Monday, April 14, 2008

All those slimy things that gross (most) girls out

The association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, has declared 2008 The Year of the Frog. Why, you might ask? Because it's leap year!...and frogs leap. Get it? Ok, it's lame, but it's important. The real reason, besides the silly pun, is that frogs are in really big danger. Frogs are what scientists term "Bio-indicators" which means that they are an animal that is looked to for an idea of how the rest of the world is doing. And right now, it's bad news. Frog species extinction is at its highest rate ever, and the rate is also higher than that of any other type of animal. Scientists are estimating that up to 1/3 of the worlds amphibian species are on the verge of extinction. So basically, this is bad news. Frogs are suffering from the same problems as many other animals--pollution, habitat loss and so on. They have also been suffering from a type of fungal infection called Chitrid which inhibits the ability of their skin to pass water in and out. So the point of The Year of the Frog is to educate people about this incredibly important animal and see what we can do to help.

Now, what brought this up? It's spring time! And spring weather brings out the salamanders. Many species of salamanders are suffering the same fate as frogs so we want to pay attention to them too. At this time of year, many salamanders begin travelling to vernal pools to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, that very often involves crossing streets which can mean squishy little salamander pancakes. Many towns in the New England area will actually close down streets that they know are close to the pools to protect the animals during their journey. These journeys require a certain set of conditions--it must not be too cool or dry or windy or the salamanders skin will dry out and the animal may die. Some years, the conditions will all come together on one perfect night and thousands upon thousands of salamanders will surface to head to the pools.

Once the eggs have been laid and hatched, it's a race against time for the young salamanders. If the pools dry up before they have become air breathing animals, they will die. This can mean that if there is not enough rain in a given year, and entire generation of salamanders will be lost.

Besides their environmental importance...frogs and salamanders are just plain neat and it would be incredibly sad to lose them.

Listening for whales

For many who take whale watching tours in the summer, they come away from the experience exclaiming "I saw so many humpbacks!" However, if they're lucky, they may see one of the highly endangered Right Whales as well. Just outside of Boston Harbor is one of the largest marine sanctuaries designed to protect many species of whales, Right Whales among them. Stellwagen Bank was picked for specific reasons, as a home to an incredibly large diversity of animals. It is also one of the summer feeding grounds for baleen whales.

The sanctuary prohibits any kind of fishing, but unfortunately allows shipping boats free passage. One of the largest dangers to whales, and particularly Right Whales, are ship strikes. Around 1/3 of the Right Whales that have been killed in the last decade were due to ship strikes. Every year, dead whales wash up on beachs bearing the signs of ship strikes. And sadly, not all strikes will kill the whale but simply disable it, leaving it to die a slow and painful death.

Scientists have pled for action to be taken to prevent these strikes for years, and recently some steps have been taken in the right direction. For years, the whales were tracked using airplanes or boats and were then plotted onto charts to give ships the "best idea" of where the animals might be. However, these tracking trips were frequently prevented by weather or budget issues so were rarely accurate.

Stellwagen bank has recently installed a series of bouys lining the shipping lanes, as reported by The Boston Globe. These bouys listen for the signature sounds that Right Whales make underwater and send a signal to oncoming ships that the animals are in the area. This gives the ship a chance to slow down or change course to avoid killing one of the precious whales. To see the bouys in actions, check out the video from The Boston Globe here.

This comes as an answer to the controversy about changing the routes of the shipping lanes. Scientists claimed that this was the safest option for the animals, while shipping conglomerates complained of the costs it would incur. Nevertheless, lanes have been moved, both in Stellwagen Bank and in Canada, showing a victory for scientists involved with preventing the extinction of Right Whales.

Friday, April 11, 2008

If you can't do it, don't try

The New York Times ran a story on the front page the other days about the riding death rate in Eventing. Coming from a horseback rider, I can confidently say that Eventing is completely insane. Eventing is a series of competitions, usually taking place over two or three days where competitors perform three different types of riding. Now, mastering one type of riding is hard enough so it's pretty amazing that these people can do this. Events one and two are show jumping and dressage, both of which take place in a ring and are generally not timed. The last event is cross country jumping.

Phil Sears/Associated Press, The New York Times

As far as I'm concerned you have to be totally cracked to attempt this. However, people obviously don't agree with me. The cross-country courses can run for miles over uneven terrain and include up to 40 jumps meant to immitate "natural conditions." The problem lately, is that even coordinators have been raising the difficultly of these courses to the point where some have argued that even the best in the world can't handle them. The deaths of 12 eventing riders in the past 18 months has raised concerns over the sport.

Some safety measures have been discussed, but for the most part are not used. Pins have been designed to help the jumps collapse if the horse does not clear them, but the pins are expensive and generally not used.

“It’s not galloping cross-country over natural obstacles anymore,” said Ilana Gareen, an amateur rider and assistant professor of community health at Brown in the New York Times article. “I liked the fact that you could go to eventing and just be a good rider, do well, and have fun.”

Some have argued that the excitement of the contest has attracted inexperienced and riders who are not ready for the intensity of the course.

“You have people who didn’t grow up fox hunting or going on wild rides the way we did,” said Mick Costello, an event rider who builds cross-country courses, to the New York Times. “They haven’t been used to tumbling falls. They get a thrill out of going fast, and a lot of them aren’t ready.”

While this is very likely true, the deaths and injuries of some of the best riders in the world may indicate other issues.

Last month an Olympic bronze medalist was nearly killed when his horse didn't clear a jump and somersaulted over onto the rider.

According to the Times: In a letter to members, Kevin Baumgardner, the president of the United States Eventing Association, wrote: “The overall trends, particularly over the last three years, are unmistakable and, in my view, totally unacceptable. I know that my concern that the sport has gotten off track is shared by many of our members, amateurs and professionals alike.”

Charles Mann/, The New York Times

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

quick note

If you happened to see my final up here...ignore it! It was an unedited version that I put up there for a peer review. And it wasn't anywhere near finished! Thanks.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

NewsTrust is an interesting site designed to present and filter news from many different sites. The concept of this site is actually quite interesting--to vote on a story you have to register and then the weight your vote recieves depends on how much information you provide about yourself and how active you are on the site. The goal of this is to restrict the voting to only those with some kind of journalistic experience or relevant knowledge. What this eventually provides is a site full of well-written, well-researched and relevant articles.

Now my problem with this site. I had no idea that the votes were weighted and that it was meant for only journalist-types to vote. After class, I was quite impressed with the site. The concept is great, and it will provide a much better collection of stories than news aggregation sites that are specifically machine-run or voted on for popularity. However, before class I thought it was just another site that collected stories from other sources. Thinking that maybe it was just me, I sent the site to other people who were unrelated to class and they said the same thing, "Ok, it's another site that collects news stories." Besides the tagline "Your Guide to Good Journalism," I think there needs to be something much more obvious to explain what is going on.

I tend to think that the downfalls of sites like these is that they are designed by journalists...who expect other journalists or people who think just like journalists to read them. In reality, most readers are lazy, and they're not going to want to hunt through an extensive "About us" section to figure out the basic point of the site. At the moment, the site really only feels accessible to knowledgable journalistic readers, which is great when it comes to the voting. But if they eventually want the readers of the site to be of much broader demographics, they might want to think about the presentation of the concept of the site.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A fascinating new vacation spot.

Have you heard of San Serriffe, a small republic located in the Indian Ocean consisting of several semi-colon-shaped islands, yet? Its two main islands are named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital is Bodoni, and its leader is General Pica. The most singular feature of San Serriffe’s geography is its mobility. Due to a constant process of erosion that removes sand from the west coast and deposits it on the east coast, the islands are moving eastward at the rate of 1400 meters a year. It is anticipated that the islands will collide with Sri Lanka in 2011. To slow down this movement, boats constantly ferry sand from the east coast back to the west.

Perhaps the reason that you haven't heard of it, is that it is completely fictional. In 1977, the British newspaper The Guardian published a 7 page report with datailed descriptions of everything from the geography to the history of this entirely fictional republic. The Guardian received a lot of feedback from readers regarding the location and asking for more details. Apparently, those readers never noticed that everything about the islands were named after printer's terminology.
If you're interested in more hoaxes perpetrated throughout history, check out The Museum of Hoaxes. And remember...Happy April Fools Day!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

12 out of 4000

Tragically, the death toll in Iraq has reached a new milestone--4000 American soldiers dead. That is a number you will see in almost every major news outlet, reported in the same way as the 2000 dead mark. However, a number you might not see is 12. 12 is the number of soldiers who have been electrocuted to death by faulty wiring on US army bases in Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth was killed on January 2nd while showering on a base in Baghdad. His family was informed of his death and were told that he was electrocuted but were given no more details.

The New York Times article states,

"An Army investigation found that his death was due to improper grounding of the
electric pump that supplied water to the building, (Rep. Henry) Waxman said.
Maseth died after an electrical short in the pump sent a current through the
pipes, the California Democrat wrote in his letter."

In some cases, the families of the soldiers were given incorrect information regarding the manner of their loved-ones' death. Maseth's mother was originally told that her son was killed with a "small electrical device in the shower."

The electrocutions are being investigated, but the Army is denying any responsibility.