December 30, 2009

New Year's Eve, Times Square, and Dollar Bills

At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, many eyes turn to the great crystal ball that drops in Times Square, New York in the US of A. The ball gets re-designed each year, and the 2009 version was 20% more energy efficient than the one dropped in 2008. Some watch that shiny ball in person, more watch on television, and some count the advertising dollars of billboard and Jumbotron space nearby. So naturally the question comes to mind: How much does it cost to rent one of those billboards at One or Two Times Square when the ball drops to mark the Gregorian calendar New Year? Curiosity demanded that we look it up, and so we did!

Consider this: While 30-second Super Bowl commercials cost $2.6 million each and reach 80 million people, the One Times Square tower draws 211 million pairs of eyeballs when the New Year’s Eve ball drops, according to the president of Sherwood Outdoor, Brian Turner. “We like to think of [the Super Bowl] as just a tailgating party,” he said.

December 28, 2009

Mysteries of the Congo Revealed in New York

SciCafe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York presents Mysteries of the Congo: Exploring the World’s Deepest River, featuring Museum Ichthyologist Melanie Stiassny. What strange new species lurk beneath? Join Museum Curator and ichthyologist Melanie Stiassny as she answers this question and discusses her team’s adventures and amazing discoveries in Africa’s Congo River, the deepest river in the world.

Surrounded by magnificent geological specimens in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth, enjoy the Museum after hours with music, drinks, and thought-provoking conversation at the next installment of the popular new SciCafe series at the American Museum of Natural History. SciCafe features cutting-edge science, cocktails, and conversation and takes place on the first Wednesday of every month.

Wednesday, January 6, 7:00PM

Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth
American Museum of Natural History
Enter at the 81st Street/Rose Center, New York

Free admission with cash bar; must be 21+ with ID


Extremely Rare Bongos Found in Kenya Forest! 
Word's Largest Freshwater Stingray

December 23, 2009

Octopus Grabs Coconut, Builds House

Veined octopuses (Amphioctopus marginatus) have been observed collecting old coconut shells and carrying them away to use as shelters. The behavior was spotted on four occasions by the authors of a new paper about these animals. The veined octopuses (Amphioctopus marginatus) were filmed between 1999 and 2008 off the coasts of Northern Sulawesi and Bali in Indonesia.The eight-armed beasts use halved coconuts that have been discarded by humans and dropped in the ocean.

One of the researchers, Dr Julian Finn from Australia's Museum Victoria, told BBC News, "I almost drowned laughing when I saw this the first time. I could tell it was going to do something, but I didn't expect this. I didn't expect it would pick up the shell and run away with it."

December 22, 2009

When Software Development Loses Track

Leonardo da Vinci once said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." The same is true of software. The software development process is frequently a tug-of-war game between the publishers, who want the product out on shelves, and the developers, who want to fix bugs or add features. The end result of this eternal battle is a working product that reaches the customer within a reasonable time-frame. But when a piece of the puzzle is missing, things can go horribly wrong.

Featured today in Wired Magazine, Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem tells the story of how a desire to only be the best, combined with a lack of discipline led a once successful company and franchise to destruction over thirteen years. While Duke Nukem Forever was a video game, this same problem can befall any product or application. Hence, this should stand as an example to everyone in software development of how not to run a project.

The worst part of the demise of 3D Realms and Duke Nukem may be the wasted time and talent. What could have been a substantial success has instead turned into two lawsuits and a lot of lost time, not to mention lost jobs. The Citizens wish all the former 3D Realms employees the best of luck in obtaining new employment.

DARPA's Network Challenge, What Have We Learned?

The field of social science showed some new colors recently when the United States Defense Advance Research Projects Agency decided to test how quickly people could use online social networks to solve a problem. The winning time was eight hours and 56 minutes to locate a bunch of red balloons and win US$40,000. In DARPA's Network Challenge, the Department of Defense's placed 10 red weather balloons in public places around the United States, including in San Francisco's famous Union Square. A cash prize of US$40,000 was offered to the first team to locate and submit all of the balloons' correct geographic coordinates.

More than 4,000 teams participated in the contest. And more than a few interesting things were revealed about  human psyche, behavior, and interaction. "It's a huge game theory simulation," said Norman Whitaker of DARPA's Transformational Convergence Technology Office.

December 21, 2009

What is the Winter Solstice?

Today in the northern hemisphere is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year! Germanic people of Northern Europe held their Yule celebrations on the day of the Winter Solstice and many still burn their Yule log on the day. The ancient Romans held a week long December party to observe the Winter Solstice. They called it the feast of Saturnalia.

Up in Fairbanks, Alaska, it’s dark and cold. While it’s still going to be bleak and frigid outside for the next few months in that part of the world, the beautiful warming glow of sunlight that keeps us all alive and provides an ample supply of Vitamin D is finally on its way back to warm the Golden Heart City. That is something worth celebrating. Whether it’s a late-night 1950s Solstice Gala or an afternoon at the Empress Theatre, the Downtown Association of Fairbanks is sponsoring activities today to rejoice in the night and celebrate the return of the sun.

In astronomical terms, a solstice is either of the two times a year when the Sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, the great circle on the celestial sphere that is on the same plane as the earth's equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs either December 21 or 22, when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Capricorn; the summer solstice occurs either June 20 or 21, when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Cancer. In the Southern Hemisphere, the winter and summer solstices are reversed.


Three Hour Limit Imposed on U.S. Flight Delays

Airplane waiting on the runway
Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles
Responding to tarmac horror stories, the U.S. Transportation Department has ordered airlines to let passengers on stranded airplanes to deplane after three hours. With new regulations, the Obama administration is sending a message to airlines that it won't tolerate the delays experienced by some passengers, such as an overnight ordeal in Rochester, Minnesota in the summer of 2008.

Under the new regulations, airlines operating domestic flights in the United States will be able only to keep passengers on board a delayed flight for a maximum of three hours before they must be allowed to disembark. The regulation provides exceptions only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the United States must specify, in advance, their own time limits for deplaning passengers.
Airlines must provide food and water for passengers within two hours of a plane being delayed on a tarmac, and to maintain operable lavatories. They must also provide passengers with medical attention when necessary.

December 8, 2009

Giant Jellies Plague Japan

Shockingly large quantities of Giant Nomura jellyfish have plagued the seas of Japan since 2005. The unintentional attacks brought by this kind of creatures have crippled the fishing industries of the affected regions in Japan as well as the food chains in the seas. The jellies have sac-like structures that contain toxins and enzymes used to poison prey. Once the prey is paralyzed, the dead creature is sucked towards the jellyfish’s stomach called a manubrium. Generally, jellies are carnivores that feed on smaller sea creatures and sometimes on other jellies.

The Nomura Jelly, also known as Nomura’s Jellyfish has been growing to astonishing sizes and disrupting the fishing industry by reducing the number of small fishes, destroying the fishing nets and disrupting the natural food chain of the sea due to the over consumption of zooplanktons. Warmer water, a result of global warming, is considered the principal cause of the jellies' size, number, and migration from Chinese to Japanese waters.

Nomura jellies maybe considered harmless to humans, but their overpopulation in the seas of Japan is wreaking havoc on the already limited fish supply. The photo above is real, NOT Photoshopped, folks.

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December 4, 2009

Does the U.S. Need a Public Health Option?


Is a public health option necessary? Would it save patients money? Would it be useful?

Health insurance giant Aetna is planning to force up to 650,000 clients to drop their coverage next year as it seeks to raise additional revenue to meet profit expectations....
"The pricing we put in place for 2009 turned out to not really be what we needed to achieve the results and margins that we had historically been delivering," said chairman and CEO Ron Williams. "We view 2010 as a repositioning year, a year that does not fully reflect the earnings potential of our business. Our pricing actions should have a noticeable effect beginning in the first quarter of 2010, with additional financial impact realized during the remaining three quarters of the year."
Aetna's decision to downsize the number of clients in favor of higher premiums is, as one industry analyst told American Medical News, a "pretty candid" admission. It also perfectly demonstrates the major concerns offered by health care reform proponents and supporters of a public option for insurance coverage, who insist that the private health insurance industry is too consumed with the bottom line. A government-run plan would not need to make a profit, resulting in much lower costs and guaranteed coverage for anyone who wanted to enroll in it. Health care freedom--what a concept!

The Daily Kos points out that Aetna came to this decision despite the fact that it actually did make a profit in 2009, just not high enough profits to satisfy shareholders. Their timing on this is exquisite. This demonstrates why the United States needs a new model of insurance coverage-- one that isn't based on profits.

Prices Vary Widely for the Same Vaccine  
Women Charged More for Health Insurance