Posts Tagged ‘Science’


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The Class That Built Apps, and Fortunes

May 7, 2011

NYTimes.com

STANFORD, Calif.
ALL right, class, here’s your homework assignment: Devise an app. Get people to use it. Repeat.
That was the task for some Stanford students in the fall of 2007, in what became known here as the “Facebook Class.”
No one expected what happened next.
The students ended up getting millions of users for free apps that they designed to run on Facebook. And, as advertising rolled in, some of those students started making far more money than their professors.
Almost overnight, the Facebook Class fired up the careers and fortunes of more than two dozen students and teachers here. It also helped to pioneer a new model of entrepreneurship that has upturned the tech establishment: the lean start-up.
“Everything was happening so fast,” recalls Joachim De Lombaert, now 23. His team’s app netted $3,000 a day and morphed into a company that later sold for a six-figure sum.
“I almost didn’t realize what it all meant,” he says.
Neither did many of his classmates. Back then, Facebook apps were a novelty. The iPhone had just arrived, and the first Android phone was a year off.
But by teaching students to build no-frills apps, distribute them quickly and worry about perfecting them later, the Facebook Class stumbled upon what has become standard operating procedure for a new generation of entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley and beyond. For many, the long trek from idea to product to company has turned into a sprint.
Start-ups once required a lot of money, time and people. But over the past decade, free, open-source software and “cloud” services have brought costs down, while ad networks help bring in revenue quickly.
The app phenomenon has accentuated the trend and helped unleash what some call a new wave of technology innovation — and what others call a bubble.
Early on, the Facebook Class became a microcosm of Silicon Valley. Working in teams of three, the 75 students created apps that collectively had 16 million users in just 10 weeks. Many of those apps were sort of silly: Mr. De Lombaert’s, for example, allowed users to send “hotness” points to Facebook friends. Yet during the term, the apps, free for users, generated roughly $1 million in advertising revenue.
Such successes helped inspire entrepreneurs to ditch business plans and work on apps. Not all succeeded, but those that did helped to fuel the expansion of Facebook, which now has nearly 700 million users.
Venture capitalists also began rethinking their approach. Some created investment funds tailored to the new, bare-bones start-ups.
“A lot of the concepts and ideas that came out of the class influenced the structure of the fund that I am working on now,” says Dave McClure, one of the class instructors and founder of 500 Startups, which invests in lean start-ups. “The class was the realization that this stuff really works.”
Nearly four years later, many of the students have learned that building a business is a lot harder than creating an app — even an app worthy of an A+.
“Starting a company is definitely more work,” says Edward Baker, who was Mr. De Lombaert’s partner in the class and later in business. The two have founded Friend.ly, a social networking start-up.
Still, many students were richly rewarded. Some turned their homework into companies. A few have since sold those businesses to the likes of Zynga. Others joined hot start-ups like RockYou, a gaming site that at the time was among the most successful Facebook apps.
The Facebook Class changed Mr. De Lombaert’s life. His team’s app, Send Hotness, brought in more users and more money faster than any other in the class. And its success attracted the attention of venture capitalists.
“The class, more than anything, set the tone for us to try to start something big,” says Mr. Baker, 32, Friend.ly’s C.E.O.
When the Send Hotness app began to take off, Mr. Baker encouraged Mr. De Lombaert to treat himself to a new car. Mr. De Lombaert settled for a laptop. (He also put some money aside to help to pay his Stanford tuition.) They eventually sold the app to a dating Web site.
Facebook did not actively participate in the Stanford class. But some of its engineers attended sessions, and it benefited from the success of the students’ apps. “It really felt like an incubator,” says David Fetterman, a Facebook engineer who helped develop the applications platform.
The startling success of some of the class’s projects got Silicon Valley buzzing. The final session, held in an auditorium in December 2007, was attended by more than 500 people, including many investors.
“The Facebook platform was taking off, and there was this feeling of a gold rush,” said Mike Maples Jr., an investor who attended some of the classes and ended up backing one of the start-ups.
THE Facebook Class was the brainchild of B. J. Fogg, who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford. An energetic academic and an innovation guru, he focuses on how to harness technology and human psychology to influence people’s behavior.
Mr. Fogg thought that the Facebook platform would be a good way to test some of his theories. Creating a new model of entrepreneurship was far from his mind.
At first, university administrators pushed back. “Facebook was not taken so seriously in academic circles back then,” Mr. Fogg recalls.
But there was no hesitation among students — from undergraduates in computer science to M.B.A. candidates — who were spending much of their lives immersed in Facebook.
From the start, many approached the class from a business angle. Mr. Baker, for instance, was a graduate business student but lacked technical skills, so he spent his first week interviewing engineers. “I wanted a technical co-founder,” he says.
He settled on Mr. De Lombaert, and the two, along with a third student, Alex Onsager, created Send Hotness. It let users send points to friends they considered “hot” and to compare “hotness” rankings.
Soon they found themselves in a proverbial “the dog ate my homework” situation. Three days before a presentation was due, Mr. De Lombaert accidentally deleted the computer code he was tinkering with. “We kind of freaked out,” he recalls.
Rebuilding the app would take too long. So, working around the clock over a weekend, they built another version, with a more rudimentary algorithm.
The stripped-down app took off. In five weeks, five million people signed up. When the team began placing ads on the app, the money poured in.
They had stumbled upon one of the themes of the class: make things simple, and perfect them later.
“The students did an amazing job of getting stuff into the market very quickly,” says Michael Dearing, a consulting associate professor at theInstitute of Design at Stanford, who now teaches a class based on similar, rapid prototyping ideas. “It was a huge success.”
DAN GREENBERG was sitting at the kitchen table one night when he and another teaching assistant decided to get into the app game. Mr. Greenberg, a graduate student who had done research for Mr. Fogg, hadn’t planned to get app-happy. But the students’ success whetted his appetite.
Four weeks into the quarter, he and his colleague, Rob Fan, set out to create an app that would let Facebook users send “hugs” to one another.
It took them all of five hours.
The app took off. So they moved on to apps for “kisses,” “pillow fights” and other digital interactions — 70 in all.
Their apps caught on with millions of people and were soon bringing in nearly $100,000 a month in ads. After the class ended, the two started a company, 750 Industries, named after the 750 Pub at Stanford where Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Fan where drinking when they decided to become business partners.
But juggling the business and schoolwork was too much for Mr. Greenberg, then 22. So he called his father.
“I said, ‘Dad, it is 10 p.m., and I’ve got so much stuff to do,’ ” Mr. Greenberg recalls. “ ‘We’re running this business, and I’ve got customers, and we are earning money, and we got financing and we have people to hire. But I have to write a paper tonight, and I just don’t have time for it.’ ”
His father advised him to pull a Mark Zuckerberg and drop out. The next day, Mr. Greenberg did just that.
Now 25, he works out of a glass-walled corner office in San Francisco. He is C.E.O. of his company, now called Sharethrough, which uses social media to distribute videos across the Web for companies. It employs 30 people and has raised about $6 million in venture capital. “It feels like a fairy tale when you look back on it,” he says of the class.
He has upgraded his lifestyle somewhat, but still doesn’t own a car. “I have a Vespa and skateboard,” he says.
“LOVE CHILD.” It sounds like an unlikely name for an app. But Johnny Hwin and his Stanford class team set out to build an app of that name, one that would let two users create and raise a virtual child. It never took off.
“We were overly ambitious,” Mr. Hwin says.
Seeing his classmates strike gold with simpler ideas proved to be a valuable lesson. In 2009, he began working on Damntheradio.com, a Facebook marketing tool that helped bands and musicians connect with fans online.
It opened last June and was acquired in January by FanBridge, where Mr. Hwin is now a vice president, for a few million dollars, he says.
Mr. Hwin, who is 26 and also a musician, now lives in a loft space in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. He uses his place as a kind of salon for late-night art shows and concerts.
“With Love Child, we wanted it to be perfect,” he says. With Damntheradio, he found his first clients by showing mockups of the product. “We were able to launch within weeks,” he says.
Another class member, Robert Cezar Matei, says he had only modest success with his projects. One, he said, allowed users to send “cheesy pickup lines” to friends; another encouraged people to reveal something about themselves. After graduating from Stanford, he wanted to earn some money to go traveling, but instead of getting a job, he decided to write Facebook apps. “I’d seen my peers being so successful with apps,” he says. “If they could do it, I could do it.”
After a few false starts, he created an app that let people send points and “kisses” to friends. It struggled until Mr. Matei, who speaks several languages, translated the app. The next day, traffic jumped fivefold. He added games, and employees, and the app became one of the most popular Facebook programs in Europe. In late 2009, he sold to Zynga for an undisclosed sum.
Also in the class was Joshua Reeves, who built an app that created animations that Facebook members would send to one another as birthday greetings or other messages. It made enough money for him to quit his job in 2008 to start Buzzeo, a content management system for Facebook. A year ago, Buzzeo was acquired by Context Optional, where Mr. Reeves, 28, is now a vice president. Last week, Efficient Frontier, a digital marketing company, acquired Context Optional for an undisclosed sum.
ONE recent afternoon at the headquarters of Friend.ly in Mountain View, Calif., 10 engineers worked away as two employees turned their attention to a companywide project: a 24,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
For much of the past year, Friend.ly has worked on developing its service, a social network for meeting new people, without much success. A few weeks ago, the work appeared to pay off: traffic took off, growing to nearly five million monthly users.
Mr. Baker says the Facebook platform is a magnet for young developers, even though the kind of simple apps that were the focus of his Stanford class now face bigger hurdles. Facebook has made it harder to develop big-hit apps by controlling how apps spread virally.

But Mr. Fogg, says that for those who were at the right place at the right time — in late 2007 — things were different. “There was a period of time when you could walk in and collect gold,” he says. “It was landscape that was ready to be harvested.”

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>Nazi war plane lying off UK coast is intact 
Technology & science – msnbc.com 
By Stefano Ambrogi

updated 4/8/2011 6:11:30 PM ET
Image: Dornier 17 bomber seen using high-tech sonar equipment



A World War II-era German Dornier 17 bomber is seen using high-tech sonar equipment, showing it to be largely intact and well-preserved on the sea floor, in an undated photo off the Kent coast.

LONDON — A rare World War II German bomber, shot down over the English Channel in 1940 and hidden for years by shifting sands at the bottom of the sea, is so well preserved a British museum wants to raise it.

The Dornier 17 — thought to be world’s last known example — was hit as it took part in the Battle of Britain.

It ditched in the sea just off the Kent coast, southeast England, in an area known as the Goodwin Sands.

The plane came to rest upside-down in 50 feet of water and has become partially visible from time to time as the sands retreated before being buried again.

Now a high-tech sonar survey undertaken by the Port of London Authority has revealed the aircraft to be in a startling state of preservation.

Ian Thirsk, from the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in London, told the BBC he was “incredulous” when he first heard of its existence and potential preservation.

“This aircraft is a unique aeroplane and it’s linked to an iconic event in British history, so its importance cannot be over-emphasized, nationally and internationally,” he said.

“It’s one of the most significant aeronautical finds of the century.”
Image: German Luftwaffe Dornier 17 bomber
RAF Museum / Reuters
A German Luftwaffe Dornier 17 bomber is seen dropping bombs in a World War II-era archive photo.

Known as “the flying pencil,” the Dornier 17 was designed as a passenger plane in 1934 and was later converted for military use as a fast bomber, difficult to hit and theoretically able to outpace enemy fighter aircraft.

In all, some 1,700 were produced but they struggled in the war with a limited range and bomb load capability and many were scrapped afterwards.

Striking high-resolution images appear to show that the Goodwin Sands plane suffered only minor damage, to its forward cockpit and observation windows, on impact.

“The bomb bay doors were open, suggesting the crew jettisoned their cargo,” said Port of London Authority spokesman Martin Garside.

Two of the crew members died on impact, while two others, including the pilot, were taken prisoner and survived the war.
“The fact that it was almost entirely made of aluminum and produced in one piece may have contributed to its preservation,” Garside told Reuters.

The plane is still vulnerable to the area’s notorious shifting sands and has become the target of recreational divers hoping to salvage souvenirs.

The RAF museum has launched an appeal to raise funds for the lifting operation.

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters

Nazi war plane lying off UK coast is intact – Technology & science – Science – msnbc.com

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Rare dinosaur found in Canada’s oil sands
By Julie Gordon

TORONTO (Reuters) – The Canadian oil sands, a vast expanse of tar and sand being mined for crude oil, yielded treasure of another kind this week when an oil company worker unearthed a 110-million-year-old dinosaur fossil that wasn’t supposed to be there.

The fossil is an ankylosaur, a plant-eating dinosaur with powerful limbs, armor plating and a club-like tail. Finding it in this region of northern Alberta was a surprise because millions of years ago the area was covered by water.

“We’ve never found a dinosaur in this location,” Donald Henderson, a curator at Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, which is devoted to dinosaurs, said on Friday. “Because the area was once a sea, most finds are invertebrates such as clams and ammonites.”

The ankylosaur that was found by the oil worker is expected to be about 5 meters (16-1/2 feet) long and 2 meters (6-1/2 feet) wide.

“It is pretty amazing that it survived in such good condition,” said Henderson, noting the fossil was three dimensional, not flattened by the heavy rock sediment.

“It is also the earliest complete dinosaur that we have from this province.”

The fossil was found on Wednesday by a Suncor Energy shovel operator who was clearing ground ahead of development. By a quirk of fate, the worker had visited the Royal Tyrrell dinosaur museum in southern Alberta just the week before.

Henderson suggested he may have had dinosaurs on the brain. “Maybe his mind was subconsciously prepared.”

Suncor has suspended work at the site and has given scientists a three-week window to remove the fossil and ship it to the Royal Tyrrell museum.

The last major fossil find in northern Alberta was a giant reptile called an ichthyosaur, which was found 10 years ago near Fort McMurray.

(Editing by Peter Galloway)

IRare dinosaur found in Canada’s oil sands found this article on Reuters Mobile (us.mobile.reuters.com) and thought you might find it interesting:

Rare dinosaur found in Canada’s oil sands
http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE72O4TZ20110325


>Christchurch’s seismic fireworks, seen on Google Maps
13:58 22 February 2011

Michael Reilly, senior technology editor
ChristChurchQuakemap.jpg
ChristChurchQuakemap.jpg(Image: Whereis/Sensis PTY/TerraMetrics/Google)

The people of Christchurch are reeling after a devastating earthquake struck earlier today, the second powerful temblor to hit the city in the last five months. The internet and a global, up-to-the-minute news cycle allow us to wade through death tolls, images of city blocks in ruin, even live missing persons reports. Still, for those of us who live outside of earthquakes prone areas, can we know what it’s like to live in an area alive with seismic activity?

Paul Nicholls of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch wants to show us. Following the magnitude 7.1 quake in September, he set up Christchurch Quake Map, a new visualisation that brings home just how seismically restless his home city is.

The website combines Google Maps with data from GeoNet, New Zealand’s government-backed service for monitoring earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and other natural hazards.

The end product is something like a seismic fireworks display – a time-lapse of the nearly 49,000 earthquakes that have struck the region since 4 September. Running through the whole data set is a bit overwhelming, but zooming in on the last 24 hours paints a powerful picture of what it means to live through a big quake and its many, many aftershocks.

One Per Cent: Christchurch’s seismic fireworks, seen on Google Maps

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Air & Space Magazine

The 727 that Vanished

A case pursued by the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security, CENTCOM, and the sister of Ben Padilla.

  • By Tim Wright
  • Air & Space Magazine, September 01, 2010

Seven years after her brother disappeared from Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport in Angola, Benita Padilla-Kirkland is trying to persuade the FBI to re-open his case. She believes she has the “new information” agents told her they require. But she suspects that the agency already has more information than agents will admit to.
Kirkland’s brother, Ben Charles Padilla, a certified flight engineer, aircraft mechanic, and private pilot, disappeared while working in the Angolan capital, Luanda, for Florida-based Aerospace Sales and Leasing. On May 25, 2003, shortly before sunset, Padilla boarded the company’s Boeing 727-223, tail number N844AA. With him was a helper he had recently hired, John Mikel Mutantu, from the Republic of the Congo. The two had been working with Angolan mechanics to return the 727 to flight-ready status so they could reclaim it from a business deal gone bad, but neither could fly it. Mutantu was not a pilot, and Padilla had only a private pilot’s license. A 727 ordinarily requires three trained aircrew.
According to press reports, the aircraft began taxiing with no communication between the crew and the tower; maneuvering erratically, it entered a runway without clearance. With its lights off and its transponder not transmitting, 844AA took off to the southwest, and headed out over the Atlantic Ocean. The 727 and the two men have not been seen since.
Who was flying 844AA? Had something happened to make Padilla take that desperate chance? Or was someone waiting inside the airplane? Leased to deliver diesel fuel to diamond mines, the 727 carried 10 500-gallon fuel tanks and a few passenger seats in its cabin. Less than two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 727’s freakish departure triggered a frantic search by U.S. security organizations for what intelligence sources said could have been a flying bomb.
Retired U.S. Marine General Mastin Robeson, commander of U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa when 844AA went missing, says word of the 727 “came up through the intelligence network.” According to Robeson, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) considered moving U.S. fighter aircraft to Djibouti on the Red Sea coast, where the Combined Joint Task Force shares a base with the French military. Robeson continues: “It was never [clear] whether it was stolen for insurance purposes&hellipby the owners, or whether it was stolen with the intent to make it available to unsavory characters, or whether it was a deliberate concerted terrorist attempt. There was speculation of all three.”
Speculation that the theft of 844AA posed a terrorist threat ended, though it’s unclear why. Perhaps National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency technicians saw signs of a crash in satellite imagery—debris or an oil slick in the Atlantic, for example—or evidence that a large aircraft had landed on one of a half-dozen unpaved, 8,000-foot runways in the Congo, north of Angola. Agency spokesperson Susan Meisner would not comment, saying that the NGIA was not the lead agency in the case. (A CIA spokesperson also declined comment, as did a spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security. FBI agents also refused comment, citing national security concerns.) Perhaps the speculation ended more gradually, after weeks without clues or sightings stretched into months. The disturbed hornet’s nest of a global security alert—the searches, bulletins, and interrogations—quieted, and in 2005, the FBI closed its case. I have filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the CIA and FBI and have followed in at least some of the FBI’s footsteps, interviewing the people who flew 844AA to Angola and worked with it there, hoping to understand how a 727 could just disappear.
IT REALLY WAS in beautiful condition,” Keith Irwin says of the airliner he acquired in Miami in February 2002. Irwin, 57, a South African entrepreneur who ran a series of information technology companies and, until 2000, a small tourist airline with flights from South Africa to Mozambique, had come to Miami to pick up a different aircraft altogether. Representing a joint venture with a South African company called Cargo Air Transport Systems, Irwin had arranged to lease a 727 and two flight crews—pilot, first officer, and flight engineer—for a year. The air transport company had signed a contract to supply fuel to diamond mines in Angola, where a long civil war had made transporting goods by road almost impossible. The 727, therefore, was to have been delivered with fuel tanks installed in the cabin. The joint venture was backed by a single investor, who had deposited $450,000 in a U.S. bank. Irwin’s job was to manage the flight operations, but the deal for the airplane fell through. Irwin ended up with fuel tanks and no airplane.
That failure stranded six crewmen who had assembled in Miami. “The guys then were desperate for work,” says Irwin. “Most of those guys had not flown in a long time because of the 9/11 story. I said, ‘Look, I can take you on if we can find another aircraft.’ ” And Irwin met Maury Joseph, president of Aerospace Sales and Leasing, Inc. Joseph owned three 727s that had recently been retired by American Airlines. “All three aircraft were almost in mint condition,” says Irwin. “American Airlines had a very good maintenance program.”
New deal: Joseph sold 844AA to Irwin for $1 million and change. According to his records, he received a down payment of $125,000, and says he stipulated that the balance be paid within 30 days. He agreed to remove the passenger seats from the cabin and to allow Irwin to take the airliner to Africa. Irwin says he cannot remember the details of the agreement, but recalled it to be a lease arrangement. In any case, the joint venture made only two payments and defaulted.
Though the two men now differ over the terms of the contract, they agree on one detail: As a condition of the agreement, Irwin was required to take along one of Joseph’s employees, Mike Gabriel, whose job was to make sure that the deal was concluded. “I gave Mike $10,000 and told him to fly with them,” says Joseph. “Stay with the plane till you get the money, and then come on home, and if not, bring the plane home.”
On February 28, 2002, with most of the passenger seats removed and the 10 fuel tanks loaded, 844AA, still in the livery of American Airlines, with a blue stripe down the side and an AA logo fading on its tail, took off for Africa.
Because Irwin’s partners had not arranged a landing permit, it took two weeks for the crew to make their way to Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport, where they arrived on March 14. Irwin, who had not worked in Angola before, realized immediately that the deal was in trouble. The company hiring his partners for deliveries, Kuwachi Dundo, was supposed to pay $220,000 when the airplane and crew landed, but instead the company’s representative made excuses. (Irwin lost almost $140,000 in the first deal and had burned through the rest of the $450,000 by March.)
The crew endured accommodations in a dismal apartment without electricity or drinkable water, near an open sewer. (Gabriel and Irwin didn’t stay with the crew; they had rented an apartment in the back of a house owned by an Angolan air force general.) The only one of the men not troubled by the circumstances they found in Angola was Mike Gabriel. Gabriel, a dealer in aircraft parts and engines, had spent a considerable amount of time in West Africa, and was accustomed to the AK-47s the men saw everywhere, including stacked up behind the bar of a club they frequented. Most worrisome to the crew was that they were required to surrender their passports on arrival. Irwin explains that Kuwachi needed the passports to obtain Angolan licenses for the pilots and flight engineers.
“I was scared to death. I really thought I was going to die,” says Art Powell, one of the flight engineers with the project. Powell had been to Angola before and had spent a year working in Nairobi, Kenya, but this experience was different. He felt intimidated by the people who had hired the crew for the fuel-delivery job. His anxiety was intensified by the presence of a local “helper” who toted an AK-47. The helper was a guard whom Mike Gabriel says he hired because the crew repeatedly voiced concerns about safety.
When Kuwachi got wind of the crews’ unrest (several crew members have admitted that they were planning to steal the aircraft to escape to South Africa or return to the States), the company refused to return the passports. Irwin and members of the crew went to the U.S. Embassy; only then were the passports returned.
By Angolan regulations, Irwin says, 844AA was controlled by the clients who hired it. Prohibited from flying the aircraft out of the country, Irwin booked airline seats and flew the crew members to South Africa. From there, two of the men immediately flew home to the United States. One says he is still owed $17,000. The other four crewmen, still hoping for the money they’d been promised, stayed on.
By April, Irwin was extricating himself from the deal made by Cargo Air Transport Systems and had found a new backer, an Angolan who arranged deliveries for a different client. Irwin and the remaining crew returned to Luanda and began flying the shipments for the new company. Mike Gabriel placed the total number of flights made at 17.
“It’s the most dangerous flying in the world,” says a crewman who asked that his name be withheld because he fears for his career. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he likened the deliveries to flying into a combat zone. When they approached the airfields, the crew tried to stay at an altitude above small-arms fire for as long as possible, then spiraled down to land.
“I’ve been a [flight deck crew member] for 30 years,” he says. “For me, it was an opportunity to make a couple of bucks… and when everything started falling apart, I probably hung on twice as long as common sense dictated. But I had too much invested at that point to bail out.”
Many of the runways, says Mike Gabriel, aren’t paved and aren’t like the ones U.S. crews are accustomed to. “On some, you land uphill, then go downhill, then uphill again,” he says.
At one airstrip, the anonymous crewman says, just before 844AA arrived, a 727 flying for a competing company crashed on landing and skidded off the runway. Although the crew survived, he says, some local residents were killed. “We gave [the other flight crew] a lift out of there but not before going over to their airplane and stealing some parts that we needed. That’s when I decided it was time to go home.”
Before he left, he says, a “big African showed up with a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills. It was payday.” Besides paying the crew, the money was supposed to pay off accumulated airport fees and fuel costs.
“After that,” the crewman says, “I created a family emergency&hellip. I said, ‘My mother is sick.’ ” He promised he’d return in two weeks and left. “I had no intentions of going back, of course. I didn’t get anywhere near full pay, but I got enough that I could pay my bills and make it not completely worthless.”
By the end of April, all of the Americans except Mike Gabriel had left.
Irwin hired a local crew and continued to deliver fuel to the mines, but he was ready to leave too. The civil war in Angola had ended. Competition among fuel haulers, Irwin says, had intensified, and he was growing more uncomfortable with the delivery deals. His partners were claiming part ownership of the aircraft, but Maury Joseph had not been paid. Joseph, meanwhile, sent a crew to swap an engine from the 727. Finally, Irwin says, he was being followed—by a local man named Antonio, who, Irwin believes, was working for one of his partners. “I would turn around,” Irwin says, “and spot Antonio watching me from a car.”
Irwin began wedging a chair under the door handle of his hotel room “just like you see in the movies.” One night, he heard a key card slide into the slot on the door. The lock released. “I started yelling and whoever it was ran,” he says. The hotel security guards questioned the night clerk and learned that he had accepted a bribe to provide the key card. Irwin left the country the next day and didn’t go back.
Maury Joseph fired Mike Gabriel some time that spring. “He kept convincing me that next week, next month…,” Joseph says, referring to the outstanding balance owed on the airplane.
In May 2002, the only part of the original 844AA project left at the Luanda airport was 844AA.
THE SON OF A FLORIDA MILLWRIGHT, Ben Charles Padilla Jr. was always mechanically gifted, says sister Benita Padilla-Kirkland, and from the time he was a boy, he loved airplanes. In his mid-20s he learned to fly and became certified as an airframe-and-powerplant mechanic. He lived in south Florida with two children, one his own, and a fiancée of 15 years. (Efforts to contact her were unsuccessful.) Though the two weren’t married, Padilla gave her power of attorney in his absence and made her the executor of his estate, according to Padilla-Kirkland, and left her almost everything in his will.
“He certainly knew the airplane,” says Maury Joseph. Padilla was a freelancer, who had worked for Joseph on two jobs before traveling to Angola to repossess 844AA. Padilla had worked extensively in Africa. He helped Joseph ferry a 727 to Nigeria for a sale and during the negotiations stayed to explain the aircraft systems. “If you said, ‘Go to Cambodia and do this’ or ‘Go to Indonesia and do this’ or ‘Go to South America and do this’ he would do it. [When in Nigeria] I was with Ben daily for a month or more,” says Joseph. “You become fairly close to somebody when you’re with them day and night.” Joseph trusted him.
But another employer formed a different opinion. Jeff Swain, who works near Miami in international aircraft sales and leasing, had hired Padilla in the late 1990s for an airline he was operating in Indonesia—and fired him. “We had certain standards of conduct we expected from flight engineers,” Swain says, adding, when pressed, “He was too involved in chasing the local girls. It was an unstructured environment, and he just went bad.” Swain says that after Padilla was fired, he stayed on in Indonesia for two months and racked up a $10,000 bill that he told the hotel the airline would pay. “We finally had him deported,” says Swain.
Padilla once showed Swain a photograph of a woman with small children and told him it was his wife in Mozambique, but Swain says, “I never believed it was real. Ben was always marveling everyone with his bullshit stories.” One of Padilla’s friends also saw a photograph of a wife, but insists that she lived in Tanzania. Another acquaintance was told that Padilla had a wife in Indonesia.
Benita Padilla-Kirkland says she’s heard the stories, but believes her brother would have told her if he’d had another family. She doesn’t doubt the relationships, but is convinced that Padilla was helping to support people he’d befriended. “There might have been more than one of those situations,” she says.
WHAT IN FEBRUARY 2002 had been a retired airliner in excellent condition had by fall become a junker worth only the price of its engines. And Maury Joseph found a buyer for them: Jeff Swain. Swain says that Irwin and the crews had ruined the airplane. “It would never be of any value again,” he says. “You can’t put water tanks full of fuel in an airplane and expect it to be good. Totally stupid. But it had really good engines on it—maybe 1,000 cycles since new.”
In November 2002, Joseph and Ben Padilla flew to Nigeria to deliver a 727, and Joseph hired Padilla to fly to Angola the following April to pay the outstanding fines and hire mechanics to return the 727 to service. “If [the company that contracted for fuel deliveries] wasn’t paying Mr. Irwin, you can assume he wasn’t paying anybody,” says Joseph. “He probably hadn’t paid the fuel bill. He didn’t pay the navigation fees, the landing fees, and certainly wasn’t paying the parking fees at the airport. So all of those became things that we had to resolve and I had to pay all those.”
Padilla worked with Air Gemini, a Luanda-based airline that operated a repair station. The return-to-service process was progressing steadily, according to Joseph, and in May 2003, acting as Joseph’s agent, Padilla hired a pilot and copilot from Air Gemini to help him deliver the aircraft to Johannesburg, South Africa, where Joseph was waiting with his new customer. A day or two before the aircraft was to leave Luanda, Padilla made plans with Air Gemini to take the aircraft from the company hangar out to the main runway, where he intended to run the three engines up to full power for a systems check.
Late in the morning on May 26, when Joseph and Swain were expecting 844AA to land, Joseph took a call from an Air Gemini employee, who demanded to know why another crew had flown the airplane out of Luanda. “He was kind of hard on me,” Joseph says. After the shock wore off, he telephoned the U.S. Embassy in South Africa to report the disappearance, then called his wife back in Florida to tell her to call the FBI. From Washington, D.C., the Department of State, notified by the U.S. Embassy in Angola, sent a message to every American embassy in Africa: Alert aviation officials that an airliner has been stolen, and call every airport with a runway long enough to handle a 727.
For the U.S. government, fraud was one theory that could explain the aircraft’s disappearance. “Part of the intelligence was that the airplane was in a bad state of repair,” says General Robeson. “That was one of the speculations, that it was an insurance fraud situation. You know, ‘Oops, my plane was hijacked/stolen by terrorists and now I can do an insurance claim on it.’ So, that was probably as valid of an explanation when all was said and done as anything. But we just left it as an unknown.”
Among intelligence officials, the suspicions of fraud may have been aroused by knowledge of an incident in Maury Joseph’s past. During the 1990s, Joseph was CEO of a cargo airline named Florida West (which later went bankrupt). The Securities and Exchange Commission charged him in a civil case with falsifying financial statements and defrauding investors. The court imposed a fine and barred Joseph from acting as an officer in a publicly held company.
But Joseph, when contacted by the FBI, volunteered to take a lie-detector test, and Swain, who was there when Joseph took the call from Air Gemini, is certain that Joseph had nothing to do with the airplane’s disappearance. “Look, nobody was more amazed by this situation than Maury,” Swain says. He describes Joseph as utterly confused by the information that the airplane was gone.
The suspicion that Ben Padilla could have played any part in an insurance fraud angers his younger brother. “If anybody would say to me that my brother was involved with this,” says Joe Padilla, his voice tightening, “they’re full of it. ’Cuz I know my brother. He’s not gonna do nothing crooked. I know that for a fact.” He is convinced that more than one person was already on board, waiting, and that they forcibly took the aircraft, and killed Ben and John Mutantu.
“I keep hoping against hope that maybe he’s tucked away somewhere,” says Benita Padilla-Kirkland. The new information she passed along to the FBI was a possible sighting of the aircraft, one of many reported over the years.
Mike Gabriel believes the airplane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean soon after takeoff. One crew member from the fuel delivery operation thinks the Angolan air force shot it down with a missile. A Luandan pilot says the word there is that the aircraft went north and vanished near Kinshasa, Congo. One of Ben Padilla’s friends says the airplane was disassembled for parts in Bujumbura, Burundi, on Tanzania’s western border.
Picking through the fragments of 844AA’s history, I found a story of broken deals, disappointments, and betrayals, but no real clues to the aircraft’s destination that day in 2003. We may never know for sure where it went. It is the largest aircraft ever to have disappeared without a trace.
Tim Wright is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia.

© Smithsonian Institution

The 727 that Vanished | History of Flight | Air & Space Magazine

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Did you know the modern parachute was invented by Da Vinci?

a more sophisticated parachute was sketched by the polymath Leonardo da Vinci in his Codex Atlanticus (fol. 381v) dated to ca. 1485.[2] Here, the scale of the parachute is in a more favorable proportion to the weight of the jumper. Leonardo’s canopy was held open by a square wooden frame, which alters the shape of the parachute from conical to pyramidal.[3] It is not known whether the Italian inventor was influenced by the earlier design, but he may have learnt about the idea through the intensive oral communication among artist-engineers of the time.[4] The feasibility of Leonardo’s pyramidal design was successfully tested in 2000 by the British Adrian Nicholas and again in 2008 by another skydiver.[5] According to the historian of technology Lynn White, these conical and pyramidal designs, much more elaborate than early artistic jumps with rigid parasols in Asia, mark the origin of “the parachute as we know it“.[1]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parachute

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Are we closer to a ‘theory of everything’?

Susan Watts | 12:09 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The physicists’ ultimate dream is the search for a “theory of everything”, a unifying explanation that can make sense of the infinitely tiny as well as the infinitely large.

From the strange particles that are the terrain of atom-smashing machines such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern, to galaxies beyond our own, about which we’re learning more and more through increasingly powerful telescopes and observatories.

Much of Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, makes his case for so-called M-Theory as the prime contender to be that elusive theory of everything.

The Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider is helping in the quest

But it’s esoteric stuff. So, in his first television interview, Newsnight asked him how he would explain the importance of M-theory to the many people in the UK who have little interest in theoretical physics.

“M-theory is the theory of everything. It explains how the universe was created out of nothing in the Big Bang, and how it behaves now. It governs everything we think and do. Isn’t that of interest?” Hawking asks.

Though he hasn’t really tackled the important part of the question, it’s clear from his answer that Professor Hawking is as dogmatic about M-theory as he is about God. Recall his quote from the book: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

He deals with M-theory in a similar tone: “M-theory is the only (sic) candidate for a complete theory of the universe.” He adds later: “M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find.”

But not all physicists agree that M-theory is the answer. The blogosphere has been almost as alive with chit chat from critics of his support for M-theory as it has over his views on God.
The thing about M-theory that most people find confusing is that its maths implies extra dimensions – not yet observed – that exist alongside the four dimensions of space and time that we have become familiar with in our everyday world.

The trouble with theories of everything, including M-theory, is that testing them in the laboratory is tricky – and that leaves them open to the charge that they’re as much a leap of faith as religion. Theoretical physicist and broadcaster, Jim Al-Khalili, suggested as much on Newsnight last week.

But experimental evidence may be closer than some think. Atom smashers such as the LHC may one day “see” the extra dimensions that M-Theory implies, and London’s Imperial College has published a paper in Physical Review Letters with a press release making the bold claim: “Researchers discover how to conduct first test of ‘untestable’ string theory.”

Lead author Michael Duff tells me it’s not quite as black and white as that and that the “test” is an indirect one, but it could have important implications for both string theory and M-theory – effectively an umbrella theory that embraces all five leading string theories.

The team from Imperial say they’ve found that string theory predicts the behaviour of entangled quantum particles – another mind-boggling area of physics. As this prediction can be tested in the laboratory, researchers say they can now test string theory.

“This will not be proof that string theory is the right ‘theory of everything’ that is being sought by cosmologists and particle physicists,” Professor Duff explained.

“However, it will be very important to theoreticians because it will demonstrate whether or not string theory works, even if its application is in an unexpected and unrelated area of physics.”

But Professor Hawking is not alone in his attachment to M-theory, or to the idea that our universe is just one world in a “multiverse” of worlds.

This is an idea which echoes work by the physicist Hugh Everett III in the 1950s on quantum theory. This was roundly dismissed while he was alive, but has enjoyed a late renaissance in recent years. Everett described the universe as having not one single history, but multiple histories, in his so-called Many Worlds, or Parallel Worlds, theory.

Though there’s no direct link between Everett’s many worlds theory and M-theory, Professor Hawking does describe how M-theory “allows for 10 to the power of 500 different universes, each with its own laws”.

Hugh Everett’s son, the musician Mark Everett, more famously known as E of the rock band Eels, has tried to grapple with some of this physics in an effort to better understand his difficult relationship with his father.

E, promoting his latest album Tomorrow Morning, tells me how he believes his father’s withdrawn character was down to the early dismissive reaction to his work from other physicists.
“He was a 24-year-old genius that was brushed under the carpet, and that ruined his life,” he tells me.

But Professor Hawking explains how Hugh Everett III contributed to our knowledge of the universe.

“Hugh Everett made an important contribution to our understanding of quantum theory,” he said. “In classical theory the universe has a definite history but this is not the case in quantum theory, Instead Everett suggested we could think of it as if the history kept branching into alternative histories.”

The struggle to understand our world, or worlds, will continue, and the concluding paragraph of Professor Hawking’s book sets out a seductive insight into the drive behind that search.

“The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph… If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3,000 years. We will have found the grand design.”

Incidentally, the M in M-theory is variously said to stand for “membrane”, or according to Professor Hawking, possibly “master”, “miracle” or “mystery”. And mystery it may well remain for those of us still trying to make sense of it all.
Watch Susan’s film featuring interviews with Stephen Hawking and Eels musician Mark Everett on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

BBC – Newsnight: Susan Watts: Are we closer to a ‘theory of everything’?

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