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AFTER FIVE YEARS, A NEW LAYOUT
When I started this blog five years ago, it was just an experiment. I didn’t think it would attract any attention but considered it a good exercise and playground. To my surprise, readership has grown steadily and now reaches several thousand per month.
When I began, I was not happy with any of templates and blogging platforms in existence at the time. I didn’t like the clutter of permalinks and sidebars and didn’t want to bother with categorized posts. I didn’t want to click buttons or pull down menus. I simply wanted to write. I just wanted a simple string of text, divided into paragraphs and segments – similar to what you might find in a printed magazine.
So I decided to write everything in simple HTML, which allowed me to do it all by myself. Additionally, a simple file structure without self-hosted scripts and databases allowed me to keep a mental overview of where the various files were located.
But now, technology has moved on, and I feel the time has come for a change. Particularly the rise of social networking applications has changed the way content is shared. Unfortunately, this now requires a more standardized and structured way of doing things. Automating certain tasks and relying on templates and hosted scripts has become a necessity.
After giving this some thought (and because I had to study it for clients anyway), I have decided to migrate to a dedicated blogging platform. Among all the options, I decided for a self-hosted WordPress platform.
As time permits, I will be fine tuning various elements, so please be patient while I make these adjustments.
Most likely, due to time constraints I will not move all the posts of the previous five years into the new platform, but they are still accessible in the old HTML files.
From now on, all new posts will appear in the new platform:
Thank you for reading!
December 31, 2009
MOST AMAZING SCIENCE STORIES OF 2009
Reflecting on what happened in science this year, the following three stories stick to my mind:
WATER ON THE MOON
December 28, 2009
will go through great lengths to get media attention and suggest that
their products and services are the cat’s whisker.
I love books. So I was very surprised to hear on NPR that over the Christmas season, e-books outsold printed books for the first time. That just sounded unreal so me, so I looked into it.
The claim came from a press release sent out by Amazon last Saturday, but NPR neglected to quote the source.
Upon closer examination it turns out that 64 of the top 100 selling books for Amazon’s Kindle device were being “sold” for free during the past few weeks. No doubt, this was an attempt to push sales of the Kindle device around Christmas. This strategy makes sense, given that Barnes & Noble rolled out their Nook reader at the same time. (Being the latest reader, Barnes & Noble's Nook appear to be superior to Amazon's Kindle).
And among Amazon’s top 10 bestsellers, there are 8 free giveaways. Only two e-books (one by Dan Brown and one by James Patterson), will generate any revenue. And not even these would be on the e-book bestseller list if they had not previously made the printed book bestseller list!
It’s all humbug. NPR should be embarrassed.
PS: And by the way: Here is my book wishlist (or at least a portion).
December 22, 2009
I almost never gush about a blockbuster, but I’ll make an exception for Avatar, which I saw last weekend. In 3-D, this is one of the most amazing movies I have ever seen! Brilliant and breathtaking!
Director James Cameron is afflicted with the same schizophrenic curse I deeply relate to: a strong interest science and technology as well as in art, coupled with constant restlessness and a fascination with exploration and adventure. Except that (unlike me), Cameron is a genius who has been able to alter gravity and bend the universe for his needs.
Cameron began to study physics in college, but later changed his pursuits to philosophy. He never formally went to film school, but instead spent hours and weeks at the library, reading and copying whatever he could. Over time, he molded himself into a curious combination of scientist, artist, inventor, writer, producer and director of fiction as well as documentary films.
His last fiction movie (Titanic) was released in 1997. Since then, Cameron has been amusing himself by diving to the wreck of the Titanic and to deep sea vents to shoot documentaries. Cameron is a member of the Mars Society and an active proponent of space exploration. At one point was preparing a personal trip to the International Space Station. This project was to include a launch on a Russian rocket, several weeks in space, and a return on the U.S. space shuttle. The entire journey would have been filmed for an IMAX documentary. However, the pandemonium and uncertainties following the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center made the project too difficult to pull off.
Instead, Cameron has been working on Avatar, on and off, for over 10 years.
After the release of Titanic, I wrote a magazine article on motion picture technology and CGI. I remember being profoundly impressed with the way Titanic was made, and I cited many scenes as examples for where I thought CGI was going to take us.
Avatar surpasses everything I had expected. As in Titanic, the technology is not simply used for cheesy show-off effects. Instead, like good film music, is disappears in the scene and is mostly used to place the audience right into the story's environment.
In the 3-D version of Avatar, the illusion is so good that one cannot help but forget the “here and now” and instead feel transported into the jungles of this strange fantasy world, Pandora.
It is a common mistake to think that computer generated movie making is cheaper and easier and somehow “no big deal”. Completely wrong! The reality is that CGI is extremely complex, takes a long time and at least on this level, is not employed to make things cheaper. (Avatar cost almost half a billion dollars to produce). Rather, CGI is used to create scenes that could otherwise not be filmed.
Altogether, there are many thousands of people who worked on Avatar. Most scenes took weeks or even months to make, and the technical complexity is sheer mindboggling.
Last week, NPR’s Patt Morrison has an interesting interview with Cameron, during which he pointed out a problem Avatar has with promotion: it needs to attract a wide audience to break even. It it is promoted as a sci-fi action film, it will look less attractive to female audiences. But if it is promoted as an emotional story about values, convictions and romance, the male audience might dismiss is as a “chick flick”. As a consquence, the decision was made to make the promotion campaign as unspecific as possible while hoping that word of mouth would do the rest.
The truth is that Avatar is a hybrid of everything. Yes, there is plenty of machinery, action and and explosions, but there is also a great deal of emotional load, character development and drama, all spiced by a sense of awe and wonder.
I highly recommend you see it in 3-D -- and don't even think about waiting for the DVD. It would be like listening to an opera on the cellphone.
PS: Dana Goodyear wrote a great portrait of Cameron for The New Yorker.
December 6, 2009
29 YEARS AGO
Hard to believe that 29 years have passed since John Lennon was shot and killed. I was still a kid at the time, and I didn't grasp the full magnitude of the the event. As Lennon himself would have said: "What a shitty ending".
Nov. 23, 2009
This month I sadly had to bid a final good-bye to three great men and friends. This has been a difficult month.
DONALD JAMES CECIL - April 10, 1957 - Nov. 6, 2006. Artist, husband, father.
"This image started during a bus ride up the California coast. I would see these lights along the highway. Very pretty, like a flashlight shining in an aquarium, lots of atmosphere.
I watched these lights for a couple days until one morning Lou Reed's "Sephanie Says" came up on my iPod, the light post went by the bus window and the finished picture kind-of fell into my head.
I added the little horse because nobody wants to be alone in the dark.
The model is my son Thomas.
And yes I'm the guy in the back of the dark bus scirbbling in a little sketch book." (Donald Cecil)
LELAND A. SICKLER - Retiree, father, grandfather. Nov. 7, 1939 to Nov. 6, 2009; P.M., F&AM.
Lee was an important mentor and teacher who always supported me with great ambition and dedication. He was instrumental in teaching me my craft and taught me some very pivotal lessons I hope I shall never forget. I am indebted for the light he cast upon me and will miss the good counsel he whispered in my ear.
Nov. 20, 2009
WHAT IF THE EARTH HAD RINGS?
We know that many planets in our solar system are surrounded by rings. Of course, Saturn has the largest, but Jupiter, Uranus and Jupiter also have them.
What would the Earth look like if it had rings as well? And more importantly for us, what would our sky look like if it was crossed by rings?
(Animation by Roy Prol)
To learn more about planetary rings, click here.
Nov. 11, 2009
CHILDHOOD MEMORIES: SAINT MARTIN'S DAY
Tonight is Martinstag (Saint Martin’s Day) in the German areas of Europe where Catholicism dominates. (Protestants in the North do not accept the concept of Saints, but the traditions associated with this holiday seem to be spreading nonetheless).
According to legend, St. Martin was a Roman soldier who became a Christian monk. One cold winter night, Martin was riding his horse in a snowstorm when he encountered a beggar. And so, to prevent the beggar from freezing, Martin took off his cloak, cut it in half, and handed half the coat to the beggar. (I always imagined that he had a sense of drama and did so without uttering a word, before galloping off into the night).
While this can be somewhat frustrating, it would not be a good St. Martin’s day procession without adults frantically trying to stomp out a flaming lantern, or without the sad face of a child clutching a wooden stick with some charred paper remnants dangling from it.
In America, the "land of the free", we would undoubtedly either outlaw the procession, or we would mandate the use of electric “imitation candles” out of safety (and lawsuit) concerns. And all parents would have to sign waivers. And the accompanying adults would probably have to carry fire extinguishers and be certified in fire fighting. And certainly not without a permit from the fire department and a fire from the city's traffic division.
Not so in Europe, where old traditions are considered sacred and worth taking some risk. It just would never be the same without real candles! And truth be told: being concerned about the "risk" is irrational. Almost never is there a serious incident due to fire. The biggest risk is kids getting hit by idiot drivers. (How about outlawing cars and idiots in cars, but keeping the candles?)
There is also a traditional food to go with the day: goose, red cabbage and dumplings. According to legend, Martin was to be named Bishop – except, he was much too humble to want such high office. To escape church officials who had come to deliver the “good news”, Martin hid himself in a stable full of geese. Apparently, Martin was a very kind and gentle man, but not the smartest. Of course, the geese made lots of noise and ratted on poor Martin, whose attempt to escape from office was ultimately unsuccessful. Or so the story goes.
Because my family are heavily involved in equestrian sports, and I was trained in horsemanship from a young age, I had a special assignment during my teenage years.
Every year, an old man from our neighborhood played the role of St. Martin. During the procession, it was my job was to walk alongside St. Martin's horse so I could keep kids at a safe distance and intervene if the horse was spooked by hordes of boisterous kids waving burning things.
It helped that this particular horse, a very old mare named “Lotte”, was probably a little hard of hearing. And her sense of vision might not have been the best either. She probably just wanted to get it over with so she could return to the warm stable.
When the procession arrived at the church square and came to a halt, I was to stand next to the horse and hold its tack so it would be calm and not fidget around.
The old man who played St. Martin has passed on many years ago, and so has Lotte. I don’t know if someone has replaced them (and me), but I sure hope so.
Nov. 10, 2009
DENIALISM - HOW IRRATIONAL THINKING HINDERS SICIENTIFIC PROGRESS, HARMS THE PLANET, AND THREATENS OUR LIVES - by Michael Specter
Hardcover: 304 pages
Here is the review in the New York Times.
Nov. 3, 2009
SOME NOTES ON HALLOWEEN
There is some controversy about the history of Halloween. The word itself has been in the literature since 1556. It has its origins in the Scottish variant of All Hollows Even.
What we know is that its roots go back the Celtic festival of Samhain, which denoted the end of harvest and the beginning of the "darker half" of the year.
Some historians believe that Samhain related to death because this was the time when "nature begins to die" as the cold Nordic winter approaches. Indeed, Gaels (and other peoples) believed that at this time of the year, the divide between this world and the otherworld wore thin in Samhain or an-t-Samhuinn (the Irish-Gaelic and Scottish-Gaelic words for November). It thus allowed the dead to reach back and come in contact with the living, and vice versa.
However, I believe that the connection to the dead came from a desire to share the harvest with ancestral spirits, much like we still see this in Asian cultures. I think that the ancient custom of dressing up in costumes also originated in this desire. The ancient Gaelic Samhain custom of wearing veils, body paints, masks and costumes by the shine of bonfires may have been an attempt to placate and copy the spirits of the dead.
When the Romans pushed into the North of Europe and conquered part of the British Isles in 43 BC, the native ancient festival led by the native Druids was probably observed by the Romans. (These guys were always looking for opportunities to party).
Incidentally, the Roman culture also had two festivals around this time of the year: Feralia, a commemoration of the passing of the dead, and a day to honor Pomona, a goddess of fruit and trees. In Rome, everything intermingled. Later, when Christianity spread through the Roman empire, the ancient customs were integrated into All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
The modern incarnation of Halloween -- with all its commerce and kitsch -- is certainly American. And the pumpkin lanterns? Celtic origins, but with a twist. The European ancestors carved lanterns from turnips. Maybe it was done to ward off evil spirits, or maybe just because it looked cool. In America (where else?), the much bigger pumpkin seemed to be a better choice.
And one more thing: "dressing up" as cowboys, milkmen or walking lollipops has nothing to do with Halloween. This very recent phenomenon came from Carnival -- an entirely different festival in the spring. Trouble is: the bright and airy "fun" festival of Carnival is practically the opposite of the dark and gloomy Halloween. So if these two are intermingled, the meaning of both gets lost.
"Marta" Photo: Reinhard Kargl
October 29, 2009
WHY PRODUCING SWINE FLU VACCINE TAKES SO LONG
A few days ago, the WHO announced that the current "swine flu" has so far killed 5,000 people around the world. Considering that millions have been infected, this number does not sound very high. However, the big concern is that this virus strain could mutate into something a lot deadlier. In 1918, a more lethal strain of H1N1 killed between 60 and 100 million people around the world. If anything like this happens, we could never produce enough vaccine quickly enough. Why not?
Because the technology used to produce flu (and many other) vaccines has not changed much since the 1940s. And the pharmaceutical industry is not very inclined to invest time and money into improving their methods, given that there is already a lot of public hysteria about the risks of "untested" vaccines. It is one of these examples where scientific ignorance endangers all of us and could potentially cost millions of lives.
Bob Graham and Jim Talent, two former U.S. Senators who are the chairman and vice chairman of a commission set up by U.S. Congres to thwart weapons of mass destruction, have commissioned this very entertaining video to illustrate the situation.
NEWSPAPERS ARE FAR FROM DEAD - REPORTS OF DEATH ARE GREATLY EXAGGERATED
For a couple of years, some opinion leaders have been gushing that “newspapers are a dying breed”, “because readers are shifting to online outlets”. I say: That’s a gross exaggeration and a distortion of the truth.
Apart from the fact that the so-called online outlets are only in business because they are allowed to steal (yes, steal!) material from Old Media, while investing next to nothing into newsgathering or producing original content. The figures still have to be put in perspective.
Here are America’s four largest daily papers, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations:
Wall Street Journal (2.0 million)
Having this many guaranteed daily buyers of a product does not look so bad to me!
Next, let’s keep in mind that when print media are concerned, the true “reach” in terms of “readers” is higher than “circulation”. That’s because unlike online content, papers are often shared among several people – for example within a household, a company or even at a coffee shop.
Secondly, all the daily papers also publish their content on their own web sites. This adds global reach to an already existing product. It also gives articles a longer shelf life than the traditional one-day life span of a newspaper article.
It is very difficult to measure these factors accurately, but I believe that because of the Internet, the overall global importance and reach of newspapers is actually increasing.
What about the decline in circulation? Big deal! Newspaper circulation has fallen roughly 10% since last year. So what? Automotive industry people would do happy dances if their sales had only decreased as little as one tenth! Didn’t some brands lose half their sales? And what about real estate or the fashion industry or the music business? The truth is: everyone is suffering in this global recession.
Of course, the media industry’s problems are severe. Some of the malaise is rooted in shrinking advertising budgets and consomers saving money by reading (or not reading) online. But most of it is self-inflicted: the result of reckless industry consolidation, a failure to adopt and embrace new information technologies quickly enough, rising prices, a failure to be innovative when it makes sense and conservative with what works, the alienation of loyal readers with pointless redesigns and diminishing journalistic quality. And the alienation of experienced, professional journalists and editors who are now expected to work for a commodity, where they are expected to produce more (and shallower) content with fewer resources.
Then, we have bean counters and wall street guys (yes, the same guys who have almost ruined Hollywood and the recording industry) running business they don’t truly understand or care about.
And, my "favorite": speculation, as in looking to make unreasonable and disproportionate amounts of money via short term share price gains and benefit packages, instead of developing a long term strategy. If Wall Street investors and corporate CEOs make vastly more money than all the people who are actually engaged in producing and selling the Wall Street journal, then we should know that we will have a problem sooner or later.
I firmly believe that newspapers can compete very well if we would address the true problems instead of shifting the blame. As for “competition” from “free news outlets” on the Internet: we must remedy this too. What we need is a scheme to make large scale aggegators pay a fee to the content originator. I would favor a "click through" model, whereby a fair usage fee is paid to the copyright holder whenever a user clicks on the link, or a licensing model similar to what news agencies now offer to their subscribers. This is the only way to make global competition fair and even.
About this, Daniel Lyons wrote a great piece for Newsweek (Sept. 14, 2009 issue):
October 14, 2009
Rain has arrived in Los Angeles. It is early in the wet season for this to happen, but typhoons across the Pacific can do this for us.
After the devastating wildfires from last month, we now have to fear mudslides and more upheaval in an already struggling county. Last month’s fires, the biggest in the history of L.A. County, relentlessly burned for five weeks and destroyed an area larger than all of Chicago. Mount Wilson Observatory, the place where modern astronomy began, barely escaped the flames.
L.A. after an unusual rainfall holds special pleasures: clean and crisp air, and you can almost feel the trees smiling in this otherwise dry area.
I had to look up Gene Kelly’s iconic dance scene from the 1952 musical, Singing in the Rain.
The scene was shot at the old MGM studio lot in Culver City, an independent city in Los Angeles County. The shoot took place during the day -- under a black tarpaulin. Milk was mixed into the water to make the drops and puddles look better on film. Shooting the entire scene took only 1 1/2 days. In the late afternoon, the technicians lost water pressure when the residents of the surrounding neighborhood returned to their homes and turned on their lawn sprinklers.
Kelly was a true professional. He performed this entire choreography, from beginning to end, in a complete take. (If you watch closely, you can see the cameras following him, zooming in rather than cutting to closeups). At the time, Kelly was sick with a 103-degree fever.
In a shooting technique borrowed from studio television, several cameras were used. The entire scene has only about 10 shots. By comparison, much less skill is demanded of dancers in modern music videos. These often have as many as hundreds of cuts. Shooting this way, the choreography can be broken down into many small bits, and it does not have to be performed in its entire length. The shots are then assembled in post production, where a skilled editor can make even a mediocre dancer look like a champ.
Gene Kelly, one of the greatest Hollywood and Broadway performers, passed away from a stroke at the age of 83, on February 2, 1996 at his home in Bevery Hills. According to his wishes, his remains were cremated the same day, and no funeral was held.
September 22, 2009
DUE EAST AND WEST
Today is the beginning of fall. Why do we have four seasons and not three or five?
The reason lies in the fact that the Earth's axis is tilted. The rest is geometry. The beginning of each season on Earth is marked by one of four natural points in the solar year. (The solar year is the period the Earth takes to complete one orbit around the Sun. We can measure it by counting the number of days between the two annual equinoxes).
The autumnal equinox occurs when day and night are of nearly equal length ("equinox" is Latin for "equal night"). This is true throughout most of the world at only two times a year.
The autumnal equinox is the moment when the Sun crosses the celestial equator (the projection of Earth’s equator into space) from north to south. From the autumnal equinox and until the start of winter (winter solstice takes place around December 21), days will continue to get shorter, and the noon elevation of the Sun will decrease. This happens because the Earth's axis is tilted 231⁄2 degrees to its orbit.
The Sun will rise and set on September 22 nearly due east and west, respectively. Around the world, ancient ruins include features oriented to the rising, setting, and passage of the Sun through the sky on solstices and equinoxes. Many ancient sites suggest that ritual was an important part of observing solstices and equinoxes.
In today's world,
we often are unaware of these natural cycles, and yet, we are still as
dependent on them as the ancients once were.
September 22, 2009
BOB WOODWARD ON JOURNALISM
In this clip, Bob Woodward talks about investigative reporting and the changes in the media industry. (Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein were the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal). Woodward's lesson, in his own words: "Get your ass out of the chair".
In addition to his work at the Washington Post, Woodward has co-authored or authored 12 books. These days, he and his wife (also an author, and a writer for The New Yorker) live in the Georgetown section of Washington. Woodward is still writing and is active on the lecture circuit. His website is: http://bobwoodward.com/
Carl Bernstein, his former partner, lives in New York.
September 17, 2009
THE OLDEST PEOPLE ON EARTH
My next big magazine article deals with the oldest people on Earth. "Supercentenarians" have lived longer than 110 years. Reaching this milestone is very rare for human beings. Currently, there are only about 70 confirmed supercentenarians alive on our entire planet.
If you had a chance to meet them and ask them questions -- what would you like to know?
I'd love to get your comments! Feel free to e-mail me at <email@example.com>!
September 14, 2009
WILL CHINA BECOME A SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY LEADER?
In my astronomy circle, I hear a lot of questions about the Chinese space program. Will China become a technology leader? Will there be another "space race"?
I find it fascinating to see how our public view of Chinese economic gains have been shaped by where our media have set the focus. Our main attention has been the huge trade deficit developed nations have racked up with China. (And it is huge). But that's mostly because there are many Chinese people. And they produce many cheap goods. Lots of them.
If we look at the numbers, things quickly fall into perspective. The average Chinese person earns just $3,600 annually. (In the U.S., the average person makes 7 times as much).
China currently has an annual GDP of 7.96 trillion. But that's because there are a lot of people in China: 1.3 billion. By comparison, a comparativly small country like Germany produces an annual GDP of 2.9 trillion, with only 82 million people.
Figured per person, the average German has an ecnomic output of $35,400. The average Chinese produces only $5,900. In other words, it would take six Chinese workers to produce as much as one German worker accomplishes.
And that's only part of the story, because the biggest portion of Chinese products are low tech products that could be made anywhere -- provided that there is a plentiful supply of cheap labor, low corruption and a suitable infrastructure. These conditions are increasingly met in other South-East Asian nations, for example in Vietnam, and sure enough, many companies are already moving their production to places with even cheaper labor costs than China.
In an economy like that of Germany or Japan, the percentage of high tech products that could not simply be made elsewhere is much higher. Furthermore, high-tech products made in China (such as electronics) are typically not designed and developed, but only assembled there. Again, the key is cheap labor and cheap production costs.
This is not to say that China has not made tremendous achievements. It undoubtedly has. Considering where the country was just 50 years ago and where it is now, one cannot help but applaud. With the exception of excruciating environmental damage and a lack of sensible regulation to protect workers and consumers, China is clearly on the right economic track. But to become a true leader in science and technology, China still has a long march ahead of it.
Does this mean that China could not afford to invest in massive science and technology programs? It very well could (and should) do so. Because contrary to popular belief, even the biggest science programs cost very little -- if measured per capita. Take, for example, NASA's annual budget of about $17 billion dollars. That's just $56 per American per year, or 15 cents per day.
If China would spend an equal sum, it would translate to $13 per Chinese person. The average Chinese would be spending 0.3611% of his annual income to pay for it. And because costs are lower (since Chinese scientists earn much less than their counterparts in the West), every yuan spent would go much further than equivalent spending in the West.
So will there be another "space race"? Let's hope so! While the Chinese would have to catch up on technology by a couple of decades, we would have to figure out how to make our science programs cheaper and more efficient.
September 11, 2009
Are you paying attention when flight attendants explain safety features before taking off? Air New Zealand's media people found a way to make people watch. Voluntarily. Their approach: cast real Air NZ flight attendants and pilots and have them do their presentation wearing only body paint (and shoes).
The result? The most widely seen airline safety movie in history. It is a testimony to the power of Internet video. More than 6 million people (and counting) have watched it. Kudos for creativity in the media!
September 8, 2009
ANOTHER CRAZY DAY IN LOS ANGELES
Source: Los Angeles Times
September 4, 2009
NEW BUSINESS NUMBER
Please make a note of my new business phone number:
There are many new features. To weed out marketing calls, the system may ask for your name before connecting a call. Incoming calls may be routed as needed, and I will be able to make calls from several phones or directly from the computer. If I am away from the phone and you leave a voice message in English, it may be electronically transcribed into text and sent to me by e-mail.
I am excited about testing these technologies and hope they will work out.
By the way, you can always find my updated contact information by typing my name and "contact" into Google or any other global search engine.
August 19, 2009
MADE IN MEXICO
Photo: Natalie Fong
August 7, 2009
THE HUNT FOR EARTH-LIKE PLANETS IS ON
As of today, we know about 208 "exoplanets" (planets revolving around stars other than our Sun). More and more are discovered all the time. We can now surmise that most stars are surrounded by planets.
So far, we only had the ability to detect very massive planets. And our examinations are limited to stars very close to our own Sun. All the planets we have detected so far are rather extreme worlds. Most likely, they could not harbor life as we understand it.
NASA's Kepler Space Telescope (KST) is now operational. With it, the search for habitable planets is beginning in earnest. In its first 10 days of observations, the KST has already detected an atmosphere around a Jupiter-like planet in a solar system about 1000 light years away.
NASA's announcement is here.
During the next three years of Kepler's primary mission, we may well see what would be one of the most exciting discoveries of our lifetime: concrete evidence of earth-like, water bearing planets in the galactic vicinity of our solar system. KST is capable of detecting planet in a star's "habitable zone", where it is not too hot to boil off water and not too cold to freeze it to ice.
Calculations show that if they exist, Kepler could detect about 50 planets the size of Earth, and a lot more larger ones.
A great overview about KST is here.
KST's official Home Page: Kepler Space Telescope
Oh, and by the way: all the money spent on KST (latest projections: $600 million) amount to less than a quarter of the extended "cash for clunkers" program. And unlike money we spend on new cars at the expense of those of us who choose to drive old cars, KST's costs are spent here in America. The bulk of it goes to leading science institutions and aerospace companies. In other words, the money is spent to improve America's science and engineering infrastructure and know-how. How's this for an economic stimulus?
August 6, 2009
July 31, 2009
ANIMATION SHOWS ONE DAY OF WORLDWIDE AIR TRAFFIC
This animation, made at the Züricher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften (College for Applied Sciences in Zurich) shows 24 hours of air traffic compressed to one minute. Each yellow dot represents a passenger plane. Note the night (represented as a shadow) moving over the Earth.
July 27, 2009
OBSERVING IMPACT SITE ON JUPITER
Last Saturday, friends and I went to a dark sky site in the Santa Monica Mountains, where we set up telescopes. Although there was some moist air coming in from the ocean, we still had decent conditions, considering that we were still relatively close to a populated area and its light pollution. Among the usual constellations, we observed some shooting stars streaking across the sky, and a couple of satellites in orbit.
But I was mostly interested in catching a glimpse of the new impact site on Jupiter.
July 21, 2009
TV COMMERCIAL; APOLLO ANNIVERSARY; WALTER CRONKITE DIES
I was busy producing and directing a TV commercial and web video and did not have any time to update this page.
One of my favorite quotes on this topic is Werher von Braun's answer to a reporter's question: in view of all our problems on Earth, was it worth "spending all this money on the moon"? Von Braun pointed out that he was not spending any money on the moon at all, but right here on on Earth.
Today, Americans are forking over $35 billion annually for cigarettes. And about $8 billion annually for bottled water. By comparison: NASA's annual budget is around $17.6 billion.
There was sad news as well: On July 17, Walter Cronkite passed away at the age of 93. I will not even attempt to list his achievements, as others have done so much better than I could.
Cronkite, together with his colleague Edward R. Murrow were a league of their own -- the epitomy of broadcast journalism. Cronkite wasn't a pencil pusher reporting from a plush office. In World War II, he rode on a B-17 bomber on raids over Germany. He landed on a glider with the 101st Airborne to cover the Battle of the Bulge. Cronkite was at the Nuremberg trials and on the front lines in Vietnam. The Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the Beatles, the space program -- Cronkite reported the 20th Century. He liked to do so from wherever things were happening.
When he retired (or was ousted, as some say), television journalism never was the same.
Cronkite's aim as a journalist, he was reported to say, was to give people what they needed to know -- and not just what they wanted to hear.
Walter Cronkite in his office, 1971. Photo: Life Magazine
July 17, 2009
RIP JULIUS SHULMAN (Oct. 10, 1910 Brooklyn, New York - July 15, 2009, Los Angeles)
Photo: Case Study House No. 22 ("Stahl House") 1635 Woods Drive - Above Sunset/Laurel Canyon; Julius Shulman 1960
July 16, 2009
BEHOLD THE MORGAN AERO SUPERSPORTS
Peferring vintage/classic styles, I am rarely excited or attracted by any new or modern car. There are very few exceptions.
Here is the 2010 model of the Morgan Aero Supersport. Hand made by a small English company founded in 1909! This is the only car in the world still built on a wood frame. (Yes, you read right! Wood has a surprising strengh-to-weight ratio). The exterior body consists of aircraft aluminum. This combination gives the car excellent rigidity at low curb weight. (The car's performance leaves nothing to be desired).
Only 600 will be made, and only 50 are slated for the U.S. Want one? Count your money first. The down payment is £ 25,000 (that's $ 41,000 American). Your total will be £ 110,000 ($ 181,000 American). Without tax. Oh, and since the company only has fewer than 150 employees, it will take a few years before they've finished building yours.
There's a Morgan dealership where I live, but I'm scared to walk into the showroom. It would be sensory overload!
The company's web site: Morgan Motor Co.
July 13, 2009
FALCON 1 LAUNCH SUCCESS
A few minutes ago, Los Angeles (Hawthorne) firm SpaceX became the first privately funded firm to launch a commercial satellite on its own rocket. The launch took place from Omelek Island in the Pacific after a brief delay due to rain at the launch site.
Falcon 1 lifted off as planned and rapidly cleared the launch pad. The vehicle reached the speed of sound (Mach 1) about 60 seconds after liftoff. It was at an altitude of 15 km after 1' 30". The first stage separated as planned at 2' 44". Shortly afterwards, the shroud protecting the payload was jettisoned. The second stage took the engine to a parking orbit and shut down at about 9' 50", where the vehicle remains at this moment.
There is still one hurdle: the second stage engine must be re-lit about 38 minutes after the initial shut-down. This second burn will deliver the payload, a small Malaysian satellite, into its final orbit. This second burn is critical. If it is not successful, the satellite will be in orbit, but on the wrong trajectory.
SpaceX is a relatively small firm which promises to orbit payloads for a fraction of the cost charged by the existing aerospace giants and consortiums.
So far, so good. Last Friday, I was discussing the launch with an engieer at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. He assured me that nobody there was worried, but looking forward to the competition.
If the SpaceX can deliver anywhere near their lofty goals, then it is clear that space launch prices will fall dramatically, which would be welcomed by the science community as well as the commercial satellite service providers.
SpaceX brings a much needed boost (please note the clever word play!)
to the Southern Calfornia aerospace industry.
July 10, 2009
IF CALIFORNIANS WERE PHYSICALLY FIT: NO BUDGET CRISIS
Now eat this! We could completely fix our serious budget crisis if all Californians would eat healthfully, get off their butts and simply get in shape.
A new study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy tallied up the costs of obesity, bad food and the lack of exercise in California.
The study found the total annual estimated cost to California for overweight, obesity and physical inactivity was $41.2 billion – $21.0 billion for overweight and obesity, and $20.2 billion for physical inactivity. Health care costs totaled $20.7 billion and lost productivity costs reached $20.4 billion. Health care costs associated with overweight and obesity were $12.8 billion while health care costs associated with physical inactivity totaled $7.9 billion. Finally, lost productivity costs associated with overweight and obesity were $8.2 billion, and lost productivity costs associated with physical inactivity were $12.3 billion.
The study did not consider smoking, which after obesity is the second largest health care expense. Nearly 50% of all health care costs in the US are associated with obesity and smoking.
Let's face the truth: as a society, we have become decadent and degenerate. In our collective state, we are no longer fit for survival -- at least not financially.
Source: The Economic Costs of Overweight, Obesity and Physical Inactivity Among California Adults - 2006
July 10, 2009
I simply love this shot, taken today. It shows Space Shuttle Endeavour sitting Launch Pad 39a at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as it is being readied for tomorrow's STS-127 launch. You can follow NASA's Flickr photostream here.
July 1, 2009
NEW NEWS SERVICE COVERING CALIFORNIA ASTRONOMY AND SPACE EVENTS
I am launching California Sky, a Twitter news feed service which will cover local astronomy news, events, night sky and space flight information related to California.
Each news item consists of a maximum of 140 characters so they can be received as text messages on PDAs and cellphones. News items do not contain images, but may contain links leading to sites or images on the web.
There is no cost and no advertising, and your privacy is protected.
You can see the newsfeed and follow it by going to the site:
If you have a Twitter account, you can simply sign in and click "Follow".
June 25, 2009
RAPID DIGITAL MEDIA RESPONSE TO MICHAEL JACKSON DEATH
It was interesting to see the rapid Internet response, and the social media news spread pattern following the death of Michael Jackson this afternoon.
Working at my office, I while listening to a radio report about Farrah Fawcett (will I ever learn to spell her name right?), who today died at St. Johns Medical Center just down the street. This also was a major story here. Within seconds of Jackson's hospital admission being announced on the radio, I checked Facebook and saw that posts were already filling the screen. Reports on Twitter were already going out as well. I learned about the actual death from Tweets, which had been reposted on Facebook. The L.A. Times was extremely quick also and had updates on their site every few minutes.
Jackson's wikipedia page was overloaded within minutes. The L.A. Times home page seemed to exerpience some overload issue as well. I then checked Spiegel.de (Der Spiegel is a very reputable German weekly) and found that they were already on the story as well. Amazing!
As I am writing this, UCLA Medical Center (just up the street from here) has not even made the "official" death announcement yet. We are all waiting for the press conference.
There's not even a point for me to grab a camera and go up to UCLA. All I could achieve is some ground pix of the crowd gathering there. (There are of course helicopters doing aerial shots -- I can hear them from here). But the time I arrive, there will already be thousands of images and footage in the newsstream.
Looks like Twitter and Facebook (both of which allow posts from mobile phones and wirless devices) are now effectively breaking news stories. In this case at least, they have beaten all traditional media in terms of speed.
June 20, 2009
KIDNAPPED REPORTERS ESCAPE TALIBAN
After being held for 7 months in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, reporters David Rohde and Tahir Ludin escaped their Taliban captors after climbing over a wall. Their driver, Asadullah Mangal, did not manage to make the escape as well.
The two escaped men found a Pakistani amry scout, who took them to a Pakistani base. They are being flown to the U.S. Bagram base in Afghanistan.
Rohde, who had worked for the New York Times, was in Afghanistan to work on a book. The New York Times said in a statement that they kept quiet about the abduction to avoid bringing more danger to the men. The statement asserts that the abductors' demands were not met.
I'm happy for Rohde and Ludin. Now they've got something to write about.
June 18, 2009
RAGE IN IRAN
I usually do not comment on current political events here, but I am staring with amazement and awe at the images from Iran flashing across my screen.
As a journalist, I regret not being in Tehran right now. Instead, I am sitting in my much too comfortable, airconditioned office in Los Angeles, playing with pencils.
One of my Iranian friends managed to sum it all up in one simple, fitting word, posted on his Facebook profile: "RAGE!"
This has been going on since last week. So far, the protests are not running out of steam as I had expected. They seem to be spreading.
From the outside, it is difficult to assess the true magnitude for now. Foreign journalists and independent observers have been kicked out, and the Iranian government has managed to shut down many web sites and telecom traffic in and out of the country. Interestingly, they overlooked the power of Twitter.com. This service has proven unexpected resiliency, because it is possible to post to it from multiple source (such as cellphones, e-mail and the worldwide web).
By the way, you can now also follow me on Twitter.
June 17, 2009
HEALTH INSURNANCE MADNESS
I am looking at my last (private) health insurnace bill. I had no medical expenses or doctor's visits, so this is just a routine invoice. Still, it consists of no less than seven pages, plus a return envelope in which I am supposed to send the payment.
The invoice itself is three pages long. The instructions on how to read the invoice take up an additional two pages. Also included is a two-page notice (in 13 languages) informing me that I am entitled to make use of a free interpreter if I do not speak sufficient English. (Are my language skills really that bad?)
Efficient? You be the judge.
Insurance premium costs have been rising dramatically. In the last few years, my personal health insurance premiums have been rising by an average of 20% annually, even though I had no health expenses or claims, and I have been in exceptionally good health. In addition to raising my monthly premium, the insurance carrier also reduced and eliminated covered services. (Some services were expanded: I think I can get a sex change operation now, and fertility drugs to go with that).
No wonder that more and more Americans are no longer able to afford this madness. We already have 47 millions Americans without any health insurance. In Los Angeles, the number of uninsured people is said to approach 40% of the total population. By federal law, hospital emergency rooms must treat everyone, regardless of whether someone has insurance, and regardless of whether someone has the legal right to be in the U.S. or not. Of course, if hospitals cannot collect from an emergency room patient, they just defray the costs and bill the insurance companies. This way, the costs are passed on those of us who (still) have insurance policies.
It is complete madness.
There really isn't a lack of money, for we are spending a higher percentage of our GDP on health care than all other industrialized nations. And yet, our life expectancy and other parameters indicating our combined overall health are nothing to be proud of by comparison to other developed nations.
June 13, 2009
AN ERA ENDS AS ANALOG TELEVISION STOPS IN U.S.
The end for analog
TV in the U.S. came this week, when the conversion to all-digital TV broadcasting
was completed. On Friday, all high powered analog TV transmitters fell
silent. Only very low-powered “neighborhood” broadcasters
are still allowed to send analog signals.
Overall, the federal government still nets a huge amount of money, because the now vacated analog frequencies have been sold to the telecommunications industry for other uses.
Personally, I was annoyed with the whole idea from the beginning. Analog TV was just fine for my purposes, and I certainly wasn’t willing to spend a dime for the (put your favorite expletive here) reality shows, infotainment, advertising and dumb soaps that make up most of over-the-air network TV these days. Nor am I a proponent of celebrity anchors “performing the news” or of “sports” such as the “ultimate fighting championship”. (Our signals actually extend far into outer space. I am often wondering how extraterrestrials would assess our human civilization if they would catch, say, an episode of the world wrestling federation). But I’m digressing.
Although digital broadcasting (which is also gaining momentum in radio) offers theoretically better image and sound quality, the reality is that one must receive a clear and strong signal. In digital broadcasting, there is no such thing as “poor reception”. Either one gets a picture (or sound) – or one doesn’t. Ghosts (from reflected signals) or static (from interference) weaken the quality of analog pictures and sound, but it is still possible to see or hear the broadcast even if the signal is somewhat degraded. By contrast, insufficiently received digital signals result in total dropouts even with the best receiver technology. This problem also exists with cellphones. Plus, I hate it if a technology is forced upon me.
Of course, my personal DTV conversion project ended up being labor intensive, because I have a tendency to complicate things. First, I spent hours researching and comparing test results of all available converter boxes. Of course, the receiver I set my mind on (an excellent one, according to tests) was sold out everywhere. I called all over the U.S. and was about to call the head of LG in Korea to complain while the deadline was looming closer and closer. All in vain. In the end, I had to settle for my second choice. At least, this model was available at a local store.
Then, it took me about an hour of crawling behind my elaborate TV setup to undo and reroute all kinds of cables and connectors. Then, my old VCR wasn’t working and I had to figure out why.
I’m still grumbling, but I have to admit: now that I’ve got it all sorted out, I like what I see. My digital picture looks exceptionally good. And I get four or five times as many channels as before. (The result is that I’ve now become addicted to watching old Star Trek and Twilight Zone reruns, which I could not get before).
Sill, I still have a few things to grumble about: channel hopping is very hard now. The digital receiver takes a few seconds to switch to another channels. (What? Does this mean I now have to watch those commercials?) And I’ve now got yet another remote control (now six!) to misplace.
I wonder what effect DTV will have on the broadcasting industry -- especially on public broadcasting. One thing I take issue with is the long term sell-off of frequencies orchestrated by the FCC. Instead, I would have wanted annual lease agreements for the right to broadcast on any particular frequency. These fees could have been waived for public broadcasters, emergency, government and military communications. A fixed portion of the annual leasing fees paid by commercial broadcasters and telecom providers could be granted to public broadcasters and program producers to become a part of their guaranteed, annual budget. Unfortunately, the route taken missed a chance improve programming quality.
June 3 , 2009
MY ARTICLE NOW IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE
June 3 , 2009
CHINA CENSORING THE INTERNET
China has its own way of commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Massacre. Chinese authorities are blocking Chinese computer users from accessing Microsoft's new search engine Bing.com, the Hotmail service, Live.com and other web sites.
The media rights group Reporters Without Borders issued this statement:
Without Borders is outraged by the blockage of a dozen websites such
as Twitter, YouTube, Bing, Flickr, Opera, Live, Wordpress and Blogger
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) said it had received at least three reports of authorities blocking reporting at Tiananmen Square and intimidating journalists or their sources.
Interstingly, my blog is receiving some hits from China. Does this mean that I will now be blocked for mentioning the above? I wish I knew! If you are located in China and can read this, please shoot me an e-mail!
May 22, 2009
PAYING LAST RESPECTS
Photo: Reinhard Kargl
May 13, 2009
AEBLESKIVER STORY IN LOS ANGELES TIMES
My last posting was a gloomy, gory and depressing one. So here's something sweet.
I normally write about science and technology. Don’t get me wrong: I love what I do! But I have many other interests, and it’s always nice to do something a little different. Like today’s story in the Los Angeles Times Food Section. It is often funny how these articles get started.
I’ve always had a fascination with food and culinary arts. My kitchen holds a nice set of gadgets that would satisfy even a professional chef. For instance, I like traditional cast iron pans. In particular, I'm a fan of an old American company called Lodge Manufacturing Co.
A few months ago I was browsing their catalog while having Sunday breakfast. And I came across a strange looking cast iron pan with half-spherical molds. “Don’t ask,” the catalog said. “It’s a Danish thing”. Don’t ask? Never tell that to a journalist!
More puzzling was the fact that even my breakfast guest (who happens to be a professional pastry chef) had never seen a pan like that. And thus began a mild obsession with this “Danish thing” called “aebleskivers”. The research took the two of us to Solvang, where we learned everything there is to know about this Danish dish and its 300 years of tradition.
You can read the result of our efforts in today's Los Angeles Times. Since this is the web, I’m including a link here, but please do me a favor:
Buy the newspaper!
Better yet, subscribe to it. Believe me, a printed newspaper is one of the best deals that can be had today. Reading the paper online will not give you the same experience. Plus, the revenue newspapers generate from their web sites amounts to less than 10% of their total income. In other words, without subscriptions and newsstand sales, most of the journalistic content published by newspapers would disappear!
All About Aebleskivers (Los Angeles Times Food Section, May 13, 2009)
Photo: Reinhard Kargl
May 12, 2009
A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH
Late last evening, on my way home from the office, death made another appearance in my life. It wasn’t my first close-up encounter with the end. Only this time it was nobody I knew personally.
Traveling on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles, I was on my way home from work in the late evening. There is always dense traffic here, even at half past 9 in the evening. I noticed an obstruction immediately ahead.
A pedestrian had been hit while trying to cross the street. I did not see the impact. Only the mangled body on the ground, laying on its back, almost in the middle of the road.
Cars coming to a halt. A crowd gathering. Puzzled silence. Passing drivers. Confusion. Hesitant people afraid to approach -- just gawking from a safe distance.
Standing next to the body, a frazzled young man. The driver of the car that had hit the man, talking on his cellphone with the emergency dispatcher, describing the scene and requesting an ambulance. As the seconds are ticking by, the full impact of the situation is beginning to sink in.
Blood gushing from a wound at the back of the man’s head. The right leg twisted in some grotesque angle. A bloody mass where the lower jaw had been, a now toothless oral cavity turned into an eerily open, gaping round hole. A puddle of blood forming around the back of his head and very slowly spreading out on the asphalt.
The victim, and old man, looks unkempt. Although it is difficult to tell, he seems to be one of the transients who frequent the area. Unfortunately, it is a common occurrence that one of them, intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, suddenly ventures out into the street.
We need that ambulance. Now.
A few of us kneeling next to the victim, trying to figure out how to help. Turning him might kill him if there is a neck injury. Not turning him may expose him to suffocation from blood running down his throat and clogging his airways.
We discuss. The emergency operator is advising against moving the man. But there is little breathing. He is moving slightly, but he can’t speak.
We need an oxygen mask. We need a neck brace. We need latex gloves. Where is that ambulance?
We are feeling helpless. A girl is trying to assure the man that everything is okay; that he will be fine. (Why do people say things like that?)
The man’s pupils are showing no reaction to the beam of my flashlight. I don’t know if he is hearing anything. A few of us are crowding around him, kneeling on the warm asphalt. We disagree on whether there is a pulse or not. Some bystanders are shielding us from traffic.
Someone claiming to be a doctor appears. Even he realizes that there is not much to be done without equipment. There is a silent agreement that forced rescue breathing without a mask, into the bloody mess, is not on option. But after a moment of contemplation, the doctor decides to begin forceful chest compressions. I am glad that I am not the one who is called upon to decide whether performing chest compressions might reverse a cardiac arrest, or kill someone with a spinal cord injury.
Although only seven
minutes have passed since the first emergency call, it seems like an eternity
has gone by before we finally hear the sound of sirens. A few blocks away
at first, but reassuringly getting stronger and louder.
The accident driver is now leaning against his black Audi, comforted by his girlfriend who has her arms tightly wrapped around him. She is white like a ghost, but composed. Half of his car’s windshield is smashed. Blood and hair are stuck to the shards of glass. He gasps as the firefighters drape a white sheet over the victim’s body. It is over. There is no help.
The police arrive, begin to interview people and take down notes. Everyone is calm and collected and goes about their business as if it was just another evening in L.A. Now that the professionals have taken over, there is nothing else to be done but go home.
This morning, I passed by the accident site on my way back to work. I recognized a stain of dried blood in the middle of the road, marking the square foot of ground where the victim’s head had been – the exact place of death. Every few seconds, car tires rolled right through it.
In the evening, I passed the spot again. By that time, it was almost gone, dispersed by traffic, leaving no trace of the human being who had taken his last breath on this very spot the evening before. It was just another evening in L.A. Millions of people trying to go somewhere. Just that sometimes, they never arrive.
May 8, 2009
SWINE FLU: MEXICO'S APPROACH APPEARS TO BE WORKING
It seems to me that American and European politicians, terrified of imploding an already instable world economy, would rather choke than admit that the drastic Mexican response to the swine flu epidemic seems to be working.
For five days, Mexico was pretty much under a lockdown. All restaurants, schools, public buildings and much of Mexico’s public transportation system were shut down. Public events were canceled, and all Mexicans were asked not to leave home or travel anywhere unless absolutely necessary.
It is true that such efforts cannot contain the virus. But they clearly bought time for more research by remarkably slowing down the speed of virus propagation.
A couple of remarkable facts: unlike the “regular” flu strains, this H1N1 strain seems to infect more young and healthy people. Secondly: the chances of survival are higher than initially thought. It seems certainly much less deadly than SARS, which killed 50% of its victims. Third: the virus’ “reproductive number” (a numerical measure for how contagious it is) seems to be lower than originally assumed.
So can we breathe a sigh of relief?
We should not. First, the crisis has demonstrated how quickly even a moderately contagious virus can spread around the world. Within days, it was found in all corners of the world – a fact that will not escape the attention of those intent on developing biological weapons, which includes terrorists. Imagine what would happen with a far more contagious virus!
Secondly, the virus is still out and about. In the U.S. alone, we currently have 1,630 cases spread over 43 states, according to today’s CDC data.
The next question is now how the virus will adapt and change. Are we seeing parallels to the beginnings of terrible flu epidemic of 1918? After a first attack, the virus seemed to be in retreat. But then, it came back a few months later, and it was way more lethal than before.
What is alarming is that there has been at least one (yet unconfirmed) report that some pigs have now been infected by humans. By jumping from host species to host species, a virus may acquire DNA from strains typical for each host. Such gene-swapping is a reason for the virus’ constant changes, which can not only make it more dangerous, but also harder to defend against with vaccines or medications.
April 30, 2009
WHAT SHOULD WE CALL IT?
I’m not sure who first adopted the term “Swine Flu”. The name arose because the virus is believed to have jumped from pigs to humans. But the term is not scientifically accurate, because there are many different flu viruses specific to pigs – and most do not infect humans.
Unfortunately, the term misled many people into thinking they would not be in danger unless they ate pork or came in contact with pigs. (Unfortunately, that’s false).
In short order, the pig industry was up in arms. Pork producers sure didn’t want to be associated with the disease and they didn’t like the attention. (I have no sympathy for them, because industrial farming practices are at the root of the problem).
And in Israel, where pigs are viewed as unkosher, the word “swine” is a word to be avoided. Not wanting to offend anyone with “dirty words”, Israeli media used the term “Mexican Flu”. Of course, this offended Mexicans, who launched diplomatic protests. So some Israeli media now switched to “South American Flu”.
Bowing to pressure, members of the U.S. government have increasingly started to refer to the virus as “H1N1”. Again, that’s not biologically accurate. “H1N1” also is a group of flu viruses. Some are very nasty: it is believed that a strain of H1N1 virus caused the terrible flu pandemic in 1918 and killed 50 – 100 million people. Most other viruses from the H1N1 group are more benign: it is estimated that half of all flu cases in recent years were caused by H1N1 strains.
So here comes the latest suggestion: “Influenza A, H1N1”. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily, does it?
April 30, 2009
SWINE FLU REACHES CALIFORNIA
The most talked about subject in California is no longer the lousy economy. Now we have something new and even scarier: swine flu.
Today, Mexico City was practically shut down. Public venues, restaurants, museums and schools were closed. Because of California’s immense traffic to and from Mexico (where the virus originated) we are bound the first and most affected place in North America.
If things get really bad, we will be the test bed for what will soon thereafter happen in the rest of the world.
Right now, there are many perplexing questions.
Why is it that the virus seems to be deadlier in Mexico than it has been here? (Mexico so far has had 250 “official” deaths. But since it takes several days and complex genetic testing to achieve a confirmation, this figure can be presumed to be a gross understatement).
Here in the U.S., we had one confirmed fatality so far. This was a child who was brought in from Mexico. Could it be that the virus is more fatal for the Latino population? How could that be?
Secondly: preliminary investigations have shown that the virus contains components from no less than four strains. Two of them normally infect only pigs, one infects only birds and one infects only humans. Can nature create a virus by combining traits from all four? And if so, what circumstances led to this combination?
April 27, 2009
FRANKIE MANNING PASSES AWAY IN NEW YORK
I can't even begin to explain. The ways in which Frankie Manning has influenced my personal life and my professional activities as a producer are too complex and varied to do justice here.
For years, we have all known that this day would eventually come. And we have wondered what it would be like.
Well, here it is. The last dance.
More on Frankie Manning:
Saberi's attorney, Abdul-Samad Khorramshahi, says he was barely able to see her before the trial, which concluded last week. He has not been given a chance to review all evidence against his client or ensure a fair trial for her.
Last week, the Iranian court sentenced Saberi to 8 years in prison. Although Mr. Khorramshahi is planning to appeal, it has become clear that his client will remain imprisoned for a long time.
I am appalled by the way this trial was conducted, and by the fact that Saberi was jailed in the first place. (In the U.S., she would have been free on bail and able to work on her defense).
It is quite obvious that the Iranian government is using Saberi as a political pawn, a bargaining chip in its strained and difficult relationship with the United States.
This case illustrates the terrible flaws in our own policies from the Bush era.
How can we now go point our fingers at governments that do not guarantee a defendant's right to a free, impartial trial in plain view of the public and the press, the right to legal representation, full access of lawyers to their clients, and the right of the accused to see all evidence against them?
Although the Iranian justice system cannot be compared to that of the U.S., the rest of the world will be quick to point out that in similar cases of importance to "national security", not even the United States, with its grand Constitution and legal tradition, guarantees these rights to defendants accused of endangering its own "national security".
The following web site was set up by volunteers.
April 7, 2009
WHY BEING A JOURNALIST IS FUN
Sure, we have dull days. But we usually don't go long without some amusement. When reporters dialed into a conference call with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and national security adviser Jim Jones, they were treated to the following message:
“Do you have any hidden desires? If you feel like getting nasty, then you came to the right place.”
As it turned out, a staffer had mistyped and accidentally given a phone sex number to reporters. The gaffe was reported by Newsweek in the April 13, 2009 issue.
April 1 , 2009
GENETIC MUTATION PREVENTS KITTENS FROM GROWING UP
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have reportedly identified a gene which regulates the growing-up process in cats. When the gene is knocked out, kittens simply do not grow into adult cats but remain in a perpetually juvenile state. They visually look like kittens and keep behaving like kittens during their entire life. Because of a lack of data at this point, their total life expectancy is unknown.
University of Wisconsin / Getty Images
The university has applied for a patent. A commercial company, which has not been identified yet, will bring the genetically engineered kittens to market. Pricing will begin at $10,000.
Dr. Tensing Funkhauser, who lead the research team, says: “Once born, the kitten grows normally up to a designated point picked out by the buyer from a range of two weeks to three months old. If an eight week old kitten is ideal for you, you can do that. If you want a 3 week old kitten that you have to feed from a bottle its entire life, you can do that too.”
Dr. Funkhauser commented: “It is the dawn of a new age. With our fairly successful trials thus far, we believe this will only be the beginning of what lies ahead in terms of purposefully arresting external physical development.”
This story was first reported by Charles W. Bryant for the web site, howstuffworks.com.
I hope you are enjoying this very special day.
March 28, 2009
LIGHTS OUT TONIGHT
I will be going dark tonight.
At 8:30 pm in any time zone around the world, individuals, organizations, businesses and even some cities are turning off or reducing indoor and outdoor lighting for 60 minutes.
"Earth Hour" started as a grassroots idea a few years ago (presumably in California and Australia). It now seems to be spreading quickly around the globe. This year, even China will be officially participating.
The purpose? To raise awareness of our global energy consumption -- much of which is just useless waste. Personally, I doubt that this will have much impact on total energy use. But I love the idea for another reason.
In all industrialized countries, gleaming lights from urban sprawls have robbed more then 90% of our populations of the night sky's beauty. What should be a deep, velvety black is just a dirty, yellowish haze.
Many people have never seen the entire sky filled with stars, with the Milky Way's faint band spreading from horizon to horizon. (I assure you that once you have beheld this sight, you will never think of your life and your own importance in quite the same way).
Earthhour.org has live images and reports from cities around the world.
National Geographic Magazine had a great article on light pollution last year. The online version is here.
The International Dark-Sky Association is dedicated to spreading awareness of light pollution.
March 26, 2009
THE RIGHT PLACE AND TIME
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be “in the right place at the right time”. Somehow I always seem to think that I’m neither.
I am thoroughly transfixed by many of the technologies we have today. I believe (and hope) that the Internet will completely transform mankind for the better, even more so than the printing press. I am grateful for the advances in medicine, astronomy and many other areas. These are most exciting times to experience. On the other hand, life has become much more complicated, hectic, expensive and distracting from what is really important: personal values and human relationships.
I often wished I had a time machine allowing me to experience the past and the future. Alas, we can’t pick "our" time, and often our choice of place is limited as well. It mainly comes down to a matter of luck – of lack thereof.
Take Tsutomu Yamaguchi, for example. On August 6, 1945 he was in Hiroshima on a business trip when the first atomic bomb exploded. He suffered serious burns but escaped the smoldering, radioactive ruins. Mr. Yamaguchi made it back to his hometown Nagasaki – just in time for the second nuclear explosion on August 9, 1945.
Miraculously, Mr. Yamaguchi also survived the Nagasaki explosion. He is still alive today and 93 years old.
March 19, 2009
I have not had an opportunity to update this blog lately, because all my time was taken up with a book translation project. I missed some interesting topics:
Stephen Hawking’s lecture here at Caltech.
California's "octo-mom". With the addition of her recent octuplets, the woman now has 14 kids. She has drawn welfare payments, has no job, and plans to raise the herd without a dad. All 14 children were conceived by in-vitro fertilization. At some point we need to ask ourselves when science is going too far in providing this method of conception. Does everyone have the right to employ artificial conception without any restriction? Does society have a right to put limits on procreation? At what point do we need to, if we want to survive as a species?
Then there was the most regrettable (and troublesome) launch failure of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which took place on February 24 at Vandenburg Air Force Base here in California. And some good news, such as the picture-perfect launch (March 6) of the Kepler space telescope from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The loss of OCO is a major bummer. It was designed to collect extremely important data for a better understanding of the global warming phenomenon. OCO would have delivered highly accurate measurements of the distribution of carbon dioxide, its originators and sinks. There are Japanese and European spacecraft which might provide some of the same data. But their measurements will not be as accurate, and many pieces of the puzzle will be missing.
I am excited about Kepler. It is the first instrument we have available for the possible imaging of earth-like planets orbiting other stars. Personally, I think that the odds of their existence is very high. My feeling is that one day we might find that the universe is full of other worlds not unlike our Earth. We may come to the realization that we were myoptic fools to believe for so long that the human species was anything particularly unique or even special. Kepler is the first step, but it may be years before we see the first results.
January 29, 2009
January 20, 2009
Much has been said and written about the special significance of today’s presidential inauguration in Washington D.C., and of the magnitude of expectations coming with it.
The general mood in America is hard to describe in a few words. But I think the following figures are telling: The 2005 inauguration (George W. Bush’s second term) was attended by 400,000 spectators. Today’s inauguration of Barack Obama was attended by almost 1,9 million who crowded the Mall and nearby side streets. All this depite freezing temperatures.
The BBC's site has the full video and text of President Obama's inauguration address.
January 18, 2009
I have a new favorite word: “snarge”.
Bird strikes are a serious problem in aviation. The term is actually a misnomer, because birds don’t strike airplanes. Rather, it is the other way around. Either way, such collisions are not just deadly for the birds. Especially dangerous during takeoffs and landings, they have caused many civilian and military aircraft to crash. Birds may even bring down large, commercial aircraft – as we have seen with US Airways Flight Flight 1549 last Monday.
In aviation, one cannot afford to leave such things to chance. So whenever a plane and a bird made hard contact, the incident and its circumstances must be reported and catalogued. And this is where snarge comes in.
Snarge is what is left of the bird after the unlucky encounter. In other words, it is bird goo. Scraped off the aircraft (or, in some cases, off the aircraft debris), the material is sent to Carla Dove and her team at the feather-identification lab at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Each year, the lab receives about 4,000 samples for identification.
Feathers are apparently very hardy stuff. But in cases where not even one tiny feather can be found, at least the DNA extracted from the snarge sample can be tested.
The most unusual snarge sample received by the lab resulted from a collision at an altitude 1,500 feet. At least, that's what the pilot said in his report. But DNA analysis showed that the snarge came from a deer. A what??
I know what you are thinking. No, the pilot wasn't exaggerating his altitude. And no, he didn't hit Santa Claus.
Upon closer investigation, the lab concluded that the aircraft had not run into an airborne reindeer after all. Rather, it had collided with a vulture. The scavenger has previously feasted on a deer carcass. Whew! Santa’s flying reindeer were not involved.
Snarge. I just love saying it. Snarge.
January 16, 2009
MARS IS FARTING
Yesterday was quite a “news day” in America! Ongoing confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate, President Bush bidding the nation good-bye in his last presidential speech, Israel’s forces are accused of attacking U.N. and humanitarian aid installations in the Gaza strip, the gas conflict between the Russia, the Ukraine and Europe is now a comedy of fools. Oh, and our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is seriously pissed off about the failure of the State Assembly to adopt a budget, so he suggests that lawmakers should go without pay until they finally agree on a budget. What gall! (Schwarzenegger himself does not accept payment for his services).
Then, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger, a former USAF fighter pilot, steals the day by managing to ditch U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in a miraculous (and very lucky) splash landing in the Hudson River. (Yeah, Navy jocks! Can you trump that?). All 150 passengers were safe, and the plane will probably be repaired.
Because of all this, perhaps the most exciting news of the day was sort of swept under the rug. Huge, wafting clouds of methane have now been confirmed on Mars. The gas is not stable under the conditions there, so it must be the result of recent outgasings. In other words, Mars has been farting!
So why is this important?
There are two possible sources of methane. One, it could be the result of volcanic activity below the crust. But if this was the case, other volcanic gases should also be present. However, they have not been detected (at least not so far). Secondly, the methane could be a product of biological activity in the past or in the present. This would almost certainly mean microbes deep below the surface of Mars, where temperatures could be high enough to keep water liquid, and life going. On Earth, subterranean microbes have been found several kilometers below the surface, and 90 % of our methane here was produced by living organisms.
Very, very interesting, to say the least. I’m extremely busy with a book project at the moment, which is why I am kicking myself for not being able to make it to the presentation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last night. Luckily, some colleagues went. I will have to grill them later.
Here is NASA's release on the topic:
January 10, 2009
READY FOR 2009
The annual Japanese tradition of pre-dawn kangeiko (literally: "cold training") during the first week of every new year is a way to cleanse the spirit, mark a new beginning, and prepare mind and body for the challenges of what is to come.
Here is a picture of the "survivors" who completed training before sunrise every day of the week. (My sensei ("master", "teacher"), a man to whom I am greatly indebted, is the 4th from the left. I am all the way on the right).
Photo by Babak Saberi
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