Saturday, 24 December 2011

Drones: invisible to radar but vulnerable to primitive viruses?

Undated handout image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft (Reuters / U.S. Air Force / Lt Col Leslie Pratt / Handout)

The billion-dollar defense complex that keeps America safe and sound is yet again under attack, with an antiquated computer virus now apparently attacking the Pentagon’s drone aircraft fleet.
Sykipot, a malicious piece of malware that has been around since at least 2006, was recently waged at the computer systems of US governmental department and defense contractors. Although Symantec, a world-wide leader in anti-virus protection calls the Trojan neither “sophisticated” nor “well-coded,” new reports confirm that the malware was emailed to DoD-affiliated authorities in an attempt to do even more damage to the top-secret drone program.
Drones, unmanned robotic aircraft used by the Pentagon and CIA in surveillance and missile-firing missions, are controlled from remote bases across the world. Despite the advanced technology of the impressive crafts, however, the US recently lost two planes in just as many weeks. First came the interception of a Sentinel RQ-170 craft in Iran on December 4, with a similar craft succumbing to a fiery crash in the Indian Ocean days later.
In the wake of the downing of the Sentinel, Iran engineers made claims that they hacked into the GPS network used by the drone commanders by way of a loophole they say the US government well aware of. In the days since, other reports have suggested the CIA headquarters have also been infiltrated by anti-American forces, with military officials telling Israel-based news outlet Debka that the downing of the drone over Iran could only have been conducted with a high-tech attack on the command center itself.
Now the website Information Week has tried making light of the latest virus, Sykipot, and in identifying it has realized that it has been waged against the Pentagon in hopes of damaging more drones.
According to Information Week’s Mathew J Schwartz, Sykipot was sent in the form of an email attachment to DoD contractors. Often the email will include a malicious Adobe Acrobat .PDF file or a hyperlink that will trigger the virus.
“In targeted attacks,” writes Schwartz, “attackers often include information--in the form of attachments--that they think recipients will find interesting. Conversely, this highlights the type of information that attackers are seeking.” In the case of a slew of emails sent to Pentagon pals, the messages related to drone crafts, specifically the Boeing joint unmanned combat air system X-45 and the Boeing X-37 orbital vehicle.
The Alien Labs Vault blog dives deeper into explaining Sykipot, noting that the Trojan infects Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Outlook programs, as well as Mozilla’s Firefox browser. From there, the virus connects into internal servers and retrieves encrypted configuration files which can then be executed externally, the results of which are then relayed to a server where the maker of the malware can investigate the results.
The site also notes that most of the servers that manipulate the malicious program are running off a particular webserver named Netbox, which while used across the world, is almost exclusively operated from China.
Symantec adds on their website, “Given the long list of command and control servers being used for controlling the botnet, the attackers are unlikely to be a single person, but rather a group of people. Thus, the Sykipot attackers are likely to be an organized and skilled group of individuals. Given their persistence and their long-running campaigns, the attackers are likely to have consistent funding for their efforts.”

Smartphones eat into low-end camera sales in US, study

Photo sharing site Flickr's statistics suggest the iPhone is the most popular camera on its site

Smartphones are eating into sales of basic cameras and camcorders in the US, according to market researchers.
The NPD Group said the point-and-shoot camera market sold 17% fewer units over the first 11 months of the year compared to the same period in 2010.
It said the pocket camcorder market fell by 13% over the same period.
Its online survey of adults and teenagers suggested users were also more likely to opt for their phone camera to take footage "on the fly".
Respondents said they were more likely to opt for their smartphone, rather than a dedicated device, to take pictures or video of "fun, casual or spontaneous moments".
However, smartphones were less likely to be used when it came to holiday snaps.
SLR sales stay strong
NPD's data also suggested that the total share of photos taken on a camera had fallen below the halfway point for the first time.
The study suggested that 44% of photos were taken on a camera over the last year, down from 52% over the previous period.
By contrast the share of photos taken with a smartphone rose to 27% from 17%.
However, higher-end cameras appear to be immune from the rise of the smartphone - at least for now. NPD said 12% more detachable lens cameras - including SLRs - were sold over the last 11 months.
It added that sales of cameras with a 10x zoom lens or greater rose by 16%.
"There is no doubt that the smartphone is becoming 'good enough' much of the time," said NPD's senior imaging analyst Liz Cutting.
"But for important events, single purpose cameras or camcorders are still largely the device of choice."
'Faff-free'
Experts suggest the trend is in part due to the popularity of apps including Instagram, Twitter and Facebook which allow pictures to be uploaded to social networks immediately after they are taken.
"When you combine the fact that smartphone camera quality has increased roughly 10-fold from where we were five years ago and the fact that we have all these apps and services that make it easy to host the photos, it makes it a no-brainer that we use them rather than dedicated devices with which there is a huge faff involved to get the footage online," said Chris Green, principal technology analyst at Davies Murphy Group Europe.
Yahoo-owned Flickr's popular photo sharing site appears to confirm the point. Its statistics suggest that Apple's iPhone 4 is the most popular camera in its community. The next device in line is the Nikon D90 SLR camera, while the closest performing smartphone by another manufacturer is the HTC Evo 4G.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Looking back at 2011


A compilation of striking photos of the year 2011 by AFP.

Universidad de Chile fans cheer for their team before the Copa Sudamericana 2011 second leg final football match against Ecuador´s Liga de Quito at the National stadium in Santiago, Chile, on December 14, 2011.

Aurora borealis, or northern lights, fill the sky on March 13, 2011 over Finnmark during the 1,000 kms Finnmarksloepet, the world’s northernmost sled dog race, in Finnmark county in northern Norway.

Bono of U2 performs in the rain on the Pyramid stage during the Glastonbury festival near Glastonbury, Somerset on June 24, 2011.

Turkish Muslims burn a picture of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 30, 2011 during a protest against his regime in front of the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul. Embattled President Hosni Mubarak called out the army and tasked them specifically with helping police quell deadly protests in which around 50 people have been killed.

Fireworks burst over the Eiffel Tower during traditional Bastille Day celebrations on July 14, 2011 in Paris. France held its annual military parade on the Bastille Day national holiday, haunted by the killing within the last 24 hours of six of its soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

A cloud of ash billowing from Puyehue volcano near Osorno in southern Chile, 870 km south of Santiago, on June 5, 2011. Puyehue volcano erupted for the first time in half a century on June 4, 2011, prompting evacuations for 3,500 people as it sent a cloud of ash that reached Argentina. The National Service of Geology and Mining said the explosion that sparked the eruption also produced a column of gas 10 kilometers (six miles) high, hours after warning of strong seismic activity in the area.

A Libyan rebel fighter mans a check point in the stronghold oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 5, 2011 where up to 10 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes between opposition and loyalists of Moamer Kadhafi forces.

Red Bull Racing's German driver Sebastian Vettel drives at the Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2011 in Monte Carlo during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix.

A crane lifts workers up to inspect the damaged Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch on February 24, 2011, two days after a deadly earthquake rocked New Zealand's second city killing at least 76 people and leaving hundreds missing. A 'miracle' was required to find more survivors amid the wreckage of earthquake-hit Christchurch, Prime Minister John Key said on February 24, as the focus turned to recovering bodies.
Nozomi Sabanai (L) together with her sister looks at catamaran sightseeing boat that was thrown by the tsunami onto a two story building, at Otsuchi town, Iwate prefecture on April 16, 2011. Japan is considering issuing special bonds to fund reconstruction following last month's massive earthquake and tsunami, and imposing a new tax to repay the debt, a report said.

Luxury houses teeter on the edge after landslides in Redcliffs near Christchurch on February 27, 2011, after a 6.3 earthquake devastated New Zealand's second city and surrounding towns on February 22. The quake caused more damage than the 7.1 magnitude quake that hit the city on September 4, 2010 and has killed at least 146 people

Armed Yemeni tribesmen loyal to dissident tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar inspect damage at his house in Sanaa on June 7, 2011 while anti-government protesters demanded a swift transfer of power from Ali Abdullah Saleh as his deputy said the veteran Yemeni president would return within days after surgery in Riyadh for blast injuries.












Excessive card surcharges will be banned, says Treasury

The Office of Fair Trading called earlier this year for the law to be changed

"Excessive" fees for using a debit or credit card to buy items such as travel or cinema tickets will be banned by the end of 2012, under government plans.
The move comes amid complaints that airlines, booking agencies and even councils were imposing excessive charges for using a card.
However, firms will be allowed to levy a "small charge" to cover payment processing costs.
The regulator has been investigating some airlines over surcharge clarity.
Complaint
Consumers buying a ticket online are often charged extra when they tick a box that says they intend to pay using a credit or debit card.
Sometimes, consumers have found the payment is only added after they have ploughed their way through up to eight pages of a website.
Examples of these charges are a £6 per person, per leg "administration fee" charged on all but one card by Ryanair, an £8 per booking charge by Easyjet - plus 2.5% when using a credit card, a £4.50 per booking credit card fee from British Airways, and a charge of up to 17 euros (£14.16) per person by Air Berlin.

Typical booking fees

  • Easyjet: £8 per booking on debit card; £8 plus 2.5% or £4.95, whichever is greater, on credit cards.
  • Air Berlin: 10 euros per person on debit card; 17 euros per person on credit card
  • Trainline.com: £3.50 per booking on credit card
  • DVLA: £2.50 for tax disc purchases on credit card
Local authorities and the DVLA also levy charges, as do many train, ferry, theatre and cinema ticket merchants.
Sunil Pandit told the BBC that he was charged £72 for using his debit card to buy airline tickets for his family.
"You come to the end of [the online process] and think there cannot be anything else, surely, particularly if you are paying by debit card. I was shocked," he said.
The issue of high surcharges prompted the consumers' association Which? to call on the regulator to investigate, saying "the price you see should be the price you pay".
However, it accepted there could be an additional cost added for the cost to the retailer of accepting a card.
The regulator, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), published a report in June about the travel industry's use of surcharges.
It said charges must be clearer and surcharges for using a debit card should be banned.
Now, the government is planning to go further than the OFT's recommendations and change the law so all "excessive" surcharges are banned.
'Ripped off'
In effect, the government is bringing forward the implementation of new European rules, which were pencilled in for mid-2014.
These rules said that only the actual cost of processing card payments could be charged to consumers.
Aircraft 
Some airlines have faced criticism from consumer groups for their policies

Financial Secretary to the Treasury Mark Hoban told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's important that consumers know up front what charges they pay.
"What we have announced today will give consumers the transparency they need.
"I think consumers do feel ripped off and we want them to be able to shop around."
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said that debit card transactions cost the trader about 20p, and credit cards cost about 1% or 2% of the total price.
"Given that airline passengers alone pay more than £265,000 a day in card surcharges, businesses should not drag their feet over this," he said.
"While the law will come into force at the end of 2012, we want companies to be upfront and fair over card charges today."
He hoped that the Irish government would work at the same pace as the UK government in implementing the changes, to cover traders and travel companies based in the Irish Republic.
The process of accepting credit or debit cards as payment is quite complex, although retailers point out that they absorb this cost in their sale price.
The OFT calculated that travellers spent £300m on card surcharges in the airline industry alone in 2010. Ryanair responded to the government's announcement by saying that it charged an administration fee - which also covered the cost of running the website - rather than a surcharge.
The OFT has been investigating some unnamed airlines over the "transparency and presentation" of their surcharges.
The government will launch a consultation at the start of 2012.

Elephant's sixth 'toe' discovered

This CT scan reveals the sixth "toe" - here seen in dark green towards the back on the elephant's foot

A mysterious bony growth found in elephants' feet is actually a sixth "toe", scientists report.
For more than 300 years, the structure has puzzled researchers, but this study suggests that it helps to support elephants' colossal weight.
Fossils reveal that this "pre-digit" evolved about 40 million years ago, at a point when early elephants became larger and more land-based.
The research is published in the journal Science.
Lead author Professor John Hutchinson, from the UK's structure and motion laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College, said: "It's a cool mystery that goes back to 1706, when the first elephant was dissected by a Scottish surgeon."

Start Quote

Elephant's foot
Anyone who has studied elephants' feet has wondered about it. They've thought: 'Huh, that's weird'”
Professor John Hutchinson Royal Veterinary College

Many people, he said, thought that the structure was a huge lump of cartilage, and over the years its purpose or lack of purpose has been debated.
"Anyone who has studied elephants' feet has wondered about it. They've thought: 'Huh, that's weird,' and then moved on," he added.
But Prof Hutchinson and colleagues used a combination of CT scans, histology, dissection and electron microscopy to solve the puzzle.
The researchers said the structure was made of bone, although bone with a highly irregular and unusual arrangement.
But closer examination also revealed that it showed a strong similarity with an unusual bone that is found in the front feet of pandas.
This bone - which is not quite an extra digit, but does the job of one - helps the panda to grip bamboo, and is called the panda's "thumb" or "sixth finger". Moles too have a bone masquerading as an extra digit, which helps them to dig.
And now, the team says that elephants can be added to the list of species for whom five fingers or toes are not quite enough.

Elephants  
The elephant's five regular toes give it a tip-toed stance

Prof Hutchinson said: "It would have started out as a little nub in the tissue, which may have not even have been bone originally - it could have been cartilage.
"A lot of animals have these structures, cartilaginous lumps, and they sometimes turn to bone with these very different functions in some species."
For elephants, the structure serves a simple purpose: it helps the hefty animals to stand up.
Unlike pandas and moles, which only have the false digit in their front feet, elephants have the bone in all four of their feet.
And although their feet may look like tree trunks, inside the anatomy is more complex.
Their five conventional toes point forwards, giving elephants a tip-toed stance, but the extra "toe" points backwards into the heel pad, adding extra support and helping the heaviest land animal to hold up its bulk.
Evolution example
To find out when and why this strange bone appeared, the researchers examined elephant fossils.
Prof Hutchinson said: "The first elephants appear around 55 million years ago.
Elephant's sixth "toe" 
The sixth "toe" is an example of how a structure evolved to have a new function

"We looked at early elephants and they had a different kind of foot, which seemed to be quite flat footed and didn't leave much room for this structure underneath.
"The structure seemed to evolved around 40 million years ago, and it seems to have evolved in concert with elephants getting bigger and more terrestrial and having upright feet, with a more tip-toed foot posture."
He added that this was a remarkable case of evolution in action.
He said: "It is a great example of how evolution tinkers and tweaks tissue to provide different functions - in this case to be co-opted to be used like a digit."

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Bank of America fined $335m for minority discrimination

         The case is the latest for Bank of America relating to the sub-prime mortgage crash

Bank of America's Countrywide Financial business has agreed to pay a record fine of $335m (£214m, 257m euros) to settle discrimination charges.
The US justice department said around 200,000 qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers were charged with higher rates "solely because of their race or national origin".
Dan Frahm, a Bank of America spokesman, said in a statement that the bank did not practise lending based on race.
BoA bought Countrywide in 2008.
The settlement covers conduct between 2004 and 2008, before the BoA takeover.
'Discrimination with a smile'
Countrywide specialised in sub-prime mortgages, which were often granted without proper checks on criteria including the creditworthiness of borrowers.
The justice department said Countrywide had "steered" more than 10,000 minority borrowers into sub-prime mortgages, while white borrowers with similar credit profiles received prime loans.
Those sub-prime mortgage holders ended up paying more in fees and rates.
"These institutions should make judgements based on applicants' creditworthiness, not on the colour of their skin," Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters at a Wednesday press conference.
Borrowers in 41 states and the District of Columbia were affected by Countrywide's lending practices.
The justice department accused the company of abusing the trust of minority lenders, advertising that its offices had Spanish-speaking staff while charging Hispanic customers higher rates than they were qualified for.
"This is discrimination with a smile," said Thomas Perez, head of the department's civil rights division.
The civil rights division has about 20 open investigations in similar practices against minority home-buyers.
Dan Frahm, a Bank of America spokesman, said: "We discontinued Countrywide products and practices that were not in keeping with our commitment and will continue to resolve and put behind us the remaining Countrywide issues."
Subprime legacy
The fine is the latest problem for Bank of America (BoA) over sub-prime mortgages.
Earlier this year BoA paid $8.5bn from its Countrywide arm to settle claims it sold poor quality mortgage-backed bonds that lost money when the market crashed.
In another case, insurance group AIG also sued BoA for $10bn , accusing it of carrying out a "massive fraud" on bad mortgage debt.
AIG alleges that BoA exaggerated the quality of the $28bn worth of mortgage-backed investment products it bought from the bank prior to the 2008 turmoil in the financial markets.
BoA rejected those allegations.
Bad US mortgage debt that sparked the 2008 credit crunch and resulting turmoil in the global financial markets.

Solar subsidy changes could deal 'fatal blow' to industry

The government plans to restrict solar fundingto homes that meet tough insulation standards

Planned government changes to subsidies on solar power may deal the industry a "fatal blow", two parliamentary committees are warning.
The Environmental Audit Committee and Energy and Climate Change Committee say ministers are right to make changes, but are doing so "clumsily".
Government plans include restricting access to solar subsidies to houses meeting energy efficiency standards.
Thousands of solar industry jobs could be at risk, the committees warn.
On Thursday, a group of companies and environmental groups won a legal judgement against one of the changes.
Central to their campaign was the Department of Energy and Climate Change's (Decc) plan to halve abruptly the level of feed-in tariff (FiT) that small-scale solar installations attract, from 43p per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to 21p.
The FiTs are paid by energy companies to householders and communities to subsidise solar electricity generation.
It had been expected that the new tariff would come into effect from 1 April; but in October, the government said it would apply to anyone installing their solar panels after 12 December.
The High Court ruled that changing the tariffs before the end of an official consultation period was "legally flawed".
The two committees said ministers were right to cut the tariffs - but not in the way they did.
"There is no question that solar subsidies needed to be urgently reduced, but the government has handled this clumsily," said Tim Yeo, chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee.
"Ministers should have spotted the solar 'gold rush' much earlier. That way subsidy levels could have been reduced in a more orderly way without delivering such a shock to the industry."
The MPs described the quick tariff change as "panicky", and said it "smacks of retrospective regulation, which undermines confidence in the government's management of other energy policies".
The root cause is solar panels have proved far more popular than the government suspected when it introduced the FiT in April last year.
The cost of installing them has fallen faster than anticipated, by 30% since the scheme began. And with wholesale gas prices pushing up the cost of electricity from the grid, demand for solar panels rocketed
As a result, about 90% of the funds that the government wanted to be spent during the four-year FiT programme has already been allocated.
Industry concerns
Among the government's other proposals are changing the criteria for eligibiligy for FiTs.
The consultation suggests that houses should have to meet insulation standards before they qualify - for example, insisting that it should have an Energy Performance Certificate C rating at least

Demo  
Campaigners warned the changes risked thousands of jobs - and MPs agreed

Government data suggest this would require 86% of homes to get an upgrade before becoming eligible. In most cases this would cost about £5,600, but could be much more expensive.
For a semi-detatched house with solid walls, the bill could be up to £14,000 - and with solar panel installation coming in at an average of £9,000, the committees fear a huge impact on uptake, potentially dealing the industry a "fatal blow".
"The government is right to encourage people to focus on saving energy before fitting solar panels, but these proposals will require most households to spend thousands of pounds on extra insulation before they even purchase the panels," said Joan Walley, who chairs the Energy and Climate Change Committee.
"This will stop nine out of 10 installations from going ahead, which will have a devastating effect on hundreds of solar companies and small building firms installing these panels across the country."
The Solar Trade Association, which represents more than 450 companies in the field, has surveyed industry chiefs and estimates that a third of companies could close as a result of the proposed changes.
Its chairman, Howard Johns, welcomed the committees' report.
"We are particularly pleased the committees have urged Decc to abandon the more extreme energy efficiency eligibility proposals, which could stamp out the UK solar market next year," he said.
"What is missing, however, is recognition that solar can deliver nothing less than an energy revolution at a cost to households lower than, for example, the levy imposed by wind energy."
A Decc spokesman said the report would be considered fully, but believed the changes were needed.
"We appreciate the uncertainty faced because of the changes we have proposed to the FiT scheme, but we believe solar projects will still be an attractive investment," he told BBC News.
But shadow energy and climate change secretary Caroline Flint described the report as a "damning indictment" of a government that was "out of touch".
"The government's chaotic mismanagement has put thousands of jobs and businesses in the solar industry in jeopardy, undermined confidence and investment in the whole energy sector and gives lie to the government's promise to be the 'greenest government ever'," she said.
The government sees solar playing a small role in the coming decade, certainly much smaller than wind.
But in a recent YouGov opinion survey, it emerged as the most popular energy technology, with 74% of respondents wanting the government to use more than it does at present.
The figure for wind was 56%. Only 16% wanted the use of coal to increase, while 43% preferred a reduction.

Sony's bio battery turns waste paper into electricity

Sony's paper-powered battery offers the prospect of waste paper being used to top up mobile phones

Sony has unveiled a paper-powered battery prototype in Japan.
The technology generates electricity by turning shredded paper into sugar which in turn is used as fuel.
If brought to market, the innovation could allow the public to top up the power of their mobile devices using waste material.
The team behind the project said such bio-batteries are environmentally friendly as they did not use harmful chemicals or metals.
The Japanese electronics giant showed off its invention at the Eco-Products exhibition in Tokyo last week.
Employees invited children to drop piece of paper and cardboard into a liquid made up of water and enzymes, and then to shake it. The equipment was connected to a small fan which began spinning a few minutes later.
Learning from nature
The process works by using the enzyme cellulase to decompose the materials into glucose sugar. These were then combined with oxygen and further enzymes which turned the material into electrons and hydrogen ions.
The electrons were used by the battery to generate electricity. Water and the acid gluconolactone, which is commonly used in cosmetics, were created as by-products.
Researchers involved in the project likened the mechanism to the one used by white ants and termites to digest wood and turn it into energy.
Their work builds on a previous project in which they used fruit juice to power a Walkman music player.
"Using a 'fuel' as simple as old greetings cards - the sort of cards that millions of us will be receiving this Christmas - the bio battery can deliver enough energy to power a small fan," said Yuichi Tokita, senior researcher at Sony's Advanced Material Research Lab.
"Of course, this is still at the very early stages of its development, but when you imagine the possibilities that this technology could deliver, it becomes very exciting indeed."
Eco-friendly
While the battery is already powerful enough to run basic music players, it is still falls far short of commercially sold batteries.
The environmental campaign group Greenpeace welcomed the development.
"The issue that we always have with battery technology is the toxic chemicals that go into making them and recycling batteries is also complicated," John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK told the BBC.
"Any way to provide a greener technology could be a potential magic bullet. So from that point of view this is interesting, and I think it's fantastic that companies like Sony are looking to make the generation of energy more environmentally friendly."
Sony's engineers are not the only ones exploring the concept of paper-based batteries.
In 2009 a team of Stanford University scientists revealed they were working on a battery created by coating sheets of paper with ink made of carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires. They said their work might ultimately lead to a device capable of lasting through 40,000 charge-discharge cycles.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Looking for benefits in birdsong

             On reflection: do birdsong and other "natural" sounds change perspectives?

Conservation charities and scientists are beginning a research project to find out whether birdsong has any impact on people's mental wellbeing.
Surrey University, in conjunction with the National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust, will look for effects on mood, creativity and behaviour.
Though many people say they enjoy birdsong and other natural sounds, there is a lack of academic evidence.
The project will involve laboratory and field research, and questionnaires.
Although there has been a lot of research on responses to nature in vision - for example, showing that hospital patients respond to treatment better if they see images of landscapes rather than urban walls - relatively little has been done on sound.
"There have been a studies showing for example that natural sounds can help people recover physiologically from stress," said Eleanor Ratcliffe, the psychologist from Surrey University in Guildford who will lead the project.
"I'm interested in breaking that down, finding out what sorts of natural sounds and even what species people prefer listening to and find most interesting."
Initially, volunteers from the National Trust and the Surrey Wildlife Trust will fill in questionnaires to find out their preferences and how they self-rate the impact of hearing birds.
In time, this will progress to lab-based work in which people will be asked to perform various tasks while listening to different types of birdsong.
These may be problem-solving or creative; and the impact of different sounds on parameters such as stress will also be assessed.
"I'm really interested in how people rate and respond to different types of song, for examples comparing a crow with a wren," Ms Ratcliffe told BBC News.
"There's also the issue of the symbolic associations people have with different bird sounds - for example, if they associate hearing a particular species with a nice holiday."
Last year, the National Trust launched a scheme encouraging people to listen to birdsong for five minutes each day, as a way of combatting the "winter blues".
"Birdsong gets us closer to nature, and links people to places and memories in a way that few other sounds can," said Peter Brash, an ecologist with the Trust.
"It's a simple pleasure that most of us can enjoy, even if we live in towns and cities."
The new study will find out whether this mood enhancement is a reality for people who are not already bird or nature enthusiasts.
The three-year project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, with additional money from the National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Lady Gaga fans hit by hack on Twitter and Facebook

The tweet addressed Lady Gaga's "monsters", the singer's nickname for her fans

Singer Lady Gaga has been the victim of a targeted attack on her Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Multiple messages, seemingly from the singer, offered "free iPad2's to each one of you".
Attached links directed more than 100,000 of her followers to a site requesting personal details, possibly as part of a phishing scam.
The 25-year-old, Twitter's most followed user, later tweeted: "Phew. The hacking is over!"
Her Facebook page, which is "liked" by more than 45 million fans, had earlier posted the message: "Lady Gaga's new iPad comes out in 3 days!
"So for the next 72 hours we will be hosting a massive giveaway to all the Mother Monster fans. Sign up and receive your special Lady Gaga edition iPad in time for the Holidays! For contest rules and registration visit the link below."
This was followed later by a tweet saying: "Monsters, I'm giving away FREE ipad2's to each one of you in the spirit of the holidays :)"
The singer often refers to her fans as "monsters", suggesting the hack was specifically targeted at the singer - rather than a more general phishing attack often seen on social networking sites.
Personal data
Phishing attacks typically trick users into believing they are signing in to a legitimate website, but instead illegally gather personal data which can then be used to gain access to private accounts such as email and banking.
The offending messages have now been removed, but web statistics show more than 100,000 of her fans followed the links.
The Grammy award winner's management would not comment on the attack.
Security researcher Graham Cluley noted that other artists, such as Nelly Furtado and Maroon 5, seemed to have come under similar targeting.
"It is, of course, particularly important that the administrators of popular Facebook pages - which can have many millions of fans - take security seriously to minimise the possibilities of passing a scam on," Mr Cluley wrote.
"If nothing else, it's not terribly good for the brand to annoy your fans or to put them at risk."

UK's top 10 2011 YouTube videos put dog above royals

              A hungry hound was the start of the UK's most watched YouTube clip in 2011

A talking dog has topped YouTube's list of most watched videos in the UK for 2011.
The clip shows the pet being teased by its owner about food treats given to others.
The unfortunate mutt appears to speak English, saying "You're kidding me!" after yet another treat escapes his grasp.
A spoof video of Prince William's marriage to Kate Middleton, featuring dancing wedding guests, came in second.
The video, a viral advert for the mobile network T-mobile, showed actors portraying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall bumping behinds as they bopped down the aisle before Prince William leap-frogged over his brother Prince Harry to his guests' delight.
Singing winning
YouTube's owner, Google, claims the videos reflect the events and people that captured the nation's imagination throughout the year.
"The 10 most-watched YouTube videos of 2011 show that around the world, whatever language we speak, there are certain things that bring us together around a computer screen or mobile phone," said the site's trend manager, Kevin Allocca.
UK's top 10 YouTube clips in 2011
  •  Ultimate Dog Tease
  • The T-Mobile Royal Wedding
  • Songify Tis - Winning
  • Nyan Cat (original)
  • Michael Collings audition
  • Masterchef Synesthesia
  • Diary of a bad man 5
  • Warning: strong language Rebecca Black Friday (Brock's Dub)
  • Talking Twin Babies
  • TomSka
"Adorable babies, talented performers, and clever advertising."
Other videos that featured in the top 10 included Winning - edits of interviews with the US actor Charlie Sheen after he was fired over his drug habit - set to music.
"I'm bi-winning, win here, win there, win win everywhere," the former Two And A Half Men star appears to sing.
Flying cat
Perhaps inspired by the video's success, user Swede Mason created his own music mash-up of Masterchef's presenters eulogising about buttery biscuit bases set to dance music, in Masterchef Synesthesia.
Elsewhere on the list Nyan Cat - a bizarre animation of a cat flying through the sky with a rainbow trail, chanting meow to synthesised pop music - featured.
There were also more traditional entries including IT engineer Michael Colling's rendition of Tracy Chapman's Fast Car for an audition for the ITV show Britain's Got Talent, and twin boys filmed babbling to each other in their parents' kitchen.
Between them the top 10 entries have racked up more than 285 million hits worldwide since being posted onto the internet.

First Earth-sized planets spotted

The planets may once have harboured conditions favourable to life

Astronomers have detected the first Earth-sized planets, which are orbiting a star similar to our own Sun.
In the distant past they may have been able to support life and one of them may have had conditions similar to our own planet - a so-called Earth-twin - according to the research team.
They have described their findings as the most important planets ever discovered outside our Solar System.
Details of the discovery are outlined in Nature journal.
Dr Francois Fressin, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, US, who led the research, said that the discovery was the beginning of a "new era" of discovery of many more planets similar to our own.
Both planets are now thought to be too hot to be capable of supporting life.
But according to Dr Fressin, the planets were once further from their star and cool enough for liquid water to exist on their surface, which is a necessary condition for life.
"We know that these two planets may have migrated closer to their Sun," he told BBC News. "(The larger of the two) might have been an Earth twin in the past. It has the same size as Earth and in the past it could have had the same temperature".
Rock and a hard place
One of the planets, named Kepler 20f, is almost exactly the size of the Earth. Kepler 20e is slightly smaller at 0.87 times the radius of Earth and is closer to its star than 20f.
They are both much closer to their star than the Earth is to the Sun and so they complete an orbit much more quickly: 20e circles its star in just six days, 20f completes an orbit in 20 days whereas the Earth takes a year.
Kepler Space Telescope
Infographic (BBC)
  • Stares fixedly at a patch corresponding to 1/400th of the sky
  • Looks at more than 155,000 stars
  • Has so far found 2,326 candidate planets
  • Among them are 207 Earth-sized planets, 10 of which are in the "habitable zone" where liquid water can exist
The researchers say that these planets are rocky and similar in composition to our own planet.
Dr Fressin says that the planets' composition may be similar to Earth's with a third of it consisting of iron core. The remainder probably consists of a silicate mantle. He also believes that the outer planet (Kepler 20f) may have developed a thick, water vapour atmosphere.
The discovery is important because it is the first confirmation that planets the size of Earth and smaller exist outside our Solar System. It also shows that the Kepler Space Telescope is capable of detecting relatively small planets around stars that are thousands of light-years away.
The telescope has discovered 35 planets so far. Apart from 20e and f, they have all been larger than the Earth.
Up until now, the most significant discovery, also by a group including Dr Fressin, was of a planet nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Earth that lay in the so-called "Goldilocks zone". This is the region around a star where it is neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right for liquid water and therefore life to exist on the planet.
But Dr Fressin believes that the two new planets are a much more important discovery.
The telescope is scanning 150,000 stars and Professor Andrew Coates of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey believes that they will soon find a planet the size of Earth in the Goldilocks Zone.
"With every new discovery we're getting closer to the 'holy grail' of an Earth-like planet around a Sun-like star," he said.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Sun 'stops chickenpox spreading'

Where you live could be a factor in developing chickenpox

Exposure to sunlight may help impede the spread of chickenpox, claim researchers.
The University of London team found chickenpox less common in regions with high UV levels, reports the journal Virology.
Sunlight may inactivate viruses on the skin, making it harder to pass on.
However, other experts say that other factors, including temperature, humidity, and even living conditions are equally likely to play a role.
The varicella-zoster virus is highly contagious, while it can be spread through the coughs and sneezes in the early stages of the infection, the main source is contact with the trademark rash of blisters and spots.
Pollution
UV light has long been known to inactivate viruses, and Dr Phil Rice, from St George's, University of London, who led the research, believes that this holds the key why chickenpox is less common and less easily passed from person to person in tropical countries.
It could also help explain why chickenpox is more common in the colder seasons in temperate countries such as the UK - as people have less exposure to sunlight, he said.
He examined data from 25 earlier studies on varicella-zoster virus in a variety of countries around the world, and plotted these data against a range of climatic factors.
This showed an obvious link between UV levels and chickenpox virus prevalence.
Even initially confusing results could be explained - the peak incidence of chickenpox in India and Sri Lanka is during the hottest, driest and sunniest season.
However, Dr Rice found that, due to atmospheric pollution, UV rays were actually much lower during this season compared with the rainier seasons.
He said: "No-one had considered UV as a factor before, but when I looked at the epidemiological studies they showed a good correlation between global latitude and the presence of the virus."
Professor Judy Breuer from University College London said that while UV could well be contributing to the differences in the prevalence of chickenpox between tropical and temperate regions, there were other factors which needed to be considered.
She said: "Lots of things aside from UV could affect it - heat, humidity and social factors such as overcrowding.
"It's quite possible that UV is having an effect, but we don't have any firm evidence showing the extent this is happening."