Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cane Toads

Cane toads, also known as Giant Neotropical Toad, are five-inch long creatures with poisonous skin glands, originally from Latin America. Until 1935, they were not found in Australia. That year, they were introduced to control a beetle infestation, and have themselves become a plague. You can see this all, in stunning clarity, in Cane Toads: The Conquest (in 3D!). In the documentary, they cover a variety of methods the Australians are trying to control the toads.

However, some people think that the toads are a resource. As covered in the Outback edition of Bizarre Foods, there are clubs that go out at night and cook frog legs, taking care not to put any poison in the food. A game meat processor is even hoping to export the frog legs to the Chinese.

The frogs are not only a possible source of food, but also of drugs. The venom can be extracted, dried, and then smoked. The frogs can also be simply licked, although the effect is not as pronounced. The cane toads are not alone in their ability to create "sense of wonder and well-being". Many poisonous amphibians, including several found in the US, can produce similar effects, and "a healthy toad can fetch up to $8" in California. However, one should be careful about entering this trade, as a proposed law in South Carolina would "sentence violators [of amphibian trafficking] to 60 hours of public service in a local zoo."

And interestingly, humans are not the only species to use toads as a drug. There is at least one story about a dog repeatedly licking frogs, and then wandering about, all "disoriented and withdrawn, soporific and glassy-eyed." The toads are incredibly tough, as evidenced by cane toad that was swallowed by a dog and hung out in its stomach for 40 minutes. It now lives in the animal hospital where the dog was taken and given an injection to vomit it up.

Indestructible, poisonous, and everywhere. Clearly the only way to get rid of the plague of frogs is to tell Moses that we'll let his people go.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

South Korea Turns Off the Lights

One Wednesday a Month, offices in South Korea will shut off their lights early in the evening. No, they're not trying to look like North Korea when viewed from space. Instead, they want all their office workers to go home.

Why? Well, I've written how some countries have high birth rates that lead to food and resource shortages. South Korea has the opposite problem, with the world's lowest birth rate. At only 1.2 kids per couple, their population is actually in decline. This means that a comparatively large portion of the population are elderly, and there will be greater pressure on people of working age. And of course with less workers, the country has less manufacturing capacity. Therefore, the Ministry of Health hopes that by getting people out of the office, they might go into the home and make babies.

In order to make this truly successful, I think that the government also needs to shut down all TV broadcasts on those same evenings, at least based on the Indian government's assumption that getting people to watch television at night will stop them from making babies.

Friday, January 22, 2010

R2-D2 flies against the laws of physics.

A professor from Southeastern Louisiana University has analyzed the mechanics of R2-D2 flying using his thrusters. Using a free-body diagram, set up all the forces (not Forces) acting on the droid as it flew through the air at an apparently constant velocity. Without acceleration, the sum of the forces must be zero. So Prof. Allain used gravity, air resistance, size, and angle of thrust to estimate the only unknown quantity remaining in the equation: mass. And how many kg is R2? Check the end of the article, but here's a hint: it doesn't make a lot of sense.

Oh my gosh! Something in Star Wars not making scientific sense? Shocking. Well, I guess it's no worse than the constantly changing lateral force applied by the floating house in Up on the walkers below. (Apparently, the folks at Pixar actually calculated how many balloons would be needed to supply sufficient vertical force, and after finding it took a kagillion balloons said, 'artistic license.')

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Data Centers in Iceland

It takes a lot of power to run the internet. Keeping all those servers going took 1.5% of total US electricity demand in 2006 (as much as all of Massachusetts) and just keeps rising (it doubled from 2000 to 2005). A quarter of that energy is used to keep the servers cool (which improves performance in addition to not letting the server chips melt). To help with this, some internet companies are building data centers in cold locations, such as Microsoft in Dublin, and Yahoo in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo has the additional advantage of being located near Niagara Falls, the third largest hydroelectric plant in the US.

A focus on cheap, carbon-free electricity and cold climate make it no surprise that Verne Holdings and Wellcome Trust are funding construction of a data center in Iceland. It will be built in an old NATO base, powered by hot geothermal electricity, and cooled (in part) by the island's icy air. Iceland's currency collapse shook its economy and a 2008 earthquake shook the ground, delaying construction slightly. However, things are scheduled to get started by the middle of this year, and the high unemployment might mean savings for operating costs, another similarity with Yahoo's center in Buffalo.