Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fortean / Alternative News: Zombie Science, Eat Insects vs. Global Malnutrition and CIA Declassifies WWI Documents

The World of Zombie Science

Zombies seem to be only growing in popularity, and I’m not talking about the biological kind. They’ve got their own television show, plenty of films, and even a musical. They invaded the world of Jane Austen, and there are zombie crawls around the world, in which people dress up like the living dead and shuffle across some urban area.

And then there’s the growing field of zombie science.

In 2009, University of Ottawa mathematician Robert J. Smith? (and, yes, he really does include a question mark at the end of his name) published a paper in a book about infectious disease modeling titled “When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection” (pdf). It started as a class project, when some students suggested they model zombies in his disease modeling class. “I think they thought I’d shoot it down,” Smith told NPR, “but actually I said, go for it. That sounds really great. And it was just a fun way of really illustrating some of the process that you might have in modeling an infectious disease.” Using math, the group showed that only by quickly and aggressively attacking the zombie population could normal humans hope to prevent the complete collapse of society.

That paper sparked further research. The latest contribution, “Zombies in the City: a NetLogo Model” (pdf) will appear in the upcoming book Mathematical Modelling of Zombies. In this new study, an epidemiologist and a mathematician at Australian National University refine the initial model and incorporate the higher speed of humans and our capacity to increase our skills through experience. They conclude that only when human skill levels are very low do the zombies have a chance of winning, while only high human skill levels ensure a human victory. “For the in-between state of moderate skill a substantial proportion of humans tend to survive, albeit in packs that are being forever chased by zombies,” they write.

Then there’s the question of whether math is really the most important discipline for surviving a zombie attack.

But how might zombies come about? There are some interesting theories, such as one based on arsenic from Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science. Or these five scientific reasons a zombie apocalypse could happen, including brain parasites, neurotoxins and nanobots.

A Harvard psychiatrist, Steven Schlozman, broke into the field of zombie research and then wrote The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse, which blames an airborne contagion for the zombie phenomenon. The book delves into the (fictional) research of Stanley Blum, zombie expert, who searched for a cure to the zombie epidemic with a team of researchers on a remote island. (They were unsuccessful and succumbed to the plague, but nicely left their research notes behind, complete with drawings.) It’s more than just fun fiction to Schlozman, though, who uses zombies to teach neuroscience. “If it works right, it makes students less risk-adverse, more willing to raise their hands and shout out ideas, because they’re talking about fictional characters,” he told Medscape.

For those interested in getting an overview of the science, a (spoof) lecture on the subject, Zombie Science 1Z, can now be seen at several British science and fringe festivals. Zombiologist Doctor Austin, ZITS MSz BSz DPep, lectures in three modules: the zombieism condition, the cause of zombieism, and the prevention and curing of zombieism. And for those of us who can’t attend in person, there’s a textbook and online exam.

And the Zombie Research Society keeps track of all this and more, and also promotes zombie scholarship and zombie awareness month. Their slogan: “What you don’t know can eat you.” - smithsonianmag

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Are insects the answer to global malnutrition?

rawstory - Serge Verniau is a man with a mission: to persuade the world to swap the chicken wings and steaks on their plates for crickets, palm weevils and other insects rich in protein and vitamins.

Verniau, the Laos representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is only half-joking when he says his dream is "to feed the big metropolises from Tokyo to Los Angeles, via Paris" with the small arthropods.

He plans to present the lessons drawn from a pilot project to the world at a conference on edible insects, probably in 2012.

"Most of the world's population will live in urban areas. Trying to feed the whole planet enough protein from cows won't work," Verniau told AFP.

It is not by chance that the dream was born in landlocked Laos, one of the world's poorest countries.

Almost one quarter of its population of six million people, and nearly 40 percent of children below the age of five years old, suffer from malnutrition, according to figures from the Laos government.

The typical rice-based diet provides insufficient nutrients for development -- a shortfall that could be filled by insects, highly rich in protein and vitamins.

Eaten as snacks, grilled or fried, they are already part of Laos cuisine, but most people do not know how to breed them, said Oudom Phonekhampheng, dean of the faculty of agriculture at the National University of Laos.

"They just take them in the wild and eat them, and then it is finished and destroyed. They have to think about the future," he said.

In a modest building in the suburbs of the capital, his department's laboratory collects scientific data on this new area of breeding.

Along with house crickets -- which are already widely farmed in neighbouring Thailand -- there are experiments in breeding mealworms, palm weevils and weaver ants, which are appreciated for their larvae.

The students are trying out different foods for the insects in an attempt to reduce costs while maintaining quality, explains Yupa Hanboonsong, a Thai entomologist supervising the project for the FAO.

Up to now, the roughly 20 cricket farms operating in Laos have used chicken feed, like thousands of Thai farms, but it is expensive and must be imported.

Vegetables or waste left over from the production of the national beer, BeerLao, could be one solution, said Yupa, who hopes to "train the whole country."

Beyond the fight against malnutrition, this new economic activity can also generate revenue for farmers, added Yupa.

Phouthone Sinthiphanya, 61, seized the opportunity in 2007 to supplement his meager pension after a career in the tobacco industry.

The 27 cylindrical concrete vats, about 50 centimetres (20 inches) tall, installed in the garden of his house in Vientiane produce 67 kilos (148 pounds) of crickets every two months, he explains.

One kilo of live insects fetches 60,000 kips (7.5 dollars). The same quantity crushed sells for 50,000 kips.

"I worked for a tobacco company and then retired. My pension was not enough so I started farming insects," he said.

"Our customers are restaurants, villagers, markets," he said, adding that breeding the small creatures was "easy".

It requires little space or natural resources and only their singing might annoy the neighbours.

"Insect farming creates less damage to the environment. It is a green protein," said Yupa.

Proponents believe such nutritional and environmental advantages could be beneficial beyond Laos, particularly in other developing countries where people are used to eating cicadas and grasshoppers.

"You can make powder from crickets that is very rich in protein. It's low in fat and it can be added to biscuits in problem areas where food rations are distributed," said Verniau.

Nor has he given up hope of persuading sceptics in the West.

"When you look closely, a grey shrimp or a cricket, it has the same appeal," he joked.

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CIA Declassifies Documents from World War I

FAS - The Central Intelligence Agency announced yesterday that it had declassified six World War I-era documents describing the use of “invisible ink” to convey secret messages. The CIA presented the new disclosure as an indication that the declassification process was functioning properly, not that it was dysfunctional.

“These documents remained classified for nearly a century until recent advancements in technology made it possible to release them,” CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said in a news release. “When historical information is no longer sensitive, we take seriously our responsibility to share it with the American people.”

“The CIA recognizes the importance of opening these historical documents to the public,” added Joseph Lambert, the Agency’s Director of Information Management Services. “In fiscal year 2010 alone, the Agency declassified and released over 1.1 million pages of documents.”

But there are a few things the CIA news release did not say.

These World War I documents remained classified not because they were forgotten or overlooked, but because the CIA had vigorously opposed their release. In response to a 1998 FOIA lawsuit brought by the James Madison Project, the CIA argued that “some of the methods described in the documents in question are still used by the CIA, and that third parties inimical to the interests of the United States may not know which of the [invisible ink] formulas are still considered reliable by the CIA and approved for use by its agents.” In 2002, a federal court accepted that argument and ruled (pdf) in favor of the CIA, affirming the secrecy of the documents.

It is unknown what “recent advancements in technology,” if any, might have occurred between 2002 and the present to compel a complete reversal in CIA’s view on declassification of these records.

An alternate explanation for the new release is that the records were subject to a pending mandatory declassification review (MDR) request by attorneys Mark Zaid and Kel McClanahan. If CIA had continued to deny disclosure of the documents, that request could have been referred to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which has been known to view extreme secrecy claims with skepticism, and often to overturn them. [Update: In fact, the request was appealed to the Panel in December 2010, but it had not yet been acted upon when CIA decided to disclose the requested documents.]

Also, if the CIA were to faithfully comply with the President’s executive order on classification — which not all executive agencies do — then it would have been obliged to release these documents (and all other records older than 75 years) by mid-2013 unless it requested and received special permission from the Interagency Panel.

There is no glass that is small enough to be made “half full” by the CIA’s new disclosures. But the latest release may still be viewed charitably, said William J. Bosanko, executive for agency services at the National Archives and former director of the Information Security Oversight Office.

“I see this as a sign the sick system is starting to get well,” Mr. Bosanko said. He added cheerfully that there are “lots of chances to make things better.”

In the early 1990s, the massive backlog of classified historical attention was just beginning to come to broad public attention. In those days, the scale and persistence of official secrecy often elicited embarrassment from government officials.

“Obviously it seems absurd on the surface,” said then-ISOO director Steven Garfinkel, referring to the fact that a World War I document had just been discovered to still be classified. That document, dated April 15, 1917, had been “the oldest classified document” until it was finally declassified and released in 1992 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists. It is a substantive, lively and quite interesting account (pdf) of “the intelligence system necessary in case U.S. troops are ordered to the continent.”

“Within the next decade there’s going to be a need for a complete re-examination of the issue of secrecy,” Mr. Garfinkel told Tim Weiner of Knight-Ridder Newspapers in December 1991. “The secrecy issue is a Cold War issue and the world is changing.”

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Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant exclusion zone increased to 20km

radionz - The move was announced by Prime Minister Naoto Kan and comes into effect at midnight on Thursday.

People were urged to leave the area shortly after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on 11 March crippled the plant in northeast Japan, but the order was not enforced by law, the BBC reports.

The tsunami knocked out power systems at the plant, causing cooling systems to fail and radiation leaks.

Brief re-entry will be allowed to the area's 80,000 former residents to collect belongings.

The BBC reports it is not clear how many people are living in the evacuation zone, but reports said police had counted at least 60 families.

After the disaster the government also declared a wider 10km zone around the 20km evacuation area where people should either stay indoors or leave.

It later recommended that people also evacuate that area also.

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Swarm of bees kills elderly couple

An elderly Texas couple died and their son was injured in an attack of bees at their ranch outside Hebbronville, Jim Hogg County deputies said. William “W.T.” Steele, his wife Myrtle and their son Richard were cleaning the small house they own on ranchland near Jones Ranch, a hunting area in Jim Hogg County, their daughter-in-law Judy Steele said.

The Steeles had gone to the ranch, which Judy Steele described as “way out in the middle of Jones Ranch,” for the day. She expected them to return on Monday afternoon. The elder Steele was spraying to kill bees that had built a nest in the fireplace, when the bees swarmed and attacked him, his wife and their son. She said her father-in-law must not have realized how large the bees’ nest was.

W.T. Steele, 90, was pronounced dead at the scene. Myrtle Steele, 92, was airlifted to a Corpus Christi hospital, about 100 miles away, where she died on Tuesday, Judy Steele said, adding her mother-in-law had been stung more than 300 times. Richard Steele, 67, suffered many bee stings to his head and face, she said. He was taken to Laredo Memorial Hospital, about 80 miles from the ranch, and was released on Tuesday.

Judy Steele said there was no cell phone service from her in-law’s ranch and her husband had to drive several miles to the nearest phone, where he called 9-1-1. Then he had to wait at the end of the ranch road so he could lead emergency workers to his injured parents. As of Tuesday evening, the species of bees had not been identified and the hive had not been removed from the home. - themonitor

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