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Wind machines blow up a storm in south Florida

RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd. is creating a storm with a newly announced catastrophe research project.

Dubbed the "Wall of Wind," the project is a joint endeavor between RenaissanceRe's WeatherPredict Consulting Inc. unit and Florida International University's International Hurricane Research Center in Miami.

The WOW facility--expected to be completed in the summer of 2007--will consist of six industrial fans that mimic Category 4 hurricane conditions in a laboratory setting to study the effects of wind and rain on various building materials and methods.

On the Simpson-Saffir scale, a Category 4 storm carries winds between 131 and 155 mph, typically causing cosmetic damage to buildings and blowing down trees and shrubs in its path. Hurricanes Charley in 2004 and Dennis in 2005 were both Category 4 hurricanes when they made landfall in Florida and Cuba, respectively, according to the National Weather Service.

"While substantial resources have been devoted to analyzing hurricanes and improving weather prediction, little scientific research has been done on the ways in which hurricanes affect the building materials that protect us," said Craig W. Tillman, president of WeatherPredict, in a statement.

Bacterium stops shakes and quakes

The power to give you strep throat...and prevent earthquakes?

Bacteria have gotten a bad rap, but that could change--at least among property insurers--in the wake of some new research.

Scientists are touting one form of the microbes based on a study showing bacterium Bacillus pasteurii may be useful in protecting buildings against quake damage, particularly the liquefaction that temblors can induce.

In laboratory tests, researchers found that Bacillus pasteurii causes sandy soil to bind with calcium carbonate to create a unified, stronger compound.

"Starting from a sand pile, you turn it back into sandstone," said Jason DeJong, a University of California-Davis researcher who led the study, in a statement.

The research team said the find has major advantages: Bacillus pasteurii presents no toxicity problems and soil-solidifying treatments could be done on existing structures.

Deal or No Deal risk simulation

A business student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has learned a financial lesson about risk tolerance and chance during a research project on how both impact the business world.

As part of the project conducted by two Darden School of Business professors, Class of '08 student Hideki Inoue survived more than a week of random eliminations and was named the school's luckiest student.

His reward was a shot at a $17,500 tuition subsidy donated by an unknown school benefactor.

But to secure the scholarship, the student had to choose between two identical briefcases--one that contained the prize and one that was empty.

Mr. Inoue, though, had a third, less fruitful option: a guaranteed prize of $5,679 in cash.

No deal.

Instead, wearing the ancestral Samurai garb of his native Japan, Mr. Inoue stood before several hundred classmates and made his selection from the two briefcases.

That's when his luck ran out--but not his grace. After the empty briefcase was opened, Mr. Inoue bowed to the crowd, which responded with applause.

Professor Sam Bodily, whose class discusses the issue of uncertainty during company case studies and who emceed the event, observed that Mr. Inoue was neither more nor less lucky than his classmates.

The professor said the event would be held again next year to gauge the vagaries of luck and random events, according to a school release.

Oscar winner thanks Hank

Makers of "The Blood of Yingzhou District" accepted an Oscar last week in the short film documentary category and promptly thanked the Starr Foundation and Chairman Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg.

Producer Thomas F. Lennon said it was the foundation's generous grant that allowed him and Director Ruby Yang to complete the documentary.

While expressing appreciation for the Academy Award, Mr. Lennon said the Starr Foundation grant allowed his China AIDS Media Project to create TV public service announcements watched by more than 200 million people across China.

"The PSAs are a bigger part of the story," Mr. Lennon said.

In one PSA, Chinese NBA center Yao Ming shoots hoops with former NBA star and AIDS sufferer Earvin "Magic" Johnson. They hug and later share food.

The message is that people need to be aware of AIDS, but they don't need to shun people with the disease, Mr. Lennon said.

"The Blood of Yingzhou District" examines similar subject matter.

It follows rural village children orphaned by parents who have contracted AIDS through tainted blood. One orphan is rejected by his extended family and faces social stigma as other children are not allowed to play with him.

But then a family accepts the young boy.

Mr. Lennon declined to disclose the amount of the grant but said that 18 months of fundraising had collected less than $50,000--until the Starr Foundation heard of and supported the project, with few bureaucratic hurdles.

It helped that Yao Ming had already been recruited for the PSAs, he added.

Contributing: Roberto Ceniceros, Dave Lenckus, Rupal Parekh