Monday, June 8, 2009

Jellyfish crop circle appears in field

A spectacular crop circle shaped like a jellyfish has appeared on farmland in Oxfordshire.
The 250m (600ft) design, which turned up in a field near Ashbury last week, is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Crop circle expert Karen Alexander said: "We have seen butterfly and bird patterns in the past, but this is the first jellyfish crop circle in the world.

"It is absolutely huge - roughly three times the size of most crop patterns and extremely interesting. People have been aghast at the size of it. It is a complete monster.

"We are looking into the meaning of it, but at present it just seems to have appeared out of nowhere."

The owners of the land say whoever created the design caused about �600 of damage - but they called the shape "beautiful" and say they have reported the trespassers to the police.

Did a meteor bring down Air France 447?

by John

Back in 1996, after the initially very mysterious explosion and crash of Flight 800 from JFK to Rome, there were numerous eyewitness accounts of a "streak in the sky" just before the crash. This led to the "missile theory" of the crash, which was eventually attributed to the explosion of the center fuel tank by the NTSB. But, also at the time, it was suggested that a meteor of sufficient size could have struck the plane, bringing it down.

Could a meteor have brought down Air France 447? Today we are starting to see reports that there actually may have been a meteor:

However, both pilots of an Air Comet flight from Lima to Lisbon sent a written report on the bright flash they said they saw to Air France, Airbus and the Spanish civil aviation authority, the airline told CNN.

"Suddenly, we saw in the distance a strong and intense flash of white light, which followed a descending and vertical trajectory and which broke up in six seconds," the captain wrote.

Obviously for any given flight the chances are very, very small that a meteor will bring down an airliner, but as Hailey and Helfand pointed out in a letter to the NYT in 1996, the correct question to ask is this: "What is the probability that, for all flights in history, one or more could have been downed by a meteor?" They concluded that there was a 1-in-10 chance that this could happen�let's use their logic, brought up to date somewhat, for 2009, for Flight 447.

Helfand, an astronomer, is presumably the one who estimated that "approximately 3,000 meteors a day with the requisite mass strike Earth". This is a difficult number to get. How much mass? How fast does it need to be moving? But let's assume that this number is correct; it translates to 125 meteors per hour.

Next we need to know the total number of flight hours at altitude for all commercial planes. In 2000 there were about 18 million flights per year. Clearly in the past 20 years (which we'll take as our reference, since it spans 1989-2009, with both flights 800 and 447) it was not always so�but let's take a guess that the 18 million figure is roughly correct for that 20 year period. That would yield 360 million commercial airline flights from 1989-2000. Hailey and Helfand assumed that each flight was two hours in duration. Again, a tough number to find on line, so we'll take it at face value, giving us 720 million flight hours in our reference period.

They also claim that if there were 3500 planes in the air at any time, this would correspond to covering two-billionths of Earth's surface. Now the earth's surface area is 5�1014 m2. Using my trusty HP-15c, I get that this would imply an average target area for a commercial airliner of 291 m2, which is reasonable. Each plane, that is, covers 5.7�10-13 of Earth's surface. If a meteor hits the earth it has that probability of hitting a given plane on average.

A hundred million mistakes: Microsoft's Bing search engine

By Mark Hurst

Microsoft has a problem. It's sitting on a cash hoard of what, 20 or 30 billion dollars, waiting to be invested somewhere - and meanwhile Google's influence keeps getting bigger, bigger, bigger. Not to mention all those Apple commercials still making fun of Windows.

Everything Microsoft has tried recently hasn't worked. They tried the "I'm a PC" ads, a knockoff of the Mac ads - didn't work. Tried the Zune, a knockoff of the iPod - didn't work. Tried redoing MSN Search again and again, as a knockoff of Google - didn't work. What's the world coming to, when Microsoft can't build a monopoly around a knockoff?

It's those effing customers. They keep choosing the best experience.

I have to imagine this is tough on Ballmer and whoever else over there. No matter what they try, the customers refuse to take orders from Redmond. Sure, lots of people still pay the upgrade tax on Windows and Office every two years, but only because they have to. There's no love.

So what does Microsoft do? They launch - I'm still reeling from this - they launch a search engine. To compete head-on with Google. In search. I just need to type that again: Microsoft wants to unseat Google with a search engine.

Now here's where it gets really nuts.

Microsoft's strategy, to win market share from Google, is not to compete on user experience. No. Microsoft's strategy is to advertise the heck out of the thing and hope people flock to the site.

They are spending - wait, let me try my best "Dr. Evil" voice - one hundred million dollars to order the world to use their search engine. According to a Microsoft exec in charge of the launch, "The key will be whether we deliver a product and connect with people emotionally in the advertising." (See quote in the NYT piece.)

A hundred million dollars to "connect with people emotionally in the advertising." If I've learned one thing in my customer experience work over 12 years, it's this: any online strategy built on emotional connection, based on flashy ads or a new font or color scheme on the website, is guaranteed to fail. Customers online don't respond to a brand marketed to them, they respond to the experience they have. If they can accomplish their goal quickly and easily, they return to the site, and tell their friends. It's that simple. And if one site already provides a good experience, then there's no need to consider switching to some other site, no matter what the company brags about itself in its ads.

A physician "comes out"


First, a few words about the AMA

(I must note up front that I do not represent the AMA, and what I am saying here in no way speaks for the AMA. I am simply one of hundreds of delegates representing physicians in constituent societies of the AMA. All my comments here are my own.)

To its great credit, the American Medical Association has made a huge effort to inform the public about the need to fix the huge and growing problem of people with no ability to get the health care that they need. The AMA has spent years developing policy and putting together a comprehensive health system reform proposal. There is much that is of great merit in the AMA's proposal. It is truly progressive in how it is financed, using an income-based sliding scale system of tax credits, all the way to fully paying for people who cannot afford to pay any premiums. It does away with the regressive employer tax exclusion -- yes, regressive, because it primarily benefits the people who least need the benefit.

But in the end, the AMA plan, like President Obama's plan, and Sen. Baucus's plan, is still based on the core of our present system: one that is run by, dominated by, and subservient to the health insurance industry, the hospital industry (especially those tied in to the insurance industry), and big pharma.

It is a system that has created an unfixable disconnect in the traditional concept of a market driven by supply and demand, in that the purchasers of health care are not those who are receiving the care. It is a system in which the basic idea of competition has been turned upside down, driven not by quality, value, service or convenience, but by the most self-serving deals that can be driven by the insurance industry.

Creation Museum "Scientists" Hilariously Explain How to be Skeptical of Science, But Accept the Bible Without Question

by Meg White

After a week of BuzzFlash analysis of Government Motors, Obama in the Middle East, North Korea's capture of American journalists, rape and murder in the Congo, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and much more, I thought I'd take the opportunity to bring you the lighter side of the dark creationist museum dinosaurside. In short, I thought we could talk a bit about the scientific bona fides of people who put saddles on dinosaur statues.

My wonderful boyfriend, knowing how much I love reading the ravings of religious nut jobs, sent me this article from the people who brought you the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY called "Noting News: How to Interpret Science News."

The article itself does not feature a byline, but it appears on the Web site for Answers in Genesis (or AiG, as they shorten it), the organization that built the Creation Museum to support their beliefs about the incorrectness of evolution and the Big Bang.

The article is basically a checklist of how to deal with science writing when it contradicts creationism. But it contains a fair point: There are tons of inaccurate scientific articles in the media, especially about complex subjects and new discoveries that journalists don't have the time or training to fully understand on deadline. As someone trained in anthropology as well as journalism, I've struggled with the shortcomings of both academic and news compositions.

But should we let the people whose museum features representations of cavemen riding dinosaurs teach us how to tell truth from fiction? How can one take a lesson in skepticism from people who think the world is only 6,000 years old due to their preference for the "proof" provided by 17th century Archbishop of Ireland James Ussher over decades of radiometric dating techniques?

I figured I ought to give AiG a taste of its own medicine. I tried applying their checklist to an article also featured on their site called "And God Said" that seeks to prove the infallibility of the Bible as a historical text and basis for all of creationism's backwards assertions about science and the origins of Earth.

First, the criticism checklist pleads with me to "dig beneath the surface," noting that "it's a dangerous mistake to assume every article is 'fair and balanced.'" The checklist asks, "Who is behind the news?"

For this particular critique, our author doesn't really claim any particular scientific authority. The byline simply says "Don Landis." But further inspection reveals he is a pastor and chairman of the board for AiG-USA. The mere fact that his paycheck comes from the people running the Creation Museum calls his credibility into question. After all, the number one "priority" in the AiG "Statement of Faith" (with which one would imagine a board chairman would be bound to agree) is the following:

The scientific aspects of creation are important, but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer and Judge.

Anyone who puts religion over science is not going to be a reliable source on the scientific method. Unlike Landis, there are many creationists who try to pass off their writings as science by hiding behind academic degrees that, upon later inspection, turn out to be honorary or suspicious to say the least. Reader beware.

The second section of the media critique checklist urges an attack of the story itself. "What are the 'hard' facts?" they ask. In the case of Landis' article, there aren't any. That doesn't stop him from promising a few, though (emphasis mine):

We can also make sound arguments for the trustworthiness of Scripture based on lower criticism, grammar, and contextual evidence. We can show that the scribes were meticulous in their copying of the text of Scripture. We can evidence the life-changing qualities of the Bible in the lives of millions of believers. We can evidence the historical accuracy of the text of the Bible.

Notice Landis uses the fact that people believe something as evidence of truth. If that were the case, then I guess Saddam Hussein organized 9/11 and had loads of WMDs. Along that line of logic, I wouldn't be surprised to find "because I saw it on television" in Landis' reasoning.

Fear and Loathing: The Board Game

Free "Happy Birthday"

by Michael Dare a few seconds ago
We, the public, wish to extend our Domain, called the Public Domain. Every extension of copyright is at the expense of the Public Domain. Corporations will extend copyright forever if we, the Public, let them trample on our Domain.

When "Happy Birthday" is sung in a film, should Mildred and Patty Hill get credit? Absolutely, they wrote it in 1893. Should AOL Time Warner reel in $2 million a year licensing the song more than a century after it was written? I don't think so. Let people post birthday parties to YouTube without the threat of a lawsuit from a mighty media corporation.

AOL Time Warner, as a public service, we ask you to voluntarily release the song "Happy Birthday" into the Public Domain.

Why Is This Idea Important?

In the real world, the internet has shrunk the length of copyright to a nanosecond, making it virtually immaterial. In the interest of expanding our Domain, we, the Public, wish to let copyright die or shrink to its original parameter of 14 years.

Pirate Party Wins and Enters The European Parliament

by Ernesto

The Pirate Party has won a huge victory in the Swedish elections and is marching on to Brussels. After months of campaigning against well established parties, the Pirate Party has gathered enough votes to be guaranteed a seat in the European Parliament.

When the Swedish Pirate Party was founded in early 2006, the majority of the mainstream press were skeptical, with some simply laughing it away. But they were wrong to dismiss this political movement out of hand. Today, the Pirate Party accomplished what some believed to be the impossible, by securing a seat in the European Parliament.

With 99.9% of the districts counted the Pirates have 7.1 percent of the votes, beating several established parties. This means that the Pirate Party will get at least one, but most likely two of the 18 (+2) available seats Sweden has at the European Parliament.

When we asked Pirate Party leader Rick Falkvinge about the outcome, he told TorrentFreak: "We've felt the wind blow in our sails. We've seen the polls prior to the election. But to stand here, today, and see the figures coming up on that screen� What do you want me to say? I'll say anything"

"Together, we have today changed the landscape of European politics. No matter how this night ends, we have changed it," Falkvinge said. "This feels wonderful. The citizens have understood it's time to make a difference. The older politicians have taken apart young peoples' lifestyle, bit by bit. We do not accept that the authorities' mass-surveillance," he added.

Rick Falkvinge celebrating tonight's election win

pirate party vistory

The turnout at the elections is 43 percent, a little higher than the at the 2004 elections. This would mean that roughly 200,000 Swedes have voted for the Pirate Party. This is a huge increase compared to the national elections of 2006 where the party got 34,918 votes.

Both national and international press have gathered in Stockholm where the Pirate Party is celebrating its landmark victory.

Garden Chair

Garden chair heading

grown living garden chairAt the time that I was designing this Chair I had no knowledge of anyone else who was trying to shape living trees� anywhere in the world. Knowing that if I had theliving chair idea, many others would have the same thought go through their mind. Some may have been able to act upon the idea, according to their life experiences and circumstances.�

This design was one of my favorites at that time. We now have a completely different perception for living tree chairs, which incorporates stone or glass into the design of tree chair. It's been 7 years since this tree was planted and our designs have been changing and evolving though-out that time.

Gingrich: Americans surrounded by paganism.

By Lee Fang bidenfire On Friday, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Oliver North visited Rock Church in Hampton Roads, Virginia to give a three-hour long lecture on "Rediscovering God in America." The speakers warned the audience about the "continuing availability of abortion, the spread of gay rights, and attempts to remove religion from American public life and school history books." The Virginia-Pilot reported that Gingrich argued that, while Christianity is the foundation of American citizenship, Americans are experiencing a period where they are being "surrounded by paganism":

GINGRICH: I am not a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator. [...] I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history. We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism.

Huckabee also equated America's victory against the British in the Revolutionary War with the right-wing's success in the Proposition 8 fight in California as being miracles "from God's hand."

Digitally Gay: MyGayGo - iPhone Aps for the Boys

Doin' some time in a strange town? Check out MyGayGo...and make sure to check out the video on their website - the Moviefone guy has gone gay!

From the press release:

Can a $2.99 iPhone application work to boost an ailing newspaper and magazine industry as publishers look for new ways to generate revenue?

Attorney and businessman Rick Citron is betting on it with the launch of MyGayGo (, a new iPhone application that helps users to locate local gay- and lesbian-friendly people and places from more than 25,000 listings.

"All media types are in decline and looking for new ways to generate revenue. Most publishing companies have yet to fully grasp the nature of new media and how to adjust to its impact," said Citron, whose team has developed the product and business model.

"The MyGayGo application gives the paper publishers a way to begin the transition to new technologies without having to create them. This is an opportunity for a publisher's sales team to offer their current customers a new product."

Roll-Up Solar Panels

A startup is making thin-film solar cells on flexible steel sheets.

By Prachi Patel

Xunlight, a startup in Toledo, Ohio, has developed a way to make large, flexible solar panels. It has developed a roll-to-roll manufacturing technique that forms thin-film amorphous silicon solar cells on thin sheets of stainless steel. Each solar module is about one meter wide and five and a half meters long.

As opposed to conventional silicon solar panels, which are bulky and rigid, these lightweight, flexible sheets could easily be integrated into roofs and building facades or on vehicles. Such systems could be more attractive than conventional solar panels and be incorporated more easily into irregular roof designs. They could also be rolled up and carried in a backpack, says the company's cofounder and president, Xunming Deng. "You could take it with you and charge your laptop battery," he says.

Amorphous silicon thin-film solar cells can be cheaper than conventional crystalline cells because they use a fraction of the material: the cells are 1 micrometer thick, as opposed to the 150-to-200-micrometer-thick silicon layers in crystalline solar cells. But they're also notoriously inefficient. To boost their efficiency, Xunlight made triple-junction cells, which use three different materials--amorphous silicon, amorphous silicon germanium, and nanocrystalline silicon--each of which is tuned to capture the energy in different parts of the solar spectrum. (Conventional solar cells use one primary material, which only captures one part of the spectrum efficiently.)

Still, Xunlight's flexible PV modules are only about 8 percent efficient, while some crystalline silicon modules on the market are more than 20 percent efficient. As a result, Xunlight's large modules produce only 330 watts, whereas an array of crystalline silicon solar panels covering the same area would produce about 740 watts.

United Solar Ovonic, based in Auburn Hills, MI, is already selling flexible PV modules. The company also uses triple-junction amorphous silicon cells, and its modules can be attached to roofing materials. But Xunlight's potential advantage is its high-volume roll-to-roll technique. "If their roll-to-roll process allows them to go to lower cost and larger area, that's the central advantage," says Johanna Schmidtke, an analyst with Lux Research, in Boston. "But they have to prove it with manufacturing."

Illegal downloads and dodgy figures

by Ben Goldacre

Bad science/frankenstein/boris karloffYou are killing our creative industries. "Downloading costs billions," said the Sun. "MORE than 7 million Brits use illegal downloading sites that cost the economy billions of pounds, government advisers said today. Researchers found more than a million people using a download site in ONE day and estimated that in a year they would use �120bn worth of material."

That's about a tenth of our GDP. No wonder the Daily Mail was worried too: "The network had 1.3 million users sharing files online at midday on a weekday. If each of those downloaded just one file per day, this would amount to 4.73bn items being consumed for free every year." Now I am always suspicious of this industry, because they have produced a lot of dodgy figures over the years. I also doubt that every download is lost revenue since, for example, people who download more also buy more music. I'd like more details.

So where do these notions of so many billions in lost revenue come from? I found the original report. It was written by some academics you can hire in a unit at UCL called Ciber, the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (which "seeks to inform by countering idle speculation and uninformed opinion with the facts"). The report was commissioned by a government body called Sabip, the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property. On the billions lost it says: "Estimates as to the overall lost revenues if we include all creative industries whose products can be copied digitally, or counterfeited, reach �10bn (IP rights, 2004), conservatively, as our figure is from 2004, and a loss of 4,000 jobs."

What is the origin of this conservative figure? I hunted down the full Ciber documents, found the references section, and followed the web link, which led to a 2004 press release from a private legal firm called Rouse who specialise in intellectual property law. This press release was not about the �10bn figure. It was, in fact, a one-page document, which simply welcomed the government setting up an intellectual property theft strategy. In a short section headed "background", among five other points, it says: "Rights owners have estimated that last year alone counterfeiting and piracy cost the UK economy �10bn and 4,000 jobs." An industry estimate, as an aside, in a press release. Genius.

But what about all these other figures in the media coverage? Lots of it revolved around the figure of 4.73bn items downloaded each year, worth �120bn. This means each downloaded item, software, movie, mp3, ebook, is worth about �25. This already seems rather high. I am not an economist, but to me, for example, an appropriate comparator for someone who downloads a film to watch it once might be the rental value, not the sale value.

Report on the Sequioa AVC Advantage

By Andrew Appel

Today I am releasing an in-depth study of the Sequoia AVC Advantage direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machine, available at I led a team of six computer scientists in a monthlong examination of the source code and hardware of these voting computers, which are used in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states.

The Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic filed a lawsuit seeking to decommission of all of New Jersey's voting computers, and asked me to serve as an expert witness. This year the Court ordered the State of New Jersey and Sequoia Voting Systems to provide voting machines and their source code for me to examine. By Court Order, I can release the report no sooner than October 17th, 2008.

Accompanying the report is a video and a FAQ.

Executive Summary

I. The AVC Advantage 9.00 is easily "hacked" by the installation of fraudulent firmware. This is done by prying just one ROM chip from its socket and pushing a new one in, or by replacement of the Z80 processor chip. We have demonstrated that this ``hack'' takes just 7 minutes to perform.

The fraudulent firmware can steal votes during an election, just as its criminal designer programs it to do. The fraud cannot practically be detected. There is no paper audit trail on this machine; all electronic records of the votes are under control of the firmware, which can manipulate them all simultaneously.

II. Without even touching a single AVC Advantage, an attacker can install fraudulent firmware into many AVC Advantage machines by viral propagation through audio-ballot cartridges. The virus can steal the votes of blind voters, can cause AVC Advantages in targeted precincts to fail to operate; or can cause WinEDS software to tally votes inaccurately. (WinEDS is the program, sold by Sequoia, that each County's Board of Elections uses to add up votes from all the different precincts.)

III. Design flaws in the user interface of the AVC Advantage disenfranchise voters, or violate voter privacy, by causing votes not to be counted, and by allowing pollworkers to commit fraud.

IV. AVC Advantage Results Cartridges can be easily manipulated to change votes, after the polls are closed but before results from different precincts are cumulated together.

V. Sequoia's sloppy software practices can lead to error and insecurity. Wyle's Independent Testing Authority (ITA) reports are not rigorous, and are inadequate to detect security vulnerabilities. Programming errors that slip through these processes can miscount votes and permit fraud.

Korea time

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