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Red Moon, Green Beam — Apache Point Observatory

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red moon, green beam
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This is not a scene from a sci-fi special effects movie. The green beam of light and red lunar disk are real enough, captured in the early morning hours of April 15. Of course, the reddened lunar disk is easy to explain as the image was taken during this week’s total lunar eclipse.

Immersed in shadow, the eclipsed Moon reflects the dimmed reddened light of all the sunsets and sunrises filtering around the edges of planet Earth, seen in silhouette from a lunar perspective. But the green beam of light really is a laser. Shot from the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in southern New Mexico, the beam’s path is revealed as Earth’s atmosphere scatters some of the intense laser light.

The laser’s target is the Apollo 15 retroreflector, left on the Moon by the astronauts in 1971. By determining the light travel time delay of the returning laser pulse, the experimental team from UC San Diego is able to measure the Earth-Moon distance to millimeter precision and provide a test of General Relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Image Credit & Copyright: Dan Long (Apache Point Observatory) – Courtesy: Tom Murphy (UC San Diego)

Thanks, Ursarodinia

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Written by Ed Campbell

April 18, 2014 at 8:00 pm

ESA’s shiny new Sentinel-1A satellite returns first Earth photos

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Click to enlarge – Image of a transect across the northern section of the Antarctic Peninsula

ESA’s Sentinel-1A satellite has returned its first images of Earth from space in its second week of achieving orbit. The satellite, having been launched on Apr. 3. has only recently undergone a complicated maneuver to extend its 10 meter solar wings and 12 meter radar imaging array.

There are due to be six constellations of two Sentinel satellites designed to image the Earth, in part to observe climate change as a part of the Copernicus program. The satellite is not yet positioned in its operational orbit, nor is it fully calibrated to supply true data to the mission. However, the images taken on Apr. 12 are a truly stunning example of the observational capabilities of the cutting-edge satellite…

Over the next three months, the satellite will run through its commissioning phase, during which it will achieve operational orbit and be calibrated to begin what will be the most ambitious and largest Earth observation mission ever undertaken.

Lovely work. And much more knowledge to be gained about our planet.

Written by Ed Campbell

April 17, 2014 at 8:00 pm

CT scans of Ice-Age bees from the La Brea tar pits

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Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits have coughed up massive animals, from saber-toothed tigers to mammoths. But this discovery is much smaller—tiny bee pupae, still wrapped up in the leaves they use as a nest.

The samples were actually excavated all the way back in 1970. But at the time there wasn’t a way to analyze the sample without destroying them, so they were set aside. But now, the tiny pupae can be seen with a micro-CT scanner. Just take a look:


Click to enlarge

The researchers say that the cells are so well preserved that they were probably assembled in the exact place they were found—rather than moved around by time. Using the micro-CT scanner, the team was able to create a 3-D model of the pupae made of 2,172 scanned slices.

These bees are between 23,000 and 40,000 years old, according to radiocarbon dating. They are probably a species called Megiachile gentiles, a species of bee that’s actually still alive today. And, the researchers say, this bee is one of the rare species that’s probably benefitting from climate change, having expanded its range since the last ice age all across the United States.

Photomicrographic study is actually a scientific craft I apprenticed at – 57 years ago :) – working at the time in a lab that did non-ferrous metals research. Laid off when the whole research department was shutdown as the result of early days conglomerate building by capitalist boffins who only cared about this year’s P&L Statement.

Rather like Paul Ryan and his peers on Wall Street.

Written by Ed Campbell

April 15, 2014 at 2:00 am

Pulling drinking water out of thin air

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In some parts of Ethiopia, finding potable water is a six-hour journey.

People in the region spend 40 billion hours a year trying to find and collect water, says a group called the Water Project. And even when they find it, the water is often not safe, collected from ponds or lakes teeming with infectious bacteria, contaminated with animal waste or other harmful substances…

The invention from Arturo Vittori, an industrial designer, and his colleague Andreas Vogler doesn’t involve complicated gadgetry or feats of engineering, but instead relies on basic elements like shape and material and the ways in which they work together.

At first glance, the 30-foot-tall, vase-shaped towers…have the look and feel of a showy art installation. But every detail, from carefully-placed curves to unique materials, has a functional purpose.

The rigid outer housing of each tower is comprised of lightweight and elastic juncus stalks, woven in a pattern that offers stability in the face of strong wind gusts while still allowing air to flow through. A mesh net made of nylon or polypropylene, which calls to mind a large Chinese lantern, hangs inside, collecting droplets of dew that form along the surface. As cold air condenses, the droplets roll down into a container at the bottom of the tower. The water in the container then passes through a tube that functions as a faucet, carrying the water to those waiting on the ground…

So how would Warka Water’s low-tech design hold up in remote sub-Saharan villages? Internal field tests have shown that one Warka Water tower can supply more than 25 gallons of water throughout the course of a day, Vittori claims. He says because the most important factor in collecting condensation is the difference in temperature between nightfall and daybreak, the towers are proving successful even in the desert, where temperatures, in that time, can differ as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The structures, made from biodegradable materials, are easy to clean and can be erected without mechanical tools in less than a week. Plus, he says, “once locals have the necessary know-how, they will be able to teach other villages and communities to build the Warka.”

It costs about $500 to set up a tower.

Not certain if Vittori’s project is set for donations, yet – but, I’d recommend checking in with the Water Project. Folks at Tekzilla and HD Nation have worked with them in the past.

Written by Ed Campbell

April 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

ATM strikes back

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Hot foam may soon send criminals running if they damage ATM. ETH researchers have developed a special film that triggers an intense reaction when destroyed. The idea originates from a beetle that uses a gas explosion to fend off attackers.

Its head and pronotum are usually rusty red, and its abdomen blue or shiny green: the bombardier beetle is approximately one centimetre long and common to Central Europe. At first glance, it appears harmless, but it possesses what is surely the most aggressive chemical defence system in nature. When threatened, the bombardier beetle releases a caustic spray, accompanied by a popping sound. This spray can kill ants or scare off frogs. The beetle produces the explosive agent itself when needed. Two separately stored chemicals are mixed in a reaction chamber in the beetle’s abdomen. An explosion is triggered with the help of catalytic enzymes…

The researchers use plastic films with a honeycomb structure for their self-defending surface. The hollow spaces are filled with one of two chemicals: hydrogen peroxide or manganese dioxide. The two separate films are then stuck on top of each another. A layer of clear lacquer separates the two films filled with the different chemicals. When subjected to an impact, the interlayer is destroyed, causing the hydrogen peroxide and manganese dioxide to mix. This triggers a violent reaction that produces water vapour, oxygen and heat. Whereas enzymes act as catalysts in the bombardier beetle, manganese dioxide has proven to be a less expensive alternative for performing this function in the lab…

While protective devices that can spray robbers and banknotes already exist, these are mechanical systems, explains Stark. “A small motor is set in motion when triggered by a signal from a sensor. This requires electricity, is prone to malfunctions and is expensive.” The objective of his research group is to replace complicated control systems with cleverly designed materials.

Clever, yes? Effective, very likely? Likely to be instituted in the United States? Doubtful – we have enough lawyers and politicians dedicated to making the work environment as safe for criminals as we do for protecting victims.

Written by Ed Campbell

April 13, 2014 at 2:00 am

The Heartbleed web security flaw – runaway, runaway! — UPDATE: NSA scumbags knew about the bug for 2 years

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heartbleed

It seems as though every week or so there’s a new hack or exploit that reveals millions of passwords or important data from a popular web service, and this week is no exception. On Tuesday, IT professionals got word of a serious flaw in OpenSSL — the browser encryption standard used by an estimated two-thirds of the servers on the internet. The flaw, which was dubbed “Heartbleed,” may have exposed the personal data of millions of users and the encryption keys to some of the web’s largest services. Here’s what you need to know:

It’s a bug in some versions of the OpenSSL software that handles security for a lot of large websites. In a nutshell, a weakness in one feature of the software — the so called “heartbeat” extension, which allows services to keep a secure connection open over an extended period of time — allows hackers to read and capture data that is stored in the memory of the system. It was discovered independently by a security company called Codenomicon and a Google researcher named Neel Mehta, both of whom have helped co-ordinate the response…

As Tim Lee at Vox points out in his overview, the lock that you see in your browser’s address bar when you visit a website “is supposed to signal that third parties won’t be able to read any information you send or receive. Under the hood, SSL accomplishes that by transforming your data into a coded message that only the recipient knows how to decipher.” But researchers found it was possible to “send a cleverly formed, malicious heartbeat message that tricks the computer at the other end into divulging secret information…”

What can you do about it?

If you are a web user, the short answer is not much. You can check the list of sites affected on Github, or you could try a tool from developer Filippo Valsorda that checks sites to see if they are still vulnerable (although false positives have been reported), and you should probably change your passwords for those sites if you find any you use regularly.

RTFA if you want all the gory details. The bug is 2 years old albeit just discovered; so, no one has a clue how long evildoers may have been screwing around with folks’ accounts at sites containing the bug.

I’d suggest reading the list at Github and staying away from sites on the list – until they disappear from the list. Changing passwords – as suggested – at affected sites is a good idea as well. Though I can think of problems happening if you’re pinged while doing exactly that. If and when sites are certified clean, then, change your passwords and do a thorough job of it.

UPDATE: NSA scumbags knew about the bug for two years and used it to break into encrypted communications – rather than notify American companies and consumers so they might protect themselves…http://tinyurl.com/mq8owa2

Written by Ed Campbell

April 11, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Drone images reveal details of ancient village in New Mexico

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KatieSimon3
Click to see images taken by drone

Thermal images captured by an small drone allowed archaeologists to peer under the surface of the New Mexican desert floor, revealing never-before-seen structures in an ancient Native American settlement.

Called Blue J, this 1,000-year-old village was first identified by archaeologists in the 1970s. It sits about 43 miles south of the famed Chaco Canyon site in northwestern New Mexico and contains nearly 60 ancestral Puebloan houses around what was once a large spring.

Now, the ruins of Blue J are obscured by vegetation and buried in eroded sandstone blown in from nearby cliffs. The ancient structures have been only partially studied through excavations. Last June, a team of archaeologists flew a small camera-equipped drone over the site to find out what infrared images might reveal under the surface.

“I was really pleased with the results,” said Jesse Casana, an archaeologist from the University of Arkansas. “This work illustrates the very important role that UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have for scientific research.”

Casana said his co-author, John Kantner of the University of North Florida, had previously excavated at the site and the drone images showed stone compounds Kantner had already identified and ones that he didn’t know about.

For example, the thermal images revealed a dark circle just inside the wall of a plaza area, which could represent wetter, cooler soil filling a kiva, or a huge, underground structure circular that would have been used for public gatherings and ceremonies. Finding a kiva at Blue J would be significant; the site has been considered unusual among its neighbors because it lacks the monumental great houses and subterranean kivas that are the hallmark of Chaco-era Pueblo sites…

The images also could guide archaeologists’ trowels before they ever break ground.

Modern imaging tech has been inspiring archaeologists for a spell. Data mining satellite photos has been used successfully working up a number of ancient sites around the world. Nice to see one more peaceful use derived from a technology much beloved of our government for spying on folks and occasionally killing them.

As usual, RTFA for a bit more detail.

Thanks, Mike

Written by Ed Campbell

April 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

The Internet is taking away America’s religion

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Republicans still blame REM

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?

The reality is we have nothing to lose – and everything to gain.

Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet…

Downey’s data comes from the General Social Survey, a widely respected sociological survey carried out by the University of Chicago, that has regularly measure people’s attitudes and demographics since 1972.

In that time, the General Social Survey has asked people questions such as: “what is your religious preference?” and “in what religion were you raised?” It also collects data on each respondent’s age, level of education, socioeconomic group, and so on. And in the Internet era, it has asked how long each person spends online…

Downey’s approach is to determine how the drop in religious affiliation correlates with other elements of the survey such as religious upbringing, socioeconomic status, education, and so on.

He finds that the biggest influence on religious affiliation is religious upbringing—people who are brought up in a religion are more likely to be affiliated to that religion later.

However, the number of people with a religious upbringing has dropped since 1990. It’s easy to imagine how this inevitably leads to a fall in the number who are religious later in life. In fact, Downey’s analysis shows that this is an important factor…In fact, that data indicates that it only explains about 25 percent of the drop.

He goes on to show that college-level education also correlates with the drop. Once it again, it’s easy to imagine how contact with a wider group of people at college might contribute to a loss of religion…

That’s where the Internet comes in. In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.

This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.

That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.

RTFA for all the variables inside variables Downey examines.

For me, the expansion in easy communications permits access to information, real information in addition to the usual crap, gossip and myth we’re accustomed to in every part of our lives. The classic question – are Americans stupid or ignorant seems to be coming down on the side of ignorant. With diminishing returns for those who profit from ignorance. As the ignorance of Americans also diminishes.

Written by Ed Campbell

April 5, 2014 at 8:00 am

3D-printed skull implanted into woman’s head

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A 22-year-old woman has had the whole top of her skull replaced with a customized 3D-printed implant. The patient had been suffering from severe symptoms as a result of a condition that causes a thickening of the skull. It is believed that the procedure was the first of its kind.

Dr. Bon Verweij of University Medical Center Utrecht, whose team carried out the procedure, first had to familiarize himself with reconstructions and 3D printing, in particular of partial skull implants. Implants have often previously been used when part of a skull has been removed to reduce pressure on an patient’s brain. Either the removed piece of skull or an implant is used to fill the gap once the situation has improved.

Verweij says that cement implants are not always a good fit, however, and that 3D printing can now ensure that the required components are an exact fit. “This has major advantages, not only cosmetically but also because patients often have better brain function compared with the old method,” he explained…

“The thickening of the skull puts the brain under increasing pressure,” said Verwei. “Ultimately, she slowly lost her vision and started to suffer from motor coordination impairment. It was only a matter of time before other essential brain functions would have been impaired and she would have died. So intensive surgery was inevitable, but until now there was no effective treatment for such patients.”

The surgery, only just announced, was carried out three months ago and was a success. According to Verweij, the patient has fully regained her vision and has no more complaints, which has allowed her to return to work with almost no trace of any surgery. The work undertaken on the procedure means that UMC Utrecht is now is a position to carry out other similar work.

The wonders of modern medicine truly are becoming wonders. I have a few friends walking around with titanium – or old-fashioned steel – plates in their head for repairs. They’d love something like this, no doubt.

Written by Ed Campbell

April 2, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Computers teach each other Pac-Man

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Researchers had the agents — as the virtual robots are called — act like true student and teacher pairs: student agents struggled to learn Pac-Man and a version of the StarCraft video game. The researchers were able to show that the student agent learned the games and, in fact, surpassed the teacher.

While it may sound like fun and games, helping robots teach each other to play computer games is an important area of research in robotics — and it’s not easy. If robots could teach each other tasks, then people wouldn’t need to; for instance, a housecleaning robot could teach its replacement the job.

If you’re worried about robots taking over the world, though, don’t be…”They’re very dumb,” says Matthew Taylor, an expert on robots, agents and helping them to learn.

Even the most advanced robots are easily confused, he says. And when they get confused, they stop working. He says it often takes two or three times longer than he thinks it will to get a robot to work at all.

The easiest way to successfully teach a robot new skills is to remove the “brains” of the old one and put them in the new one, says Taylor. Problems occur, though, when hardware and software don’t work in the new model…

As anyone with teenagers knows, the trick is in knowing when the robot should give advice. If it gives no advice, the robot is not teaching. But if it always gives advice, the student gets annoyed and doesn’t learn to outperform the teacher.

“We designed algorithms for advice giving, and we are trying to figure out when our advice makes the biggest difference,” Taylor says.

I’m not courageous enough to give personal advice on teaching robots – or teenagers. I’m pleased to note the progress, though.

Written by Ed Campbell

April 2, 2014 at 2:00 am

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