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Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Crop circles of the year

Photographer Steve Alexander has images of many of this year's best crop circles on his web site. Crop circles are patterns that mysteriously appear overnight in the fields, particularly in southern England. Since the patterns are destroyed when the crops are harvested the 2002 season is now over.

Crop circles are made by people rather than aliens, but for me that detracts little from their appeal. They are certainly a very effective form of public art. How to make a crop circle explains how it is done. Because this art takes place outside the usual gallery system it needs something to give it a special aura, and alien weirdness performs the function perfectly.

The small amount of money required comes from the circle makers themselves, or - indirectly or directly, from the media and marketeers. The Circlemakers site has some details on some of this year's known sponsored projects.

Circle enthusiasts who prefer more exotic theories can find support on Mark Fussell & Stuart Dike's Crop Circle Connnector site, which has more good 2002 images.

I've also been looking at a great selection of images of crop circles from previous years, taken by Steve Patterson. My favourite is this one next to Avebury in Wiltshire. Avebury is a much more atmospheric place than Stonehenge, probably because it's so low key. The standing stones are completely muddled up with the village, and you can just wander around them.

Good background articles:

Washington Post Fertile Imaginations: The Real Story of Those Mysterious Circles Runs Rings Around the Movie
The Observer Hollywood falls under crop circles' spell
Fortean Times Leaders in the field
National Geographic Crop Circles: Artworks or Alien Signs?

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Why America needs the oil

More than 20 million Americans are driving gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs), and the number is rising fast. These large four-wheel drive vehicles have been the great success story of the US auto industry over the last decade, and while ordinary cars have been getting steadily more fuel efficient, the switch to SUVs is a move in the opposite direction.

In a new book Keith Bradsher argues that this is bad news for both energy consumption and people's safety. The vehicles are heavy, aerodynamically inefficient and consume more fuel than the cars they are replacing. US models are often based on pickup truck components, and do between 14 and 25 miles per gallon. There's a long extract from High and Mighty: SUVs the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles here.

According to Bradsher "the replacement of cars with SUVs is currently causing close to 3,000 needless deaths a year in the United States - as many people annually as died in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Roughly 1,000 extra deaths occur each year in SUVs that roll over, compared to the expected rollover death rate if these motorists had been driving cars. About 1,000 more people die each year in cars hit by SUVs than would occur if the cars had been hit by other cars. And up to 1,000 additional people succumb each year to respiratory problems because of the extra smog caused by SUVs."

What's more, Bradsher expects the number of SUVs to double in the next few years simply on demographic grounds. Since SUVs are a new product category most of the vehicles out there are still quite new. But as their owners replace them, cheap second-hand SUVs become available, enabling growing numbers of less-affluent Americans to get their hands on the oil-burning monsters.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Weblog authors won't make money

Weblogs are producing a mass amateurisation of publishing, according to Clay Shirky, rather than a mass of new publishing professionals. Very few people will make money out of being a weblog author, at least not directly. Shirky compares it to the paradox of oxygen and gold. "Oxygen is more vital to human life than gold, but because air is abundant, oxygen is free. Weblogs make writing as abundant as air, with the same effect on price."

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Blondes get a reprieve

Blondes aren't about to become extinct after all - at least there's been no authoritative new research to that effect, despite widespread reports to the contrary. The story is now International media caught by dumb blonde joke, to give the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's version of events.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer asks how the extinction story went unchecked. The Washington Post is going for a similar angle, following yesterday's press briefing at the UN, which said:
"WHO [the World Health Organisation] corrected erroneous news reports stating that WHO has conducted a study predicting the extinction of the naturally blonde hair gene by 2202. WHO has never issued a report on nor conducted research on the subject." There isn't anything on the World Health Organisation's own site yet.

At least the BBC treated the original story with some scepticism. It quoted an Edinburgh University academic who disagreed with the alleged report. "Genes don't die out unless there is a disadvantage of having that gene or by chance. They don't disappear," Professor Jonathan Rees told BBC News Online. "The frequency of blondes may drop but they won't disappear."

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

3,000 languages headed for extinction

At least a quarter and possibly as many as three-quarters of the 6,000 or so languages now spoken on Earth will disappear over the coming century. Every two weeks a language becomes extinct as the last person to speak it dies without passing it on, according to Lost for Words, a BBC radio series.

The series is currently going out on one of the BBC's domestic radio channels on Wednesday mornings (Radio 4, 11am). But the three 30-minute episodes can also be accessed in real audio format at the BBC web site, where there is also a lot of background material about the languages of Europe.

The first episode dealt with the disappearing languages of Australia and what is being done to save them. The second episode, dealing with Hawaii, is being transmitted later today. The final episode next week will consider whether it really matters.

The Australian material was very interesting. One contributor pointed out that 'You can't save the language without saving the people', and another that the health of indigenous languages can serve as an indicator of other social and environmental changes.

Apparently in Australia stories told in the local aboriginal languages served as maps as well as myths, guiding people to sources of water as well as telling them how to behave. So when the language goes people feel lost.

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