May 24, 2013 11:32 am
Just north of Seattle, a bridge over the Skagit River collapsed yesterday, plunging cars and their drivers into the water. The Interstate 5 bridge, built in 1955, was listed as “functionally obsolete” but was not considered structurally unsound. No one was killed in the collapse.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the bridge to break apart and have suggested that a commercial vehicle might have hit it, prompting the collapse. But they aren’t sure yet. At least three vehicles wound up in the water, including a camping trailer, according to witnesses.
The New York Times explains that the bridge was certainly old and outdated, but no more so than many of Seattle’s bridges:
The bridge was built in 1955 and has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records. That is well below the statewide average rating of 80, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data, but 759 bridges in the state have a lower sufficiency score.
According to a 2012 Skagit County Public Works Department report, 42 of the county’s 108 bridges are 50 years or older. The document says eight of the bridges are more than 70 years old and two are over 80.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Washington isn’t the only state whose infrastructure is in need of serious work. Their 2013 report card gave the entire United States a D+ overall, and a C+ for bridges. Washington State got a C- for it’s bridges, ” in part due to the nearly 400 structurally deficient bridges in Washington State. 36 percent of Washington’s bridges are past their design life of 50 years.”
The report explains that bridges in the United States are in pretty bad condition overall:
Over two hundred million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions. In total, one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that to eliminate the nation’s bridge deficient backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion annually, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently. The challenge for federal, state, and local governments is to increase bridge investments by $8 billion annually to address the identified $76 billion in needs for deficient bridges across the United States.
The 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed thirteen people, made the consequences of these numbers all too real. And in Washington, D.C., a 60-year-old bridge over the Anacostia River was in the news in January as it began to fall apart faster than repairs could be made.
“If any bridge is unsafe, we immediately take it out of service,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the Washington Post in January. “However, it’s no secret that many aging bridges across the country are in need of repair or replacement, and there simply isn’t enough money in Washington to fund them all.”
Transportation for America released a report last year that mapped and documented the state of the country’s bridges. The report found that “68,842 bridges — 11.5 percent of total highway bridges in the U.S. — are classified as ‘structurally deficient,’ requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.”
And it wasn’t just the I-5 bridge that collapsed yesterday, either. In Texas, a railroad bridge caught on fire and collapsed into the Colorado River.
So while there may not be money laying around to fix bridges, there are certainly bridges laying around that need fixing.
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May 21, 2013 10:42 am
Bottlenose dolphins working for the U.S. Navy discovered a rare 19th century torpedo off the coast of Coronado, Calif., while searching for underwater mines and other objects that evade technological detection. The brass torpedo is 11 feet long and weighs 132 pounds, and it could range 400 yards when launched. Called a Howell torpedo, the old military relic was a marvel in its day, the Los Angeles Times reports, and will likely find a home in a military museum.
While not as well known as the Gatling gun and the Sherman tank, the Howell torpedo was hailed as a breakthrough when the U.S. was in heavy competition for dominance on the high seas. It was the first torpedo that could truly follow a track without leaving a wake and then smash a target, according to Navy officials.
Only 50 were made between 1870 and 1889 by a Rhode Island company before a rival copied and surpassed the Howell’s capability.
Until recently only one Howell torpedo was known to exist, on display at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash. Now a second has been discovered, not far from the Hotel del Coronado.
The dolphins that uncovered the long-lost treasure use a biosonar system more sophisticated than any modern technology can provide. When dolphins find an object of interest, they resurface and tap the front of their handlers’ boat with their snouts. Last month, a dolphin named Ten indicated something was submerged in the area where the torpedo was later discovered, though at the time its human handlers dismissed the signal since they didn’t expect to find any objects there. Last week, another dolphin named Spetz alerted its handlers to the same spot, and this time the humans paid attention.
Navy divers and then explosive-ordnance technicians examined the object, which was in two pieces, and determined that the years had rendered it inert. On one piece was the stamp “USN No. 24.”
The torpedo pieces were lifted to the surface and taken to a Navy base for cleaning and to await shipment to the Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard.
According the the LA Times, the divers had to consult both Google and military experts to reveal the identity of the ancient torpedo.
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May 17, 2013 1:07 pm
King Richard III, the leader of England from 1483 to 1485, was the last English king killed in battle—struck by an arrow during a fight for the throne. His body was buried in a church, the Greyfriars in Leicester, but as centuries passed his burial grounds were lost. In September, word came from a team at the University of Leicester that they may have found the dead king’s body, buried beneath a parking lot.
Follow up work, including genetic testing, doubled-down on the assessment, an the question became what to do with the late king’s recently-exhumed remains. Some want him re-buried in Leicester, where he fell. His family wants his body brought to York, to be buried alongside his relatives. But wherever Richard III’s real skull goes, forensic artists working with the Richard III Society in Leicester are trying to make sure his visage is not lost again. They’ve created a bust of Richard III’s head, which will go on tour around England over the next few years.
The forensic art team, says the Atlantic, tried to “ determine what the king’s face would have looked like in person (well, “in person”).”
From there, the team used stereolithography – yep, 3D printing — to convert that rendering into a physical model of the king’s face. They extrapolated details like hair color and clothing style from portraits painted during Richard’s time.
The results of this endeavor are fairly creepily Tussaudian: The twisted-spined king, in the form of a 3D-printed bust, looks essentially like a decapitated wax figure. But it’s a high-tech wax figure. The forensics-based model — which, yes, will now be going on a tour throughout England — offers a new perspective on an old story: It brings a new dimension, quite literally, to ancient history.
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May 14, 2013 11:34 am
It helps to have hard evidence when making a case against criminals. For those who committed crimes against humanity, that evidence often takes the form of mass graves. But locating hundreds or even thousands of buried bodies can be more difficult than it sounds. A team of researchers from the UK and Colombia hope to ease that search process by developing new means of sniffing out sites of atrocities.
In a poster abstract presented at the Meeting of the Americas in Mexico, the authors write:
Nowadays, there are thousands of missing people around the world that could have been tortured and killed and buried in clandestine graves. This is a huge problem for their families and governments that are responsible to warranty the human rights for everybody. These people need to be found and the related crime cases need to be resolved.
Currently, the science of detecting mass graves is hit or miss. Local governments and organizations try different methods of detecting clandestine burial sites, and some work better than others depending upon the circumstances. Developing a standard, refined technique for both locating the graves and determining factor such as the time of death, the researchers think, will expedite the process of convicting murderers for their crimes.
In the UK, researchers pursued this goal by burying pigs and then monitoring soil gases, fluids and other changes over time as the carcasses decomposed underground. Those results are already being applied throughout Europe. But bodies break down differently in different climates, and for this new project, researchers will bury pigs in eight different mass grave simulation sites throughout Colombia. Each of the site will represent a different climate, soil type and rainfall pattern. They plan to use grond penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, conductivity, magnetometry and other measures to characterize the grave sites over 18 months.
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May 6, 2013 9:53 am
Facebook allows people to connect around issues they care about: Help this dog! Save this historic landmark! Cure cancer now! It takes just one little click of the thumbs up to show support. But recent research shows that this kind of “slacktivism”—easy online activism—could actually decrease how much people donate to their pet causes.
One study, after the Aurora shootings, polled 759 people about their position on gun control. They could sign a pro-control petition or an anti-control petition. Afterwards, some of the participants were offered the chance to give money to a group that was either for or against gun control. Another group was asked to give to a group that worked on education. New Scientist reports:
Those who signed were more likely than those who didn’t to donate to the group promoting their position on gun control. But that generosity only extended so far: signers were no more likely to donate to education than non-signers. What’s more, signers donated on average 30 per cent less than non-signers. When surveyed, signers also said they were now more likely to participate in future e-petitions, but not to attend a protest again. Hsieh presented the results this week at the Computer Human Interaction conference in Paris, France.
For foundations and policy changers, online support is nice, but money is what makes the wheels turn. When thousands of people changed their Facebook pictures to the red equals sign in support of marriage equality last month, some complained that there were far more active ways to show support, like giving money to a group or actually leaving your computer to go to a rally. Proponents of the campaign argued that when policy makers login to Facebook and see a wall of red, they might think twice about where their constituents fall.
After the Arab Spring, Malcolm Gladwell argued that “the revolution will not be Tweeted” and that real change requires offline actions, too. “Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?” he asked. Those who study social media responded saying that actually Gladwell was probably wrong in his assessment of Arab Spring. Of course, it’s hard to measure, but according to the Atlantic Wire:
These studies all agree on two things: Lots of people tweeted and the messages facilitated conversations. Twitter volume is something scientifically quantifiable. And indeed Twitter use rose during these revolutions, as Casey explains. “The number of tweets from Egypt went from 2,300 to 230,000 in the week leading to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.” Not only did tweeting increase, but lots of that tweeting was about the revolution and helped shaped the debate. Of course, even the study that said Internet hurts revolutions conceded this point. “To put it another way, all the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest,” noted The New York Times‘s Noam Cohen.
So while actual revolution still requires actual people on actual streets, social media might be the best way to get them there. So far, however, there’s no way to turn likes into dollars for activist groups, so they would like you to like them, both on Facebook and with your cash.
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