the day.

Back on the ground in his sunglasses and Nasa flightsuit, Dan Rudert looks every inch the Hollywood stunt pilot. While the softly spoken native of Salt Lake City is surprisingly modest and appreciative of the unique opportunity he has been given, he is in no doubt why he and fellow pilot, Cliff Flemming, were picked for the job.

All weathers

"In a way this is a lot like a movie stunt. You get asked to do a lot of crazy things by directors - people grappling out of your helicopter; flying over buildings or cars that blow up. But this stunt is not fiction; it's the real deal.

"On 8 September the space capsule comes in on this day and this day only and you better be ready and able to catch it - you don't get another chance."

Both pilots make it look easy, but Rudert is very aware of how risky the manoeuvre is.

"You have to be at a pretty close proximity to make sure you get it on the hook. If I'm a little too high it can rip through the canopy. If I'm too low then I can hook it through the skids and get it up into the tail rotor."

They've all been at this since 1998, before the probe was even launched, and Sevilla is very happy with day's outcome.

"This was fantastic," he said. "We've tested it in all sorts of weather now, in high winds this afternoon and with it starting out of vision above the clouds this morning. So we have proved it can be done in most conditions."

But what about the pilots - is Rudert confident they can repeat this success in September?

"We'll see who is closest between me and Cliff but we'll catch it. Absolutely."

Posted by thinkum at 01:39 PM

Biting into the new sex text craze

Seedy text messaging has hit the headlines recently with claims about the private life of a world class footballer

But a craze called Toothing may soon make that look very tame.

The name comes from their use of Bluetooth - a short-range communication feature on some phones.

It is being used to find like-minds who want an anonymous intimate encounter.

"Toothers" beam phone numbers between handsets in places such as bars, restaurants and train stations.

From here, they use conventional text messaging to organise their meeting place and what they want from the encounter.

The practice of "Toothing" has spread around the internet like wildfire.

One practitioner is Jon, a "Toother" living near London.

"One morning I received an anonymous text message via bluetooth," he told BBC News.

"I didn't understand what had happened, but that evening I did some research and worked out how to send my own."

The pair started to exchange messages on a train station platform; messages which got gradually more flirty.

"Eventually she asked me if I fancied a quickie in the toilets at the station we were travelling to.

"It happened, but I never saw her again."

Since that day Jon - who claims to have had Toothing success five times - has set up a website dedicated to the practice but he admits it takes a degree of perseverance.

The forum on the website even goes as far as organising places to meet for Toothing encounters.

Psychologist Linda Blair, from the University of Bath. says the practice of Toothing is down to the human need to take risks.

"I think we protect ourselves too much in modern society, and risk is a human need. We need motivation," she said.

"In some ways this is a tame way of picking people up, it's almost a natural follow up from randomly picking people's names out of the phone book.

"It's voluntary at all stages, and has choice. As long as that's there and it's legal, then people should be able to do what they want."

Sue Peters from the Terrence Higgins Trust warned that anonymous sex can also carry a great deal of risk.

"Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase in the UK. One in 10 people under the age of 25 have Chlamydia.

"Oral sex can also carry risk, especially through bacterial infection.

"I don't want to put a dampner on people's sexual practices, but we would advise them to be careful."

Posted by thinkum at 01:39 PM

Oldest hummingbird fossils found

A pair of 30 million-year-old fossils from southern Germany are the oldest fossil hummingbirds, a researcher says.

The location of the finds is unexpected, because today the birds are only known from the Americas.

In the latest edition of Science magazine, Dr Gerald Mayr claims the fossils show many striking resemblances to modern hummingbird groups.

The extinct hummingbirds may have influenced the shape of some modern Asian and African flowers.

"Fossils of primitive hummingbirds have been found in the Old World before, but it was a great surprise to find a bird that looked so similar to the modern hummingbirds of the Old World," Dr Mayr, of the Senkenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, told BBC News Online.

Other fossil hummingbirds have been found in Central America, Europe and Asia, but they are either very different from modern ones or are known from just a few bones.

The new fossils, which have been assigned to the species Eurotrochilus inexpectatus, were endowed with long, nectar-sucking beaks and wings designed for feeding while hovering.

They share key anatomical features on their wings with modern hummingbirds. The primitive hummingbird Jungornis tesselatus lacks these features.

Mystery extinction

This suggests that Eurotrochilus and modern hummingbirds belong together in a distinct group of birds, while Jungornis belongs to another, more primitive group.

"Maybe hummingbirds used to have a much wider distribution but, for some reason, they went extinct in the Old World," said Dr Mayr.

Dr Mayr said he had no idea what caused this extinction.

Professor Ethan Temeles, of Amherst College in Massachusetts, US, speculated that the extinction could have been caused by climate change.

"Certainly if you consider the small size of hummingbirds, if there were climatic changes, that might have been the factor responsible," he told BBC News Online.

"If you look at temperate, migratory hummingbirds that are coming up to, for example, Canada - if you end up having a snowstorm early in the year or late in the year, it can kill the population."

But Professor Temeles said that competition between hummingbirds and other nectar-feeding birds might also have been a factor.

Extinct hummingbirds might also have helped determine the shape of some modern Asian and African flowers through a back-and-forth evolutionary process called co-evolution.

These plants may include the species Canarina eminii, Impatiens sakeriana and Agapetes.

"If you take one of the North American species of Impatiens, it has a very long floral tube that's shaped like a trumpet, ending in a nectar tube or spur.

"The nectar-containing spur associates with the hummingbird beak to some extent - though not perfectly. At the same time, they contain petals around the flower which suggests they provide a landing platform for bees."

Dr Mayr added: "Botanists now have to look at plants in the Old World to see if any of them show evidence of co-evolving with hummingbirds."

Posted by thinkum at 01:38 PM

Press play for politics

How punitive laws on copyright and e-snooping might just make activists of us all.

It's not just technology that defines what the future will be like. Laws do too.

Technology and gadgets set the limit on what is possible. Laws dictate what is permissible - or, at least, try to.

One man who knows better than most about this conflict between the law and technology is Cory Doctorow, who recently moved to London to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the body which aims to ensure that legislation nurtures rather than overrides digital rights.

One of the web's "neterati", he is co-editor of the Boing Boing weblog, which aims to be "a directory of wonderful things", and a science-fiction writer.

Sound arguments

He says the EFF's most obvious area of concern is the continuing wrangle over music copyright.

The US record companies want - and have largely got - laws that impose severe penalties for breach of copyright. Europe, too, has made an effort to crack down on those who copy music and films.

These laws allow the Recording Industry Association of America to take action against thousands of people sharing music online, many of whom are forced into settlements because the penalties if they lost would be so severe.

For Mr Doctorow and the EFF, this over-zealous protection of copyright is short-sighted.

"There's nothing wrong with regulation, but I would love to see a race to the top rather than the bottom," says Mr Doctorow.

Current copyright controls are about protecting the economic interests of 2% of rights-holders at the expense of the other 98%, and an IT industry that's many times the size of the entertainment industry, he says.

This takes little account of the broader social benefits of less punitive regimes.

"There's any amount of entrepreneurial enterprise that thrives in weaker copyright regimes. They should try for the largest amount of creativity from the largest amount of players."

Cash cows

Such strict laws help control the people that can do least about them - consumers. Music firms are not putting digital locks on CDs and downloaded files to deter pirates.

"Technical sophisticates and dishonest users are not stopped by this. Ukrainian pirate gangs are not slowed down by digital rights management," he says.

Instead these locks milk cash from ordinary consumers, such as the mother unable to make a video copy of an expensive DVD in case the children break it.

"The people slowed down by [digital locks] are those that can least afford it. These people are just going to get screwed and that's a shame."

At present, the only way around this is to swap files online, to find ways to crack the locks or to buy from pirates. It would be far better, the EFF and Mr Doctorow believes, if file sharers could buy a cheap blanket licence - much like those granted to radio stations - that allows them to swap files.

Cash generated by the licence would be shared with record makers, and a small portion given to artists.

Power to the people

In the US, copyright laws and lawsuits against file-swappers are gradually politicising everyday activities - folk who normally shy away from politics have been spurred into writing letters or e-mails to their representatives.

In the EFF's early days, it co-ordinated the writing of about 400 letters. Today campaigns with at least 15,000 participants are not uncommon.

This lobbying has proved effective. In the US, it has forced politicians to introduce laws limiting media consolidation, against the wishes of groups wanting to merge into media giants.

And in the UK, early proposals to extend rights to snoop on the electronic communications of hundreds of organisations have been defeated after to a fax-writing campaign. The government has also received an unprecedented number of submissions on ID cards.

"This says to me that we have a way to communicate that our politicians cannot cope with," Mr Doctorow says.

He believes that the creeping activism of digital life will only increase as copyright controls in the UK start to bite. Then he expects consumers to rebel and demand want they want, rather than what the powers-that-be try to impose.

Posted by thinkum at 01:37 PM

US powerless to halt Iraq net images

Last year's US-led war in Iraq presented a showcase for the Pentagon's superior military technology - but as the occupation drags on, gadgetry is increasingly showing another side of the American armed forces.

When the shocking images depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops began to surface, it became clear that many of them were amateur pictures, apparently taken by soldiers using their own private digital cameras.

The internet also played a role in the distribution of the photographs, highlighting the ease with which troops serving in Iraq can now send pictures to friends and relatives back home.

Many of these are quite innocuous, the equivalent of the snaps taken by tourists abroad. But whatever the content, the images are not subject to any kind of military censorship and are transmitted freely back to the US.

In his testimony to congressional committees, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated that the flood of pictures was now beyond the US authorities' control.

"There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist," he said. "If these are released to the public, obviously it is going to make matters worse... I looked at them last night and they are hard to believe."

Unapproved footage

Mr Rumsfeld was indignant at the publication of such images: "We're functioning with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise."

However, he admitted that he had not realised the seriousness of the allegations until the pictures were leaked to the media.

The internet has been acting as an unofficial clearing-house for all sorts of unapproved images of conflict in Iraq.

The Pentagon wanted to ban the pictures to protect soldiers' families
Photographs of the coffins of dead American soldiers repatriated from Iraq were published on the web, but only after activists successfully filed a Freedom of Information Act request to overcome the Pentagon's objections.

And at least one website is showing a video report containing footage apparently shot from the cockpit of a US military helicopter and showing the killing of a wounded insurgent in cold blood.

The film is said to have come from a European working as a sub-contractor for the US Army who left Iraq last month.

Despite Mr Rumsfeld's concerns, the American military does not have any centrally determined policy on the use of digital cameras by soldiers. That is left to commanding officers in the field.

A spokesman for US Central Command in Iraq, Lt Cdr Nick Balice, told BBC News Online: "Certainly the use of digital cameras and the internet provides methods of communicating that did not exist prior.

"As far as I know, there is not a policy that covers theatre-wide with regards to digital cameras. It depends on what area they are in - there may be restrictions, such as along flight lines or within secure areas."

Internet links

BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus points out that frontline soldiers in combat zones are normally too busy to take pictures and that this is more of an issue for what are called "rear area support troops".

"The US military have reasonably sophisticated camps for their troops," he says.

"In those places, they're often linked to the internet and it's a legitimate means of allowing soldiers to communicate with their families. It's hard to control the content of what they're saying."

Jonathan Marcus argues that social change, just as much as technological change, is responsible for the climate that allows these images of abuse to circulate.

"In World War I, the only means of communication was by letter, and military mail was heavily censored. Even when soldiers returned home, social pressures probably led them not to talk at length about the issues they faced.

"Now it's different - you have a professional army and people have a different attitude to authority."

In a less deferential society, today's soldiers would be unlikely to tolerate the level of censorship that was considered routine in previous conflicts.

But of course, the real issue is not the depiction of the abuse, but the fact that it should have happened at all.

"Certainly one of the issues that might be looked into is the use of digital cameras and whether or not any policy might be desirable," says US Central Command's Lt Cdr Balice.

"But if there's some kind of thought that we might introduce a policy because we fear that wrongdoing might be exposed, then that is incorrect. In any case, the photographing of detainees is prohibited."

Ultimately, then, the only way that the coalition can prevent the spread of images depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is to prevent the abuse itself.

Technology may change, but the morality of war will always pose the same dilemmas.

Posted by thinkum at 01:37 PM

Tumour diary: Waking up from the chemo sleep

BBC News Online science and technology writer Ivan Noble was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in August 2002.

Since his diagnosis, he has been sharing his experiences in an online diary.

This is the first time I have written in several weeks.

I have been spending a lot of time asleep.

The reason I think is that the side effects of my chemotherapy have finally kicked in in a big way.

The first cycle of treatment, which ended well over a month ago, was pretty much unnoticeable until the very end.

But this second cycle has been exactly as predicted, with my hyperactivity giving way to serious lethargy ten days after I took the tablets.

Lethargic is the way I have stayed.

'Sliding by'

Before I was waking between 4 and 6 am with my mind racing, often having finished everything I wanted to write before anyone else in my time-zone was awake.

Now, I am waking about 7.30, downing the coffee and sweet porridge which I am often delighted to find by my bedside, then falling asleep again before 9am despite the best efforts of the Today programme (I should turn it up again after 'Thought for the Day').

Actual dressing rarely happens before lunch and sometimes not at all.

The good side of all this has to be that rest must be doing me good. I feel well and everyone else, when they catch me awake, seems to think I look OK.

The downside is that the days are just sliding by, with nothing to distinguish one from the next.

It really is the case that drama and crisis cause time to slow down, while peace, quiet, rest and lack of calamities make the time go by faster.

Today at least I have moved locations, back to Scotland again, albeit Edinburgh instead of the highlands.

I am setting in to a long weekend of relaxation and good company here.

I had half a mind to apologise for this report being so short.

But I am not going to. I am really glad that nothing bar a couple of minor headaches have happened to me since I last wrote and that I am living the quiet life. It is good for me. Drama will return in its own good time.

Posted by thinkum at 01:36 PM

Boomerangs a 'British invention'

Children's author Terry Deary claims the famous "Swastika Stone" on Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire proves the boomerang was invented in the UK.

The Horrible Histories writer argues the carving, said to be 3-4,000 years old, can only be a throwing device.

But Gavin Edwards, West Yorkshire's County Archaeologist, doubts the Deary interpretation and believes the rock art has a simpler explanation.

"The swastika was a common abstract symbol in prehistoric Europe," he said.

Angry Australians

The famous four-armed carving is a popular tourist attraction.

"It is one of thousands of abstract carvings on rocks in the area," Mr Edwards told BBC News Online.

Terry Deary came up with his assessment while out jogging on the moor.

"It's the earliest representation of a boomerang. There is nothing else it could be," he said.

There is evidence that many Stone Age civilisations used throwing sticks, but Aboriginal Australians have commonly been associated with their invention, about 10,000 years ago.

It is Deary's claim, however, that the Ilkley Moor carving would be the first representation of a return boomerang. Over time, the two-armed boomerang was developed.

Mr Edwards, whose job it is to protect the Ilkley Moor carvings, does not however think it is a boomerang.

"There are almost identical swastika symbols found carved on rocks in Italy, Sweden and Portugal," he says.

The swastika symbol was often used by ancient peoples. It is thought to represent the Sun. It bears only a little resemblance to the emblem used by the Nazi's in the last century.

Victorian prank

Gavin Edwards even has a sneaking suspicion that the Ilkley Moor swastika may not be entirely authentic.

"It is very difficult to date rock carvings," he said. "After all, they are just damage to the surface of a rock.

"I have no proof of this but I suspect that it is possible the Victorians - who wanted to promote the region as a place worth visiting - may have embellished some rock carvings on the moors to add to the region's appeal."

However, most of the rock carvings are undoubtedly authentic - if mysterious in origin.

"We do not know why they are there. Clearly there was a thought process behind their shapes and the places where they were carved, but we do not know what it is," Mr Edwards said.

"Remember, 4,000 years ago the moors would have been heavily wooded, meaning that we do not see them today as they were originally."

Posted by thinkum at 01:35 PM

Maya culture 'ahead of its time'

Elaborate ritual objects and carved masks have been uncovered in the ancient ruins of a city in Guatemala.

Exploration of the 2,000-year-old site has caused archaeologists to question the established chronology of the enigmatic Maya civilisation.

The city, Cival, thrived in what is generally considered the "pre-classic" period - but it bore the hallmarks of the more advanced "classic" period.

The excavations were supported by the National Geographic Society.

The ancient city of Cival, in Guatemala's Peten region, was first mapped by the explorer Ian Graham in 1984. Since 2001, it has been the focus of an exhaustive excavation, led by Francisco Estrada-Belli, of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, US.

His team's discoveries have included two monumental carved masks, 120 pieces of polished jade, a ceremonial centre that spanned 800m (2,600ft) and an inscribed stone slab dating to 300 BC.

Maya deity

Cival had pyramids and a large complex surrounding a central plaza. The buildings were carefully positioned so they faced the sunrise in the equinox. According to Professor Estrada-Belli, this suggests they were used to measure time.

"It had an important astronomical function," Professor Estrada-Belli said. "It's not coincidence that the central axis of the main buildings and the plaza is oriented to sunrise at the equinox."

The lead archaeologist said his most exciting find turned up in a dank tunnel dug in the side of a pyramid.

While he was inspecting the tunnel, he reached into a crack in the wall - and felt a curved piece of stucco. Digging to it from the other side, he found a well-preserved giant face of a Maya deity.

The 4.5m by 3m (15ft by 9ft) stucco mask had one eye visible and the mouth squared, with snake's fangs in its centre. "The mask's preservation is astounding," Professor Estrada-Belli said. "It's almost as if someone made this yesterday."

Excavations this April revealed a second, apparently identical, mask on the other side of a set of stairs.

Professor Estrada-Belli believes the masks flanked the staircase of the pyramid that led to the chamber, serving as the backdrop for a ritual involving the Maya king.

Pre-classic or classic?

After several seasons of digging, the researchers believe Cival was one of the largest Maya cities of the time. In its prime - between 150 BC and AD 100 - it had a buzzing population of around 10,000. But it was not just the city's size that made it remarkable.

As the archaeologists learn more about life in the city of Cival, they are finding it does not sit comfortably with existing notions of Mayan civilisation.

Strictly speaking, Cival flourished in the pre-classic period, which stretches from 2000 BC to AD 240. But it was more advanced than pre-classic societies were thought to be.

It had kings, complex iconography, grand palaces, writing and polychrome ceramics: all the hallmarks of the later - and apparently more civilised - classic period.

"It is pretty clear that 'pre-classic' is a misnomer," said Professor Estrada-Belli. "It's very interesting when we reverse some existing ideas. We thought the pre-classic Maya were a relatively simple society - and they were not."

"There was a whole civilization during the pre-classic time we are just beginning to recover," he added.

Professor Fred Valdez, a Maya expert from the University of Texas, Austin, is in strong agreement. "These finds show that Maya civilisation advanced earlier than folks have previously thought," he told BBC News Online. "Classic and pre-classic are unfortunate terms in relation to when civilisation was reached.

"There are a significant number of cultural changes that occurred between the two periods - so I don't think the two terms will stop being used - but it needs to be cleared up about when we think Maya society became civilised."

He added: "It needs to be recognised that civilisation was not confined to classic Maya societies. This research has provided a great support to that argument."

Posted by thinkum at 01:35 PM

E-mail provides Arctic lifeline

The Arctic wilderness may seem like the last place on Earth to send and receive e-mail.

But a team taking part in a recent race to the Magnetic North Pole found that they were able to do just that by using PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants).

They found that the handheld computers fared much better in the extreme cold than other equipment.

"It was our link to civilisation," said Paul "Seamus" Hogan, a member of Team Fujitsu who is now in London, "but it also made you feel that you were a long way from home."

Slow connection

Eight teams made up of three explorers took part in last month's Polar Challenge, covering 280 nautical miles in a race to be the first to reach the North Pole.

Traditionally such teams would rely on satellite phones to keep in touch, but reception in the Arctic can be patchy and unreliable.

So one of the teams sponsored by Fujitsu decided instead to turn to e-mail to report back to base and let loved ones at home know how they were doing.

They used PDAs to connect to an Iridium satellite and then hooked up to the internet.

"We normally had a 10-minute window at the end of a 12 to 14 hour trek to send a short message," recalled Mr Hogan, a client services operations manager who was invited to join Team Fujitsu.

"The e-mails got shorter as we got more tired," he told BBC News Online.

The messages had to be brief as the team were relying on an internet connection of just 2.4Kbps, about a twentieth of a standard dial-up connection.

Hardware extremes

Mr Hogan said the daily messages were a way of reassuring his partner Sophie that everything was fine, especially after the day when they came across a polar bear.

"It was harder for her at home with our newly-born baby," he said, "worrying about him and also about me."

Surprisingly, the team found that the PDAs coped remarkably well with the cold. Initially Mr Hogan carried it in his long johns to keep the device warm.

But he later discovered that the PDA worked just as well when it was exposed to the cold.

In contrast, Mr Hogan found that his MP3 player tended to seize up due to the icy climate.

Temperatures during the Challenge dropped as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius.

Now back at his desk in London, he has no regrets about putting himself through such a challenge.

"I feel a great sense of achievement," he said. "It was a great adventure and a way to see what I was made of, physically and mentally, in a beautiful but brutal part of the world."

Posted by thinkum at 01:34 PM

Drug zaps fat cells into oblivion

Scientists are developing a new obesity treatment that destroys the blood supply to fat tissue.

Mice fed a high-fat diet lost 30% of their body weight in just four weeks on the treatment - originally designed to combat cancer.

However, scientists at the University of Texas warn development is at an early stage, and there is a high potential risk of side effects.

Their work is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Each fat cell in the body is connected to many tiny capillaries, giving them a rich supply of blood on which to thrive.

The researchers, at the University of Texas' Anderson Cancer Centre, identified a protein - prohibitin - that identifies fat cells and helps to construct the network of blood vessels that feed them.

They made the protein lethal by attaching it to another protein that triggers the cells in the blood vessels to commit suicide.

The modified combination proved to be highly effective at destroying fat tissue by dismantling its blood supply, effectively starving it to death.

When it was injected into mice they ate less food, and seemed to have a higher metabolic rate.

Side effects

The animals also seemed to tolerate the treatment well, showing few signs of side effects.

However, it is known that loss of fat cells can have detrimental effects - such as the accumulation of fat in non-fat tissue.

The researchers also warned that other research which has produced startling results in rodents has failed to produce the same effect in humans.

The next step will be to test the treatment on baboons, which do put on weight in the same way as humans.

Researcher Dr Renata Pasqualini said: "If even a fraction of what we found in mice relates to human biology, then we are cautiously optimistic that there may be a new way to think about reversing obesity."

The treatment is similar to a new class of anti-cancer drugs called angiogenesis inhibitors which starve tumours by cutting off their blood supply.

Dr Ian Campbell, chairman of the UK National Obesity Forum, told BBC News Online the drug appeared to work in a different way from those already on the market.

He said: "This is a fascinating study, and these guys are clearly at the leading edge of technology.

"But this is a long, long, long way from being a drug that is applicable to humans."

Professor Ian MacDonald, an expert on metabolic physiology, told BBC News Online he had concerns about what would happen to fat tissue destroyed by the treatment.

He said there was potential for it to lead to excessively high fat levels in the blood.

"This may end up being better as a preventative treatment to stop being becoming obese in the first place," he said.

Obesity is a significant, and growing problem throughout the developed world.

Posted by thinkum at 01:34 PM

Nancy Reagan plea on stem cells

Former US First Lady Nancy Reagan urged the Bush administration to support embryonic stem cell research.

Mrs Reagan said too much time had been wasted already discussing the issue.

She is said to believe the research could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's disease, which has afflicted her husband, Ronald Reagan.

The Bush administration has blocked public funding of this type of research because of his party's ethical reservations about embryo research.

At a fundraising dinner for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Hollywood, Mrs Reagan said her husband was now in "a distant place where I can no longer reach him".

"I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this... We have lost so much time already. I just really can't bear to lose any more."

She said she believed stem cell research "may provide our scientists with many answers that for so long have been beyond our grasp".

It is thought to be the first time that Mrs Reagan has made a public speech on the issue, although her views have long been known.

Political debate

Mrs Reagan is the latest high-profile figure to criticise the Bush administration for its decision to limit funding for stem cell research.

Former Superman actor Christopher Reeve, left severely disabled following a riding accident, and actor Michael J. Fox, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease, have both criticised the Bush administration for blocking research which they believe could improve their conditions.

Currently federal funds are not available for this type of work.

Mr Bush has told scientists he will not release US taxpayers' money for the production or investigation of new lines because it involves the destruction of human embryos.

Correspondents say that with the Bush administration and anti-abortion groups strongly opposed to stem cell research, Mrs Reagan's comments add a powerful conservative Republican voice to the debate.

Posted by thinkum at 01:33 PM

Bihar overlooked by 'Shining India'

Violence and political corruption are troubling India's general election, which is again highlighting the vast disparity between a poor underclass and a rich elite.

Praveen is a stout, cheerful woman, braving the chaos of cycle rickshaws and wobbling bicycles with a determined smile.

As megaphones blare, she stops one passer by after another, trying to persuade them to sign a petition.

It is election time - but her evangelical zeal is not for a particular party or candidate but for democracy itself.

Praveen and her colleagues are taking their lives in their hands, and not just in the traffic.

We are in Patna, capital of the state of Bihar, the notorious bad boy of Indian politics.

It has a reputation for violent and corrupt politicians, election fraud and an electorate that has largely abandoned hope.

As part of an independent monitoring body, Praveen is trying to take the politicians to task.

The only other woman in sight is an emaciated beggar, cradling a sick child.

Scruffy youths hang about aimlessly, leaning on each other's shoulders, teeth stained red with betel nut.

Informed decision

In this election and for the first time, Praveen tells me, every candidate must declare key information.

Their wealth. Their debts. And, crucially here, lists of criminal charges against them.

So far, about one in five faces criminal proceedings. She wants the public - many of them illiterate - to make an informed decision.

But even she falters when I ask her if what happens in Bihar is really democracy.

She throws her head back and laughs. Finally saying: "It's democracy gone wrong."

It is easy to understand why many here despair. Bihar is one of India's poorest states, desperate for development.

Its villages have few schools and clinics, and terrible roads.

It is also deeply scarred by decades of caste conflict, an endless cycle of attacks and counter-attacks between Hindu communities.

They define themselves by the social and religious categories they assume at birth.

Politicians have even been accused of fuelling the violence as a way of keeping caste loyalties strong.

The campaign talk does not address these burning issues.

Many here, who bother to vote, will do so unthinkingly along caste lines.

We drove out along pot-holed tracks to a small village, scene of one of the latest caste murders.

Mistaken identity

Chando, a scrawny woman in her 50s, crouched on her haunches in the darkness of a mud-walled one room home, thick with flies.

Villagers pressed round to listen. She could barely speak for weeping, rubbing the heel of her hands back and forth across her face.

Her brother-in-law, she said, was shot dead a few weeks ago by a gang of upper caste men. A case of mistaken identity.

He was the sole breadwinner for two families. Would she vote in the election? She shook her head. What was the point?

On voting day, we saw short queues of government workers at some polling stations - but also groups of young men with sticks hanging around in the street.

The riot police were out in force but by the end of the day reports were coming in of intimidation by gangs, election violence, even deaths.

The new electronic voting machines just introduced are designed to stop fraud. But they even cannot do much about an entrenched culture of lawlessness.

Bihar is an example of India at its worst, a largely hidden shame.

Its poverty is worlds away from the modern face of India, the plush new shopping centres of the capital, Delhi.

Here, under spotless glass and chrome, the affluent middle classes stroll arm in arm, enjoying snacks and soft drinks, browsing the latest fashions and hi-tech gadgets.

Security guards on the doors keep out undesirable elements.

'India is Shining'

The middle classes, much emphasised nowadays, are really a tiny elite.

One in three Indians still does not get enough to eat.

But those middles classes are high profile and mostly solid supporters of the ruling party, the BJP.

The party's feel good slogan, "India is Shining" was written with them in mind.

I meet a young couple, a dentist and a psychiatrist, strolling with their three year old son.

"Voting is very important", the husband tells me, nodding sagely.

"It's our duty. Democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people."

I ask them if they think politicians get their priorities right when there's still so much poverty? They look bemused.

"But the basic issues are being addressed", they explain. "India is shining."

The husband pauses to think. "Perhaps we need to emphasise family planning more," he says at last, "because the poorer people are multiplying."

By now their own son is getting fractious, clamouring for attention.

It will be a long time before he gets a vote, I say. What changes would they like to see by then?

We would definitely like more improvements, more development, they say.

"And more shopping centres like this," exclaims the wife, laughing, before they stroll off.

It is almost certain the India their son inherits will still have democracy.

It will also have many more air-conditioned shopping centres in its big cities.

No doubt he will spend many happy hours there. But will he ever, I wonder, visit the struggling state of Bihar?

And if he does, what changes, if any, would he find?

Posted by thinkum at 01:32 PM

May 07, 2004

Moving Relationships

Befriending the Automobile to Relieve Anxiety

Jameson M. Wetmore

As Sara began the long drive up one of Ithaca?s infamous hills, she became a bit worried. Her hand-me-down car was beginning to lose the momentum it had built up on the approach. She heard the engine become more and more strained for power. As she began to question her car?s ability to make it to the top of a hill, she suddenly blurted out "C?mon Betsy C?mon!"

In a sudden, frustrated plea, Sara had done three interrelated things. First she had talked to her car. Second she had given her car a human name. Third, by acting as though she was communicating to it as she would a human being, she had anthropomorphized it.

Sara had never named a piece of technology before, nor had she ever thought of her car as a living thing. But over the subsequent months she reflected on this experience. She decided that the name "Betsy" was appropriate for her automobile, despite the fact that she had first used it before she even realized what she was saying. The name conjured up images of cows for her and was thus good for a car that, according to her, was the traditional cow colors of black and white and "drives like a cow since it has no pick-up." From then on, Sara would occasionally talk to her car and refer to it as "Betsy" especially when the car was acting "cow-like" or "stubborn." She no longer thought of her car as only a collection of mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical systems. She sometimes viewed it as a friend or partner in the driving process as well.


At first this story about Sara?s experiences seems to be humorous or at least foolish. Modern science argues that an automobile is not alive, much less human, and thus it seems illogical to treat one as if it were a living thing or human being. But it is unlikely that Sara has occasional fits of madness when she calls her automobile by name. She was a well-adjusted senior at a world-renowned university when she was having difficulty making it up that hill. It is also not likely that she merely conjured up the practice to amuse herself or her friends. She had screamed at "Betsy" before she even realized what she was doing. So what was the meaning of these actions?

To understand the answer to this question I interviewed 15 people and examined a similar number of stories from travel journals, magazine articles, and biographies written over the past century. In this essay I will explore Sara?s experience and similar stories about people who have befriended their automobiles, given them names, and talked to them on occasion. I will argue that the precise instant that Sara named her car was not arbitrary, but rather that the actions she took were a way of alleviating the frustrations she was experiencing. I will show that the practice of envisioning an automobile as a companion is often wrapped up in concerns about reliability and safety and can be a psychological response to calm the anxiety that such concerns cause. Interacting with an automobile as though it were human opens up a way of conceptualizing its "incomprehensible" mechanical problems and offers a method of communicating with an automobile that is understandable to people who are more comfortable with human interactions. This relationship, in turn, is occasionally used as a way to calm a person when the driving situation appears dangerous. Thinking of the driving process as a team effort helps give the driver the confidence that often results when more than one person is working together toward the same goal. Conceiving of an automobile as a friendly companion is a method many people use to assimilate the sometimes troubling technology into their everyday lives.


I want to use this study to show how personal assimilation of processes and artifacts is an important part of the story of technology in society. The SCOT approach to the history of technology argues that initially different social groups negotiate the meaning of a technology. If a general consensus is reached, a single meaning becomes dominant, and the technology?s basic use and material construction is defined. Once this is achieved, however, negotiation does not abruptly end. The process of accepting a technology must continue on an individual level. Each person who uses a technology must learn how to integrate it into their life.

This is not always a seamless transition. Assimilation is difficult for people who view a device as physically menacing, a threat to social order, or simply as too complicated to use safely. In these situations the negotiations an individual has with a technology are often readily visible.

For instance, in their "Users as Agents of Technological Change" paper, Ron Kline and Trevor Pinch argue that many rural people were initially rigorously opposed to the automobile. Most farmers saw it as a vehicle that tore up their roads and flattened their livestock. It threatened their sense of order. Eventually rural people grew to accept the technology, but only after some negotiations took place. For instance, many farm people used the automobile to plow their fields and power various pieces of equipment. This translation of the automobile into their own terms and particular uses, Kline and Pinch argue, made the technology much more agreeable to rural people. It helped them to overcome their fears and integrate the technology into their lives.

In his study of railroad experience in the 1800s, Wolfgang Schivelbusch also argues that conceptual change is important in assimilating technologies. He notes that many people had problems dealing with the visual stimuli generated by train rides. Many people at the time were used to viewing details as they traveled. Even on a reasonably fast horse or coach ride, the rocks that made up the road and the flowers that lined it were readily visible. The speed of railways, however, reduced these nearby objects to a confusing blur. This change in visual stimuli caused anxiety for many people. In order to ease this confusion, people had to develop new ways of visualizing the passing landscape. Schivelbusch argues that people developed a "panoramic travel" view of the countryside where they focused their attention on the distant horizon rather than the wildflowers they were used to viewing. He described this negotiation process as follows: "While the consciousness molded by traditional travel found itself in a mounting crisis, another kind of perception started to develop, one which did not try to fight the effects of the new technology of travel but, on the contrary, assimilated them entirely." By shifting their perception in this way, individual people were able to ride on trains in a greater degree of comfort. Such comfort inevitably increased their willingness to use the railway for transportation.

In this paper I will argue that anthropomophism is a method some people have used in similar negotiations with their automobiles. Even though the automobile has attained closure in the United States as the predominant method of vehicular travel, individuals who use them must still assimilate them on a personal level. Because automobiles are a source of anxiety for many people, this is not always a simple process. Not all automobiles are the flawless, shiny objects that are sometimes discussed in automotive histories. They are just as often a ten-year-old hand-me-down station wagon that doesn?t always start when it rains. Cars have the potential to break down at inopportune times, perhaps leaving the driver in a dangerous place or causing him or her to be late for an important occasion. In addition they are sometimes dangerous to use. Car crashes claim the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. When these fears are overwhelming, it can be difficult for a person to use an automobile. Conceiving of a car as a companion can help mediate these concerns and make it easier for a person to use. The ability for individuals to use a car with relatively little stress helps give automobiles the predominant place they hold in American culture today.

To demonstrate how people have used anthropomorphism to alleviate their anxieties about technology, I will first discuss how those I studied anthropomorphize their automobiles. I will draw upon examples from personal journals and recent interviews to show the various ways people interact with their vehicles as though they were human and point out some of the links there are between this practice and fears of failure. Next I will analyze how conceiving of a vehicle as a human being can help mediate some of the anxieties that can be generated by a fear of car failure. I will then look at how this conception of a car as a trustworthy friend can also help alleviate fears generated by the dangers of driving. Following that I will briefly contrast this practice with other types of automobile anthropomorphism. Finally I will speculate as to how the idea of assimilation through anthropomorphism may be a practice used by people to deal with a broader array of technologies which they find troubling.

Developing a Relationship

The people that I interviewed and the authors of the articles and books that I focused on had all developed a personal relationship with their automobile-a relationship which, as will be shown, was intricately wrapped up with perceptions of reliability. They typically did this by naming it, giving it a personality, and giving it a gender. These three interrelated attributes created an identity with which they could interact.

The first requirement that many of the people I studied argued was necessary for the production of such an image was an affection for the automobile. This is most easily seen in the fact that several of these people had at one time or another owned a car that they did not care for. These cars were often not given anthropomorphic names or if they were, they were rarely treated as a human being.

One man I interviewed addressed the difference between cars that are liked and those that are disliked when he reflected on the one car he had not named: "I wanted to name it, but it had no personality. It was a 78 Brown VW Dasher. Nothing stuck. It never had enough personality. My girlfriend at the time proposed ?Maxime,? but I didn?t have enough affection for it, so it didn?t deserve a name."

Another interviewee made a similar argument about the needs to have affection for a car to give it a name and a relationship. She previously drove a 1981 Diesel Mercedes named "Max," but has recently had to get a new car because her old one often would not run in central New York winters. The Ford Explorer that she now drives was given the name "Eldon" by her family, but she rarely ever refers to it as such. Whenever she spoke of "Max" during the interview she usually used the name "Max" or referred to the car as "He." When she spoke of her Explorer, she usually used the word "it." In addition she noted that she does not talk to her new car. Why? "I don?t know. It has less personality. Often when I?m driving I?ll say, ?I hate this car.? I?d never say that in Max. I have sentimental feelings for Max. We?ve grown up together."

If they had enough affection for the car, many of those I interviewed next gave their car a name. Sometimes this was done even before the final purchase, but at other times people felt they needed to wait a while until they could understand the car?s personality better. One woman argued: "You can?t name something right away, right? Because you don?t know what it is. I mean if you want the name to fit the thing at all."

But the act of naming usually had the same effect, it separated the car from the person?s previous conceptions of it and made it their own. As one interviewee noted: "So once you?ve named it then it?s my [car], right? You?ve established that relationship." The corporate images of the car were largely severed and it became easier to imbue the car with human characteristics. As another woman argued: "It?s a friendlier thing to refer as a name, rather than "Ford" or whatever. It?s more fun." She went on to say that, "Once you give something a name you can create a personality for it. It sort of grows from there."

Creating a Personality

The personalities these people developed for their automobiles were quite varied. Some spoke of their cars as sprightly and fun while others regarded their cars as slothful or weak. But most of their descriptions revolved around their car?s reliability. Sometimes this was an explicit part of their vision, at other times implicit, but it was always an integral part of their vision of their car?s human characteristics. Quite often, the owner?s conception of their car?s personality was expressed in terms of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. These traits, whether the result of miles and miles of use or a manufacturing mistake, were explained as the primary way an owner can see his or her car interacting with him or her.

For instance, in a 1918 journal, MIT Professor Walter James reflected on his experiences with "Lizzie," his Model T: "In these chronicles I have remarked that the Ford is inclined to have a mind of its own, and to exhibit that mind at most unpleasant times and in most unexpected ways, stopping dead without apparent reason, standing still in the face of all kinds of persuasion and abuse, then, when good and ready, starting off again." All of the car?s idiosyncrasies are described as a manifestation of it being "Lizzie" and having a personality.

Another travel journal written by Rose Wilder Lane and Helen Dore Boylston describes their travels with their car "Zenobia" in southern Europe in the late 1920s. Zenobia is their constant companion and shares many of their adventures. Occasionally Zenobia?s personality makes itself known, usually when there was some sort of difficulty. One journal entry begins: "Today, almost all day, we climbed dreadful mountains, and the faithful Zenobia, who has been going up mountains as though they were level ground, struggled and perspired and panted and even shed rusty tears from her radiator. She announced in every possible way that she felt ill and was not up to such exertion." Lane and Boylston saw their car?s personality in the difficulties they were having with it.

Many of these accounts occasionally talk about the car?s human characteristics in contexts other than reliability, but one discussion of an anthropomorphized automobile never mentioned anything else. A reprinted dairy of a family?s journey West, for instance, mentions the family?s car "Old Faithful" several times, but only when the car was causing them trouble. The first mention of the car simply states: "Are now ready to start, but Old Faithful has balked for the first time. Can?t find the trouble."

Some of the people I studied attributed a personality to a car because they could not discern why it did not have any reliability. A1920 article in the Literary Digest tells the story of a man who was quite proud of his trustworthy automobile. In addressing his automobile, "Jane," directly he notes:

You took me wherever I wanted to go, faster than I should have been allowed? All this, Jane, in spite of the fact that a few years ago I couldn?t run a wheelbarrow and knew no more of internal combustion engines than I do now of the state of health of Pancho Villa, or whether they use Yale locks in the Martian canals.

The rest of the story tells of how the owner neglected and mistreated the vehicle, but despite his ignorance Jane was fairly reliable. The owner could not attribute such reliability to his own knowledge or careful use, so he pinned it on the car?s trustworthy personality.

Attributing Gender

Nearly all of the people interviewed attributed a specific gender to their automobile. This was often an intricate part of the personality they envisioned their car as having. They often displayed this attribution in the gender specific name they gave their automobile and also by referring to their car as "him" or "her." In most cases this attribution was a conscious act and in describing the personality of their car, many of the interviewees made references to what they themselves termed "gender stereotypes."

One family, for instance, has given all their cars masculine names except one. Why? "Because the older cars were all masculine. They had speed and power, so they were masculine." In the early 80s, the mother of the otherwise all-male family argued that women were underrepresented in the family and they needed to give a car a female name. Their next purchase was a white Chevrolet Citation compact they named "Cindy." The car?s "check engine" light kept coming on and they kept taking it to the dealer for service. The dealer found nothing wrong with the car, but they decided it was not worth the hassle, so they returned the car and purchased another. They discovered later that the car?s engine exploded a month after they returned it. As the mother of the family tells the story, her husband and son "decided that females were too temperamental" and they did not want to give another car a feminine name. When asked if their outlook had changed in fifteen years, they said that the mother was interested in purchasing a Cavalier, another compact Chevrolet, with a sunroof. The husband argued that "we can have a female name for that, or a wimpy male name." The wife questioned if this would ever happen, arguing that her husband likes V8s, and she did not believe they would give a feminine name to a car with such a powerful engine.

Another woman had trouble finding a personality in her car, and was thus uncertain as to why she say it as with a feminine. The following passage shows how she made sense of her actions during the interview:

Well, I guess she does have some idiosyncrasies, like with the gas gauge. [It] will read full for like 2 hours of straight driving and then I ran out of gas once when I was at a quarter... an eighth of a tank registering on the gas gauge. This is not a good thing. But I figure it also will go to empty and then it will bounce back up sometimes. So then you really don?t know how much gas you have anymore. Which is an issue. Which is one of the reasons maybe why... she needs attention, she definitely needs attention. And when I didn?t change the oil for a while, she started making this funny noise, so in that sense, that?s a very... what I would consider a stereotypical female characteristic... that you keep needing to pay attention.

Here we see a different conception of "feminine characteristics" than the first example, but one

that is similarly linked to ideas of reliability.

The most marked example that I ran across was a story told by a woman about a gun-metal gray Volvo named Victor. After an accident totaled Victor, she replaced it with a nearly identical white Volvo she named Violet. The different genders of the two cars were deliberately chosen. Why did she see her first car as masculine and her second car as feminine? She explains it as follows:

Victor betrayed me. He was supposed to be so strong, but in a point of need, he was crushed? With Victor I was? subsumed by the male persona within it, as women often are in relationships. With violet I have higher expectations of reliability, lower expectations for brute strength. It?s more of a friendship with this one, a protector with that one. I have to take care with this car.

Through this story, the owner expresses how her conceptions of automobile reliability changed. She originally conceived of her automobile as nearly indestructible, but when it was destroyed, her very notions of how safe an automobile could be were changed. She marked this change with a change in gender attribution.

In all of these anthropomorphic practices, reliability and concerns for safety take center stage. The perception of a personality is often directly related to the trust a person has in their automobile. Why is this such a common trend? I believe it is because anthropomorphism can give a car owner a greater sense of understanding and security than envisioning their car as a complex assemblage of metal, glass, and wires.

Making Sense of a Confusing Technology

Some scholars who have made mention of automobile anthropomorphism have argued that it is usually an attempt to establish dominance over it. They describe how men give their vehicles female names and refer to them as subservient beings in an effort to show others who is in charge. But more detailed studies of anthropomorphism have argued for a wider variety of motivations. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, for instance, has taken a critical look at how various cultures have an anthropomorphic conception of God. He argues that this is a way for people to understand something that is impossible to explain. While I believe that the common interpretation of automobile anthropomorphism is accurate in some instances, the sample of people I interviewed seemed to have a relationship with their automobile that is much better described with Guthrie?s thesis than a relationship of dominance.

Guthrie argues that the "world is uncertain, ambiguous, and in need of interpretation." To fulfill this need, people often buy into a version of Pascal?s wager:

We animate and anthropomorphize because, when we see something as alive or humanlike, we can take precautions. If we can see it as alive we can, for example, stalk it or flee. If we see it as humanlike, we can try to establish a social relationship. If it turns out not to be alive or humanlike, we usually lose little by having thought it was.

When a person attributes human characteristics to something that is not understood, he or she builds an understandable framework within which he or she can interact.

I argue that a similar phenomenon occurs when people anthropomorphize their vehicles. The automobile is a complicated technology, a machine that has so many parts and so many systems, that countless things could go wrong. Even skilled mechanics cannot always determine exactly what is going on under the hood. In 1985, a magazine writer who had anthropmorphized his car expressed such confusion in his reminiscences about his old friend:

And let?s face it, you weren?t perfect either. I came to accept your weak areas: water pumps (you needed four); alternators (three did it, though one was a cheap rebuilt job); solenoid ignitions (three in nine years!). But then you had to learn to live patiently with the fact that I?m totally nonmechanical. How many times have I opened your great, green, greasy hood and peered inside, vainly hoping that by some automotive miracle I?d hit on what was wrong - only to be greeted by the same silent, noncommunicative you. Trying to look knowledgeable, I?d check the dipstick, eyeball your world-weary radiator, touch your lugs, shake the cables. You refused to be cured by these amateurish administrations or to divulge your secret.

Especially with older cars which are, as one interviewee noted, "idiosyncratic in their operation," owners can be at a complete loss as to how to explain why their car behaves the way it does. Naming the car and blaming its lack of reliability on its human-like personality makes some sense of the situation.

Although modern science interprets such an approach as rather suspect, it is not a rare occurrence. Guthrie gives the example of the rhetoric fire fighters use in describing fires to show how common it is to anthropomorphize what one does not understand:

The firefighters said the fires were ?devious,? ?cunning,? or ?lying in wait? and, when the winds died during the night, they were ?resting up?? Another spokesman said, ?I swear these fires lay down at night or in a rain and they plan what to do.? The reporter himself credits the fire with metabolism and intention: it ?developed its own feeding system, sucking air in from behind, heating it and blasting it out the front to preheat the woods ahead.?

Explaining the unpredictable fire in terms of human intentionality helps a person to envision what is happening. As is evidenced by the popular press use of the technique, it provides a logical flow to the description of events. Rather than deal with the idea that the fire could do anything at anytime, envisioning a force behind the apparent chaos gives a person something they can grapple with. In summing up this argument, Guthrie makes another important point. He notes that "None of these people probably would maintain that the fire truly is alive; yet all clearly at some level thought so." Firefighters know that the fire is not alive in a human sense, but thinking of it in that way helps them assimilate the experience. Anthropomorphism offers a framework in which to describe and interact with the unpredictable fire.

But anthropomorphism does not simply make sense of confusion. By giving a person a framework within which to view the situation, it can help a confused or frustrated owner regain a sense of control. There is little a person can do when they are in the middle of an interstate and they notice that their gas gauge has dipped into "empty." Thinking of an automobile as a companion in such a situation can help ease the stress of such an event. The difficulty does not so much appear the result of a series of unalterable physical forces, but rather human intentionality. Objects with such an intentionality can be swayed through human-like interactions.

Ideas very similar to these came across in many of the interviews. Some argued that simply giving a car a name and a personality may help keep it "healthy." When a person who had named her family car "The Queen Mary" was asked why she had named it, she hesitantly stated: "We called it that to make it reliable." When pressed as to how this would work, she said that she hoped "it would work just for me." Would it work differently for others? "I know it won?t, and yet I think it will." This interviewee did not believe the car really had a personality or would actually respond to someone who interacted with this personality, but in some way, thinking about the situation in this manner helped her to deal with the situation. Another woman made this claim directly. When she drove "Max" with a bad fuel filler through hilly upstate New York she claims she "had to root him on a little bit if only for my own piece of mind."

Another subject argued a similar case: "Bess our old car was very fickle. Like she only started for people who knew how to treat her right." She later extended her explanation when one woman was asked when she addressed her car by name:

If I?m trying to cajole my car, which I haven?t really had to really do yet. It works better with old cars I think, because then you have to? you really have to develop a relationship with them that? you have to be nice to them [laugh] in order for them to be nice to you. Sometimes it frightens me that it works that way, but? You have to, um? you know especially if it?s cold. Um, you know when you?re starting cars when it?s cold you sort of have to talk to it and rub the dashboard and? When I?m passing, yeah, I?ll think ?Patty O?Toole? to make sure she knows she?s being a good car.

Talking with cars is an important part of this mediation. Nearly ever person I interviewed noted a time when their concern about reliability took the form of talking to their vehicle. When asked if and when he talks with his car, one interviewee said "I don?t have extended conversations, but I do goofy stuff... where I stroke the dash and say ?of course you?re not going to break on me....? Or when I?m talking about car payments I?ll say ?please, no more electrical problems.?" Another person responded that he talks to his cars, "Frequently, if they?re acting up. When I had fuel pan problems with the Camaro I?d often say, ?C?mon baby, C?mon CZ...? I?ve been stroking its ego since the problem got fixed." One woman explicitly argued that difficulties were usually the reason why she talked to her cars. She noted: "I always talked to my old car. I often said something like, ?Please start for me Victor.?" When asked about her new car, however, she noted that "Violet" always starts so "I don?t talk to that car."

Such pleading does not always have the desired results. Cars that are frequently spoken to are not always reliable. But in situations where a car does fail, some of the people that anthropomorphize their vehicles believe that their pleading was not in vain. One woman recounts the story of a time when her car, "The Queen Mary," broke down on the highway: "But it was good to me. It coasted to the off-ramp. You know, I was in the middle of nowhere, so it?s possible that the transmission brakes [and you?d] get stuck on the freeway someplace. Didn?t happen. Didn?t happen. I coasted to the off-ramp, and it was quite a ways too, so it goes to show..." Even the frustrations of being stranded on the highway can be calmed by the thought that one?s automobile did all that it could to be as kind as possible.

Anthropomorphizing a car in an effort to make it more reliable is not limited to those who name their vehicles either. One woman who felt that naming cars was "silly," was still very careful about what she said. When asked what kind of car she had, she responded: "It?s a Tercel Wagon? not a pretty car. Some would call it a ?Japanese shitbox? but I won?t say it." When asked why she distanced herself from the demeaning phrase, she stated: "It might hurt her feelings. It?s best to respect your faithful and trusted objects."

Giving cars human names and anthropomorphizing them is a method some people employ to smooth the interactions between them and their complicated mode of transportation. Through anthropomorphism users transform broken gas gauges, missing gears, and occasional stalls from intimidating and perhaps even unsolvable technical problems into curious quirks that can be mediated by human interactions. Most mechanics would argue that such an approach to car care will not get one very far, but for many car namers, it provides a feeling of security. It eases a thought-consuming problem and allows them to get on with their everyday lives. Car anthropomorphism helps some people assimilate a complicated technology into a world they understand.

Anthropomorphizing Reliable Automobiles

Unreliable automobiles are not the only ones that are anthropomorphized. It is quite common for people who have anthropomorphized a car in the past to do it again. Often they will endow a human personality to brand new vehicles that have had few, if any, idiosyncrasies and have caused no problems. People who continue their practice of envisioning their well-working vehicles as friends argue that they do so as a preventive measure. They seem to fear the recurrence of problems they have had with their previous cars.

For instance, when one woman was asked to describe the personality of "Patty O?Toole," her year-old car, she stumbled a bit in her answer. "I don?t know. I think it?s hard because when a car is running well it doesn?t have the sort of, um... not inconsistencies... not peculiarities... idiosyncrasies that an older car has so it?s harder to tell sometimes." As she said this she felt a bit odd about attributing a personality to something that did not appear to have any distinguishing characteristics. Upon reflection, however, she knew that cars had acted up in the past and that it might happen with this one:

Bess, our old car, was very fickle. Like she only started for people who knew how to treat her right. Um... Patty is, I don?t know, I... Um... I?m covering bases before I know they really exist because? she needs to know that I appreciate what she does. I always thank her when she passes a car well... to prevent problems in the future if she gets upset.

Another woman argued that ridiculing a reliable car might make it unreliable. In one interview I was asked if I had ever named my car. In fact I had toyed with the idea. When I first purchased my small Plymouth Neon I jokingly thought it would be fun to call my car "The Kidneymobile" because it was aerodynamically shaped like a kidney and because its tight suspension sent every little bump up through the seats and sort of pushed your internal organs around. The name I had given my car was rather disparaging and this concerned the person whom I was interviewing. She immediately argued that I might want to rethink making fun of my car by saying that because I mocked it, "it might not operate very well for you then!"

In a similar way, people often referred to their cars as human when they were afraid that their actions might cause a problem. One of the most common times people remembered talking to their car was when they did something they thought their driving had "injured" their car. A typical example was given by the owner of a Corvette: "When I hit a pothole I?ll say ?Sorry Victor, don?t break on me now.? This sentiment occurs especially with people who own vehicles with manual transmissions and are therefore in control of more facets of the driving process: "When I run into something I feel bad. I feel bad about hurting it. When I grind the gears I say, "I?m sorry." In all of these cases, the car does not exhibit any reliability problems, but the drivers are afraid their actions will lead to difficulties. To help calm one?s self down, many drivers attempt to soothe their car in a way they know how - by apologizing to it.

Help in the Driving Process

As was mentioned earlier, fear of mechanical failure is not the only anxiety that automobiles can generate. Reliability was the most common concern linked with anthropomorphism, but the practice seemed to calm people for other reasons as well. For instance one woman felt that her car was somehow easier to find because she could interact with its personality: "I also have problems finding things? So when I can?t find? my car, sometimes it helps to ask where it is, you know?? I?ll say something like ?Where did you go Tarachan??" But more commonly, people noted that they referred to their car as a human being when they were frightened by the dangers of driving itself.

For the most part, those I interviewed were not intimidated by the driving process. They felt relatively comfortable behind the wheel and often enjoyed traveling. Many of them did mention, however, that they were occasionally unsettled when an event triggered their concern. Things like hydroplaning, a strong wind that caught them by surprise, or counting the number of cars in the ditch on a snowy night were enough to remind them of some of the risks involved in using an automobile. At times like these, people needed to feel some sort of reassurance. Many of those I interviewed found it in their friendly cars.

Conceiving of the vehicle as a friend or partner in the driving process seems to be able to comfort a person with the thought that they are not alone; they are working with another who happens to have a lot of experience navigating through sometimes difficult terrain. Thoughts of such a unified approach generates confidence and relieves the anxiety that driving can entail.

One woman noted that she talked to her car especially when she was frightened: "When I pass people at night and I don?t know if there?s cars coming around the bend or something like that and I have to, you know, slam on the accelerator and really speed up quick. When I?m passing, yeah, I?ll think ?Patty O?TOOLE!? to make sure she knows she?s being a good car."

Several others have expressed a feeling of unity with their automobile that helped them feel confident in uncertain terrain. S.C.H. Davis, an automobile writer for many years, owned and drove many cars throughout his life, but only named a few. He was particularly fond of a Jeep he drove in World War II which he named "Fi-Fi." Upon reminiscing about the vehicle he remarked:

Judged by normal standards it was a most uncomfortable machine, with no special performance. But... we had great fun together, that car and I, especially when the roads were covered with thick snow and ice... While most staff cars, saloon jobs... had got themselves into dire trouble, up trees or in ditches, my Jeep careered along happily enough because the exceedingly high geared steering appeared able, even willing to climb houses.

The friendly relationship he had with his vehicle made difficult driving more fun than fearful.

One person explicitly made the argument that conceiving of his car as a living thing sometimes resulted in a calming effect. When I asked one man if he ever talked to his car he quickly responded "No," but then began to reflect further on the question and noted that:

Maybe once or twice in times of danger or uncertainty, I?ll talk to my car. Like on a slippery road I might think, "C?mon Max, we?re going to make it." Not during a normal time, though. It has to be a time when I want to feel a sort of kinship with the vehicle. In order to accomplish something or to come through a difficult or dangerous situation the feeling of solidarity might give me more piece of mind.

He went on further in an attempt to clarify this answer. He argued "it?s a reinforcing mechanism for me" and recalled a time in his high school years when he and some friends were caught out in a sailboat with storms approaching as an example of what he meant. Since he was the most experienced of the group, although not an expert, he began giving orders. As each person responded to his requests and began working as a unit he began to feel better about the situation. "I established solidarity with the crew and the boat to feel more confident of my own abilities." The idea that more than one person are working in concert together to achieve a given goal often strengthens the confidence of all those involved. When there are no other people to help, some people are able to recreate this confidence when they attribute a personality to their vehicle.

Other Examples

Although the sample that I studied was not large, there is evidence that the practice of giving automobiles a human persona occurs in various Western cultures. In her book on the names that manufacturers give cars, for instance, Ingrid Pillar cites a few academic works written in the past ten years that briefly mention people in Germany and the Virgin Islands who have given their cars anthropomorphic names. It is impossible to determine the precise motivations behind these names, but other similar studies suggest that anthropomorphic naming is often linked with other anthropomorphic practices.

In the early 1990s, K.T. Berger, an independent writer who terms himself a "car biologist" sent a mailing of 2,000 questionnaires to several unsuspecting people across the United States. In the responses he received he "learned that nearly half of the drivers gave their cars names such as Honey, Old Bitch, the Zephyr, Patty Wagon, Hank the Tank, Gray Ghost, and LeMans from Hell." Although not all of these names are anthropomorphic, he does go on to mention that the "same percentage also admitted to talking with their cars." A poll taken in Britain in the early 80?s came back with similar results. It estimated that 200,000 people in the United Kingdom had named their cars "Betsy" or "Bessie" and that an additional 550,000 have given their cars other names like Freddy, Jemima, Nellie, and Daisy. Details of these studies are slight, but they are evidence that automobile anthropomorphism is a phenomenon that extends beyond the small sample I have gathered. Whether the people polled were relieved of a psychological burden because of this is difficult to say, but based on the popular conception of "Bessie" variations as being "cow-like" and the close relationship between talking to cars and the concern that it is being unreliable, the idea that there are links to reliability is appealing.

In addition to these polls and studies, evidence of cars with human personalities can be found in popular culture and even in automobile manufacturer advertisements. Knight Rider, for instance, was a television show in the mid-1980s about Michael, a crime fighter, and "KITT," the talking computerized car he drove. KITT rarely ever broke down, but he was an essential component in solving the crime and capturing the bad guy in every episode. Quite often Michael would ask him for help in navigating through tricky situations or perform well under adverse conditions. KITT even had the ability to drive itself, but they always worked together, communicating back and forth and drawing upon the knowledge and abilities of each other. By enlisting KITT?s help, Michael was able to do things he could never have done on his own. KITT is perhaps the extreme fantasy example of a car being anthropomorphized to help in the driving process. It seems as though Michael has nothing to worry about as long as his friendly Trans Am is not far away.

Another popular example is "Herbie the Love Bug," the Volkswagen Beetle protagonist in a series of Disney movies. Herbie?s abilities as an automobile and racecar are intricately linked to the personality he expresses. When he starts to fail it is often because he is "exhausted" or "has given up." He lets out a sigh or begins to sputter to say that he can go no farther. Often a kind word of encouragement at times like this changes his mood and reinvigorates him, allowing the driver and Herbie to finish the race. In addition, the personality of the car allows the driver to do things that would never be possible with a normal car. Herbie "has a heart of gold" and as such will work as hard as he can for those that have befriended him. Even though he is a Volkswagen Beetle with a tiny engine, he is able to beat fancy Italian sportscars on the race track.

When characters first meet Herbie they are almost always frustrated by him. He has little personality quirks that sometimes make it impossible to drive him. In an early scene he becomes frustrated with his driver and storms about the city at high speed until the driver begins to give him a little respect. As the characters get to know him, they begin to appreciate his personality and interact with it to their mutual benefit.

Automobile manufacturers have also picked up on the idea of creating an automotive friend to create an idea of reliability. The clearest example of this that I have found is a promotional packet put together by Chrysler in 1996 for its Plymouth/Dodge Neon to supplement its "Hi" advertising campaign. Part of the text written to appeal to potential buyers reads as follows:

Cars are like friends: if you have a few really good ones in your life, you?re lucky. Well, this is that kind of car. and that kind of friend... And like a good friend, it shares your convictions about what?s important. Especially when it comes to things like room, performance, safety, the environment, ergonomics, and state of the art design and durability. The New Neon. Built by a team that thought about cars and their relationship to people and the world in a whole new way.

I would argue that this team did not come up with a "whole new way" of envisioning the relationship between cars and people, but rather had picked up on a widespread private practice. The text explicitly links the idea of the car as a good friend with safety and reliability. Later the brochure draws upon this idea again and argues that the "Neon?s slippery aerodynamics... gives it the look of a car confidently poking its eager little nose into the future. A place where you and your trusty Neon will be motoring away for a long time to come." The ideas of confidence, trustworthiness, and reliability are all conveyed through a friendly persona that the Neon is supposed to express.

Other companies have been hesitant to take a similar approach. A history of the Ford Taurus, for instance, conveys a scene where the cars designers are debating what name their project should be given. One executive throws out the name "Harvey" because it seems to him to be a "trustworthy" sort of name, but the very idea of anthropomorphizing the car in this way only evokes laughter. Some of the concern seems to have been how consumers will perceive such an advertising campaign. Volkswagen came very close in their award winning 1960s advertising campaign for the Beetle. Through the use of humor it created a persona of the Beetle as quirky, but utterly reliable. The ramifications of this approach did concern the corporation. One VW executive was quoted as saying:

Some people around here simply think the advertising is maybe too winning, too ingratiating, that maybe they convey a feeling that a VW is an infallible machine. Say a man who reads the ads finally goes out and buys a VW. And say he drives it for 40,000 or 50,000 miles, and it breaks down. You know what he may think? He may think he?s been betrayed by his best friend. He didn?t think a VW could break down. He goes to the man who sold it to him and raises all kinds of Cain. We even had a man call Heinz Nordhoff in Wolfsburg all the way from Kansas. His VW had broken down. It was the middle of the night, he said, and he was stranded. So he called Nordhoff and blessed him out.

Not long after this argument was made, VW did a little back pedaling, again through humor, by placing an ad where a Beetle appeared with a flat tire with the simple statement "Nobody?s perfect." VW?s brave advertising campaign remains one of the most applauded of the last fifty years, but few have attempted to duplicate it.

Other Reasons for Automobile Anthropomorphism

Alleviating anxiety is certainly not the only reason for giving automobiles anthropomorphic traits. Although a few automobile marketers have experimented with using anthropomorphism for this purpose, they more commonly have other motivations for imparting human characteristics on their automobiles. In addition racecar drivers and even individual owners anthropomorphize automobiles for a variety of reasons other than calming their own nerves.

Automobile manufacturers have been quite active over the past fifty years or so in anthropomorphizing their products in an effort to make them desirable. As Pamela Laird Walker notes, Automobile companies originally created advertisements focused on the mechanical aspects of cars and seemed to show that "automakers did not feel the need to prove that automobility was exciting." By the late 20s and early 30s, this notion was gradually changing and automobile advertisements were used to create a desirable image around the product. Along with this change came a change in automobile names. By the 1950s, giving automobiles anthropomorphic names was quite common.

For the most part, unlike personal anthropomorphic names, the anthropomorphic names corporations give cars are not the names of individual people, but rather a title or a "person within a given group." As such, they do not give the impression of a specific personality, but rather a set of skills, abilities, or prestige that human beings of the same name would possess. The qualities such names can endow a vehicle with are quite varied. In her linguistic study of American car names, Ingrid Piller devised five categories of anthropomorphic names: person of distinguished rank (e.g. Monarch, Baron, Cavalier), person of unconventional life-style (e.g. Nomad, Charger, Marauder), person of a certain provenance (e.g., New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, American), person moving in a certain way (e.g., Sundancer, Pacer, Voyager), and person with other characteristics (e.g. Sportsman, Shopper, Miser). The hope of auto manufacturers is that by naming and anthropomorphizing a car "Charger," the potential consumer will conjure up ideas of aggressiveness, strength, and victory. The name "New Yorker" is an attempt to link the automobile to the supposedly sophisticated, upscale, and refined group of human beings that are given that title. Advertisements are often used in conjunction with their names in a coordinated effort by the marketer to create an appealing image for the vehicle. Rather than create a friendly, personal companion, they are meant to build an image for the car that mirrors the image of the general type of person they are named after.

Occasionally this corporate practice is a little closer to the ideas that have been discussed about using anthropomorphism to generate a companion in the driving process. The recent sport utility craze has spawned dozens of new models, many of which have been given names of humans who are/were able to negotiate the rough terrain of the American west. Today a consumer can choose from a Blazer, Tracker, Explorer, Amigo, Trooper, Cherokee, Wrangler, Navigator, Mountaineer, Pathfinder, Forester, and even a Sidekick. Each of these names is meant to give the owner the confidence that with the automobile they will be able to drive anywhere. But again, the relationship that the manufacturer is trying to establish is not so much a personal one as much as it is a "business partnership." The anthropmorphism is to unique human abilities, but not to a human personality. As such the sense of ability to drive safely in unsafe conditions arises from the able traits of the automobile rather than the joint effort of driver and anthropomorphized machine.

Some individual owners anthropomorphize their vehicles for other reasons as well. One particularly prominent arena where this is done is with competition vehicles. Many people who use their cars in fully sanctioned races, as well as those who simply race whatever car they pull up next to at the light, have given their vehicles anthropomorphic names. There are many examples of this practice from Formula 1 cars to lowriders. But most often the goals of naming the vehicle are fairly similar: they serve to intimidate the competition by claiming that the car possesses the powerful characteristics of the human figure it is named after. This can be seen with a quick perusal of professional monster trucks, a group of vehicles with wheels over eight feet tall that race one another by driving over rows of junk automobiles. Monster trucks have been given names such as: Big Brutus, Crypt Keeper, Devastator, Grave Digger, Gun Slinger, Peace Keeper, Rambo, Samson, Terminator, and Enforcer. In many ways, this practice is similar to the corporate practice just discussed except that instead of conveying desirable characteristics to potential buyers it attempts to frighten foes and impress fans.

There are also examples of anthropomorphic automobiles in popular culture that do not seem to relieve any anxiety. One stark example appears to be directly contrary to this notion. Steven King?s movie and book Christine tells the tale of an automobile with a human personality that is far from comforting. The car tears through the streets of a California suburb and seeks revenge on all those who interfere with it. In some ways, "Christine" embodies many of the negative aspects of automobiles including the physical dangers as well as the unhealthy obsession some people have for their personal car.

It is interesting to note, however, that the idea of needing to communicate with a car in order to make it reliable that has been mentioned is taken to an extreme and reproduced in the movie Christine. For instance, in one scene in the movie, Christine?s personality comes out when the car is supposedly jealous of the owner?s girlfriend. As hard as the owner turns the key and pumps the gas, the car will not start. In his frustration he tries to coerce the car with words, saying "C?mon Christine, C?mon? C?mon it?s alright baby, everything is the same." As soon as he utters this sentence the engine roars to life and the radio expresses the car?s sentiment by playing a song with the lyrics: "I love you! I don?t know why I love you..."

Even the people who envision their cars as having friendly personalities do not always cite this as their primary reason for giving their car a name and talking to it. Many see a certain fun and quirkiness in it as well. They often enjoy the game of conjuring up a name and personality for their automobile and sharing this with friends. For instance one person believed that car names should be meticulously chosen and posses an "illusion to literature or something. Another person was quite proud of giving his new Saturn the name "Titan," since "it is one of the moons of Saturn." Others enjoy the idea of breaking with the image that the corporation has built around itself and its products.

But the existence of a variety of motivations for anthropomorphizing automobiles does not render the assimilation argument invalid. I am not arguing that giving an automobile a human persona is the result of only one small set of motivations. Rather, I wish to argue that many people use the practice to calm the anxieties they attribute to their automobiles and that this calming helps them to peacefully use the technology in their everyday life. I also believe that this practice is not limited to automobiles, but rather is a method people occasionally use to deal with the difficulties that are caused by a number of other technologies.

Anthropomorphism and Troublesome Technologies

Although this paper is focused on automobiles, the theory of assimilation through anthropomorphism that has been discussed in relation to them is likely applicable to a wider range of technologies. I do not have the time or space to make an extensive argument, but some additional evidence makes the idea of anthropomorphism as a general way of assimilating confusing technologies intriguing. Examples of this practice can be seen in ocean vessels, airplanes, and computers.

The classic example is the anthropomorphism of sailing ships. Not only do many of them have female names affixed to their sterns, but the practice of referring to them as "she" is widely accepted. In literature and many firsthand accounts sailors speak of the fickleness of the ship and having to know it?s personality in order to get it to behave in the desired manner. For instance, in a historical narrative of "The Sea Witch," an American Clipper Ship in the 1850s, the author describes one man?s conception of the ship as a demanding woman during a storm:

Such episodes, occurring throughout that troublous night, renewed Hugh?s old speculations about the mysterious personalities of ships. Moments came when every man seemed a blended part of this vessel?s fabric. Three hands, tugging and shantying at the spanker sheet in the gusty dawn, seemed no more than muscles of the Sea Witch, flexing to the commands of her quarterdeck brain.

Just like automobiles, sailing ships can generate much anxiety. The fear of capsizing and being lost at sea constantly looms over the heads of many sailors. Explaining a ships erratic behavior as personality traits and conceiving of the ship and its crew as a single, communicating unit can help to mitigate these concerns.

This practice has been transferred to airplanes as well. For instance, many of the bombers in the U.S. World War II campaign were given names like "Waltzing Matilda" and "Enola Gay" and their gender and personality were emphasized through the "nose art" that many military crews have painted on them. Often these crews would talk about "their lady" and how their girl would not let them down.

Some accounts even draw a direct connection between the practice of anthropomorphizing ships and airplanes. One author tells the story of "K for Kitty," a World War II bomber that was torn to shreds by German fighters but managed to bring its crew home only to have its starboard propeller and wing fall off upon landing. The author argues that this merely reaffirmed a lesson he had learned about aircraft:

It was not Harrison, but someone else, who first talked to me of the idea that planes and ships have the same delicate and temperamental ways. Just as you find no two ships alike, so you find no two planes alike; just as you find ships that are heavy, graceless, unalive, so you find planes that are dull and wooden in the air. In the same way that seamen come to know, trust, and finally get fond of a ship, knowing that she is a living thing and will never fail them, so pilots come to know and trust and get fond of a plane, knowing she will bring them home.

Flight during peacetime has its dangers, but during wartime, they are dramatically increased. Some military flyers seem to have countered some of this fear by envisioning their aircraft as trusty friends that will return them safely to the ground, one way or the other.

Anthropomorphism can also occasionally be seen in another technology that a vast number of people rely upon on a daily basis - the personal computer. Just like the automobile, the computer is often a necessary part of our everyday life and is not always 100% reliable. While it has become an integral part of our work, communication, and entertainment; systems crash, files are lost, and programs do not always work. There is some evidence that people anthropomorphize computers to deal with anxiety in a similar way to automobiles.

Some of the people I interviewed also noted that they occasionally see their computers as having human characteristics and many people related times that they had talked to them. Two people had even named their computer. While it is difficult to determine any broad trends from this small sample size, it is interesting to note that both people had named their computers after wizards from popular literature: Gandolf and Grendal. Why these names? Both interviewees argued that it seemed as though their computers were wizards - magically performing amazing tasks in ways they could not understand. In a sense, they were envisioning their computers as not just human, but super-human. Calling their computers wizards was a way to describe a machine they did not understand in a more understandable manner.

But computers fail and many people, even those who do not name their computers, refer to them as though they were human. Even as I write this paper, I have had problems with my roommate?s computer. In our frustration of losing files and not being able to open up documents, my roommate has frequently yelled at the computer, and made statements to me like "I don?t think it likes you." As we tried in vain to get the computer to accept a disk that had been used in several other computers, we became frustrated and ran out of ideas. We knew that the computer did not have a personal vendetta against me, but that theory would certainly explain the dilemma in which I found myself. Saying, "It hates you," was my roommate?s way of saying she did not understand what was going on and that I had better find another way to do work on my paper.


The integration of technologies into daily life is not always a straightforward affair. When they perform exactly as we want them to, they often become so much a part of our life that we think little of the interactions we have with them. But some technologies require more work. Fear that an object is dangerous or might leave one stranded in the middle of the highway may cause a person to think twice about using such a technology. In these cases, people often feel the need to figure out ways to make them understandable and manageable at some level.

Anthropomorphism has been used by some to overcome these difficulties. Although it may not always be a conscious choice, many people attribute confusing and distressing technologies with anthropomorphic characteristics. Such attribution does not usually resolve the dilemma that faces the person, but it does offer a way of dealing with the psychological effects of fear and frustration. Conceiving of an inanimate object that cannot be immediately controlled as a human actor gives the idea that there is a method of communicating to it. The act of using such communication and the idea of exerting some control can help calm a person when faced with unpredictability. In addition, envisioning a technology as a friend that one works with when using it can help give a sense of security in dangerous situations. Anthropomorphism is a method used by many people to calmly assimilate technologies they find confusing or even frightening into their everyday lives.

Without the personal assimilation of technologies, such as the one I have described, people may be less inclined to use a technology. If this occurs on a widespread basis, the closure of the automobile in our society could fall apart. The car could conceivably become an "undesirable stress machine." As such, negotiation continues on a personal level long after closure is reached. Personal assimilation of technological objects must occur in order for widespread closure to both initially succeed and maintain its power.


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Brinkley, Douglas, The Majic Bus - An American Odyssey (NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993).

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Sage, 1993).

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Freund, Peter and George Martin, The Ecology of the Automobile (New York: Black Rose Books, 1993).

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written for his own satisfaction but free to be read by anyone who wants to read it (Mount Shasta, CA:

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American Clipper Ship During the Years 1846 to 1856 (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1933).

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Culture, October 1996, pp. 798-812.

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edited by William Holtz (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), written in 1926.

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Bridget, female graduate student, interviewed November 16, 1997.
Brian, male in mid 20s, son of Pete and Paula, interviewed March 11, 1999.
James, male in mid 20s, interviewed November 16, 1997.
Jennifer, female graduate student, interviewed November 10, 1997.
John, male undergraduate student, interviewed November 20, 1997.
Kate, female graduate student, interviewed November 16, 1997.
Laura, female undergraduate student, interviewed March 4, 1999.
Lisa, female graduate student, interviewed February 8, 1999.
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Paul, male graduate student, interviewed March 11, 1999.
Paula, female in her early 50?s, wife of Pete, father of Brian, interviewed March 13, 1999.
Pete, male in his early 50?s, husband of Paula, father of Brian, interviewed March 13, 1999.
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Posted by thinkum at 02:08 PM

Going for Blue

Scientists Say They're Close to Creating the Blue Rose


May 7 ? Giving mom a rose for Mother's Day? Thanks to an enzyme found in human liver, it might soon be possible to present her with the flower industry's Holy Grail: A blue rose.

Roses already come in an endless array of colors from pink to yellow to peach to red to striped. But, despite more than 15 years of trying, no one has been able to create a natural blue rose.

In the $1.2-billion-a-year global rose business, achieving what would be a truly unique bloom would mean instant profits.

"A lot of wealthy people are rose fans and anything unique sells for high prices," says Robert Skirvin, a hortoculturalist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There's quite a market."

Now a surprise finding in a medical lab at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., may have finally placed the blue rose within reach.

But just what makes the flower so unattainable? Apparently in nature, blue is a very complicated hue.

Complex Mix

The rare blue color in petunias, for example, relies on a mix of genetic and environmental cues. There's the pigment called delphinidin that creates the color, then there are co-pigments, required to bring out the blue tint.

Finally, just the right balance of acidity is needed inside the cells of the plant to ensure the right shade of blue is expressed.

The rose, in its current versions, lacks all three.

"The rose is not easy to work with," says David Byrne, a rose geneticist at Texas A&M University in College Station. "It has no blue pigments and it can't seem to go through the transformation process."

Scientists have tried grafting, cross breeding and introducing genes extracted from petunias. But none of these attempts have led to a blue bloom.

In 1986 a biotech company, Florigene, was founded in Melbourne, Australia with the single goal of creating a blue rose. The company's researchers have come close with lavender versions and even a line of blue carnations. They still haven't claimed making a blue rose, although they're coy about just what they've accomplished.

"It depends on how you describe blue," says John Mason, research manager at the Victoria, Australia-based company. "This is a very sensitive topic for us and unfortunately I cannot comment further."

Human Liver Offers Enzyme

Any developments toward achieving the blue beauty will remain top secret, Mason explains, until Florigene announces it has a blue rose. Meanwhile, medical researchers in Tennesse think they may have stumbled upon a shortcut.

As will be detailed in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, biochemist Peter Guengerich and his assistant Elizabeth Gillam were in the process of trying to understand how the human liver breaks down drugs when they came across a human liver enzyme that had a startling effect.

"When we moved the enzyme into bacteria, the bacteria turned blue," he says. "It was a complete surprise."

Guengerich's main interest lies in understanding how humans process drugs, but Gillam pointed out the blue bacteria could be a boon in the flower business. The team tried inserting the liver gene that creates the enzyme into a rose.

So far the results have been ? spotty.

"The first time we tried we got blue spots on the stems," Guengerich says. "Those probably aren't going to be too marketable."

Still, the team continues to try new ways of introducing the human liver gene to roses and believe it's only a matter of time.

"We really think we can get a stronger color using the human gene," he said, explaining that using the human liver enzyme may be easier since the enzyme seems to generate the color using a simpler process.

Thorn-Free and Sweeter Smelling

Meanwhile researchers are working on tweaking other features of the famous flower. Skirvin, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has developed rose bushes that have no thorn.

"It's a very unstable characteristic," he says of the thornless roses. "But we have two plants that are completely thorn-free."

Others are working on developing roses that smell sweeter by taking genes from wild, sweet-smelling blooms and inserting them into blander versions. That work has already led to fragrant results.

As for the blue rose, for now the only sure way to create one may be the old-fashioned, artificial way: Dipping it in dye.

Posted by thinkum at 01:56 PM

Cinderella Story, Almost

Woman Wins Free Makeover, But Learns That Change Always Comes With a Price

May 6 ? At age 45, Susan Robinson never had a manicure, rarely wore makeup and even dyed her own hair at home.

Her face had begun to reflect more than just her age, she said. She had spent 20 years working as a social worker. She felt run down and had lost her self-esteem, and sometimes turned down invitations because she felt she didn't look good.

But at the urging at her teenage daughter Molly, Robinson applied for and won a free "ultimate makeover."

The makeover was sponsored by the Advanced Aesthetics Institute of Palm Beach, Fla., which offers everything from manicures and make-up to haircuts and plastic surgery, beneath one roof. They held the contest to showcase their services.

"I had never really up to that point thought of any kind of surgery," Robinson recalls. "The most I was really thinking about is I'd sure like to have a new image. I'd love to get a nice hairstyle and to move up, you know, into where we are."

It was the start of a Cinderella story ? of sorts. With the help of a personal "makeover manager," Robinson would go from dowdy to glamorous in just weeks. But she would also learn that even a makeover ? even if it's free ? can come with a price.

Read through to see how Robinson's "ultimate makeover" turned out.

Laundry List

At the clinic, Robinson described what she would like to have done. For someone who says she's not big on change, she identified plenty of problem areas: sagging eyelids and breasts; not-quite-white teeth; fine, limp hair; some cellulite in her thighs.

There's only one area she was certain she didn't want changed: "My dad always told me I had a perfect nose, so I don't want anything done to my nose," she told AAI technicians.

The AAI used technology to figure out what needed correcting. Using software that they say calculates a person's facial symmetry, the clinic's technicians drew up a picture of what would be a "perfect" version of Robinson.

For her head and face, becoming "perfect" would involve:

A brow lift and eye job
A chin implant and liposuction
Cosmetic dental veneers
Botox, to take away wrinkles and facial lines
Permanent color on her eyebrows & lips
A new hair cut, with hair extensions and highlights

For her body:

A breast lift and augmentation
A partial tummy tuck

Robinson was excited about the prospect of being made over, but she was a little slow to tell her husband, Guido Mayorga. The couple had planned a three-week trip to visit his parents in his native Ecuador, and the surgery meant Mayorga would have to go alone. "That leaves me with that little sick feeling in my stomach," Robinson told Primetime's Elizabeth Vargas.

Mayorga, 54, had more reasons for discomfort. He has a ruggedly, lined face with long, dark hair in a pony tail, and he is in good shape, but he said he was afraid he might be intimidated by his wife's change.

"Her looks changes and therefore her state of mind might change," he said. "Our relationship might change."

And he had another reason to be concerned: Years ago, his ex-wife had had plastic surgery in the Dominican Republic ? and there were major complications.

"What about if something goes wrong?" he asked. "The fear is still the same."

Attitude Change

After Robinson's first surgery, a five-hour brow lift, the changes started to take place ? not just externally.

"This is the boldest thing I've ever done," she said in a conversation with her mother. "To take a chance like that ? I feel that's so exciting.

"I feel already it's changed somewhat about my personality, because I do feel more confident."

A few days later, she had an operation to reshape her breasts, as well as a partial tummy tuck and liposuction. An AAI representative came to Robinson afterwards to tell her, "Your body and face is definitely a 10."

"That's cool," Robinson said from her hospital bed. "I'm so anxious to see my husband."

She also said she had begun to notice people treating her differently. "This is the first time in Florida that I'm meeting people that are really my friends, cause they're so nice and they're interested in me as a person."

Down to the Core

When Mayorga returned from his three-week trip and saw his wife for the first time after her change, he told her she looked good. In fact, Robinson's face was swollen from the surgery. Mayorga knew the swelling was part of her recovery from surgery, but he was a little mystified.

"I left her in good physical condition and come back to this," he told Primetime after seeing Robinson.

A few days later, Robinson told Primetime her husband was coming around. But there were plenty more painful procedures to get through: work on her face and smile ? involving Botox injections; hours in the dentist's chair for permanent veneers; and tattoos on her lips for permanent color and on her eyebrows, to give an illusion of more fullness.

After a new hairdo from the AAI stylist, Robinson was almost done. The only thing left was to give her new self a new style.

AAI staff took her on a shopping spree, and a "style consultant" taught her how to walk and stand with better posture.

The Big Debut

When all the work on Robinson was completed, the AAI staff arranged for a big debut at a hotel, with all the anticipation of a wedding. They invited her co-workers, as well as three surprises: her brother David Boline, her step-daughter Heather Germann, and her friend Monique Kruis, who she hasn't seen in 11 years.

Though her family had seen her daily throughout her transformation, Robinson, in full make-up and a long black dress, made an entrance not quite like anything they had seen before. The crowd clapped. Her daughter Molly cried.

"I really didn't think that she required anything like that," Boline said. "She had always been conscious about her health and taking good care of herself. But I have to admit after seeing her today ? it's quite a transformation."

Heather said: "She finally sees herself the way that we've always seen her, as both beautiful inside as well as on the outside."

Robinson told Primetime she was 100 percent happy with what had been done.

In a separate interview, her husband said he liked what he saw. "She's got a youthful look basically."

But he also said he wished she hadn't done it. As he had feared, he felt a little intimidated by his new, "perfect" wife. "I don't know if that's going to have a later effect," he worried. He admitted he was afraid she looked too good.

A New Day Dawns

Now, just over two months after her transformation, Robinson is finding that her husband is sometimes standoffish, unsure of how to hug her or touch her.

In interviews with Primetime, each half of the couple acknowledged that after almost four years of happy marriage they are beginning to see subtle changes in their relationship.

Mayorga said he sometimes misses the old Susan, the one he married. "Her expressions and her face has changed. I used to see her mother in her face. Now she's not there anymore," he said.

"I think we are still fine," Robinson said. "I mean, we know we love each other."

Posted by thinkum at 01:52 PM

The Face of War

Psychological Experts Say Under Stress of Battle, Potential for Abuse Could Surface in Anyone

May 7 ? Were the abuses of Iraqi prisoners the action of a few "bad apples" in the U.S. military, or the behavior of ordinary soldiers under the extraordinary stresses of war?

The specifics of the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq remain to be sorted out. But the answer seems apparent for experts in the psychology of war and other mental health professionals contacted by ABCNEWS ? such behavior is not uncommon in a time of military conflict and the potential to abuse others may lie in all of us.

"In war, things do happen, often from emotion of the moment, exhaustion, frustration ? a buddy killed, a unit hurt," maintains Samuel Watson, a former infantry officer in the Vietnam War who is now associate professor of public health at University of Pittsburgh.

Agrees Garret Evans, associate professor of psychology at University of Florida in Gainesville, "It is not far-fetched to say there is abuse on some level in any war."

And Dr. Carlyle Chan, professor of psychiatry at Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, says prisoner abuse is probably more prevalent than we would like to believe, given the trauma soldiers can experience.

"War is a particularly stressful place where soldiers can be under a constant state of danger and have witnessed death and destruction," says Chan.

Factors That Contribute to Abuse

What drives soldiers to abuse others in time of war? The key, believe these experts, is "the military culture" the soldiers and guards were immersed in.

In war, "the enemy is not represented as a similar human being to oneself, but rather as a brute who is savage and single-minded in destructive intentions," says Rona M. Fields, director for cognitive sciences at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

This depersonalization, explains Evans, is a psychological defense against the horrible events soldiers witness during war. But once the enemy is seen as less than human, it can be easy to treat them accordingly.

Another motivation for U.S. soldiers to mistreat Iraqi prisoners may have been simple retaliation, suggests Dr. Paul Ragan, a Navy psychiatrist during Desert Storm and now associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "The emotional center of the brain, or the limbic system, wants to strike back. It's the concept of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

While many U.S. soldiers have said they were horrified by the pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse, one soldier returning from Iraq to his home base at Fort Bragg, N.C., said the images didn't bother him. "Those are some bad people, criminals killing our guys, so do what you got to do," he told local ABC affiliate WTVD-TV.

Ragan adds some of the accused prison guards and soldiers may have lacked war experience, and not known how to properly deal with the strong emotions found in military conflict.

In that sense, Ragan says, a young reservist suddenly given military authority over Iraqi prisoners is more likely to abuse his power, whereas someone with combat experience is used to controlling aggressive urges towards the enemy.

"When you're given a lot of power, but you're inexperienced, it can lead to abuse," says Ragan. "No one race or nation is immune to basic human psychology."

An Abuser in All of Us?

Is it possible the abusers were simply malevolent to begin with, the "bad apples" U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed were at fault, rather than the larger military culture?

Ragan acknowledges some individuals may have entered military service to act out their aggressive urges on non-Americans. But he argues it is unlikely, because plain aggression is probably not enough to motivate a soldier through the rigors of the military.

"In general, active military duty embraces so much, that just the desire to act out against foreigners in my opinion would not be enough to sustain being in active duty," he added.

Dr. Robert L. Trestman, professor of psychiatry at University of Connecticut in Farmington, agrees certain personalities may be more likely to take abusive actions in war situations, such as those described as having antisocial, dependent, or borderline personality disorders ? psychological disorders linked to increased aggression and a lack of conscience.

But, adds Trestman, "I believe we are all capable of this behavior."

?Trajectory of Increasing Sadism?

Perhaps the best evidence normal individuals are capable of deviant behavior came from a unique experiment conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1971.

The simulated prison study took a group of volunteer college students and randomly assigned them roles as either a guard or a prisoner.

The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but was stopped short after only six days because participant behavior became dangerous. The guards, who were by all accounts well-adjusted college students prior to the study, began abusing and humiliating the prisoners.

Zimbardo told ABCNEWS' Nightline this week he saw striking similarities to the photos now emerging from Iraq.

"We were seeing a trajectory of increasing sadism, increasing hostility, increasing boredom of the guards," Zimbardo noted. "I could imagine a very similar situation in our prison as in the Iraqi prison. ? As in the Iraqi prison, what we saw over a very short period of time is guards began to strip prisoners naked and make fun of them, do things to humiliate and confuse them."

Preventing Future Abuse

Experts agree future prevention is largely dependent on the command structure over soldiers, and that effective leadership is the best way to cut down on abuse.

"While specific training to reduce the risk of this behavior may be useful, a much more important factor is leadership," says Dr. Paul Newhouse, professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit at University of Vermont in Burlington. "Abuse of prisoners, civilians, etc., is evidence of a failure of command leadership."

Adds Watson: "The commander can't be everywhere all the time, so he or she has to rely on good subordinates, well-trained. The unit culture reflects the leader and what the leader works to inculcate to the soldiers."

Keeping soldiers mentally healthy is important, maintains Michael Allswede, director of strategic medical intelligence at the Center for Biosecurity at University of Pittsburgh.

"Rest and cycle them regularly off guard duty. I would also suggest avoidance of shifts of individuals working together over time as these friendships tend to allow this sort of thing."

But what if the leadership itself is commanding soldiers to behave in abusive ways? Would normal individuals be willing to follow morally abhorrent orders?

That's the defense being offered for Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the soldiers being criminally charged in the Abu Ghraib abuse case, whose attorney suggested he was encouraged to carry on the abusive behavior.

More than four decades ago the late Yale psychologist Stanley Millgram conducted a study on following orders, or ? in his words ? "how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to."

Not realizing they in fact were the guinea pigs, subjects were told to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to a patient in the next room. As the voltage increased the subject would scream, feigning pain to the point where the supposed subject, out of sight, was ominously no longer making any noise whatsoever.

Yet more than 60 percent of those tested obeyed the orders all the way to the end ? 450 volts administered three times ? to a subject in such pain he was no longer even responding.

Concluded Milgram: "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. ? Even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality."

Concluded Massachusetts therapist and author Lauren Slater: "We have to judge the individuals who committed the horrible deeds, but we can't judge them through the lens of saying, 'I would never have done that,' ? because the Millgram experiments show that under orders, most of us will do that."

Posted by thinkum at 01:47 PM

The Kingmaker

Walt Mossberg makes or breaks products from his pundit perch at a little rag called The Wall Street Journal.

Walt Mossberg is walking through a convention hall at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas when a man starts screaming at him. The screamer, Hugh Panero, blames Mossberg for his company's recent problems: falling stock price, a sudden plunge in consumer interest. Mossberg is annoyed but hardly intimidated. As the author of the weekly "Personal Technology" column in The Wall Street Journal, he's used to dealing with disgruntled execs. He lets Panero shout. A crowd is gathering. Finally, Mossberg yells back, "I don't give a fuck about your stock price!"

In truth, Mossberg liked Panero's company, XM Satellite Radio, which beams more than 100 channels of music - rock, hip hop, jazz, country, you name it - directly to cars nationwide. The early reviews were enthusiastic, and investors loved the stock. But Mossberg hated the special radios that drivers needed to buy from the company to get the signal. In his column, he slammed the spotty reception and said the radios were poorly designed, hard to use, and too expensive. On the morning the column appeared, just five days before the conference opened, XM's stock fell 8.5 percent. Reuters reported that Mossberg's column was driving down the price.

Waiting for a flight back to Washington after the conference, Mossberg is eating a Burger King breakfast at Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport when Panero walks by. This time the entrepreneur is calm. The two men realize they're on the same plane and arrange to sit together in first class. (Mossberg got his ticket using upgrade coupons.) Once they're in the air, Panero admits that Mossberg is right about XM's hardware. A few months later, XM rolls out a new line of price-slashed radios with better controls for scrolling channels, plus larger screens for identifying the songs and artists. A year after the original review, in January 2003, Mossberg writes a column wholeheartedly recommending the new offerings.

XM is only one of dozens of companies that have redesigned products in response to Mossberg's unsparing criticism. RealNetworks overhauled its RealJukebox player. Intuit revamped TurboTax. Mossberg even forced Microsoft to scrap Smart Tags, which would have hijacked millions of Web sites by inserting unwanted links to advertisers' sites. Few reviewers have held so much power to shape an industry's successes and failures. Mossberg evokes comparisons to Robert Parker on wine and Frank Rich during Rich's controversial tenure as the Broadway critic of The New York Times. At least one grad school thesis has been written on Mossberg's clout. "He's one of the most trusted and influential voices in technology," says Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang.

Disarmingly bright, blunt, fervent, and combative, Mossberg was an investigative reporter for two decades before becoming a tech pundit, and he has a heady sense of his ability to keep the industry chieftains in check. His MO: posing as the champion of the "normal" or "average" tech consumer, though he's hardly one himself. Close friend and Journal reporter Kara Swisher calls him "a freakish geek."

Still, his success comes from demystifying the digital realm for readers who aren't regular Slashdot contributors. He's on a mission to remake the tech world according to his own fetish for simplicity, reliability, effectiveness, and great design. Chances are he has influenced the look, feel, and performance of your laptop, mobile phone, and MP3 player.

Mossberg's been a fiery crusader since the opening line of "Personal Technology," which debuted in 1991: "Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn't your fault." His quest has earned him legions of fans, but he's also angered many, who think he's arrogant, curmudgeonly, and subjective - and who wonder how deeply he understands the nitty-gritty of technology. His latest enemies: open source partisans, who chafed when he picked Microsoft Office over StarOffice, an open source darling.

The detractors and the wounded multiply, but Mossberg keeps expanding his valuable franchise. Unfazed by a 1997 heart attack and subsequent quadruple bypass, he does three weekly columns in addition to a weekly appearance on CNBC's Power Lunch and a monthly column for Smart Money. And, with Swisher, he hosts D: All Things Digital, the annual $2,995-a-person, three-day executive conference in early June at the Four Seasons resort in Carlsbad, California.

When I visit Mossberg at the Journal's Washington bureau, a few blocks north of the White House, he's blasting Billy Joel's "An Innocent Man" in his spacious private office. Friends say that Mossberg has three obsessions: music, Star Trek (he knows all the episodes and gadgets), and the Boston Red Sox. He's 57, a baby boomer who loves the Beatles, Motown, Paul Simon, Chuck Berry, James Taylor, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Lately his assistant, Katie Boehret, 23, and his son Steven, 26, who's trying to make it as a professional musician, have gotten him into newer music. He says he's "nuts" for Fountains of Wayne, and he likes Coldplay and John Mayer.

Mossberg holds an unlit cigar, which he'll carry and chomp on throughout the afternoon but never light up. Smoking isn't allowed at the office. He puffs $7 Cohibas (the legal Dominican ones) but buys cheaper brands for chewing. Like Steve Jobs, his wardrobe leans toward the monotonous. He favors Eddie Bauer oxford shirts with button-down collars, and Dockers or jeans. He may be a media big shot, but Mossberg's tastes aren't grand. He lives in an unremarkable house in Potomac, Maryland, that he's owned for 10 years. He drives a Mercedes, but it's a C-Class, which he describes as "the cheapest and smallest Mercedes, with an iPod velcroed to the dashboard and jacked into the audio system."

As we walk around the bureau, we come to a kitchen. Mossberg offers me a Diet Coke, puts a quarter into the vending machine, then hesitates.

"Is it going to bias you if I buy you a soda?"

I'm not sure if he's joking.

He takes me to Boehret's windowless office, which includes "the vault," a storage room holding the many unsolicited products they receive - and always send back after they play with them. An earlier assistant, James Hoppes, created a database to track all the stuff they get. "Every day was like Christmas," Hoppes recalls. "Big packages with cool gadgets." Mossberg keeps none of it. The product clutter is even worse at home. "Oh my God," says Edie, his wife, "the proliferation! Everything has to be sent back, so you can't get rid of the boxes. They grow like topsy. I say, This is it! Everything's got to go by Thanksgiving. Clear out the living room."

Back in Mossberg's office, he shows me his "computer museum": a wall of bookshelves filled with vintage machines. There's a Timex Sinclair 1000 (his first computer), an Apple IIe, a portable Apple IIc, a first-gen Macintosh, a Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100, a Palm Pilot, an Atari 800. Mossberg was an early home-computing hobbyist, enraptured by the possibilities of technology but frustrated by its limitations. He souped up his Apple IIe by adding memory, one chip at a time, which amazed Edie. "This was a guy who wasn't mechanical in any way," she says. "He wasn't handy." Mossberg even tried to exchange text messages with Journal colleague Rich Jaroslovsky on 300-baud modems before the advent of online services.

Mossberg is interrupted by a phone call from a flack at Apple about his critique of the iPod mini, which will run in tomorrow's paper. The publicist is concerned that Mossberg will write about his prerelease model crashing, even though the problem has since been fixed in the final production version. He was the only reviewer to receive preproduction minis from Apple, which enables him to publish the first real review of the new gadget - an enviable scoop. Mossberg will mention the crash, but overall his column will be positive. "Tell Steve not to get upset," Mossberg says.

The star of The Wall Street Journal, that bastion of elite capitalism, comes from the working class. His grandfather toiled as an upholsterer. His father peddled dishes and blankets door-to-door to millworkers.

Mossberg discovered journalism as a teenager in suburban Warwick, Rhode Island, when he cowrote a weekly column about high school for the Providence Journal-Bulletin. (He collaborated with his best friend, James Woods, the future film star.) Mossberg relished going downtown to turn in his copy at the "old smelly newsroom with fans and peeling green paint," he recalls. "I was bitten by the journalism bug."

As a Brandeis student he protested the Vietnam War and campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 primary. But already "he was focused on being a reporter," recalls dormmate Ira Shapiro. He spent summers covering crime and politics for the Providence newspaper.

He met Edith Marcus as a freshman in Politics 1A. They married the week after graduation and headed to Columbia University - Walt for a master's in journalism, Edie to Teachers College. The journalism students were assigned to "hang out" at publications between semesters. Mossberg ended up at The Wall Street Journal. "I had never read the Journal," he says. "My grandfather was a union organizer. We were workers." But the paper impressed him.

In 1970, Mossberg accepted a reporting job there for $9,000 a year. His ambition was to cover Washington, but the editors told him to name three smaller bureaus, promising he'd get one of them. He requested San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston. The call came back: "When can you be in Detroit?"

Sporting shoulder-length hair and long sideburns, Mossberg arrived at the Detroit bureau and took a desk next to another rookie, Norman Pearlstine (who became the Journal's managing editor a decade later). "He was whip smart," Pearlstine recalls, "and he typed faster with one finger than anyone I knew."

Mossberg's earliest scoop was uncovering that American Motors Corporation was going to announce the industry's first bumper-to-bumper warranty. When he asked AMC's executives for comment, they called the Journal's brass in New York and threatened to pull their ads if the story ran prior to AMC's big announcement. The managing editor told the Detroit bureau chief: Hold the story for one night so Mossberg can triple-check the facts, and then we'll run it even longer and with a bigger headline. AMC pulled its ads; Mossberg's bosses gave him a raise. "I learned about the power and integrity of a great newspaper and how it feels to report and write what you think is the real story," he says. "It was exhilarating."

In 1973, Mossberg moved to Washington, where he covered a series of beats over two decades: labor, energy, defense, and economics. After the Three Mile Island disaster, he searched through Nuclear Regulatory Commission records and uncovered similar problems at other atomic plants. During the Reagan years, he revealed classified documents about new weapons failing tests and busting budgets.

In 1987, Mossberg cowrote a front-page story on the stock market crash that prompted Treasury secretary James Baker to shut himself off from the press for three months. (The piece convincingly argued that Baker was in over his head when it came to economic policy.) When Baker became secretary of state under President Bush, Mossberg became the Journal's diplomatic reporter. "I flew around the world nonstop with Baker during tremendous upheaval," Mossberg says. "The end of the Cold War. The reunification of Germany. Moscow, Eastern Europe, then Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War."

The frenetic travel proved difficult on his family life. "We knew when he was leaving, but we never knew when he would be coming back," Edie recalls. In 1990, when Mossberg's sons were 8 and 12, he conceived of a new gig that would enable him to wield influence from home: a tech column. He had been captivated by computers and gadgetry for 20 years. As PC sales skyrocketed in the early '90s, he sensed a historic shift: "I believed that the tech market was about to broaden and democratize, and the column could catch the wave."

From its launch, Mossberg knew exactly what he wanted. "Personal Technology" would be utterly different from the reviews already out there: "They were by geeks for geeks, filled with jargon, condescending to nontechies, and reverential about the computer and the computer industry," he says. "I wanted to write for the nontech user and be critical of the industry."

Mossberg may have been clear about his new direction, but many of his higher-ups were not. "There was extraordinary resistance on all levels of Dow Jones [which owns the Journal]," recalls Pearlstine, who greenlighted the column and stuck by his old friend. "People said, We don't render opinions on our news pages, and who cares about personal computers?"

At first, he had to fight the perception that he'd dropped out of the race for power and influence. "Many Washington journalists I'd worked with, and some people in government, wondered if I'd been demoted," Mossberg says. "James Baker said, 'What the hell would you want to do that for?'"

But when it debuted on October 17, 1991, "Personal Technology" was an immediate hit. Mossberg's voice, amplified by the power of the Journal, resonated like no other. In 1992, he recommended America Online, an also-ran with only 200,000 subscribers, over Prodigy, the leader with 1.8 million subscribers and powerful backers, including Sears and IBM. "Prodigy tried to get me fired," he recalls. Mossberg's endorsement "really helped put AOL on the map," admits founder Steve Case. "It turbocharged our growth."

Mossberg's proudest moment came in 2001, when he objected to Smart Tags, a feature he tested in a beta version of Windows XP. Smart Tags could turn any word on a Web page into a link to a Microsoft property or sponsor's site without consent from the site's author.

Mossberg's column, which decried Smart Tags as a dangerous abuse of power, created an immediate uproar. Three weeks later, Microsoft executives leaked to Mossberg that they were killing the feature - and privately said that his column was why. "Walt was in heaven with that one," says Paul Steiger, who succeeded Pearlstine as the Journal's managing editor.

More recently, Mossberg blasted Intuit's TurboTax for "treating everybody like a criminal" by secretly installing a monitoring program on PCs to prevent piracy. So he urged his readers to buy the rival, Tax Cut. Intuit received hundreds of emails in response - and backed off.

He delights in his mission to "dress down companies when they need it." And he hardly seems daunted by taking on tech powers. "It was hard for me to imagine being afraid of the wrath of Gates or Jobs when I had been criticized by the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department."

His columns can be subjective - intentionally so. "In the late '80s and early '90s, the industry put a lot of pressure on the computer press to wring the subjectivity out," he says. "But there's no way to do a bar chart that shows that the Treo or the iPod is beautifully made and feels great in the hand."

The Mossberg brand is a vital franchise for the Journal, which has taken extraordinary measures to keep him. In 1997 - two years after Norm Pearlstine became editor in chief of Time Inc. - he tried to lure Mossberg to write for Time, Fortune, and Money. "It was a huge offer," Mossberg says, "just as my kids were starting to go to college." Paul Steiger told me that he approached Peter Kann, the CEO of Dow Jones, and asked if it could match Pearlstine's offer. That would have meant paying Mossberg more than Steiger himself earned. Nevertheless, Steiger pushed for it, even enlisting the support of the Journal's ad salespeople, who confirmed that Mossberg's credibility helped attract tech advertisers.

Kann approved the request, and Mossberg stayed. A published report says that Mossberg is the Journal's highest-paid writer, at $500,000 a year. Mossberg says the figure isn't accurate (but not whether it's high or low) and that he doesn't know what anyone else there makes. Pearlstine allows $500,000 "doesn't seem unreasonable" but that Mossberg "may be making more than that now."

Along the way, Mossberg has been a generous mentor to many younger writers. After admiring Kara Swisher's work at The Washington Post, he got her a job at the Journal. Mossberg even gave away Swisher at her wedding to Megan Smith, the former CEO of PlanetOut, in a waterfront ceremony in Northern California. "My father died when I was 5," Swisher explains. At the reception, Mossberg delivered a funny, moving tribute. Edie later told him: "Why couldn't we have had such a nice wedding?"

Mossberg has had two brushes with death. On 9/11 he left his hotel at the World Trade Center and took a taxi uptown a half hour before the first plane hit. In 1997, he had a major heart attack. It wasn't totally unexpected, Mossberg says. The men in his family have a history of heart problems that strike young.

In the hospital after his cardiac arrest, while awaiting bypass surgery, Mossberg lay in bed studying Web sites on the subject. "By the time he met the surgeons, he had read all about them," Edie recalls. They transplanted an artery from his arm to his heart in a quadruple bypass. When Mossberg returned to work three months later, "he seemed to come out of it very well," says Steiger. "His spirits were very strong and his health seemed much stronger."

Mossberg dieted and slimmed down to what one Journal staffer called "the sleek new Walt." His revitalization inspired confidence that he could maintain and even expand his workload. In addition to writing "Personal Technology" and "Mossberg's Mailbox," a Q&A feature, he launched "The Mossberg Solution" and, last year, the D conference. It helps that much of the research and product testing for "Solution" is done by Katie Boehret, who brings a youthful, unmonied, and female perspective to complement Mossberg's well-off aging male personality.

Her influence showed when Mossberg tested the Suunto PDA wristwatch this winter. The technology comes from Microsoft, where it was a longtime pet project of Bill Gates himself. But the watch is ridiculously large and clunky because it needs space for a screen. "I asked Katie, Would you date someone who was wearing this watch?" he says. "And she said, 'No!'" In his column two days later, Mossberg is unsparing: "In addition to the fact that the watches look ugly and cheap to me, they don't deliver really detailed information."

Mossberg has gotten overweight again, which concerns his friends and family. When I asked Edie how much the heart attack changed Walt, she blurted, "It should have changed him more. When you first come out of it, you're healthy, healthy! Now he slides back and forth." Mossberg admits, "I'm bad at diet and exercise."

He remains intensely driven. He writes his columns the day before they're published. (Now he types quickly with two fingers rather than one.) He has no backlog. He begins work at 7 am and often tests products at home at night and sends emails until 1 am.

The D conference - which Mossberg and Swisher staged for the first time last year - is the kind of new challenge he finds refreshing. It was named conference of the year by, which reviews power schmooze-fests. The first year's speakers included both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who rarely have patience for these events anymore - and hadn't shared a stage with each other in many years. Other promoters would have to plead and bargain to land such big names; Mossberg just had to ask.

The conference drew a who's who of other marquee megaplayers: USA Interactive's Barry Diller, AOL Time Warner's Steve Case, eBay's Meg Whitman, Yahoo!'s Terry Semel, and Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin. And Gates and Jobs are returning for a second time, despite the prospect of being interrogated onstage by Mossberg.

All this raises the possibility that Mossberg's objectivity and independence might be compromised by his close ties to top execs. Besides being chummy with them, he needs them to agree to appear at his conference. Doesn't that make him pull punches? Mossberg rejects the idea. Sure enough, he criticized Microsoft's clunky PDA watch in his column after Gates had agreed to serve as a leading attraction for the confab.

When Mossberg "launched "Personal Technology," Pearlstine wanted him to move to Silicon Valley. Mossberg refused to uproot his family. "How will you see all the new products?" Pearlstine asked. "I'll go there a few times a year," Mossberg responded, "but they'll come to me whether I'm in Juneau or Fargo, because I'm The Wall Street Journal."

He was right. CEOs and product designers visit him in Washington every week to demonstrate upcoming releases. Mossberg subjects them to probing interrogations. "If you want to pitch a product to Walt Mossberg, you better know everything about it," says Hoppes, his former assistant.

Naturally, some companies try to use their meetings with him to glean intelligence they can incorporate into products that he'll later review. Four years ago, he sent a mass email to the publicists who pitch him: "I am not a consultant or adviser for you. I am not part of your development process. Even when I receive prerelease software or hardware or an advance look at a site or service, I am not a tester. If I make opinionated comments or ask pointed questions during a meeting or by email or phone while trying out products, it is strictly to elicit information from you for my own journalistic purposes. I typically try to ask the questions and offer the reactions I imagine my readers would. I state my views strongly, but I never utter them in the belief I am some sort of consultant or guru, and you would be mistaken to look upon them that way."

Nonetheless, sometimes Mossberg does provide what amounts to free consulting. Hoppes, in his 2001 Georgetown master's thesis ("A Personal Technology Journalist's Influence on the Diffusion of Innovation - Case Study: Walt Mossberg"), reported that Mossberg stayed in touch with MusicMatch CEO Dennis Mudd after publishing his review "and still gives him advice about how to improve the product." Mossberg denies that.

Mudd told Hoppes: "His insights are exceptional. We really take them to heart. At one point we were using opt-out personalization. Walt shot me an email and let me know this was a big mistake, and recommended we should stay out of this gray area. We changed the policy per his recommendation. In hindsight, it was clearly the right thing to do." In his thesis, Hoppes concluded that "Mossberg sometimes has a direct hand in the design of a product." And how many former diplomatic reporters can say that?

Posted by thinkum at 12:20 PM

FBI investigates underground tunnel requests

[During my undergraduate years, I -- and many other students -- used the underground steam tunnels on our campus (not UT) as quick shortcuts between buildings, particularly on cold and messy winter days. There was no posted map of the network, and certainly the administration did not encourage it, but any student, by the time they were a senior, knew how to get from one end of campus to the other without setting foot outside. (As I recall, one tunnel even had a soda vending machine in it, which gives you some idea as to the volume of underground traffic.) Sadly, I imagine that, these days, the access points are all kept locked and sealed. - Th.]

Student interrogated after filing FOIA request with UT

Mark Miller had slept three hours in his parked car after a long night at an anime festival in a downtown hotel.

Then, the call. A number and a voice he didn't know.

"Hey Mark, we're at your dorm," the voice said. "We want to talk with you."

"Who are you?" asked Miller, a physics freshman.

"Law enforcement."

Two men met him in the hotel lobby and flashed badges: FBI. Secret Service. The questions began.

"Do you belong to any student activist organizations?"

"Have you ever thought of joining any student activist organizations, like UT Watch?"

He wasn't an activist. Nor a suspect or the messenger of a bomb threat, for that matter.

What interested the agents, from Austin's Joint Terrorism Task Force, was an open records request he filed with UT administrators for information about the underground campus tunnel system.

"The point was to see if there was any type of a threat to campus or public safety due to the nature of the information being sought," said Mark Rich, a special agent in the FBI San Antonio field office. "I don't think it had anything to do with the fact that a records request was made. It was what the request involved."

A network of underground utility tunnels connects campus buildings to provide water, steam, coaxial tables, compressed air and fiber optics. Miller was curious about the dimensions of the network. He said a physical plant official told him such details were secret "because of 9-11."

So he filed the request Dec. 16, 2003. Agents called him Jan. 30, 2004.

John Jones, the Secret Service agent who questioned Miller, called the matter an "ongoing investigation" and would not comment.

Rich, of the FBI, said the investigation won't be closed until the task force determines Miller's request is no terrorism threat.

"The question is how did the FOI act request get from [Miller] to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and how did the Joint Terrorism Task Force find out about it?" said Edna Perry, special agent-in-charge of the Austin Secret Service office.

UT officials don't have a certain answer to that question.

Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for legal affairs, said federal agents had visited campus to assess terrorism vulnerabilities as part of the University's argument against disclosing the tunnel plans.

"I'm sure, that's how they found out about the public information request," she said. "I think their activities are totally separate from ours."

She didn't know that agents questioned Miller. UT President Larry Faulkner, who met with Ohlendorf to decide to withhold the records, also said he wasn't aware of the investigation. UT open records coordinator Annela Lopez would not comment.

Miller said the agents wanted to know everything from his major to why he wears long hair.

They asked, how did he know open records laws? How did he know about campus tunnel systems? Did he ever think of joining UT Watch or filing a lawsuit through the American Civil Liberties Union?

"What disturbed me was the fact, that they went on for about 10 minutes asking me if I belonged to things like UT Watch. Anything to overthrow the government," Miller said. "They used the term 'activist organization.' Any stuff like that."

He said he had no luck visiting the Austin Secret Service office to ask what information on him had been collected. He also filed an open records request for this information with the FBI. It was denied.

"The next step is, of course, to file a FOIA request for the 'zero file' generated from the investigation of why I submitted an open records request. Good irony," Miller wrote Feb. 1 in his online journal, which includes entries on the 10 or more requests he has filed with the University.

He sought information about contracts to provide Internet service in dormitories and to install Webcams in classrooms. While not a member of UT Watch, he contributed to the group's security cameras Web page.

"In a way, it's flattering [that agents mentioned UT Watch]. In another way its kind of disturbing," said group member Nick Schwellenbach. "If UT or the FBI wants to investigate someone who wants to find out about the steam tunnels, in a way, it's overreacting."

In a Feb. 25 ruling, Attorney General Greg Abbott agreed with the University that the tunnel plans are exempt under HB 9, the homeland security bill that also closed access to campus surveillance camera locations The Daily Texan requested.

Faulkner said protecting the tunnel plans is more important than protecting surveillance information.

"I think there's a relation," Faulkner said. "This is actually a more serious question than the security cameras."

Suzy Woodford of the open government group Common Cause Texas lobbied against the security exemptions in HB 9. She said the task force investigation stepped on Miller's civil rights.

"Without a subpoena, without any clear evidence that this person is up to no good, I think this is chilling, and this could have a very adverse impact on people who are requesting information," Woodford said.

Questioning an open records requester is not usual for agents, said Perry, of the Secret Service. She said she didn't learn about the investigation until Miller showed up at the agency's office.

"It would not be normal for us in this office, but [Jones] is not assigned to this office," she said. "The Joint Terrorism Task Force probably would look into something like that. [Miller] could be a terrorist. He could be planning a plot."

Posted by thinkum at 12:16 PM

Apple patented by Microsoft

Apparently, intellectual property does grow on trees.

Microsoft, amid an IP spree that has won the company patent protection for everything from XML dialects to video game storage methods, mistakenly received a patent on Tuesday for a new variety of apple tree.

U.S. Plant Patent 14,757, granted to Robert Burchinal of East Wenatchee, Wash., and assigned to Microsoft, covers a new type of tree discovered in the early 1990s in the Wenatchee area, a major commercial apple-growing region. Dubbed the "Burchinal Red Delicious," the tree is notable for producing fruit that achieves a deep red color significantly earlier than other varieties. It is sold commercially as the "Adams Apple."

According to the patent, there are currently about 1,000 samples of the tree growing in the area of Wenatchee, a rural town about 90 miles east of Microsoft's home base of Redmond.

Other than the assignee field, the patent makes no reference to Microsoft to explain the software giant's apparent new horticultural interest.

Burchinal declined to comment on the patent, but a member of his household said the Microsoft assignation was likely an error.

A Microsoft representative confirmed that the assigning of the patent to the company was a mistake, after the apple paperwork was misfiled with a group of applications from a legal firm commonly used by the software giant. Microsoft has filed with the Patent Office for a certificate of correction to re-assign the patent to Burchinal, the representative said.

The apple claim, however brief, is the first botanical entry in Microsoft's patent portfolio. But the software giant has been a prolific patent generator in other areas. The company embarked on a campaign late last year to generate more revenue from its patent portfolio, offering to license widely used inventions such as its ClearType font technology and FAT storage format.

Posted by thinkum at 11:55 AM

RIAA Forgets to Make Royalty Payments

Posted by michael on Thursday May 06, @09:10AM
from the gentle-reminder dept.

theodp writes "NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer agreed with the RIAA on one point - artists WERE being deprived of money that was rightfully theirs. But Spitzer managed to find $50 million for performers without shaking down grandmothers. Spitzer's culprits? A Who's Who of the nation's top recording companies - members of the RIAA - who failed to maintain contact with artists and stopped making required royalty payments."

Posted by thinkum at 11:53 AM

Emotional Bonding with Space Probes

Posted by michael on Thursday May 06, @03:55PM
from the open-the-pod-bay-doors,-hal dept.

bfwebster writes " has a story on the scientists and technicians working on the Mars rovers, Spirit and Oppotunity--and how they will react when the rovers finally break down, go silent, or otherwise die. Of course, humans becoming emotionally involved with hardware is high on the list of overused science fiction cliches (see I.14), and humans were naming (and anthropomorphizing) their cars long before they started doing it to their computers. Some argue that anthropomorphic design can ease end-user acceptance [PDF], with some interesting results among toys for children. On the other hand, when software manufacturers try to give our computers some 'personality', we tend to vehemently react against it--witness Microsoft's attempts with the much-loathed Bob and Clippy. And when our personal computers are aged or ailing or simply misbehaving, we usually are more than happy to put them out of our misery. So in the case of Spirit and Opportunity, the issue may be the large investment of time, money, and professional credibility in having two semi-autonomous rovers 100 million miles away function correctly. Best quote from the story: when Spirit, early into its mission, shut down for reasons then unknown, the Spirit mission manager happened to get a phone call from her husband. He asked her how her day had been, and she said, 'Well…I think I’m personally responsible for the loss of a $400 million national asset.' Doncha hate it when that happens?"

Posted by thinkum at 11:52 AM

Comcast Fires TechTV Staff

Posted by CowboyNeal on Thursday May 06, @11:42PM
from the no-one-left-to-save-the-screens dept.

Bocaj writes "Looks like it's curtains for TechTV staff. A Leo Laporte article says that Comcast has let the entire staff go. 'Per the WARN Act (governing plant closings) all the employees of TechTV have been given 60 days notice. The San Francisco operation will be shuttered by July. 100 of the existing jobs will be posted for those willing to relocate to LA.' No word on what will happen to all the shows or the channel."

Posted by thinkum at 11:47 AM

NRF Calls SCO's Claims 'Meritless'

Posted by timothy on Wednesday May 05, @02:47PM
from the mom-and-pop-vs-the-monster dept.

Xenographic writes "The National Retail Federation has just put out a press release in which their CIO concludes that SCO's IP claims are "meritless," and that Novell is the last company which can show a clear title to the code in question. That SCO's claims are meritless is hardly news to anyone who has been following this, but what is interesting is that the NRF was prompted to release this because of legal threats to their membership, specifically SCO's threats to sue "major retailers." So the businesses being menaced by SCO are banding together, making it that much less likely that SCO will be able to generate easy money from mere threats of litigation. SCO's stock, meanwhile, appears to have taken a small dive from this news. Also, you can find further details and analysis on Groklaw."

Posted by thinkum at 11:43 AM

May 06, 2004

Picasso sale sets record

NEW YORK - A work by Pablo Picasso has set an auction record, with an early painting by the modern master selling for $104 million US on Wednesday at Sotheby's auction house.

The sale of the Boy with a Pipe included the auction price of $93 million plus Sotheby's commission of about $11 million.

The painting had a pre-sale estimate of $70 million. Sotheby officials called the work "one of the most beautiful of the artist's Rose Period paintings and one of the most important early works by Pablo Picasso ever to appear on the market."

Wednesday's sale to an unnamed buyer set a record for the highest price paid at auction for a painting.

In 1990, Christie's sold Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Doctor Gachet to a Japanese billionaire for $82.5 million, a price that also included the auction house's premium.

Picasso's Boy with a Pipe depicts a young Parisian boy wearing a garland of flowers and holding a pipe in his left hand.

Picasso painted the work at age 24, soon after he had settled in Montmartre and about two years before he created his pivotal work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which would mark his place in history as founder of the Cubist movement.

Newspaper mogul John Hay Whitney and his philanthropist wife Betsey bought Boy with a Pipe in 1950 for $30,000. The work was part of the Whitney family's collection of major works by artists such as Picasso, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

Sotheby's gave a group of 34 paintings from the collection a total presale estimate of $140 million. The total came out to $190 million, proceeds of which will go to Betsey Whitney's Greentree Foundation, a charity she created after her husband's death in 1982. She died in 1998.

Posted by thinkum at 01:55 PM

Scientists: Humpback whales sing at supper

BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- The male humpback whale is believed to sing its mysterious songs mainly for the same reason generations of teenage boys have started bad garage bands: to get girls.

Researchers had thought the ocean crooners serenaded their women only during their winter mating season in the tropics. Now, scientists know the humpbacks also break out in song during springtime in New England, the time and place they're supposed to be focused on eating.

The findings, gathered by observing humpbacks roaming feeding grounds off Cape Cod, undermine long-held assumptions about humpback behavior, said whale biologist Phillip Clapham of the Northeast Fishery Sciences Center, co-author of a paper on the singing in the current issue of Proceedings Royal Society, Biology.

"It tells us whales don't read the text books, which is really annoying," he said.

The whales haven't suddenly taken to a new stage off the Cape, said Cornell University professor Christopher W. Clark, a bioacoustics expert and the paper's co-author.

"I'm sure they were doing it," Clark said. "We just never listened."

Clark and Clapham had hoped to hear the chatty, rare and hard-to-track North Atlantic right whale when they began recording in an area of Georges Bank, about 80 nautical miles east of the Cape, between May and June 2000.

Instead, they heard almost nothing but humpbacks singing.

"They're supposed to be singing down in the Caribbean, where guys are on the corner and the girls are out in short skirts," he said. "They're not supposed to be singing at suppertime."

The singing Clark heard and the sporadic humpback sounds he expected to hear are as different as a grunt at the dinner table and a grand opera.
Musical whales

Humpbacks have a range that covers eight octaves, from a bass so low that humans can't hear it to a magnificent soprano, Clark said. Their highly structured songs include multiple themes that are constantly repeated and even rhyme.

The songs last up to 30 minutes, and the whales embellish like jazz musicians, seeing "who can improvise in some attractive way better than the other [whale]," Clark said.

Aside from attracting mates, singing is also believed to establish a hierarchy among male humpbacks. Some theorize the singing breaks out among migrating whales as they start to mix.

Clapham said the whales could be singing because their hormone levels are still high from winter. Or they could be establishing bonds with females in hopes of hooking up during the next mating season, he said.

They also might be trying to immediately mate with females who didn't conceive the previous winter, he said. Whaling catch data indicates humpbacks have been conceived outside of the winter mating season, even though it's rare for females to ovulate then.

More study is needed on the humpbacks, which are an endangered but recovering species, with an estimated 11,500 in the North Atlantic. Clapham said in the end the spring singing may just be a chance for "low cost advertising" -- the male humpback is eating and there are females around, so he might as well give it a shot, mating season or not.

"Males take any opportunity they can to attract the females, across the animal kingdom," he said.

Posted by thinkum at 01:49 PM

Man survives six nails driven into head

A neurosurgeon explains how he removed six nails from Isidro Mejia's skull, left, shown in an x-ray before the operation, right.

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- A construction worker had six nails driven into his head in an accident with a high-powered nail gun, but doctors said Wednesday they expect him to make a full recovery.

Three nails penetrated Isidro Mejia's brain, and one entered his spine below the base of his skull. Doctors said the nails barely missed his brain stem and spinal cord, preventing paralysis or death.

He made his first public appearance Wednesday since the April 19 accident that left him with 3 1/2-inch nails embedded in his face, neck and skull.

He told reporters in Spanish from his wheelchair that he does not remember much about the accident, but is grateful to be alive.

"He says that he's very happy to be alive," said Dr. Rafael Quinonez, a neurosurgeon who removed the nails at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center. "And he told me this morning that he thought he was going to die. He was happy when he opened his eyes, and he saw that he's still with us."

Mejia, 39, was atop an unfinished home when he fell from the roof onto a co-worker who was using the nail gun, Los Angeles County sheriff's Deputy Mark Newlands said.

The two men tried to grab each other to keep from falling, but both tumbled to the ground. At some point, the nail gun discharged and drove the nails into Mejia's head.

"They're extremely powerful," Newlands said. "They've got to drive through three-quarter-inch plywood."

Quinonez said Mejia told authorities he remembered a "shock" to the back of his neck and little else before passing out.

"We did not have too much hope that he would survive, but we did it and he survived," Quinonez said, calling the recovery "close to a miracle."

Mejia is walking with minimal assistance and speaks somewhat slowly because his brain's speech center was affected, but his progress has been "remarkable," Quinonez said. With rehabilitation therapy, he should fully recover, he said.

"He is basically normal," Quinonez said.

Five nails were removed the same day and the sixth, in Mejia's face, was removed April 23 after swelling went down, the hospital said.

Authorities cleared the co-worker of any wrongdoing.

Posted by thinkum at 01:48 PM

Fill 'er Up

Researchers Offer Shortcut for Hydrogen Cars: Gasoline

May 6 ? Suppose you could build a car in your backyard that runs on pure hydrogen, freeing you forever from the need to burn those polluting and increasingly scarce fossil fuels. This baby would run so cleanly the only waste product would be water so clear you could drink it.

That would be great until you tried to fill up your fuel tank.

It took decades and trillions of dollars to create coast to coast gas stations and pipelines and refineries that make up the infrastructure that powers a nation on the move. And it will take decades and even more money to build a hydrogen infrastructure, so what are you going to do in the meantime?

Most likely you'll have to use what's there. You'll still need to pull into the local gas station and fill up your tank and somehow use that fossil fuel to produce hydrogen to run your car. Sounds a bit clumsy, but that's where we are in the move toward what is being called the "hydrogen future."

Even if we knew how to do it, there isn't any way to jump from the present to the future. We are going to rely on fossil fuels for decades to come, despite growing evidence that they will be in short supply as rapidly developing countries demand a larger share of a shrinking pie.

In the short term, at least, hydrogen power may turn out to be too good to be true. An inexhaustible source of clean-burning fuel would be great, but the hurdles are enormous.

Brick of Fuel?

At this point hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into efforts to solve problems that on the surface seem quite simple. Hydrogen is the smallest of all atoms, so you ought to be able to store a bunch of them in a small space. But a bunch isn't even close to what you're going to need.

One reason fossil fuels have hung around so long is it doesn't take much to pack a real punch. You get more bang for your buck with a gallon of gasoline than you could from a tank full of hydrogen. In fact, it would take so much hydrogen to power your backyard buggy on a 300 mile trip that researchers have given up on the idea of compressing gaseous hydrogen enough to provide an adequate fuel supply.

Thus storage has emerged as the No. 1 issue on the road to a hydrogen future. How do you store enough of the stuff to get you where you want to go?

The most likely answer, many experts contend, is you store it as a solid, not a gas. Scientists are looking at various chemical compounds that can hold hydrogen within their chemical lattice in a way that it can be both released and replenished.

But here's the figure that puts the difficulty of this problem into perspective. The goal is to create a solid compound composed of at least 7 percent hydrogen. Put another way, 93 percent of the mass of the storage system would be material that serves no purpose but storing hydrogen.

That's sort of like using a brick to hold a speck of gold.

"It's a real challenge," says one expert involved in the research.

On-Board Conversion

That problem is going to take a long time to solve, but there's a way to get around it, at least for awhile. Gasoline can be converted to hydrogen, thus paving the way for a gradual transition. Three different ways of producing hydrogen from gasoline are being studied, and a significant milestone has been reached.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have managed to strip hydrogen atoms from water and hydrocarbon molecules (both gasoline and diesel fuel) to produce hydrogen gas. And they can do it quickly, thus leaping a hurdle that could make hydrogen power far more appealing.

"We've shown the feasibility of this approach," says Larry Pederson, project leader at the lab.

On-board conversion of fossil fuels to hydrogen is seen as the best way to bridge the gap, but up until now there has been a real obstacle. All of the possible techniques require time for the conversion to begin, because all depend on the production of heat to start the process.

So if you actually built your backyard dream machine, you might have to sit in it for about 15 minutes before it warmed up enough to begin producing hydrogen. That could be a showstopper.

But Pederson and his team have developed a new gadget, called a "steam reformer," that launches the conversion process within 12 seconds. So by the time you get your seatbelt on, and your radio tuned to the right station, you're ready to roll.

"The target [set by the Department of Energy] had been 60 seconds," Pederson says. Exceeding that goal by a considerable margin is a technological triumph, but no one is claiming victory yet. Before they can do that, they have to scale it up to provide enough hydrogen to power a 50 kilowatt fuel cell.

"That would run a small compact car," Pederson says. For your SUV, he adds, it's "probably going to be double that."

Fossil Fuel Dependant

What all of this shows, however, is that even in our effort to break away from fossil fuels, we still rely on fossil fuels.

"We're using something like 12 million barrels [of oil] a day for transportation needs," Pederson says, and he doesn't see us breaking away from that anytime soon. Some modes of transportation will probably depend on fossil fuels for many decades.

"I don't think anybody's going to be flying a plane real soon" powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, Pederson says.

But he sees hydrogen making inroads in the not too distant future, especially as auxiliary power units. Our cars are demanding more and more electricity to run our gizmos, and using an alternator to generate that electricity is a very inefficient process, he argues.

Converting part of the vehicle's fuel to hydrogen to power a small fuel cell could produce large amounts of electricity and greater fuel economy, he adds. Diesel trucks that now idle all night to keep their refrigerators running could use fuel cells instead, thus reducing the waste considerably.

So there are many ways that hydrogen is likely to play an increasingly important role in the years ahead. But it will take a few miracles to reach the goal set by President Bush in his State of the Union address last year.

He said "the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution free." That's if all this can be moved from the laboratory to the showroom within the next two decades.

Posted by thinkum at 01:43 PM

Flavor Me Thin?

Study Finds That Certain Scents Trick the Brain, Help Patients Lose Weight

C H I C A G O, May 6 - If you've been sampling all the trendy diets that have hit the U.S. market in the last few years, you probably think you've heard it all before.

But one doctor has got something new and sparkly up his sleeve and it has nothing to do with the low-carb movement that seems to be sweeping the nation.

Edible crystals that smell like cocoa, strawberry, raspberry and banana over food can change the way people eat, said Dr. Alan Hirsch, of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. The scent of the crystals has the effect of tricking the brain, he said.

"It fools your brain into thinking you've eaten more and thus you eat less," Hirsch said. "You can eat whatever you want to eat. You eat whatever you normally would eat. You'll feel full faster, you'll eat less."

Hirsch's hypothesis is that by sprinkling everything you eat with these calorie-free crystals - crystals that his lab has formulated to smell like certain delectable foods - we can trick our brains into thinking we've eaten more than we have. The crystals are not on the market, and are simply being researched at this point. But to simulate the research at home, Hirsch suggests adding spices, garlic, onion and any aromatic fruits and vegetables to your meals to make food more flavorful and aromatic.

The Nose Connection

According to Hirsch, taste is strongly perceived in the nose, or more specifically by the olfactory nerve, which he says is directly linked to the part of the brain that tells us we are full.

"By smelling the smells, their brain perceives: 'I've smelled it, therefore I've eaten it, therefore I better stop eating it. I've overeaten,'" Hirsch said.

The 12 different crystals or powders are divided into two groups: sweet crystals to put on sweet or neutral foods, and salty crystals to put on everything else. The sweet food crystals come in the flavors of cocoa, spearmint, banana, strawberry, raspberry and malt. The salty crystals come in the flavors of taco, cheddar cheese, parmesan cheese, ranch dressing flavor, horseradish and onion.

While many medical scientists think these "sprinkles" sound too good to be true, Hirsch says that after six months of using them, 108 overweight patients - who weighed 197 pounds on average - lost an average of 34 pounds.

Donella and Regis Banks, a Chicago couple who are participating in the study, have just started using the sprinkles.

"I was actually shocked because I've been trying to lose weight - ever since I was in high school - so when I started losing weight, I couldn't believe it," said Regis Banks.

"Sometimes you don't even get to finish the entire meal," said Donella Banks. "It's not by choice, you know. Once you sprinkle and then you start eating, then you're full."

But Will It Work?

But even Hirsch says he's just beginning to investigate if the sprinkles will really work over the long term.

"It's possible that it had nothing to do with the sprinkles," Hirsch said. "Maybe the sprinkling reminded them not to eat. Maybe instead of making the food taste better, it made the food all taste the same, so they lost interest in the food."

With so many Americans trying to lose weight, many will try almost anything. Some medical experts say the flavor crystals are an interesting concept, but aren't so sure they will work.

Research supports the idea that taste, smell and flavor play a powerful role in stimulating and suppressing appetite, but the data in the flavor crystal study is too limited to draw conclusions, said Dr. David L. Katz, an associate clinical professor of public health and medicine at Yale University School of Medicine.

"Flavor crystals are an interesting approach, but unlikely to be the best," Katz said. "Do you really want to put cheddar cheese crystals on your oatmeal?"

A study at Yale has indicated that some people are "super-tasters," with heightened responses to flavors, Katz said. Such eaters find it hard not to overeat, because food is such a pleasure. Salt in sweet food and sugar in salty food can also stimulate appetite, he said.

The study also does not address the fact that people eat for reasons that have nothing to do with taste, said Connie Diekman, the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.

"I'd like to see more studies, especially those done in people who eat just because," Diekman said.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said he would like to see a longer-term study.

"Six months is about the max for demonstrating results of weight loss," Ayoob said. "After that, weight loss tends to level off."

Researchers also need to look at whether people will tire of the flavor sprinkles over time, he said.

Learn more about Hirsch's study and the The Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation at

Posted by thinkum at 01:38 PM

WTC Developers to Break Ground July 4

NEW YORK May 5, 2004 - Developers of the Freedom Tower will break ground on the 1,776-foot skyscraper at the World Trade Center site on July 4, Gov. George Pataki said Wednesday.

"On July 4, as we commemorate the founding of our nation, we lay the foundation for our resurgence," Pataki said. "On July 4, as fireworks burst in the sky, ephemeral reminders of our liberty, we will begin to reclaim our skyline with a permanent symbol of our freedom."

The July 4 date is well ahead of Pataki's stated goal of breaking ground by late summer.

"America and the world will witness as our plans go from paper to steel," he said.

Freedom Tower is expected to be finished in 2009, and the full trade center site by 2013.

Organizers say the tower will be the world's tallest building, with its height including a spire meant to evoke images of the Statue of Liberty. It will be built on the northwest part of the trade center site, not the footprints of the vanished twin towers.

The plan calls for a cable suspension structure that creates an open area above the building's 70 floors of office space, and houses windmills to generate energy.

Pataki announced several other dates in the redevelopment timetable, including that a complete design of the Sept. 11 victims memorial, "Reflecting Absence," would be finished by the end of the year and construction starting in 2006.

Private donors will need to raise money to build the memorial, which is budgeted for at least $350 million.

Posted by thinkum at 01:35 PM

Woman Allegedly Assaults Boyfriend With Fish

S A G I N A W, Mich. - Beware of a woman scorned - or allegedly armed with a mounted fish.

A woman was arrested May 3 on allegations that she used a mounted fish with a pointy nose to attack her live-in boyfriend, say police in Saginaw, Mich., who responded to a domestic disturbance and found a 25-year-old man who claimed he was the victim of a knife assault.

According to the police report, the man had small cuts on his arms, right leg and left shoulder. He also had a bite wound on the left shoulder. When questioned, the man's girlfriend allegedly told authorities her attack was an act of retaliation. According to investigators, she said she bit her boyfriend after he bit her first. She denied wielding a knife but allegedly admitted grabbing the fish after he had thrown her down and hit her repeatedly.

Investigators could not find evidence of knife usage at the scene, but observed that the mounted fish resembled a swordfish. The accused woman awaits formal charges.

Posted by thinkum at 01:23 PM

Q&A: Genesis sample return

In September, the Genesis space probe will eject a capsule to Earth carrying fragile samples of the solar wind - particles spewed out from the Sun.

The capsule's fall will be slowed by two parachutes, but its fast descent means the container must be caught in mid-air by a helicopter with a hook if a damaging impact with the ground is to be avoided.

The US space agency turned straight to Hollywood for this job. BBC News Online spoke to Dan Rudert, Genesis pilot and one of the US film industry's top stunt men.

What was your reaction when you first heard the idea of dropping an object from space to Earth and snatching it in mid-air with a helicopter - did it seem a little far-fetched?

DR: Probably like all of us, when you hear that someone is capturing a space capsule, coming in from re-entry, you picture flames coming off it and pieces of it burning up as it comes in through the Earth's atmosphere.

So, when Cliff (Fleming, co-pilot on the capture) told me about it, my initial reaction was: "You want to use a helicopter to catch that!" When Cliff did the first catch here in 1999, I was brought in to take the replica capsule up to 18,000ft and drop it and I took that challenge because I have never been up that high in a helicopter.

When I saw the rigging on this helicopter and this big hook for the first time - it was pretty wild - I was kind of like: "Cliff, what are you doing?" But it was really interesting to drop the capsule and watch Cliff do the first catch and now that I have done it too, it seems a little more sane.

How does it work?

DR: We use a Eurocopter Astar and under the helicopter there is a boom that is 18 feet and 5 inches long with a capture hook on the end. Inside the helicopter there is a winch assembly that plays out a line down to the hook on the end of the boom.

Once we have lifted off the ground, we lower the boom and put it at a 50-degree angle so that it is clear of the tail rotor. That hook takes about 200lbs of force to pull it off, so when we fly over the parafoil and catch it, it pulls the hook off and the line plays out on the winch to about 60-100ft - kind of like a decelerator. So you feel a firm tug, but it's actually quite smooth. It's pretty benign.

The hook is catching two lines that are sewn into the parafoil on the leading and aft edges. The hook bunches up the chute and a lot of times you get a lot of the parafoil out here floating. But what we care about is that the hook catches those lines inside the parafoil - if we are lucky it catches them both.

We don't want it to slip back out so there is a pyrotechnic device loaded in the hook, which fires a pin to secure the chute once it's hooked. We have shown that it will go through seven layers of parachute and once that pin is in place we've got it - it's not coming out.

Then we land it gently on the ground and take the parafoil off because it causes so much drag. Then we just take the capsule alone and fly it back to the clean room slung beneath the helicopter.

What special skills are you bringing to this project?

DR: You've got two Hollywood stunt pilots doing this and that is what Cliff and I do. We got into the film business because of our background doing utility work.

Cliff and I have done all sorts of mountain work and long-line work (where a load is slung beneath the helicopter); we've done helicopter skiing and I used to do a helicopter ambulance service at Lake Powell (in Utah) for years and we took that experience and did well in Hollywood.

The analogy with doing movies and doing this is that a lot of the work we do with helicopters in movies is to have cameras on board and it requires us to get very close - directors always want to be lower, slower and you have to come right overhead - say someone on a horse or in a car and you have to catch them right on the curve or as he comes over the hill.

A lot of those skills actually parallel what it's like to get sight to acquire the parafoil, getting lined up to it, hitting the mark on it. We try to capture it a little off-centre on purpose to collapse the chute and you've got to hit it right on time; so flying camera a lot has helped quite a bit.

What movies have you done?

DR: The Hulk, Swat, XXX, We Were Soldiers, Charlie's Angels, Swordfish, Con Air.

Is this the most unusual thing you've ever been asked to do?

DR: Just about. You know you get asked to do a lot of crazy things by directors - people grappling out of your helicopter or flying over buildings or cars that blow up. But that's kind of made for movies and television.

This stunt is not fiction; it's the real deal. To capture a capsule that has been in outer space - if Cliff and I do this it will be the first time any helicopter pilots have ever attempted to catch something that has been in outer orbit.

A lot of time and money has been spent in collecting these solar samples and when this thing comes down you know there's a big chain - and you are one link of it - but you better be able to capture it.

So is it just like you're doing another movie stunt?

DR: Well, it's an interesting analogy because on a big movie, there's a lot of people and a lot of money involved, a lot of trying to get your timing down, to try to get the shot just right.

But in movies if you don't get the shot you can sometimes go around and reset. On 8 September, the space capsule comes in on this day and this day only and you better be ready and able to catch it because you don't get another chance to try it again the next day.

Posted by thinkum at 01:17 PM

Love's strange effect on people

Love really does have a strange effect on people, say scientists.

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.

"It's as if nature wants to eliminate what can be different in men and women, because it's more important to survive at this stage," she said.

'Love is blind'

The findings come as another study suggests that love may indeed be blind.

Researchers at University College London have discovered that being in love can affect key circuitry in the brain.

They found that the neural circuits that are normally associated with critical social assessment of other people are suppressed when people are in love.

They said the findings may explain why some people are often "blind" to their partner's faults.

Both studies add to the growing evidence that love can have a strange effect on the body.

Previous research by the Italian researchers, published in 1999, suggested falling in love played havoc with key chemicals in the brain.

They found that people who were in love had lower levels of serotonin.

In fact, their serotonin levels were found to be the same as people with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Speaking at the time, the researchers said the finding may explain why people who are in love can sometimes obsess about their partner.

Love drugs?

Professor Gareth Leng of the University of Edinburgh is also carrying out research in this area.

"It's about understanding ourselves a little bit better," he told BBC News Online.

But Professor Leng said the research could one day lead to new treatments for people who are having relationship problems.

"We know that a very large proportion of adults do report dissatisfaction with bonding or sexual experience.

"I wouldn't rule out the possibility of some sort of therapeutics in the future," he said.

Posted by thinkum at 01:13 PM

High speed fish align on design

Tuna and mako sharks have evolved very similar swimming anatomy despite being separated by millions of years of evolution, the journal Nature reports.

The findings provide an exceptional example of "convergent evolution", US and German researchers claim.

The two fish types diverged on separated evolutionary paths about 400 million years ago, yet their bodies have come together on a similar design.

This could be the result of exploiting similar ecological niches, experts say.

"It's a fairly major change in anatomy to have that happen. That is the thing that makes it remarkable to us, that this arose independently in the two fish," Professor Robert Shadwick, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, US, told BBC News Online.

Most fish move their tails by sending a wave of contraction along the length of the body. But this contraction must be limited in its power because each movement of the tail involves bending much of the fish's body.

Red and white

Tuna can drive a powerful tail movement by making forceful muscle contractions in the centre of their bodies. This is facilitated by a unique anatomical arrangement under the skin.

The complex evolutionary changes that gave rise to this anatomy were thought only to have occurred in tuna.

But when researchers from Scripps studied the swimming of mako sharks - related to the famous Great White shark - they made some important findings.

The scientists placed mako sharks on a kind of aquatic treadmill - a tube that circulates water from the tail of the fish to the head - so that they swam in place.

They measured the shortening, or contraction, of two different types of muscle in the sharks: red and white.

Fish use white muscle for short bursts of power, but it rapidly fatigues. Active swimming requires red muscle, which is fatigue-resistant.

In tunas and makos, muscle mass is concentrated at the centre of the body and linked to the tail via long tendons. In other fish, the muscle is arranged in blocks along the body attached to the vertebral column, which corresponds with their style of swimming.

When mako sharks swim actively, shortening of red muscle occurs in step with bending of the backbone nearer the tail. Therefore, red muscle at the centre of the body causes movement toward the end of the tail, a pattern of movement seen in tuna.

Supreme predators

Professor Ian Johnston, of St Andrews University, UK, said he could think of more striking examples of convergent evolution.

"If you take biological antifreezes, completely unrelated taxonomic and geographical groups have come up with the same molecule, in some cases deriving it from a different starter molecule.

"[Mako sharks and tuna] inhabit tropical, semi-tropical oceans which are effectively like deserts in terms of food supply. So they have to migrate over long distances, swim very efficiently; they're large and reach high speeds.

"They're supreme predators of the ocean, so they've both evolved from different starting points to that top predator, pelagic niche."

Dr Adam Summers, of the University of California, Irvine, US, speculated that understanding the mechanisms behind the locomotion of tuna and mako sharks could lead to high-speed autonomous underwater vehicles.

"The data from these two high-speed swimmers seem clearly to endorse a solution that puts as much emphasis on the placement of actuators as on the overall shape of the vehicle," he said.

Posted by thinkum at 01:12 PM

Q&A: Third space tourist

Gregory Olsen is a scientist and businessman from New Jersey, US.

In April 2005, Dr Olsen will become the third "space tourist" to travel to the International Space Station. He has paid $20m for the privilege of boarding a Russian Soyuz capsule on the trip of a lifetime.

He told us what he hoped to get out of the mission and how he thinks it might change him.

What preparation have you been doing at Star City?

It's going very well. I've been there three weeks - it's very intensive. I've had Russian language training, that's the biggest challenge I have right now. And then we do two hours a day physical training - which is running, weights and swimming.

And then the rest of the day consists of technical training where we do both lectures and simulations on the Soyuz and on the Russian part of the International Space Station (ISS).

What I haven't thought about yet, but is very important is the safety and emergency training - what if?

What kinds of "what if" scenarios have they given you?

You practise getting into your space suit, sometimes you only have less than three minutes to do that, depressurisation of various chambers, what if the power goes out. Figuring out why did the power go out, is it correctable and if not, what are the options? That kind of thinking.

You've been in contact with Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth. What advice have they given you?

Oh, you know, a lot of detail stuff. But they both basically said the same thing, which is that whatever you think now, it's better up there. Dennis Tito told me the best night's sleep he's ever had is on the ISS - he slept like a baby.

Mark emailed me last night and said, there's hundreds and thousands of issues and details that come up and just put your head down and do it.

What is the difference between what they have been teaching you and what they would teach a regular astronaut or cosmonaut?

Well, I wouldn't pretend that I'm either an astronaut or cosmonaut, because they get trained for many years and they know much more in depth about the vehicle than I'll ever know from my limited amount of training.

And I won't be operating the Soyuz, but obviously I have to know what's going on. For instance, even though I'm not required to use the control panel on the Soyuz vehicle, I'm still required to know the functions of everything. The emergency safety is obvious.

Would you know how to pilot the capsule if you had to?

Well, I'm only three weeks into the training, I don't know how much of that will be included. But I know now as I'm studying the panel, I'm aware of what the controls are and what they do.

I guess it's hard for me to imagine the commander and flight engineer being incapacitated and I'm not. But if that's the case, I'll at least know what everything does.

What has been the reaction of your family and colleagues?

Just hugely supportive. Everyone at Sensors Unlimited, they had a little party when I made the announcement. That was one of the awkward parts, I was preparing for this mission but I really couldn't announce it to anyone. It was March 29 when we made the announcement.

They came back and they had a cake and a party for me. I have two daughters who are grown up and each have kids and they said: "This is really something, just go for it dad."

Have many people questioned why you would want to do this?

People who know me understand that this is going to be a life-changing experience for me. I've had comments like: "Well I'd never want to be on a rocket, I'd rather keep my feet on the ground - good luck." My golf buddy back home said he'd never want to do the training with me but he'd never want to get on a rocket.

What do you hope to achieve with the experiments you're taking to the ISS?

Well the crystal growth could have commercial aspects downstream three or five years later. If it's successful it will be proof of concept. That means that we'll have to wait for the next spaceflight to figure out how we could do this commercially.

That's a long way off. But I think it would give encouragement to a lot of future experiments. I'm following along on work done by Nasa, it's their glove box I'll be using. It's something we'll partner up on and if it's successful we'll all benefit from it. All the information I acquire will be in the public domain. It's not going to be a trade secret.

What kinds of commercial applications might the crystal growth have?

Primarily for the infrared camera (my company manufactures) and other infrared cameras. By growing the crystal without gravity I believe we can make more uniform crystals where the chemical composition doesn't vary along the wafer that's created.

What are your other motivations for going on this trip?

I want to see Princeton, New Jersey, which is where I live. But the thing I really want to do is share this share this information with others - with school groups.

That's the third part of the mission. A is the "wow" of orbit, B the science, C sharing this and that will take place during the mission and afterwards. I want to motivate as many young people as I can to go into science and maths. It worked for me and it can work for them.

Why do you think that is so important?

If you look at the numbers coming out of China it's frightening. It's great for China and I'm all for it. But when you compare that to the US on a per capita basis, they're well ahead of us in terms of the numbers graduating. Interestingly, the Chinese who used to come to the US and study science and engineering stayed and that was a good thing.

What I think you're going to see is those folks are going to start going back and develop their own universities where they're going to excel. That's good for China and it's good for mankind, but I would just want my own country, the US, to hold its own in that.

What do you hope to gain from this experience?

Dennis Tito says he thinks about it every day and when you know you've had an experience like that you feel special about yourself. My guess is that I will appreciate life and try and do more.

I'm 59 years old and I feel like I'm 30. I hope people see that at 59 it's not about going into retirement and ending your life, it's about beginning your life.

Posted by thinkum at 01:11 PM

UK counties choose floral emblems

The conservation charity Plantlife International has announced the results of a UK-wide vote held to choose each British county's favourite wild flower.

It says tens of thousands of people took part in the voting, with several counties opting for the same flower.

A round of voting several years ago showed the native bluebell was the nation's outright favourite flower.

Plantlife launched its County Flowers campaign in order to highlight growing threats to the UK's flower species.

On average, it says, every county in the UK loses one species of wild plant each year through habitat loss, pollution and intensive farming.

But wild flowers are evocative cultural markers, with poppies (chosen by Essex as its county emblem) signifying remembrance for those who have died in war, and roses used as familiar heraldic devices for more than a thousand years.

Many British place names derive from plants: the Kentish town of Bromley owes its name to the broom, and Ramsey in Cambridgeshire is named for ramson, or wild garlic.

Temporary fame

Plantlife, based in Salisbury, launched the County Flowers campaign in 2002 to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee, asking people to vote for any wild flower that they felt best represented their county.

This time it asked them to choose one of the top two plants chosen in the first round in each of the UK's 109 counties.

The foxglove proves the favourite in four counties or cities: Birmingham, Leicestershire, Argyll and Monmouthshire.

Another popular candidate was the cowslip, voted top in Northamptonshire, Surrey and Worcestershire.

Herefordshire voted for mistletoe, which often grows on fruit trees. Many English orchards face destruction as European Union rules on farm subsidies are changing.

Kent made the perhaps predictable choice of the hop: the county was for decades home to many of the hop fields on which British brewers depended.

The favourite flower of Londoners, rosebay willowherb, established itself on many World War II bomb sites, but was virtually unknown before 1890.

ENGLAND Bedfordshire: Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera); Berkshire: Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum); Birmingham: Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); Bristol: Maltese-cross (Lychnis chalcedonica); Buckinghamshire: Chiltern gentian (Gentianella germanica); Cambridgeshire: Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris); Cheshire: Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis); Cornwall/Kernow: Cornish heath (Erica vagans); Cumberland: Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia palustris); Derbyshire: Jacob's ladder (Polemonium caeruleum); Devon: Primrose (Primula vulgaris); Dorset: Dorset heath (Erica ciliaris); County Durham: Spring gentian (Gentiana verna); Essex: Poppy (Papaver rhoeas); Gloucestershire: Wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus); Hampshire: Dog-rose (Rosa canina); Herefordshire: Mistletoe (Viscum album); Hertfordshire: Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris); Huntingdonshire: Water-violet (Hottonia palustris); Isles of Scilly: Thrift (Armeria maritima); Isle of Wight: Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis); Kent: Hop (Humulus lupulus); Lancashire: Red rose (Rosa species); Leeds: Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus); Leicestershire: Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); Lincolnshire: Common dog-violet (Viola riviniana); Liverpool: Sea-holly (Eryngium maritimum); London: Rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium); Manchester: Common cotton-grass (Eriophorum angustifolium); Middlesex: Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa); Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus); Norfolk: Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum); Northamptonshire: Cowslip (Primula veris); Northumberland: Bloody crane's-bill (Geranium sanguineum); Nottingham: Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans); Nottinghamshire: Autumn crocus (Crocus nudiflorus); Oxfordshire: Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris); Rutland: Clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata); Sheffield: Wood crane's-bill (Geranium sylvaticum); Shropshire: Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia); Somerset: Cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus); Staffordshire: Heather (Calluna vulgaris); Suffolk: Oxlip (Primula elatior); Surrey: Cowslip (Primula veris); Sussex: Round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare); Warwickshire: Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum); Westmoreland: Alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris); Wiltshire Burnt orchid (Orchis ustulata); Worcestershire: Cowslip (Primula veris); Yorkshire: Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia); Isle of Man: Fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica);

NORTHERN IRELAND Antrim: Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia); Armagh: Cowbane (Cicuta virosa); Belfast: Gorse (Ulex europaeus); Derry: Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia); Down: Spring squill (Scilla verna); Fermanagh: Globeflower (Trollius europaeus); Tyrone: Bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia);

SCOTLAND Aberdeenshire: Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi); Angus/Forfarshire: Alpine catchfly (Lychnis alpina); Argyllshire: Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); Ayrshire: Green-winged orchid (Orchis morio); Banffshire: Dark-red helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens); Berwickshire: Rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium); Buteshire: Thrift (Armeria maritima); Caithness: Scots primrose (Primula scotica); Clackmannanshire: Opposite-leaved golden saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium); Cromartyshire: Spring cinquefoil (Potentilla tabernaemontani); Dumfriesshire: Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia); Dunbartonshire: Lesser water-plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides); East Lothian/Haddingtonshire: Viper's-bugloss (Echium vulgare); Edinburgh: Sticky catchfly (Lychnis viscaria); Fife: Coralroot orchid (Corallorrhiza trifida); Glasgow: Broom (Cytisus scoparius); Inverness-shire: Twinflower (Linnaea borealis); Kinross-shire: Holy-grass (Hierochloe odorata); Kirkcudbrightshire: Bog-rosemary (Andromeda polifolia); Lanarkshire: Dune helleborine (Epipactis leptochila); Morayshire: One-flowered wintergreen (Moneses uniflora); Nairnshire: Chickweed wintergreen (Trientalis europaea); Orkney: Alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpinus); Peebles-shire: Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus); Perthshire: Alpine gentian (Gentiana nivalis); Renfrewshire: Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata); Ross-shire: Bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum); Roxburghshire: Maiden pink (Dianthus deltoides); Selkirkshire: Mountain pansy (Viola lutea); Shetland: Shetland mouse-ear (Cerastium nigrescens); Stirlingshire: Scottish dock (Rumex aquaticus); Sutherland: Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia palustris); West Lothian/Linlithgowshire: Common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii); Western Isles: Hebridean spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii subspecies hebridensis); Wigtownshire: Yellow iris (Iris pseudacorus);

WALES Anglesey/Sir Fon: Spotted rock-rose (Tuberaria guttata); Brecknockshire/Sir Frycheiniog: Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis); Caernarvonshire/Sir Gaernarfon: Snowdon lily (Lloydia serotina); Cardiff/Caerdydd: Wild leek (Allium ampeloprasum); Cardiganshire/Ceredigion: Bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia); Carmarthenshire/Sir Gaerfyddin: Whorled caraway (Carum verticillatum); Denbighshire/Sir Ddinbych: Limestone woundwort (Stachys alpina); Flintshire/Sir Fflint: Bell Heather (Erica cinerea); Glamorgan/Morgannwg: Yellow Whitlow-grass (Draba aizoides); Merioneth/Merionnydd: Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica); Monmouthshire/Sir Fynwy: Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); Montgomeryshire/Sir Drefaldwyn: Spiked speedwell (Veronica spicata); Pembrokeshire/Sir Benfro: Thrift (Armeria maritima); Radnorshire/Sir Faesyfed: Radnor lily (Gagea bohemica).

Posted by thinkum at 01:08 PM

Fences 'can help apes' survival'

The eminent wildlife expert Dr Richard Leakey says fencing in protected areas in Africa and Asia could help to arrest the decline of endangered great apes.

Dr Leakey, former director of Kenya's wildlife service (KWS), says many great ape species are in a critical state.

He says their problems may be much worse than those confronting species such as giant pandas and elephants.

Dr Leakey says there need not be any conflict between saving wildlife and alleviating the poverty of the people.

He is patron of the United Nations Environment Programme's Great Apes Survival Project (Grasp), and will be the guest speaker at a fund-raising dinner in London on 24 May. The project is appealing for $25m over three years.

Last November, Grasp said all the great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (small chimps), and orang-utans - faced a very high risk of extinction within 50 years at most.

Dr Leakey said: "There is some good news. One of the most exciting things is that the mountain gorillas of Rwanda were left alone during the war there, and the population has increased by about 4% over the last five years.

Plans afoot

"Both rebels and government recognised them as hugely important to a future Rwanda and went out of their way to leave them alone.

"There are some very interesting negotiations going on in western Africa, involving Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo and I think Cameroon.

"In fact, five African presidents have talked about creating a mega-park in the region.

"But the great apes are in crisis, partly because their habitat is under pressure from human population growth, and partly from commercial development.

"That's opening up vast swathes of the forests for logging. They used to be impenetrable, and apes have survived there for several million years, but now they're open to anyone."

Dr Leakey told BBC News Online: "We need to talk about success, and Rwanda's experience could be important for other countries.

Encouraging precedent

"The doom and gloom and mayhem post-colonial Africa has seen these last 40 years can't be a permanent condition.

"And fences can work. Private property remains private because it's fenced, and people don't cross the line. We've tried this in Kenya, and it's been successful.

"I think you could create a transnational park in the Virunga mountains straddling the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC, and if it were fenced it would greatly ease the pressure on that ecosystem.

"I'm not saying there are no problems for the pandas and the elephants. I just think the great apes' problems may be far greater. Something has to be done very fast.

Paying their way

"There's a lot of waffle about how the apes are our closest relatives, and so on, but while we talk, they go."

Dr Leakey said he recognised the problems facing millions of people in Africa, and also in south-east Asia, where the orang-utans were probably as threatened as the bonobo.

He said: "The plight of Africa's people bears comparison to no-one else for poverty, disease and repression. But allowing gorillas and chimpanzees to die, or killing them off, won't improve people's lives: it will impoverish them.

"In places like western Uganda the apes are a hugely important revenue stream for the government, because of tourism.

"They're sentient beings, and saving them would cost peanuts compared with rescuing destitute people. But poor countries can't carry the financial burden of saving their wildlife simply because wealthy countries feel sentimental."

Dr Leakey said saving the apes was not about money alone. He said: "It costs a European government nothing to bring up the apes' icon status constantly, and that's what I'll be saying to the UK environment minister, Elliot Morley, at the Grasp dinner.

"If he raised their plight with everyone he met for the next three years, that would be enormously effective."

He said the bonobos were probably more vulnerable than common chimps and lowland gorillas.

Posted by thinkum at 01:06 PM

French farmers threaten TV series

Farmers have threatened legal action against a popular French reality show unless it comes off the air this week.

La Ferme Celebrites - Celebrity Farm - sees 14 French celebrities live in a farmhouse for 70 days without running water or electricity.

Tasks include sheep shearing, milking cows and tending as animals give birth.

But the show, which attracts eight million viewers, has infuriated the Farmers' Confederation, who consider the show "degrading" to rural people.

Based on the hit US programme The Farm, the series is set in a purpose-built farmhouse in the south of France's Vaucluse region.

Contestants include 1970s television presenter Daniele Gilbert, stand-up comic Mouss Diouf and model Celine Balitran, a former partner of actor George Clooney.

French broadcaster TF1 says the show "plays on the contrasts of individualist urban celebrities used to every comfort being forced to live a collective experience immersed in an archaic rural environment".


But Farmers' Confederation spokesman Jean-Emile Sanchez said: "This show is an outrage to our country's noble rural tradition."

"It is unacceptable that such a masquerade, a mockery, a media circus can be allowed to play with the dignity of the rural community."

Backed by the Association of Rural Mayors and the Society for the Protection of Animals, the group plans to take legal action if La Ferme Celebrites remains on air after Thursday.

It says it will challenge the programme-makers' legal right to have built the farmhouse for the series. TF1 says full planning permission was granted before filming began.

Posted by thinkum at 01:04 PM

Virtual skin looking even better

It you get a close look at some of the creatures of the night in the Van Helsing movie, you might notice how realistic their skin looks.

The reason is a program that works out how light affects surfaces like skin to make computer-generated characters look more believable.

The software was first used on Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and is now a staple of blockbusters packed with visual effects.

The man behind the technique, Dr Henrik Jensen of the University of California at San Diego, was recently rewarded for his contribution to Hollywood.

In February he received a Technical Achievement Award from the people who hand out the Oscars.

Game developers are now looking at the techniques to create more realistic looking characters in the next generation of video games.

Convincing looks

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.

"I was involved in a project where we wanted to simulate weathering of marble," recalls Dr Jensen of his time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1998.

"One night I illuminated the marble material with a laser-pointer and I noticed how the marble started glowing and how the red light from the laser-pointer even caused a glow on the backside of the material."

This led him to study how light scattered inside materials like marble. The breakthrough came three years later while at Stanford University.

Dr Jensen managed to come up with a mathematical formula that calculates how light is absorbed and dispersed beneath materials like marble or skin.

"The development of the mathematical model was the most difficult aspect of the project," he told BBC News Online.

"It required a number of new algorithms and techniques not previously seen in computer graphics."

Quickly adopted

The software offered the visual effects industry the means to move away from computer-generated faces that looked plastic and unconvincing on the silver screen.

"For skin it has turned out to be a key missing piece in today's visual effects," said Dr Jensen, "and for this reason it has been adopted quickly by the visual effects industry.

"It was used on Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it was used in Harry Potter 2 on Dobby, in Hulk, and in Terminator 3.

"Currently, it is being used in almost all visual effects for movies and there are a number of game companies looking at how to adapt the technique for games as well."

Dr Jensen is now working on refining the technique so that it can capture the subtle details in the skin on a human face.

He also hopes that in the future it will be more widely used in architectural design and art restoration to make virtual buildings leap out of the computer screen.

Posted by thinkum at 01:03 PM

'Flesh-eating bug' hits pygmies

Pygmies living in remote forests in the Republic of Congo are suffering from a "flesh-eating" disease, the New Scientist magazine reports.

Known as bush yaws or pian, it's rarely fatal, but infects cuts and causes lesions that destroy skin and bones.

A UN team that visited the Likouala region found that some 3,000 Pygmies there had the disease.

The highly contagious disease can be prevented by washing with soap and water and treated with penicillin.

But the team sent by the UN's children fund (Unicef) was only able to treat 135 people during its latest trip because of a lack of funding and the remoteness of the region.


The Unicef representative in the Congolese capital, Brazzaville, Raymond Janssens, told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme that the disease used to be present in all tropical areas.

"Yaws begins where the trail ends," he quoted one researcher from the 1950s as saying.

But improved hygiene and knowledge of the disease has meant that it has now been eliminated from many areas.

Mr Janssens said that the Unicef team has been conducting an education programme in the area as well as administering drugs.

Unicef hopes to send another mission to the area in June.

Posted by thinkum at 01:01 PM

Speed-texter beats world record

A British mobile phone network engineer has become the world's fastest texter.

James Trusler, 30, from Shoreham, West Sussex, beat his previous world text messaging record by nearly a minute on Australian TV to claim the prize.

He had to type: "The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human."

James Trusler typed the message in just 67 seconds.

Txt chmpn

James has been confirmed world text champion by the Guinness Book of Records since September 2002 , when he was crowned Australian Champion.

The text-mad expat says he sends about 500 messages from his phone every week.

He has used his mobile phone to send messages for eight years, for everything from booking appointments at the hairdresser to wooing the woman in his life.

He told the Sun newspaper that sending messages to his wife-to-be Komila Chandra, 26, "helped us get to know each other better".

James offers would-be contenders for his record an array of texting tips as well as an SMS speed tester on his website,

UK text messaging figures for March 2004 reached 2.1 billion, an increase of nearly 80 million on February's total, according to figures released by the Mobile Data Association.

Posted by thinkum at 01:00 PM

MI5 terror website grabs 3m hits

The website launched by security service MI5 to give its terror threat assessment received about 3m hits on its first day.

Government minister Lord Bassam told peers: "It has stimulated a great deal of interest."

The advice on the site was previously given only to a few organisations.

But MI5 director general Eliza Manningham-Buller said it was important to help more people - especially businesses - protect themselves.

The site was launched last week. The current assessment is that "the threat from international terrorism remains real and serious".

MI5 says the main terrorist danger to the UK and to British interests overseas comes from al-Qaeda and associated groups.

"Osama bin Laden has in several statements publicly named Britain and British interests as a target, and encouraged attacks to be carried out against them," it says.

Al-Qaeda cells and supporters of affiliated groups are known to be active in the UK, MI5 confirms on the site.

It also publishes a top 10 list of safety tips for businesses and other organisations.

Bomb blast net curtains

These include advice to carry out risk assessments, look at mail-handling procedures, and check that staff are who they say they are.

Another section advises organisations on protection against flying glass.

Experts recommend applying transparent polyester anti-shatter film (ASF) to glass, to reduce fragments and splinters.

Timber-framed Georgian-style windows should also have bomb blast net curtains, says MI5 on the site.

For new buildings blast resistant laminated glass or secondary glazing should be included in the design.

The new site also lists the methods of attack most likely to be used by international terrorists, with bombings most common for al-Qaeda.

Businesses are urged to protect information as terrorists are likely to try to get access to details that would be useful to them, by infiltrating organisations or getting help from an "insider".

Two sections of the website have been translated into Arabic to "build on the co-operation of the Muslim community" said the security service.

'Knowledge base'

Additional languages will be added later.

Ms Manningham-Buller said MI5 wanted to share some of its information about the threats.

"For the most part details of our operations must and should remain secret," she said in a statement published on the website.

"But stopping terrorists is only one part of our collective defences against terrorism.

"Another part of our work is to use the knowledge we have about these organisations to provide sensible and practical advice on how best to protect yourself against these threats."

1. Carry out a risk assessment and seek police advice
2. For new premises plan security from the outset
3. Make security awareness part of the culture
4. Keep gardens free from dense shrubbery
5. Make sure access points are kept to a minimum
6. Locks on windows and doors, CCTV, alarms, lighting
7. Set up mailroom away from main premises and train staff
8. Ensure new recruits are who they say they are
9. Use reputable IT people to help protect your information
10. Plan how you will function if something happens

Posted by thinkum at 12:58 PM

Tiny robot walker made from DNA

Scientists have created a microscopic walking robot using only the building blocks of life: DNA.

The tiny robots are made from the building blocks of life

The tiny walker is only 10 nanometres long and has been described as a major step forward in nanotechnology.

A New York University team created the robot using DNA legs that move along a footpath, which is also based on DNA.

The legs move by detaching themselves from the footpath, moving along it and then reattaching themselves, New Scientist reports.

DNA is an ideal material to build the robot from, because DNA chains easily pair up.

By re-ordering the sequence of base pairs that make up the DNA strand, the scientists were able to control where each strand attached.

"What we've done is to build a sidewalk to accommodate one step and we've demonstrated quantitatively that [the robot] can take a second step," Professor Nadrian Seeman of New York University told BBC News Online.

Leg work

Each leg of the biped is made from two strands of DNA paired up as a double helix. These legs are connected by flexible "linker" strands of DNA.

Each leg of the biped has a portion at its end which is single-stranded. The scientists refer to this as a foot, and it is available to pair up with a complementary DNA strand.

Likewise, each domain in the track has a single stranded region that can pair with a complementary strand. The single strands on the foot and footpath are designed so that they should not generally pair up.

The researchers have to add a strand, called a set strand, that is complementary to both to make the foot attach to the foothold.

To make the walker take a step, the researchers then add another DNA strand called an unset strand to release the foot.

After this, the released foot grabs another set strand and the process can be repeated.

The research has been published in the journal Nano Letters.

Posted by thinkum at 12:56 PM

Garlic shelf collapse kills 15

Fifteen Chinese workers were killed when storage shelves stacked high with garlic collapsed in central China.

Some 34 workers were buried by tonnes of garlic after 10-metre (30 foot) high shelving broke at Chenzhai Cold Storage in Zhengzhou city, Henan province.

Xinhua news agency said a major rescue operation was launched - with 15 bodies recovered and 19 people pulled out alive and taken to hospitals.

The owner of the cold storage warehouse is being held by police, said Xinhua.

Chinese newspapers said the accident happened on Wednesday morning as the workers were stacking garlic cloves.

Rescuers worked throughout the day and into the night to dig out the workers weighed down by the garlic and metal beams.

The cause of the accident is under investigation, according to local sources.

Thousands of people are killed by accidents at work in China every year.

Posted by thinkum at 12:54 PM

May 03, 2004

There's more than meets the eye in Lewis & Clark's journals, say two historians

As the nation commemorates the 200th anniversary of the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition, the explorers' journals are being scrutinized as never before, as evidenced by new interpretations of Sacagawea's "illness" on the trip west.

Because President Thomas Jefferson instructed Lewis to gather a wealth of scientific and anthropological data during the search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean, the journals are a veritable treasure trove of information.

"Understanding the expedition means understanding the way Lewis and Clark functioned as scientists, anthropologists, cartographers, historians and writers," says Peter J. Kastor, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and of American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. "They are poster children for multidisciplinary work at the same time that understanding them requires a multidisciplinary perspective."

And because few scholars have approached the journals from a multidisciplinary perspective, historians have failed to come to terms with important aspects of them, says Kastor, author of "The Nation's Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America."

Primarily, scholars have failed to recognize the literary conventions employed by the journals' authors. For example, much of the language used to describe their journey is typical of popular travelogues of the time. To write in original and unconventional terms, Kastor says, would have been viewed as amateurish and unprofessional. So, while the authors were not experienced writers, they clearly were familiar with the travel literature of their time.

Euphemistically speaking

The truth behind a curious incident in the health of Sacagawea, the only woman on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, may have been obscured by the literary convention of describing women's health issues in euphemistic terms that are unfamiliar today.

According to the journals, Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, became extremely ill when her son, Jean Baptiste, was about six months old. "If she dies, it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced," Clark wrote, referring to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader. Lewis concluded that she suffered from "an obstruction of the mensis in consequence of taking could (sic)," or "taking a cold."

Lewis gave her water from a sulphur spring to replenish her body's supply of iron and applied poultices to her pelvic region. She made a full recovery.

When Kastor and Conevery Bolton Valencius, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and a historian of medicine at Washington University, began looking at the language used to describe this event, Valencius had a hunch that Sacagawea's "cold" was not what it appeared to be. It also seemed peculiar that the explorers blamed Charbonneau.

"In fact," says Valencius, author of "The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land," "the language used to refer to her sickness is that which is commonly used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to refer to a complicated set of ideas about women's reproductive health.

"Her menstrual periods may have been out of order in some way that's not related to reproduction, because that was a possibility at that time," says Valencius. "But we think it's more likely that they were using 'taking a cold' as a euphemism for pregnancy, as was commonly done. She may have had a miscarriage."

And another pregnancy would explain why Clark blamed Charbonneau for Sacagawea's illness, adds Valencius. "They (explorers) saw Charbonneau as pretty irresponsible in a host of ways, but in this particular instance, with the reference to her 'taking cold,' they apparently think he should be exercising proper husbandly restraint so as not to get her pregnant again so quickly."

Layers of modesty

Other historians have not perceived this illness as pregnancy, Valencius says, because they have not understood the euphemistic language or the layers of modesty with which women's health was discussed at that time.

"There is a huge problem with the way people approach Lewis and Clark," Kastor says. "The journals are so detailed that people tend to treat them as a clear window to the past. But the journals and the journey are not one and the same thing.

"In order to understand the journey, we have to be able to think as historians and anthropologists. But in order to understand the medium through which we learn about the journey ? the journals ? we have to understand the literature. These are written documents; they work by a set of rules that governed a particular genre at a particular time. Once we understand that, the weird elements of the journals start to make sense."

"There's still a lot more to see in the journals," says Valencius, "despite all that's been written and said about them."

It also must be remembered, Kastor adds, that Lewis never intended to publish the voluminous journals in their entirety. Rather, he planned to use them as source material for a shorter, more cohesive book about the expedition.

Kastor and Valencius will address "Sacagawea's 'Cold': Intimations of Pregnancy on the Lewis & Clark Expedition" at a conference on "Health and Medicine in the Era of Lewis & Clark," convened by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Nov. 4-6, 2004.

The image of Sacagawea and her son, Jean Baptiste, appears on the Golden Dollar, which the U.S. Mint first issued in 2000.

Posted by thinkum at 02:07 PM