What happens to our bodies in excessive heat

It is astonishing that with record heat waves year after year, there are still those who refuse to acknowledge that we are experiencing dangerous levels of global warming, who not only ignore the warnings but even threaten journalists who write about it.

Almost four out of every 10 journalists covering the climate crisis and environment issues have been threatened as a result of their work, with 11% subjected to physical violence, according to groundbreaking new research.

A global survey of more than 740 reporters and editors from 102 countries found that 39% of those threatened “sometimes” or “frequently” were targeted by people engaged in illegal activities such as logging and mining. Some 30%, meanwhile, were threatened with legal action – reflecting a growing trend towards corporations and governments deploying the judicial system to muzzle free speech.

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A better AI system?

Via Kevin Drum, I learned that the Wall Street Journal had tested five AI engines and the winner was one that I had not heard of before called Perplexity, where the basic version is free.

As readers may recall, back in December I tried out ChatGPT and Bard with the prompt “What can you tell me about Mano Singham?” and got back some accurate information mixed in with false ones. I read that turning out some false information was common in these AI systems, making them of highly dubious value.

I tried the prompt “Who is Mano Singham” on Perplexity and got results that were fairly extensive and correct and did not have any false information. I used a prompt asking about myself not because of vanity (at least not entirely) but because that way I can know what is true and false immediately without having to do any further research.
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Wear the damn seat belt!

Turbulence in the air is one of the biggest causes in injury on airplanes and yesterday saw a dramatic example of that, when a plane dropped 6,000 feet in just three minutes.

A British passenger has died and seven people have been critically injured after a flight from London to Singapore was hit by turbulence.

Passengers onboard the Singapore Airlines plane told of a “dramatic drop” that launched those not wearing a seatbelt into the cabin ceiling.
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How fountains worked in the days before electricity

When watching films that are set in a time before there was electricity, I would sometimes see public fountains and would idly wonder how they worked. I knew that they had to be driven by gravity, with the water coming from a source like a tower that was higher than the. fountain, the way that many of us still get water nowadays, from city water towers. But how did they fill the water towers in those days?

This article explains.

Ancient Rome received all of its water (according to Encarta, about 38 million gallons a day) through a system of aqueducts. All water flowed to the city by gravity, but because it was arriving from surrounding hills, it could be stored in large cisterns very similar in concept to today’s water towers (the main difference is that cisterns are filled from the top).

Water flowed from the cisterns either through pipes to individual houses or to public distribution points. Fountains served both decorative and functional purposes, since people could bring their buckets to the fountain to collect water. The cisterns provided the height needed to generate water pressure for the fountains to spray. As discussed in How Water Towers Work, a foot of height generates 0.43 pounds per square inch (psi) of water pressure, so a cistern does not have to be that tall to develop enough pressure to give a fountain a reasonable display.

The question that the article does not address is what happens to the water after it comes out of the fountain. It cannot be pumped back up without electricity or having people and animals haul it back up to a height. Did they just let it soak into the ground?

While those old fountains must have been nice to look at, they do seem to be a wasteful use of precious water that had come a long way using aqueducts, themselves a magnificent engineering feat.

Approaches to the end of life

Dhruv Khullar writes about the differing opinions about how to approach the so-called “‘marginal decade’ at the end of our lives, when medicine keeps us alive but our independence and capacities bleed away.” He points out that in 1900, the life expectancy at birth was 47 years. But at that time, one in five children died before the age of 10. Now life expectancy at birth is close to 77. Much of this improvement came about rapidly due to improved sanitation, antibiotics, and vaccines that have reduced infant and child mortality considerably.

But in the last six decades, increases in longevity have slowed, to only about seven years, and are more due to extending the lives of of old people, many of whom are in ill health. In other words, Khullar says, “we are prolonging the time it takes to die.” The goal of compressing mortality, i.e., shortening the gap between the end of a healthy life and death, may be slipping away.

If anything, longer lives now appear to include more difficult years. The “compression of morbidity may be as illusory as immortality,” two demographers, Eileen Crimmins and Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, wrote in 2010. According to the World Health Organization, the average American can expect just one healthy birthday after the age of sixty-five. (Health spans are greater in countries such as Switzerland, Japan, Panama, Turkey, and Sri Lanka.)

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The amazing Voyager space probes

Way back in 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 probe into space to do close up studies of Jupiter and Saturn. The mission was to be for five years but Voyager kept going and going, leaving the solar system and in August 2012 became the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, continuing to send back data for nearly half a century.

But in December scientists said that a problem with the onboard computers resulted in the probe sending back gibberish. But rather than give up on the plucky little probe, engineers did a remote fix, even though it was 15 billion miles away.
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The ridiculous Tesla cybertruck

You may have seen photographs of the Tesla cybertruck. It is a hideous vehicle that looks like something in a futuristic dystopia.

It is the brainchild of Elon Musk and has had to be recalled because of a dangerous problem.

Tesla recalled all Cybertrucks Friday after federal safety regulators contacted the company over malfunctions with the vehicle’s accelerator pedal. New Cybertruck orders have been reportedly cancelled or stalled. The news follows numerous reports of embarrassing Cybertruck failures.

Cybertruck owners reported that their vehicles were at risk of getting stuck driving at full speed due to a loose accelerator pedal. Video showed the pedal itself falling off and the piece beneath wedging itself into the car’s interior, which would force the vehicle into maximum acceleration. One driver was able to save himself from a crash by holding down the brake pedal.

The Cybertruck, which has long been a pet project for Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO, began deliveries in late 2023 after years of delay due to production problems and battery-supply constraints. Since then, numerous failures in the vehicle’s design and function have ranged from embarrassing to outright dangerous.

The trucks – which Musk once claimed would be the “best off-road vehicle” – have been shown getting stuck in sand, snow and dirt, with one towed away by a Ford truck. Some owners have reported their new Cybertrucks have simply stopped running completely. Many have complained the truck’s stainless steel exterior rusts easily, and one owner said the windshield broke quickly in a hail storm. Musk himself claimed the car was bulletproof at its unveiling before cracking its window with a steel ball thrown by hand.

It looks like the cybertruck will not meet the EU’s safety and quality standards and so will not be sold there. Lucky Europeans! We in the US will have to deal with this monstrosity on the roads.

Here is a brutally funny review of the cybertruck, explaining why only Musk fanboys who have bought into his shtick are likely to buy this piece of trash. Astonishingly, apparently two million people have paid deposits to buy one, that will take between eight and thirteen years to be delivered to them.

Arizona GOP digs an even deeper hole on abortion

The ruling by the Arizona supreme court that an 1864 law that purportedly bans all abortions even in the case of rape and incest has created shock wave in GOP politics. The only exception is to save the life of the woman but, as has been pointed out, this is not as clear cut as it appears to be. It is not always evident at which point the woman’s life is in danger and doctors fearing prosecution may wait until they think death is imminent, which could well result in death or serious complications.

Even serial sex abuser Donald Trump (SSAT) and the GOP nominee for governor Kari Lake have said that they oppose the law although embarrassingly for Lake, just two years ago she enthusiastically supported the very same law, even referring to it as section 13-3603, its specific legislative number, showing that she knew exactly what she was supporting.
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Dennett’s somewhat dangerous idea

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently published a memoir and in a review Matthew Lau accuses him of pursuing a ‘dead end social Darwinism’. He says that Dennett has defended the idea of ‘adaptationism’, the view “that all features of an organism must be adapted for some good purpose.” This has been rejected by other scholars of evolution like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin who argue that some features did not come into being to serve a specific purpose but were instead accidental byproducts of the evolutionary process. Those two authors gave the image of the spandrels in cathedrals.

In architecture, spandrels are a structural byproduct resulting from the placement a dome on top of four rounded arches. The spandrels fill in the empty space where the arch stops touching the top of the dome, stabilizing the overall structure. In finished cathedrals they are frequently painted and otherwise beautifully ornamented, as in the four famed spandrels of the Cathedral of San Marcos in Venice, Italy, that depict the four biblical rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, Indue, and Nile).

For Gould and Lewontin, if we adopt the adaptationist perspective, we might mistakenly assume the San Marcos spandrels were initially formed to be part of the cathedral’s artwork and miss their origin as necessary structural byproducts.

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The return of a cicada swarm

Parts of the northeastern US are bracing for a cicada swarm when trillions of these creatures will burst from the ground when the temperature warms up a little more.

There are thousands of species of cicadas around the world but only 10 are considered periodical – having a life cycle that involves the juvenile cicadas living underground and feeding on plant sap for years before emerging en masse to the surface.

This year will see Brood XIX, the largest of all periodical cicada groups, emerge after a 13-year dormancy underground at the same time as Brood XII, a smaller group that appears every 17 years. The emergence will occur in spring, as early as this month in some places, and will see trillions of cicadas pop up in as many as 16 states, from Maryland to Oklahoma and from Illinois to Alabama.

Cicadas choose to burst aboveground when the soil temperature hits a certain point – usually around 64F (17C) – and global heating, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is potentially scrambling this natural process.

Entomologists and cicada enthusiasts are excited about the prospect.

“It’s really exciting. I’ve been looking forward to this for many years,” said Catherine Dana, an entomologist who specializes in cicadas at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “For the public, it’s going to be a really special experience.”

For now, onlookers can still enjoy this rare burst of nature in their gardens and public spaces. “Sit back and be in awe at the spectacle,” advised John Cooley, a cicada expert at the University of Connecticut who tracks the emergences. “It will be over soon enough. Then think about where you will be in 13 or 17 years. It’s a time for introspection.”

I can’t say that I share that enthusiasm. My only encounter with cicadas was in 2004 when I was in New Jersey for a few days when the area was hit with a cicada swarm. Since that was twenty years ago, that brood must not have been part of the big 13 and 17 year cohorts associated with broods XII or XIX. But the swarm was large enough. These creatures that look like cockroaches were everywhere, making a terrific racket and you could not walk outdoors without stepping on them and squashing them, which was kind of gross. I am glad that I will be nowhere near them this time.