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.

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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.)

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.)

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.)

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

exoplanet

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.

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)