Wednesday, August 03, 2005
eBay is really smart
"Last month, I wrote that small is the new big. More demonstration of it: eBay is fast becoming one of the largest employers in
Actually, as Jeff discovered, the eBay people are really smart, as they offer health benifits to their "Power Sellers" -- basically people who sell $1,000 or more a month and get good customer reviews. So thanks to eBay, you can have a job where you're your own boss, but you can still get the benefits of group-buying for health insurance. And lots of people do. I actually emailed the Amazon folks -- who have hundreds of thousands of "Associates" and "Afilliates" -- to ask if they were going to do the same thing, but the answer I got was rather vague and noncommittal. My guess is that if people care, market pressures will force Amazon to match eBay's offer. But there are already large (if undetermined) numbers of people making a living via Amazon, too. (Link)
Sunday, July 31, 2005
A Good Week for Planetology: Part I
The largest object found in our Solar System since Neptune was discovered in 1846, it was first seen in 2003 but has only now been confirmed as a planet.
Designated 2003 UB313, it is about 3,000km across, a world of rock and ice and somewhat larger than Pluto.
Scientists say it is three times as far away as Pluto, in an orbit at an angle to the orbits of the other planets.
Astronomers think that at some point in its history, Neptune likely flung it into its highly-inclined 44-degree orbit.
It is currently 97 Earth-Sun distances away - more than twice Pluto's average distance from the Sun.
Bigger than Pluto
Its discoverers are Michael Brown of Caltech, Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University.
David Rabinowitz told the BBC News website: "It has been a remarkable day and a remarkable year. 2003 UB313 is probably larger than Pluto. It is fainter than Pluto, but three times farther away.
"Brought to the same distance from the Sun as Pluto, it would be brighter. So today, the world knows that Pluto is not unique. There are other Plutos, just farther out in the Solar System where they are a little harder to find."
It was picked up using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory and the 8m Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea.
Chad Trujillo told the BBC News website: "I feel extremely lucky to be part of a discovery as exciting as this. It's not every day that you find something Pluto-sized or larger!"
"The spectra that we took at the Gemini Observatory are particularly interesting because it shows that the surface of 2003 UB313 is very similar to that of Pluto."
The object was first observed on 21 October 2003, but the team did not see it move in the sky until looking at the same area 15 months later on 8 January 2005.
The researchers say they tried looking for it with the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is sensitive to heat radiation, but failed to detect it.
This gives them an upper limit of its size of 3,000 km, they say. The lower limit still makes it larger than Pluto.
The discovery of 2003 UB313 comes just after the announcement of the finding of 2003 EL61, which appears to be a little smaller than Pluto.
A Good Week for Planetology: Part II
The photographs were taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board Mars Express, the European Space Agency probe which is exploring the planet.
The ice disc is located on Vastitas Borealis, a broad plain that covers much of Mars' far northern latitudes.
The existence of the water-ice patch on Mars raises the prospect that past or present life will one day be detected.
It also boosts the chances that manned missions could eventually be sent to the Red Planet - because they would probably need accessible water to survive.
The highly visible ice lake is sitting in a crater which is 35 km (23 miles) wide, with a maximum depth of about two km (1.2 miles).
Scientists believe the water-ice is present all year round because the temperature and pressure are not sufficient to allow it to change states.
Researchers studying the images are sure it is not frozen carbon dioxide (CO2), because CO2 ice had already disappeared from the north polar cap at the time the image was taken.
The team has also been able to detect faint traces of water-ice along the rim of the crater and on the crater walls.
Mars is covered with deep gorges, apparently carved out by rivers and glaciers, although most of the water vanished millions of years ago.
Earlier this year, the European Space Agency detected what they called a huge "frozen sea", but it is located below a crust of surface deposits.
Large reserves of water-ice are also known to be held at the poles on Mars, and probably at great depth at many locations around the planet. (Link)
But the stars of a skit at a dinner after the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Laos were the Russians, participants agreed.
Dressed as a Jedi knight, Darth Vader, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stole the show.
Cloak-clad and with a lighted sword, Mr Lavrov brought the house down.
Helped by his assistant, Mr Lavrov entertained delegations from the 10-member Asean group by launching a tirade to the tune of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar hit.
Asean, Superstar... Do you think you're what they say you are? Asean, Asean! Why we accept whatever you have done? he chanted.
"We'd have managed better if we'd had it planned. Why'd we chose such a remote Aseanis land?" the Russian minister quipped.
His assistant replied: "You didn't do your homework, it's Asean way. You are too suspicious, their motives are good."
Other performances included Australian FM Alexander Downer crooning "It's now or never", and US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick belting the Wild West hit "Oh my darling Clementine".
The Japanese - aiming to host the rugby World Cup in 2011 - appeared on stage with a rugby ball.
They chanted that the Asean team can "stand tall and catch the high ball".
However, most of the participants agreed that the Russians were the star performers.
"The Russians were out of this world," Indian diplomat Sanjay Panda was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.
The skits are a regular feature of the gala dinners at the end of the annual Asean foreign ministers summit.
A Piece Falls in the Great Game
Uzbekistan has reportedly given the US six months to move out of a key base used for operations in Afghanistan.
The notice to leave Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, was given to the US embassy in the Uzbek capital on Friday.
A Pentagon spokesman said the US was "evaluating the note to see exactly what it means".
Uzbekistan has been an ally of the US in Central Asia, but correspondents say relations were strained over the bloody suppression of a protest in May.
Earlier this month, Russia, China and four Central Asian states demanded a timetable for US troop withdrawal from the region, saying military operations in Afghanistan were coming to an end.
Washington's rivals for regional dominance, Russia and China, have made it clear they do not want to see US forces in the region on a permanent basis.
The Uzbek government requested in its letter that the US terminate all its operations in Uzbekistan, Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said.
He said he did not know why the request had been made and the US state department was assessing the note.
The Washington Post reported that the US had been given six months to move aircraft, personnel and military equipment from the base in southern Uzbekistan.
Mr Flood said the request had not come as a complete surprise, as Washington had always been aware that Tashkent could end the arrangement.
But he said the base had been important for US military operations in neighbouring Afghanistan and that those operations were continuing.
The eviction notice came days after US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld returned from a visit to Uzbek neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan affirmed that US forces could continue to use Manas air base for as long as the Afghan war requires.
Mr Rumsfeld said he did not believe US operations in Afghanistan would be hurt if Tashkent denied continued use of K2, because there are other options in the region.
Flights into the K2 base had been reduced at the request of the Uzbek authorities, after the US criticised the government over events in Andijan.
Earlier this month, the US signalled that it may withhold $22m of aid to Uzbekistan, unless it allows a full inquiry.
There are still disputed versions of exactly what happened on 13 May, when troops fired on a crowd of people.
The government says the violence was the result of an attempt by Islamic militants to seize power, and puts the number of dead at 173.
But leading human rights groups say many hundreds of civilians were killed, with Human Rights Watch describing the incident as a "massacre".Washington has already withheld $8m of aid to Uzbekistan in protest at President Islam Karimov's record on human rights. (Link)
The Grass is Always Greener if its Plastic
Lawns were once a simple thing. They were natural and beloved and also expected. A good lawn symbolized middle-class values and the Protestant work ethic. The concept of a perfect lawn, a British invention, arrived on North American shores near the end of the 19th century. In Florida, only rich people such as Henry Flagler and Henry Plant had them at first. But after World War II, almost anybody could play at being Jay Gatsby. A lawn popped up with every little GI tract house that sprouted in every Florida burg.
In the 21st century, the state boasts 5-million acres of lawns, according to University of Florida scientists, with St. Augustine grass considered the dominant turf. Thick, spongy and deep, St. Augustine is both attractive and expensive to maintain. . .
A few rebellious Florida citizens, wishing to conserve water and avoid chemicals, started replacing their lawns with drought-resistant native vegetation in the 1990s. Many of them quickly ran afoul of municipal ordinances that required lawns. Now virtually every city in Florida encourages diversified landscapes as long as they conserve water. But plastic lawns? Who in the world could love a plastic lawn?
Bruce Swift, that's who. Don't mow the grass Bruce Swift grew up in Chicago, moved to South Florida, sold real estate by the gazillions, then met a guy a few years ago named Dale Potts, whose business was installing artificial putting greens. Inspired, Swift started a spinoff business in Boca Raton he called Waterless Grass in 2003.
Now he has a second headquarters in Phoenix and says he has 115 Waterless Grass franchises in 33 states and nine countries. "New Jersey has 12 dealers alone," he says. "Water conservation is a huge issue in New Jersey." (Link)
Tube Bombings Directly Linked to Iraq War: Terrorist
The failed July 21 bombings in London were inspired by the Iraq war and deadly attacks of two weeks earlier, a suspect in the later bombings has told Italian authorities, according to Italian media reports. . . Italian media reports Sunday said the suspect told authorities the failed bombings were not because of religion, but because of Britain's role in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The attacks were also inspired by the transit system bombings on July 7, which left 52 people plus the four bombers dead and hundreds wounded, the suspect is reported to have said. . .
Authorities believe Said was the would-be bomber on the double-decker bus; he was arrested Friday in west London at a flat.
"More than pray, we used to discuss work, politics, the war in Iraq. Muktar always had new films on the war in Iraq," Osman is reported to have told prosecutors, according to La Repubblica newspaper. "He used to show us specially those where women and children were being killed and exterminated by British and American soldiers, and also of widows, mothers and daughters that cry. We never had contacts with the Bin Laden organization. We know that it exists. We have access to its programs via the Internet, but nothing direct." (Link)