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News for April 2011

Real Life Functional AT-AT Walker

AUSTRALIA’S status as the world capital of Big Things is under attack.

In February, the citizens of Detroit successfully lobbied for a giant statue of RoboCop to keep its crims in line.

In the same week, news broke that a three-metre tall Arnold Schwarzenegger statue will stand guard outside the Governator’s former home in Thal, Austria.

Both of which kick Robertson’s giant poo-tato and Ballina’s prawn to the kerb when it comes to cool icons for your country.

And now you can add — possibly, unless George Lucas hears of it — a lifesize, fully-functioning replica of a Galactic Empire AT-AT walker to the countryside somewhere in Oklahoma, if Mike Koehler gets his way.

Note fully-functioning — not like that static tat at Disneyland’s Hollywood theme park.

The 16m tall (some nerds experts put them at 23m) All Terrain Armoured Transports featured most famously in the attack on the Rebel forces’ secret base on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back, where one tripped over a bit of rope and exploded.

Another one makes a cameo in Return of the Jedi after a smaller version — an AT-ST — gets smashed by monkeys with logs.

But they look fearsome enough and Mr Koehler has been given the green light by online fundraiser Kickstarter to begin collecting cash to realise his dream.

It’s called AT-AT for America and Mr Koehler’s welcoming any offers of help or donations.

We chatted to him about why his country needs it…

Why did you choose a symbol of the Empire’s destructive capabilities to represent the US?

The AT-AT is not so much a representation of the US as it is a monument to what geek culture and its know-how has done for people in the country and, as I am quickly learning, folks all over the world. The can-do and cooperative spirit that nerdy pop culture has inspired can’t be overlooked in the past 30, 40, 50 years.

I wanted to make something that was: A) Doable. Fast-than-light and force field technology made many options unrealistic. B) Big enough to be awe-inspiring. Many people have made R2 units and Back to the Future Deloreans. The AT-AT is 50-feet tall.

If it proves too difficult, do you have any smaller scale Star Wars projects in mind?

I guess we could do one of the smaller scout walkers, but that seems like copping out.

If it proves easy, would you consider building a Death Star?

The Death Star would involve too much red tape I’m afraid, unless I could get Richard Branson on board.

The original AT-ATs had some notable design flaws. How will you Ewok-proof it?

No Ewoks will be allowed around the build sites. Sharpened logs will also be strictly prohibited. We are working towards some strong anti-log technology.

Have you had any interest from Mythbusters et al?

No word yet from the Mythbusters, though I hope as we continue to build momentum that we will get a lot of help from some of our geek heroes. When I first thought of this, my ideal project managers were Adam and Jamie.

If Detroit can get a RoboCop statue, maybe you should pitch your AT-AT for a permanent public space…

Once we’re done, I would like for the AT-AT to find some place nice to be housed and admired as a monument. Since it will be fully operational, people will be able to ride it. It would be an art piece on par with the Statue of Liberty, but with the ability to mosey around the block.

Have you had any cease and desist orders from George Lucas yet?

We have not heard from Lucasfilm yet, though there is that expectation. All I can say is that we won’t be making any money off this project, we consider it a public work of art and we would gladly locate it where ever Mr Lucas would like us to. This is a testament to how many dreams his work and other work like his has inspired in people my age and younger.

Will you live in it once it’s finished?

No, I won’t live in it.

Can I?

You can’t live inside it, though you are welcome to string a hammock between its knees.

Is there ever a chance that such a monolithic, relentless corporate machine could ever be seen in Australia?

Given enough support and volunteers, the AT-AT, like Oprah, would be happy to visit Australia.

 

Related Coverage

Scientists find asteroid with potential power of 15 atomic bombs. Heading this way. Tonight.

Asteroid 2011 GP59 was spotted hurtling towards us from a distance of less than ten lunar distances just the other night, blinking like a strobe through the night sky, indicating it is cigar shaped and is estimated to be anywhere up to 50m long and dense enough to have the impact of ’15 atomic bombs’ should it make contact. It won’t, so don’t go digging a hole in the ground just yet.

“Usually, when we see an asteroid strobe on and off like that, it means that the body is elongated and we are viewing it broadside along its long axis first, and then on its narrow end as it rotates,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “GP59 is approximately 50m long, and we think its period of rotation is about seven-and-a-half minutes.

Keep in mind it’s 10 lunar distances – or moon is 384,400km away – but tomorrow morning, about 5am, things get a little crazy. For start, Monday’s night’s discovery of GP 59 was just that – a discovery. It was picked up by astronomers at the Observatorio Astronomico de Mallorca in Andalusia, Spain, who’ve since determined that it’s heading towards us.

Tonight, it will miss pass just outside the moon’s orbit – again, comparatively speaking because this is space, folks – at a distance of 533,000km.

However, Mr Yeomans, whose office is responsible for a program called Spaceguard, which tracks and characterises asteroids and comets and is supposed to protect us from this sort of thing, says there’s no need to be concerned. “Although newly discovered, the near-term orbital location of asteroid 2011 GP59 can be accurately plotted,” he said. “There is no possibility of the small space rock entering Earth’s atmosphere during this pass or for the foreseeable future.”

Which is good news, because although 50m might sound smallish, it’s still five times bigger than an asteroid that exploded 15km above Indonesia in October, 2009. That blast released as much energy as three atomic bombs, according to New Scientist, who are supposed to know about such things. Take comfort in the fact that in 2009, no one saw that asteroid coming. At least we were given three days’ notice this time around!

Another upcoming near miss (or hit?) will be Apophis, a massively superior space object in every way; “Apophis will approach Earth at a distance of 37,000-38,000 kilometers on April 13, 2029,” Professor Leonid Sokolov of the St. Petersburg State University told Ria Novosti. “Its likely collision with Earth may occur on April 13, 2036.”

You might have noticed he used the word “may”. Again, space is big folks.

Asteroid 99942 Apophis was first discovered to be in the Earth’s impact zone back in 2004, and at roughly 300m wide, is estimated to be able to hit the Earth with the force equivalent to somewhere around two Krakatoas.

More sketchy science puts Australia well out of the path of possible destruction – Apophis could land anywhere in a streak that runs from the Middle East through the tip of South America to the west coast of Africa, according to a paper delivered to the 2007 Planetary Defense Conference.

Which is not to say we won’t feel its impact. A simulation tool devised by the University of Southampton in the UK shows that, depending on where it hits, it could cause up to 10 million deaths.

 

Other Related Coverage

 

Posted: April 15th, 2011
Categories: critical thought, epiclullz, gossip, journalism, news, oddities, pop culture, science, survival horror
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Lasers & Blindness, a @news_com_au Tabloid Myth

Recently we’ve seen enough articles regarding OHNOES LAZORS blinding pilots. When this first came up and the Australian Pilots Association’s president went on record agreeing with this tabloidal myth I decided to ring him and have a chat, from one pilot to another. I asked him straight, how many pilots have been ‘blinded’ by these lasers, he claimed reports of one pilot in Adelaide (a very small capital city in South Australia which gets as much flight traffic a month as Sydney would in a day) and ‘of four others’, when I pressed him for names, dates or locations he suddenly got amnesia of the details. I set him at ease and said I will happily wait and give him a week or two to email me through the details when he remembers.

No email came of course, in chasing him up further on the issue it sounded more like the pilot who was ‘blinded’ by the ‘laser attack’ all over the news was simply seeking compensation and ironically none of these ‘blindings’ lead to the pilots never flying again except in the case of the pilot above who was at retirement age and used it as an excuse to retire; however his insurers doctors found his vision was perfectly fine, at which point it was claimed post traumatic stress disorder occured from fear for his life whilst blinded.

To cut a long story short, to date there is no empirical evidence of a single pilot being afflicted with blindness or having anything more than a minor annoyance from a laser pointer being aimed at their plane, however the media, police, and government are all super serious business, and at present in Australia (you guys really think I’m kidding when I talk about the fun police, don’t you) laser pointers are listed as PROHIBITED WEAPONS. I shit you not.

This morning I saw another rubbish article from the same tabloid source which gave me the urge to cite this information on record, sadly whenever news.com.au publish their more controversial (see: tabloid, can I say it enough? :P) crap they never have a comments field open. Below is the header of the article in question which just highlights how idiotic the media are in handling this myth:-

THREE commercial passenger planes were targeted by a laser pointer in Sydney overnight.

Police say the three incidents happened within an hour and half of each other last night as the planes were approaching the airport in Mascot.

The pilot of the third flight was struck in the eye by the high-powered light.

Each of the planes landed safely.

Flight crews told police that the laser appeared to be coming from the Cronulla or Brighton areas.

High-powered laser pointers are prohibited weapons and can’t be possessed without a permit.

Posted: April 14th, 2011
Categories: critical thought, epiclullz, gadget, journalism, lifestyle, pop culture, rant, science, technology
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Quacks: Woo Peddlers and Alternative Medicine

Having suddenly, a few weeks after posting about a cure for the flu coming soon, been afflicted by nasopharyngitis I wanted to take a moment out to address my personal bitch of all the sub-human archetypes, the medical-moron.

There are people out there who believe vitamin C, echinacea, guarana, or even silver and gold powdered and mixed in water cure various ailments. These morons are usually identifiable by their lack of knowledge of the difference between nasopharyngitis, rhinovirus, or various strains of influenza, who’s actions are so drastic in variance that something that works for one would be highly improbable to work for others.

If alternative medicine worked, it would be medicine. The most common folly is the eastern noble mystic approach; the same bullshit that attracts those whack-job’s to quasi religious ‘martial arts’ that are more a cult than a martial art, people are suckers for things that seem ‘exotic’ and the Chinese government producing primary sources en masse to basically claim EVERYTHING in the world was invented by, completed by, or done first by noble ancient Chinese (and have an actual entire department within their government that goes through wiki articles to address these amazing finds) tends to jack up the gullability of middle class inbred white folk.

A health or medical practice is called “alternative” if it is based on untested, untraditional, or unscientific principles, methods, treatments, or knowledge. “Alternative” medicine is often based on metaphysical beliefs and is frequently anti-scientific.

Quackery used to be a pejorative term describing medical charlatanism, i.e., health practices or remedies that have no compelling scientific basis. As medical charlatanism became more popular and as using pejorative terms became politically incorrect except for the formerly oppressed classes, quackery evolved into holistic medicine and then into alternative medicine and complementary medicine and then into integrative medicine.

It is estimated that “alternative” medicine is a $15 billion a year business. In reality, not one iota of compelling scientific evidence has been produced that acupuncture, aromatherapy, biofeedback, chiropractic, herbal medicine, massage, naturopathy, reflexology, and yoga, among other therapies have any positive result on the human condition let alone an ill human.

The most popular “alternative” therapies are prayer, relaxation techniques, chiropractic, herbal medicine, and massage. Very few high caliber scientific studies are done by “alternative” practitioners (Bausell 2007). If they do studies at all, they rarely use control groups, study adequate-sized samples, or used methods that blind the researchers in appropriate ways. (When every study comes out positive, as acupuncture studies done in China have, one knows something is fishy.) Indeed, many disdain science in favor of metaphysics, faith, and magical thinking.

I can almost bet the contents of my ample wallet that everything you see in a pharmacy or drug store that isn’t on or behind the counter is probably quackery in action, Blackmores and several other ‘health’ companies peddle dirt and bark in pills as medicines and a plethora of every alphabeticized vitamin group you can imagine. Protip: taking vitamins has no effect, if you are low on a certain vitamin–which would take a lot of malnutrition or bad lifestyle habits–then vitamin suppliments MAY have some effect on that.

Quackery usually involves integrating metaphysics and such things as sympathetic magic with healing. Often, but not always, the major quality of quackery is fraud and the dispensing of useless or harmful treatments to vulnerable people who are dying. What quackery lacks in scientific study it sometimes makes up for by prescribing generous portions of caring—sometime sincere but often counterfeit—and overdoses of false hope.

What’s the harm in a little woo, I hear you ask? By being a member of a health fund or insurer who even so much as HUMORS alternative medicine you are facilitating several negative things.

1. these pushers of these treatments are benefiting from the suffering of others without actually having any result for the product or service rendered. Whether they’re just THAT ignorant of science that they believe their own lies (improbable, but for some perhaps) or just totally amoral bastards who are looking for a fast buck, their behaviour is abhorrent and unconscionable.

2. there are people out there, such as vaccine alarmists (the type who claim vaccinations have X or Y negative effects, ignoring the fact it’s 0.0001% as opposed to the 100% risk of exposure at some point in their kids life to the diseases they’re being vaccinated against) who REALLY BELIEVE in batshit insane conspiracy theories about ‘big pharma’ and other watchwords you’ll find they peddle. These people usually peddle their own alternatives, but their most common product is the exchange of ignorance, which spreads like a disease and has no known cure. Participating in this industry of cruelty just facilitates these psychologically disturbed individuals (who also believe all psychology and psychiatry is a crock, they know, because they read it on the internet).

3. through 1 and 2 you are assisting in the entire industry continuing to exist, which leads directly to 368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages for not thinking critically.

I could continue to list the impact, but I feel that the following site does so in a far more succinct manner: http://whatstheharm.net/alternativemedicine.html

Keep in mind, without you actively participating in illuminating the ignorant out there, they will continue and people will die as a result. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve called out a chemist / drug store with signs for acupuncture, a huge amount of vitamins and bullshit ‘cures’ on shelves, or alternative medicine sections and challenged them on why they’d participate in such unscientific rubbish while holding a degree in science, I’d be rich.

Call them out. Check with your insurer, if they cover alt. med. change insurers. Shun doctors who promote charletanism and inform the medical board that they’re suggesting unscientific and potentially harmful methods.

Make noise. Be heard. Don’t perpetuate the industry that kills more people each year than any other industry in existence aside from weapons of war and narcotics.

Most of all, tell that ignorant friend of yours who thinks gargling salt water will cure cancer, or lemon tea or any other herbal infusion will assist with any illness what so ever that if their awesome medical knowledge is that spot on perhaps they should be working in a hospital and not in a day care centre being fat and stupid.

Posted: April 6th, 2011
Categories: general, lifestyle, pop culture, technology
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Australian National Broadband Network (ITT: Vaporware)

It’s bad enough in our bipartisan political clime that the other major party are basement dwelling troglodyte technophobes whilst the others are bleeding heart nutjob sycophants who come up with awesome promises then slowly shift away from them, but this NBN has become outright fucking vaporware.

The National Broadband Network is meant to bring Australia up to speed with the rest of the world. Our Trading Practices Act will shank you like a bitch in a jail house if you promise X and deliver an inferior Y but our ISP’s (Telstra, Optus, Iinet and the worst of the worst TPG (who still owe me a few fucking grand I might add)) sell us ‘ADSL 2+’ connections that run at 3 – 5 megabit (ADSL2+ is 24 megabit with a 4 megabit fall off to it’s operational perimeter of 7 kilometers) when you’re located a mere 3 kilometers from the DSLAMM.

That’s ADSL speeds being passed off as ADSL2+ and being charged at a premium rate too.

It’s even worse that the NBN won’t be out until 2030 at current estimates (IF the other party doesn’t get in and can it) but earlier this morning Patrick Flannigan has quit as NBN Co’s head of construction. An acting head of construction has been appointed, Dan Flemming, who was until now the company’s general manager of construction, design and planning.

“We are disappointed with his decision to resign as he was a valuable member of the leadership team,” a spokeswoman for NBN Co told the press, “We wish him all the best for the future.”

This comes after the Government business enterprise last week “indefinitely” suspended tendering for construction firms, saying the 14 quotes they were presented were inflated. According to the NBN Co website, Mr Flannigan was the founding managing director and chief executive of Service Stream, a major provider of infrastructure, construction and maintenance services to the telecommunications sector and broader utilities sectors.

I swear I should just move to a more technophillic nation.

Posted: April 5th, 2011
Categories: consumer reviews, general, gossip, journalism, news, rant, scams, science, technology, vox pop
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Animation Realism ‘too Creepy’

Computer animation has a problem. When it gets too realistic, it starts creeping people out.

Most recently, moviegoers complained about the near-realistic depiction of humans in Disney’s 3D flick Mars Needs Moms, which bombed at the box office despite costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

A theory called the “uncanny valley” says we tend to feel attracted to inanimate objects with human traits, the way a teddy bear or a rag doll seems cute.

Our affection grows as an object looks more human. But if it looks too human, we suddenly become repulsed.

Instead of seeing what’s similar, we notice the flaws — and the motionless eyes or awkward movements suddenly make us uncomfortable.

Mars may have plunged to the bottom of this valley of fear.

“People always comment on things feeling strangely dead around the eyes,” said Chuck Sheetz, an animation director of The Simpsons and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“If it gets too literal, it starts to feel false or has a strange effect.”

Skin texture that is slightly off can especially leave people feeling unsettled, said Patrick Markey, a psychologist and director of Villanova University’s Interpersonal Research Laboratory.

The near-realistic animation style championed by producer Robert Zemeckis uses motion-capture technology, where actors are covered with dots and skin suits and have their performances captured on computer. The dots provide the frame, and the rest is filled in with computerised graphics.

Mars creates humans that are more realistic and detailed than Zemeckis’ earlier attempts in such movies as Beowulf and The Polar Express — which were also criticised for inviting this discomfort. The greater detail might have made things worse.

Doug McGoldrick, who took his two daughters to see the movie, said the faces of the main characters “were just wrong”.

Their foreheads were lifeless and plastic-looking, “like they used way too much botox or something”, said the 41-year-old photographer in Chicago, Illinois.

Marc Kelley, a 32-year-old pastor in Allegan, Michigan, who went with his two young children, said he found the renditions of characters “all annoying in their own way”.

Indeed, when the mother of the main character Milo mentioned the word “zombies” at the start of the movie, it conjured up a feeling that the characters were themselves undead.

Animation experts say the key to success is to be only authentic enough to tug at our heart strings.

The best example of this was Avatar, the 2009 blockbuster that made $US2.8 billion in theatres around the world.

The humanoid, but blue-bodied Na’vi were alien enough not to trigger our inner rejection mechanism.

“My own personal opinion is try to stay away from photo-real with a human,” said Greg Philyaw, the business development director at Giant Studios, which captured the performance of human actors for their digital re-creation in Avatar.

“Subconsciously you know what you’re looking at isn’t quite right.”

Disney, by its actions, has already voted against the super-real animation format.

Last March, it said it would shut down the Zemeckis-run company ImageMovers Digital, which made Mars, to cut costs.

Several months ago, Disney also nixed a plan to fund and distribute Zemeckis’ Yellow Submarine, a half-finished work he is now free to shop to other studios.

Disney declined to comment for this story, and Zemeckis declined interview requests through an agent.

Mars had an estimated $US150 million production budget, but has brought in just $US34 million globally since its March 11 opening.

To be fair, there were other problems besides being visually unnerving.

For one, it appeared to be marketed at young boys who are interested in science fiction but also are closely attached to their mothers. That’s a small group to begin with, and neglects dads and daughters.

Some young children also got scared about the plot involving mommy abduction.

Mars also came just a week after Paramount’s 2D animated movie Rango, starring Johnny Depp.

And instead of appealing to fans because of the increasingly popular 3D format, Mars may have annoyed theatregoers faced with higher 3D ticket prices.

“If a movie’s unappealing and you’re trying to charge a higher ticket price for it, it makes it even less appealing,” said Brandon Gray, president of tracking company Box Office Mojo.

Mr Gray noted that Mars had the lowest opening weekend for a wide-release 3D movie ever.

Maija Burnett, associate director of character animation at California Institute of the Arts, took a broader view, even though the school teaches about the pitfalls of the “uncanny valley” in class.

“There’s a continuing attempt to explore what the boundaries are within (computer generated) animation,” she said.

“Every film that uses this is one important step along the way.”

In the “uncanny valley” theory, the valley isn’t bottomless. As things grow more realistically human, our affection starts increasing again, climbing out of the valley on the other side.

In other words, increasingly sophisticated animation might stop creeping us out and start fooling us.

Posted: April 5th, 2011
Categories: consumer reviews, critical thought, movie reviews, movies, oddities, pop culture, science, technology, vox pop
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Sick of Influenza? A Cure is Almost Here!

A US anti-bioterrorism unit has awarded Melbourne’s Biota a $231 million contract to develop a cure for influenza.

Biota shares soared nearly 60 per cent on the news, pushing the price to $1.60 before the stock settled 35 per cent, or 37.5c, higher for the day at $1.42, the Herald Sun reported.

The deal is worth about $41 million more than the company’s entire value before yesterday’s spike.

The lucrative deal means Biota may not need to partner with a large pharmaceutical company to commercialise its anti-viral drug, Laninamavir (Lani), in the US.

Chief executive Peter Cook said the contract was a “seriously transformational event for the company”.

“We have taken this product much closer to marketability and towards realising the full value for our shareholders than we could in the past because it was necessary to licence out our drugs early,” Dr Cook said.

The deal came about because of the US government’s concerns over bio-terrorism, Dr Cook said.

Several clinical projects to combat bio-terrorist threats are being conducted.

Biota said it was scoping three facilities to see if they could meet stringent manufacturing specifications.

Lani, which is already prescribed in Japan under the brand name Inavir, is effective as a single dose compared with twice daily doses over five days for rival drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.

The US Biomedical Advance Research and Development Authority (BARDA), with which Biota has the contract, said the drug would provide “real advantages to doctors and patients during an emergency and would be an important addition to our pandemic influenza arsenal”.

The funds will finance further clinical trials of the drug and be used to prepare a detailed application to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s standards.

It could take five years or more before the drug gets the US regulator’s nod.

The global market for anti-flu drugs was worth $US4.4 billion last year and Biota estimates it could be set to receive about $US1.5 billion from sales of Lani.

Barda, which is in the US Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, is not seeking ownership of the drug or exclusive rights.

Posted: April 2nd, 2011
Categories: journalism, lifestyle, news, science, technology
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