Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2520 on: Jan 9th, 2011, 08:32am »
New York Times
January 8, 2011 Bodies Found Beheaded in Assaults in Acapulco By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
MEXICO CITY — The once thriving resort area of Acapulco suffered another blow on Saturday with the discovery of 28 bodies, 15 of them headless, from a round of assaults overnight that bore the earmarks of organized crime.
Unlike many other tourist areas, Acapulco sits in a Pacific Coast state hotly contested by at least three drug-trafficking organizations and has paid the price with a rash of grisly killings in recent years and a sharp decline in foreign tourists.
The authorities in Guerrero State said the decapitated bodies, with the heads scattered around them, belonged to men in their 20s. They were found shortly before 1 a.m. outside the Plaza Sendero shopping center, an area not frequented by tourists, near two messages apparently left by a drug-trafficking organization.
Beheading is a common tactic among warring drug organizations. In 2008, nine decapitated bodies were found in a pile outside Guerrero’s capital, Chilpancingo, north of Acapulco.
The other bodies, from killings that stretched from Friday night to early Saturday morning, include six found in a taxi behind a supermarket, four riddled with bullets in two residential neighborhoods and three others in other locations.
Gory crime in resort areas is an especially delicate issue with promoters of the multibillion-dollar tourism industry here. Most drug-related violence, which has killed more than 30,000 people since 2006, occurs in a handful of states, particularly along the United States-Mexico border.
Acapulco, a city once synonymous with beach tourism, has sought to revive its fortunes as a destination for Mexicans. The tourist areas near the beachfront hotels are heavily patrolled by the police.
But a wave of anxiety hit in November when the bodies of 18 men, abducted as they arrived for what their families said was an Acapulco vacation, were found in a mass grave outside the city.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2521 on: Jan 9th, 2011, 08:36am »
Aflockalypse now: on a wing and a prayer
Were sinister wildlife deaths around the globe foretold in the Bible, asks Philip Sherwell - or just foul play?
By Philip Sherwell 7:00AM GMT 09 Jan 2011
Even by the laid-back standards of Arkansas, there is not normally much buzz about Beebe. It is precisely the small-town atmosphere and slow pace of life that appeal to the locals.
But last week, it found itself at the centre of a frenzy of doomsday prophecies and conspiracy theories after some 5,000 dead blackbirds — roughly one for each resident – rained down from the night skies on New Year’s Eve.
That was strange enough. But mass deaths of thousands of birds and millions of fish were also reported elsewhere in Arkansas, in nearby states, and finally worldwide, from Scandinavia to the South Pacific.
As the world wondered whether celestial or terrestrial factors were at play, the commuter town of Beebe, 35 miles north-east of the state capital, Little Rock, was struggling to recover from its “aflockalypse”.
For those outside at about 11pm on New Year’s Eve, it proved a terrifying experience as dead and dying creatures crashed down on to roofs, roads and gardens. The carnage looked even grimmer in daylight.
“People were pretty shell-shocked,” said Karen Rowe, a senior ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “It was very disturbing.”
The Hitchcockian terror of the plummeting corpses was quickly replaced by health fears. Were the birds diseased? Avian flu has, after all, killed hundreds of humans in Asia and Africa. Or was the air toxic? Beebe’s wildlife and environmental officials quickly confirmed that neither was the case as workers in protective suits made their way through streets, scooping up carcases for autopsy or disposal.
Miss Rowe and her colleagues immediately began work on solving the mystery. For the apocalyptically inclined, the answer was obvious. Some Christian fundamentalists claimed the end was nigh, finding biblical justification in Hosea 4:1-3, which reads: “Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.”
That the birds fell from the sky in the southern Bible Belt, where Old Testament plagues of frogs and locusts are often viewed as part of a creationist account of history, only fuelled such interpretations. Others cited the so-called “2012 phenomenon”, which holds that December 21 next year is the end of an ancient Mayan calendar count that will bring catastrophe to the world — a view that is, significantly, not shared by the modern Mayan.
Even for those who did not construe these deaths as an end-of-the-world harbinger, there were out-of-the-world explanations aplenty — be it microwaves from Mars, solar flares, secret military tests, or gas seeping from fault lines.
It was actually the day before Beebe was turned into an avian killing field that a tugboat operator spotted some 100,000 drum fish floating in the Arkansas river 125 miles away. A couple of days later, another 500 dead blackbirds fell to earth in southern Louisiana, an estimated two million juvenile spot fish washed up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and another bird kill was reported in Kentucky.
By now, this trend was going global. Swedish authorities reported the deaths of dozens of jackdaws, hundreds of dead snapper were found in New Zealand, and 100 tons of catfish and sardines washed up in Brazil. On Friday, came reports of turtle doves falling from the sky near Ravenna, Italy, and thousands of dead crabs on the coast around Thanet in Kent.
Conservationists and scientists then claimed that such mass mortalities were not uncommon and there were straightforward explanations. Although tests are continuing, the birds in Louisiana seemed to have flown into power lines, the fish in Arkansas have died from disease or pollution, and those in the Chesapeake were killed by the coldest waters in 25 years. So, said UK experts, were the crabs.
By late last week, a mixture of investigative lab-work and legwork had apparently also cracked the great Beebe blackbird whodunit. And there was a distinctly human cause — New Year’s Eve firework celebrations had spooked the birds to death.
They died from blunt force trauma, preliminary test results indicated. Witnesses described how just before the carnage, window-rattling booms from firework displays had echoed through the neighbourhood, flushing the flock from its overnight roost in trees. Doppler radar, which tracks the weather, showed that large flocks were flying over Beebe late on December 31. With notoriously bad night vision, the flight was fatal for thousands of blackbirds.
“They were flying low and fast and simply crashing into buildings, trees and vehicles,” said Miss Rowe. “There has been lots of speculation about chemicals, toxins, pesticides and the like. But the tests so far show no sign of anything like that. In fact, they seemed very healthy.”
Miss Rowe has been besieged by so many outlandish suggestions that she has stopped taking calls from members of the public. Even when the preliminary findings were published, postings on the commission’s website accused it of a cover-up as the conspiracy brigade clung to the mysterious over the mundane.
The fact that ornithological experts had initially disagreed on the cause — some blamed violent weather, others suspected deliberate killing by poison in an act of avicide — only fuelled the conviction that something was amiss.
“Unfortunately, the autopsies will probably not detect or disprove microwaves from outer space,” Miss Rowe said with a sigh of resignation.
“I feel like the spoiler at the party when I explain that there is nothing there to justify a conspiracy theory. They just got flushed from their roost, crashed into things and died. The only thing this has in common with dead fish in the Arkansas river or dead birds in Louisiana is that they have nothing in common.”
Mass wildlife deaths usually go unnoticed, out at sea or away from settlements. “Bird die-offs can be caused by starvation, storms, disease, pesticides, collisions with man-made structures or human disturbance,” said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the Audubon Society. In other instances, storms have sucked up fish and frogs and dumped the dead animals long distances away. The 1999 film Magnolia, starring Tom Cruise, featured frogs raining from the sky.
“This is a classic example of freak events coinciding,” noted Peter Boeckmann, a leading Norwegian zoologist. “In the United States, the reaction is: 'Oh no, doomsday is coming!’ In Sweden, they say, 'Let’s call the veterinary authorities.’”
In Beebe, there was little lamenting for birds, widely viewed as pests. The flocks that descend on the town are so large that they turn the skies dark, and some locals shelter under umbrellas for trips to the shops to protect against their droppings.
Residents now just want a return to the quiet life. “It certainly has been an interesting start to the new year,” said Lee McLane, editor of The Beebe News. “Let’s hope it calms down from here.”
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2522 on: Jan 9th, 2011, 08:49am »
German Electric Airplane Approaches First Flight By Jason Paur January 7, 2011 | 12:00 pm Categories: Air Travel, EVs and Hybrids
Photo and video: PC-Aero
German airplane maker PC-Aero is progressing in the development of its single-seat electric airplane, the Elektra One. The sleek-looking composite aircraft underwent static load testing before Christmas.
PC-Aero's Elektra One undergoes static load testing on its wings. Photo: PC-Aero
The company is hoping for a first flight next month.
The Elektra One is the first of three electric aircraft planned by the company, according to company CEO Calin Gologan. PC-Aero also hopes to build two- and four-seat versions in the coming years.
PC-Aero hopes the 16-kilowatt (21-horsepower) motor will propel the Elektra One to a top speed of more than 100 miles per hour. (We’re guessing the optimistic endurance of three hours would be at a much slower speed.)
The new electric airplane was unveiled in April at Aero Friedrichshafen, Europe’s premier general-aviation trade show. At the time the airplane was little more than an airframe. But back in November the company demonstrated a working electric-motor system on the airplane, and now with static testing complete, PC-Aero is planning for a first flight in February.
In addition to its electric-airplane plans, the company also is developing the idea of a solar hangar to house the airplanes. The company claims with a 430-square-foot roof covered in solar panels, a pilot could fly for more than 300 hours on the sun-charged batteries. (That’s based on PC-Aero’s calculations for southern Germany. Your mileage may vary.)
The company also lists plans for both a version of its Elektra One with an extended wingspan and built-in solar panels to supplement the power supply on the ground and in the air, and an aerobatic version with more then double the power and a reinforced airframe.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2523 on: Jan 9th, 2011, 08:53am »
Portugal says not under pressure to take bailout
Sun Jan 9, 2011 7:56am EST
LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal denied on Sunday that it is under pressure by France and Germany to seek a bailout from Brussels and the IMF to ease concerns over its debts, like Greece and Ireland before it.
German magazine Der Spiegel said on Saturday that Germany and France want Lisbon to accept an international bailout as soon as possible to prevent the euro zone debt crisis from spreading.
But a Portuguese government spokesman denied any such pressures, saying the country was focused on boosting economic growth.
"This (Der Spiegel) story has no foundations, it is false," the spokesman said.
In Germany, a finance ministry spokesman said: "Germany is not pushing anyone to accept a bailout."
Investors are increasingly concerned that Portugal will be unable to finance itself in debt markets, forcing it to seek funding from overseas instead.
A Reuters poll of economists last week showed most expect Portugal to need a bailout.
(Reporting by Axel Bugge, Brian Rohan;; Editing by Greg Mahlich)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2524 on: Jan 9th, 2011, 7:33pm »
Four people instrumental in disarming Arizona shooting suspect by Laurie Merrill - Jan. 9, 2011 04:08 PM
Patricia Maisch, 61, talks to the media outside her home Sunday in Tucson. She is credited as one of the four instrumental in disarming the man suspected of killing 6 Associated Press
Three men and a woman were instrumental in disarming and tackling the man suspected of killing six and injuring 14 in Tucson during a political event for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, according to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.
Dupnik identified the heroes as Patricia Maisch, Roger Salzgeber, Bill Badger and Joseph Zamudio.
According to Dupnik, Maisch was in the rear of a line of people waiting to take a photograph with Giffords, when the suspect began firing his semiautomatic weapon.
When the shooter tried load a fresh magazine into his Glock 9 mm gun, Maisch grabbed the bottom of it, preventing the magazine from being inserted, Dupnik said.
This pause in shooting allowed Salzgeber and Badger to tackle the suspect to the ground and hold him until deputies arrived, Dupnik said.
A fourth participant, Zamudio, restrained the suspect's legs, Dupnik said.
Initial information saying Maisch was injured was inaccurate, said Dupnik. She did not report having any injuries.
When reached by telephone, Salzgeber declined to comment and said he had been promised that his name wouldn't be released by authorities.
"I'm totally stressed out about this," he said. "I'm not interested in talking."
According to the Sheriff's Department, the timeline for the first response by law enforcement and medical personnel is as follows:
10:11:56 a.m. - First 911 call is received
10:15 a.m. - First deputy arrives on scene
10:16 a.m. - First medical personnel arrive on scene
Within one minute of the first deputy's arrival, the suspect was in custody and medical personnel began treating the injured.
An ugly new chapter is unfolding in the state's unprecedented flood crisis, with parts of Toowoomba devastated and homes swept away in the Lockyer Valley at the foot of the Toowoomba range.
Two people - including a woman pedestrian caught up in the flash flooding - have been killed on Monday but the language being used by emergency services suggests they won't be the last.
An unknown number of others are missing after the flood hit about midday (AEST), washing away cars, some with drivers still trapped inside.
The seething, dirty torrent arrived without warning, trapping pedestrians and motorists, tearing up roads and leaving the city virtually cut off.
There are unconfirmed reports a bridge in the city's south has been washed away, and of a building collapse in the city heart, the Department of Community Safety said.
An unknown number of people remain trapped in cars and in buildings in Toowoomba, as rescuers struggle to reach them.
Communities in the Lockyer Valley were also hit by the destructive torrent.
Lockyer Valley Mayor Steve Jones, whose ute was almost swept away in the drama, told AAP the town of Withcott bore the full force of the flood.
"There's petrol pumps taken out and taken half a kilometre down the road. It's like Cyclone Tracy hit it," he said.
"There's houses come off the stumps at (nearby) Postmans Ridge and taken down the creek, possibly two or three."
Toowoomba Mayor Peter Taylor said there was still no clear picture of the damage in his community but it was enormous.
"There has been loss of life. I don't know how many at this point ..." he told the ABC.
"There is massive damage ... this is unbelievable damage."
Rescue crews are also trying to reach three pedestrians and two vehicles swept from a roadway at Withcott.
Deputy Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said lives were under threat.
"We've had multiple 000 calls requesting urgent assistance from people caught in vehicles, caught on the street, caught in floodways," he told reporters.
"This has just evolved. There has been no warning of this event."
A man who has relatives in Grantham, in the Lockyer Valley, told the ABC there were many people trapped on the roofs of houses there, and were in desperate need of help.
The man, identified only as Andrew, said at least one house had floated away and he was very worried about those in the town.
"All the houses in Grantham, there are people on the roofs there," he said.
"One of the houses ... actually lifted and floated away.
"We're worried about the SES being able to get to people ... the roads are all cut.
"It's a dire situation and I just pray for those people ..."
Premier Anna Bligh was in a meeting with flood recovery experts when she was told about the drama unfolding in Toowoomba.
"Just as we might be moving to a stabilised situation this afternoon ... there has been a massive deluge in the city of Toowoomba," she told reporters.
Elsewhere across Queensland the multi-billion dollar flood crisis, now almost a month old, is rolling on.
Floodwaters are continuing to rise in the southeast Queensland city of Gympie, where the Mary River is expected to peak at about 20 metres overnight.
More than 110 homes and businesses are expected to flood at that level, Ms Bligh said.
At Dalby, west of Brisbane, residents are preparing for a fifth flood event in three weeks, with between 200 and 300 homes expected to go under there, Ms Bligh said.
At 5pm, the Myall Creek at Dalby was at 3.74 metres - 200mm higher than the December 27 peak when 100 properties were flooded. A peak is expected at Dalby by about 8pm.
Earlier, Western Downs Mayor Ray Brown said the creek was expected to get to 3.8 metres. He said the town was cut in two by floodwaters, with evacuation centres open on each side.
He said there was "huge emotion" in the town.
"You've got to remember we've had five significant water events through Dalby in the last 20 days or so," he told the ABC.
Brisbane residents too have been warned they're not immune from the unrelenting tide, with people told homes and businesses could flood in coming days despite critical protection afforded by the Wivenhoe dam west of the city.
Lord Mayor Campbell Newman said the dam was doing its job, protecting the city from a 1974-scale disaster.
But with rain still falling, essential releases continuing from Wivenhoe, and a king tide due on January 21, Mr Newman said residents along the Brisbane River must be ready for flooding.
The council had ordered 30,000 sandbags, which will be filled and available for distribution from council depots.
Ms Bligh said the dam, built after the 1974 floods devastated thousands of Brisbane and Ipswich homes, was seeing "massive inflows" to rival that disaster.
"We are seeing one million megalitres or two Sydney harbours flow into the Wivenhoe catchment every day," she told reporters.
"Without a doubt the Wivenhoe Dam has already saved Brisbane from a catastrophic flood in the next 48 hours but we have to keep releasing water from it so it can keep doing the job it's doing.
"The dam will see releases over the next two to three days larger than it has ever seen in its history ..."
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2527 on: Jan 10th, 2011, 09:00am »
New York Times
January 10, 2011 Iran Claims to Have Broken Israeli Spy Ring By WILLIAM YONG and ALAN COWELL
TEHRAN — Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said on Monday that it had broken up an Israeli spy network linked to the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist last year, state-owned media said.
After a broad investigation, Iran succeeded in arresting “the main agents behind the terrorist incident and dismantle a network comprising of Israeli spies and terrorists,” state-owned Press TV quoted the semiofficial Fars news agency as saying.
It said Israeli intelligence services “had used bases in certain European and non-European countries as well as Iran’s neighboring states in an attempt to achieve its inhuman and non-Islamic goals.”
Those same “bases” had been “used in the assassination of Dr. Masoud Ali Mohammadi,” a physics professor at the University of Tehran who was killed by a remote-controlled bomb attached to a motorcycle outside his home in northern Tehran last January. Iran blamed Israel and the United States for the killing.
In November, unidentified assailants on motorcycles launched separate bomb attacks against two other top Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran, killing one of them, Majid Shahriari, who was said by the Iranian authorities to be the manager of a “major” nuclear project. His wounded colleague, Fereydoon Abbasi, was believed to be even more important; he was on the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list for ties to the Iranian nuclear effort. Those attacks also prompted Iranian accusations that Israel and the United States were responsible.
On Monday, Press TV said Iran had inflicted “heavy damage on Israel’s information and security structures” and had discovered “very important and sensitive” information about Israeli Mossad spy teams.
Israel does not routinely comment on such assertions.
Iran’s nuclear program is the focus of profound disputes between Tehran, which says it wants to develop its nuclear capability for peaceful purposes, and other countries, including the United States and Israel, which suspect that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb.
Talks about the program are set to resume in Istanbul this month between Iran and six countries negotiating the nuclear issue — the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — along with the European Union.
William Yong reported from Tehran, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2528 on: Jan 10th, 2011, 09:01am »
New York Times
January 9, 2011 Belarus Signals It Could Seize Opponent’s Son By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
MINSK, Belarus — Ever since riot police officers crushed a large protest against apparent fraud in presidential elections here last month, the security services — still called the K.G.B. in this authoritarian former Soviet republic — have been rounding up people across the country for even the most tangential affiliation with the opposition.
Now, it seems, they have gone a step further.
The government warned recently that it might seize custody of the 3-year-old son of an opposition presidential candidate who was jailed along with his wife, a journalist. The authorities said that they were investigating the status of the child, who is now living with his grandmother, and that they expected to make a decision by the end of the month.
In 16 years as ruler of Belarus, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko has often been called Europe’s last dictator. But the plight of the child, Danil Sannikov, may represent a new tactic in the government’s persecution of the opposition, one that harks back to the Stalin era, when the children of so-called enemies of the people were sent to orphanages after their parents went to the gulag.
“Even in my worst nightmares I could not have conceived that this could happen,” said the child’s grandmother, Lyutsina Khalip.
Thousands of protesters had filled a large square in central Minsk on the night of Dec. 19, incensed over Mr. Lukashenko’s claim of a sweeping victory in elections that independent observers deemed a farce. The police violently broke up the rally, which had been largely peaceful, arresting more than 600 people.
Within 24 hours, seven of the nine opposition candidates for president had been arrested.
Danil’s parents, Andrei Sannikov, a leading opposition presidential candidate, and Irina Khalip, a respected investigative journalist, were among those arrested, yanked from their car while Ms. Khalip was giving a telephone interview to a Moscow radio station. Mr. Sannikov was severely beaten and, his lawyer said, his legs were broken.
They are among about two dozen people facing up to 15 years in prison on charges of organizing and participating in the protest. Many are being held at the K.G.B. detention center in Minsk, where they have been denied access to lawyers and contact with family.
Lyutsina Khalip, the grandmother, said she had not heard from her daughter since the day after her arrest, when she received a letter instructing her to take care of Danil.
“She wanted me to tell Danil she really loved him,” Ms. Khalip said, fighting back tears.
She said her daughter had received threats about the boy even before the elections. One e-mail from an unknown sender read: “Don’t think about yourself, think about your son.”
Ms. Khalip said she first had an inkling that the authorities were turning their attention to Danil shortly after his parents were arrested. She said she was at the K.G.B. detention center trying to deliver a parcel of food and clothes to them when she received an urgent phone call that made her rush to her grandson’s kindergarten.
There, she was confronted by two women from the government’s child welfare service. She said the women were friendly, though they delivered an implicit warning:
“If you don’t have the financial means or the physical means, don’t worry,” she said they told her. “The child won’t remain alone.”
For Ms. Khalip, whose daughter has frequently run afoul of Belarus’s security services over the years, the message was clear.
“This is an effort to put pressure on Irina,” she said. “They are capable of squeezing her, and this of course is the most sensitive place.”
A representative of the child welfare service could not be reached for comment. Antonina Drugakova, the government social worker overseeing Danil’s case, told the Interfax news agency that the K.G.B. notified her about the boy shortly after his parents’ arrest.
“We are required to respond if a child is left without the care of his parents,” Ms. Drugakova said. She said she hoped Danil would be able to remain in the custody of his grandmother, but said the government had a responsibility to determine whether she was fit to care for him.
“God forbid that all is not well with the health of the grandmother,” she said.
Mr. Sannikov’s lawyer, Pavel Sapelko, said that the K.G.B. notified child welfare services on Dec. 23, six days before his client and Ms. Khalip were officially charged with a crime. He questioned whether it was even legally necessary for Danil’s grandmother to assume legal custody.
“The law is there to make sure that a child is not left alone at home or left at kindergarten with no one to pick him up,” Mr. Sapelko said. “If there is no evidence that the child has been abandoned, then there is no reason to dramatize this.”
The families of other opposition candidates have also been subject to intimidation. The 22-year-old son of Grigory Kostusyov, one of the candidates arrested, was sentenced to 15 days in jail for trying to hold a solidarity protest a day after the elections. He was released, but was summoned by the K.G.B. again last week for further questioning.
“The meeting lasted for about two-and-a-half hours, but thank God he was let go,” said Mr. Kostusyov, who is one of three former candidates to have been freed on the condition that they not leave Belarus. Four others remain in jail.
“There has been pressure on my family for my entire political career,” Mr. Kostusyov said.
In the weeks since the protest, the K.G.B. has fanned out across the country, interrogating anyone with a history of dissent and jailing those suspected of participating in the protest last month, human rights groups say. The police have been raiding the few independent news outlets and human rights groups that still operate, confiscating computers and documents. Many opposition leaders still at large have fled the country or gone into hiding.
Anastasia Loika, who works for the human rights group Vyasna, said there had been lines of people outside the K.G.B. building in Minsk, all of whom had been summoned to be interrogated.
“It’s like a conveyer belt,” said Ms. Loika, who was herself questioned for nearly five hours. “Every day there are searches across the country, and every day people are interrogated.”
Western leaders have roundly condemned the government’s actions, and the European Union signaled last week that it was ready to impose a travel ban on Mr. Lukashenko.
On Saturday, Danil sat playing with a train set in his family’s living room, stuffed animals and action figures piled around him. Since the arrests of his parents, a stream of visitors has brought toys, candy and well wishes to the Sannikov home.
Ms. Khalip said the boy did not yet know that his parents had been arrested. She told him they had gone on a business trip, but he seems to sense that something is wrong.
“If mama left on a long trip, why didn’t she bring me with her?” Ms. Khalip, 74, said Danil asked her recently. “He cries when I give him a bath because he says, ‘Papa doesn’t wash my hair like that.’ ”
Over the past two weeks, Ms. Khalip has completed all of the medical and psychological tests required of her to keep Danil. Even Danil, she said, had to be tested for H.I.V. and syphilis. She said the welfare service should make a decision by the end of the month.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2529 on: Jan 10th, 2011, 09:07am »
Mona Lisa landscape location mystery 'solved'
A hidden clue in Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa identifies the exact location of the landscape which provides the background to the world's best known painting, an Italian art historian claims.
Leonardo da Vinci started painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 or 1504 in Florence Photo: CORBIS
By Nick Squires, Rome 11:34PM GMT 09 Jan 2011
Carla Glori believes that a three-arched bridge which appears over the left shoulder of the woman with the enigmatic smile is a reference to Bobbio, a village which lies in rugged hill country south of Piacenza, in northern Italy.
Her theory is based on the recent discovery by another art historian, Silvano Vinceti, of the numbers 7 and 2 artfully concealed in the span of the stone bridge.
Miss Glori believes the numerals are a reference to 1472, the year in which a devastating flood destroyed Bobbio's bridge.
Historical records show that the bridge, known as the Ponte Gobbo or Ponte Vecchio (the Old Bridge), was swept away when the River Trebbia burst its banks that year.
"Leonardo added in the number 72 beneath the bridge to record the devastating flood of the River Trebbia and to allow it to be identified," said Miss Glori, who sets out the theory in a new book, The Leonardo Enigma.
Leonardo was born in the town of Vinci in Tuscany but travelled extensively in Italy during his lifetime and worked in Venice, Rome and Bologna.
The artist started painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 or 1504 in Florence, but did not finish it until years later, after he had moved to France to work under the patronage of King Francois I.
Most art historians believe the background, which features valleys and mountains, is an idealised, composite landscape drawn from the artist's imagination, but Miss Glori is convinced that it depicts a specific place.
The painting was kept in the Palace of Versailles until it was moved to the Louvre Museum in Paris, and remains the property of the French state.
It is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant.
In addition to discerning the number 72 beneath one of the bridge's arches, Mr Vinceti, the president of Italy's National Committee for Cultural Heritage, claimed last month to have found mysterious symbols concealed in the Mona Lisa's eyes.
He believes the letters LV – a possible reference to Leonardo's initials – appear in the right pupil, while other letters, possibly CE or B, appear in the left eye.
But other experts have contested the claim, saying that the so-called hidden symbols are in fact cracks which appeared over the centuries in the oil painting.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2530 on: Jan 10th, 2011, 09:15am »
Algorithms Take Control of Wall Street By Felix Salmon and Jon Stokes Wired January 2011
Today Wall Street is ruled by thousands of little algorithms, and they've created a new market—volatile, unpredictable, and impossible for humans to comprehend. Photo: Mauricio Alejo
Last spring, Dow Jones launched a new service called Lexicon, which sends real-time financial news to professional investors. This in itself is not surprising. The company behind The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires made its name by publishing the kind of news that moves the stock market. But many of the professional investors subscribing to Lexicon aren’t human—they’re algorithms, the lines of code that govern an increasing amount of global trading activity—and they don’t read news the way humans do. They don’t need their information delivered in the form of a story or even in sentences. They just want data—the hard, actionable information that those words represent.
Lexicon packages the news in a way that its robo-clients can understand. It scans every Dow Jones story in real time, looking for textual clues that might indicate how investors should feel about a stock. It then sends that information in machine-readable form to its algorithmic subscribers, which can parse it further, using the resulting data to inform their own investing decisions. Lexicon has helped automate the process of reading the news, drawing insight from it, and using that information to buy or sell a stock. The machines aren’t there just to crunch numbers anymore; they’re now making the decisions.
That increasingly describes the entire financial system. Over the past decade, algorithmic trading has overtaken the industry. From the single desk of a startup hedge fund to the gilded halls of Goldman Sachs, computer code is now responsible for most of the activity on Wall Street. (By some estimates, computer-aided high-frequency trading now accounts for about 70 percent of total trade volume.) Increasingly, the market’s ups and downs are determined not by traders competing to see who has the best information or sharpest business mind but by algorithms feverishly scanning for faint signals of potential profit.
Algorithms have become so ingrained in our financial system that the markets could not operate without them. At the most basic level, computers help prospective buyers and sellers of stocks find one another—without the bother of screaming middlemen or their commissions. High-frequency traders, sometimes called flash traders, buy and sell thousands of shares every second, executing deals so quickly, and on such a massive scale, that they can win or lose a fortune if the price of a stock fluctuates by even a few cents. Other algorithms are slower but more sophisticated, analyzing earning statements, stock performance, and newsfeeds to find attractive investments that others may have missed. The result is a system that is more efficient, faster, and smarter than any human.
It is also harder to understand, predict, and regulate. Algorithms, like most human traders, tend to follow a fairly simple set of rules. But they also respond instantly to ever-shifting market conditions, taking into account thousands or millions of data points every second. And each trade produces new data points, creating a kind of conversation in which machines respond in rapid-fire succession to one another’s actions. At its best, this system represents an efficient and intelligent capital allocation machine, a market ruled by precision and mathematics rather than emotion and fallible judgment.
But at its worst, it is an inscrutable and uncontrollable feedback loop. Individually, these algorithms may be easy to control but when they interact they can create unexpected behaviors—a conversation that can overwhelm the system it was built to navigate. On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average inexplicably experienced a series of drops that came to be known as the flash crash, at one point shedding some 573 points in five minutes. Less than five months later, Progress Energy, a North Carolina utility, watched helplessly as its share price fell 90 percent. Also in late September, Apple shares dropped nearly 4 percent in just 30 seconds, before recovering a few minutes later.
These sudden drops are now routine, and it’s often impossible to determine what caused them. But most observers pin the blame on the legions of powerful, superfast trading algorithms—simple instructions that interact to create a market that is incomprehensible to the human mind and impossible to predict.
For better or worse, the computers are now in control.
Ironically enough, the notion of using algorithms as trading tools was born as a way of empowering traders. Before the age of electronic trading, large institutional investors used their size and connections to wrangle better terms from the human middlemen that executed buy and sell orders. “We were not getting the same access to capital,” says Harold Bradley, former head of American Century Ventures, a division of a midsize Kansas City investment firm. “So I had to change the rules.”
Bradley was among the first traders to explore the power of algorithms in the late ’90s, creating approaches to investing that favored brains over access. It took him nearly three years to build his stock-scoring program. First he created a neural network, painstakingly training it to emulate his thinking—to recognize the combination of factors that his instincts and experience told him were indicative of a significant move in a stock’s price.
But Bradley didn’t just want to build a machine that would think the same way he did. He wanted his algorithmically derived system to look at stocks in a fundamentally different—and smarter—way than humans ever could. So in 2000, Bradley assembled a team of engineers to determine which characteristics were most predictive of a stock’s performance. They identified a number of variables—traditional measurements like earnings growth as well as more technical factors. Altogether, Bradley came up with seven key factors, including the judgment of his neural network, that he thought might be useful in predicting a portfolio’s performance.
He then tried to determine the proper weighting of each characteristic, using a publicly available program from UC Berkeley called the differential evolution optimizer. Bradley started with random weightings—perhaps earnings growth would be given twice the weight of revenue growth, for example. Then the program looked at the best-performing stocks at a given point in time. It then picked 10 of those stocks at random and looked at historical data to see how well the weights predicted their actual performance. Next the computer would go back and do the same thing all over again—with a slightly different starting date or a different starting group of stocks. For each weighting, the test would be run thousands of times to get a thorough sense of how those stocks performed. Then the weighting would be changed and the whole process would run all over again. Eventually, Bradley’s team collected performance data for thousands of weightings.
Once this process was complete, Bradley collected the 10 best-performing weightings and ran them once again through the differential evolution optimizer. The optimizer then mated those weightings—combining them to create 100 or so offspring weightings. Those weightings were tested, and the 10 best were mated again to produce another 100 third-generation offspring. (The program also introduced occasional mutations and randomness, on the off chance that one of them might produce an accidental genius.) After dozens of generations, Bradley’s team discovered ideal weightings. (In 2007, Bradley left to manage the Kauffman Foundation’s $1.8 billion investment fund and says he can no longer discuss his program’s performance.)
Bradley’s effort was just the beginning. Before long, investors and portfolio managers began to tap the world’s premier math, science, and engineering schools for talent. These academics brought to trading desks sophisticated knowledge of AI methods from computer science and statistics.
And they started applying those methods to every aspect of the financial industry. Some built algorithms to perform the familiar function of discovering, buying, and selling individual stocks (a practice known as proprietary, or “prop,” trading). Others devised algorithms to help brokers execute large trades—massive buy or sell orders that take a while to go through and that become vulnerable to price manipulation if other traders sniff them out before they’re completed. These algorithms break up and optimize those orders to conceal them from the rest of the market. (This, confusingly enough, is known as algorithmic trading.) Still others are used to crack those codes, to discover the massive orders that other quants are trying to conceal. (This is called predatory trading.)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2531 on: Jan 10th, 2011, 09:21am »
Courtesy of Warner Brothers "Inception"
"Inception" and "Boardwalk Empire" top the film and TV categories, respectively.
With four nominations, Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures' Inception led the film categories as the Visual Effects Society announced its nominations for its ninth annual VES Awards on Monday, but HBO's Boardwalk Empire did Inception one better by dominating with five nominations in the TV categories.
In the category of outstanding visual effects in a visual-effects driven motion picture, the VFX team behind Inception was nominated alongside the visual effects artists for Iron Man 2, Tron: Legacy, Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.
The feature films nominated for their supporting visual effects are Green Zone, Salt, Hereafter, Black Swan and Robin Hood.
On the TV side, Boardwalk was cited for its supporting effects along with the series The Walking Dead, Human Target, Undercovers and Lost.
The effects-driven series that scored nominations are Caprica, No Ordinary Family, V, The Event and Stargate: Universe.
Last Day of the Dinosaurs, Inside the Perfect Predator, The Pacific, Prep and Landing: Operation Secret Santa and America -- Story of Us were nominated in the miniseries, movie or special category.
Turning its attention to outstanding animation in an animated feature, the VES nominated Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, Shrek Forever After and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.
The awards, which cover 24 categories in film, animation, TV, commercials and videogames, will be handed out at a Feb. 1 dinner at the Beverly Hilton and will air on Reelzchannel on Feb. 19.
Christopher Nolan will be honored at the event with the inaugural VES Visionary Award, and Ray Harryhausen will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #2532 on: Jan 10th, 2011, 5:38pm »
Turton Car Fire Caused by Low-Speed Crash, Police Say By Rachael Bade and Jessica Brady and Anna Palmer Roll Call Staff Jan. 10, 2011, 10:57 a.m. Updated: 4:36 p.m.
The car fire that led to the sudden death of Ashley Turton was caused by the impact after a low-speed crash, according to the major crash investigation unit of the Metropolitan Police Department.
“It’s quite possible that the victim was maneuvering the car and came in contact with some kind of flammable chemical materials,” D.C. Fire spokesman Pete Piringer said.
Turton, 37, was the former chief of staff to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and wife of White House liaison to the House of Representatives Dan Turton. She worked as a lobbyist for the Raleigh, N.C.-based utility giant Progress Energy.
Turton was found dead in her car Monday morning, which was discovered ablaze in a row house garage, presumably the Turton home, in the 800 block of A Street Southeast near Eastern Market.
Police said there was a heavy fire in the garage at 4:45 a.m. that caused significant damage to the 2008 BMW X5, which was partially backed out into the driveway and looked singed. Fire damage could also be seen on a corner of the brick home Monday.
When the fire was extinguished, firefighters discovered Turton’s body inside the car.
At 9 a.m. Monday, two fire trucks were at the scene in addition to nearly a half-dozen police cars. Neighbors and passers-by stood outside as police continued to survey the wreckage in the garage attached to Turton’s home.
Turton’s neighbors were in mourning following her unexpected death. Julie Domenick, a lobbyist who lives on the Turton’s block, said the entire neighborhood would mourn her death.
“I, of course, was aware of Ashley’s impressive professional legacy, but I also knew Ashley as a charming, spectacular, neighborhood mom who herded her three adorable, curious young children ... with great skill and even more love,” Domenick said. “This neighborhood is going to miss Ashley terribly. It leaves a hole in our hearts and a sadness on our block. Our prayers are with Dan, their children and their families.”
Turton’s co-worker and friend Caroline Choi, executive director of environmental services and strategy, was too choked up to comment on her death Monday afternoon.
Brian Wolff, a lobbyist at Edison Electric Institute and close friend of Turton’s, called her death devastating.
“She was just a gift,” he said. “It’s such a loss for everyone. So many people knew and loved her.” Turton is survived by her husband Dan, 43, twin 4-year-olds and a 2-year-old.