Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shark Nose Massage 1;16...

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Algae and Light Help Injured Mice Walk Again

In the summer of 2007, a team of Stanford graduate students dropped a mouse into a plastic basin. The mouse sniffed the floor curiously. It didn’t seem to care that a fiber-optic cable was threaded through its skull. Nor did it seem to mind that the right half of its motor cortex had been reprogrammed.

One of the students flipped a switch and intense blue light shone through the cable into the mouse’s brain, illuminating it with an eerie glow. Instantly, the mouse began running in counterclockwise circles as though hell-bent on winning a murine Olympics.

Then the light went off, and the mouse stopped. Sniffed. Stood up on its hind legs and looked directly at the students as if to ask, “Why the hell did I just do that?” And the students whooped and cheered like this was the most important thing they’d ever seen.

Because it was the most important thing they’d ever seen. They’d shown that a beam of light could control brain activity with great precision. The mouse didn’t lose its memory, have a seizure, or die. It ran in a circle. Specifically, a counterclockwise circle.
See the numbers.

See the numbers.

Precision, that was the coup. Drugs and implanted electrodes can influence the brain, but they are terribly imprecise: Drugs flood the brain and affect many types of neurons indiscriminately. Electrodes activate every neuron around them.

This is bad for researchers, because practically every square millimeter of the brain contains a mess of different kinds of neurons, each specialized for a particular task. Drugs and electricity set off cascades of unwanted neural activity. Side effects.

It’s bad for patients, too. Cochlear implants, which let the deaf hear by shocking the auditory nerves, produce fuzzy sound because the electricity spreads beyond the neurons it’s aimed at. Deep brain stimulators for Parkinson’s patients allow them to walk and speak but may cause seizures and muscle weakness. Electroshock can help depression but often results in memory loss.

In 1979, Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, lamented the blunderbuss nature of existing technologies. What was needed, he wrote in Scientific American, was a way to control neurons of only one cell type in one specific location. Which, nearly 30 years later, was precisely what these students had achieved.

But how could they be using light? Neurons don’t respond to light any more than muscles do. The idea sounds as crazy as trying to jump-start a car with a flashlight. The secret is that the mouse’s neurons weren’t normal. New genes had been inserted into them — genes from plants, which do respond to light, and the new genes were making the neurons behave in planty ways.

Genes are just instructions, of course. By themselves they don’t do anything, just as the instructions for your Ikea desk don’t make it leap together. But genes direct the assembly of proteins, and proteins make things happen. The weird new plant proteins in this mouse’s brain were sensitive to light, and they were making the neurons fire.

The counterclockwise-running mouse was something new — a triple fusion of animal, plant, and technology — and the students knew it was a harbinger of unprecedentedly powerful ways to alter the brain. For curing diseases, to begin with, but also for understanding how the brain interacts with the body. And ultimately for fusing human and machine.

The story of this technology starts with a most unlikely creature: pond scum. In the early 1990s, a German biologist named Peter Hegemann was working with a single-celled bug called Chlamydomonas, or, less technically, algae. Under a microscope, the cell looks like a little football with a tail. When the organism is exposed to light, its tail wags madly, moving the cell forward.

Hegemann wanted to know how this single cell, with no eye or brain, responded to light. How did it “see”? What made it “act”?

Answers slowly emerged: Hegemann and his colleagues found that part of the cell’s membrane is packed with coiled-up proteins. They theorized that when a photon hits one of those proteins, the molecule uncoils, creating a tiny pore in the membrane. Charged ions flow across the membrane, which makes the cell’s flagella move. And the whole shebang swims forward.

This was good, solid cell research. Fascinating little machines! But completely useless fascinating little machines. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that scientists figured out how they might be put to use.

In 1999, Roger Tsien, a biologist at UC San Diego, was heeding Crick’s call for better ways to trigger neurons. When he read about Hegemann’s work with Chlamydomonas, he wondered: Could that photosensitivity somehow be imported into neural cells? To do that, it would be necessary to figure out which gene made the light-sensitive protein in the Chlamydomonas cell wall. Then the gene could be inserted into neurons so that, Tsien hoped, they too would fire in response to light.

Now, using light to make neurons fire wouldn’t be a huge deal; electricity could do that. But the exciting part was that a gene could be designed to affect only specific kinds of neurons. Scientists can mark a gene with a “promoter” — a cell-specific piece of DNA that controls whether a gene is used.

Here’s what they do: Insert the gene (plus promoter) into a group of viral particles and inject them into the brain. The viruses infect a cubic millimeter or two of tissue. That is to say, they insert the new gene into every neuron in that area, indiscriminately. But because of the promoter, the gene will only turn on in one type of neuron. All the other neurons will ignore it. Imagine you wanted only the lefty in an outfield to catch. How would you do that? Distribute left-handed gloves to all the players. The righties would just stand there, fidgeting and calling their agents. The lefty would spring into action. Just as the lefty is “tagged” by his ability to use the glove, a neuron is “tagged” by its ability to use the gene. Bye-bye side effects: Researchers would be able to stimulate one kind of neuron at a time.

It was a dazzling idea. Tsien wrote to Hegemann asking for the Chlamydomonas light-sensitivity gene. Hegemann wasn’t sure which one it was, so he sent two possibilities. Tsien and his graduate students duly inserted both into cultured neurons. But when exposed to light, the neurons did nothing at all. Tsien extracted two more genes from the algae and tried one of them, but that didn’t work either. “After three strikes, you have to admit that you’re out and try something else,” Tsien says. So he moved on to another line of research and put the fourth gene back into the lab refrigerator, unexamined.

Tsien may have put his work on ice, but Hegemann and his colleagues continued searching; two years later, they inserted a gene into a frog egg and shone light on it. Voilè0! The egg responded with a flow of current.

When Tsien read their paper, he recognized the gene immediately. It was, of course, the one he’d put away. “Our error was not to put it in the fridge,” Tsien says wryly, “but rather to fail to take it back out.” That’s science, though: “You win some, you lose some.” (And he did end up winning some. For his new area of research, using genes to make cells glow by cell type, he won a Nobel Prize in 2008.)

Hegemann’s team named the gene Channelrhodopsin-1. In 2003, they published a bold proposal about its variant, Channelrhodopsin-2: It “may be used to depolarize [activate] animal cells … simply by illumination.” Now someone had to find a practical use for this discovery.

Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist at Stanford, has seen many people with horrific brain diseases. But there are two patients, in particular, that drive his work. He once treated a bright college student ravaged by depression who had grown terrified by its assault on his mind. The other patient was frozen by Parkinson’s. The disease had slowly destroyed the motor control areas of her brain until she was unable to walk, smile, or eat. “I couldn’t save either of these patients,” Deisseroth says. “My inability to treat them, despite our best efforts, has stayed with me.”

Deisseroth, a compact man in his late thirties, is also a neuroscientist. He holds a psych clinic one day a week but spends the rest of his time running a lab. In 2003, he read Hegemann’s paper and asked himself the same thing that Tsien had back in 1999: Could the brain’s misbehaving cells be tagged genetically and controlled with light?

He took on several graduate students to research this, including Feng Zhang and Ed Boyden. Zhang had just graduated from Harvard. He is precisely spoken, his lean sentences tinged with a Boston accent overlaid on a Mandarin one. Boyden, on the other hand, talks so fast he swallows his words, as if his brain were perpetually outracing his mouth. He’s a man in a hurry. He had graduated from MIT at age 19 with a thesis on quantum computation and was pursuing his doctorate in neuroscience.

In 2005, Zhang and Boyden repeated Tsien’s experiment. This time, though, they had the right gene. They inserted it into a culture of neural tissue on a glass slide and poked a tiny electrode into one of the neurons so they would know when it fired. Then they aimed blue light at it. (Channelrhodopsin reacts most strongly to light at 480 nanometers on the spectrum, i.e., blue.)

Their apparatus looked like a microscope that spent its off-hours at the gym. It had a camera screwed into the eyepiece, a laser aimed at the slide, and big boxes of circuitry for amplifying the tiny current they hoped to see. If the cell fired, a huge in-your-face spike would appear on a screen. And that’s exactly what happened. With every flash, another spike marched across the whiteness.

They now had an On switch for neurons. But in the brain, it’s as important to inhibit neurons as it is to make them fire. As with computers, 0 is as crucial as 1; they needed an Off switch, too. When Boyden finished his PhD, he took an appointment at MIT and began hunting for it. He found there was a bacterial gene, halorhodopsin, that had properties suggesting it could do the opposite of channelrhodopsin. In 2006, Boyden inserted halorhodopsin into neurons and exposed them to yellow light. They stopped firing. Beautiful.

Over at Stanford, Deisseroth’s team was making the same discovery, and soon they were stopping worms in their tracks with yellow light. Other labs were already making flies leap into the air when exposed to blue light. And on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno had even joked about the technology with a clip in which he pretended to steer a “remote control” fly into George W. Bush’s mouth. The research was mushrooming, and dozens of labs were calling Deisseroth to ask for the genes. The new field was dubbed optogenetics: optical stimulation plus genetic engineering.

But neurons in petri dishes and in bugs were comparatively simple. Would optogenetics work in the staggeringly complex tangle of a mammalian brain? And could it be used to cure real brain illnesses?

By summer 2007, Deisseroth’s group had answered the first question with their counterclockwise mouse. They put the channelrhodopsin gene into the mouse’s right anterior motor cortex, which controls the left side of the body. When the light went on, the little guy went left.

Deisseroth immediately put his lab to work figuring out what part of the brain needed to be stimulated to cure Parkinson’s. Optogenetics was the ideal tool because it let researchers test various types of neurons to find which one would make legs move again, hands grasp again, faces smile again.

But test after test failed. “This was a discouraging time,” Deisseroth says. “The project was almost abandoned, because we had difficulty showing any therapeutic result.”

Many experts had thought the cure was to stimulate certain kinds of cells within the subthalamic nucleus, which coordinates motion. But when they tried that, it had no effect whatsoever. Then two of Deisseroth’s grad students began experimenting with a dark-horse idea. They stimulated neurons near the surface of the brain that send signals into the subthalamic nucleus — a much harder approach because it meant working at one remove. It was as if, instead of using scissors yourself, you had to guide someone else’s hands to make the cuts.

Their idea worked. The mice walked. In their paper, published in April 2009, they wrote that the “effects were not subtle; indeed, in nearly every case these severely parkinsonian animals were restored to behavior indistinguishable from normal.”

Over at MIT, Boyden was asking the obvious question: Would this work on people? But imagine saying to a patient, “We’re going to genetically alter your brain by injecting it with viruses that carry genes taken from pond scum, and then we’re going to insert light sources into your skull.” He was going to need some persuasive safety data first.

That same summer, Boyden and his assistants began working with rhesus monkeys, whose brains are relatively similar to humans’. He was looking to see whether the primates were harmed by the technique. They triggered the neurons of one particular monkey for several minutes every few weeks for nine months. In the end, the animal was just fine.

The next step was creating a device that didn’t require threading cables through the skull. One of Deisseroth’s colleagues designed a paddle about one-third the length of a popsicle stick. It has four LEDs: two blue ones to make neurons fire and two yellow ones to stop them. Attached to the paddle is a little box that provides power and instructions. The paddle is implanted on the surface of the brain, on top of the motor control area. The lights are bright enough to illuminate a fairly large volume of tissue, so the placement doesn’t have to be exact. The light-sensitizing genes are injected into the affected tissue beforehand. It’s a far easier surgery than deep brain electrical stimulation, and, if it works, a far more precise treatment. Researchers at Stanford are currently testing the device on primates. If all goes well, they will seek FDA approval for experiments in humans.

Treating Parkinson’s and other brain diseases could be just the beginning. Optogenetics has amazing potential, not just for sending information into the brain but also for extracting it. And it turns out that Tsien’s Nobel-winning work — the research he took up when he abandoned the hunt for channelrhodopsin — is the key to doing this. By injecting mice neurons with yet another gene, one that makes cells glow green when they fire, researchers are monitoring neural activity through the same fiber-optic cable that delivers the light. The cable becomes a lens. It makes it possible to “write” to an area of the brain and “read” from it at the same time: two-way traffic.

Why is two-way traffic a big deal? Existing neural technologies are strictly one-way. Motor implants let paralyzed people operate computers and physical objects but are incapable of giving feedback to the brain. They are output-only devices. Conversely, cochlear implants for the deaf are input-only. They send data to the auditory nerve but have no way of picking up the brain’s response to the ear to modulate sound.

No matter how good they get, one-way prostheses can’t close the loop. In theory, two-way optogenetic traffic could lead to human-machine fusions in which the brain truly interacts with the machine, rather than only giving or only accepting orders. It could be used, for instance, to let the brain send movement commands to a prosthetic arm; in return, the arm’s sensors would gather information and send it back. Blue and yellow LEDs would flash on and off inside genetically altered somatosensory regions of the cortex to give the user sensations of weight, temperature, and texture. The limb would feel like a real arm. Of course, this kind of cyborg technology is not exactly around the corner. But it has suddenly leapt from the realm of wild fantasy to concrete possibility.

And it all began with pond scum.


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Never ever give parking services back their wheel lock...or you're a terrorist!!!

Purdue student arrested in connection with suspicious package

Purdue police have arrested a student in connection with a suspicious package found Thursday morning in the university's Visitor Information Center.

Roy C. Sun, 21, a senior in the College of Engineering from Andover, Mass., faces preliminary charges of terroristic mischief and possession of stolen property.

An employee at the center, 504 Northwestern Ave., which also houses Parking Services, alerted police at about 7:50 a.m. about a suspicious box left in a hallway by three college-age men. Police evacuated about 10 people from the building and used a portable X-ray machine to identify the box's contents. The box contained a wheel look, a Purdue parking ticket and $20, Detective Sgt. Matt Rosenbarger said. People were allowed back into the building at about 9 a.m.

Purdue Parking Services had written the ticket and placed the wheel lock on Sun's vehicle the previous day because the car allegedly displayed a parking permit that did not belong to him.

Rosenbarger said terroristic mischief is when a person knowingly or intentionally places a device with the intent to cause a reasonable person to believe that it is a weapon of mass destruction. In this case, the act would be a Class C felony, punishable by a maximum of eight years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Possession of stolen property is a Class D felony, which is punishable by up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.


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Replicating the clasic Hot Wheels set, Fifth Gear TV attempts to perform a full 360 degree loop in a full size car. 4;56

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Car part art....

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Sunday, November 22, 2009


Boston Dynamics' Petman Prototype - somebody's been watching Star Wars a few too many times....

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16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world

Last week it was revealed that 54 oil tankers are anchored off the coast of Britain, refusing to unload their fuel until prices have risen.

But that is not the only scandal in the shipping world. Today award-winning science writer Fred Pearce – environmental consultant to New Scientist and author of Confessions Of An Eco Sinner – reveals that the super-ships that keep the West in everything from Christmas gifts to computers pump out killer chemicals linked to thousands of deaths because of the filthy fuel they use.

We've all noticed it. The filthy black smoke kicked out by funnels on cross-Channel ferries, cruise liners, container ships, oil tankers and even tugboats.

It looks foul, and leaves a brown haze across ports and shipping lanes. But what hasn’t been clear until now is that it is also a major killer, probably causing thousands of deaths in Britain alone.

As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.

Because of their colossal engines, each as heavy as a small ship, these super-vessels use as much fuel as small power stations.

But, unlike power stations or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel: the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.

Thanks to decisions taken in London by the body that polices world shipping, this pollution could kill as many as a million more people in the coming decade – even though a simple change in the rules could stop it.

There are now an estimated 100,000 ships on the seas, and the fleet is growing fast as goods are ferried in vast quantities from Asian industrial powerhouses to consumers in Europe and North America.

The recession has barely dented the trade. This Christmas, most of our presents will have come by super-ship from the Far East; ships such as the Emma Maersk and her seven sisters Evelyn, Eugen, Estelle, Ebba, Eleonora, Elly and Edith Maersk.

Each is a quarter of a mile long and can carry up to 14,000 full-size containers on their regular routes from China to Europe.

Emma – dubbed SS Santa by the media – brought Christmas presents to Europe in October and is now en route from Algeciras in Spain to Yantian in southern China, carrying containers full of our waste paper, plastic and electronics for recycling.

But it burns marine heavy fuel, or ‘bunker fuel’, which leaves behind a trail of potentially lethal chemicals: sulphur and smoke that have been linked to breathing problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease.

James Corbett, of the University of Delaware, is an authority on ship emissions. He calculates a worldwide death toll of about 64,000 a year, of which 27,000 are in Europe. Britain is one of the worst-hit countries, with about 2,000 deaths from funnel fumes. Corbett predicts the global figure will rise to 87,000 deaths a year by 2012.

Part of the blame for this international scandal lies close to home.

In London, on the south bank of the Thames looking across at the Houses of Parliament, is the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that polices the world’s shipping.

For decades, the IMO has rebuffed calls to clean up ship pollution. As a result, while it has long since been illegal to belch black, sulphur-laden smoke from power-station chimneys or lorry exhausts, shipping has kept its licence to pollute.

For 31 years, the IMO has operated a policy agreed by the 169 governments that make up the organisation which allows most ships to burn bunker fuel.

Christian Eyde Moller, boss of the DK shipping company in Rotterdam, recently described this as ‘just waste oil, basically what is left over after all the cleaner fuels have been extracted from crude oil. It’s tar, the same as asphalt. It’s the cheapest and dirtiest fuel in the world’.

Bunker fuel is also thick with sulphur. IMO rules allow ships to burn fuel containing up to 4.5 per cent sulphur. That is 4,500 times more than is allowed in car fuel in
the European Union. The sulphur comes out of ship funnels as tiny particles, and it is these that get deep into lungs.

Thanks to the IMO’s rules, the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulphur in a year – the same as 50million typical cars, each emitting an average of 100 grams of sulphur a year.

With an estimated 800million cars driving around the planet, that means 16 super-ships can emit as much sulphur as the world fleet of cars.

A year ago, the IMO belatedly decided to clean up its act. It said shipping fuel should not contain more than 3.5 per cent sulphur by 2012 and eventually must come down to 0.5 per cent. This lower figure could halve the deaths, says Corbett.

It should not be hard to do. There is no reason ship engines cannot run on clean fuel, like cars. But, away from a handful of low-sulphur zones, including the English Channel and North Sea, the IMO gave shipping lines a staggering 12 years to make the switch. And, even then, it will depend on a final ‘feasibility review’ in 2018.

In the meantime, according to Corbett’s figures, nearly one million more people will die.

Smoke and sulphur are not the only threats from ships’ funnels. Every year they are also belching out almost one billion tons of carbon dioxide. Ships are as big a contributor to global warming as aircraft – but have had much less attention from environmentalists.

Both international shipping and aviation are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol rules on cutting carbon emissions. But green pressure is having its effect on airlines. Ahead of next month’s Copenhagen climate talks, airlines have promised to cut emissions by 50 per cent by 2050.

But shipping companies are keeping their heads down. A meeting of the IMO in July threw out proposals from the British Chamber of Shipping, among others, to set up a
carbon-trading scheme to encourage emissions reductions.

Amazingly, they pleaded poverty. Two-thirds of the world’s ships are registered in developing countries such as Panama. These are just flags of convenience, to evade tougher rules on safety and pay for sailors.

But at the IMO, governments successfully argued that ships from developing countries should not have to cut carbon emissions. IMO secretary-general Efthimios Mitropoulos insisted: ‘We are heavily and consistently engaged in the fight to protect and preserve our environment.’ Yet without limits, carbon emissions from shipping could triple by 2050.

The failure brought calls for the IMO to be stripped of its powers to control the world’s ships. Colin Whybrow, of Greenwave, a British charity set up to campaign for cleaner shipping, says: ‘The IMO is drinking in the last-chance saloon.’

Burning low-sulphur fuel won’t cut carbon emissions from ships. But there are other ways. More efficient engines could reduce emissions by 30 per cent, according to British marine consultant Robin Meech.

Cutting speed could reduce emissions by as much again. And there are even wackier ways, such as putting up giant kites to harness the wind as in the days of sailing ships.

However you look at it, the super-ships are rogues on the high seas, operating under pollution standards long since banished on land; warming the planet and killing its inhabitants. Santa’s sleigh, they are not.

Robert Pedersen, of Maersk, said: ‘The sulphur content varies according to where you get your fuel. Our average sulphur content is, I believe, 2.5 per cent. It’s rather rare you get anything close to 4.5 per cent.’ He added that ‘the sulphur issue is one for the whole industry’ and that there would be a ‘huge cost implication’ to switch to cleaner fuel.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Got about 16 minutes to waste? Here you go..... Random Oddness for the month.

Charlie the Unicorn - 3;45

Charlie the Unicorn 2 - 6;01

Charlie the Unicorn 3 - 5;58

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Whisky on (Antarctic) ice

Explorer Ernest Shackleton loved his Scotch whisky. And he left a stash at the bottom of the world.

CAPE ROYDS, Antarctica — This spit of black volcanic rock that juts out along the coast of Antarctica is an inhospitable place. Temperatures drop below -50 Fahrenheit and high winds cause blinding snowstorms. The only neighbors are a colony of penguins that squawk incessantly and leave a pungent scent in their wake.

But if you happen upon the small wooden hut that sits at Cape Royds and wriggle yourself underneath, you'll find a surprise stashed in the foot and a half of space beneath the floorboards. Tucked in the shadows and frozen to the ground are two cases of Scotch whisky left behind 100 years ago by Sir Ernest Shackleton after a failed attempt at the South Pole.

Conservators discovered the wooden cases in January 2006. They were unable to dislodge the crates, but are going in with special tools in January during the Antarctic summer to try to retrieve them. An international treaty dictates that the crates, and any intact bottles that are inside, remain in Antarctica unless they need to be taken off the continent for conservation reasons. The whisky's condition after a century of freezing and thawing is unknown.

Polar explorers of that era relied on their alcohol of choice to help them and their crews through the long Antarctic nights and insomnia-inducing days. And Shackleton knew a thing or two about being well prepared for an adventure. On a later trip to the continent he kept all 28 members of his crew alive during 15 harrowing months after their ship got marooned in and then slowly devoured by ice. So it's no surprise that he brought 25 crates of Scotch with him when he set off on an expedition to the South Pole in 1907.

The earlier trip didn't go well, either. Shackleton turned around 97 miles short of his destination, telling his wife, "I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." When the ship arrived in 1909 to pick the men up, they left their supplies behind in their hut, including reindeer sleeping bags, tins of boiled mutton and bottled gooseberries. And, as we now know, they also abandoned two cases of Charles Mackinlay & Co. whisky.

Al Fastier is a program manager in New Zealand with Antarctic Heritage Trust, the group charged with preserving the hut at Cape Royds along with three others on that section of Antarctic coastline. He was there the day the crates were discovered. The team was clearing out a century's worth of ice that had accumulated under the hut and was causing structural problems.

"It was a very exciting time of actually finding artifacts that possibly hadn't been seen since the historic explorers left," he said. The group also found felt boots and jugs of linseed oil. The other 5,000 or so artifacts left behind are inside the hut or on the ground nearby and had been catalogued and viewed by the occasional tourist and on the internet.

In January, the conservationists will use a special drill that chips into the rock so they can pull the crates out and let them melt free in the omnipresent Antarctic summer sun.

So what will century-old, Antarctic-iced Scotch taste like?


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Random pics from my webscapades...I'll save a pic, either as a future link/post or just because it's interesting, but then subsequently forget about it, leaving me with a folder of context-free images. Every few months I'll disseminate then thusly

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Richard Simmons on "Whose Line..." 6;29

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Stickney Crater, the largest crater on the martian moon Phobos, is named for Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall, mathematician and wife of astronomer Asaph Hall. Asaph Hall discovered both the Red Planet's moons in 1877. Over 9 kilometers across, Stickney is nearly half the diameter of Phobos itself, so large that the impact that blasted out the crater likely came close to shattering the tiny moon. This stunning, enhanced-color image of Stickney and surroundings was recorded by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed within some six thousand kilometers of Phobos in March of 2008. Even though the surface gravity of asteroid-like Phobos is less than 1/1000th Earth's gravity, streaks suggest loose material has slid down inside the crater walls over time. Light bluish regions near the crater's rim could indicate a relatively freshly exposed surface. The origin of the curious grooves along the surface is mysterious but may be related to the crater-forming impact.


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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Texas: Red Light Camera Company Blocks Referendum

Traffic camera vendor temporarily thwarts voter effort to take down red light cameras in College Station, Texas.

A lawsuit funded by a photo enforcement company succeeded yesterday in temporarily blocking the results of the vote to end red light cameras in College Station, Texas. Judge Suzanne Stovall granted a temporary restraining order preventing the city from ending its contract with American Traffic Solutions, despite the November 3 vote of a majority of residents demanding that the cameras come down.

The law firm of Bovey, Akers and Bojorquez ostensibly filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Keep College Station Safe Political Action Committee (PAC), a group entirely funded by College Station's camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions (ATS) and its subcontractors. Of the PAC's $67,100 in reported funding, the largest chunk -- $30,000 -- came directly from ATS. Garry Mauro, a paid ATS consultant, gave $5000. Another $8000 came from Signal Electric, a Washington-based contractor that installs red light cameras for ATS. ForceCon Services, a Texas-based red light camera installation subcontractor, gave $5000. Questmark Information Management Inc, a company that prints citations for ATS, provided a $16,600 in-kind donation.

The company's election challenge argued that the initiative petition was invalid because it referenced an ordinance "enacted 10/25/08" when the ordinance in question had actually passed in October 2007.

"Given the failure on the part of the 'initiative petitions' to identify with reasonable specificity the ordinance sought to be repealed, as identified by its date of adoption, the court cannot ascertain the true outcome of the election and the election should be declared void," the ATS-backed suit explained.

The suit also contended that the initiative was actually a "referendum" that should have been filed in 2007, twenty days after the ordinance was adopted. Against this, Ash argued that his petition to the city council, signed by residents, was labeled "initiative" not "referendum." Moreover, the petition declares the "powers" referenced by the ordinance to be "deemed and declared unenforceable" -- a legislative action that would do more than simply overturn a particular ordinance.

Although College Station officials are named as defendants in the lawsuit, the city had been planning for this action. The city also admitted that it did not believe there was any mandate to take down the red light cameras, despite the election results.

"College Station was concerned that the petition was invalid because it was a referendum that was untimely filed, and told [petition sponsor Jim Ash] that regardless the city would submit the petition to the voters, but that the petition may be challenged in court," the city's brief to the court explained. "Such results do not in themselves send a clear message to College Station that the electorate overwhelmingly desires that red light cameras be banned."

Hearings on the issue will continue on November 20.


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How Japan Defines "Fat"

by David Nakamura

I was teaching English at a high school in Hiroshima, Japan, in 2001, when a group of boys approached to introduce me to a classmate.

"His name is Jumbo-san--Mr. Jumbo!" the boys said, laughing.

"Why do you call him that?" I asked. "Because he's big-sized," one boy replied, curling his arms out from his waist and wobbling around in an imitation.

A smiling boy stepped forward. He was about 5 feet 8, maybe 175 pounds. Hardly jumbo. I was a couple inches taller and more than 10 pounds heavier than he was. "You're not that big," I told Mr. Jumbo. "In America, you wouldn't even make the football team."

In Japan, being fat remains noteworthy, something that makes you stand out in a shameful way in a conformist society. Even now, despite government statistics and anecdotal evidence that Japanese people are getting heavier, I can go days without seeing a single fat person in Tokyo.

Last year, lawmakers established a national limit on waistlines for people 40 and older: 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women. The program, which aims to cut down on metabolic syndrome, a leading indicator for heart disease and diabetes, has been controversial and critics say it misses the mark scientifically.

Regardless of how one feels about legislating waistlines, living in Japan for an American is a wakeup call when it comes to body image and eating discipline. In the same way that living in Hiroshima after 9/11 provided me a different perspective about American military power, so did it teach me a valuable lesson in the way the Japanese saw America's obesity epidemic.

As with most things in Japan, the lessons were delivered indirectly, with the exception of the occasional student poking my stomach and saying, "American size!" Compared to their American counterparts, the Japanese snack less often between meals, walk more when commuting to work and, most important, eat meals of far smaller proportions. (They also smoke more, which is an appetite suppressant and remains a health concern far more worrisome here than creeping weight gain.)

Living in Hiroshima, I lost 15 pounds in three months. I wasn't even trying to lose weight. I had arrived in Hiroshima, at 31 years old, at my heaviest--195 pounds--but I felt I had been eating non-stop in Japan. The portion size was just so much smaller than I was used to in the United States.

My habits improved, too. I biked around town, played soccer with the students, and walked up and down four flights both at school and my apartment complex. I still remember putting on my belt one day and finding I had to hook it three holes smaller than before.

A lot has been written recently about studies suggesting that your peer group strongly influences your weight. If your friends are fat, then you likely will be, too. The opposite also seems true; in Japan, peer pressure is enormous and staying thin is taken as a given.

I am back in Japan, living in Tokyo for a year, and one of my Japanese co-worker recently stopped joining the other men for lunch at restaurants; instead, he began bringing a small bento box. When I asked why, he said his wife believed he was getting fat and required him to eat her pre-approved portions.

Not surprisingly, there are unintended consequences. Eating disorders are prevalent, especially among young women. When Ralph Lauren was criticized by the U.S. media after digitally altering an image of already-slender supermodel Filippa Hamilton to make her appear even skinnier, I was not surprised that a company executive said the advertisement had only appeared in Japan.

When I returned to Washington in 2002 after my year in Hiroshima, I sold my car and biked around town, ran on the treadmill and continued to play soccer. But still, my weight slowly increased over the years. Back in Japan for the past six months, I have again lost about 7 or 8 pounds. When I see overweight Westerners on the streets or in restaurants here, I become embarrassed and angry; so many seem to have given up on staying fit.

It is hard work--believe me, I know. At 39, I would be required next year to have my stomach measured under Japan's waistline law. And, though I recently ran a 10-kilometer race in 47 minutes, I would fail the exam: At 5-feet-10 and about 180 pounds, I wear a 35-inch pant--1 1/2 inches bigger than the government-mandated waistline limit for men.

Call me Mr. Jumbo.




recently went to see "The Mountain Goats" here in seattle. Great band, great show.


The Mountain Goats - This Year (4;05)

The Mountain Goats - "Ezekiel 7 and The Permanent Efficacy of Grace"(4;30)

The Mountain Goats - Woke Up New (3;04)

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Photo by Peter Scott Barta. A storm at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

This image was the winner in the Parks category of the 2008 Great Outdoors Photo Contest.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009


Sliding around on the racetrack - don't try this at home....(3;38)

Slide - onboard with AFM #667 Craig Smith following #1 plate Cory Call during a fun day at Reno Fernley raceway during a pacific tracktime trackday event.

Cory throws on a roached rear tire and does some 2 wheel drifting.

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Metal-Air Battery Could Store 11 Times More Energy than Lithium-Ion

The new Metal-Air Ionic Liquid battery is being designed by Cody Friesen, a professor of materials science at Arizona State and founder of Fluidic Energy, along with other researchers. The key to the new battery is that it uses ionic liquids as its electrolyte, which could help it overcome some significant problems faced by previous metal-air batteries. In the past, metal-air batteries have usually used water-based electrolytes, but due to water evaporation, the batteries tended to fail prematurely.

The advantage of ionic liquids, like those used in Fluidic Energy's new battery, is that they don't evaporate. Ionic liquids are salts that are a liquid at room temperature. Compared to water, ionic liquids are much more viscous, and they also conduct electricity fairly well. The challenge will be finding an inexpensive ionic liquid that works well in the new batteries, although Friesen has not yet discussed the specific ionic liquids his company has been investigating.

A metal-air battery that uses ionic liquids as its electrolyte could have several advantages. For one thing, it can function for a longer period time since its electrolyte doesn't evaporate. Also, the batteries could offer better electrochemical stability, which means they could use materials that have a greater energy density than zinc. Friesen and his research team hope to achieve energy densities of anywhere from 900 to 1,600 watt-hours per kilogram. This density could lead to electric vehicles that could travel 400 to 500 miles on a single charge, Friesen said.

Finally, Fluidic Energy is tackling another problem facing rechargeable batteries: the growth of dendrites that occurs on the electrodes during charging. Dendrites limit the number of charging cycles and decrease the lifetime of the battery. To combat this problem, Fluidic Energy has designed a porous electrode scaffold that prevents dendrite formation.

"I'm not claiming we have it yet, but if we do succeed, it really does change the way we think about storage," Friesen said.


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Random Oddness.....


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Builder - Andreoli
Location - Rovato (BS)
Country - Italy
Website -

Bike Name - Ventidue
Year / Model - 2008
Engine Make / Size - S & S 93
Transmission Type - Rev-Tech 5-speed
Frame Make / Type - Rigid by Andreoli Motorcycles

Front End - Öhlins by Andreoli Motorcycles
Rake - 40°
Swingarm - Rigid
Wheels - Front 3 x 19''
Wheels - Rear 4 x 18''
Tires - Front 300/19
Tires - Rear 130-18
Brakes - Front Yamaha 1960
Brakes - Rear Andreoli Motorcycles

Painter - Blaster
Chroming / Plating - Andreoli Motorcycles

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Winter's coming.... Pics from last year culled from

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