Instinct? Even birds have to learn!

New study says birds learn how to build nests

A southern masked weaver bird building a nest
A new study has found birds learn the art of nest-building, rather than it being just an instinctive skill.

Researchers from Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews Universities studied film of southern masked weavers recorded by scientists in Botswana.

This colourful species was chosen because individual birds build many complex nests in a season.

Dr Patrick Walsh of Edinburgh University said the study revealed “a clear role for experience”.

The research has been published in the Behavioural Processes journal.

Individual birds varied their technique from one nest to the next and there were instances of birds building nests from left to right as well as from right to left.

Even for birds, practice makes perfect”

Dr Patrick WalshUniversity of Edinburgh

As birds gained more experience, they dropped blades of grass less often.

“If birds built their nests according to a genetic template, you would expect all birds to build their nests the same way each time. However, this was not the case,” added Dr Walsh.

“Southern Masked Weaver birds displayed strong variations in their approach, revealing a clear role for experience.

“Even for birds, practice makes perfect.”


Can particles travel faster than light speed?

GENEVA — Physicists on the team that measured particles traveling faster than light said Friday they were as surprised as their skeptics about the results, which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them.

Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world’s foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein.

In this Tuesday, March 30, 2010 file photo, the globe of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, is illuminated outside Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists at CERN, the world’s largest physics lab, say they have clocked subatomic particles, called neutrinos, traveling faster than light, a feat that, if true, would break a fundamental pillar of science, the idea that nothing is supposed to move faster than light, at least according to Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity: The famous E (equals) mc2 equation. That stands for energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. The readings have so astounded researchers that they are asking others to independently verify the measurements before claiming an actual discovery.

 “To our great surprise we found an anomaly,” said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team.
An anomaly is a mild way of putting it.

Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. The speed of light — 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) — has long been considered a cosmic speed limit.

The team — a collaboration between France’s National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research and Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory — fired a neutrino beam 454 miles (730 kilometers) underground from Geneva to Italy.

They found it traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than light. That’s sixty billionth of a second, a time no human brain could register.

“You could say it’s peanuts, but it’s not. It’s something that we can measure rather accurately with a small uncertainty,” Ereditato told The Associated Press.

If the experiment is independently repeated — most likely by teams in the United States or Japan — then it would require a fundamental rethink of modern physics.

“Everybody knows that the speed limit is c, the speed of light. And if you find some matter particle such as the neutrino going faster than light, this is something which immediately shocks everybody, including us,” said Ereditato, a researcher at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

Physicists not involved in the experiment have been understandably skeptical.

Alvaro De Rujula, a theoretical physicist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research outside Geneva from where the neutron beam was fired, said he blamed the readings on a so-far undetected human error.

If not, and it’s a big if, the door would be opened to some wild possibilities.

The average person, said De Rujula, “could, in principle, travel to the past and kill their mother before they were born.”

But Ereditato and his team are wary of letting such science fiction story lines keep them up at night.

“We will continue our studies and we will wait patiently for the confirmation,” he told the AP. “Everybody is free to do what they want: to think, to claim, to dream.”

He added: “I’m not going to tell you my dreams.”









What is “knowledge?”


  1. Read the following.
  2. Put your answers to the questions in comments of this blog entry.
  3. Hand (put on my desk) in your creative picture of ‘knowing.’

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” (Albert Einstein)

1. “To know”

  • In English there is one word “know.”
  • In your national language (Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Latvian, Estonian), in what ways does your language classify the concepts associated with “to know?” (e.g. in French and Spanish: savoir/connaître and saber/conocer)
  • Do those words for ‘to know’ in your language mean something slightly different or are they used only in certain situations?
  • In Japanese ‘to know’ is written as an ideologue, an idea. (See picture above).  Notice how wisdom is written.  What pictures do you see in those kanji?  Can you see meaning in the picture?
  • What do you think of when you thinking of ‘knowing?’ Draw picture of knowing.
  • Look at the cartoon above.  Summarize what Calvin is arguing.  Why is this funny? (cartoons are suppose to be funny)  Do you ever feel like Calvin?

2. Where does knowledge come from?

  • Does knowledge come from inside or outside?
  • Do we make reality or do we recognize it?
  • How much of one’s knowledge depends on interaction with others?
(note: Thank you to Dwight School in NY for ideas.)

Where do rights come from?

Do we need historians anymore?

Supercomputer predicts revolutions

Feeding a supercomputer with news stories could help predict major world events, according to US research.

A study, based on millions of articles, charted deteriorating national sentiment ahead of the recent revolutions in Libya and Egypt.

While the analysis was carried out retrospectively, scientists say the same processes could be used to anticipate upcoming conflict.

The system also picked up early clues about Osama Bin Laden’s location.

Kalev Leetaru, from the University of Illinois’ Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science, presented his findings in the journal First Monday.

Mood and locationThe study’s information was taken from a range of sources including the US government-run Open Source Centre and BBC Monitoring, both of which monitor local media output around the world.

News outlets which published online versions were also analysed, as was the New York Times‘ archive, going back to 1945.

In total, Mr Leetaru gathered more than 100 million articles.

Reports were analysed for two main types of information: mood – whether the article represented good news or bad news, and location – where events were happening and the location of other participants in the story.

Mood detection, or “automated sentiment mining” searched for words such as “terrible”, “horrific” or “nice”.

Location, or “geocoding” took mentions of specific places, such as “Cairo” and converted them in to coordinates that could be plotted on a map.

Analysis of story elements was used to create an interconnected web of 100 trillion relationships.

Predicting troubleData was fed into an SGI Altix supercomputer, known as Nautilus, based at the University of Tennessee.

The machine’s 1024 Intel Nehalem cores have a total processing power of 8.2 teraflops (trillion floating point operations per second).

Based on specific queries, Nautilus generated graphs for different countries which experienced the “Arab Spring”.

In each case, the aggregated results of thousands of news stories showed a notable dip in sentiment ahead of time – both inside the country, and as reported from outside.

Egypt sentiment graphMedia “sentiment” around Egypt fell dramatically in early 2011, just before the resignation of President Mubarak.

For Egypt, the tone of media coverage in the month before President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation had fallen to a low only seen twice before in the preceding 30 years.

Previous dips coincided with the 1991 US aerial bombardment of Iraqi troops in Kuwait and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Mr Leetaru said that his system appeared to generate better intelligence than the US government was working with at the time.

“The mere fact that the US President stood in support of Mubarak suggests very strongly that that even the highest level analysis suggested that Mubarak was going to stay there,” he told BBC News.

“That is likely because you have these area experts who have been studying Egypt for 30 years, and in 30 years nothing has happened to Mubarak.

The Egypt graph, said Mr Leetaru, suggested that something unprecedented was happening this time.

“If you look at this tonal curve it would tell you the world is darkening so fast and so strongly against him that it doesn’t seem possible he could survive.”

Similar drops were seen ahead of the revolution in Libya and the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.

Saudi Arabia, which has thus far resisted a popular uprising, had experienced fluctuations, but not to the same extent as some other states where leaders were eventually overthrown.

Mapping Bin LadenIn his report, Mr Leetaru suggests that analysis of global media reports about Osama Bin Laden would have yielded important clues about his location.

Media reports mentioning Osama Bin Laden may have helped narrow down his location

While many believed the al-Qaeda leader to be hiding in Afghanistan, geographic information extracted from media reports consistently identified him with Northern Pakistan.

Only one report mentioned the town of Abbottabad prior to Bin Laden’s discovery by US forces in April 2011.

However, the geo-analysis narrowed him down to within 200km, said Mr Leetaru.

Real time analysisThe computer event analysis model appears to give forewarning of major events, based on deteriorating sentiment.

However, in the case of this study, its analysis is applied to things that have already happened.

According to Kalev Leetaru, such a system could easily be adapted to work in real time, giving an element of foresight.

“That’s the next stage,” said Mr Leetaru, who is already working on developing the technology.

“It looks like a stock ticker in many regards and you know what direction it has been heading the last few minutes and you want to know where it is heading in the next few.

“It is very similar to what economic forecasting algorithms do.”

Mr Leetaru said he also hoped to improve the resolution of analysis, especially in relation to geographic location.

“The next iteration is going to city level and beyond and looking at individual groups and how they interact.

“I liken it to weather forecasting. It’s never perfect, but we do better than random guessing.”

Draw a picture of home.

Russian-Estonians: Greatest tragedy of the 20th century?







Russians in Estonia: Leave Soviet Repressions in the Past

A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that 71 percent of Estonia’s native Russian youth “want to end discussions of the repressions of the Soviet era,” including that of the mass deportations of Estonians to Siberia.

The surveyors polled native Russian youths between 16 and 29 years of age, of whom 43 percent believed that the debate over repression is harmful to Estonian society.

Researchers also polled their peers living in Russia, where only 45 percent of those questioned felt a need to leave discussions of Soviet atrocities in the past; 18 percent agreed that constantly raising the subject is harmful to their country.

The study concluded that 60 percent of ethnic Russian respondents living in Estonia agreed that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,“ and that half of Estonia’s ethnic Russians believe that Stalin did more good than bad. Among ethnic Estonian respondents, 85 percent agreed that Russia should apologize for occupying their country – versus 8 percent of Russians in Estonia, who showed considerably less enthusiasm for an apology than their peers living in Russia.

Seventy percent of Estonia’s ethnic Russians said the Russian government should intervene on behalf of Russians in Estonia whose rights are violated.

Ingrid Teesalu


1. In way does this poll from Washington indicate tensions in Estonia?
2. Why would the Russian citizens from Russia feel differently about these issues than Estonian Russians?
3. What barriers can you see that make it difficult to normalize relationships  between nationalities?
4. Are you surprised that 20 years after the Soviet troops left Estonia that the Russians and Estonians feel such enmity toward each other?