On the frontline: Dangerous birdwatching

The very latest birdwatching destination has been unveiled, offering the jaded British birder the perfect combination of sun, sand – and of course birds. This new location even has its own unique species, guaranteed to set the pulse of every keen birder racing.

Just one tiny little problem: the species is Basra reed warbler, and the destination is southern Iraq.

The suggestion by Britain’s consul general for the region, Nigel Hayward, that the area around Basra could become a birding hotspot, isn’t quite as far-fetched as it sounds.

His claim that “we are on major bird migration routes” is spot-on. Iraq in particular, and the Middle East in general, are slap-bang in the middle of the world’s largest avian flyway, with hundreds of millions of migrating birds from Europe and Asia funnelling through to and from their winter-quarters in Africa every spring and autumn…

But even by the most optimistic estimates, birding trips to Iraq are unlikely to happen for another five years or more…And birders do run risks, even in far more innocuous places. Like the plane spotters arrested as “spies” in Greece a few years ago, birders regularly get into trouble for walking around with high-powered optics near sensitive military sites.

So, be careful out there. Let folks know where you’re going and when. Maybe, just maybe, you might for a while before trying to see the Basra reed warbler.

Sacked Indian staff beat boss to death

A chief executive was beaten to death as he tried to pacify a group of workers sacked from his manufacturing plant. Lalit Kishore Choudhary, 47, bled to death inside the car parts factory yesterday after being attacked by more than 130 men.

Police have arrested 63 former employees of Graziano Transmissioni India in connection with his death. Another 73 are facing charges of disturbing the peace.

Babu Ram, the police superintendent for Greater Noida in the state of Uttar Pradesh, said the men had been called in to settle a dispute that led to the dismissal of more than 100 staff in recent months. The meeting turned sour and the unemployed men began vandalising the machinery, turning on Choudhary when he tried to reason with them.

Demonstrators blamed “outsiders” for the killing. “We were demonstrating peacefully to get our jobs back,” one of the workers, Rajpal, told the Hindustan Times newspaper. “Outsiders may have assaulted the CEO leading to his death. Firing by the guards agitated workers and they clashed with the staff,” he said.

Nothing insightful to say about this one. Unfortunately, really no informed statements, either.

The folks on strike tell a completely different story from the corporate executives – who, of course, weren’t on the scene at all.

Walnut Trees emit Aspirin-like chemical to deal with stress

Walnut trees respond to stress by producing significant amounts of a chemical form of aspirin, scientists have discovered.

The finding, by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., opens up new avenues of research into the behavior of plants and their impacts on air quality, and also has the potential to give farmers an early warning signal about crops that are failing.

“Unlike humans, who are advised to take aspirin as a fever suppressant, plants have the ability to produce their own mix of aspirin-like chemicals, triggering the formation of proteins that boost their biochemical defenses and reduce injury,” says NCAR scientist Thomas Karl, who led the study. “Our measurements show that significant amounts of the chemical can be detected in the atmosphere as plants respond to drought, unseasonable temperatures, or other stresses.”

For years, scientists have known that plants in a laboratory may produce methyl salicylate, which is a chemical form of acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin. But researchers had never before detected methyl salicylate in an ecosystem or verified that plants emit the chemical in significant quantities into the atmosphere.

There has to be something Druid-like about this whole concept. Like, rid yourself of anxiety, headaches and other stress-related symptoms with a walk in the woods.

Has the digital era finally killed Kodachrome?

Once popular with photographers everywhere — and Paul Simon — Kodakchrome film may disappear for good. “Part of me feels like, boy, if only I’d been born 20 years earlier,” says the 56-year-old photographer, whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine. “I wish they would keep making it forever. I still have a lot of pictures to take in my life.”

Only one commercial lab in the world, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, still develops Kodachrome, a once ubiquitous brand that has freeze-framed the world in rich but authentic hues since it was introduced in the Great Depression.

Eastman Kodak Co. now makes the slide and motion-picture film in just one 35mm format, and production runs — in which a master sheet nearly a mile long is cut up into more than 20,000 rolls — fall at least a year apart.

Kodak won’t say when the last one occurred nor hint at Kodachrome’s prospects. Kodachrome stocks currently on sale have a 2009 expiration date. If the machines aren’t fired up again, the company might just sell out the remaining supplies, and that would be the end…

Nowadays, Kodachrome is confined to a small global market of devotees who wouldn’t settle for anything else. And before long, industry watchers say, Kodak might well stop serving that steadily shrinking niche as the 128-year-old photography pioneer bets its future on electronic imaging.

Digital photography is the technology that started my acquaintance with John C. Dvorak. His articles in PC Mag got me started with digital photography – and added a additional segment of creativity to what has been a lifelong hobby.

Most of the professional photographers I know haven’t changed over for one simple economic reason: they have too much money invested in whatever film-based system they still use.

Studies on the threshold of abrupt climate change

There’s more information available here than the average True Believer will countenance. Here’s just a taste:

Abrupt climate change is a potential menace that hasn’t received much attention. That’s about to change. The U.S. Department of Energy recently launched IMPACTS – Investigation of the Magnitudes and Probabilities of Abrupt Climate Transitions – a program led by William Collins of Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division that brings together six national laboratories to attack the problem of abrupt climate change…

Sparked by the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize that was shared by Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the reality of global warming finally got through to the majority of the world’s population. Most people think of climate change as something that occurs only gradually, however, with average temperature changing two or three degrees Celsius over a century or more; this is the rate at which ‘forcing’ mechanisms operate, such as the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels or widespread changes in land use.

But climate change has occurred with frightening rapidity in the past and will almost certainly do so again. Perhaps the most famous example is the reverse hiccup in a warming trend that began 15,000 years ago and eventually ended the last ice age. Roughly 2,000 years after it started, the warming trend suddenly reversed, and temperatures fell back to near-glacial conditions; Earth stayed cold for over a thousand years, a period called the Younger Dryas (named for an alpine wildflower). Then warming resumed so abruptly that global temperatures shot up 10 °C in just 10 years.
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Technology doesn’t dumb us down

Everyone has been talking about an article in The Atlantic magazine called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Some subset of that group has actually read the 4,175-word article, by Nicholas Carr…

It is hard to think of a technology that wasn’t feared when it was introduced. In his Atlantic article, Carr says that Socrates feared the impact that writing would have on man’s ability to think. The advent of the printing press summoned similar fears. It wouldn’t be the last time…

But for all the new technologies that increase our productivity, there are others that demand more of our time. That is one of the dialectics of our era. With its maps and Internet access, the iPhone saves us time; with its downloadable games, we also carry a game machine in our pocket. The proportion of time-wasters to time-savers may only grow. In a knowledge-based society in which knowledge is free, attention becomes the valued commodity. Companies compete for eyeballs, that great metric born in the dot-com boom, and vie to create media that are sticky, another great term from this era. We are not paid for our attention span, but rewarded for it with yet more distractions and demands on our time.
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GPS navigation devices can be duped

Just like flat-screen televisions, cell phones and computers, global positioning system (GPS) technology is becoming something people can’t imagine living without. So if such a ubiquitous system were to come under attack, would we be ready?

It’s an uncomfortable question, but one that a group of Cornell researchers have considered with their research into “spoofing” GPS receivers.

GPS is a U.S. navigation system of more than 30 satellites circling Earth twice a day in specific orbits, transmitting signals to receivers on land, sea and in air to calculate their exact locations. “Spoofing,” a not-quite-technical term first coined in the radar community, is the transmission of fake GPS signals that receivers accept as authentic ones…

To demonstrate how a navigation device can be fooled, the researchers, led by Cornell professors Paul Kintner and Mark Psiaki, programmed a briefcase-size GPS receiver, used in ionospheric research, to send out fake signals.

They…described how the “phony” receiver could be placed in the proximity of a navigation device, where it would track, modify, and retransmit the signals being transmitted from the GPS satellite constellation. Gradually, the “victim” navigation device would take the counterfeit navigation signals for the real thing.

By demonstrating the vulnerability of receivers to spoofing, the researchers believe they can help devise methods to guard against such attacks.

They took the time to address their concerns in a scientific manner, responsible enough to demonstrate techniques in a close-to-real-world environment. Noting, btw, that they can overcome the several countermeasures already suggested by the Pentagon.

Climate skeptics have their head in the sand

Climate skeptics who argue that global warming has stopped have their “heads in the sand”, according to the UK’s Met Office. A recent dip in global temperatures is down to natural changes in weather systems, a new analysis shows, and does not alter the long-term warming trend.

In a statement published on its website, it says: “Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand. “The evidence is clear, the long-term trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise. Global warming does not mean that each year will be warmer than the last.”

The new research confirms that the world has cooled slightly since 2005, but says this is down to a weather phenomena called La Niña, when cold water rises to the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Despite this effect, the office says, 11 of the last 13 years are the warmest ever recorded

The apparent cooling trend is exaggerated by a record high temperature in 1998 caused by a separate weather event, El Niño, she said. “You could look at what happened in 1998 and say that global warming accelerated and that’s not true either.

We have the same sort of poli-sci skeptics here in the States, of course. Ready and willing to reject the sum of peer-reviewed analysis on the basis of one or another hiccup paraded about like all the bought-and-paid-for rejections of cigarette smoking as being at all causative of human illness.

As much as conservatives and reactionaries bemoan what they call political correctness, they are the originators of that particular illness and have embraced it with all the fervor of whichever True Belief their leaders proffer. Lately, no human need bear any responsibility for climate change is the scripture.

Oh, and I wouldn’t have been so polite about where they’re hiding their heads.