Sunday, November 30, 2008

WHO Predicts How We Will Die in 2030

A global rise in tobacco use in the next two decades will help heart disease remain one of humanity’s leading killers, while HIV/AIDS deaths will peak in 2012 before making a steady decline. This is according to an update of the World Health Organization’s “Burdens of Disease” report, which measures the current sources of human mortality and looks at how health and safety trends are changing worldwide. The result is that the WHO can tell us not only what is killing us now but also what will – and won’t – be killing us in 2030.

The WHO report updates information on the global burden of disease based on measurements from 2004 and projects how disease will affect the human population through 2030. Perhaps the most significant change it predicts is a global decline in deaths from communicable diseases. HIV/AIDS, the sixth leading cause of death in 2004 worldwide, is expected to peak around 2012 and drop to the number ten position by 2030. Other communicable diseases are expected to decline more quickly; tuberculosis, the seventh leading cause of death in 2004, is expected to plummet to number 23.

The sharp decline in communicable disease death will mean an increased aging population, especially in lower income countries, which means a greater proportion of the global population will die from diseases developed later in life, such as ischemic heart disease and cancers. But changes in global development and behaviors will also contribute to increases in certain causes of death. The WHO indicates that a global increase in tobacco smoking in middle- and low-income countries will bolster deaths from cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and some cancers. And increased transportation development and more crowded roads will help increase deaths from traffic accidents.

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Sexy maths: Skills of a chess grandmaster

The 2008 chess Olympiad in Dresden

For a while, the chess Olympiad this year looked like producing a surprise winner but closer inspection of Israel's team sheet revealed that it was pretty much business as usual: half the players were named Boris!

Other than a brief blip in the 1970s, the biennial event has produced remarkably consistent results. From 1952 to 1990, the Soviet Union ruled the contest, and after the superstate's fragmentation either Russia or one of its former union satellites struck gold every time. As it turned out this year, the Soviet diaspora's turn in the spotlight was short-lived and Armenia triumphed for its second successive Olympiad.

Despite being connected by being born under the red flag, those that dominate the game are better categorised by their membership of a different club: the mathematical mafia. Legend has it that the game was invented by a mathematician in India who elicited a huge reward for its creation. The King of India was so impressed with the game that he asked the mathematician to name a prize as reward. Not wishing to appear greedy, the mathematician asked for one grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chess board, two grains on the second, four on the third and so on. The number of grains of rice should be doubled each time.

The King thought that he'd got away lightly, but little did he realise the power of doubling to make things big very quickly. By the sixteenth square there was already a kilo of rice on the chess board. By the twentieth square his servant needed to bring in a wheelbarrow of rice. He never reached the 64th and last square on the board. By that point the rice on the board would have totalled a staggering 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains.

Playing chess has strong resonances with doing mathematics. There are simple rules for the way each chess piece moves but beyond these basic constraints, the pieces can roam freely across the board. Mathematics also proceeds by taking self-evident truths (called axioms) about properties of numbers and geometry and then by applying basic rules of logic you proceed to move mathematics from its starting point to deduce new statements about numbers and geometry. For example, using the moves allowed by mathematics the 18th-century mathematician Lagrange reached an endgame that showed that every number can be written as the sum of four square numbers, a far from obvious fact. For example, 310 = 172 +42 + 22 + 12.

Some mathematicians have turned their analytic skills on the game of chess itself. A classic problem called the Knight's Tour asks whether it is possible to use a knight to jump around the chess board visiting each square once only. The first examples were documented in a 9th-century Arabic manuscript. It is only within the past decade that mathematical techniques have been developed to count exactly how many such tours are possible.

It isn't just mathematicians and chess players who have been fascinated by the Knight's Tour. The highly styled Sanskrit poem Kavyalankara presents the Knight's Tour in verse form. And in the 20th century, the French author Georges Perec's novel Life: A User's Manual describes an apartment with 100 rooms arranged in a 10x10 grid. In the novel the order that the author visits the rooms is determined by a Knight's Tour on a 10x10 chessboard.

Mathematicians have also analysed just how many games of chess are possible. If you were to line up chessboards side by side, the number of them you would need to reach from one side of the observable universe to the other would require only 28 digits. Yet Claude Shannon, the mathematician credited as the father of the digital age, estimated that the number of unique games you could play was of the order of 10120 (a 1 followed by 120 0s). It's this level of complexity that makes chess such an attractive game and ensures that at the Olympiad in Russia in 2010, local spectators will witness games of chess never before seen by the human eye, even if the winning team turns out to have familiar names.

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2,700 Year Old Blond-Haired, Blue-Eyed Mummy Found In China

While international media is abuzz over the discovery of the world’s oldest stash of marijuana, a glaringly-obvious fact was inconspicuously left in the article: the pot stash was part of the tomb of a blond-haired, blue-eyed man who lived in China some 2,700 years ago.

Chinese legend is full of blond-haired, blue-eyed people who brought Buddhism to China and organized society there. Fully-preserved mummies showing clear Nordic facial structure, including red, and blond hair, were first discovered in the graveyards of the Tocharians in the Chinese Takla Makan desert back in the 1980’s. In January of this year, archaeologists using genetic testing have proven that Caucasians roamed China’s Tarim Basin 1,000 years before East Asian people arrived.

In fact, this new discovery of marijuana at a Caucasian grave site in China is not the first. That distinction goes to a 2,800 mummy who was discovered back in 2003. Archeologists at the time discovered a sack of marijuana leaves alongside the mummy.

Archeologists believe both mummies were likely shamen from the Gushi culture and used the herb as part of their religious practice.

Posted in Solutrean Truth.

Ocean currents can power the world, say scientists

By Jasper Copping

Ocean currents can power the world, say scientists
Existing technologies require an average current of five or six knots to operate efficiently, while most of the earth's currents are slower than three knots Photo: AP

The technology can generate electricity in water flowing at a rate of less than one knot - about one mile an hour - meaning it could operate on most waterways and sea beds around the globe.

Existing technologies which use water power, relying on the action of waves, tides or faster currents created by dams, are far more limited in where they can be used, and also cause greater obstructions when they are built in rivers or the sea. Turbines and water mills need an average current of five or six knots to operate efficiently, while most of the earth's currents are slower than three knots.

The new device, which has been inspired by the way fish swim, consists of a system of cylinders positioned horizontal to the water flow and attached to springs.

As water flows past, the cylinder creates vortices, which push and pull the cylinder up and down. The mechanical energy in the vibrations is then converted into electricity.

Cylinders arranged over a cubic metre of the sea or river bed in a flow of three knots can produce 51 watts. This is more efficient than similar-sized turbines or wave generators, and the amount of power produced can increase sharply if the flow is faster or if more cylinders are added.

A "field" of cylinders built on the sea bed over a 1km by 1.5km area, and the height of a two-storey house, with a flow of just three knots, could generate enough power for around 100,000 homes. Just a few of the cylinders, stacked in a short ladder, could power an anchored ship or a lighthouse.

Systems could be sited on river beds or suspended in the ocean. The scientists behind the technology, which has been developed in research funded by the US government, say that generating power in this way would potentially cost only around 3.5p per kilowatt hour, compared to about 4.5p for wind energy and between 10p and 31p for solar power. They say the technology would require up to 50 times less ocean acreage than wave power generation.

The system, conceived by scientists at the University of Michigan, is called Vivace, or "vortex-induced vibrations for aquatic clean energy".

Michael Bernitsas, a professor of naval architecture at the university, said it was based on the changes in water speed that are caused when a current flows past an obstruction. Eddies or vortices, formed in the water flow, can move objects up and down or left and right.

"This is a totally new method of extracting energy from water flow," said Mr Bernitsas. "Fish curve their bodies to glide between the vortices shed by the bodies of the fish in front of them. Their muscle power alone could not propel them through the water at the speed they go, so they ride in each other's wake."

Such vibrations, which were first observed 500 years ago by Leonardo DaVinci in the form of "Aeolian Tones", can cause damage to structures built in water, like docks and oil rigs. But Mr Bernitsas added: "We enhance the vibrations and harness this powerful and destructive force in nature.

"If we could harness 0.1 per cent of the energy in the ocean, we could support the energy needs of 15 billion people. In the English Channel, for example, there is a very strong current, so you produce a lot of power."

Because the parts only oscillate slowly, the technology is likely to be less harmful to aquatic wildlife than dams or water turbines. And as the installations can be positioned far below the surface of the sea, there would be less interference with shipping, recreational boat users, fishing and tourism.

The engineers are now deploying a prototype device in the Detroit River, which has a flow of less than two knots. Their work, funded by the US Department of Energy and the US Office of Naval Research, is published in the current issue of the quarterly Journal of Offshore Mechanics and Arctic Engineering.

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Sue world leaders $1 billion for global warming?

In a global stunt, a U.S. environmental activist is poised to lodge a $1 billion damages class action lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against all world leaders for failing to prevent global warming.

Activist and blogger Dan Bloom says he will sue world leaders for “intent to commit manslaughter against future generations of human beings by allowing murderous amounts of fossil fuels to be harvested, burned and sent into the atmosphere as CO2″.

He intends to lodge the lawsuit in the week starting Sunday, Dec. 6.

The prosecutor’s office at the ICC, the world’s first permanent court (pictured below right) for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, says it is allowed to receive information on crimes that may fall within the court’s jurisdiction from any source.

“Such information does not per se trigger a judicial proceeding,” the prosecutor’s office hastened to add.

The question is: will or should the prosecutor take on the case?

One might argue in defence that world leaders are in fact trying to impose climate-saving measures. In Vienna last year, almost all rich nations agreed to consider cuts in greenhouse emissions of 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Talks on a new climate treaty will be held in Poznan, Poland, from Dec. 1-12.

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N. Climate Panel, says the cuts are needed to limit temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, an amount seen by the EU, some other nations and many environmentalists as a threshold for “dangerous” climate change.

Granted then that there is growing consensus that climate change poses a real threat, is it not only world leaders who are failing to prevent global warming?

Perhaps the global collective of individuals, governments and industry is to blame and the ICC lawsuit a valid publicity stunt in the constant battle to raise awareness and prompt action?

Because it’s action we need — and now, right?

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Recycling Manure Safely To Avoid Polluting Rivers and Streams

Researchers at North Wyke Research, and Lancaster and Exeter universities, have come up with an advice system to help farmers recycle manure safely and avoid polluting watercourses.

Organisms such as E coli may be present in animal manure and can pose a serious threat to human health. Irrigated crops are sometimes contaminated, shellfisheries can be vulnerable and bathing waters may be under threat, with subsequent effects for tourism.

This is particularly true in South West England, with its dairy industry and large numbers of summer visitors, and where some public beaches have failed to meet the requirements of the European Water Framework Directive. These are some of the reasons that led the team to focus on the Taw catchment of North Devon as a study area in this project, which is part of the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

The interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists, assessed the risk of water contamination at 77 farms, taking into account factors such as grazing

livestock and topography, and surveyed farmers to assess their knowledge about risk and find out how they managed manure on the farm.

They also monitored microbial water quality at fixed locations over several seasons.

The project has identified four factors that affect the level of risk:

  • Accumulated microbial burden to land (eg how manure is applied and deposited, stocking density)
  • Landscape transfer potential (eg the topography of the land, whether there are slopes, streams and so on)
  • Infrastructure (eg how the manure is stored, whether there is hard standing)
  • Social and economic obstacles (eg whether the farmer has had training about risk, whether he can afford to invest in infrastructure)

The team then constructed a model framework that shows the levels of risk in these four areas, expressed graphically as a “kite” shape. The colour shows the overall level of risk from green representing “low risk” to red representing “high risk.” The shape demonstrates where risk is highest. This provides a useful tool for farm advisers working with farmers, as reducing the risk reduces the shape of the kite.

Dr Dave Chadwick from North Wyke who led the project explained: “The project covered a lot of areas, including public perception of the risks involved, so it was very wide-ranging.

“Our examination of microbial evidence threw up some unexpected results. We found that untreated sewage from the farmhouse was a significant factor in the total microbial load in quite a few cases, and how and when manure is applied also has an effect. Some practices may have unintended consequences.

“Injecting slurry, for example, does reduce ammonia emissions, which is the intention, but also favours survival of organisms.

“So how can an individual farmer reduce the risk of polluting watercourses? The kite model is designed to help. It shows whether the farm is high risk, and how the farmer can apply his efforts most effectively and at least cost. So we expect it to be a particularly useful tool for farm advisers.”

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Should we recycle urine on Earth, too?

Getting past the "yuck" factor may be the most difficult part. (NEWSCOM)

By Eoin O'Carroll

After five days of tinkering, astronauts aboard the International Space Station ran their first successful test Tuesday of equipment that turns urine into drinking water.

Delivered to the station by the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the $154 million water recycling system, which also processes sweat and moisture from the air, is designed to quench astronauts’ thirst while requiring fewer costly resupply missions. Samples of the recycled water will be tested back on earth before astronauts aboard the station can start drinking from the system’s tap.

This raises a question: Can we build these things on earth? Maybe even for a little less than $154 million?

A thirsty planet

There’s definitely a need. According to the World Health Organization, some 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water. That’s almost 1 in 6 human beings. And according to the United Nations Development Programme, women and girls in developing countries collectively spend more than 10 million “person-years” hauling water from remote sources each year.

And it’s only getting worse. As a study published in Nature in April predicts that, by 2025 more than half of the world’s countries will face freshwater stress or shortages, and by 2050, as much as 75 percent of the world’s population could face freshwater scarcity.

A cheap and reliable urine-to-potable-water device could solve what is arguably the world’s No. 1 problem, so to speak.

It wouldn’t be the first time that NASA’s water-purification technology spins off into the developing world. In 2006, engineers from the space agency helped develop a system for the northern Iraqi village of Kendala, which filters and purifies water from nearby streams, wells, and swamps.

H20 is H20

If you think about it, enjoying a refreshing glass of erstwhile whiz is not as disgusting as it sounds. What is “new” water anyway? As NASA astronaut Sandra H. Magnus told the New York Times after pointing out that water flushed down our toilets eventually evaporates and rains down into our reservoirs. “We drink recycled water every day — on a little bit longer time scale.”

The concept of treating our bodily waste as a useful product is probably alien to most of us, but it hasn’t always been that way. In ancient Rome, human urine was put to work tanning leather and whitening togas. The stuff was so valuable that the 1st-century emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on it.

Is it technically possible?

Aside from revulsion, a major obstacle to widespread urine recycling is the energy needed. You can distill it, but that requires bringing it to a boil. If you’re the outdoors type, you may know how to construct a solar still – which uses a plastic sheet to create a sort of greenhouse effect to evaporate ground water and condense it into a cup.

The Watercone, a simple solar still designed to purify sea water, holds great promise as an inexpensive solution. But its maker remains silent on whether the award-winning device would work with urine.

Inventor Dean Kamen has no such reservations. The mind behind the Segway scooter appeared on the Colbert Report in March, claiming that his energy-sipping Slingshot vapor compression distiller could produce 1,000 liters of water a day out of any wet substance, including the ocean, a puddle, a chemical waste site, or “a 50-gallon drum of urine.”

But how does it taste?

The New York Times’s John Schwartz had the opportunity to sample NASA’s recycled water at the Kennedy Space Center. The verdict: “Not bad, actually,” although he noted that it tasted faintly of iodine, which was added to the water near the end of the process.

If these systems become widespread, we’ll need a way to rid our recycled-urine water of that iodine flavor. Camping shops often sell little vitamin C tablets along with their iodine purification crystals to cut the harsh taste. But you can save your money on those overpriced tablets by dropping in a pinch of a substance that, even after NASA perfects its recycling system, will continue to hold pride of place in the space program: Tang.

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