July 11, 2013 2:45 pm
The arrival of Europeans in America led to dramatic and often devastating changes to native societies, wildlife and the landscape. But now scientists have discovered that many dog species native to America managed to survive to the present day, without being overwhelmed by the European dog population.
Researchers used to believe that the dog population in America had been wiped out by European breeds, but Swedish researchers announced recently that many native dog species survive to the present day. And, like the indigenous peoples of America, their roots can be traced all the way back to Asia. From LiveScience:
To trace the roots of American dogs, Savolainen and his colleagues collected cheek swabs from 347 kennel club purebred dogs from the Americas. That sample included Alaskan malamutes, Chihuahuas, Peruvian hairless dogs and several signature American breeds. They then compared that DNA with 1,872 samples from dogs in Asia, Europe and Africa. They also tested 19 free-roaming strays from the Carolinas as well as a few other free-roaming dog breeds from South America.
Most of the American dogs had ancestry tracing back to Asia, with only 30 percent of their ancestry from Europe. That suggests their ancestors arrived in the Americas in one of the migration waves across the Bering Strait.
These all-American canines include a wide variety of breeds, including sled dogs like the malamute and peruvian hairless dogs.
In the press release, geneticist Peter Savolainen said: “It was especially exciting to find that the Mexican breed, Chihuahua, shared a DNA type uniquely with Mexican pre-Columbian samples…This gives conclusive evidence for the Mexican ancestry of the Chihuahua.”
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May 31, 2013 3:35 pm
Cloud gazing seems like it should be a uniquely human activity—who else would stare up at the sky and turning wisps of clouds into shapes and faces? But, now, a robot can do that, too. What’s happening there? Is the robot…imagining?
This robot is named Cloud Face, and it’s a face-detection algorithm that can look at pictures of cloud and detect ones that look like human faces. The program comes from Shinseungback Kimyonghun, who describes it this way:
‘Cloud Face’ is a collection of cloud images that are recognized as human face by a face-detection algorithm. It is a result of computer’s vision error, but they look like faces to human eyes, too. This work attempts to examine the relation between computer vision and human vision.
Kimyonghun figured this out mostly accidentally. He told Fast Company that the whole thing started with a webcam that was supposed to capture human faces:
“One day, I hooked a webcam and a snack bag, and cast the fishing rod out to the window of my studio,” the studio’s Kim Yong Hun explains. “I expected that it would capture faces of passersby when they look at the bait. After a few hours later, it actually got some faces of people staring at it. However, there were also many images that were not faces. That was because the face-detection algorithm often found patterns of building walls and streets as faces.
At Fast Company, they sell the project as “an imaginative robot.” Mark Wilson writes:
Looking through the images almost kicks you in the gut. Because it’s one thing if Facebook can auto-tag my friend’s faces on my uploaded photographs, but it’s a whole other thing if some snippet of code can lay beside me on a grassy knoll, point to the sky, and make a convincing argument as to why a bit of puffy condensation resembles a dude on a train eating a donut.
But is this robot really “imaginative?” Can robots imagine?
It depends on how you describe imagination. In one paper, computer scientists talk about building a robot with “functional imagination,” which they describe as ” the purposeful manipulation of information that is not directly available to the senses – references to imagination always point to something that in reality is not there.” There are other researchers teaching robots to imagine what humans might want—in this case, how humans might want to arrange furniture in a room. Ashutosh Saxena at Cornell is trying to figure out how to get robots to put themselves in human shoes. IEEE Spectrum explains:
Essentially, what Saxena’s group is doing is teaching robots to use their imaginations by placing virtual humans in the environment that they want to organize, and then figuring out what those virtual humans are likely to do.
So the cloud face project isn’t the only thing where computers are creating fantasy images and scenarios. And there’s another project quite like the cloud face one, called Google Face. Created by Onformative, Google Face scours Google Earth for things that look like faces.
This concept—the idea that we can see faces in blobs (like the face on the moon)—is called “pareidoliak.” To humans, the world is full of faces in clouds, earth, grilled cheeses and oil slicks. We see them everywhere. And now, apparently, we’ve taught robots to, as well.
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March 6, 2013 11:48 am
A self-appointed German bishop from the order of Corpus Dei (spoiler alert: it’s not an official order of the Catholic church) made it through Vatican security and infiltrated a meeting of cardinals preparing for the arduous process of choosing a new pope.
Ralph Napierski, the fake bishop in question, has been on the church’s radar for some time, says Time:
“He does not work with any of our institutions in any way,” a spokesman for the Berlin Catholic diocese told the German newspaper Bild Zeitung, according to Spiegel Online. The spokesman said Napierski is “self-aggrandizing,” writes angry letters and preaches about sex.
On Napierski’s website, which feature photographs of him posing as a priest with Church officials and politicians, he claims to be adept in “revealing the ancient hidden spiritual practices.” He is a proponent of “Jesus Yoga” and claims to have invented a system that allows people to control computers with their minds.
While the higher-ups of the Catholic church are unlikely to let a little Jesus Yoga distract them from the historic process of pope-selecting, the official police force of Vatican City, the Corps of Gendarmerie of Vatican City State, has acknowledged a need for tighter security during this week’s meetings:
Following Napierski’s attempted infiltration, the Vatican held discussions on improving their security procedures — which already include sweeping the Sistine Chapel for listening devices.
Monday’s meeting was the first in a series happening at the Vatican this week, during which the 103 cardinals present (out of 115 who are eligible to participate in the process) will mingle, discuss the future of the church and prepare themselves for the official Conclave, at which a new pope will be elected. Vatican officials have been working around the clock to get St. Peter’s Basilica and other important buildings ready for the process:
“It is unlikely we will set a date today,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica told reporters. “For one thing, the chapel is not yet ready.”
Workers have started installing floorboards to protect the chapel’s marble floors as well as the stove to burn the ballots and communicate the election results.
The last Conclave happened in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II and lasted for just over 24 hours.
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March 5, 2013 1:23 pm
That Italian leather handbag you’re sporting might have a more complicated history than you think.
According to environmentalists, deforestation in Brazil (removing trees so the land can be used for other, non-forest purposes) is on the rise, and the fashion houses of Italy are one of the culprits. Brazilian cows, who provide the leather used in products made by Valentino, Ferragamo and other high-end labels, need space on which to roam, graze and conduct important cow business, and ranchers are all too happy to engage in a little tree-burning to make that happen for their charges. The Guardian breaks it down:
A 2009 Greenpeace study proved that ranches were still illegally clearing rainforest and that the leather was going straight into the supply chain of major brands. One hectare of rainforest was lost to ranches every 18 seconds. Following the money as well as the trees, Greenpeace found that the enterprise was underpinned by state-funded banks. While former president Lula made speeches about saving the “lungs of the earth” (the Brazilian Amazon stores 80-120bn tonnes of carbon), the state sponsored its wholesale destruction.
By July 2012, official figures showed deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to be down by 76% from its high in 2004, but NGOs monitoring the situation report an alarming new upturn. President Dilma Rousseff has recently allowed two reforms to the Forest Code that researchers claim will increase deforestation in Brazil by 47% by 2020. If you’ll excuse the phrase, we are not out of the woods.
On the plus side, some fashion houses are scrambling to avoid getting slapped with an anti-rainforest label, and are attempting to source environmentally clean leather:
A new version of Gucci’s Jackie bag will be unveiled at Paris Fashion Week. There have been many incarnations of this slouchy handbag since its launch in the 50s – named for Jackie Onassis, as it was one of her favourite accessories – and the style was most recently revived in 2009. But this latest version stands apart. Gucci had stopped using Brazilian leather in the wake of the 2009 Greenpeace report, but it now sources supplies for the Jackie bag from a deforestation-free zone.
The bag, which retails at more than $2,000 dollars, comes with its own passport, declaring it deforestation-free.
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February 11, 2013 2:32 pm
Elephants seem to know that people mean trouble, according to new research conducted around Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Tanzania. Elephants living within the park’s boundaries, scientists found, are significantly less stressed than those living outside of its protective borders. Accordingly, the BBC reports, more elephants choose to make a home within the park than outside of it.
Though national parks in Africa are under siege by rampant poaching for elephant’s valuable tusks, parks do offer some protection from the threats of illegal hunting and habitat disturbance. Serengeti National Park contains no fences, however, so people and animals can come and go from its nearly 15,000 square kilometer expanse.
The new study aimed to see how elephants were doing within the park and in adjacent game reserves where human disturbance is greater. Rather than bother the elephants, scientists used the animals’ dung as a proxy for gaging stress levels. Animals outside of the park, they found, had higher levels of the stress hormone gluccorticoid than those living within its boundaries.
More elephants lived with the park, and researchers did not find evidence of single males roaming outside of the park. The researchers suspect that elephants may have learned to associate areas outside of the park with vehicles and hunting activities.
“I think elephants know where they are safe or not. However, sometimes they also are tempted by nice food outside the park which attracts them to such areas,” the researchers told BBC.
The researchers hope the study results will show park officials and decision makers that protected areas do indeed improve welfare for animals such as elephants.
“The elephant population in Africa is presently declining at an alarming rate,” the researchers said. “The world must find interest in it, if not there will be very few or no elephants in Africa in about five to six years.”
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