February 19, 2008

GDC 2008 – Keeping Things Casual

Posted: 03:52 PM ET

Of the many events and conferences within this year's GDC, I spent a good part of yesterday in the "Casual Games Summit."Diner Dash 2

From the runaway success of "Guitar Hero" to the Nintendo Wii's successes with the elderly, even if you don't consider yourself a "gamer," you can't ignore the growing influence of so-called "casual" games.

During a keynote speech by John Welch of PlayFirst, one of the leading publishers of casual games, the mood was inspirational, with Welch calling on the industry to continue to create innovative content and help raise the profile of games to become "first-tier" entertainment.

Citing a diversity in the types of content that people digest on a daily basis, whether from television, movies, music or books, Welch insisted that games "reflect that diversity," by offering people a wider range of ways to play.

At the beginning of his speech, Welch noted that there was no concise definition for what makes a casual game. Pointing to the number of ways people play, whether it's on their cell-phone, through an online application such as Facebook or on their PC, Welch concluded that the "broadened definition means more opportunity" for developers and publishers alike.

But that enthusiasm was tempered with a warning ... that the only way to make good on that opportunity is to remain innovative. Instead of simply creating clones of previously successful titles such as "Bejeweled" or "Diner Dash," producers and developers need to continue to lead the way and innovate.

Welch believes that if developers of so-called "casual" titles continue to find new ways to engage their audience as well as attract new players, that the notion of "casual" games will eventually disappear... giving way for them to transition from the exception to the norm.

– Matt West, CNN Entertainment Producer

Filed under: Games • Gaming

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February 18, 2008

The Frog From Hell

Posted: 05:10 PM ET

This post might have Kermit’s undivided attention.


I just spoke with paleontologist David Krause at Stony Brook University who described an amazing find in Madagascar: a gigantic fossil frog. It was the size of a squashed beach ball and - at a whopping 10 lbs. - may be the heaviest frog ever.

The 16-inch ancient frog did its hopping at the end of the age of dinosaurs, about 65-70 million years ago. Krause’s team started calling it the “frog from hell,” which prompted fellow researcher Catherine Forster to give it the official genus name Beelzebufo.

She combined “Beelzebub,” the Hebrew word for devil, with the Latin “bufo”, meaning frog or toad.

But here’s the kicker: Beelzebufo’s closest living relative is half-a-world away in South America!

So how does a fossil group on an island off the east coast of Africa have contemporary cousins in the western hemisphere? Krause has started a bit of controversy. I’ll explain in a bit.

Field researchers first discovered bits and pieces of the devil frog back in 1993, but it took 15 years to collect enough fragments – about 75 of them – to make sense of the skeleton.

Finally they had enough specimens to assemble about 75 percent of the animal’s skull and 10 percent of its body. Knowing the anatomy of related forms, Krause suspected he had a froggy find. But he needed help in identifying what kind. He collaborated with fossil frog experts Susan Evans and Marc Jones of the University College London. Evans was the first to suggest that thought that Beelzebufo resembled the “ceratphyrines” of South America, which have enormous mouths.

In fact, some people call them “pac-man” frogs after the big-mouthed videogame character from the 1980s. Evans and Jones concluded that the discovery of Beelzebufo is the first time fossils in Madagascar have been connected with living relatives in South America.

You can read their complete findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

So why is the Madagascar-South America link controversial? Frogs like these don’t disperse over big bodies of water, so you need a land connection.

Paleontologists like Krause have to look millions of years back in time, to when scientists think the enormous “Pangaea” supercontinent connected most of the world’s landmasses.

Most geoscientists think that Pangaea broke into two supercontinents about 180 million years ago (“Gondwana” to the south and “Laurasia” to the north), and that Gondwana’s break-up about 160 million years ago separated Madagascar from Africa.

But if Beelzebufo existed around 65-70 million years ago – and is in fact related to South American ceratphyrines – it means that Madagascar was not isolated from other land masses by that time.

Krause says this is a fairly hot debate in scientific circles. The question also lingers whether Antarctica – which was much warmer in the Late Cretaceous period – could have been the land connection.

- CNN's Alex Walker

Filed under: Animals

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GDC 2008 – Game On

Posted: 03:14 PM ET

This week, I am reporting from the 2008 Game Developers Conference, taking place in San Francisco, California.


Less of a trade show and more of an idea exchange for producers and programmers alike, GDC offers a unique insight into the overall direction of the billion dollar video game industry, where it's been in the past year, and where it's headed.

Today being the opening day, the overall vibe is fairly subdued. I'm told that much of the "action" doesn't usually get underway until mid-week.

When the concept of what the overall theme of the conference might be, Sibel Sunar, a publicist with 47 Communications, which represents the Conference itself says, "the focus of the show could change three times in the next three days."

That's not to imply that the GDC is completely lacking focus, but with a range of programs covering nearly every aspect of the gaming space; from hard-core to casual, mobile to massively-multiplayer – it can be hard to boil down the overall "message" of the conference in a single sentence.

Along with attempting to give you a glimpse into what's next in the industry, I will also be attending several "off-site" demos of new games and hardware that will be making their way to your PCs and consoles in the coming year – and will do my best to bring you as much of that information during the next few days – both here in the SciTech blog and on Live in a special edition of "Get Your Game On."

For more on the conference and the depth of what is expected to be covered, check out the official web-site.

Filed under: Games • Gaming

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View Images of Top-Secret Satellite

Posted: 02:39 PM ET

Despite a news conference (see the previous blog item from CNN Senior Producer Kate Tobin, and the excellent reader responses), we still don't know all that much about USA-193, the crippled spy satellite that wants to drop out and come home early.

We know a few details about its size, and the possible toxicity of its frozen half-ton of hydrazine fuel.  But we don't know exactly what it does, or where it is.  We wouldn't want that information to fall into the hands of America's enemies.

 Gladly, Friedrich Deters of LaGrange, North Carolina is not one of America's enemies, as far as we know.  Because he got a picture of it. 

Friedrich is one of an army of satellite buffs who research, monitor, and track some of the thousands of orbiting satellites that are up there.  But his photos, taken just before dawn as USA-193 streaked across the sky, looking quite a bit like a meteorite, remind us that today's world is a hard place to keep a secret.   If a smart guy in North Carolina can get a look, how about a hostile government?

Filed under: NASA • Space

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February 15, 2008

Final spacewalk of Atlantis mission concludes

Posted: 05:36 PM ET

Spacewalkers Rex Walheim and Stan Love are back inside after wrapping up the third and final spacewalk of the STS-122 mission. They successfully installed two experiment packages to the exterior of the new Columbus laboratory, and transferred a gyroscope that failed last year from a stowage rack to Atlantis' cargo bay for return to Earth. Stan Love must be jazzed that he got to do two spacewalks on this mission. He was only scheduled to do the one today, but of course got an extra trip out of the hatch for EVA 1 when Hans Schlegel fell ill.

Astronauts will spend tomorrow and the first part of Sunday outfitting Columbus to get the experiment racks and work stations up and running, and also competing all the supplies and equipment transfers between shuttle and station. Later Sunday, the Atlantis crew will get in the shuttle and close the hatches, preparing to undock from the station early on Monday.

If all goes as planned, they'll land at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday at 9:06am.

Also, if you enjoy following shuttle missions you won't have long to wait for the next one. The shuttle Endeavour is set to roll out to launch pad 39A at KSC on Monday morning, first motion expected just after midnight. The 3.4 mile trip generally takes about 6 – 8 hours. Launch is targeted for March 11.

- Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: NASA • Space

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Weather at high speeds

Posted: 03:22 PM ET

We're in Daytona Beach watching NASCAR teams prepare for the 50th running of the Great American Race. What a rush its been so far... Day one we rode in the pace car for a few "hot laps". Which basically means you're hauling you know what round the track up to 140 mph. Wow that was a fast and very bumpy ride. Definitely rougher than you would think. The banks are 31 degrees which allows the big speed. We stopped on one turn and could barely stand on it. Our driver Brett Bodine winked and said "yup its like racing on the moon".


Back in the garage teams work on cars like surgeons with high tech precision making adjustments and trying to gain an edge. They run hard in practice and qualifying with average speeds round 180 mph. Ear plugs are a definite...rolling thunder would be a extreme understatement.

We followed the 5 car and Casey Mears for our high speed story pegged to weather. They don't run in the rain but temperature, sunshine, air pressure, and winds definitely play a huge role. Making adjustments/decisions based on changing weather conditions could put your car in Victory Lane.

- CNN's Rob Marciano and Alex Walker

Filed under: Weather

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Killing Time with Google Earth

Posted: 03:14 PM ET

Just about each day, a portion of my Journalism training is deployed for sitting in meetings. Lots of them. Some of them are conference calls - some vital, and some where you're not quite sure why you're there.

It's in those kinds of calls when I try my best to find something to multi-task on. Often, I end up taking a tour on Google Earth. Some of the thing I find are useful for work. Some aren't.

Let me share a few of the things I've found - productive or otherwise. I've included the latitude and longitude coordinates - click and drag them into your Google Earth template, but be sure to put the "minus" sign in there, or you'll literally be taken to the other side of the world:

51 22 24 -68 41 03 Homer Simpson would love this - a huge lake shaped like a donut. Quebec's Lake Manicouagan is the result of an asteroid impact millions of years ago.

40 16 59 -73 59 19 You'll see your Tax Dollars At Work. The US Army Corps of Engineers has spent billions on seawalls and other ways to artificially preserve coastlines and protect beaches and million-dollar homes. This shot of the Jersey Shore gives you an idea of what a fake beach looks like. Then, about 50 miles to the Northeast.......

40 52 05 -74 14 43 Look closely at this mansion in North Jersey. The long, curving driveway. The white stucco. The kidney-shaped pool in the back. It's Tony Soprano's house.

Remember that this kind of satellite and high-altitude photography hasn't been out there for all that long. If you had these kinds of images in your possession twenty years ago, you would likely either have a high-level security clearance, or you'd be headed to prison.

Maybe even this one: 38 55 22 -77 03 59 It appears to be the only spot on Google Earth that's intentionally blurred out. See if you can figure out what it is. Google Earth has said it's an oversight, soon to be corrected.

- Peter Dykstra, executive producer, Sci-Tech

Filed under: Google Earth

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For the birds

Posted: 12:25 PM ET

If you like birds, this Presidents Day weekend is the time to get out your binoculars. Thousands of birders, from novice to expert, will be looking skyward for the 11th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

This event is not just for fun (although it is that).

Organizers of the Count want you to enter the types and numbers of birds you spot at . Last year, participants reported a record-breaking 11 million birds and more than 600 species. Scientists use the information to learn more about how birds in North America are faring and what that means for the environment.


The Count includes an online photo gallery and contest.

But new this year - participants can upload video of their sightings on YouTube and tag it “Great Backyard Bird Count.” The best clips will be posted on the Bird Count web site.

So whether you count robins for 15 minutes from your kitchen window, or make a four-day trek through an Arkansas swamp in search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, the Great Backyard Bird Count wants to know what you see. Details are at .

- Diane Hawkins-Cox,  senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: Animals • Birds

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February 14, 2008

The sky is falling

Posted: 04:05 PM ET

The Pentagon announced today that sometime in the next few weeks a U.S. Navy ship will shoot down a failed National Reconnaisance Office spy satellite.

We don't know much about the satellite in question except that it launched on December 14, 2006 and it failed several hours after entering orbit.

It was apparently designed with the ability for a controlled de-orbit, but since command and control has been lost, that's now out.

Expert analysis indicates about half of the 5000-pound satellite would survive atmospheric reentry. It has a full tank of noxious hydrazine rocket fuel aboard, which would vent if the tank survived and hit the ground. Anyone within two football field's distance would be sickened by the fumes.

The U.S. Navy will fire one SM-3 missile from a ship in an effort to hit the satellite just as it grazes the atmosphere. By waiting until it is just about to re-enter before blasting it, they intend for most of the debris to quickly fall out of orbit and burn up ... most of it within hours, almost all of it within days or weeks.

This is not the first time a government has shot down a satellite. A decision to shoot down the satellite is sure to cause controversy in the aerospace community, as it would result in a massive amount of additional space junk in low earth orbit.

In January 2007, China used a land-based missile to destroy a 2,200-pound weather satellite called Fengyun-1C that was orbiting 528 miles above Earth.

That impact left more than 150,000 pieces of debris floating around he Earth, the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office estimates. The space agency characterizes nearly 2,600 pieces s "large," meaning greater than 10 cm (4 inches) across.

China is responsible for 42 percent of all satellite debris in orbit as of January 1, most of it from that Fengyun-1C satellite. NASA has called it the worst satellite breakup in history.

-Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: NASA • Space

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Dancing with the scientists!

Posted: 03:24 PM ET

Some scientists need a makeover. Or maybe just better publicists.

Geeky. Nerdy. White coats. Coke bottle glasses.


Not so, says John Bohannon, Science Magazine contributing correspondent, a.k.a. “The Gonzo
Scientist.” Bohannon created the first-ever "Dance Your Ph.D." contest.

“Interpret your Ph. D. thesis in dance form, using no words or images,” stated the rules.
“Scientists get a bad rap, mostly because of clothing issues,” said Bohannon, a molecular biologist turned journalist.

A shimmering loincloth could change attitudes in a flash. And that’s what archaeologist Brian Stewart, the winning entrant wore, wowing the judges with his emotional connection to the audience.


Stewart’s thesis: "Refitting repasts: a spatial exploration of food processing, sharing, cooking and disposal at the Dunefield Midden campsite, South Africa."

And he managed to convey his five years of research and field study into a one -minute romp on the dance floor.

So how DO scientists dance?

“There’s some awkwardness and some magic, sort of like at a wedding,” said Bohannon.

Among the dozen contestants competing in Vienna, there was tap dancing, break dancing, and a group disco number. Bohannon says the analytical work of science can be all- consuming, and this was a chance for students, post-docs, and professors to cut loose.

Next year’s contest is likely to be a YouTube event, so quantum physicists, anthropologists, mathematicians—scientists from anywhere in the world can dance their hearts out.

“If people, especially Americans knew how much fun science was, they wouldn’t shy away,” said Bohannon.

Have a look at all 12 of the videos here.

- Marsha Walton, science and tech

Filed under: Scientists

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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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