Sunday, January 11, 2009

Is a 'Katrina-Like' Space Storm Brewing?


U.S. scientists worry we aren't ready for a solar space storm that could knock out our electricity, our cell phones, even our water supply.

Photo: A
In this file photo, the sun-orbiting SOHO spacecraft has imaged many erupting filaments lifting off... Expand
(Courtesy NASA/JPL )

The chances of that happening are small, but it is a possibility as we move into an active period of solar storms.

How do they know? Well, it's happened before. Back in 1859, a solar eruption resulted in telegraph wires burning up.

Of course, the world is now covered in wires and wireless devices that could be vulnerable.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) gathered experts from around the country to look at the economic and social costs from these space storms. While they didn't make any recommendations, the scientists hope their report is a wake-up call.

"We're not trying to be alarmist," said Dan Baker, who is the lead author of the report, "but we are trying to show how our systems are interconnected."

The sun is on a fairly regular schedule. Every 11 years, solar activity flares up. The next "maximum" active period is expected in 2012.

During those active times, the sun spits billions of tons of matter toward Earth that can cause electromagnetic storms that interfere with just about all of our electronic systems.

How bad would the "Katrina Space Storm" be for us earthlings? Well, the NAS report suggests the storm could cascade through our modern world.

First, the electric grid would be vulnerable, and could be shut down. It's the first big domino that, the report says, could lead to "disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration."

Not a pretty picture. The scientists say if even one region or country is affected, the problems could spread to the rest of the world.

If you thought Katrina was expensive, this space storm would dwarf it. The report estimates "$1 trillion to $2 trillion during the first year alone ... for the societal and economic costs of a 'severe geomagnetic storm scenario' with recovery times of four to 10 years."

Might Have to Go Analog

Satellites and GPS systems could be knocked out.

As ABC's Clayton Sandell has written for this site before: "Solar storms could make GPS receivers unable to lock onto a satellite signal, rendering them useless. The effect could last for minutes or more than a day. You may be reduced to -- gasp -- stopping to ask for directions."

"The civilian use of GPS has really taken off only in the last few years, so we really do expect to see a much wider impact in this upcoming cycle," said Douglas Biesecker, a solar physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sales of so-called personal navigation devices -- those manufactured by companies like Magellan and Garmin, for example -- have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2004, worldwide sales of GPS units were about 2 million. By 2007, that number had jumped to about 27 million, according to technology analysts at ABI Research.

A failure of the GPS system could have serious ramifications for flying. The Federal Aviation Administration is trying to move to an air traffic control system based on GPS.

But the country is not making a lot of plans for the next big solar storm.

"Our society isn't geared toward dealing with these kinds of possibilities," said Baker, referring to the fact that a huge solar storm is a rare occurrence. "We are more concerned with short-term possibilities."

Solar weather isn't like the weather here on Earth. Meteorologists can track a storm for days and give residents plenty of warning of what is coming. That's not the case with space weather.

"We can't predict [a coming space storm] with any great lead time of accuracy," Baker said.

What he and his colleagues can predict is that we are not ready for "the big one" when it comes to solar storms.

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Forty years since the first picture of earth from space

By Steve Connor, Science editor

They went to the Moon, but ended up discovering the Earth. The crew of Apollo 8 were the first people to leave Earth's orbit and pass behind the far side of the Moon. They had been drilled and trained for just about every eventuality, save one – the awe-inspiring sight of seeing our own planet hanging over an empty lunar horizon.

It later became known as "Earthrise" and the image of the world rising in the dark vastness of space over a sun-lit lunar landscape became an iconic reminder of our lonely planet's splendid isolation and delicate fragility.

The image was captured during Christmas Eve 1968 but the photographs themselves appeared for the first time in print 40 years ago this week. It was an image that would eventually launch a thousand environmental movements, such was its impact on the public consciousness.

The three-man crew of Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – were carrying out the necessary groundwork for the later manned landing on the Moon and were the first people to orbit the Moon, flying around the far side which is not visible from Earth.

They were also in effect the first people to lose complete contact with their own planet, not being able to see or radio Earth for the duration of their journey behind the Moon. It was only when they completed the orbit that they could regain contact.

Ironically, for the first three orbits, the crew had their backs to the Earth as it re-appeared over the lunar horizon and did not see the iconic view that would change their lives. It was only on the fourth orbit that one of the men turned round and saw the spectacle for the first time.

"Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Isn't that something?" he said, his words captured for posterity on the on-board tape recorder. They quickly scrambled for a camera – the first couple of images of "Earthrise" were in black and white, subsequent photos were taken in colour. It is these colour photographs that became the iconic images of the environmental movement.

They showed the stark contrast between the grey, desolate landscape of the lifeless Moon and the vivid blue-and-white orb of the fertile Earth – a symbol of warmth and life in a bleak desert of deathly coldness.

Sir Fred Hoyle, the great British cosmologist, rightly predicted in 1948 that the first images of Earth from space would change forever our view of our own planet. "Earthrise" encapsulated the fragility of a place that seems so immense to the people who live there, but so tiny when viewed from the relatively short distance of its natural satellite.

Since then, hundreds of still images were taken of Earth during the nine Apollo flights to the Moon, but only 24 people have seen the whole of the Earth from space.

The American astronomer Carl Sagan captured the mood well when another picture of Earth was taken from space, this time in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft at a distance of 3.7 billion miles.

In this picture, the Earth appeared as a "pale blue dot" surrounded by the vastness of space, like a tiny mote of dust caught in a sunbeam.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives," Sagan said in 1996.

"Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

And so it took catching sight of our own place in space to realise that the Earth is the only home we have, and we had better look after it.

'We gave that film tender love and care. There was no room for error'

In the early days of 1969, Dick Underwood, Nasa's chief of photography, was working on seven rolls of Kodak film in his lab at the Houston headquarters of the US space agency Nasa.

The films had travelled with three men from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, the crew of Apollo 8, and had just brought back their record of mankind's first visit to another world.

The rolls, four in black-and-white and three in colour, contained a total of 865 frames. Unknown to those who received the films, among them were a handful of images that would become some of the most famous pictures in the history of photography.

The photos were carefully developed by Mr Underwood and his team. Speaking from his office in Houston, where he runs his Space Panoramas business, Mr Underwood recalled that day: "We had rehearsed the procedures hundreds of times with test films – checks on electrical systems including a back-up, purity and exact temperature of water, precise chemical mixtures, humidity of air to dry the film, and every other detail.

"I took them to my area of the photo lab where we had a special processor that I had built for Apollo space film. We gave that very thin film tender love and care. There was no room for error. Failure was not going to happen."

Many of the pictures were stunning – the last stage of the rocket surrounded by floating debris; a huge Earth seen for the first time as a complete globe hanging in a black void; and the scarred and cratered surface of the Moon at close quarters.

But one picture stood above all the rest in its unfailing ability to produce gasps. It showed the Earth from a distance of quarter of a million miles, a fragile blue and white sphere, hanging over a barren grey-brown lunar horizon.

Underwood watched the film emerge from his developing machine: "The processing of that first roll and seeing those Earthrise pictures while the film was still wet was one of the great moments in my life. Seeing the film come out of first wash was like being a witness to a great event in history."

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NASA Renegades Pitch Obama Team New Post-Shuttle Plan

By Joe Pappalardo

WASHINGTON—A group of renegade space vehicle designers, including NASA engineers bucking their bosses, today got their chance to make their case to the next presidential administration. During a morning meeting at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. with Obama administration transition team members, a handful of advocates today pitched an idea to scrap NASA's existing post-shuttle plan.

Instead, they want to create a different launch vehicle from space shuttle parts that could reach the International Space Station and, eventually, be used for a return to the moon. According to the current plan, NASA's launchers are slated to fly in 2015, five years after the shuttle is retired. The alternative plan, called Jupiter Direct, promises to trim that date by two years and tens of millions of dollars.

"We were received well, but they were very clear they are offering no opinions at this point," says Ross Tierney, a collectible space model kit designer from Florida who presented the alternative plan. "To get what is essentially a presidential level meeting is an honor and privilege for us. We hope something comes of it."

NASA is now depending on the Ares I launch vehicle, currently under development, to replace the shuttle for manned trips to the ISS. Moonshots and other long missions would require a second launch vehicle: the massive, unmanned Ares V, the construction of which has not started. Critics charge that the design, which was supposed to draw heavily on converted parts from the space shuttle, now relies on too many made-to-order parts, driving up development costs and lengthening the time to launch. Defenders of the Ares program say that the changes became necessary, as happens during many complex engineering projects, and that restarting a man-rated launcher program would likely cause more delays and invite a redistribution of NASA's budget.

During today's meeting, the Jupiter Direct team presented a copy of the February issue of Popular Mechanics that profiles the origin and spread of their alternative idea. The article quotes supporters of Jupiter Direct, including current NASA engineers who refused to be identified because they feared retribution from NASA brass. Popular Mechanics's article also quotes analysts and former space officials who say the Jupiter Direct plan only works well on paper and could suffer from the same kind of delays and design changes that Ares I has encountered. Other analysts argue that the time to decide on a plan has already come and gone—and that the essentials of the Jupiter Direct had been considered and dismissed.

With the inauguration less than two weeks away, many are hoping that Obama will present a new space exploration plan soon. The current NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, is not expected to stay; the announcement of his replacement may come next week. Changing the hardware blueprint for the organization presents a deeper problem: A wrong step now could cost jobs, waste multiple millions of dollars and increase the gap during which the nation will have no way of launching people into space.

Spokesmen for the Obama transition team refused to comment on the meeting—since the election they have not offered any public comments on the new administration's plan for NASA. During the campaign, Barack Obama changed his position, first promising change at the agency, suggesting that the government mine NASA's budget for other programs, then backing away by promising that space-related jobs (particularly in Florida) would not be threatened.

To weigh the options, the transition team is quietly holding a series of meetings to chart the course of the space agency. Last week, transition team members reportedly were suggesting the conversion of military Atlas V or Delta IV rockets, currently used to launch satellites, to carry astronauts.

This morning, the transition team, including senior advisor to private space company Virgin Galactic George Whitesides and former NASA associate administrator Alan Ladwig, met to hear the Jupiter Direct plan, which was formed by moonlighting NASA employees, retired engineers and a couple of space buffs. It's been a long, strange trip for Tierney, a model-builder who helped kickstart the Jupiter Direct proposal by gathering support from engineers on Internet chat rooms in 2004. "They told us, ÔWe're here to just listen. We're giving all interested parties a hearing'," Tierney says.

Proponents of Jupiter are hoping that the Obama administration is willing to keep an open mind. The engineers behind Jupiter Direct say their plan would be faster and cheaper because it uses a new configuration of proven space shuttle hardware. To replace Ares I, the Jupiter Direct advocates want to use a single-stage launch vehicle, Jupiter 120. The heart of the system is a modified external tank from the shuttle powered by two RS-68s, the reliable liquid-fuel engine currently used in the Delta IV satellite launcher. The initial kick is provided by two four-segment solid rocket boosters lifted directly from the shuttle.

While the Ares I would be limited to missions only to low Earth orbit, the Jupiter 120's extra power would enable it to launch Orion on a lunar flyby or a visit to a near-Earth asteroid. Lunar landing missions would call for a pair of medium-size, two-stage Jupiter 232s: One would carry Orion and the Altair lunar lander into orbit; the other, the Earth Departure Stage. The Jupiter Direct plan leaves the Orion capsule and lunar lander plans unchanged.

By reusing shuttle parts, NASA and contractor employees can keep their manufacturing jobs. If the plan is quicker, the shuttle can retire safely and the embarrassing manned flight gap can be shorter. If it's cheaper, Congress might be more willing to allow a restart.

That is a lot of "ifs," but Tierney says was happy to take his long shot at influencing space history. "We got a full hearing today," he says. "If they're interested, they'll call."

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Supermassive Black Holes Discovered Billions of Light Years Away -A Galaxy Insight

"Active, supermassive black holes were everywhere in the early universe, we had seen the tip of the iceberg before in our search for these objects. Now, we can see the iceberg itself."

Mark Dickinson of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz.

Astronomers have long assumed there were far more so-called "active" black holes than had been observed, but were unable to find any trace of them.

An international team of astronomers unexpectedly found hundreds of expanding "supermassive" black holes buried deep inside galaxies billions of light years from earth. The findings more than double the total number of black holes known to exist at that distance, and suggest there were hundreds of millions more growing in the early universe.

These super-massive entities are known as high-energy quasars, a form of black hole, found in a young galaxies, that is surrounded by a thick halo of gas and dust which shoot off X-rays as they are sucked into the void.

The X-rays, which can be detected as a general glow in space even when the quasars themselves cannot be seen, are what tipped off the scientists that they had stumbled across something extraordinary.

The astounding discovery is the first direct evidence that most - perhaps all - huge galaxies in the far reaches of the universe generated cavernous black holes during their youth, when about 3.5 billion years old.

"We had seen the tip of the iceberg before in our search for these objects. Now, we can see the iceberg itself," said Mark Dickinson of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona.

"We knew from other studies from about 30 years ago that there must be more quasars in the universe, but we didn't know where to find them until now," said French astrophysicist Emanuel Daddi, who led the research. Daddi and his team set out to study about 1,000 galaxies - about the same mass as the Milky Way - in the process of making stars, but thought to lack quasars.

At nine to 10 billion light years distant, what scientists see today existed about 10 billion years ago, when the universe was still a fledgling between 2.5 and 4.5 billion years old. The quasars will help answer fundamental questions about how massive galaxies evolve. Astronomers now know, for example, that most of these galaxies steadily generate stars and black holes simultaneously until the latter become too big and impede star formation.

Two telescopes were needed to see the black holes. One is NASA's Spitzer space telescope, which picks up infrared light, and the other is the Chandra telescope, which relays X-ray data.

The findings will be published next month in the US journal Astrophysical Journal.

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How evolution evolved

by Alan Boyle

Janet Iwasa / Harvard Med. School and Mass. Gen. Hospital
This cutaway view shows a model protocell about 100 nanometers in diameter. The
protocell's fatty acid membrane allows nutrients and DNA building blocks to enter
the cell and create copies of the cell's DNA. The new DNA strands remain inside.
Scientists suggest this is how the first living cells began to evolve eons ago.

Where did the theory of evolution come from? And where's it going? Essayists and scientists are rallying to answer such questions during the countdown to Charles Darwin's 200th birthday.

The folks who want to build up Darwin's legacy (and the folks who want to challenge it) are gearing up for Feb. 12 by reflecting on the past, present and future of evolutionary theory. Scientific American has devoted virtually an entire issue of the magazine to the topic already, and this week the journal Science made Darwin its cover boy.

Evolution's past
Among the journal's highlights is a review article by Peter J. Bowler, a historian from the Queen's University of Belfast who focuses on the roots of Darwin's theory. Some might argue that Darwinism was so much "in the air" 150 years ago that if Darwin hadn't come up with the idea, someone else would have figured it out. But that's not the way Bowler sees it.

To be sure, other biologists had worked out the main outlines of the theory of natural selection - that is, the idea that advantageous traits become more common in succeeding generations. One of the reasons why Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" when he did was because another biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, was working on his own theory along similar lines.

Bowler maintains, however, that Darwin's formulation of the theory "was both original and disturbing."

"It was not just that the idea of natural selection challenged the belief that the world was designed by a wise and benevolent God," Bowler writes. "There was a wider element of teleology or goal-directedness almost universally accepted at the time."

Darwin would have scoffed at the idea that the evolutionary process was designed to go in any particular direction, other than pointing toward survival in "the struggle for existence."

Some critics have complained that evolution the way Darwin saw it was a cold-hearted process, and laid the groundwork for the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. (That theme comes through loud and clear in last year's anti-Darwin documentary, "Expelled.") In response, Bowler insists that "Darwinism was not 'responsible' for social Darwinism or eugenics in any simple way," but he acknowledges that some of the more disturbing aspects of his theory were exploited by later generations.

"We may well feel uncomfortable with those aspects of his theory today, especially in light of their subsequent applications to human affairs," Bowler writes. "But if we accept science's power to upset the traditional foundations of how we think about the world, we should also accept its potential to interact with moral values."

That's food for thought, well worth chewing over in the comment section below.

Evolution's present and future
Another essay in the journal, written by award-winning author Carl Zimmer, takes a closer look at the ultimate question that Darwin barely addressed in his writings: How did life itself arise? The full essay is available on Science's Web site as well as on

Zimmer touches upon several paths now being explored to address that question, including a reworking of the classic Miller-Urey experiment that changes the recipe for a "primordial soup" that could give rise to life's building blocks. The new brew is a better reflection of what scientists now think Earth's early atmosphere was like (with lots of carbon dioxide and a dash of nitrogen), and adds some extra chemicals that would allow amino acids to form when zapped by lightning.

Other lines of research look at the potential for simple molecules to bootstrap themselves into more complex, self-replicating molecules - eventually leading to life as we know it. For years, scientists have speculated that biology began with a molecular genetic system that no longer exists in nature, worked its way up to an "RNA world," and at last gave rise to the DNA-based system we see today.

Chemists are slowly closing in on what could be a plausible explanation of the process, Zimmer reports. "We've got the molecules in our sights," the University of Manchester's John Sutherland told him.

One of the most intriguing bits of research was published this week on Science's Web site: Biologists at the Scripps Research Institute report that they built a set of self-replicating RNA enzymes that could serve as "an experimental model of a genetic system." The chemical reactions gave rise to the game of life, without biology.

Wired Science's Alexis Madrigal quotes one of the paper's co-authors, Gerald Joyce, as saying the experiment showed how evolution can take hold in the RNA world. "All the original replicators went extinct and it was the new recombinants that took over," Joyce said. "There wasn't one winner. There was a whole cloud of winners, but there were three mutants that arose that pretty much dominated the population."

Still other researchers are working on the artificial cells to contain artificial life. The aim here isn't to create Frankenmicrobes: A team from Penn State explained last year that studying artificial cells could help scientists develop more effective pharmaceuticals for natural-born cells. Such experiments could also shed light on how the first protocells took shape on the early Earth.

Animation by Janet Iwasa shows how a protocell can form from fatty acids.

The latest revelations demonstrate how evolutionary theory - and practice - is still evolving today. There's also a spurt of differentiation in how the field is being covered: Just this week, Science launched its Origins blog to keep track of all the Darwin doings, and the bicentennial will be a leading theme during next month's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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How Did Life Begin? RNA That Replicates Itself Indefinitely Developed For First Time

Rendering of DNA molecules. Scientists have synthesized for the first time RNA enzymes that can replicate themselves without the help of any proteins or other cellular components, and the process proceeds indefinitely. (Credit: iStockphoto)

One of the most enduring questions is how life could have begun on Earth. Molecules that can make copies of themselves are thought to be crucial to understanding this process as they provide the basis for heritability, a critical characteristic of living systems. New findings could inform biochemical questions about how life began.

Now, a pair of Scripps Research Institute scientists has taken a significant step toward answering that question. The scientists have synthesized for the first time RNA enzymes that can replicate themselves without the help of any proteins or other cellular components, and the process proceeds indefinitely.

The work was recently published in the journal Science.

In the modern world, DNA carries the genetic sequence for advanced organisms, while RNA is dependent on DNA for performing its roles such as building proteins. But one prominent theory about the origins of life, called the RNA World model, postulates that because RNA can function as both a gene and an enzyme, RNA might have come before DNA and protein and acted as the ancestral molecule of life. However, the process of copying a genetic molecule, which is considered a basic qualification for life, appears to be exceedingly complex, involving many proteins and other cellular components.

For years, researchers have wondered whether there might be some simpler way to copy RNA, brought about by the RNA itself. Some tentative steps along this road had previously been taken by the Joyce lab and others, but no one could demonstrate that RNA replication could be self-propagating, that is, result in new copies of RNA that also could copy themselves.

In Vitro Evolution

A few years after Tracey Lincoln arrived at Scripps Research from Jamaica to pursue her Ph.D., she began exploring the RNA-only replication concept along with her advisor, Professor Gerald Joyce, M.D., Ph.D., who is also Dean of the Faculty at Scripps Research. Their work began with a method of forced adaptation known as in vitro evolution. The goal was to take one of the RNA enzymes already developed in the lab that could perform the basic chemistry of replication, and improve it to the point that it could drive efficient, perpetual self-replication.

Lincoln synthesized in the laboratory a large population of variants of the RNA enzyme that would be challenged to do the job, and carried out a test-tube evolution procedure to obtain those variants that were most adept at joining together pieces of RNA.

Ultimately, this process enabled the team to isolate an evolved version of the original enzyme that is a very efficient replicator, something that many research groups, including Joyce's, had struggled for years to obtain. The improved enzyme fulfilled the primary goal of being able to undergo perpetual replication. "It kind of blew me away," says Lincoln.

Immortalizing Molecular Information

The replicating system actually involves two enzymes, each composed of two subunits and each functioning as a catalyst that assembles the other. The replication process is cyclic, in that the first enzyme binds the two subunits that comprise the second enzyme and joins them to make a new copy of the second enzyme; while the second enzyme similarly binds and joins the two subunits that comprise the first enzyme. In this way the two enzymes assemble each other — what is termed cross-replication. To make the process proceed indefinitely requires only a small starting amount of the two enzymes and a steady supply of the subunits.

"This is the only case outside biology where molecular information has been immortalized," says Joyce.

Not content to stop there, the researchers generated a variety of enzyme pairs with similar capabilities. They mixed 12 different cross-replicating pairs, together with all of their constituent subunits, and allowed them to compete in a molecular test of survival of the fittest. Most of the time the replicating enzymes would breed true, but on occasion an enzyme would make a mistake by binding one of the subunits from one of the other replicating enzymes. When such "mutations" occurred, the resulting recombinant enzymes also were capable of sustained replication, with the most fit replicators growing in number to dominate the mixture. "To me that's actually the biggest result," says Joyce.

The research shows that the system can sustain molecular information, a form of heritability, and give rise to variations of itself in a way akin to Darwinian evolution. So, says Lincoln, "What we have is non-living, but we've been able to show that it has some life-like properties, and that was extremely interesting."

Knocking on the Door of Life

The group is pursuing potential applications of their discovery in the field of molecular diagnostics, but that work is tied to a research paper currently in review, so the researchers can't yet discuss it.

But the main value of the work, according to Joyce, is at the basic research level. "What we've found could be relevant to how life begins, at that key moment when Darwinian evolution starts." He is quick to point out that, while the self-replicating RNA enzyme systems share certain characteristics of life, they are not themselves a form of life.

The historical origin of life can never be recreated precisely, so without a reliable time machine, one must instead address the related question of whether life could ever be created in a laboratory. This could, of course, shed light on what the beginning of life might have looked like, at least in outline. "We're not trying to play back the tape," says Lincoln of their work, "but it might tell us how you go about starting the process of understanding the emergence of life in the lab."

Joyce says that only when a system is developed in the lab that has the capability of evolving novel functions on its own can it be properly called life. "We're knocking on that door," he says, "But of course we haven't achieved that."

The subunits in the enzymes the team constructed each contain many nucleotides, so they are relatively complex and not something that would have been found floating in the primordial ooze. But, while the building blocks likely would have been simpler, the work does finally show that a simpler form of RNA-based life is at least possible, which should drive further research to explore the RNA World theory of life's origins.

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Where Am I? How Our Brain Works As A GPS Device

We've all experienced the feeling of not knowing where we are. Being disoriented is not pleasant, and it can even be scary, but luckily for most of us, this sensation is temporary. The brain employs a number of tricks to reorient us, keeping our confusion to a minimum and quickly pointing us in the right direction.

Research has suggested that animals and young children mainly rely on geometric cues (e.g. lengths, distances, angles) to help them get reoriented.

Human adults, however, can also make use of feature cues (e.g. color, texture, landmarks) in their surrounding area. But which method do we use more often? Psychologists Kristin R. Ratliff from the University of Chicago and Nora S. Newcombe from Temple University conducted a set of experiments investigating if human adults have a preference for using geometric or feature cues to become reoriented.

The first experiment took place in either a large or small white, rectangular room with a landmark (a big piece of colorful fabric) hanging on one wall. The study volunteers saw the researcher place a set of keys in a box in one of the corners. The volunteers were blindfolded and spun around, to become disoriented. After removing the blindfold, they had to point to the corner where the keys were.

After a break, the volunteers were told the experiment would be repeated, although they wouldn't watch the researcher hide the keys. Unbeknownst to them, during the break the researchers moved the landmark to an adjacent wall—this change forced the volunteers to use either geometric cues or feature cues, but not both, to reorient themselves and locate the keys. For the second experiment, the researchers used a similar method, except they switched room sizes (the volunteers moved from a larger room to a smaller room and vice versa) during the break.

The results, reported in Psychological Science, reveal that the brain does not have a distinct preference for certain cues during reorientation. In the first experiment, volunteers reoriented themselves by using geometric cues in the smaller room but used feature cues in the larger room. However, the volunteers who went from the larger room to the smaller room in the second experiment also relied on feature cues, searching for the landmark to become reoriented.

During the second experiment, the researchers surmise, the volunteers had a positive experience using feature cues in the large room, so they kept on relying on the landmark in the smaller room to become reoriented. These findings indicate that the brain takes into account a number of factors, including the environment and our past experiences, while determining the best way to reorient us to our surroundings.

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Smarter Men Have More Sperm

By Melinda Wenner

Women tend to like smart men because they're usually more successful and better providers. But here's another reason: Their sperm is better, a new study says.

Researchers at King's College London, the University of Delaware and the University of New Mexico recently compared results from five intelligence tests given to 425 Vietnam War vets in 1985 as part of the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention's Vietnam Experience Study. These vets, aged 31 to 44, also provided sperm samples, so the researchers analyzed the sperm per milliliter of semen, plus how many of the sperm swam normally, and other measures of sperm health.

The smarter the men were, the more sperm they produced and the better their wee ones swam — and it didn't matter how old the men were or whether they smoked, drank or were obese.

But why might these two seemingly unrelated traits be linked? Why would calculus aces or business consultants make better sperm?

Turns out that intelligent people are generally healthier than their less-clever peers — studies have shown that brainiacs are, for instance, less likely to suffer from heart disease and Alzheimer's. Scientists have suggested that smart people may score less stressful jobs in safer places and that they may make better lifestyle choices, for instance by exercising more and eating better. In other words, maybe bright people actually listen to the Surgeon General.

But these newest findings, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Intelligence, found that negative habits had little effect on sperm quality, so they don't support that theory.

The researchers instead speculate that intelligence might be passed down as part of a larger package of good attributes. One gene can influence multiple traits, so the genes involved in smarts may somehow improve sperm quality — and perhaps other characteristics as well.

This could help explain, then, why intelligence can be so sexy: It could simply be an indicator that a person has a lot of good genes and traits, says study co-author Geoffrey Miller, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico.

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U.N. Says 'No,' Climate Hackers Say, 'Yes We Can'

By Alexis Madrigal


This story has been updated.

A major Indian-German geoengineering expedition set sail this week for the Scotia Sea, flouting a U.N. ban on ocean iron fertilization experiments in hopes of garnering data about whether the process actually does take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the deep ocean, a technique that may help reverse global warming.

The LOHAFEX experiment will spread 20-tons of iron sulphate particles over a 115-square-mile section of open ocean north of Antarctica — that's about 1.7 times the size of Washington, D.C. The initiative has drawn fire from environmental groups who point out that 200 countries agreed to the moratorium until more evidence was available about its efficacy.

But that hasn't stopped the LOHAFEX team, composed of Alfred Wegener Institute and Indian National Institute of Oceanography scientists, who say they need to conduct experiments to get such data.

“If the LOHAFEX iron dump goes ahead, it will be a clear defiance of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity,” Jim Thomas of ETC Group, said in a press release.

It's becoming clear that when it comes to global warming reversal schemes, deciding who will control the global thermostat is as complex an issue as how such schemes could actually be accomplished. Ocean iron fertilization is considered one of the more promising options for global-scale geoengineering, which aims to slow or reverse the effects of climate change caused by man's burning of fossil fuels.

While Thomas expressed outrage, Jamais Cascio, a futurist who has written about the geopolitical repercussions of geoengineering for the journal Foreign Policy, took a more measured tone.

"ETC is right that we need international standards and safeguards for these experiments, and hopefully this attempt will spur action in that regard," Cascio said. "I think they're wrong, however, to suggest that any look at geoengineering is inherently problematic."

Importantly, iron fertilization would deal directly with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, as opposed to, say, blocking out some of the sun's rays with a global molecular parasol.

By providing plankton with iron in water where iron is lacking, the marine creatures grow in tremendous numbers, incorporating carbon into their bodies. When the plankton die and sink, the carbon goes with down with their skeletons. It is unknown, however, how much of that carbon actually makes it deep into the ocean, where it would be sequestered for decades, not days.

At a panel at meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year, marine geochemist Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute said that somewhere between 2 and 50 percent of the carbon the plankton eat could actually make it to the depths of the ocean, which is basically like saying that we don't know if the process works.

"The efficacy of iron-induced sequestration of atmospheric CO2 to the deep sea, however, remains poorly constrained," he summarized. "We do not yet understand the full range of intended and potential unintended biogeochemical and ecological impacts."

The voluntary U.N. ban included language to allow countries to do tests near their shores. But it's the open seas, particularly in the southern hemisphere, that would allow in-situ testing of the LOHAFEX scientists' hypotheses.

"The fate of carbon from the bloom could not be adequately determined in earlier experiments," the LOHAFEX website reads. "LOHAFEX will now study the entire range of processes determining the partitioning of carbon between atmosphere and deep ocean in the experimental bloom."

Cascio said that it's likely that further geoengineering experiments or actual efforts will be made.

"This comes as absolutely no surprise to me," he said. "The confluence of desperation as we see climate disruption hit faster than anticipated, inaction on the carbon emission front, and the ease with which geoengineering can be undertaken means that this won't be the last time that a sub-national group tries something like this."

Already, two ocean-iron-fertilization companies, Climos and Planktos, have been founded. They've met different fates, though. Last year, Planktos went belly up, while Climos pulled in $4 million in venture capital.

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Will Artificial Organism with Advanced Group Intelligence Evolve?

Swarm Remember Michael Crichton's science-fiction novel, "Prey"? Well, researchers at the University of York have investigated large swarms of up to 10,000 miniature robots which can work together to form a single, artificial life form. The multi-robot approach to artificial intelligence is a relatively new one, and has developed from studies of the swarm behavior of social insects such as ants.

Swarm robotics is a field of study based on the supposition that simple, individual robots can interact and collaborate to form a single artificial organism with more advanced group intelligence.

As a part of an international collaboration dubbed the "Symbiotic Evolutionary Robot Organisms" project, or "Symbrion" for short, researchers are developing an artificial immune system which can protect both the individual robots that form part of a swarm, as well as the larger, collective organism.

The aim of the project is to develop the novel principles behind the ways in which robots can evolve and work together in large 'swarms' so that - eventually - these can be applied to real-world applications. The swarms of robots are capable of forming themselves into a 'symbiotic artificial organism' and collectively interacting with the physical world using sensors.

The multi-robot organisms will be made up of large-scale swarms of robots, each slightly larger than a sugar cube, which can dock with each other and share energy and computing resources within a single artificial-life-form. The organisms will also be able to manage their own hardware and software, they will be self-healing and self organizing.

Professor Alan Winfield, a member of the project team, explains, "A future application of this technology might be for example where a Symbrion swarm could be released into a collapsed building following an earthquake, and they could form themselves into teams searching for survivors or to lift rubble off stranded people. Some robots might form a chain allowing rescue workers to communicate with survivors while others assemble themselves into a 'medicine bot' to give first aid.

"While this scenario is one which is still some way into the future, the project we are working on will hopefully bring these possibilities closer. The robots have functionality on their own, but they can also combine together or adapt and change as the situation requires. The individual robots won't change physically, but they will adapt and evolve their functionally.

"Once the robots come together they will be more versatile - like a colony of cells such as those found in a jelly fish or a sponge. The different cells (robots) will cooperate to create the larger organism. In a sponge even if there is damage to some parts, the overall organism still survives.

"In this way the artificial robotic organisms might in theory become self-configuring, self-healing, and self-optimizing from both hardware and software perspectives."

"The aim of the project is to develop the novel principles behind all this, so that we will be able to develop extremely adaptive, evolve-able and scalable robotic systems. In addition we hope our research will help to develop robot organisms that can adapt without human supervision and for new and useful, perhaps unforeseen, functionality to emerge. A part of the research will also be to write the rules that will ensure that emerging robot functions are beneficial."

Let's just hope that future swarms never become angry with their human creators.

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The Truth About Electronics Companies and Recycling

Carbon Tax: The Lesser Of Two Evils

In a speech last Thursday, Tillerson said a carbon tax would be a "more direct, a more transparent and a more effective approach" than many of the current plans for curbing greenhouse gases, including the cap-and-trade approach favored by President-elect Barack Obama.

Tillerson: Embracing a C02 tax?

Tillerson: Embracing a C02 tax?

In supporting the carbon tax, Tillerson "has become an unlikely member of a club that includes former Vice President Al Gore, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and President-elect Barack Obama's designated head of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers," the Wall Street Journal noted.

In point of fact, Tillerson hasn't joined any club.

Like many CEOs these days in energy-producing industries, he's just afraid his company will soon be hit with a tidal wave of new regulation to curb greenhouse gas emissions — regulations that will destroy trillions of dollars of U.S. wealth.

"My greatest concern is that policymakers will attempt to mandate or ordain solutions that are doomed to fail," Tillerson said. Like cap-and-trade. Or new Environmental Protection Agency rules that essentially seek to regulate everything in our economy that uses carbon-based fuel. Since 85% of our energy comes from carbon-based fuel, that means the entire economy.

Tillerson understands the political situation. A new president and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress mean some form of draconian global warming action is likely, and soon — despite the fact that the Earth, rather than heating up, has been cooling for at least seven years, according to the four major global temperature data sets.

Tillerson would be a fool and probably in breach of his fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders and employees if he were to ignore this. So he has supported a carbon tax — which economists agree would be the most fair, least costly and most efficient way of reducing global C02 output.

It's a sad commentary indeed when CEOs have to support things that aren't in their interest, solely to survive. That's certainly the case with global warming.

Unfortunately, many of the proposals now being considered to cut C02 and other greenhouse gas emissions would entail enormous costs with very little benefit.

Take last fall's Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPA) by the EPA, which the new president has vowed to implement. ANPA sounds innocent. But cutting C02 output by 70%, as Congress has mandated, won't be easy. The costs will be enormous and could wreck our economy.

According to Global Insight, ANPA could cost the U.S. nearly $7 trillion in real output by 2030, or about $650 billion a year. Meanwhile, 800,000 U.S. jobs would be lost annually for several years.

This is why Tillerson says he supports a carbon tax — not because he's suddenly seen the light on global warming. A carbon tax is the least damaging, least costly alternative available for cutting carbon-based fuel use.

Other things are at work, as well. Last year, Tillerson faced a challenge to his position as chairman of Exxon Mobil from the Rockefeller family, an Exxon Mobil shareholder that didn't like Tillerson's climate-change skepticism.

No doubt it's not lost on Tillerson that Sen. Jay Rockefeller has just been named to head the Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and will be in his face very soon.

For the record, as the world shivers through a second frigid winter in a row, the U.S. is already cutting back on its CO2 output. According to Energy Department data, from 2000 to 2006, per capita output of C02 in the U.S. plunged 4.7%. Meanwhile, it increased by 3% in Europe. Yet Europe's energy taxes are five to 10 times what they are in the U.S.

Hmm. Just a thought, but maybe we don't need higher carbon taxes here at all.

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Venomous mammal caught on camera

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

See the footage of the rare, venomous mammal

Rare footage of one of the world's most strange and elusive mammals has been captured by scientists.

Large, and with a long, thin snout, the Hispaniolan solenodon resembles an overgrown shrew; it can inject passing prey with a venom-loaded bite.

Little is known about the creature, which is found in the Caribbean, but it is under threat from deforestation, hunting and introduced species.

Researchers say conservation efforts are now needed.

The mammal was filmed in the summer of 2008 during a month-long expedition to the Dominican Republic - one of only two countries where this nocturnal, insect-eating animal (Solenodon paradoxus) can be found (the other is Haiti).

It is an amazing creature - it is one of the most evolutionary distinct mammals in the world
Dr Sam Turvey, ZSL

The researchers from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Ornithological Society of Hispaniola were able to take measurements and DNA from the creature before it was released.

Dr Richard Young, from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: "My colleagues were excited and thrilled when they found it in the trap.

"But despite a month's worth of trapping effort, they only ever caught a single individual."

Specialised teeth

The Hispaniolan solenodon is one of the creatures highlighted by the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) Edge of Existence programme, which focuses its efforts on conservation plans for animals that are both endangered and evolutionarily distinctive.

Hispaniolan solenodon (Gregory Guida)

Dr Sam Turvey, a ZSL researcher involved with the programme, told BBC News: "It is an amazing creature - it is one of the most evolutionary distinct mammals in the world.

"Along with the other species of solenodon, which is found in Cuba (Solenodon cubanus), it is the only living mammal that can actually inject venom into their prey through specialised teeth.

"The fossil record shows that some other now-extinct mammal groups also had so-called dental venom delivery systems. So this might have been a more general ancient mammalian characteristic that has been lost in most modern mammals, and is only retained in a couple of very ancient lineages."

Solenodon habitat in Haiti (Simon Turvey)
A population was discovered living in a remote corner of Haiti

Dr Turvey and other scientists working for the Edge programme recently discovered a population of solenodons living in a remote corner of Haiti.

The researcher said that the team was surprised to find them; previously it had been feared that the creatures had become extinct in this country because of extensive deforestation, recently introduced mongoose and dogs, and hunting by humans for food.

He said: "They are still incredibly vulnerable and fragile. So it is really important to get back out there to work how how these animals are surviving."

Hispaniolan solenodon (Gregory Guida)

Conservation efforts are now needed in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the teams believe, but the first step would be to find out more about the animal.

Dr Young said: "We know little about its ecology, its behaviour, its population status, its genetics - and without that knowledge base it is really difficult to design effective conservation."

The research will be undertaken by ZSL's Edge programme, Durrell, the Ornithological Society of Hispaniola, the Audubon Society of Haiti, and the Dominican Republic's National Zoological Park and Agency for Protected Areas and Biodiversity.

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Croplands May Wither as Global Warming Worsens

Climate models predict that the hottest seasons on record will become the norm by the end of the century--an outcome that bodes ill for feeding the world

By David Biello

FOOD CRISIS: By 2040, global warming will heat up the growing season enough to begin to reduce crop production.

Note: Click here to enlarge image.
Courtesy of Science/AAAS

In summer 2003, more than 52,000 Europeans died from heat-related ills, 30,000 in France alone, during an unrelenting heat wave that featured temperatures 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit (3.6 degrees Celsius) higher than normal. Crops also suffered, with corn production down by 30 percent and wheat by 21 percent, among other foodstuffs. And a similar hot spell in Ukraine in 1972 led to a wheat shortage that prompted that staple's prices to more than triple by 1974. But even without record-breaking heat, recent years have seen food riots from Bangladesh to Haiti as world agriculture was pushed to the breaking point by a combination of greater demand for food, biofuels and poor weather.

Such disruptions in the world's food supply may become even more the norm by the end of this century, according to a new analysis published today in Science. Climate modeler David Battisti of the University of Washington in Seattle and food security expert Rosamond Naylor of Stanford University used the results of 23 climate models to determine that there is a more than 90 percent chance—in other words, it is very likely—that the lowest growing season temperatures in the tropics and subtropics by the end of the century will be higher than the highest temperatures at present.

That area includes the southern U.S., Central America, southern Europe, central Asia, northern Australia and all of Africa, according to Battisti. "Although it had not been calculated before," he says, "it was not surprising to find that for most of the tropics and subtropics, the future summer temperatures would be out of bounds compared to what we have ever experienced."

Planning meetings for the Global Seed Vault in Norway spawned the idea of looking at average summer temperatures, which climate models can project relatively reliably and which have a large impact on crop yields—between 2.5 and 16 percent less wheat, corn, soy or other crops are produced for every 1.8–degree F (1–degree C) rise. "The impacts we will see on yield, combined with a growing population that depends greatly on agriculture for food and income, will demand a profound level of adaptation, which might include moving hundreds of millions of people," Battisti says.

According to the projections, the temperate zones, like most of the continental U.S., will also be affected. "By the end of the century, however, the seasonal growing temperature is likely to exceed the hottest season on record in temperate countries (equivalent to what France experienced in 2003), and the future for agriculture in these regions will become equally daunting," the researchers wrote.

To date, concerns about climate change's impact on agriculture have focused on drought—another likely outcome of warming world. As a result, plant scientists have researched ways to develop drought-resistant strains of various crops, such as a variety of corn that agriculture giant Monsanto Company and chemical company BASF have submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval.

Funding for such agricultural research in general has been dwindling in recent years, according to the Washington, D.C.–based International Food Policy Research Institute.

"Current levels of agricultural research are not adequate to help developing countries to adapt to climate change," says IFPRI water resources expert Claudia Ringler. But "the dire picture in the paper assumes no adaptation. Adaptation will certainly happen. Farmers in Russia will change the time of wheat planting [for example], and may switch to a different crop if the hot summer of today becomes the norm of the future."

Battisti and Naylor, however, assumed greenhouse gas emissions lower than the present output and the fact that more carbon dioxide (CO2), the most common greenhouse gas, will boost plant growth may not help. The forecasted CO2 boost—as much as 10 percent—in crop growth will be more than offset by the 20 to 40 percent drop due to higher temperatures alone—and will be further exacerbated by any drying, Battisti warns.

That means the future of agriculture as the climate changes could be even worse than this prediction—and that's before taking into account other factors such as the effect of pests.

"We want to look at the impact of climate change on the distribution of pests and pathogens that affect crops," Battisti says, "starting with maize in Africa." With three billion people living in the affected regions, at least a billion of whom are already malnourished, figuring out how to adapt agriculture to global warming couldn't be more urgent.

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Unmanned stealth bomber could have been UFO responsible for destroying wind turbine

By David Wilkes

The UFO allegedly responsible for wrecking a wind turbine could have been a secret unmanned stealth bomber on test flights.

The claim came from Ministry of Defence insiders who reportedly said that a black delta-wing craft called Taranis was making test runs on the coastal bombing ranges at Donna Nook and North Coates in Lincolnshire, near to the site of the damaged turbine.

The Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder, is about the same size as a Hawk jet and is equipped with stealth equipment and an 'autonomous' artificial intelligence system.


Theory: Government officials claim the Taranis was making test flights near to the area where a wind turbine was destroyed

The plane is being developed by BAE Systems and has been designed to deliver weapons to battlefields in other continents.

The UFO was spotted by hundreds of witnesses with many believing it was the work of an 'alien' craft.

One saw orangey-yellow spheres skimming across the sky.

Another reported a 'massive ball of light' with 'tentacles going right down to the ground'.

Then witnesses told of an earsplitting bang at 4am. Come dawn and the plot thickens.

At the nearby wind farm one of the 60ft blades from a 200ft turbine was found ripped off. Another had been left twisted and useless.


Mystery: The damaged wind turbine, with one of its blades ripped off, in Conisholme, Lincolnshire

So far, so mysterious, except - of course - to the UFO experts.

For them, the strange goings on at a wind farm in Conisholme, Lincolnshire, can be explained by a flying saucer crashing into the turbine in a close encounter that could, at last, provide the evidence of other life forms they have been waiting for all their lives.

John Harrison, of nearby Saltfleetby, saw the ball of light and its 'tentacles' over the farm. 'It was an incredible sight, I have never seen anything like it before,' he said. 'I have no idea what it was.'

Broken blade: The damaged wind turbine at the centre of the Lincolnshire UFO mystery

Broken blade: The damaged wind turbine at the centre of the Lincolnshire UFO mystery

Lesley Whittingham tried to photograph the scene. 'It looked like a giant explosion in the air,' she said.

Dorothy Willows saw orangeyyellow spheres. 'I don't believe in UFOs but it was a low-flying object,' said Mrs Willows. Her husband Stephen was woken by a sudden noise hours later on Sunday morning when the damage to the turbines happened.

Could that have been the sound of a UFO hitting it?

Council chief Robert Palmer said he had seen a 'round object with a slight red trim hovering near the top of the turbines' that night too.

'When I heard what had happened I was slightly worried so I've called for a full health and safety review,' said Mr Palmer, 66.

'If the aliens are coming, I want to be there to meet and greet them.'

Enlarge p9graphic.jpg

Yesterday your reporter visited the scene and, while I failed to see any little green men, I did find four little men in green uniforms.

But they had arrived by van, not spaceship, and worked for Ecotricity, the company that built the wind farm.

UFO expert Nick Pope, a former head of the Ministry of Defence's UFO Project, said: 'This is a really bizarre case. What's particularly exciting is that because there's been a collision, there will be residue of the object involved.

Lesley Whittingham

Witness: Lesley Whittingham took a photograph of the lights, below. She said they remained in the sky for several minutes

Picture of light in the sky

'Forensic science will enable this material to be recovered and analysed. This elevates this UFO case, because with most sightings all you have is eyewitness testimony or indistinct and shaky film footage taken on a mobile phone.'

Despite his confidence in obtaining hard evidence, a glance around the bleak Fenland landscape provided another mystery.

Having travelled billions of miles to visit Earth, why would our alien friends land in the hamlet of Conisholme, where there are no shops and no pub, but oddly there is an ice cream parlour?

The thought had crossed the mind of the nearest resident to the wind farm.

The woman, who gave her name as Sheila, said she saw or heard nothing on Sunday night and added: 'I hope that one day we will see aliens, but I doubt it will happen in that field.

'I've lived here for 20 years and nothing interesting has ever happened here.'


The location of the windfarm, near North Somercotes in Lincolnshire

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7 Things I Learned Working on a Pot Farm

For the stoner sect, working on a pot farm must seem like the equivalent of a fat person winning one of those contests where they get to stuff their shopping cart with as much food as they can in one minute. But I–your faithful blogger—have actually worked on a pot farmer in Mendocino County (part of the Emerald Triangle) and the fantasy isn’t always the same as the reality. So here are 7 truths and fictions about working on a pot farm:

There is a shitload of weed on a farm: TRUE!
You better believe it. Bushels and bushels of freshly trimmed weed stacked to the ceiling, with exotic names as Trainwreck and Purple Indigo.

The local police are always ready to bust a pot farm. FALSE!
In Mendocino the local police aren’t concerned about the weed that is grown in the area. If they busted all the farms, that would crash the local economy. What they are more worried about is robbery. Gangs from L.A. have come to this area armed with AK47s to rob farms of their weed because it’s so profitable and abundant.

It’s easy to find a pot farm to work on in San Francisco. FALSE!
I had one pot farm scheduled to work on and the night before leaving I got an email that the DEA swooped down and took all their plants. Other times people were really flaky on when I should be going up (”Oh, dude? Was that today!?”)

When eating is involved on a pot farm, it gets very quiet. TRUE!
As much food production (sandwiches, etc) goes on as weed production, followed by moments when all you hear is chewing.

It’s fun to trim weed. FALSE!
Trimming weed is one of the most monotonous tasks known to humanity. All day long you sit shaping buds over a garbage bag with a pair of scissors and rubber glove on your hand. If this were perfectly legal I’m sure this job would pay $7.50 an hour. Instead, trimmers are paid $100 per each pound of weed they trim.

People who work on pot farms really, really, really like pot. TRUE!
It couldn’t be more ideal. They can trim weed and smoke it ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Not only that, but they can do so while listening to hippie music ABOUT weed and centering ALL conversation - like wine snobs - around, well, weed.

There’s nothing scary about a pot farm. FALSE!
You have that combustible mixture of paranoia and fear of being robbed while stuck in the middle of a wooded nowhere. Late at night every little noise can trigger the fear that the gangs from L.A. have arrived to rob the place at gunpoint, or the DEA has swooped down to bust everyone in sight. Yay, weed!

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Utah Student Raises $45,000 to Protect Land from Drilling