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New Uses for 5 Old Pests

Doctors, criminologists and even manicurists have been busy putting smaller, less cuddly members of the animal kingdom to work. From monitoring the water supply to treating callused feet, here are some examples.

1. Bluegill Fish Enlisted in War on Terror

During a meeting in 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley presented Japanese Emperor Akihito with bluegill fish. It was a gift the Japanese people wish they never received. Since its induction to Japanese fisheries, the bluegill bred rapidly and killed native species. What's worse, the Japanese generally find its taste repugnant. [Image courtesy of Earthling.]

While it's marginally more popular in the United States, it's still not the freshwater fish of choice of foodies. But it is the fish of choice for the U.S. Army. Researchers created IAC 1090 Intelligent Aquatic Biomonitoring System, which uses eight juvenile bluegills to detect change in the water. Each fish resides in its own stall about the width of a mail slot. Sensors monitor the fishes' breathing and send the data to computer program, which analyzes the results. If six of the eight show abnormalities, the computer pages a technician. Officials swap out bluegills—perfectly matched for the task because they are sedentary and sensitive to contaminants—so the fish aren't affected by their duties for long periods of time. Currently New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco use the fish to protect the water sources—the fish in New York alerted officials to a diesel leak before it became calamitous. [Note: Some might claim that fish aren't pests, but my definition of pests is rather inclusive.]

2. Release the Wasp Hounds!

Training dogs to sniff out drugs, bombs, or chemicals takes months and costs thousands of dollars. But University of Georgia researcher Glen Rains and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Joe Lewis discovered that wasps could easily replace dogs to detect bombs, chemicals, and drugs. The researchers created a handheld device called the "Wasp Hound," which is a 15-inch cylinder with a vent at one end and a camera connected to a computer. When the wasps—a parasitic variety called Microplitis croceipes—smell their target they congregate at the vent, alerting the humans. Rains and Lewis claim the wasps can also sniff out food toxins, crop fungus, bodies, drugs, and even 2,4-DNT, a volatile component in dynamite that dogs struggle to smell.

The wasps only cost $100 per unit and take about a half hour to train. Using basic Pavlovian methods, researchers associate the target smell, such as a crop fungus, with food so the wasps want to locate the fungus. However, they only work for 48 hours before researchers release them.

3. They're Gonna Suck that Pain Right out of Your Knee

leeches.jpgHippocrates believed that bloodletting controlled the blood humour, reducing illness and preventing death. Until the 19th century, physicians used leeches to bleed patients and cure diseases such as acne, cholera, the plague, the flu, smallpox, gangrene and hemorrhaging (I know, it sounds counterintuitive to cure excessive bleeding by bleeding someone.) In modern medicine, bloodletting with leeches has little use other than reducing blood pressure and healing bed sores—though most doctors feel modern prescriptions are just as effective (and less icky). [Image courtesy of Antiquescientifica.com.]

However, researchers from Germany's Essen-Mitte Clinic discovered leeches sooth achy joints. Slap four leeches on your knee and after 80 minutes, the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis melts away. Of the 16 patients in the trial, the 10 who received leech therapy felt instant relief after application, and the comfort lasted for four weeks. The control patients continued experiencing pain. Researchers claim the leeches' saliva works as an anti-inflammatory.

4. Crime-fighting Bees

When Nigel Raine decided to study how serial killers track their victims, he placed tiny RFID chips on honeybees. Raine hypothesized that serial killers forage for victims much like predatory animals, such as sharks, or pollinators, such as bees. The RFID chips showed that bees pollinate plants near their hive, but not too close. It appeared the insects created a buffer zone between the hive and their feeding grounds—this protected the hive from predators and parasites. In the same way, serial killers feel comfortable preying in their neighborhoods, but not too close to their homes.

So how will the police use this to find their serial killers? By creating a model of hunting, which criminologists can use to understand how serial killers work and geographically profile them. The model might help police track serial killers from crime scenes back to their homes.

5. Feed Your Feet to Fish

doctorfish.jpgRemoving tough foot calluses has never been easy. Manicurists use files and razors to shave off dead skin. John Ho—owner of Yvonne Hair, Nail and Tan Salon—spent $40,000 to stock his Northern Virginian spa with 1,000 doctor fish or Garra rufa, which are tiny and toothless. For 15 to 30 minutes, patrons soak their feet in warm water while about 100 doctor fish nibble at their dry skin. Some compare the tingling sensation to the feeling of a foot falling asleep. After the fish feast on calluses, a manicurist massages and rubs lotions into the feet just like a regular pedicure. [Image courtesy of Doctor Fish Massage, Inc.]

Detractors think that most people will shy away from a fish pedicure because letting fish eat your feet is widely considered gross. But Ho has sold about 5,000 doctor fish pedicures, and spas in Turkey and throughout Asia offer the unique treatment to an increasing number of consumers. Ho hopes to offer full body doctor fish treatments to help people suffering from skin ailments and plans on selling franchising rights to his doctor fish pedicures.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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gutenberg.org

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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