Astronomy Picture of the Day: Monsters of IC 1396

1:49:16 AM, Saturday, May 28, 2011

-- "Is there a monster in IC 1396? Known to some as the Elephant's Trunk Nebula, parts of the glowing gas and dust clouds of this star formation region may appear to take on foreboding forms, some nearly human. The entire nebula might even look like a face of a monster. The only real monster here, however, is a bright young star too far from Earth to be dangerous. Energetic light from this star is eating away the dust of the dark cometary globule at the top right of the image. Jets and winds of particles emitted from this star are also pushing away ambient gas and dust. Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the IC 1396 complex is relatively faint and covers a region on the sky with an apparent width of more than 10 full moons. Recently, over 100 young stars have been discovered forming in the nebula. "

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Satellite Images Provide Blueprint for Ancient Egypt

1:41:17 AM, Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Satellites orbiting 400 miles above earth have revealed numerous hidden ancient sites across Egypt, including 17 pyramids, 1,000 tombs and 3,100 settlements, the BBC reported this week. The pioneering project, which fused cutting-edge infrared imaging with the historically low-tech field of archaeology, was funded by a grant from the BBC and spearheaded by Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist and assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

For more than a year, Parcak and her team scanned giant swaths of Egypt with a combination of NASA and commercial satellites, using techniques they had developed on a smaller scale and previously employed in regions in the South Sinai, East Delta and Middle Egypt. “The thing that was new for me was that I had never before been able to apply the technology over a broad area and test it on different environments and sites,” Parcak explained. “We scaled up our methodology across Egypt.”

The contours of ancient Egyptian homes and other buildings appear in infrared imagery because they were constructed from mud brick, a dense material that stands out from surrounding soil. As a result, the satellite images showed both known archaeological sites that have been studied and excavated for decades and other ancient treasures ostensibly buried deep beneath the sand. When Parcak and her colleagues pinpointed famous pyramids captured by the cameras, for instance, they also spotted similar-looking structures nearby, an indication that our inventory of ancient Egypt’s most iconic architectural marvels is incomplete. “For me, the exciting part is the possibility,” Parcak said. “We just don’t know what these things might be, but we know there’s something there..."”

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Project Acoustic Kitty: How the CIA Failed at Using Cats as Spies

3:10:46 PM, Friday, May 27, 2011

"Cats are perfect spies. They're small, they're stealthy, and they excel at seducing humans, who can't help but pet them while blathering on about state secrets. This is exactly why the CIA decided to implant listening devices into cats and train them to go where they were told. This is no joke, it's Project Acoustic Kitty.

The CIA chose a grey and white adult female cat to be its first agent under Project Acoustic Kitty. Rigging the cat to record audio was the easy part of the program: a 3/4 inch transmitter was embedded in its skull, with a microphone hidden in its ear canal. The antenna ran all the way along the cat's back to its tail, underneath the fur. Short battery life meant that the cat couldn't spend too long on any one mission, but as it turned out, that was one of the least limiting factors of the whole business.

As you might expect, training the cat to do as she was told was not an easy task. While it was possible to get her to move in a specific direction or go to a specific location in a structured indoor environment, once they brought her outside, she was hopeless. That is to say, she did exactly what her trainers wanted, unless she got bored. Or distracted. Or hungry. And, being a cat, she was at least one (if not more) of those things a large portion of the time.

Apparently, her hunger issues were somehow "addressed with another operation," and her training was intensified until the CIA was reasonably confident (or however confident they could possibly be) that the cat was capable of actually going where she was told. All told, the program had taken about $20 million and five years, but Acoustic Kitty was finally ready for deployment..."

-- Kan I haz spy-kitteh?

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Patriot Act Extension Signed By Obama

2:24:32 PM, Friday, May 27, 2011

"WASHINGTON — Minutes before a midnight deadline, President Barack Obama signed into law a four-year extension of post-Sept. 11 powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists.

"It's an important tool for us to continue dealing with an ongoing terrorist threat," Obama said Friday after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

With Obama in France, the White House said the president used an autopen machine that holds a pen and signs his actual signature. It is only used with proper authorization of the president.

Congress sent the bill to the president with only hours to go on Thursday before the provisions expired at midnight. Votes taken in rapid succession in the Senate and House came after lawmakers rejected attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that individual liberties are not abused.

The Senate voted 72-23 for the legislation to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities. The House passed the measure 250-153 on an evening vote.

A short-term expiration would not have interrupted ongoing operations but would have barred the government from seeking warrants for new investigations..."

-- Change we can believe in. Typical.

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Armin van Buuren feat. Laura V - Drowning (Avicii Remix)

2:14:11 PM, Friday, May 27, 2011
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School Superintendent to Governor: Please Make My School a Prison

2:07:32 PM, Friday, May 27, 2011

"A school superintendent in Michigan has written a public letter to the editor asking Governor Rick Snyder if his school can become a prison instead. The full text is below. What do you think?

—-Dear Governor Snyder,

In these tough economic times, schools are hurting. And yes, everyone in Michigan is hurting right now financially, but why aren’t we protecting schools? Schools are the one place on Earth that people look to to “fix” what is wrong with society by educating our youth and preparing them to take on the issues that society has created.

One solution I believe we must do is take a look at our corrections system in Michigan. We rank nationally at the top in the number of people we incarcerate. We also spend the most money per prisoner annually than any other state in the union. Now, I like to be at the top of lists, but this is one ranking that I don’t believe Michigan wants to be on top of.

Consider the life of a Michigan prisoner. They get three square meals a day. Access to free health care. Internet. Cable television. Access to a library. A weight room. Computer lab. They can earn a degree. A roof over their heads. Clothing. Everything we just listed we DO NOT provide to our school children.

This is why I’m proposing to make my school a prison. The State of Michigan spends annually somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 per prisoner, yet we are struggling to provide schools with $7,000 per student. I guess we need to treat our students like they are prisoners, with equal funding..."

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Florida Man's Drowning in Antioch Lake Related to Rapture Prediction, Detective Says

11:30:24 AM, Friday, May 27, 2011

"Victor Frasno thought God was on the other side of an Antioch lake, so he tried not once, but twice to get across, even though he could not swim.

God would help him reach the other side of the 80-acre reservoir, he told his older brother. The brother was also "chosen," so he pulled him into the frigid water, too.

After a chaotic hour or so at the sprawling Contra Loma Regional Park, battling with his brother and sister-in-law in and out of the frigid water, Frasno drowned.

Authorities pulled his body from the lake at 11:20 p.m. Friday, 20 minutes after the first of a series of world-ending earthquakes were supposed to have begun, according to an Oakland-based radio evangelist's Judgment Day prediction.

The world did not end, but investigators believe the highly publicized rapture proclamation -- with more than 5,000 billboards worldwide and a caravan of believers spreading the word -- helped push Frasno, 25, over the edge.

"I believe it probably had something to do with the rapture because this wasn't his normal behavior," said Detective Holly Sontag, who investigated the drowning for the East Bay Regional Park District police, which oversees the park.

The tale began late last year when the devout Frasno temporarily moved from Florida to the Bay Area. He spent weekdays with his sister in San Francisco and weekends with his brother in Antioch, Sontag said. He had no work and was to return to Florida at the end of the month..."

-- Yep...

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Bosnia Genocide Suspect Ratko Mladic Arrested in Serbia

11:19:54 AM, Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Ratko Mladic, the former Serbian military commander accused of genocide in the bloodiest war fought in Europe since World War II, was arrested Thursday after more than 15 years in hiding, Serbia's president announced.

Mladic was the highest-ranking war crimes suspect to remain at large from the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His arrest in Serbia followed a three-year investigation, President Boris Tadic said in a dramatic and hastily announced news conference in Belgrade.

Tadic refused to give more details about the operation.

Mladic, 69, is charged with genocide, extermination and murder, among others counts, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal has accused him of "direct involvement" in the killings of nearly 8,000 men and boys in the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, Europe's worst massacre since the Holocaust.

The onetime Bosnian Serb commander stands accused of "ethnic cleansing," widespread killing, forcible deportations, torture, forced labor and physical, psychological and sexual violence against Bosnian Muslims between 1992 and 1995. But he remains a hero to some of his former soldiers, said David Owen, a former European Union envoy to Yugoslavia, suggesting that his supporters had sheltered him in Serbia..."

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Astronomy Picture of the Day: The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble

11:13:30 AM, Thursday, May 26, 2011

-- "Staring across interstellar space, the alluring Cat's Eye nebula lies three thousand light-years from Earth. A classic planetary nebula, the Cat's Eye (NGC 6543) represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Seen so clearly in this sharp Hubble Space Telescope image, the truly cosmic eye is over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into the Cat's Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years. "

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C'mon Feel the Noise: Due to Noise Pollution, Songbirds Change Tunes

12:22:51 PM, Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"In response to noise pollution, some songbirds change their tunes. But two closely related species have surprised scientists by editing their calls differently, a new study finds.

Birds rely on calls and songs, but human-generated noise threatens to interfere with such communication. There are more than 10,000 known bird species, making it impossible for scientists to test how each will respond to having humans as noisy neighbors. So they try to predict a bird’s response based on how a closely related species reacts. But there’s a catch. “If there are no clear patterns regarding how bird songs change in response to noise among closely related species, it will greatly limit our ability to predict how a species may change its song in new acoustic environments,” says Clinton Francis, an ecologist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

To compare closely related species living in noisy environments, Francis and colleagues turned to plumbeous and gray vireo birds in woodland surrounding 26 gas-treatment sites—a mix of sites with noisy compressors as well as quiet control sites—in Rattlesnake Canyon Habitat Management Area in New Mexico in mid-2009. The setting was ideal because the sound made by the gas compressors, like most human-generated noise, is mostly in the lower frequency range that overlaps with those used by birds for communication. Furthermore, the number of people and the types of vegetation present were similar in both the noisy and the quiet locations, eliminating the chance these factors could skew any results. “Because these two vireos are closely related, we expected them to respond in the same way to the noise disturbance,” Francis says.

However, the two birds responded to the noise of the pumps in dramatically different ways, the scientists report in Biology Letters. The plumbeous vireo increased the minimum frequency of the sounds in its songs, reducing the overall range of frequencies used. In contrast, the gray vireo increased the maximum frequency of its cheery tunes, increasing its frequency range. Furthermore, the researchers found that song duration changed with increasing noise for both species but in opposite ways. The duration of the plumbeous vireo’s songs decreased with increasing noise, whereas the gray vireo’s songs were nearly 1.5 times longer than usual in the noisiest areas. Based on previous research into performance constraints for bird songs, the plumbeous vireo may not be able to sing as long when it increases the minimum frequency of its songs, the scientists speculate.

However, behavioral ecologist Jeffrey Podos of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says he is skeptical that both species like the noisy and quiet sites equally. “Yes, the two species are from the same genus, but the authors' own data suggest that these species differ in their willingness to live near the noisy compressors,” Podos says. “I thus don't follow the initial prediction that the two species should react similarly to masking noise.” Francis says that his team has previously found that gray vireos avoid nesting in noisy environments, as Podos mentions. But he believes the smaller number of nests could be due to the birds failing to secure a long-term mate in the noisy surroundings and that they still happily inhabit these environments, just like the plumbeous vireos."

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Canon 1Ds and EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM Cutaway

8:41:34 PM, Tuesday, May 24, 2011

-- "You may have seen the cut-in-half Leica lens that has been floating around the web today, but that little gem has nothing on this thing. I spotted it at a small gear museum on the first floor of one of Canon's Japanese headquarters buildings. It's full of interesting stuff for camera nerds , but nothing was so striking as the cut-in-half camera you see above. That lens is the beautiful and lust-worthy 400MM f/4 DO IS USM that lists for $8,900 and usually goes for about $5,500 in the store. A Canon rep told me that the body is a 1Ds, which, while old, still fetches about $1,000 on eBay. But, the result reallly is incredible. All of those elements and the intricate bends in the casing are a little reminder of why this stuff costs as much as it does..."

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Florida Man Attacks Woman with Swim Noodle After Dispute Over Watermelon

2:16:31 PM, Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Everyone knows it's not summer without a quality noodle fight. But this old dude takes it to another level. Karl Ludwig Eichner, 68, got upset about a "head-shaped" watermelon that a lady threw into the ocean. He seems to have had a Wilson-like affinity for the rotten watermelon, attacked her with his swim noodle, punched her in the face, and ended up behind bars. The least shocking thing about the whole ordeal is that it happened in Florida. This is exactly the type of antics we expect from that phallus-shaped state. Police report below, via Naplesnews.com:

A woman who was at the beach with a friend observed a rotting watermelon that had been carved and shaped into a head sitting on the sand. The watermelon seemed to have been abandoned so she placed it in the ocean in hopes that it would disintegrate and not attract any bugs.

Eichner retrieved the watermelon from the ocean and placed it back on the beach. The woman placed the watermelon in the ocean once again.

Eichner approached the woman with his swim noodle full of water and dumped the water on her as she was sitting on her towel. He then punched her in the cheek..."

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Stars With Multiple Planets Abound

2:07:49 PM, Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Planets like company. No less than one in three of all planets around other stars found by NASA's Kepler space telescope are in multiple-planet systems. What's more, the sheer number of those systems suggests that they are more tranquil places than our own solar system, say astronomers working with the telescope.

Since it was launched just over 2 years ago, Kepler has found 116 systems with two planets, 45 with three, eight with four, one with five, and one with six planets, astronomer David Latham of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reported here today at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society. That's a total of 171 multiple-planet systems. "We thought we might see a few multiplanet systems," Latham says. "Instead, we found lots of them."

Kepler detects a planet when it passes in front of its parent star, as seen from Earth. Such transits produce minute, periodic dips in the brightness of the star. Kepler continuously monitors 165,000 stars to search for those transits.

The low expectation for multiple-planet systems was based on the fact that the eight planets in our own solar system do not orbit in exactly the same plane. For instance, the plane of Mercury's orbit is tilted by 7˚ relative to that of Earth. So if the solar system were viewed from a vast distance, if one planet produced transits, most others would not..."

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Morgan Page - Fight For You

1:19:49 PM, Tuesday, May 24, 2011
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Contractor Can't Account for $9.8 Million in Project to Aid Iraqi Farmers

10:27:21 PM, Monday, May 23, 2011

"USAID awarded a $343 million contract to Louis Berger Group in 2007 to help Iraqi farmers by promoting crop diversity, improving farmers’ access to information systems and providing technical assistance. An audit by the USAID inspector general has determined that the contractor mismanaged the program and couldn't account for almost $10 million in costs.

The Louis Berger Group failed to implement measurements for agricultural productivity, completely lacked results to demonstrate agribusiness loan increases, reported inaccurate results and millions in unsupported program costs.

The agribusiness contract was supposed to increase agricultural productivity by specific percentages with targeted crops, but the contractor never developed a method of measuring or reporting results. The program was also supposed to generate at least 40,000 agricultural jobs, but fell short of the minimum goal by 10,000. The contractor did not differentiate between full-time or part-time jobs and lacked documentation supporting job creation.

Louis Berger reported $172 million in increased sales for agriculture businesses, short of the $300 million goal, but did not provide adequate documentation for sales. Another aspect of the program was increasing agribusiness loans, which was completely absent from the contractor’s report..."

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