Thursday, August 19, 2010

Zombie ants

The oldest evidence of a fungus that turns ants into zombies and makes them stagger to their death has been uncovered by scientists.

The gruesome hallmark of the fungus's handiwork was found on the leaves of plants that grew in Messel, near Darmstadt in Germany, 48m years ago.

The finding shows that parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control the creatures they infect in the distant past, even before the rise of the Himalayas.

The fungus, which is alive and well in forests today, latches on to carpenter ants as they cross the forest floor before returning to their nests high in the canopy.

The fungus grows inside the ants and releases chemicals that affect their behaviour. Some ants leave the colony and wander off to find fresh leaves on their own, while others fall from their tree-top havens on to leaves nearer the ground.

The final stage of the parasitic death sentence is the most macabre. In their last hours, infected ants move towards the underside of the leaf they are on and lock their mandibles in a "death grip" around the central vein, immobilising themselves and locking the fungus in position.

"This can happen en masse. You can find whole graveyards with 20 or 30 ants in a square metre. Each time, they are on leaves that are a particular height off the ground and they have bitten into the main vein before dying," said David Hughes at Harvard University.

The fungus cannot grow high up in the canopy or on the forest floor, but infected ants often die on leaves midway between the two, where the humidity and temperature suit the fungus. Once an ant has died, the fungus sprouts from its head and produces a pod of spores, which are fired at night on to the forest floor, where they can infect other ants.

Scientists led by Hughes noticed that ants infected with the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, bit into leaves with so much force they left a lasting mark. The holes created by their mandibles either side of the leaf vein are bordered by scar tissue, producing an unmistakable dumb-bell shape.

Writing in the journal, Biology Letters, the team describes how they trawled a database of images that document leaf damage by insects, fungi and other organisms. They found one image of a 48m-year-old leaf from the Messel pit that showed the distinctive "death grip" markings of an infected ant. At the time, the Messel area was thick with subtropical forests.

"We now present it as the first example of behavioural manipulation and probably the only one which can be found. In most cases, this kind of control is spectacular but ephemeral and doesn't leave any permanent trace," Hughes said.

"The question now is, what are the triggers that push a parasite not just to kill its host, but to take over its brain and muscles and then kill it."

He added: "Of all the parasitic organisms, only a few have evolved this trick of manipulating their host's behaviour.

Why go to the bother? Why are there not more of them?"

Scientists are not clear how the fungus controls the ants it infects, but know that the parasite releases alkaloid chemicals into the insect as it consumes it from the inside.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How good planning can make us slimmer, fitter, safer and less lonely

Turning Estates into Villages

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th August 2010

It took me a while to recognise what I was seeing. It was an ordinary campsite in Pembrokeshire: a square field with tents around the perimeter. But it had a curious effect on the children staying there. Young people who had seldom experienced daylight slowly emerged from their tents and were drawn towards the centre of the field. Bats and balls left on the grass mysteriously appeared in their hands. Children with no prior interest in sport started playing football, cricket and rounders. Little kids ran around with older ones. As children of all classes played together, their parents started talking to each other. It hit me with some force: we had reinvented the village green.

We are, to a surprising extent, what the built environment makes us. Academic papers show that many of the problems we blame on individual behaviour are caused in part by the places in which we live. People are more likely to help their neighbours in quiet areas, for example, than in noisy ones(1). A long series of studies across several countries, beginning in San Francisco in 1969, shows unequivocally that communities become weaker as the volume of traffic on their streets increases(2,3).

Other papers show that people’s use of shared spaces is strongly influenced by the presence of trees: the more trees there are, the more time people spend there and the larger the groups in which they gather(4,5). A further study shows that, partly as a result, vegetation in common spaces strengthens the neighbourhood’s social ties(6). In greener places, people know more of their neighbours, are more likely to help each other and have stronger feelings of belonging. Social isolation is strongly associated with an absence of green spaces(7).

One fascinating paper shows that crime rates are also strongly affected by vegetation. In housing projects in Chicago with equal levels of poverty, taking account of factors such as the size of the buildings and the vacancy rate, there’s a clear association between the absence of greenery and both property crime and violent crime(8).

Another set of studies demonstrates a relationship between urban planning and body mass index. Where settlements are dense (and therefore able to support public transport) and close to shops, work places and recreation places, people are more likely to walk and cycle and less likely to be fat(9). One paper shows that women living in mixed places (where houses and amenities are close together) have a risk of coronary heart disease 20% lower than women living in areas which contain only houses(10). Suburban sprawl is partly to blame for obesity.

Build loose suburbs carved up by busy roads and without green spaces and you help to create a population of fat, lonely people plagued by criminals. Build dense, leafy settlements with mixed uses, protected from traffic, and you help to create safe, fit and friendly communities.

In Sunday’s Observer the doctor Steve Field blamed public health problems squarely and solely on sufferers and their parents(11). It’s true that we must take as much responsibility as we can for our health. But Field, like most conservatives, ignores the social and political context, condemning people for problems they cannot tackle alone. He lambasts us for eating junk food, for example, while saying nothing about manufacturers who ensure that it’s as addictive as the regulations allow(12). He suggests that we should encourage children to get outside and play games. Of course we should, but if there is no safe place nearby in which they can do so we’re wasting our breath.

Here’s one picture of what a fit, safe and functional community might look like. There’s nothing either radical or new about it: similar developments have been built for centuries (and most have now been monopolised by the rich). Houses or apartment blocks are built densely around a square of shared green space. It is big enough for playing ball games, but without fixed goal posts, allowing both children and adults to define the space for themselves. It could contain trees; perhaps some rocks or logs to climb on. There might be a corner of uncut meadow, or flowerbeds or fruit bushes: the space will work best when it is designed and managed by the people who live there.

Most importantly, the houses face inwards, and no cars are allowed inside the square: the roads serve only the backs of the buildings. The square is overlooked by everyone, which means that children can run in and out of their houses unsupervised, create their own tribes and learn their own rules, without fear of traffic accidents or molesters. They have a place in which to run wild without collecting ASBOs.

There’s a council estate a bit like this across the road from my house. Whenever I pass through it on a dry day in the holidays, I see dozens of children playing there. On the other estates here you seldom see children out of doors, for the obvious reason that there is nowhere to play. Proximity is everything: if a park is far away, most families won’t go there(13). Walking across a city with a small child is no one’s idea of entertainment.

Those who need such spaces most are the socially excluded. Because of poverty, unemployment and poorer health, they leave their neighbourhoods less often than the affluent(14). But they tend to have the least access to green spaces. A study of Greater Manchester, for example, shows that wealthy parts of the city have tree cover of around ten per cent, the poor neighbourhoods just two per cent(15). Housing built around village greens need be no more expensive and no less dense: just better planned and better regulated.

Instead, whenever I visit a new estate, I see only lost opportunities: houses that turn their backs on each other; spaces that should be dedicated to playing reserved instead for parking; loneliness and exclusion built into the plan. We have allowed property developers and weak planning to define who we are and what we shall become. As the government launches a new scheme for ensuring that more houses are built(16), we must demand that it recognises a truth all these studies point to: that there is such a thing as society.


1. This was first documented by S Cohen and A Lezak, 1977. Noise and inattentiveness to social cues. Environment and Behavior, 9, 559-572.

2. D Appleyard, 1969. The Environmental Quality of City Streets: The Residents’
Viewpoint. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, pp. 84-101.

3. Subsequent work on this issue is summarised and reviewed here:

Joshua Hart, April 2008. Driven to Excess: impacts of motor vehicle traffic on residential quality of life in Bristol, UK.

4. RL Coley, FE Kuo and WC Sullivan, 1997. Where does community grow? The social context created by nature in urban public housing. Environment and Behavior, 29, 468-492.

5. S DePooter, 1997. Nature and neighbors: Green spaces and social interactions in the inner city. Unpublished master thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Cited by FE Kuo et al (see below).

6. FE Kuo et al, 1998. Fertile Ground for Community: Inner-City
Neighborhood Common Spaces. American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 6.

7. ibid.

8. FE Kuo and WC Sullivan, May 2001. Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime? Environment and Behavior vol. 33 no. 3 343-367
doi: 10.1177/0013916501333002

9. Andrew Rundle et al, 2007. The Urban Built Environment and Obesity in New
York City: A Multilevel Analysis. American Journal of Health Promotion, pp 326-334

This paper also summarises several similar studies.

10. Lee R Mobley et al, April 2006. Environment, Obesity, and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Low-Income Women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 30, Issue 4, Pages 327-332.e1. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2005.12.001


12. See David A. Kessler, 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Rodale Press.

13. AE Kazmierczak and P James, 2007 cite research which suggests that ” for most people the distance between 500m and 1km is the furthest they would walk to a park”.

The Role of Urban Green Spaces in Improving Social Inclusion.

14. A.E. Kazmierczak, P. James, ibid.

15. B Rudlin, and N Falk, 1999. Building the 21st century home, Architectural Press, Oxford, cited by A.E. Kazmierczak, P. James, ibid.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

BMP vs Motat

we rode a tram, not unlike this one... but it was going, amazing scenes

we asked about a victory loan... but out boys in Afganistan aren't winning...

I tried to kidnap an old man for train building duties in the neighbours gargae loft... sure the girl who lives there wouldn't mind

MOTAT is free to aucklanders all of August... small children and old men are advised to go...

Please be warned, if you think its a day filled with hot dogs, candy canes and floss thats pink... think again... there be men with lathes and metal and small people who used to chase goats

it as an education

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Our politicians owed our soldiers the promise their deaths were for a worthy cause

Our youth sent to die for politics, not freedom

By Matt McCarten 5:30 AM Sunday Aug 8, NZ Herald

The body of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell arrived in New Zealand today. Photos / Getty Images, SuppliedIt was only a matter of time before a New Zealand soldier was killed in Afghanistan.

The family of Tim O'Donnell is devastated, of course, and the families of Matthew Ball and Allister Baker have the dubious consolation that at least their sons are only injured.

Predictably our politicians fell over themselves in Parliament to express their condolences to the soldiers' families and praised their bravery. Phil Goff echoed all the party leaders when he intoned that he wouldn't be invoking politics into the tragedy.

What bunk. It was politics that has sent hundreds of our youth to death's door. The killing this week was only a matter of when, not if.

After 9/11, our politicians (with the honourable exception of the Green Party) competed to fawn over that blockhead George W Bush.

We couldn't wait to step in line when Bush threatened: "You are either with us or the terrorists."

The small matter that all but one of the 9/11 suicide hijackers were Saudis was never mentioned.

The Afghan government at the time was ignored when it offered to hand over the spiritual head of al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, to a neutral country.

So off we marched into a quagmire of our own making and have been at a loss to know how we could get out without being seen as defeated.

The pretext for war was fighting terrorism, capturing the Taleban head Mullah Oman and killing Bin Laden.

After nine years, none of these objectives has been achieved. Oman and Bin Laden are safely domiciled in Pakistan and terrorism continues unabated.

The most optimistic estimate of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan is 50. To fight them there are more than 100,000 foreign troops. That's 2000-to-one odds. Even New Zealand has five times that number.

The United States-installed government is riddled with corruption and lacks public support. The puppet President, Hamid Karzai, is restricted to the capital, which is guarded by Western mercenaries.

He is scornfully referred as the "mayor of Kabul". Even that overstates his territory.

As we did in Vietnam, New Zealand has become the witting plaything of US imperialism and trapped in a civil war that protects an unpopular, corrupt regime without an exit strategy.

No one believes our occupation of Afghanistan will succeed.

Sooner or later the mightiest army in history will leave with its tail between its legs.

While we pretend we are fighting against terrorism, for freedom and democracy, the Taleban resistance (once funded by the US) believes it is fighting a nationalist war of independence against invaders. They are right and, because of that, they will beat us.

Having our non-SAS contingent there to rebuild infrastructure at the same time we are destroying other parts of the country is merely a propaganda stunt and makes our politicians feel better about our involvement.

Of course, elements of the Taleban are brutal and monstrous to their own people. But that's not the reason we are there. Our presence isn't needed for military purposes, it's to build good will with our US ally in the hope of a free trade deal and other associated considerations.

Nine years ago, when the then Labour government voted to join the invasion of Afghanistan, a majority of the Alliance Party caucus and party opposed it.

The internal rift caused an implosion with leader Jim Anderton and his pro-war supporters decamping to the Labour Party. The rest of us got wiped out for our stubbornness.

Anderton couldn't understand why the killing of Afghans was such a bottom line for us. The thought of a Kiwi being killed by his decision never occurred to him.

So to all those MPs who voted to send Tim O'Donnell to his death, I want you to know you have his blood dripping from your hands.

A soldier is trained to kill others and accepts he or she may also be killed.

But politicians owed our soldiers the promise their deaths were for a worthy cause. O'Donnell's death wasn't.

if it ain't got that swing

Thursday, August 05, 2010

I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans -- men of extraordinary dignity- who have seen all this before

New Zealand mourns the loss of one of our own in Afganistan... a man who did his job with pride and loyalty....

But what was it for?

Questions our govt and media refuse to answer in any meaningful manner

I say get our people out - let's be the natin we can and stop supporting this war of aggression on a nation whose people require our support to get up

Lets stop holding them down

Rest in peace Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell

I'd mrder that son of a gun in the first degree

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

An unscanned friend...a potential zombie.

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An unscanned friend...a potential zombie.

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I don't reckon they hinder your health