Archive for December, 2011

To Keep Venice From Going Underwater, Researchers Say, Pump Water Under Venice

By Valerie Ross | December 29, 2011 2:19 pm

Flooding in Piazza San Marco, Venice

Venice is sinking, and the nearby Adriatic sea—like the global sea level—is rising. The city could, some estimates suggest, be underwater by the end of the century. Much of the trouble is due to Venice’s precarious, low-lying position in the middle of a lagoon, but human activity in the area has played a role in the city’s subsidence, as well. As Scott K. Johnson explains at Ars Technica:

The pumping of shallow groundwater in the mid-1900s also contributed to the problem. Water in the pores between grains of sediment provides pressure that bears some of the load. When pore pressure decreases, or water is removed completely, grains can be packed together more tightly by collapsing the pore spaces. As sediment is compacted, the land surface drops. While the effect was small (less than 15cm), Venice doesn’t have much wiggle room.

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Following in Scott's Footsteps: Measuring the Magnetic Pole

By Veronique Greenwood | December 28, 2011 3:41 pm

spacing is important
The peripatetic magnetic south pole.

A hundred years after Robert Scott‘s disastrous mission to the South Pole, a pair of Kiwi scientists are traveling to his observation hut today to continue the work he began there: tracking the Earth’s magnetic field. Since 1957, New Zealand has measured the field at Scott’s base every five years, accruing data that, along with measurements from other, more comfortable sites around the world, helps maintain the model used by NATO and nations’ defense departments for navigation.

The planet’s magnetic field needs tracking because it is shifting: the magnetic south pole has been traveling northwestward at a rate of 6 to 9 miles a year for the past century. (The geographic South Pole is somewhere altogether different.) This shift occurs because the mass of molten metal that makes up the Earth’s outer core is in a constant state of turmoil, and the  the poles could veer off in another direction at any time. Intriguing, the magnetic field has also been getting weaker since the 1800s. But whether that means the poles will flip at some point in the future—it’s happened before!—or whether it will start getting stronger again very soon is a mystery.

[via Nature News]

Image courtesy of NOAA


Where Christmas Lights Go to Die (and Be Reborn as Slippers)

By Veronique Greenwood | December 28, 2011 11:17 am

The holidays are hard on Christmas lights. Exposed to the vagaries of small nephews and exuberant pets, most strings will experience a few casualties, and while a missing bulb no longer means the entire set stops working, Americans still throw out millions of pounds of lights a year. Adam Minter, who’s writing a book on the globalization of recycling, describes exactly what happens to your old lights when they’re shipped over to a concern in China, which, ironically, makes better use of minced-up lights than any US company could.

Workers untangle the lights and toss them into small shredders, where they are chopped into millimeter-sized fragments and mixed with water into a sticky mud-like substance. Next, they’re shoveled onto a large, downward-angled, vibrating table, covered in a thin sheen of flowing water.

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In Uganda, Another Outbreak of Nodding Syndrome, a Disease Epidemiologists Can't Explain

By Valerie Ross | December 27, 2011 4:50 pm

Nodding syndrome, a disease that has sickened more than a thousand children in northern Uganda since the summer, is named for its most distinctive symptom: involuntary, at times violent bobbing of the head, like someone repeatedly nodding yes or snapping out of a doze. Outbreaks of nodding syndrome cropped up in South Sudan this summer, in the same region of Uganda two years ago, in southern Sudan—not yet an independent nation—in 2001, and periodically in remote mountain villages in Tanzania. Nearly half a century has passed since the first reported case, but epidemiologists still have only a rudimentary understanding of this mysterious disease. They’ve found few hints as to what might cause it, and no effective treatments.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Why Wool is Warm and Snowflakes Aren't Always Pretty

By Veronique Greenwood | December 27, 2011 12:16 pm


If you live in the Northeast, chances are you’ve had a disappointingly balmy December so far (the snow seems to have taken a wrong turn somewhere and wound up over Texas instead). But when the air gets that snap and you  reach for the wool socks, Emily Eggleston at Scientific American has a few factoids that promise to fascinate. Here’s why wool keeps you warm:

Wool keeps out the cold because it is an excellent insulator. Crimped and crisscrossed woolen fibers create tons of little air pockets. The tiny air masses within my socks have difficulty moving in and out of the fabric. Without convective heat transfer and contact with air of other temperatures, the spaces between wool fibers maintains a steady temperature.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Beware the Improperly Used Neti Pot: Brain-Eating Amoebas Could Strike

By Veronique Greenwood | December 22, 2011 1:53 pm

A neti pot in action.

As you may have heard by now, two people in Louisiana have died from infections of brain-munching microbes after making a small, but fatal, error. While filling their neti pots, devices that send water flowing through your nasal passages to clear them out during a cold, they used tap water instead of distilled or sterilized water. Just their luck, the tap water had a few Naegleria fowleri in it, and soon, as the microbes made their way through the nasal passages to the brain, those poor folks had a lot more than a cold to worry about. The mortality rate of human Naegleria fowleri infections is 98%.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Why Do Mockingbirds Accept Invaders' Eggs?

By Veronique Greenwood | December 22, 2011 11:35 am

In the form of brood parasites, the bird world has enough irresponsible moms to start a reality TV show: cowbirds, for instance, lay their eggs in other species’ nests, stab most of the hosts’ eggs to death, and then leave their offspring to be raised by the host parents. The standing explanation for this involves most host birds being not that sharp on the uptake (watch a tiny warbler fussing over a cuckoo chick ten times its size (above) and you’d think that too). But maybe, a new study suggests, it’s sometimes to the host’s benefit to let imposter eggs stay in their nests.

The researchers chose mockingbirds as their hosts and cowbirds as their parasites, because mockingbirds usually fight like crazy to keep cowbirds of their nests but get strangely quiescent once the invaders have laid their eggs, a behavior that piqued the researchers’ interest. Once all the birds in the sample population had laid, the researchers went around adding and removing eggs from nests to see whether having a certain number of cowbird eggs affected mockingbird survival. They found that mockingbird eggs that shared their digs with cowbird eggs and suffered repeated cowbird invasions were more likely to survive, apparently because when each cowbird arrived, it would stab a certain proportion of the eggs in the nest regardless of whether they were host eggs or the eggs of the previous cowbird. Letting the parasite’s eggs stay, then, means that more of the host eggs avoid getting stabbed. The researchers conclude that when there are a lot of cowbirds around and hence a high probability of multiple nest hijackings, it makes sense for mockingbird parents not to shove out the invaders’ eggs.

Nice. And with all this dubious parenting and wanton violence, it’s straight from an episode of Teen Mom meets Cops, no?


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

How Hackers Took Subway Customers for Millions of Dollars Due to Franchisees' Incompetence

By Veronique Greenwood | December 21, 2011 2:22 pm

At some Subways, the sandwiches aren’t the only thing that’s
poorly constructed.

Security in the networked world of today isn’t always the easiest to understand, we’ll admit. But business owners, who are in a position of trust when it comes to customers’ debit and credit card transactions, should really be up on basic internet security. When they’re not, they literally give away their customers’ information to hackers. Case in point: about 150 Subway franchises, which, along with at least 50 other small retailers, caused 80,000 customers to lose a total of $3 million after they set up debit card scanners without proper security and encryption.

Here’s what happened: Though Subway distributes lists of security requirements to franchisees, some neglected to follow them. According to a Justice Department statement, in addition to disregarding encryption requirements, they installed cheap remote desktop software, the kind that lets a computer be accessed from another location. All hackers had to do was guess or otherwise determine the password for access, which, as all too many people have found out, isn’t very hard when your password is “password” or “12345.” Once they had that, the hackers were like kids in a candy store, and it took quite some time for anyone to notice what was going on.

It’s enough to make you take a good, hard look at your lunch joint’s manager, and, if he looks like he doesn’t know a trojan from a man in a toga, walk right back out that door.

Read more at Ars Technica.

Image courtesy of Brixton / flickr


Methadone, Used to Treat Pain, Kills Thousands Every Year

By Douglas Main | December 20, 2011 9:53 am

Methadone is commonly given to people trying to kick a heroin addiction. But the long-lasting opioid is also an inexpensive, effective pain-killer. With rising costs of prescription narcotics like OxyContin, doctors are increasingly prescribing methadone to treat pain, especially to patients on Medicaid or less generous health insurance plans. From 1999 to 2005, its use in the U.S. increased more than five-fold, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But over the same time period, deaths associated with the drug have increased more than five times, climbing from 786 in 1999 to 4,462, according to the CDC. In Washington state alone, more than 2,100 people died after taking the drug since 2003, says says The Seattle Times.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Would Minutes of Exercise Be a Better Metric Than Calorie Counts?

By Veronique Greenwood | December 19, 2011 3:10 pm


When we rip open a 100-calorie snack pack, few of us have an idea of how much energy that really is–or how much walking, biking, or schlepping groceries it will take to burn it off. But what if nutrition labels included descriptions of how much exercise you’d need to burn off that candy bar?

One recent study explored that possibility by testing the effects of signs describing in one of three different ways the energy contained in a sugary drink. Researchers found that a sign that said “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” halved the number of drinks purchased from a drink cooler by African American teenagers, while signs that mentioned calorie count or percentage of total recommended calorie intake did not have a significant effect. Though the study was pretty small, and thus should be verified with larger studies, the effect seems plausible, given that exercise is a much more concrete measure of energy value than calories. Some health campaigns have in fact already taken up this tactic: if you’re a New Yorker, you may have noticed subway ads using exactly this strategy, linking the calories in a 20-oz soda with the three-mile walk between Yankee Stadium and Central Park. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

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