Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Was the Year of the Restless Sun

After five years of surprising quiet, the sun roared to life in 2011.

Our star erupted with numerous strong flares and waves of charged particles. Many researchers predict the surge will culminate in a peak in the sun's 11-year activity cycle in 2013.

This year also marked several key advances in scientists' understanding of the dynamics driving our favorite star. Here are some of the solar highlights of 2011:

Solar flares and CMEs

Having been relatively quiet since 2005, the sun spouted off a number of powerful flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) this year.

CMEs are made up of massive clouds of plasma that are sent streaking through space in any direction at several million mph. When these clouds are aimed at Earth, they can spawn geomagnetic storms that wreak havoc with GPS signals, radio communications and power grids. [Photos of Solar Flares & Storms]

"We are getting more CMEs and starting to get some more-energetic CME/flare combinations," Terry Kucera, deputy project scientist with NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft, told via email.

Scientists classify strong solar flares in three categories: C, M and X, with the X-class being the most powerful. So far in 2011, eight X-class flares have been observed. Learn More...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Relations Between Washington, Moscow Remain Good

Since the end of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the United States and Russia have put many of their Cold War animosities behind them. They still have their differences, but they increasingly work together on a wide range of issues. VOA examines the current relationship between the former enemies.

The United States and Russia can still destroy each other at the push of a button and have thousands of missiles on land and at sea, armed with nuclear warheads.

But all those missiles are not pointed at each other’s cities as they were during the Cold War.

And with U.S. President Barack Obama making better relations with Russia a cornerstone of his foreign policy, both countries have ratified a new (START) treaty reducing long-range nuclear weapons.

“It makes no sense to have all those warheads now, the Cold War is over," said Angela Stent, a Russia expert at Georgetown University. "So we’ve drastically cut down the number of warheads and we are going to cut them down further. So I think it was very important to accomplish that.”

Stent says Moscow and Washington also have a key agreement on Afghanistan.

“That is to say, we are transporting military transports over Russian territory, through the northern distribution network. And as the relationship with Pakistan becomes more and more difficult for the United States, this supply route is crucial for our ability to operate in Afghanistan,” she noted. Learn More...

Monday, December 26, 2011

Japan, India shares gain in holiday-thin Asia, U.S. hopes help

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese and Indian stocks outperformed the rest of Asia in thin trade Monday, with sentiment partly lifted by signs of U.S. economic recovery, although trading was subdued with many markets closed for Christmas holidays.

Tokyo's Nikkei stock average <.N225> ended up 1 percent, above its 25-day moving average of 8,459, while India's main 30-share BSE index <.BSESN> rose 1.14 percent, as investors sought holiday-season bargains.

But MSCI's broadest index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> slipped from a two-week high touched earlier in the day to trade down 0.1 percent.

U.S., European and some Asian markets including Hong Kong and Singapore were closed Monday.

Wall Street stocks rose Friday, with the broad Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> breaking through its 200-day moving average after a four-day rally lifted stocks to bring the index up 0.6 percent for the year at last week's close.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> rose to its highest in five months Friday.

"The Nikkei is moving with New York. The gains in the U.S. and Europe gave some sense of relief to markets," said Hajime Nakajima, a wholesale trader at Cosmo Securities in Osaka, Japan. Learn More...

Monday, December 19, 2011

A device attempts to elevate the iPad's keyboard

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Even if you love the iPad, you're probably not keen to write your next novel using its on-screen virtual keyboard. You may not be thrilled to type up a lengthy email with it, either.

Steve Isaac felt the same way. A Seattle-based software designer who worked on an early tablet at computing startup Go in the '90s, Isaac was delighted when the iPad came out last year. He loved its svelteness, battery life and wireless connectivity.

"The iPad was amazing," he says. "It just did everything super, super well."

Well, almost everything. Though its touch-screen keyboard was miles ahead of what he'd seen on past tablets, he felt it still wasn't great for typing. And wireless keyboards that work via Bluetooth seemed too bulky.

So Isaac got to work on a way to make the iPad easier to type on — a stretchy silicone keyboard called the TouchFire that sits atop the tablet's on-screen keyboard when the device is turned on its side.

Isaac isn't unique in coming up with this type of device, but his invention has garnered an intense amount of support through Kickstarter — a website where entrepreneurs and artists solicit funding for their projects and often give rewards in exchange, such as a limited-edition poster or first version of a product. Learn More

Monday, December 12, 2011

YouTube creates a school-friendly version with access to thousands of educational videos

Kids today need their visual stimuli, and Google just made it easier for teachers to play videos in the classroom. YouTube has launched a network setting that slims down the streaming video service and still gives school administrators access to a community of educational videos free of distractions.

Public schools typically block websites such as Facebook and YouTube, in a way cloistering students and at the same time impairing teachers’ access to online resources. BrianTruong, YouTube product manager illustrates this point saying, “while schools that completely restrict access to YouTube may solve this distraction concern, they also limit access to hundreds of thousands of educational videos on YouTube that can help bring photosynthesis to life, or show what life was like in ancient Greece.” Learn More...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Eurozone growth stalling as Greeks to vote on cuts

GROWTH across the eurozone slowed to just 0.2pc between July and September -- but, according to the European Union's statistics agency Eurostat, growth inside the eurozone is trailing the much faster expansion that is happening in EU economies that do not use the single currency.

It's the latest sign, if any were still needed, that the debt crisis is causing a collapse in business confidence and a slowdown in industrial output.

Greece is under-performing all other European countries, the data shows.

After 19 months of EU/IMF economic management, the Greek economy continues to shrink rapidly.

The news came as Greek lawmakers were due to vote late last night on an austerity budget for next year.

The budget is being put forward by the country's new technocratic prime minister Lucas Papademos. Lawmakers were expected to pass his proposed package of tax hikes and spending cuts aimed at cutting the country's deficit to 6.7pc of GDP next year. Learn More...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Polls setback for Putin's party

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party has seen a sharp drop in support in parliamentary elections.

With 96% of votes counted, the Central Election Commission said United Russia had just under 50% of the vote, down from 64% in 2007.

The vote is being seen as a popularity test of Mr Putin, who is running for the presidency in March.

Opposition parties have complained of violations of election laws.

Russia's only independent monitoring group, Golos, says it has logged 5,300 complaints alleging violations of election laws.
'Violations and fraud'

Electoral Commission head Vladimir Churov said United Russia should have a slim majority, with 238 seats out of 450.

This would mean the party had lost its current two-thirds majority which allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged.

Mr Churov said the Communist Party was in second place with 19.2% of the vote, giving it 92 seats.

A Just Russia was in third place with 13.2% and 64 seats, and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) had 11.7% and 56, he added. Learn More...