Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

webquack-image

Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.

The kind of critter they make science-fiction movies about

crypt-keeper-wasp

There isn’t much in the wild that I haven’t tangled with, including arachnids and insects. Black widows, hornets, millipedes, cockroaches and scorpions are all fair game, though the more ornery the critter, the more circumspect I am.

Scientists have recently found a new bug, however, that sounds absolutely appalling.

Nicknamed the crypt-keeper wasp, it has a decidedly distasteful life cycle, according to online publication Red Orbit.

How distasteful? Researchers named it after Set, the Egyptian god of evil and violence. That will buy you some street cred among fellow creepy-crawlies, one imagines.

The adult wasp, shown above, lays its egg within the small, wooden compartments built by a different species, the gall wasp, inside live sand oak trees.

When the egg hatches, crypt-keeper wasp larva dig into the gall wasp and takes control of its brain. This forces the gall wasp to tunnel out of the tree, a task the crypt-keeper has a hard time doing by itself.

If that weren’t grim enough, crypt-keeper wasp larva then causes its host to punch out a hole not quite big enough for it to escape from the tree.

“After the bigger wasp is stuck in the hole it’s burrowed, the crypt-keeper eats its host from within, finally erupting from the host’s head and out into the world,” according to Red Orbit.

I haven’t seen any of these, but I think I’ll do my best to keep my distance from this member of the order Hymenoptera should I happen across any in the future.

Study shows purple sandpiper to be tough guy of bird world

cornell-bird-study

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not only documented the migratory movements of more than 100 western hemisphere bird species but created a fascinating animated map which shows the approximate location of each throughout the year.

This is the first time data of this sort has been compiled on such a scale. It includes such extreme migrations as that of the Lapland longspur, which travels well into the Arctic Circle in July and August, and the dark-faced ground-tyrant, which makes its way to the tip of Tierra del Fuego from November through February.

There are others that migrate from Brazil and other South American countries all the way north to central Canada, a distance of 7,000 miles or more.

“We used millions of observations from the eBird citizen-science database,” said lead author Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab. “After tracing the migration routes of all these species and comparing them, we concluded that a combination of geographic features and broad-scale atmospheric conditions influence the choice of routes used during spring and fall migration.”

(You can access a second map here, which will provide an index through which you can follow different species on their year-long route.)

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Perhaps the most unusual migration is that of the purple sandpiper. This species winters near the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, than spends its summer on Baffin Island, in far northern Canada.

While not limited to Canada, in North America the species’ breeding ground is the northern tundra on Arctic islands in Canada. They also breed in Greenland and northwestern Europe, perhaps in part to cement their role as ornithological tough guys. Anyone or anything that purposely winters in the Canadian Maritimes and also spends time in Greenland has my respect.

It appears, according to Cornell’s interactive map, that purple sandpipers have little interaction with other species, as none have migratory patterns that bring them within a couple hundred miles of the small shorebirds.

An important discovery of the study is that bird species that head out over the Atlantic Ocean during fall migration to winter in the Caribbean and South America follow a clockwise loop and take a path farther inland on their return journey in the spring, La Sorte said. These include bobolinks, yellow and black-billed cuckoos, Connecticut and Cape May warblers, Bicknell’s thrush, and shorebirds, such as the American golden plover.

“These looped pathways help the birds take advantage of conditions in the atmosphere,” he added. “Weaker headwinds and a push from the northeast trade winds as they move farther south make the fall journey a bit easier. The birds take this shorter, more direct route despite the dangers of flying over open-ocean.”

The study found the spring migration path follows a more roundabout route but the birds move faster thanks to strong tailwinds as they head north to their breeding grounds.

Species that do not fly over the open ocean use the same migration routes in the spring and fall. Geographic features shaping this pattern include mountain chains or isthmuses that funnel migrants along narrow routes, according to the study.

(Screen grab from Cornell migration study, showing location of different species on April 9. The purple sandpiper is the blue dot seen in the far eastern reaches of Canada.)

Tedious, repetitive life of Pacific killer whale ends at 105

granny_orca

The longest-lived killer whale is believed to have died recently, at the age of approximately 105.

Known as Granny, the orca lived in the northeast Pacific Ocean and coastal bays of Washington state and British Columbia.

Last seen on Oct. 12, 2016, it was classified as dead by The Center for Whale Research earlier this month.

Granny was noted for having elicited this remark from Capt. Simon Pidcock of Ocean Ecoventures Whale Watching in a 2014 story that appeared in The Daily Mail:

“[…] it’s mind-blowing to think that this whale is over 100 years old. She was born before the Titanic went down. Can you imagine the things she’s seen in her lifetime?”

Actually, it’s not too hard to imagine what an orca inhabiting the northeast Pacific for more than a century would see in its lifetime: lots of murky water, rocky shoals and other killer whales, along with fish, cephalopods, seals, sea lions, sea birds and, every so often, a glimpse of the sky.

All in all, not that fascinating. Well, except for the cephalopods.

(Top: Undated photo of orca known as Granny, doing what it had done for the previous 80-100 years.)

Photographer captures fury of Pacific Coast storm

santa-cruz-lighthouse-waves

The above photograph, taken by photographer Larry Gerbrandt, shows Santa Cruz Lighthouse during a California winter storm earlier this year.

The spectacular image was named the best photo of 2016 by the National Weather Service Forecast Office for the San Francisco Bay Area/Monterey area.

Gerbrandt, of San Juan Bautista, Calif., said he checked the tide tables and learned not only when high tide would take place along the Monterey Bay, but that a so-called “king tide,” or very high tide, would occur. In addition, the tide was likely to be enhanced by a winter storm passing through the area.

Gerbrandt, an experienced photographer, was able to shoot at 1/4000th of a second, freezing the water in way most cameras can’t capture.

Despite the preparation, it still took Gerbrandt more than 1200 shots to capture the winning photo.

Santa Cruz is where your intrepid blogger attended high school, and where I still go every so often to visit Madre y Padre Cotton Boll.

I remember occasional storms of this magnitude. The tremendous roar of pounding surf, cascading whitewater rushing over cliffs and rocks, and salt spray being blown hundreds of feet off the water always left one awe-struck by the mighty fury of the ocean.

New elements added to Periodic Table; students do not rejoice

updated-periodic-table

There’s no question some subjects get more difficult with time. While history and literature likely remain more or less constant, with some material falling away as new material is added, consider science, where constant discoveries are always being made and added to existing knowledge.

An example: within the past few days, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has approved the name and symbols for four new elements, bringing the total number of named elements to 118.

The newest additions are nihonium (symbol Nh) for the element 113; moscovium (Mc), element 115; tennessine (Ts); element 117; and oganesson (Og) element 118. All are “superheavy” elements not found in nature.

They were created in a lab by blasting beams of heavy nuclei at other nuclei located inside particle accelerators, according to CBS. They complete the seventh row of the periodic table.

What this means for my children is that there are 10 more elements to learn than when I was in high school. There were seven more elements by the time I took high school chemistry compared to when my dad finished his secondary education.

Even more staggering is the fact that my children will have to learn 42 more elements than my maternal grandfather would have had to have known. Of course, he was born in 1882 and by the time he would have been of high school age, there were only 76 named elements.

The latest elements have been named after a place or geographical region, or a scientist.

Nihonium, discovered at RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Japan, comes from the word “Nihon,” which is one of the two ways to say “Japan” in Japanese, and literally mean “the Land of Rising Sun.”

Moscovium and tennessine were proposed by the discoverers at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Moscovium recognizes the Moscow region and “honors the ancient Russian land that is the home of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, where the discovery experiments were conducted using the Dubna Gas-Filled Recoil Separator in combination with the heavy ion accelerator capabilities of the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions,” according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Tennessine is in recognition of the contribution of the Tennessee region of the United States, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, to superheavy element research.

Oganesson was proposed by the collaborating teams of discoverers at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and Lawrence Livermore to recognize Professor Yuri Oganessian for his pioneering contributions to transactinoid elements research.

“His many achievements include the discovery of superheavy elements and significant advances in the nuclear physics of superheavy nuclei including experimental evidence for the “island of stability,” according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

The naming of an element for Oganessian marks only the second time an element has been named after a living person, the other being seaborgium, for Glenn Seaborg, who won the 1951 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and was instrumental in the discovery of 10 transuranium elements.

(Top: Periodic table of elements. New elements can be seen at far right end of seventh row.)

Corrupt officials scarier than death, snakes, terrorists?

corruption

Given your choice, what’s your worst fear: homicidal maniacs, venomous snakes or corrupt government officials?

The third annual Survey of American Fears by Chapman University reports that most Americans are afraid of “C,” corrupt government officials, according to a story on the report published by Bloomberg.

After corrupt government officials came terrorist attacks and not having enough money for the future.

Other items which garnered significant fear among Americans included Obamacare (35.5 percent), reptiles (33.2 percent) and being killed by a stranger (21.9 percent).

Curiously, 50 percent more Americans are more afraid of corrupt government officials (60.6 percent) than terrorist attacks (41 percent).

What the above points out is that either those conducting the survey or those taking the survey don’t understand the difference between what it means to be afraid of something and what it means to be concerned about something.

To say one is afraid of corrupt government officials implies that one lives in a third world banana republic where there is constant fear that Stasi-like thugs will kick open doors in the middle of the night and drag away opponents, rather than referring to unscrupulous politicians who misuse public funds.

To be afraid of snakes is a very real fear; to be afraid of corrupt government officials, at least the garden variety ones we breed in the US, is not the same thing.

To state a fear of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, indicates a terror of the government program, rather than worry that it won’t work, will cost taxpayers more money or will bring chaos to the country’s medical-insurance infrastructure. You may not like Obamacare, you may think it unwise politically or economically, but do you fear it in the same way as, say, you fear finding a large, angry scorpion in one of your work boots?

Other issues with the survey:

Nearly 30 percent of Americans are afraid of a devastating tornado, just over 23 percent are afraid of a devastating hurricane, slightly more than 22 percent are afraid of a devastating earthquake or a devastating flood, and 15 percent are afraid of a large volcanic eruption.

If you’re a resident of Phoenix, Az., it’s unlikely that any of those items rank high on your list, while someone in Omaha, Neb., might be worried about tornadoes and flooding, but have little fear of earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions, at least if they’re rational.

Hawaiians have reason to worry about volcanos, but with the rare exception of eruptions like that of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the rest of the US is pretty safe from this threat.

In other words, it depends on your location, and even then, is it a “fear” or a “concern?”

Residents of Miami have reason to be concerned over a hurricane, but is it a fear that hangs over their heads like the sword of Damocles? If so, they may want to relocate. Same if you’re a San Franciscan fearful of earthquakes.

Finally, 7.8 percent of Americans are afraid of clowns. Personally, it’s not the clowns I’m concerned with, but the people who dress up as clowns.