April 8, 2013 11:30 am
In South Africa, one recent robbery broke the blast-open-the-safe, steal-the-gold mold of bank heists. The thieves did break into a safe and steal millions of dollars worth of loot. But they didn’t make off with gold or Picassos. They stole rhino horns—nearly $3 million worth.
The safe contained 66 southern white rhino horns, removed from the animals on the Leshoka Thabang Game Reserve to protect them from poachers who often kill the giant beasts just for their horns. The thieves apparently broke into the reserve’s office and used a blowtorch to open this safe and snag the horns.
Demand for rhino horns, which go into traditional medicine cures for everything from cancer to hangovers, is growing, and right now the going rate (just about $30,000 a pound) is higher than gold’s.
Reuters called Johan van Zyl, the farmer whose safe contained the 66 rhino horns, which weighed almost 100 pounds in total. “In my hands it is worth nothing, but in the hands of the guys who have it now, the horns are worth a lot of money,” he told them.
Part of what’s driving the price up is that rhinos are getting rarer, because they’re being poached so much. The Western Black rhino was poached to extinction just this year. Reuters estimates that last year poachers killed 660 rhinos in South Africa. This year that number could jump to 800. And 75 percent of the rhinos in the world live in South Africa.
To save the dwindling rhino population, some rangers are taking the drastic measure of poisoning rhinos’ horns to deter people from eating them.
And it isn’t only rhinos in the wild which are being attacked for their horns. In July of last year, two men cokes into the Ipswitch Musuem and ripped the horn off a museum specimen. This museum heist wasn’t an isolated event either. Here’s the Guardian:
According to the Metropolitan police, 20 thefts have taken place across Europe in the past six months – in Portugal, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Sweden as well as the UK. Scotland Yard and Europol are now advising galleries and collectors to consider locking up their rhino horn collections or keeping them away from public view. Several institutions, including the Natural History Museum and theHorniman Museum in south London, have removed their displays or replaced horns with replicas.
Law enforcement officials think that these museum heists were all carried out by the same team of criminals, hungry for horns—although most likely the South African safe heist wasn’t related. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) called the rhino hunting situation “bleak” in 2009, and it’s only gotten worse. Until rhino horns stop being worth more than gold, it’s unlikely that the giant beasts, or their horns, will be safe anywhere.
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April 4, 2013 12:51 pm
As you get higher and higher in elevation, some percentage of people start to feel dizzy and get headaches. Sometimes they can’t sleep. It’s not uncommon—something like 20 percent of people in the United States who travel to the mountains in the west report getting altitude sickness. But a recent analysis showed that perhaps altitude sickness might not be as simple as once thought. It might be two entirely different problems.
Researchers discovered this by applying network theory to medicine, analyzing the correlations between symptoms from a sample of 300 people traveling to high altitudes. When they then mapped those symptoms as a network, they suddenly saw three very different patterns. The strongest difference was that headaches and sleep disturbances didn’t necessarily go together, according to Technology Review:
That’s an interesting result that also makes medical sense. There is mounting evidence that headaches and sleep disturbances are caused by different mechanisms. For example, headaches in those suffering from altitude sickness seem to be caused by factors such as fluid retention and tissue swelling in the brain. Sleep disturbance, on the other hand, seems to be related to breathing problems.
It’s becoming more common in medicine to use network theory to tease apart the associations between symptoms, diseases and causes. Networks can be applied to epidemiology and pharmacology, for instance, indicating where diseases will spread and how drugs interact in the body.
When it comes to altitude sickness, the network framework can help doctors reconsider what was once common knowledge. The network can’t, however, tell them what the biological differences are between these two seemingly different altitude-related issues. For that, we still need real, live scientists to study the problem.
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April 2, 2013 10:05 am
The set-up included a Boeing 727, 38 specialized cameras, over $500,000 worth of crash test dummies, a crew of pilots who bailed out of the plane with parachutes before the crash, and a simple question: where’s the safest place in the plane?
There’s almost nothing you can do to ensure your flight doesn’t crash. But, as Discovery TV found, there might be something you can do to up your chances of survival: sit in the back.
After crashing the 727 into the Sonoran desert, Discovery handed over those crash test dummies to Cindy Bir, a professor at Wayne State, to see who did the worst.
So what did she find? First, those people you walk by in first class (and secretly envy) die instantly. They’re at the front of the plane, so they get more of the impact. As the impact moves back through the plane, it weakens. In this experiment, 78 percent of those sitting in the back of the plane would have survived.
A few years ago Popular Mechanics looked at every commercial jet crash in the U.S. since 1971—twenty in total. They found that in eleven out of those twenty crashes, the rear passengers did much better. In five of them, the front passengers had the advantage, and in three it was a wash.
Your chances of being in a plane crash are small. But next time you’re stuck in the smelly, sweaty rear of the plane, just reassure yourself that there’s at least one advantage.
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March 20, 2013 1:35 pm
Shrunken heads are a key part of the “scary tribal people” setup. And some cultures did, in fact, create miniature heads for religious and spiritual purposes. But how does one take a regular sized human skull and miniaturize it?
The process is gruesome, according to Today I Found Out. First, the skin and hair had to be separated from the skull to allow them to shrink at different rates. Then, the eyelids were sewn shut and the mouth was stuck closed with a peg. And for the actual shrinking, the heads were put in a big pot and boiled for a very specific amount of time. Then, Staci Lehman writes:
Once removed from the pot, the head would be about 1/3 its original size and the skin dark and rubbery. The skin would then be turned inside out and any leftover flesh scraped off with a knife. The scraped skin was then turned with the proper side out again and the slit in the rear sewn together. The process wasn’t done yet. The head was shrunk even further by inserting hot stones and sand to make it contract from the inside. This also “tanned” the inside, like tanning an animal hide, in order to preserve it.
Once the head reached the desired size and was full of small stones and sand, more hot stones would be applied to the outside of the face to seal and shape the features. The skin was rubbed with charcoal ash to darken it, and as tribesmen believed, to keep the avenging soul from seeping out. The finished product was hung over a fire to harden and blacken, then the wooden pegs in the lips pulled out and replaced with string to lash them together.
When Westerners and Europeans started traveling and discovering cultures that practiced head shrinking, they were both terrified and fascinated. Many of them brought back shrunken heads and souvenirs. In the 1930s, a shrunken head sold for $25—$330 in today’s dollars. In fact, they were popular and lucrative enough that unscrupulous head-peddlers started trading in fake shrunken heads, made from the heads of sloths and other animals. And telling the difference between a real and fake shrunken head can be hard. In fact, one researcher claims that most shrunken heads on display at museums (including the American Museum of Natural History) are fake. Forensic researchers write about some of the ways to tell:
Tsantsas, or shrunken head, are an ancient traditional technique of the Jivaro Indians from Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador. Tsantsas were made from enemies’ heads cut on the battlefield. Then, during spiritual ceremonies, enemies’ heads were carefully reduced through boiling and heating, in the attempt to lock the enemy’s spirit and protect the killers from spiritual revenge. However, forgers have made fake tsantsas out of sloth heads, selling them as curios to international travelers. Morphologic criteria can help in the distinction of forged and authentic tsantsas. Presence of sealed eyelids, pierced lips with strings sealing the mouth, shiny black skin, a posterior sewn incision, long glossy black hair, and lateral head compression are characteristic of authentic tsantsas. On the other hand, fake tsantsas usually present few or none of those criteria. To establish authenticity of the shrunken head, we used all of the above-mentioned morphologic criteria along with microscopic hair examination and DNA analysis.
If you don’t have a DNA sequencer handy to identify your human head, William Jamieson Tribal Art says to look at the ears:
Imitation tsantsa are classified under two categories, being either non-human or human but prepared by someone other than the Jivaro tribesmen. As the most common non-human fakes are often made out of goat or monkey skin, one must pay particular attention to distinguishing between authentic and replicas. Indications of counterfeit tsantsa are characterized by looking for nasal hairs which is a notable distinction between identifying authentic heads and non-human replicas. In addition to this, it is also quite difficult to duplicate a shrunken human ear. The ear should remain in its original form only smaller. Fakes generally cannot match the intricate details of the human ear.
As for many topics of cultural anthropology in which the culture in question still exists and its members would like to be treated as people, head shrinking is a bit contentious. In the Shuar culture, shrunken heads (or ”tsantsas”) are extremely important religious symbols. One anthropologist writes:
That Shuar have killed people to make powerful objects, whereas we have made powerful objects to kill people, does not sustain any meaningful distinction between the savage and the civilized.
Is is hard for many people to not see shrinking of heads as a gruesome act. (Shrunken heads were found in the German concentration camp at Buchenwald, but never identified.) And many say that no new shrunken heads have been made for twenty years. In South America, many countries outlawed selling human heads in the 1930s. Whether or not heads have been shrunk since is still up for debate, but at least now you know how it happens.
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March 15, 2013 12:35 pm
Enver Hoxha was as paranoid a dictator as they come. During his forty-year reign over Albania, in addition to generously dishing out death sentences and long prison terms for anyone who opposed him, he organized the building of more than 700,000 bunkers, or one for every four inhabitants in his country. Dubbed the “bunkerisation” program, the shelters were finally abandoned after Communism’s collapse.
The bunkers were never used since the military threat Hoxha imagined never arrived, and their construction drained Albania’s economy and diverted resources away from other, more pressing needs, such as road and housing improvement. On average, there are 24 bunkers for every square kilometer in Albania. Most of these unsightly concrete mushrooms still mar the landscape today, from mountain tops to cities to beaches.
Most bunkers are wasting away into the landscape, but some are used as shelters for animals or the homeless, or as kitschy cafes. Reportedly, their most common use now is sheltering amorous young Albanians looking for some privacy. Wired describes the problem:
Today, Albanian authorities are at a loss for what to do. The reinforced concrete domes are as difficult to repurpose as they are to destroy. Tourists are fascinated by the bunkers strewn like confetti across scenery, but for locals they’re a largely uninteresting, if obstructive, part of the landscape.
Besides being an eyesore, the bunkers really do pose problems for people. Expatica reports:
At least five holidaymakers, including two children and a 25-year-old woman, drowned last summer in whirlpools created by streams around the bunkers which are covered by slime, cracked and damaged by erosion.
In 2009, the government set out to take some action against the bunkers, recruiting old tanks to blow the ugly domes to smithereens. But things did not go as smoothly as planned—after two weeks only seven had been dealt with. Locals, too, usually fail at attempts to rid their land of the things. Expatica:
Some Albanians have tried to remove them on their own, but their efforts usually end in vain, leaving them resigned to living with the structures they refer to as “mushrooms.”
Some have converted them into sheds, toilets or even “zero-star hotels” for lovers, as they sometimes call the bunkers.
For curious tourists, however, some bunkers now serve as youth hostels. According to the BBC, a couple entrepreneurial students have set out to convert bunkers across the country into unique abodes for travels. If the project manages to be a success, the team said they’ll charge about 8 euros per night for the privilege of sleeping in a genuine Albanian bunker.
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