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Nashua;72.0;;2015-05-24 21:14:46

If this was Texas, the X's would be a sign of Imminent Government Takeover!


Staff photo by David Brooks

This mysterious X alongside Daniel Webster Highway in Merrimack isn't really mysterious: It's one of a number painted to help an aerial survey in advance of an expansion of the Everett Turnpike.

When A Merrimack resident started finding big X's painted in roadways in town, what did he do? Brought them to Science Cafe NH for clarification, of course!

And as this story in The Telegraph reports, I found that the X's were painted to assist aerial surveys in preparation for eventual widening of the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

Road work is kind of dull. If this was Rockingham, N.H., they could be signs of space aliens; Texas, signs of imminent government takeover; Vermont, signals for a secret Phish concert.

It's not dull if you commute on that highway, I suppose.

Dean Kamen's latest invention: A crank-fired water pistol. (Yes, I want one)

Long before the Segway, Dean Kamen made his fame and fortune developing interesting ways to move fluids, specifically with the first portable drug infusion pump, which was revolutionary.

His latest patent, No. 9,033,191, issued with James Jackson of Brookline, moves fluid in a really interesting way: Via a hand-cranked water pistol.

The patent, titled "Toy Fluid Pumping Gun," notes that trigger-operated squirt guns don't give a satisfyingly continuous flow, and that motorized squirt guns require electricity, which is suspect around water.

"Accordingly, there is a need for a toy fluid pumping device that may provide a continuous stream of fluid in a manor that may be operated easily by a user and does not provide a safety hazard or require a power source to operate," the patent says, and I couldn't agree more.

The patent is written in typically dense lingo and I could only find one illustration, but it seems like they've developed a (presumably easy and cheap) hand-crank system "wherein the crank assembly operates the pump assembly, and a fluid storage reservoir connected to the gear housing from which fluid is drawn into the gear housing to be pumped through the fluid discharge opening."

Awesome. And just in time for summer, too.

Did they say "paranormal" or "appearing normal"?

I don't know what to say about this, so I'll just copy the press release:

Business and property owners who would like to have their buildings featured at Rochester's UFO/Paranormal Festival should sign up fast. The Rochester Main Street is seeking a minimum of 20 businesses/buildings to be tested for a potential to be featured in a walking tour during the festival, which is taking place Sept. 19. An initial visitation will be made during a Sunday walk in the near future to determine the most compatible buildings/businesses to be on the walk. Noted medium Isabeau Espy will be conducting the assessment. This is a first come/first serve opportunity not to be missed. Contact the Rochester Main Street director at or call the office at 330-3208 to be listed for the initial assessment.

"Noted medium" - gaaaak.

Ten gigantic spinning sawblades dangling from a helicopter! What more could you want? 

Forget computer-generated explosions in the movie theaters. This YouTube video from Haverfield Aviation, showing how it uses gigantic spinning sawblades dangling from a helicopter to clear vegetation around power lines, is much more fun.

Here's a story about the project, which is clearing power lines in West Virginia, from the site FierceEnergy.

Using playing cards as a lifetime calendar

Today's interesting tidbit learned while shuffling through the Web looking for blog-postable material:

A pack of cards has a peculiar embedded property, lurking beneath its surface: it functions as a sort of calendar. A deck of cards is made up of four suits – hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds – representing the four seasons. The 13 cards in each suit represent the 13 phases of the lunar cycle. There are 52 cards in a deck – just as there are 52 weeks in a year. Finally, adding up all the numbers in each and every card the result is 365 – the number of days in a year.

I knew most of this, but had no idea about that 365 (which must include one joker, since summation of 13:1 (the ASCII code for capital sigma doesn't seem to work) times 4 is 364), which is very cool.

I learned this from an interesting piece in BoingBoing (read it here). The author uses stacks of playing cards to mark the passage of his life -moving one card each week from the future pile to the past pile. Morbid? Insightful? I'm not sure.

Study: Extreme cold proves deadlier than extreme heat (but still not that bad)

A study in The Lancet, the most prestigious British medical research journal, found that extreme cold snaps kill more people than extreme heat waves, much to my surprise. As the LA Times puts it:

After examining more than 74 million deaths that occurred in 13 countries from 1985 to 2012, researchers calculated that 7.3% of them could be attributed to cold weather and 0.4% to hot weather.

However, neither is as big a deal as we might think:

Extreme weather — either hot or cold — was responsible for only 11% of the weather-related deaths.

The study, which involved data for 74 million deaths 1985 and 2012 in 384 locations in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, UK, and USA, is here.

Science Cafe reveals railroads' Achilles heel: Gypsy moth caterpillars

There's always at least one unexpected tidbit that crops up during the two hours of a Science Cafe NH discussion and makes my eyebrows rise. Last night it was this: When the population of gypsy moth caterpillars was exploding throughout the Northeast, their squished bodies on rails could be so numerous that they stopped trains.

Yes, it's true. Here's an AP story from 1981 that says trains couldn't make it up "the steepest grade in Massachusetts" because wheels lost friction due to excess caterpillar guts.

Maintaining friction between steel wheels and steel rails isn't always easy, we learned last night, partly because the area of contact is just "the size of a dime" for each wheel, said Bill Mosher, a longtime railroad employee who stepped in at the last moment to replace a missing panelist. (Thanks, Bill!) Sanding rails to maintain friction in the fact of such things as slippery leaves (a big problem in Britain) is common.

Mosher and and Eric DiVergilio, an engineer with HNTB, a consultant firm in Chelmsford, Mass., answered a lot of questions from close to 50 people at our fourth-anniversary cafe.

The topic of Positive Train Control, the automatic braking technology that wasn't quite installed on the Amtrak train that crashed in Philadelphia, came up, of course. One thing we learned is that it is no panacea - importantly, it can't tell if there's a vehicle stuck on a rail crossing, which is a very common source of accidents.

Next month's topic: Probiotics, the trendy field of maintaining health through gut bacteria.

There's nothing sharing about the "gig economy" that is being created

One time I was a guest on The Exchange show on NHPR and described Uber and other "sharing economy" companies as being capitalism at its most vicious. A listener thought that was a bit overboard - as it was - and we had a polite intelligent email exchange about the issue. (Yes, polite and intelligent email exchanges are possible.)

I said I thought that the long-term result of AirBnb, AmazonTurk and other online establishments that let work be divvied up into tiny pieces and parceled out via smartphones would be to push most of the risk of employment onto workers without much, if any, of the reward. No certainty, no set schedule, no backup or mentors or coworker support, in exchange for "flexibility". Most of the time that's a bad deal, it seemed to me.

This posting on the blog of software giant SAP does a better job than me of expressing the possible drawbacks of what it calls the "gig economy," in which everybody is reduced to the life of a local musician, constantly scrounging for the next gig. SAP sells to lots of entrenched companies whose business models are weakened by the gig economy, which must be why this blog post was written - but it's still well done and worth considering:

Are we on the cusp of technological innovation that will create jobs and lead us to prosperity, or is this just the next wave in a decades-old trend of fragmenting jobs, isolating workers, and driving down wages?

Science Cafe about the technology of trains (and train brakes) is tonight

Tonight's Science Cafe about the technology of trains is timely in a way these events usually aren't, because of last week's tragic Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia. The topic, of course, was chosen many weeks ago.

A fine story in today's New York Times puts the issue in context: When it comes to engineered technology, you get what you pay for.

According to the International Transport Forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States invested less than 0.1 percent of its gross domestic product on rail systems in 2013, a quarter of what was spent by Britain and one-sixth of the investments by France and Australia.

Over the past decade, even developing countries including India, Russia and Turkey have consistently invested far greater shares of their G.D.P. on rail.

See you at 6 p.m. at Killarney's

Seacoast towns prepare for the pain of climate change

A piece in New Hampshire Business Review, written by the climate program coordinator at New Hampshire Sea Grant, talks about how a number of towns along the N.H. seacoast are preparing for more storms and flooding along with higher ocean levels as the climate changes.

It's a pretty dry story, but sobering. (Read it here)

In the last 10 years, New Hampshire has submitted 12 “major disaster declarations” to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recover millions of dollars in damages from severe storms.

“In Rye, it is not an option to ignore the effects of the changing climate,” said Kim Reed, town planning and zoning administrator. ... Residents stated their concerns over recent flooding to coastal roads and the impact of sea-level rise to coastal infrastructure.

Under a conservative scenario, Seabrook could see as much as $40.4 million in cumulative damages to critical public assets by 2050. In Hampton, those estimates reached $82.7 million.

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.


Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: Wednesday, June 17

TOPIC: Probiotics: Is "gut health" bacteria a fad or a new direction for medicine?

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).



May: Trains. April: Who was here before Europeans arrived - and how do we know? March: How roads are designed. February: The science of sugar. January: Geothermal energy.


November: Medical screening; how much is too much? October: Flexible and printed electronics. September: The science of marijuana. June: Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"


Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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