‘Oldest’ woolly rhino discovered
By Jonathan Amos Science correspondent, BBC News
A woolly rhino fossil dug up on the Tibetan Plateau is believed to be the oldest specimen of its kind yet found.
The creature lived some 3.6 million years ago – long before similar beasts roamed northern Asia and Europe in the ice ages that gripped those regions.
The discovery team says the existence of this ancient rhino supports the idea that the frosty Tibetan foothills of the Himalayas were the evolutionary cradle for these later animals.
The report appears in Science journal.
“It is the oldest specimen discovered so far,” said Xiaoming Wang from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, US.
“It is at least a million years older, or more, than any other woolly rhinos we have known.
“It’s quite well preserved – just a little crushed, so not quite in the original shape; but the complete skull and lower jaw are preserved,” he told BBC News.
The rhino was found in Tibet’s Zanda Basin. The area is rich in fossil beds, and this specimen was unearthed along with examples of extinct horse, antelope, snow leopard, badger and many other kinds of mammals.
It has been put in a new species classification – Coelodonta thibetana.
Dr Wang and colleagues say it displays some very primitive features compared with its counterparts that lived through the later great glaciations of the Pleistocene Epoch.
Judging from marks on the skull, the creature’s horn, which has not survived, would likely have been quite flat in construction and leaning forward.
This might have allowed the animal more easily to sweep snow out of the way to get at vegetation, a useful behaviour for survival in the harsh Tibetan climate, the team says.
“We think it would have used its horn like a paddle to sweep the snow away,” Dr Wang explained.
Although the extinction of the Pleistocene beasts, such as woolly mammoths and rhinos, great sloths and sabre-tooth cats, has been intensively studied in recent years, much less is known about where these giants came from and how they acquired their adaptations for living in a cold environment.
The argument made in the Science paper is that perhaps they got those adaptations on the Tibetan Plateau.
“When this rhino existed, the global climate was much warmer and the northern continents were free of the massive ice sheets seen in the later ice ages,” Dr Wang said.
“Then, about a million years later, when the ice age did hit the world, these Tibetan woolly rhinos were basically pre-adapted to the ice age environment because they had this ability to sweep snows.
“They just happily came down from the high altitude areas and expanded to the rest of Eurasia.”
The Los Angeles-based researcher concedes that many more fossil finds will be required to underpin the Tibetan hypothesis.
Andy Currant, an expert on the Pleistocene (1.8 million to about 11,000 years ago) at London’s Natural History Museum, says this is not straightforward in the case of woolly rhinos, and good specimens can sometimes be hard to come by.
“Woolly rhino were preyed on by spotted hyenas and they were eaten pretty thoroughly; the hyenas liked the bones,” he told BBC News.
Coral could hold key to sunscreen pill
By Michelle Roberts Health reporter, BBC News
Scientists hope to harness coral’s natural defence against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays to make a sunscreen pill for humans.
The King’s College London team visited Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to uncover the genetic and biochemical processes behind coral’s innate gift.
By studying a few samples of the endangered Acropora coral they believe they can synthetically replicate in the lab the key compounds responsible.
Tests on human skin could begin soon.
Before creating a tablet version, the team, led by Dr Paul Long, plan to test a lotion containing the same compounds as those found in coral.
To do this, they will copy the genetic code the coral uses to make the compounds and put it into bacteria in the lab that can rapidly replicate to produce large quantities of it.
Once we recreate the compounds we can put them into a lotion and test them on skin discarded after cosmetic surgery tummy tucks”
Lead researcher Dr Paul Long
Dr Long said: “We couldn’t and wouldn’t want to use the coral itself as it is an endangered species.”
He said scientists had known for some time that coral and some algae could protect themselves from the harsh UV rays in tropical climates by producing their own sunscreens but, until now, they didn’t know how.
“What we have found is that the algae living within the coral makes a compound that we think is transported to the coral, which then modifies it into a sunscreen for the benefit of both the coral and the algae.
“Not only does this protect them both from UV damage, but we have seen that fish that feed on the coral also benefit from this sunscreen protection, so it is clearly passed up the food chain.”
This could ultimately mean that people might be able to get inbuilt sun protection for their skin and eyes by taking a tablet containing the compounds. But for now, Dr Long’s team are focusing their efforts on a lotion.
“Once we recreate the compounds we can put them into a lotion and test them on skin discarded after cosmetic surgery tummy tucks.
“We will not know how much protection against the sun it might give until we begin testing.
“But there is a need for better sunscreens.”
Another long-term goal of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council-funded study is to look at whether the processes could also be used for developing sustainable agriculture in the Third World.
The natural sunscreen compounds found in coral could be used to produce UV-tolerant crop plants capable of withstanding harsh tropical UV light.
Space debris: Time to clean up the sky
The US National Research Council’s report on space debris is not the first of its kind.
A wide range of space agencies and intergovernmental organisations has taken a bite out of this issue down the years.
The opinion expressed is always the same: the problem is inescapable and it’s getting worse. It’s also true the tone of concern is being ratcheted up.
There is now a wild jungle of debris overhead – everything from old rocket stages that continue to loop around the Earth decades after they were launched, to the flecks of paint that have lifted off once shiny space vehicles and floated off into the distance.
It is the legacy of more than half a century of space activity. Today, it is said there are more than 22,000 pieces of debris actively being tracked.
These are just the big, easy-to-see items, however. Moving around unseen are an estimated 500,000 particles ranging in size between 1-10cm across, and perhaps tens of millions of other particles smaller than 1cm.
All of this stuff is travelling at several kilometres per second – sufficient velocity for even the smallest fragment to become a damaging projectile if it strikes an operational space mission.
Gravity ensures that everything that goes up will eventually come back down, but the bath is currently being filled faster than the plug hole and the overflow pipe can empty it.
Man and nature are also conspiring in unexpected ways to make the situation worse. The extra CO2 pumped into the atmosphere down the years has cooled some of its highest reaches – the thermosphere.
This, combined with low levels of solar activity, have shrunk the atmosphere, limiting the amount of drag on orbital objects that ordinarily helps to pull debris from the sky. In other words, the junk is also staying up longer.
Leaving aside the growth in debris from collisions for a moment, the number of satellites being sent into space is also increasing rapidly.
The satellite industry launched an average of 76 satellites per year over the past 10 years. In the coming decade, this activity is expected to grow by 50%.
The most recent Euroconsult analysis suggested some 1,145 satellites would be built for launch between 2011 and 2020.
A good part of this will be the deployment of communications constellations – broadband relays and sat phone systems.
These constellations, in the case of the second-generation Iridium network, can number more than 60 spacecraft.
By and large, everyone operating in orbit now follows international mitigation guidelines. Or tries to.
These include ensuring there is enough propellant at the end of a satellite’s life so that it can be pushed into a graveyard orbit and the venting of fuel tanks on spent rocket stages so that they cannot explode (a major source of the debris now up there).
The goal is to make sure all low-orbiting material is removed within 25 years of launch.
I say “by and large” because there has been some crass behaviour in the recent past. What the Chinese were thinking when they deliberately destroyed one of their polar orbiting satellites in 2007 with a missile is anyone’s guess. It certainly defied all logic for a nation that professes to have major ambitions in space.
The destruction created more than 3,000 trackable objects and an estimated 150,000 debris particles larger than 1cm.
It was without question the biggest single debris-generating event in the space age. It was estimated to have increased the known existing orbital debris population at that time by more than 15%.
A couple of years later, of course, we saw the accidental collision of the Cosmos 2251 and Iridium 33 satellites. Taken together, the two events essentially negated all the mitigation gains that had been made over the previous 20 years to reduce junk production from spent rocket explosions.
There are lots of ideas out there to clean up space. Many of them, I have to say, look far-fetched and utterly impractical.
Uncertain futureIdeas such as deploying large nets to catch debris or firing harpoons into old satellites to drag them back to Earth are non-starters. If nothing else, some of these devices risk creating more debris than they would remove.
It has been calculated that just taking away a few key spent rocket stages or broken satellites would substantially reduce the potential for collision and cap the growth in space debris over coming decades. And in the next few years we’re likely to see a number of robotic spacecraft demonstrate the rendezvous and capture technologies that would be needed in these selective culls.
The German space agency, for example, is working on such a mission called DEOS that is likely to fly in 2015.
Dr Robert Massey, Royal Astronomical Society: “It is a serious issue”
These approaches are quite complex, however, and therefore expensive. Reliable low-tech solutions will also be needed.
There is a lot of research currently going into deployable sails. These large-area structures would be carried by satellites and rocket stages and unfurled at the end of their missions. The sails would increase the drag on the spacecraft, pulling them out of the sky faster. Somehow attaching these sails to objects already in space is one solution that is sure to be tried.
“There are a number of technologies being talked about to address the debris issue – both from past space activity and from future missions,” says Dr Hugh Lewis, a lecturer in aerospace engineering at Southampton University, UK.
“I think we are a long way off from having something which is reliable, relatively risk-free and relatively low cost.
“There are number of outstanding and fundamental issues that we still have to resolve. Which are the objects we have to target and how many do we remove? Who’s going to pay?
“It is also worth remembering there are a lot of uncertainties in our future predictions. Reports that you read typically present average results; we tend to do ensembles in our simulations and some outcomes are worse than others. So, many issues still need to be addressed, but that dialogue is taking place.
“This report paints quite an alarming picture but I think we can be a bit more upbeat, certainly if we are contemplating removing objects.
“Fortunately, space is big and collisions are still very rare. After all, we’ve only had four known collisions and only one involving two intact objects. It’s still not a catastrophic situation, and we need to be careful about using phrases like ‘tipping point’ and ‘exponential growth’.”
At 20, Linux is invisible, ubiquitous
Mark Milian, CNN
San Francisco (CNN) — Ross Turk would be happy to explain the tattoo on his arm.
By now, he’s used to the penguin being met with bewildered stares. It represents, as he’d tell you, the Linux computing software, not the slightly less obscure character from 1950s cartoons.
“A lot of people see it and they think it’s Chilly Willy or something,” the West Hollywood, California, man lamented in a recent interview. “The Linux logo is still kind of grass-roots.”
When the then-21-year-old Turk got the logo etched into his left bicep in 2000, the penguin seemed poised to become mainstream, then appearing frequently in magazines and on the walls in computer stores. But the software market tumbled with the dot-com bust, and so too did the Linux brand, choked by investors’ swift rejection then of the open-source software movement.
Thursday marks 20 years since Linus Torvalds announced on a Web bulletin board that he’d begun working on a free computer operating system. In that message, Torvalds described Linux as “just a hobby, won’t be big and professional.”
Now, two decades later, that market breakthrough doesn’t seem any more attainable. And yet while the Linux name and its penguin mascot failed to go big, the software they embody is more pervasive today than ever.
Linux’s skeleton and spirit live on inside another familiar, adorable mascot: the green robot that represents Google’s Android operating system. That software, which powers 43% of smartphones worldwide, many tablets and the Google TV set-top boxes, was developed with Linux at its core. Google’s Chrome OS for laptops is also based on Linux.
Another mobile system, webOS, sprouted from Linux. Hewlett-Packard says webOS, not the hardware that runs it, is a key asset from its acquisition last year of Palm. This month, HP took steps to discontinue its gadget production arm, but it will keep webOS. HP has discussed licensing the software to other vendors in order to expand webOS’s reach, perhaps into computing platforms on appliances and in cars.
Linux is already commonly installed on refrigerators with built-in TVs, car navigation systems, in-flight entertainment systems, public transit displays, ATMs and countless other machines. The Smart TV from Samsung Electronics, which competes with the Google TV, is also based on Linux. Sony previously allowed tinkerers to install versions of Linux onto their PlayStation consoles.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, Linux is practically everywhere.
“The fact that you don’t have to call it Linux is what makes Linux work,” said Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation. His nonprofit organization was formed to promote Linux development to the industry and sponsors Torvalds’ ongoing work on the platform.
14 million lines of code
Linux can exist in so many places because, rather than being owned by one company, thousands of engineers contribute code to the kernel. (The kernel is the brains and sinew of the software, and Torvalds said in an e-mail that it’s the aspect of his work that he finds most interesting and that he spends most of his time developing.)
No one can claim ownership of Linux, and everyone is free to use it. The software contains 14 million lines of code and is protected by more than 520,000 patents, according to a Linux Foundation report. Governments like the system’s flexibility and decentralized nature.
Technology companies, even giants like Intel and AMD that typically don’t publish schematics for their other products, encourage staff to contribute to and implement code from Linux. Google has carried this philosophy into many parts of its business, though not the ones that make the most money. The company did not respond to a request to make an executive available.
Torvalds initially conceived of Linux as a free alternative to Windows. But the collaborative-development, peace-loving ideologies of Linux were no match for the freewheeling, business-savvy, marketing power of Microsoft.
Linux, as a PC platform in the home, showed promise during the boom a decade ago. But it never came to fruition there, even as Apple’s Mac has emerged as a more serious player.
Instead, Linux became the bastion of geek morality, the king of the fast-growing server industry where Microsoft and Apple also compete with limited success, and the choice platform for supercomputers in laboratories.
In Microsoft’s annual report filed last week to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the software giant revised its statement on competition to declare the war with Linux over. Microsoft no longer perceives Linux as credible competition to Windows, the change suggests, as ZDNet notes.
A ‘sticky’ environment
However, Torvalds isn’t ready to forfeit the PC.
“I’m definitely not indifferent to the desktop market,” Torvalds wrote in an e-mail. “The desktop is a very ‘sticky’ environment: Users really get attached to their environment.”
Several Linux players are still tackling that market, but their efforts amount to only about 1% of desktop usage worldwide. Microsoft controls the lion’s share. Microsoft has been very adept at ensuring that Windows comes as the default operating system installed on most new computers.
“Usage isn’t what matters; mindshare is what matters,” said Jono Bacon, a community manager for Ubuntu, the most popular general-purpose version of Linux. “The biggest challenge we face right now is getting preinstalled on hardware.”
OpenSUSE, which makes another Linux desktop platform, and others have been choked by Microsoft’s “strong monopoly on the desktop,” said Alan Clark, an openSUSE director.
“It’s played out differently than I expected, to be honest,” Clark said. “We made some progress, but nothing like anybody envisioned.”
Yet, openSUSE has a comfortable presence in the server market, Clark said.
“Linux is very much pervasive. It’s everywhere. You can’t even fly on an airplane; … you can’t use Facebook; you can’t buy a book from Amazon,” Clark said, “without running into Linux.”
The cult of Linux
Familiarity with Linux became a crucial skill for budding software engineers and server caretakers as far back as the mid-1990s.
When David Bohnett sought a partner in his new Web venture called GeoCities, resulting in one of the largest Internet business deals ever when it went public and then was acquired by Yahoo for $3.6 billion in 1999, his main criteria was an adeptness with Linux programming, Bohnett said in an interview. John Rezner fit the description and shared in the pair’s eventual fortune.
Torvalds, the brain behind Linux, never seemed very interested in fortunes, according to people who know him. The reclusive programming wizard declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed by phone, though he talked openly through e-mail and appeared on stage last week at LinuxCon in Vancouver, Canada.
There, Torvalds was treated like a celebrity. A lover of reclusive scientists, including Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, he described the general reactions from Linux fans as “just odd.” He wrote: “Sometimes it does get to be a bit overwhelming.”
Clark, from openSUSE, described a memorable meeting with Torvalds.
“The first time he came to Japan, seriously, it was like a rock star arrived, and I could kind of tell it was really overwhelming for him,” Clark said. “He took it in stride.”
The Linux faithful are predominantly male, often nerdy, with strong principles about collaborative development that translate to a belief in a less hierarchal, more cooperative society, according to interviews. For example, Ubuntu’s Bacon has an Android phone, which uses Google’s open-source software, because “the ethical side of me feels like it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s not just a product. It’s an ethos.”
Apple has tried to define its principles in advertising: artistic, noncorporate and able to “think different.” Its brand has been adopted by millions of people.
Redefining the Creative Team
It’s time to burn the berets.
The sanctity of the ad agency creative department used to be the exclusive domain of very special people. Super creatives dwelled there, using secret handshakes, runic noodling with pencils and cryptic eye movements and gestures to create advertising that was often overtly conceptual.
You had to be a genius to understand it.
Comprehension of the super concept came easy for a few, hard for most and firmly put advertising into two camps: creative that won awards and all the other stuff.
Then came technology. The playing field was leveled. It was no longer only about the world we knew: print, radio and broadcast. It was about technology being bent, shaped and formed almost daily into new ways to relate to brands, products and advertising. Suddenly instead of the super league of creative geniuses telling the world what messaging and concepts they could see, people began telling brands what they wanted to see and how they wanted to feel.
The berets have been burned. And from the ashes of all that pretense is rising the most exciting creative team ever known. The creative department is now all-inclusive. Advertising and brand engagement has become about creating experiences that are useful.
The creative apartheid has ended. Now we invite technologists, planners, curators, clients, inventors, screenwriters to come inside and explore. And this, in and of itself, has enabled the most exciting time for agencies and brands to collaborate and create something relevant.
The new creative team has taken shape.
Walking could power your next cell phone, researchers say
By Doug Gross, CNN
(CNN) — Will you be able to charge your next mobile phone simply by walking around?
A group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hope so.
In an article this week in the journal Nature Communications, they unveiled a technology that would harness part of the energy people generate when they walk and push it to a phone or other mobile device.
“Humans, generally speaking, are very powerful energy-producing machines,” Tom Krupenkin, a UW-Madison professor of mechanical engineering, said in a news release from the school. “While sprinting, a person can produce as much as a kilowatt of power.”
He said harvesting even a small fraction of that power is enough to power a cell phone, laptop, flashlight or other electronics.
Under the system, an “energy harvester” that would be installed in a person’s shoe would capture some of the mechanical energy that typically burns away as heat and convert it to up to 20 watts of electrical power for a personal device.
The harvester would act as an intermediate transceiver, or Wi-Fi hot spot, to serve as a “middle man” between a mobile device and a wireless network, thereby reducing the amount of energy the phone needs to send and receive signals.
Researchers call the process “reverse electrowetting,” transferring the energy via nano-tubes containing thousands of liquid “micro-droplets.”
(We’re pretty sure that’s a good description, at any rate. Read the report, by Krupenkin and J. Ashley Taylor, for yourself here.)
The researchers say making their technology widely available would have a positive environmental impact, reducing society’s need for batteries and the pollution that ensues when they are disposed of improperly.
It would also have an impact in poor and developing countries, where charging electronics is often either impossible or expensive, and could benefit soldiers and police officers needing to power things like communications equipment and night-vision goggles, they say.
But what about everyday smartphone users who are tempted to yank their hair out after a few hours of using their phone without a charger handy?
Krupenkin said “reverse electrowetting” would conserve enough energy to make a typical cell phone battery last 10 times longer.
“You cut the power requirements of your cell phone dramatically by doing this,” he said.
The technology was developed with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Now Krupenkin and Taylor hope to make some money with it through a company they’ve created, InStep NanoPower.
Tech to keep you safe from hurricanes
By Doug Gross, CNN
(CNN) — For East Coast residents keeping a worried eye on Hurricane Irene, there’s a host of mobile apps, Twitter feeds and other digital tools available to help.
Here are a few of them, including suggestions for how to stay plugged in if weather knocks out power in your area.
HurricaneHD provides exclusive video, blog posts from weather experts and other tools for folks watching Irene and other future storms.
It has a tracking map that can display multiple storms at the same time, sends active storm bulletins and contains an archive of information about past hurricanes.
It can also use GPS to tell you how far away you are from various points of a nearing storm.
Weather Channel (free for Apple and Android devices)
Weather Channel Max, free for the iPad, adds full-screen, customizable weather maps, in-motion radar and real-time Twitter feeds from Weather Channel meteorologists.
Based on Google Maps, Hurricane Hound tracks storms in the Atlantic and east Pacific, as well as passing along National Weather Service advisories and warnings.
StormPulse is a website that uses date from the National Hurricane Center, cloud imagery from the NERC Satellite Station and basic imagery from NASA.
Users can click back and forth to show radar, cloud cover, watches and warnings and other features on a real-time map.
In the face of emergency situations, the fast-paced, minute-by-minute updates you can get from Twitter are handy. Whether you’re a Twitter user or not, you can pull up and read individual feeds as long as you have Web access.
The ocean service from NOAA, the federal government’s science agency for oceans and coasts, has a Twitter feed to follow.
Of course, we’re also inclined to suggest you follow CNN’s huge team of folks following the storm. Here is a curated list of Twitter accounts for the CNN team dedicated to Irene.
Assuming mobile networks are up and running, folks in areas hit by a storm like Irene could be affected anyway by persisting power outages.
To stay plugged-in, it will be important to have a power source to recharge your mobile devices that doesn’t depend on plugging into the wall or desktop.
The gadget reviewers at CNET are fans of the Solio Universal and CPS Cellboost chargers. Battery companies like Energizer offer multiple chargers, and the store where you bought your phone (or tablet) very likely sells batter-powered or solar chargers from the phone-maker or a third party.
The Axis is a multi-purpose device sanctioned by the American Red Cross. In addition to a USB charger for mobile phones and other devices, the $70, hand-crank-powered device has an AM/FM/NOAA radio and flashlight.
Think of it as the techie Swiss Army Knife for power-out disasters.
A couple of things to keep in mind: solar chargers will need sunlight, so will probably be more useful in the aftermath of a storm than during the heart of it.
And, obviously, battery-powered models are most handy with a backup supply of dry batteries.