Friday, May 20, 2011

suggests life on Earth may have been seeded by meteorites

The microbes on-board Endeavour include the Tardigrades (nicknamed Water Bears) which are large extremophiles that can withstand temperatures as biting as absolute zero, and as hot as 150 degrees Celsius. They're joined by the Deinococcus radiodurans (which Nasa dubbed " Conan the Bacterium") which can survive upwards of 15,000 gy of radiation -- 10 gy is more than enough to kill an average human.

Following days of delays and numerous technical issues, Endeavour is finally ready to ferry six astronauts to the International Space Station. During their 16 day trip the Nasa researchers will drop off a $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which has been designed to study the formation of the Universe and search for evidence of dark matter and antimatter.

But there are also some other passengers on the shuttle, who might not receive the same media attention, sew-on patches and victory parades. Alongside the all-male crew of mission STS-134, six types of microorganism and a bobtail squid will strap in their seat-belts and head into space.

The five microorganisms will blast off on behalf of The Planetary Society's Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), which will see if living organisms can make the trip into space, handle some zero-G exposure and take in a little low Earth orbit radiation.

The experiment would investigate the transpermia hypothesis -- which suggests life on Earth may have been seeded by meteorites ripped off the surface of other planets like Venus or Mars. Whether or not the microbes can survive the ordeal would go a long way towards proving or debunking the controversial theory.

The microbes on-board Endeavour include the Tardigrades (nicknamed Water Bears) which are large extremophiles that can withstand temperatures as biting as absolute zero, and as hot as 150 degrees Celsius. They're joined by the Deinococcus radiodurans (which Nasa dubbed " Conan the Bacterium") which can survive upwards of 15,000 gy of radiation -- 10 gy is more than enough to kill an average human.

Haloarcula marismortui (Old Salty) loves salt, and lives in levels of high salinity that would kill other organisms. Pyrococcus furiosus (Fire eater) is all about heat, and thrives in temperatures over 100 degrees Celsius. Cupriavidus metallidurans (which doesn't have a nickname, unfortunately) plays a vital role in the formation of gold nuggets, thanks to its love of gold tetrachloride: a compound which is toxic to most other microorganisms.

Finally there's Bacillus subtilis (The Average Joe), which is a model organism used in hundreds of biological experiments. It's been into space many times before, so it'll be a good comparison point for other studies.

This group of differently-skilled organisms is actually just a dress rehearsal for the real deal. LIFE's next mission will be sending microorganisms to Phobos, the dusty innermost moon of Mars, to really put the transpermia hypothesis to the test. A second batch of microbes will take flight on Russia's Fobos-Grunt lander, which will jet off towards the red planet in November 2011, and return to Earth with samples in the summer of 2014.

Space-faring microorganisms are so Apollo-era, though. So, here's something new: the bobtail squid Euprymna scolopes will be the first cephalopod in space.

The experiment is less about the squid and more about the beneficial bacteria that skitter about in the sea creature's body. Handy Vibrio fischeri microbes live in the squid's organs, and the animal uses the bacteria to generate light which is cast downwards to blot out its own shadow.

Considering the way that some bad bacteria turn even nastier when subjected to the extreme temperatures and radiation of outer space (in 2007, Salmonella bacteria were three times more likely to kill their host mice after returning on a shuttle), Nasa wants to see what happens to mutually beneficial microbes when they're in space. Will good bacteria turn bad?

The baby squid on board Endeavour will be colonised with bacteria, and then it will be killed and fixed solid for examination back on Earth.

Once Endeavour's payload is delivered, there is only one shuttle flight left in the program. The shuttle Atlantis will blast off on mission STS-135 on 28 June. After that, Nasa will look to privately funded firms like SpaceX to carry out future missions.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

High gasoline prices might be here to stay... Top 10 ways to save at the pump

Motorists can lower their gasoline expenses by paying attention to how they drive and how they treat their car. The Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center has investigated this by comparing the mileage motorists got on a specific route driving the way they normally do (or in several cases driving more aggressively and faster than normal) to the mileage of the same motorists on the same routes employing many of the following techniques. Mileage improvements ranged from a low of 25 percent to as much as 100 percent (from 10 mpg to 20 mpg) in the case of one who drove very aggressively for the “baseline.”

How do you accomplish these savings? By using the combination of a few simple, correctly-employed techniques (which might also just help ensure you get to your destination safely too.)

1) Avoid “jack-rabbit” starts;
Accelerate gently—Accelerating the mass of a car uses more fuel than any other facet of driving; imagine there’s a raw egg between your right foot and the accelerator pedal which you don’t want to break.

2)Slow down
Not necessarily a lot, but how about actually following the speed limit? Typically, the faster you go, the higher the aerodynamic and drivetrain friction losses, so it takes more fuel to maintain a higher speed. Remember however, that traveling slower than the flow of traffic can cause a safety hazard. You may want to even consider driving in one of the “slower” lanes on the freeway, and let more-aggressive drivers waste their own fuel in the “fast” lane.

3)Anticipate slow or stopped traffic ahead—
When you see stopped or slow traffic, or a red light at an intersection ahead, take your foot off of the accelerator early and coast to a stop. There is no time savings attained by zooming up to the light and then having to slam on the brakes. Cars use very little fuel when coasting, and if you are driving a hybrid, they will generally recharge the battery to further improve mileage. You may actually find that if you coast up to a red street light, it will turn green by the time you get there and you won’t need to stop at all.

4)No warm up needed—
There is no need to let a modern car (vintage 1980s and newer) warm up, or to race the engine upon start up. Follow the starting instructions specified in your vehicle owner’s manual. Generally, it will instruct you to start the car, put it in gear, and go without having to wait and waste fuel warming up the engine.

5)Use the air conditioner sparingly—and only when necessary.
Air conditioning reduces fuel economy by placing an extra load on the engine. This is more critical for older cars (1970s vintage and older) since newer models generally have higher-efficiency air conditioning systems. However, we would not want you to be too uncomfortable, so here is our recommendation: the rule of thumb on hot days is to open your windows when you are driving slowly (under about 45 mph), but close them and turn on the air conditioner at higher speeds. Driving with the windows open can increase the aerodynamic drag, and this effect increases proportionately with speed.

6)Vehicle maintenance—
Keep your vehicle maintained according to the manufacturer’s service schedule (that can be found in the owner’s manual). Regular oil and filter changes, plus other services will keep everything running smoothly, prolong the life of your vehicle, and save you gas in the process. The manufacturer will also recommend other, more comprehensive services at certain intervals. Spark plugs can now last as long as 100,000 miles on many new vehicles. Simple things like keeping your tires properly inflated and your vehicle aligned will not only save you up to two percent on gas for every pound they were under-inflated, but also prolong the life of your tires and improve safety, ride, and handling. Track your fuel economy; if it drops suddenly, have the cause determined and corrected.

7)Vehicle selection—
Many families have more than one vehicle, so select the one that meets the task at hand and don’t automatically jump into your “battle cruiser” when the more fuel-efficient sedan will do. Consider renting a fuel-efficient model for vacations and long trips to save on fuel costs. Conversely, consider renting that full-size truck instead of buying it if you only need its capabilities occasionally. Put the wear and tear on the rental and save your daily driver.

8)“Get the junk out of your trunk”—
Reducing the extra weight you carry can save up to two percent fuel economy for every 100 lbs. you remove, depending on the weight of the vehicle. Also lose the roof rack, since carrying things on a roof rack increases aerodynamic drag and reduces fuel economy year–round (no matter how cool the ski rack looks.)

9)Plan your route and combine trips—
Simply combining shopping trips and avoiding excessive idling (by parking and going into the fast food place or bank instead of using the drive through) will save gas, and the walking may improve your health. Choose a shopping center where you can park and walk to most of the stores you need. Also look at your work schedule; can you shift your working hours to avoid bumper to bumper traffic? Is carpooling an option? Both can save you gas and reduce vehicle wear.

See your owner’s manual for the recommended grade of fuel for your vehicle. If it says “regular unleaded gasoline” is recommended, using anything else is a waste of money; if it says “premium required” you should use it for proper vehicle operation. However, when your manual says mid-grade or premium “recommended,” read carefully; sometimes it indicates you can use regular unleaded to save money, but you may experience reduced power and/or a small reduction in fuel economy. Keep your eye open for low fuel prices, but don’t waste gas driving to a distant filling station to save a few cents per gallon.

Hypermiling—During the summer of 2008 when gas prices set record highs, a subculture phenomenon called “hypermiling” appeared.

This practice uses extreme and often unsafe methods (above and beyond those described here) of obtaining extremely high mpg. These methods include: drafting heavy-duty trucks by following them very closely (this is very dangerous—don’t do this), allowing vehicle speed to drop to near zero as you approach the crest of an upgrade or hill, and then shutting off the engine and coasting down the hill (this is also not safe, since you have no power steering and limited, if any power brakes), ignoring red lights/stop signs (which is illegal and very dangerous), or driving through residential neighborhoods to avoid having to stop (which is unsafe as well as annoying for the residents of the neighborhoods.) AAA recommends strongly against utilizing any of these unsafe hypermiling procedures.

Taken together, all of these strategies will save you gas and likely extend the life of your vehicle. Finally, carefully consider your requirements for the future when selecting a new vehicle, and purchase one that you can afford that fulfills your needs and not the needs of a manufacturer trying to sell their latest “Uber Wagon.”

Friday, May 13, 2011

From the WSJ:
OMG! My Grandparents R My BFF!
Forget the Sunday night phone call. Grandparents and grandkids are connecting— and connected—as never before.


Certainly, it's nothing new that kids are plugging in and staying connected. But what is new is that it may be a grandparent on the other end of that virtual tin can—and that technology is bridging the vast age and distance gap that has long divided the generations. "A group of us was having dinner, and one woman had to tell her husband to put his iPod Touch away. He was emailing his grandchildren," says Mary Henderer, a Wilmington, Del., grandmother of four.

It's a perfect storm of demographics and technology.

As a group, grandparents and grandchildren have plenty in common. They have free time, disposable income for gadgets and gizmos, and a keen interest in staying in touch with people.

As for technology, smartphones, tablet computers and digital cameras have made sharing fun instead of frustrating. And the affordability and speed of broadband Internet have made possible activities like video-chatting and streaming home movies.

The new era is in stark contrast to what took place in recent decades.

"When the baby boomers went to college and moved away, we lost an entire generation of connection between grandparents and grandchildren. They saw each other once or twice a year, and there was a real disconnect," says Andrew Carle, professor and director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"Now with technology, we are regenerating those bonds. People say technology is so impersonal, but we are watching it being used to reconnect one of the most personal and important relationships of the species."

Prof. Carle adds, "I watch my own kids talking to their grandparents 1,000 miles away, and I love it," he says. "They may take it for granted, but I only saw my grandfather once a year. Nothing will replace a hug, but this is as close as it gets."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Good Customer Service Advice - Don't Feed the Trolls.

When someone asks me what to do about a bad review posted online, I usually tell them that it depends on the situation. The #1 rule in online reputation, however, is to avoid feeding the trolls

Monday, May 2, 2011

Well it proves that President Obama is not all talk -- He got the job done with action this weekend.

First Thoughts: A game-changer
From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg

*** A game-changer: The 9/11 terrorist attacks fundamentally transformed American politics. They ensured that the 2004 presidential election would be fought over national security; they resulted in Democrats picking John Kerry as their nominee and Republicans picking New York City as their convention site; and they ultimately led to Bush's re-election, albeit in a closely contested race. While it's doubtful that Osama bin Laden's death will have as long of a political impact -- especially in this fast-changing, short-term memory media landscape -- it will surely shape the contours of next year's presidential race. For starters, it will hover over the first Republican debate set for this Thursday, even if it's not a direct question. It also will highlight the GOP field's foreign-policy and national-security credentials, or their lack thereof. And it amounts to Barack Obama's top achievement as president. Last night changes everything (for now), but we also know how quickly it can dissipate.

*** Does it change the nation's psyche? Indeed, the size of the impact is unknown, and it will play out in the weeks and months ahead, especially with an unemployment rate near 9% and with gasoline prices hitting $4 a gallon. But it could serve to change the nation's psyche. Put simply, the United States has been in a national funk over the past four years. Obama's presidential victory in 2008 boosted spirits (particularly Democratic ones), despite the sinking economy. And the GOP's midterm wins in 2010 boosted Republican and Tea Party spirits. Yet nothing has united Democrats, Republicans, independents, and everyone else -- until now. As President Obama remarked last night, "Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people." There was never going to be a V-E Day after 9/11, but this is as close as the country will get to one.

*** Does it change the nation's policy in Afghanistan? Yet there is something we do know for sure: Bin Laden's death will impact the debate about the war in Afghanistan. "This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda," Obama said when he announced the U.S. troop increase to Afghanistan. "It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak." The beginning of the troop withdrawal is already set for this summer, but calls for a more intense and rapid draw-down will only increase. Of course, there will be a serious -- and political -- debate about what the future U.S. policy toward Afghanistan (and Pakistan, too) should be, especially given that it's hard to believe Pakistan somehow overlooked bin Laden living in an affluent military veteran suburb of Islamabad. In fact, because of Pakistan's questionable reliability as an ally, it complicates the picture with Afghanistan and doesn't make "declaring victory and coming home" such a cut and dried decision. Still, make no mistake: Last night's news changes things.

*** It does make everything else seem so small: Bin Laden's death also makes the past two week's worth of political conversation look so small by comparison. Donald Trump. The president's birth certificate. Friday's GOP cattle call in New Hampshire. Even the upcoming battle to raise the nation's debt ceiling. As for Trump, if he wasn't already embarrassed by the jokes at his expense on Saturday night, he has to be embarrassed about all of his recent charges ("Where is Obama's birth certificate?" "Where are his college grades?" "Who wrote his book?") And as for the more substantive debate over the debt ceiling, last night's news will have an impact as well. Everything looks so small by comparison, at least for now. One last point: This probably guarantees that Mitt Romney -- who has been on the fence about attending -- doesn't show up at Thursday's GOP presidential debate.

*** Naïve? Ironically, Bin Laden's death -- in Pakistan -- recalls one of Obama's supposed "lowest" moments during the '08 presidential campaign, in Aug. 2007. In an Aug. 1 speech, per NBC's John Bailey, Obama delivered these words: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan] President Musharraf will not act, we will." At a debate two weeks later, Obama's Democratic rivals used those remarks to paint Obama as either naïve or inexperienced. Said Hillary Clinton: "Pakistan is on a knife's edge. It is easily, unfortunately, a target for the jihadists. And, therefore, you've got to be very careful about what it is you say with respect to Pakistan." Said Chris Dodd: "The only person that separates us from a jihadist government in Pakistan with nuclear weapons is President Musharraf. And, therefore, I thought it was irresponsible to engage in that kind of a suggestion here. That's dangerous. Words mean something in campaigns." And said Edwards: "Musharraf is not a wonderful leader, but he provides some stability in Pakistan. And there is a great risk, if he's overthrown, about a radical government taking over."

*** "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and we've exhausted all other options, we should take him out": Here was Obama's answer to the criticism: "Well, you know, to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the [Iowa] state fair." He went on to say, "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and we've exhausted all other options, we should take him out before he plans to kill another 3,000 Americans. I think that's common sense." Indeed, Bin Laden's death is a tacit rebuke of all those who questioned Obama's toughness on foreign policy and bats down the criticism from the right that Obama's rhetoric is too soft (he doesn't say "Global War on Terror!"). Obama supporters will say it proves it's not tough talk that matters -- but rather action.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mission Finally Accomplished by President Obama... so, let's bring our troops home!

Osama bin Laden, the glowering mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that murdered thousands of Americans, was killed in an operation led by the United States, President Barack Obama said Sunday.

A small team of Americans killed bin Laden in a firefight Sunday at a compound in Pakistan, the president said in a dramatic late-night statement at the White House.

A jubilant crowd gathered outside the White House as word spread of bin Laden's death after a global manhunt that lasted nearly a decade.

"Justice has been done," the president said.

Former President George W. Bush, who was in office on the day of the attacks, issued a written statement hailing bin Laden's death as a momentous achievement.

"The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done," Bush said.

Few details were immediately available of the operation that resulted in bin Laden's death, although the president said none of the Americans involved was harmed.

The development came just months before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, orchestrated by bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, that killed more than 3,000 people.

The attacks set off a chain of events that led the United States into wars in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, and America's entire intelligence apparatus was overhauled to counter the threat of more terror attacks at home.

Al-Qaida was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 231 people and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in Yemen, as well as countless other plots, some successful and some foiled.

A senior administration official says Obama gave the final order for U.S. officials to go after bin Laden on Friday.

Obama spoke with Bush and former President Bill Clinton Sunday night to inform them of the developments.

The attacks a decade ago seemed to come out of nowhere, even though al-Qaida had previously damaged American targets overseas.

The terrorists hijacked planes, flew one of them into one of New York City's Twin Towers - and, minutes later, into the other one. Both buildings collapsed, trapping thousands inside and claiming the lives of firefighters and others who had rushed to help them.

A third plane slammed into the Pentagon, defacing the symbol of America's military night. A fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers and forced it down - before it could hit its intended target in Washington.

Obama struck a less than boastful tone in his brief announcement, although he said the death of bin Laden was "the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al-Qaida.

"His death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant," he added.

Moments after he spoke, American officials cautioned that the events could lead to heightened threats against the United States.