Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Attack Of The 'Killer' Monkeys

More than 10,000 monkeys roam the streets and back alleys of India's crowded capital, Delhi. They steal food, break into homes, spread disease, fight with cats and dogs for scraps and occasionally attack the human population.

The deputy mayor of Delhi, SS Bajwa, is believed to have been fighting off a horde of monkeys when he fell from his apartment balcony and was killed.

The mayor of Delhi has admitted defeat in the battle between the authorities and the monkeys.

"We have neither the expertise nor the infrastructure to deal with the situation," said Delhi's mayor Aarti Mehra, amid a barrage of criticism.

Culling is unacceptable to Hindus who revere the monkeys as a living link to the deity Hanuman, a monkey god who symbolises strength.

The animals routinely invade parliament, ministries, courts and government offices.

In May, federal lawmakers demanded protection from the marauding simians, which have even broken into the complex that houses Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office.

Activist Kartick Satyanarayanan, who heads Wildlife SOS, said the problem was due to the "constant erosion" of the animal's natural habitat.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Brazil Overrun By Invasion Of Giant Snails

A report from National Geographic on the B-grade horror movie plot, but very real environmental disaster, of giant African snails "thriving in nearly every state" of Brazil.

The giant mollusks, which can grow to 20cm long and weigh up to half a kilogram, were first introduced as a gourmet delicacy, but have now adapted to Brazil's climate so well that experts think they will be impossible to eradicate :
There is no record of when the species was first imported, but an agribusiness fair in southern Brazil in 1988 was probably pivotal in sparking the invasion.

At the fair, people sold kits with snails and brochures detailing how to raise them.

At first the African snails seemed promising for food: They had more meat, grew faster, and were more resistant to disease than the garden snail. The African snail was also cheaper to keep.

Brazilians countrywide began growing the giant snail in their backyards, planning to sell the mollusks to fancy restaurants.

Yet eating escargot is unusual in Brazil, and the few diners who would pay to eat the delicacy were not willing to substitute it for a new species with different texture and taste—and suspicious origin. This resulted in thousands of frustrated people with unwanted snails slithering through their backyards.

Most of the snails were then released in the wild, where they rapidly grew in number.
The snails are believed to be responsible for infecting people with meningitis.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Water : $US100 A Litre

It's water, but not as you know it. Well, it's wet, it's clear, it's water, but it's not water, it's water.

Boutique water to be exact. Water from rare springs, water with a low mineral content making for a "smooth" taste, water from glaciers and icebergs, 'fresh' water sucked from the bottom of salty seas where it has swirled for thousands of years.

More here :
...purveyors are given advice on which water is best suited to what occasion.
Occasion? Like thirst? You don't get it, do you? Fine water is the new wine, according to the boutique water store in a flash London hotel :
Finé artesian water from Japan is said to be "a perfect companion" to sushi, sashimi and caviar, while Waiwera Mineral Water from the Waiwera Thermal Resort in New Zealand has a low mineral content which goes well with grilled and fried meat.

For those suffering from exhaustion or trying to get over jet lag, OGO spring water from Tilburg in the Netherlands contains 35 times more oxygen than regular water to revitalise the drinker.

The most expensive on the menu is 420 Volcanic, spring water from Tai Tapu in New Zealand, which can be bought for £21 for 42 cl - the equivalent of £50 per litre.

Its low mineral content and "smooth sensation on the palate" comes from its journey from the source at the bottom of an extinct volcano through 200 metres of volcanic rock.

Included on the list is 10 Thousand BC, water that comes from the melted ice of the Hat Mountain Glacier and is more than 10,000 years old...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mexican Horror Writer Embraces 'The Method'

When police entered the home of an aspiring Mexican horror writer, they found the manuscript of a novel called 'Cannibalistic Instincts'.

Then they found his girlfriend's leg in the refrigerator, bones in a bowl and the remains of her torso stuff into a closet.

Writers are often told to "write about what you know" and do "lots of research".

Clearly these rules should not apply when you're writing a novel about cannibalism :

Jose Luis Calva told police he had boiled some of his girlfriend's flesh but that he hadn't eaten it, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case.

Investigators were trying to determine if chunks of fried meat found in a pan in the apartment were human, the spokesman said.

Police came to Calva's apartment Monday after neighbors reported a fetid smell.

The family of Galeana, a 30-year-old pharmacy clerk, reported her missing on Friday and told police of her relationship with Calva, the official said.

Calva is being investigated in the killings of two other women, including an ex-girlfriend, also a pharmacy worker, whose dismembered body was found in 2004, and an unidentified prostitute who was killed earlier this year.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Thinking Baboon's Baboon

There's really no valid reason, other than religion-guided education, why most people today don't already know that man's closest relatives think and feel many of the same basic thoughts and emotions as we do.

Science, however, is still filling in those reality gaps, and bringing us closer to the truth about what really separates man from the apes - not much at all.

From the New York Times :

...baboons’ minds are specialized for social interaction, for understanding the structure of their complex society and for navigating their way within it.

The shaper of a baboon’s mind is natural selection. Those with the best social skills leave the most offspring.

“Monkey society is governed by the same two general rules that governed the behavior of women in so many 19th-century novels,” Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth write. “Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with the members of high-ranking families.”

Baboon society revolves around mother-daughter lines of descent. Eight or nine matrilines are in a troop, each with a rank order. This hierarchy can remain stable for generations.

By contrast, the male hierarchy, which consists mostly of baboons born in other troops, is always changing as males fight among themselves and with new arrivals.

Rank among female baboons is hereditary, with a daughter assuming her mother’s rank.

Baboons live with danger on every side. Many fall prey to lions, leopards, pythons and the crocodiles that in the wet season stalk the fords where baboons cross from one island to another. Baboon watchers are subject to the same hazards. Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth say their rules are not to work alone or to wade into water deeper than knee high. They often find themselves sitting in a tree with baboons waiting out a lion below. But going into New York is more petrifying, they contend, than dodging Botswana’s predators.

The baboons will bark to warn of lions and leopards, but pay no attention to some other species dangerous to humans like buffalo and elephant. On two occasions, baboons have attacked animals, a leopard and a honey badger, that threatened their human companions. “We haven’t lost any post-docs,” Dr. Seyfarth said.

For female baboons, another constant worry besides predation is infanticide. Their babies are put in peril at each of the frequent upheavals in the male hierarchy. The reason is that new alpha males enjoy brief reigns, seven to eight months on average, and find at first that the droits de seigneur they had anticipated are distinctly unpromising. Most of the females are not sexually receptive because they are pregnant or nurturing unweaned children.

An unpleasant fact of baboon life is that the alpha male can make mothers re-enter their reproductive cycles, and boost his prospects of fatherhood, by killing their infants. The mothers can secure some protection for their babies by forming close bonds with other females and with male friends, particularly those who were alpha when their children were conceived and who may be the father. Still, more than half of all deaths among baby baboons are from infanticide.

So important are these social skills that it is females with the best social networks, not those most senior in the hierarchy, who leave the most offspring.

Although the baboon and human lines of descent split apart some 30 million years ago, the species have much in common. Both are primates whose ancestors came down from the trees and learned to survive on the ground in large social groups. The baboon mind may therefore shed considerable light on the early stages of the evolution of the human mind.

Baboons may be good at perceiving and thinking in a combinative way, but their vocal output consists of single sounds that are never combined, like greeting grunts, the females’ sexual whoop and the males’ competitive “wahoo!” cry. Why did language, expressed in combinations of sounds, evolve in humans but not in baboons?

A possible key to the puzzle lies in what animal psychologists call theory of mind, the ability to infer what another animal does or does not know. Baboons seem to have a very feeble theory of mind. When they cross from one island to another, ever fearful of crocodiles, the adults will often go first, leaving the juveniles fretting at the water’s edge. However much the young baboons call, their mothers never come back to help, as if unable to divine their children’s predicament.

But people have a very strong ability to recognize the mental states of others, and this could have prompted a desire to communicate that drove the evolution of language. “If I know you don’t know something, I am highly motivated to communicate it,” Dr. Seyfarth said.

It is far from clear why humans acquired a strong theory of mind faculty and baboons did not.

But both chimps and humans use tools. Possibly social life drove the evolution of the primate brain to a certain point, and the stimulus of tool use then took over. Use of tools would have spurred communication, as the owner of a tool explained to others how to use it. But that requires a theory of mind, and Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth are skeptical of claims that chimpanzees have a theory of mind, in part because the experiments supporting that position have been conducted on captive chimps. “It’s bewildering to us that none of the people who study ape cognition have been motivated to study wild chimpanzees,” Dr. Cheney said.

“Baboons provide you with an example of what sort of social and cognitive complexity is possible in the absence of language and a theory of mind,” she said. “The selective forces that gave rise to our large brains and our full-blown theory of mind remain mysterious, at least to us.”

One interesting thought spawned of reading this story is this : why do we immediately assume that our evolutionary track was for the better of our species? Baboons may be perfectly happy where they are on the evolutionary ladder.

Humans evolved fast, compared to the slow progress of many other species. Some species have barely evolved at all for tens of millions of years.

Maybe we should not be asking what makes baboons similar to humans, but what it is that makes humans similar to baboons.

Perhaps baboons don't have this 'theory of mind' because they don't need it. Maybe they began to develop it, before we built cities, and decided it was more trouble than it was worth.

But the story raises another interesting question : why are we so fascinated by our hairy relatives, but they pay no more than the scantest interest in us?
World's Biggest Living Organism? Fungus

The world's biggest living organism is not the 220 ton Blue Whale. It's a fungus in Oregon, and not only is it the biggest living organism in the world, it may also be the oldest :

Next time you purchase white button mushrooms at the grocery store, just remember, they may be cute and bite-size but they have a relative out west that occupies some 2,384 acres (965 hectares) of soil in Oregon's Blue Mountains. Put another way, this humongous fungus would encompass 1,665 football fields, or nearly four square miles (10 square kilometers) of turf.

The discovery of this giant Armillaria ostoyae in 1998 heralded a new record holder for the title of the world's largest known organism, believed by most to be the 110-foot- (33.5-meter-) long, 200-ton blue whale. Based on its current growth rate, the fungus is estimated to be 2,400 years old but could be as ancient as 8,650 years, which would earn it a place among the oldest living organisms as well.

Armillaria has the unique ability to extend rhizomorphs, flat shoestringlike structures, that bridge gaps between food sources and expand the fungus's sweeping perimeter ever more.

A combination of good genes and a stable environment has allowed this particularly ginormous fungus to continue its creeping existence over the past millennia.

...humongous may be in the nature of things for a fungus. "We think that these things are not very rare," Volk says. "We think that they're in fact normal."

Pssst, Lookout! - Plants 'Chatter' To Warn Each Other Of Danger

If you've ever had one of those strange, passing thoughts about whether or not a carrot screams when it is ripped out of the ground, maybe you shouldn't read this story :

Plants chatter amongst themselves to spread information, a lot like humans and other animals, new research suggests.

A unique internal network apparently allows greens to warn each other against predators and potential enemies.

Many herbal plants such as strawberry, clover, reed and ground elder naturally form a set of connections to share information with each other through channels known as runners—horizontal stems that physically bond the plants like tubes or cables along the soil surface and underground. Though connected to vertical stems, runners eventually form new buds at the tips and ultimately form a network of plants.

“Network-like plants do not usually produce vertical stems but their stems lie flat on the ground and can hence be used as network infrastructure,” said researcher Josef Stuefer from the Radboud University in the Netherlands.

Here is how it works: If one of the network plants is attacked by caterpillars, the other members of the network are warned via an internal signal to upgrade their chemical and mechanical resistance—making their leaves hard to chew on and less desirable. This system works to spread the information amongst the plants and to ward off caterpillars.

“This is an early warning system, very much like in military defense, but then more effective: each member of the network can receive the external signal of impending herbivore danger and transmit it to the other members of the network,” Stuefer said. The attacked leaf is lost. However, the remaining leaves are protected against predators.

Weird, but fascinating.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Attack Of The RoboBugs And Cyborg Moths

It's a surveillance freak's dream : an Army of fly-sized robot spy cameras, that can wing their way into the midst of a peace protest, zoom through a terrorist training camp gathering visual data, or hide in the corner of a room while foreign diplomats are holding secretive meetings relaying conversations by mini-microphone.

But how close are we to a world where tiny robotic insects are swarming through our cities and towns?

Closer than you might think.

This fascinating, and disturbing, story from the Washington Post details where various military, university and private surveillance companies are at on bringing micro-robo-bugs into reality (excerpts) :

No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones. But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying. Some federally funded teams are even growing live insects with computer chips in them, with the goal of mounting spyware on their bodies and controlling their flight muscles remotely.

The robobugs could follow suspects, guide missiles to targets or navigate the crannies of collapsed buildings to find survivors.

The technical challenges of creating robotic insects are daunting, and most experts doubt that fully working models exist yet.

...the CIA secretly developed a simple dragonfly snooper as long ago as the 1970s. And given recent advances, even skeptics say there is always a chance that some agency has quietly managed to make something operational.

Robotic fliers have been used by the military since World War II, but in the past decade their numbers and level of sophistication have increased enormously. Defense Department documents describe nearly 100 different models in use today, some as tiny as birds, and some the size of small planes.

All told, the nation's fleet of flying robots logged more than 160,000 flight hours last year -- a more than fourfold increase since 2003. A recent report by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College warned that if traffic rules are not clarified soon, the glut of unmanned vehicles "could render military airspace chaotic and potentially dangerous."

But getting from bird size to bug size is not a simple matter of making everything smaller.

"You can't make a conventional robot of metal and ball bearings and just shrink the design down," said Ronald Fearing, a roboticist at the University of California at Berkeley. For one thing, the rules of aerodynamics change at very tiny scales and require wings that flap in precise ways -- a huge engineering challenge.

In one approach, researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are inserting computer chips into moth pupae -- the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult -- and hatching them into healthy "cyborg moths."

The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project aims to create literal shutterbugs -- camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip so that wranglers can control their activities. DARPA researchers are also raising cyborg beetles with power for various instruments to be generated by their muscles.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have made a "microbat ornithopter" that flies freely and fits in the palm of one's hand. A Vanderbilt University team has made a similar device.

With their sail-like wings, neither of those would be mistaken for insects. In July, however, a Harvard University team got a truly fly-like robot airborne, its synthetic wings buzzing at 120 beats per second.

"It showed that we can manufacture the articulated, high-speed structures that you need to re-create the complex wing motions that insects produce," said team leader Robert Wood.

The fly's vanishingly thin materials were machined with lasers, then folded into three-dimensional form "like a micro-origami," he said. Alternating electric fields make the wings flap. The whole thing weighs just 65 milligrams, or a little more than the plastic head of a push pin.

Still, it can fly only while attached to a threadlike tether that supplies power, evidence that significant hurdles remain.

In August, at the International Symposium on Flying Insects and Robots, held in Switzerland, Japanese researchers introduced radio-controlled fliers with four-inch wingspans that resemble hawk moths. Those who watch them fly, its creator wrote in the program, "feel something of 'living souls.' "

Others, taking a tip from the CIA, are making fliers that run on chemical fuels instead of batteries. The "entomopter," in early stages of development at the Georgia Institute of Technology and resembling a toy plane more than a bug, converts liquid fuel into a hot gas, which powers four flapping wings and ancillary equipment.

The whole story is worth a read.
Biggest Pumpkin...Ever

At more than 1500 pounds, this is an absolutely huge pumpkin. Interesting, if you're into this sort of thing.

Hell, it'll kill a couple of minutes at worst, and make you think about having pumpkin soup for lunch.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Ancient Bacteria Of The Antarctic Comes Out Of Its Ice Age

For millions of years, prehistoric bacteria and organisms have been locked under the ice of the Antarctic. But now the ice is melting. The UK Independent asks if the world will see the return of some unimaginable 'prehistoric plague' :

Now, a little more than a hundred years on from Scott's exhibition, US scientists have discovered that the icy landscapes may not be so barren after all. Microbiologists from New Jersey have chanced upon tiny frozen organisms that have remained alive for millions of years, embedded in some of the oldest ice on the planet.

Dr Kay Bidle of Rutgers University, who was part of the research team, extracted DNA and bacteria from ice found barely metres beneath the surface of a Dry Valleys glacier, and, remarkably, claims to have grown the bacteria in a lab. "This is by far the oldest ice in which we have found encased microbes, cultured them and formed a growth," he says.

The discovery of such ancient viable genetic material has far-reaching implications, not least the possibility that global warming could melt Antarctic ice to such an extent that an army of invidious pathogens will be released to wreak havoc on humans. But a more realistic outcome is that the experiment will aid our understanding of evolution, and how life could survive on other planets. Not bad for organisms that are eight million years old, originating four million years before humans first got up and strolled about on two legs. "The study is interesting because it extends understanding of the period of time over which organisms remain viable," adds Dr Bidle, who published his research earlier this month.

The scientific community has heralded the discovery as "significant", but the team's conclusions might disappoint science-fiction buffs. There will be no global pandemic – or at least there shouldn't be. The scientists say that while extremely old bacteria will be released into the world's oceans as a result of global warming, it is not a "cause for concern". Dr Bidle says that marine bacteria and viruses are less harmful to human health than those found on land. "Clearly this melting has happened many times over the Earth's history," he says. "We didn't find any pathogens. What we found were organisms closely related to common environmental bacteria."

The experts are keen to point out that even if ancient pathogens were released, they would not be very good at making people ill. In order to be effective they would have had to evolve in tandem with their original "target" – impossible for organisms that have been cut off for millenia.

Whenever the ice caps melt they inject a huge amount of genetic material into the oceans. Bacteria can incorporate external DNA into their own genetic material – through a process known as "lateral transmission"– and if they are good genes they can help the bugs survive. If they are not, they won't. "[Lateral transmission] can be advantageous or it can be deleterious. This is one of main ways in which microbes get new data," Bidle says. "It's up to natural selection to sort that out." In other words, the thawing of Antarctic ice could fast-track the microbes' evolution.

Antarctica's Dry Valleys are among the most desolate places on the planet. Here, no plants cling to the slopes, no small mammals scurry among the scree. The freeze-dried landscapes, with their rocks chiselled by the wind, seem utterly lifeless. When Captain Scott first chanced upon their craggy peaks and troughs in 1905, he labelled them the "valleys of the dead".
Ice Cap Melt Causes Increase Of Earthquakes

The effects of rapid climate change are showing just how interconnected so many natural events of this planet actually are.

From the UK Guardian :

The Greenland ice cap is melting so quickly that it is triggering earthquakes as pieces of ice several cubic kilometres in size break off.

Scientists monitoring events this summer say the acceleration could be catastrophic in terms of sea-level rise and make predictions this February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change far too low.

The glacier at Ilulissat, which supposedly spawned the iceberg that sank the Titantic, is now flowing three times faster into the sea than it was 10 years ago.

Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, said in Ilulissat yesterday: "We have seen a massive acceleration of the speed with which these glaciers are moving into the sea. The ice is moving at 2 metres an hour on a front 5km [3 miles] long and 1,500 metres deep. That means that this one glacier puts enough fresh water into the sea in one year to provide drinking water for a city the size of London for a year."

He is visiting Greenland as part of a symposium of religious, scientific, and political leaders to look at the problems of the island, which has an ice cap 3km thick containing enough water to raise worldwide sea levels by seven metres.

Dr Corell, director of the global change programme at the Heinz Centre in Washington, said the estimates of sea level rise in the IPCC report were based on data two years old. The predicted rise this century was 20-60cm (about 8-24ins) , but it would be at the upper end of this range at a minimum, he said, and some believed it could be two metres. This would be catastrophic for European coastlines.

He had flown over the Ilulissat glacier and "seen gigantic holes in it through which swirling masses of melt water were falling. I first looked at this glacier in the 1960s and there were no holes. These so-called moulins, 10 to 15 metres across, have opened up all over the place. There are hundreds of them."

This melt water was pouring through to the bottom of the glacier creating a lake 500 metres deep which was causing the glacier "to float on land. These melt-water rivers are lubricating the glacier, like applying oil to a surface and causing it to slide into the sea. It is causing a massive acceleration which could be catastrophic."

The glacier is now moving at 15km a year into the sea although in surges it moves even faster. He measured one surge at 5km in 90 minutes - an extraordinary event.

Veli Kallio, a Finnish scientist, said the quakes were triggered because ice had broken away after being fused to the rock for hundreds of years. The quakes were not vast - on a magnitude of 1 to 3 - but had never happened before in north-west Greenland and showed potential for the entire ice sheet to collapse.

Dr Corell said: "These earthquakes are not dangerous in themselves but the fact that they are happening shows that events are happening far faster than we ever anticipated."