AFP - The coming year will be an important one for space weather as the Sun pulls out of a trough of low activity and heads into a long-awaited and possibly destructive period of turbulence.
Many people may be surprised to learn that the Sun, rather than burn with faultless consistency, goes through moments of calm and tempest.
But two centuries of observing sunspots -- dark, relatively cool marks on the solar face linked to mighty magnetic forces -- have revealed that our star follows a roughly 11-year cycle of behaviour.
The latest cycle began in 1996 and for reasons which are unclear has taken longer than expected to end.
Now, though, there are more and more signs that the Sun is shaking off its torpor and building towards "Solar Max," or the cycle's climax, say experts.
"The latest prediction looks at around midway 2013 as being the maximum phase of the solar cycle," said Joe Kunches of the Space Weather Prediction Center at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
But there is a prolonged period of high activity, "more like a season, lasting about two and a half years," either side of the peak, he cautioned.
At its angriest, the Sun can vomit forth tides of electromagnetic radiation and charged matter known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.
This shock wave may take several days to reach Earth. When it arrives, it compresses the planet's protective magnetic field, releasing energy visible in high latitudes as shimmering auroras -- the famous Northern Lights and Southern Lights.
But CMEs are not just pretty events.
They can unleash static discharges and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt or even knock out the electronics on which our urbanised, Internet-obsessed, data-saturated society depends.
Less feared, but also a problem, are solar flares, or eruptions of super-charged protons that can reach Earth in just minutes.
In the front line are telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit, at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres (22,500 miles) and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, on which modern airliners and ships depend for navigation, which orbit at 20,000 kms (12,000 miles).
In January 1994, discharges of static electricity inflicted a five-month, 50-million-dollar outage of a Canadian telecoms satellite, Anik-E2.
In April 2010, Intelsat lost Galaxy 15, providing communications over North America, after the link to ground control was knocked out apparently by solar activity.
"These are the two outright breakdowns that we all think about," said Philippe Calvel, an engineer with the French firm Thales. "Both were caused by CMEs."
In 2005, X-rays from a solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and GPS signals for about 10 minutes.
To cope with solar fury, satellite designers opt for robust, tried-and-tested components and shielding, even if this makes the equipment heavier and bulkier and thus costlier to launch, said Thierry Duhamel of satellite maker Astrium.
Another precaution is redundancy -- to have backup systems in case one malfunctions.
On Earth, power lines, data connections and even oil and gas pipelines are potentially vulnerable.
An early warning of the risk came in 1859, when the biggest CME ever observed unleashed red, purple and green auroras even in tropical latitudes.
The new-fangled technology of the telegraph went crazy. Geomagnetically-induced currents in the wires shocked telegraph operators and even set the telegraph paper on fire.
In 1989, a far smaller flare knocked out power from Canada's Hydro Quebec generator, inflicting a nine-hour blackout for six million people.
A workshop in 2008 by US space weather experts, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, heard that a major geomagnetic storm would dwarf the 2005 Hurricane Katrina for costs.
Recurrence of a 1921 event today would fry 350 major transformers, leaving more than 130 million people without power, it heard. A bigger storm could cost between a trillion and two trillion dollars in the first year, and full recovery could take between four and 10 years.
"I think there is some hyperbole about the draconian effects," said Kunches.
"On the other hand, there's a lot we don't know about the Sun. Even in the supposedly declining, or quiet phase, you can have magnetic fields on the Sun that get very concentrated and energised for a time, and you can get, out of the blue, eruptive activity that is atypical. In short, we have a variable star."
Strange Hot Commodities in North Korea
nypost - Skinny jeans, adult films and human excrement were among some of the most wanted items for consumers in North Korea, Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday.
Kim Young-soo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sogang University, said at a conference Tuesday that the items were selling "like hot cakes" in North Korea.
Kim interviewed several recent defectors from the Communist country, who said that other popular items sold in North Korea included TV dramas and instant noodles.
Yonhap reported that shops began selling human excrement to deal with acute shortages of fertilizer in North Korea. "Each household used to use human excrement as fertilizer, but because it's hard to keep up with the amount, human manure shops showed up at markets," Kim said.
Skinny jeans also became popular items for sale in the North after a ban on fashionable trousers was lifted.
"Skinny jeans are now popular and are changing the fashion style of women in Pyongyang," Kim added, citing sources in North Korea.
Couple Accused of Using Pliers to Pull Child's Teeth, Toenails
fox59 - Authorities believe an Indiana woman and her boyfriend used a pair of pliers to pull out a three-year-old boy's teeth and toenails last November.
Andrew Richards, 27, was charged with child battery and confinement. The boy's mother, 22-year-old Jessica Carder, was charged with aiding child battery and neglect. Both were held on a $50,000 cash bond in the Jefferson County Jail in Madison Tuesday.
Richards admitted to pulling the boy's teeth but did not say how.
"I just pulled a tooth. My dad pulls my teeth all the time. I ain't traumatized," Richards said to reporters as he was escorted back to jail.
Prosecutors said they know how Richards pulled those teeth.
"There's evidence, supported by their interviews that pliers were used to extract the teeth. There is also damage to the gum line," Jefferson County Prosecutor Chad Lewis said.
He also said there was evidence Richards had been taking and abusing Oxycontin that night. Richards denied those allegations. Carder did not have anything to say about the charges.
The boy's grandfather, Karl Andersen, said he sought custody for the boy after incidents that happened earlier in the year. The boy is currently in custody of his biological father's parents.
"It's kind of hard to understand him talking because he's got all them teeth missing on the top," Andersen said. "He's doing really good."
Richards and Carder each face a maximum of 20 years behind bars for the charges.
Quidditch For Muggles
Quidditch, the game popularised in the Harry Potter books, is now being played by students around the world. So just how do you turn a magical sport into something that can be played in real life?
As a group of college students gather on a cold Sunday morning outside the White House for their weekly sports practice, it's hard not to smirk.
Watching adults run around the field with household brooms and mops between their legs, wearing makeshift wizards' capes, is quite a sight, after all. But in non-wizarding society (or the muggle world, for those of you in the know), one has to improvise.
"A Quidditch game might look crazy to somebody who's never seen it before," says Mariah Hegelson, treasurer of the George Washington University team, in Washington DC.
"But to an external observer watching a basketball game for the first time, that might look crazy too," she says, without a hint of irony.
For those who have managed to escape all things Harry Potter, Quidditch is the fictional sport popularised in JK Rowling's best-selling books. Continue reading at Quidditch for Muggles
Suspicious Death Ignites Fury in China
nytimes - A man lies on a road with his eyes closed, blood streaming from his half-open mouth, his torso completely crushed under the large tire of a red truck. One arm reaches out from beneath the tire. His shoulder is a bloody pile of flesh. His head is no longer attached to the flattened spinal cord.
The man in the photograph, Qian Yunhui, 53, has become the latest Internet sensation in China, as thousands of people viewing the image online since the weekend have accused government officials of gruesomely killing Mr. Qian to silence his six-year campaign to protect fellow villagers in a land dispute. Illegal land seizures by officials are common in China, but the horrific photographs of Mr. Qian’s death on Saturday have ignited widespread fury, forcing local officials to offer explanations in a news conference.
It is the latest in a string of cases in which anger against the government has been fanned by the lightning-fast spread of information online. In late October, the son of a deputy police chief in central China drunkenly drove his car into two college students, killing one and injuring another. His parting phrase as he drove away from the scene of the crime — “Sue me if you dare, my father is Li Gang!” — has since become a byword for official corruption and nepotism.
Officials in the city of Yueqing in Zhejiang Province, which supervises Mr. Qian’s home village, insist that the photographs show nothing more than an unfortunate traffic accident. They made their case in a hastily arranged news conference on Monday afternoon, as the images of Mr. Qian’s death continued proliferating on the Internet. Mr. Qian’s family, some Chinese reporters and residents of Zhaiqiao Village cite the photographs as proof of foul play and a sloppy cover-up.
It is unclear who took the photographs, but they first appeared Sunday afternoon on Tianya, a popular online forum for discussing Chinese social issues.
Within 36 hours, the initial post attracted nearly 20,000 comments. It has since been deleted. Tianya and two other Web sites that reported on the case together got 400,000 hits, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. The Chinese government goes to great lengths to block servers here from accessing information it deems harmful to political stability, but censors have apparently failed to keep up with the proliferation of blog posts related to Mr. Qian. Once the information had spread, higher authorities apparently found it necessary to show the public they were looking into the matter — officials from the nearby city of Wenzhou ordered police officers from there to go to Yueqing to assist the investigation, Xinhua reported.
Chinese Internet users were drawn not only to the gruesome images, but also to the fact that the land dispute involving Mr. Qian is a common narrative in China.
In 2004, the city government approved construction of a power plant in Zhaiqiao Village. The company building the plant got virtually all the arable land in the village, and the 4,000 or so villagers received no compensation, according to a blog post on Tianya that was written four months ago under Mr. Qian’s name. At the time, Mr. Qian and other villagers went to government offices to protest the land grab, and riot police officers beat more than 130 people and arrested 72, the post said.
Mr. Qian, the former Communist Party representative in the village, traveled to Beijing to file a petition with the central authorities. In the news conference on Monday, city officials said that Mr. Qian had been arrested, found guilty of criminal conduct and imprisoned at least twice. Mr. Qian continued his crusade after recently being released from prison. Before his death, he was the overwhelming favorite of the villagers in a coming election for village chief, according to local media reports.
Around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Mr. Qian received a call on his cellphone and walked out as he was talking, according to a report by Chinese Business News that cited Mr. Qian’s wife, Wang Zhaoyan.
An hour later, he was run over by the red truck, his body crushed beneath the left front tire. The driver, Fei Liangyu, has been detained, according to a statement on the Yueqing city government Web site.
Chinese news reports said another villager, Qian Chengwei, told people that he had watched as the victim was held down in the road by several men wearing security uniforms. One of the men waved his hand, and a truck then drove slowly over Mr. Qian, the reports said. Villagers arriving at the scene were immediately suspicious. They refused to allow the police to remove Mr. Qian’s body, and a scuffle ensued.
The witness and the victim’s family members were detained, according to Southern Daily, a newspaper based in Guangdong Province. Government officials told the newspaper that the witness was a drug user.
Local news organizations reported Tuesday that Mr. Qian’s family members have been released. Phone calls to Mr. Qian’s home were not answered.
Internet users and Chinese reporters have continued to question the explanation by city officials, pointing to discrepancies revealed by the photos. Why does the front of the truck show little sign of impact or blood? Why, if Mr. Qian had been accidentally hit while walking upright, is his body lying completely perpendicular to the truck’s tire? Why was a brand-new security camera at the intersection where Mr. Qian killed not working on Saturday? Who called Mr. Qian on that fateful morning?
“A few years ago, there were other people petitioning with my dad,” one family member, Qian Shuangping, told China Business Daily. “Some of them were bought off. Some of them got scared. We said: ‘Just take some money and forget it. What if something happens to you?’ My father wouldn’t listen to us.”
NOTE: a communist government operating under a capitalist guise that includes internet access and free markets can only lead to one of two realities....return to totalitarianism or a social revolution. Lon
Click for video
Anne Strieber posted this video today at Unknowncountry.com. Some of the comments on YouTube are interesting. Honestly, I've never been convinced of Alison Kruse's videos but Strieber seems to feel her evidence is legit...Lon