Friday, May 30, 2008

No Girls Allowed In the Priesthood

The Vatican has announced that it will excommunicate anyone who attempts to ordain a female priest, as well as the lady-priest herself. This comes after reports that in some parts of the world, girl-clergy have been getting ordained left and right. And, as everyone knows, girls are icky. The church's official position has always been that since Jesus obviously preferred the company of single, 30-something men, only men should be priests. Opponents of this policy (heretics and witches) believe this announcement will only cause backlash by modern Catholics against an increasingly old-fashioned and out-of-date church. Read more about it here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nature's Terrifying Truths: Froggy Wolverine

Maybe frogs haven't always been cute and cuddly. After all, some of them are poisonous, others can addle your brain, and there's always the Battletoads. But I never expected a monster like this. It's a frog with bizarre, hair-like skin growths that breaks its own bones to create retractable claws in its feet. Also, apparently, it's delicious when roasted, but that's beside the point. It's bad enough having the slimy little suckers jump on my face whenever I open my patio door. Do I really have to defend myself from their blades now? Turns out there are a few species of frogs that form similar claws, but the mechanism is unique to amphibians. So why haven't we been warned about this sooner? More details here.

Alien Gone Wild

By now you've probably already heard about the supposed alien footage soon to be released in the most public and shameless way possible by nutjob Jeff Peckman. Once again, half-assed correspondents from the nation's local and national news outlets will be sent to jokingly write up the goings on. You can read all about it nearly everywhere, but my friends at Pink Raygun have a pretty succinct summary here. Here's hoping that after Peckman gets his documentary deal, he uses the newfound fortune to check himself into a mental institution. And here's also hoping that this infrared alien video shows the creature giving someone a blowjob, as that's the only way this thing will sell.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wi-Fi Allergy

A group in Santa Fe, New Mexico wants to ban wi-fi in all public buildings because they claim to be allergic to electronic signals. Arthur Firstenberg, one of the complainants, says wi-fi gives him chest pains that won't go away. The group is pursuing a discrimination case against the city. Of course, the real head scratcher here is why the hell KOB.com, which originally reported the story, didn't ask a doctor or scientist whether anyone could actually even have a wi-fi allergy. That would seem to be prudent journalistic practice, considering the very idea is nonsensical. There are electronic signals floating through the air nonstop--from radio and television broadcasts to cellular communication. If these people were really so sensitive, they couldn't live within range of a power line without their chests exploding. More details here.

EU Woo-woo Crackdown

The EU's new consumer protection regulations took effect yesterday, outlawing the practices of several nonsense mongers. Under the new rules, fortune tellers, tarot card readers, psychics, and faith healers will have to offer disclaimers that their services are for entertainment purposes only and aren't scientifically proven. Of course, there's a certain level of selective enforcement here, since churches are exempt from the regulations under the auspices of being non-profit organizations. Tell that to the Pope's solid gold toilet seat. Still, this is a step in the right direction. Of course, Europe's psychics, psychotics, and con artists are upset about the new rules. They're claiming religious persecution, as the required disclaimers would imply that they don't actually believe in the crap they're peddling. They don't seem to understand, however, that it doesn't matter whether a snake oil salesman really believes his snake oil works. In the case of faith healers especially, they're hurting people whether they believe it or not. More details here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Oort Cloud, Be Proud!

by Richard Peacock

I was recently contacted by a Christian high-school student who was taught that comets were proof that the Universe is only about 6,000 years old. "How the hell does that make sense?" you may be asking yourself. Well, the young man explained, since comets have a short lifespan** (some for only a few thousand years), then wouldn't they have all vanished by now, if the universe is billions of years old? I wrote back about the Oort cloud, which is a vast field of chunks of material way out past Pluto, which periodically creates new comets. "How the hell does it do that?" you may be asking yourself again. I will now explain, through the art of poetry...

"Oort Cloud, Be Proud!"

Oort cloud, be proud
Of your cosmic contributions!
Hurling comets at our sun,
There to meet forlorn conclusions.

Comprised of chunks of rock and ice,
A swarm of messy debris
At least 2,000 AU's away,
Too far for us to see.

As our solar system moves through space,
You are perturbed by other stars'
Gravitational pulls and tugs,
Though they are very far.

And these little gravitational bumps
Dislodge the chunks from their positions,
And start them creeping towards the sun
On ten-thousand year long missions.

Though your total mass is somewhat small,
(Only five times the mass of Earth)
Your age is probably the same as ours:
5 billion years since your cosmic birth.

It's likely you're the one to blame
For our past global extinctions,
Brought on by comets from the sky
From your outer-solar secretions.

But without extinctions we would not have
Such diversity of life,
Caused by dying species leaving
Open niches full and rife.

New species then evolve
To fill the open niche,
Finding new requirements
That they then must adapt to meet.

So be proud, Oort cloud,
Of your determination and resolve,
For without your planet-killing-comets,
We might never have evolved.

** I wanted to add one more detail about the young man's question: he had been taught that all comets only survive for a few thousand years. This is incorrect. Only "short-term comets" melt away that quickly. Quick fun fact: The Hale-Bopp comet, whose sighting in 1997 prompted the Heaven's Gate cult members to all castrate and then kill themselves, was generated by the Oort cloud.

The Multiverse is written by Richard Peacock, who generally doesn't know what he's talking about, and will gladly sacrifice scientific accuracy for the sake of a rhyme. Send rhyming complaints to richard@amateurscientist.org

Holy Fucking Christ!

This is an image of NASA's Phoenix lander parachuting to the Martian surface as taken from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Yes, science kicks your ass.

And here are some of the new images of Mars taken from the landing site. High five, fuckers!

Bill Clinton Uncovers Cover-up

This is just getting ridiculous. Or, more accurately, this is just getting ridiculouser. Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton is losing the Democratic in the popular vote, cannot catch up with Barack Obama in the delegate count, and still would lose even if the DNC counted votes in Florida and Michigan that they won't actually count, her lovable husband Bill is claiming that she is, in fact, ahead. We just don't know it because anti-Hillary forces are covering it up. And like 9/11 conspiracy theorists can't name the real estate speculators who supposedly profited from the WTC attacks, Bill can't tell us who's orchestrating the conspiracy against his wife. For Christ's sake, can't this woman catch a break? Back in the '90s, she and her husband fell victim to a vast right-wing conspiracy as well. More people have conspired against her than even Alex Jones. (If you're reading this, Alex Jones, you should know I can see you through your shower head.) If this level of insanity continues, we might all be wondering in a few months if Hillary's Obama assassination intimations were less wishful thinking and more actual plans. More details here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Check Out CHUD

Do you like what you read on this site? Do you wonder about the imaginary sexual/social exploits of me, Brian Thompson, your kindly Amateur Scientist? Do you click on links when people ask you to? If so, you're in luck. I've been hired on as a blogger for the Internet's best movie-themed website CHUD.com. Here's a link to my first post, which explains the connection between the upcoming Incredible Hulk movie and Norman Mailer. Enjoy, and check back often.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Pink Raygun Roundup

In addition to writing for this site and Ladies Home Journal, I also write for geek girl headquarters PinkRaygun.com. I've been remiss in linking to my friends over there lately, so here's a chance to catch up. First of all, check out the latest installments of my weekly column Ask an Amateur Scientist. I explore the sordid history of Dungeons & Dragons here, explain the mysterious phenomenon known as pareidolia here, investigate the lackluster legends behind the Mothman here, and dissect ancient astronaut theories here. Also, you can read my review of A&E's Paranormal State here. (Spoiler alert! The show is unwatchable, and the participants abuse disturbed children.)

McCain Dumps Hagee

This relationship was never meant to last. Just like I knew I probably shouldn't have gone out with that girl in the "Free Tibet" t-shirt, John McCain never should have courted rotund religious schlock-meister John Hagee. Of course, he was only trying to mend his image as a God-hating, Ted Kennedy-loving, fiscally responsible liberal in Republican's clothing, but Barack Obama joined Jeremiah Wright's church for political reasons as well, and look where he ended up. (A couple of weeks ago, I mean. Not now. Now, he's most likely going to be the next president, which kind of makes my analogy fall apart.) Anyway, McCain finally gave Hagee the old heave ho (and with a man of Hagee's size, that's a lot of heaving) after discovering a sermon where Hagee called Hitler a tool God used to restore Israel as a Jewish state. McCain says he was offended by the remarks, but let's look at this from a theistic perspective. If you believe in an omnipotent, omniscient god, doesn't everything happen according to his will? Or, like the Catholic church, did God witness the holocaust and just choose not to do anything about it? More details here.

Oprah's Toxins

In her ongoing quest to stroke the fevered ego of America's perkiest pseudoscientists and snake oil salespeople, Oprah Winfrey (pictured here in zero g) is experimenting with crank self-help guru Kathy Freston's Quantum Wellness detox diet. People who have no understanding of basic scientific principles often enjoy using the terms "quantum" and "detox", since they're vague and intimidating. Freston's plan calls for the elimination of all animal-based foods and a daily meditation regimen. Oprah is blogging about her journey (lots of talk about oatmeal and almonds so far--as long as she keeps her bowels out of it, I'm happy/disappointed), though she lays out her rather pliable standards for success here: "Don't know if I'm going to feel better or worse, but I'm willing to try to see if my body at least feels differently." If the bar's set that low, why have a bar at all? And since Oprah is also a practitioner of The Secret (shh, don't tell anyone), why doesn't she just wish for those nonexistent toxins to seep out through her pores? More nonsense here.

Burmese Junta Slightly Less Evil

Burma's military junta (for an explanation as to why I won't call Burma "Myanmar", go read a history of the country) has promised U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that they will allow foreign aid workers into the country to help its two million citizens left homeless after the recent cyclone. Of course, it's taken so long for these pricks to allow access that many Burmese are now diseased and dying from drinking contaminated water. Of course, there aren't any easy solutions to this problem. Removing the regime militarily could result in an inter-ethnic civil war, while not working to remove them has its obvious downsides. Plus, air dropping aid onto the country is also a bad idea, since the strongest, fittest, and least needy would make a mad dash for it. And this all seemed to simple in Rambo. Why oh why can't puffy pecs and chain guns solve the world's problems? More details here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

More Kenyan Murder

It's a good thing there was never a Harry Potter book set in Africa. Just going by the latest news, I doubt if Harry, Ron, or Hermione could have made it out without being burned, hanged, or having their genitals mutilated. Case in point: today's news that 11 people have been burned to death in Kenya for being witches/wizards. You guessed it--they were all victims of an angry, ignorant mob. Police are having a tough time tracking down the suspects, as the local villagers aren't naming any names. And while it's tempting just to throw up our hands and dismiss these yokels, it's also worth considering that maybe a little international attention and active information spreading might curtail these kinds of horrors. After all, you probably wouldn't blame witchcraft for your mysteriously rotting penis if you could just search WebMD. More details here.

Xbox Live: Idiots

Yes, I was often called a fag in elementary/middle/high school. Mostly because I only wore short shorts and Wham! t-shirts, but also because I once kissed a dude at lunch. (It wasn't a gay thing, though. I was looking for my gum.) But never in my adult life have I been more insulted over my perceived sexuality than while logged in to Xbox Live. I'll put it this way: I doubt real gangs of international super-spies call their teammates cocksmokers when they fail to steal a hard drive from a gang of mercenaries. Though, who am I kidding? I'll still play Splinter Cell online anyway. But now it seems like Microsoft is getting in on the homophobic fun themselves. Last week, they forced a player to change his gamertag from "theGAYERgamer", and this week, they've censored the name "RichardGaywood". According to their official policy, the word "gay" constitutes a sexual reference, which they don't allow in officially sanctioned gamertags. But they also claim that they flagged those two names in particular due to complaints from other Xbox Live users. Look Microsoft, just because your members don't want to be reminded of their own repressed sexuality while p0wning other basement-bound virgins in Halo 3, that doesn't mean you have to jump on board. Also? "RichardGaywood" was the guy's real name. He is, of course, British. More details here. And experience the excitement of rampant homophobia in this video:

Google Defends Speech

Sure, they're a gigantic corporation with an almost Orwellian access to the world's personal information, but I can't help but love the hell out of Google. Maybe their street-level mapping violates my privacy (though it was probably my fault for dropping my pants and sitting on the sprinkler in my front yard), but I use Gmail. I use iGoogle. I use Google's search engine. This blog is even hosted on Google's servers. And when Sen. Joe Lieberman (?-CT) asked Google to remove videos from YouTube (hey, I use that, too!) that he deemed inappropriate, they told him to go screw. Seems Sen. Lieberman was offended that anti-American, terrorist-sympathizing bastards have been allowed to rant into their webcams for the world to see. Google responded with a gentle reminder about America's belief in free speech as an inalienable human right. Kudos to them. However, I can't help but be reminded that Google also voluntarily censors its searches in China in order to appease that country's information-hating regime. Hey, wait a second. Google are a bunch of hypocrites! But did you see how they changed their logo for Earth day? It's the cutest thing ever. More details here.

Mission to the Sun

It's no manned flight to Mars, but NASA's planned solar mission is shaping up to be pretty damn exciting. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University finally came up with a viable spacecraft which will be able to safely orbit within 4.1 million miles of our local star--about a tenth of Mercury's orbit. It'll protect itself from heat and radiation with a carbon composite heat shield. I haven't been able to find any details as to what exactly the probe will research, but I'm hoping we'll get some pictures of that tiny brown dot where Superman flung all the Earth's nuclear weapons. Also, I'm hoping this mission doesn't have as disappointing an ending as Danny Boyle's Sunshine. (Slightly) more details here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gay Iranian Safe

While Great Britain may suffer under the weight of oppressive hate speech laws, they've at least defended other human rights lately. Iranian teenager Mehdi Kazemi has been granted asylum by the U.K. Border Agency after discovering that his boyfriend back home had been hanged for sodomy. Kazemi game to the U.K. to study English in 2005 and believes he will also be executed if forced to return to Iran. His application for asylum had previously been refused before Home Secretary Jacqui Smith reconsidered it. I haven't quite figured out the exact math yet, but I believe that every gay person Iran hangs counts as 5,000 more reasons for the people of Iran to overthrow their theocratic regime. More details here.

16% of High School Science Teachers Are Morons

According to a recent survey conducted by Pennsylvania State University, 16% of high school science teachers consider themselves young Earth creationists. Clean your spit take off your keyboard and listen to that one more time. 16% of the high school science teachers who responded to this survey believe that human beings were created by God within the last 10,000 years. Of course, the percentage could have been higher, so it's not all bad news. But what does this say about the quality of education our teachers receive before they're given the task of informing young minds? That lovable old so-and-so P.Z. Myers has a nice writeup on the survey over at his blog, so I won't go into too much more detail here. But if you happen to be in high school and your science teacher is one of those 16%, congratulations. Your days are probably just as much a waste of time as they seem.

London Culting

The City of London police are prosecuting a 15-year-old Scientology protester for calling the cult a cult. According to their interpretation of Britain's draconian Public Order Act, describing Scientology as a cult constitutes "abusive and insulting" speech. This is what happens when freedom of expression is considered a tradition instead of a written human right. There are many layers of wrong going on here. Two years ago, more than twenty London police officers were discovered to have accepted gifts from the cult of Scientology, and City of London Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley lauded the cult for "raising the spiritual wealth of society" during the opening of its headquarters in 2006. The unnamed 15-year-old is a member of Anonymous and doesn't currently have an attorney. Here's hoping a few liberty loving lawyers across the pond will offer up some pro bono work. If not, then we'll just have to break this kid out of jail Old West style. More details here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Not so Deadly Spit

Willie Campbell, a Dallas-area homeless man, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon: his spit. While Campbell was being hauled off for public intoxication, he spit in the mouth and eye of the arresting officer and taunted him by saying he was HIV positive. But while no one really has a problem with granting drunken, spitting bums with extensive criminal records a nice stay in jail, there should be some concern with the deadly weapon charge. Despite what Rick Santorum would have you believe, HIV has never been transmitted through saliva, so there was no threat of infection here. Because of the weapon charge, Campbell won't be eligible for parole until he's completed half his sentence, which seems like a terrible mishandling of justice on the part of people who don't understand medical science. All of these prosecutors deserve a spit in the eye. More details here.

To Boldly Go

At the risk of turning this into a celebrity gossip site (no, I'm not posting pictures of Lindsay Lohan's vagina...yet), I'm very pleased to report that Capt. Sulu himself, George Takei, plans on marrying his longtime partner Brad Altman, who, as I understand, is not a captain of anything. This comes after California overturned its ban on gay marriage last week. It's good to see Takei involved in a worthwhile endeavor after his depressingly awful guest stints on two equally horrible shows, NBC's Heroes and the Internet's Star Trek: Phase Two (a.k.a. Jesus, People Have the Time for This?). I have a feeling the legal wranglings over this matter aren't completely resolved just yet, but here's hoping Takei and Altman can soon make honest men out of each other. More details here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

O Platypus! My Platypus!

by Richard Peacock

This week's Multiverse focuses on one of the strangest (and also cutest) freak of nature: the duck-billed platypus. It lays eggs, has one tube for both urine and feces, and is one of the only mammals to have venom glands. Also, no nipples. It just sort of oozes milk through its skin. Actually, it's a pretty gross animal. Enjoy!

"O Platypus! My Platypus!"

O platypus! My platypus! Your bill so flat and rubbery,
How you spend your days in waterways, and make your nests from shrubbery!
And yet I hear from biologists near that you're not like other mammals.
You still lay eggs, have venomous spurs, and don't have any nipples!
But O, milk! Milk! Milk!
O, how you feed your young!
How you secrete milk through you skin,
Which they lap up on their tongue.

O platypus! My platypus! Some even thought you were a fraud
When you were first discovered and taken home abroad.
Your duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed frame
Looked like pieces sewn together for some fantastic claim.
But platypus! Dear friend!
Though at first you seemed a lie,
You're now Australia's famed mascot,
You've caught every Aussie's eye!

My platypus does not answer, he has no lips to speak.
And though it looks just like a duck's, he does not have a beak.
The bill is used to hunt for prey in riverbeds and streams,
By detecting faint electrical blips as on a radar screen.
Exault! O, monotremes!
(The type of mammal you are).
Your native son has brought a smile
To biologists near and far.

The Multiverse is written by Richard Peacock, who generally doesn't know what he's talking about, and will gladly sacrifice scientific accuracy for the sake of a rhyme. Send rhyming complaints to richard@amateurscientist.org

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Thought Crime in the Netherlands

I hate to start this by listing all the things I don't like about Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot, as it feels like I'm making undeserved concessions to his ridiculous government. But his cartoons are racist, unfunny R. Crumb knockoffs. Truly terrible. Still, that's no reason to arrest the guy under oppressive Dutch hate speech laws simply because his work insults Muslims. The fact is, no one should be arrested under these laws or any other hate crime legislation. Hate crimes equal thought crimes, and there's really no way around that. Supporters of them are saying someone can be prosecuted for what they were thinking when they committed a criminal act. In the case of Nekschot (a pseudonym, by the way), there wasn't even a criminal act beyond the thought. In a free society, you have to allow people to have obnoxious, racist, and reprehensible ideas. Hate crime laws are simply used as a political hacky sack, with supporters idiotically maintaining that to be against them is to be for hate. Of course, that kid in sixth grade who made fun of my third nipple at every pool party should rot in prison for the rest of his life. More details here.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Alex Tsakiris and the Doggy Psychics

Last Tuesday, Alex Tsakiris, the host of the Skeptiko podcast, issued a press release saying that James Randi, a friend of The Amateur Scientist Podcast, had abruptly broken off negotiations with a team of researchers investigating whether dogs have psychic powers. First, a bit of background. Despite the name of Tsakiris' podcast and website, he has proven himself anything but a skeptic when it comes to psychic phenomena. He's expressed a fascination with the flawed experiments of people such as Dean Radin and especially Rupert Sheldrake, after whom Tsakiris takes when it comes to the dog experiments. Tsakiris (seen here staring deeply into a puppy's eyes) has even set up a research initiative called DogsThatKnow (why it's one word is anyone's guess), which seeks to prove that dogs have psychic abilities demonstrated, at least in part, by their seeming ability to know beforehand when their owners are coming home. Despite Tsakiris' claims, the early experiments into this matter conducted by Sheldrake have been shoddily conceived, poorly executed, and presented in a fashion that isn't at all compelling. Tsakiris got into a heated debate over this matter with Dr. Steven Novella of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, with both of them making appearances on each other's shows. Obviously, Tsakiris approaches any such research as a believer, or he wouldn't be such a staunch defender of its faults. However, he contacted James Randi about setting up a psychic dog experiment through the James Randi Educational Foundation's Million Dollar Challenge, where anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities is eligible to win a cash prize.

I was suspicious of Tsakiris' press release the moment I saw it--not only because of Tsakiris' past behavior, but also because it was issued by his website yet referenced him in the third person. I contacted Randi personally, and he told me that there never were any negotiations with Tsakiris over this research. Tsakiris wouldn't even fill out the necessary paperwork to be admitted into the challenge. Tsakiris says he's not interested in the prize money and is willing to forgo it, but, as Randi pointed out to me, this makes no sense if he's convinced the experiments will prove the reality of psychic powers in dogs. On his website, Tsakiris has posted what he claims to be an email exchange between himself and Randi over this matter. There are a few curiosities to be found within. For one thing, the conversation seems to be missing a few pieces. There are references made to discussions that aren't apparent in the exchange. Tsakiris seems to imply that this is due to some kind of craziness on Randi's part, but it's more likely that there were some careless edits. And on top of that, there's nothing in it to back up Tsakiris' claims in the press release. It's clear that Tsakiris both refused to properly apply for the challenge and insisted on employing his own team of researchers for the experiment. In the interest of fairness, all JREF challenge experiments are set up by Randi's organization through independent parties, which is something Tsakiris seems to want to avoid. These emails only bolster Randi's statement to me that Tsakiris wanted "special treatment". In short, Randi hasn't backed out of anything. There were no negotiations. Tsakiris' press release is false. I've tried contacting Tsakiris via both email and psychic dog for a rebuttal, but he has yet to respond.

Also, come on, man. Psychic dogs? Pick your battles here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Attack of the Vader

All religions have their critics. Catholics have the Protestants. Scientologists have Anonymous. Mormons have humans with critical thinking skills. But no critic is more deadly than a battle-scarred, force-wielding Sith lord. Which is why I will never join the Jedi church. You're just asking for trouble. Which is why Barney Jones, the founder of the church, shouldn't have been surprised when Arwel Wynne Hughes, a 27-year-old in a Darth Vader mask and wearing a trash bag as a cape, attacked him with a metal crutch. No, Hughes wasn't motivated by the inexplicable death of his kind of wooden secret wife. Instead, he'd just imbibed nearly 2 1/2 gallons of boxed wine. Luckily for prosecutors, the Church of Jediism caught the attack on video, having set up cameras to film themselves lightsaber dueling. Yes, that's right. Hughes was sentenced to a two month suspended jail sentence and a few hundred dollars in court costs. If only the real Jedi hadn't tried to stand up to Darth Vader's rampaging clone armies and instead simply sued the skirt off him. More details here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sci-Fi Catholics

The Vatican's chief astronomer, Father Gabriel Funes, doesn't just spend all day looking for celestial signs of Christ's imminent return. ("Hello, Hale-Bopp! No... Nevermind.") He also bridges the gap between religion on Earth and in the heavens. In an article titled "Aliens are My Brother" in the Vatican's official newspaper, Father Funes says that the existence of extraterrestrial life would not contradict Catholic faith, which, for those who don't know, is based on a book that makes no mention of it. Then again, the Bible makes no mention of airplanes, but I choose to believe they don't exist. But Father Funes takes the idea a step further--coming to the logical conclusion that aliens who were never subjected to God's cruel Garden of Eden fruit-teasing experiment may never have committed original sin. This is just the kind of wacky what-if premise that would be perfect for my new pulp sci-fi magazine "Tales to Astonish (And Weekly Devotionals)". More details here.

Disappointing Disclosure

Britain's National Archives just disclosed over 1,000 pages of previously secret UFO reports gathered over several years. The most exciting bit of declassified information involves the story of two air traffic controllers who say they saw a flashing object touch down on a runway and lift off vertically at fantastic speed. So, there you go. Definitive proof of extraterrestrials visiting the Earth. Except without any video. Or film. Or photographs. Or anything other hard evidence. But what the hell was that blinky thing those guys talked about that one time? Answer me that, science! Either the British government is terrible at keeping records, or the UFO nuts of the world just got 1,000 more pages of reasons to find another hobby. More details here.

Einstein: Atheist

Remember that Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney duet "The Girl is Mine"? Well, let's use that as a metaphor for the tug of war between religious believers and nonbelievers over Albert Einstein. Being widely regarded as the smartest man who ever lived (although, let's face it, he was no Einstein), Einstein would be a pretty good get for either side. And while the arguments for Einstein being a believer are pretty flimsy (he was, after all, the smartest man who ever lived), there is this pesky quote: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." I don't understand it myself, but I've only got a B.A. in English. Still, it's been pretty clear, despite the existence of entirely made up email chain letters about how Einstein was some kind of born-again Christian, that Einstein's belief in God extended only to some kind of cosmic, Deist metaphor for the order of the universe. In other words, the religious are Michael Jackson and the non-believers are Paul McCartney--one being infinitely more likely to claim the "girl" as his. But a newly discovered letter has clinched the win. Writing to philosopher Eric Gutkind in 1954, Einstein said, "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this." Sorry, Michael. The girl is mine. More details here.

Quake Omens

In the wake of this week's terrible earthquake in China's Sichuan province, the country's bloggers are all atwitter with stories of omens and warnings that were ignored by the government. According to them, reports of restless animals, disappearing water, and the arrival of migratory toads all should have been seen as signs of an impending disaster. The people of China are awash in superstitions, and for understandable reasons. If your official information was as pigheaded and unreliable as that coming from the Chinese government, you might turn to homegrown sources of knowledge as well. But while mysterious animals and uncorroborated paranormal activity really mean nothing in the field of seismology, this does raise the question of what the Chinese government knew about this quake and when. There's a conspiracy theory floating around that the government kept any word of the impending quake from leaking to the public out of fear that it might cause a panic over the upcoming Beijing Olympics. This would seem like a ridiculous theory--after all, the quake itself would eventually cause the same panic--but remember that we are talking about the same government that preferred to develop weather-controlling technology over building a roof on their Olympic stadium. More details here.

Crazies Make Up

John Hagee, the Jabba the Hutt-like evangelical pastor and John McCain supporter, has issued a letter of apology to The Catholic League's Bill Donohue for calling the Catholic church the "great whore" and for suggesting it colluded with Adolf Hitler. Hagee says he's spoken to several Catholic leaders and friends who have educated him about the anti-Catholic origins of those remarks, and he will be more sensitive in the future. You'd think a pastor would have some understanding of the Catholic church, no matter what religion he blusters for, but you'd be holding these people to some kind of intellectual standard. That fact of the matter is that the Catholic church did not collude with Hitler--they just looked the other way. This apology becomes more absurd when you realize that The Catholic League isn't so much a league proper as it is one red-faced lunatic with access to a home PC. In other words, it's just Bill Donohue. So while these two insignificant human whales slobber all over each other, John McCain still hasn't felt the political pressure he should feel over accepting an endorsement from a know-nothing windbag like Hagee. While appearing on ABC's This Week, McCain said he condemns any "remarks that are, in any way, viewed as anti-anything." I'm still waiting for comment from the Jewish Anti-defamation League on McCain's seeming embrace of defamation. More details here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What is Space?

by Richard Peacock

Greetings Amateur Scientist fans! You may recognize me as Richard Peacock, contributing editor to the Amateur Scientist blog, and all around nice guy. And until very recently, I was Brian Thompson's co-host on the Amateur Scientist podcast. Some may be wondering what I did to Brian to make him fire me, but I'm afraid I can't confirm or deny the rumors that I "seduced" his "father."

At any rate, I will now be splashing my entertainment on your face in regular installments, in the form of science poetry! Doesn't that sound fun-- hey, wait, where are you going?

In this first episode of my science poetry series, called The Multiverse, I've decided to look at the strangeness of space. It's this weird substance with no mass, yet it's flexible like a fabric and has unforeseen properties. Wouldn't you like to hear a poem all about it?

"What is Space?"

What a strange place, this outer space,
Lacking form, yet retaining grace
As it bends and expands, Yet stays in place.

Einstein suggested theoretically
That space will curve with gravity,
And both space and time are intertwined
And can't be thought of separately.

So therefore when a planet moves
Through space it actually carves a groove,
And were it to stand completely still
Time itself would halt as well.

But if you travel really fast
You'll find you are attaining mass!
And at the speed of light you'll see
Your mass has reached infinity!

And then there isn't any force
That can push you faster. Of course
This is why astronomers agree
There's nothing faster than light speed.

But here's a fact that's hard to believe:
Space itself can break this speed.
It was Edwin Hubble who first described
How this appears with galaxies.

We now know from observation
That outer space prefers inflation.
Every point in space pushes away
From all the rest at a constant rate.

And at great distances we realize
The universe is expanding in size!
The speed at which is relative
To how far away our reference is.

Space in close proximity
Expands at rates infinitesimally,
But billions of light years from our galaxy
It's swifter than light, surprisingly!

So what is space? This strange material
We cannot taste or touch or feel?
What about gravity causes it to bend?
And why does space want to expand?

Does this expansion go on and on,
Or one day will the expansion end?
What a very strange place, this outer space.
Perhaps too strange to understand.
I'm just happy to simply call it my friend.

The Multiverse is written by Richard Peacock, who generally doesn't know what he's talking about, and will gladly sacrifice scientific accuracy for the sake of a rhyme. Send rhyming complaints to richard@amateurscientist.org

Prayer vs. Decay

So, police found a dead 90-year-old woman sitting on the toilet of a Necedah, Wisconsin home. Not to unusual, I admit. When you're 90, things can happen. However, this particular 90-year-old, Magdeline Alvina Middlesworth, had been sitting on said toilet for two months. Oh, and the house was also shared by a mother and her two teenage children. Details are sketchy (and gross, frankly), but it appears as if the mother, Tammy Lewis, and Middlesworth (who was also known as Sister Mary Bernadett) belonged to a cult led by self-proclaimed bishop Alan Bushey (pronounced boo-SHAY for extra comedy value). Turns out Bishop Bushey told Lewis that a regimine of prayers could bring Middlesworth back to life. Of course, there's no prayer powerful enough to cover the stench of a decaying body, and when Lewis' children complained about both the corpse in their home and the fact that they couldn't use the toilet anymore, Bushey explained that demons were trying to make it look as if Middlesworth wasn't coming back to life. Police described the corpse as a "pile" of "matter". Lewis and Bushey have been charged with psychologically abusing children and, I'm sure, a host of other things. More details here.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Get Your DeBunko On

Our pal Chris Wisnia, comic book creator and giant monster lover (Platonic), has made his skeptically hilarious Dr. DeBunko anthology available as a free download over at Wowio. Now you have no excuse not to read these daring adventures of suspense. SEE Dr. DeBunko battle the corpse-eating werewolves! FEEL Dr. DeBunko take on the mysterious cattle mutilators! MASTURBATE while Dr. DeBunko subdues a sex-starved succubus! This is all assuming Dr. DeBunko doesn't uncover the non-reality of these beings--which he does. Download away right here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Lest Ye Diet

by Christian Walters

Hello from sunnywindyfoggyhilly San Francisco! (City Motto: LOT FULL) I'm actually out here on a business trip. Atlanta is nice in its way, with its ample parking, but there's something about a 40-degree grade that draws me back to the Bay Area whenever I get the chance.

So welcome to the inauguration of Totally Overlapping Magisteria! We're going to explore the world of nutball cults and shady pseudoscience. (Or, in other words, cults and pseudoscience.) We're going to see how unsupportable religious twaddle gets along with nonsensical technological claims. Smart money is on "darn well." I hope to give complete reviews of these things, so you will know where to spend your credibility currency.

But for now, let's start with making fun of the li'l diet plan that could!

The Remnant Fellowship came to us in 1999 from Gwen Shamblin, a bizarre experiment involving Jane Fonda and Suzanne Somers.

Gwen was visited by God, who let her in on a secret: the only way through the Gates of Heaven is to be thin enough to shimmy through the bars. You have to say those prayers, watch those portions, and keep an eye on that sodium. You might be rolling your eyes, but that's not any weirder than a bris.

It works like this. There are two types of hunger: physical and emotional. You feed the physical with food, but only when physically hungry and only until no longer hungry. You feed the emotional with prayer and Scripture, but only until you can't swallow any more.

No, I made that last part up. Emotional hunger is a bottomless pit, according to Gwen, and I think that tells you all you need to know about cult members. Overeating is another type of greed, which is, of course, one of the Seven Deadly. What a load of cra--...

Hold the phone. Overeating is a type of greed? What happened to my good buddy Gluttony? If overeating isn't a kind of gluttony, what is? Regicide?

To be fair, parts of her diet would work. When you feel a craving, picking up a Bible will help you keep the weight off more than picking up a Cheeto. (Turn to the stuff about Lot and his daughters, and it'll make you barf so much you'll get an eating disorder.) The same can be said of picking up any other book, of course. Or picking up an iPod. Or picking up a bike helmet. Or simply picking up a conversation where you left off with a loved one.

But the Bible is better. Getting people to watch their portions and read more Proust won't give you a tax break.

Ha ha! How dare me.

The Remnant Fellowship web site can give you details, including an inspirational photo album showing how some of its members have dropped 50-80 lbs of sin. You can also read more on Gwen Shamblin's Wikipedia page, although it looks like she boldly wrote it herself.

I'd give the Remnant Fellowship a grade of three shaking fists out of a possible 10. The diet plan appears to be solid: eat less and distract yourself with something else when you're feeling a craving. Equating overeating to sin is somewhat off-putting, and the religious ties are mighty thin, so to speak. If this movement ever took hold, we'd hate to see a bunch of thin zealots trying to persecute their more husky fellow citizens. And if you hear someone cry "I gained four goddamned pounds!" they may just mean it literally.

But it does seem efficient for people who want to lose weight and do more tithing. They are certainly less obnoxious than some more accepted groups out there (I'm looking at you, snake handlers). Suzanne Somers would be proud.

Christian Walters lives, loves, and drives in the Atlanta area. He's a technical writer by training, and a Rock Band Adonis by nature. He has honed his reviewing skills on bad movies, which are as rare as pollen grains these days. He has always been a fan of science, and has studied it as much as he could by flinging a Frisbee around campus while getting a liberal arts degree.

No Web for China

One of the primary arguments against boycotting the upcoming Beijing Olympics is the idea that by flooding China with the kind of worldwide attention and scrutiny that comes with such an event, its oppressive and anti-human policies will be flushed out. But the problem here is that the world already knows about these policies. And China knows we know. They really don't care. Case in point: their recent backpedaling on whether they'll allow full access to the Internet during the games. Of course, China bans anti-communist and religious websites--even censoring Google search results within its borders. But in order to accommodate its international visitors during the Olympics, they supposedly considered temporarily lifting restrictions. This would allow international journalists free access to cover the games (assuming they don't all choke to death on Beijing's noxious pollution before then), but would also open up a flood of information for the Chinese populace. Turns out, that's not going to happen after all. You know how you wear that horrible sweater your grandmother knitted you only when she comes over, and the rest of the year you keep it under your bed with all the soiled underpants? Well, that horrible sweater is China's willingness to play-act like a civilized country. And we're your senile lump of a grandma. More details here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Seal on Penguin

Is this post just an excuse to run a picture of a seal trying to have sex with a penguin? Of course not. I don't need an excuse. But you're probably asking yourself why such an act of beastial beastiality would occur in nature. Luckily, the voyeuristic scientists who took 45 minutes of erotic video on the sub-Antarctic Marion Island have a few hypotheses. It may be the last ditch attempt of a sexually frustrated adolescent penguin. It could be some kind of kinky domination act. Or (my personal favorite) it could have been a playful romp that suddenly took a sexy turn. Lord knows I had a few of those the night I rented an inflatable ball pit for Cinco de Mayo. All of these speculations may be scientifically valid, but not one of them accounts for the raw sexuality that emanates from anyone wearing a tux. More details here.

YouTube Banned (Again)

This on-again/off-again relationship between Muslim countries and YouTube has grown more tiresome than the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully (just do it already, and as graphically as possible). Now Turkey has banned YouTube over videos insulting Turkish national leader Kemal Ataturk, who's been dead for seventy years. I'd say the guy was thin skinned, but there's not any left. Bam! This assault on freedom of information is almost as silly as Ataturk's hats. Zing! That's right. I won't stop until this website is banned by the Turkish government for being the world's largest repository of Kemal Ataturk jokes. Your country's name sounds like a delicious deli meat! Ba-dum ching! More details here.

Jack Thompson: MILF Hunter

Florida may not be known for its fertile soil, but it sure it good at growing a few things. Namely, theme parks, discontent, and crazy sons of bitches like religious advocate and anti-video game crusader Jack Thompson (pictured here holding what looks like a fun game). Thompson has long been an insignificant tick on the back of the money-bloated monsters behind the Grand Theft Auto games, and he recently wrote a letter to the mother of Strauss Zelnick, chairman of Take-Two Interactive, GTA's publisher. In the letter, he spouts off a few Bible quotes (always classy), compares himself to John the Baptist (though admittedly less headless), and blames recent cop killings in Alabama on Grand Theft Auto IV. Apparently Mr. Thompson is unaware that cop killings occurred long before the advent of video games, as the police often place themselves in dangerous situations involving criminals with guns. But that kind of logic won't stop Thompson, who goes on to describe GTA as a murder simulator. While it's true that casual murder is quite enjoyable in any GTA game, I'd hasten to add that it can also be appreciated as a driving simulator, a swimming simulator, a prostitution simulator, and a blowing up helicopters with a rocket launcher simulator--only a few of which have occurred in reality since the launch of GTA IV last week. And if Mr. Zelnick's mother is reading this, please tell your son to release a patch so I can finally play my copy of his sinful simulator without paralyzing my Xbox 360 every five minutes. More details here.

Substitute Wizard

UPDATE: Turns out this guy was really fired more for being a terrible substitute than a suspected sorceror. He's also kind of a dick.

I once had a sub in third grade who threw a pair of scissors at a kid's head, and she still kept her job. But, of course, I didn't grow up in the increasingly insane state of Florida, where substitute teacher Jim Piculas has been fired for wizardry. Turns out Piculas liked to entertain his classes with a little disappearing toothpick trick (I know the one he does, and it's a fairly impressive use of tape) from time to time. Instead of groaning ironically like any typical youngster, one of them must have taken this as proof that Piculas is a servant of the lords of darkness, since a supervisor at Rushe Middle School in Land 'O Lakes, Florida (I didn't make that up) canned him due to complaints about his sorcery. Now the school district is claiming some nonsense about Piculas not following lesson plans, but since when does a substitute have to follow a lesson plan? More details here.

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