environment


After the failure of their three best options for stopping the stream of oil into the Gulf of Mexico which also happen to sound like deviant sex acts – the top hat, the hot tap, and the junk shot – BP is officially out of ideas and just making shit up at this point.

The latest – a robot with a hacksaw attached to it will saw off a length of the pipe so BP can place a dome over it, a tactic those of you who have been paying attention will recognize as shit that didn’t work the first fucking time. And if that doesn’t work, BP also has a small army of little Dutch boys at the ready, and they are prepared to drown as many small children as they need to to avoid paying a monetary fine that will inevitably be whittled down to something like ten minutes worth of profits in the coming years.

Meanwhile, in even dumber news regarding the oil spill, one of the many cleanup options being considered by BP is a centrifuge designed by Kevin Costner while he was on the set of Waterworld, which promises to be to science what Waterworld was to cinema – the awesomest thing ever.

For those who aren’t aware, I have been a Washingtonian for long enough that, aside from a few loyalties in the sporting world that are so deeply ingrained and despair inducing that they can safely be considered genetic disorders, I have pretty much gone native. It’s a mostly laid back corner of the country, which suits me just fine, because I tend to be a fairly tense sort of chap, and the green and grey backdrop and relaxed atmosphere cut that just enough that I’m not intolerable to those around me. For the most part.

Which is why it was a touch off putting to hear material concerning my mostly sleepy state all over the news today, starting with the big business story of the day out of Redmond. Microsoft and Yahoo have finally consumated their on again romance, and like so many drawn out courtships, the moment of truth was a touch anti-climatic. Microsoft, unsurprisingly, gets the sweet end of the deal, with Yahoo bowing out of search and to handle advertising sales as Microsoft takes over search and data analysis for both companies, with the recently launched bing powering Yahoo searches from here on out. And while the deal moves Microsoft into the clear number two position in the  search industry, it’s a distant number two, in which the competition, whose name is synonymous with finding information online, has a stranglehold on 70% of the market.

In other words, Microsoft is right now in the best position it’s ever going to be in to challenge Google’s online search and advertising supremacy. But with the Chrome OS launching in just a few months on netbooks, Google is giving as good as it gets. And if this thing turns into a two front war for domination of operating system software and online technology, I’d put my money on the more nimble young ‘un from Santa Clara County.

And while Steve Ballmer and company might not be at the top of their game, they’re still faring better than the killer whales of the Puget Sound. Harassment by whale watching vessels looking to give tourists that perfect close up is hampering efforts to help the regions fragile orca population recover, so federal regulators are proposing doubling the distance that pleasure boats must stay away from the whales to 200 yards. Which is a nice thought, until you realize that the main problem seems to stem from ships that are not obeying the current guideline that aims to keep a 100 yard barrier between whales and whale watchers. With that in mind, it’s hard to see how doubling a barrier that no one is acknowledging helps preserve orca populations.

Shane Aggergaard, who heads the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a group of whale watch tour companies throughout Washington and British Columbia, may have demonstrated the attitude of tourism companies earlier today, when said in an interview with KUOW that “…we love to educate people regarding these animals so they can further protect them. It will be much more difficult to do that at 200 yards…” Again, this sounds good until you think about it – it’s more or less like arguing that we can’t outlaw shooting people in the face, because if we do, then how will people know that being shot in the face is a terrible, terrible thing?

And oh yeah, the anarchists are up in arms in the Evergreen State, as the anti-war organization Olympia Port Militarization Resistance accused a civilian employee of Washington’s Fort Lewis of COINTELPRO style shenanigans. The group, made up of members of groups like Students for a Democratic Society, Wobblies and self styled anarchists claim that a man going by the name John  Towery posed as an anarchist for two years, reporting back to military sources on the groups members and planned activities, such as staging port blockades.

And as these so called anarchists try to peacefully resist and do some good in the world, 38 year old Jeff Monson is keeping it real, doing all the things a good lone wolf anarchist should do. Like cage fighting. And spray painting anarchy symbols on the state capitol building. And then posing with the graffiti for ESPN The Magazine.

But hey, it could be weirder, I guess. I could live in Alabama, where they taser deaf people, don’t they?

And oh, yeah – Dave Reichert is an idiot and a jerk – more on that tomorrow.

The heartening news for the day is this: even in the midst of a worldwide crisis in which amphibian species are being lost at a staggering rate, researchers across the world are discovering new species of frogs all over the world. Following the discovery of nine new frogs and a previously unknown salamander in Colombia in February of this year, this summer has been lousy with croaking, chirping, hopping amphibians never before described by science.

May saw Conservation International document three new species of frogs in Papua New Guinea, as well as a few dozen new species of jumping spiders. Sadly, that frog news was overshadowed by the nearly 200 new species of frogs discovered in Madagascar last month, a number which doubles the number of known amphibian species inhabiting the island.

After a spate of finds like that, you’d think that would be it in new frog news for a while, right? I mean, 203 new species – that’s a lot, right? We can take a break from the new frogs, right?

Well, no, not if  the Zoological Survey of India has anything to say about it. The survey released data earlier this week showing that 2008 found more than a dozen new frogs were discovered in the country, as well as 14 new insect species. You can check out great pictures of some of the new species on Cryptomundo here. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Ecuador is getting in on the act.  News broke just a couple days ago of 12 new species discovered along the country’s mountainous border with Peru, including – you guessed it – 4 new species of frogs. All of which are larger than the Noble’s Pygmy Frog, which was discovered in the Peruvian Andes in March and is, for reference, about this big:

And the less heartening news for the day? Well, as I mentioned earlier, it remains a bad time to be an amphibian pretty much anywhere on the planet, newly discovered or not.

According to a recent review of research, same sex relationships are recorded among almost every conceivable species of animal. From the lowly fruit fly to dolphins, bonobos, and of course, penguins, it appears that if you watch enough examples of a species for long enough, chances are you’re going to run across one that swings the other way.

Animals seems to begin same sex relationships for different reasons – bottlenose dolphins seem to engage in homosexual antics for the sake of strengthening bonds among members of the same pod, a practice not dissimilar to that exhibited by the common North American frat boy.

Examples of  same sex mating behavior in albatross and penguins, meanwhile, is more often based around the rearing of a young bird that may have lost one or both parents, proving that even in the wilderness, it’s love that makes a family.

But whatever the variety of reasons, the existing scientific evidence seems to bear out that homosexuality is a perfectly normal, if uncommon, sexual behavior in species throughout the animal kingdom. And sure, that fact is unlikely to change the opinions of die hard homophobes. Then again, who gives a damn what they think anyhow?

Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey are using novel landmarks to track penguin populations in Antarctica. Using satellite imagery, BAS scientists are able to find the flightless birds breeding colonies by first finding the massive feces stained fields that accompany them. Despite documentary films depicting the penguins lifestyle and overwhelming cuteness, the birds breeding colonies remain hard to find and little researched.

But by following the reddish brown guano trails from space, scientists can finally get a accurate count of just how many penguins make up the emperor penguin breeding colonies and more realistically monitor changes to these populations. The first numbers, although astonishingly preliminary and general, are already in, with ten new colonies discovered by the new mapping procedure. Unfortunately for fans of nature’s most adorable seabird, six existing colonies, all of which were found on the same latitude, have seemingly vanished, hinting at trouble for the birds future.

For more on what’s new with maps and all things mapping related, visit a friend of mine who knows the subject pretty much infinitely better than I do.

Scientists at the Smithsonian and the Natural History Museum in London have officially taken on the herculean task of describing every form of life, everywhere in the world. If that sounds a touch on the ambitious side, it is, as there are one hell of a lot of different types of life on earth. That’s why researchers want you to pitch in. 

The “macroscopic observatory,” which is just in it’s inception, will eventually provide identification information, range maps and genetic information about every plant and animal on the planet. But scientists don’t want the project to just be the most comprehensive field guide to every part of the planet, even though it will be that too. 

More importantly, the database will provide researchers with an invaluable tool for tracking developments in the global biosphere. With input constantly pouring in from contributors all over the world, the massive online database will remain dynamic, allowing researchers to watch changes in climate and environment and how these changes affect not only overall populations but also behaviors like flowering times in real time. Interested parties will also be able to participate in more pragmatic research, like following the spread of invasive species more closely and coming to a better understanding of how agribusiness affects and farming affects existing environments.

While you can’t start contributing just yet, stay tuned to the Encyclopedia of Life site for details on how you can become a contributor or take over a page to curate in the near future.

This week’s big winner is University of Colorado professor Chris Greene, whose theories that a Rydberg molecule could be formed were finally proven correct this week. The extremely weak molecular bond, in which a Rydberg atom, with just one electron in its outermost orbit, bonds for a matter of microseconds with a normal atom, forming a Rydberg molecule. The trick to forming the bond is getting conditions cold enough for the Rydberg atom to interact with it’s standard partner – University of Stuttgart researchers who successfully formed the molecule only did so at a temperature of negative 273 degrees Celsius.

Greene is joined on the podium by cow farmers everywhere, for whom the decoding of the cow genome earlier this week means that mucking about with the fundamental makeup of the animals they make their living on just got that much easier. An unlocked genome means that farmers can produce new strains and breeds of cow which will be optimized to produce more and better quality milk and meat. Future generations of gene tinkered bovines could even go to the slaughterhouse with smiles on their eager to be murdered faces. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Speaking of people with smiles on their faces, anti-depressant manufacturers are looking pretty giddy lately, and it’s not because they’ve been dipping into their own stash. Rather, the recent news that a ban on teenage anti-depressant use has not affected suicide rates among teens in the United Kingdom calls into question the perceived link between depression medication and teenagers taking their own lives. That’s right – teenagers killing themselves is actually good news for pharmaceutical companies. Try and act surprised.

Medication isn’t the only treatment for depression, though. For some people suffering from depression, a couple of hours in front of the TV can relieve the feelings of loneliness and isolation, imbuing viewers with a sense of belonging that may be missing in their lives.

‘Clean coal’ supporters also won big this week as Energy Secretary Steven Chu threw the backing of the United States behind the industry, which depends on technologies like carbon capture and gasification to provide energy from coal that doesn’t wreak havoc on the environment. The good news – these technologies may even exist and be effective. The bad news – well, they also may not, but we’re going to use them anyhow.

Cause for optimism remains, though. For evidence that things aren’t always as bad as we think, look no further than the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most astonishing natural wonders of the planet. After spending years teetering on the broink of devastation, the reef has either started one of the most amazing comebacks on record or dodged a bullet, depending on who you ask. Either way, chalk one up in the win column.

That’s not to say optimism is always warranted, as thinkers of happy thoughts are also inaugurating our losers section this week. The reason? Well, it turns out that people possessed of the rosiest outlook for the environmental future of the planet are also those who have the least notion of what’s going on. Of course, the study was performed using 15 year old subjects, so take it for what it’s worth, but remember – these are the people who will be making decisions that impact all life on earth in the coming decades, and if this study has proven one thing, it’s that not knowing how things work makes them happy.

On the other hand, unrestrained pessimists don’t look to be faring any better. News that people who think they will lose their memory as they age tend to experience far worse memory loss than individuals who don’t buy into senior moment stereotypes has Grumpy Gusses the world over settling angrily into the losers column this week. Doesn’t that just figure?

In other unsurprising news, ugly kids are among this weeks losers. A University of Miami study released this week linked physical attractiveness and good grooming in high school with not only higher grades, but also long term financial success. While this may be less than newsworthy, it does support the notion that every film strip you ever watched in elementary school was exactly right about everything, and if that doesn’t terrify you, you’re a stronger person than me.

Among this weeks other losers are Vietnam veterans, because they certainly haven’t had to put up with enough crap already. A study due out in the May issue of The British Journal of Urology International found that prostate cancer patients who had been exposed to Agent Orange  had a 50 percent higher risk of the cancer recurring than others, and that their instances of recurrence were significantly more aggressive than those of other patients.

And closing out our losers is NASA. The agency is staring down a deadline to make a decision on whether to rehab or retire the current space shuttle fleet, but doesn’t have a top executive in place to make the call. Every day that the decision gets put off is a bad one for NASA, whose astronauts are already faced with the bleak prospect of hitching rides to space alongside Russian cosmonauts. With Ruso-American relations remaining icy, that’s a bad fix at best. But keeping the current shuttle fleet in operation while the next generation of ships gets ready to go up, up and away may simply be too dangerous for the agency to face.

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