Journalism Space Porn Space Weather

Do we really need to waste resources looking for meteors?

It is nearly impossible to stop paying attention to scary things, once they’re revealed. And in a click-hungry Internet media landscape (hey: guilty as charged), it is even harder not to want to write articles that you know are going to get clicks, even if they aren’t the most reputable or useful content.

So now that we’ve had our meteor visit in Russia and lots of “near misses” by other space debris – including one that came closer to us than our own satellites – it is easy to spend a lot of time and energy on these types of things. Why not? It is both scary and awe-inspiring to think of things unknown to us floating in space on a collision course with our Earth:

Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, thinks we can do something about that. Hubbard, a former director of NASA Ames Research Center, is also the program architect for the B612 Foundation, which aims to track down the hundreds of thousands of unknown asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.

But the uncomfortable truth is that the Big Bang never stopped and the placid, gently floating galaxy you saw in Discovery Channel documentaries simply doesn’t exist. The universe is a dynamic, ongoing explosion, filled with lots of gas, lots of planets, lots of stars and yes, lots and lots of debris. The Earth itself is orbiting the Sun at a rate of approximately 67k miles an hour, which is itself rotating around the Milky Way at an estimated 8,700 miles per hour.

Basically, you’ve got a lot of crap spinning at a super-high rate of speed around a lot of other crap. And with more than a little regularity, some crap collides with other crap and you get a giant, intergalactic crap explosion. Bigger the crap, bigger the explosion.

And as pitifully expendable sacs of protoplasm stuck on Earth, we worry that even a small bit of debris could end us.

Galactically speaking, not an unreasonable concern. But what happened in Russia – and the media frenzy that ensued – is evidence not of our vulnerability, but of the extraordinary rareness of such events on a human scale. Debris hits our planet with perhaps disconcerting regularity, but does so completely unnoticed most of the time. That’s because not all space debris is measured in bus or football field lengths. And those large objects that do occasionally hit our planet happen on a regular albeit slow schedule, without wiping out life on Earth, let alone the Earth herself.

Sure. A city the size of San Francisco could suddenly cease to be. But hey! As long as you’re not there, you can say you “remember them when.”

The truth is that as dynamic and violent as our universe is, it is also quite big. And collisions with our Earth of the type we worry about are extremely rare. So I would hold off on that shooting spree you’ve been contemplating: there’s every reason to believe you’ll still be here to pay the piper.


The Nap Nanny meets the Nanny State

As we go, scientists and doctors find out more and more about the mystery that is childhood. Particularly in those months before the child can communicate with their parents in anything more than cries, figuring out what is right or wrong about the little one can be a terrifyingly-ineffectual exercise, but science is beginning to fill in the gaps.

For example, “colic” is a term we often hear applied to babies that display a particular penchant for screaming in their early months. What “colic” is, however, is the doctor’s catch-all term for “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him.” That’s not an exaggeration: like a “syndrome,” colic is simply the doctor’s term for a condition for which there’s no real answer. It is a clinical shrug.

But one chief driver of colic appears to be pain associated with gastrointestinal issues in the newly-operable digestive systems of babies. We don’t often think about it, but for nine months, the baby’s digestive system (and lungs, and nearly every other organ) develops without ever being used. Then at birth, the switch is thrown on the whole system all at once, while the former lifeline of the placenta is suddenly and summarily cut off. Its like ripping the diver’s mask off his face ten feet from the surface. Better hope everything goes according to plan.

That newly-minted GI tract is a fraction of its adult size and completely without practice, so any small problem the baby has digesting quickly becomes a huge problem. One small burp for you is a giant case of acid reflux for the kiddo.

Holding the baby more or less upright – or at least, the esophagus raised above the stomach – is one sure-fire way to alleviate the acid reflux thing. This is especially helpful[1. Fuck that: it’s a goddamned godsend] at night, which is why one enterprising new mother came up with the idea of the Nap Nanny: a solid piece of foam out of which is cut a small seat angled at a perfect 30 degrees to keep the kid’s head elevated during those formerly brief sleep periods.

God, how I love you, Nap Nanny.

The Nanny is a thing of genius, really. Made of a light-weight foam, it may not strike you as very stable at first glance. But the physics of its design cannot be denied: the baby’s weight is held directly in the center of the squared foam, thus making the whole package extremely stable. The straps hold the wee one in place securely while being soft and comfortable enough for him to sleep in. My kid likes to really rock and roll in the Nanny both before he goes to sleep and immediately after waking up and at no time have I ever seen it move enough to even come close to tipping over. In a wide landscape filled with children’s toys and accoutrement, rarely does one find an object of greater security.

There. It says it right fucking there.

Now it appears that, because of five tragic deaths associated with the Nap Nanny, the federal government is asking that this miracle in foam not be sold in stores until an investigation is complete. This, despite the fact that clearly:

That the recliners seem to have been used contrary to manufacturer’s instructions does not absolve Baby Matters, Wolfson said.

In four of the five deaths, none of them local, the Nap Nanny was placed in a crib – precisely what the warning labels on the seats say should not be done. Those instructions say the seats are to be used on the floor, with babies strapped into the three-point harness.

Here’s the thing: there are only five horrible deaths associated with the Nap Nanny. In each case, the parents were using the Nanny against the warnings placed right on the side of the foam – even my kid likes to play with the little silk warning tag. And the implication is that, in some cases, the Nanny was used in a crib with a crib liner, yet another explicitly warned-against practice. And if the kid is falling out of the Nanny and getting stuck where he/she could suffocate, clearly, the child cannot have been strapped into the seat.

I can’t imagine losing my child in this manner. Or any manner. But these are extremely rare cases of extremely bad luck – even violating the warning against using it in a crib, I can’t imagine there being any real trouble in 99.9999% of cases where this undoubtably happens.

And for these few cases, a good product is getting smeared. Good parents are going to stop using the thing and babies with horrible problems getting sleep are going to go right back to where they started. This is especially true because many networks – and I point our Rochester’s own 13WHAM as one case in point – say that the Nap Nanny is being recalled because of “a substantial product defect,” without actually specifying what the “defect” is. Why not begin the show with the announcement that “news happened,” and just go to commercial for the rest of the show?

Our son will continue to use the Nanny until he’s ready for his own crib – which won’t be long now, anyway. You should read the instructions carefully when buying any product and don’t let edge-case fears ruin your baby’s childhood.

Late update: The makers of the Nap Nanny now say they’ve gone out of business because of having to deal with the lawsuits.


Think fracking earthquakes are hokum? Nature identifies ground water drilling cause of Spain rumbler

Nothing starts an argument in Upstate these days quite like hydraulic fracture mining, or fracking as it is commonly known. From concerns over drinking water and the environment to concerns over our declining economy and what a fracking industry might bring to the region, there are no shortages of angles from which to state your position, either. Personally, while I’ve tried to keep up with the situation, the fact is that there remain too many open questions for me to come down on one side of the issue or the other. Though honestly: when the industry itself is creating a lot of the question marks by hiding answers behind the dubious firewall of “proprietary processes,” its hard not to side against them.

But on one particular facet of the debate, we have received some incontrovertible proof in the form of nine dead Spaniards. They are the victims of a ground water drilling operation that either triggered or hastened a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in Lorca, Spain. Nature is quick to point out that we don’t know if the quake came as a result of ground pressures that were already extreme – whether man managed to create a quake, or help one out – but all agree that the quake was much stronger than they might have predicted.

But the basics are these: you can’t take stuff out of the ground and not expect the ground to stay in exactly the same position. It will settle. In fact, even Fox News has recently reported a six-fold increase in seismic events across the Midwest, where oil and methane (read: fracking) production has increased over the past decade.

Rochester Science Technology

Remember: fall means hunting season, but hunting season doesn’t have to mean falling.

Hooray for hunting season! Yes, that time of year is once again upon us. Bring on the beer, guns, and climbing birds-eye-view tree stands all before the crack of dawn! Nothing could possibly go wrong with that recipe for disaster, right?

According to URMC, usually not; to be specific, only about 10% of the time do hunters find themselves injured in a given year. Well, that’s not so bad, right? Actually, it’s downright terrible, considering the solution to preventing these injuries is an extremely simple one: wear a safety harness. Sounds easy enough, but how long did it take people to get in the habit of wearing seat belts in the car? For some reason, we humans just don’t like being inhibited by contraptions meant to protect us from life altering – or ending – accidents.

According to Jason Huang, M.D., URMC neurosurgeon specializing in head and spine injuries,

“We are still seeing hunters who have taken unnecessary risks by not wearing the safety belt or harness and endure significant injuries from a fall. Compared to a decade ago, we have made no progress in preventing these neurological injuries, despite safety advances – which is unacceptable.”

In a review of 54 hunting accidents or falls between the years of 2003 and 2011, neurosurgeons saw injuries ranging from cervical spine fractures, traumatic brain injuries, collapsed lungs, internal damage to the spleen, liver, and kidneys, and even paraplegia and quadriplegia. According to Huang, most of these accidents would have been prevented if the hunters had worn a safety harness.

Let’s be honest:  hunting season is a great time! Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, they even close schools and businesses during the first day of each game season because they know everyone wants to participate – but let’s make sure we can all make the most of the day without falling 30+ feet to the hard ground. Remember: if you fall, the deer wins!

Rochester Technology

Big Brother is bussing you: Xerox installs traffic cameras on Md school busses

There’s been a bit of… discussion… surrounding the use of red light cameras in Rochester. Do they actually discourage running red lights? Well, revenues from the cameras have been reported higher than expected, so perhaps not. But do they contribute to a general culture of better safety? Other reports say yes, they do.

But now it appears that Xerox Corporation has made a move in Maryland to widen the debate still further: do traffic cameras on busses stop people from blowing past them while kids are getting on the bus? The Frederick County, Md school district will be installing cameras, networking and software created by Xerox to monitor kids as they get on and off the bus, while at the same time, checking for drivers who illegally pass the bus while stopped. Xerox characterizes the need for its CrossSafe™ software with the following quote:

“Xerox understands our sense of urgency to address this very serious concern to student safety,” said Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins. “Violators will now face serious penalties and be held accountable for their disregard for the safety of children traveling on buses. CrossSafe™ is a turnkey solution that will help make bus routes safer and ease the minds of parents.”

“Urgency” is an interesting word. A quick Google News search turned up absolutely no mentions in local Maryland news of this program. Thumbing through the school’s news archives – as far back as mid-terms last year – turns up no discussion of this program. I can’t even find any reports of accidents in the area involving school busses.

Where is the urgency?

To be clear: blowing past a stopped school bus while they’re picking up school children is dumb, dumb, dumb. And potentially fatal. But potential is a shitty benchmark for public policy, especially policy that continues to contribute to our Nanny State culture where you’re not allowed to do anything without being filmed. And lord knows that as a liberal, I just love spending other people’s tax dollars, but seriously? Could they have hired another music teacher with the cash they’ve ported to Rochester (hugs ‘n kisses)? Maybe spent that money on actual problems?

Rochester Technology

Bad news, Rochester: red light cameras actually do work

I know, I know. I had hoped to find something completely different when I started this article. But the truth is that the evidence supporting red light cameras as effective safety measures is pretty overwhelming and extends back quite a few years.

But even just two months ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that:

Based on that comparison, the researchers concluded that the rate of fatal red light running crashes in cities with cameras in 2004-08 was 24 percent lower than it would have been without cameras. That adds up to 74 fewer fatal red light running crashes or, given the average number of fatalities per red light running crash, approximately 83 lives saved.

This was based on studying 99 cities who have recently installed new red light cameras. Yes, it is true that cities do get revenue from the lights. But in Chicago as one example, that number is about $60m. Sounds like a lot, right? Except when you factor in that the city has a budget deficit of $635m dollars. Chicago’s total budget weighs in at around $6bn. Does $60m really add up to a whole lot? Not really, no. The city pays more to maintain its firemen’s pensions annually.

The reason red light cameras appear to be so effective is largely psychological. Over time, drivers become aware that certain lights have cameras on them, and whether they like to think themselves rebels or not, they generally avoid getting dinged by the cameras:

So, while I’m not a huge fan of them myself, the fact is that they work. And considering that the federal Department of Transportation estimates 100,000 and 1,000 fatalities can be attributed to people running red lights, there are ample reasons to suggest that those cameras are probably here to stay. Pht.

Rochester Technology

Wegmans cited by OSHA for unsafe work conditions: what is lock out/tag out?

Whenever a food manufacturer gets busted for any kind of violation, I think the normally jumped-to conclusion is that its a health and cleanliness issue. For some reason, and perhaps its just the way I think, articles such as the one posted by the @DandC this morning seem to lead to that conclusion.

But it isn’t always the case, for example the news that @Wegmans is facing penalties from OSHA over unsafe work conditions. The problem is not that there’s anything wrong with the food, but that the conditions where people were working were unsafe. Specifically, that Wegmans failed to provide what’s known as a “lock out/tag out” system for maintenance of machinery at the factory. Having worked at more than my share of factories, I know what this is, so I thought I’d explain:

Factory equipment is generally large and dangerous. Maintaining that equipment generally means climbing inside of large, dangerous machines to clean or replace parts. And that offers the possibility of someone being inside of a machine when it gets accidentally turned on, which I think we can all agree, is bad.

Lock out/tag out systems are a method of putting physical locks on power systems so that it is not possible to turn a machine on – even accidentally – as long as the lock is in place. The system is “locked out.” By making sure the key is held by the person responsible for the maintenance, workers can be sure the lock cannot be removed until work is complete. The system is “tagged out.”

OSHA is saying that such a system has not been used in Wegmans’ food factories. Truth be told, unless the system is very large, I’ve worked in plenty of situations where the lock out/tag out is in place but not used. Such is life on the factory floor. But Wegmans is looking at a pretty stiff fine – $195k or thereabouts – for not at least developing the system.

The text of the citation announcement from OSHA is below for the curious:

2011 – 10/25/2011 – US Department of Labor’s OSHA cites Wegmans Food Market for repeat and serious hazards at corporate bakery and distribution center in Rochester, NY.


Blame Mexico?

As the salmonella outbreak panic continues to grip the nation, it looks as though an effort is being made to block the import of Mexican tomatoes as one possible source of the outbreak. Of course, that’s pissing off Mexico, since there’s really no proof whatsoever that their ‘maters are the source of the bug:

Worried U.S. buyers block Mexican tomatoes at border | Reuters

“I’ve had phone calls from producers saying their tomatoes are being blocked, not all varieties but some varieties,” Alberto Cardenas said, stressing that U.S. officials had found no evidence so far that Mexican tomatoes were unsafe to eat.

Twenty-five people have been hospitalized as a result of the U.S. outbreak, which is being linked to raw plum, Roma and round tomatoes. Investigators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, have not ruled out Mexico as the source of the infection.

I suppose that there’s wisdom, despite the irritation, in at least cutting down the number of potential sources while the true culprit has not been identified. There seems to be no really good way to track the progress of crops through the supply chain, therefore this may be a long process, if they ever find an answer the government is willing to share with us (don’t hold your breath).