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jueves, 30 de junio de 2011

Killer Drones, Stealth Jets, Spy Planes: Bob Gates’ Legacy in Military Tech

On his way out the door at the Pentagon, Robert Gates leveled with the military. A staggering $700 billion in defense R&D and gear since 9/11 led to only "relatively modest gains in actual military capability," Gates said on June 2. No giant robots, jet packs or sharks with lasers. But in a way, that made Gates' job easier, since the arch-realist was never about military fantasies, anyway.

As Defense Secretary, Gates protected the military's huge budgets for four and a half years. But while he did, he took a firm aim at popping the military's fantasy bubbles that inhibited durable technological and martial innovation. He tried to reboot what the military buys around a simple principle: reality. That is, buy what's immediately relevant for troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what will be relevant to those facing the most likely threats of the future. That's meant blast-proof trucks, intelligence gear and radio frequency jammers, not giant planes that shoot laser beams. He'd be the first to say he's had mixed results.

Thursday is Gates' final day as secretary of defense. His technological legacy is a dual one: not just an explosion of robots and whole new commands for online warfare, but a junkyard full of military futurism that was archaic when he first stepped into the building. Gates can't know if history will vindicate his perception of the threats the military is most likely to confront. But while the self-styled realist cut a lot of cherished military programs, a reflection on the military tech he favored -- and disfavored -- shows that he was mostly out to cut back on cherished military fantasies.

Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles

One of Gates' biggest successes comes from an uncomfortable vehicle that happens to save lives. The hull of the MRAP is shaped like a V, so it deflects and absorbs energy from a bomb blast better than a standard Humvee. Buying MRAPs for the bomb-packed roads of Iraq would be a no-brainer, right?

Not for the military, which fretted about having too many MRAPs at the end of the wars. A dumbfounded Gates went outside the typical Pentagon procurement process to surge them into Iraq and Afghanistan at the torrid rate of over 1000 per month, culminating in a whopping 27,000 of them purchased. With homemade bombs surging as well in Afghanistan, Gates' MRAP push saved the lives and limbs of thousands of soldiers and Marines.

The Killer Drones

Drone warfare hardly started under Gates' tenure at the Pentagon. But in 2007, shortly after he arrived, it accelerated to a whole new level.

That's when the Air Force began flying the Reaper drone above Afghanistan. The Reaper is a Predator drone on steroids, able to fly twice as high, three times as fast, and carrying eight times more Hellfire missiles and smart bombs.

All of a sudden the military had a whole new option against terrorists in places it couldn't invade. From 2004 to 2007, Predators launched merely nine strikes into Pakistan. The upgraded drones turned that into a full-fledged shadow war, with 33 strikes in 2008, rising to a stunning 118 in 2010. Those drones are now patrolling Yemen and Libya (though the drones hunting Moammar Gadhafi's men are Predators, not Reapers).

The drones are only getting more advanced. By 2018, the Navy should have one that can take off and land on an aircraft carrier at the click of a mouse. The third generation of the Predator, the stealthy Avenger, is on its way, and can stay aloft for at least 6 hours longer than the Reaper. That's enough time to think long and hard about outsourcing assassination to robots flown remotely, halfway around the world.

F-22 Raptor

Before 2009, if you asked the Air Force brass what its future was, you'd have heard a lot about the F-22 Raptor. The fighter pilots at the helm of the service believed that the stealthy fighter jet, with its aircraft-destroying missiles, essentially guaranteed U.S. dominance of the skies for decades to come. For years, they said the Air Force needed 381 of them. At least.

But when Gates looked at the plane, he saw a $250 million aircraft that wasn't even flying in Iraq or Afghanistan. He capped the F-22 at 187 jets in 2009 -- which, to the Air Force, was synonymous with killing it. His counteroffer to Air Force futurists: the Joint Strike Fighter, a family of fighter planes shared with the Navy and Marines, and a flying armada worth of drones.

The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle

One day, when the wars end, the Marines won't be a second U.S. land army. When that day comes, the Corps insists, they'll need an updated, armored vehicle to take them from a ship to a beach while under fire. Just one problem: It spent nearly 20 years and $3 billion just to get to a testable version of its Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle -- which carried an estimated price tag of another $13 billion. Oh, and its light armor made it vulnerable to shoreside homemade bombs.

Gates finally gave the so-called "swimming tank" the budgetary heave-ho in January. But it didn't come without massive angst in the Corps, which felt that killing the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was a prelude to abandoning amphibious warfare, the life's blood of the Marines. Gates won the battle. But no sooner did he win than the Corps began talking about a new amphibious vehicle that sounds suspiciously like the old swimming tank.

Photo: U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command

Nanoparticles Disguised as Red Blood Cells to Deliver Cancer-Fighting Drugs

ScienceDaily (June 20, 2011) — Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a novel method of disguising nanoparticles as red blood cells, which will enable them to evade the body's immune system and deliver cancer-fighting drugs straight to a tumor. Their research will be published next week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The method involves collecting the membrane from a red blood cell and wrapping it like a powerful camouflaging cloak around a biodegradable polymer nanoparticle stuffed with a cocktail of small molecule drugs. Nanoparticles are less than 100 nanometers in size, about the same size as a virus.

"This is the first work that combines the natural cell membrane with a synthetic nanoparticle for drug delivery applications." said Liangfang Zhang, a nanoeningeering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. "This nanoparticle platform will have little risk of immune response."

Researchers have been working for years on developing drug delivery systems that mimic the body's natural behavior for more effective drug delivery. That means creating vehicles such as nanoparticles that can live and circulate in the body for extended periods without being attacked by the immune system. Red blood cells live in the body for up to 180 days and, as such, are "nature's long-circulation delivery vehicle," said Zhang's student Che-Ming Hu, a UCSD Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering, and first author on the paper.

Stealth nanoparticles are already used successfully in clinical cancer treatment to deliver chemotherapy drugs. They are coated in a synthetic material such as polyethylene glycol that creates a protection layer to suppress the immune system so that the nanoparticle has time to deliver its payload. Zhang said today's stealth nanoparticle drug delivery vehicles can circulate in the body for hours compared to the minutes a nanoparticle might survive without this special coating.

But in Zhang's study, nanoparticles coated in the membranes of red blood cells circulated in the bodies of lab mice for nearly two days. The study was funded through a grant from the National Institute of Health.

A shift towards personalized medicine

Using the body's own red blood cells marks a significant shift in focus and a major breakthrough in the field of personalized drug delivery research. Trying to mimic the most important properties of a red blood cell in a synthetic coating requires an in-depth biological understanding of how all the proteins and lipids function on the surface of a cell so that you know you are mimicking the right properties. Instead, Zhang's team is just taking the whole surface membrane from an actual red blood cell.

"We approached this problem from an engineering point of view and bypassed all of this fundamental biology," said Zhang. "If the red blood cell has such a feature and we know that it has something to do with the membrane -- although we don't fully understand exactly what is going on at the protein level -- we just take the whole membrane. You put the cloak on the nanoparticle, and the nanoparticle looks like a red blood cell."

Using nanoparticles to deliver drugs also reduces the hours it takes to slowly drip chemotherapy drug solutions through an intravenous line to just a few minutes for a single injection of nanoparticle drugs. This significantly improves the patient's experience and compliance with the therapeutic plan. The breakthrough could lead to more personalized drug delivery wherein a small sample of a patient's own blood could produce enough of the essential membrane to disguise the nanoparticle, reducing the risk of immune response to almost nothing.

Zhang said one of the next steps is to develop an approach for large-scale manufacturing of these biomimetic nanoparticles for clinical use, which will be done through funding from the National Science Foundation. Researchers will also add a targeting molecule to the membrane that will enable the particle to seek and bind to cancer cells, and integrate the team's technology for loading drugs into the nanoparticle core so that multiple drugs can be delivered at the same time.

Zhang said being able to deliver multiple drugs in a single nanoparticle is important because cancer cells can develop a resistance to drugs delivered individually. By combining them, and giving the nanoparticle the ability to target cancer cells, the whole cocktail can be dropped like a bomb from within the cancer cell.

Universe's Most Distant Quasar Found, Powered by Massive Black Hole

A team of European astronomers has used the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and a host of other telescopes to discover and study the most distant quasar found to date. This brilliant beacon, powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun, is by far the brightest object yet discovered in the early Universe. The results will appear in the June 30, 2011, issue of the journal Nature.

"This quasar is a vital probe of the early Universe. It is a very rare object that will help us to understand how supermassive black holes grew a few hundred million years after the Big Bang," says Stephen Warren, the study's team leader.

Quasars are very bright, distant galaxies that are believed to be powered by supermassive black holes at their centres. Their brilliance makes them powerful beacons that may help to probe the era when the first stars and galaxies were forming. The newly discovered quasar is so far away that its light probes the last part of the reionisation era [1].

The quasar that has just been found, named ULAS J1120+0641 [2], is seen as it was only 770 million years after the Big Bang (redshift 7.1, [3]). It took 12.9 billion years for its light to reach us.

Although more distant objects have been confirmed (such as a gamma-ray burst at redshift 8.2 and a galaxy at redshift 8.6), the newly discovered quasar is hundreds of times brighter than these. Amongst objects bright enough to be studied in detail, this is the most distant by a large margin.

The next most-distant quasar is seen as it was 870 million years after the Big Bang (redshift 6.4). Similar objects further away cannot be found in visible-light surveys because their light, stretched by the expansion of the Universe, falls mostly in the infrared part of the spectrum by the time it gets to Earth. The European UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS) which uses the UK's dedicated infrared telescope [4] in Hawaii was designed to solve this problem. The team of astronomers hunted through millions of objects in the UKIDSS database to find those that could be the long-sought distant quasars, and eventually struck gold.

"It took us five years to find this object," explains Bram Venemans, one of the authors of the study. "We were looking for a quasar with redshift higher than 6.5. Finding one that is this far away, at a redshift higher than 7, was an exciting surprise. By peering deep into the reionisation era, this quasar provides a unique opportunity to explore a 100-million-year window in the history of the cosmos that was previously out of reach."

The distance to the quasar was determined from observations made with the FORS2 instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and instruments on the Gemini North Telescope [5]. Because the object is comparatively bright it is possible to take a spectrum of it (which involves splitting the light from the object into its component colours). This technique allowed the astronomers to find out quite a lot about the quasar.

These observations showed that the mass of the black hole at the centre of ULAS J1120+0641 is about two billion times that of the Sun. This very high mass is hard to explain so early on after the Big Bang. Current theories for the growth of supermassive black holes predict a slow build-up in mass as the compact object pulls in matter from its surroundings.

"We think there are only about 100 bright quasars with redshift higher than 7 over the whole sky," concludes Daniel Mortlock, the leading author of the paper. "Finding this object required a painstaking search, but it was worth the effort to be able to unravel some of the mysteries of the early Universe."


[1] About 300 000 years after the Big Bang, which occurred 13.7 billion years ago, the Universe had cooled down enough to allow electrons and protons to combine into neutral hydrogen (a gas without electric charge). This cool dark gas permeated the Universe until the first stars started forming about 100 to 150 million years later. Their intense ultraviolet radiation slowly split the hydrogen atoms back into protons and electrons, a process called reionisation, making the Universe more transparent to ultraviolet light. It is believe that this era occurred between about 150 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang.

[2] The object was found using data from the UKIDSS Large Area Survey, or ULAS. The numbers and prefix 'J' refer to the quasar's position in the sky.

[3] Because light travels at a finite speed, astronomers look back in time as they look further away into the Universe. It took 12.9 billion years for the light from ULAS J1120+0641 to travel to telescopes on Earth so the quasar is seen as it was when the Universe was only 770 million years old. In those 12.9 billion years, the Universe expanded and the light from the object stretched as a result. The cosmological redshift, or simply redshift, is a measure of the total stretching the Universe underwent between the moment when the light was emitted and the time when it was received.

[4] UKIRT is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope. It is owned by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council and operated by the staff of the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hilo, Hawaii.

[5] FORS2 is the VLT's FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph. Other instruments used to split up the light of the object were the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) and the Gemini Near-Infrared Spectrograph (GNIRS). The Liverpool Telescope, the Isaac Newton Telescope and the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) were also used to confirm survey measurements.

More information

This research was presented in a paper to appear in the journal Nature on 30 June 2011.

The team is composed of Daniel J. Mortlock (Imperial College London [Imperial], UK), Stephen J. Warren (Imperial), Bram P. Venemans (ESO, Garching, Germany), Mitesh Patel (Imperial), Paul C. Hewett (Institute of Astronomy [IoA], Cambridge, UK), Richard G. McMahon (IoA), Chris Simpson (Liverpool John Moores University, UK), Tom Theuns (Institute for Computational Cosmology, Durham, UK and University of Antwerp, Belgium), Eduardo A. Gonzales-Solares (IoA), Andy Adamson (Joint Astronomy Centre, Hilo, USA), Simon Dye (Centre for Astronomy and Particle Theory, Nottingham, UK), Nigel C. Hambly (Institute for Astronomy, Edinburgh, UK), Paul Hirst (Gemini Observatory, Hilo, USA), Mike J. Irwin (IoA), Ernst Kuiper (Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands), Andy Lawrence (Institute for Astronomy, Edinburgh, UK), Huub J. A. Rottgering (Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands).

Zombie' Stars Key to Measuring Dark Energy

"Zombie" stars that explode like bombs as they die, only to revive by sucking matter out of other stars. According to an astrophysicist at UC Santa Barbara, this isn't the plot for the latest 3D blockbuster movie. Instead, it's something that happens every day in the universe -- something that can be used to measure dark energy.

This special category of stars, known as Type Ia supernovae, help to probe the mystery of dark energy, which scientists believe is related to the expansion of the universe.

Andy Howell, adjunct professor of physics at UCSB and staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT), wrote a review article about this topic, published recently in Nature Communications. LCOGT, a privately funded global network of telescopes, works closely with UCSB.

Supernovae are stars that have been observed since 1054 A.D., when an exploding star formed the crab nebula, a supernova remnant.

More recently, the discovery of dark energy is one of the most profound findings of the last half-century, according to Howell. Invisible dark energy makes up about three-fourths of the universe. "We only discovered this about 20 years ago by using Type Ia supernovae, thermonuclear supernovae, as standard or 'calibrated' candles," said Howell. "These stars are tools for measuring dark energy. They're all about the same brightness, so we can use them to figure out distances in the universe."

These supernovae are so bright that they shine with the approximate power of a billion suns, noted Howell.

He calls Type Ia supernovae "zombie" stars because they're dead, with a core of ash, but they come back to life by sucking matter from a companion star. Over the past 50 years, astrophysicists have discovered that Type Ia supernovae are part of binary systems -- two stars orbiting each other. The one that explodes is a white dwarf star. "That's what our sun will be at the end of its life," he said. "It will have the mass of the sun crammed into the size of the Earth."

The white dwarf stars that tend to explode as Type Ia supernovae have approximately the same mass. This was considered a fundamental limit of physics, according to Howell. However, in an article in Nature about five years ago, Howell reported his discovery of stars that go beyond this limit. These previously unknown Type Ia supernovae have more than typical mass before they explode -- a fact that confounds scientists.

Howell presented a hypothesis to understand this new class of objects. "One idea is that two white dwarfs could have merged together; the binary system could be two white dwarf stars," he said. "Then, over time, they spiral into each other and merge. When they merge, they blow up. This may be one way to explain what is going on."

Astrophysicists are using Type Ia supernovae to build a map of the history of the universe's expansion. "What we've found is that the universe hasn't been expanding at the same rate," said Howell. "And it hasn't been slowing down as everyone thought it would be, due to gravity. Instead, it has been speeding up. There's a force that counteracts gravity and we don't know what it is. We call it dark energy."

The new findings relate to Einstein's concept of the cosmological constant. This is a term he added into his equations to make them valid. However, Einstein did it because he thought the universe was static; he didn't know the universe was expanding. When it was revealed that the universe is expanding, Einstein believed this concept was his biggest blunder. "It turns out that this cosmological constant was actually one of his greatest successes," said Howell. "This is because it's what we need now to explain the data."

He said that dark energy is probably a property of space. "Space itself has some energy associated with it," said Howell. "That's what the results seem to indicate, that dark energy is distributed everywhere in space. It looks like it's a property of the vacuum, but we're not completely sure. We're trying to figure out how sure are we of that -- and if we can improve Type Ia supernovae as standard candles we can make our measurements better."

Throughout history, people have noticed a few supernovae so bright they could be seen with the naked eye. With telescopes, astronomers have discovered supernovae farther away. "Now we have huge digital cameras on our telescopes, and really big telescopes," said Howell, "We've been able to survey large parts of the sky, regularly. We find supernovae daily." Astronomers have discovered thousands of supernovae in recent years.

During his career, Howell has used these powerful telescopes to study supernovae. Currently, besides teaching at UCSB, he is involved in LCOGT's detailed study of supernovae that is aimed at helping to understand dark energy. With this extensive network of observatories, it will be possible to study the night sky continuously.

"The next decade holds real promise of making serious progress in the understanding of nearly every aspect of supernovae Ia, from their explosion physics, to their progenitors, to their use as standard candles," writes Howell in Nature Communications. "And with this knowledge may come the key to unlocking the darkest secrets of dark energy."

Dome Homes Dot the Landscape

Interior of dome home in Conifer, CO.
Photo: Zillow

While dome homes may be odd-looking to some people, to a growing set of home buyers, they are now the only way to go.

According to Dennis Johnson of Natural Space Domes in Minnesota, the housing crisis and recent devastating tornadoes have increased awareness and interest in building, or buying dome homes.

“We’ve had domes go through hurricanes,” Johnson said. “The three domes by New Orleans, had no damage around them at all even though the trees were decimated. [A] fourth one had shingles torn off, but no structural damage to the dome.”

Missouri’s Romain Morgan is a believer. In 2004, Morgan’s Halfway, MO, dome home withstood a tornado that swept over her home and left nary a trace of destruction. “I had no damage,” Morgan reported. “Just one piece of trim on a side window was torn off. I had a realtor ask me how much I would take for my house. I said ‘nothing.’ I won’t sell it. The feeling of security is incredible.”

Because dome homes are energy-efficient, easy to build and are able to better withstand hurricanes and tornadoes due to its round, aerodynamic shape, the dome home is becoming more popular — especially in areas that are prone to tornadoes and hurricanes.

The geodesic dome was first made popular by inventor Buckminster Fuller who wanted to revolutionize housing in the 1940s. Lightweight, cost-effective, easy to assemble, and built to withstand even the harshest of weather conditions, domes can be found across the U.S. and a number of companies sell dome kits.

“A bathroom would be a bathroom, and the kitchen would be a kitchen but the dome shell part of it is going to be less cost than a traditional box house,” Johnson said. “The safety factor is a big concern and I think this year a lot of people have been asking questions in regards to tornadoes."

Dome home kits range in cost; the basic frame starts at around $5,000 and the full kit, including siding, ranges more toward $75,000.

Interested in buying a dome home? Here are some for sale in the U.S.

211 Camino De Lovato, Taos, NM
For Sale: $74,000

A 20-foot diameter dome home in Taos, NM.
Photo: Zillow

This teeny-tiny dome — measuring 20 feet in diameter — sits on a whopping ten acres in Taos, New Mexico. Like many other dome homes, it was built with a kit and an additional kit is also available for sale with the property. Located twenty minutes outside of town, this dome is better suited as a little getaway home rather than a primary residence.

A Little House of Secrets on the Great Plains

The secretive business havens of Cyprus and the Cayman Islands face a potent rival: Cheyenne, Wyoming.

At a single address in this sleepy city of 60,000 people, more than 2,000 companies are registered. The building, 2710 Thomes Avenue, isn't a shimmering skyscraper filled with A-list corporations. It's a 1,700-square-foot brick house with a manicured lawn, a few blocks from the State Capitol.

Neighbors say they see little activity there besides regular mail deliveries and a woman who steps outside for smoke breaks. Inside, however, the walls of the main room are covered floor to ceiling with numbered mailboxes labeled as corporate "suites." A bulky copy machine sits in the kitchen. In the living room, a woman in a headset answers calls and sorts bushels of mail.

A Reuters investigation has found the house at 2710 Thomes Avenue serves as a little Cayman Island on the Great Plains. It is the headquarters for Wyoming Corporate Services, a business-incorporation specialist that establishes firms which can be used as "shell" companies, paper entities able to hide assets.

Wyoming Corporate Services will help clients create a company, and more: set up a bank account for it; add a lawyer as a corporate director to invoke attorney-client privilege; even appoint stand-in directors and officers as high as CEO. Among its offerings is a variety of shell known as a "shelf" company, which comes with years of regulatory filings behind it, lending a greater feeling of solidity.

"A corporation is a legal person created by state statute that can be used as a fall guy, a servant, a good friend or a decoy," the company's website boasts. "A person you control... yet cannot be held accountable for its actions. Imagine the possibilities!"

Among the entities registered at 2710 Thomes, Reuters found, is a shelf company sheltering real-estate assets controlled by a jailed former prime minister of Ukraine, according to allegations made by a political rival in a federal court in California.

The owner of another shelf company at the address was indicted in April for allegedly helping online-poker operators evade a U.S. ban on Internet gambling. The owner of two other firms there was banned from government contracting in January for selling counterfeit truck parts to the Pentagon.


All the activity at 2710 Thomes is part of a little-noticed industry in the U.S.: the mass production of paper businesses. Scores of mass incorporators like Wyoming Corporate Services have set up shop. The hotbeds of the industry are three states with a light regulatory touch-Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada.

The pervasiveness of corporate secrecy on America's shores stands in stark contrast to Washington's message to the rest of the world. Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. has been calling forcefully for greater transparency in global transactions, to lift the veil on shadowy money flows. During a debate in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama singled out Ugland House in the Cayman Islands, reportedly home to some 12,000 offshore corporations, as "either the biggest building or the biggest tax scam on record."

Yet on U.S. soil, similar activity is perfectly legal. The incorporation industry, overseen by officials in the 50 states, has few rules. Convicted felons can operate firms which create companies, and buy them with no background checks.

No states license mass incorporators, and only a few require them to formally register with state authorities. None collect the names and addresses of "beneficial owners," the individuals with a controlling interest in corporations, according to a 2009 report by the National Association of Secretaries of State, a group for state officials overseeing incorporation. Wyoming and Nevada allow the real owners of corporations to hide behind "nominee" officers and directors with no direct role in the business, often executives of the mass incorporator.

"In the U.S., (business incorporation) is completely unregulated," says Jason Sharman, a professor at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia, who is preparing a study for the World Bank on corporate formation worldwide. "Somalia has slightly higher standards than Wyoming and Nevada."

An estimated 2 million corporations and limited liability companies are created each year in the U.S., according to Senate investigators. The Treasury Department has singled out LLCs as particularly vulnerable to being used as shell companies, as they can be owned by anyone and managed anonymously. Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming had 688,000 LLCs on file in 2009, up from 624,000 in 2007.

Treasury and state banking regulators say banks have flagged billions of dollars in suspicious transactions involving U.S. shell companies in recent years. On June 10, a federal judge in Oregon ordered a company registered there to pay $60 million for defrauding a Ukrainian government agency through sham transactions involving shell companies. The civil lawsuit described a network of U.S.-registered shells connected to fraud in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan.

A growing niche in the shell business is shelf corporations. Like paper-only shells, which enable the secrecy-minded to hide real ownership of assets, shelf companies are set up by firms like Wyoming Corporate Services, then left "on the shelf" to season for years. They're then sold later to owners looking for a quick way to secure bank loans, bid on contracts, and project financial stability. To speed up business activity, shelf corporations can often be purchased with established bank accounts, credit histories and tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

"They just slot in your names, and you walk away with the company. Presto!" says Daniel E. Karson, executive managing director at investigative firm Kroll Inc. "The purpose is to conceal ownership."

On its website, Wyoming Corporate Services currently lists more than 700 shelf companies for sale in 37 states. The older they are, the more expensive, like Scotch whisky. Brookside Management Inc., formed in December 2004, sells for $5,995, while Knotty Management LLC, formed in May, costs just $645. In Delaware, incorporator Harvard Business Services markets First Family LLC, created in May 1997, for $10,000.

"If they're signing a large contract, they may not want it to look like they've just formed a company," said Brett Melson, director of U.S. sales at Harvard Business Services. But he added: "Unsavory characters can do a lot of bad things with the companies."

Shell and shelf companies do serve legitimate purposes. They provide a quick and cheap way for entrepreneurs to jump into business and create jobs. Businesses can use them to protect trade secrets. Politicians or other public figures may use a shell company to hold their home so that people with ill intent have a harder time locating them.

The state of Wyoming says it cracked down on incorporation services in 2009 after discovering that nearly 5,700 companies were registered to post-office boxes. New laws require companies to have a physical presence in the state through an owner or a registered agent, and make it a felony to submit false filings.

"What we want to have is good, quality legitimate businesses," said Patricia O'Brien, Wyoming's Deputy Secretary of State. "We don't regulate what the business itself does, but we are not recruiting businesses here that are questionable or illegal."

Wyoming Corporate Services is run by Gerald Pitts, its 54-year-old founder and president. On paper, he is a prolific businessman. Incorporation data provided by Westlaw, a unit of Thomson Reuters, show that Pitts is listed as a director, president or principal for at least 41 companies registered at 2710 Thomes Avenue.

Another 248 firms name Edge Financial Inc., another incorporation service, as their "manager." Gerald Pitts is the president of Edge Financial, according to records on file with the Wyoming secretary of state's office.

Companies registered at 2710 Thomes Avenue have been named in a dozen civil lawsuits alleging unpaid taxes, securities fraud and trademark infringement since 2007, a review of Westlaw data shows. State and federal tax authorities have filed liens against companies registered at the address seeking to collect more than $300,000 in unpaid taxes, according to Westlaw.

Pitts says Wyoming Corporate Services fully complies with the law and doesn't have any knowledge of how clients use the companies he registers. "However, we recognize that business entities (whether aged, shell or traditional) may be used for both good and ill," Pitts wrote in an email to Reuters. "WCS will always cooperate with law enforcement agencies who request information or assistance. WCS does not provide any product or service with the intent that it be used to violate the law."


Gerald Pitts and his own incorporation firms have never been sued or sanctioned, according to federal and state court records. Wyoming officials said Wyoming Corporate Services operates legally. "If they do it by cubby holes and they are really representing each person, they meet the law," said O'Brien, the deputy secretary of state.

But clients of his have run into trouble.

Among those registered at the little house in Cheyenne are two small companies formed through Wyoming Corporate Services that sold knock-off truck parts to the U.S. Department of Defense, according to a Reuters review of two federal contracting databases and findings from an investigation by the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency. The owner of those firms, Atilla Kan, awaits sentencing on a 2007 conviction for wire fraud in a related matter.

Also linked to 2710 Thomes is former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who was once ranked the eighth-most corrupt official in the world by watchdog group Transparency International. He is now serving an eight-year jail term in California for a 2004 conviction on money-laundering and extortion charges. According to court records, that scheme used shell companies and offshore bank accounts to hide stolen Ukrainian government funds.

Court records submitted in Lazarenko's criminal case and documents from a separate civil lawsuit, as well as interviews with lawyers familiar with the matter, indicate Lazarenko controls a shelf company incorporated in Cheyenne that owns an estimated $72 million in real estate in Ukraine through other companies.

The U.S. government continues to seek more than $250 million from bank accounts in Antigua, Barbuda, Guernsey and other countries that it says were controlled by Lazarenko and his associates, according to a forfeiture action filed by the Department of Justice.

The paper trail linking Lazarenko to the real estate in Ukraine is labyrinthine. At the heart of it is a shelf company called Capital Investments Group, registered at 2710 Thomes Avenue.

U.S. lawyers for a Ukrainian businessman named Gennady Korban submitted documents claiming that Lazarenko is the true owner of Capital Investments Group and other U.S. companies.

Lazarenko and Korban are rivals in Ukraine, and for years have traded allegations of corruption and assassination. An organization chart accompanying Korban's submission alleges Capital Investments Group owns 99.99 percent of a Ukrainian firm called OOO Capital Investments Group. That company, the chart claims, is the owner of another company, OOO Ukrainsky Tyutyun, where Pavlo Lazarenko is a director. Each of the firms and several others are used as corporate fronts to control properties in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, the filing alleges.

Seven properties are named in the 2009 filing by Korban, including 55 Pushkin Street and 58 Komsomolskaya Street. The dossier on Capital Investments Group claims that other directors of the alleged front companies include Lazarenko's wife, son and mother-in-law.

Federal prosecutors successfully urged the court in late 2009 to disregard Korban's submissions, arguing that it would take too much time to vet his account and thus delay his resentencing after a lengthy appeal.

A few months later, in February 2010, Capital Investments Group sued Korban and others in federal court in Delaware. That lawsuit claims two properties in the Ukraine controlled by Capital Investments Group - 55 Pushkin Street and 58 Komsomolskaya Street - were stolen from it using forged documents.

The lawsuit says Capital Investments was formed in September 2005. It is registered at 2710 Thomes Avenue, and Gerald Pitts, the court documents say, is "President, Secretary, Chairman and director."

But Capital Investments Group doesn't disclose the name of its owners. Daniel Horowitz and Martin Garbus, attorneys for the company, have represented Pavlo Lazarenko in other U.S. and Ukrainian litigation. They declined to provide the owners' names, citing client confidentiality, and wouldn't comment on Lazarenko's links to CIG.

The U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco declined to comment. Asked about his association with Lazarenko and Capital Investments Group, Gerald Pitts declined to provide information on specific clients. Pitts said he is aware of the Delaware lawsuit and "is cooperating fully with authorities in the matter."


Another man linked to 2710 Thomes is Ira N. Rubin. Prosecutors allege he created a Rube Goldberg-style network of shell and shelf corporations to further his scams.

In December 2006, the Federal Trade Commission sued Rubin for fraud in federal court in Tampa. Documents in the civil lawsuit allege Rubin used at least 18 different front companies to obscure his role as a credit-card processor for telemarketing scams.

These operations, the FTC alleged, offered subprime credit cards that charged an upfront fee debited from customers' bank accounts, but the cards were never delivered. The complaint also alleged Rubin processed payments for online gambling rings and pharmacy websites selling controlled substances.

One company in that network was Elite Funding Group Inc. It was registered at 2710 Thomes Avenue in August 2004 and offered for sale by Wyoming Corporate Services for $1,095. Gerald Pitts was listed in public documents as the original director, wrote an investigator hired by the FTC in a January 2007 report filed in federal court in Tampa. Pitts had resigned six months earlier as director and was replaced by Rubin, according to court records.

Rubin's maze-like network served as the back office for alleged consumer scams operating from Canada, the Philippines, Cyprus and the U.S., with names like Freedom Pharmacy and Fun Time Bingo. His companies took consumer bank account information obtained by the clients, charged the accounts via an electronic transactions network that enables direct debits, kept a portion of the proceeds, and forwarded the rest to the alleged fraudsters, according to documents in the FTC's civil lawsuit.

To minimize scrutiny, Rubin used at least 18 different firms to handle his operations. A firm called Global Marketing Group processed payments for telemarketers offering bogus credit cards, the FTC alleged. Elite Funding, the Wyoming shelf corporation, was a subsidiary of Global Marketing. Rubin used Elite to open bank accounts with Wells Fargo Bank which held more than $300,000 in proceeds from the payment processing, according to court records.

Just hours after Rubin was visited by a court-appointed receiver in the case in December 2006, $249,000 vanished from the Wells Fargo account. Rubin refused to say if he transferred the money, citing his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. At least $125,000 then made its way to a bank account in Chennai, India, and has never been recovered, according to documents in the civil lawsuit.

Why use a shelf company? "To hide who they are and what they are doing. In the case of Ira Rubin, he had a payment processing empire that worked on behalf of many different industries, all of which were engaged in illegal conduct," said James Davis, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission. "It was to his benefit to make it as difficult as possible for law enforcement to connect these companies back to him."

In 2008, Rubin fled to Costa Rica to avoid arrest for contempt in the civil case. Authorities allege he went on to run another payment-processing operation from abroad: This March 10, he and 10 others were indicted in New York for allegedly running a massive scheme to hide payments made by U.S. customers to the three largest online-poker websites, in violation of a ban passed by Congress in 2006. He was extradited from Guatemala the same month. On June 8, a New York judge denied bail for Rubin.

Stuart Meissner, an attorney for Rubin, said his client was not available for comment. Pitts declined to comment.


The loopholes in U.S. disclosure of bank-account and shell-company ownership have drawn fire.

The U.S. was declared "non-compliant" in four out of 40 categories monitored by the Financial Action Task Force, an international group fighting money laundering and terrorism finance, in a 2006 evaluation report, its most recent. Two of those ratings relate to scant information collected on the owners of corporations. The task force named Wyoming, Nevada and Delaware as secrecy havens. Only three states - Alaska, Arizona and Montana - require regular disclosure of corporate shareholders in some form, according to the 2009 report by the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Some lawmakers want tighter rules. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee's Permanent Subcommittee for Investigations, has introduced the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act each year since 2008. The bill would require states to obtain and update information about the real owners of companies, and impose civil and criminal sanctions for filing false information.

"Criminals use U.S. shell companies to commit financial fraud, drug trafficking, even terrorist financing, in part because our states don't require anyone to name the owners of the companies they form," Levin said in an email to Reuters.

The bill has been beaten back by a coalition of state officials and business groups, citing concerns about the cost of implementing the new law and federal government infringement on state incorporation rights.

A leading opponent is the National Association of Secretaries of State. Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman, said in an email that the Levin bill "would have placed new burdens upon states and legitimate, law-abiding businesses-many of which are struggling to stay afloat during these difficult financial times-while continuing to provide lawbreakers with the means to evade the law."

An aide for Levin said the bill is expected to be re-introduced soon. The new bill will add provisions requiring incorporation agents who sell shelf companies to provide beneficial owner data, said a Senate aide familiar with it.


Shell companies remain a headache for law-enforcement authorities. Officials say court-ordered subpoenas served on incorporators of shell and shelf corporations generally do deliver the names of the real owners hiding behind nominees. But if the owners are not U.S. citizens or companies, the investigation often hits a dead-end, they say.

There are additional hurdles. Wyoming Corporate Services charges $2,500 per year to supply an attorney who can provide an extra shield. Cheyenne attorney Graham Norris Jr. tells prospective clients sent to him by WCS that he will create a company on their behalf. That way, he says, he can invoke attorney-client privilege-adding a layer of privacy anytime there is an inquiry about their identities.

"When you do need to contact Wyoming Corporate Services, you may do so through me," advises a June 13 "Dear Client" letter supplied by Norris to Reuters. "If you contact them directly, there is a greater risk they may disclose that information in response to a subpoena; remember there is no privilege with Wyoming Corporate Services, only with your attorney."

For a fee, clients can request that Norris file a motion to quash any subpoena, the letter says. It warns that in cases where fraud or criminal conduct is alleged, a court might order Norris to name the owners. Still, after any inquiry about identity, the letter says, Norris must inform the client-and "I must also decline to answer the inquiry."

Investigators say they are sometimes loath to use subpoenas for the very reason highlighted in Norris' letter-fear of tipping off targets. "In the initial stages of investigation, when we encounter a domestic shell corporation, we know we can't subpoena the company that sold the corporation to the end users, because we don't want the target to find out they are being investigated," says FTC attorney James Davis.

Other U.S. agencies raise similar complaints about shells. The 2006 U.S. Money Laundering Threat Assessment, prepared by 16 federal agencies, devotes a chapter to the ways U.S. shell companies can be attractive vehicles to hide ill-gotten funds. It includes a chart to show why money launderers might like to create shells in Wyoming, Nevada or Delaware, which offer the highest levels of corporate anonymity.

The information in the chart is credited to the Web site of a firm called Corporations Today-an incorporation service run by Gerald Pitts in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

(Reporting by Kelly Carr in Cheyenne and Brian Grow in Atlanta; additional reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco, Jen Rogers and Jaime Hellman in Cheyenne; research by Mary Kivimaki of Westlaw; editing by Claudia Parsons and Michael Williams)

Inside an ancient Mayan tomb

A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb of a Mayan ruler that has been sealed for 1,500 years.

1. The inside of a tomb of a Mayan ruler, that has been sealed for 1,500 years, is seen in southern Mexico, in this handout photograph released by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera was used to peer inside the tomb, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pearl. The tomb was discovered in 1999 inside a pyramid among the ruins... more
2. The entrance to the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas is seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pear... more
3. Red frescoes are seen inside the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of... more
4. Red frescoes are seen inside the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of... more
5. The interior of the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas are seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pea... more
6. The interior of the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas are seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pea... more
7. The entrance to the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas is seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pear... more
1. The inside of a tomb of a Mayan ruler, that has been sealed for 1,500 years, is seen in southern Mexico, in this handout photograph released by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera was used to peer inside the tomb, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pearl. The tomb was discovered in 1999 inside a pyramid among the ruins... more
2. The entrance to the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas is seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pear... more
3. Red frescoes are seen inside the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of... more
4. Red frescoes are seen inside the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of... more
5. The interior of the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas are seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pea... more
6. The interior of the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas are seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pea... more
7. The entrance to the tomb of a Mayan ruler at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in the hills of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas is seen in this undated handout photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) released June 23, 2011. A tiny remote-controlled camera peered inside the tomb that has been sealed for 1,500 years, revealing red frescoes, pottery and pieces of a funerary shroud made of jade and mother of pear... more

Why Obama Is Likely to Lose in 2012

Even a small drop in the share of black voters would wipe out his winning margin in North Carolina.

President Barack Obama is likely to be defeated in 2012. The reason is that he faces four serious threats. The economy is very weak and unlikely to experience a robust recovery by Election Day. Key voter groups have soured on him. He's defending unpopular policies. And he's made bad strategic decisions.

Let's start with the economy. Unemployment is at 9.1%, with almost 14 million Americans out of work. Nearly half the jobless have been without work for more than six months. Mr. Obama promised much better, declaring that his February 2009 stimulus would cause unemployment to peak at 8% by the end of summer 2009 and drop to roughly 6.8% today.

Columnist Peggy Noonan surveys the current crop of GOP candidates.

After boasting in June 2010 that "Our economy . . . is now growing at a good clip," he laughingly admitted last week, "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected." The humor will be lost on most. In Wednesday's Bloomberg poll, Americans believe they are worse off than when Mr. Obama took office by a 44% to 34% margin.

The last president re-elected with unemployment over 7.2% was FDR in 1936. Ronald Reagan overcame 7.2% unemployment because the rate was dropping dramatically (it had been over 10%) as the economy grew very rapidly in 1983 and 1984. Today, in contrast, the Federal Reserve says growth will be less than 3% this year and less than 3.8% next year, with unemployment between 7.8% and 8.2% by Election Day.

Mr. Obama also has problems with his base. For example, Jewish voters are upset with his policy toward Israel, and left-wing bloggers at last week's NetRoots conference were angry over Mr. Obama's failure to deliver a leftist utopia. Weak Jewish support could significantly narrow Mr. Obama's margin in states like Florida, while a disappointed left could deprive him of the volunteers so critical to his success in 2008.

Mr. Obama's standing has declined among other, larger groups. Gallup reported his job approval rating Tuesday at 45%, down from 67% at his inaugural. Among the groups showing a larger-than-average decline since 2009 are whites (down 25 points); older voters (down 24); independents and college graduates (both down 23), those with a high-school education or less, men, and Southerners (all down 22); women (down 21 points); married couples and those making $2,000-$4,000 a month (down 20). This all points to severe trouble in suburbs and midsized cities in states likes Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

There's more. Approval among younger voters has dropped 22 points, and it's dropped 20 points among Latinos. Even African-American voters are less excited about Mr. Obama than they were—and than he needs them to be. For example, if their share of the turnout drops just one point in North Carolina, Mr. Obama's 2008 winning margin there is wiped out two and a half times over.

While many voters still personally like Mr. Obama, they deeply oppose his policies, and he tends to be weakest on issues voters consider most important. In the June 13 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56% disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy. Fifty-nine percent in the Economist/YouGov poll of June 14 disapprove of how he's dealt with the deficit.
About Karl Rove

Karl Rove served as Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush from 2000–2007 and Deputy Chief of Staff from 2004–2007. At the White House he oversaw the Offices of Strategic Initiatives, Political Affairs, Public Liaison, and Intergovernmental Affairs and was Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, coordinating the White House policy-making process.

Before Karl became known as "The Architect" of President Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he was president of Karl Rove + Company, an Austin-based public affairs firm that worked for Republican candidates, nonpartisan causes, and nonprofit groups. His clients included over 75 Republican U.S. Senate, Congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 24 states, as well as the Moderate Party of Sweden.

Karl writes a weekly op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, is a Newsweek columnist and is the author of the book "Courage and Consequence" (Threshold Editions).

Email the author atKarl@Rove.comor visit him on the web at Or, you can send a Tweet to @karlrove.

Click here to order his book, Courage and Consequence.

And his health-care reform still holds its unique place as the only major piece of social legislation that became less popular after it was passed. According to yesterday's average of recent surveys, 38% approve of ObamaCare, while its survey average when the bill was passed in March 2010 showed that 41% approved.

Finally, Mr. Obama has made a strategic blunder. While he needs to raise money and organize, he decided to be a candidate this year rather than president. He has thus unnecessarily abandoned one of incumbency's great strengths, which is the opportunity to govern and distance himself from partisan politics until next spring. Instead, Team Obama has attacked potential GOP opponents and slandered Republican proposals with abandon. This is not what the public is looking for from the former apostle of hope and change.

In politics, 17 months can constitute several geological ages. Political fortunes can wax and wane. And weak incumbents can defeat even weaker challengers.

At the same time, objective circumstances like an anemic economy and bad decisions not only matter; they become very nearly dispositive. Mr. Obama is now at the mercy of policies and events he has set in motion. He can't escape accountability, especially on the economy. He's not done yet, but it will be tough to recover. More in a future column.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

Lights out for the Sea Shadow

By Mike Krumboltz

Call it a funeral at sea for the U.S. Navy's Sea Shadow. The stealth ship, which served as an inspiration for the supervillain's supervessel in the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies," is set to be dismantled and recycled.

The Navy had hoped that a private buyer would come forward and take the spy ship off its hands. Alas, there were no takers, so the bizarre black Sea Shadow is heading for the scrap heap.

Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

News of the ship's inglorious end (which is probably coming soon) inspired waves of Web searches on Yahoo!. Over the past 24 hours, online lookups for "spy ship 007" and "james bond spy boat" sailed to big gains.

The ship, which resembles a stealth fighter airplane, cost the U.S. Navy $195 million to build and operate, according the U.K.'s Daily Mail. The ship was "never intended for missions, just testing."

If you're thinking the Sea Shadow would look pretty cool in your own backyard, here are a couple of things to consider. According to Fox News, it's about 160 feet long and 70 feet wide. And it hasn't exactly been getting regular oil changes either. A Lockheed Martin spokesman told Fox that the company "hasn't had anything to do with the ship for at least four to five years"--suggesting that the new owner could well be in for some heavy maintenance work.

But all is not lost. Navy spokesman Chris Johnson told Fox that there could still be a last-second taker for the Sea Shadow. If that happens, it would be an escape worthy of 007 himself.

Roman Gladiator's Gravestone Describes Fatal Foul – Mon Jun 20, 8:05 am ET

An enigmatic message on a Roman gladiator's 1,800-year-old tombstone has finally been decoded, telling a treacherous tale.

The epitaph and art on the tombstone suggest the gladiator, named Diodorus, lost the battle (and his life) due to a referee's error, according to Michael Carter, a professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. Carter studies gladiator contests and other spectacles in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

He examined the stone, which was discovered a century ago in Turkey, trying to determine what the drawing and inscription meant. [Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]

His results will be published in the most recently released issue of the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik(Journal for Papyrology and Ancient Epigraphics).

Tombstones talk

The tombstone was donated to the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium, shortly before World War I. It shows an image of a gladiator holding what appear to be two swords, standing above his opponent who is signalling his surrender. The inscription says that the stone marks the spot where a man named Diodorus is buried.

"After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately," reads the epitaph. "Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me."

The summa rudis is a referee, who may have had past experience as a gladiator.

The inscription also indicates Diodorus was born in and fought in Amisus, on the south coast of the Black Sea in Turkey.

Though Carter has examined hundreds of gladiator tombstones, this "epitaph is completely different from anything else; it's telling a story," he told LiveScience.

The final fight

The story the tombstone tells took place about 1,800 years ago when the empire was at its height, its borders stretching from Hadrian's Wall in England to the Euphrates River in Syria.

Gladiator games were popular spectacles, many of them pitting two men against each other. Although deaths from wounds were common, the battles were not the no-holds-barred fights to the death depicted by Hollywood, said Carter.

"I believe that there are a number of very detailed rules involved in regulating gladiatorial combat," Carter said.

Though the exact rules are not well understood, some information can be gleaned from references in surviving texts and art.

For starters, most, if not all, of the fights were overseen by the summa rudis.

Among the rules he enforced was one in which a defeated gladiator could request submission, and if submission was approved by the munerarius (the wealthy individual paying for the show), the contestant could leave the arena without further harm.

Another rule that appears to have been in place was that a gladiator who fell by accident (without the help of his opponent) would be allowed to get back up, pick up his equipment and resume combat.

Death of Diodorus

It's this last rule that appears to have done in Diodorus. Carter interprets the picture of the gladiator holding two swords to be a moment in his final fight, when Demetrius had been knocked down and Diodorus had grabbed a hold of his sword.

"Demetrius signals surrender, Diodorus doesn't kill him; he backs off expecting that he's going to win the fight," Carter said.

The battle appears to be over. However the summa rudis — perhaps interpreting Demetrius' fall as accidental, or perhaps with some ulterior motive — thought otherwise, Carter said.

"What the summa rudis has obviously done is stepped in, stopped the fight, allowed Demetrius to get back up again, take back his shield, take back his sword, and then resume the fight."

This time Diodorus was in trouble, and either he died in the arena or Demetrius inflicted a wound that led to his death shortly thereafter.

This event would have happened before a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a theater or in part of an athletic stadium converted into a sort of mini- Colosseum.

After Diodorus was dead, the people who created his tombstone (probably family or friends) were so upset, Carter suggests, that they decided to include some final words on the epitaph:

"Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me."

sábado, 11 de junio de 2011

The Mystery and Beauty of Noctilucent Clouds : Photos

Noctilucent Cloud
This is the time of year to look out for stunning "night-shining clouds," but their origins still baffle scientists.

Frothy Magnetic-Bubble Sea Found at Solar System's Edge

The edge of the solar system may be a frothy sea of giant magnetic "bubbles," a new NASA study says.

The new findings may mean that our system's magnetic barrier—once thought to be a smooth shield—may be letting in more harmful cosmic rays and energetic particles than previously thought.

The new "foam zone" theory is based on a computer model created using data from NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft, both launched in 1977 and currently about 10 billion miles (16 billion kilometers) from Earth.

In 2007 Voyager 1 recorded dramatic dips and rises in the amount of electrons it encountered as the craft traveled through the heliosphere—the "force field" that surrounds the entire solar system and is created by the sun's magnetic field. Voyager 2 made similar observations of these charged particles in 2008.

A NASA computer model suggests the electron readings make sense if it's assumed the spacecraft were entering and exiting magnetic bubbles lining the edges of the heliosphere.

These magnetobubbles should act as electron traps, so the spacecraft would experience higher than normal electron bombardment.

Cosmic Jacuzzi Filled With Magnetic Bubbles?

According to the new model, the bubbles are large—about 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) wide—and shaped "like long sausages," said Merav Opher, an astronomer at Boston University, at a NASA press conference today.

The bubbles might be created by the rotation of the sun, the scientists said.

Like Earth, our sun has a magnetic field with a north pole and a south pole. As the sun spins, this magnetic field—which extends all the way to the edge of the solar system—should get twisted and wrinkled, like a ballerina's skirt.

"Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are now, the folds of the skirt get bunched up," Opher said in a statement.

These "folds" can get broken up into numerous magnetic bubbles, creating a "foam zone" along the edge of the heliosphere.

"It's very bubbly as far as we can tell," Jim Drake, a University of Maryland physicist, said at the press conference. "This entire thing is like the most bubbly part of your Jacuzzi."

Unlike a hot tub's roiling surface, however, the foam zone should be relatively calm, Opher said.

"Inside this sea of bubbles, there are oscillations. ... They are not huge but they are measurable," he said. "I would say it's a quiet turbulence."

Softer Magnetic Shield No Threat to Earth

One implication of the new finding is that the edge of the heliosphere is more like a membrane than a shield against cosmic rays.

Galactic cosmic rays can become temporarily trapped in the foam zone, but they will eventually wander into our system and then zip along the solar magnetic field lines toward the sun and Earth, the researchers say.

"We're living on Earth, so we don't have to worry about, it because we're shielded by a thick atmosphere," Opher explained.

"But if you're an astronaut heading to Mars, you really have to care about the radiation environment in the heliosphere." Cosmic radiation can, among other things, compromise the body's immune system.

The new findings could also affect astronomers' understanding about the environments around other stars.

"What we know abut the heliosphere serves as a model for other stars," Opher said. "So the fact that we're revisiting what we know about the [heliosphere] will mean we will probably have to revisit what we know about other astrosheaths as well."

The research will be detailed in the June 9 issue of Astrophysical Journal.

Nanotechnology Circuits for Wireless Devices: First Wafer-Scale Graphene Integrated Circuit Smaller Than a Pinhead

IBM Research scientists have announced that they have achieved a milestone in creating a building block for the future of wireless devices. In a paper published in the journal Science, IBM researchers announced the first integrated circuit fabricated from wafer-size graphene, and demonstrated a broadband frequency mixer operating at frequencies up to 10 gigahertz (10 billion cycles/second).

Designed for wireless communications, this graphene-based analog integrated circuit could improve today's wireless devices and points to the potential for a new set of appli-cations. At today's conventional frequencies, cell phone and transceiver signals could be improved, potentially allowing phones to work where they can't today while, at much higher frequencies, military and medical personnel could see concealed weapons or conduct medical imaging without the same radiation dangers of X-rays.

Graphene, the thinnest electronic material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms packed in a honeycomb structure, possesses outstanding electrical, optical, mechanical and thermal properties that could make it less expensive and use less energy inside portable electronics like smart phones.

Despite significant scientific progress in the understanding of this novel material and the demonstration of high-performance graphene-based devices, the challenge of integrat-ing graphene transistors with other components on a single chip had not been realized until now, mostly due to poor adhesion of graphene with metals and oxides and the lack of reliable fabrication schemes to yield reproducible devices and circuits.

This new integrated circuit, consisting of a graphene transistor and a pair of inductors compactly integrated on a silicon carbide (SiC) wafer, overcomes these design hurdles by developing wafer-scale fabrication procedures that maintain the quality of graphene and, at the same time, allow for its integration to other components in a complex cir-cuitry.

"Just a few days before IBM commemorates its 100th anniversary, our scientists have achieved a nanotechnology milestone which continues the company's century-long pur-suit of innovation and technology leadership," said T.C. Chen, vice president, Science and Technology, IBM Research. "This research breakthrough has the potential to in-crease the performance of communication devices that enable people to interact with greater efficiency." The breakthrough is also a major milestone for the Carbon Electronics for RF Applica-tions (CERA) program, funded by DARPA.

How it Works

In this demonstration, graphene is synthesized by thermal annealing of SiC wafers to form uniform graphene layers on the surface of SiC. The fabrication of graphene circuits involves four layers of metal and two layers of oxide to form top-gated graphene transis-tor, on-chip inductors and interconnects.

The circuit operates as a broadband frequency mixer, which produces output signals with mixed frequencies (sum and difference) of the input signals. Mixers are fundamental components of many electronic communication systems. Frequency mixing up to 10 GHz and excellent thermal stability up to 125°C has been demonstrated with the graphene integrated circuit.

The fabrication scheme developed can also be applied to other types of graphene mate-rials, including chemical vapor deposited (CVD) graphene films synthesized on metal films, and are also compatible with optical lithography for reduced cost and throughput.

Previously, the team has demonstrated standalone graphene transistors with a cut-off frequency as high as 100 GHz and 155 GHz for epitaxial and CVD graphene, for a gate length of 240 and 40 nm, respectively.

IBM and Nanotechnology Leadership

In the company's 100 year history, IBM has invested in scientific research to shape the future of computing. This announcement is a demonstration of the results garnered by IBM's world-leading scientists and the company's continual investment in and focus on exploratory research.

Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that is expected to spark advances in various fields. These include advanced functional materials, sensing, tools, healthcare, bio-analytics, water purification, energy technology, and more. IBM scientists apply their nanoscience expertise to problems outside of nanoelectronics and help tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time, such as more efficient use of solar energy, and new ways of purifying or desalinating water.

IBM also recently opened the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center -- a facility for world-class nanoscale research recently opened on the campus of IBM Research -- Zu-rich. The building is the centerpiece of a 10-year strategic partnership in nanoscience between IBM and ETH Zurich, one of Europe's premier technical universities, where sci-entists will research novel nanoscale structures and devices to advance energy and in-formation technologies.

Cops Arrest Three Anonymous Members Allegedly Involved in Sony Hack

Spanish authorities announced Friday they have arrested three members of the hacking group Anonymous in connection to attacks against Sony’s online Playstation network and other sites.

The police said the three, whose identities were not disclosed, carried out the attacks from a server based in one of the suspect’s houses in northern Spain, Reuters said.

Anonymous, a loose-knit collective of online griefers, has denied that it participated in the Sony hack, but has publicly taken credit for attacks against PayPal, Visa and others because those institutions declined to transmit donations to the whistleblower site, WikiLeaks.

The hack against Sony’s Playstation site forced the company to shutter its online gaming service for more than a month. Sony Chairman Howard Stringer said Anonymous had attacked the websites of several Sony divisions.

Anonymous recently declared Sony a target to protest the company’s lawsuit against PlayStation 3 tinkerer George Hotz. Sony claimed an Anonymous calling card was found on one of the compromised servers.

But Anonymous said last month that “online thieves” have framed the group insofar as the attacks on Sony were concerned.

The Spanish police said that Anonymous was responsible for hacks of government sites in Algeria, Iran, Egypt and Libya, in addition to two Spanish banks and an Italian energy concern.

Authorities in the United States are also probing the group.

NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Approaches Protoplanet Vesta

ScienceDaily (June 10, 2011) — NASA's Dawn mission to the doughnut-shaped asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which launched in September 2007, is now approaching Vesta, a protoplanet that is currently some 143 million miles from Earth. Many surprises are likely awaiting the spacecraft.

"We often refer to Vesta as the smallest terrestrial planet," said Christopher T. Russell, a UCLA professor of geophysics and space physics and the mission's principal investigator. "It has planetary features and basically the same structure as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. But because it is so small, it does not have enough gravity to retain an atmosphere, or at least not to retain an atmosphere for very long.

"There are many mysteries about Vesta," Russell said. "One of them is why Vesta is so bright. Earth reflects a lot of sunlight -- about 40 percent -- because it has clouds and snow on the surface, while the moon reflects only about 10 percent of the light from the sun back. Vesta is more like Earth. Why? What on its surface is causing all that sunlight to be reflected? We'll find out."

Dawn will map Vesta's surface, which Russell says may be similar to the moon's. He says he expects that the body's interior is layered, with a crust, a mantle and an iron core. He is eager to learn about this interior and how large the iron core is.

Named for the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta has been bombarded by meteorites for 4.5 billion years.

"We expect to see a lot of craters," Russell said. "We know there is an enormous crater at the south pole that we can see with the Hubble Space Telescope. That crater, some 280 miles across, has released material into the asteroid belt. Small bits of Vesta are floating around and make their way all the way to the orbit of Earth and fall in our atmosphere. About one in every 20 meteorites that falls on the surface of Earth comes from Vesta. That has enabled us to learn a lot about Vesta before we even get there."

Dawn will arrive at Vesta in July. Beginning in September, the spacecraft will orbit Vesta some 400 miles from its surface. It will then move closer, to about 125 miles from the surface, starting in November. By January of 2012, Russell expects high-resolution images and other data about surface composition. Dawn is arriving ahead of schedule and is expected to orbit Vesta for a year.

"It's been a long trip," said Russell, who started planning the journey back in 1992. "Finally, the moment of truth is about to arrive."

Vesta, which orbits the sun every 3.6 terrestrial years, has an oval, pumpkin-like shape and an average diameter of approximately 330 miles. Studies of meteorites found on Earth that are believed to have come from Vesta suggest that Vesta formed from galactic dust during the solar system's first 3 million to 10 million years.

Dawn's cameras should be able to see individual lava flows and craters tens of feet across on Vesta's surface.

"We will scurry around when the data come in, trying to make maps of the surface and learning its exact shape and size," Russell said.

Dawn has a high-quality camera, along with a back-up; a visible and near-infrared spectrometer that will identify minerals on the surface; and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer that will reveal the abundance of elements such as iron and hydrogen, possibly from water, in the soil. Dawn will also probe Vesta's gravity with radio signals.

The study of Vesta, however, is only half of Dawn's mission. The spacecraft will also conduct a detailed study of the structure and composition of the "dwarf planet" Ceres. Vesta and Ceres are the most massive objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn's goals include determining the shape, size, composition, internal structure, and the tectonic and thermal evolution of both objects, and the mission is expected to reveal the conditions under which each of them formed.

Dawn, only the second scientific mission to be powered by an advanced NASA technology known as ion propulsion, is also the first NASA mission to orbit two major objects.

"Twice the bang for the buck on this mission," said Russell, who added that without ion propulsion, Dawn would have cost three times as much.

Unlike chemical rocket engines, ion engines accelerate their fuel nearly continuously, giving each ion a tremendous burst of speed. The fuel used by an ion engine is xenon, a gas that is also used in photo-flash units and which is more than four times heavier than air. Xenon ions shoot out the back of the engine at a speed of 90,000 miles per hour.

UCLA graduate and postdoctoral students work with Russell on the mission. Now is an excellent opportunity for graduate students to join the project and help analyze the data, said Russell, who teaches planetary science to UCLA undergraduates and solar and space physics to undergraduates and graduate students.

After orbiting Vesta, Dawn will leave for its three-year journey to Ceres, which could harbor substantial water or ice beneath its rock crust -- and possibly life. On the way to Ceres, Dawn may visit another object. The spacecraft will rendezvous with Ceres and begin orbiting in 2015, conducting studies and observations for at least five months.

Russell believes that Ceres and Vesta, formed almost 4.6 billion years ago, have preserved their early record, which was frozen into their ancient surfaces.

"We're going back in time to the early solar system," he said.

The Dawn mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Team members include scientists from JPL, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Planetary Science Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions.

Scientific partners include the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg, Germany; the DLR Institute for Planetary Research in Berlin; the Freie Universitaet in Berlin; the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome; and the Italian Space Agency.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the Dawn spacecraft.

UCLA is in charge of Dawn's science and public outreach. Russell leads the science team; he and his colleagues make science decisions through the science center at UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. His science team has the lead role in analyzing and interpreting the data from Dawn.

Dawn is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in which scientists find innovative ways to unlock the mysteries of our solar system by answering some of humanity's oldest questions.

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Nearby Galaxy Boasts Two Monster Black Holes, Both Active

A study using NASA's Swift satellite and the Chandra X-ray Observatory has found a second supersized black hole at the heart of an unusual nearby galaxy already known to be sporting one.
The galaxy, which is known as Markarian 739 or NGC 3758, lies 425 million light-years away toward the constellation Leo. Only about 11,000 light-years separate the two cores, each of which contains a black hole gorging on infalling gas.

The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"At the hearts of most large galaxies, including our own Milky Way, lies a supermassive black hole weighing millions of times the sun's mass," said Michael Koss, the study's lead author at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland in College Park (UMCP). "Some of them radiate billions of times as much energy as the sun."

Astronomers refer to galaxy centers exhibiting such intense emission as active galactic nuclei (AGN). Yet as common as monster black holes are, only about one percent of them are currently powerful AGN. Binary AGN are rarer still: Markarian 739 is only the second identified within half a billion light-years.

Many scientists think that disruptive events like galaxy collisions trigger AGN to switch on by sending large amounts of gas toward the black hole. As the gas spirals inward, it becomes extremely hot and radiates huge amounts of energy.

Since 2004, the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) aboard Swift has been mapping high-energy X-ray sources all around the sky. The survey is sensitive to AGN up to 650 million light-years away and has uncovered dozens of previously unrecognized systems. Follow-up studies by Koss and colleagues published in 2010 reveal that about a quarter of the Swift BAT AGN were either interacting or in close pairs, with perhaps 60 percent of them poised to merge in another billion years.

"If two galaxies collide and each possesses a supermassive black hole, there should be times when both black holes switch on as AGN," said coauthor Richard Mushotzky, professor of astronomy at UMCP. "We weren't seeing many double AGN, so we turned to Chandra for help."

Swift's BAT instrument is scanning one-tenth of the sky at any given moment, its X-ray survey growing more sensitive every year as its exposure increases. Where Swift's BAT provided a wide-angle view, the X-ray telescope aboard the Chandra X-ray Observatory acted like a zoom lens and resolved details a hundred times smaller.

For decades, astronomers have known that the eastern nucleus of Markarian 739 contains a black hole that is actively accreting matter and generating prodigious energy. The Chandra study shows that its western neighbor is too. This makes the galaxy one of the nearest and clearest cases of a binary AGN.

The distance separating the two black holes is about a third of the distance separating the solar system from the center of our own galaxy. The dual AGN of Markarian 739 is the second-closest known, both in terms of distance from one another and distance from Earth. However, another galaxy known as NGC 6240 holds both records.

How did the second AGN remain hidden for so long? "Markarian 739 West shows no evidence of being an AGN in visible, ultraviolet and radio observations," said coauthor Sylvain Veilleux, a professor of astronomy at UMCP. "This highlights the critical importance of high-resolution observations at high X-ray energies in locating binary AGN."

The research team also includes Ezequiel Treister and David Sanders at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Kevin Schawinski at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and Ranjan Vasudevan, Neal Miller and Margaret Trippe at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Swift, launched in November 2004, is managed by Goddard. It was built and is being operated in collaboration with Penn State University, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and General Dynamics in Falls Church, Va.; the University of Leicester and Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory in the United Kingdom; Brera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy; plus additional partners in Germany and Japan.

The Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

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jueves, 2 de junio de 2011

DNA Computer Gets Scaled Up

Researchers built a transistor network made up of 74 DNA molecules.
Each circuit takes 30 to 60 minutes to complete a calculation.
The hope is to one day build motors and transistors at a molecular level to help fight disease.

Scientists linked 74 DNA molecules together to perform a square-root computation.

Scientists have long wanted to build motors, transistors and switches at the molecular level with hopes of one day being able to help fight diseases or do amazing mini-feats of engineering.

A group of California researchers say they've made a big step toward that effort in an experiment that linked 74 DNA molecules together to perform a square-root computation.

It's the largest biochemical circuit ever made, and could lead to new ways of building tiny diagnostic tests and new biosensors, according to Erik Winfree, co-author and professor of computer science, computation and neural systems, and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology.

"When the first transistor was built, they could do one," Winfree said. "Then they hooked together 10 into a circuit, now we are at millions. Some information technologies have this scaling property. That's what we are looking for at the biochemical level."

To build these biochemical circuits, Winfree and postdoctoral student Lulu Qian used strands of DNA to make a series of "see-saw gates" that produce on or off signals when responding to contact with another molecule. In a computer, these gates are made with electronic transistors, which are wired together to form circuits on a silicon chip. Winfree and Qian built their biochemical transistor in a test tube. Their work is being published in today's edition of the journal Science.

"Our seesaw reaction using DNA is somewhat analogous to a transistor, except here the signals are concentrations of molecules," Winfree said.

The strands of DNA formed a circuit that can compute the square root of a number up to 15, and round it to the nearest integer. Even though the molecular calculator worked, it took a long time. Because different kinds of chemical molecules interfered with the DNA "seesaw gates," each individual bio-circuit took 30 to 60 minutes to complete, and the whole operation took more than 10 hours.

Winfree says the goal isn't speed but accuracy, and developing the right kind of structure so different kinds of biochemical circuits can follow.

Winfree and his colleagues first built this kind of circuit back in 2006. But he was able to figure out a way to make a simpler connection so the whole process could be expanded successfully. Other experts in the field praised the experiment and said it has given them a roadmap for their work.

"(Winfree) and others have created a field that has enormous potential," said Andy Ellington, professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas.

Ellington's lab is developing a diagnostic test for malaria so that doctors will be able to identify patients in the jungle rather than bringing samples back to a hospital. The test uses a similar chain of biochemical transistors to perform a blood analysis for the malaria parasite. Ellington said Winfree's experiment is good news for the field of DNA computation.

"Seeing that it is possible is important," Ellington said. "It provides design principles for others like myself."