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Sarah Laskow's Posts

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One-fifth of creepy spineless animals could disappear forever

Photo by miguelb.

Most species are spineless piles of goo. That's not a value judgment: About 80 percent of the world's species are invertebrates, which actually do lack spines.

Metaphorically, though, it is we who are the spineless piles of goo, for standing by while these creatures disappear. A new report from the Zoological Society of London found that one-fifth of invertebrates "could be at risk of extinction," the BBC reports.

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8-year-old gets rich off whale vomit and decides to open an animal shelter

British kids named Charlie are basically the best. They bite their brothers and laugh, they tour chocolate factories, etc. This one, Charlie Naysmith, 8, is the sort of kid who, when he unexpectedly finds a rock-like substance worth tens of thousands of dollars, donates it all to help animals.

Charlie is into nature, so when he found a large weird chunk of rock on the beach, he took it home as a specimen. Turns out, it was actually a piece of ambergris -- a chunk of hardened whale vomit. Ambergris is prized by perfume-makers, as it helps more delicate smells linger, and since it’s hard to find, it’s extremely valuable. With a little research, Charlie discovered that his chunk was worth more than $63,000.

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Wondering which condoms to buy? Science has the answer

Debby Herbenick knows how you feel about condoms. You know you need them, but you just want to go into the drugstore, get them, and get the hell out of there. (This is basically why they invented those self-service checkout things: As embarrassing as it is to buy condoms, imagine being the person on the other end of the transaction, thinking, "God, even this person is getting some?")

Herbenick thinks about condoms so you don't have to, and she knows exactly which condom you should buy:

Through scientific research that I conduct with my team at Indiana University about condoms, lubricants, and other sexual enhancement products, I’ve had amazing opportunities to learn more about the condoms that work well for people, that are linked to more pleasurable, satisfying sex, and -- when relevant -- safer outcomes.

Safer and, we would add, less likely to involve producing a whole new human being that will consume untold amounts of resources over the course of its long, hopefully healthy life.

Interestingly, Herbenick and her team rely more on men's condom preferences than women. This is not just sexism! She has a good, science-based reason:

Read more: Living

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People think cloud computing involves actual clouds

We know that people often get confused between weather and climate, but apparently a lot of people also get confused between weather and weather-related metaphors. To wit: A new survey has found that a shocking number of people believe that cloud computing involves actual clouds, as in the things in the sky where rain comes from. WebProNews reports:

The survey found that 51 percent of respondents believe that stormy weather can interfere with cloud computing. A plurality of respondents (29 percent) also think that the cloud is an actual cloud. A paltry 16 percent actually knew what the cloud was.

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If you like to cook, this new use for a plastic bottle will honestly change your life

We know that you don't buy single-use plastic bottles if you can help it, but if you do happen to have one lying around, may we suggest this totally amazing way to reuse it?

(We can't understand what this lady is saying either, but you don't need to know Japanese Chinese [whoops, sorry! I said I didn't speak it!] to get the point. Watch -- just watch! -- what she does to this egg.)

Read more: Food

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Meet the brave little solar-powered robot who’s helping us understand hurricanes

Chasing a tornado might be nuts, but chasing a hurricane is beyond nuts. Being in a car near a tornado sounds like a bad idea, but at least you might hit a Norse god or end up in Oz or something. You’d have to go hurricane-chasing in a boat or helicopter, though, and being in a helicopter in hurricane-force winds seems like suicidal madness.

Luckily, we have unmanned robots to do the work that humans can't or don't want to do. And a brave little robot named Alex is out in the ocean at this very minute, working to better understand the conditions that lead to hurricanes like Isaac.

Alex is a Wave Glider robot, and he gets all of his power from the sun and from the ocean's waves.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Ants basically invented the internet

Photo by bob in swamp.

Step aside, Al Gore. You, too, Tim Berners-Lee. Now we know who really invented the internet: ants.

"Invented" is maybe not exactly right. It's more like they independently discovered one of its fundamental principles. Sort of like Newton and Leibniz and calculus, except that it's quite clear who discovered this particular algorithm first. (Hint: It wasn't us.)

The fundamental principle in question has to do with maximizing the use of a scarce resource. In the case of the internet, that resource is bandwidth. In the case of ants, it's food. Here's how it works, according to Stanford University, where biology professor Deborah Gordon has been studying harvester ants:

A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

Similarly, when a Transmission Control Protocol algorithm seeks to send information, it sends out "foragers" with packets of data. Those signals won't return back to their origin until they find enough bandwidth. If there's more bandwidth available, they'll come back faster.

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Climate change could take away high school football

Really intense high school football is kind of a red-state thing, so we imagine that a threat to those Friday night lights would get Republicans really hot and bothered. We may soon see whether that’s enough to prod them into doing something about climate change, because if temperatures continue to increase, it could ruin high school football for good. Daily Climate reports:

Scaling back the intensity of a football practice due to hot weather was once laughable in South Georgia, where heat, gnats and hard-hitting high school football are facts of life. But this year Georgia became the latest state to enact new rules to prevent heat-related deaths of high school football players, a category in which the state leads the nation.

Even the warm wash of an inspirational speech from Coach Taylor won't do much to change a kid's fate if he's in the middle of a heat stroke. Just between 2005 and 2009, 17 high school players died from overheating on the football field.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The only way to evacuate all of humanity from Earth is to use nuclear propulsion

Yes, it is awesome the Curiosity rover can Instagram Mars pics back to Earth from 50 million miles away. But ultimately, one goal of all this space exploration is to have another place to go if we really royally screw up the planet, right? XKCD's Randall Munroe answers a critical question about that overplayed movie plot secret government plan ahem THEORETICAL POSSIBILITY: If we actually needed to get billions of people off this planet … could we really do it?

If you haven't been reading Munroe's new "what if?" feature, in which he answers "hypothetical questions with physics," know that it is only slightly less awesome than having a robot send you pictures from another planet. There are stick figures, and there is science! What more could you want?

Munroe runs through a few different options for launching billions of people off the planet: rockets like we use now; an elevator that ferries people up from Earth to a satellite in space; rockets that ride a wave of nuclear energy out of the atmosphere. But today's rockets, it turns out, would likely take more fuel than we have available to produce and launch.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Giant pythons are taking over the Everglades

Screenshot via CNN.

Last week, researchers at the University of Florida got a present -- a gigantic Burmese python, the largest anyone had ever found in the Everglades. The good news: It was dead. The bad news: It weighed 164 pounds, measured a record 17.5 feet in length, and was a foot wide. For context, that’s as long as a medium-sized U-Haul, and as heavy as Tom Daley. It also had 87 eggs inside it that could have grown into 87 more monster pythons. CNN reports:

The snake was so big that researchers had to pile it on top of itself and wheel it into the examination room on a flat cart. They laid it on a series of tables lined up end to end, and then five researchers worked side by side to dissect the length of the snake.

Read more: Uncategorized