Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bacteria-Killing Viruses Wield an Iron Spike

Forget needles in haystacks. Try finding the tip of a needle in a virus. Scientists have long known that a group of viruses called bacteriophages have a knack for infiltrating bacteria and that some begin their attack with a protein spike. But the tip of this spike is so small that no one knew what it was made of or exactly how it worked. Now a team of researchers has found a single iron atom at the head of the spike, a discovery that suggests phages enter bacteria in a different way than surmised.

Wherever there are bacteria you will find bacteriophages; digestive tracts, contaminated water, and feces are usually a good start. These viruses begin their dirty work by drilling into the outer membrane of bacteria. Once completely through all of a bug's defenses, the phages inject their DNA, which essentially turns the bacterium into phage-producing factories. Eventually, the microbes become filled with so many viruses that they burst, releasing a new horde of phages into the environment.

Although much is known about phage reproduction, little is understood about how the virus initially gains entry into the bacterium. "We knew ... there must be a special protein that makes the very first opening in the outer cell membrane of the bacterial envelope," says Petr Leiman, a biophysicist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. "But we didn't know what the very end of the structure, the business end, the tip that attacks the membrane, looks like."

So Leiman and colleagues decided to partially reverse engineer the viral tips. Their new study concerns two bacteriophages known as P2 and Φ92, viruses that target bacteria such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli. The researchers already knew which gene contained instructions for how to make P2's protein spike. And after a bit of scouring, they discovered an analogous gene in Φ92. The scientists then produced the proteins those genes encode and turned them into crystals. This allowed them to use a technique called x-ray crystallography, in which they bombard the crystals with x-rays, to get a sense of the proteins' structure.

In theory this should have been enough to give the researchers a glimpse of the elusive tip of the spike. But when they tried to model the spike using the data from the x-ray crystallography work, the tip remained invisible. To get around this problem, the researchers modified the phage's spike genes so that they only produced the portion of the protein tip that was resistant to being viewed. When they crystallized this smaller protein fragment, the x-rays were finally able to resolve its structure, and from this the team had the very first picture of the tip of the spike: a single iron atom held in place by six amino acids, forming a sharp needlelike tip—perfectly suited for piercing the outer membranes of bacteria. The team reports its findings this month in Structure.

Scientists had always assumed that when phages drill their way through the outer membrane, they first have to soften it up a bit in some way, says Mark van Raaij, a biologist and virus expert at the Instituto de Biologia Molecular de Barcelona in Spain, who was not involved in the work. But the discovery of the sharp iron needle, he says, suggests that P2 and Φ92 don't need any help. "It's like driving a nail or stake through the membrane of the bacteria."

Leiman notes that findings like these could lead to new ways to combat bacteria that make people sick. As scientists reverse engineer phages, he suggests, they can isolate those parts that are most effective at killing bacteria and perhaps produce a new class of antibacterial agents.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Food is consistently funny

This story is not so unusual or particularly funny until the part about the food, similar to an earlier story involving a ruben sandwich and one other involving bananas

Naked Man Arrested After Fighting With Officers

from the article:

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – "A man apparently high on methamphetamine entered a Sacramento welding shop and then fought with police officers before being arrested..."

"...When officers arrived and attempted to detain Ayala, he became combative and eventually both officers, a man and a woman, were on the ground wrestling with him when Ayala grabbed onto the female officer’s hair.

That’s when the Johnsons and others jumped in to help the officers out, including one man who held a hamburger in one hand while lending his other to the effort."

So, My List of Funny Food Articles Begins:

Peanut Butter & Jelly is Racist

Monday, February 27, 2012

Water Closets of Athens, GA

Name that loo...

Artsy fartsy.

Human Directionals

 Overall, they are a sad sight, but this is hilarious:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Foxconn hires Burson-Marsteller to hit out at underage worker claims

by in Rome

Foxconn Technology Group has denied claims from a Chinese worker's rights group that it uses child labour in any form.
TechEye has been reporting how Hong Kong-based nonprofit Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) complained that Apple tipped off Foxconn that the inspectors were coming and executives assigned child workers elsewhere.
According to a SACOM report, 16- and 17-year olds are allowed to work under Apple's supplier code of conduct but with special restrictions on types and duration of their work, which Foxconn allegedly ignores.

However, a Foxconn spokesperson has told us that the company is committed to honouring and respecting the codes of conduct of its customers, like Apple, and it takes these things very seriously.
There is no doubt that Foxconn is indeed taking things seriously. The Foxconn spokesperson comes from none other than spin masters Burson-Marsteller, which is a global public relations company which specialises in dealing with enormous PR disasters.
Burson-Marsteller has handled Tylenol poisonings, and, according to Corporate Watch, the Bhopal disaster, and the Three Mile Island. It represented the private military group Blackwater which was accused of being gung-ho against the residents of Baghdad.
There can't be many PR companies which have had clients like the  Argentinian military junta led by General Jorge Videla who helped 35,000 people to disappear. Burson-Marsteller looked after the image of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and Saudi Arabia after it was pointed out that most of the September 11 attackers were from that country.
Anyway,  Foxconn is telling us that it has strict recruitment regulations to ensure full compliance with worker age regulations and laws.
"We have sufficient access to workers who are of legal age and there is no incentive for us to break our own strict policies and Chinese law on the matter. Let us be very clear, Foxconn does not employ, in any capacity, any underage workers," the spokesperson said.
Foxconn waded into SACOM for trying to find fault with the 16 percent to 25 percent compensation increase that was given to Foxconn assembly line workers in China.
"It is a clear sign that SACOM is not interested in seeing actions that bring real benefit to workers in China. As such, they do a disservice to those companies who do provide competitive wages and benefits," Foxconn said.
According to Foxconn, it had increased wages throughout its operations in China to keep its reputation of being a high payer in the country.
Higher wages mean that it can compete for employees and it is a key reason why Foxconn has one of the highest employee recruitment and retention rates in China, so it goes.
Contrary to SACOM's statements, said Foxconn, it has a high staff retention rate thanks to the fact that 75 percent of its assembly line workers in Shenzhen are getting paid well for their work.
"Foxconn Employees recognise that the picture SACOM paints of our operations is not at all accurate," Foxconn insists.
Foxconn insists that it is paying compensation that is significantly higher than government-mandated wage levels and as high or higher than others in the industry in the same location.
In a sideways swipe to SACOM, Foxconn is working with "credible outside organisations such as the Fair Labor Association" to "ensure that our over a million employees in China have a safe and positive working environment and compensation and benefits that are competitive to everyone else."
Foxconn top brass Terry Gou has been quoted as saying: "Hungry people have especially clear minds". Terry Gou also allegedly said, speaking at a zoo in Taipei: "I have a headache how to manage one million animals."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Model airplane used to monitor rainforests - conservation drones take flight

Rhett A. Butler,
February 23, 2012

Remote-controlled plane offers bird's-eye approach to conservation.

Aerial photograph from the drone showing forest clearing. Courtesy of Lian Pin Koh.

Conservationists have converted a remote-controlled plane into a potent tool for conservation.

Using seed funding from the National Geographic Society, The Orangutan Conservancy, and the Denver Zoo, Lian Pin Koh, an ecologist at the ETH Zürich, and Serge Wich, a biologist at the University of Zürich and PanEco, have developed a conservation drone equipped with cameras, sensors and GPS. So far they have used the remote-controlled aircraft to map deforestation, count orangutans and other endangered species, and get a bird's eye view of hard-to-access forest areas in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

"The main goal of this project is to develop low-cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that every conservation biologist in the tropics can use for surveying forests and biodiversity," said Koh via email. "Drones are already being used for many purposes including the military, agriculture, and even in Hollywood for filming. But they are still not commonly used for conservation purposes."

The reason, says Koh, is the high cost of commercial systems, which can run $10,000-50,000. Koh's first drone cost less than $2,000 and can be carried in a backpack.

Conservation drone

Remote-controlled conservation aircraft

Remote-controlled conservation plane
Koh and Wich with their drone.

"The idea for developing this low-cost drone came to me during one of my field trips to Borneo in 2004," Koh told "A very exhausting day of fieldwork made me wish for a remote control aircraft that I could send into the forest to do the work for me so that I could take a break the next day."
"The drone is almost fully autonomous, which means it can take-off and fly on autopilot," Koh explained. "The user pre-programs each mission on a laptop computer by clicking waypoints along a planned flight path on a Google Map. Based on this flight path and the onboard sensors (GPS, altitude sensor, airspeed sensor, etc), the drone will take off automatically, fly to every waypoint, and then return to the user. During the mission, the drone can take photographs or videos depending on the camera system installed."

For anyone who has spent hours tracking over rough terrain in the tropical rainforest, the appeal of a conservation drone is immediately obvious.

"This may offer a cost-effective way of counting wildlife over difficult terrain," Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who runs the conservation non-profit Saving Species, told "Having imagery of far higher resolution than from satellites is essential for such work and it offers a viable alternative in places where helicopter or plane costs are too high."

There are also scenarios where a drones can be an alternative to satellite imagery.

"Low-cost drones can be an effective alternative to satellite images for mapping the landscape," Koh told "In fact, drones can perform better than satellite data in cases where an area needs to be mapped in real-time and repeatedly."

To date, Koh and Wich have used the drone in Aras Napal, close to the Gunung Leuser Conservation Area in Sumatra. During their four days of testing, the drone flew 30 missions — collecting hundreds of photos and hours of video — without a single crash. A mission, which typically lasts about 25 minutes, can cover 50 hectares.

"The drone took pictures of areas where logging occurred, and areas where oil palm are planted right next to a river, which is very damaging to the river ecosystem," Koh said. "It also took pictures of an orangutan who was feeding on top of a palm tree, as well as elephants on the ground. During one mission, the drone also recorded a video showing smoke rising from a forest area. These test missions demonstrate that the drone can indeed be used for the purposes it has been developed for."

Orangutan (top) and elephant (bottom) as photographed by the conservation drone. Courtesy of Lian Pin Koh.

Koh envisions using the drone to monitor forests, detect fires, and map land use in real-time. He believes the low cost will open up the drone to a wide range of other applications.

"My dream is that in the future, every field ecologist will have a drone as part of their toolkit, since it doesn’t cost more than a good pair of binoculars!"

Koh says the response to the drone so far has been overwhelmingly positive from conservationists.

"We have already attracted the attention of field researchers around the world, who are asking us to go to their study locations for further test flights. These locations include Borneo, Africa and even Antarctica to film penguins!"

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bill Gates Makes Progress On Reinvented Toilets
by Julie Bort

Toilets are a waste. They are also simply out of reach for 2.6 billion people in developing nations, says the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). That's how folks who use no-tech alternatives like buckets or holes in the ground. Such lack of sanitation leads to typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and other diseases.

So last summer the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spread $3 million in grants among eight research teams in North America, Asia, Africa and Europe, reports the Scientific American. This challenge is part of Gates' pledge last summer to spend $42 million to reinvent the toilet.

The teams were given these guidelines: come up with a toilet alternative that doesn't need plumbed water, a sewer system, electricity and will cost 5 cents or less per user daily to build and maintain.

The teams delivered.

The Dutch team's idea uses microwaves to turn human waste into carbon monoxide and hydrogen that in turn could become fuel stacks to generate electricity.

The British team is working on a way to turn waste into bio-charcoal.

 The Canadian team dehydrates the stuff by running it between rollers over smolders.

The U.S. team proposed a solar powered toilet that converts waste into hydrogen for fuel cells.

 The foundation also wanted teams to include an "inspirational element" to their designs to get people to want to use these newfangled toilets. Frank Rijsberman, director of the initiative, told Scientific American that the ultimate design would be so desirable, it would be like the "iPad of sanitation," he said. An iPad-like toilet funded by the founder of Microsoft. What more could a full digestive system want?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The day will come...

...when machines begin asking us to perform specific tasks, and encouraging that we also smile. Upon that day, we will have reached the point of no return.

early 80s

Monday, February 20, 2012

Russians regenerate flowering plant from 30,000-year-old frozen burrow of Ice Age squirrel

MOSCOW — It was an Ice Age squirrel’s treasure chamber, a burrow containing fruit and seeds that had been stuck in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years. From the fruit tissues, a team of Russian scientists managed to resurrect an entire plant in a pioneering experiment that paves the way for the revival of other species.
The Silene stenophylla is the oldest plant ever to be regenerated, the researchers said, and it is fertile, producing white flowers and viable seeds.

(Institute of Cell Biophysics of the Russian Academy of Sciences/via AP) - A Sylene stenophylla plant has been regenerated from tissue of fossil fruit found in a squirrel burrow that had been stuck in Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years. It is the oldest plant ever to be regenerated and it is fertile, producing white flowers and viable seeds.
The experiment proves that permafrost serves as a natural depository for ancient life forms, said the Russian researchers, who published their findings in Tuesday’s issue of “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” of the United States.
“We consider it essential to continue permafrost studies in search of an ancient genetic pool, that of pre-existing life, which hypothetically has long since vanished from the earth’s surface,” the scientists said in the article.
Canadian researchers had earlier regenerated some significantly younger plants from seeds found in burrows.
Svetlana Yashina of the Institute of Cell Biophysics of the Russian Academy Of Sciences, who led the regeneration effort, said the revived plant looked very similar to its modern version, which still grows in the same area in northeastern Siberia.
“It’s a very viable plant, and it adapts really well,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the Russian town of Pushchino where her lab is located.
She voiced hope the team could continue its work and regenerate more plant species.
The Russian research team recovered the fruit after investigating dozens of fossil burrows hidden in ice deposits on the right bank of the lower Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia, the sediments dating back 30,000-32,000 years.
The sediments were firmly cemented together and often totally filled with ice, making any water infiltration impossible — creating a natural freezing chamber fully isolated from the surface.
“The squirrels dug the frozen ground to build their burrows, which are about the size of a soccer ball, putting in hay first and then animal fur for a perfect storage chamber,” said Stanislav Gubin, one of the authors of the study, who spent years rummaging through the area for squirrel burrows. “It’s a natural cryobank.”
The burrows were located 125 feet (38 meters) below the present surface in layers containing bones of large mammals, such as mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, bison, horse and deer.
Gubin said the study has demonstrated that tissue can survive ice conservation for tens of thousands of years, opening the way to the possible resurrection of Ice Age mammals.
“If we are lucky, we can find some frozen squirrel tissue,” Gubin told the AP. “And this path could lead us all the way to mammoth.”
Japanese scientists are already searching in the same area for mammoth remains, but Gubin voiced hope that the Russians will be the first to find some frozen animal tissue that could be used for regeneration.
“It’s our land, we will try to get them first,” he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.
Svetlana Yashina
OLD DNA A plant has been generated from the fruit of the narrow-leafed campion. It is the oldest plant by far to be grown from ancient tissue.
This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.
Seeds and certain cells can last a long term under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination, and biologists are likely to greet this claim, too, with reserve until it can be independently confirmed. Tales of wheat grown from seeds in the tombs of the pharaohs have long been discredited. Lupines were germinated from seeds in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow found by a gold miner in the Yukon. But the seeds, later dated by the radiocarbon method, turned out to be modern contaminants.
Despite this unpromising background, the new claim is supported by a firm radiocarbon date. A similar avenue of inquiry into the deep past, the field of ancient DNA, was at first discredited after claims of retrieving dinosaur DNA proved erroneous, but with improved methods has produced spectacular results like the reconstitution of the Neanderthal genome.
The new report is by a team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences research center at Pushchino, near Moscow, and appears in Tuesday’s issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
“This is an amazing breakthrough,” said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada. “I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.” It was Dr. Zazula who showed that the apparently ancient lupine seeds found by the Yukon gold miner were in fact modern.
But the Russians’ extraordinary report is likely to provoke calls for more proof. “It’s beyond the bounds of what we’d expect,” said Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England. When poppy seeds are kept at minus 7 degrees Celsius, the temperature the Russians reported for the campions, after only 160 years just 2 percent of the seeds will be able to germinate, Dr. Murdoch noted.
The Russian researchers excavated ancient squirrel burrows exposed on the bank of the lower Kolyma River, an area thronged with mammoth and woolly rhinoceroses during the last ice age. Soon after being dug, the burrows were sealed with windblown earth, buried under 125 feet of sediment and permanently frozen at minus 7 degrees Celsius.
Some of the storage chambers in the burrows contain more than 600,000 seeds and fruits. Many are from a species that most closely resembles a plant found today, the narrow-leafed campion (Silene stenophylla).
Working with a burrow from the site called Duvanny Yar, the Russian researchers tried to germinate the campion seeds, but failed. They then took cells from the placenta, the organ in the fruit that produces the seeds. They thawed out the cells and grew them in culture dishes into whole plants.
Many plants can be propagated from a single adult cell, and this cloning procedure worked with three of the placentas, the Russian researchers report. They grew 36 ancient plants, which appeared identical to the present day narrow-leafed campion until they flowered, when they produced narrower and more splayed-out petals. Seeds from the ancient plants germinated with 100 percent success, compared with 90 percent for seeds from living campions.
The Russian team says it obtained a radiocarbon date of 31,800 years from seeds attached to the same placenta from which the living plants were propagated.
The researchers suggest that special circumstances may have contributed to the remarkable longevity of the campion plant cells. Squirrels construct their larders next to permafrost to keep seeds cool during the arctic summers, so the fruits would have been chilled from the start. The fruit’s placenta contains high levels of sucrose and phenols, which are good antifreeze agents.
The Russians measured the ground radioactivity at the site, which can damage DNA, and say the amount of gamma radiation the campion fruit accumulated over 30,000 years is not much higher than that reported for a 1,300-year-old sacred lotus seed, from which a plant was successfully germinated.
The Russian article was edited by Buford Price of the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Price, a physicist, chose two reviewers to help him. But neither he nor they are plant biologists. “I know nothing about plants,” he said. Ann Griswold, a spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences, said the paper had been seen by an editorial board member who is a plant biologist.
Tragedy has now struck the Russian team. Dr. Gilichinksy, its leader, was hospitalized with an asthma attack and unable to respond to questions, his daughter Yana said on Friday. On Saturday, Dr. Price reported that Dr. Gilichinsky had died of a heart attack.
Eske Willerslev, an expert on ancient DNA at the University of Copenhagen, said the finding was “plausible in principle,” given the conditions in permafrost. But the claim depends on the radiocarbon date being correct: “It’s all resting on that — if there’s something wrong there it can all fall part.”
If the ancient campions are the ancestors of the living plants, this family relationship should be evident in their DNA. Dr. Willerslev said that the Russian researchers should analyze the DNA of their specimens and prove that this is the case. However, this is not easy to do with plants whose genetics are not well studied, Dr. Willerslev said.
If the claim is true, then scientists should be able to study evolution in real time by comparing the ancient and living campions. Possibly other ancient species can be resurrected from the permafrost, including plants that have long been extinct.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dreamworks heads to china, Indian motion capture projects

Dreamworks now tapping the Chinese market... I thought to google for 'hindu dieties motion capture' and found this:

"These animations of Hindu deities were created by the Indian artists at the Paprikaas Animation Studio in Bangalore. In the case of Shiva, he was first ‘motion captured’ by digitally recording the movements of a foremost Indian classical dancer from Australia. "

another project:

"... the film is in 3D and The music will be scored by A.R.R Rahman."

"Rajnikanth's daughter is directing India's first motion capture movie, based on the legend of the Hindu god Shiva, starring the SUPERSTAR himself, alongside Deepika Padukone. The movie will also co-star Jackie Shroff and Tamil actress Sneha."

"The cast of this film seems to be changing every day but, as of now, the gorgeous Rukmini Vijayakumar has been cast as Rajini's sister and Aadhi (!!) opposite her. Shobana (!!!!) is also supposed to be in it.

While a set of sources say the dates given by Sneha were wasted since the project is taking time to kick off, others say Soundarya wanted a professional dancer for the role and hence she found Rukmini as the right choice."

DARPA Avatar / Surrogates project

Pentagon’s Project ‘Avatar’: Same as the Movie, but With Robots Instead of Aliens

Soldiers practically inhabiting the mechanical bodies of androids, who will take the humans’ place on the battlefield. Or sophisticated tech that spots a powerful laser ray, then stops it from obliterating its target.
If you’ve got Danger Room’s taste in movies, you’ve probably seen both ideas on the big screen. Now Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, wants to bring ‘em into the real world.
In the agency’s $2.8 billion budget for 2013, unveiled on Monday, they’ve allotted $7 million for a project titled “Avatar.” The project’s ultimate goal, not surprisingly, sounds a lot like the plot of the same-named (but much more expensive) flick.
According the agency, “the Avatar program will develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.”
These robots should be smart and agile enough to do the dirty work of war, Darpa notes. That includes the “room clearing, sentry control [and] combat casualty recovery.” And all at the bidding of their human partner.
Freaky? Um, yes. But the initiative does strike as the next logical step in Darpa’s robotics research. For one thing, the agency’s already been investigating increasingly autonomous, lifelike robots, including Petman (a headless humanoid), designed to mimic a soldier’s physiology, and AlphaDog (a gigantic, lumbering, four-legged beast), meant to lug gear during combat.
And just last week, when Darpa released a new video of AlphaDog cavorting through the forest, the agency noted that they wanted the ‘bot to “interact with [soldiers] in a natural way, similar to the way a trained animal and its handler interact.” AlphaDog is even being designed to follow a human commander using visual sensors, and respond to vocal commands.
Based on Darpa’s description of the “Avatar” project, which notes “key advancements in telepresence and remote operation of a ground system,” it sounds like the agency’s after an even more sophisticated robot-soldier synergy. They don’t specify the means, but Darpa’s already funded successful investigations into robots that are controlled with mind power alone. Granted, that research was performed on monkeys. But it does raise the tantalizing prospect that soldiers might one day meld minds with their very own robotic alter egos.
And the “Avatar” project isn’t Darpa’s only nod to sci-fi in their new budget plan. The agency’s “Counter Laser Technologies” project, on which they’re spending $4.1 million, seeks to develop “laser countermeasures” that’d protect the military’s weapons from high-energy lasers, and maybe even thwart potential attacks. No, Death Stars are not specifically mentioned.
Of course, such super-powerful blasters aren’t yet combat-ready. (Just ask the Army, which has a $38 million laser cannon — without a laser; it’s complicated.) But once they are, the lasers could do some serious damage to existing weapons systems, which is why the Pentagon’s already been after methods that’d safeguard its existing arsenals. In 2008, for example, the Air Force asked scientists to develop laser-proof coatings for weaponry. The Navy in 2009 also launched its own counter-laser initiative, looking for ideas to protect against myriad different blasters, high-energy lasers included.
Darpa’s project will try to accomplish some of those same goals. For example, the agency mentions an interest in “material treatments” that’d protect weaponry from a laser able to “melt through, fracture or weaken the body.” But Darpa’s also looking for a more comprehensive array of tools. It wants “warning systems” that can detect high-energy lasers, and “determine the attributes of the threat” (including wavelength and power). Plus, the agency’s after technology that can thwart a laser attack entirely, by “altering the laser’s internal optics or modifying the laser’s line of sight.”
Clearly, a leaner Pentagon budget hasn’t stopped Darpa’s dreamers from watching too much sci-fi. We’re just hoping nobody at the agency’s seen Source Code.


DARPA Wants to Give Soldiers Robot Surrogates, Avatar Style

POSTED BY: Evan Ackerman  /  Fri, February 17, 2012

In the movie Avatar, humans hooked themselves up to brain-machine-interface pods with which they could control giant genetically engineered human-alien hybrids. It's just a movie, but DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, doesn't care: It wants this kind of system to be real, just replace "giant genetically engineered human-alien hybrids" with "robots."
In its 2012 budget, DARPA has decided to pour US $7 million into the "Avatar Project," whose goal is the following: "develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.” Whoa.
That word "surrogate" implies something more than just telepresence, and indeed DARPA does specify that it is looking for "key advancements in telepresence and remote operation of a ground system." But we're perfectly free to speculate on what those "key advancements" are, which again comes back to "surrogate." To me, the implication is that there's going to be some technology that effectively puts the user "inside" the remote system, whether it's through immersive VR or exoskeleton or some sort of direct brain control. Either of these things is a realistic possibility, especially if DARPA's tossing a couple million at the problem.
And as for what this "semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine" is going to be, well... You remember that semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine that Boston Dynamics built for the U.S. Army to, uh, test chemical protection clothing?
To be clear, we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that PETMAN is anything more than a chemical protection clothing tester, except for the simple fact that just testing suits seems like a slightly ridiculous use for a freakin' super-advanced bipedal humanoid soldier robot. In any case, it's always fun to speculate when DARPA throws a bunch of money at some crazy new technology, and hopefully we'll be lucky enough to see some preliminary results before an army of robotic surrogates takes over the world.

Resurgent General Motors posts record $7.6-billion profit for 2011,0,5227978.story

Three years after nearly collapsing into liquidation, a resurgentGeneral Motors Co.has posted its best annual profit, surpassing what it earned during its heyday in the mid-1990s.

In earning $7.6 billion last year, the automaker demonstrated how it has capitalized on its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization and federal bailout to shed brands, slash debt, rewrite union contracts and close surplus factories.

The record annual earnings represented "a remarkable turnaround from what appeared to be a hopeless situation," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with automotive information company

GM now has about a $2,000-per-car manufacturing advantage over its Japanese and European rivals, a swing from a similar-sized disadvantage before the restructuring, said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research.

That's helped GM make huge profits at what are still relatively low levels of auto sales in the U.S. and made it competitive in the small-car business, where it now has competitive vehicles such as Chevrolet's new Cruze and Sonic sedans, Cole said. The automaker lost about $100 billion in the years before the 2009 rescue.

GM is generating strong profits in North America and China. But it is losing money in South America and Europe, where it acknowledged significant problems that Chief Executive Dan Akerson said will require the type of wrenching restructuring the automaker underwent to right its North American operations several years ago.

"We've got to look at every aspect of the business," Akerson said.

The company is expected to reveal cost and production cuts in Europe within months.

The annual profit for 2011 represented a 62% gain over the previous year. Revenue increased 11% to $150.3 billion. Fourth-quarter profit fell 7% to $472 million, while revenue increased 3% to $38 billion.

Akerson said he wants GM's profit margin of 5.5% in 2011 to grow to match that of the best-performing auto companies, which is about 10%. That would put GM on track to earn annual profits of $10 billion.

Last year's record earnings came at the same time the Detroit automaker recaptured its spot as the world's largest car seller. GM's global sales rose 7.6% to 9 million vehicles in 2011. It last held the top spot in 2007, before it was surpassed byToyota Motor Corp.the next year.

But Thursday's results showed that GM still has work to do shoring up its overseas business.

Most of the company's profit is coming from its North American operations, which produced $7.2 billion in operating income last year, up from $5.7 billion in 2010. GM accounts for about 1 out of every 5 vehicles sold in America.

Based on those financial results, GM said it would pay profit-sharing of up to $7,000 to about 47,500 U.S. hourly employees.

Europe remains the problem spot. GM lost $747 million there last year. Although that was just a third of the losses the previous year, the auto industry is expecting a difficult 2012 in Europe because of the sluggish economy there and the continuing debt crisis in Greece.

The problem is that there are too many automakers turning out too many cars in Europe right now, said Peter Nesvold, a Jefferies & Co. analyst.

"Each country has its own home team or domestic manufacturer, and full production seems to be an employment plan in each of those countries, so the industry is overproducing vehicles," Nesvold said.

GM will have to reduce its capacity but might not have the ability to do so until its European labor contracts come up for renegotiation in 2014, he said.

Akerson said GM is talking to the region's labor unions and governments about ways to cut costs to make its operations profitable there.

Late last year, GM reorganized the senior management of its European operation, placing Vice Chairman Steve Girsky as chairman of its Opel subsidiary's supervisory board.

GM also lost $122 million in South America last year, after posting operating income of $818 million in the region in 2010.

China continues to produce profits for the automaker. Its international operations, of which China is the main component, had operating profit of $1.9 billion last year, compared with $2.3 billion in 2010.

U.S. taxpayers have a stake in GM's financial performance because the federal government owns about 27% of the automaker's stock, including unexercised options and warrants.

GM has repaid $24.1 billion of the $49.5 billion in government aid it received. The repayments include the proceeds from the automaker's public stock offering. The government would have to get more than $50 a share for its remaining holdings to recoup what it put into the business.

GM shares rose $2.24, or 9%, to $27.17 on Thursday.

The GM profit was reflective of a string of good earnings from the auto industry this year.

Last monthFord Motor Co.posted an annual pre-tax operating profit of $8.8 billion, almost 6% above the previous year and the best since 1999. It now has recorded 10 consecutive quarters of operating profits. Its annual net income reached $20.2 billion, but that was because of a special one-time, non-cash tax gain.

This month Chrysler Group reported its first annual profit in years. It earned $183 million last year, compared with a loss of $652 million in 2010. Sales rose 31% to $55 billion.

Al Gore Takes Aim at Unstainable Capitalism

 * The former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management put forward five key actions which he hoped would revive the discussion on how to clean up capitalism and put companies, investors and stakeholders on the path towards long-term, sustainable profit.

* "While we believe that capitalism is fundamentally superior to any other system for organising economic activity, it is also clear that some of the ways in which it is now practised do not incorporate sufficient regard for its impact on people, society and the planet," Gore said.


Al Gore Takes Aim at Unsustainable Capitalism
By Sinead Cruise

* System blighted by short-termism
* Calls for end to quarterly company reporting
* Eyes loyalty-driven shares to counter short-termism

LONDON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore wants to end the default practice of quarterly earnings guidance and explore issuing loyalty-driven securities as part of an overhaul of capitalism which he says has turned many of the world's largest economies into hotbeds of irresponsible short-term investment.

Together with David Blood, senior partner of 'green' fund firm Generation Investment Management, the environmental activist has crafted a blueprint for "sustainable capitalism" he wants the financial industry to adopt to support lasting economic growth.

"While we believe that capitalism is fundamentally superior to any other system for organising economic activity, it is also clear that some of the ways in which it is now practised do not incorporate sufficient regard for its impact on people, society and the planet," Gore said.

At a briefing ahead of Thursday's launch, David Blood said capitalism has been blighted with short-termism and an obsession with instant investment results, which had ramped up market volatility, widened the gap between rich and poor and deflected attention from the deepening climate crisis.

The former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management put forward five key actions which he hoped would revive the discussion on how to clean up capitalism and put companies, investors and stakeholders on the path towards long-term, sustainable profit.

These include ending quarterly earnings guidance from companies, which the authors said incentivised executives and investors to base decisions on short-term factors at the expense of longer-term objectives.

Companies have also been encouraged to integrate financial reporting with insight on environmental, social and governance policy so investors can clearly see how performance in the latter can contribute to the former.

"This is a direct appeal, dare I say, attack on short-termism in business," Blood said.

"Today the average mutual fund in the U.S. turns over its entire portfolio every 7 months; 20 years ago it was every 7 years. Something has fundamentally changed and the problem with that is it means we're not making good investing decisions... and not delivering proper and efficient wealth creation."

After hitting mainstream consciousness in the early part of the last decade, the 2008 financial crisis brought efforts to make global business more environmentally and economically sound to a virtual halt.

But with so many roots to that crisis found in skewed asset valuations and irrational short-term trading, the authors want to restate the case for change while the pain of the credit crunch was still fresh in the memory.

"We went down this path because we fundamentally believe this is relevant to business. This has always been about value creation and this whole conversation about sustainable capitalism is not a new movement," Blood said.

"While governments and civil society will need to be part of the solution to these challenges, ultimately it will be companies and investors that will mobilise the capital needed to overcome them."


To offset the disproportional influence of short-term traders like hedge funds on global markets, Generation has proposed the issuance of loyalty-driven securities to reward investors who nurture real business growth by holding a company's shares for a number of years.

The blueprint also recommends significant changes in corporate compensation structures, putting more emphasis on bonuses linked to multi-year performance instead of individual fiscal years.
Gore said pension funds had a vital role to play in coaxing their managers to make longer-term investment decisions, which by extension, could result in a healthier society and planet.

"(They) have a fiduciary obligation to maximise the long-term performance of their assets to the maturation of their long term liabilities," Gore said.

"If pension funds turn to managers of their assets and compensate them with a structure that incentivises them to maximise performance on an annual basis, they should not be surprised if that is what their managers end up doing."

Blood said the campaign for sustainable investment had been hit by worries that change would cost more than it would ultimately deliver, but many businesses were still to grasp how value-destructive some elements of modern capitalism had become.

" America, as soon as you say the word 'sustainability' people think of socially-responsible investing, tree-hugging and we don't believe that at all. We think sustainability is just best practice in business," he said.

Thanks to the UN, South American governments like Venezuela and Brazil and other BRICs economies for leading the charge against western oppression at the Rio+20 Summit, which sets a noble agenda to retool the very nature of the world economy and achieve social and economic equality. (originally a yahoo news article)

Venezuela ships fuel to war-torn Syria

"The aggressions against Syria are continuing," Chavez said in a speech last month. "It's the same formula they (the West) used against Libya: inject violence, inject terrorism from abroad and later invoke the United Nations to intervene."


Exclusive: Venezuela ships fuel to war-torn Syria

CARACAS/GENEVA | Thu Feb 16, 2012 6:20pm EST
(Reuters) - The government of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is emerging as a rare supplier of diesel to Syria, potentially undermining Western sanctions and helping the Syrian government fuel its military in the middle of a bloody crackdown on civilian protests.
A cargo of diesel, which can be used to fuel army tanks or as heating fuel, was expected to arrive at Syria's Mediterranean port of Banias this week, according to two traders and shipping data. The cargo could be worth up to $50 million.
Chavez is a vociferous advocate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who face pressure from Western sanctions. Few leaders on the world stage have polarized opinion as sharply as the Venezuelan president.
Chavez, who still defends the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, has repeatedly backed Arab leaders who have faced a year-long wave of popular protests, which have already toppled four governments.
Asked on Thursday about the shipments to Syria and whether they could be used for military purposes, Chavez said Venezuela never asked the United States what it did with the fuel that Venezuela sold it, and that no one could dictate to Caracas.
"We are free. We are a free country," he said, standing with his friend Sean Penn, the U.S. actor, who is visiting Venezuela.
Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA shipped the cargo aboard the Negra Hipolita vessel, according to AIS tracking data on the Reuters Freight Fundamentals Database and trade sources. The same tanker carried the first such shipment in November, the sources said.
PDVSA could not immediately be reached for comment.
"The aggressions against Syria are continuing," Chavez said in a speech last month. "It's the same formula they (the West) used against Libya: inject violence, inject terrorism from abroad and later invoke the United Nations to intervene."
The South American OPEC nation has also tried to aid Iran with fuel supplies amid sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
Rights groups say close to 6,000 people have been killed in attacks by Syrian security forces against civilian demonstrators and an increasingly powerful rebel insurgency.
The United States and Europe are pressuring Assad to leave power. Russia and China this month vetoed a United Nations resolution calling on Assad to step aside.
The Venezuelan tanker was last seen off the coast of Cyprus with a destination of Banias and the estimated arrival date of Wednesday, AIS ship tracking on Reuters showed. The satellite tracking has been switched off since Wednesday.
The shipment comes at a critical time for Syria, which has faced worsening energy shortages this winter after Western sanctions all but halted imports, which are needed to meet half the country's diesel demand.
Diplomats blame the power and fuel shortages on increased demand from the military, while the government says attacks on power stations and refinery pipelines are reducing supply.
The PDVSA shipments appeared to be carried out under a 2010 agreement between the governments of the two nations in which Venezuela provides diesel in exchange for food and commodities such as olive oil.
Syria's oil minister spoke about the possibility of Venezuelan imports in January, and traders said the Negra Hipolita diesel shipment to Syria was the second delivery in the past three months.
The vessel can carry 47,000 tones, which if fully loaded would be worth around $50 million. It was not clear how much diesel the ship was carrying.
While there is no blanket embargo on supplying fuel to Syria, its state-owned oil firm Sytrol, responsible for organizing fuel imports and exports, was placed on a U.S. blacklist last summer, and the European Union followed suit in December.
It was not clear whether the recent reported fuel transactions were done via Sytrol.
The EU has stopped short of banning product deliveries for humanitarian reasons, but oil traders said most deliveries have stopped anyway as traditional suppliers are increasingly reluctant to do business with Syria.
Normally an exporter of crude oil even in peacetime, Syria has relied on imports for more than half of its annual consumption of 5 million tones of diesel because of a shortage of domestic refining capacity. International sanctions have stopped Syrian oil exports since September last year, drastically stretching government budget revenues.
A growing number of military attacks involving armored vehicles and tanks may be spurring diesel consumption, while a severe winter is driving up heating demand.
"Given the risk that (refining) capacity could be cut due to sabotage, fuel shortages are likely to force the government to rely on costly imports supplied by a shrinking pool of political allies," risk group Business Monitor International wrote in a recent report.
Due to the sanctions, the Negra Hipolita will not be able to dock at ports in the United States nor in Europe, one of the sources said. In the past the vessel has been primarily used to transport crude between production facilities and refineries within Venezuela.
The United States previously imposed sanctions on PDVSA over sales of gasoline-blending components to Iran in violation of a U.S. ban.
(Additional reporting by Himanshu Ojha in New York, Jonathan Saul in London, and Daniel Wallis in Caracas; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov, James Jukwey and Dale Hudson)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Neuron memory key to taming chronic pain

From the article:

Study suggests erasing neuronal memories may help control persistent pain
For some, the pain is so great that they can’t even bear to have clothes touch their skin. For others, it means that every step is a deliberate and agonizing choice. Whether the pain is caused by arthritic joints, an injury to a nerve or a disease like fibromyalgia, research now suggests there are new solutions for those who suffer from chronic pain.
A team of researchers led by McGill neuroscientist Terence Coderre, who is also affiliated with the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, has found the key to understanding how memories of pain are stored in the brain. More importantly, the researchers are also able to suggest how these memories can be erased, making it possible to ease chronic pain.
It has long been known that the central nervous system “remembers” painful experiences, that they leave a memory trace of pain. And when there is new sensory input, the pain memory trace in the brain magnifies the feeling so that even a gentle touch can be excruciating.
“Perhaps the best example of a pain memory trace is found with phantom limb pain,” suggests Coderre. “Patients may have a limb amputated because of gangrene, and because the limb was painful before it was amputated, even though the limb is gone, the patients continue to feel they are suffering from pain in the absent limb. That’s because the brain remembers the pain. In fact, there’s evidence that any pain that lasts more than a few minutes will leave a trace in the nervous system.” It’s this memory of pain, which exists at the neuronal level, that is critical to the development of chronic pain. But until now, it was not known how these pain memories were stored at the level of the neurons.
Recent work has shown that the protein kinase PKMzeta plays a crucial role in building and maintaining memory by strengthening the connections between neurons. Now Coderre and his colleagues have discovered that PKMzeta is also the key to understanding how the memory of pain is stored in the neurons. They were able to show that after painful stimulation, the level of PKMzeta increases persistently in the central nervous system (CNS).
Even more importantly, the researchers found that by blocking the activity of PKMzeta at the neuronal level, they could reverse the hypersensitivity to pain that neurons developed after irritating the skin by applying capsaicin – the active ingredient in hot peppers. Moreover, erasing this pain memory trace was found to reduce both persistent pain and heightened sensitivity to touch.
Coderre and his colleagues believe that building on this study to devise ways to target PKMzeta in pain pathways could have a significant effect for patients with chronic pain. “Many pain medications target pain at the peripheral level, by reducing inflammation, or by activating analgesia systems in the brain to reduce the feeling of pain,” says Coderre. “This is the first time that we can foresee medications that will target an established pain memory trace as a way of reducing pain hypersensitivity. We believe it’s an avenue that may offer new hope to those suffering from chronic pain.”
The full article can be found at:
Other contributing researchers on this study include Andre Laferrière, Mark H Pitcher, Anne Haldane, Yue Huang, Virginia Cornea, Naresh Kumar, Fernando Cervero (all from the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain at McGill) and co-author Todd C Sacktor (State University of New York Downstate Medical Center).
This research was supported by grants from Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Louise and Alan Edwards Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and an Astra-Zeneca/AECRP fellowship.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Customer Service Ménage à Trois

Even as I am writing this entry, I am discovering a great alchemy of the absurd in simultaneously listening to hold music / messages on speaker from both a cell phone and land line.

The land line is piping a somewhat soothing sympatico of classical guitar and piano interrupted by a stark 'please hold while I connect you with an agent' served on a backdrop of silence. This line goes to a state government agency.

By contrast, the cell - an old Razr from 2007 with all of the acoustic charm of a tin can - chatters out an upbeat smooth jazz diddy woven into glimmering generalities about the merits of a particular service which then goes into a long instrumental section as though to grant a savory moment of stewing in my own excitement, the music embellishing the vivid imagery the voice has heaped upon my imagination. This line goes to a direct marketing company.

Never have I felt both so desperately placated AND also fiercely encouraged, as though I'm awash in an Irish coffee. Like Evel Knievel being cheered on by the crowd before making a disastrous jump, AND also the nursing team and family members who would surround him in the ICU at the same time. It's the phenomenal thunderstorm that results when a swell of grieving meets a lap dance. Maybe this is what Charlie Sheen meant by 'winning'.

Monday, February 13, 2012

China Stealing Data from Business Visitors' Mobile Devices

Traveling Light in a Time of Digital Thievery

SAN FRANCISCO — When Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, travels to that country, he follows a routine that seems straight from a spy film.
He leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings “loaner” devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never lets his phone out of his sight and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.”
What might have once sounded like the behavior of a paranoid is now standard operating procedure for officials at American government agencies, research groups and companies that do business in China and Russia — like Google, the State Department and the Internet security giant McAfee. Digital espionage in these countries, security experts say, is a real and growing threat — whether in pursuit of confidential government information or corporate trade secrets.
“If a company has significant intellectual property that the Chinese and Russians are interested in, and you go over there with mobile devices, your devices will get penetrated,” said Joel F. Brenner, formerly the top counterintelligence official in the office of the director of national intelligence.
Theft of trade secrets was long the work of insiders — corporate moles or disgruntled employees. But it has become easier to steal information remotely because of the Internet, the proliferation of smartphones and the inclination of employees to plug their personal devices into workplace networks and cart proprietary information around. Hackers’ preferred modus operandi, security experts say, is to break into employees’ portable devices and leapfrog into employers’ networks — stealing secrets while leaving nary a trace.
Targets of hack attacks are reluctant to discuss them and statistics are scarce. Most breaches go unreported, security experts say, because corporate victims fear what disclosure might mean for their stock price, or because those affected never knew they were hacked in the first place. But the scope of the problem is illustrated by an incident at the United States Chamber of Commerce in 2010.
The chamber did not learn that it — and its member organizations — were the victims of a cybertheft that had lasted for months until the Federal Bureau of Investigation told the group that servers in China were stealing information from four of its Asia policy experts, who frequent China. By the time the chamber secured its network, hackers had pilfered at least six weeks worth of e-mails with its member organizations, which include most of the nation’s largest corporations. Later still, the chamber discovered that its office printer and even a thermostat in one of its corporate apartments were still communicating with an Internet address in China.
The chamber did not disclose how hackers had infiltrated its systems, but its first step after the attack was to bar employees from taking devices with them “to certain countries,” notably China, a spokesman said.
The implication, said Jacob Olcott, a cybersecurity expert at Good Harbor Consulting, was that devices brought into China were hacked. “Everybody knows that if you are doing business in China, in the 21st century, you don’t bring anything with you. That’s ‘Business 101’ — at least it should be.”
Neither the Chinese nor Russian embassies in Washington responded to several requests for comment. But after Google accused Chinese hackers of breaking into its systems in 2010, Chinese officials gave this statement: “China is committed to protecting the legitimate rights and interests of foreign companies in our country.”
Still, United States security experts and government officials say they are increasingly concerned about breaches from within these countries into corporate networks — whether through mobile devices or other means.
Last week, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, warned in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee about theft of trade secrets by “entities” within China and Russia. And Mike McConnell, a former director of national intelligence, and now a private consultant, said in an interview, “In looking at computer systems of consequence — in government, Congress, at the Department of Defense, aerospace, companies with valuable trade secrets — we’ve not examined one yet that has not been infected by an advanced persistent threat.”
Both China and Russia prohibit travelers from entering the country with encrypted devices unless they have government permission. When officials from those countries visit the United States, they take extra precautions to prevent the hacking of their portable devices, according to security experts.

Now, United States companies, government agencies and organizations are doing the same by imposing do-not-carry rules. Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said its members could bring only “clean” devices to China and were forbidden from connecting to the government’s network while abroad. As for himself, he said he traveled “electronically naked.”
At the State Department, employees get specific instruction on how to secure their devices in Russia and China, and are briefed annually on general principles of security. At the Brookings Institution, Mr. Lieberthal advises companies that do business in China. He said that there was no formal policy mandating that employees leave their devices at home, “but they certainly educate employees who travel to China and Russia to do so.”
McAfee, the security company, said that if any employee’s device was inspected at the Chinese border, it could never be plugged into McAfee’s network again. Ever. “We just wouldn’t take the risk,” said Simon Hunt, a vice president.
At AirPatrol, a company based in Columbia, Md., that specializes in wireless security systems, employees take only loaner devices to China and Russia, never enable Bluetooth and always switch off the microphone and camera. “We operate under the assumption that we will inevitably be compromised,” said Tom Kellermann, the company’s chief technology officer and a member of a panel established by the Center for Strategic International Studies to advise President Obama on cybersecurity.
Google said it would not comment on its internal travel policies, but employees who spoke on condition of anonymity said the company prohibited them from bringing sensitive data to China, required they bring only loaner laptops or have their devices inspected upon their return.
Federal lawmakers are considering bills aimed at thwarting cybertheft of trade secrets, although it is unclear whether this legislation would directly address problems that arise from business trips overseas.
In the meantime, companies are leaking critical information, often without realizing it.
“The Chinese are very good at covering their tracks,” said Scott Aken, a former F.B.I. agent who specialized in counterintelligence and computer intrusion. “In most cases, companies don’t realize they’ve been burned until years later when a foreign competitor puts out their very same product — only they’re making it 30 percent cheaper.”
“We’ve already lost our manufacturing base,” he said. “Now we’re losing our R.& D. base. If we lose that, what do we fall back on?”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 13, 2012

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the cybersecurity panel on which Tom Kellermann serves as a presidential commission.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Battery Desalinates Seawater

By Aaron Rowe

For the first time, researchers have designed an electrochemical cell that can desalinate seawater (Nano Lett., DOI: 10.1021/nl203889e). They think that its cost and efficiency eventually could improve on standard techniques of purifying seawater.
Worldwide demand for freshwater is skyrocketing as the population increases. Many of today’s desalination plants use reverse osmosis or evaporation, both of which require enormous amounts of energy to supply heaters or high-pressure pumps. To find cheaper, room-temperature, energy-efficient solutions, many researchers are looking to nanomaterials and electrochemistry.
The new system uses both. It first draws ions from seawater into a pair of electrodes. As the researchers pass current through the electrodes, electrochemical reactions drive chloride ions into a silver electrode and sodium ions to an electrode made from manganese oxide nanorods. Next, the researchers remove the desalinated water and release the trapped ions into a separate stream of waste seawater by reversing the direction of the electrical current. Although the pilot experiments were not automated, the researchers say that a pump could automate the process.
The desalination system is a spinoff from a Stanford University project to create new sources of clean energy. Last year, Fabio La Mantia, now of Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany, Yi Cui, of Stanford University, and colleagues showed that they could generate electrical energy by flowing streams of water with varying salinity through an electrochemical cell (Nano Lett., DOI: 10.1021/nl200500s). “The desalination battery is essentially the same device, but reversed,” explains La Mantia, who worked again with Cui and other researchers, on the new study.
The desalinated water that comes from the battery still contains too much salt for drinking, La Mantia says: “We removed up to 50% of the original salt, but we need to arrive at 98%.”
Doing several cycles of ion removal with the battery would further desalinate the water, but those extra cycles cost energy, so La Mantia hopes to improve the efficiency enough so that the battery can remove the salt in a single pass.
John H. Lienhard, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applauds the work but cautions, “There’s still some way to go before this technique could be deployed for large-scale seawater processes.” He says the researchers need to find ways to remove sulfates from seawater, lower the cost of the electrodes, and protect the system from deposits of biofilm and scale that could cripple the device.
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2012 American Chemical Society


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Russian scientists reach lake under Antarctica: Lake Vostok

MOSCOW (AP) — After more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian scientists have reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake hidden under miles of ice for some 20 million years — a lake that may hold life from the distant past and clues to the search for life on other planets.
Reaching Lake Vostok is a major discovery avidly anticipated by scientists around the world hoping that it may allow a glimpse into microbial life forms, not visible to the naked eye, that existed before the Ice Age. It may also provide precious material that would help look for life on the ice-crusted moons of Jupiter and Saturn or under Mars' polar ice caps where conditions could be similar.
"It's like exploring another planet, except this one is ours," Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell told The Associated Press by email.
Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), which is in charge of the mission, said in Wednesday's statement that his team reached the lake's surface on Sunday.
Lukin has previously compared the Lake Vostok effort to the moon race that the Soviet Union lost to the United States, telling the Russian media he was proud that Russia will be the first this time. Although far from being the world's deepest lake, the severe weather of Antarctica and the location's remoteness made the project challenging.
"There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years," said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI. "It's a meeting with the unknown."
Savatyugin said scientists hope to find primeval bacteria that could expand the human knowledge of the origins of life.
"We need to see what we have here before we send missions to ice-crusted moons, like Jupiter's moon Europa," he said.
Lake Vostok is 160 miles (250 kilometers) long and 30 miles (50 kilometers) across at its widest point, similar in area to Lake Ontario. It lies about 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) beneath the surface and is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lake is warmed underneath by geothermal energy.
The project, however, has drawn strong fears that 60 metric tons (66 tons) of lubricants and antifreeze used in the drilling may contaminate the pristine lake. The Russian researchers have insisted the bore would only slightly touch the lake's surface and that a surge in pressure will send the water rushing up the shaft where it will freeze, immediately sealing out the toxic chemicals.
Lukin said about 1.5 cubic meters (50 cubic feet) of kerosene and freon poured up to the surface from the boreshaft, proof that the lake water streamed up from beneath, froze, and blocked the hole.
The scientists will later remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer comes.
Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite its high pressure and constant cold — conditions similar to those expected to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's move Enceladus.
"In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life," NASA's chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told the AP by email.
Scientists in other nations hope to follow up this discovery with similar projects. American and British teams are drilling to reach their own subglacial Antarctic lakes, but Bell said those lakes are smaller and younger than Vostok, which is the big scientific prize.
Some scientists hope that studies of Lake Vostok and other subglacial lakes will advance knowledge of Earth's own climate and help predict its changes.
"It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they've been working on this for years," Professor Martin Siegert, a leading scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, which is trying to reach another Antarctic subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth.
"The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the U.S. and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments," he said in an email.
In the future, Russian researchers plan to explore the lake using an underwater robot equipped with video cameras that would collect water samples and sediments from the bottom of the lake, a project still awaiting the approval of the Antarctic Treaty organization.
The prospect of lakes hidden under Antarctic ice was first put forward by Russian scientist and anarchist revolutionary, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin at the end of the 19th century. Russian geographer Andrei Kapitsa pointed at the likely location of the lake and named it following Soviet Antarctic missions in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn't until 1994 that its existence was proven by Russian and British scientists.
The drilling in the area began in 1989 and dragged on slowly due to funding shortages, equipment breakdowns, environmental concerns and severe cold.
While temperatures on the Vostok Station on the surface above have registered the coldest ever recorded on Earth, reaching minus 89 degrees Celsius (minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit), the water in the lake is warmed by the giant pressure of the ice crust and geothermal energy underneath.
The Russian team reached the lake just before they had to leave at the end of the Antarctic summer season.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Washington.