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Virginia school board learns a hard lesson... and other stories

A confluence of recent confusion from around the world that you may have missed

ROUNDUP Welcome to this week's gallimaufry of gaucheness, as we present a selection of daft stories to make you glad that you're not that person.

Virginia school board gets thoroughly schooled

We begin with a cautionary tale from the US state of Virginia, where a member of the Henrico County school board fell victim to one of the oldest tricks in the book during a live-streamed meeting, to the subsequent amusement of many millions of YouTube viewers.

Reverend Dr Roscoe D Cooper III had just finished hearing from a member of the public in the hall and so consulted his list of other interested parties who had asked to speak.

Unfortunately, it seems somebody had supplied a list straight from Bart Simpson's repository of the fake names he uses to torment barkeeper Moe Szyslak in a famous recurring gag from The Simpsons.

As a result, the poor, unsuspecting reverend ended up asking for comment from a long list of spurious individuals including “Phil McCraken”, “Don Kedick”, “Eileen Dover” and “Wayne Kerr”.

Youtube Video

Rev Cooper, who later admitted to Newsweek that he was not a Simpsons fan and had never seen the gag on the show, was blissfully unaware that he had been pranked until he received a text message after running through the whole list which read: “Those names may not be real people lol.”

"I had no clue," he admitted. "The names looked legit, and so were their associated districts and board members. I had a duty to call them."

Rev Cooper took the prank and his unexpected YouTube fame with good humour, however, describing it as “harmless” and saying it gave him, his fellow board members and his family something to laugh about.

Nobody has yet determined who was responsible for submitting the fake names, but it is understood that a list of possible suspects has been given to the board and they are looking to speak with Amanda Huggankiss, I P Freely and Hugh Jass.

Florescent wasp nests shine light on scientist life choices

Illuminating news now from Vietnam, where scientists have learned that certain species of wasps produce paper nests that glow.

Paper wasps create paper nests made out of chewed-up wood and plant matter mixed with saliva (hence the name). Researchers have discovered that the nests of six wasp species from the genus Polistes glow in the dark under UV black light. This ability is due to the presence of silk created by wasp larvae in the base of each nest to cover the entrance of the protective cells they inhabit during their metamorphosis into adult wasps.

So far the Franco-Vietnamese team performing the study has identified four species from Vietnam whose nests glow with a green light, along with one from Europe and one from South America that glow with a blue light, adding a pleasingly cool variety to the faintly psychedelic displays.

What is less certain is why the nests do this in the first place. Some entomologists believe that the glow is to help the wasps find their way home at the end of a hard day of needlessly stinging things and doing other wasp stuff. Others disagree, since paper wasps are reputedly already very good navigators and would not need such aids. They suggest that the UV-sensitive silk shields are to help protect the larvae from harmful UV rays in sunlight.

Even more illuminating is the fact that this extraordinary fact was discovered one night by accident by a chemist called Bernd Schöllhorn. He told The Atlantic that he often took such nocturnal trips to look for things glowing in the dark, but usually had to go on his own.

“No one wanted to go with me,” he explained to The Atlantic's Katherine J Wu. “There is no light at all, and snakes, spiders, insects everywhere.”

While boffins often find themselves in precarious situations in the name of science, there can surely be few which force one to question one's life choices as sharply as realising you are tramping on your own through a Vietnamese jungle at night armed with nothing but a UV black light, looking for wasps so you can steal their florescent nests.

We have contacted Dr Schöllhorn to ask him about this, but we have yet to receive a response.

DARPA plans to resurrect the Caspian Sea Monster

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time.

Everybody's favourite unhinged military research agency, DARPA, has finally got around to looking into possibly the greatest, most beloved piece of lost geek machinery of the cold war, if not the whole of history.

Yes, last month the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency put out a Request for Information [PDF] to the combined brains of the US defence industry about the viability of launching a programme for the “Design of Seaplane Wing-in-Ground Effect Vehicles”.

In short, DARPA are considering building an ekranoplan.

If you do not know the history of the ekranoplan, then El Reg will attempt to fill you in with some of the basic details of these glorious machines now.

The ekranoplan (a Russian word meaning “screen glider”) or Wing-in-Ground-Effect vehicle (WIGE) is a vehicle which combines the characteristics of a boat, a hovercraft and an aircraft, using the aerodynamic properties of ground effect.


The beached Lun-class ekranoplan in the republic of Dagestan, city of Derbent, Russia

While most WIGE vehicles have boat hulls to allow them to take off and land on water, they actually travel in the air, riding on an air cushion generated under the craft's wings and body, allowing it to travel long distances at high speeds with relatively little drag due to the unique qualities of the ground-effect environment.

(If you would like a better explanation of the science behind this concept than this scribe's rudimentary efforts, there is a very good guide here.)

The most famous example was developed by the Soviet Union during the cold war. It was dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster by US intelligence agencies after they discovered it in reconnaissance images taken over the world's largest inland body of water, as they initially could not work out what it was or what it was for.

The enormous machine, known as KM to the Soviets, was 92m (301ft) long, had a maximum weight of 544 tonnes and was the largest aircraft in the world from its introduction in 1966 until it crashed during testing on the Caspian Sea in 1980.

They developed further versions of the ekranoplan for the Soviet Navy, including the 400-tonne Lun (“Harrier”) anti-ship missile carrier and the smaller Orlyonok (“Eaglet”) patrol and transport vessel, but despite its lengthy development process, the ekranoplan never quite fulfilled its obvious potential and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw these mighty vessels consigned to history.

In a final indignity, the sole Lun-class ekranoplan ended up stranded on a Caspian Sea beach after breaking free while it was being towed to a new home at a Russian military theme park. It remains beached there now.

Youtube Video

Despite the prospect of fast, economical transport of large quantities of cargo or weaponry over long distances, there are some disadvantages with the WIGE concept. The fact that it travels only a few metres above the surface means that it has difficulty in rough seas and is susceptible to serious damage from obstructions on land (which is why they have always traditionally been used over water).

This is seemingly why DARPA have issued their request for information: to see if these problems can be solved, so that the ekranoplan's potential as a new form of ocean-crossing transport, cheaper than aircraft and quicker than ships, can finally be fulfilled.

Their request ponders the possibility of a vessel capable of carrying 100 tons, while being able to operate in seas of up to sea state 3 (or waves of up to 1.25 metres). This would suggest a vessel around the size of the Soviet Lun class, which had a similar payload and sea state capability.

So DARPA wants an ekranoplan. The Caspian Sea Monster may yet inspire a new generation of mighty seaborne leviathans.

What a time to be alive. ®

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