On the bright side, no one’s food will spoil …

The new year is off to an exceptional cold start my neck of the woods. As in, bone-rattling frigid.

This morning the thermostat in my car registered a low of 8 degrees Fahrenheit. Not only is that 24 degrees below freezing, but it’s twice as cold as the previous day.

At this rate, two days into 2018, if temperatures continue to drop twice as much day to day, we will reach Absolute Zero, or about minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit, in about a week.

I anticipate this ending poorly for mankind, as crops, oceans and rivers would freeze quickly.

All power sources would stop, and there would be nothing to use for fire. Communications would cease, as well, forcing hipsters to emerge from their smug smartphone-induced trances to see what the ruckus was about.

In short time the Earth’s core would be sealed inside a thick covering of global ice, and all life, or at least that in my whereabouts, would cease to exist.

Of course, this is a worst-case scenario.

Personally, I’m hedging my bets and wagering that it will warm up at some point. Or, if not that, I’m reasonably confident that Absolute Zero is not in the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like it, though.

Here’s hoping wherever you are, your new year is just a little warmer.

(Top: Representation of how it felt in my neighborhood this morning. Hint: Not warm.)


Smartphone technology drags Luddite into 21st century

While I may not have been the last able-bodied adult in the Western world to switch from flip phone to smartphone, it certainly seemed that way at times.

Mind you, this generally wasn’t perceived as a negative, at least by me, particularly when watching hordes of students wandering across streets oblivious to everything but the little toy in their hands, or witnessing families in restaurants silently engrossed in their individual phones rather than talking with one another.

But with a passel of children who don’t do email and prefer instead to text, it was becoming increasingly obvious that I would have to make the move at some point.

An example: in the time it would take me to poke out a finger-by-finger response to one of my daughters’ texts, three more would arrived. Recognizing that, due to some sort of logarithmic progression, I could only fall further and further behind, I would at that point simply pick up the phone to stop the madness.

But what finally convinced me to make the jump a couple of months back was the incredible quality of smartphone cameras.

The above photo was taken recently by Daughter No. 1 at sunset in Lexington County, SC. I have used a Kodak EX with optical zoom for the past 10 years and even compensating for operator error, there is no way my camera could have managed a photo as stunning as that above.

Even more remarkable is that she doesn’t have a state-of-the-art 2017 model, but one that is somewhere between three and five years old.

The technological advances made in smartphone cameras have been nothing short of remarkable over the past 10 years.

“The main technical difference between smartphone cameras and standalone digital cameras is that smartphones use tiny lenses and tiny sensors. The smartphone’s results ought to be much worse. They are not,” according to The Guardian. “Smartphones produce high-quality results by using their powerful processors and built-in graphics engines to process the image data and compensate for their technical limitations.”

Best of all, phones with high-quality cameras that were quite pricey two or three years ago are now very affordable. The same will almost certainly be the case two or three years down the road with what is cutting-edge today.

One supposes it has never been easier or more convenient to take high-quality images at any time in history.

Wreck of Australia’s first sub, lost in 1914, discovered

Australia’s most-enduring naval mystery was solved this week with the discovery of its first submarine, which went missing off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the opening weeks of World War I.

HMAS AE1 disappeared on Sept. 14, 1914, after a successful mission to help capture the territory then known as German New Guinea. It had been in service just seven months.

The submarine went down with 35 men onboard. AE1 was the first Allied submarine lost in the First World War and the first ship lost by the Royal Australian Navy.

AE1, which had a crew made up of men from Australians, New Zealand and Great Britain on board, was found in nearly 1,000 feet of water, off the coast of the Duke of York Islands, in east Papua New Guinea.

“After 103 years, Australia’s oldest naval mystery has been solved,” Defense Minister Marise Payne told reporters in Sydney. “This is one of the most significant discoveries in Australia’s naval maritime history… The loss of AE1 in 1914 was a tragedy for our then fledgling nation.”

The expedition that discovered the sub was the 13th search for the craft since 1976. AE1 was found by the search vessel Fugro Equator, which was also used by Australia to hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

The official cause behind the loss of AE1 has yet to be determined. However, retired Rear Admiral Peter Briggs, who worked on the search, told The Australian that he believed the cause was most likely “a diving accident,” according to a story in The Guardian.

“The submarine appears to have struck the bottom with sufficient force to dislodge the fin from its footing, forcing it to hinge forward on its leading edge, impacting the casing,” he said.

A small commemorative service was held upon the discovery of AE1 by those aboard the search vessel, and descendants of the crew will be notified of the finding.

“For Navy, it demonstrates the persistence of a view that fellow mariners always have – that is, we always seek to find those who have sacrificed so much for our country [so they can] actually lay to rest,” said Royal Australian Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett.

(Top: AE1, foreground, with other Australian ships off Rabaul on Sept. 9, 1914, less than a week before it sank.)


Large cache of dinosaur eggs discovered in China

More than 200 dinosaur eggs have been discovered in China, including 16 that hold embryonic remains.

The eggs, from a flying reptile known as a pterosaur, were discovered by researchers working in the Turpan-Hami Basin in northwestern China during a 10-year span ending in 2016.

The cache shines new light on the development and nesting behavior of pterosaurs (Hamipterus tianshanensis), which were believed to have a wingspan of up to 13 feet, and likely ate fish with their large teeth-filled jaws.

Pterosaurs lived during most of the Mesozoic Era: from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous, some 228 million to 66 million years ago.

The discovery, announced through the journal Science, sparked debate about whether the creatures could fly as soon as they hatched, according to National Public Radio.

There had been previous theories that hypothesized that they could, but the paper suggested differently. The research team found that the pterosaur’s hind leg bones were more developed than the wings at the time of hatching, and none of the embryos were found with teeth.

“Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general … and probably needed some parental care,” the paper stated.

Science added that it cautioned against drawing firm conclusions about how the animal moved immediately after hatching because it’s hard to pinpoint just how close the embryos were to hatching.

One single sandstone block held at least 215 well-preserved eggs that have mostly kept their shape, with 16 of those eggs featuring embryonic remains.

The massive discovery does not appear to include a nest, as the eggs had been moved from the place they were originally laid and may have been carried by water after a series of storms hit the reptiles’ nesting ground.

The fossils in the area are so plentiful that scientists refer to it as “Pterosaur Eden,” said Shunxing Jiang, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

“You can very easily find the pterosaur bones,” he said, adding that they believe dozens more eggs might still lie hidden within the sandstone.

Prior to this discovery, only five other well-preserved pterosaur eggs had been found in this area and one had been found in Argentina, according to NPR.

“The 16 fossilized embryos are at different stages of growth, revealing new information about how the reptiles developed,” NPR added. “None of the embryos are complete, the paper states, and the scientists used computed tomography scanning to view what was inside.”

(Artist’s depiction of pterosaurs, which lived between 228 million and 66 million years ago.)


Researcher allows himself to be zapped by electric eel

You want a good example of devotion to job? Take a look at Ken Catania, a neurobiologist at Vanderbilt University, who reached into a tank containing an electric eel 10 different times in order to measure the power released by the highly charged fish.

Recently, Catania allowed an eel approximately one foot long to zap his arm as he held a device that measured the strength of the slippery beast’s current, according to the website Red Orbit.

Catania works with eels a good deal so he knew what to expect.

The sensation was similar to touching a hot stove or an electric fence, he said, adding that it caused him to reflexively withdraw his arm from the water.

Catania was prompted to conduct the study by a famous story by noted German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who described catching large electric eels in the Amazon in 1800 when local fisherman drove horses and mules into a body of water, and eels leaped at the animals’ legs.

Once the eels had exhausted themselves – and their electrical charges were depleted – they were easy to snare, Humboldt reported.

However, this behavior had not been seen in the more than two centuries since, and some considered it no more than a fable.

Last year, Catania reported seeing an eel leap from the water and press its chin against an apparent threat while discharging high-voltage energy, supporting Humboldt’s account, Red Orbit reported.

That experience prompted Catania’s most recent experiment. And, as in Humboldt’s experience, the eel did indeed jump to apply a jolt to Catania’s arm.

Catania revealed in the journal Current Biology that the small electric eel he worked with delivered a current that peaked at about 40 or 50 milliamps. However, his calculations indicated that a larger eel would deliver a far stronger jolt, with a pulse rate higher than that given off by a law enforcement taser.


Intrepid reporter: Avoid floating masses of fire ants

One would think that if a large newspaper company were going to rewrite press releases sent to them – rather than going out and finding news stories – it could do so in an intelligent manner.

A reporter for al.com, which is the website for several publications, including Alabama newspapers the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, apparently decided the recent arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, with its potential for flooding, would be a good opportunity to rewrite a release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System on the dangers of fire ants.

Fire ants, of course, aren’t daunted by flooding, as they ball together by the thousands during floods, making small rafts that enable them to survive for considerable periods until they find dry land.

According to the al.com story, “If a person encounters one of these floating balls of fire ants, it can be seriously bad news, causing potentially serious health problems not to mention many painful bites.”

Anyone living in the South who isn’t aware that a floating mass of fire ants is bad news either just stepped off the plane from an Inuit enclave in northern Canada or has serious short- and long-term memory issues.

And it isn’t the bite of fire ants that is so much bothersome as the other end of the critter; the fire ant has a sharp stinger on its rear, connected to an internal venom sac.

Among advice al.com included, directly quoting the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service release, was the following:

During times of flooding, avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants; and if you are in a rowboat, do not touch the ants with oars.

It’s understood that newspapers cater to a sixth-grade reading level, but even in sixth grade, when I happened to live along the Mississippi River, I knew you didn’t mess with fire ants, never mind a floating mass of the pernicious devils.

To be told to avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants is akin to being instructed not to stare directly into the sun with a pair of high-powered binoculars.

If all this seems nitpicky, remember that the fire ant that today has spread throughout the Southern US, the Southwestern US and California, came into the United States through the port of Mobile in the 1930s. One would expect a story from a site representing in part the Mobile Press-Register to have a pretty good understanding of the facts regarding this invasive and painful nuisance.

(Top: Fire ants grouped together floating on water.)


Herpetophobes beware: Some snakes found to hunt in unison

Snakes, central characters in many a nightmare, may have just added to their bad reputations: Researchers have found that some of the slithering reptiles attack in packs.

Cuban boas hunt as a team to increase efficiency, providing evidence of the creature’s intelligence, a University of Tennessee scientist has found.

“Coordinated hunting requires higher behavioral complexity because each animal has to take other hunters’ actions into account,” said Vladimir Dinets, the study author and an assistant research professor in the school’s psychology department.

While increased food consumption is believed to be the main reason for the behavior, it’s also possible there is a social function linked to working together, according to RedOrbit.com.

Snakes have been observed to hunt together previously, but the amount of coordination was questionable, and Dinets’ research is the first scientific recording of such behavior.

A recent much-viewed video by the BBC’s Planet Earth showing a young iguana barely escaping a seemingly endless number of attacking snakes would seem to be evidence of the reptiles working toward the same goal, though necessarily in a coordinated effort.

The new research showed how individual snakes take into account the location of others.

The snakes Dinets studied were hunting fruit bats in Cuba. At dawn and dusk, they positioned themselves around the mouth of the cave in such a way as to increase the chances of catching prey.

“Snakes arriving to the hunting area were significantly more likely to position themselves in the part of the passage where other snakes were already present, forming a ‘fence’ across the passage and thus more effectively blocking the flight path of the prey, significantly increasing hunting efficiency,” an extract from the study explained.

The Cuban boa can reach 6 feet in length, which makes the fact that they hang upside down from the roofs of caves even more remarkable.

“After sunset and before dawn, some of the boas entered the passage that connected the roosting chamber with the entrance chamber, and hunted by suspending themselves from the ceiling and grabbing passing bats,” Dinets said.

Dinets observed that the positions taken up by the snakes lowered the chances of bats getting out of the cave. Brilliantly, those hanging positions also meant they behaved like the bats they were trying to catch, according to RedOrbit.com.

For the 2 percent of us that like snakes, this is fascinating; for everyone else, it’s more fodder for bad dreams.