New Tanzanian president puts nation’s well-being first


In a move governments around the world could learn from, newly elected Tanzanian President John Magufuli has cancelled Independence Day celebrations, instead ordering money to go toward cleaning the African nation.

“It is so shameful that we are spending huge amounts of money to celebrate 54 years of independence when our people are dying of cholera,” Magufuli said in a statement read on state television late Monday.

Cholera has killed about 60 people in Tanzania in the past three months, with more than 5,000 cases reported, according to the World Health Organization.

Tanzania celebrates its independence from the United Kingdom on Dec. 9. This coming anniversary will mark the first time since gaining independence that Tanzania has not held a celebration.

While Mugufuli’s party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, has governed since colonial rule ended in 1961, the new president, elected last month, appears poised to change direction with the call to clean.

Independence Day celebrations are usually marked with a presidential address, a military parade and performances by music groups at the National Stadium in Dar es Salaam, according to the BBC.

A spokesman for Magufuli did not say how much would be saved by cancelling Independence Day celebrations, but said the money would be spent on hospitals and the fight against cholera – a major problem in poor areas which lack adequate sanitation.

Magufuli, 56, has announced a variety of austerity cuts and crackdowns on public corruption since taking office, including a ban on superfluous foreign travel by government officials.

Last week, he ordered the cost of a party to inaugurate the new parliament to be slashed from $100,000 to $7,000, the BBC added.

He also fired the head of the main state hospital after finding patients sleeping on the floor during a surprise visit to the facility.

Magufuli, first elected to Parliament in 1995, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1988. He also earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry from the University of Dar es Salaam, in 1994 and 2009, respectively.

Prior to his election as president, Magufuli served as Minister of Works (2000-2006 and 2010-1015), Minister of Lands and Human Settlement (2006-2008) and Minister of Livestock and Fisheries (2008-2010).

(Top: New Tanzanian President John Magufuli earlier this month.)

And you thought it was blustery in your neck of the woods


Astrophysicists have discovered at least one place in the universe that man won’t be looking to colonize any time soon, if ever.

Researchers at the University of Warwick have discovered an exoplanet where winds blow at an astounding 5,400 mph – more than two kilometers per second, and 20 times stronger than the fastest winds ever recorded on Earth, RedOrbit reports.

The planet, a “Hot Jupiter-type exoplanet” labeled HD 189733b, is the first world beyond the solar system to have its weather directly mapped and measured, stated lead author Tom Louden and his colleagues in the latest issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“While studying the planet, they found winds moving from the day side of the planet to its night side at a velocity seven times the speed of sound,” according to RedOrbit.

“Louden and co-author Dr. Peter Wheatley measured the object’s velocity by using high resolution spectroscopy of sodium absorption occurring in its atmosphere. As portions of HD 189733b’s atmosphere moved towards or away from Earth, this wavelength of this feature is altered by the Doppler effect, enabling measurements of its speed,” RedOrbit added.

By comparison, the fastest wind gust ever recorded on the surface of the Earth was in 1996 when an unmanned instrument station in Barrow Island, Australia, recorded a 253 mph blast during Typhoon Olivia.

Not only is HD 189733b incredibly windy, it possesses other climatic conditions that most folks would consider problematic, as well.

The planet, which is approximately 10 percent bigger than Jupiter and 180 times closer to its star, has a surface temperature of roughly 1,200 degrees Celsius.

HD 189733b, discovered in 2005, is 63 light-years away from our solar system, in the constellation of Vulpecula, known as the Fox.

Its relative closeness to our solar system has made it a popular research subject.

(Top: Artist’s rendering of exoplanet HD 189733bt circling its sun.)

An unintended foray into falconry proves fulfilling

hawk paint

One of my many blessings is that my children love the outdoors and wildlife as much as I do. They’re always up for wading in a creek, tramping through the woods or driving to some distant unpopulated region for a gander at local fauna. Yesterday, I was rewarded once again for their willingness to abide by their dad’s need to get outside.

While trying to make the best of a wet afternoon we took a drive through rural farmland 15 miles north of home. Along one stretch of rural countryside we saw a red-tailed hawk go hopping across the road. A vehicle came slowly in the other direction and the bird of prey, rather than flying away, bounded off the road and into a ditch.

As the other vehicle passed, I pulled my car over and told my girls to take pictures of the hawk, which was about 15 feet away. I then got out of the car and slowly moved toward it. I could tell something wasn’t right, but I expected it to burrow into the nearby hedgerow and thereby elude me.

Instead, it stayed where it was, eyeing me warily. I got within about three feet and had one of my daughters bring me a sweatshirt. Given the size of the raptor’s beak and talons, I very carefully tried to wrap the sweatshirt around it. The hawk fell back at first, but didn’t put up too much of a fight.

I was able to carefully pick it up and show it to my girls, who, being 15, 14 and 12, were all “oohs” and “ahs.”

Me with somewhat confused red-tailed hawk. No hawks or humans were harmed in the making of this image.

Me with somewhat confused red-tailed hawk. No hawks or humans were harmed in the making of this image.

The hawk was wet and cold. We decided that given the weather – cold and rainy with more of the same expected for the foreseeable future – we would take it to a wildlife rescue shelter about 20 miles away.

One of my girls brought me another sweatshirt, this one pink, so we could make sure his talons were wrapped up and dad didn’t end up with deep lacerations about his body, and I slowly lowered myself into the car holding the hawk. Gently clutching our new companion with my left hand, I started the car and pulled forward, steering with my right hand.

My daughters were transfixed by the bird. Although most of the cinnamon-colored hawk was wrapped up, they could easily see its sharp beak and proud eyes, which gave it a fierce visage.

It was, like most birds, incredibly light for its size, weighing no more than 3 or 4 pounds. But it was two feet tall from head to talons, and its wingspan would likely have been at least four feet, had it had an opportunity to show off its plumage.

Not surprising given the car’s occupants, it was quickly given a series of names: Cooper (we initially thought it was a Cooper’s Hawk); Cosmo and Xenon (being a noble-looking bird, Daughter No. 4 thought it should be named for one of the noble gases and helium, neon, krypton and radon weren’t cutting it.) Ultimately, it ended up with three different names – one from each daughter – none of which, of course, the bird showed any interest in responding to.

A good portion of the trip was on an Interstate, and while I was busy keeping my eyes either on the road or the bird, hoping it wouldn’t decide to crane its neck around and take a nip at my neck or face, I can only image what fellow drivers thought as they passed our car and caught a glimpse of a middle-aged man driving down the road with a fierce-looking raptor sitting on his lap.

We eventually made our way to the Carolina Wildlife Center with neither man nor hawk suffering injury or embarrassment.

As I carried the bird of prey into the center I noticed the other rescued animals on hand, including a baby possum, a squirrel and a blue jay. I somehow resisted the urge to thump my chest, swagger around and crow about how my beast could not only best all the others, but eat each one, as well.

Instead, we filled out an information card, thanked them for taking our hawk and went on our way.

Aging monument recalls calamitous era of sea travel


Amid the picturesque graveyard surrounding Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry is a marble obelisk blackened with age. It’s a memorial not only to a handful of parishioners who died in one of the 19th centuries worst sea disasters but a reminder of just how dangerous travel by ship was at one time.

Eight names appear on the 15-foot marker, including that of Rev. James Joseph Murray, 43; his wife Mary, 38; daughter Elizabeth, 15; and son William, 11, victims of the sinking of the steamship Pulaski on June 14, 1838.

In addition to Murray and his family, Margaret Seabrook Mikell, 31; Joseph Edings Seabrook, 15; Sara Ann Edings, 27; and Sarah Josephine Edings, 5, are also listed. They were among approximately 130 individuals who died when the ship, which started from Savannah, Ga., June 13 en route to Baltimore, Md., was rent by a boiler explosion and foundered 30 miles off the North Carolina coast.

The death toll was said to have been the greatest suffered to that point by a steam-powered vessel.

Murray, Mikell, Edings and Seabrook are common names throughout both the graveyard and the region, and it’s likely the loss of the Pulaski touched most, if not all of the church’s parishioners in one way or another.

To give an idea of how common major maritime disasters were a century or more ago, the loss of the Pulaski doesn’t even rank among the top 80 deadliest ship disasters of the 19th century. In fact, if one looks at Wikipedia’s list of 19th century maritime disasters ranked by lives lost, the Pulaski isn’t mentioned at all, which leaves one wondering just how many other significant tragedies of that era have been forgotten.

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Using cannon, drones and ingenuity to stop cotton pests

Pink bollworms have been a longstanding nightmare for western cotton farmers.

The insects lay eggs in cotton bolls and when the larvae hatch they burrow through the lint, to feed on seeds. This damages both fiber and seed oil. With high humidity, it only takes one or two larvae to destroy an entire boll because damaged bolls are vulnerable to infection by boll rot fungi, according to the University of California at Davis.

The National Cotton Council estimates that pink bollworms costs US cotton producers more than $32 million each year in control costs and yield losses.

The United States Department of Agriculture has long used an ingenious program, called sterile insect technique, to stem pink bollworm infestations.

Pink bollworms are raised, fed a diet of red dye, giving them a permanent, unnatural color, blasted with radiation to make them sterile and released near infestations of cotton-eating pink bollworms.

The sterile bollworms mate with the fertile pink bollworms, which fools the latter into a false state of pregnancy. As a result, an entire generation of bollworms die off without reproducing.

Pink bollworm larve on cotton boll.

Pink bollworm larvae on cotton boll.

The program, begun in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the mid-1960s, originally relied on the use of small aircraft to distribute irradiated pink bollworms. Now a pilot program has them being fired from cannon attached to drones onto cotton fields.

“Drones are a cheaper delivery method than the manual throw-moths-out-of-a-small airplane method that has been used in the past, so if the tests continue to go well, you might be seeing more moths flying out of drones in the future,” according to Popular Science.

Pink bollworms are found in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and northern Mexico.

Sterile moths are raised and irradiated at the Pink Bollworm Rearing Facility in Phoenix, Ariz., then shipped to Shafter, Calif., for aerial release in the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 90 percent of California’s cotton is grown.

One of the great benefits of the program is that it doesn’t use pesticides, benefiting the environment.

(HT: Eideard)

Social media provides needed kick in rump to insurers


Perhaps social media does have a bit more value than my curmudgeonly self would care to admit.

Last week I wrote about a friend who is battling leukemia. Beyond the difficulties associated with fighting a life-threatening condition, she had also been clashing with her insurers, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida (Florida Blue) and Prime Therapeutics, both of which had denied her coverage for needed cancer-treatment medication.

As a result, she’d gone more than a month without medicine.

It’s not as if my friend was attempting to secure reimbursement for experimental medicine or didn’t have sufficient coverage. Florida Blue was simply giving her the runaround, even though my friend’s prescription was on its list of approved medications.

Even with her medical team working to help her, the companies denied coverage, claiming, among other things, that they had not received the information.

Doctors, nurses and health care providers worked diligently to get the correct papers into the hands of my friend’s insurers for several weeks. Yet, a month later she was still without needed medicine and still without answers.

Taking a break from such earth-shattering revelations as smoking birds and personal issues with LinkedIn, I detailed the above in a Sept. 30 post.

Around the same time, another friend started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to buy a fax machine for Florida Blue. That was because the insurer had told my friend with leukemia that one of the reasons they hadn’t received her doctors’ requests for authorization because their “fax machine was busy.”

As was stated on the GoFundMe site: “I want to raise enough money to buy a cheap-ass fax machine for Florida Blue so they can help dying people get their treatments. I would also like to buy them a time machine so they could move boldly into the 1990s, but that’s another issue.”

Within a short while Twitter was aflutter with tweets about Florida Blue’s (and Prime Therapeutics’) shenanigans, as was Facebook, and before long a representative from Florida Blue, having noticed the publicity, decided to step in to handle the case.

Around the same time, an individual with Prime Therapeutics posted a comment on my blog expressing her desire to assist my friend.

By last Saturday, my friend had her medicine in hand.

This happened because people got the attention of Florida Blue and Prime Therapeutics through social media, and because there were individuals at both companies who were willing to make a special effort to help my friend cut through unnecessary red tape and get her medication.

My friend is not out of the woods, but she is fortunate to have many friends who are or were journalists. They understand how to use social media and publicity to get things done. However, it should never have required scores and scores of people, if not more, using social media to get Florida Blue to do the right thing.

All of which raises other questions:

  • What happens to the vast majority of the population that doesn’t have a slew of publicity savvy friends at their disposal?
  • Where do those who are older and may not have the strength to keep fighting turn when they’ve been denied needed medicine that they’re entitled to under the terms of their insurance?
  • How many have died because insurers essentially waited them out, understanding full well that some of the ailing wouldn’t have the strength, willpower or ability to fight for what they’re entitled to?

I’ll not get into the injustice of a young mother being stricken with leukemia. There are some situations in life that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around.

But I will say that those who work in the health field, including health insurers, should do all within their power to make the lives of those they serve easier – rather than more difficult – when their customers find themselves facing life or death scenarios.

Nothing like having four months of rain fall in a single day

washed out tracks

You know you’ve gotten a lot of rain when folks stop measuring the amount in numbers and begin using adjectives to describe how much precipitation has fallen, such as “immense,” “ginormous” and “a whole helluva lot.”

With Hurricane Joaquin staying offshore as it moves up the East Coast, South Carolina was deluged with as much as 20 inches of rain over 24 hours, an amount that left weather forecasters calling the event a “1,000-year storm.”

Area rivers quickly breached their banks, rising, in some cases, 10 feet or more above flood stage.

I got an indication of just how much water had fallen when I visited a local creek about 10 miles north of my home. Normally at this time of year Rocky Creek is about three feet across and six to eight inches deep.

At 10 a.m. Sunday morning it was 700 feet across and 15 feet deep in some places, with water moving briskly as it surged toward the Broad River.

Adding to area woes is the fact that South Carolina has been receiving rain for a couple of days prior to the deluge that began late Saturday, and more rain is anticipated Monday.

As Slate magazine noted, parts of the state received four months of rain in a single day. I don’t care how strong your infrastructure system is, it’s going to have trouble standing up to that kind of a deluge.

(Top: Washed-out railroad tracks in Columbia, SC, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.)

This color-coded weather map tops out at 18 inches of rain; it wasn't enough to register all the rain parts of South Carolina received this weekend.

This color-coded weather map tops out at 18 inches of rain; it wasn’t enough to register all the rain parts of South Carolina received this weekend.