March 21, 2016 – SCIENCE & STUFF

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According to Smithsonian Magazine, Twitter may be faster than FEMA for tracking disaster damage. They report on studies by a data scientist in Australia. Of course, since FEMA is part of the government, you already knew it would be poorly run.

… Rapid response in areas hardest hit by hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters can save lives and help first responders best allocate limited resources to places that are most in need. But traditional means used to identify high priority locales are surprisingly clumsy and expensive, often requiring personal visits to sites or aerial surveys.

Suspecting that social media could do a better job, Kryvasheyeu and his colleagues homed in on 2012′s Hurricane Sandy as a case study. They accumulated more than 55 million geo-tagged tweets posted one week preceding and three weeks following the storm. The tweets included keywords such as “sandy”, “frankenstorm”, “flooding” and “damage”.

The team standardized the data using demographic figures of neighborhood populations, which allowed them to directly compare the number of tweets from places that are heavily populated, like Manhattan, with places that are less densely packed. Finally, they consulted as many sources as possible on actual damage caused by the storm, including insurance claims and FEMA data.

As the researchers report today in Science Advances, combining the social media findings and the damage assessments on a map revealed significant overlap, with hardest hit areas also producing the most chatter on Twitter.

“For me, the biggest surprise was that this actually works so well, and that the signal is so strong,” Kryvasheyeu says. …



Two hundred years ago three years of cold weather came from the eruption of one volcano. NY Times has the story.

In April 1815, the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history shook the planet in a catastrophe so vast that 200 years later, investigators are still struggling to grasp its repercussions. It played a role, they now understand, in icy weather, agricultural collapse and global pandemics — and even gave rise to celebrated monsters.

Around the lush isles of the Dutch East Indies — modern-day Indonesia — the eruption of Mount Tambora killed tens of thousands of people. They were burned alive or killed by flying rocks, or they died later of starvation because the heavy ash smothered crops.

More surprising, investigators have found that the giant cloud of minuscule particles spread around the globe, blocked sunlight and produced three years of planetary cooling. In June 1816, a blizzard pummeled upstate New York. That July and August, killer frosts in New England ravaged farms. Hailstones pounded London all summer.

A recent history of the disaster, “Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World,” by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, shows planetary effects so extreme that many nations and communities sustained waves of famine, disease, civil unrest and economic decline. Crops failed globally.

“The year without a summer,” as 1816 came to be known, …



Haikai Magazine on the importance of whale poop. (More proof Pickerhead will read anything)

In the Southern Ocean, surrounding Antarctica, blue whales were nearly wiped out by industrial whaling from the 1920s to 1940s. But now, with whaling curtailed, the whales are surging back: their population growing by 7.3 percent per year. By 2066, blue whale numbers could be back to historic levels. For conservationists, this last-minute rescue of the largest animals on Earth is a good news story. For others, the blue whale’s return is a daunting prospect. As conventional thinking suggests, the resurgence of these massive creatures—with their equally massive appetites—is creating an ever-greater competition for the commercial krill fishery.

These worries are not entirely unfounded. In the Southern Ocean, shrimp-like krill sit near the base of the food web. Estimates place the total krill biomass in the sea at 379 million tonnes. Each year, commercial trawlers pull in up to 5.6 million tonnes, and during peak feeding season a blue whale can eat nearly four tonnes of krill a day. With a pre-whaling population of 239,000 in the Southern Ocean, blue whales will soon be consuming a decent chunk of the total krill. That would leave the commercial trawl fleet—mostly from Norway, South Korea, and China—with fewer krill to use in fish meal for aquaculture and aquarium feeds, in vitamins or pharmaceuticals, or as bait for sport fishing.

Countering this conventional thinking, a study headed by marine biologist Trish Lavery suggests that blue whales are not exploitive gluttons that will ruin the commercial krill fishery. Instead, the mammals are actually an important and previously overlooked contributor to marine productivity. Blue whales don’t decimate krill populations, they bolster them.

The Southern Ocean is short of iron, an essential nutrient for photosynthesizing phytoplankton. Blue whale feces, however, has an iron concentration more than a million times higher than the background seawater.

Since whales defecate near the ocean’s surface, most of this iron enters the water in the photic zone, where light can reach it. Each whale deposit, then, kicks off a burst of photosynthetic activity and triggers a phytoplankton bloom. In turn, these phytoplankton are the main food source for krill. …



From whale poop to British Columbian mud; more tales of dirt and its uses. The story from Popular Science.

… The researchers incubated various strains of pathogens with clay samples or only with water as a control and found that 16 strains of the bacteria samples died when incubated with clay.

The clay, known as Kisomeet, came from a deposit northwest of Vancouver, and has been used by aboriginal Canadians for several centuries to treat ulcerative colitis, stomach ulcers, arthritis, and skin irritations, according to anecdotal reports.

The researchers suggest that the clay could eventually be an option for treating bacterial infections from ESKAPE pathogens in hospitals, especially in “last-resort situations.”




Rousseau’s idea of the “noble savage” has been one of the most destructive philosophies. You can see a modern version in socialist campaigns such as Bernie’s that tell us all would be well if only the 1% was brought to heel. has a post on digs in Africa that suggest Hobbesian views of life with nature as “nasty brutish and short” are more on the mark.

Scientists have pieced together an early human habitat for the first time, and life was no organic picnic 1.8 million years ago. Nature was out to kill us and the struggle our ancestors face, as all creatures do, is survival. Rather than the myth of ecological balance, if you were going to survive, you got there earlier and were more fit to last. 
To accomplish that, our human ancestors, who looked like a cross between apes and modern humans, created stone tools with sharp edges and made sure they had ready access to food, water and shady shelter, according to remnants at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.  

But it was tough living, she said. “It was a very stressful life because they were in continual competition with carnivores for their food,”  said Gail M. Ashley, anthropologist at Rutgers University. …



For a change of pace we have a NY Times profile of Jessica Mendoza an ESPN baseball analyst. She’ll be working one of the mikes Thursday night in an ESPN broadcast of a spring training game between the Cubs and Giants. Pickerhead first heard her last summer when Jake Arietta threw a no hitter against the Dodgers.

Well before Jessica Mendoza was analyzing the batting performances of major leaguers on Sunday nights for ESPN, her father was using videotape to break down her at-bats in softball.

If she stepped into the bucket or didn’t rotate her hips, Gil Mendoza’s video showed it. If she didn’t pay attention to her stride, the video made his admonitions more pointed.

“His tripod was out all the time,” she said, smiling at the memory. “I wanted to get some swings in, and he wanted to videotape us.”

Gil Mendoza, who has coached football, softball and baseball for decades in this area, knew how much video augmented what he told his hitters, whether they were in high school or college, or were his daughters, Jessica and Alana. “I started with them when they were 5 or 6,” he said. “I videotaped everything: their soccer, basketball and track.” …


Nice group of non-political cartoons.

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