Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hidden van Gogh

Using a new x-ray technique called synchrotron radiation induced x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have uncovered a woman's portrait hidden under Vincent van Gogh's painting "Patch of Grass". The technique measures mercury and antimony in the painting's pigments to lift hidden images from sub-surface layers of paint. Also, you can totally use it to see people naked. (I'm assuming.) Art historians and other people with seemingly useless degrees have noted that this discovery could reveal valuable information about the evolution of the world's great artists, but it seems more likely that the portrait was meant to be discovered by members of the Vincent van Gogh Superfan Club who received special decoder glasses in the mail. After all, underneath the portrait is this mysterious text: "Drink more Ovaltine." More details here.

Boozy Tree-shrew

Like Andy Dick, Malaysia's pen-tailed tree-shrew (why "tree-shrew" is hyphenated I don't know, but I'm going with the BBC since they invented English) spends its nights drinking as much as its tiny body can stand. But unlike Andy Dick, the adorable tree-shrews don't succumb to their basest groping and public urination desires after scarfing down the booze. In fact, they rarely even get drunk. The nectar they suck from the flower buds of the bertram palm is a naturally fermented spirit with up to a 3.8% alcohol content, but after 55 million years of evolution, the little critters have built up quite a tolerance. Studying the tree-shrews' drinking habits could lead to a new understanding about humanity's relationship with alcohol. However, I wouldn't hold out hope that science will ever be able to fully understand Andy Dick. More details here.

Orson Scott Card: Idiot

Orson Scott Card is not a bad science fiction writer. I really liked Ender's Game, for instance, but I read it at an age when it could reasonably be considered a power fantasy. But Card also believes that our entire understanding of American history is wrong and that a convicted con man received secret messages from an angel on some golden tablets only he could see. In other words, Card's a Mormon. Which is why his recent column in the Mormon Times, "State job is not to redefine marriage", should really come as no surprise. Card claims that granting gay people the right to marry "marks the end of democracy in America", and his reasoning is as ludicrous as his premise. He says that judges shouldn't have the right to strike down laws against gay marriage, but he fails to realize that the legislative branch always has the right to strike down laws that are unconstitutional. He says that the writers of various state constitutions could not possibly have conceived of marriage being defined as anything other than a man/woman bond, but does that also mean black people shouldn't be granted constitutional rights? After all, the whole "all men are created equal" line surely wasn't meant to include the slaves who tended to the man who wrote it. Card goes on to talk about how any abortion up to pureeing a baby as it's being born is now legal and how people aren't allowed to pray in public anymore. None of this is true, but then, all of it is more believable than the Book of Mormon. Read his whole blithering piece here.

Packing Jet

Glenn Martin, an inventor from New Zealand, has created what he describes as the world's first practical jetpack. It's five feet tall, runs for a maximum of thirty minutes, and will cost about $100,000. Truly, the height of practicality. Still, at least someone is tapping into the chronically neglected self-contained flying device market. But I wonder how qualified your average jetpacker would be to not fly into trees, become entangled in power lines, or otherwise destroy both life and public property. Also, didn't the Mythbusters build this very thing a while back? More details here.

Titan Tea

Saturn's moon Titan, which is the closest thing to Earth's twin in our solar system, is now looking more and more like our identical cousin. No word yet on whether a hot dog makes it lose control, but data from NASA's Cassini probe has shown that Titan has surface lakes of liquid ethane, making it the only other place in the solar system with surface liquid. Sadly, liquid ethane is a component of crude oil, so I'm sure it won't be there for long. I hear there's an Exxon executive strapping himself to a rocket right now. Although it could just be a sex thing. More details here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Senator Ted "The Tubes" Stevens Indicted

Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, seen here competing for the 2007 "Jowliest Alaskan" pageant, has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of accepting gifts from the energy company Veco in exchange for voting for laws and measures which would benefit that company. Veco paid for almost $250,000 worth of work to the senator's home. In May of 2007, the CEO of Veco, Bill Allen, a personal friend of Stevens', plead guilty to paying out more than $400,000 "in corrupt payments" to Alaska officials. Ted Stevens used to be best known for his insistence that Congress pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a "bridge to nowhere" which would only benefit a couple hundred Alaskan residents. But he is currently best known for his statement that the Internet is a "series of tubes," after being frustrated that he just got "an Internet" two days late "because it got tangled up." Read more about this corrupt old bastard here.

Praying for Gas

Members of the Pray at the Pump movement are thankful that God has lowered fuel prices over the past several days, but the greedy bastards still want more. They're holding prayer services at St. Louis gas stations to ask the Lord to continue to lighten the load on their wallets. They plan to sing "We Shall Overcome" with a new verse: "We'll have lower gas prices". Frankly, that sounds more like a demand than a request. Also, I wonder if this group might have been started by struggling gas station owners, as before they try to bully God into manipulating the market, the group plans on buying a bunch of gas from the stations. Regardless, this won't work for two reasons: prayer has never once proven effective in the history of the world, and God, being a powerful Middle Easterner, is on the board of directors of OPEC. More details here.

Computer Generated Bush

In case the headline sent your heart atwitter with the thought that the last eight years of American politics has just been an artificially generated sham, that's not what this story is about. No, it seems the greatest minds of science and technology have come together to create the kind of computing power that has not only changed the very functions of the world but has also allowed for our wildest imaginings to become real. Case in point: Sienna Miller, who is apparently some sort of famous person who has sex with other famous people, will sport a CGI merkin in her new film Hippie Hippie Shake. It seems the picture is a period piece, and Ms. Miller's barren nether regions were a bit of an anachronism. Enter the helping hand of science. Says a studio insider: "Sienna's private parts were digitally enhanced, giving her a rather unruly, loud and proud bush." Thanks, progress. More details here.

Eccentric Billionaire Builds Real-Live Space Plane

If I had a nickel for every time some eccentric billionaire claimed he could build an interplanetary flying machine so he and his friends could travel through space, I'd be an eccentric billionaire claiming I can build an interplanetary flying machine so my friends and I can travel through space. But world's richest Virgin (CEO) Richard Branson has made good on his insane schemes and whipped up White Knight Two, a four-engine jet that will carry SpaceShipTwo, a passenger spacecraft, to about 50,000 feet before it launches to 62 miles above the Earth, carrying two pilots and six eccentric billionaires. In addition to offering outrageously expensive cheap thrills to the world's sickeningly wealthy, the project marks a major milestone in the race to commercialize space travel, which, judging by the depressingly self-destructive plans for NASA's future, seems like the best way to go. In addition to carrying space tourists, White Knight Two can also haul satellites into orbit, providing Branson with a perfect vehicle for his fleet of robotic sun blockers to beat our planet into dark submission and turn it into his own personal harem. More details here.

The Veto(rminator)

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (quick note to those readers who may be time travelers from 1986: yes, that guy from Commando) has vetoed a bill that would require the state's public schools to add climate change to their curriculum and science textbooks. Before anyone spins this as Schwarzenegger being some kind of anti-Earth, anti-science jackass (his multiple Hummers already do that work for you, by the way), you should know that he has very good reasons. Educational mandates, he says, shouldn't come from the government. He's right. This is why we have such things as boards of education, which are supposed to be made up of teachers and experts who decide on public school curricula themselves. The state can bar schools from unconstitutional practices (say, telling kids God created man by performing mouth-to-mouth on a heap of mud 6,000 years ago), but some vote-hungry lawmaker shouldn't be allowed to tell schools what to teach based on what's politically popular at the time. If we allow that kind of behavior, we could very well have high school classes devoted to how much New Coke sucks. (Am I right, time travelers?) More details here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kitchen Fallout

So, you've paid thousands of dollars to decorate your kitchen with shiny rocks, and now the stuff can kill you? According to Rice University physics professor W.J. Llope, the answer is yes. He claims to have tested 25 kinds of granite purchased from Houston, Texas dealers and found some varieties that would expose a homeowner to 100 millirems of radiation in a few months. There are some red flags here, however. Although Dr. Llope says he's planning on publishing his results in a peer-reviewed journal, he hasn't done so yet. Science is usually not conducted by one person completing a single test and then running to tell a reporter. But if you're thinking it's always better safe than sorry, you might want to line your new granite countertops with a protective lead covering. Just don't make a salad on it. More details here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

In Soviet Russia, Capsule Takes You (to the Moon)

This saucy little number is the newest design for the Russian-European spacecraft which will be visiting the moon in 2020. The two space agencies are working together to try and send at least four crew members to the moon using this capsule design, based in part on another vehicle the European Space Agency (ESA) has already constructed for use with the International Space Station (ISS) for making quick trips to the ISSHOP. The space craft's crew pod will be made by the ESA, while the propulsion system will be made by Russia. As an interesting show of confidence in their Russian partners, the ESA is also working on another manned capsule, without Russia's help, just in case their partnership blows up like a shoddily-made Russian propulsion system. Read more about it here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

1,500 Animal Species Practice Homosexuality-- and Love Every Minute of It

According to a recent article published in Scientific American, homosexual behavior in animals is more common than previously thought, having been documented in 1,500 species (up from 500 species just a few years ago). Perhaps the most famous example of animal same-sex coupling is of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins from the Central Park Zoo in New York, but they are by no means the only. Despite what some international rock superstars would have you believe, homosexual behavior is common in the animal kingdom, ranging from insects to mammals. Though, the article points out, unlike humans, animals are typically not exclusively homosexual, but more likely bisexual. Sociologist Eric Anderson from the University of Bath in England states: “Animals don’t do sexual identity. They just do sex.” Interestingly, animals in captivity engage in homosexual acts more often than those in the wild, possibly, according to the article, because of the high-stress environment related to living in a zoo, behind bars. And, like humans living behind bars, the animals turn to "situational homosexuality" to relieve the stress. So, Silo might be Roy's bitch. Read more of this fascinating article here.

Northern Lights Explained

No, the northern lights aren't caused by God jumping his Volkswagen, no matter what those old wives tell you. But until now, their exact cause wasn't really clear. To the rescue comes NASA's fleet of Themis satellites, which were sent into orbit last year to observe and record the goings on of the Earth's magnetic field over the poles. By watching the data from Themis while simultaneously conducting ground-based observations at the poles, NASA was able to determine that the lights correspond to magnetic explosions caused by the stretching and retracting of the Earth's magnetic field as we orbit the sun. There's still some debate as to how far away these magnetic explosions occur, but I'm sure such a quibbling argument like that can be settled with a little bare-chested Jell-O wrestling. If only the Israelis and the Palestinians could learn to resolve their differences the same way. More details here.

Ax(mathskills(x) -> (male(x)) V (female(x)))

If you understand the title of this post, congratulations: you're a virgin. But the good news is that you can either be a male virgin, or a female virgin. This is according to a new study published in the journal Science which revealed that at the highschool level, girls are just as proficient at math as boys. This goes against conventional (ie, sexist) wisdom which has always stated that boys are better at math than girls. The study examined the standardized test scores of 7 million students from ten different states, and found no appreciable difference in the two genders, contrasting studies done twenty years ago, which found that girls lagged behind boys when it came to highschool math. So, either girls are smarter today than they were twenty years ago, or boys are dumber. Maybe a little of both. Read all about it here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

OCR: In Defense of Chip Coffey

To recap: Chip Coffey exploits children on the A&E show Psychic Kids by telling them they have powers they don’t and that imaginary demons can attack him. Like many other quasi-New Age charlatans, he tries to couch his paranormal “abilities” in his Native American heritage, though his famous Cherokee shaman great-grandmother was neither famous nor a shaman. The only testimonial on his website that offers verifiable information turns out to be a demonstrable lie. And there’s no record of the master’s degree in counseling he brags about in his official bio. I’d call the man an asshole, but those can sometimes be pleasant.

What I won’t tolerate, however, is some of the ignorant bigotry being thrown Coffey’s way by several posters on skeptical message boards across the interwebs. The vast majority of the reaction against Coffey and Psychic Kids comes from a place of reasonable outrage and disgust, but there have also been some disturbingly homophobic remarks as well. There’s really no polite, delicate way to put this, but Coffey seems to be a gay man. Whether he is or isn’t shouldn’t matter to anyone at all. And the stupidest remarks have come from morons who equate homosexuality with pedophilia. Yes, reinforcing a child’s mental delusions without the supervision of a medical professional constitutes psychological abuse. But to imply anything further than that is not only baseless, it’s juvenile, brain-dead, and reprehensible. If you’re an ignorant homophobe, you have no place defending science and reason in any way.

For those of you who are rationally minded and want to do something about the televised horror that is Psychic Kids, try e-mailing the executives at A&E responsible for putting it on the air. The first season is finished, but there’s still time to make sure a second season never happens. In your letters, you might want to explain to these people the implicit logical problem with the disclaimer they run before each episode. In it, the network states that the views about the paranormal expressed in the show don’t necessarily reflect their own. But if this is the case, and the executives at A&E don’t believe in the pseudoscientific nonsense of mediumship, demons, and psychic powers, then how is this show not abusive to these children?

Write to:
Abbe Raven (CEO):
Whitney Goit (Senior Executive Vice President):
Robert DeBitetto (Executive Vice President):
Colleen Conway (Director, Non-Fiction Programming):

Thanks to Brendy at the JREF forum for providing the links.

Now, I know I’m going to receive some criticism for speaking against ridiculing Chip Coffey’s sexuality while having previously ridiculed his physical appearance. There are many reasons why one is okay and the other isn’t—mostly having to do with fighting a widespread and irrational hatred toward an entire group of human beings—but I’ll leave you with a simple one: Chip’s sexuality does nothing to hurt these poor children, but those creepy googly eyes might just give them even more nightmares.

Come on Down to the Farm

The gospel recording duo of Lewis & Lewis have made this music video for their song "Come on Down to the Farm", a catchy country ditty about how homosexuality is unnatural. The problem with this song's scientific message is nicely summed up by YouTube commenter "kungfuwookie": "thats strange, homosexuality presents itself often in animals. A cousin of mine owned 2 males goats that would fuck the shit out of each other." Well said, sir.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It Came from Outer Space

Dr. Edgar Mitchell walked on the damn moon, and you didn't. Yes, that makes him better than you. But that doesn't make him any more correct when he claims the government is covering up evidence of extraterrestrial contact. But once again, Dr. Mitchell is spreading his nonsense, going on about UFOs and Roswell crashes in a recent radio interview. This is nothing new. He's talked about this stuff for years now, but he's yet to produce any evidence that he was really subject to any inside information his fellow astronauts weren't. His claims aren't unlike most UFO nuts'. Aliens are among us, and every government in the world is in on the conspiracy to keep this a secret. So why did anyone tell him about it? And why doesn't every other astronaut back him up? Sadly, it seems Dr. Mitchell has a long history of believing ridiculous things. While he was in space, he conducted psychic experiments with his friends back home. He also claims to have been cured of kidney cancer by a teenage "remote healer" in 2004, though he was never diagnosed with kidney cancer in the first place. More details here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


As much as I find religion silly, I'm kind of a Bible geek. Just like some people spend their days combing through the Harry Potter saga looking for hints at Dumbledore's homosexuality, I comb through the Old Testament looking for hints at King David's homosexuality. Oddly, both of them had sex with Snape. So, I'm pleased as punch that the earliest known New Testament collection, the Codex Sinaiticus, will finally be collected in its entirety online next year. The 4th century text has been split up and spread across the world over the years. In addition to the standard early version of the Gospel According to Mark (you know, the one without the Hollywood ending of Jesus rising from the grave), the Codex also includes such apocryphal wonders as the Epistle of Barnabus, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Further Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Well, two of those, anyway. More details here.


I don't normally post stories about UFO photos, since most of them are just shapeless blobs and/or bad Photoshop jobs, but I thought it might be interesting to gather some opinions about this one. 43-year-old Australian Alan Ferguson snapped this photo of an object he claims buzzes over his house pretty regularly in an "N" shaped formation with its buddies. It kind of looks like a fighter jet, but unless it mistook Mr. Ferguson for a MiG, this explanation seems unlikely? A bird? Maybe there are some birding enthusiasts (virgins) out there who can shed some light. More photos here.

Return of the Cracker

University of Central Florida student Webster Cook has returned the Holy Eucharist he abducted from a campus church and held hostage in a Ziploc bag. For our non-Catholic friends, the Holy Eucharist is also known as "The Body of Christ", but is actually just a flavorless cracker the self-deluded pretend is Jesus' man-meat. Cook bowed to the pressure of numerous letters from distressed Catholics both physically threatening him and rationally explaining why stealing crackers makes them cry. The primary concern of those upset by Cook's pilfering was that he would somehow "desecrate" the cracker instead of doing what he was supposed to--popping it in his mouth, pulverizing it with his teeth, digesting it in his gut, and shitting it out. More details here. And more on the fallout from this cracker abduction here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hello, Mr. Jellyfish

by Richard Peacock

Who doesn't love jellyfish? Communists. That's who. But we in the free countries of the Earth just love the little critters. We love watching their sleek bodies undulate as they swim. We love their playful personalities when they see passing boats. We love feeding them handfuls of anchovies at Sea World. Oh wait-- those are dolphins. Then what the hell are jellyfish? Perhaps this poem will educate me...

Hello, Mr. Jellyfish

Hello, Mr. Jellyfish.
I promise I won't bite.
I'd give you a kiss right on your crown
If not for your cnidocytes.
Those stinging cells
Surely help repel
Creatures that want to eat you.
But even still, I'll shake your hand
To prove I'm pleased to meet you.

Tell me, Dr. Jellinstein,
Could you prescribe a pill?
I just cannot concentrate
From the excitement that I feel.
Your morphology is just so cool,
I can't believe it's real.
And tell me how do you get so big
Eating just fish and little krill?

You start your life just like a plant,
Anchored to the ground,
But instead of flowers that you sprout,
You bud off free-swimming crowns!
And when those medusas fully mature,
They take themselves a wife,
But sadly after mating,
That's the end of their short life.*

The little baby that results
From their romantic night at sea,
Finds a spot on the sandy floor
And anchors for security.
So thus the cycle then repeats
For the little jelly children,
Which will one day swim and take a mate
Deep within the briny ocean.

Oh, Señora Gelatina,
How you tempt me with your polypoid stage.
But I shan't be taken in again
By your fickle, tentacled ways.
I shall have to be content
To admire you from afar.
Because you, my jellyfish of the seven seas,
Are grander than the grandest star (fish).

*While most jellyfish only live a couple months, there is one species, Turritopsis nutricula, that actually re-enters its younger polyp stage after reproducing, and repeats the cycle again. This effectively makes the species immortal. It is the only known case of an animal which can completely revert to a colonial, sexually immature stage from a mature solitary form.

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

Youth for Sale

So, there's a witch selling a fountain of youth spell on eBay. Before you say nay, keep in mind that before she cast the spell on herself, she was using a walker, had a bad back, weighed almost 300 pounds, and "couldn't even vacuum [her] own hours." Whatever that means. And as for sex, well, it didn't even "exsist" in her life. Now, she mows her own lawn, transplants her own trees, and enjoys "crawling in tiny spaces". Also, she claims to be a great grandmother. If this is true, I must admit that she's kind of a GGILF. Get in on some of that action here. As of this writing, there are only 17 hours left.

Let the Banning Begin

If only there were an Olympic event for censorship so China could bring home the gold at this year's Beijing games. Or, I guess in this case, leave the gold at home? Among the many fun and wonderful freedoms being curtailed in the name of...something...are outdoor cafe seating, unlicensed dancing, unapproved live music, and according to one western bar owner, serving "black and Mongolians." The Chinese government says these measures are only temporary, adding, "there is no such thing as a ban on black people." So I guess that means everything's okay. More details here.

The Myths About Organic Food

It's always a good idea to be skeptical of any term used as a marketing tool, and "organic" isn't any different. Science writer Rob Johnston lays out the myths about organic food in an excellent new column for The Independent. Isn't organic farming good for the environment? No, it actually requires more land than non-organic farming. Doesn't organic farming refrain from using poisonous pesticides? No, it just uses natural pesticide chemicals, some of which can be more harmful than the evil artificial ones. Doesn't organic food cost a lot more? Yes. Yes, it does. Read the whole article here.

The Forum Driven Life

Hot on the heels of the new Amateur Scientist forum (click it on the right), presidential candidates Barack "I Don't Understand Satire" Obama and John "Senile" McCain have agreed to finally stop scribbling angry press releases at each other and meet in a public forum. However, they've chosen Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback megachurch in California as the venue. Warren says he called each candidate personally to invite them to discuss AIDS, poverty, and the environment. While most associate Christian evangelicals with AIDS-free, wealthy polluters, Warren has gained a reputation as a compassionate Christian concerned about what some might call progressive issues. Also, if you don't accept his demigod into your heart, he believes your soul will burn in a lake of fire. More details here. And as a remedy for Warren's insipid bestseller The Purpose Driven Life, check out our friend Robert M. Price's excellent The Reason Driven Life.

Friday, July 18, 2008

New Forum!

That's right. There's a new forum here at The Amateur Scientist, and you can check it out by clicking on the icon at the right. It's integrated with the comments system, so any comments you see on each post reflect what's going on at the forum. Swanky. Great thanks to Richard Peacock for sacrificing up to sixteen virgins to coax the coding demons into making this happen. Please sign up with a profile and enjoy a new place to bitch at strangers.

Looking Back

NASA's comet-whacking probe whacked its comet but good, so now it's drifting through space just kind of doing this and that. One of those thises and thats is looking back at Earth and snapping some pretty pictures. Now, NASA has revved up its copy of Windows Movie Maker (no, NASA doesn't use Macs, since Macs are for people who don't know how to operate a computer) and strung those images together in an animation of the Earth spinning the moon around in orbit. It's kind of underwhelming until you realize how completely pants-wetting awesome this is. Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy does a good job of injecting his enthusiasm for the video straight into your veins right here.

Al Gore's Moon Shot

For some reason, people pay attention to what Al Gore has to say. Personally, I'd rather have a buxom beauty like Helen Mirren fronting the push to save ourselves from the sooty grip of fossil fuels. Maybe I just can't get too excited about a bloated lizard man whose voice defines the word "droning". But it's in that very voice that he's announced the findings of his Alliance for Climate Protection, which has decided that the U.S. can go totally carbon-free within ten years for the bargain basement price of between 1.5 and 3 trillion dollars. This is actually a welcome issue, since the weird focus on creating non-gas burning cars seems so ridiculous when you consider the fact that our coal burning power plants are the real greenhouse builders. Nuclear is looking like a better and better option, especially now that Superman has agreed to hurl all our toxic waste into the sun. I'm sure nothing could go wrong with that plan. More details here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

OCR: The Mysterious Master's

Chip Coffey would love for you to think that he has some kind of special training in addition to his psychic powers that qualifies him to counsel disturbed children on A&E’s Psychic Kids. And just to make this clear, when I refer to Chip’s “psychic powers”, I’m talking about his uncanny knack for saying he can see and feel invisible beings no one else can see or feel. In his official bio, after mentioning his relation to the unkown-to-anyone-else “famed” Native American medicine woman Minnie Sue Morrow Foster, he says he has a master’s degree in counseling. You’d think this kind of education would enhance his ability to soothe the troubled minds of the poor children he parades on his show, but since when do trained counselors tell kids that the demons in their heads are not only real, but are also attacking them?

I couldn’t find any reference to where Chip may have earned his master’s in his information online. Just lots of overlit pictures of him touching tomb stones and staring into space. So, I contacted his college lecture booking agent to ask about these mysterious credentials. I’d say I was shocked and dismayed to discover that an accredited university would pay heard-earned tuition money to have Chip Coffey point and wave and pretend to see invisible spirits, but my alma mater once booked a Creed concert. One may be worse than the other. Anyway, Chip’s agency was more than happy to share any information I needed—except for anything about his master’s in counseling. To quote: “[Chip] doesn't give the name of his graduate school because he has had some invasion of privacy issues with people contacting old classmates and professors. I thought it seemed a little weird too, but as he is not an academic, but a paranormal investigator, I didn't think it mattered that much.”

The hell? I’m not interested in hounding your old school buddies, Chip. I just want to know if demonology was part of the core curriculum at your school.

Maybe, I thought, if I could track down his undergraduate degree, I might be able to find out where he earned his vaporous master’s. I’m sure I Googled Chip’s name almost as much as he does before I found a mention of him graduating from Elmira College, a very beautiful looking campus in New York state. Oddly enough, Elmira College doesn’t seem to offer a master’s in counseling. I hate to say it, but it’s starting to look like Chip may have fudged his credentials a little bit. But who am I to judge? Every day, I pray my employers don’t check on the whole Nicaraguan guerilla training area of my résumé.

I work for the CIA, by the way. Don’t tell anyone.

Just for shits and giggles (mostly giggles), I paid a degree verification service $6.50 of my hard-earned money to check up on just Chip’s undergraduate degree. Maybe he double majored in psychology and demonology? Turns out I might as well have saved the cash for the Subway discount menu, however, since no one could turn up any record of Chip having graduated from Elmira College at all. Now, there could be a reasonable explanation for this. Maybe “Chip” is a nickname (god, I hope so). Maybe there’s some kind of clerical error.

Chip, if you’re reading this, could you drop me a line and let me know just what kind of counseling training you have? I’d really like to know which of your esteemed predecessors originated the therapeutic method of telling kids the reason they’re scared of the dark is because ghosts are trying to catch them.

Grove Buster Busted

Vanity Fair contributing editor Alex Shoumatoff was arrested recently for trying to break in to the secretive Bohemian Grove club. For those who don't know, Bohemian Grove is the subject of much empty-headed conjecture from the tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy nuts of the world. Every year, many of the world's wealthy white male leaders meet there to frolic in the woods and jack each other off. Crazy people like 9/11 Truther Alex Jones see this as some kind of shadowy church gathering of the baby-killing Illuminati, when it's really just a frat party for the powerfully impotent. Oddly, Shoumatoff was arrested after passing only the first security checkpoint. He figured he could walk right in while wearing a Pebble Beach sweater and looking stuffy. And I say "oddly" because this is almost exactly how our friend Jon Ronson successfully infiltrated the Grove with Alex Jones. Listen to my interview with him about it here. And read more details about Shoumatoff's arrest here.

God Toys with Motorist

49-year-old Absolom Morifi of South Africa was driving along Johannesburg's N1 freeway when his Volkswagen Jetta found itself under the wheels of a runaway truck. Just days earlier, he'd canceled his life insurance policy and channeled all the money into tithes to his church. Because he escaped the wreck uninjured, Morifi is now more convinced than ever that his decision was a good one. According to him, God saved his life. But putting aside the more likely possibility that his is just a coincidence, doesn't it seem like God is simply taunting this man? Just because you put your money where your faith is and trust God to provide for your family after death, does that mean that God should feel free to nudge you closer and closer to death's door? Jesus, God can be a dick sometimes. More details here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mormon Beefcakes

Sometimes I miss the presidential primary season. Remember Mitt Romney? It seems like every day he had to explain a little bit more of the insanity that is the Mormon faith. Golden plates? Magic underpants? Black people came from where? So it's news like this that warms my heart. Former Mormon Chad Hardy has been excommunicated by the church for producing a calendar chock full of shirtless missionaries. His goal, he says, was to challenge some of the stereotypes about the church's male youth--namely, that they're humorless young men whose bike riding skills outweigh their critical thinking skills. But the church found the images didn't really fit with their desired image. For one thing, they don't believe in nipples. (This may or may not be true, but would that be any crazier than the magic underpants?) Frankly, the problem with this calendar is all in the marketing? Who harbors secret sexual desires for Mormon missionaries? I understand the taboo appeal of sampling the bodily juices of clergypeople, but Catholic nuns and priests ramp up the va-va-va-voom with those sexy outfits. Who wants to make love to a sweaty dude in a bicycle helmet and a starched button-down? More details here.

Satan/Jesus Custody Battle

Kristie Meyer of Indiana is suing her ex-husband Jamie over the right to take their children to church on the Sunday mornings Jamie has custody of them. The reason? Jamie is a member of the Church of Satan. Just to clarify, the Church of Satan isn't really a church so much as it is a prank. Members don't worship a little red man with horns but instead parody the self-oppressive tendencies of other faiths. In short, Satanist Jamie Meyer is most likely the kind of attention whoring douchebag who would rearrange the letters on a church bulletin board to read "FUK JESUS" before high-fiving his friends and crushing a beer can on his forehead. Still, the U.S. Constitution prohibits a judge from making a ruling in favor of a particular religion, so this makes for an interesting case. And what's even more interesting than the legal precedent is the fact that no one involved seems to care what the kids have to say about any of this. More details here.

Roswell Rock

UPDATE: Frank Levine, the winner of this award, sent me a link to an updated story on the Roswell Rock meant to be a little more skeptical of the E.T. hypothesis. This after posting a weird, paranoid rant about my original writeup in the comments section. Personally, I don't think there's any more skepticism on display in the new article, but it does suggest that the most likely explanation for this rock is that it's a tacky trinket sold to gullible tourists. Read the updated article here.

And the award for most insipid writing of the week goes to "reporter" Frank Levine of the Roswell Daily Record for his story "Strange rock raises questions" in the July 8, 2008 edition. Congratulations, Frank. You're truly terrible at your job. According to his article, a strange red rock with mysterious carvings was unearthed in September 2004 by Roswell businessman Robert Ridge. Ridge took the rock to (who else?) UFO investigators, who were (of course) baffled. According to them, they had the rock tested and analyzed, and its properties stunned "experts". Levine clinched his win by not only neglecting to consult with these experts or any independent experts of his own (you know, reporting), but with this single quote: "If proven to be of extraterrestrial origin, [the rock] will mark the second time in less than a century that the Roswell area has received communications from outer space." Case closed on that one, I suppose. One of the UFO investigators, Chuck Zukowski, was amazed that the carvings on the rock could only have been made with modern tools. However, this information becomes far less amazing when one realizes that the Earth is full of rocks, modern tools, and people who use modern tools to carve rocks. Enjoy the rest of Frank Levine's incompetence here.

GM Crops Save China

You may have already heard, but China is full of people. 1.3 billion of them, to be exact. To put that in perspective, imagine one person, and then multiply that by 1.3 billion. Consequently, it's becoming increasingly difficult for the Chinese government to feed all these people, who, like most people, require food. Enter genetically modified crops. This is exactly why GM crops are so useful, as they can produce more food with less space. Unfortunately many people, including the European Union, have a flimsy grasp of the science behind GM crops. They believe that somehow eating corn engineered to be bigger and juicier will make them grow bat wings. Or something. China has launched a plan to boost its production of GM rice, corn, and soybeans and to continue its production of GM cotton and vegetables. Anti-GM nutjobs should consider that this is the same government that, instead of building a ceiling on its Olympic stadium, decided to simply control the weather. Some things are simple enough even for the batshit crazy to understand. More details here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pastor Arrested for Handling Trouser Snakes

Well, not so much "trouser snakes" as "real snakes." Pastor Greg Coots (his real name) was arrested recently for buying, selling, and possessing illegal reptiles. Coots runs the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, where true believers handle dangerous snakes because they believe God will protect them from the deadly poison in their bites. But God apparently assumes you have enough common sense not to handle rattlesnakes and cobras, because it was at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in 1995, that a woman died from snake bites. Her husband, unconvinced that handling snakes might not be the best way to test your faith, continued to attend the church until he also died from snake bites, just a few months later. Read more reasons to never visit Kentucky here.

Where My Damn iTunes At?

Just a quick update to those of you who might be trying to download episodes of The Amateur Scientist Podcast via iTunes today. Because of a massive surge in popularity, all episodes have been moved to a new server. Everything will proceed swimmingly in the very near future, but iTunes has to update the show's feed. Those of you using feed readers or downloading from direct links shouldn't have a problem. I blame Apple. With all this iPhone hoopla, they forgot that The Amateur Scientist Podcast should be their first priority.

Friday, July 11, 2008

OCR: Telling Testimonials

If there's one marketing tool favored the most by quacks and frauds, it's the testimonial. Think about it, you have all the benefits of making concrete claims without the accountability, credibility, or fact-based nature of actual data. Who cares if magnetic mattress pads don't actually cure your crooked spine? Laura from Topeka, Kansas says they make her feel a whole lot better. And who are you to argue with a semi-anonymous Midwesterner with no medical training?

As a professional psychic medium, Chip Coffey can't make any actual claims for his services. Just like Taco Bell can't tell you you're getting real beef while selling you that amorphous paste they've injected in your burrito, Coffey can't claim the $400 an hour you give him will definitely buy a few seconds of strained charades with the ghost of your dear old granddad. This is why his website begrudgingly acknowledges that his "readings" are for "entertainment purposes only" and that "psychic readings cannot predict, forecast , diagnose or provide information with absolute certainty." I tried the same legal gymnastics with my short-lived pest control company Bugz-Off, but word quickly spread that I just had no idea how to kill and/or not run screaming from a swarm of termites.

If only I'd had a testimonial like this one from ChipCoffey.com:

"My family was hoping to move and we were looking for the perfect home. Chip told me that we would find it within a month and also advised me to look for the number '73.'

We found a house that we liked, but it wasn't 'perfect.' On the morning that we were planning to sign the contract to buy this house, I decided to look, just once more, on the Internet at the listings of homes that were for sale.

I found my dream home! It was everything that we were looking for and more! I called out to my husband and he was just as excited as I was. We decided to go and look at the house ... and when we finally looked at the exact address, I was stunned to discover that the street number of the house was '73'!

Chip was right! We are now living in our dream home ... at 73 Ocean View Terrace!"

Rose M.
Orinda, California

This is a sweet story. Good thing Rose ignored that bit about "entertainment purposes only" and chose to follow Chip Coffey's real estate advice. Who knew he was such a renaissance psychic? But upon closer examination, I noticed a slight problem with this testimonial. Turns out there isn't a 73 Ocean View Terrace in Orinda, California. There isn't an Ocean View Terrace at all in Orinda, California.

As a professional courtesy, Chip, I'm advising you to change this address to something a little more, I don't know, realish. Or just leave it. If it takes too much of your time away from exploiting disturbed children on national television, then it's probably not worth the trouble.

World of Wonders

UNESCO has just added eight new sites to its World Heritage list. In addition to being fantastic vacation destinations, these eight new wonders of the natural world have been judged to be the most beautiful, interesting, and important earthly spots known to humanity. Here's the list:

1. Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Nova Scotia)
2. Mt. Sanqingshan National Park (China)
3. Lagoons of New Caledonia (French South Pacific)
4. Surtsey (Iceland)
5. Saryarka (Kazakhstan)
6. Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Mexico)
7. Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona (Switzerland)
8. Scarlett Johansson's Breasts (California)

More details here.

Cracker Crazy

Biologist, atheist, and all-around great guy P.Z. Myers has created quite a stir over at his Pharyngula blog. And by "stir", I mean he's upset the bloated bowels of a raving douchebag by the name of Bill Donohue, whose personal computer and network of psychotic Catholic acolytes calls itself The Catholic League. (Even Aquaman was deemed too A-list for that one.) Myers blogged about a Florida college student who received death threats for taking a communion wafer from a Catholic mass and holding it hostage. Yes, that's hilarious. Myers thought so too, and he offered to desecrate any other flavorless Jesus crackers his readers might send him in the mail. Donohue is now taking time away from never experiencing the pleasures of a woman's body by sicking his homicidal groupies on Myers and his employer, the University of Minnesota, Morris. In the event that hundreds of braindead Catholics with Yahoo mail accounts might sway the favors of an academic institution, Myers would appreciate if you could send a supportive email the way of his bosses. Find out how to do so here.

Photoshop Flap

Doctored images have become ubiquitous in American politics. Did you know Barack Obama isn't really black? And that John McCain's skin isn't really falling off like one of those lizard aliens from V? Turns out yesterday's news of missile launches in Iran was also plagued by some Photoshop pranking, this time on the part of Sepah News, Iran's Revolutionary Guard media outlet, who gave a photo of four launching missiles to Agence France-Presse. Turns out one of those missiles was not like the others. Or, more precisely, it was exactly like the others. Regardless, the picture found its way to the front pages of the New York and Los Angeles Times. So when exactly is it going to become standard editorial policy to check these things before they're deemed fit to print? More details here.

Barack Obamastein

If you're like me, you've probably received a few rumor mongering chain emails about Barack Obama and his secret Muslim heritage/Antichrist birthright/white-hating wife. Obama even set up a website to counter the smears. Personally, I'm not too concerned. The people who buy into those things are the same ones who believe taking a cell phone call at the gas station will blow up their cars. They send all their money to Nigerian millionaires, and they'll probably all die of smallpox after refusing vaccinations. But it turns out they're not even of the same mind when it comes to their own idiocy. According to a recent Pew poll, 1% of the electorate think he's Jewish. And that he'll blow up your car at a gas station. More details here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Necromancer Convicted

With the country slowly sliding back into the good old days of totalitarian oppression under the regime of Vladimir Putin, it's nice to get a bit of semi-descent news out of Russia. Grigory Grabovoy (pictured here, caged) has been convicted of fraud in a Moscow court for taking large sums of money from grieving people in exchange for a promise to resurrect their dead loved ones. Personally, I never consult a necromancer without a long list of references, but then my mind isn't addled by bereavement. Grabovoy has been sentenced to 11 years hard labor. That's 25 American prison years and 37 British. Grabovoy's lawyer says he'll appeal the ruling, claiming "the sentence is based on speculation." As opposed to the evidence-based practice of pretending to raise the dead for profit. More details here.

Sweet Jesus

Much has been made lately of a stone tablet found on the banks of the Dead Sea. A 1st century B.C. text known as Gabriel's Vision of Revelation is printed in ink on the tablet, line 80 of which appears to recount Gabriel telling a Jewish rabblerouser called Simon that he would be resurrected three days after death. Some have come to the ludicrous conclusion that this tablet is some kind of prophecy about the coming of Christ. However, anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the New Testament understands that the mystical details of Christ's life were retroactively added to the text in order to make it fit the older Hebrew prophecies about the messiah. Case in point: the supposed relation of Jesus' earthly father Joseph to the ancient Hebrew Kind David, of whom the messiah was supposed to be descended. The New Testament writers created a fake lineage from David to Joseph to fit the older scriptures, even though it makes no sense considering that none of Joseph's spunk contributed to the formation of the baby Jesus. So, ultimately, the discovery of this tablet is a non-story even aside from the fact that there are numerous non-Hebrew myths that parallel the story of Christ. But you can read a few choice quotes about the tablet from pretend Bible scholars here.

Penis Theft Explored

Harper's has a must-read article by Frank Bures on the phenomenon of magic penis burgling. Recently there was a rash of alleged penis thefts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I wrote about here. To give you an idea of the level of dangerous delusion going on here, I present this quote from a Nigerian man who believed a sorcerer stole his junk: "Something told me inside not to shout. Because as soon as I shouted, [the man who stole my penis] would have been lynched. And if he was lynched, how could I get my penis back?" Turns out believing that your genitals are being snatched by wizards may be a culturally-bound psychological disorder. Bures explores this possibility, along with the possibility that the very idea of culturally-bound disorders is faulty. Clutch your crotch and read all about it here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

OCR: The Beginning

You've seen him on Paranormal State making bug eyes and waving his arms around as he pretends to be a psychic medium. Now A&E, your one stop shop for racist bounty hunters and Criss Angel's greasy sex appeal, brings us Psychic Kids, a new low in television history starring Chip Coffey. Psychic Kids takes the worst element of Paranormal State, Coffey's ridiculous attempts to "help" "psychic" children by telling them spirits invade their heads and demons attack their brains, and turns it into the whole goddamn show.

Where fake psychic (redundant?) Sylvia Browne just abuses the parents of missing children, Coffey cuts out the middle man and goes after the kids themselves. But who am I to judge? What harm could possibly come from telling a child those things going bump in the night aren't just real, they're out to get you!

Enter Operation: Coffey Roast. Sure, I could have come up with a better name (and I definitely could have come up with a better logo), but I struggled with a phrase that would evoke a feeling of spoiled Coffey. Operation: Too Much Creamer? Not as punchy.

The prime ingredient for a good roast is a healthy pinch of lampooning, which will be an important part of OCR. In the weeks ahead, I'll be featuring interesting factoids about Chip Coffey on this site. First up? The question of Coffey's paranormal heritage. In his bio, he claims to be the great-grandson of famous Cherokee medicine woman and shaman Minnie Sue Morrow Foster. For someone so famous, it's curious that the only references to her that come up on Google are from Coffey's bio and from a message board for real-live Native Americans discussing how they've never heard of her. Also, "shaman" isn't a Native American term. I suppose InStyle magazine was right in describing Coffey as "a cross between John Edward and Dr. Phil." They're all giant douchebags.

Assuming Psychic Kids and Paranormal State are still on the air by this Labor Day weekend, OCR operatives will be meeting at Dragon*Con in Coffey's hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to demonstrate against Coffey's childsploitation, do some heavy drinking, and maybe play a game or two of Dungeons & Dragons. Good times.

So good, in fact, that Coffey considered the announcement of OCR to be a physical threat. Here's the email he sent me about the original OCR blog post I wrote at CHUD.com:

Yesterday, Brian Thompson posted a blog on CHUD.com with content including what certainly appears to be a personal threat against my safety that he is planning during Dragon*Con.

I have alerted the authorities regarding this threat.

-Chip Coffey-

How self-important can a fake psychic be? Why would anyone threaten physical harm against a guy when making fun of him is so much more fulfilling? For example: Is that a chin or is he trying to mate with a toad? See? So much better than physical harm.

Also, who writes to someone and refers to him in the third person? What an odd man.

Just to make things perfectly clear, Chip, no one wants to hurt you. We just want you off television so we can get back to watching racist bounty hunters. And if you really want to impress, why not take some time away from scaring the bujeezus out of little kids and appear at Dragon*Con for a public debate?

And if anyone reading this wants to become an OCR operative, write to me at brian (at) amateurscientist.org. And in the meantime, you can build up your alcohol tolerance by playing the Psychic Kids drinking game. During the show, you take a shot every time Chip Coffey makes up something horrible to tell an innocent child. Just don't blame me if you die of alcohol poisoning.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lubo the Cancer Quack

I'm going to be straight with you. It's almost impossible not to laugh at the details of this story, but let's try to keep in mind that an innocent woman died here. It's still okay to laugh; you should just feel a little bad about it. In Stirling, Western Australia, a fake doctor named Lubo Bitelco killed a pancreatic cancer paitent named Shannon O'Donnell by treating her with "ozone therapy." The procedure had nothing to do with curing cancer, but it had everything to do with blowing ozone gas into O'Donnell's vagina while forcing her to move up and down on a bed saying, "Oh, boy." Bitelco then showed O'Donnell a photo album of his other female patients--all pictured in the nude--while assuring her that she wouldn't be photographed during the treatment. O'Donnell later died from sepsis, though it's unknown whether this was due to the ozone therapy or her cancer. In 2006, six other Australian cancer patients died after receiving ozone therapy. Fake cancer cures are a very real, very sad, and very dangerous problem throughout the world. And while some seem legitimate to the credulous eye, it's probably a safe bet that your doctor's a quake if he blows into your vagina and forces you to simulate an orgasm. More details here.

Ask, Tell

According to a new study out of UC Santa Barbara, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military isn't such a bad idea. According to the reasoning skills of a fully-functioning brain, some of us have known that for years. Still, this study has some oomph behind it in the form of a research panel composed of retired military officers, including the Air Force lieutenant general during the Clinton administration to enforce the ridiculous "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Homosexual soldiers are "unlikely to pose any significant risk to morale, good order, discipline or cohesion," said one of the researchers. Maybe one day soon gays and lesbians will be allowed to publicly acknowledge their sexuality while being shipped off to some sandy country for no good reason. More details here.

Ladies' Plight

The Church of England has decided it's okay to own a vagina and be a bishop in their organization. This seems logical considering they have already allowed the ordination of female priests. And really, is there anything a clergyman can do that a clergywoman can't? Aside from assrape a child with his own penis, that is? Still, as discussed on this week's Amateur Scientist Podcast, several Anglican priests are threatening to defect to the Roman Catholic Church if they have to look at a lady in one of those silly hats. Now the Vatican has weighed in on the controversy, expressing disappointment in the Church of England's decision and hinting that it may strain relations between the two faiths. Keep in mind here that the only reason the Anglican church exists is because a fat guy with gout wanted to marry and execute a baker's dozen wives. Truly, a noble tradition. According to the estrogen-averse Anglican hardliners, Jesus only wanted men...in leadership positions. More details here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Chi Wiz

Here's a gentleman demonstrating his mastery over the mysterious Eastern life force known as chi. Apparently, mastering your chi allows you to break several bricks sometime in the past when the cameras weren't rolling. It also allows you to jiggle uncontrollably. "There are millions of these nutjobs on YouTube," you're saying. "Why single this guy out?" Well, it's because this is his response to being lampooned by members of the James Randi Educational Foundation, who, according to him, don't believe in "black people" or "energy." Watch the whole thing. It just gets better and better.

The Magic of Mushrooms

Over a year ago, scientists at Johns Hopkins University came back from a Pink Floyd laser light show and decided to do some experiments with magic mushrooms. For those who've never lived in a two bedroom apartment with seven other college dropouts, "magic" mushrooms are those fungi which contain a psychedelic drug called psilocybin. They were outlawed in the '60s when the government decided it was dangerous for people to feel better than normal. The JHU researchers administered psilocybin to 36 test subjects during an 8-hour lab visit. While about a third of them experienced heightened levels of paranoia (which always happens to me when I'm getting high in a federally funded laboratory), most of them reported positive effects, with two thirds saying the test was one of the five most spiritually significant experiences in their lives. Recently, researchers surveyed the test subjects again, and over a year after taking the drugs, most still say they feel an increase in well-being; specifically feeling more creative, self-confident, flexible, and optimistic. The researchers point out the potential of these results to lead toward the clinical use of psilocybin to deal with psychological illnesses and addiction. They go out of their way, however, to downplay the religious significance of this experiment, saying that psilocybin isn't "God in a pill." But if a drug can initiate a religious experience as well or better than any of the traditional routes, what does that say about the chemical nature of spirituality? More details here.

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