the world as we write it
Friday, May 2, 2008
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From staff and wire reports
Severe weather battered the nation's midsection Friday killing at least seven people in Arkansas, injuring dozens others and damaging hundreds of homes and businesses.
In the last 24 hours, tornadoes, hail and hurricane-force winds ripped through Arkansas and seven other states, including Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Illinois, South Dakota and Kansas.
Police said a 15-year-old girl was killed Friday when a tree fell through a bedroom where she was sleeping at her home in Siloam Springs in north Arkansas. Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokesman Tommy Jackson also confirmed two deaths in Conway County; three in Van Buren County; and one death in Pulaski County.
WEATHER GUYS BLOG: Tornado season peaks in MayLOCAL COVERAGE: KTHV-TV, Little Rock
The agency also reported 13 injuries.The storms damaged property and blew out electric service to nearly 6,000 homes and businesses.
In Damascus, Ark., property damage was extensive.
Randy Payne, 38, hid in a hallway at his aunt and uncle's house.
"It sounded like all hell was breaking loose," Payne said.
Hurricane-force winds, hail and heavy rain moved through Missouri leaving hundreds of homes and businesses damaged.
Fire officials say several people were injured in the storms late Thursday and early Friday.
Authorities in the Kansas City area say the worst damage is in the city's northern and eastern suburbs. The National Weather Service reported that winds reached 80 mph.
Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser said Friday that 100 homes suffered significant damage in the city alone.
In northeast Kansas City, trees were knocked from their roots and laying along the roads and in ditches.
Dozens of homes had chunks of their roofs missing. Some had their fences toppled. Police blocked off roads surrounding damaged neighborhoods Friday.
At least three tornadoes raked across central and northern Oklahoma, including one in Osage County near Tulsa that was an estimated 100 yards wide.
In Owasso, also near Tulsa, straight-line winds destroyed the $4.7 million TownPlace Suites Hotel, authorities said.
In other parts of the country a river that flooded parts of northern Maine dropped much faster than expected, allowing residents who fled their homes to return and assess the damage, officials said Friday.
The St. John River dipped below flood stage Friday, just two days after upward of 1,000 people were evacuated as the river reached the highest levels ever recorded. As many as 140 area homes were flooded.
The river's drop came as Gov. John Baldacci traveled to the region Friday for his second visit to get a firsthand look and talk to local residents.
A team from the Maine Department of Transportation and an inspector from Canada planned to get their first look at the International Bridge between Fort Kent and Clair, New Brunswick, Saturday morning to make sure that the two-lane bridge wasn?t moved from its supports by the fast-moving waters, said Mark Latti, a Maine transportation agency spokesman.
Meanwhile, three Texans were charged Thursday with starting a fire that has charred more than 2,000 acres near Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
The two men and a woman were camping Tuesday in the Kaibab National Forest when they left their campfire unattended after running out of water, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Flagstaff.
A second straight day of fierce wind Thursday hampered firefighters battling a blaze in central New Mexico's Manzano Mountains.
Fire officials estimated the acreage at 13,000, or about 20 square miles, by Thursday night. Peter D'Aquanni, a U.S. Forest Service public information officer, said crews tried to go in several times to get a count of what had been destroyed but were pushed back each time. Wind kept air drops of water and fire retardant grounded Thursday.
"We're pretty much going to have a carbon copy of yesterday again today," D'Aquanni said Thursday. Conditions are expected to be the same Friday, he said.
At least seven wildfires, two of which consumed more than 20,000 acres each, burned across Texas on Thursday, threatening homes, a wind farm and a $10 million vineyard, officials said.
A 21,000-acre blaze in western Texas neared a $280 million wind farm and an 800-acre vineyard, said Jeanne Eastham, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service. The service had a mandatory evacuation for one ranch in the fire's path.
Cities along the Mississippi River valley are expected to get bad storms Friday, according to Tom Moore, lead meteorologist at The Weather Channel.
Moore said some areas along the Black Hills in South Dakota could receive up to 3 feet of snow and Rapid City may get up to a foot.
"It should be an active day from the Great Lakes all the way down," Moore said.
The storm system should ease up by Saturday, but will continue pouring rain from New York to the Southeast. And that, Moore said, could make for a soggy day at the Kentucky Derby.
"It's going to rain there in the morning for sure," Moore said. "But it should break up by midday."
Contributing: Alan Gomez in McLean, Va.; Associated Press
Website address: http://www.usatoday.com/weather/storms/2008-05-02-storms_N.htm
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By Stephanie Reitz, Associated Press
One gray squirrel, its bushy tail twitching, barked a warning as another scrounged for food nearby.
It was an ordinary spring day at Hampshire College, except that the rodent issuing the warning was powered by amps, not acorns.
Dubbed "Rocky" after the cartoon character, the robo-squirrel is working its way into Hampshire's live-squirrel clique, controlled by researchers several yards away with a laptop computer and binoculars.
Sarah Partan, an assistant professor in animal behavior at Hampshire, hopes that by capturing a close-up view of squirrels in nature, Rocky will help her team decode squirrels' communication techniques, social cues and survival instincts.
Rocky is among many robotic critters worldwide helping researchers observe animals in their natural environments rather than in labs. The research could let scientists better understand how animals work in groups, court, intimidate rivals and warn allies of danger.
In Indiana, for instance, a fake lizard shows off its machismo as researchers assess which actions intimidate and which attract real lizards. Pheromone-soaked cockroach counterfeits in Brussels, meanwhile, exert peer pressure on real roaches to move out of protective darkness. In California, a tiny video camera inside a fake female sage grouse records close-up details as it's wooed and more by the breed's unusually promiscuous males.
The research may even help explain similar instinctive behaviors in humans, researchers say.
"Animals and humans are all affected by behaviors, body postures and signals from each other that we may not be aware of," Partan said.
The use of fake critters to infiltrate real groups of animals is so new that few companies build or sell such tools to researchers.
Many of the scientists using animal doppelgangers have modified toy animals or, like Partan and her students, cobbled together their own with fake fur, small motors, circuits and other material. Partan, who created Rocky a few years ago with students when she taught at the University of South Florida, is constantly refining its actions and updating its technology.
Rocky's movement is controlled by basic computer programs, and it has tiny speakers inside that play recordings Partan purchased from an animal-sounds library at Cornell University.
One recent afternoon, she and students Maya Gounard, 20, and Andrew Fulmer, 19, brought Rocky out for field testing and placed him near real squirrels. Mounted on a board, he was shielded by a camouflage hood and a long cord connected him to the researchers' laptop.
After the computer's program flipped the hood open, Rocky went into a sequence of tail-flagging, barking and other motions squirrels recognize as warnings of danger.
The most successful experiments are when the real squirrels respond by "flagging" their own tail, halting their foraging to check for danger, scamper up a tree or take other actions that show they picked up on the signals, Partan said.
"We watch for a trade-off in their behavior," she said, pointing out a squirrel that jerked to its hind legs and froze, its eyes scanning the area as it heard Rocky's barks. "He gave up foraging to focus on being vigilant, so that's something we'd note as a discernible response."
They focus on whether squirrels react more strongly to Rocky's noises or movements or a combination that researchers call multi-modal signals.
Although animal behavior has been studied for years, much remains unknown about instinctive responses.
A particular sound may be the courting equivalent of, "Come over here, you sexy beast." But a tiny change can alter the message entirely, making it something akin to, "You're about to be torn to shreds if you don't get out of my territory."
"Whether it's a bunch of squirrels in a field or humans in a mall, there are general principles of behavior that seem to hold up across species lines," said Greg Demas, director of Indiana University's Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior and an associate professor of biology.
Robot critters also can help researchers discover how far a species can be pushed beyond its survival instincts.
Researchers at the Free University of Brussels, for instance, found that fake roaches doused in familiar pheromones became so accepted among their cockroach compatriots that the real bugs succumbed to the interlopers' peer pressure to move out of dark areas into the light.
In other experiments, a robotic lizard developed by Indiana University researcher Emilia Martins uses energetic push-ups to trigger similar displays of courtship, power and machismo among real lizards.
Depending on the fake lizard's prompting, the real critters react as if they're being taunted, threatened or titillated all of which gives researchers a chance to study the tiniest movements of their legs, eye flaps and other quirks.
"There's been the old, classic trade-off for years between the ecological relevance you get (researching) in the field, versus those studies in the lab where you can control the environment while knowing they're not going to react as much," Demas said. "Having these models out in the field is taking us to the next steps of the research."
Researchers say the applicability of fake animals in research can depend on the intelligence, size, eyesight and sense of smell in the real species.
"The bigger the animal is and the more complicated it is, the harder it is to have a proper robot that mimics the signals and has the right visual cues," said Cornell ornithology professor Jack Bradbury.
Bradbury's research has ranged from vocal mimicry in wild parrots to the sexual choices of hermaphroditic sea slugs. He hasn't used robots but does use sound cues emanating from speakers hidden in bushes to manipulate animals in the wild by "talking" with them or playing noises they recognize.
"Wild parrots are pretty smart, but I've gone on for hours interacting with them that way," he said. "They come up to the bush and look at it and don't see the birds, but they keep communicating with the belief there's another parrot in there somewhere."
He said mechanical animals aren't used "just to be clever."
"The real issue from a scientist's point of view is, 'Can I come up with a robot that will help me answer a question that I couldn't answer otherwise?'"
Website address: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/robotics/2008-05-02-robot-research_N.htm
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IBM launches "green energy" tools for data centers
Wednesday, Apr 30, 2008 11:33PM UTC
By Philipp Gollner
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - International Business Machines Corp <IBM.N> on Wednesday launched tools to reduce computer energy consumption as IBM hopes to boost its business of selling power-saving technologies.
The products, announced at an IBM business-partner conference in Los Angeles, are designed to measure power consumption and reduction across energy-hungry computer data centers that run corporate networks and Web sites.
The world's largest technology services company is offering software that tracks and caps data-center energy consumption, including power for air conditioning to cool server computers.
IBM is also extending to 27 more countries a program begun in seven countries last year that lets companies earn and trade certificates awarded for verified energy savings.
"Energy efficiency has become a critical business metric, like product reliability and customer satisfaction," William Zeitler, head of IBM's systems and technology group, said in an interview with Reuters.
IBM is expanding in so-called green data centers as it looks for new growth areas in developed regions such as Western Europe as well as in developing countries that are spending heavily on new technology infrastructure.
"The opportunity for us is to go to clients -- there are an enormous number who are either transforming their data centers or will have to transform them," Zeitler said. "This is a critically important problem in the industry."
IBM's green data center initiative has already begun to pay off a year after it was launched. It generated nearly $200 million of technology-services contract signings in the first quarter and about $300 million in the fourth, Chief Financial Officer Mark Loughridge said in recent earnings presentations.
Many of the countries added to the certificate program are in emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East, where Armonk, New York-based IBM has been generating double-digit percentage revenue growth from building technology infrastructure in telecoms, transportation and energy, among other areas.
Growth is also strong in North America and Western Europe, where banks, for example, are trying to rein in energy costs from running massive volumes of financial transactions on their computers. Banks are among IBM's biggest customers.
"It's really taken off in North America in particular and Western Europe," said Joe Clabby, president and industry research analyst at Clabby Analytics. "Countries that are not energy self-sufficient are jumping on this initiative."
(Editing by Braden Reddall)
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Lego's latest brick trick: a virtual world
Thursday, May 01, 2008 7:41PM UTC
By Reed Stevenson
BILLUND, Denmark (Reuters) - Millions of children pick up Lego bricks each year to spend hours -- 5 billion, in fact -- creating their own imaginary worlds.
Now the manufacturer of the little plastic playing blocks wants to take them online to "Lego Universe," a virtual world for fans of the ubiquitous toy.
Lego Universe joins an established trend where toys and video games are cross-promoted, such as Nintendo Co Ltd's Pokemon TV show, game card, toys and video game franchise, and Mattel Inc's Barbie online shopping and gaming portal at barbie.com.
To launch next year as a massively multiplayer online game, or MMOG to those in the gaming community, Lego Universe will let players create online versions of themselves and interact with each other.
"We want to make the connection between digital play and physical play," said Mark William Hansen who is in charge of Lego Universe. "The physical experience is our core, the digital experience will never replace the physical experience, but it's a nice add-on."
Hansen, speaking at the headquarters of Europe's largest toymaker, said he had been working on his doctoral thesis with Lego Group on mass customization and ended up joining the family-owned company to create the game.
Lego Universe will blend real-world style environments with characters and buildings made of digital plastic pieces. A forest would have less bricks in the background, while a city would lend itself to being made nearly entirely with bricks.
Each player's avatar, or online persona, will be a customizable digital version of Lego minifigures, the tiny characters included with most Lego kits that also feature in existing Lego video games such as Lego Star Wars.
That's not surprising. Lego employees are just as likely to pull out a Lego figure of themselves, with name, phone number and e-mail address rather than a traditional business card.
Lego Universe will initially launch as a PC game, available in stores or as a download, and may eventually be available on other gaming platforms. It will operate as a pay-as-you-go subscription service at a "competitive price", Hansen said.
Most social online worlds have their own currency or monetary system, and Lego Universe will also require users to spend virtual money to buy virtual bricks. But rather than winning or beating an opponent, players build capital by spending time in the game.
"The more a child plays, they collect more coins and more bricks. The more you play, the more you get to build things," Hansen said.
The other crucial element of Lego Universe, like other MMOGs, is that users will be encouraged to interact with each other, to build and play with virtual Lego bricks as they would on a carpet littered with real Lego pieces.
"We want kids to come and play together," Hansen said.
Lego Universe is part of a bigger plan by the company to revitalize itself after a near-collapse five years ago, when the company founded in 1932 posted its first loss.
Lego executives say the company lost its way by branching into non-core areas like television shows and toys that required less building and weren't customizable like the core Lego bricks.
"It was a near-death experience," said Henrik Lorensen, vice president of business development at Lego.
Lorensen said Lego was distracted from its main area of expertise of providing toys children could use to build their own worlds and unleash their imagination, or as he says, "the joy of building, of creation, that you have when you play."
Lorensen says the approach of "making good, classic products in the right way" is reflected in Lego Universe.
About two dozen people at Lego are working on the game while an additional group of nearly 70 are working to create the online world in Denver, Colorado, where game developer and Lego partner NetDevil is based.
The digital efforts fit in with Lego's popular video game franchise and also with Lego Factory, a digital design system that allows users to build Lego designs and then order the necessary components in one package from Lego.
Through such efforts, Lego believes it can reach even more people than the 400 million who play with Lego bricks every year. Lego has expanded its line to include kits tailored for girls, featuring princesses and horses and castles.
Lego Universe, the company believes, will encompass all of that and more, as the name suggests. Users will be able to create, destroy, enact battles, or just fiddle with bricks in a world of their own.
It will also give the company the ability to reintroduce bricks that are no longer made in Lego factories and potentially offer all the 6,000 types of bricks made by Lego.
But there will always be a link back to the physical world.
Just like with Lego Factory, users will also be able to order the physical versions of their online creations and have them delivered to their door.
(Editing by Tim Dobbyn)
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