As published by MSNBC.com:
Water ice detected at Mars’ south pole
Europe’s Mars Express finds H2O in unexpected areas
MSNBC staff and news service reports
Updated: 11:46 a.m. ET March 18, 2004
LONDON - Spectral images from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter show that there is plenty of water ice at the southern pole of Mars, French scientists said Wednesday.
Weeks after NASA’s Mars rovers uncovered geologic evidence that liquid water existed on ancient Mars, images from the OMEGA instrument aboard the Mars Express indicate its southern pole has three distinct areas containing water ice.
“We present the first direct identification and mapping of both carbon dioxide and water ice in the Martian high southern latitudes,” Jean-Pierre Bibring of the Institut d’Astrophique Spatiale in Orsay, France, said in a report published online by the science journal Nature.
Farther from the pole
The images were taken at the end of the summer on Mars, so they show that the ice is present all year. Bibring and his colleagues also observed exposed water ice in a region farther from the southern cap, where a large amount of water ice is thought to be buried.
The scientists deciphered the chemical makeup of the pole by studying the amounts of light and heat reflected from the area, allowing them to distinguish between dust, carbon dioxide and water ice.
“All the previous instruments did not have this capability of identifying all the components of what was observed,” Bibring said in a telephone interview.
The scientists will also be analyzing data from the northern pole of Mars, where water ice was previously known to exist.
“We will be in the process in the coming months of evaluating the global surface of water and CO2 (on Mars),” Bibring added.
Following the water
The latest evidence, combined with findings from NASA’s rovers, gives scientists more information about whether the conditions to sustain life existed on Mars in the past and if the planet could support life in the future.
“The answers depend on understanding the past and present distribution of both water and CO2,” Timothy Titus of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., said in a commentary on the research.
Water would be needed to support a human mission to the planet. Determining how much and where the water is located is also necessary to understand Martian climates.
“Human exploration, and ultimate colonization, of Mars depend on accessibility to one resource — water,” said Titus.
“Martian water is necessary not only for human consumption, but is also the key to making breathable air and fuel for the return trip to Earth. For life on Mars, water is the elixir,” he added.
Meanwhile, NASA's Spirit rover spent Wednesday studying a drift of windblown Martian sand or dust on the rim of the Bonneville crater. The golfcart-sized probe used one of its six wheels to "scuff" the surface of the drift, revealing the material beneath the surface. It then made observations of the scuffed area with its cameras and its mini-thermal emission spectrometer.
Scientists planned to look at areas of the drift, nicknamed "Serpent," with Spirit's microscopic imager. The rover would also use its onboard instruments to determine whether the Martian material was more like sand or like dust.
On the other side of the planet, Opportunity ventured away from the bedrock outcropping it has been studying for the past several weeks, then began a survey of the soil close to the rim of the crater where it landed almost two months ago.
NASA's $820 million mission is aimed at documenting evidence that Mars was once wet enough to allow for the development of life. The rovers are more than halfway through the scheduled 90-day primary mission, but managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., say that both spacecraft are healthy and could be in operation for more than 200 days.
This report includes information from Reuters and MSNBC.com.posted at 4:14 PM EDT | Discussion (0)
As published by MSNBC.com:
Rough ride for robots, but humans smiling
$1 million race ends without winners, but not without success
By Alan Boyle
Updated: 10:32 p.m. ET March 14, 2004PRIMM, Nev. - Based on the numbers, the Pentagon’s first-ever robotic road race looks like a bust: No one won the $1 million offered as a prize. In fact, every one of the 15 autonomous vehicles broke down or withdrew within the first four hours of what was expected to be a 10-hour race. The hardiest robot made it through only 7.4 miles of the 142-mile course.
But most of the competitors, as well as the government agency that paid for the DARPA Grand Challenge, hailed Saturday’s event as a success.
“We came this far — we’ve won,” said 17-year-old Chris Seide, a member of the Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors, whose converted SUV crashed into the starting chute’s barriers twice during the morning.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has already gotten a fourfold or fivefold return on its $13 million investment in the yearlong process, said Anthony Tether, DARPA’s director. He said the innovations demonstrated over the past week would help the U.S. military push toward its goal of having a third of its vehicles operate autonomously by 2015.
“We did what we wanted to do,” Tether told journalists in Primm, the intended endpoint of the race, “but that doesn't mean that we aren't going to keep coming back and keep doing this until somebody picks up that million-dollar check.”
Sandstorm, the converted Humvee military vehicle entered by Carnegie Mellon University’s Red Team, was the favorite in the race — and it ended up going the farthest, racking up 7.4 miles. The vehicle, which had suffered a rollover during a practice session last week, hit a couple of posts early on Saturday’s course, and spun out several miles later as it was climbing a rugged switchback.
The failing might have been the result of a sensor glitch that went uncorrected after the earlier rollover, or damage done during the crash on the course, or merely a turn of bad luck. DARPA’s Tether told journalists that if Sandstorm had driven just 6 inches closer to the inboard side of the switchback, it might have kept on going.
Red Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor and the Red Team’s leader, took the apparent mechanical failure in stride.
“If you haven’t done everything, you haven’t done anything,” he told MSNBC.com. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a flipped bit, or a bad sensor, or a lug nut. They’re really all the same.”
He said Sandstorm’s performance showed that the machine had “as much heart as the team.”
“Sandstorm will ride again,” he declared.
The day promised to be a marathon: At 3:20 a.m. PT Saturday, competitors received 229,000 GPS coordinates defining the course between the makeshift starting-line arena in the Mojave Desert, outside Barstow, Calif., and the finish line at Primm, about 35 miles south of Las Vegas.
Whittaker said the team’s computers calculated the first “solution” for the trip within 10 minutes, and had a winning strategy by 4 a.m. Sandstorm also had the advantage of the earliest start, at 6:30 a.m., but by 7:10 a.m. it was all over for the vehicle.
How the robots finished
Red Team: Caught on berm, mile 7.4
SciAutonics II: Stuck on embankment, mile 6.7
Digital Auto Drive: Hung up on rock, mile 6.0
Golem Group: Stopped on hill, mile 5.2
Team Caltech: Went off course, mile 1.3
TerraMax: Could not proceed, mile 1.2
SciAutonics I: Lost route at mile 0.75
Team CIMAR: Caught in wire at mile 0.45
Team ENSCO: Flipped at mile 0.2
Team CajunBot: Brushed wall out of chute.
Palos Verdes hit wall in start area.
Axion circled wrong way in start area.
Virginia Tech's brakes locked up in start area.
TerraHawk, Blue Team withdrew before start.
The ones that followed could do no better: Team SciAutonics II’s converted dune buggy got hung up on an embankment after 6.7 miles. Team D.A.D.’s robo-Toyota truck paused after 6 miles and couldn't get started again. The Golem Group's pickup was stymied by a steep hill after 5.2 miles. Team ENSCO’s buglike all-terrain vehicle zipped down the course’s first straightaway — then flipped over.
Some of the others could hardly get out of the starting chute. The only two-wheeled entrant, the Blue Team’s Ghostrider motorcycle, was withdrawn from the million-dollar competition — and fell over when it was set loose for a just-for-fun demonstration.
On the course, each robot was shadowed by a pickup truck carrying DARPA judges. The judges used wireless "E-Stop" controls to pause or shut off each machine when it got into trouble.
After all the contestants either withdrew or were disqualified, the teams and their vehicles trickled into Primm for post-race festivities. As night fell, Whittaker and his team showed up with a freshly repaired Sandstorm.
DARPA organizers said they wanted to evaluate some of the technologies demonstrated over the past week, and indicated that the Grand Challenge could well be repeated a year or two from now. Air Force Col. Jose Negron, the Grand Challenge’s project manager, marveled at the grass-roots robotics movement that the competition had spawned.
“You had teams collaborating -– ‘my technology for your technology,’” he said. “We can’t wait for this event to be over so we can talk.”
As published by MSNBC.com:
Small asteroid zooming past Earth
Space rock spotted Monday; no threat of collision
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
Updated: 11:39 a.m. ET March 18, 2004An asteroid will pass closer to Earth than ever recorded at 5:08 p.m. ET Thursday, NASA scientists announced. The planet is not at risk, they said.
The space rock is about 100 feet (30 meters) wide.
It will pass just 26,500 miles (43,000 kilometers) over the southern Atlantic Ocean. That's about 3.4 times Earth's diameter. It's also just beyond geostationary weather satellites, which orbit at an altitude of 22,300 miles (35,700 kilometers).
Scientist said experienced backyard stargazers should be able to see it with binoculars or small telescopes from much of Asia, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere if skies are clear.
The object, named 2004 FH, was detected Monday.
"It's a guaranteed miss," astronomer Paul Chodas, of the Near Earth Object Program office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Wednesday.
As it flies past Earth, the path of 2004 FH will be bent about 15 degrees by Earth's gravity. It will zoom from one side of the moon's orbit to the other in 31 hours. Astronomers are swinging telescopes toward the newfound object in what they consider an unprecedented opportunity to study a space rock up close.
An object of this size, were it to take direct aim, would likely break apart or explode in the atmosphere, astronomers say. The result could cause local damage. Something just slightly larger could survive to the surface and destroy a city.
Most asteroids reside in a belt between Mars and Jupiter, orbiting the sun for eons without leaving that general region. But gravitational interactions kick some inward. It is not uncommon for asteroids to pass near the Earth. It is uncommon to spot them.
Prior to this event, the closest known asteroid flyby was on Sept. 27 last year, when another smallish rock named 2003 SQ222 came within 54,700 miles (88,000 kilometers) of Earth. It was not detected until after it hurtled by. Experts say other similarly sized space rocks pass close about once every two years but go undetected.
Smaller boulders routinely plunge into the atmosphere and vaporize or explode, sometimes dropping fragments to the surface and igniting fires and fears.
Earlier this month, astronomers gathered to pondered the risk of small space rocks that typically are not spotted until they are within hours of possible impacts. Asteroid detections have skyrocketed in recent years, meanwhile, as new electronic cameras increase sensitivity and automated telescopes scan the skies for anything that moves in relation to background stars. Researchers say significant new spending would be required to purposely find and track asteroids smaller than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer).
Meanwhile, asteroid hunters have for the past decade or so focused on finding the larger asteroids, those that could cause global damage. They are not set up to spot all of the smaller objects that inhabit the same general space as Earth. There could be millions. Those that are found involve serendipity.
"The important thing is not that it's happening, but that we detected it," JPL astronomer Steve Chesley said of Thursday's flyby.
The newfound asteroid was detected late Monday by the NASA-funded LINEAR asteroid survey in New Mexico. Follow-up observations were made on Tuesday to confirm the course.
The asteroid circles the sun every nine months, according to calculations by Gareth Williams of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass. It swings inside the orbit of Venus and ranges just beyond Earth, moving in roughly the same plane in space through which the planets travel.
Astronomers can't say whether the asteroid might encounter Earth in the future as it continues to orbit the sun.
Spotting 2004 FH will be difficult for most observers. Owing to its proximity, the asteroid's location in the sky will vary greatly depending on a person's exact location on the ground, explains Joe Rao, Space.com's night sky columnist. Seasoned skywatchers can find detailed position information, or ephemeris, at the Minor Planet Center's Web site.
Asteroids aren't the only wanderers to frequent the inner solar system. This spring, two recently found comets are expected to become visible to the naked eye for observers around the world. Meanwhile, casual skywatchers can see all five naked-eye planets right now in the evening sky.
As published by MSNBC.com:
Scientists find new breed of distant ice world
Planetoid orbits at the edge of our solar system
By Alan Boyle
Updated: 6:41 p.m. ET March 15, 2004Scientists say they have found the first example of a new breed in the solar system's menagerie: a planetoid that spends all its time far beyond Pluto, in a chilly region that was once thought to be empty.
The object could be three-quarters the size of Pluto — leading to speculation in early news reports that it represented a "10th planet" in our solar system. But the head of the discovery team, astronomer Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, told journalists Monday that he wouldn't consider the newfound mini-world to be a planet.
Then again, he doesn't consider Pluto to be a major planet either.
Size and distance
The planetoid has not yet been given an official name by the International Astronomical Union, only a number: 2003 VB12. However, Brown and his colleagues have provisionally named it Sedna, after the goddess in Inuit mythology who created sea creatures.
Sedna is thought to be 800 to 1,100 miles (1,200 to 1,700 kilometers) in diameter. That would make it one of the largest objects found in the solar system since Pluto was first spotted in 1930.
What's most distinctive about Sedna, however, is its distance.
"There's absolutely nothing else like it known in the solar system," Brown said.
The mini-planet has an eccentric 10,500-year orbit that ranges between 8 billion and 84 billion miles (12.8 billion and 134 billion kilometers), which is much farther away than the planets and an outlying ring of frozen cosmic leftovers known as the Kuiper Belt.
This led Brown and his colleagues to conclude that Sedna is the first object ever observed in the Oort Cloud, a zone of comets that stretches halfway to the next star.
"If this object were to come into the inner solar system, we would classify it as a comet, and it would be the most spectacular comet anyone had ever seen in their life," he said. "But because it never comes into the inner solar system, it's in that region where comets live before they become comets. That's what the Oort Cloud is."
As far away as Sedna is, scientists didn't expect that anything in the Oort Cloud would be nearly that close to the inner solar system — and that may require a change in theories about the origin of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, Brown said.
He speculated that the sun was created within a star cluster, and that the gravitational effects of the other stars knocked Sedna and other infant worlds out of their original orbits. Today, that star cluster has dispersed, leaving the Oort Cloud as the result of all that ancient interaction.
“Very little has happened to this object since the beginning of the solar system.” Brown said. Thus, Sedna could open "a new fossil window into the solar system."
Brian Marsden, who heads the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, agreed that Sedna's location was a "puzzle," but wasn't sure he agreed with Brown's hypothesis. Marsden said the planetoid could instead have been pushed into its current orbit by an as-yet-undiscovered object on the very fringe of the solar system.
"We need to go perhaps a lot further beyond the orbit of Neptune," Marsden told MSNBC.com. "Are there in fact perturbers there in the plane of the ecliptic, like — I hesitate to use the word — planets? ... It's tempting to think there might be more Earth-size planets out there."
Cold and dark
Sedna was found as the result of a systematic search for slow-moving objects at the edge of solar system, Brown said. Researchers first detected the object last Nov. 14, using a 48-inch (1.2-meter) telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego. Three hours' worth of observation told them that the object was extremely distant, and within days, telescopes in Chile, Spain, Hawaii and Arizona were put on the case, along with NASA's orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope.
Members of the research team, including the Gemini Observatory's Chad Trujillo and Yale University's David Rabinowitz, combined data about the object's temperature, spectral signature and motion to estimate how far away and how big Sedna was.
At Sedna's distance, temperatures would not get higher than 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-280 degrees Celsius), making it the coldest known celestial body in the solar system, Brown told journalists.
"If you were standing on the surface of Sedna today, and you held a pin at arm's length, you could cover up the entire sun with the head of that pin," he said.
He said Sedna appears to be made up of equal portions of ice and rock. Although the object is too small and faraway to be seen as anything more than a speck, it appears to have an unusually red and shiny appearance.
"We're quite frankly baffled as to why that is," he said.
Sedna also seems to rotate every 40 days, leading researchers to speculate that a moon may be circling the planetoid in that period of time. "Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope should put that question to rest very quickly," Brown said.
Why not a planet?
So if Sedna turns out to be almost as big as Pluto, and possess a moon as well, why shouldn't it be considered the 10th planet?
"The reason it's difficult to answer that question is because astronomers don’t have an official definition of what is and what isn't a planet, and the reason ... is because for most of the history of humans there hasn't had to be an official definition," Brown said. It's only been since the discovery of Kuiper Belt objects similar to Pluto that astronomers have had to deal with the controversy. Pluto currently ranks as the biggest known object in the Kuiper Belt.
Brown said he would define a planet as a celestial body that is considerably more massive than other objects traveling in similar orbits around their parent star. In contrast, some of the objects in the Kuiper Belt are more than half Pluto's size, and it may be only a matter of time before astronomers find a Kuiper Belt object about as big as Pluto. "So by my definition, Pluto is not a planet," Brown said.
By the same token, he expected Sedna to fail the planet test.
"Our prediction is that there will be many, many more of these objects found over the next five years or over the next decade," Brown said, "and it will turn out that Sedna in fact is also not the most massive object in its orbit out there."
Marsden agreed that if more objects like Sedna are discovered, that would rule out planethood. But he said his view might be different if Sedna turned out to be the only world of its kind at that distance.
"What would I say it is then?" he asked himself. "Would I use the P-word? That's a tricky one. With a circular low-inclination orbit at, say, 90 AU (Sedna's current distance), I might be more inclined to use the P-word than I would with Pluto."
Marsden said the latest discovery demonstrated the importance of studying the solar system's fringes, with increasingly sensitive telescopes as well as space missions such as New Horizons, which would target Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in 2015. Sedna would be worth visiting as well, Marsden said.
"I'd much rather send an unmanned mission to this object than a manned mission to Mars," Marsden said. "And you can quote me on that."
As published by The Globe and Mail:
Incentive reward games insult adults
We've been reduced to nothing more than consumers and nobody seems to object.
By GWEN RIVERS
Wednesday, March 10, 2004 - Page A22
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I still remember my mother's sudden outburst as she suddenly stopped sticking Pinky Stamps into a book and hurled the thing across the room shouting, "Enough's enough!"
While I was momentarily taken aback by this show of anger, I can't say I was totally surprised. I had been hearing for some time her complaints about the "infantilization" of adults by some mindless and faceless fools whose useless job was to sell unwanted goods to a captive clientele.
When the Pinky Stamp idiocy first started, Mother refused to go along. "I am NOT sitting around pasting little pink stamps into little books!" Most of her friends agreed at first, but after a while, one by one, they caved in.
"We're paying for this, after all," they said. "Nothing is free. So we might as well get what we've paid for."
Reluctantly, Mother followed suit. She'd go off to the grocery store and come back with a trunk full of bags -- and a purse full of the hated stamps. They would pile up until she couldn't stand it any more. Sometimes she'd ask my father and me to help and a few times we did but that seemed to annoy her even more. "Great. A whole family licking stamps," she'd mutter.
Eventually the little books piled up enough that she could redeem the stamps for something. If I remember correctly it was CorningWare of some sort, or something that looked like it. That didn't make her feel better. She'd only grumble, "Am I ever lucky. Now I have pots I didn't need and would never have bought."
Finally the whole thing went beyond her level of tolerance. She picked up the stamp books and the stamps still not pasted, stuffed them into a paper bag and marched purposefully out of the house. When she came back she looked decidedly more cheerful. That evening at dinner, Dad and I got the whole story.
It went something like this: She demanded to see the grocery-store manager, who listened patiently while she explained to him that the stamps were an insult and that she had better things to do with her time. He replied, in an unctuously patronizing manner, that she doesn't have to take them but that, of course, most people are pleased to get the bonuses. She then informed him, and by this time a few people had gathered around, that the stuff was not a "bonus," that it was all factored into the price, and that it was only a way of selling more merchandise to an unsuspecting public. She suggested that he should do all the licking and pasting since he profits from it and his customers don't.
Well, she lost that battle, but she did have the satisfaction of shoving the books and the loose stamps into his unsuspecting arms and informing the now even larger audience that, "They're treating us all like a bunch of idiots." It seems she was not alone in her frustration because it was not long after that the stamps seem to have disappeared.
I wish she were around now to take on the non-stop assault on our human dignity. We've been reduced to the status of consumers and nobody seems to object. Think of the imagery: a creature with a huge mouth and an enormous gut, no brain and no soul. Consumers get points for consuming junk, the more they consume, the more points they get. They can retrieve these if they can remember their PIN numbers because unlike the customers of another era who had names, consumers have numbers. When they've gorged enough, they can consume more, and they seem to believe that these points are bonuses.
Like my mother before me, I don't like this. Unlike my mother, I have no idea what to do. How does one protest now? And to whom? How does one get past the firewall that ensures the consumers never actually talk to a grocery-store manager, the way my mother did. I've been trying for three months to get a new Air Miles card to replace the one I lost. The last time I tried, a disembodied voice told me the waiting time was 13 minutes and suggested other options, all options I didn't want. Everywhere I call, I'm instructed to press buttons and listen to endless instructions without any guarantee that any will get me what we want. If I'm willing to wait, I'm subjected to yet another disembodied voice trying to sell me something.
Surely others feel this way. And yet, there is no consumer rebellion. Men, women and children all press buttons and follow instructions like robots with nothing better to do. They're not customers demanding service, they're consumers attached to some enormous electronic teat that will feed them what it wants, when it wants.
And to think that the women of the 1950s, those much-maligned housewives of yesteryear, had the guts and dignity to tell supermarkets to take their Pinky Stamps and shove them.
The insulting proposition that they should play children's games to win prizes was an affront to their human dignity. How times have changed.
As published by MSNBC.com:
Stewart jurors begin second day of talks
Deliberations delayed one hour following subway accident
The Associated Press
Updated: 11:48 a.m. ET March 04, 2004
NEW YORK - Jurors began their second day of deliberations in the trial of Martha Stewart on Thursday after an hour
Shortly after 11 a.m., four late jurors arrived at the federal courthouse and deliberations for the 12-member panel were once again under way, marshals said. Subway service had been disrupted after a train at a lower Manhattan station hit a person about 9:10 a.m.; the person survived.
When all the jurors were assembled, they planned to use a laptop computer to replay part of the testimony of Stewart’s stockbroker before the Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2002, the judge said.
On Wednesday, its first day of talks, the jury asked to review a considerable amount of evidence, including the testimony of the brokerage assistant who handled Stewart’s sale of ImClone Systems stock.
The jury also asked for another look at a portfolio worksheet that the government claims was doctored by broker Peter Bacanovic to make it appear he and Stewart had agreed to sell ImClone at a certain price.
Whether the price agreement — to sell the ImClone stock at $60 per share — ever existed is central to what the jury must decide: Did Stewart and Bacanovic lie to investigators about the circumstances of the sale?
The government claims Stewart was actually tipped just hours before she sold the stock on Dec. 27, 2001, that ImClone CEO Sam Waksal was unloading his shares in the company.
Stewart’s lawyer concedes she was tipped but claims the $60 agreement was the central reason she sold. He also claims Stewart was telling the truth when she told investigators in April 2002 she had no memory of the Waksal tip.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours Wednesday. They were to return Thursday to study the evidence they requested.
In a note less than two hours after deliberations began, jurors asked to review testimony by Douglas Faneuil, the former Merrill Lynch & Co. assistant who claims Bacanovic ordered him to tip Stewart about Waksal.
Jurors specifically asked for what Faneuil said about his conversations with Bacanovic and Stewart that day. Lawyers spent the afternoon going through stacks of transcripts before settling on what the jury would review.
Faneuil claims he first told Bacanovic on the morning of Dec. 27 about the Waksal family trying to get out of ImClone stock. He claims Bacanovic told him, “Oh, my God, get Martha on the phone.”
Faneuil testified he alerted Stewart later that day about the Waksal selling. He said Stewart asked him twice for a quote on ImClone’s stock price, then ordered him to sell her shares.
The jury seemed to hint in a second note that it was focusing on one particular specification in the indictment — that Bacanovic was deliberately lying when he told investigators he personally handled Stewart’s stock sale.
Faneuil actually handled the sale. Bacanovic corrected himself in a follow-up interview with investigators, but the government contends his original misstatement was part of an attempt to cover up the truth.
The combined charges against Stewart carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. If convicted on any charge, she also would be required to step down as chief creative officer of her media company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Stewart is charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and two counts of making false statements.
Bacanovic is charged with one count of making false statements, making and using false documents, conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice — charges that carry a prison term of up to 25 years.
Under federal guidelines, the sentence for either defendant could be sharply reduced, even to less than a year, if convicted.
The overlapping conspiracy count accuses Stewart and Bacanovic of working together to devise the $60 agreement as a cover story to mislead investigators.
As published by MSNBC.com:
Computer worms overwhelm inboxes
Flood of viruses keep antivirus firms working round-the-clock
By Bob Sullivan
Updated: 7:00 p.m. ET March 01, 2004
Finnish virus researcher Mikko Hypponen had simply had enough on Saturday, and set about lighting the wood to heat the water in his sauna. A relentless stream of new viruses was taking its toll on him and his team, which has been working weekends and late nights for weeks now.
Since the discovery of the Mydoom virus in late January, virus writers have been releasing malicious programs at a furious rate. There are some 15 variations of the Mydoom, Netsky, and Bagle viruses still making the rounds, and taken collectively, virus researchers say our e-mail might be more clogged than ever before. Inboxes around the world are teeming with cryptic notes that have simple messages like "Here is the file," or "I want a reply."
When antivirus companies give names to malicious programs, they add letters to virus names as a way of indicating variants, with NetSky.A being the initial version, NetSky.B the second variation, NetSky.C the third, etc. On Monday, researchers were up to NetSky.E, Bagle.H, and Mydoom.H.
With all the variants running around, it's nearly impossible for consumers to know what they are dealing with. And since most of the viruses come with a randomized file names and included text, it is impossible to tell consumers how to spot the malicious programs with the naked eye.
Hypponen, who works for Finland-based F-Secure Corp., has spent the past month trying to plug up the leaky dam that is the Internet, full of malicious programs. It's a cat and mouse game. He and his team scramble to detect new worms soon after they are released, and then update antivirus software around the world before a new virus has a chance get momentum.
It's a battle the antivirus industry certainly isn't winning, and recently, it might be generous to describe the situation as a stand-off.
On Saturday, Hypponen was determined to grab himself a few moments of peace, and things seemed to have calmed for the moment. But just as the water in his sauna reached soothing temperatures, he received another urgent message. A new version of the Bagle virus was spreading. He had to go to work, again.
"I never got to go in the sauna. That really hurts," Hypponen said. "If you look at the whole last month, it's been bad."
Meanwhile, it's Internet users who find themselves in hot water, trying to sidestep the tiny electronic bombs that keep landing in their inboxes.
New Netsky will play annoying sounds
By Monday, the new version of Bagle wasn't Hypponen's biggest concern any more -- a new version of NetSky, the fourth, called NetSky.D, had become the biggest pest of the day.
That virus, discovered on Monday, probably wins for most annoying feature. It instructs infected machines to play a cryptic audio file for three hours on Tuesday morning -- one that sounds a bit like a 1960s-era science fiction movie computer hard at work.
"I think it's pretty close to the worst time ever ... oh, what's this?" said Vincent Gullotto, a researcher with Network Associates Inc. During his interview with MSNBC.com on Monday, he received word of yet another NetSky variant, NetSky.E.
In the past eight weeks, Network Associates has signaled its internal virus alarm bell, called a "Virus Outbreak Process," 11 times. Ringing the bell means an entire slate of emergency procedures are set in motion: Researchers have to return to their desks in the middle of the night, major customers receive warnings, the press is notified. Eleven alerts is more than Network Associates issued in 2002.
Vincent Weafer, a researcher for Symantec Corp., said his firm has six different viruses currently rated a medium or high risk. Generally, the company averages one or two a month.
"The only thing that compares with this time is last August, when we had Blaster, SoBig, and Welchia at about the same time," he said.
Virus gang warfare?
There are some theories about why virus activity has picked up in recent weeks, but no one's really sure why. The sexiest of these: rival groups of virus writers are engaged in what might be called Internet gang warfare. The NetSky.C virus included a message taunting authors of another worm, according to Network Associates. Buried inside the computer code was the text:
"We are the skynet - you can't hide yourself! - we kill malware writers (they have no chance!) - [LaMeRz-->]MyDoom.F is a thief of our idea! SkyNet AV vs. Malware."
The virus itself disables many of its predecessors.
"There could be some type of competition going on," Gullotto said. "But there's really no evidence of that." The message is hardly definitive, he said.
Weafer thinks the increase is due in part to the overwhelming success of the Mydoom virus, which began its spread during the last week of January.
Mydoom, called the fastest-spreading e-mail virus ever, left hundreds of thousands of computers infected with back-door programs in its wake. Back-doors make PCs readily available to hackers and virus writers, who use them to jump start the launch of new viruses. Other variations have also left PCs vulnerable to this kind of attack, continually making the job of "seeding" a new virus easier.
"They are definitely leveraging the infected machines out there. There is a critical mass, ... a growing number of knowingly compromised machines they can use," Weafer said. Virus writers continue to build on each other's work, as well, making the creation of a new variant as simple as "plug and play, click and hack," Weafer said.
But perhaps most disturbing, Hypponen said, is that virus writers seem to be taking the cat-and-mouse game with antivirus firms to a new level. Generally, new variants for successful worms take days or weeks to appear, making a natural ebb and flow to the antivirus game, giving researchers time to come up with fixes for each new worm. But the author of the Bagle worm, for example, seems ready with a new variation the moment antivirus firms post their definitions foiling the worm. There have been five new versions of Bagle since Friday night, Hypponen said.
"Whoever is behind it is sitting around waiting for us to respond," Hypponen said. "If the target is to exhaust the antivirus people, he's succeeding at it. My team is really tired. We are working through the night and the weekends."
The best way for consumers to protect themselves is to direct a healthy dose of skepticism at every unexpected e-mail, perhaps more than usual. Terse, awkward-sounding notes should be a tip-off. Suspicious messages should be handled with care, or deleted immediately. Frequently updated antivirus software can also help.
As published by MSNBC.com:
Gunmen attack Shiite procession in Pakistan
At least 41worshippers killed, more than 150 wounded
The Associated Press
Updated: 11:28 a.m. ET March 02, 2004
QUETTA, Pakistan - Armed men set off an explosion and opened fire on Shiite Muslim worshippers during a religious procession in southwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, killing at least 41 people and wounding more than 150 others, authorities said.
The attackers struck in Quetta on the Ashoura holiday — the holiest day in the Shiite calendar — just hours after a series of coordinated blasts in Iraq hit major Shiite Muslim shrines in Karbala and Baghdad, killing at least 143 people. There was no indication the attacks were connected.
The attacks in Quetta ignited rioting in the city. A Sunni Muslim mosque, a television network office and several shops were set afire, and an exchange of gunfire took place near the scene of the initial attack, police said.
Mohammed Wasim, a doctor at the Central Government Hospital in Quetta, said the facility had received 19 bodies. The Combined Military Hospital reported 22 bodies were brought in since the attack early Tuesday afternoon.
A senior intelligence official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that authorities had separated the remains of one of the suspected attackers, and there was evidence he may have blown himself up.
Qamar Zaman, an assistant police inspector in Quetta, said more than 150 people had been injured, some of them critically.
Attack believed aimed at destabilization
Government officials said the carnage was an effort by extremist groups to destabilize the country. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been a staunch ally of the U.S. war on terrorism, earning the ire of Islamic fundamentalists. He narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in December.
“Obviously, the purpose of this attack was to create unrest,” Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told the Associated Press. “This is a very sad incident and we condemn it.”
Quetta Mayor Abdul Rahim Kakar told the AP he had imposed an immediate curfew in the city of 1.2 million and deployed troops and paramilitary forces to maintain law and order.
“I was present near the procession when we first heard an explosion and then some people fired shots,” he said. “We still do not know what kind of explosion it was.”
No arrests have been made.
Gunshots continued to ring out in the city after the killings, said Khyzar Hayyat, a local police official.
‘The situation is very bad’
“The situation is very bad,” he said. “I can hear gunshots.”
Riaz Khan, Quetta’s police chief, said a Sunni mosque was partially destroyed by fire. Ijaz Khan, a reporter for the private GEO television network, said six unidentified people entered the GEO office there and set it afire. The office was empty and no one was injured.
Last week, the network televised a talk show that allegedly aired offensive comments against Shiites.
Quetta was the site of one of the deadliest acts of sectarian violence in years in Pakistan. Attackers armed with machine-guns and grenades stormed a Shiite Muslim mosque there in July, killing 50 worshippers inside.
Allama Hassan Turabi, a senior Pakistani Shiite leader, demanded that Muarraf — who has repeatedly vowed to defeat extremism in the Islamic country — sack government officials, including the interior minister, for failing to prevent Tuesday’s attack.
“This is not the first attack against us. Our people are not safe at homes. They are not safe in mosques,” he said by telephone from Karachi.
2 killed in Shiite-Sunni clash in Punjab
Also on Tuesday, two people — one Shiite and one Sunni — were killed and 40 other people wounded in a clash between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Phalia, a town in Punjab province, about 100 miles east of Islamabad, said local police official Nisar Ali Shah.
The shootout happened during a Shiite procession and people from the two sides then set several houses on fire, Shah said.
Security had been stepped up nationwide in anticipation of Muharram, a month of mourning when Shiite Muslims recall the seventh-century death of Hussein, grandson of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.
Shiites mark the occasion with religious processions, wearing black clothes as a sign of mourning and whipping themselves in a sign of penitence over Hussein’s death.
Most of Pakistan’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims live peacefully together, but small radical groups on both sides are responsible for frequent attacks. About 97 percent of Pakistan’s population is Muslim, and Sunnis outnumber Shiites by a ratio of about 4-to-1.
Ahmed, the information minister, said Tuesday that authorities would seize any literature that was likely to incite sectarian violence.
As published by MSNBC.com:
Blasts kill at least 143 at Iraqi Shiite shrines
Attacks in Baghdad, Karbala add up to bloodiest day since war's end
MSNBC News Services
Updated: 12:21 p.m. ET March 02, 2004
KARBALA, Iraq - Simultaneous explosions ripped through crowds of worshippers Tuesday at Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala, killing at least 143 in the bloodiest day since the end of major fighting in Iraq, a U.S. official said. A third plot in the southern city of Basra was pre-empted with the arrests of four suicide bombers, police sources told The Associated Press.
The explosions in Baghdad and Karbala came during the Shiite festival of Ashoura and coincided with a bombing and shooting attack on Shiite worshippers in Quetta, Pakistan, that killed at least 41 people and wounded more than 150.
The attacks in Karbala and on the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad used a combination of suicide bombers and planted explosives, along with mortars fired elsewhere in Karbala, U.S. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad. He said two people were being held in Karbala in connection with the attacks.
The death toll rose steadily in the hours after the near simultaneous attacks.
Three suicide bombers set off their explosives in and around Baghdad's Kazimiya shrine, killing 58 and wounding 200, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters. At least one suicide attacker blew himself up and pre-set explosives went off in Karbala, killing 85 and wounding more than 100, he said.
A fourth suicide bomber whose explosives did not detonate was captured at Kazimiya, and four people were arrested in connection to the attack in Karbala, which also involved mortar fire, Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad.
An Iranian Interior Ministry official told Reuters that between 40 and 50 of the dead were Shiite pilgrims from Iran who traveled to Iraq for the festival.
Basra attack averted
A third attack in Basra was averted with the arrests of two men and two women, the police sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP.
The men men -- a Syrian and an Iraqi -- were arrested after a car bomb was found outside the Seyed Ali al-Musawi Mosque in central Basra, they said.
Tens of thousands of worshipers were in the area when the bombers were discovered just after noon.
Later in the day, in the al-Maqal neighborhood of Basra, police arrested two women who were wearing explosives-laden belts as the marched in a procession to mark Ashoura.
The attacks sparked a wave of Shiite outrage -- much of it directed at U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital. U.S. soldiers who arrived at Kazimiya were attacked by angry crowds throwing stones and garbage, injuring two Americans.
Jordanian linked to al-Qaida called ‘prime suspect’
"This is the work of Jews and American occupation forces," a loudspeaker outside Kazimiya blared. Inside, cleric Hassan Toaima told an angry crowd, "We demand to know who did this so that we can avenge our martyrs."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks. But Kimmitt, the U.S. general, called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed to be linked to al-Qaida and bent on fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq, a “prime suspect.” U.S. officials have said that Zarqawi was planning spectacular attacks on Shiites aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
“This is a message from Zarqawi to the Iraqi people,” Rubaie told CNN from Baghdad. “We will not react in a sectarian way and his (Zarqawi’s) intention of fomenting civil war in this country will not be successful.”
Another council member, Adnan Pachachi, suggested that the signing of a newly agreed interim constitution for Iraq, which had been expected on Wednesday, would be delayed until after a three-day period of national mourning.
U.S. intelligence officials have long been concerned about the possibility of militant attacks on the Ashoura festival, and coalition and Iraqi forces bolstered security around Karbala and other Shiite-majority towns in the south during the pilgrimage.
Last month, U.S. officials released what they said was a letter from Zarqawi outlining a strategy of spectacular attacks on Shiites, aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
Also Tuesday, insurgents threw a grenade into a U.S. Army Humvee as it drove down a Baghdad road, killing one 1st Armored Division soldier and wounding another.
The death brings to 548 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the United States launched the Iraq war in March. Most have died since President Bush declared an end to active combat May 1.
Blame falls on U.S., al-Qaida, Sunni extremists
Following the blasts at the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad, panicked men and women, dressed in black, fled screaming and weeping as ambulances raced to the scene.
Angry mobs hurled stones at U.S. troops who later pulled into the square outside Kazimiya in Humvees and an armored vehicle.
Crowds of enraged survivors swarmed nearby hospitals, some blaming Americans for stirring up religious tensions by launching the war, others blaming al-Qaida or Sunni extremists.
Some witnesses at Kazimiya said the blasts were carried out by suicide bombers. The Kazimiya shrine in northern Baghdad contains the tombs of two other Shiite saints, Imam Mousa Kazem and his grandson Imam Muhammad al-Jawad.
The Ashoura festival, which marks the 7th century killing of Imam Hussein, is the most important religious period in Shiite Islam and draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other Shiite communities to the Iraqi shrines.
In Beirut, a spokesman for Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, blamed American soldiers for the attacks, saying they were responsible for the security. Sheik Hamed Khafaf said U.S. officials had ignored repeated requests to bolster security for the pilgrims.
Shiite cleric Sheik Sayyed Akeel al-Khatib said the explosions, "especially those at Kazimiya," were perpetrated by suicide bombers. "These means they came from abroad and were not Iraqis," he told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV.
Explosions strike Karbala
The Karbala blasts struck near the golden-domed shrine where Imam Hussein is buried, in a neighborhood of several pilgrimage sites. After the blasts, Shiite militiamen tried to clear the terrified crowds, firing guns into the air. Two more blasts went off about a half-hour later.
"We were standing there (next to the mosques) when we heard an explosion. We saw flesh, arms legs, more flesh. Then the ambulance came," said Tarar, an 18-year-old, giving only one name.
Two armed Iraqi policemen broke down in tears as they walked through the bomb site.
Iraqi militia initially tried to control the crowd and arrested two men the crowd attempted to lynch. Rumors swirled throughout the city as to the cause of the blasts, ranging from mortars fired from outside the town to suicide bombers in the crowd.
One witness said a bomb was hidden near the mosque.
"Many Iranians were killed, I was 10 yards away, it was hidden under rubbish," one witness, identifying himself only as Sairouz, said.
Kazimiya shrine targeted
The Kazimiya blasts went off inside the shrine's ornately tiled walls and outside in a square packed with street vendors catering to pilgrims. The street outside Kazimiya was littered with picnic baskets brought by pilgrims and thousands of shoes and sandals belonging to worshippers who had been praying inside the shrine.
The courtyard inside the shrine was strewn with torn limbs.
Hundreds of gunmen swarmed inside and outside the walled shrine as men wept. A U.S. helicopter hovered over the shrine. Black mourning banners traditional in Ashoura celebrations hung in tatters. Posters of prominent Shiite clerics were stained with blood.
"How is it possible that any man let alone a Muslim man does this on the day of al-Hussein," said Thaer al-Shimri, a member of the Shiite Al-Dawa party. "Today war has been launched on Islam."
As published by MSNBC.com:
Aristide still casts shadow in unsettled Haiti
Rebels roll into capital as U.S. denies kidnapping claim
The Associated Press
Updated: 9:43 a.m. ET March 02, 2004PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The aftershocks of President Jean Bertrand Aristide’s departure from Haiti echoed from the streets of Port-Au-Prince to Washington, D.C., as rebels refused to fade into the background and accusations of a coup dogged American officials.
U.S. Marines and French troops secured key sites around the capital on Monday, and rebels rolled into the capital to cheering crowds as Haiti’s bloody uprising moved from the streets to the political arena.
Aristide, currently in the Central African Republic, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday that he was “forced to leave” Haiti by U.S. military forces. He added that they would “start shooting and be killing” if he refused, but it was unclear if he was referring to rebels or U.S. agents.
American officials dismissed Aristide’s claim. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the allegations “absolutely baseless, absurd.” U.S. officials acknowledged privately, however, that Aristide was told that if he remained in Haiti, U.S. forces would not protect him from the rebels who wanted to arrest him and put him on trial for corruption and murder.
In the Central African Republic, Aristide is being guarded by French soldiers, France’s defense minister said Tuesday. “It is simply so his transitional stay in the Central African Republic unwinds in normal conditions,” Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said.
France does not intend to control his “comings and goings,” Alliot-Marie said.
Aristide and the president of the Central African Republic, Francois Bozize, were expected to discuss plans for the ousted Haitian leader’s final asylum plans in an as-yet-unknown third country later Tuesday, Communications Minister Parfait Mbaye said.
U.S. plans for a quiet, orderly transition appeared threatened, despite the arrival of hundreds of American, French and Canadian soldiers as an interim peacekeeping force.
Rebels who had promised to lay down their arms if their main demand — Aristide’s resignation — was met, instead swaggered into the capital, hinting they were here to stay. They said they would just tolerate police and international peacekeepers, while enforcing their own kind of justice.
One young rebel standing outside the meeting freely told a reporter he had shot looters Sunday and predicted militant members of Aristide’s Lavalas party would be executed.
“I shot some looters yesterday. They have to be shot,” said the rebel, who goes by the nom-de-guerre “Faustin.”
“There are some very minimal numbers of Lavalas who cannot be saved,” said the fighter.
“We don’t need peacekeepers, we need military help. We need more guns,” said second-tier rebel leader Paul Arcelin, as the motley crew of former police and military officers settled into the police headquarters in front of the National Palace, patrolled by U.S. Marines just a few hundred feet away.
They said they intended to return the old building to its previous function as army headquarters, revive the army that ousted Aristide in 1991 and that he disbanded in 1995, and enforce a curfew.
Meanwhile, the prospect of peacekeepers — the other arm of U.S. strategy — appeared reduced to a minimal expression, with Marine Col. Dave Berger announcing that his 200 troops would not disarm rebels or the pro-Aristide militants and they would not police the city.
And the civilian opposition raised concerns about an orderly transition when some of its leaders showed a near adoration for the rebels and contempt for an international transition plan.
The only encouraging sign was the relief among people in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Callers flooded talk radio programs with appeals for rebel help from people in neighborhoods still dominated by the pro-Aristide gangs that had terrorized the city.
Scattered looting continued, police cleared the city of barricades, but gunfire continued to crackle in some neighborhoods and bound, executed bodies showed up in the streets.
In the capital, there were reports of reprisal killings of Aristide supporters who had been accused of terrorizing people during his rule. An Associated Press reporter saw four bodies at Carrefour, on the outskirts of the capital, three of them with hands tied and shot in the head.
Powell said he did not want some rebel leaders to take any role in a new government.
“Some of these individuals we would not want to see re-enter civil society in Haiti because of their past records, and this is something we will have to work through,” Powell said.
Amnesty International called Monday for international peacekeepers to arrest rebel leaders Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former death squad leader convicted of murders while he was in exile, and Jean Pierre Baptiste, also known as Jean Tatoune, who escaped from jail after being sentenced to two life sentences in the 1994 massacre of 15 Aristide supporters.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 U.S. troops would go to Haiti for a “relatively short period.” They would participate in an interim force, which could include as many as 5,000 troops from several countries, that would stay until replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force.
There were no clashes between the rebel force and the U.S. and French troops, who were establishing security at diplomatic missions and other sites.
Aristide’s home in the suburb of Tabarre, meanwhile, was looted and trashed, but he continued to cast a long shadow over Haiti. timeline History of Haiti
Terms of his resignation
Questions were raised about whether Aristide resigned of his own accord or was forced out by the United States.
Aristide abruptly left Haiti early Sunday and was flown aboard a contracted U.S.-government plane to the impoverished Central African Republic.
With rebels closing in on the capital, Aristide may have felt his life was in danger. After he left, thousands converged on the plaza outside the National Palace, shouting “Liberty!” and “Aristide is gone!” as a 70-man rebel convoy arrived from the western town of Gonaives, where the rebellion erupted on Feb. 5. At least 100 people have died in the uprising.
Civilian opposition leaders met with rebels for hours at a Port-au-Prince hotel Monday. The opposition, angered by poverty, corruption and crime, had pushed for Aristide to leave for the good of Haiti’s 8 million people — but had distanced themselves from the rebels.
Industrialist Charles Henry Baker, a member of the broad-based opposition coalition that includes business associations and civic groups, said he welcomed an offer by the rebels to help maintain order amid reports of continued looting in the capital.
Col. Berger, head of the U.S. Marine contingent, said 200 Marines from the 8th Battalion, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., wouldn’t have much contact with Haiti’s demoralized National Police, one of the remaining institutions.