Local TV news: Exploiting the exploitable since 1955

suspicious flashlight

It has been said that television news is for crabby old white people who are afraid of everything outside their yards, but that’s likely too narrow a definition. TV news instead appears to be geared toward the easily scared of all ages and races, with its ultimate goal being to so paralyze viewers with fear that they’ll be afraid to move and change the channel.

Take a news story from Savannah, Ga., television station WTOC which detailed a Georgia man’s battle with Necrotizing Fasciitis, or, as the station hypes repeatedly, the dreaded “flesh-eating bacteria.”

According to the story, Joseph Allen was fishing in the Ogeechee River last week when he had to get into the water to fix a problem with his boat. He apparently had a sore on his arm and it became infected with Necrotizing Fasciitis. Allen is now in critical condition.

After describing Allen’s symptoms – “The arm that had the little cut on it was now purple from the wrist to the shoulder” – and including a plea from his wife to “try to get the Savannah Riverkeeper, the EPA, and government; someone involved that will clear up this river,” WTOC reported in the third-to-last paragraph that this is “at least the third case (of Necrotizing Fasciitis) reported in Georgia in the last few years.”

Wow: The third case in the entire state of Georgia – 59,425 square miles – in the past few years. And neither of the previous two cases occurred in the Ogeechee River, which stretches nearly 300 miles. I’m surprised the World Health Organization hasn’t quarantined all of North America.

Television news is great for a couple of things: Exploiting tragedies and throwing in quotes from the suffering, even if their comments add no context or visible value to the story.

If this is, as it appears, the first recorded case of Necrotizing Fasciitis in the Ogeechee River, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s a major problem with that body of water. One can’t blame the anguished wife for her comments; she’s upset, is likely no expert on the ecology of the river and probably felt compelled in her time of sorrow to say something.

It’s the media’s job, however, to edit stories so the information provides value to consumers, instead of gratuitously manipulating the suffering.

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Srebrenica’s dead still being recovered, two decades later

srebrenica cemetery

The efficacy of the United Nations has long been a hot-button issue, particularly among US conservatives, but the entity’s shortcomings haven’t helped its cause.

Take the conflict in Bosnia in early- to mid-1990s: Srebrenica was a UN-protected area, but United Nations troops offered no resistance when Serbs overran the Muslim-majority town on this date 19 years ago, then rounded up and killed approximately 8,000 men and boys.

The slaughter was described as the worst crime on European soil since World War II.

Srebrenica had been attacked and besieged off and on for three years by the summer of 1995, as chaos reigned in many parts of the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War.

Although the UN had declared the enclave of Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia a “safe area,” a United Nations Protection Force of 400 Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent the Bosnian Serb army from attacking the town on July 6, 1995.

Three days later, emboldened in part by early successes and the absence of any significant reaction from the international community, the Serbs decided to press forward and take Srebrenica.

With the town’s residents weakened by siege, starvation and short on tools of resistance, Srebrenica fell quickly. Within a couple of days, the mass killings began.

Almost to a man, the thousands of Bosnian Muslims prisoners captured following the fall of Srebrenica were executed, according to the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: Continue reading

Plymouth muscle car fetches $3.78 million at auction

1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda Convertible

The Chrysler name has taken a beating in recent years, between the automaker declaring bankruptcy, being bailed out by the US government and choosing to discontinue such venerable lines as Plymouth.

While sales have rebounded over the past few years, proof of just how high automaker once flew was evident this past weekend when a Chrysler muscle car from more than 40 years ago sold for $3.78 million.

A rare 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible fetched one of the top prices ever for a muscle car June 14 at Mecum’s Seattle auction.

The $3.78 million figure makes the ’71 Plymouth the most valuable Chrysler product ever sold. The final total included an 8 percent commission for Mecum.

The Hemi Cuda was one of only two built for the US that year with a 4-speed manual transmission and a 425-hp big-block V-8 engine. Of the two, the bright blue beast sold Saturday is the only one with its original motor, according to Mecum’s.

Chrysler made just 11 Hemi Cuda convertibles in all in 1971.

1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda Convertible 2Muscle cars – the name attached to high-performance automobiles – came into prominence in the 1950s and ‘60s, with the major American automakers all producing their version of souped-up cars with powerful engines.

The segment was ultimately waylaid by rising insurance rates, the OPEC-inspired fuel crisis of the 1970s, which drove up gasoline prices, and the Clean Air Act.

According to Mecum’s, the car in question was purchased new by a “famous cartoonist” who later sold it to someone in Oregon. A few years later, however, it was confiscated in a drug bust and ended up at a police auction in 1999, where it went for the then-astonishing price of $410,000, according to Fox News.

(Photos show the 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible that sold this past weekend for $3.78 million.)

Fire ants adept at both stinging and surviving

Ant-raft-stick

Give the lowly fire ant credit: Not only does it possess one heck of a sting, it’s apparently a pretty good engineer, too.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, studying these pesky members of the family Formicidae, have found that fire ants are not only able to make rafts out of their own bodies to stay afloat in water, but that their rafts are extraordinarily well-built.

“The towers, bridges and boats that ants build are remarkable in part because they’re strong and light and they adapt to their surroundings – and because ants serve as both the construction workers and the raw materials,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Ants use their bodies like the beams in a building; instead of screwing or nailing those beams together, they reach out and touch each other.”

“It’s like their bodies are covered in Velcro,” said study co-author David Hu, a mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech.

Using a miniature CT scanner, the researchers were able to analyze the rafts and found that 99 percent of the fire ants had all their legs connected to neighbors.

Scientists were able to learn this by putting 110 live ants in a beaker, swirling it around so the ants would start to form tiny rafts, flash-freezing them in place and then examining them under the scanner, according to the Times. They did this four times in all, using a total of 440 ants with a total of 2,640 legs (each ant has six limbs).

The connectivity produces enough strength to keep rafts intact despite the pull of rough currents, according to Georgia Tech research published in a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

“Now we can see how every brick is connected,” Hu said. “It’s kind of like looking inside a warehouse and seeing the scaffolding and I-beams.”

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Conrad Heyer: Oldest American ever photographed

conrad_heyer

Conrad Heyer was 103-years old when he had his photograph taken for the first time. Heyer wasn’t so much camera-shy as a man on the cusp of a technological revolution, which accounts for the reason why he was so old when he posed for his initial photo, taken in 1852.

Heyer, a Revolutionary War veteran who crossed the Delaware River along with Gen. George Washington and Capt. James Monroe in December 1776, is acclaimed as the person with the earliest birthdate ever captured in a photograph.

Heyer not only lived a long life, but remained surprising active practically until his death.

In 1852, the Portland (Maine) Advertiser reported that Heyer, despite being a centenarian, travelled six miles through a severe storm to cast a vote for presidential candidate Gen. Winfield Scott.

Heyer had voted in every presidential election to that point, “and had always been a Whig,” according to the publication.

Heyer was born in April 1749 in Waldoboro, Maine, which was then part of the colony of Massachusetts. He died nearly 107 years later, also in Waldoboro.

He enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment in December 1775 and not only served in the Continental Army under Washington during the Revolutionary War and crossed the Delaware with the Patriot commander-in-chief but fought in several major battles.

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Beauty, questions abound in view of Neptune

photo of neptune

A huge previously unknown hexagonal wind pattern may exist at the south pole of the planet Neptune, Slate astronomy reporter writer Phil Plait posits in an article completed with stunning photography.

Plait noticed the fascinating pattern while studying images composed from photos taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft a quarter century ago and later tweaked by amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen. (Click above image to see a glimpse of the stunning beauty of our solar system.)

Neptune, which is 2.7 billion miles from Earth, is little known relatively speaking, and there have been many things scientists have gleaned from Voyager’s pass-by en route to its destination with interstellar space.

However, one thing that not yet recognized was the possibility of a large hexagonal wind pattern, much like the one that blows around the north pole of the planet Saturn, according to Plait.

The Slate writer has contacted an astronomer whose specialty is the outer planets of our solar system about the pattern shown in the image. She, in turn, contacted other astronomers. All expressed excitement, but also prudence, cautioning that it’s easy to be fooled when looking at images of distant celestial bodies.

One thing for certain is that the hexagonal wind patterns do exist on Saturn.

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The science behind new superheavy element

periodic-table_element 117

There are many skills which I willingly admit are beyond my grasp: Hitting a Major League curveball; reading a Papal bull in original Latin; and being able to sculpt human forms from marble are among talents I don’t see myself picking up anytime soon.

Another aptitude which I find myself decidedly deficient is the comprehension of physics inherent in the upper end of periodic table of elements.

Consider the following:

“(It) was recently announced that physicists have created one of the heaviest elements yet, an atom with 117 protons in its nucleus,” according to Scientific American. “This jumbo-sized atom sits on the outer reaches of the periodic table where bloated nuclei tend to become less and less stable. Element 117’s existence gives scientists hope, however, that they are getting closer to discovering a rumored ‘island of stability’ where nuclei with so-called magic numbers of protons and neutrons become long-lived.”

That’s the sort of egghead knowledge that you don’t pick up in Chemistry 101 (especially if you were noted for not paying attention).

Typically, elements heavier than uranium are not usually found in nature but can be produced in laboratories.

This effort comes with a caveat, however.

“The larger an atomic nucleus gets, the more its protons repel one another with their positive charges, making it, in general, less stable, or more radioactive,” the publication reported. “Element 117, for example, has a half-life of about 50 thousandths of a second, meaning that within that time about half of it will decay into a lighter element.”

At present, element 117 has the placeholder name of ununseptium, which will be used until it is formally accepted and added to the periodic table by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

The creation of element 117 was no trifling matter as researchers smashed calcium nuclei (with 20 protons apiece) into a target of berkelium (97 protons per atom).

The experiment was exceedingly difficult because berkelium is difficult to obtain.

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Union Pacific to resurrect ‘Big Boy’ locomotive

Big Boy 4014

Railfans can’t help but love this Associated Press description of a Union Pacific locomotive that once hauled freight over the Rocky Mountains.

“In its prime, a massive steam locomotive known as Big Boy No. 4014 was a moving eruption of smoke and vapor, a 6,300-horsepower brute dragging heavy freight trains over the mountains of Wyoming and Utah.”

Even better for train aficionados, Big Boy No. 4014 is coming back to life after sitting silent for the past half century. Union Pacific is embarking on a years-long restoration project that will put the behemoth back to work pulling special excursion trains.

The locomotive is one of 25 monsters built by the American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., during World War II.

Earlier this month, Big Boy was moved from the RailGiants Train Museum at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, Calif., to a Union Pacific shop in Colton, Calif.

A crew at Colton will begin Monday towing it across Nevada, Utah and Wyoming to Union Pacific’s steam shop in Cheyenne, Wyo., where it is scheduled to arrive May 8, according to the wire service.

“It’s sort of like going and finding the Titanic or something that’s just very elusive, nothing that we ever thought would happen,” said Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains, a magazine that covers the railroad industry.

“Something that’s so large and powerful and magnificent, we didn’t think any of them would ever come back,” he said.

The locomotive lives up to its nickname. It’s 132-feet long, including the tender, which carried coal and water, and weighs 1.2 million pounds with a full load of fuel.

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Nothing marks spring’s arrival like … snakes

Black rat snake 4 20 2014 059

Different folks have different ways of ushering in spring. For some, the simple arrival of the vernal equinox, marking the point on the calendar when days and nights are of the same approximate length, (March 20 this year) is good enough. For others, it’s tied to specific events such as Easter, the start of the Major League Baseball season or spring break for high schools and colleges.

I measure spring’s return slightly differently. In my eyes, spring begins gradually, with the arrival of wisteria in the trees and shrubs here in central South Carolina, which usually occurs in mid-March, followed by other flora and fauna, such swallowtail butterflies, red-tailed hawks and white-tailed deer.

But the one event that signifies unequivocally, at least in my world, that the seasons have changed is represented by the capture of the first snake of the year. For me, at least, spring came yesterday.

I’d had a near-brush a couple of weeks back when I took my girls to Woods Bay State Park, near Olanta, SC, where we saw a Northern water snake just inches from our path, but while I was able to get a hand on it, it proved too quick and slipped into the underbrush.

Yesterday, with a bit of free time in the afternoon, I drove up the road about 15 miles to an old railroad bed that had been converted into a walking trail within the past few years. It rarely gets much use, so I figured that my chances for seeing some wildlife were decent.

Right off the bat I managed to catch a five-lined skink. About six inches long, this creature resembled a large, fat, short-legged lizard. Judging from its reaction – repeatedly biting me – it appeared unhappy with being disturbed. After snapping a few pictures of Plestiodon fasciatus I set the ingrate free and continued down the path.

After about a quarter mile I came across an old railroad bridge that crossed Crim’s Creek, located in Newberry County, SC. It’s a short bridge, about 30 feet in length; its rails were pulled up many years ago and wooden planking laid down to facilitate foot and bike traffic.

As I walked across watching the water flow along I caught sight of a black rat snake. It was curled around one of the bridge edgings that jutted out two feet or so over a dry part of the creek bed. I snapped a couple of pictures without startling the snake, which was about five feet in length, then walked past to find a stick.

(Having been bitten by several rat snakes, I know better than to simply try to grab at one when it’s facing me. I’m quick that way.)

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Slate digs out maps to show SF quake’s scope

1906 san francisco earthquake map

Slate magazine is highlighting maps published shortly after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake that attempted to detail the intensity of the devastating seismic event.

The maps come from an atlas that accompanied the 1908 scientific report attempting to explain the causes and effects of the S.F. Earthquake, titled The California Earthquake of April 18, 1906: Report of the State Earthquake Investigation Committee, according to Slate.

The maps use the data that the commission collected to represent the earthquake’s intensity geographically, with one focusing on San Francisco and another on all of California and parts of Nevada and Oregon.

Susan Elizabeth Hough, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, points out that while government officials approved funding for the commission, they refused to pay for the publication of this report.

Susan Elizabeth Hough, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey suggested to Slate that the dominant political climate in the years after the quake, in which local businessmen and politicians tried hard to minimize reports of damage done, may have been to blame.

That climate was one of the main reasons that for many decades after the catastrophic event the quake’s death toll was reported at around 500, rather than the 3,000-plus who actually died, the figure that’s been generally accepted in recent years.

In the end, the Carnegie Institution provided financing for the report’s printing.

Besides reports on intensity of the quake, the committee included surveys of the effects on plants and animals, illustrations of damage inflicted and a map detailing the extensive fire damage that followed the quake.

“The commission used the Rossi-Forel scale, a now-outmoded measurement of earthquake intensity that incorporated seismograph readings (where available), human reports, and observed physical damage,” according to Slate. “Each map here refers to ‘apparent intensity’ of the effects – a term meant to remind the reader that the Rossi-Forel measurements had some degree of subjectivity to them.”

The Richter Scale, which is the best known of the measuring devices used to quantify earthquakes today, wasn’t created until the mid-1930s.