Arctic Meltdown!
Robosapien! Killer Phones! Bats!
Phobos, Titan, Pluto Versus KBOs!
The Roopkund Rain of Death!
Arctic Meltdown!

Satellite composite of the Northern
Greenland Arctic area. (NASA)

Circumpolar Conference Slams Bush Policy

REYKJAVIK November 12, 2004 (AFP) - Arctic indigenous peoples blasted the United States' policy on climate change and accused Washington of thwarting efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing temperatures to rise in the Arctic at an alarming rate.

"The short-term economic policy of one country should not be able to trump the entire survival of one people," Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, said at the end of an international meeting of researchers this week in Reykjavik on Arctic climate change.

In a report published just prior to the conference, a team of international scientists warned that the Arctic region was warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and predicted that the ice cap could melt entirely in the milder summer months before the end of this century.

That would spell catastrophe for numerous species unique to the Arctic and threaten the indigenous peoples' traditional way of life.

"Climate change is not just about weather or sea ice conditions ... It's a fight to preserve a way of life," Watt-Cloutier said. The foreign ministers of the eight Arctic Council countries -- the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway -- are scheduled to meet in the Icelandic capital on November 24 to discuss the political ramifications of the researchers' report.

On Friday, representatives of the indigenous peoples called on the ministers to adopt a policy document, "robust" and "strong" in the words of Watt-Cloutier, urging countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases.

The United States, the only country in the region which has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions, is trying to prevent the document from becoming too restrictive, several conference delegates said.

"To be honest I don't expect a good declaration," the head of the Sami Council, Geir Tommy Pedersen, said.

"The United States is the big bad wolf when it comes to climate policy. It is blocking efforts to flesh out political recommendations," he told AFP.

The United States has refused to sign the Kyoto treaty, which requires industrialized nations to cut down on their output of greenhouse gases, on the grounds that it would hurt the US economy and because it does not require developing countries such as China and India to cut their emissions.


A young Inuit native in Iqaluit, North West Territories,
Canada. Inuits and other indigenous peoples of the far
north see the rapid warming of the Arctic as a serious
threat to their way of life dating back thousands of years.
(AFP/ Carlo Allegri)

The Protocol will nonetheless enter into force following Russia's recent decision to ratify it.

But, said Icelandic MP and former environment minister Siv Fridleifsdottir, "we need the United States at the negotiation table."

"If we don't get the US at the table, it will be difficult to get the developing countries to take commitments on their shoulders," she said.

Environmentalists suggested that Russia's decision to sign the treaty and the highly-publicized report on Arctic climate conditions could give US President George W. Bush an opportunity to review the US position.

"WWF is calling on this newly elected Bush administration to revisit its policy" on climate change, said Jennifer Morgan of the international environmental organisation.

Some scientists said they have already observed a slight shift in the US stance.

"I'm more optimistic (...) because I see changes," said Robert Corell, the American head of the Arctic climate change report.

"It's not a matter of whether, it's a matter of when" the United States will commit themselves to the issue, he said, suggesting that a real change could come as early as the next few months.

Arctic Warming Twice As Fast
By Alister Doyle
Reuters Environment Correspondent


The accelerating melt could be a foretaste of
wider disruptions

OSLO November 8, 2004 (Reuters) - Global warming is heating the Arctic almost twice as fast as the rest of the planet in a thaw that threatens millions of livelihoods and could wipe out polar bears by 2100, an eight-nation report says.

The biggest survey to date of the Arctic climate, by 250 scientists, said the accelerating melt could be a foretaste of wider disruptions from a build-up of human emissions of heat-trapping gases in the earth's atmosphere.

The "Arctic climate is now warming rapidly and much larger changes are projected," according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), funded by the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Arctic temperatures are rising at almost twice the global average and could leap 4-7 Celsius (7-13 Fahrenheit) by 2100, roughly twice the global average projected by U.N. reports.

Siberia and Alaska have already warmed by 2-3 C since the 1950s.

Possible benefits like more productive fisheries, easier access to oil and gas deposits or trans-Arctic shipping routes would be outweighed by threats to indigenous peoples and the habitats of animals and plants.

Sea ice around the North Pole, for instance, could almost disappear in summer by the end of the century. The extent of the ice has already shrunk by 15-20 percent in the past 30 years.

"Polar bears are unlikely to survive as a species if there is an almost complete loss of summer sea-ice cover," the report, released on Monday, said. On land, creatures like lemmings, caribou, reindeer and snowy owls are being squeezed north into a narrower range.

FOSSIL FUELS BLAMED

The report mainly blames the melt on gases from fossil fuels burnt in cars, factories and power plants. The Arctic warms faster than the global average because dark ground and water, once exposed, traps more heat than reflective snow and ice.

Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Programme, said the Arctic changes were an early warning. "What happens there is of concern for everyone because Arctic warming and its consequences have worldwide implications," he said.

And the melting of glaciers is expected to raise world sea levels by about 10 cm (4 inches) by the end of the century.

Many of the four million people in the Arctic are already suffering. Buildings from Russia to Canada have collapsed because of subsidence linked to thawing permafrost that also destabilizes oil pipelines, roads and airports.


A polar bear waits for the water to freeze on the
edge of the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada.
Polar bears are seen as facing the biggest threat
from the melting of the Arctic ice cap by the end
of the century. (AFP /Guy Cavel)

Indigenous hunters are falling through thinning ice and say that prey from seals to whales is harder to find. Rising levels of ultra-violet radiation may cause cancers.

Changes under way in the Arctic "present serious challenges to human health and food security, and possibly even (to) the survival of some cultures," the report says.

Farming could benefit in some areas, while more productive forests are moving north on to former tundra. "There are not just negative consequences, there will be new opportunities too," said Paal Prestrud, vice-chair of ACIA.

Scientists will meet in Iceland this week to discuss the report. Foreign ministers from Arctic nations are due to meet in Iceland on November 24 but diplomats say they are deeply split with Washington least willing to make drastic action.

President George W. Bush pulled the United States, the world's top polluter, out of the 126-nation Kyoto protocol in 2001, arguing its curbs on greenhouse gas emissions were too costly and unfairly excluded developing nations.

"Kyoto is only a first step," said Norwegian Environment Minister Knut Hareide, a strong backer of Kyoto. "The clear message from this report is that Kyoto is not enough. We must reduce emissions much more in coming decades."

eXoNews Pix of the Week Dept.
Next Stop: Little Fallujah
  

A US Apache helicopter hovers low over the Haifa street area in central Baghdad. The area is dubbed by its residents, who are known to be loyalists to toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, as "Little Fallujah." (AFP / Marwan Naamani)

Bush OKs Commercial Drilling in Alaska Oil Reserve

(Reuters)

WASHINGTON November 12, 2004 (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department on Friday gave final approval to a plan by ConocoPhillips and partner Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to develop five tracts around the oil-rich Alpine field on Alaska's North Slope.

The department's Bureau of Land Management authorized the first commercial development of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, allowing the companies to go forward with developing the tracts, which are located in the northeastern corner of the reserve.

Production from these fields, which together hold more than 330 million barrels of oil, will start by 2006, according to the BLM. They will supplement production from the Alpine fields, which hold 429 million barrels and have a daily oil output of about 100,000 barrels.

Environmentalists have criticized the plan to develop these Alpine satellite fields as a rollback of environmental protections promised during the Clinton administration.

The BLM said it modified the original development proposal to offer greater protection to wildlife and sensitive habitats in the reserve.

Some of the major changes include relocating portions of the gravel access roads and pipeline routes, moving power lines and raising pipelines an additional 2 feet to 7 feet to help migrating caribou.

"It allows for the energy development our country needs, while protecting the land, water and wildlife. It will show that this, and future Arctic development, can and will be done in an environmentally sensitive way," said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Rebecca Watson.

The petroleum reserve, the size of Indiana, was set aside in 1923 for its energy potential, but until recently it has been ignored in favor of the region to the east, around the giant Prudhoe Bay field.

The Bush administration believes the new Congress next year will approve oil drilling in the separate Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which may hold up to 16 billion barrels of crude.

Robosapien!

The Robosapien robot, created by robotics
physicist Mark Tilden. (AFP Greg Wood)

HONG KONG November 11, 2004 (AFP) - Tokyo's skyline has been regularly menaced by the skyscraper-munching Godzilla, but now it has another foe -- Robosapien, one of the hottest toys in the run-up to Christmas.

A homemade movie casting the robot in the role usually reserved for a man in a rubber monster suit is one of thousands of Internet videos, pictures and hacking guides that have sprung up around the toy.

As Robosapien's maker, Hong Kong-based toy company WowWee, prepares to roll the millionth unit off the production line at its Chinese factory Thursday, inventor Mark Tilden says he is astounded at the geek cottage industry that has sprung up around the robot.

"These guys are nuts," Tilden, a huge bear of a man, roars in laughter at the mention of the "Robosapien Destroys Tokyo" video posted on one of many fan websites.

"You'd be amazed what people are doing with these things. It's hilarious. But it's fantastic. It shows it has wide appeal."

Robosapien has exploded onto the world toy market since its launch in February. Boasting the scientific knowledge of former NASA robotics engineer Tilden -- who part-built a probe sent to gather climate data from Mars -- it claims to be the first mass-produced robot.

Already it has won some 20 awards -- including two from famed London toy store Hamley's -- and has sold some 600,000 units.

Radio-controlled and powered by seven tiny motors that enable the toy to emulate the movements of humans, users can program it to do an almost infinite number of maneuvers, from picking up and throwing objects to break dancing.

Toy experts and consumers alike have been drawn not only to the high-tech gadgetry that has gone into it, but also Robosapien's more unusual human features: as well as dancing and walking, moving not unlike a toddler, it also belches and breaks wind.

"It's me inside this thing," says Tilden, a British-born naturalized Canadian who won his spurs working for the US military at the Los Alamos National Laboratories. "I have recreated my personality inside this little guy."

Tilden designed the toy as a vehicle for a new breakthrough in robotics he'd discovered.

NASA refused to help him develop the science as did many other scientific institutes. A toy buff, he decided to take it to the toy industry instead.

"The science community was not willing to run with it, but the toy industry said 'hell yeah'," Tilden boasts.

He's keeping the actual science secret -- "there is more industrial espionage in the toy industry than the military intelligence industry" -- but believes it could revolutionise robotics.

"It is light, small and requires very little power, that's the holy grail of robotics."

Like all the best toys, Robosapien appeals to adults as well as children.

The robot has also attracted the attention of amateur robotics enthusiasts who have pulled it apart to create new, and often disturbing, "hacks" of the toy.

One website has transplanted a Swiss army knife onto Robosapiens head, while another has replaced its arms with other utilities, such as a cork-screw. Many fans have also converted their robots into mobile radio controlled video cameras.

On the lunatic fringe, one man in New York has filmed himself being pulled on a sleigh by 20 of the robots, which he whips as he is hauled along a pavement, and another bought a dozen which he has programmed to salute his Darth Vader doll.


Robosapien robots perform for schoolchildren at a
city department store in Sydney. Robosapien is
the winner of Australia's "Boys Toy of the Year
2004" (AFP /Greg Wood)

Among the more humorous, one fan has provided details on how the ordinarily peace-loving robots can be transplanted with plastic heads of President George W. Bush and former opponent John Kerry and programmed to fight a bout of fisticuffs.

And a web-based music video stars a Robosapien decked out in full zebra-skin and velvet street pimp regalia topped with a broad-brimmed fedora, posing with a clutch of scantily clad bathing beauties around a swimming pool.

Tilden is delighted with the wacky response to his invention and hopes fans will take their obsession further.

"I want people to take the thing apart and come up with some other variants on the toy -- I want them to hack into it as people do to computer games and programs," he says.

To aid hackers, Tilden has even labeled every component inside the toy. The reason, he claims, is to help advance robotics.

"Kids these days want to a toy that gives instant gratification -- they want something that they can just pick up and play; just look at toy stores for proof -- how many Meccano or Lego kits do you see these days?" he asks.

"What that has done is reduced the talent pool that can be drawn on for the next generation of robotic engineers. By allowing people to hack in, we feel like we are doing our bit for the future of robotics."

Native American Languages Face Extinction
Oklahoma City November 8, 2004 (UPI) - Twenty-five American Indian languages are still spoken in Oklahoma, but 10 of them are only one generation from extinction, experts say.

Speakers are dwindling because the older generation is dying, but a number of the state's 39 tribes are trying to save the languages, the Oklahoman reported Monday.

Although Oklahoma has 21,359 native speakers, 10 tribes have 10 or fewer fluent speakers, and 15 have fewer than 200, according to a count conducted by Alice Anderton, a linguist who directs the Intertribal Wordpath Society.

"Time is really running out for some languages," she said.

Fourteen years ago Congress enacted a law to make it federal policy to preserve, protect and promote native language rather than eradicate them. Tribal schools are trying to preserve the languages, but it's difficult with so few speakers with some tribes.

In Oklahoma, only the Cherokee language has a real chance of survival because of its language immersion preschool for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, said Dennis W. Zotigh, Indian research historian at the Oklahoma Historical Society. The tribe has 9,000 native speakers in Oklahoma.

Cherokee Nation homepage - http://www.cherokee.org

Hands-free Cell Phones Can Still Kill
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign News Release

CHAMPAIGN IL November 12, 2004 - Driving with one hand on the wheel and another on a cell phone has led to legal restrictions and proposals to require drivers to use hands-free phones.

Hello?

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have tested the hands-free approach and found that drivers -- young and old -- struggled to see dangerous scenarios appearing in front of them.

The experiments, reported in the Fall 2004 issue of the journal Human Factors, were conducted in a virtual reality suite at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Eye-tracking techniques allowed researchers to see the effects of distractions.

"With younger adults, everything got worse," said Arthur F. Kramer, a professor of psychology. "What we found was that both young adults and older adults tended to show deficits in performance. They made more errors in detecting important changes and they took longer to react to the changes." The impaired reactions, he said, were "in terms of seconds, not just milliseconds, which means many yards in terms of stopping distances."

For the experiment, 14 young licensed drivers (mean age 21.4) with at least one year behind the wheel and 14 older, experienced drivers (mean age 68.4) actively engaged in a casual hands-free phone conversation. As they talked, they faced a flickering 6-foot-by-3.5-foot screen on which digitally manipulated images of Chicago traffic and architecture continually changed. Each flicker, which simulated eye movements, resulted in a change of scenery that might or might not be important to a driver -- a child running into a driver's path, a simple change in a theater sign or bright or subtle color changes.


Reaction times were slowed

The older adults were able to detect changes related to salience, such as colors becoming brighter. However, their ability to detect changes that should be important to a driver dipped significantly.

"For the older adults, it was quite scary in that contextual restraints no longer drove their eye-scanning strategies," Kramer said. "When they were in a conversation on a cell phone, they were no longer any faster or any more accurate in their ability to detect meaningful changes, such as a little girl running between cars in traffic, than they were able to detect changes that were not meaningful to driving safely."

Younger subjects did detect relevant changes more readily and with fewer errors than older adults, but their reaction times were slowed. "When you are driving, you often don't have extra seconds to react," Kramer said.

In another experiment, the researchers found no significant negative impairments among participants who simply listened on hands-free phones as others carried on a conversation. The subjects were 13 young adults (mean age 20.64) and 13 older adults (mean age 67.33).

Kramer theorized that the requirement to comprehend and generate speech during a conversation results in interference with the scanning of driving scenes. Comprehension, in the absence of the need to generate coherent responses, requires fewer mental resources and, therefore, does not interfere with change detection in driving scenes.

Kramer's team now is conducing similar experiments in a driving simulator.

The six co-authors of the research were Kramer, Jason S. McCarley and David E. Irwin, all of the U. of I. psychology department; graduate students Margaret J. Vais and Heather Pringle (now on the faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.); and David L. Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

General Motors and the National Institute on Aging funded the research through a grant to Kramer. McCarley was supported by a Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - http://www.uiuc.edu

Child Pesticide Study Postponed
WASHINGTON November 11, 2004 (AP) - A planned government study into how children's bodies absorb pesticides and other chemicals has been temporarily suspended due to ethical concerns.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it would ask an outside panel of scientists to review its planned two-year study involving the families of 60 children in Duval County, Fla., and report back by spring. The study's design has already been reviewed by four other external boards, including two universities.

The study was to look at how pesticides, which can cause neurological damage in children, and chemicals such as flame retardants might be ingested, inhaled or otherwise absorbed through such things as food, drink, soil, crop residue and household dust.

"If we decide to go forward with this study, we want to make sure it's done right," EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said Wednesday. "There have been several concerns raised, including within the agency, and we want to be responsive and address those concerns."

Scientists at EPA and environmentalists questioned whether the government should give participating families $970 plus a camcorder and children's clothes, saying it might encourage low-income families to use pesticides in their homes.

EPA also had agreed to accept $2 million for the $9 million study from the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents chemical makers.

"It's fine that they pushed the pause button here," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy and research organization. "But for the study to have any integrity at all, they need to kick the chemical industry lobbyists and their money completely out of the process."

The trade group said in a statement that more review is useful, but it still supports the study "because of the great importance of increasing understanding of the exposures of young children to pesticides and other chemicals they naturally encounter in their daily lives."
Why Bats Fly
New Scientist News Release

Photo: Judy Loven

November 13, 2004 - A change to a single gene allowed bats to grow wings and take to the air, a development that may explain why bats appeared so suddenly in the fossil record some 50 million years ago. Bats have been an evolutionary enigma.

That's because the oldest fossil bats look remarkably like modern ones, each having wings formed from membranes stretched between long fingers, and ear structures designed for echolocation. No fossils of an animal intermediate between bats and their non-flying mammal ancestors have been found.

Now Karen Sears, at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, has discovered why intermediate forms may be missing in the fossil record. In a bid to understand where bats' specialized finger digits evolved from, Sears compared their embryological development with that of the finger digits of mice. In both animals, digits form from cartilage cells which divide and mature into bone in regions called growth plates.

But in bats, a key region of the growth plate called the hypertrophic zone is much larger than in mice, which allows their digits to grow much longer. That difference is controlled by a single gene known as BMP2, one of a family of genes important for limb development in mammals.

Sears found that a protein produced by BMP2 is present in the hypertrophic region of bats, but not in mice. When she applied the protein to the digits of mouse embryos growing in the lab they elongated just like bat digits. Sears believes that bats began to evolve when this one gene became activated.

Although it is a small developmental change, if it allowed the ancestors of bats to grow extended digits it could explain how bats evolved flight so rapidly, Sears told the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Denver.

Relatively few transitional forms would have existed just briefly before being displaced by more advanced forms.

"We've never had an adequate explanation" for the sudden appearance of bats, Nancy Simmons of the American Museum of Natural History in New York told New Scientist. "This sounds like a remarkable discovery."

The lack of transitional forms has also led to speculation about the origin of bats, with some believing that primates are their closest relatives. Genetic studies now show they are closest to ferungulates, which include horses and pigs, or to the shrews and moles.

This article appears in New Scientist issue: 13 November 2004

New Scientist - http://www.newscientist.com

Afghanistan Bans TV!

Charlton Heston provided ammunition for the conservatives

By AMIR SHAH
Associated Press Writer

KABUL Afghanistan November 12, 2004 (AP) - Western pop videos, India's Bollywood movies and even Charlton Heston's "The Ten Commandments" have Afghanistan's fledgling cable TV stations in hot water.

An appeal from the country's top Islamic judge this week prompted the Cabinet to order television networks temporarily off the air — just three years after a Taliban ban on TV was lifted.

The spat is the latest in the battle for control of Afghan society between still-influential religious conservatives and liberals and entrepreneurs enjoying new freedoms.

"The consequences are disastrous for Afghanistan," Saad Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, said Thursday. He predicted more restrictions would follow.

Supreme Court chief justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, an arch conservative, appealed to President-elect Hamid Karzai during Ramadan to shut down TV programming, and the Cabinet did so, at least until new regulations are drawn up.

It was a victory for Shinwari, who was on the losing side in January, when the government ignored his protests at the return of veiled female singers to state television screens. The ban had originated with Islamic fundamentalists who ruled in the early 1990s and was lifted only when the repressive Taliban regime fell.

A screening last week of the "The Ten Commandments" starring Charlton Heston provided ammunition for the conservatives.

"It showed the prophet Moses with short trousers and among the girls," Wahid Mujdah, a Supreme Court spokesman, said. "He's a very holy person and Islam respects him. This is wrong."

Mohseni, director of Tolo TV, a new Afghan channel that showed the biblical epic, said the situation epitomized the threat to free speech in a country championed by the United States as a model for the region.

He accused officials of trying to silence increasingly sophisticated media coverage of Afghan politics.

"Ministers will come and go. But the free media should be here to stay to serve the nation and its public," he said. "This is a time for people to take a stand."

In the political jockeying for positions in Karzai's new government following his victory in Afghanistan's landmark Oct. 9 election, the liberals lost their champion. Culture Minister Makhdom Raheen fought for the TV stations in January but is accused of switching his views to try to salvage his post as Karzai ponders his new team.

Mujdah made plain that the conservatives' main target are the Indian films hugely popular with young Afghans for their raunchy dance routines.

"Immoral" movies were even blamed for the recent fatal stabbing of a student at Kabul University, which has led to street protests in capital.

"The boys are disturbing the girls in these films. Then there are then gangs fighting each other. All these things are against Afghan culture," Mujdah said.

Mohammed Hashem Pakzad, the owner of Ariana, one of about 20 cable operators in Kabul, said he read about the new ban in the newspaper and stopped transmitting for fear police — "in a bad mood" — might smash up his office.

"I'm a Muslim, and I wouldn't show any sexy films," he said. "This is just a conspiracy against the cable operators. These people just want to keep Afghan people in the dark."

Moon News: Phobos and Titan

The image shows the Mars-facing side of the moon, taken
from a distance of less than 200 kilometers with a resolution
of about seven meters per pixel during orbit 756, on 22
August 2004. This color image was calculated from the three
color channels and the nadir channel on the HRSC. Due to
geometric reasons the scale bar is only valid for the centre
of the image. (ESA/ DLR/ FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

New Look at Phobos
European Space Agency News Release

Mars November 11, 2004 - New images, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, are Europe’s highest-resolution pictures so far of the Martian moon Phobos.

The HRSC images show new detail that will keep planetary scientists busy for years, working to unravel the mysteries of this moon. The images show the Mars-facing side of the moon, taken from a distance of less than 200 kilometers with a resolution of about seven meters per pixel during orbit 756.

Images of Phobos had already been taken at lower resolution in previous orbits (413, 649, 682, 715 and 748). In the coming months, these first pictures will be followed by a series of images taken in subsequent fly-bys.

The Mars Express spacecraft periodically passes near Phobos about one hour before it flies at an altitude of only 270 kilometers above the Martian surface, just above the atmosphere. Within minutes, the orbiting spacecraft turns from its attitude where it points at Mars to train its camera on this little world.

The HRSC provided an unprecedented near-simultaneous group of 10 different images of the surface, enabling the moon's shape, topography, color, ‘regolith’ light-scattering properties, and rotational and orbital states to be determined. The regolith is the small-grained material covering most non-icy planetary bodies, resulting from multiple impacts on the body’s surface.

These images have surpassed all previous images from other missions in continuous coverage of the illuminated surface, not blurred and at the highest resolution. The US Viking Orbiter obtained a few small areas sampled at an even higher resolution of a few meters per pixel, but these were not so sharp due to the close and fast fly-by.

The global ‘groove’ network is seen in sufficient detail to cover the Mars-facing surface continuously from near the equator up to the north pole with regular spacing between the grooves. It now may be possible to determine whether the grooves existed before the large cratering events, and exist deep within Phobos, or came after the cratering events and were superimposed on them.

Much more detail is seen inside the various-sized craters, showing some with marked albedo variations. Some craters have dark materials near the crater floors, some have regolith that slid down the crater walls, and some have very dark ejecta, possibly some of the darkest material in our Solar System.

This tiny moon is thought to be in a ‘death spiral’, slowly orbiting toward the surface of Mars. Here, Phobos was found to be about five kilometers ahead of its predicted orbital position. This could be an indication of an increased orbital speed associated with its secular acceleration, causing the moon to spiral in toward Mars.

Eventually Phobos could be torn apart by Martian gravity and become a short-lived ring around Mars, or even impact on the surface. This orbit will be studied in more detail over the lifetime of the Mars Express.

3D Image Available - http://esamultimedia.esa.int/images/marsexpress/116-051004-0756-6-an-01-Phobos_hires.jpg

European Space Agency - http://www.esa.int

Titan's Ice Volcano


The bright region might be an icy volcanic flow.
(NASA/ JPL/ Space Science Institute)

Saturn November 10, 2004 (BBC) - Saturn's largest moon Titan may have molten ice welling up to the surface from its warm interior, data from the Cassini spacecraft suggests. A radar image taken during Cassini's flyby of Titan on 26 October shows a striking bright feature on the moon.

Mission scientists are speculating that this could be fluid oozing across the surface: a so-called cryovolcanic flow.

Water-rich ice may melt below Titan and flow out on to the moon's surface under pressure, scientists think.

"It may be something that flowed, or it could be something carved by erosion. It's too early to say," said Cassini radar team member Ralph Lorenz of the University of Arizona, US.


Titan (NASA)

"But it looks very much like it's something that oozed across the surface. It may be some sort of cryovolcanic flow, an analogue to volcanism on Earth that is not molten rock but, at Titan's very cold temperatures, molten ice."

Temperatures on the Saturnian moon are not thought to reach above -179C. Cryovolcanic flows are also hypothesized to exist on Jupiter's moon Ganymede.

The fact that the lower (southern) edges of the features in the synthetic aperture radar image are brighter is consistent with the structure being raised above the relatively featureless darker background.

Scientists have been puzzled by the relative lack of impact craters on the surface of Titan. A likely explanation for this seems to be that the surface of this moon is constantly being resurfaced by some sort of geological activity.

Some theories also propose that lakes or oceans of liquid hydrocarbons, such as methane and ethane, may lie on the moon's surface.

The synthetic aperture radar image was taken on 26 October, when Cassini conducted a close fly-by of Saturn's largest moon. Titan is shrouded in a thick orange smog, which has scuttled previous attempts to see through to its surface.

The image covers an area about 150km (90 miles) square in Titan's northern hemisphere. The area has not yet been imaged using Cassini's cameras.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a co-operative project of NASA, ESA and ASI, the Italian space agency.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov  and the Cassini imaging team home page, http://ciclops.org

Pluto Safe From KBOs!

Our distant sun twinkles in this artist's conception of a
distant Kuiper Belt Object. (Illustration: NASA/JPL)

University of Arizona News Release

November 10, 2004 - Pluto's status as our solar system's ninth planet may be safe if a recently discovered Kuiper Belt Object is a typical "KBO" and not just an oddball.

Astronomers have new evidence that KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects) are smaller than previously thought.

KBOs - icy cousins to asteroids and the source of some comets - are the leftover building blocks of the outer planets. Astronomers using the world's most powerful telescopes have discovered about 1,000 of these objects orbiting beyond Neptune since discovering the first one in 1992. These discoveries fueled debate on whether Pluto is a planet or a large (1,400-mile diameter) closer-in KBO.

Researchers estimate that the total mass of the Kuiper Belt is about a tenth of Earth's mass. Most theorize that there are more than 10,000 KBOs with diameters greater than 100 kilometers (62 miles), compared to 200 asteroids known to be that large in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

"People were finding all these KBOs that were huge - literally half the size of Pluto or larger," University of Arizona astronomer John Stansberry said. "But those supposed sizes were based on assumptions that KBOs have very low albedos, similar to comets."

Albedo is a measure of how much light an object reflects. The more light an object reflects, the higher its albedo. Actual data on Kuiper Belt Object albedos have been hard to come by because the objects are so distant, dim and cold. Many astronomers have assumed that KBO albedos - like comet albedos - are around four percent and have used that number to calculate KBO diameters.

However, in early results from their Spitzer Space Telescope survey of 30 Kuiper Belt Objects, Stansberry and colleagues found that a distant KBO designated 2002 AW197 reflects 18 percent of its incident light and is about 700 kilometers (435 miles) in diameter. That's considerably smaller and more reflective than expected, Stansberry said.

"2002 AW197 is believed to be one of the largest KBOs thus far discovered," he said. "These results indicate that this object is larger than all but one main-belt asteroid (Ceres), about half the size of Pluto's moon, Charon, and about 30 percent as large and a tenth as massive as Pluto."

Stansberry and his colleagues took the data with Spitzer's Multiband Imaging Photometer (MIPS) on April 13, 2004. George Rieke's team at the University of Arizona developed and built the extremely heat-sensitive MIPS. It detects heat from very cold objects by taking images at far-infrared wavelengths.


The ninth planet Pluto and its moon Charon (NASA)

In this case, MIPS detected heat from a Kuiper Belt Object with a surface temperature of around minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit at an astonishing distance of 4.4 billion miles (7 billion kilometers), or one-and-a-half times farther away frm the sun than Pluto.

Without MIPS, astronomers operating under the assumption that 2002 AW197 reflects four percent of its incident light would calculate that it is 1500 kilometers (932 miles) in diameter, or two-thirds as large as Pluto, Stansberry said.

"We're finally starting to get data on the basic physical parameters of KBOs," Stansberry said. "That will help us determine what their compositions are, how they evolve, how massive they are, what their real size distributions and dynamics are and how Pluto fits into the whole picture," he said.

Such data will also offer insight on how comets are processed on their successive journeys around the sun, he added.

"It's not surprising that comets are darker than KBOs," Stansberry said."When something in the Kuiper Belt chips off a piece of a Kuiper Belt Object, presumably that piece would have a higher albedo on its first swing through the inner solar system. But it doesn't take long before it loses its high albedo surface and builds up a lot of very dark materials, at least in its outermost surface."

Others with Stansberry in this Spitzer study are Dale Cruikshank and Josh Emery of NASA Ames Research Center, Yan Fernandez of the University of Hawaii, George Rieke of the University of Arizona and Michael Werner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Stansberry said the team will finish collecting their KBO data with Spitzer soon.

"We'll know a lot more about how big and bright these things are by this time next year," he said.

More information about this and other new results from the Spitzer Space Telescope is on the Web at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/Media/index.shtml

University of Arizona - http://uanews.org

Solar Sailors Set March Launch Date

Cosmos-1 will be launched
from a submarine (PS)

November 10, 2004 (BBC) - The world's first spacecraft to use a solar sail for propulsion is set to be launched from a submerged Russian submarine on 1 March next year. Cosmos-1 has been built by space advocacy group The Planetary Society and will deploy eight triangular sail blades once it is in space.

Photons from sunlight will push on the spacecraft sails to propel it on the first controlled solar sail flight. Some hope solar sails will one day help humans travel to the stars.

The US, European, Japanese and Russian space agencies also have solar sail programs in the offing.

The entire spacecraft has reportedly been completed for under $4m (£2.1m).

Cosmos-1 will be launched into space aboard a modified Volna intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from a submarine in the Barents Sea. Typically, the Volna does not have enough thrust to reach orbit. But the missile used for Cosmos-1 will have an added rocket engine (kick stage) of a type used to de-orbit satellites. The kick-stage engine will provide the additional thrust required to get Cosmos-1 into orbit.

Although 1 March is slated as the earliest date for a launch attempt, the mission has a launch period extending from 1 March to 7 April 2005. Ultimately, the launch date will be determined by the Russian Navy.


Solar sails could reach distant
planets in amazing times (PS)

"This whole venture is audacious and risky," said Bruce Murray, co-founder of The Planetary Society with astronomer Carl Sagan and space scientist Louis Friedman. "It is a testament to the inspiring nature of space exploration and to the desire of people everywhere to be part of the adventure of great projects."

Solar sails reflect light particles, or photons, from the Sun, gaining momentum in the opposite direction to propel spacecraft forward.

Several days to perhaps a week of checkout is likely - to make sure the spacecraft systems are in good health - before the blades are positioned. The controlled flight might then occur in the second week after launch.

Because solar sails continue accelerating, they could reach distant targets in amazing times. Sunlight would become too weak beyond the realms of Jupiter but one theory for interstellar travel is to direct lasers at the sails.

The Planetary Society - http://www.planetary.org/solarsail

The Roopkund Rain of Death!

Roopkund Lake in the remote Himalayan Gahrwal region

By David Orr

Roopkund India November 7, 2004 (Telegraph UK) - For 60 years the skeletal remains of more than 200 people, discovered in 1942 close to the glacial Roopkund Lake in the remote Himalayan Gahrwal region, have puzzled historians, scientists and archaeologists. Were they soldiers killed in battle, royal pilgrims who lost their way and succumbed to hypothermia, or Tibetan traders who died of a mysterious illness?

Now, the first forensic investigation of one of the area's most enduring mysteries has concluded that hundreds of nomads - whose frozen corpses are being disgorged from ice high in the mountain - were killed by one of the most lethal hailstorms in history.

Scientists commissioned by the National Geographic television channel to examine the corpses have discovered that they date from the 9th century - and believe that they died from sharp blows to their skulls, almost certainly by giant hailstones. "We were amazed by what we found," said Dr Pramod Joglekar, a bio-archaeologist at Deccan College, Pune, who was among the team who visited the site 16,500ft above sea level.

"In addition to skeletons, we discovered bodies with the flesh intact, perfectly preserved in the icy ground. We could see their hair and nails as well as pieces of clothing."

The most startling discovery was that many of those who died suffered fractured skulls. "We retrieved a number of skulls which showed short, deep cracks," said Dr Subhash Walimbe, a physical anthropologist at the college. "These were caused not by a landslide or an avalanche but by blunt, round objects about the size of cricket balls."

The team, whose findings will be broadcast in Britain next month, concluded that hailstones were the most likely cause of the injuries after consulting Himalayan historians and meteorological records.

Prof Wolfgang Sax, an anthropologist at Heidelberg University in Germany, cited a traditional song among Himalayan women that describes a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones "hard as iron".

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the heaviest hailstones on record weighed up to 2.2lb and killed 92 people in Bangladesh in 1986.

The National Geographic team believes that those who died at Roopkund were caught in a similar hailstorm from which they were unable to find cover. The balls of ice would have been falling at more than 100mph, killing some victims instantly. Others would have fallen, stunned and injured, and died soon afterwards of hypothermia.


Death was caused by extremely large hailstones

"The only plausible explanation for so many people sustaining such similar injuries at the same time is something that fell from the sky," said Dr Walimbe. "The injuries were all to the top of the skull and not to other bones in the body, so they must have come from above. Our view is that death was caused by extremely large hailstones."

The scientists found glass bangles, indicating the presence of women, in addition to a ring, spear, leather shoes and bamboo staves. They estimate that as many as 600 bodies may still be buried in snow and ice by the lake.

Bone samples collected at the site were sent to the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of Oxford University, where the date of death was established about AD 850 - 400 years earlier than supposed.

The team has yet to resolve the identity of the nomads. DNA from tissue samples suggested that the group was closely related. One match pointed to a community of high-caste Brahmins in central India.

The investigators agreed that the victims were Hindu pilgrims from the plains, rather than the mountains, because of their large size and good health.

"The skeletons are of large and rugged people," said Dr Dibyendukanti Bhattacharya of Delhi University. "They are more like the actors John Wayne or Anthony Quinn. Only a few have the characteristics of the Mongoloid hill people of the Himalayas."

Genre News: Andromeda, Space Patrol, Smallville, Riddick, Drawn Together, Is Reality TV Dead?

The cast of Andromeda cavorts at their
100th Episode Party.
Andromeda Hits 100!
By FLAtRich

Canada November 13, 2004 (eXoNews) - Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, now airing in the US on Sci Fi, recently partied after the wrap of their hundredth episode.

Andromeda, which is based on some of Gene's series ideas that Majel Roddenberry turned up after she more or less severed ties with the Paramount Star Trek franchise, is currently slip-streaming along in its fifth season.


Brandy kicks ass as Doyle
in Andromeda

In addition to relatively new cast member Steve Bacic as Telemachus Rhade, Andromeda recently added Brandy Ledford (Baywatch: Hawaii) as Doyle, an android that Harper (Gordon Michael Woolvett) created after Rommy (Lexa Doig) blew up last season.

Don't let the Baywatch credit fool you! Brandy kicks ass and she has also done her share of genre work on Smallville, Stargate SG-1, and The Invisible Man.

The Andromeda crew stars Lisa Ryder as Beka Valentine, Laura Bertram as Trance Gemini and, of course, Kevin Sorbo as Dylan Hunt.

Rumors that Kevin Sorbo is looking for a sitcom seem to seal this season as Andromeda's last, but you never know with Sci Fi, who recently scored big in the ratings with the long awaited return / finale of Farscape and are still going strong with their twin Stargate series.

You can catch a video of the Andromeda 100th Episode fun at
the Andromeda Official site - http://www.andromedatv.com


Commander Corry and the good ship Terra V (ABC)

Space Patrol's Commander Buzz Corry Dead

LOS ANGELES November 13, 2004 (AP) - Actor Ed Kemmer, who played the intrepid Cmdr. Buzz Corry in the popular 1950s children's television show "Space Patrol" before becoming a regular on daytime soap operas, has died. He was 84.

Kemmer died Tuesday at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City after suffering a stroke on Nov. 5, family friend Jean-Noel Bassior told the Los Angeles Times.

"Space Patrol" chronicled the adventures of Corry, who fought intergalactic villains of the 30th century while flying around in his Terra V spacecraft with comic sidekick Cadet Happy.

The series, which also spawned a radio version, ran from 1950 to 1955 and was broadcast live on ABC as a weekly half-hour program.

Kemmer said he took the role seriously.


Commander Corry (front right) and the crew
of Space Patrol (ABC)

"I played it as straight as I could," he told the Columbus Dispatch in 1994. "You don't play down to children. A lot of shows make that mistake. Kids see through that right away."

Kemmer said the show was his most important work. "One engineer at NASA told me that he first got interested in space because of our show," Kemmer once said.

He later switched to playing bad guys with appearances on shows including "Perry Mason," "Gunsmoke" and "Maverick." He moved to New York in 1964 and spent the next 19 years starring regularly on soap operas such as "The Edge of Night," "As the World Turns," "All My Children" and "Guiding Light."

Kemmer spent 11 months in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II after his P-51 fighter plane was shot down over France in 1944. He and others in the POW camp staged plays, and after the war he studied acting.

Kemmer is survived by his wife of 35 years, former actress Fran Sharon, and three children.


Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour Moves To Smallville
By FLAtRich

Hollywood November 13, 2004 (eXoNews) - Jane Seymour will come onboard Smallville for a six-episode arc, proving again that this year Smallville isn't Kansas anymore.

Miss Seymour joins the series as Genevieve Teague, mother of Jason (Jensen Ackles), the football coach that Lana met in Paris.


New life for the last of the Frog Network genre
shows (WB)

Smallville and Charmed are the only genre series remaining on the WB, who once gave us the likes of Buffy and Angel.

Charmed seems to be on its last broomstick (not that we don't love Charmed), but Smallville is still alive and well despite worthy new competition on Wednesdays from ABC's Lost.

Last week's episode definitely headed the show in the right direction with a script by Steven S. DeKnight, a former story editor and writer for Buffy and writer-producer-director for Angel.

Shades of bad Willow! DeKnight proceeded to turn Lana (Kristin Kreuk), Chloe (Allison Mack) and newcomer Lois Lane (Erica Durance) into reincarnated witches with magic powers that left Clark (Tom Welling) limp.

Presumably, Smallville will beat the big reality TV bad and continue to fly like Superman into future seasons - unless Bryan Singer's new big screen man of steel ruins the illusion.

Smallville Official - http://www.thewb.com/Shows/Show/0,7353,||126,00.html

You can read much more about this and Miss Seymour in Kate O'Hare's Zap2it article "Is Jane Seymour One Bad Mother on 'Smallville'?" here.

Riddick Director's Cut DVD: Lehman Talks Edits


Kristin Lehman

Hollywood November 12, 2004 (Sci Fi Wire) - Kristin Lehman, who played an enigmatic character named Shirah in The Chronicles of Riddick, told SCI FI Wire that she discovered that her scenes had been cut out of the movie only about a week before the film's premiere.

Director David Twohy broke the news about the scenes cut from the theatrical release version of the film, which have been restored in the upcoming DVD release.

"There was a lot he and the studio wanted to impart and accomplish, but Shirah's involvement in Riddick's [Vin Diesel] development wasn't clear enough to test audiences," Lehman said in an interview. "I really loved playing Shirah, but I trusted David when he told me the reasons my character had to go."

Lehman added, "I trusted it wasn't because of performance. And I was OK about it. My role role was highly visual, but very small in terms of the scope of such an ambitious film."

Twohy has edited Lehman's scenes back into The Chronicles of Riddick for the upcoming unrated director's-cut DVD. Now, Lehman said, viewers can decide for themselves if their interpretation of the character matches the one she and Twohy tried to impart.

"I can tell you she was intended to awaken Riddick to his true identity, power and birthright: Furyan," Lehman said. "She was essentially the keeper of the Furyan legacy, a warrior who served as a beacon to bring Furyans back."

The Chronicles of Riddick: The Unrated Director's Cut will be available on Nov. 16 from Universal Studios Home Video.

[Kristin Lehman rose to genre cult favorite status when she played Esther Narn in the season five William Gibson "Kill Switch" episode of The X-Files. She co-starred in the short-lived series Strange World and has also shown up as an occasional love interest for Dylan Hunt in Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda. Ed.]

Comedy Central Orders More Drawn Together


Drawn Together - Comedy Central's
Toon Reality show.

LOS ANGELES November 11, 2004 (Zap2it.com) It only took two weeks for Comedy Central to decide it wants more "Drawn Together."

The network has ordered a second season of the animated "reality" series, in which a bunch of cartoon archetypes make sport of reality television. The new season, consisting of 15 episodes, will premiere next year.

"'Drawn Together' has been an immediate success for the network and our viewers, and I am excited that we will be able to continue the adventure with a second season," says Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's head of original programming and development.

"Suffice it to say, the animated characters created by Matt [Silverstein] and Dave [Jeser] have many, many more escapades, contests, musical spoofs and other disorders to look forward to before we let them out of that house."

Silverstein and Jeser, who created "Drawn Together" after working as writers for "The Man Show" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," are in wonder over their good fortune.

"We're astonished that Comedy Central wants more of these things," they say in a statement. "We didn't even think they wanted the ones they have now. Amazing."

The decision to pick up the show wasn't a tough one, as early episodes have shown strong ratings. In its first two weeks, "Drawn Together" has averaged 2.3 million viewers, many of whom are in the network's core audience of men ages 18-49.


Drawn Together ladies (l-r) Toot Braunstein;
Foxxy Love; Clara. (Comedy Central)

The Nov. 3 episode was the No. 2 show on cable that night among adults 18-49, behind only its lead-in, "South Park."

"Drawn Together's" second season is scheduled to unspool in fall 2005 and will include a "reunion special" among its 15 episodes.

Yasser Arafat Versus CSI: NY
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES November 12, 2004 (Reuters) - CBS News has fired the producer responsible for interrupting the last five minutes of a hit crime drama with a special report on the death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, a network source said on Friday.

Word of the dismissal came a day after CBS apologized to viewers for breaking into "CSI: NY," one of its top-rated shows, on Wednesday night.

"An overly aggressive CBS News producer jumped the gun with a report that should have been offered to local stations for their late news. We sincerely regret the error," the network said in a statement on Thursday.

The network, owned by Viacom Inc., declined comment on a report of the dismissal posted on the Web site of trade publication Broadcasting & Cable.

But a network source told Reuters that CBS fired the producer who decided to break into "CSI" with a report from "Up to the Minute" anchor Melissa McDermott.

According to the source, the producer failed to follow standard procedures that require a senior CBS News executive to be consulted before interrupting regular programming.

The fact Arafat already had been reported near death for several days also figured in the network's decision. The source said the producer disregarded explicit, advance instructions that breaking news of Arafat's death -- if it occurred during prime time -- was to be reported with a news "crawl" at the bottom of the screen.

"Arafat had been literally on his deathbed for a week. Everyone knew he was going to die. It was just a matter of when," the source said.

Neither of CBS' two biggest rivals -- NBC or ABC -- interrupted regular programming to report Arafat's death. NBC said it ran a crawl for affiliates in the Western states and Rockies, while leaving the story for local news in eastern and central time zones. ABC said it ran a crawl on the West Coast.

CBS News has been under intense scrutiny since veteran anchor Dan Rather ran a controversial report on President Bush's military record based on documents whose authenticity came under fire.

[My god! The nerve of that bastard interrupting fake crime for real news! Ed.]

Baywatch The Movie?


The evil that never dies!

LOS ANGELES November 12, 2004 (AP) - "Baywatch" may soon be joining the ranks of "Dragnet," "Starsky & Hutch," "Scooby-Doo" and "Bewitched" on the list of old TV shows made into movies.

Movie rights to the skin, surf and sand series — which starred Pamela Anderson as a sexy lifeguard and David Hasselhoff as her heroic boss — have been sold to DreamWorks SKG.

FreemantleMedia, which owned the rights to the series, announced the deal Friday.

The studio is aiming for a 2006 release, but it's still too early to say whether any original cast members would appear in the film, or whether the story would be played seriously or more for laughs.

"Baywatch" was telecast from 1989 to 2001, during which time its lineup changed several times.

Nick Cage Next Tru Calling?
By David S. Cohen
Variety


Hollywood November 10, 2004 (Variety) — Nicolas Cage will star and Lee Tamahori will direct the action thriller "Next" for Revolution Studios.


Nick Cage

Cage will also produce the pic, based on "The Golden Man," a story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. Gary Goldman, who adapted a Dick story into "Total Recall," penned the script.

Cage will produce along with his Saturn Films partner Norm Golightly. Goldman will be an executive producer, along with Jason Koornick, who holds the rights to Dick's short story. Derek Dauchy will oversee the project for Revolution.

Cage will play a man who can see the future and change events before they happen. Eventually, he is forced to choose between saving the world and saving himself.

"This is a movie that translates the excitement of the videogame experience into the cinema," Goldman said.

Goldman optioned the story and wrote the script on spec. He brought it to Saturn, which teamed with CAA to approach Revolution's Todd Garner with it.

Pic is expected to start shooting next summer.

Cage will next be seen in Disney's "National Treasure," opening Nov. 19. Tamahori is finishing Revolution's "XXX: State of the Union," starring Ice Cube, Samuel L. Jackson and Willem Dafoe.

Dick's stories have provided material for big-budget sci-fi pics including "Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "Paycheck" and Warner Independent Pictures' upcoming Keanu Reeves starrer "A Scanner Darkly."

[Sounds familiar to you too? I guess Nick hadn't seen Tru. Fox canceled it, BTW, in case you hadn't heard. Ed.]

Is Reality TV Dead? [We Hope!]
By Josef Adalian
Variety


Can Desperate Housewives bury Reality TV? (ABC)

New York November 10, 2004 (Variety) — It's been a brutal week for reality shows, but don't count out the unscripted genre just yet.

In the past six days alone, the nets have launched three reality shows, and all three have struck out with viewers.

[We're soooo sorry to hear that, aren't we genre fans? Ed.]

Fox scored back-to-back flops with "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss" and "The Rebel Billionaire," while it turned out the joke was on NBC with the underperforming "$25 Million Hoax."

Earlier in the season, ABC's "The Benefactor" was such a loser, the net quickly found a way to get it off the air two weeks sooner than planned. A slew of controversy surrounding Fox's "The Next Great Champ" couldn't get viewers to care about boxing.

And when the Peacock got greedy with the success of "Last Comic Standing" by rushing a new season of the show on the air barely two weeks after the end of the previous season, the audience thought the net was joking -- and stayed away in droves.

All this failure in such a short amount of time -- coupled with the runaway success of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" -- will no doubt have some alarmists declaring reality is dead.

A closer look at the genre's track record this fall, however, reveals that viewers are still very much in love with unscripted shows. They're just punishing networks for launching skeins that are either too familiar or rushed together too quickly.

"With quantity comes failure," admitted Mike Darnell, Fox's exec VP of alternative programming. "You can't do this much quantity without doing shows that are similar to other shows. It becomes a combination of mediocre shows or shows that are so similar to other shows, they don't stick out."

Broadcasters aren't the only ones suffering negative side effects from their addiction to reality. Cablers are also finding it harder to get auds interested in unscripted projects.


Queer gold at Bravo

Bravo, which struck gold with "Queer Eye," has lost its gaydar with "Top Model" clone "Manhunt." Spike TV's "Apprentice"-like "I Hate My Job" has viewers saying, "I Don't Really Like This Show." And TBS' "He's a Lady" might as well be called "He's a Dud."

In the case of Fox, the net seems to have incorrectly bet that a heavy dose of reality would keep the net's pulse racing in September and after baseball. Just as ABC flooded the market with reality shows in the first quarter of 2003, Fox is devoting nearly two-thirds of its primetime sked this month to unscripted fare.

Alphabet's plan flopped, resulting in a sea of failure. Fox is doing a bit better, but not much.

The good news: viewers still seem ready to embrace originality when it comes to reality.

ABC's "Wife Swap" is the unsung hero of the season, this week beating the mighty "Law & Order" Wednesday at 10. Fox has also seen encouraging numbers for kiddie makeover show "Nanny 911," while its "Wife Swap" clone "Trading Spouses" is quietly posting solid results.


America's Next Top Underwear

NBC also has reason to cheer "The Biggest Loser," which -- while not a Nielsen heavyweight -- has suppressed the net's performance in the 8-9:30 p.m. Tuesday slot.

All four shows have one thing in common: They're new concepts that haven't yet saturated the marketplace.

Nets also have to be relieved that existing reality franchises are still doing fine.

"Survivor" still thrives on Thursdays, while ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" has exploded in its second season.

"The Apprentice" is down from last season, but still mighty, while UPN's "America's Next Top Model" has found its (long) legs after a shaky start.

Still, Darnell and others concede there may simply be too many reality skeins on the air.

"The volume was bound to implode on itself, and now we're seeing the result," said one industry vet.

While nets have traditionally used reality skeins to plug holes in their midseason skeds or keep the lights on during the summer, this year saw a fall launch packed with more reality skeins than ever before. Greedy for a quick ratings fix, webheads have once again forgotten that reality is supposed to be alternative programming -- not the bread and butter of a sked.

"Unfortunately for alternative, when it becomes the staple that it is now, you're just going to have failure," Darnell said. "And you're going to have almost as much failure as in any other area."

Indeed, despite all the hoopla over ABC's hourlong hits, it's been an awful year for new scripted dramas.


Jack and Bobby to be voted off the island (WB)

CBS has already killed two of its three new hours, pulling the plug on "Dr. Vegas" and "Clubhouse." NBC has also dumped "Hawaii," while "LAX" seems headed for a final descent any day now, barring a last minute ratings tailwind. The WB's "Jack & Bobby" and "The Mountain" barely have a pulse.

And comedy? It's still pretty dead. NBC now airs just 90 minutes of comedy each week vs. 3½ hours of reality.

But while scripted vets are used to a world in which 80% of new shows bite the dust in their first year, the high mortality rate is something new for reality producers and execs. Ditto the overwhelming workload demanded when nets order up so much fare so quickly.

Producers on many skeins are working 20-hour days battling to get shows done in record time. Producers of "Biggest Loser" had to switch gears at the last second and turn hourlong episodes into 90-minute segs with hardly any notice.

Some wonder if all the rushing doesn't lead to inferior shows -- though "Loser" and "Nanny 911" are doing fine. It certainly taxes the strength of reality execs, whose relatively small staffs now find themselves juggling one or two dozen projects at a time.

Darnell, the symbolic face of TV's turn-of-the-century reality wave, insists he and his staff can keep up. He also remains convinced reality has joined sitcoms and dramas as a permanent third staple of network TV.

The exec believes Fox and other nets are "still finding our way in this genre," learning new lessons about what viewers do and don't want. He predicts more original reality ideas come January -- and he has no doubt the next "American Idol" or "Survivor" is out there.

"If it's good and it's unique and it's loud, it'll work," he said.

[God save us from Evil Network Executives, I said. Ed]

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