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Environmental Scientist

Journal Archives

Internet lights up as new People's Daily HQ erected

The shape of the new headquarters of the People's Daily, the Communist Party's main propaganda machine, has sparked heated discussion online for looking a bit too phallic.

The building is still under construction in Beijing, but at its current stage, documented widely in pictures on social media sites, its shape is certainly suggestive.

Most photos posted on Sina Weibo, the mainland's most popular microblogging site, were removed by censors, and attempts to search for " People's Daily building" in Chinese were met with a message that read: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results cannot be displayed."

However, photos could still be found on other social media sites.



Lifestyles of 'Zombie Worms': Spitting Acid In More Than Just Whale Bones

You may have heard about the bone-eating "zombie worms" and their ability to bore through the thick bones in whale corpses, but new research on the creepy worms reveals more details on the lifestyle of the bone eaters.

Researchers discovered the creatures a little more than a decade ago and found that the worms were able to remove nutrients from bones, despite having no mouth, gut or anus. But just how the worms are able to physically bore into the bones has been a mystery until now.

It turns out that rather than bone-drilling worms, describing the tiny creatures as acid spewing, bone-dissolving worms might be more accurate.

The acid is produced by proton pumps -- protein-containing cells abundant in the front end of the worm's body. Martin Tresguerres, a marine physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. said he has studied these acid-secreting structures in other fish but has never seen anything like what the zombie worm has.


Goldman Sachs’ huge profits become election fodder in Malaysia

The outsize profits of Goldman Sachs have been a political hot potato in the United States ever since the financial crisis. But now the firm known to its detractors as the “vampire squid” has landed right in the middle of Sunday’s bitterly close Malaysian election.

Malaysian opposition candidates claim that Goldman suckered the government in a recent bond deal in which the investment bank served as both advisor and purchaser—typical, they say, of a corrupt and incompetent regime that has been in power for five decades.

The Financial Times and Wall Street Journal both have in-depth accounts of the controversial Goldman deal, but these are the basics: 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state-controlled fund that reports to Prime Minister Najib Razak, issued government bonds with a face value of $3 billion that were purchased by Goldman in a private placement for only $2.71 billion. Unusually, the bonds were sold before receiving a credit rating—Standard & Poor’s was consulted only after the bonds were purchased by a Goldman trading desk known as the Principal Funding and Investing Group.

Why the rush? Wong Chen, trade and investment bureau chairman for the opposition PKR party, noted that the sale came on March 29, only three days before the prime minister dissolved parliament in the run-up to the election. “If our local banks had arranged for this exercise, they will only charge a nominal fee as it is considered a national duty to work on government backed bonds,” he told the Free Malaysia Today news site. “But instead, Goldman Sachs was hired and was reported to have been paid about RM220 million ($72 million). Local banks would have only charged about six figures.”

Those fees would come on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Goldman’s trading desk could make by selling the bonds closer to face value. Goldman told the Journal that it performs “the same consistently high global standards of due diligence and business selection in connection with all securities offerings.”



A new problem for fracking: Drillers are running out of water

Could severe water shortages short-circuit the US shale gas boom? With 64% of the country in drought, water is looming as the next hot-button issue in the debate over hydrofracturing, also known as fracking, which involves injecting chemical-laden water under high pressure to create fissures in subterranean rock formations so gas and oil can be extracted.

A comprehensive survey of fracking and water availability, due to be released Thursday, found that 47% of oil and gas wells are located in high or extremely high water-stressed areas. The report compiled by Ceres, the Boston-based nonprofit that promotes corporate sustainability, is based on water consumption information from 25,450 wells reported by drillers to a database called FracFocus between January 2011 and September 2012.

When Ceres researchers drilled down into the data by correlating the water consumption data with water stress maps created by the World Resources Institute, they found widespread water shortages in some of the US’s most gas-rich states.

In Colorado, 92% of 3,862 wells were in areas designated as extremely high water stressed, meaning that 80% of the available water is already being drawn down for residential consumption or for industrial and agriculture use.



Driving Mars Rovers: ‘It can get a little boring’

Nasa driver who has clocked up most miles on the Red Planet reveals what it’s really like to be behind the wheel of a space rover.

I met a man employed on Mars. Not just watching it from a distance, but doing things on its surface. Paolo Bellutta is his name and he drives Nasa’s Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers – the only working cars in space. As he proudly tells me, “I’m one of the few people who has an interplanetary driver’s licence.” For further clarification he’s also wearing a bright red jacket with “Mars Rover Driver” emblazoned across the back.

Let me back up a bit. Despite the 30-year old Lou Reed hit Satellite of Love predicting that Mars would soon “be filled with parking cars”, so far only four have made it to the planet. Bellutta has driven all but the first, the tiny Sojourner rover landed there by Nasa’s Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 that lasted three months before losing contact.

He’s a leading figure in both the ongoing Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission – which landed Spirit and Opportunity in 2004 – and in the most recent Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which last year used a fiendishly complicated and previously untried “sky crane” to lower the nearly one tonne nuclear-powered, family-car-sized Curiosity almost exactly on target in the Gale Crater, a site he’d helped select. On the day of the landing last August, Bellutta admits he was in pieces, although he’s adamant he wasn’t worried that Curiosity might be too. The team responsible for getting the rover down to the surface in one working piece had his complete trust: “they’re really, really smart people,” he says with a grin, “so I bet my work on them.” Nevertheless for all the work he’d done in advance, and all that he was preparing to do on Mars, the descent itself was out of his hands. He claims to have been so nervous that despite having brought in his camera specially he failed to take a single picture.

The landing worked out almost exactly as planned. Things on Mars often don’t. Even though it happened nearly four years ago, Bellutta is still visibly upset and seems almost lost for words trying to describe how Spirit became stuck in soft soil and why they couldn’t find any way to get the stricken rover back on track. His team spent months attempting to simulate the conditions – not easy when you’ve got to mimic the low gravity as well as the terrain – and went through every combination of forward and backwards motion for the wheels, even using them as paddles to attempt to swim Spirit out (something which proved surprisingly effective, but came too late to save it/her). “We tried everything”, he says. But what, I ask, if you’d known what you know now and done things in a different sequence? “Perhaps,” Bellutta says wistfully. You can tell it’s the perhaps which still needles him.


The ROI of college: Is going to an expensive school worth it?

By Ritchie King

It may seem crass to think of a bachelor’s degree simply as a financial investment. Yet, with the cost of US college tuition increasing rapidly—and interest rates on student loans following suit—it seems more and more sensible to consider the financial payback of a given school along with its academic prestige and the intangible qualities that give it character.

Payscale, a consultancy that specializes in employee compensation, recently released a report of the net 30-year return on investment of 1,070 American colleges and universities. Given a school, the report shows how much more each graduate can expect to make than somebody with a high school diploma, minus how much she paid for her degree. Here’s a list of the top five schools by ROI:

They are all engineering schools, but it’s not just because engineers make a great salary. To isolate the impact of each school, the report only looks at graduates who have earned bachelor’s degrees and did not go on to earn a master’s, PhD, or any other advanced degree. That rules out doctors, lawyers, and MBAs, but it doesn’t exclude many licensed engineers. If you take out the engineering schools, the list instead looks like this:

So does it make sense to go to an expensive school? Do you end up making more in the long run? The short answer is yes. Here’s a chart of the expected net 30-year return plotted against the total cost of a bachelor’s degree for each of the schools in the report. (Note: for public schools, only the in-state costs are represented.)


The 10 Worst Prisons in America: ADX

"If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." So goes the old saying. Yet conditions in some American facilities are so obscene that they amount to a form of extrajudicial punishment.

Doing time is not supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These, however, are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.

The United States boasts the world's highest incarceration rate, with close to 2.3 million people locked away in some 1,800 prisons and 3,000 jails. Most are nasty places by design, aimed at punishment and exclusion rather than rehabilitation; while reliable numbers are hard to come by, at last count 81,622 prisoners were being held in some form of isolation in state and federal prisons.

While there's plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of these problems, some stand out as particularly bad actors. We've compiled this subjective list of America's 10 worst lockups (plus a handful of dishonorable mentions) based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy. We will be rolling out profiles of the contenders over the next 10 days, complete with photos and video. To start off, let's travel to Florence, Colorado, to visit the "Alcatraz of the Rockies."



Outdoor recreation cages at ADX. From Bacote et al. v. BOP

Why is Our Government Attacking Science?

By Phil Plait

I’m used to attacks on science; they’ve been endemic for years now. Antivaxxers, global warming deniers, creationists, what have you. And I’ve even gotten used to, at some level, egregiously antiscience rhetoric and machinations from government officials.

But over the past few days and weeks things seem to have gone to 11. I’m reeling from the absolute unfettered nonsense and sheer manipulation going on by our elected officials, and I’ll be honest: It’s scary.

To start, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is a global warming denier, by the way, is the head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He has recently decided that the National Science Foundation—a globally respected agency of scientific research and investigation—should no longer use peer review to fund grants. Instead it should essentially get political permission for which research to fund.

This is not a joke. Smith wants politics to trump science at the National Science Foundation.

This prompted a brilliantly indignant letter from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who calls this idea “destructive” to science. She’s right. What Smith is doing strongly reminds me of Lysenkoism, when the Soviet government suppressed science on genetics and evolution that didn’t toe the party line.



Thursday TOON Roundup 5- The Rest

Ground Zero








Thursday TOON Roundup 4- W and Syria



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