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Alt-week 12.22.12: strange skulls, solar portraits and 17-minute code cracking


Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

Despite all the bad press, the 14th baktun is actually turning out pretty good so far. Okay, we're barely a day into it, but it's a promising start. To celebrate we've got a stunning postcard from the sun at the exact moment of solstice, some curious Mexican skulls and an amateur codebreaker who thinks he beat British intelligence agencies at their own game. This is definitely alt-week.

Who are we to judge how you chose to spend the passing of the 13th Baktun? But whether it was on a hill-top, near a temple, with family, or -- as usual -- stuck in your office cubicle, there's definitely one part of it that is worth remembering. The picture below is a snapshot of the sun caught during the winter (or, depending where you are, summer) solstice. The shot was taken at 6:12 am EST, the precise minute of the solstice (whichever one you are celebrating). The picture comes courtesy of the ever-watchful NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory. We're not much into prophecies, but one about more stunning images like this is one we could get behind.

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You know who else has a little more faith in the future? If plans for Meixi Lake City are anything to go by, the Chinese government. Meixi Lake will be a new planned city in the West Changsha Pioneer Zone in Hunan Province, designed by architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF). The 120 million square foot urban area will be built around a 2.4-mile long lake, and house up to 180,000 inhabitants once complete. Traditionally, China's growing population has either resulted in denser habitation in existing cities, or new developments augmenting older population centers, creating hybrid environments. With projects such as Meixi Lake City, starting from scratch brings significant benefits not open to -- easily at least -- existing conurbations, such as combining water transport with energy production, superior flood prevention and urban agriculture. Despite all this, why do we get the feeling there still won't be enough parking?

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Back in November there was a curious story about the remains of a World War II carrier pigeon found in a British chimney with its coded message still intact. Since that discovery, UK intelligence agency GCHQ has been unsuccessfully attempted to decipher it. Fortunately a Canadian man might have come to the rescue, claiming to have solved the riddle in just 17 minutes. Gord Young, from Ontario, inherited a codebook which he thinks holds the key, believing the message relies on a cipher also used in World War I. GCHQ, however, remains skeptical, stating that without the exact codebook, or full details of the encryption, it's impossible to verify any alleged solution. Young -- editor of a local history group -- remains confident, going on to say that "It's not complex" and that much of the message relies on acronyms that became prevalent in WWI due to the short battery life of morse code systems. Despite its doubts, GCHQ has stated that it'd be interesting to see the findings. While there is no full transcription, Young has said that the message details German troop positions in Normandy, France.

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When we hear about alien-shaped skulls being exhumed in mexico, on this weekend of all weekends, it's hard not to get a little bit "X-Files". But, alas, according to the scientists who excavated the remains, the bones belonged to humans, and are actually evidence of tribal skull deformation being more wide-spread than first thought. The location is an ancient cemetery in the village of Onavas, Mexico. Of the 25 human remains, 13 had deformed skulls and five had mutilated teeth (where they are filed into shapes). Given that 17 of the burials were children between five months and 16 years old, it's suspected that the cranial deformation itself was responsible for the deaths. Despite the insistence that these are definitely the remains of earthlings, inevitably their shape is enough to stir up chatter of extraterrestrials amongst certain factors. The main revelation here though, according to the scientists, is the extension of the northern border for this ancient tribal practice. But then they would say that, wouldn't they...

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Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image credits: Cristina García/INAH, NASA]

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