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Life-saving Weather Forecast Cost $3 a Person Annually Trump Wants to Slash Them

Trump wants to cripple storm forecasting just when it’s getting good — and we need it most.

By Eric Holthaus on Oct 23, 2017

As Hurricane Harvey roared toward the Texas coast in late August, weather models showed something that forecasters had never seen before: predictions of four feet of rainfall in the Houston area over five days — a year’s worth of rain in less than a week.

“I’ve been doing this stuff for almost 50 years,” says Bill Read, a former director of the National Hurricane Center who lives in Houston. “The rainfall amounts … I didn’t believe ‘em. 50-inch-plus rains — I’ve never seen a model forecast like that anywhere close to accurate.

“Lo and behold, we had it.”

That unbelievable-but-accurate rain forecast is just one example of the great leap forward in storm forecasting made possible by major improvements in instruments, satellite data, and computer models. These advancements are happening exactly when we need them to — as a warmer, wetter atmosphere produces more supercharged storms, intense droughts, massive wildfires, and widespread flooding, threatening lives and property.

And yet the Trump administration’s climate denial and proposed cuts threaten these advances, spreading turmoil in the very agencies that can predict disasters better than ever. The president’s budget proposal would slash the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget by 16 percent, including 6 percent from the National Weather Service.

Besides hampering climate research, the cuts would jeopardize satellite programs and other forecasting tools — as well as threaten the jobs of forecasters themselves. And they may undermine bipartisan legislation Trump himself signed earlier this year that mandates key steps to improve the nation’s ability to predict disasters before they happen.

Billy Raney and Donna Raney climb over the wreckage of what’s left of their apartment after Hurricane Harvey destroyed it on August 26, 2017 in Rockport, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s hard to overstate how backward that seems after the hurricane season we’ve just witnessed, as well as the deadly wildfires in California, the climate-charged droughts and deluges and, well, you name it. Just when we need forecasting to be better than ever — and need our forecasters to be able to go even further, using those predictions in ways that protect people’s lives and livelihoods — the Trump administration wants to cut back?

Here’s how far we’ve come in forecasting: Three-day hurricane forecasts are now nearly as accurate as one-day forecasts were when Katrina struck 12 years ago. Even routine, “will it rain this weekend?” forecasts are better today than you probably realize. A 2015 paper in the journal Nature called the advancements a “quiet revolution,” both because they’ve gone relatively unnoticed by the general public, and because it’s been cheap. The National Weather Service, an agency of the U.S. government, costs taxpayers about $3 per person each year.

Still, knowing what the weather is going to do tomorrow and understanding how best to warn the public about potential risks are two different things. The first is all about physics; the other is about psychology, human behavior, social interaction, the built environment, and much more. You can guess which is easier.

Forecasts for Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall totals might have been stunningly accurate, but the floodwaters still surprised thousands of people. Days after Harvey’s rains ended, first responders in towns throughout southeast Texas were still rescuing families stranded by rising waters that flowed downstream toward the Gulf.

In the interest of saving lives, forecasters have started moving from simply predicting the weather to attempting to predict the consequences. Call it impact forecasting, an attempt to say what will happen after the rain hits the ground. Scientists hope to answer questions like: Where will water accumulate? Where will floodwaters head? How will it affect people?

The next step is using those “impact forecasts” to get people to safety. Researchers are working to build customized, real-time personal prediction tools that could tell people if their house is likely to flood, or how long they might go without power. There’s also a drive to create easier to understand warning systems, making better use of the latest communication tools and social media.

Besides getting people out of harm’s way, better warning systems could help by letting nonprofits seek donations in advance of a devastating storm, for instance, so they could provide relief more quickly. And they could help public officials do a better job of prepping for the worst.

Residents affected by Hurricane Maria wait in line for fuel donated by the Fuel Relief Fund in the municipality of Orocovis, outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. REUTERS / Shannon Stapleton

The need for this new branch of forecasting was highlighted during the height of Harvey’s rains, when the National Weather Service issued a bulletin that put the deluge in stark terms: “This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced.”

“This was a good step forward,” says Kim Klockow, a meteorologist and behavioral scientist at the University of Oklahoma who supports the effort to develop impact forecasting. “It admitted something very important,” Klockow says — namely, that the system we have for warning people isn’t good enough.

In fact, experts say the best early-warning systems are ones that start years before the wind picks up and raindrops begin to fall, alerting people who live in vulnerable areas who might be prone to more threats in a climate-charged world.

Following Harvey, Klockow was named to a team of external scientists who will study the National Weather Service’s performance and look for ways to improve. They could start with better flood warnings, she says. “It’s like peering into a black box,” she says. “We give people almost nothing.”

In part, that’s a consequence of insufficient flood-zone maps. Even though rainstorms are getting more intense as the climate warms, FEMA sticks to historical flood data to determine which neighborhoods are required to purchase flood insurance — a policy that’s already leading to skyrocketing losses from floods. A recent study showed that 75 percent of the flood losses in Houston between 1999 and 2009 fell outside designated 100-year flood zones.

If residents don’t know their home is at risk of flooding, they’re less likely to consider that it might, even when a major storm is forecast. So it’s no surprise that, after floods, people report being caught by surprise.

How to keep them from getting surprised? Talk plainly.

There’s evidence that giving people unambiguous information can help move them to action. Recent research has shown that people often need to see the storm with their own eyes before they take cover. They need to see neighbors boarding up their houses before they do the same.

Read, the former National Hurricane Center director, says the same thing applies to him, despite his years of forecasting experience. “Most people, including myself if I’m really honest about it, are in denial that the bad thing will happen to you.”

Before Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in 2005, the National Weather Service issued a blunt statement that promised “certain death” should anyone be trapped outside unprotected. A post-storm analysis credited that warning with spurring an evacuation rate of more than 90 percent. Read says that’s why the Weather Service is shifting its focus toward making impending storms feel as real as possible to those in its path.

Forecasters need to “personalize the threat,” he says.

Klockow says that she’d like to see flood warnings take a personal approach, too. During a storm, an overlay in Google Street View could show you how high the water is rising in your neighborhood and re-route you away from flooded roads to get you home safely.

The tools to make that happen already exist. Several companies and local governments have already developed mapping tools that to warn of impending floods. North Carolina’s Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network relies on 500 measurement stations across the state that transmit their readings back to a central database. When conditions are ripe for flooding, the system’s software estimates possible consequences and alerts emergency managers.

This budding technology, integrated with databases of rescue supplies, could help FEMA figure out where to put aid and supplies before they’re needed.

Other organizations are working on an initiative called “forecast-based financing.” The idea is to allocate money for clearing out storm drains, as well as distributing first aid and water filtration systems, in the days ahead of a storm. Already tested in Uganda, Peru, Bangladesh and other countries, this innovation is now in the process of being scaled up worldwide. It could help organizations like the American Red Cross craft appeals for donations in advance, instead of relying on scenes of devastation after disaster strikes.


Ramon Sostre stands in front of his damaged house after Hurricane Maria destroyed the town’s bridge in San Lorenzo, Morovis, Puerto Rico. REUTERS / Shannon Stapleton

All of these efforts and ideas show a lot of promise. Yet even as forecasters have come to understand the importance of developing better advance-warning techniques, their ability to undertake those efforts is being undercut by a White House hostile to funding science.

Earlier this year, along with recommending that Congress gut funding for NOAA, President Trump proposed an 11 percent cut from the National Science Foundation’s budget, slashing funds from the institution behind much of the country’s basic scientific research. If Congress agrees, it would be the first budget cut in the foundation’s 67-year history.

At the National Weather Service, the Washington Post recently reported that the agency couldn’t fill 216 vacant positions as a result of a Trump-imposed hiring freeze. As a result, meteorologists were working double shifts when hurricane after hurricane hit last month and covering for each other from afar.

A forecast center in Maryland, for example, provided days of backup to the National Hurricane Center as hurricanes spun toward shore. National Weather Service meteorologists at the San Juan, Puerto Rico, office complained of “extreme fatigue.” Colleagues in Texas stepped in to give them breaks.

The threat of budget cuts is already crimping federally funded disaster research. A few days after Harvey struck Texas, the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research — one of the country’s top meteorological research institutions — cut entire sections of its staff focused on the human dimensions of disasters, including impact forecasting.

In an all-staff meeting on Aug. 30, the center’s director explained that the anticipation of tighter budgets forced the decision.

Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which oversees the center, called the cuts “strategic reinvestments” in a statement to Grist. He said the money saved would be reallocated to “the priority areas of computer models, observing tools, and supercomputing.”

But researchers at the center, called NCAR, say the layoffs will hurt efforts to make forecasts more human-focused and effective.

“Our whole group was cut,” says Emily Laidlaw, an environmental scientist at NCAR, whose work focuses on understanding what puts people at risk from climate change and climate-related disasters. “I would absolutely say that these cuts make people less safe.”

Read, the former hurricane center chief, says increases in supercomputing power shouldn’t come at the expense of developing forecasts that work better for people.

“You can’t drop one for the other,” he says.

The cuts to the National Center for Atmospheric Research will result in the loss of 18 jobs. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that these were some of the only scientists in the United States working to prepare our country’s system for predicting disasters in an era of rapid change.

In that context, the recent revolution in meteorology and pitfalls in preparedness become a powerful metaphor: We know that if we stick to our current course, the future will be bleak. Acting on the forecast of a warmer planet in a way that helps us to usher in a safer and more prosperous future is completely possible, and the stakes keep getting higher.

One-third of the U.S. economy, some $3 trillion per year, is subject to fluctuations in the weather, and millions of people endure weather disasters every year — a number that keeps going up as climate change boosts the frequency and intensity of storms.

Despite excellent weather forecasts, hundreds of people have lost their lives, and billions of dollars in economic value have been lost during this year’s record-breaking hurricane season. In some especially hard-hit places, like Barbuda, Dominica, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, recovery will take years, or longer.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Get people out of a hurricane’s path, put aid workers and supplies in the right place, and a raging storm might not lead to a catastrophe.

We are living in a golden age for meteorology, but we haven’t yet mastered what really matters: knowing in advance exactly how specific extreme weather events are likely to affect our lives. Getting that right could usher in a new era of disaster prevention, rather than the current model of Disaster Response.
A Beacon in the Smog®

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Some birds use discarded cigarettes to fumigate their nests


https://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21729739-they-help-keep-parasites-bay-some-birds-use-discarded-cigarettes-fumigate?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/somebirdsusediscardedcigarettestofumigatetheirnests

After the lead crisis started, Flint’s fertility crisis began | Grist

Sarah Rice / Stringer / Getty Images
Climate Desk
After the lead crisis started, Flint’s fertility crisis began
By Edwin Rios on Sep 25, 2017
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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In the year following the start of its water crisis, Flint, Michigan, saw fewer pregnancies among its residents and higher fetal deaths, according to a working paper published last month.

Kansas University economics professor David Slusky and West Virginia University economics professor Daniel Grossman examined health statistics in Flint between May 2007 and March 2015 and compared them to 15 other cities in Michigan. What they uncovered was alarming: After April 2014 — when, in an effort to cut costs, Flint officials switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River, leading to elevated lead levels — fertility rates among women in Flint dropped 12 percent. Fetal deaths spiked by 58 percent.

“This represents a couple hundred fewer children born that otherwise would have been,” Slusky said in a university press release this week. The researchers project that between 198 and 276 more children would have been born from November 2013, when the child was first conceived, to March 2015 had the city not switched its water supply.

The researchers also conclude that the water change and the corresponding increased exposure to lead prompted a decline in the overall health of children born. Children exposed to high levels of lead can suffer from irreversible neurological and behavioral consequences. Moreover, children born in Flint since the start of its water crisis saw a 5 percent drop in average birth weight compared to those in other parts of Michigan during the same time period.

Shortly after the move in April 2014, residents complained about the water’s stench as it became inflicted with lead from old pipes in residential homes. Even after doctors and experts alerted state and federal officials to the elevated lead levels in Flint’s children and in houses’ water, Governor Rick Snyder and other state officials didn’t concede to the public health emergency in Flint until September 2015. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality eventually acknowledged that it erred in not requiring the city to add anti-corrosive chemicals into its water.

Health officials found that between June 2014 and November 2015, 91 residents in Genesee County, which includes Flint, contracted Legionnaires’ Disease, a bacterial illness that can arise out of contaminated water, though not all were conclusively linked to Flint’s water crisis. At least 12 people from the disease died after 2014.

As of September 2017, 15 officials have been charged for their involvement in Flint’s water crisis, with five charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Earlier this year, a federal judge approved a $87 million settlement for the city of Flint that would pay to replace 18,000 water lines by 2020. The state still faces a number of lawsuits. One calls for the state to provide more special education services for children exposed to lead as a result of the water crisis.

After the lead crisis started, Flint’s fertility crisis began

A Beacon in the Smog®
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Report: Algae Biofuel Claims Overhyped; GE Algae Poses Environmental Risks  | Global Justice Ecology Project

Report: Algae Biofuel Claims Overhyped; GE Algae Poses Environmental Risks

Posted on September 26, 2017 by GJEP staff
SAN DIEGO, C.A. – As the Bio-Based Live Americas conference meets today to discuss topics including industrial scale production of biofuels and chemicals via genetically engineered (GE) microorganisms such as GE algae, a new report suggests that these organisms pose serious environmental and health risks.

Microalgae Biofuels: Myths and Risks and a companion briefing, released today by Biofuelwatch and Friends of the Earth U.S., reveals that even after decades of investment, viable commercial production of algae biofuels has failed and is unlikely to succeed. Meanwhile, genetically engineering microalgae to produce fuels, chemicals and other products poses under-recognized, serious threats to the environment and public health.

“As we are witnessing more frequent toxic algae blooms such as those currently plaguing the Finger Lakes region in New York, it seems particularly unwise to be encouraging mass-scale production and inevitable release of GE microalgae,” said Dr. Rachel Smolker, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch. “Scientists are clear that GE microalgae will inevitably escape from cultivation facilities. Many of the traits that are being engineered to create algal ‘chemical factories’ could result in their outcompeting and proliferating out of control in the wild.”

“Rushing genetically engineered algae into production ahead of safety assessments and oversight could result in serious unintended consequences. These organisms could become ‘living pollution’ that is impossible to recall,” said Dana Perls, Senior Food and Technology Campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S. “We need a common sense moratorium on the commercial cultivation of GE microalgae, and investment should be redirected toward more promising and sustainable solutions.”

Key findings of the report include:

Even after decades and millions of dollars in public and private of investment, production of algae biofuels has failed to become commercially viable.
Genetically engineering microalgae to produce fuels, chemicals, and other products poses serious threats to the environment and public health: invasive algae outcompeting native species, potential for increased harmful algal blooms, and land use impacts from chemical, energy and water intensive feedstock production.
Several major companies invested in producing genetically engineered algae are turning to low volume, high-value products to remain economically viable, with some such products already on the market, including ingredients for food and consumer products, all of which are derived from GE algae.
Government agencies, including Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with various state and private sources, continue to invest heavily in algae biofuels.
The continued market hype about GE algae biofuels as sustainable, claims of unrealistic productivity, and historic promises of commercial viability just over the horizon perpetuate the myth of a “miracle fuel” and that unsustainable energy consumption may continue “business as usual.”

The report explores the biological and technical barriers to algae biofuel production, providing perspective as to why decades of investment and hype has yet to yield any commercial biofuels. It argues that whether it is for biofuels, “bio-products”, or face creams, the large-scale cultivation of GE microalgae poses unacceptable risks, perpetuates the myth that algae biofuels will provide a viable and substantial alternative to fossil fuels, and diverts attention, funding and resources from safer solutions. The report calls for more sustainable and proven solutions to climate and energy concerns, such as efficiency, solar and wind energy, relocalization, expanded public transportation, and regenerative agriculture.

http://globaljusticeecology.org/report-algae-biofuel-claims-overhyped-ge-algae-poses-environmental-risks/
Copyright © 2017 · All Rights Reserved · Global Justice Ecology Project

How an Engineer Took on the Mystery of the Hunley | Science | Smithsonian

One Scientist May Have Finally Figured Out the Mystery of Why a Civil War Submarine Sank
A Navy engineer used creative modeling and her knowledge of underwater explosions to tackle the century-old Hunley conundrum

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The H.L. Hunley, a confederate Civil War era submarine, sits in its water tank at the Hunley Lab in North Charleston, SC. (Mic Smith Photography LLC / Alamy)
By Evan Lubofsky, Hakai Magazine
smithsonian.com
August 23, 2017

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

Around 6:30 p.m. on February 17, 1864, eight men crammed into the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, a self-propelled metal tube attached to a bomb, and slipped quietly into the freezing black water off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The crew hand-cranked the sub more than six kilometers toward its target—the Union blockader USS Housatonic—and surfaced like a leviathan for the charge. By 9:00 p.m., it was over: The Hunley had thrust its spar-mounted torpedo into the Housatonic’s hull and within seconds, 60 kilograms of black powder had caved in the ship.

Just after the brief moment of glory, the Hunley, which had just become the world’s first successful combat submarine, mysteriously sank.

Its demise has baffled scores of researchers and Civil War buffs for more than a century. Now, one maverick scientist is making the bold claim that she has cracked the case. After three years of sleuthing, Rachel Lance, a U.S. Navy biomedical engineer who holds a PhD from Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering in North Carolina, concludes that the blast from the sub’s own torpedo sent blast waves through its iron hull and caused instant death for the eight men inside.

If she’s right, the mystery of the Hunley may finally be put to rest. But how she made the discovery is almost as surprising as the discovery itself: She did it without access to the physical sub, which was excavated in 2000; without prior experience in archaeology or forensics; and without help from the Hunley Project, a team of researchers and scientists at Clemson University in South Carolina that has been on the case full time for the past 17 years.

Without collaboration or key pieces of data, could Lance’s account of the final moments of the Hunley and its crew be right?


On a warm September Saturday, I’m standing outside the student center at Duke, a low-rise contemporary building accented with the university’s signature neo-Gothic stone, when Lance swings around the bend in a blue Pontiac Grand Prix straight out of Motor City where she grew up. As I open the passenger door to introduce myself, I’m hit by a wall of thumping workout music. Lance just came from the gym, and her brown, shoulder-length hair is thrown up in an elastic. A blue, stonewashed T-shirt that reads Detroit rides up her pale, lanky arms.

As we make our way off campus, the music keeps pumping.

“Where are we headed?” I yell.

“I’m taking you to the campus pond to see where we ran some of our experiments,” she thunders back. “It’s quiet there so we can talk.”.

conrad_wise_chapman_-_submarine_torpedo_boat_hl_hunley_dec_6_1863

An oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, circa 1898, depicts the inventor of the ill-fated H. L. Hunley, along with a sentinel.
An oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, circa 1898, depicts the inventor of the ill-fated H. L. Hunley, along with a sentinel. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lance was modeling an underwater explosion at a computer in Duke’s Injury Biomechanics Lab, where she studied blast injuries, when her adviser had the epiphany that set her Hunley obsession in motion. What if, biomechanical engineer Dale Bass suggested, the modeling software could virtually reconstruct the attack on the Housatonic and reveal insights into the fate of the Hunley? Lance, a history buff, was hooked: a historical mystery with a tantalizing lead to follow. Eventually she’d abandon the software for a more hands-on experimental approach, but lass’s idea was the catalyst she needed.

She began reading theories about why the Hunley went down. One prevailing idea was that the crew ran out of oxygen and suffocated. It was exactly the type of theory she was poised to tackle: she’s been a civil service engineer with the U.S. Navy since 2009 and has expertise in breathing system dynamics and, more specifically, rebreathers—the closed-circuit breathing systems divers use to recycle breathing gas underwater.

As her investigation got underway, Lance noticed there was very little, if any, published research on the crew’s oxygen consumption during the mission. With the navy, she had researched the phenomenon of how much oxygen people used while operating hand-pedal ergometers requiring the same type of motion as the Hunley’s hand-cranked propulsion system. So, she dug up the data and used it to calculate how much oxygen the crew would have used while cranking their way toward the Housatonic.

It wasn’t clear how much oxygen there was to begin with, though. After hauling up the sub, the Hunley Project conservators calculated how much air was likely available. Their data suggests the crew had enough air for little more than two hours. Lance, however, didn’t have access to the actual data. She had met with project members to discuss collaboration, but they wouldn’t share their calculations with her (and, later on, would ask Lance to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which she’d decline). She’d have to go her own way.


She mulled over the problem for days. Then, she remembered thumbing through a newsletter published by Friends of the Hunley, a nonprofit in Charleston that handles outreach, fundraising, and development for the Hunley Project and runs tours at Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center where the Hunley is being restored. It was filled with interior and exterior photos of the sub, most of which had measurement notations below them. That gave her an idea.

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Rachel Lance and her assistants
Rachel Lance and her assistants test the CSS Tiny’s gauges with shock tubes at the Duke University reclamation pond in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Rachel Lance/Duke University)

For the next month, Lance sat hunched over her desk printing out photos of the sub, measuring each demarcated point with a ruler. After weeks of painstaking work, she finally had all the measurements necessary to calculate oxygen consumption versus supply. The results leapt off the page. Suffocation was not a plausible explanation for why the Hunley sank.

“Even with conservative calculations, the crew would have been experiencing noticeable hyperventilation, gasping for breath, choking, symptoms of panic, and likely physical pain from high levels of CO2 in the blood,” she says. “But we also know from records that they were seated peacefully at their stations without any signs of struggle. So, from my perspective, this tossed the suffocation theory out the window.” The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of the journal Forensic Science International.

Richard Moon, the medical director of the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, agrees. He helped Lance run the calculations and says, “You have a bunch of submariners who were working moderately hard in an enclosed space. There’s no way they would be working away at the crank in a 10 percent oxygen environment with high levels of CO2 and say, ‘Oh well, things are fine; we’ll just keep on going.’”

The folks at Clemson weren’t convinced. Kellen Correia, president and executive director of the Friends of the Hunley, stated in an email that, “It’s premature to draw any final conclusions about the causes of the loss of the submarine or death of the crew, especially when looking at only one aspect of the situation.” She didn’t, however, reference any specific issues with Lance’s findings.


Debunking the suffocation theory offered Lance some short-term satisfaction, but by this point, she was in deep. She began thinking about the Hunley around the clock, obsessing over it to the point where she’d zone out and stare into her plate of food during dinner with her fiancé. “There was something viscerally terrifying about the fact that eight people died that night, and we had no idea how or why,” she says.

In the meantime, Hunley Project conservators at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center were chiseling—and continue to chisel—their way through the stubborn, concrete-like layer of sand and silt that formed around the Hunley as it sat on the seafloor for more than 100 years.

“The de-concretion has the opportunity to give us more information,” says Clemson archeologist Michael Scafuri, “but we haven’t uncovered any definitive evidence to completely explain the loss of the Hunley. Nothing in and of itself explains what happened.”

There hasn’t been any case-cracking evidence on the human remains side, either. Linda Abrams, a forensic genealogist who has been working on and off with the Hunley Project since 2006, says all of the crew member skeletons were in good shape when they were excavated from the Hunley’s interior. The sub was completely filled with sediment when it was salvaged, so layer upon layer of muck had to be carefully removed before the bones were exposed. “There were no bullet wounds in any of these guys,” she says. And no signs of desperation.

While the scientists haven’t come up with a smoking gun, there is a small area of damage to the sub’s exterior that has stumped them. The forward conning tower has a softball-sized chunk of iron missing where a viewport had been.

animation-hunley.gif
Popular Science Monthly
A 1900 edition of Popular Science Monthly included this depiction of the cramped quarters within the H. L. Hunley, which we have animated. While nine men are shown here, the Hunley is believed to have had an eight-man crew the night it sank in 1864. (Popular Science Monthly)

Through her research, Lance learned of the damage to the conning tower and the so-called lucky shot theory: a stray bullet fired by Housatonic sailors during the attack punctured the tower, causing the sub to fill with water and sink.

From Scafuri’s perspective, it is a possibility. “The gunfire from the Housatonic may have played a role in this,” he says, “but we cannot confirm that at this point.”

Lance tested the theory by shooting Civil War-era firearms at cast iron samples—the damage to the sub was inconsistent with damage from her rifle fire. Plus, she says, a bullet hole would have allowed water to rush into the sub quickly and caused it to sink much closer to the attack site than where it was found.

Based on her results, Lance crossed the lucky shot theory off her list and documented the findings in a second paper in Forensic Science International.

The Friends of the Hunley declined to comment on the specific findings, but Correia wrote, “Again, Ms. Lance doesn’t have any primary knowledge or data of the Hunley Project.”

Lance pressed on. If the crew hadn’t suffocated, and a bullet hole didn’t sink the sub, what did happen?


When the Hunley took down the towering Housatonic, it was less than five meters away from the blast. And, it was still attached to the torpedo; inspired by Confederate steam-powered torpedo boats known as Davids during the Civil War, the Hunley’s crew had bolted the sub’s torpedo onto the end of its spar. This meant the same explosion that rocked the Housatonic could just as well have meant lights out for the Hunley crew.

Lance had spent the better part of two years investigating the suffocation and lucky shot theories, published twice, and still hadn’t solved the mystery. For her, this explosion theory was the next obvious avenue to explore, and one that meshed well with her injury biomechanics focus at Duke. If a blast wave from the explosion propagated into the interior of the sub, she reasoned, it could have immediately killed the crew or at least injured them sufficiently that they would have been unable to pilot the boat to safety. “When blast waves hit an air space, they slow down like a car hitting a wall,” she explains. “Except in this case, the wall is the surface of the lungs.” The sailors’ lungs could have ruptured and filled with blood.

To test the theory, Lance needed a physical model of the sub. Enter the CSS Tiny, a scale model a sixth the size of the tour bus-length Hunley. Made out of sheet metal, it was a Hunley mini-me right down to ballast tanks filled with water and a steel spar mounted to the bow.

Engineering a miniature submarine wasn’t a stretch for Lance, who grew up working on old cars with her father, a now-retired GM autoworker. As a kid, she was small enough to slide under their 1966 Mustang to change the oil without jacking up the car. “Growing up around car culture makes it easy to fall in love with machinery and engineering,” she says.

rachel-tiny-hunley
North Carolina
At a farm in rural North Carolina, Rachel Lance and one of her assistants, Luke Stalcup, prepare the CSS Tiny to receive explosions to test her blast wave theory. (Photo by Denise Lance)

A few minutes after peeling away from campus in Lance’s Pontiac, we pull into a dusty lot at the Duke University reclamation pond. The thumping bass line cuts out abruptly and the soundtrack is replaced with the ratchet-like chorus of crickets. At the pond’s edge, she gestures to the water, thick with algae: this is where the Tiny took a test run. Lance and a few members from her lab used blast simulation devices known as shock tubes to test the Tiny’s pressure gauges and other equipment in advance of the live explosives phase of the experiment. As she stood in the water, raising and lowering the shock tubes, fish chomped at her legs. It was as if she was being repeatedly stabbed with tiny knives—but by the end of it, Lance and the Tiny were ready for the big event.


The campus pond was off limits to real explosives, so, two weeks later, Lance and her research team trekked out to a three-hectare pond on a rural North Carolina farm for the live ammo tests. They parked the Tiny in the middle of the pond, and with an explosives agent standing guard, the stage was set. Lance began the countdown: “Five! Four! Three! …” The culmination of months of hard work all came down to the next few seconds, and her nerves were frayed as she frantically clicked between sensor readout screens on her laptop.

From a safe distance, farmer Bert Pitt and his grandchildren were ready for the show. Lance had sweet-talked him into volunteering his pond for the project. “When Rachel came out to the farm,” says Pitt in a thick southern drawl, “she tried to butter me up with red velvet cake and explained that it would only be a one-sixth-scale explosion.”

“Two! One!” Pfffsssssttt! The black powder charge exploded on the Tiny’s spar, and a small geyser of pond water erupted. Pressure gauges hung inside and outside the vessel to measure the underwater blast waves. Below the surface, the explosion jetted a blast wave into the Tiny’s hull with so much force that it caused the metal to flex. That motion, in turn, generated a second blast wave that transmitted straight through the hull into the cabin.

“The secondary blast wave from this would have easily caused pulmonary blast trauma that killed the whole crew instantly,” Lance says. “This is what sank the Hunley.”

Moon supports the conclusion. He says most people would assume that the cabin walls would have protected the crew from the blast waves—but few people know much about underwater explosions. “Speculation up to this point has been fine,” he says, “but when you hold it up to hard science, I think the blast wave theory is the most plausible explanation.”

testing-hunley
Rachel Lance
Rachel Lance stands with her model of the H. L. Hunley—the CSS Tiny—at the Duke University reclamation pond. (Photo by Eric Wei)

While Lance believes the mystery of the Hunley can finally be put to rest, the Hunley Project scientists aren’t ready to jump to conclusions. They’ve acknowledged the explosion theory as a possibility in the past, but began to doubt it prior to Lance’s experiment based on results from a computer modeling study conducted by the US Navy in 2013. The study suggests the blast wave would not have harmed the crew, yet further studies continue to second-guess any previous study conclusions.

“The problem is, it’s a complicated scenario,” says Scafuri. “It’s sort of like trying to reconstruct the causes of a car accident with limited information. Would you be able to find evidence of an accident that happened because a bee flew in through the window and distracted the driver, who happened to be texting, on a stretch of road that was slick?”


“Oh, I have something for you,” says Lance at Duke’s reclamation pond. She reaches into her backpack and hands me a cigar-sized, 3D-printed replica of the Hunley—a souvenir of sorts. It offers a micro, yet detailed, view of the sub’s interior that makes me realize how confining the crew compartment—which at full-scale was only one meter wide and 1.2 meters high—must have been for eight grown men. It was a death trap. The fact they crammed themselves into the tube anyway was a sacrifice Lance seems to have unwavering respect for. It’s part of what drove her to press on to the finish line, despite the odds being stacked against her.


But how could it be that Lance was able to unravel a century-old mystery in such a relatively short period of time, particularly given the Hunley Project’s 14-year head start? Was it beginner’s luck, or her ability to approach the problem from a different scientific vantage? Maybe it simply came down to old-fashioned determination. “You have to deal with a lot when doing this kind of research, especially when you’re doing things on your own, which can be difficult and lonely,” she says. “You need to have a lot of perseverance, because that’s where the good stuff is—past that limit where nobody’s been able to push through the problem before.”

In the end, maybe it had more to do with the fact that the Hunley Project is intent on both carrying out the painstakingly slow process of conserving the sub and explaining its disappearance. Although, from a revenue perspective, the mystery in and of itself may be a real positive for the Hunley Project and Friends of the Hunley, considering the sales of T-shirts, shot glasses, and lab tours it helps generate.

Regardless, when Lance’s findings from her blast wave experiment are published (a research paper will be released imminently), the Hunley Project team will be watching.

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Audubon California – Starr Ranch | live webcams: barn owl, red-shouldered hawk, black-chinned hummingbird

Warning…. can be very addictive 🐦

http://starrranch.org/blog/

Should I keep my laptop plugged in while I use it? | Grist


Q. Dear Umbra,

I work all day on a laptop (a MacBook Air). I’d like to prolong the life of my computer and battery so I don’t have the expense and waste of having to replace the laptop earlier than necessary. So what’s the best approach to plugging the laptop in vs. running it off the battery? When it’s 100-percent charged, should I unplug it and let the battery charge drop down low before plugging it in again? Or should I keep it plugged in all day long while I work?

Jamal J.
Princeton, New Jersey

A. Dearest Jamal,

Most people understand that repurposing or recycling something is better than throwing it away. But you know what’s even better than that? Not recycling that thing, because it still works perfectly — or, at least, postponing that inevitable moment of mortality as long as possible. In our culture of planned obsolescence and gimme-that-hot-new-tech upgrades, this is a somewhat radical idea. I tip my hat to you, my status quo–shaking friend.

“Maintain it, don’t disdain it!” could be your creed. Apply it to most material things, but it’s particularly important with laptops and their lithium-ion batteries, as well as other electronics. Not only do these gadgets cost a pretty penny, but manufacturing them (and their batteries) requires water, energy, and rare-metal mining, and also brings up concerns about potentially toxic substances and human rights for miners. In short: The fewer you go through in your working life, the better.

To that end: There is indeed a plug-in protocol you can use to maximize your battery’s overall lifespan, Jamal, and it’s all about minimizing stress on that hardworking power pack.

The No. 1 thing that shortens a lithium-ion battery’s life? Letting it drain to zero. So try never to do that.

Why? Let’s start with a quick vocabulary primer. Depth of discharge refers to how much of a battery’s power has been used up: 40 percent depth of discharge means it has 60 percent of its life left, and 100 percent means you’ve let the battery run dry. A charge or discharge cycle is one full drop from 100-percent charged to dead as a doornail (or multiple partial discharges that add up to 100 percent). These two concepts are directly connected: The larger the average depth of discharge, the fewer total discharge cycles you get out of the battery.

In other words, if you regularly let that battery gauge dip into the red zone, then fully recharge it, the battery will degrade more quickly. And we’re not just talking a little difference: According to Battery University, an online juggernaut of battery information, if you tend to drain your battery low and then charge it back up to 100 percent, you’ll get about 300-500 discharge cycles before the battery starts losing capacity. But if you go with frequent partial recharges, you can boost total discharge cycles up as high as 4,700 before the battery’s performance starts slipping (and before you have to get much more aggressive about commandeering the outlet at the coffeehouse).

So is it best to just leave it plugged in at 100-percent charge all the time? Nope. As it happens, being completely full also stresses out a lithium-ion battery, aka the Goldilocks of portable power sources. The sweet spot, according to battery experts, is between 40 and 80 percent charged. In a perfect world, then, you’d drain the battery to 40, recharge it to 80, and repeat for years of top-notch battery performance. If monitoring your battery levels to this degree sounds a bit obsessive, well, it is. But unfortunately, I couldn’t find any easy apps or settings tweaks that would do this automatically for you. (Hey, developers: Opportunity alert!)

That said, it’s not a terrible practice to leave your laptop plugged in at times. You won’t “overcharge” a lithium-ion battery; once it tops up, the battery essentially steps off to the side and lets the power grid run the computer, waiting until you need it again. So while keeping the battery full does cause strain, it’s better than a 100-percent depth of discharge.

If you are tethered to the outlet for a while, some experts suggest removing your laptop’s battery entirely (though that’s not an option for Macs because they have integrated batteries). Removing it protects it from a lithium-ion battery’s No. 2 nemesis: heat. A battery’s optimal temperature zone is about 62 to 72 degrees (what a coincidence — that’s my optimal zone, too), and anything hotter than about 95 degrees can really wreak havoc. So keep your laptop out of hot cars, direct summer sunlight, Bikram yoga class, etc. And make sure to keep the cooling vents clear — work at a table or desk, not in bed with your computer on a quilt on your lap.

There you have the secret to long life: Watch your power levels, and keep it cool. And you know, I suspect following that advice might translate to a longer, happier life for ourselves as well as our batteries.

Stress-freely,
Umbra

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Gmail Tips: Get Organized with Labels and Filters

TIME

Hi, there. I’m going to use an email message from my friend Ben to show you how to organize your Gmail inbox a little better.

First order of business: never delete messages. We’re going to archive them instead. This is the equivalent of taking every piece of physical mail that’s ever been sent to your house and putting it in your basement instead of throwing the mail you don’t need or don’t care about away. If you do this in real life, you’re crazy. If you don’t do this online, you’re crazy.

There are three buttons above every message: one that looks like a box (Archive), then an exclamation point inside a stop sign (Report spam), then a trash can (Delete). Unless you’re running really low on Google storage space (you probably aren’t), always use Archive when you’re done reading a message that you’d like to file away and retrieve…

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