Sunday, January 31, 2010

The lighter side of UFO's

The inimitable Dr. Neil Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, answers a question about UFO's in his usual dead-pan, but scientifically hilarious way.

Great stuff! I wish we had more scientists like Dr. Tyson. He makes science fun!


Doofus Of The Day #317

Today's award goes to the employment personnel of the Portsmouth City Council in England.

Local governments have in the recent past made admirable attempts to be more culturally inclusive by printing official documents in various languages.

However, one city council might have let its enthusiasm run away with itself - by printing taxi-driver licence applications in braille.

In a move that is almost certainly the first of its kind, the forms can also be printed and downloaded in large print or audio format people with sight problems.

A note on the Portsmouth City Council website says the documents can be downloaded in large print, Braille or audio.

There's more at the link.

I ask you! A taxi driver application in Braille??? Didn't anyone in their offices see the inherent contradiction in terms??? It's the very definition of Doofidity!


'Tough Guys' - or macho to the point of madness???

The Daily Mail reports on a 'sporting' event the like of which I've never heard of before.

More than 5,000 people worldwide descended on a small corner of farmland today to brave mud, rain, ice and fire on a gruelling assault course dubbed 'the world's hardest endurance test'.

Thousands of competitors, some in superhero fancy dress as Superman and Robocop, flocked to the 'Tough Guy' contest in Perton, Staffordshire, today to push their bodies to the limit in frosty temperatures.

The eight-mile long assault course features terrifying underwater tunnels, barbed wire fences and fire walks.

It sees competitors stretched to their physical boundaries as they clamber over nets, walls and even an electrified fence dubbed 'The Tiger'.

Brave Britons, Aussies, New Zealanders, Chinese and Japanese all took part in the rainy event - which saw its fair share of broken bones and bruised bodies.

Among the competitors were serving policemen and military personnel - but some of the more daring wore costumes, including 25 people dressed up as Liquorice Allsorts.

Event organiser Mouser Wilson, said: 'We' didn't have much ground space, we had about 7,000 people here and we had to shut the doors to the public because everybody wanted to do it.

'We have had to turn at least a thousand away.

'We had plenty of military with us, many said that this course was harder than the army.

'I had a captain in Afghanistan write to me saying the British Army recognise Tough Guy as the most arduous test of physical and mental endurance.

'They want to send a lot of troops here to try the course before they send them off to Afghanistan.

'There is nothing like this in the world, and that is why people from all over the globe want to come here.

'Every year there's something new - we have a zipline this year which takes you down a 1,000 metres very quickly and if you don't let go above the water you'll go straight into the wall. 'We had a fair few broken bones.

'But people attempt the course as a journey of self discovery, if people break their legs, they don't come whining like many in our blame and claim culture - they ring up and apologise saying "Please let me come back next year".'

Mr Wilson added: 'We've had more and more children asking to do it, so we're going to hold the first ever kids-only Tough Guy in October.'

One competitor, Liam Posthewaite, 32, from Bristol, said: 'This is the hardest thing I've ever physically done.

'Every single inch of you aches afterwards but the sense of achievement is so satisfying that it's worth the pain.

'This is the first time I've done it... but it won't be the last.'

There's more at the link, including lots of photographs of the idiots competitors tackling the various obstacles and challenges provided. It makes very interesting reading.

Here's an introductory video to the 'Tough Guy' competition. It's clearly not for the faint of heart!

Y'know, if I wanted to torture myself like that, I can think of many ways to do it . . . without having to travel so far and pay someone else for the privilege!


Another threat to computer security and privacy

I was surprised - unpleasantly - to learn that persistent cookies can be set on your computer without your knowledge or permission, and without the ability to delete them unless you take special measures. Wired reports:

More than half of the internet’s top websites use a little known capability of Adobe’s Flash plug-in to track users and store information about them, but only four of them mention the so-called Flash Cookies in their privacy policies, UC Berkeley researchers reported Monday.

Unlike traditional browser cookies, Flash cookies are relatively unknown to web users, and they are not controlled through the cookie privacy controls in a browser. That means even if a user thinks they have cleared their computer of tracking objects, they most likely have not.

What’s even sneakier?

Several services even use the surreptitious data storage to reinstate traditional cookies that a user deleted, which is called ‘re-spawning’ in homage to video games where zombies come back to life even after being “killed,” the report found. So even if a user gets rid of a website’s tracking cookie, that cookie’s unique ID will be assigned back to a new cookie again using the Flash data as the “backup.”

. . .

Websites and advertisers track users closely in order to improve services and to prove to advertisers that an ad has been shown one time to 1 million users, and not 10 times to the same 100,000 people. Ad networks also collect the information in order to segment users into different groups, such as “car fanatic” or “fashionista,” in order to charge advertisers a premium for reaching just the slice of the populace that the company thinks will be most receptive to its ad.

Smelling possible regulation coming, third party ad networks recently agreed to an updated voluntary code of conduct, though it prohibits little and has no enforcement mechanism. For instance, when it comes to sensitive health information, the networks are free to collect as much information as they like, so long as it does not involve an actual prescription.

Soltani led a summer research team at Berkeley, under the direction of Chris Hoofnagle, the Director of Information Privacy Programs at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. The team tested the top 100 sites to see what their privacy policies said, what their tracking technology actually does and what happens if a user blocks the Flash cookie.

The study found that 54 of the top 100 set Flash cookies, which vary from simply setting audio preferences to tracking users by a unique identifier., for instance, placed on this writer’s work computer to set the volume of a video player.

Adobe’s Flash software is installed on an estimate 98 percent of personal computers, and has been a key component in the explosion of online video, powering video players for sites such as YouTube and Hulu.

Websites can store up to 100K of information in the plug-in, 25 times what a browser cookie can hold. Sites like also use Flash’s storage capability to preload portions of songs or videos to ensure smooth playback.

All modern browsers now include fine-grained controls to let users decide what cookies to accept and which to get rid of, but Flash cookies are handled differently. These are fixed through a web page on Adobe’s site, where the controls are not easily understood (There is a panel for Global Privacy Settings and another for Website Privacy Settings — the difference is unclear). In fact, the controls are so odd, the page has to tell you that it is the control, not just a tutorial on how to use the control.

. . .

The report names two companies, Clearspring and QuantCast, as companies whose technologies reinstate cookies for other websites.

Clearspring, the makers of the popular AddThis tool that lets users share a link by e-mail or on social networking sites, used its Flash cookie to reinstated deleted browser cookies for, and, according to the report.

The company defends its behavior, saying everyone uses Flash cookies these days, that it discloses its use of Flash in its privacy policy and that the copying of data back into cookies is a simply way to speed up pages by transferring data into HTML cookies, which browsers read faster.

Clearspring’s AddThis tool is used by more than 300,000 publishers and the company collects data on some 525 million unique internet users monthly, according to Clearspring CEO Hooman Radfar. The data will soon be used to personalize the AddThis widget, making it so that a user who has previously shared a story by Twitter and Friendfeed will see those options first, rather than social networks he doesn’t use.

There's more at the link.

Another useful Web page giving information on persistent cookies is Fight Identity Theft. Their article, and the Wired article linked above, provide links to tools to identify and eliminate these intruders. I installed and/or ran them today, and was extremely irritated to find a large number of these persistent cookies on my system. I usually ban the use of cookies in my browser, and delete any that I have to use when I close the browser: so I was very annoyed to find my control over my computer bypassed in this way.

I'm now (hopefully) proofed against further intrusions of this kind. If you value your online privacy as much as I do, I strongly suggest that you read both the articles linked above, and run and/or install the safeguards they mention.


Doofus Of The Day #316

Today's Doofus is from Australia.

"I hit my ear on the boom of my truck and broke the headset of my phone," Mr Gardner told the Northern Territory News.

"So I got some superglue and glued it back together - and that was ... when my boss rang."

The truck driver said he usually had the phone's headset in his ear most of the day.

"I guess I didn't think much of it when I put it back into my ear to talk to the boss.

"I drove from Casuarina to Rapid Creek when I realised I had done something kinda stupid."

After having the headset in his ear for more than five minutes the adhesive had hardened - and Mr Gardner found himself with a earpiece glued into his ear.

"Usually it's in my ear all day anyway - friends suggested to leave it in there and just plug my ear into the powerpoint at night to charge it. But I did get a little worried and thought 'This is not good, this is really not good at all'."

Mr Gardner told the Northern Territory News it crossed his mind to use his pocket knife to remove the unwanted gear from his ear.

"I realised I didn't want to see myself going to a doctor to put my ear back on after I chopped it off.

"So I used a spoon."

The 43-year-old said he scraped the earpiece out of his ear with a spoon but several pieces of skin were still stuck to the headphones.

"Yes, it did hurt - but I guess I did hurt my pride much more than it did hurt my ear."

There's more at the link.

This being Australia, where 'taking the p***' has been developed to a fine art form, I wonder how long it'll take him to live this one down among his mates?


When sex meets snark!

I'm laughing aloud at a column by Suzanne Moore about the controversy erupting in Britain about the G-spot and its alleged existence (or otherwise).

A few weeks ago we got the reassuring news from British scientists that the G-spot is a myth – but last week the French stealth-bombed us with the news it does exist.

What’s worse is it’s up to women to find it ourselves.

Of course. We really have little else to do. I know that being a French woman requires an enormous effort – that’s mainly why I am not one.

All that grooming, only eating one square of chocolate, drinking politely, not minding your bloke having countless affairs, compulsory lingerie duty and now this?

Though the G-spot was originally discovered by a German, Ernst Grafenberg, it has been firmly taken back into the hands of the French.

It’s like the space race really – only er...deeper.

Instead of the Americans and the Russians competing, we now have British and French teams struggling to conquer and name that strange terrain that is the female body.

It may as well be Mars, the way our bits are spoken of. I imagine the average guy will soon need a satnav before he goes near a woman.

I am quite looking forward to it.

There's much more at the link. Lovely snark! Recommended reading.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

So much for rain in Southern California . . .

An expatriate British journalist living in Los Angeles, David Willis, is somewhat bemused by the reaction of the locals to the recent winter storms.

Remember that song It Never Rains In Southern California?

Ironically perhaps, it was written by an Englishman - Albert Hammond - who had yet to actually travel here when he came up with those words.

True - it is not actually about the weather, but it has probably done more than any other ditty to uphold the image of Los Angeles as some sort of palm-fringed paradise with nary a cloud in the sky which - compared to where Mr Hammond and I hail from - it is.

There are parts of the UK which get 15 times more rainfall in a typical year than Los Angeles.

Seattle, which is just up the coast from here, averages 37 inches (940mm) of rain. That is double the figure for the City of Angels.

Yet to hear the city's overly tanned weathermen working themselves up into a frenzy over the last few days, you could be forgiven for thinking we were on the brink of an apocalypse.

Struggling to contain themselves as they conjured up portentous satellite images of storm clouds preparing to wreak havoc, the warnings became increasingly dire.

Stay home and batten down the hatches.

Dig a hole or hide in the refrigerator.

Better still, round up two of every animal and build an ark.

And if you do have to go out, for goodness' sake take something with you to fend off those locusts and frogs.

The cause of all this excitement? Rain - rain which would bring with it hailstones the size of grapefruit and winds fierce enough to reconfigure a Beverly Hills facelift.

Up to six inches (150mm) were forecast in some places and, as well as thunder and lightning, God forbid that the temperature would fall below 60F (15C) - or, as it is known locally, the limit of human endurance.

To me, six inches of rain is really only a concern if you happen to be less than six inches tall. Otherwise there is a pretty good chance you will survive.

But it is a problem here not only because of what people are used to, but because of where they have chosen to live.

Wisdom has it there are indeed four seasons in Los Angeles - fires, floods, mudslides and earthquakes.

A bone-dry summer paves the way for so-called Santa Ana winds - malevolent gusts which carry with them a dry heat from the desert.

All it takes is a stray cigarette butt and California bursts into flames.

It does so every year - regular as clockwork - but, for reasons known best to themselves, that does not deter people from building in wooded canyons or on the edge of steep hillsides.

Those that survive fires fanned by the blow-torch winds have only to wait until the rain arrives and, before they know it, they are on their way to Mexico on the back of a sudden mudslide.

It comes down to the fact that people here simply do not understand rain the way British people do.

And why should they when they get so little of it?

It is little wonder that a city which sees 320 days of sunshine virtually grinds to a halt the moment the heavens open.

Drivers put on their headlights and slow to a crawl, tempers rise. Interrupting a perfectly blissful summer's day is one thing, but these clouds had the temerity to intrude on paradise.

I woke up the day after the "big one" - our fourth big storm in a week - and was relieved to find my house was on the same street it was on when I went to bed.

We had had some thunder and lightning overnight. There were even reports that a car had been picked up by a tornado and tossed around like a rag doll (as if things were not bad enough for the American auto industry). And I must say it was still raining cats and dogs whilst I was making breakfast.

But venturing out gingerly - while keeping an eye open for the four horsemen of the apocalypse - I have to say it proved about as treacherous as a typical day on Bournemouth seafront.

The weathermen's verdict was we "dodged a bullet" and, aside from some gripping live pictures of a fireman rescuing a bemused-looking border collie from a lake, TV stations had to content themselves with shots of swaying palm trees and the odd bicycle that had blown over, hardly the stuff of newsgathering legend.

The good news was that the rain had scrubbed the sky of smog and left my newly re-seeded lawn glowing a lush green.

I could not resist a peak at the forecast and almost squealed in delight when I read it: cloudy skies giving way to another storm system moving in off the coast.

As far as I am concerned, it cannot come soon enough, not least because it reminds me of home and why I came to live here in the first place.

There's more at the link.

Having visited Los Angeles on several occasions (once for a stay of almost a month), I have to agree with Mr. Willis: the locals haven't the faintest idea of how to handle rain! To drive on LA freeways during or immediately after a rain shower is to take one's life in one's hands . . .


Remembering Mohandas Gandhi

I was pleased to see that part of the ashes of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as 'Mahatma' or 'Great Soul', were scattered yesterday in the harbor of Durban, South Africa. USA Today reports:

Six decades after his death Saturday, some of Mohandas K. Gandhi's ashes were scattered off the coast of South Africa, where he was confronted by racial discrimination during a 21-year sojourn and developed some of his philosophies of peaceful resistance.

An early morning service in a harbor in the eastern city of Durban on the 62nd anniversary of Gandhi's death included the laying of flowers and candles on the water's surface.

Gandhi, known as the Mahatma or "great soul," was shot dead by a Hindu hard-liner in 1948 in New Delhi. His ashes were divided, stored in steel urns and sent across India and beyond for memorial services. It was not unusual for some of the ashes to have been preserved instead of scattered as intended.

South Africa's state broadcaster, SABC, reported the portion of Gandhi's ashes in South Africa was brought here by a family friend. SABC quoted Gandhi's great grandson Kidar Ramgobin as saying Saturday's ceremony included the playing of the national anthems of South Africa and India.

Gandhi first came to South Africa to work as a lawyer in the Indian community.

Soon after his arrival in South Africa in 1893, Gandhi, was thrown off a train for refusing to leave the "whites only" compartment. As a result, he threw himself into the fight for human rights in South Africa.

Gandhi lived in homes and farms across South Africa for two decades, before returning to India at the age of 46 to help fight for independence from Britain.

A large number of South Africans are descended from indentured workers brought from India in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations in the Durban area.

There's more at the link.

Many people aren't aware of Gandhi's twenty years in South Africa, and his fight there for better treatment for Indians. Today, Indians in South Africa remember him as one of their own, a national hero.

Gandhi organized an Indian corps of stretcher-bearers during the Second Boer War, some 1,400 strong. They saw service in some of the bloodiest battles of that war, including Spioen Kop, Colenso and the siege of Ladysmith. Gandhi (pictured here in his uniform) received the War Medal for his own service during that conflict.

(As an interesting footnote to history, Gandhi served at Spioen Kop, where Winston Churchill also saw action as a Lieutenant in the South African Light Horse [in which unit he'd been commissioned by General Buller after his escape from captivity as a correspondent for the Morning Post]. The two men would later become adversaries over Gandhi's opposition to British rule in India.)

After the end of the war, Gandhi continued to press for better conditions for Indians in South Africa. He became a 'thorn in the flesh' to the colonial government, and tried to press for improved status for Indians when the Union of South Africa was formed out of the British colonies of the Cape and Natal, and the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, in 1910. Exasperated, the new Union government largely ignored or rejected his proposals.

When he finally left South Africa to return to India in 1914, the Minister of the Interior, Mines and Defense, Jan Smuts (later to become Prime Minister of South Africa, and serve as a Field Marshal and a close ally of Britain during the Second World War), wrote to a friend: "The saint has left our shores, I hope, forever." One wonders what Smuts would have made of the scattering of Gandhi's ashes at Durban this weekend?


Friday, January 29, 2010

A new King of Beers is crowned

Last November I wrote about what was then the world's strongest beer, a 64 proof product named (of all things!) 'Tactical Nuclear Penguin'.

Its reign at the top of the strength charts has been short-lived. A German brewery, Schorschbräu, has outdone its Scottish rivals and produced an 80 proof beer - 40% alcohol by volume!

The brewery describes its creation as follows:

The currently Strongest Beer in the World: 40% Alcohol

Available in 0.33 liter ceramic bottles, personally signed and hand-numbered by the Braumeister himself. Each bottle is sealed with wax by hand and comes in a wooden case with a transparent window on one side.

Exclusive short run.

Although our beers are only available through a distributor, we have made an exception in this case, and allow this unique beer to be ordered from us directly.

I tried to order a bottle from them, out of sheer curiosity, but their Web site wouldn't allow me to do so - perhaps because I'm in the US? Anyway, they market it through other online retailers in Germany, like this one, although they're currently out of stock. I must try to get hold of a bottle, if only to find out what it tastes like!


A Swiss Army Knife that's 1,000 years older than Switzerland???

The Daily Mail reports:

The world's first 'Swiss Army knife' has been revealed - made 1,800 years before its modern counterpart.

An intricately designed Roman implement, which dates back to 200 AD, it is made from silver but has an iron blade.

It features a spoon, fork as well as a retractable spike, spatula and small tooth-pick.

Experts believe the spike may have been used by the Romans to extract meat from snails.

It is thought the spatula would have offered a means of poking cooking sauce out of narrow-necked bottles.

The 3in x 6in (8cm x 15cm) knife was excavated from the Mediterranean area more than 20 years ago and was obtained by the museum in 1991.

The unique item is among dozens of artefacts exhibited in a newly refurbished Greek and Roman antiquities gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge.

Experts believe it may have been carried by a wealthy traveller, who will have had the item custom made.

A spokesman said: 'This was probably made between AD 200 and AD 300, when the Roman empire was a great imperial power.

'The expansion of Rome - which, before 500 BC, had just been a small central Italian state - made some individuals, perhaps like our knife-owner, personally very wealthy.

'This could have been directly from the fruits of conquests, or indirectly, from the 'business opportunities' the empire offered.

'We know almost nothing about the person who owned this ingenious knife, but perhaps he was one of those who profited from the vast expansion of Rome - he would have been wealthy to have such a real luxury item.

'Perhaps he was a traveller, who required a practical compound utensil like this on his journeys.'

The spokesman added: 'While many less elaborate folding knives survive in bronze, this one's complexity and the fact that it is made of silver suggest it is a luxury item.

'Perhaps a useful gadget for a wealthy traveller.'

There's more at the link.

Intrigued, I looked for more information. The Fitzwilliam Museum's Web site has a lot of background information on their Greek and Roman historical exhibits, and their refurbishment. The BBC also has an interesting audio slideshow of the Museum's exhibits, with commentary by the Keeper of Antiquities. Very interesting viewing and listening, if you have time to spare. Recommended.


Sukhoi's new stealth fighter

Today Sukhoi announced the first flight of their new PAK FA stealth fighter-bomber, intended as a competitor to the US F-22 Raptor. The prototype is known as the T-50. (Click the picture below for a much larger view.)

A great deal of comment has already been heard from various sources, but a number of features stand out immediately.

  1. This is a much larger aircraft than the US F-22 Raptor. Two weapons bays are beneath the fuselage, with two much smaller bays beneath the inboard portion of the wings. That gives it a significantly greater internal armament capacity than the US aircraft, both in quantity and in weight of weapons. This is, of course, part of the PAK's heritage from the earlier Su-27/30/35 fighter series, which could carry a formidable array of weapons.
  2. Given its size, it's likely that the PAK FA will have a significantly longer range on internal fuel than either the US F-22 Raptor or F-35 Lightning II. That's a real advantage in a combat situation. The PAK's centroplane, extending well beyond the engines and terminating in a sort of 'beaver-tail' between the engine exhausts, will carry most of its extra fuel, as it does in earlier Sukhoi models.
  3. The engines are almost certainly a limited development of those being fitted to the Su-35. It's likely that these aren't the final engines for the PAK FA, as those will still be under development; but they'll probably be an evolutionary model of the Su-35's engines, rather than something completely new.
  4. The stealth features of the new aircraft are not well represented in this prototype. There are many joints in fuselage panels and protrusions of equipment that will wreak havoc with its radar cross-section (witness, for example, the infra-red vision system housed in front of the cockpit in the photograph above). Clearly, this first PAK model is a prototype to test engines and basic systems. It doesn't carry the advanced materials that will be needed to provide true stealth, and its build quality will have to be significantly enhanced to achieve that status.
  5. The new fighter doesn't have forward canard winglets, as did the Su-30 (which were also dropped in the Su-35). What it does have is most interesting: a movable leading edge extension to the wing. This will provide some interesting maneuvering characteristics, but I'm not sufficiently engineering-oriented to be more specific. I'm sure more knowledgeable commentators will have a great deal to say about this in the near future.
  6. The PAK's control surfaces and twin tails are much smaller than I would have expected; but this is, of course, because a significant amount of its aerodynamic control is imparted by three-dimensional thrust-vectoring engine exhaust nozzles. This can be both positive and negative: it provides very rapid changes in attitude, but if you lose one or both engines, your maneuverability immediately degrades to the point of a real pucker-factor problem. In addition, the twin tails of the PAK are fully maneuverable, in similar fashion to the US SR-71 Blackbird. Again, that's great as long as you have power and hydraulics to move them; but if you lose power or hydraulics, you've got a major problem.

This photograph of the PAK FA prototype in flight demonstrates many of the features identified above. I apologize for the fuzzy image: it was taken from a video clip of the flight. Again, click the picture for a larger image.

How representative is the prototype we saw today of the production aircraft? Bill Sweetman of Ares sums it up well, in my opinion:

How far along is the program? Russian practice historically has been to start development with a series of prototypes that successively conform more to the production design. That's followed by an early series of aircraft that are "pre-operational" - flown by service units. Today's T-50 is, in US terms, something between a technology demonstrator and a systems development and demonstration aircraft.

Here's Sukhoi's official video of the PAK FA's first flight.

It certainly looks like a promising beginning. I'd expect at least four to five years to elapse before we see a version that's close to the finished, in-service product: and that will take a great deal of money to achieve. If funding can be found (India has expressed interest in co-developing the PAK FA, and might be a source of capital) it's likely to provide stiff competition to the F-22 and F-35 in years to come. Congratulations to Sukhoi on a good start to the program.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

One million visitors and counting!

I'm very happy to see that the millionth visitor to this blog arrived via a link from Lawdog's blog shortly after 8 p.m. this evening.

Since Lawdog's my 'blogfather' (it was at his urging and encouragement that I began blogging), it's entirely appropriate that my millionth visitor should come via his blog.

I must admit, when I started blogging on January 1st, 2008, I didn't expect to reach this milestone at all, much less in under 25 months on the Web! Still, I'm grateful that so many of you seem to enjoy my scribblings, and come back so often. Thanks for joining me, and I'll try to keep the place as interesting as I can for the next million visits!


Doofus Of The Day #315

Today's Doofus is from Germany.

A 76-year-old man trying to thaw out his car incinerated it instead when he decided to speed things up by putting a blow heater under the bonnet.

Police said the man left the heater on next to the frozen windscreen washer tank and returned indoors. Shortly afterwards he heard two explosions and returned to find the car on fire.

He alerted fire services, who arrived in time to prevent the flames destroying his house. Including charring of the building, total damages were estimated at £35,000.

"He burned the vehicle out completely," said a spokesman for police in the German city of Hildesheim.

Well, he certainly thawed it out . . . just a bit too thoroughly!


Nuclear fusion gets closer to reality

The BBC reports:

The controlled fusion of atoms - creating conditions like those in our Sun - has long been touted as a possible revolutionary energy source.

However, there have been doubts about the use of powerful lasers for fusion energy because the "plasma" they create could interrupt the fusion.

An article in Science showed the plasma is far less of a problem than expected.

The report is based on the first experiments from the National Ignition Facility (Nif) in the US that used all 192 of its laser beams.

Along the way, the experiments smashed the record for the highest energy from a laser - by a factor of 20.

Construction of the National Ignition Facility began at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1997, and was formally completed in May 2008.

The goal, as its name implies, is to harness the power of the largest laser ever built to start "ignition" - effectively a carefully controlled thermonuclear explosion.

It is markedly different from current nuclear power, which operates through splitting atoms - fission - rather than squashing them together in fusion.

Proving that such a lab-based fusion reaction can release more energy than is required to start it - rising above the so-called breakeven point - could herald a new era in large-scale energy production.

In the approach Nif takes, called inertial confinement fusion, the target is a centimetre-scale cylinder of gold called a hohlraum.

It contains a tiny pellet of fuel made from an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium.

During 30 years of the laser fusion debate, one significant potential hurdle to the process has been the "plasma" that the lasers will create in the hohlraum.

The fear has been that the plasma, a roiling soup of charged particles, would interrupt the target's ability to absorb the lasers' energy and funnel it uniformly into the fuel, compressing it and causing ignition.

Siegfried Glenzer, the Nif plasma scientist, led a team to test that theory, smashing records along the way.

"We hit it with 669 kiloJoules - 20 times more than any previous laser facility," Nif's Siegfried Glenzer told BBC News.

That isn't that much total energy; it's about enough to boil a one-litre kettle twice over.

However, the beams delivered their energy in pulses lasting a little more than 10 billionths of a second.

By way of comparison, if that power could be maintained, it would boil the contents of more than 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools in a second.

Crucially, the recent experiments provided proof that the plasma did not reduce the hohlraum's ability to absorb the incident laser light; it absorbed about 95%.

But more than that, Dr Glenzer's team discovered that the plasma can actually be carefully manipulated to increase the uniformity of the compression.

"For the first time ever in the 50-year journey of laser fusion, these laser-plasma interactions have been shown to be less of a problem than predicted, not more," said Mike Dunne, director of the UK's Central Laser Facility and leader of the European laser fusion effort known as HiPER.

"I can't overstate how dramatic a step that is," he told BBC News. "Many people a year ago were saying the project would be dead by now."

Adding momentum to the ignition quest, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced on Wednesday that, since the Science results were first obtained, the pulse energy record had been smashed again.

They now report an energy of one megaJoule on target - 50% higher than the amount reported in Science.

The current calculations show that about 1.2 megaJoules of energy will be enough for ignition, and currently Nif can run as high as 1.8 megaJoules.

. . .

Dr Glenzer is confident that with everything in place, ignition is on the horizon.

He added, quite simply, "It's going to happen this year."

There's more at the link. All pictures courtesy of NIF.

This is really exciting news! If the scientists can, indeed, initiate a controlled (and controllable) nuclear fusion reaction, fast breeder reactors can't be too far away, and the prospect of large quantities of relatively cheap, safe energy is a lot closer. I'll be watching this with great interest.


World's biggest bottle of wine . . . in China???

I was surprised by the news that China has produced the world's largest bottle of wine, because I hadn't known that China was a wine producer. However, according to the China Wines Information Website, it's the sixth-largest producer in the world, in terms of the area under wine cultivation and production, and has over 500 wine producers.

Anyway, Metro UK reports:

A group of Chinese winemakers have claimed the new world record for the world's biggest ever bottle of wine.

The 15ft high bottle contains an astonishing 1,850 litres of wine, produced by Wang Chen Wines in Liaoning, northern China.

That's over three times the amount held by the previous record-holders, Austrian winemakers Kracher, whose bottle held 490 litres of Grande Cuvee TBA NV No.7 2005.

'We are very proud, and the wine is very good. We have all had a glass from the bottle to celebrate,' said a company spokesman.

That's the equivalent of 2,467 regular-size (750ml.) bottles of wine! I wonder what sort of hangover that much plonk would provide?

Impressed by this new record, I looked for more related records. It seems the world's largest wine glass was produced in the Italian city of Spoleto in 2008. The champagne glass measured a massive 79 inches tall by 18 inches across, and was filled with 16½ liters (3.63 gallons) of sparkling wine.

On the opposite end of the scale, the world's smallest wine glass was manufactured by NEC Corp. in Japan back in 2000. Their press release claimed:

Using highly advanced manufacturing techniques that can produce three dimensional (3D) objects at the nanometer scale (one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter), researchers built the glass from carbon with an external diameter of only 2,750 nanometers (nm), approximately 20,000 times smaller than a normal sized glass.

The only drawback is that NEC's wineglass is so tiny, it can't hold even a single drop of wine!

To go with the tiny glass, I suppose one would need the world's smallest bottle of wine. That's produced by Steve Klein of Klein Designs in California. According to Guinness World Records:

Steve Klein of Klein's Designs, Encino, California, USA, produces hand-blown miniature wine bottles standing 3.2 cm (1.2 in) tall and with a volume of 0.75ml (0.026 fl oz). Each bottle is corked, sealed, and labeled. Limited to 1,000 bottles per type of wine, each issue is accompanied by a formal certificate. Prices currently range from $20 to $90 for a bottle of Gros Frere et Soeur 'Richebourg' which has a 24 carat Gold Seal.

And, just to round things out, the world's most expensive wine glass is available from Opulent Items.

It's made from borosilicate glass, which doesn't transfer the heat of your hand to the wine, and features a diamond set into the stem. It retails for $3,750.00 per glass. Different sizes are available for red and white wines.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A hot time in a cold town!

The annual Up Helly Aa festival has just been held in Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands, part of Scotland in the UK. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

The festival involves a procession of up to a thousand guizers in Lerwick and considerably lower numbers in the more rural festivals, formed into squads who march through the town or village in a variety of themed costumes.

The current Lerwick celebration grew out of the older yule tradition of tar barrelling which took place at Christmas and New Year as well as Up Helly-Aa. After the abolition of tar barrelling, permission was eventually obtained for torch processions. The first yule torch procession took place in 1876. The first torch celebration on Up Helly-Aa day took place in 1881. The following year the torchlit procession was significantly enhanced and institutionalised through a request by a Lerwick civic body to hold another Up Helly-Aa torch procession for the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh.[1] The first galley was burned in 1889.

There is a main guizer who is dubbed the "Jarl". There is a committee which you must be part of for fifteen years before you can be a jarl, and only one person is elected to this committee each year.

The procession culminates in the torches being thrown into a replica Viking longship or galley. The event happens all over Shetland, but it is only the Lerwick galley which is not sent seaward. Everywhere else, the galley is sent seabound, in an echo of actual Viking sea burials.

After the procession, the squads visit local halls (including schools, sports facilities and hotels), where private parties are held. At each hall, each squad performs its act, which may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing, usually in flamboyant costume.

The festival's Web site describes its history thus:

There is some evidence that people in rural Shetland celebrated the 24th day after Christmas as "Antonsmas" or "Up Helly Night", but there is no evidence that their cousins in Lerwick did the same. The emergence of Yuletide and New Year festivities in the town seems to post-date the Napoleonic Wars, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms.

On old Christmas eve in 1824 a visiting Methodist missionary wrote in his diary that "the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night – the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England."

As Lerwick grew in size the celebrations became more elaborate. Sometime about 1840 the participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings. "Sometimes", as one observer wrote, "there were two tubs fastened to a great raft-like frame knocked together at the Docks, whence the combustibles were generally obtained. Two chains were fastened to the bogie asupporting the capacious tub or tar-barrel . . . eked to these were two strong ropes on which a motley mob, wearing masks for the most part, fastened. A party of about a dozen were told off to stir up the molten contents."

The main street of Lerwick in the mid-19th century was extremely narrow, and rival groups of tarbarrelers frequently clashed in the middle. The proceeding were thus dangerous and dirty, and Lerwick's middle classes often complained about them. The Town Council began to appoint special constables every Christmas to control the revellers, with only limited success. When the end came for tar-barrelling, in the early 1870s, it seems to have been because the young Lerwegians themselves had decided it was time for a change.

Around 1870 a group of young men in the town with intellectual interests injected a series of new ideas into the proceedings. First, they improvised the name Up-Helly-Aa, and gradually postponed the celebrations until the end of January. Secondly, they introduced a far more elaborate element of disguise - "guizing" - into the new festival.

Thirdly, they inaugurated a torchlight procession. At the same time they were toying with the idea of introducing Viking themes to their new festival. The first signs of this new development appeared in 1877, but it was not until the late 1880s that a Viking long ship - the "galley" - appeared, and as late as 1906 that a "Guizer Jarl", the chief guizer, arrived on the scene. It was not until after the First World War that there was a squad of Vikings, the "Guizer Jarl's Squad", in the procession every year.

Up to the Second World War Up-Helly-Aa was overwhelmingly a festival of young working class men - women have never taken part in the procession - and during the depression years the operation was run on a shoestring. In the winter of 1931-32 there was an unsuccessful move to cancel the festival because of the dire economic situation in the town. At the same time, the Up-Helly-Aa committee became a self-confident organisation which poked fun at the pompous in the by then longestablished Up-Helly-Aa "bill" - sometimes driving their victims to fury.

Since 1949, when the festival resumed after the war, much has changed and much has remained the same. That year the BBC recorded a major radio programme on Up-Helly-Aa, and from that moment Up-Helly-Aa - not noted for its split-second timing before the war - became a model of efficient organisation. The numbers participating in the festival have become much greater, and the resources required correspondingly larger.

Whereas in the 19th century individuals kept open house to welcome the guizers on Up-Helly-Aa night, men and women now co-operate to open large halls throughout the town to entertain them. However, despite the changes, there are numerous threads connecting the Up-Helly-Aa of today with its predecessors 150 years ago.

(All photographs courtesy of the official Up Helly Aa Web site.)

I guess it's a bit like a Renaissance Fair or a get-together of the Society for Creative Anachronism, but with a Viking flavor. Here's a video clip of this year's procession and galley-burning.

Looks like a good time was had by all - but with all those sparks and flames flying around, I bet the local Fire Brigade was happy to see it end!


Have shoes changed how we run?

The BBC has an interesting article asking this question.

The question of how best to support and protect a runner's feet is something that has intrigued both scientists and sports shoe designers.

This analysis, the researchers said, took an evolutionary approach to that question.

The research team used a combination of highly sensitive scales, high speed cameras, and 3-D motion analysis to compare barefoot runners to those wearing running shoes.

Their results showed that "shod" runners tended to strike the ground with their heel first.

"This creates an impact; it's like someone hitting your heel with a hammer with up to three times your body weight," said the lead researcher, Dr Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University in the US.

"Those collision forces have been implicated, by several studies, in certain kinds of repetitive stress injuries.

"Shoes work because they cushion much of that force - slowing it down, mostly."

But experienced barefoot runners appear to have developed a different way to prevent the pain, striking the ground with the forefoot or mid-foot.

"By forefoot or mid-foot striking correctly, one can almost completely eliminate that collision, making barefoot running comfortable," said Dr Lieberman.

He explained that the style adopted by barefoot runners may, in some respects, be less damaging.

Dr Lieberman's footage also demonstrated the specialised anatomy of the human foot, and caused him and his colleagues to propose that modern sports footwear may have altered how people run.

There's more at the link.

It's interesting to read this study in the light of another, about which I wrote last year, which suggested that expensive running shoes might be a waste of time and money. Labrat of the Atomic Nerds was trying to experiment with a different approach . . . if you're reading this, Labrat, how about an update?

The Vibram Five Fingers range of shoes (the 'Moc' model is illustrated below) are produced with a more nearly 'barefoot' running style in mind.

I can't say whether or not they work as advertised, but there seem to be many satisfied users who swear by them (and not at them).

It looks like this area is attracting a great deal of attention. I'll keep an eye open for new developments.


Is 'Avatar' the blockbuster it's claimed to be?

Only if you're talking in gross money terms, it seems. In terms of numbers of tickets sold, it's still big, but only 26th on the list of all-time greats. The Hollywood Reporter notes:

With everybody reporting how "Avatar" is The Biggest Movie of All Time based on grosses ($1.859 billion and counting), it's important to remember how rising ticket prices skew the returns.

Here's the Top 20 movies of all time ... by number of tickets sold:

1 "Gone With the Wind" (1939) 202,044,600
2 "Star Wars" (1977) 178,119,600
3 "The Sound of Music" (1965) 142,415,400
4 "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) 141,854,300
5 "The Ten Commandments" (1956) 131,000,000
6 "Titanic" (1997) 128,345,900
7 "Jaws" (1975) 128,078,800
8 "Doctor Zhivago" (1965) 124,135,500
9 "The Exorcist" (1973) 110,568,700
10 "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) 109,000,000
11 "101 Dalmatians" (1961) 99,917,300
12 "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) 98,180,600
13 "Ben-Hur" (1959) 98,000,000
14 "Return of the Jedi" (1983) 94,059,400
15 "The Sting" (1973) 89,142,900
16 "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) 88,141,900
17 "Jurassic Park" (1993) 86,205,800
18 "The Graduate" (1967) 85,571,400
19 "Star Wars: Episode I" (1999) 84,825,800
20 "Fantasia" (1941) 83,043,500

"Avatar," despite topping the worldwide gross list, by and by, is only No. 26 on the ticket sales list with 76,421,000 sold ... at least, so far...

There's more at the link. Interesting reading.

Another interesting 'Avatar' vignette: it seems that an area of China has topography and geological features almost identical to those of the movie's imaginary planet 'Pandora'.

The 3,544ft Southern Sky Column is one of 3,000 in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and became the inspiration for the magical 'floating peaks' in James Cameron's film after a Hollywood photographer spent time shooting there in 2008.

A national park spokesman said: 'Many pictures become prototypes for various elements in the 'Avatar' movie, including the 'Hallelujah Mountains'.'

Now as film fans flock to see the column, the column has had its named officially changed to 'Avatar Hallelujah Mountain'.

There's more at the link, including more photographs. It certainly looks like a beautiful place.


And bubbles to you too!

I'm informed that the last Monday in January each year has been officially designated as 'Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day'. This week's celebration also marked the 50th anniversary of the invention of bubble wrap, making it particularly noteworthy. The invention of the stuff is described as follows:

The story begins in a building no bigger than a garage in Hawthorne, NJ with two engineers, Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding. Marc and Al were trying to make a plastic wallpaper with a paper backing. Surprisingly, this product didn't take off. They quickly realized, however, that their invention could be used as a cushioning material for packaging. At that time, only abrasive paper products were used for packaging, which did not suffice for cushioning heavy or delicate items. They founded Sealed Air Corporation in 1960, and today, Sealed Air is a leading global manufacturer of a wide range of food and protective packaging materials and systems with annual revenues in excess of four billion dollars.

Quite apart from the millions of linear feet of the stuff sold annually, it's alleged that there are over 250 Facebook pages devoted to it. The original manufacturers of bubble wrap, Sealed Air, have even set up a special Web page devoted to having fun with it.

In a particularly fortuitous piece of timing, the insurance Web site set about generating publicity about safety and accident prevention in Britain's most accident-prone street. They used - what else? - bubble wrap to make their point. The Daily Mail reports:

The most accident-prone street in Britain has been given the ultimate safety blanket - 1,500 sq metres of bubble wrap.

Cars, gates, bins, lamp posts and even garden gnomes were wrapped in the cushioning film to highlight the dangers of driving in winter.

According to a car insurance comparison website, homes in Somerville Road, Worcester, generate the highest number of accident claims in the whole of the UK.

The street , which has been dubbed 'Accident Avenue', has had around ten claims a year for ten years, which for a small street, made residents the most accident-prone drivers in the country.

The stunt was set up by and took eight men more than 12 hours to complete.

One Somerville Road resident, who did not wish to be named, said it was a shock to see all the houses wrapped up.

He said: 'I live just up from the houses that were wrapped up so the sight of them all covered up took me a bit by surprise.

'They have wrapped absolutely everything in plastic - it looks very striking.

'I think it is a really amusing idea, although I don't know how long it will be until someone starts popping the bubbles.'

There's more at the link, including more photographs.

I'll confess that I've popped my fair share of bubbles in sheets of bubble wrap . . . including some that were pristine and unused, to the fury of those about to use them! I wonder whether the residents of Somerville Road have been kept awake by midnight bubble-poppers?


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cat vs. bear

Here's a cat with more courage than sense! It seems a bear stole a garbage bag from off the deck of a home in Canada, and the cat decided to intervene. The home-owner caught the encounter on video.

Good thing the cat didn't try to get more physical, I'd say - but gutsy, nonetheless.


A remarkable story of hard work in the midst of devastation

In all the coverage of relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti, I've noticed very little being said about the cleanup, repair and reconstruction of the harbor facilities in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, and the search for alternative ways to offload supplies. It's one of the most critical aspects of the international effort there, but it seems it's not as publicity-worthy as photographs of suffering civilians. I'd like to rectify that here by giving you some idea of the magnitude of the work. (All photographs in this article are courtesy of the US Navy Web site, except the first, which is courtesy of Wikipedia.)

It's enormously expensive to fly supplies to Haiti, as opposed to sending them by sea: but at present, it's almost impossible for ships to get their supplies ashore. The harbor at Port-au-Prince ( a small port, offering only seven berths for ships) was left devastated by the earthquake.

Here are a few more detailed pictures to illustrate the scale of the problem. Note the first: Haiti's only crane capable of handling containers. It's now doing a modernist imitation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the middle of the harbor. Without it and its associated quay, containers can't be offloaded in large quantities.

As Forexyard reports, the place is a mess. Quays have crumbled and shifted on their supporting piles; containers, cranes and portable buildings have toppled off the quays into the harbor, making large sections unusable by ships and smaller craft until they're cleared; and shore facilities such as fuel, water and electricity supply aren't working any more. The US Navy's trying to address the latter issues by putting out tenders for the hire of water barges, a harbor supply vessel and another ship for accommodation and feeding of workers, but it'll be a while before they can get there. Meanwhile, ships loaded with relief supplies have to wait offshore.

Needless to say, not much freight is getting ashore through the harbor. Helicopters, landing craft and hovercraft are delivering supplies from the anchored ships onto beaches and hardstands cleared of rubble for use as temporary off-loading points.

As you can imagine, the problems of distribution from such remote points are immense. Haiti's never had a good road network at the best of times, and what there was has been badly damaged by the earthquake. In many cases, bulldozers have to scrape new paths through bush and across mud for trucks to get to where the aid can be landed. Gravel is hastily laid on these tracks, but heavily-laden vehicles chew them up regardless, making constant repairs the order of the day. It's very time- and labor-consuming, and very inefficient; so getting the harbor back into operation is a high priority.

Engineering teams are busy doing just that. Some are scouting for alternative landing sites at small fishing villages, to see whether they can accommodate landing craft and other smaller vessels which can ferry supplies from larger ships offshore.

Other teams are clearing the main harbor at Port-au-Prince of sunken containers, cranes and other debris. It's a hard, slow job, particularly because engineering support vessels can't yet get into the port. New channels are being surveyed and buoys laid to show ships where it's safe to navigate. Meanwhile, work must be shore-based.

Teams of divers are inspecting the damaged piers and quays, trying to determine what can be repaired, or what must be demolished and replaced. It's a dangerous job, swimming among so much unstable rubble . . . and if a strong aftershock occurs, and the rubble shifts, I'd hate to be down there among it! Such work demands not only engineering skills, but real courage as well. As the Washington Post reported a few days ago:

The Americans weren't happy that a French naval vessel, the Francis Garnier, had docked. They weren't being competitive. They were being cautious. The French ship and its cargo could have tipped the pier over like an empty paper cup.

One of the Navy divers said, "Put on your life preservers." He wasn't kidding. Nearby, the civilian engineer for the Navy had made a pendulum out of a piece of string, a twig and a weight -- a half-full plastic eyedropper. He told a sailor to keep an eye on it.

"If it starts to swing, run," he said.

Other teams are trying to erect temporary floating piers and repair less damaged sections of the harbor to allow at least some freight to be offloaded. They're having some success, with up to 150 containers per day already flowing through the port: but this is far less than the required capacity. Work will continue for several weeks, until (it's hoped) by the end of February the harbor should be able to accommodate over 700 containers per day.

Meanwhile, local small craft and ferries can't dock directly against the quays, which might collapse on them, or beneath the feet of those trying to board the ships. Instead, they tie up together at anchor in the harbor, and people walk out from the beach to reach them, or take small boats.

Other teams of engineers are working to repair and upgrade the roads within and leading to the harbor, so that trucks will be able to transport the containers and their contents to where they're most needed. That's a whole article in itself . . . repairing a road network that was already in very poor shape, and has now been hammered almost out of existence by the earthquake. In a country of 11,000 square miles, with a population of 9 million, carving new roads out of nowhere is often difficult: you'll inevitably run over someone's plantain patch or demolish part of their house (which may already be half-demolished by the earthquake, but it's still their property!). The difficulties are legion, and immense.

So there it is . . . many teams, hundreds of people, all working flat-out to provide the basic infrastructure without which aid simply can't reach Haiti in sufficient quantities. It's not glamorous work, and doesn't attract the attention of the TV crews, but it's just as vital as those who are out there distributing aid or providing medical attention.

Spare a thought for the men and women toiling away in obscurity at these tasks. Without them, the prospects for Haiti would be much, much worse.