The center of our Galaxy tastes of raspberries and smells of rum

Astronomers searching for the building blocks of life in a giant dust cloud at the heart of the Milky Way have concluded that it tastes vaguely of raspberries.

The unanticipated discovery follows years of work by astronomers who trained their 30m radio telescope on the enormous ball of dust and gas in the hope of spotting complex molecules that are vital for life

In the latest survey, astronomers sifted through thousands of signals from Sagittarius B2, a vast dust cloud at the centre of our galaxy. While they failed to find evidence for amino acids, they did find a substance called ethyl formate, the chemical responsible for the flavour of raspberries…

Curiously, ethyl formate has another distinguishing characteristic: it also smells of rum.

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What are your kids really afraid of?

Daylife/Getty Images

A five-eyed monster under the bed isn’t what worries most kids. Experts say young people fear a lot of what’s in the news — from kidnappings to murders to salmonella.

A study on more than 1,000 children and adolescents in grades 2 through 12 found that some of the 20 most common fears include “terrorist attacks,” “having to fight in a war,” “drive-by shootings,” “tornadoes/hurricanes” and “drowning/swimming in deep water,” based on self-reports of how scary each of 98 events or concepts seems.

Study author Joy Burnham…collected data from November 2001 to April 2004 in 23 schools in two southeastern states. The most common fears closely aligned with those found in previous studies on youth, and the pattern of findings has persisted in studies on fear for the past 30 years, she said.

By 8 years old, children know the difference between fantasy and reality, so they are more likely to be frightened by televised news coverage of events such as kidnappings, murders and terrorism, said Joanne Cantor, professor of at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was not involved with the study. Before age 8, they express fears of fictional scenarios and characters but also worry about hurricanes and drowning, she said…

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Kid steals dad’s gun – brings it to school to trade for PSP

Someday, he’ll grow up, get married and have kids of his own…

A middle school in Tacoma, Washington, was locked down after a 13-year-old boy was found with a gun.

The boy brought the gun to Mason Middle School to trade with another student. KIRO 7 reporter Kevin McCarty said the boy was going to trade it for a Playstation Portable.

The gun was not loaded, but the student had ammunition with him

Investigators said the 13-year-old student took the handgun from his father’s gun collection. That man told police a second gun was missing as well.

The kid has detention for, like, the rest of his life.

U.S. testing a tiny guided missile – ain’t it cute?

A 5-pound missile the size of a loaf of French bread is being quietly tested in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles as the military searches for more deadly and far more precise robotic weapons for modern warfare.

In the next month or so, researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake expect to test a 2-foot-long Spike missile that is about a “quarter of the size of the next smallest on the planet,” said Steve Felix, the missile project’s manager.

Initially intended for use by ground troops against tanks, these small guided missiles have been reconfigured to launch from unmanned airplanes to destroy small vehicles. In the test, the missile will be fired from a remote-controlled helicopter and aimed at a moving pickup truck.

If the test is successful, it will mark another milestone in the development of weapons for unmanned aircraft, a nascent field reminiscent of the early days of flight nearly a century ago when propeller-driven biplanes were jury-rigged with machine guns…

The new missiles being developed here are minuscule compared with the older, 100-pound Hellfire missiles in use today in Central Asia. A Predator, which can carry two or three Hellfires, would be able to hold as many as a dozen Spikes, extending its capabilities.

At the same time, experts say, smaller unmanned planes that could not carry weapons before could become deadly attack aircraft.

It is just these kinds of new weapons that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates emphasized last week as he outlined one of the most sweeping shifts in military spending priorities in decades. Among his priorities were buying 50 more Predator planes and putting more money into armed unmanned aircraft.

Hell of an advancement even over 50 years ago. And safer, now, that the nutballs in the Pentagon don’t get to turn everything into an atomic weapon.

I worked on the Davey Crockett Rocket. One of the dumbest weapons ever built – and withdrawn almost as soon as it was tested. You can find photos of the tripod-based version; but, a shoulder-fired version was considered, too..

Obama challenges Cabinet to cut $100 million in 3 months

Photo courtesy of Uptime Institute

U.S. President Barack Obama returns his focus to the domestic agenda after returning to Washington from the Summit of the Americas, aides said. Obama scheduled his first Cabinet meeting Monday, issuing a challenge to his department and agency leaders to cut a total of $100 million during the next 90 days, administration officials told CNN…

Obama is expected to provide examples of how several agencies already have instituted cost-cutting measures, including:

— The Homeland Security Department’s plan to trim an estimated $52 million over five years by buying office supplies in bulk.

— The Agriculture Department’s effort to move 1,500 employees from seven locations into one facility in 2011, an estimated cost-savings of $62 million over a 15-year lease.

— The Veterans Affairs Department’s decision to either cancel or delay conferences, estimated to save $17.8 million, and to use video-conferencing.

So much sensible stuff going on here you have to wonder if we’ve ever had a fiscal conservative in the office of president before Obama.

Video-conferencing is a pet technology of mine. Though I don’t get to participate in any [which is probably just as well] at any of the blogs I edit, I get to witness a number of IT associates in the process of moving their regular get-togethers over to this technology – and getting to payback the first year. Pretty impressive.

Oracle shelling out $7 billion for Sun

Oracle Corp plans to buy Sun Microsystems Inc for more than $7 billion, after the high-end computer server and software maker’s talks with IBM fell apart.

In a surprise announcement on Monday, Oracle said it will pay $9.50 a share. Sun had previously turned down IBM’s offer to pay up to $9.40 a share, according to sources with knowledge of the matter…

Talks between Sun and Oracle began late on Thursday, according to a source with knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The two companies have been partners with more than two decades. Oracle’s Fusion Middleware, its fastest-growing business, is built on Sun’s Java software. Sun’s Solaris operating system is also a main platform for Oracle’s database business…

Sun’s board had unanimously approved the deal, which is subject to shareholder and regulatory approval.

Let the market analysis begin…

Pakistan cleric says Shariah will be spread to all of Pakistan

Out on bail and leading Friday prayers in the Red Mosque
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

A day after he was set free, a radical Pakistani cleric returned Friday to Islamabad’s Red Mosque, the site of a deadly confrontation with government forces in 2007, and promptly issued an incendiary call for the spread of Islamic law across the troubled nation.

Cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz’s uncompromising rallying call came after a court granted him bail on a string of charges related to the confrontation that left at least 100 people dead when Pakistani troops stormed the hard-line religious complex…

Taliban and Al Qaeda forces have been emboldened in recent months by the government’s willingness to allow hard-liners to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in the northwestern Swat Valley region, about 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital.

Thousands of people flocked to the Red Mosque to hear Abdul Aziz lead Friday prayers and deliver his sermon, which he used to fan resistance to Pakistan’s wobbly democracy.

The day is not far away when Islam will be enforced in the whole of the country,” the cleric told the worshipers in the building as others on the streets outside heard his message over loudspeakers. “I tell you that you should be ready to make sacrifices for Islam.”

If this is how the government of Pakistan hopes to lead the nation into the 21st Century, I think cowardice is still overwhelming candor and courage.

Tree planting, ecosystem restoration, in the driest place on Earth

What remains

The southern coast of Peru is one of the driest places on Earth. Why would anyone choose this parched location to re-plant a forest?

It’s not an obvious place to choose if you’re looking for somewhere to plant trees, but for restoration ecologist Oliver Whaley the harsh environment of the northern fringes of the Atacama desert is part of the point. By helping to restore the shrinking native forests, the aim is to benefit local people and wildlife, prevent soil erosion, and help alleviate climate change.

“If we can get trees established here, and learn how to do it with as little water as possible, then it is a model for the rest of the world,” he says.

While the plight of the world’s rainforests are well known, the same cannot be said of tropical dry forests. These less biodiverse, but equally remarkable forests, face threats every bit as severe as their better known cousins.

The Atacama dry forest “is really an ecosystem on its last legs,” says Mr Whaley, of London’s Kew Gardens – an internationally renowned botanical research institution.

The tree under threat is the huarango, Prosopis limensis, found only in the Ica region of Peru.

In this parched landscape, the hardy huarango is no stranger to thirst. Although rain seldom falls, it is able to capture moisture from other sources – trapping fog on its leaves, directing the water downwards towards its roots. The roots themselves are among the longest of any plant – 50m to 80m – and seek out underground water sources that flow from the Andes.

The huarango is also a valuable source of food and fuel, and a keystone of the local ecosystem. Whaley estimates that when he arrived in Peru, just 1% of the original local forest habitat remained – much of it consumed in charcoal production.

Not unlike some of the challenges faced in my neck of the prairie. Though we also face encroaching trees because our native grasslands have been abused by grazing.

RTFA. Lots of detail and information you ain’t going to bump into elsewhere.

Windows 7 Starter as absurd as abstinence pledges

Microsoft is being pilloried over its plan to hobble the power of netbooks with a crippled version of its new operating system called Windows 7 Starter Edition. With the release of Windows 7 still months away and a competitor like Google’s Android looming, Microsoft may be just testing the market to gauge its reaction. If so, the answer it is receiving spells trouble.

The fact is that consumers will not accept paying for an operating system that deliberately stunts the power of their hardware and only allows three applications to run simultaneously. Not in this day and age when they now have plenty of alternatives to choose from.

Aside from the various Linux distributions and the Linux-based Android, Microsoft is likely to encounter considerable resistance from users of Windows XP.

Claims from Microsoft that Windows XP users would be satisfied to “upgrade” to Windows 7 Starter, with its 3 applications limit, because it’s “easier” and “more reliable” are beyond nonsense. They insult the intelligence of Microsoft’s customers.

It stretches the sensibilities beyond their limits to think that Microsoft could even try to convince any of its users that going from full-powered XP to a severely stunted version of Windows 7 is an upgrade.

If this is the class of marketing plans developed inside Microsoft, they’re in more trouble than I thought.

National Service Act should boost the Peace Corps


Efforts are afoot to bolster the U.S. Peace Corps, which has shrunk to just about half its 1966 peak of 15,000 volunteers, officials say.

The Boston Globe reports that the organization has fallen victim to budget cuts, which have forced it to slice another 400 volunteers amid the dropping value of the dollar and increased security costs.

“There really needs to be a top-down examination of the Peace Corps. I’m not for fundamentally altering the concept behind it, but you need to give it its own 21st century mandate,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is considered among the organization’s chief congressional supporters…

For his part, U.S. President Barack Obama has called for doubling the size of the Peace Corps. He is expected to sign the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, which includes a Peace Corps expansion.

“We spend more on the military marching bands,” said Mark Gearan, who was director of the Peace Corps under former U.S. President Bill Clinton. “This is 1 percent of 1 percent (of the federal budget). There’s no question that there’s a wellspring of interest around the country. We just have to broaden the awareness of it and then fund it.”

We might just be in the beginning of a time characterized by the ideals that built the Peace Corps in the first place. It’s a different world for the volunteers to enter. It’s a different administration, too.

Here’s the more detailed story referred to – in the Boston Sunday GLOBE.