Saturday, 29 June 2013

Rare sighting of three snow leopards in China

Three snow leopards have been spotted in the Yushu hills in central China. The animals are endangered, which makes seeing three of them in one place all the more surprising. Native to the Central Asian mountains, the snow leopard is a rare sight, with only about 6,000 left in the wild. They are hunted for their beautiful, warm fur and for their organs, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

These rare, beautiful gray leopards live in the mountains of Central Asia. They are insulated by thick hair, and their wide, fur-covered feet act as natural snowshoes. Snow leopards have powerful legs and are tremendous leapers, able to jump as far as 50 feet (15 meters). They use their long tails for balance and as blankets to cover sensitive body parts against the severe mountain chill.

Snow leopards prey upon the blue sheep of Tibet and the Himalaya, as well as the mountain ibex found over most of the rest of their range. Though these powerful predators can kill animals three times their weight, they also eat smaller fare, such as marmots, hares and game birds. One snow leopard, protected and observed in a national park, is reported to have consumed five blue sheep, nine Tibetan woolly hares, twenty-five marmots, five domestic goats, one domestic sheep and fifteen birds in a single year. As these numbers indicate, snow leopards sometimes have a taste for domestic animals, which has led to killings of the big cats by herders.

These endangered cats appear to be in dramatic decline because of such killings, and due to poaching driven by illegal trades in pelts and in body parts used for medicine. Vanishing habitat and the decline of the cats' large mammal prey are also contributing factors.

Some Facts about endangered cats

Type                            Mammal
Diet                             Carnivore
Size                              4 to 5 ft (1.2 to 1.5 m); Tail, 36 in (91 cm)
Weight                       60 to 120 lbs (27 to 54 kg)
Protection status       Endangered
Size                             relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man

Fans braced for Google Reader's shutdown

Millions of users of Google's Reader service are preparing for its closure, with many still angered at the search giant's decision. Google announced earlier that it would shut down the RSS reader. The company admitted that Reader had a "loyal following", and gave instructions for exporting feeds. Other web companies are now clamouring to gain "Google Reader orphans" when the service finally closes on Monday. RSS readers are tools which allow users to quickly see updates from their favourite websites.

Using RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, users can see when content is updated without having to visit each site individually. Much like an email inbox, RSS readers indicate the number of unread updates for a user to read. Google Reader is among the most popular tools for viewing RSS feeds. Google software engineer Alan Green said, "Usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we're pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience."

After the announcement was made, Google offered instructions for how users can export their RSS feeds into an alternative service. The decision to close the service has riled large numbers of people, many of whom have said alternative services do not offer the same level of functionality. Some say the decision "a grave mistake by Google and it sends the wrong message". US magazine Slate posted a virtual graveyard of closed Google products, and invited readers to leave their virtual condolences.

Some said social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were fast changing the way people discover updates from their favourite sites, and therefore RSS readers were becoming increasingly old-fashioned and unnecessary. Nevertheless, Google Reader's closure potentially paves way for rival services to scoop up millions of new users almost overnight. Digg said it had been planning to build its own reader for some time, but it ramped up efforts upon news of Google Reader's closure. "As daily (hourly) users of Google Reader, we're convinced that it's a product worth saving," wrote Digg's Andrew McLaughlin. "We hope to identify and rebuild the best of Google Reader's features (including its API), but also advance them to fit the internet of 2013."

Another service tipped to gain a lot of users is Feedly, which has said that it gained more than three million news users in the two weeks following Google's announcement regarding Reader. The company wrote: "A lot of undecided Google Reader users are looking for a home." There has also been rumours that Facebook is planning to launch its own reader.

Earlier stuff abandon by Google

Google Reader certainly is not the first service to get the chop from the California company. In fact, Google regularly trims its product portfolio. Here are some examples of past:-

Google Wave (2009-2012) - Launched with much fanfare, this project management application failed to get people enthused, mainly because no-one knew what to use it for.

Google Video (2005-2012) - Intended as some kind of YouTube competitor, Google Video's mediocre performance quickly made it clear that it would be far easier for Google to just buy YouTube - which it promptly did in 2006.

Google Buzz (2010-2011) - A precursor to social network Google+, Google Buzz was clunkily integrated with Google Mail. It was hammered by users for not taking privacy seriously enough.

Google Labs (2002-2011) - In a surprising move that shocked many developers, Google closed its Labs service, which had acted as a testing ground for new ideas Google staff members had been working on.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Plants have a built-in capacity to 'do maths' to control overnight food supplies

A new research suggests that plants have a built-in capacity to do maths, which helps them regulate food reserves at night. UK scientists say they were "amazed" to find an example of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation in biology. Mathematical models show that the amount of starch consumed overnight is calculated by division in a process involving leaf chemicals. Birds may use similar methods to preserve fat levels during migration. The scientists studied the plant Arabidopsis, which is regarded as a model plant for experiments.

Overnight, when the plant cannot use energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starch, it must regulate its starch reserves to ensure they last until dawn. Experiments by scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, show that to adjust its starch consumption so precisely, the plant must be performing a mathematical calculation, arithmetic division. This is the first concrete example of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation. 

"They're actually doing maths in a simple, chemical way, that's amazing, it astonished us as scientists to see that," Prof Alison Smith said. "This is pre-GCSE maths they're doing, but they're doing maths." The scientists used mathematical modelling to investigate how a division calculation can be carried out inside a plant. During the night, mechanisms inside the leaf measure the size of the starch store. Information about time comes from an internal clock, similar to the human body clock.

The researchers proposed that the process is mediated by the concentrations of two kinds of molecules called "S" for starch and "T" for time. If the S molecules stimulate starch breakdown, while the T molecules prevent this from happening, then the rate of starch consumption is set by the ratio of S molecules to T molecules. In other words, S divided by T. "This is the first concrete example in biology of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation," said mathematical modeller Prof Martin Howard, of the John Innes Centre.

The scientists think similar mechanisms may operate in animals such as birds to control fat reserves during migration over long distances, or when they are deprived of food when incubating eggs. Commenting on the research, Dr Richard Buggs of Queen Mary, University of London, said, "This is not evidence for plant intelligence. It simply suggests that plants have a mechanism designed to automatically regulate how fast they burn carbohydrates at night. Plants don't do maths voluntarily and with a purpose in mind like we do."