Category Archives: nature

Chinese Implicated in Agricultural Espionage Efforts

This interesting  piece is from The New York Times . We tend to think of China as an industrial thief of other peoples’ intellectual property but apparently  it now crosses over into pastures new…..

 

Corn seedlings in a research greenhouse at Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont, in Johnston, Iowa. Daniel Acker for The New York Times

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The case of the missing corn seeds first broke in May 2011 when a manager at a DuPont research farm in east-central Iowa noticed a man on his knees, digging up the field. When confronted, the man, Mo Hailong, who was with his colleague Wang Lei, appeared flushed. Mr. Mo told the manager that he worked for the University of Iowa and was traveling to a conference nearby. When the manager paused to answered his cellphone, the two men sped off in a car, racing through a ditch to get away, federal authorities said.

What ensued was about a year of F.B.I. surveillance of Mr. Mo and his associates, all but one of whom worked for the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group or its subsidiary Kings Nower Seed. The result was the arrest of Mr. Mo last December and the indictment of five other Chinese citizens on charges of stealing trade secrets in what the authorities and agriculture experts have called an unusual and brazen scheme to undercut expensive, time-consuming research.

China has long been implicated in economic espionage efforts involving aviation technology, paint formulas and financial data. Chinese knockoffs of fashion accessories have long held a place in the mainstream. B Continue reading Chinese Implicated in Agricultural Espionage Efforts

Survivalists ready to hole up now for £32,00 per head.

I loved this story well put together by Tom Lamont in the Observer this weekend. My keep-fit-mad 17 year old son is a prime candidate for this US survivalist stuff. Hand him an AK47 and wait until you see the whites of their eyes.

Abandon any notion of surviving the apocalypse by doing anything as boringly obvious as running for the highest hill, or eating cockroaches. The American firm Vivos is now offering you the chance to meet global catastrophe (caused by terrorism, tsunami, earthquake, volcano, pole shift, Iran, “social anarchy”, solar flare – a staggering list of potential world-murderers are considered) in style.

Vivos is building 20 underground “assurance of life” resorts across the US, capable of sustaining up to 4,000 people for a year when the earth no longer can. The cost? A little over £32,000 a head, plus a demeaning-sounding screening test that determines whether you are able to offer meaningful contribution to the continuation of the human race. Company literature posits, gently, that “Vivos may prove to be the next Genesis”, and they are understandably reluctant to flub the responsibility.

Should you have the credentials and the cash, the rewards of a berth in a Vivos shelter seem high. Each staffed complex has a decontamination shower and a jogging machine; a refrigerated vault for human DNA and a conference room with wheely chairs. There are TVs and radios, flat-screen computers, a hospital ward, even a dentist’s surgery ready to serve those who forgot to pack a toothbrush in the hurry. “Virtually any meal” can be cooked from a stockpile of ingredients that includes “baked potato soup” but, strangely, no fish, tinned or otherwise. Framed pictures of mountain ranges should help ease the loss of a world left behind.

Vivos says it has already received 1,000 applications. Continue reading Survivalists ready to hole up now for £32,00 per head.

Metre long alien worms burst from your body

I found this amazing article in New Scientist magazine. It’s about a parasitic worm that lives in your body for a year, grows to a meter in length then bursts out of your body just like in the film Alien. And you thought you had it bad.

guinea worm infection

IT STARTS with a painful blister – a very painful blister. It feels, people say, like being stabbed with a red-hot needle. When the blister bursts, the head of a worm pops out, thin, white and very much alive.
The rest of the worm, about a metre long, remains inside your body. It can take up to two months to pull it out, inch by agonising inch, during which time it may be impossible to walk. In extreme cases, you may host up to sixty of them, anywhere on your body. The worms can cause paralysis or lethal bacterial infections, and even if you survive mostly unscathed, next year it can happen all over again.
The guinea worm (Dracunculus, or little dragon) is probably the closest living equivalent to the monsters in the Alien movies – except we’re beating this enemy. Guinea worm was once widespread in Africa, the Middle East and many parts of Asia. In 1986, there were nearly 4 million cases a year in 20 countries across south Asia and Africa. Last year, there were just 3142 in four countries in Africa. The worm could be extinct by 2012, making dracunculiasis the second human disease ever to be eradicated – the first being smallpox.
Guinea worms start out as minuscule larvae living inside water fleas of the genus Cyclops. These millimetre-long crustaceans live in stagnant water, and people can swallow them when they drink from ponds, ditches or shallow wells. Stomach acids dissolve the water fleas but can leave the larvae untouched. The free larvae then burrow out of the intestine and cross to the chest or abdominal wall, where the male and female worms mature and mate. The males eventually die, but the growing females tunnel imperceptibly to, and then under, the skin.
Even as the females grow up to a metre long, their hosts remain unaware of their presence. The worms prevent pain by secreting opiates and dodge the immune system by coating themselves with human proteins. It may be just as well people don’t know they are infected as nothing can help at this stage. Continue reading Metre long alien worms burst from your body

Furry story. True of course.

Hooray for Scunthorpe. This story in the Economist adds a certain ambiance to the town that put the umber into South Humberside…as well as casting light upon the growing publicity surrounding the workaholic beaver and its eponymous publication. No the beavers are not in Scunthorpe they are in Canada….anyway read the story

CANADIANS have long been proud of the industrious beaver, an animal capable of cutting down 216 trees a year with its teeth and of surviving the long winter in a purpose-built lodge made of mud, twigs and bark. The largest rodent in North America is a national emblem. The first Canadian postage stamp, the 1851 Three-Penny Beaver, carried its image. And one of Canada’s oldest magazines carries its name.

But soon it will not. From April The Beaver will be renamed. A journal of popular history founded in 1920 by the Hudson Bay Company to celebrate its 250th anniversary, it is now owned by others. Its evocation of the fur that had made the trading company’s fortunes no longer struck the right note—especially since the word has become slang for female pubic hair.

The editors had known for some time that a name change was needed. Market research indicated that many women and people under the age of 45 said they would not subscribe solely because of the name. But it was the internet that struck the fatal blow.

The Beaver website was attracting (albeit briefly) readers who had little interest in Samuel de Champlain’s astrolabe or what prairie settlers ate for breakfast. They lasted about eight seconds before moving on. E-mails to potential subscribers were blocked by internet obscenity filters. This is known online as the Scunthorpe problem, after the town in Britain whose residents were initially unable to register with AOL because its name contained an obscenity.

The Beaver Club, a classy dining room in Montreal, and the SS Beaver, a replica of an 1835 steamship operating in British Columbia, remain unperturbed by any ambiguity. As for The Beaver, it hopes to expand its 50,000 circulation as Canada’s History. Dull, yes, but at least it will do what it says on the tin.

Living without cash, out in the sticks.

This last month I have been reading Henry Thoreau’s work “Walden” which is all about jacking in the materialist rat race and going off to live next to the land in a small shack out in the woods. When I found this article in the Guardian it was almost identical – but here and now rather than 1845 (Thoreau was way ahead of his time) so here it is for an alternative Christmas story…..as I am so heartily sick of the mainstream ones!

In six years of studying economics, not once did I hear the word “ecology”. So if it hadn’t have been for the chance purchase of a video called Gandhi in the final term of my degree, I’d probably have ended up earning a fine living in a very respectable job persuading Indian farmers to go GM, or something useful like that. The little chap in the loincloth taught me one huge lesson – to be the change I wanted to see in the world. Trouble was, I had no idea back then what that change was.

After managing a couple of organic food companies made me realise that even “ethical business” would never be quite enough, an afternoon’s philosophising with a mate changed everything. We were looking at the world’s issues – environmental destruction, sweatshops, factory farms, wars over resources – and wondering which of them we should dedicate our lives to. But I realised that I was looking at the world in the same way a western medical practitioner looks at a patient, seeing symptoms and wondering how to firefight them, without any thought for their root cause. So I decided instead to become a social homeopath, a pro-activist, and to investigate the root cause of these symptoms.

One of the critical causes of those symptoms is the fact we no longer have to see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that we’re completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the stuff we buy. The tool that has enabled this separation is money.

If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t contaminate it.

So to be the change I wanted to see in the world, it unfortunately meant I was going to have to give up cash, which I initially decided to do for a year. I got myself a caravan, parked it up on an organic farm where I was volunteering and kitted it out to be off-grid. Cooking would now be outside – rain or shine – on a rocket stove; mobile and laptop would be run off solar; I’d use wood I either coppiced or scavenged to heat my humble abode, and a compost loo for humanure.

Food was the next essential. There are four legs to the food-for-free table: foraging wild food, growing your own, bartering, and using waste grub, of which there is loads. On my first day, I fed 150 people a three-course meal with waste and foraged food. Most of the year, though, I ate my own crops.

To get around, I had a bike and trailer, and the 34-mile commute to the city doubled up as my gym subscription. For loo roll I’d relieve the local newsagents of its papers (I once wiped my arse with a story about myself); it’s not double-quilted, but I quickly got used to it. For toothpaste I used washed-up cuttlefish bone with wild fennel seeds, an oddity for a vegan.

What have I learned? That friendship, not money, is real security. That most western poverty is of the spiritual kind. That independence is really interdependence. And that if you don’t own a plasma screen TV, people think you’re an extremist.

People often ask me what I miss about my old world of lucre and business. Stress. Traffic jams. Bank statements. Utility bills.

Well, there was the odd pint of organic ale with my mates down the local.

• Mark Boyle is the founder of The Freeconomy Community. In a subsequent blog he responds to the comments below.

Britain deals superbly with a couple of centimetres of snow.

I was drinking with two neighbours last night who were off to Germany today using …yes…Eurostar. Why do I mention it? Germany commonly copes with six foot of snow, let alone a couple of inches. Yet here we are massively disrupted by a not unexpected outbreak of fairly mild wintry weather as seen in today’s Telegraph, Ho hum.

All Eurostar services remained suspended for a third consecutive day, while airports and domestic rail networks across the country suffered delays.
As bus replacement services were put into action, the AA warned that some minor roads had effectively turned into “ice-rinks”.
At least four people died in car crashes related to the bad weather over the weekend, while extra breakdown patrols were out in force in more remote areas.
With temperatures forecast to remain below freezing until Christmas Eve, there seems little respite from the chaos.
The three days of cancellation by Eurostar has left 55,000 people with travel plans in tatters as they try and find alternative transport at one of the busiest times of the year.
The company is encouraging those who don’t have to travel in the next few days to Those whose trains were cancelled have been offered refunds, aas well as the costs of any hotel accommodation – up to three star – transport and meals.
But that provides little comfort for those Britons stranded in France, and those trying to get home to France and Belgium for the holiday.
Several flights arriving from the US – where there is also considerable snow – were delayed arriving into London Heathrow and Gatwick.
Some passengers at Manchester Airport were still waiting to take off on flights which were due to have taken off on Sunday, while cancellations and delays continued at Bristol, Luton, Southampton, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Inverness airports.
A Manchester airport spokeswoman said: “We are trying our best to get the backlog cleared up. It has been a constant battle with snow and freezing temperatures.
“The snow has stopped falling now and the forecast looks clear but the problem now is clearing the runway of ice. The current temperature out there is minus 4 degrees. We have ordered in 50,000 litres of de-icer today to help with that.”
To try and ease the congestion between London and France, British Airways said it was operating larger aircraft on many flights both ways between Heathrow and Paris, including a 340-seater Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
BA was operating an additional flight from Heathrow to New York this evening.
UK carrier Flybe said it was increasing capacity to help stranded Eurostar passengers – laying on larger aircraft from both Birmingham and Southampton to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport for the next four days.
However, budget airline easyJet, which had to cancel a number of flights today, reported that French aviation authorities had imposed flight restrictions on easyJet at Charles de Gaulle Airport and that the airline was experiencing delays and cancellations to Paris.
Ferry operator P&O said it had laid on a fleet of coaches to get the passengers across the Channel and on to Paris or Brussels.
Spokesman Chris Laming said: “At one point we had 500 Eurostar passengers at Dover and at Calais.
“We’ve spoken to Eurostar about this arrangement and they’ve agreed to pick up the tab, and we’ll certainly send them the bill.”
Rail services were delayed in Surrey and Buckinghamshire, while London Midland services between London and Tring in Hertfordshire were cancelled and there were delays to Virgin West Coast trains.
Bus replacement services were put in place by Southern railways and Kent and Sussex suffered from the continuing poor weather.
On the roads, a jack-knifed lorry led to a lane closure on the M6 in Lancashire and another accident resulted in two lanes of the M6 in Cumbria being closed.
The AA said it had extra patrols out on duty and was putting extra snow-busting Land Rovers in place to rescue people in inaccessible areas.
AA president Edmund King said: “Many minor roads are treacherous – they’re like ice rinks – with numerous shunts and cars stuck in ditches.”

The dead walk in Brazil.

Thanks once again to Richard Dean for this story, It appeared in today’s Guardian – and gives a lovely account of a Brazilian chap turning up alive at his own funeral. Who was the other guy? That’s what I want to know.

A Brazilian bricklayer reportedly killed in a car crash shocked his mourning family by showing up alive at his funeral.
Relatives of Ademir Jorge Goncalves, 59, had identified him as the victim of a car crash on Sunday night in Parana state in southern Brazil, police said.
As is customary in Brazil, the funeral was held the following day, which happened to be the holiday of Finados, when Brazilians visit cemeteries to honour the dead.
What family members didn’t know was that Goncalves had spent the night at a truck stop talking with friends and drinking a sugarcane liquor known as cachaca, his niece Rosa Sampaio told the O Globo newspaper. He did not hear about his own funeral until it was already happening on Monday morning.
A police spokesman in the town of Santo Antonio da Platina said Goncalves rushed to the funeral to let family members know he was not dead.
“The corpse was badly disfigured, but dressed in similar clothing,” said the police spokesman, who talked on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to discuss the case. “People are afraid to look for very long when they identify bodies, and I think that is what happened in this case.”
Sampaio told O Globo that some family members were not sure the body was Goncalves.
“My two uncles and I had doubts about the identification,” she told O Globo. “But an aunt and four of his friends identified the body, so what were we to do? We went ahead with the funeral.”
The police spokesman confirmed there were doubts: “His mum looked at the body in the casket and thought something was strange. She looked and looked and couldn’t believe it was her son,” Sampaio said. “Before long, the walking dead appeared at the funeral. It was a relief.”
The body was correctly identified later on Monday, the police spokesman said, and had been buried in another state. He declined to release the actual victim’s name.

America’s green aspirations reach a sticky end.

Only In America would we find such a superbly written story about bog paper – by David Farenthold in The Washington Post. The US wants the softest toilet roll – but this means cutting down the oldest trees. The article is rich in unintended double meanings. It’s a Hummer product.  Greenpeace should have pushed for more. Talking about logging. The Bottom Line. Oh dear.
I don’t usually include a video but this one is priceless. Especially the faces of the consumer testers checking the Unnecessary Plumbing Issues.

It is a fight over toilet paper: the kind that is blanket-fluffy and getting fluffier so fast that manufacturers are running out of synonyms for “soft” (Quilted Northern Ultra Plush is the first big brand to go three-ply and three-adjective).

It’s a menace, environmental groups say — and a dark-comedy example of American excess.

The reason, they say, is that plush U.S. toilet paper is usually made by chopping down and grinding up trees that were decades or even a century old. They want Americans, like Europeans, to wipe with tissue made from recycled paper goods.

It has been slow going. Big toilet-paper makers say that they’ve taken steps to become more Earth-friendly but that their customers still want the soft stuff, so they’re still selling it.

This summer, two of the best-known combatants in this fight signed a surprising truce, with a big tissue maker promising to do better. But the larger battle goes on — the ultimate test of how green Americans will be when nobody’s watching.

“At what price softness?” said Tim Spring, chief executive of Marcal Manufacturing, a New Jersey paper maker that is trying to persuade customers to try 100 percent recycled paper. “Should I contribute to clear-cutting and deforestation because the big [marketing] machine has told me that softness is important?”

He added: “You’re not giving up the world here.”

Toilet paper is far from being the biggest threat to the world’s forests: together with facial tissue, it accounts for 5 percent of the U.S. forest-products industry, according to industry figures. Paper and cardboard packaging makes up 26 percent of the industry, although more than half is made from recycled products. Newspapers account for 3 percent.

But environmentalists say 5 percent is still too much.

Felling these trees removes a valuable scrubber of carbon dioxide, they say. If the trees come from “farms” in places such as Brazil, Indonesia or the southeastern United States, natural forests are being displaced. If they come from Canada’s forested north — a major source of imported wood pulp — ecosystems valuable to bears, caribou and migratory birds are being damaged.

And, activists say, there’s just the foolish idea of the thing: old trees cut down for the briefest and most undignified of ends.It’s like the Hummer product for the paper industry,” said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We don’t need old-growth forests . . . to wipe our behinds.”

The reason for this fight lies in toilet-paper engineering. Each sheet is a web of wood fibers, and fibers from old trees are longer, which produces a smoother and more supple web. Fibers made from recycled paper — in this case magazines, newspapers or computer printouts — are shorter. The web often is rougher.
So, when toilet paper is made for the “away from home” market, the no-choice bathrooms in restaurants, offices and schools, manufacturers use recycled fiber about 75 percent of the time.
But for the “at home” market, the paper customers buy for themselves, 5 percent at most is fully recycled. The rest is mostly or totally “virgin” fiber, taken from newly cut trees, according to the market analysis firm RISI Inc.
Big tissue makers say they’ve tried to make their products as green as possible, including by buying more wood pulp from forest operations certified as sustainable.
But despite environmentalists’ concerns, they say customers are unwavering in their desire for the softest paper possible.
“That’s a segment [of consumers] that is quite demanding of products that are soft,” said James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific. Sales figures seem to make that clear: Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, the three-ply stuff, sold 24 million packages in the past year, bringing in more than $144 million, according to the market research firm Information Resources Inc.
Last month, Greenpeace announced an agreement that it said would change this industry from the inside.
The environmental group had spent 4 1/2 years attacking Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kleenex and Cottonelle toilet paper, for getting wood from old-growth forests in Canada. But the group said it is calling off the “Kleercut” campaign: Kimberly-Clark had agreed to make its practices greener.
By 2011, the company said, 40 percent of the fiber in all its tissue products will come from recycled paper or sustainable forests.
“We could have campaigned forever,” said Lindsey Allen, a senior forest campaigner with Greenpeace. But this was enough, she said, because Kimberly-Clark’s changes could alter the entire wood-pulp supply chain: “They have a policy that . . . will shift the entire way that tissue companies work.”
Still, some environmental activists said that Greenpeace should have pushed for more.”The problem is not yet getting better,” said Chris Henschel, of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, talking about logging in Canada’s boreal forests. He said real change will come only when consumers change their habits: “It’s unbelievable that this global treasure of Canadian boreal forests is being turned into toilet paper. . . . I think every reasonable person would have trouble understanding how that would be okay.”

That part could be difficult, because — in the U.S. market, at least — soft is to toilet paper what fat is to bacon, the essence of the appeal.
Earlier this year, Consumer Reports tested toilet paper brands and found that recycled-tissue brands such as Seventh Generation and Marcal’s Small Steps weren’t unpleasant. But they gave their highest rating to the three-ply Quilted Northern.
“We do believe that you’re going to feel a difference,” said Bob Markovich, an editor at Consumer Reports.
Marcal, the maker of recycled toilet paper here in New Jersey, is trying to change that with a two-pronged sales pitch. The first is that soft is overrated.
“Strength of toilet paper is more important, for obvious reasons,” said Spring, the chief executive, guiding a golf cart among the machinery that whizzes up vast stacks of old paper, whips it into a slurry, and dries it into rolls of toilet paper big enough for King Kong. He said his final product is as strong as any of the big-name brands. “If the paper breaks during your use of toilet paper, obviously, that’s very, very important.”
The second half of the pitch is that Marcal’s toilet paper is almost as soft as the other guy’s anyway.
“Handle it like you’re going to take care of business,” company manager Michael Bonin said, putting this reporter through a blind test of virgin vs. recycled toilet paper. Two rolls were hidden in a cardboard box: the test was to reach in without looking and wad them up, considering the “three aspects of softness,” which are surface smoothness, bulky feel and “drapability,” or lack of rigidity.
The reporter wadded. The officials waited. The one on the right felt slightly softer.
That was not the answer they wanted: The recycled paper was on the left.

Easter Island holds key to longer life.

I read this story this morning in the Independent written by Michael McCarthy. The soil in Easter Island appears to contain a substance that actually prolongs life. Is that what those lovely Modiliagni style heads have been trying to tell us all these years? Do you think maybe the ancients were showing us an emblem of people who were “longer”?  Geddit? OK call me stupid, you’re right…..

A drug originating on Easter Island, the mysterious South Pacific home of a lost statue-building people, may become the first substance to slow down human ageing, new research indicates.

Rapamycin, a pharmacological product used to prevent rejection in organ transplants, has been found to extend the lifespan of mice by up to 38 per cent, raising the possibility that it may delay ageing in people.

Hitherto a matter for science fiction, the idea of an anti-ageing drug which would allow people to prolong their natural lifespan and also to avoid age-related diseases is now being seriously considered for the first time as a result of the findings by American researchers.

Rapamycin is a bacterial product originally found in a soil sample from Easter Island, the Polynesian extinct volcano famous for its monumental statues erected hundreds of years ago by the island people, and known in the region as Rapa Nui – hence the drug’s name. Originally developed as an anti-fungal agent, rapamycin was soon found to have powerful immuno-suppressant properties and thus be valuable for preventing rejection of transplanted organs. It was also found to delay the ageing process when used experimentally with three sets of lower organisms: yeast, nematode worms and fruit flies.

Now, however, it has been shown to affect the ageing of mice – the first time that this has ever been shown with a mammal.

A team of 14 researchers from three institutions, led by David Harrison from the Jackson Laboratory at Bar Harbor in Maine, fed rapamycin to mice late in their life – at 600 days of age – and showed that both the median and maximal lifespan of treated animals were considerably extended. Currently, the only way to extend the life of a rodent is by severely restricting its diet, so this marks the first report of a pharmacological intervention that lengthens the life of mammals – with clear implications for humans.

The results, published today in an online paper on the website of the journal Nature, are attracting considerable excitement, and an accompanying article in Nature by two of the world’s leading experts on the ageing process, Matt Kaeberlein and Brian K Kennedy from the University of Washington, Seattle, headed “A Midlife Longevity Drug?” openly asks the question: “Is this the first step towards an anti-ageing drug for people?”

Their answer is that it may well be. Dr Kaeberlein and Dr Kennedy first issued a warning to people not to start taking rapamycin at once in the hope of prolonging their lives – “the potential immuno-suppressive effects of this compound alone are sufficient to caution against this,” they advised.

But they added: “On the basis of animal models, however, it is interesting to consider that rapamycin … might prove useful in combating many age-associated disorders. Also … it may be possible to develop pharmacological strategies that provide the health and longevity benefits without unwanted side-effects.

“So, although extending human lifespan with a pill remains the purview of science fiction writers for now, the results of Harrison et al provide a reason for optimism that even during middle age, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

Rapamycin was known to have an influence on ageing in the lower organisms by disrupting the influence of an enzyme known as TOR, which regulates cell growth. Dr Harrison and colleagues found that this was also the case with mice, and found that rapamycin feeding could extend mouse lifespan even when started late in life.

The maximum lifespan went up from 1,094 days to 1,245 days for female mice, and from 1,078 to 1,179 for male mice – a striking increase of life expectancy of 38 per cent for females and 28 per cent for males.

Dr Harrison and his colleagues conclude: “An effective anti-ageing intervention that could be initiated later than the midpoint of the lifespan could prove to be especially relevant to clinical situations, in which the efficacy of anti-ageing interventions would be particularly difficult to test in younger volunteers. Our data justify special attention to the role of the TOR pathway in control of ageing in mammals and in the pathogenesis of late-life illnesses.”

Also known as sirolimus, rapamycin was first discovered as a product of the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus, which was found in an Easter Island soil sample.

Probably the world’s most remote and least-visited inhabited island, Easter Island is globally famous for its haunting monumental stone statues of human faces, set up around the coast, known as Moai. Weighing as much as 80 tonnes, they were carved by a lost people, whose society may have collapsed, according to the American environmental geographer Jared Diamond, when they overexploited their forests. Volcanic, hilly and now treeless, and a territory of Chile, the island is situated 2,180 miles west of Chile itself and 1,290 miles east of Pitcairn Island; its European name comes from its discovery on Easter Sunday 1722, by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. Its oldest known Polynesian name is thought to be Te Pito O Te Henua, meaning “the navel of the world”. Rapa Nui is a name given to it by Tahitian sailors in the 19th century.

Health Secretary says swine flu cases could reach more than 100,000 per day by the end of August.

Today’s Daily Telegraph runs a short feature quoting the UK Health Secretary Andy Burnham predicting a real surge in the swine flu numbers. We’ve had this illness in our house already – but that doesn’t mean we’re immune as the virus mutates.

Andy Burnham has warned that swine flu could reach 100,000 cases a day by August

The UK has moved past the stage of containing the swine flu outbreak and into the “treatment phase”, he said.

“We have reached the next stage in management of the disease,” Mr Burnham said on Thursday.

“The national focus will be on treating the increasing numbers affected by swine flu.

“We will move to this treatment phase across the UK with immediate effect.”

There are now 7,447 laboratory-confirmed cases in the UK, he said.

London and the West Midlands have already had sufficiently high numbers to move towards a policy of outbreak management, which saw people with swine flu clinically diagnosed rather than being confirmed by laboratory reports.

Mr Burnham said that last week saw a “considerable rise” in swine flu cases.

“There are now on average several hundred new cases every day,” he said.

“Our efforts during the containment phase have given us precious time to learn more about the virus.

“We have always known it would be impossible to contain the virus indefinitely and at some point we would need to move away from containment to treatment.”

He added: “We have now signed contracts to secure enough vaccine for the whole population.”

The first will become available next month, with 60 million doses available by the end of the year.

Tornado coming. You have seven minutes to get out.

I read this story this morning by Kari Lydersen in The Washington Post.  Apparently the current tornado warning system in the States gives ordinary people an average of  13 minutes warning. That means some people only get 7 minutes to get out. Presuming you are fit and able of course.

When a tornado is about to cut a devastating swath through an American town, those in its path get a warning lead time of 13 minutes on average to try to reach shelter.

“If you live in a trailer community, is 13 minutes enough to wake your family and get them bundled up and outside?” asks tornado researcher Joshua Wurman, head of the nonprofit Center for Severe Weather Research. And “if you are elderly or handicapped, you’re going to have a hard time getting to a shelter in 13 minutes,” he said.

And that’s the average; many times people are warned about six or seven minutes earlier. That is because although scientists know that certain kinds of “supercell” thunderclouds can spin off tornadoes, they know very little about the exact conditions that indicate a tornado will occur and whether it will be a mild twister or a violent killer.

In the mid-1990s, a two-year study called Vortex had a phalanx of scientists chasing tornadoes around the Great Plains, inspiring much public fascination, daredevil amateur tornado-chasers and the 1996 movie “Twister.”

Vortex (which stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment) resulted in significant advances, including the revelation that tornadoes can occur on smaller time and space scales than previously thought and that sometimes they do not show up on radar. Knowledge gained from the study led to an increase in average warning times, but it did not unlock the secrets of exactly when and why tornadoes form.

As a result, predictions about tornado occurrence are successful only about a quarter of the time.

“Sometimes people will choose not to take shelter even if they’re told to,” said Yvette P. Richardson, a meteorology professor at Pennsylvania State University. “In general, the more we can reduce the false-alarm rate, the more seriously the public will take warnings.”

Now comes Vortex2, a five-week tornado-chasing project beginning next month that scientists hope will finally provide the knowledge to accurately predict when and where a tornado will develop.

“Ultimately we’d like to get to the point where we can put sufficient data into our models so we know when a tornado will happen,” said Stephan P. Nelson, a program director in the atmospheric sciences division of the National Science Foundation, which, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provided the $12 million funding for Vortex2. “Then you can get first responders to be better prepared — police, fire, medical personnel, even power companies. Now, that’s not even remotely possible.”

As part of Vortex2, about 80 veteran scientists and graduate students will chase storms across a wide swath from South Dakota to Texas and from eastern Colorado to Iowa and Minnesota, with their nerve center in Norman, Okla.

They will be armed with a host of tools, including lasers that measure raindrops, Doppler radar mounted on trucks, high-tech balloons, unmanned aircraft and instruments on tripods anchored in the tornadoes’ path.

“We’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it,” said Wurman, who has chased 141 tornadoes over 14 years. “We’ll have a whole potpourri of instruments surrounding the storm, all measuring different things in different ways.”

The technology available this time is far superior. The inaugural Vortex used Doppler radar on planes, which would pass over a tornado at about five-minute intervals. Now radar mounted on trucks, which can get within two miles of a tornado, will provide uninterrupted data.

“We will be able to distinguish between rain, hail, dust, debris, flying cows,” said Howard Bluestein, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma and member of the Vortex2 steering committee.

Two ingredients are necessary to form the supercell thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes: a source of buoyant energy, namely warm and moist air near the ground, and a rotational force generated by winds at the surface blowing at a different speed or direction than winds high in the atmosphere.

A typical thundercloud develops as warm air rises into colder air masses above, then usually dissipates quickly once rain falls. Supercell thunderstorms, by contrast, can last for hours and can move rapidly, tracking over 100 miles. Supercell thunderstorms may also create “mesocyclones,” swirling winds embedded within the larger thunderhead that can be as much as six miles in diameter.

About five to 10 percent of these storms actually spin off tornadoes, which are typically about 500 feet in diameter. Scientists know what forms a mesocyclone, but they are largely lost when it comes to understanding which ones will spawn tornadoes and how violent they will be.

“A number of things have to happen sequentially and at the same time and in the right order,” said John Monteverdi, a meteorologist at San Francisco State University who has been chasing tornadoes for 24 years. “You have to start knocking the dominos down to find out what happens in that last stage. I think we’re getting close, and this project should help.”

Risky though it appears, members of the project note that their crews have never logged a death or severe injury. But they say amateur tornado-chasers who follow scientists around with video cameras are endangering themselves and others. Not only do these adrenalin junkies put themselves in harm’s way, the scientists say, they often speed and park their cars in the middle of the road, endangering other motorists and distracting highway patrol officers.

Scientists warn that it is only a matter of time before a major tornado sweeps through a densely populated urban area and causes horrific damage and loss of life.

Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston, in particular, are in regions prone to violent tornadoes. Wurman said in a 2007 study that a tornado cutting through Chicago could kill 13,000 to 45,000 people and cause tens of billions of dollars in damage.

“Tornadoes have a great beauty to them sometimes,” Wurman said. “There’s a great elegance to the vortex itself. But when you see it going toward a town or city, there’s a quick change in your impression, and it’s like a tiger: Something beautiful becomes deadly.”

Man sprays his own toxic waste over food in shops

This story is from this week’s  Birmingham Post. I had driven past the Air Balloon pub near Cheltenham just yesterday where this chap did some of  his dirty work. I had to think why this story had caught my attention. Something about the way cats and dogs behave….something about a personal statement about our society….I don’t know. Nowt as strange as folk as the people in Yorkshire say.

An unemployed chemist was jailed for nine years today for contaminating food and wine by spraying his own urine and faeces in supermarkets in Gloucestershire.

Algerian Sahnoun Daifallah also sprayed the slurry over children’s books and in a pub as he carried out his foul campaign by concealing a 1.5 litre weed killer container in a lap top bag modified to allow the nozzle to poke out. And it was revealed that he intended to bring his campaign to Birmingham.

Daifallah, 42, was last month found guilty of four counts of contaminating goods at Tesco, Morrisons, Waterstones bookstore and a pub in Gloucestershire on May 14 and 16 last year.  The incidents caused £700,000 of damage to products and in lost businesses when the stores had to close.

When police searched his house they found stockpiles of the mixture and plans to spread the muck in other cities including Bristol and Birmingham.

Daifallah, who had fantasies about biological weapons to cause public alarm, was also found guilty of having an offensive weapon, namely a catapult with marbles.

Judge Carol Hagen said security agencies had labelled Daifallah, who has a degree in industrial chemistry, a very high risk to public safety. She sentenced him on Tuesday at Bristol Crown Court to concurrent sentences of three years, five years and two of nine years for the contamination offences and 12 months for possession of a weapon.

She told him that during the seven day trial, in which he had represented himself, she found him to be “arrogant and inflexible” in his thinking.
She added that she had wanted to jail him indefinitely but the law would not allow her to.

“Your actions showed a callous disregard for public safety and you caused considerable alarm and anxiety,” she said. “You caused substantial police and forensic involvement given that the nature of the substances were not known.”

Proceedings to deport him have begun.

Daifallah first visited the Air Balloon Pub near Cheltenham at 12.45pm on May 14 where police were called after he made offensive comments to a barmaid.

When officers arrived Daifallah was no longer there but he had left a trail of stench behind him which was his ‘calling card’.

He then moved on to Waterstones bookstore in Cirencester where he sprayed the brown substance all over a toilet in the coffee shop.

Staff noticed the smell but it was not until after he had left that they discovered a 20 metre area of 38 shelves, from the classics to the children’s section, had been doused in the foul substance.

In total 706 books were contaminated, most of them in the children’s section.

Two days later at 11am Daifallah visited the Tesco store in Quedgley where a shopper saw him reach into his bag and produce a jet of brown fluid over the frozen chips.

He then moved on to the wine section where a member of staff saw a fine vapour come out of his bag and on to the wine, leaving the brown substance over the shelves.

Daifallah then drove four miles to the Morrisons store in Abbeydale where an employee in the wine section noticed him acting strangely and gagged at the overpowering stench.

Both supermarkets were cordoned off and shoppers were locked in for safety reasons while the source of the contaminant was traced. The stores were closed for two days for cleaning and shoppers reported skin rashes and nausea.

Police officers called by staff at Tesco identified Daifallah on CCTV and arrived at his home in Bibury Road, Gloucester, while he was still spraying in Morrisons.

On searching the flat they found several bottles of the noxious mixture and several plastic sachets containing excrement marked with the names of cities on them.

They also found messages scrawled over the walls referring to biological weapons, smuggling uranium into Britain and micro-organisms being spread.

One of the messages said: “The ants get out to every direction to get food, then they bring it back to Tesco and Asda. If you poison those then you kill the ants.”

A map of Gloucester with ‘Contaminated 83% Ammonia’ written on it was also found in his bedroom.

His house was sealed off for two weeks while forensic scientists worked out what was in the packages.

Daifallah was questioned by police about another four incidents in February last year when brown liquid was sprayed at four pubs in Stroud.

If you want to lose weight, just hang out in a cold room.

Today’s story is about fat that eats fat. Scientists thought this brown fat, or so it is called, disappeared from our bodies after childhood…………but no, according to the New York Times. What’s it got to do with cold and shivering? Read on…

Illustration showing where brown fat deposits appear in babies.

For more than 30 years, scientists have been intrigued by brown fat, a cell that acts like a furnace, consuming calories and generating heat. Rodents, unable to shiver to keep warm, use brown fat instead. So do human infants, who also are unable to shiver their muscles to stay warm. But it was generally believed that humans lose brown fat after infancy, no longer needing it once the shivering response kicks in.
That belief, three groups of researchers report, is wrong.
Their papers, appearing Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine, indicate that nearly every adult has little blobs of brown fat that can burn huge numbers of calories when activated by the cold, like sitting in a chilly room that is between 61 and 66 degrees.
Thinner people appeared to have more brown fat than heavier people, younger people more than older people; people with higher metabolic rates had more than those whose metabolisms were more sluggish, and women had more than men. People taking beta blockers for high blood pressure or other medical indications had less brown fat.
“The thing about this brown fat is that it takes a very small amount to burn a lot of energy,” said Dr. C. Ronald Kahn, head of the section on obesity and hormone action at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
The fat really is brown, researchers say, because it is filled with mitochondria, cells’ tiny energy factories. Mitochondria contain iron, giving the tissue a reddish brown color.
The hope is that scientists may find safe ways to turn peoples’ brown fat on, allowing them to lose weight by burning more calories. But researchers caution that while mice lose weight if they activate brown fat, it is not clear that people would shed pounds — they might unwittingly eat more, for example. The data on global patterns of obesity are not good enough to say whether living in a cold climate makes people thinner.
The best evidence for the effects of brown fat is from earlier studies in mice, said Leslie P. Kozak, a professor of molecular genetics at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of Louisiana State University.
Recently, Dr. Kozak put mice predisposed to obesity in a cold room, 41 degrees, for a week. The animals activated their brown fat. As a result, they lost 14 percent of their weight, which constituted 47 percent of their body fat, while eating a high-fat diet with two and a half times more calories than they had consumed at room temperature. “That’s just by going out in the cold, without any drug treatment,” Dr. Kozak said. But, he cautioned, mice, small animals with a comparatively huge surface area, are easily chilled. “Put the mouse in the cold,” he added, “and it becomes a heat producing machine.”
Jan Nedergaard of the University of Stockholm did the opposite of Dr. Kozak. He and Barbara Cannon, also at the University of Stockholm, studied mice that were genetically engineered so their brown fat could not burn calories. The animals became fat.
“Until very recently, we would have said that it is doubtful that differences in brown fat really could contribute to obesity,” Dr. Nedergaard said. Now, he said he had changed his mind, at least for mice.
The key to finding brown fat in humans was PET scans, which pinpoint areas where cells are actively burning glucose. Because brown fat rapidly burns glucose to produce heat, it lights up in the scans. In two of the three studies, investigators also studied samples of brown fat that were removed from a few subjects, confirming that the cells had a protein, UCP-1, that is unique to brown fat.
Brown fat in adult humans was in an unexpected place. Infants have it mostly as a sheet of cells covering their backs. Rodents have it mostly between their shoulder blades, just down from the neck. But in adult humans, it showed up in the upper back, on the side of the neck, in the dip between the collarbone and shoulder, and along the spine.
That may be one reason it was missed for so long, Dr. Kahn said.
“There was an interest in looking at humans 20 or 25 years ago with different scanning techniques, but people were always looking between the shoulder blades,” he said. And since there is so little brown fat — just a few grams of tissue — it can be hard to find, Dr. Kahn added.
His study, one of the three published Thursday, involved 1,972 people who had had PET scans for a variety of reasons. The scans showed brown fat in 7.5 percent of the women and 3 percent of the men — an underestimate, Dr. Kahn says, because the people had not deliberately activated brown fat by getting cold.
Dr. Kahn and his colleagues also examined biopsy samples taken from the necks of two patients. They concluded that what looked like brown fat in their scans was indeed brown fat.
A second study, led by Wouter D. van Marken Lichtenbelt of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, involved 24 healthy young men. Ten were lean, the rest overweight or obese.
The scans showed no brown fat when the men had been in a room that was a comfortable temperature. But after they were in a chilly room for two hours, scans showed brown fat in all but one, an obese man.
A third study, led by Dr. Sven Enerbäck of the University of Goteborg in Sweden, involved five healthy adults. Each had two PET scans — one after being in a room at a comfortable temperature, the other after being in a chilly room for two hours. The investigators saw brown fat in their chilled subjects. Three participants allowed the researchers to remove some white fat and some brown fat to demonstrate that what looked like brown fat in the scans really was that elusive substance.
The studies, investigators say, should stimulate research on safe ways to activate brown fat. It is known to be activated not only by cold but also by catecholamines, hormones that are part of the fight or flight response. That is why beta blockers, which block catecholamines, can suppress brown fat activation.
Epinephrine, or adrenaline, and ephedra, a herbal supplement containing epinephrine, can stimulate brown fat, said Dr. Rudolph Leibel, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at the Columbia University Medical Center. But, he added, the drugs have too many side effects to be used for weight loss. While caffeine can boost ephedra’s effects, Dr. Leibel said, it is easy to eat your way out of a brown fat effect.
Brown fat, he said, “fits the fantasy — I eat what I want and burn it off.”
That, however, is still a fantasy, Dr. Leibel added.
If a drug that stimulates brown fat could be developed, said Dr. Claude Bouchard of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, it would be the first obesity drug to affect energy expenditure rather than appetite.
Then there is the notion of simply hanging out in a cold room.
“We’re thinking of opening a frosty spa,” Dr. Kozak joked.

Hiking in the Alps. I’ve nothing against it.

Once again the New York Times provides my story about nudists hiking in the Alps. Very common apparently.

APPENZELL, — The Swiss like their secrecy, particularly in banking. At other times, they are more open. Take hiking.
In recent years, it has become fashionable for a growing number of Swiss and some foreigners to wander in the Alps clad in little more than hiking shoes and sun screen. Last summer, the number of nude hikers increased to such an extent that the hills often seemed alive with the sound of everything but the swish of trousers.

In September, the police in this mountainous town detained a young hiker, whose friends will identify him only as Peter, wandering with nothing on but hiking boots and a knapsack. But they had to release him, because in Switzerland there is no law against hiking in the nude. The experience alarmed the city fathers of Appenzell, pop. 5,600, who worried that the town might become a Mecca for the unclad. Like most remote mountain regions, this is a conservative area.

For centuries the farmers here lived off their famed Appenzeller cheese and a bitter liqueur that most, except fervent admirers, say tastes like cough medicine gone bad. Not until 1990 did Appenzell grant women the right to vote, decades after other regions of Switzerland.

Suppose families with children were out hiking and encountered a group of nude hikers, officials asked. Moreover, the name of Appenzell was popping up with troublesome frequency in the blogs and chat rooms of nude hiking enthusiasts.

“We’re not in Canada, where you can hike for hours in vast forests,” said Markus Dörig, 49, spokesman for the local government, a look of exasperation on his face. “Here you meet other hikers every few minutes. It was bothersome.”

Konrad Hepenstrick says he almost never meets people who are bothered. “You greet them, and they greet you, though in winter, of course, many ask, ‘Aren’t you cold?’” he said, picking at a lunch of coarse, spicy Appenzeller sausage in a restaurant high on the slopes over the town. Unseasonable snow showers clouded the view of the surrounding peaks, thwarting plans for a nude hike with this reporter.

Mr. Hepenstrick, 54, is an architect who loves to hike in the altogether. In winter, he said, he has hiked for hours in temperatures well below freezing, though he does concede the need for a hat and gloves. He has hiked in the nude for about 30 years, he said, and has crisscrossed the hills and mountains around Appenzell, as well as in France, Germany, Italy and even the Appalachians.

His companion, a schoolteacher, also hikes, though she will not do so au naturel, he said. So why does he take off his clothes? “There’s not much to discuss,” he said. “It’s freedom. First, freedom in your head; then, freedom of the body.”

With some Swiss legal experts arguing that banning nudity in public would be unconstitutional, the government has been hamstrung in responding to the hikers. It has drafted legislation that, if enacted, would outlaw “abusive behavior that offends against custom and decency,” but it seems likely to be challenged. Daniel Kettiger, a legal expert, published a six-page paper last month titled, predictably enough, “The Bare Facts: On the Criminal Prosecution of Nude Hiking,” pointing out that in 1991 Switzerland struck a law from its books that banned nudity in public.

“Simply being naked without any sexual connotation is no longer illegal,” Mr. Kettiger said by telephone, adding, “at the time there was a wave of nudism.” Was he himself a hiker? “Yes, but never nude,” he replied. “First there is the danger of sunburn, and then there are ticks all over the place in the Alps, which carry Boreliosa,” or Lyme disease.

The Appenzeller justice minister, Melchior Looser, is sure he can frame a law that will force the naked to cover up. “I think the measure will work the way we have fashioned it,” said Mr. Looser, 63, noting that offenders would be fined the equivalent of $170.

He would like to have the law in place by springtime, when hikers again take to the hills. But he concedes that it must be approved by the grand assembly of the people, a gathering of all citizens of voting age once a year on the town’s main square, which is scheduled to convene April 26. Passage is by no means assured.

Hans Eggimann believes it will be enacted. “I hike around the house naked, but outside I put my pants on,” said Mr. Eggimann, 57, a large man who sells more than 60 types of cheese in his shop in the town center.

Others are not so sure. “Many Appenzellers I know say it doesn’t bother them,” said Alessandra Maselli, who works in a dry goods store not far from Mr. Eggimann’s cheese emporium. “I’d say it’s about half and half, with a slight majority for the law,” she said.

Over in the Bücherladen bookstore, Caroline Habazin, 46, said the controversy gave everyone a good laugh at the town Carnival parade last month. One float featured a male and a female hiker in flesh-colored tights, their arm and leg muscles and their rear ends stuffed up steroid-style with filling, though the man’s private parts were mostly covered by fake grape leaves. “I think it’s only a pretty small group,” she said.

Her colleague, Edith Sklorz, 48, said why anyone would want to hike nude was puzzling to her, though her husband felt differently. “I can understand swimming nude,” she said, “but not hiking.”

What offended her equally though, was the government’s choice of responding to the hikers with a law. Recently, the neighboring town of Gossau passed a measure banning spitting in public, she said, threatening offenders with a $50 fine; and now a law to ban nude hikers. “For every tiny thing, there’s a law,” she said.

Ursula Heller has been selling apparel for hikers and trekkers for five years in her shop just off the town’s main square. A threat to her business from nude hikers? She laughed deeply. She and her husband are avid hikers, she said, but she is against nudity.

“If you want to get undressed,” she said, “you can always wear shorts or a bikini.”

Eyewitness accounts of the Australian bushfires

These first-hand accounts of the fires which almost inevitably occur when the temperature outside reaches 47 degrees C are from the Australian radio station ABC.

With the cool change that swept across the state late yesterday came a shift in direction of the wind, which then sent the fire eastwards towards Whittlesea then Kinglake and other sub-alpine communities, about 60 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. It grew alarmingly from a 4000-hectare blaze to one covering 30,000 hectares in just a few hours. At least 500 firefighters on 100 trucks battled the inferno. Mr Mitchell said last night that he was with about 200 residents holed up in the local hotel and fire vehicles could no longer get into the town. Thousands more residents in the region were sheltering wherever they could find cover as authorities warned them that the worst was to come overnight. Firefighter Kevin Davy earlier told of his horror as the ferocious Kinglake fire rushed over his crew’s truck while they worked to protect a house. “It swept up the hill in a second. BRENDAN TREMBATH: The wind is whipping up around you as you speak. MICHAEL VINCENT: The wind is still causing problems; it’s going at about 60 k/ph. The CFA have had had to put out a couple of spot fires this morning. They’ve still got 20 trucks in the area whizzing about, going to various spots to try and keep those fires at bay. They are threatening some properties, but it is nothing, nothing like Saturday where a wall of fire, some people describe, has swept through and destroyed swathes and swathes of houses. The people here are, I mean this community meeting – I was here overnight – there was a couple of hundred people who came to this community meeting and one moment, it was just heart breaking, there were two women, they looked at each other, they said, one of the them said, “Yeah, I’m here.” That really summed it up that people are still reuniting with their friends. Another guy who stayed overnight was Charles Exton, he’s a farmer. He’s lived here for 100 years, well no his family have been in the area for 100 years. He spent last night with nothing. He had his clothes on his back and his car and he’s been trying to organise water supplies to come in and out and he’s still helping, handing out sandwiches and the like. He spent last night basically with the clothes on this back and his 16-year-old son Bradley. CHARLES EXTON: We stayed out here and we slept in the ute, well we didn’t sleep, we tried to sleep, but there’s just too much on our minds and I’ve got about seven, eight a head of sheep that I had to worry about, and the cattle and the horses and went up the roads and there’s been no animal losses on my farm or anyone’s I know of at this stage. We drove back just praying for everyone at Kinglake. The fire came so quickly there was not time for everyone to evacuate, which is why people died on the roads, in their cars and in their houses. On the television lots of contact numbers are given out all day for people to call, but there are so many people affected it’s almost impossible to get through on the phone, so I had to drive to my local area’s relief centre to register and to let them know I was safe

Not far away in Kinglake, the dawn revealed another horrific scene – a jumbled collection of burnt-out cars lining the roads out of the doomed township. These cars were carrying the families who never made it out of the town. Some had crashed into each other in their panic to escape the inferno that had surrounded their town. Others had their only escape route blocked by fallen trees as the fiery apocalypse enveloped them. By the time rescuers reached these cars they were incinerated wrecks. Some had bodies in them. Others had been abandoned by their owners as the fires roared around them in a moment of unimaginable fear. Where are the men, women and children who were in these abandoned cars? Did they live? Did they die? Right now, no one knows. These same questions are being asked about dozens of missing people across Victoria today as the full horror of the worst day in the state’s history becomes apparent. The southeasterly change, about 3pm, instantly doomed dozens of lives. It blew the fires from their predicted paths faster than anyone expected, confounding firefighters and suddenly posing a deadly threat to farms and townships that had appeared safe. Firefronts exploded, racing up hills with inconceivable speed, swallowing all in their path. The most deadly were those closest to Melbourne, in the Kinglake and Wandong area, where people say sheer walls of flames surged towards the small communities. In Wandong, locals spoke of how black smoke in the distance suddenly morphed into flames that roared up through the grass paddocks on the outskirts of their town, exploding trees and creating a fireball. Chris Isbister lost his home and almost his life, being forced to hide under wet hessian blankets with his father and two mates as they watched the fire destroy hishome. “We thought this was it,” he said. Ali said a family friend in the town had told of being trapped in Kinglake on Saturday with no one allowed in or out. “There were spot fires everywhere, roads blocked, roads covered in fire,” she said. “A lady said she was driving, she could see the fire in front of her and she just turned around. As soon as she turned around the fire went straight across the road on the other side. She had to drive straight through the fire to get out. She got out.” Dr Harvey said the family was lucky to be alive – the only reason he and his wife Charo were not at home is because they were picking up Ali from the airport, and Victoria was in Melbourne – but they are devastated to have lost a pet dog and rabbit, a family photographs and other memories. “We had an acre and a third on top of the mountain, picturesque views,” he said. The road to Kinglake, Whittlesea Road, has been blocked off about 15km to 20km before the town after it was surrounded on all sides by fire on Saturday. Scores of Kinglake residents were parked on the side of the road, blocked from returning on Sunday afternoon to see if their homes survived.

Mr Mitchell said there was no-one to fight the fire because fire crews were already fighting other fires across the state. He was forced to leave his home to shelter at the local fire station. “The whole of Kinglake is ablaze, I live a couple of out of town, I heard explosions, by the time I got to the road there were fires everywhere,” he said.

Roads on low salt diet

This story is from the BBC news site. Britain is running out of road salt apparently. Watching my neighbours attempting to use their large expensive vehicles on a sheet pan of ice would have been amusing were it not quite so dangerous. For once an SUV might be appropriate in London. If only they knew how to use the four wheel drive. Shouting helps, I believe.

The gritting salt keeping Britain’s roads clear of snow and ice is running out amid a warning from the AA that some roads are becoming “death traps”.
Many councils in England and Wales are having to ration supplies and have stopped using salt on minor roads.

The AA wants the government to lead a co-ordinated response to the crisis.

The Highways Agency, which grits all motorways and some A-roads, said it was doing what it could to assist councils struggling to keep roads gritted.

The head of its National Traffic Control Centre, Steve Crosthwaite, said: “We’ve already written to all local authorities, saying we will take any requests and have a look at them in each merit.

Running on empty

“Obviously that has to be compared to what our local situation’s like, to make sure that we’ve got sufficient [salt] to keep the motorways and major trunk roads running. But if we have got surplus we will help out local authorities and indeed we have been doing that in some places.”

The Highways Agency is putting 25,000 tonnes of salt on main roads a day, but producers can only deliver 30,000 tonnes a week.

The AA said in a statement that several local authorities, who grit everything from the smaller A-roads, all B-roads and minor roads and streets, had either “run out of salt or have such low stock levels that very few roads are being gritted.”

It said the worst areas appeared to be Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Derbyshire and parts of Wales.

AA’s president Edmund King added: “The harshest winter for almost two decades has left some highway authorities running on empty as regards salt stocks. Many are desperate to re-stock their road salt but supply chain pressures from mine to highway depot looks like resulting in some areas running dry.

“The government should step in to assess the situation and ensure that salt stocks are maintained in the places at immediate risk from snow and ice over the coming days.”

He added: “This is a very serious situation, with some roads becoming death traps.”

RAC motoring strategist Adrian Tink added: “The number of roads that haven’t been gritted is a big concern and has a serious impact on driver safety.

“With UK motorists giving the government £45 billion a year in taxes, they will feel pretty annoyed there isn’t enough cash to keep all the road networks moving.”

Bristol City Council has admitted that grit supplies are starting to run low. It has just 200 tons left, having used 70 on Wednesday night.

Warwickshire County Council has confirmed it is rationing gritting, while in Wiltshire only main routes are being gritted.There, smaller roads have become extremely icy in patches and some have been blocked by jack-knifed lorries or double-deckers stuck in the road.

Gloucestershire County Council said it had halved its salting operation to preserve stocks as it tries to hunt around for alternative supplies.

In Surrey, sand is being used to treat secondary roads and pavements to conserve supplies of salt for main roads. The county council said sand was a “highly effective way of providing traction” and would be used on pavements next to main roads, in town centres and around some secondary schools.

Unprecedented demand

Transport secretary Geoff Hoon said: “We are taking action across the country to ensure that in those areas where salt is in short supply we are getting round to those areas to make sure it’s available.

“We cannot expect to keep every side road right across the country open given the very serious weather conditions we have faced over the last few days.

“Clearly, if the weather continues to be difficult as it has been in the past few days then we are putting down on to the roads far more salt than can physically be produced by the suppliers.”

He added that it was also “perfectly possible” that the country could have more snow ploughs at its disposal.

“But we would all then have to consider the cost of that – do we want to maintain large numbers of snow ploughs in storage for an event that occurs only every 18 years?”The deputy chairman of the Local Government Association, Richard Kemp, said there had been an unprecedented demand on gritting salt because of the severity of the weather.

He told the BBC News channel: “Basically, we have a storage capacity. You can’t just dump the grit on a piece of waste space.

“It all has to be under cover, and we’re going well beyond the worst contingency plans of local government. We plan for normal, we plan for abnormal, what we can’t plan for is the exceptional that we’re getting at the moment.”

Britain’s biggest salt supplier, Cheshire-based Salt Union, said staff were working round the clock but still could not meet demand.

Low-grade

The firm said: “We have been operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week since the beginning of January and are extracting 30,000 tonnes per week but the unexpected and unusual weather means that, even working at this level, demand is outstripping supply.”

The biggest supplier in the West Midlands, DA Baldwin and Son in Wolverhampton, has completely run out of supplies, while a Teesside mine, Cleveland Potash in Saltburn, is importing 40,000 tonnes of salt from a sister company in Spain.

The British Salt depot in Middlewich, Cheshire, has 100,000 tonnes of low-grade salt available, a stockpile that has accumulated over the last 15 years as a by-product in the manufacture of table salt.

A queue of 200 lorries was forming on Thursday to collect much-needed supplies.

Biggest moon of the year.

I had noticed that last night’s full moon looked unusually large. I read this morning in Scientific American that the moon is at its perigee – the point in its orbit where it approaches nearest to the Earth.

Remember last month’s massive moon, the one that dazzled onlookers on December 12? That moon was 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than a typical full moon.

Well, it’s back tonight. NASA says tonight’s moon will be the biggest full moon of 2009, “almost identical” to the one on December 12.

Here’s what’s going on: The moon’s orbit of Earth is an ellipse, with one end closer to Earth than the other. Tonight, the moon will be near the closer end of the ellipse, a spot known as the perigee. (Apogee is the more distant end.)

NASA is quite excited about the perigee moon, as you might expect: “You can read a newspaper, ride a bike, write a letter, and at the same time count the stars overhead.” (With all due respect to NASA, we would suggest not doing all of those things at the same time.) And tonight’s forecast for much of the Northeast is for snow, according to weather.com, so it may be too cloudy to see the moon there.

If you don’t want to wait to hear about the next perigee moon on 60-Second Science, we’re not offended. You can calculate the schedule and be ready.

Update (12:30 a.m. EST): We’re gathering photos of the perigee with this other blog post. Send yours!

Photo of perigee (left) and apogee (right) moon courtesy of Galileo Project/NASA

What a cough looks like.

The New York Times ran a story today about what a cough actually looks like. As everyone I know has one at the moment….I thought you should take a look. And there’s interesting stuff about Schlieren photography, which I had never heard of before…

The image, published online Oct. 9 by The New England Journal of Medicine, was created by schlieren photography, which “takes an invisible phenomenon and turns it into a visible picture,” said the engineering professor, Gary Settles, who is the director of the university’s gas dynamics laboratory.

Schlieren is German for “streaks”; in this case it refers to regions of different densities in a gas or a liquid, which can be photographed as shadows using a special technique.

“In my lab we use this technique a lot,” Dr. Settles said. “Often it’s used for other things, like in supersonic wind tunnels, to show shock waves around high-speed aircraft.”

The process involves a small, bright light source, precisely placed lenses, a curved mirror, a razor blade that blocks part of the light beam and other tools that make it possible to see and photograph disturbances in the air. In the world of gas dynamics, a cough is merely “a turbulent jet of air with density changes.” Though coughs spread tuberculosis, SARS, influenza and other diseases, surprisingly little is known about them. “We don’t have a good understanding of the air flow,” Dr. Settles said.

To map a cough, he teamed up with Dr. Julian Tang, a virus expert from Singapore. A healthy student provided the cough. The expelled air, traveling at 18 miles per hour, mixed with cooler surrounding air and produced “temperature differences that bend light rays by different amounts,” Dr. Settles said.

He went on: “The next thing is, you get a couple of people in front of the mirror talking, or one coughs on another, and you see how the air flow moves, how people infect one another. Or you look at how coughing can spread airborne infection in a hospital. This is really a suggestion for how we might study all that. The techniques used in wind tunnels can be used to study human diseases.”

Other schlieren images show the churning air and shock waves that emanate from a pistol’s firing; an Airedale sniffing a small flower; and the unseen, shimmering world around a candle burning in a breeze.

The final photograph, in a full-scale mock-up of an aircraft cabin, captures in microseconds the flash of an explosion under a mannequin in an airplane seat and the propagation of shock waves into the cabin. The blast was a re-creation of a terrorist’s attempt in 1994 to bring down a Philippine Airlines flight with a nitroglycerin bomb. The plane did not crash, but the explosion did kill the passenger seated over the bomb. The simulation used a less intense explosion than the actual bombing.

“The simulation helps to understand how the energy of an onboard blast reverberates around the cabin,” Dr. Settles said, “and it is also useful to check the results of computer blast simulations.”

Noddy’s pal discovered in Gobi desert

jerboa

I found this story on the BBC news website and have included it because of the fab footage available of this jerboa hopping about in the desert. More info below:

An “extraordinary” desert creature has been caught on camera for what scientists believe is the first time.

The long-eared jerboa, a tiny nocturnal mammal that is dwarfed by its enormous ears, can be found in deserts in Mongolia and China.

Zoological Society of London (ZSL) scientist Jonathan Baillie said the footage was helping researchers to learn more about the mysterious animal.

The species is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red list.

These creatures hop just like a kangaroo; it is amazing to watch. Little hairs on their feet, almost like snow shoes, allow them to jump along the sand,” explained Dr Jonathan Baillie, ZSL

The unusual animals were filmed in the Gobi desert during an expedition led by Dr Baillie.

Until now, the creatures had proven extremely difficult to study, thanks to their minuscule size, nocturnal nature and the harsh desert environment that they inhabit.

“And in terms of mammals, they have one of the biggest ear-to-body ratios out there.”

The footage revealed that the creatures spent daylight hours in underground tunnels beneath the sand, and that their diet was mostly made up of insects.

Dr Baillie added that although there was still much to learn about the rare rodent, it was already believed to be under threat from habitat disturbance.

“We travelled to the Gobi to find out about the animal’s status and learn more about it so we can develop a thorough long-term action plan.”

The expedition formed part of ZSL’s Edge programme, which focuses its efforts on conservation plans for animals that are both endangered and evolutionary distinctive.

The long-eared jerboa is one of 10 species that the programme is looking at this year.