October 31, 2009

Where Does Halloween Come From?

Halloween (sometimes spelled Hallowe'en) is an annual holiday celebrated on October 31. It has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain and is largely a secular celebration. The colors black and orange have become associated with the celebrations, perhaps because of the darkness of night and the color of fire.
(C. Rude)


Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, explains that while some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the celtic festival of Samhain or Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in), which is derived from Old Irish and means roughly "summer's end". A similar festival was held by the ancient Britons and is known as Calan Gaeaf (pronounced kalan-geyf). The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half," and is sometimes regarded as the "Celtic New Year." But that's not all there is to this ancient holiday.

October 30, 2009

San Francisco Bay Bridge Still Broken

UPDATE: The Bay Bridge re-opened on Monday morning, November 2nd 2009. However, temporary closures for more repairs are anticipated.

UPDATE:  Caltrans has announced that the San Francisco Bay Bridge emergency closure will probably extend through Halloween weekend. The bridge may reopen November 2, 2009, but commuters and travelers should have backup plans.

As of Friday, October 30, 9:00 AM PST the SF Bay Bridge is still closed in both directions for repairs and inspections. In terms of sheer volume of cars, the Bay Bridge is the busiest bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area, linking San Francisco and Oakland. Traffic in the surrounding area is snarled, but the public transit system is picking up the slack. BART ridership is up 60%. Caltrans crews are working to reopen the Bay Bridge as quickly as possible, with a goal of reopening the span sometime on Friday. Motorists are advised to use commute alternatives for the Friday morning commute. Residents of Treasure Island are allowed access to their homes via the San Francisco side of the bridge, for which the California Highway Patrol (CHP) is requiring proof of residency.

October 29, 2009

The Aral Sea, Environmental & Economic Calamity

The Aral Sea in August 1985
A man-made desert that was once the Aral Sea represents one of the world's worst environmental and economic calamities. However, the story may have a somewhat happy ending, as well as a valuable lesson about environment and economic sustainability-- the return of the Aral Sea.

Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of fresh water with an area of 68,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Ireland), the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by nature-reversing Soviet Union irrigation projects. Fresh water is in increasingly short supply on planet earth. By 2004, the sea had shrunk to 25% of its original surface area, and a nearly fivefold increase in salinity had killed most of its natural flora and fauna. By 2007 it had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting into three separate lakes, two of which are too salty to support fish. The once prosperous fishing industry has been destroyed, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards, leading to rampant unemployment and economic hardship. After the sea began to dry up in the 1960s, Aral villages withered as people migrated to the cities for jobs. The surrounding region became a searing dust bowl and the fishing industry, one the few sources of steady employment, collapsed. The land became a desert, baking in the day, freezing at night. Salt blown inland by the wind off the exposed seabed unleashed a scourge of respiratory diseases on the people of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The drying-out has severely damaged plant and animal life and created huge salt and dust storms. 
The Aral Sea in August 2009
The environmental catastrophe "is unprecedented in modern times," says Philip Micklin, a geography professor at Western Michigan University who has studied the Aral Sea for years. Today, nearly two decades after the end of the Soviet Union, the environmental damage is far from reversed. Satellite images taken earlier this year show that one section of the sea has shrunk by 80 percent in the last three years alone. Uzbekistan, which controls three-quarters of the Aral Sea, has given up trying. The bit of recovery that has taken place is on Kazakhstan's portion of the former sea, and it is very noticeable.

October 21, 2009

Rising Sea Levels Could Threaten Cities

Nearly a quarter of mankind lives in low-lying coastal areas, and urbanization is drawing still more people into them. But the loss of waterfront property to rising seawater is no longer a future threat; it is happening now.

Shanghai is a city of 20 million people and skyscrapers that pierce the clouds. It sits on tidal flats fed by the mighty Yangtze River. Now Shanghai's future depends on finding ways to prevent the water from reclaiming it.
Global warming has already led to melting glaciers and polar ice sheets, raising sea levels worldwide. Tens of millions of people in coastal areas and on low-lying islands are now in danger of finding themselves under water.

October 19, 2009

The EPA is Back on the Job

"The EPA is back on the job," says Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The agency released a long-buried document last week that reveals the agency's positive conclusions on global warming years ago while President Bush was in office. The December 2007 document says greenhouse gases are dangerous to public health and need to be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

October 16, 2009

VW's Musical Stairway

Volkswagen is best known for its cars, trucks, crossovers and SUVs, but the German automaker is also making an effort to get our expanding society to exercise more. To that healthy end, VW and ad agency DBB introduce what they call The Fun Theory, designed to get people in Stockholm, Sweden to get into shape by taking the stairs instead of the escalator. Here is what they did.

VW didn't send out a press release about the importance of exercise for good health. Instead, the automaker turned an ordinary set of subway stairs into a mega-sized piano. When passers-by step on the stairs, each key makes the appropriate piano sound.

The results? According to the folks at VW, 66% more people used the stairs after music came on the scene than before, and judging from the YouTube video below, it looks like they were having a lot of fun doing it, too. Remember Tom Hanks in Big? Music is good for the Heart And Soul. So is taking the stairs. Now people who ride the subway in Stockholm can enjoy both.

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October 15, 2009

New Vegetarian Spider Discovered

Until now, all 40,000 species of spiders known to science seemed to eat by sucking the nutritious juices out of insects and other prey. However, researchers have come across a spider that is a vegetarian, and is apparently the first example of a plant-eating spider. According to a report in the journal Current Biology, the spider does occasionally cheat on its diet and eat an ant larvae or two, but most of its calories come from its high-fiber vegetarian diet.

Two scientists, working independently in Costa Rica and Mexico, noticed that the neotropical jumping spider feeds almost exclusively on acacia leaf tips. These yummy leaf tips are usually eaten by ants, which in turn defend the plants from predators. But the little vegetarian spider, known as Bagheera kiplingi, has developed a taste for the leaf tips, too. In this photo by R. L. Curry, an adult female Bagheera kiplingi spider can be seen walking along a leaf with a freshly-harvested acacia leaf tip in her mouth. Delicious and nutritious.

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October 14, 2009

Watch the International Space Station!

Photo courtesy of NASA
Orbiting at more than 200 miles above the Earth, the International Space Station is quickly growing into one of the brightest permanent fixtures in the night sky. Currently consisting of the American connecting module "Unity" and the Russian control module "Zarya," the Space Station circles the planet approximately 16 times per day, traveling at 17,500 mph in an orbit varying 208 to 285 miles from Earth.  The International Space Station is a cooperative endeavor by the United States and 15 other nations. It is the largest international space construction effort in history.

What does the Space Station look like?
Photo courtesy of NASA
Because it reflects sunlight down to Earth, the Space Station often looks like a slow-moving star as it crosses the sky. That deceptive appearance can fool a casual viewer. However, sighting the International Space Station is easier if you know when and where to look for it.

Where is it?

Visit NASA's Human Space Fight website to find out exactly when the International Space Station is overhead in your part of the world.

When can I see it? 

The best time to catch a glimpse of the Space Station is near dawn or dusk, when the viewer is in near-darkness and the passing Station continues to reflect light from the rising or setting Sun.


October 8, 2009

Less Junk Food Sold in American Schools

After years of vending machines selling junk food in schools, a new study suggests that fewer U.S. high schools and middle schools are selling candy and salty snacks to students. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its report was based on a survey of public schools in 34 states, comparing results from 2006 to 2008. The study looked at the proportion of schools in each state as part of ongoing efforts by health officials to combat the rapid rise in childhood obesity.

The CDC found that the median proportion of high schools and middle schools that sell empty calorie snacks dropped from 54 percent to 36 percent. The share of schools that sell soda and artificial fruit drinks dropped from 62 percent to 37 percent.

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October 5, 2009

Exploding Cast Iron Cookware Recalled

Public Service Announcement

The following product safety recall has been announced by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC):

Name of Product: Paula Deen® Hammered Cast Iron Cookware
Manufactured in: China
Units: About 51,000
Retailer: QVC Inc., of West Chester, Pa.
Distributor: Meyer Trading Co. Ltd., of Hong Kong
Hazard: The recalled cookware can crack or shatter, posing burn and laceration hazards.
Incidents/Injuries: QVC and Meyer Trading have received 79 reports of the cookware cracking or shattering while heated.

Description: This recall involves the Paula Deen® 11-inch cast iron grill pans and griddles. They were sold as QVC item numbers K14984, K11970 and K135024. The cookware is black and has the Paula Deen® logo and the product size engraved on the bottom (see photo).
Sold through: QVC's televised shopping programs, its Web site www.qvc.com, and QVC retail stores from October 2007 through July 2009 for between $35 and $55.
What to Do:: Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cookware. Known purchasers have been mailed instructions for obtaining a full refund. Consumers who purchased the cookware at a QVC store should return it to any QVC store for a full refund. If you have an incident or injury to report related to this product contact CPSC.
Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact QVC at (800) 367-9444 between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m. ET any day, or visit the company's Web site at www.qvc.com. To report a dangerous product or a product-related injury, call CPSC's Hotline at (800) 638-2772 or CPSC's teletypewriter at (301) 595-7054. Recall and product safety information is available on the CPSC Web site.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction. The CPSC is committed to protecting consumers and families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard. The CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products - such as toys, cribs, power tools, cigarette lighters, and household chemicals - contributed significantly to the decline in the rate of deaths and injuries associated with consumer products over the past 30 years.