Saturday, May 20, 2017

9 DANGEROUS SCIENTIFIC WORK LOCATIONS

I read an article about scientists who work on location rather than in a lab…the ones whose labs are out there, in dangerous places and situations where most of us would never go.

So, in no particular order, here are nine of these dangerous scientific work locations.

1)  Inside Volcanoes
When you think of geologists your first thought is usually the study of rocks and various landforms, something safe and basically stable. But for the branch of this particular science known as volcanology, things are definitely less stable and certainly a little hotter. Having been to Mt. St. Helens, Washington, after the explosive eruption and viewing the devastation first hand, I'm very familiar with the story of David Johnston, the thirty year old volcanologist who was on duty at the time of the eruption and was one of the fifty-seven people who died in the eruption. Volcanologists study the intense heat and chaos inside active volcanoes, and recently a team of three researchers descended inside the Marum Volcano on Ambrym Island off the coast of Australia (pictured above) to study lava flows inside. Wearing a heat-resistant suit, one of them descended 1200 feet into the volcano’s crater to capture video footage of the lava’s movement. Normally, scientists use robotic cameras mounted to small helicopters to do this extremely dangerous work.

2) Tornado Country
The movie Twister gave us a good look at what storm chasers do, and those who live in the part of the U.S. referred to as Tornado Alley see the results of their work on the news when the storm conditions are present that produce tornadoes. Collecting data on storms is a tough process. Getting close to a tornado is risky on a good day, and self-proclaimed storm chasers run that risk all the time. Even with such advanced technology as Doppler radar giving us the overall picture of a severe storm, some scientists claim there is some data that can only be gathered at ground level. One of the most noted tornado researchers, Tim Samaras, routinely drove in front of tornadoes to place cameras and pressure sensors to record the velocities of objects swept up by the storm. Unfortunately, in 2013 Samaras, his son and another storm chaser died in an Oklahoma tornado.

3) Biosafety Level 4 Labs
Laboratories that deal with germs and diseases that can be dangerous or fatal to humans are given a biosafety rating from one to four. Facilities that deal with Level 4 are where the really bad stuff happens. One of the most notable is the integrated research facility located at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The laboratory is housed in a nondescript three-story office building—an airtight, pressurized environment restricted to only thirty researchers. The germs they work with include epidemic diseases like Ebola. The facility has airlocks that separate it from the outside world and anything that leads outside the building, such as light fixtures or electrical outlets, is sealed in epoxy to prevent even a single germ from escaping. Scientists are given a seven-minute showering with virus-killing chemicals before they leave.

4)  Underwater Caves
The ocean is a massive mystery to humanity, covering the majority of the Earth’s surface. Even though it's part of our planet, we seem to know more about outer space than we do the depths of our oceans. One of the most interesting areas under the ocean's surface are what are known as blue holes, underwater caves that can reach as deep as 600 feet below sea level. These caves have difficult topography. They vary in size from massive, sprawling caverns to holes barely big enough to admit a human. Diving there can be very dangerous with unpredictable currents. Despite the dangers, scientific rewards are huge with both biological and archaeological finds waiting to be discovered.

5)  Tree Canopies
Forest ecosystems are made up of distinct layers, each with its own climate and variety of plants and animals. It’s a simple task to study the layers nearest the ground, but botanists have lots of questions about what’s happening up above. And that’s where canopy research comes in. Scientists at Humboldt State University climb to the top of trees that can exceed 350 feet in height, anchoring their bodies to the trunk. From that risky perch they can observe the canopy ecosystem…as long as they don't lose their balance. At the top of the trees, researchers have discovered a whole ecosystem of moss, lichens, and even whole new trees and bushes growing from dead stumps.

6)  Amundsen-Scott Station
Originally built by the United States government in 1956, the Amundsen-Scott Station sits squarely on the south pole. With temperatures ranging from minus 13.6 degrees Celsius (minus 56.48 Fahrenheit) on a nice day to minus 82.8 degrees Celsius (minus 181.04 Fahrenheit) when winter is in high gear, it’s one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. Even though blizzards and intense winds are common, astronomers spend months at the station because the six months of total darkness during winter makes Amundsen-Scott a perfect place to observe the night sky. Other researchers study the movements of the Antarctic ice sheet—the station itself moves about thirty-three feet a year as the ice drifts.

7)  Aquarius Lab
Operated by the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration, this deep-sea science station comes with a little twist. The human body is only capable of staying underwater for a short period at a time because decompression sickness (commonly referred to as the bends) can cause incredible damage when gas bubbles form and disrupt tissue. Some scientists have long-term research projects that need to happen in deep water, so they do it at the Aquarius Lab. This facility rests on the sea floor outside of Key Largo, Florida at a depth of 50 feet. Researchers spend up to ten days underwater at a time, studying the nearby coral reefs.

8)  Inside Hurricanes
Here’s another meteorological condition where some scientists like to get a little too close. The National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration employs a number of flight meteorologists who take airplanes into the eyes of hurricanes to gather data on the storm’s strength and direction. They use two planes—one is a Gulfstream G-4 that has the easy job of circling the storm’s funnel, the second is a smaller propeller plane that actually penetrates the fast-moving wind to fly right to the eye of the storm. In addition to using Doppler radar on the plane’s tail, they also release a device called a dropsonde that transmits pressure and humidity data.

9)  Outer Space
And finally…there is literally no environment as hostile to the human body as the vacuum of space. Long-term weightlessness has negative effects on muscle tone, bone density and the immune system. Exposure to radiation in low-earth orbit comes at levels ten times higher than the normal dose on the Earth’s surface. And there’s also the fact that outer space doesn’t have any of that oxygen stuff our bodies need to function. Experimentation in outer space has led to a number of fascinating discoveries in fields as diverse as astronomy and cancer medicine.

And there you have a sampling of dangerous locations some scientists refer to as their lab (minus those white lab coats, of course).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

19 Things That Kill More People Than Sharks

And by things that kill, I'm not referring to crime or war.  Some are bizarre and others more common place.  A recent survey provided a list of cause-of-death statistics that I found interesting and thought I would share with you.  I actually found two lists, one a list of 10 Incredibly Bizarre Death Statistics and the other a list of 20 (all the 10 items from the first list are on the list of 20 plus 10 more).

Sharks reportedly kill 5 people annually.  But that's a small number compared to other bizarre causes of death.

Roller Coasters are responsible for 6 accidental deaths annually.  Overall, the risk factor for injury while riding a roller coaster is very low.  In the U.S., people take about 900 million rides a year.

Vending Machines kill 13 people a year.  What?  A crazed vending machine out on a killing spree?  Nope, the deaths are a result of the vending machine toppling over and crushing the unfortunate person who happened to be in the way.

High School Football is responsible for 20 tragic deaths annually.

Ants kill 30 people annually.  There are over 280 different species of ants that can kill with the fire ant and siafu ant, both found in Africa, among the most deadly.  Ants live in colonies that can reach 20 million ants in a single colony.  Once an attack begins, ants can easily overpower their prey.

Dogs kill 30 people annually in the U.S.  There are approximately 4.7 million dog bite victims in the U.S. alone with 1000 of those treated in emergency rooms.  Most of those victims are children who were bitten in the face.

Jelly Fish are responsible for 40 deaths annually.  Most jelly fish are not deadly, but some can cause anaphylaxis which can be fatal.

Tornadoes kill an average of 60 people annually, with some years having more tornado outbreaks than other years.

Hot Dogs are responsible for 70 deaths annually, primarily from choking.

Icicles kill 100 people a year in Russia.  This happens when sharp icicles fall from snowy rooftops and land on unsuspecting victims on the sidewalks below.

Deer are responsible for 130 annual deaths.

Bathtubs account for 340 annual deaths, primarily from people slipping and falling.  They die either from a fatal blow to the head or knocking themselves out and drowning.

Falling Out of Bed results in a surprising 450 deaths a year.  According to the Center for Disease Control, falling out of bed produces 1.8 million emergency room visits and over 400,000 hospital admissions each year.  The very young and very old are most at risk with people over 65 faring the worst.

Shopping On Black Friday gives us 550 annual deaths.  A U.S. phenomenon, that mad scramble for bargains the day after Thanksgiving which is the busiest shopping day on the year.  The name Black Friday referring to a financially good economic situation, the day that retail businesses operate 100% in the black for the rest of the year (all income being profit, rather than the loss after deducting expenses related to being in the red).

Autoerotic Asphyxiation kills 600 people annually.  This is the act of strangling or suffocating (most often by hanging) yourself to heighten sexual arousal.  Depriving the brain of oxygen gives a person a dizzy, high feeling, however it's all too easy to make a mistake and accidently kill yourself while practicing this dangerous sex act.

Volcanoes kill 845 people annually.

Airplanes are responsible for an average 1,200 annual deaths.

Hippos come in on the survey with 2,900 deaths annually.  Many experts believe that the Hippopotamus is the most dangerous animal in all of Africa.  They weigh up to 8,000 pounds and can gallop at 18 miles per hour.  They have been known to upset boats for no reason and bite passengers with their huge, sharp teeth.  They are aggressive, unpredictable and have no fear of humans.

Texting while driving is responsible for 6,000 deaths each year.  A survey by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute reports that a driver's risk of collision is 23 times greater when they are texting while driving.

Lightning, the final cause of death on our list, kills 10,000 people annually.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

10 Things You May Not Know About Vikings

So…you think you know all about the Vikings?  Those seafaring Scandinavians who raided and settled coastal sites in the British Isles and beyond between the 9th and 11th centuries?  You've watched the movies and television shows, have been exposed to the caricatures and stereotypes.  But I'll bet there's a lot about the Vikings that you don't know.

1)  Vikings Didn't Wear Horned Helmets
Forget all those Viking warrior costumes you've seen in those movies, television shows, and pictures seen with the characters wearing those elaborate horned helmets.  Descriptions from the Viking age don't mention it and the only authentic Viking helmet ever discovered is horn-free.  This concept seems to have originated with painters in the 19th century, possibly inspired by ancient Norse and Germanic priests who wore horned helmets for ceremonial purposes long before the Viking Age.

2)  Vikings Were Known For Their Excellent Hygiene
What with all that boat rowing and decapitating their enemies, the logical assumption would be that Viking men must have stunk.  However, excavations of Viking sites have revealed tweezers, razors, combs and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers.  Vikings also bathed at least once a week, much more often than other Europeans of that time period.

3)  Vikings Used A Unique Liquid To Start Fires
The Vikings collected a fungus called touchwood from tree bark and boiled it for several days in urine then pounded it into a substance similar to felt.  The sodium nitrate in urine allowed the material to smolder instead of burn.  This gave the Vikings the availability of taking the fire with them on the go.

4)  Vikings Buried Their Dead In Boats
The Viking's boats were very important to them so it was a great honor to be buried in one.  It was believed that the vessels that served them well in life would see them safely to their final destination.

5)  Vikings Were Active In The Slave Trade
Many Vikings became rich through human trafficking.  They captured and enslaved women and young men while rampaging through Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Slavic settlements then sold them in giant slave markets in Europe and the Middle East.

6)  Viking Women Enjoyed Some Basic Rights
Viking girls married at age 12 and took care of the household while their husbands sailed off on adventures.  However, they had more freedom than other women of their era.  They could inherit property, request a divorce and reclaim their dowries if their marriage ended.

7)  Viking Men Spent Most Of Their Time Farming
Most Viking men swung scythes rather than swords.  True, some were callous pirates who only left their boats long enough to burn villages but most planted crops and raised cattle, goats, pigs and sheep on their small farms.

8)  Vikings Skied For Fun
Scandinavians developed primitive skis approximately 6000 years ago.  By the Viking age, Norsemen regarded skiing as an efficient way to get around and a popular recreation activity.  They even worshiped Ullr, the god of skiing.

9)  Viking Men Preferred Being Blond
Brunette Vikings, usually men, used strong soap with a high lye content to bleach their hair and in some regions also their beards.  These treatments also helped with a health and hygiene problem—head lice.

10)  Vikings Were Never Part Of A Unified Group
They probably didn't even call themselves Vikings.  The term simply referred to all Scandinavians who took part in overseas expeditions.  During the Viking Age, the land that is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden was a patchwork of tribes that often fought against each other…when they weren't busy creating havoc on foreign shores.

I still erroneously visualize the Vikings with those horned helmets.  It's an image that I grew up with and can't seem to shake.  :)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Cinco de Mayo—What and Why?

Cinco de Mayo literally translates to fifth of May and commemorates the Mexican army's 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War of 1861-1867. Although a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, in the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations. Cinco de Mayo traditions include parades, mariachi music performances, and street festivals in cities and towns across Mexico and the United States. As s longtime resident of Southern California, I've definitely seen many Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Here's a brief history of Mexico's Cinco de Mayo holiday:

Mexico, formerly known as New Spain, declared their independence from Spain on September 16, 1810.  After fighting an 11 year war, they finally achieved their independence in 1821.

In 1861 [at the time of the U.S. Civil War], Benito Juarez became president of Mexico, a country in financial ruin.  He was forced to default on Mexico's debts to several European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand payment of the loans. Britain and Spain negotiated a settlement with Mexico and withdrew.  France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to create a dependent French holding in Mexican territory. Late in 1861, a large well-armed French fleet landed at Veracruz and drove President Juarez and his government into retreat.

Certain of a swift French victory, 6000 French troops set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles [not to be confused with Los Angeles, California, as California had been a state in the U.S. for eleven years at that time]. From his new headquarters in northern Mexico, Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Zaragoza, the 2000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On the fifth of May, 1862, the French commander moved his well-provisioned army, supported by heavy artillery, into position at the city of Puebla and began their assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers to the fewer than 100 Mexicans killed.

Although not a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza's victory at Puebla reinforced Mexican resistance, and six years later France withdrew from Mexico. The same year, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who had been installed as emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III in 1864, was captured and executed by Juarez' forces. Puebla de Los Angeles, the site of Zaragoza's historic victory, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general. Today, the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is celebrated in Mexico as Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day—Where, When, And Why

Saturday, April 22, 2017, is Earth Day. We only have one planet and we need to do everything we can to save it.

Supposedly originated in 1969 at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco, the name and idea for Earth Day was first observed on March 21, 1970—the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. This day in celebration of the Earth was put into a proclamation signed by UN Secretary U Thant.

And at about the same time, a separate Earth Day was founded in the United States as an environmental teach-in first observed on April 22, 1970.  The April 22nd date was taken international in 1990 with organized events focusing on environmental issues in 141 nations.

The impetus for an Earth Day came following the huge oil spill in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.  Originally a teach-in on environmental issues to be observed on every college campus in the United States.  The name Earth Day was a logical and obvious suggestion made by several people in the fall of 1969.

The April 22, 1970, Earth Day was the beginning of the modern environmental movement.  Media coverage of the first April 22 Earth Day included Walter Cronkite's narration of a CBS News Special Report Earth Day: A Question Of Survival.

Earth Day became a popular event in the United States and soon around the world as well.  Earth Day seemed to work because of a grassroots level enthusiasm that quickly spread.

In 1990, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in the United States, the observation officially went global in 141 countries.  The status of environmental issues now had stronger marketing tools, greater access to television and radio, and multimillion-dollar budgets.

Earth Day 2000 marked the first time the movement used the internet as its principle means of organization both locally and internationally.

Today Earth Day continues to grow in membership, number of countries participating, and the scope of its effectiveness.

We only have one planet. We need to do everything we can to save it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Last Czar

With Russia being in the news so much for the last few months, I thought the contents of this article I came across about a year and a half ago might be of interest.

The article told about the Russian government's desire to reunite the remains of their last imperial family in one place—the czar, czarina, and their five children. However, the mission was not without roadblocks, namely the need to satisfy skeptics about the validity of all the remains.

On September 23, 2015, Russian investigators exhumed the body of Czar Nicholas Romanov II and his wife, Alexandra, as part of an investigation into the family's death in 1918. It's part of the ongoing attempt to confirm the remains really belong to Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children. Some of the family's remains were tested in the early 1990s (the early days of DNA testing) with the results being that the scientists were pretty confident that it's really them. The remains exhumed at that time included the czar, his wife, three of their children and several servants. Two of the children, Alexei and Maria, were unaccounted for at that time. But…the officials weren't able to convince the Russian Orthodox Church about the authenticity of the remains.

The church officials have not come out with their exact reasons for doubt. There had been some discussion about the Romanov family having been canonized in 2000 which made the remains holy relics which required a different way of treating them. In general, church leaders say they just aren't convinced. The church's approval is important for bringing the family's remains together.

The church did, somewhat reluctantly, allow the family's remains to be interred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg where most of Russia's other czars are buried. But the church still had not accepted the family's identities in spite of the fact that several rounds of DNA testing had occurred.

In 2007 another burial site was located containing the remains of a young man and a young woman. More DNA testing confirmed they were Alexei and Maria. Those remains, however, were left sitting on a shelf because the Russian Orthodox Church balked at the idea of adding them to the family tomb. The church says it believes the family's remains were destroyed and won't change their position until they are 100 percent sure in spite of the DNA confirmation.

In February 2016 the church once again blocked the reuniting of the remains. Currently, the most prevalent explanation is that the church hierarchy wants to avoid the decision because either choice would alienate key factions. Rejecting the bones will anger some Orthodox adherents, particularly those outside Russia, while accepting them will incense a conservative domestic faction that believes the Soviet government somehow faked the original burial at the time they died and those aren't the real remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family.

And the entire effort remains in limbo.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Crazy Tax Deductions—Part 2 of 2

Here are some more zany tax deductions that didn't work…and some equally zany ones that did.  And a few deductions where the CPA preparing the taxes offered an opinion before the taxpayer filed the forms.

Here's some that were rejected by the IRS.

1)  Burning Down The Business:
A furniture store owner had unsuccessfully tried for years to sell his business.  He finally hired an arsonist and collected $500,000 in insurance money.  But things went bad for him when he tried to deduct the $10,000 he paid the arsonist as a "consulting fee."  Both men ended up in prison.

2)  Did She Tango Her Way Home:
A taxpayer was denied a deduction for dance lessons which she claimed would improve her varicose veins.  The reason for the rejection?  The IRS claimed the lessons were not medically necessary, the ruling also extending to dance lessons for arthritis and nervous disorders.

3)  Fido's Babysitting:
Millions of household dogs in the U.S. are left home alone each day.  One taxpayer hired someone to come to his house and watch his dog while he was at work then he tried to deduct the expense using the same rules intended for children and legal dependents.  The IRS said 'no way.'

4)  Beer vs. Whiskey:
Here's one that got a thumbs up and a thumbs down.

A gas station owner gave his customers free beer and took the cost as a tax deduction.  On the other hand, a businessman tried to deduct several cases of whiskey he gave to clients as an entertainment expense.  Tax Court ruled that the beer deduction was allowed but the whiskey deduction was denied.  [Makes no sense to me, or anyone else for that matter other than the Tax Court judge who made the ruling]

And here are some surprise rulings in favor of the taxpayer.

5)  Dairy Cows On Safari:
The owners of a dairy farm tried to write off an African safari as a business expense claiming that some of the dairy's promotional efforts included wild animals.  Even though the concept of 'wild dairy cows' is a bit far-fetched, the IRS actually allowed the deduction.

6)  Come By For A Swim:
An emphysema patient was told by his doctor that he needed to start exercising.  So, the patient installed a swimming pool at his home and deducted it as a 'necessary medical expense.'  Even though they turned down the deduction for the tango lessons, the IRS allowed the swimming pool deduction including the cost of various chemicals, cleaning, heating and upkeep.

7)  Here, Kitty-Kitty-Kitty:
Junkyard owners had a nasty snake and rat problem.  In an attempt to combat it, they set out bowls of pet food each night to attract the feral cats that roamed the area.  The cats ate the pet food and also the snakes and rats.  Since the cats made the business safer for customers and employees, the IRS allowed the deduction for the pet food.

8)  The Bigger…The Better:
An exotic dancer wrote off the cost of breast implants, claiming it was a business expense since bigger breasts equaled bigger tips.  The IRS agreed, saying the implants were a stage prop essential to her act.

And finally, some strange deductions the tax preparer ruled on before the taxpayer filed the forms with the IRS.

9)  Carrier Pigeons:
A tax payer was so distrustful of technology that he wouldn't use a computer or even a phone.  So, he used carrier pigeons to communicate with his business partner across town.  He also thought it made sense to deduct all his expenses for the care, feeding, and housing of the carrier pigeons as a business expense.  After determining that the businessman had not used technology for communication in the past, the CPA preparing his taxes decided the deduction was fair.  No word yet on whether the IRS agreed.

10)  A Baby:
A businesswoman tried to deduct the cost of her own baby as a business expense.  She used photos of the baby in marketing materials for her business and believed the money she spent on her baby's food, clothing, nanny, diapers and baby powder—a total of about $26,000 for the year—should all count as business expenses.  The CPA doing her taxes wrote off the cost of hiring the photographer who took the photos of the baby as well as the baby's stroller and clothing items that carried the company logo which pictured the baby, but she informed her client that the rest of the expenses were not allowed.

11)  Hip Replacement For A Dog:
A woman dropped off her tax information to her tax preparer.  He noticed an unusually high amount for medical expenses including $8,000 for a 'family dependent' even though she had no spouse or children.  The family dependent turned out to be her dog.  Because the animal wasn't a medical necessity for the taxpayer, he couldn't let her deduct the cost of the surgery or any of the dog's other expenses.

12)  Pole Dancing Lessons:
A man tried to write off the cost of his wife's pole dancing lessons as a business expense under 'meals and entertainment.'  The man claimed watching her dance was his after work relaxation and made him better at his job.  His tax preparer informed him that the IRS would swiftly deny the $800 deduction.

13)  $1,000 Worth Of Evian Water:
A very wealthy woman convinced her doctor to give her a prescription for three bottles of Evian water (specifying the brand) every day and declared $1,095 as a medical deduction on her taxes for the water.  Her CPA said that since she still had the prescription note in her files showing it had been prescribed by a doctor it was a permissible expense even though the doctor's note didn't disclose what her medical condition was that required three bottles of Evian water every day.

14)  Spanx Shapewear:
A real estate agent who was 'a little bit big on the bottom' (according to her tax preparer) bought several pairs of the Spanx brand slimming underwear because she thought looking smaller would help her sell more houses.  Her tax preparer told her there was no proof the Spanx had any impact on her business or income, therefore, it couldn't be considered a legitimate business expense.

15)  Recreational Drugs:
One financial planner had a rock band client actually try to deduct an item labeled 'drugs' as a Travel & Entertainment expense.  The total cost of the 'drugs' was in the high five-figures.  The band's bookkeeper claimed the cost of recreational drugs was necessary and ordinary.  Setting aside the fact that possession of the recreational drugs was illegal, the tax preparer advised the band that the IRS would never allow the deduction.

And on that note…Happy Tax Day to everyone!