A Deadly Brain-Invading Worm Is Disturbingly Widespread in Florida

Angiostrongylus cantonensis larva. (Image: CDC)

Scientists in Florida have found traces of rat lungworm in five counties, bolstering the idea that this potentially fatal parasite may be expanding its geographical range on account of—you guessed it—climate change.

If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of the recent rash of rat lungworm infections in Hawaii. Previously, over the past 20 years, only two cases of the disease, known as an Angiostrongylus Infection, had been documented in the Pacific island state. But in the past several months, six cases were reported in rapid succession. The parasitic worm, which spreads through an unholy alliance between snails and rats, it endemic to Hawaii, but has also been detected in California, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida. And as as a new study published in PLOS One reveals, the disease’s geographic extent in Florida is far greater than assumed. The new research is adding credence to the idea that climate change might be playing a role in the subtropical worm’s range expansion.

Rat lungworm poses a serious health risk to humans and other animals who ingest snails. Fatality rates for the disease are low, but the parasite can cause a form of meningitis, and severe infections can lead to a coma or death. In adults, signs of infection include headaches, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, nausea, and paralysis of the face and limbs. Infected children exhibit nausea, vomiting and fever. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, there is no treatment for an A. cantonensis infection.

This malicious worm is dependent on two species for its lifecycle. Snails ingest the parasite by eating infected rat feces. In turn, rats eat the infected snails, and the cycle of despair continues. Humans contract the disease by consuming infected snails—either accidentally or deliberately—or by eating infected frogs or crustaceans, which can also contract the parasite.

The joint project between the University of Florida’s UF College of Veterinary Medicine and the Florida Museum of Natural History discovered traces of rat lungworm in five of the 18 counties studied, Alachua, Leon, St. Johns, Orange, and Hillsborough. Of the 171 rats tested, 23 percent were infected with the disease. In the counties where the parasite was found, around 16 percent of collected rats feces showed traces of the disease, and nearly two percent of land snails tested positive.

Counties that were positive for rat lungworm are marked with closed circles. Counties negative for the parasite are marked with open circles. States with no symbol weren’t involved in the study. (Image: H D. S. Walden et al., 2017/PLOS One)

The new study reveals the alarming degree to which the parasite has now spread in the state of Florida, and discusses how climate change may be contributing to its expanded geographic range.

“The parasite is here in Florida and is something that needs to be taken seriously,” said study lead author Stockdale Walden in a statement. “The reality is that it is probably in more counties than we found it in, and it is also probably more prevalent in the southeastern US than we think. The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming.”

“The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming.”

Study co-author John Slapcinsky expected the range of this worm to be restricted to just one part of the state due to its preference for tropical environments, but he said “being within another organism could mean it’s less impacted by cold weather.”

Snails are infamously slow creatures, but they can spread by slinking their way onto cargo containers and potted plants. Troublingly, rat lungworm doesn’t discriminate when it comes to different species of snails. In this case, the parasite was found in three distinct snail species, all of which are native to Florida.

“There are a lot of snail species endemic to South Florida that don’t occur anywhere else, and the last thing you want to do is throw one more problem their way,” said Slapcinsky. “Rat lungworm is finding a whole new pool of animals to infect. The more species it infects, the larger its population can be, which could make transmission even easier.”

The Florida scientists say more than 2,800 cases of human infections have been documented worldwide, but the actual number is likely higher because the disease is often undetected or misdiagnosed. To reduce risk, they advise washing produce as snails are small and they can easily hide in lettuce leaves. Anyone who handles snails—curious kids especially—should wash their hands.

Another way to limit the spread of this disease, as this study suggests, is to put the brakes on global warming. Given the current state of affairs in Washington, it’s probably more practical to steer clear of snails and keep washing our hands.

[PLOS One]

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Here’s What Causes Those Car-Swallowing Sinkholes to Form

Modern satellite technology lets us spot dangerous threats like extreme weather, giant icebergs, and even foreign militaries. But when it comes to sinkholes, all we can do is wait and hope that our cars won’t be swallowed by a sudden gaping chasm in a city street. So how do sinkholes form, and why is it so hard to predict where they’ll appear?

YouTube’s Practical Engineering, also known as civil engineer Grady Hillhouse, built a miniature replica that reveals exactly what causes most sinkholes that appear in large cities. You’re probably more familiar with erosion as it applies to tides slowly washing away a beach, or causing cliffs along the coast to collapse. But any where that water can flow, there’s the risk of erosion creating catastrophic instabilities.

In the case of large cities, more often than not it’s the result of a pipe leaking, or completely bursting, underground. It can take just a few hours, or many months, depending on the rate of flow, but over time that liquid is going to displace enough sand or soil to create a large underground cavern that’s all but impossible to spot until it’s too late. Eventually, all that’s left is the road surface on top acting as an impromptu bridge that doesn’t stand a chance against the pull of gravity.

Unfortunately given the thousands of miles of piping hidden beneath cities around the world, it’s usually impossible to find a leak before it turns into an even bigger headache. So until we figure out how to design pipes that never break and adapt to shifting soil, or start laying all of our sewage and water pipes above ground, sinkholes will continue to be another one of the joys of living in a crowded urban center.


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We Regret to Inform You That Fidget Spinners Are Now Exploding

After transitioning from an obscure curiosity to a ubiquitous annoyance in record time, fidget spinners finally completed the 21st century novelty toy cycle this month, becoming something that could potentially burn down your house. According to local news reports, at least two bluetooth-enabled spinners have now burst into flames while charging, may god have mercy on us all.

Mothers in Michigan and Alabama shared remarkably similar stories about the toys, both of which had internal batteries to power bluetooth speakers (because of course they have those now). In each case, the device was plugged into an outlet when it caught fire, melting the spinner and scorching the surface below.

“We were about five or 10 minutes from leaving the house for the day. [My son] noticed it burst into flames and he started screaming,” Kimberly Allums of Gardendale, Alabama, told WBRC. “I was downstairs and all I heard was, ‘fire, fire.’ The fidget spinner wasn’t smoking, it was in flames.”

Allums said the spinner had been charging for less than 45 minutes. When she tried to identify the manufacturer of the faulty spinner, the mother only found the words “Made in China” on the box it came in.

Like hoverboards (and really all unregulated devices with batteries) before them, electronic fidget spinners’ rush to market and lack of safety standards have almost certainly increased the risk of dangerous failures like these. Unlike hoverboards, the tiny spinners could easily be mistaken for harmless trinkets—but fire is fire.

“They’re just simple, little things you spin and I love to play with them,” Michelle Carr, the other mother whose fidget spinner exploded, told WEYI. “I know there are tons of kids who want to go get them, but if you plug them in, just stay by and make sure it’s charged and it doesn’t catch.”

In a statement to Gizmodo, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said that it is investigating these incidents and recommended users “stay with products that have batteries when they are charging”:

Never charge a product with batteries overnight while you are sleeping. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use the charger from the manufacturer that is designed specifically for your device.

CPSC is also investigating reported incidents involving children and fidget spinners. We advise parents to keep fidget spinners away from young children, because they can choke on small parts. Warn older children not to put fidget spinners in their mouths.

Consumers who experience safety issues with fidget spinners are urged to report the incidents at SaferProducts.gov.


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McMansion Hell is Back Online, Will Not Comply With Zillow’s Demands [Update: Zillow Will Not Sue]

Earlier this week, the real estate site Zillow sent a cease-and-desist letter to the writer behind McMansion Hell, a blog that makes fun of ugly suburban houses. McMansion Hell’s creator, Kate Wagner, uses Zillow photos in her posts—which Zillow claims is a violation of their terms of service. However, Wagner’s lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation say that her blog is a “classic example of fair use” and that Zillow needs to back off.

In a lengthy letter to Zillow, the EFF said Zillow has no legal standing to threaten McMansion Hell. “Our client has no obligation to, and thus will not, comply with Zillow’s demands. Zillow’s legal threats are not supported and plainly seek to interfere with protected speech,” wrote Daniel Nazer, a staff attorney and Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents at the EFF.

Wagner, who launched the site in July 2016, adds commentary to promotional shots of tacky homes. A garage becomes “ye olde carhole;” a tub is simply “you” while a shower gets labeled “the plumbing fixture she tells you not to worry about.” After receiving the cease-and-desist, Wagner told the Verge that she would have to shut down her blog—which is her primary source of income—if Zillow pursued the issue.

EFF says that Wagner’s blog is protected under the Consumer Review Fairness Act, a law passed by Congress last year that blocks companies from forbidding reviews as part of their terms of service.

“We think that applies here,” Nazer told Gizmodo. “If Kate is writing criticism of listings, Zillow can’t prohibit that. They can’t prohibit you criticizing their listings through terms of use.”

Zillow claims that, in addition to violating its terms of service, Wagner may also be violating copyright law and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a controversial anti-hacking statute.

Legal experts told Jezebel that Zillow isn’t likely to succeed on those claims, either—after all, Zillow doesn’t hold the copyright to most of the images it posts. EFF echoed the sentiment, saying Zillow’s letter to Wagner is filled with “highly dubious legal claims.”

Zillow told Jezebel that it’s required to protect the copyright of the photographers who provide images. “Zillow has a legal obligation to honor the agreements we make with our listing providers about how photos can be used. We are asking this blogger to take down the photos that are protected by copyright rules, but we did not demand she shut down her blog and hope she can find a way to continue her work,” a Zillow spokesperson told Jezebel.

Wagner took her blog offline when she received the cease-and-desist letter but she’s officially relaunching it today.

“It does appear to be standing by its demand that she remove all images sourced from Zillow’s website. Zillow has no basis for such a demand and our client will not be removing any previous posts,” Nazer wrote in a post on EFF’s site. However, Nazer said that Wagner would not use pictures from Zillow in the future.

If Zillow wants to pursue its case, the company would have to sue Wagner. “The letter was foolish enough. Filing suit would be the height of foolishness. We hope they see sense,” Nazer told Gizmodo.

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Watch a Simulated Asteroid Hit the Atmosphere at 45,000 Miles Per Hour

Four years ago, an asteroid the size of a city bus screamed across the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia, shattering glass around a 60 mile perimeter and sending 1,200 people to hospitals with related injuries. In an effort to learn more about these rare but dangerous encounters with objects from space, NASA has used a supercomputer to recreate the moment an asteroid of comparable size hits the atmosphere.

The 3D model was developed by the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) division as part of the agency’s Asteroid Threat Assessment Project (ATAP). High-fidelity simulations such as this one, which was run on the Pleiades supercomputer, can help scientists estimate the amount of damage asteroids could cause during atmospheric entry, and then plan the appropriate mitigation strategies.

The simulation above shows a cross-section of an asteroid roughly the size of the one that exploded over Russia in February 2013. When the 20-meter-wide asteroid hit the Earth’s atmosphere, it was traveling around 20 kilometers per second, or 45,000 mph.

The grey and black areas represent the rocky mass of the asteroid, while the orange and red areas represent the hot, high pressure shock wave that forms around it during entry. This shock wave, in addition to wreaking havoc below, causes the asteroid to fracture and flatten out like a pancake. Due to the irregular shape of the asteroid, the resulting aerodynamic instabilities rip away at the object, shredding it to pieces. The incoming asteroid and its fragments dispel a tremendous amount of energy into the atmosphere over a short distance, creating dangerous blast waves and thermal radiation on the ground.

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Large asteroids definitely present one of the most colorful and chaotic possible apocalypses. Such…

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Indeed, as we’re learning, the primary danger from asteroids isn’t from the impact site (if it manages to reach the surface before breaking up) or from an ensuing tsunami (should it hit a large water body), but rather from the tremendous shock wave it produces on entry. As recent studies have pointed out, approximately three-quarters of all casualties will come from the heat and wind blast produced by a large incoming asteroid.

On a more positive note, here are some pictures of cute puppies.


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How to Make Your Own Smart Speaker

If you like the idea of the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, or the Apple HomePod, but you’d rather not spend any money on any of them, would prefer to control as many of the variables as possible, or just want something fun to do over the weekend you can build one at home for yourself by repurposing an old phone, tablet, or Raspberry Pi you’ve got lying around.

Here’s what you need to do to start chatting to your speaker.

The speaker setup

The easiest smart solution is to just repurpose and old Android or iOS device. There’s no programming or soldering—just activating the always listen function on the device. Yet, unless you’re going to rely on the audio output built into your phone or tablet, you’ll need a speaker to pump out your tunes and your chosen smart assistant’s responses. Any speaker with an aux in port or Bluetooth capabilities will do, but for the sake of stability and consistency, you’re probably better wiring everything up.

In our case, we used an Anker SoundCore Mini to test some smart speaker setups with, which does the job perfectly well and pumps out a very good level of sound for its size. If you’re more concerned about audio quality, get a bigger and more expensive speaker instead—the beauty of setting up your own smart speaker is that you’ve got the choice.

Another advantage of this DIY approach is portability, something you don’t get with the Google Home or the Apple HomePod. Most of the time you’re going to want to keep your speaker in a fixed place and hooked up to a power source (and your phone or tablet too), but if you do opt for a portable model you can take it on the road with you if you need to. Just make sure it doesn’t automatically power down when inactive, which will stop you from controlling it from the other side of the room.

Google Home

At the core of the Google Home is the Google Assistant, so if you’ve got a spare Assistant-enabled phone lying around you can connect it up to a speaker to create a makeshift Google Home—depending on your speaker, you might get better audio performance that the Home too. You can even get the Assistant on the iPhone now, though you don’t get the instant voice activation feature that would turn your old iPad or iPhone into a Google Home.

In our case, we used an LG G6, which has Google Assistant baked in, though you can get the same basic functionality if your phone just has the older Google Voice Search features. From the Google app, open up the menu, choose Settings and then tap Settings under the Google Assistant heading. Tap Phone, then “Ok Google” detection, and make sure Say “Ok Google” any time is set to On.

With that done, you can connect your Android phone to your speaker and use the “OK Google” voice shortcut to get it to do your bidding. You can tell it to “play some rock songs” or “set a reminder for tomorrow”, for example, as well as mining all the standard Google goodness as far as web searches, calculations, and trivia are concerned.

Apple HomePod

If you’ve got an old iPhone or iPad knocking around the house then you can hook it up to your speaker of choice and hey presto—you’ve got a HomePod, minus all that sophisticated sound tweaking, and without the glowing orb on top of the speaker. You’ve even got the benefit of a screen if you need one, and you don’t have to wait until the end of the year to have it.

You’re probably going to want to keep your iDevice plugged in at all times and make sure Siri is always listening—head to Settings then tap Siri and make sure Siri is enabled first of all. Then, turn the toggle switches for Access on Lock Screen and Allow “Hey Siri” to On.

With that brief setup out of the way, you’ve got all the capabilities of Siri just a voice command away. Play some tunes, look up the ages of your favorite celebrities, find out how long it’ll take to drive to the office, or get the latest sports scores. If you’re not sure what you want to hear, just say “hey Siri, DJ for me.”

Amazon Echo

You can’t integrate Alexa into Android or iOS the same way you can the Google Assistant or Siri (well not unless you’ve got a Huawei Mate 9), so you’ve either got to use a slightly clumsy workaround or take a more DIY route if you want to build your own Amazon Echo—and we’ll mention them both here.

The first option is to use the Amazon app for iOS, connect your iOS device to your speaker, and tap the microphone button in the top-right corner of the app’s front screen to enable Alexa. Virtually all Alexa commands and skills will work in the latest version of the app, but you need to manually launch it—pretty less than ideal.

That same functionality isn’t even available in the Amazon app for Android though. So if you’ve got an old Android device lying around, hook it up to your speaker and then install the free Ubi app instead. Once you’ve logged in with your account you get access to most of your Alexa commands and features, though again the app isn’t always listening, so it’s not ideal.

The Raspberry Pi route

If you really want to create a decent Amazon Echo replacement without an actual Amazon Echo, you need to take the Raspberry Pi route—you can install Alexa at a basic level here, without the interference of iOS and Android, though the process is more involved. Thankfully our friends at Lifehacker have a comprehensive walkthrough.

We won’t duplicate that guide in its entirety here, but as well as your Pi, your speaker, and a little Pi technical know-how, you’re going to need the Alexa Pi software from GitHub, a microSD card, a microUSB cable, a USB microphone and a keyboard and mouse to set the whole thing up (you can unplug them afterwards).

You also need to sign up for a free Amazon developer account and plug in your account details when prompted as you’re setting up the Pi. Fix the hardware up as you see fit and you’ve got a system that works just as well as a standard Amazon Echo, albeit without the Amazon fit and polish.

Other DIY hackers have been setting up Pi-based Echos with screens, like the Echo Show, and it’s really up to you what you use as a display. You’re not getting the Echo Show interface though, you’re getting the Alexa app interface running in a web browser, so you may consider the extra visuals not worth the effort.

Of course, these alternative smart speaker setups aren’t for everyone—the experience isn’t quite as seamless, and you can pick up an Echo Dot pretty cheaply—but it’s a fun way to get some extra use out of an old phone or tablet that’s not doing anything much.

All you need is to keep the power on, your devices connected, and the wake word active, which means you could easily use Bixby or Cortana on Android if you prefer. To set Cortana as the default assistant on Android, head to Apps in Settings, tap the cog icon, then choose Assist & voice input and tap Assist app to switch to Cortana.

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PBS will remain on the air in rural areas thanks to T-Mobile

PBS announced today that T-Mobile has agreed to foot the bill for public broadcasting’s translators to move to new frequencies, which they’ll have to do in order to stay on the air after the FCC’s incentive auction. T-Mobile bid $8 billion and received 45 percent of the low-band spectrum auctioned off by the FCC earlier this year. The TV channels operating on the sold-off spectrum now have to move to lower channels, share with other networks or shut down. Because the FCC isn’t providing funding for translators to be repackaged, 38 million Americans, largely in rural areas, were at risk of losing access to PBS if those broadcast facilities shut down. T-Mobile’s agreement to pay for the repackaging costs will keep PBS on the air in those areas.

The FCC’s incentive auction was years in the making. It’s goal was to free up airwaves to host more wireless services. It had TV broadcasters sell some of their low-band spectrum, which was then auctioned off to companies who would use it to spread their wireless services. In April, the auction results were announced and T-Mobile, Dish, Comcast and US Cellular took home the largest chunks. The FCC made nearly $20 billion off of the auction, $10 billion of which is to go the 175 broadcasters that sold off their spectrum.

With T-Mobile helping pay for public broadcasting’s repackaging, it will make sure the entire country retains access to PBS’s programs, which include educational programming, as well as important information like emergency alerts. According to Current, the fees covered under the agreement include equipment, engineering, installation and legal fees.

In a statement, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said, ""We are thrilled that T-Mobile sees the value that public broadcasting brings to the American people and is helping to ensure that everyone—regardless of income or zip code—continues to have access to PBS, including vital emergency alerts and programs that help prepare children for success in school."

Source: PBS

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