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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sky turns black as thousands of starlings flock into Gretna Green

Time was when the only visitors flocking to Gretna Green were eloping English couples.

Now the Scottish border village is getting arrivals by the million - and most of them come by air.

Swooping and swirling across the dimly lit sky, they could almost be mistaken for an approaching storm cloud.

In this dazzling aerial display, over a million starlings wheel and dive across the setting sun, creating elaborate patterns and drawing the admiring gaze of fascinated onlookers.

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Black sky: Thousands of starlings fly over a house

Every evening at dusk they take to the skies above Gretna Green, after a long day spent feeding in reed beds.

So begins the perilous search for somewhere safe to roost for the night, sheltered from the blustery February winds.

It is a a path fraught with danger, as hungry predators hover nearby.

The little birds must converge, flocking together and squawking, in an attempt to confuse the sparrowhawks, buzzards and peregrine falcons. Reaching speeds of over 20mph, it's a wonder that there aren't more feathers flying in mid-air collisions.

But scientists have recently discovered the secret behind their amazing spatial awareness. Each starling tracks seven other birds - irrespective of distance - enabling the group's impressive cohesion.

It is a spectacle that occurs only during the winter.

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Amazed: Birdwatchers gaze at the sky

Caught on camera: The starlings blacken the sky

Dr Andre Farrar, spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, thinks the sight should not be missed.

"It is one of the world's greatest wildlife experiences and anyone can enjoy it," he said.

"You just need to open your eyes and look up."

But don't leave it too long. As spring approaches, the same urge overtakes them as those runaway couples of old.

They pair off and look for suitable nesting grounds. They will not regroup until September, when their amazing daily display will begin again.

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Eight Tips on How to Manage Feature Creep

Feature creep, also known as scope or requirement creep, refers to unforeseen requests for additions and changes that are outside the project scope. It typically happens due to inadequate requirements gathering, poor initial planning, and an unclear protocol for change implementation, among other things.

In this article, I’d like to discuss eight tips and suggestions, based mostly on my experience, to help minimize and manage the effects of feature creep in your own projects.

1. Accept that feature creep will happen.

That’s right. Here you are thinking that this article’s all about preventing feature creep. On the contrary, I feel that it’s a natural part of any project-based work. Acknowledging this eventuality will allow you to be prepared when it finally rears it’s ugly code-retrofitting, design-wrecking head. Anticipating unforeseen changes in your plans forces you to be more adaptable, and promotes the development of a solution that’s flexible and malleable to your client’s ever-changing needs.

2. Commit enough time to requirements-gathering.

Easy enough, fairly common sense, but we’re all guilty of rushing the planning phase of projects. Maybe it’s because of time and budgetary constraints, or our eagerness to show our clients tangible results, or the assurance we get that the project’s in the bag once we start it (and won’t be given to competition). Skimping on this step can lead to agony at the end, and can take the form of unanticipated feature requirements because of our failure to establish the client’s actual needs. Take time to survey the people involved, observe and shadow employees to see how they might use the system you’re developing, and get an accurate estimation of the technical expertise the organization has. An ounce of prevention is worth a few thousand lines of code revision.

3. Giving a hand might cost you your arm.

If you constantly give in to changes, you might be get more of them in the future. Try to set boundaries of what is and isn’t appropriate to revise, this not only prevents unneeded requests for changes, but gives the project strict quality-control guidelines. When you do decide to comply to un-scoped demands, make sure that you indicate that you’re doing something out-of-scope, and that this can cause delays and additional financial requirements. This may make them re-consider the value of the feature requested, or at least give you an extension in time and budget.

4. Be the devil’s advocate when changes are requested.

You were hired and assigned to the project because of your knowledge and expertise in the solution required. If a client asks for a Flash-based navigation menu, it is your expert obligation to convince them that the CSS-based menu you developed is a much better solution. Don’t be afraid to contradict unwise feature requests; providing well-formed reasons will assure them that you know your “shizznit”, and they may actually allow you to proceed as originally planned.

5. Be task-oriented, not vision-oriented.

Be clear on what it is, exactly, you’re developing for them. Don’t promise a grand, exciting, but ambiguous/ambitious end result. Instead of giving broad generalizations such as “I’ll be developing a search engine optimized website”, try to outline the deliverables that you will provide, such as: “I’ll be using image replacement techniques for sub-headings, creating and implementing a Sitemap.xml, submitting the site to major search engines, and optimizing page titles with relevant keywords”. This makes the project less ambiguous and prevents additional tasks, such as developing a link-exchange program to increase page rank results, which is clearly not part of your duties.

6. Shed the “Customer is Always Right” mentality.

You, more often than not, are a more qualified judge of how things should be developed. You’re not working to get a big tip at the end. You’re working (most probably) on a flat rate fee or an agreed-upon compensation. All you have to worry about is your reputation and producing an excellent solution. The employer can hate everything about you, but if you’ve provided an amazing profit-generating product, you’ll get hired back to do more. In the end, it’s more about profits and deliverables and less about how your employer loves your “reasonable personality” (because they love nothing more than making a bundle of cash or reducing their overhead due to the solution you developed). So don’t give in to unwarranted requests and unreasonable timelines simply because you want to be on your employer’s good side. Don’t feel pressured to do something that isn’t in the job description or something you feel will lead to a less desirable end product.

7. Research before committing.

Assuage the temptation to immediately accommodate a change in project scope, no matter how seemingly simple. If you think the budget and timeline can handle a modification in plans, research thoroughly on what the change actually entails before committing. For example, in a CMS development project I was involved in, I was asked if it was possible to migrate the system from our servers, to the client’s. This wasn’t part of the project scope, as the original plan was to also provide hosting for the system. I agreed to it thinking that a database export/import and file migration would take an hour’s work at most. I failed to account for the fact that our server set-up (being IIS 6.0/Windows and the client’s being Apache/Linux) and server settings were different. Suffice it to say that it took longer than anticipated and the task is still unfinished.

8. Realize that feature creep is a two-way street.

Clients and employers aren’t (purely) evil. They don’t intend to make our jobs more difficult. Oftentimes it’s our desire to please, to prove our worth, and our perfectionist mentality that can be, in part if not equally, to blame. If feature creep happens, it’s only because we allow it to.

I hope this article was able to impart some tips on how to manage feature creep. The suggestions here are based on my own mistakes with regards to allowing scope creep to affect my projects. I hope that by reading this, you have better luck in alleviating the impact that features out-of-scope can have on your timelines and budgets.

I’d like to ask: should feature creep be accepted as part of any project, or should it be prevented flat out? Are these tips ideal but unrealistic, and in what sense? Share your thoughts!

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Punk Rock Your Life: The Simple Six-Letter Word That Determines Success


It’s June of 1976 in Manchester, England, and a small group of people gather in a tiny venue called the Lesser Free Trade Hall to see a band play. There’s nothing really remarkable about this group of 42 people, and that evening’s featured musicians are unknown at the time.

The band calls themselves the Sex Pistols.

As I mentioned, there were no famous people in the crowd at this show, or at the follow-up show that happened about a month later. The Sex Pistols had not yet caused an uproar throughout Britain with songs like Anarchy in the UK and God Save the Queen, and it was well before they invaded the US in 1978.

Attendees ranged from the local mailman to a few rebellious school children. But a handful of others in that small audience became some of the most influential people in independent and now mainstream music.

In that tiny crowd were the likes of Tony Wilson, who went on to start the influential Factory Records (home to New Order and Happy Mondays) and The Haçienda nightclub (the birthplace of rave culture), legendary producer Martin Hannett, and Paul Morley who became a music journalist for NME.

Also in attendance were the members of future punk favorites the Buzzcocks, Mark E. Smith of The Fall, Mick Hucknall who became lead singer of Simply Red, Morrissey who would later front The Smiths, and the founding members of Joy Division, who after the death of their lead singer would carry on as New Order.

If you’re not familiar with alternative music from the 1980s, let me put this in perspective. This tiny concert is considered on par with Woodstock and Live Aid in terms of importance, due to the influence the audience went on to have on popular music by creating the independent music scene.

Contrary to what you might think, not everyone in the audience thought the Sex Pistols were fantastic. Sure, some were attracted to the fresh, raw power of punk and the “do it yourself” ethos that came with it, but others thought the Pistols sounded like rubbish and thought they could do better.

Regardless, that small group of people spotted the changing dynamics in music and took action, because if the Pistols could do it, so could they. By seeing the inevitable future they became important players in that future.

Why did I just tell you a story about punk rock and independent music? Well, lots of people can spot trends and have great ideas, but only some do anything about it.

So, what’s the six-letter word that determines success in life?

Action.

What are you getting done today?

Brian Clark is the founder and editor of Copyblogger and the co-founder of Teaching Sells.

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Campus Sexperts


Erotic magazines run by students at elite colleges have prospered. So why are they having less sex?

As the writer of a blog called Sex and the Ivy, Harvard student Lena Chen promotes herself as something of an authority on sex. The 20-year-old sociology major is a minor celebrity around campus for her musings on hook-ups, booty calls and friends with benefits. So Chen, as self-appointed poster girl for what could be called a group of brainy girls gone wild, was an obvious choice to document a week's worth of conquests for a national magazine's online sex diary. Except for the tallies at the end of the week: Total acts of intercourse? Zero.

Chen says she's since broken her dry spell, but the episode illustrates a paradox of modern college life: students are publicly documenting their sex lives more than ever, making it easy to get the impression that elite campuses are an equivalent of the sex club in "Eyes Wide Shut," with a perfect SAT score as the password. But when it comes to actual sexual activity, statistics show that coeds are more likely to be virgins when they enter college, and may be having slightly less sex than in previous years. Despite this, blogs such as Chen's, student-paper sex columns, student-run sex magazines like Harvard's H Bomb, Yale's SWAY (an acronym for Sex Week at Yale) and Boston University's Boink have proliferated. As Dr. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, codirector of the National Center for Children and Families, says, "What's interesting is, why are these journals gaining such popularity even though you're not seeing a big increase in sexual activity among college students?" One answer is that in an era of online exposure, where changing definitions of privacy have shifted sexual mores for the young, enterprising students no longer see a distinction between their bedroom behavior and their publishing activities. Rather than something to destroy upon graduation, they may even consider their magazines, blogs and columns résumé builders.

Apparently, when it comes to sex, write what you know doesn't always apply. "Everyone assumes because of the magazine that I'm sleeping with everything that walks," says Alecia Oleyourryk, editor of Boston University's Boink, who posed nude for the first issue. The magazine claims 40,000 subscribers, and has spawned the new book "Boink: College Sex by the People Having It." "It's not the case. Respective to my girlfriends, I'm the most prudish." Oleyourryk's comments reflect the findings of a new survey by the American College Health Association. When asked to estimate how many sexual partners their peers had had during the past schoolyear, college students guessed three times the number of partners they'd had. "Even people involved in extreme behavior think their friends are more extreme," says Kathleen Bogle, author of "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus." The study also found that for male students, the number of sexual partners in the previous year has dropped, from 2.1 in 2000 to 1.6 in 2006. According to a Centers for Disease Control survey, the number of ninth- to 12th-grade students who have had sex dropped almost 10 percent, to fewer than half of respondents, between 1991 and 2005. And a 2001 study found that 39 percent of freshman college women were virgins, and 31 percent of those women still hadn't had sex by senior year. In 2006, nearly half of Harvard undergrads who responded to a survey reported they had never had intercourse.

The slight decline may be explained by increased awareness of the potential downsides of sex, such as STDs or on-campus abstinence movements such as Harvard's True Love Revolution student group, says Victor Leino, research director for the ACHA. Still, students involved in sex publications say there's a need for more conversation about the intricacies and emotions regarding sex, regardless of how much of it they're actually having. Jenna Bromberg, a Cornell senior who writes a sex column for the school paper, says she wants to spur discussion of the pluses and minuses of hooking up. "A lot of the time I put gross stories in there to get people talking," she says. While Martabel Wasserman, the editor of H Bomb, takes a less confessional approach, she agrees that "there is a hole in our dialogue about sexuality. The idea is that it's a very free time, but it's also a very scary time." After a three-year hiatus due to administrative troubles, H Bomb will resume publishing next month.

These publications are not purely academic exercises: their creators hope they lead to professional opportunities after graduation. "People think it's a stigma, but I think we're in changing times, and it can open doors for me," says Oleyourryk, who recently moved to New York and is looking for work as a waitress while she continues publishing Boink. "I continually tell my mom this is a great résumé builder," she says, though she's vague about what she'll use her résumé for. Though the young sexpert's optimism may seem naive, it's not necessarily misguided, says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington. "Maybe their generation will take this a lot less seriously than we do," she says. In the age of MySpace and Facebook, sex may be just one more way to network. "To me, talking about sex and one-night stands is superficial. What I keep out of the column is the intimate stuff," says Bromberg, adding that she wouldn't write about a serious relationship.

The students' cavalier attitudes may stem from confidence about their futures fostered by the elite institutions they use as publishing platforms. "A lot of these Ivy League students are bright, self-confident, and they have some extra money to get these things started," says Schwartz. "Whether their class origins are protecting them, or giving them more license, I don't know, but class always has an impact." Certainly, the students behind the publications are earnest and articulate, and may be able to land the jobs of their dreams. If they do experience misgivings about their activities, it may be for personal reasons. "The only times I regret writing the column," says Bromberg, "is when I have to look my dad in the eye."

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Honda Recaptures Lost Heat, Blows Highway Hybrids Away

Honda just dropped a bit of a bombshell on the world with its announcement that their heat-harnessing hybrids recapture more lost energy than even Toyota's hybrid drive during highway driving. This is fantastic news, since about half of American passenger vehicle driving happens at 65 MPH or faster, and mileage at those speeds has been almost completely unaffected by hybrid engines thus far.
The project uses Rankine cycle engine to capture waste heat from the car's exhaust and turn it into work. The system is fairly simple, though the thermodynamics are not. Basically water is heated, converted to steam, and the steam's expansion is used to turn a generator. Of course, that's a very basic explanation. For a more technical analysis, Green Car Congress always has the scoop.

The system was installed in a hybridized Honda Stream (only available in Japan). It is currently about 13% efficient and generates 3 times as much energy as a regenerative braking system in the EPA highway cycle. While highway mileages have been largely unaffected by regenerative braking, heat capture could assist in mileage increases in both highway and city driving.

Honda has decided that, at current efficiencies (and gas prices), it will not be cost-effective to include heat-capturing devices in production cars. Similar projects have come to the same conclusion. But with rising energy costs, and better engine designs, this could be a huge possible source of energy as more than 30% of a fuel's energy is immediately lost as heat in an internal combustion engine.

It's a promising new frontier, one with applications beyond vehicles everywhere from large-scale power generation to microprocessor cooling. Way to go, Honda.

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1. Before YouTube... there was "America's Funniest Home Videos"


This 90's television smash-hit, based on a Japanese show, kicked off user-generated video content in America. People submitted home videos of babies with nail guns, dogs on fire, and grandmas falling down, in hopes of winning a weekly cash prize.

2. Before Twitter... there was IRC.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a UNIX-based system of chat servers that was introduced in late 1988. A series of networks and thousands of channels allowed people to "tweet" about various topics, share cool links, and offer technical support. Twitter now offers a somewhat similar experience with a more user-friendly interface and mobile support.

3. Before blogs... there were 'zines.

zine.jpg image credit: Laughing Squid

If you wanted to delve in the world of personal publishing in the early 90's, it was pretty spendy. Desktop publishing with Adobe Pagemaker required investing big bucks into a high-end Mac and a state-of-the-art laser printer. Most young people stuck to cutting and pasting scraps onto blank paper and then xeroxing the final product.

4. Before podcasts... there were codelines.

zine.jpg image credit: Killbox

In the 90's, when digital voice mail was a cutting-edge corporate technology, there was a vibrant voice mail hacking scene. Phone phreaks from all over the United States would sequentially "scan" 1-800 exchanges for voice mail boxes (VMBs) and use default passwords to take over employees' (unused) voice mail boxes. They would record long informational greeting messages, known as "codelines." Codelines began with music and "shouts out" to other phone phreaks and then segued into first-generation "podcasts" packed with underground content: freshly hacked calling cards and credit cards, conference calls PINs, and global outdial passwords.

5. Before blogrolls and comments... there were web rings and guest books.

webring.gif

Sites on similar subjects used link out to each other in a promotional circle jerk called a "web ring." Guestbooks used to be the hot way to leave comments, until bots were developed to harvest the e-mail addresses for the the worst kinds of spam imaginable.

6. Before Facebook... there was the 20th annual high school reunion.


You'd have to wait in 20 year increments – and buy a plane ticket – to catch up with many of your old friends or see their photo albums. Seriously.

7. Before Skype... there were k0dez and bridges.

k0dez.jpg

Before VOIP and cell phone plans, it was rather expensive to make a long distance call. In some cases you'd pay over a dollar a minute (!) to "reach out and touch someone." The early-adopters (a.k.a. "phone phreaks") used home computer software to hack out calling card codes ("k0dez") to keep in touch. For teleconferencing, phreaks would hack out corporate phone systems' conferencing nodes, called "bridges." Epic bridge sessions and knowledge downloads that went on for weeks... until the corporate host got a massive phone bill, found out, and shut it down. Check out these awesome vintage recordings.

8. Before eBay... there was the pawn shop.


image credit:Duien

Same questionable items, high fees and unsavory characters - but in an actual, real-life retail location!

9. Before the iPhone... there was the PayPhone.

Before technology allowed people to yak loudly on cellphones in restaurants, they had to go out to the payphone.


image credit:Aaroynx

And if they wanted to make a long distance call, they'd need an entire roll of quarters. The 90's equivalent of an "unlimited calling plan" was a toll-fraud device called a red box. redbox.jpg Red boxes were modified Radio Shack touch-tone dialers that made the same sound a Bell payphone made when a quarter was inserted. By the end of the decade, Radio Shack had discontinued the device and Bell had upgraded to digital equipment. Thankfully, cellphones were becoming affordable, mainstream communications devices by then.

10. Before P2P file sharing... there was Columbia House Records.


image credit:joe madonna

Before DRM and iTunes - people downloaded music from Napster and burned it on a $569 external CD-R drive. Non-technical people who wanted free tracks got tempted by magazine ads that promised "Get 8 CD's for Just One Penny!" and they were unwittingly signed up for recurring CD subscriptions. Then they got slapped with a huge bill afterwards - the old-school equivalent of an RIAA settlement.

11. Before Craigslist... there was the men's room wall.

debbie.jpg


Local newspapers would only publish "vanilla" dating ads. So, how did geeks and other shy people manage to hook up? The restroom wall, of course! Gay guys would post phone numbers and set meeting times for man-to-man encounters. Straight dudes would post the numbers of their ex's and innocent girls they wanted to harass.

12. Before Digg... there was your local newspaper's "Top Stories of the Year" issue.

paper2.jpg

You used to have to wait until December to find out hottest story of the year. And the news stories were picked by crusty old editors. Now there's an infinite stream of high-quality, uncensored content and entertainment - all just a mouse click away.

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Top Five Cratures That Scared Greeks

1.Cyclopes

Cyclopes Picture

The Cyclopes were almost like human beings but of a gigantic size and with only one eye in the middle of their heads. Essentially there were three of them: Brontes (thunderer), Steropes (Lightener), and Arges (Bright).

2.Harpies

Harpies Picture

The Harpies, Furies, Erinyes, Keres, Fates and Graes are hords of female monsters often associated with death, fate and the execution of divine ordeals on the human race.

3.Medusa

Medusa Picture


The gorgon Medusa, unlike her sisters, was a mortal. Born beautiful, Medusa was seduced by Poseidon, disguised as a horse, in one of Athena’s temples. Athena became incensed and turned Medusa into a fearsome winged creature. Originally, Medusa was depicted as a horse with wings, then a woman with equine hindquarters and wings on her hair. At a later date, portraits of her reveals that her teeth were transformed into the tusks of a wild boar, her black tongue protuded and became too large for her mouth, her hands became brazen claws and her wings were changed into serpents. Her gaze alone turned men to stone.

4.Minotaur

Minotaur Picture


In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a monstrous double, sometimes with the head of a bull and the body of a man or, conversely, with the body of a bull and the head of a man.

5.Chimera

Chimera Picture


The Chimera is a fire-breathing monster. She is usually represented as having a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. She is represented in many pictures as having a goat’s head in the middle of her back.

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Suspended Time...