Monday, September 29, 2008

Sarah Palin: Idiot

Yes, some Alaskan teacher is saying Sarah Palin once told him that dinosaurs and humans co-existed on the Earth roughly 6,000 years ago. No, this isn’t news. Since the first day she was announced as John McCain’s running mate, the world has known what a complete imbecile Sarah Palin is, so this example of her total ignorance should come as no surprise. What’s more, it’s barely worth caring about even if McCain is elected. Assuming McCain doesn’t kick the bucket during his hypothetical term, vice president Palin won’t be in charge of policy, planning, or anything meaningful, which is exactly the role a vice president should have. But even if McCain does shuffle off to that POW camp in the sky, we still don’t have much to worry about with Palin. If the U.S. becomes entrenched in another cold war with the Russian empire, then her experience looking through a telescope across some water should be enough to protect us. But just to be on the safe side, I’m voting Obama. More details here.

Hell No, We Won’t Coal

Former vice-president and professional Powerpoint spokesman Al Gore is calling on the nation’s youthful, unemployed, and unwashed to lock their naturally hairy arms and stop construction of new coal plants that don’t install carbon capturing technologies. Coal is one of the most plentiful non-renewable energy resources on the planet, and coal-burning power plants amount to about 40% of our electricity. But the stuff burns dirty—even dirtier than the trust fund babies willing to take up Gore’s call to civil disobedience—and “clean coal” technology is really just a patch on our festering wound of fossil fuel addiction. I’m ribbing Gore (when I can find his ribs! zing!), but he’s right that we need to start working on renewable energy infrastructure instead of dolling up the failed system we already have. But I’ve yet to hear him suggest a global economic plan to monetize solar, wind, or geothermal power, and unless someone can profit hugely from these things, I don’t see them climbing the list of political or business priorities. More details here.

First Private Rocket Reaches Orbit

SpaceX made history Sunday by successfully launching their rocket, Falcon 1, into orbit around the Earth--something which no privately funded organization has ever been able to do. Despite its name, Falcon 1 is actually the fourth attempt by the company to send a rocket into orbit. All of the previous rockets crashed or exploded, including one carrying Scotty's ashes. All told, the company was able to put the rocket into orbit much more cheaply than NASA, with just a few hundred employees. Now, I know it's typically our style to childishly make fun of the stories we cover, but this is just too cool to sully with cheap dick jokes. It proves that private space flight is not only possible, but is definately going to be a reality. It makes one wonder about future private space flights, hotels on the moon, and even trips to Mars. Plus, I heard zero-G makes your balls really big. Read about it here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I Am a Course in Miracles

by Karl Mamer

Alright, I'm back with another Podcasting Without Pity, wherein your intrepid skeptical podcast listener finds a True Believer podcast and reviews a representative (i.e., the easiest to make fun of) episode and reviews it without pity.

This week we have the I Am A Course in Miracles podcast. It's based on some book from the 1970s called A Course In Miracles. Let me take you back, for a moment, to the 1970s. The Arabs and Israelis were conducting open warfare, America lost a war to Buddhists carrying AK-47s, Nixon went to China. Christians were basically getting their asses kicked by followers of Eastern religions. The time was ripe to take a long, hard squint at that dusty old Bible and recast it in a more eastern mystical light, and maybe add some Chinese gongs. A Course in Miracles was cooked up by Helen Schucman, a professor of psychology. She started hearing voices. Instead of getting medicated she decided Jesus was talking to her and began writing it all down.

Why wouldn't God talk to her?

Eventually she published a book based on the voices in her head called A Course In Miracles. And anytime someone has written a book they claim is a transcript of voices they hear in their head, you just know it's going to be, cover to cover, clear, succinct prose. No?


The podcast itself doesn't appear to be associated with the publishers of the book, just some devotee cranking it out. And I mean cranking it out. He's got 160 episodes (as of this writing). Actually, it's more like 320 episodes. The podcast is kind of split into two. There's one mp3 that's just the weekly reading from the book and, in case you listen to that and come out going "what the fuck?" there's also an mp3 that repeats the weekly reading along with the host's comments. That one appears more fun. So I'm going to review that one. I grabbed episode 159.

The episode starts with a new age version of the Star Trek: Voyager theme. The host welcomes his listeners in a voice that sounds like, after 159 episodes, he's still quite terrified of this broadcasting stuff. And maybe I'm not quite understanding what the podcast host and the author of the book mean by "miracles" but shouldn't the host have, by maybe episode 114, transformed into a shaft of pure white light that can bend space/time to his will? What sort of miracles are we talking about? The miracle of being able to defy the laws of the universe or the miracle I can bend over and tie my shoes? And why does he still sound like he's terrified of the outdoors and probably wears Kleenex boxes on his feet? What single course takes you 160 (and counting) lessons to learn? Most competent universities can turn out someone with a highly useful bachelor's degree in accounting or education after about 160 lessons.

The first minute and a half of the show is basic boiler plate, giving the show's web site and inviting fellow "energy healers" to visit the web site and give lessons. We then get into the lesson with a greeting by the host that sounds a lot like Reverend Schuller's line from Hour of Power about this being a perfect day but delivered by a guy who sounds like a terrified Doug Henning.

Soon enough we get into the, umm, course, which I might add is backed with this low, humming music mixed in with the sound of croaking frogs. I suppose it is meant to put us at ease. Our host Frightened Doug Henning plays back the start of the lesson, this one titled "I give back the miracles I have received". The lesson starts from first principles. "No one can give what he has not received." Sun goes up. Sun goes down. What part of the brain needs that special mutation that allows some of us to think selling the blindingly obvious is ethical?

Keep reading...

Frightened Doug Henning fears his listeners might have missed the obvious and tries to illustrate with several examples.

"You can't give heaven unless you receive heaven." I dunno about that. I've been with a few women who sure seem to like getting a bit of the ol' heaven and I'm always coming up short in the gettin' some heaven department.

"You have to be able to know something to teach something." Has this guy ever taught English in Korea? He wouldn't say that if he met some of the people flopping around Asia claiming to be qualified English teachers.

The lesson's voice over (which sounds a lot like the voice of God from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments) then tells us humans always mess up on this giving what you receive bit. We always want to keep what we get. Is that so wrong? This is the very message I keep trying to impart to my mutual fund broker. I just want a fund where I can keep what I get. Quit selling me those guaranteed wealth reduction plans.

The voice-of-God-over then lays on some wisdom our podcast host Frightened Doug Henning has some trouble justifying. The-voice-of-God-over tells us giving away what we have is proof we have it and it's ours. And I got the tenses right. See if you get something and then turn around and give it away, then that's great proof you have it. Not had it. Not watched it drive off in your ex-girlfriend's Prius. Frightened Doug Henning tries to underscore this point by giving the example you can't give your body away because it's not actually yours. But then for a guy who sounds like he's sold a bit too much of his own plasma this month, it's no surprise that it quickly dawns on him you can actually give away your body. If not in whole then you can give it away in part or you can at least rent it out for $200 for a full, unhurried hour session or $150 for a half hour.

We get about another two minutes of psychobabble about giving away miracles although not one mention of an actual miracle we can give away. Water into wine? Walking on water? Raising the dead? What exactly?

Frightened Doug Henning then goes into his marital problems and surmises they're because he's not viewing his wife as sinless. Yeah, nothing about spending hours a day working on some stupid podcast while she's working ten hours a day at Walmart trying to make rent. The real problem is he's not viewing her as God. Assuming this guy has completed the course in miracles (after all, he is teaching it and by lesson 159's logic he must have it to give it away) should he still be fighting with the wife over whose turn it is to take out the trash? If my accountant freely admitted he couldn't add, despite the diploma on the wall of his office that says he's completed a B.Comm, should I even be listening to that guy? Wouldn't I take my business elsewhere? Frightened Doug Henning then suggests we should try and view our co-workers as the people they really are. Ah, you mean as incompetent assholes who keep asking me how to set tabs in Microsoft Word? I'll go with that.

The voice-of-God-over then intones that earth is a reflection of the innocence found in heaven. Frightened Doug Henning suggests we should view people as mirrors of heaven. In fact, we should view ourselves as such mirrors of heaven. Should you doubt it, Frightened Doug Henning proposes a sure-fire exercise. Sit in front of a mirror. Look at yourself. And talk to yourself. This will reveal that the mirror, amazingly, reflects you, reflects what's really going on, namely you're there talking to yourself in your underwear. I'm so glad Frightened Doug Henning is here to help clear this all up.

The voice-of-God-over chirps up that Christ beholds no sin in anyone. Wow, even Hitler? Frightened Doug Henning tells us sin is actually not all that killing and gassing of Jews stuff. No no. Sin is viewing other people as not you. Ummm. Sin is viewing other people as dangerous or evil. Sin is viewing that punk kid as a threat simply because he's threatening to beat you to death with his skateboard unless you hand over your iPod. That's sin.

After that stunning revelation, that people who lock their doors at night are actually committing a sin, the voice-of-God-over intones about Christ's vision. His vision is the bridge between the worlds. In the power of this vision you can safely trust that you'll be able to make it from this world to the next. Frightened Doug Henning breathes a sigh of relief. "I'm glad we're getting into the discussion of what is Christ's vision because we were trying to learn it yesterday. In almost every paragraph he talks about Christ's vision this, Christ's vision that." Perceptive one here has finally noticed after 159 lessons his course has yet to even define basic terminology? Isn't that like your accounting student noticing after three years of education none of his textbooks have yet to actually define "debit" and "credit"?

Turns out, according to the voice-over of God, that Christ's vision means we can't see his vision. Everything in this world is just shadows. Wow, that cleared it up.

Karl Mamer is host of The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast, a 12 part look at conspiracies of today and the not too distant past. Karl is also the world's greatest living proponent of Franglais. He also likes to bait Nigerian Bank Scammers and hosted his own podcast about teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Karl lives in Toronto, Canada and works as a senior technical writer to pay the bills.

Cannibal Holocaust

While the amount of arctic sea ice left at the end of this summer is slightly more than last year, the overall trend shows we’re losing more of our ice caps over time—10% per decade, to be exact. While this might open up shipping lanes and provide cooler real estate for you to build your floating anarchist commune, it’s bad for the planet. Arctic sea ice reflects a huge amount of solar radiation that would otherwise be absorbed into the oceans, warming the planet. This warming (which some might say is global) results in drastic climate changes and potential disaster. Of course, none of these abstract notions are nearly as compelling as the heartbreaking footage of polar bears dying of exhaustion from swimming between separated bits of ice they would have been able to hop between in years past. Nothing says “pay attention” like cute, cuddly animals dying before our eyes. Of course, anyone who knows polar bears (Biblically?) knows that they may be cute, but they’re far from cuddly. They’re vicious beasts, in fact. And when drastic climate change dwindles their normal food supplies, they can turn into post-apocalyptic cannibals. More and more reports are coming in of polar bears turning on each other for meat. There’s even an account of a male polar bear sneaking into a female’s den so he could eat her alive. Who knows whether these instances are statistically significant or not, but the implications are pretty disturbing. Because when the food runs out, there’s nothing but miles and miles of frozen tundra separating these desperate, cannibalistic polar bears from a feast of delicious Canadian man-flesh. And yes, that’s the first time anyone’s ever written the phrase “delicious Canadian man-flesh”. More details here.

Quaking at Home

With nearly everyone in the country owning a fairly decent PC (and by “everyone”, I mean middle to upper-middle class employed people and/or those in outrageous debt), there’s a lot of computing processing power out there being wasted on YouTube videos, porn downloads, and MMORPGs. The SETI Institute has been tapping into that power for years now with its SETI at Home program, where your idle computer is volunteered to monitor the nearly limitless data coming in from the world’s telescopes. Now Stanford University and UC Riverside have teamed up to launch the Quake-Catcher Network, which would employ your laptop to monitor earthquake activity. Many newer laptops contain accelerometers that are used to protect hard drives from sudden drops. But they can also detect subtle movements after a quake. While any kind of movement can set off an accelerometer, the Quake-Catcher Network would look for simultaneous movement across a range of laptops in the same area, thereby detecting aftershocks they wouldn’t normally have the resources to study. Of course, all of their data could be skewed wildly if an entire neighborhood full of Quake-Catcher Network members decides to use their laptops while jumping on trampolines. I’m not encouraging this kind of tomfoolery—I’m just saying there’s no party like a trampoline party. More details here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Just Scraping By

by Christian Walters

I'm a fan of capitalism. Ask anyone about me, and they'll say, "Wow, that guy is sexier than Justin Timberlake in a hetero suit," followed quickly by "and he's clearly into capitalism, which is totally hot." Guilty as charged. But when faced with some of our modern purchasing options, I wonder if capitalism needs an image makeover. Maybe a spokesmodel, unless Paris Hilton already is one.

I was wondering about capitalism again as I was in line at Fry's holding a PedEgg. For those of you who don't watch late-night TV, a PedEgg is supposed to help you remove calluses and other horrific deformities from the bottom of your feet. I suffer from some calluses just below the balls of my feet that are severe enough to make me think I'm walking uphill all the time, so I might be in the target demographic. Plus... you know... capitalism.

The implement.

So I found myself clutching this thing as I walked uphill to the register. Either it worked and the nightmare would end, or it didn't and I would get a scathing article out of it until I passed out from the blood loss.

Let's go claim-by-claim from the website:

Claim #1: PedEgg gently removes calluses and dead skin from your feet.

Fact #1: It's obvious even without opening the package that it'll remove skin from your feet, or any other body part or pet you care to work over. Extreme Preventative Exfoliation. The PedEgg is basically a cheese grater, so it'll remove lots. But I shake my head sadly at the word "gently." Again, cheese grater. With an Emory board attachment.

This thing is not gentle. Not if you want to spend less than 30 minutes per callous. A little elbow grease speeds things up, which is okay because a callous doesn't have nerve endings. The problem is this: PedEgging without scraping against live skin is like brushing a single bicuspid with a toothbrush. Eventually, something else is gonna get touched. I might be alone in this, but the bottom of my feet is my second most sensitive area. (Someone else will have to review the Ronco Nut'N'Pummel.)

If you don't rub hard enough to reduce your shoe size, then you are discovering what erosion is like to a piece of granite. It might be gentle enough if you're an Olympic firewalker. For the rest of us, it's a teeth-gritting path to removing calluses in a haze of blood and giggling (it tickles!). You know what giggling through clenched teeth looks like? There's no coming back from that.

Claim #2: PedEgg gives your feet an incredible baby-soft look...

Fact #2: If your baby has this much scar tissue, you're parenting incorrectly. You're going to be on CNN.

I don't have a baby, so I don't have a lot of direct experience with that baby-soft look. The last time I sandpapered my niece, she looked a little red and puffy, which I guess is like a baby. But I think babies don't get that look by ablating any imperfections with a huggable Brillo pad.

However, this does come with an Emory board to help you finish it off. I managed to buff my foot down to a shine, remaining callous and all. Impressive, yes. Baby-like, no. If a foot you can see your reflection in is a goal, you are at the end of the rainbow.

Claim #3: ...that everyone loves.

Fact #3: I would be despondent to learn that "everyone" would love it if I used this thing as instructed. I hope I don't have that many enemies. Sure, Martin Sheen has that blood oath to collect on. And I was completely wrong to leave that thing under the seat before dropping my car off at the car wash, so I understand that guy's feelings. But everyone?

But even if the PedEgg worked, no one is going to admit they love the look of baby skin. There are sick people out there, you gotta watch what you say. Also, blind people with foot fetishes would all think they were shrunk really tiny and got put in a hospital nursery. I can't do that to them, after everything I've put them through.

Overall recommendation: If you have problem calluses, spend a couple of weeks working lotion into them morning and night. It's easier to wash out of your socks than cartilage and bone fragments, and you'll smell more like a pine tree, less like a Dexter-themed costume party.

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.


More and more gynecologists are speaking out against expensive and increasingly uiquitous "designer vagina" surgeries that they say are unnecessary and unsafe. Most of the surgeries in question are meant to improve the appearance of a vagina whose owner feels looks a little droopy after childbirth or has unpleasantly large labia. The problem here is that most of these surgeries are performed in the private sector, and there hasn't been much published medical research showing they're safe. While surveys of women who have undergone the procedures generally find they're happy with the results, there still isn't a clinical standard in place for performing them. Speaking as a heterosexual man, I can't pretend to tell a woman what to do with her own body. But I can say that I've never met a vagina I didn't find attractive, and that includes Bea Arthur's. More details here.

A Milky Proposition

PETA have struck again in their long campaign to dilute their message and make themselves look like ridiculous fools in the eyes of the public. They sent a letter to Ben and Jerry (of Ben & Jerry's) asking them to substitute cow's milk in their delicious ice cream products with human breast milk. The result, PETA says, would be an increase in public health and a decrease in veal production. PETA claims cow-based dairy products can contribute to all sorts of illnesses, including allergies and prostate cancer. They also toss obesity in there, but really that only applies to cheese hounds like me who've never smelled a Camembert they wouldn't squirt in their mouths. The veal claim comes from the idea that male calves of dairy cows are most often sold off to veal farmers, where they're turned into tender, juicy steaks. That's as may be, but wouldn't stopping dairy production just be treating the symptom here? And speaking of symptoms, what do you think the chances are that PETA have backed up their disease-causing dairy claims with anything approaching scientific evidence? PETA goes on to dilute any rational meaning from their position by claiming that human consumption of milk "meant for baby cows" is somehow unnatural. I guess that makes sense if you also forego traveling on roads made from materials which should naturally be in the ground. Incidentally, PETA's senior vice president, MaryBeth Sweetland, still injects animal-tested insulin containing animal byproducts to control her diabetes. So, there's that. More details here.


In their continuing effort to convince us that they are, in fact, our benevolent overlords, Google has launched a contest which will award $10 million to those ideas which are deemed the most beneficial to society. Sounds vague, but it's really just broad. Until October 20th, contestants can submit their ideas to address food, shelter, fresh water, environmental, health, and education problems. As an example, Google has described the Hippo Water Roller, a device designed to make transporting large quantities of water by foot much easier than traditional methods. Finalists will be narrowed down after internal deliberation and public voting, and the $10 million will be spread equally among whatever number of finalists make it to the end. Unfortunately for me and the rest of the world, I'm all out of ideas after a rather intense session of Mario Paint. Unless society can benefit from making music out of mushroom sprites, the money will probably go somewhere else. More details here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stonehenge Snake Oil

A new excavation at Stonehenge, England’s most majestic tourist trap, has uncovered evidence that the circle of giant stones could have been a pilgrimage destination for ancient sick people looking for a miracle cure. Several skeletons found around the site show signs of severe illnesses and disorders. One skull even appears to bear the markings of primitive surgery. Plus, chippings from the stones themselves suggest that pieces were taken home by sick pilgrims as talismans. There’s no telling right now how the myth of Stonehenge’s healing powers spread or how far-reaching the notion was. And before you go snickering at the stupidity of these ancient peoples while snifting your brandy or whatever aristocratic nose-turners like yourself enjoy doing on weekday evenings, let me remind you that even in our enlightened age thousands upon thousands routinely flock to Lourdes for the same ignorant reasons. Unlike John McCain’s economic policies, some things never change. More details here.

Sheldrake Stabber Still Sequestered

Biologist-turned-parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake was stabbed in the leg earlier this year by Kazuki Hirano, a Japanese day laborer who had been stalking Sheldrake after believing he was the victim of mind control experiments. For those who don’t know, Sheldrake is widely published in the field of psychic phenomena research, and he’s probably most famous for his insistence that his experiments demonstrate psychic ability in dogs. Sheldrake is a terrible scientist, to be sure, but he definitely didn’t deserve a stab in the leg from some psychopath. Hirano is being held in California while he undergoes psychological evaluation. While doctors so far have determined he’s not technically psychotic or schizophrenic, Hirano apparently believes that he was initiated into secret mind control experiments conducted by Sheldrake on London’s homeless population on behalf of the government. Where does London fit into this story? You’ll have to read all about it yourself right here.

Monday, September 22, 2008


There are lots of signs that your partner is having a genuine orgasm. Curled toes, perspiration, dilated pupils, expensive dinner receipts. But you can cross slurred speech, numbness on one side of the body, and sudden unconsciousness off the list. If your partner demonstrates these symptoms, he or she may be having an orgasm-triggered stroke. It happened recently to a 35-year-old Illinois woman, and by the time she made it to the hospital, it was too late to give her the preferred clot-busting, anti-stroke medicine. A catheter had to be run from her groin to her brain in order to find her clot via angiography. She’s fine now, but that could have been the deadliest orgasm ever. And she wasn’t the first person to stroke out during sex. In those cases, like many cases of spontaneous stroke in younger people, the patients all had a minor heart defect called a patent foramen ovale (PFO). A PFO is a small hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of the heart that allows blood to flow directly to the brain during periods of physical strain. Some other stroke-causing activities besides hot sex? Trying to exhale while closing your mouth and pinching your nostrils and straining during a bowel movement. Yes, those were the other two examples provided by CBS News. If you don’t believe me, you can read more about them here.

Republican ‘Fraidy Cats

Researchers at the University of Nebraska (go fightin’ sod farmers!) have conducted a study into the possible biological origins of political beliefs. They rigged conservatives and republicans to sensors, then showed them graphically horrifying images and made loud, sudden noises. Yes, being a biologist at the University of Nebraska suddenly seems a lot more fun. Turns out people who identify as conservative tended to perspire more and breathe harder when subjected to these stimuli. In other words, they were more easily frightened. As such, conservative leanings toward strong defense, torturing terrorists, and stopping gays from marrying may have a direct correlation with their fear of the alternatives to those policies. Honestly, this seems a little simplistic to me. While there’s no doubt many conservatives fear social change and books (you know, things they don’t understand), they don’t seem to be any more reactionary than liberals. In fact, it’s probably a safe bet that Barack Obama will gain several votes this November solely because people are scared of a McCain administration. Plus, this study apparently didn’t take into account political independents. However, they did observe Ron Paul supporters, who, upon being subjected to the same stimuli, suddenly began raving about Building Seven. More details here.

Panic! at the Citgo

Here’s one for the social scientists out there: can reality be molded by those who don’t understand reality. The answer is apparently yes, since unfounded panic about gas shortages in Nashville, Tennessee (as opposed to, say, Nashville, Iowa?) actually caused a real-live gas shortage on Friday. Apropos of nothing save maybe the crumbling U.S. economy and a general paranoia over the impending box office arrival of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, rumors began flying around the home of America’s worst music that gas stations would soon be running out of sweet, sweet petrol. And due to the onslaught of gas-hungry customers, those stations did indeed begin running out of sweet, sweet petrol. This phenomenon is similar to the desired results of Crowlean Chaos Magick—that is, focusing on a desired reality and wearing tacky rings can actually reshape the world in your desired image. The only difference here is that the engineered change wasn’t the result of non-existent mystical forces but was instead the result of rampant, knee-quivering ignorance. More details here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Marriage: The Final Frontier

Congratulations to George Takei and his husband Brad Altman on their recent wedding at the Japanese American National Museum (damn it, that’s totally where I wanted my wedding) in California. As you can see in this photo, former Star Trek co-hosts Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig (seen here foregoing the Vulcan finger thingy in favor of a vertical terrorist fist jab) participated as matron and man of honor, respectively. While at Dragon*Con a couple of weeks ago, Amateur Scientist contributor Richard Peacock chatted a bit with Takei and his new husband, and they seemed like really kind, classy people. And by "classy", of course, I mean "unbearably handsome". More details here.

Ant from Mars Not Really from Mars

A new species of ant has been discovered in the Amazon rainforest. It’s been named Martialis heureka (or, “eureka ant from Mars”) after biologist E.O. Wilson commented that the species is so strange it looks like it came from Mars. But since we’re pretty sure Martian ants grow upwards of seven feet from shoulder to claw and have a penchant for raping human men, obviously this was just a figure of speech on Wilson’s part. The thing is pretty weird, though. It’s a blind, subterranean predator, and its features suggest it might be very close physically to the earliest ants to evolve. This is exciting news, since it means there are probably many undiscovered species that could give us a glimpse into the evolutionary history of many more animals. Here’s hoping they find a primitive form of the platypus that hasn’t yet evolved to lose all its dignity. More details here.

Nature’s Terrifying Truths: Penis Fish

Look, I can’t write about this story for very long. Just reading the original article has already put me in a state of clammy shock, so don’t ask me to go through all the details again. Suffice it to say that if you’re a 14-year-old Indian boy and you’re cleaning out your aquarium, you might not want to hold your precious 2cm-long fish while you take a pee. Because, you know, there’s a hole down there. And when that fish needs to find a place to hide… I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m never going to swim in a natural body of water again. Or at the very least, I’m not going to read a story with the headline “Fish found in boy’s penis”. I mean, the headline is bad enough. I didn’t need to know that it’s not even accurate—that the fish was actually found in the boy’s bladder and had to be removed by ramming a set of forceps down his urethra. And I really didn’t need to know that the fish was too slippery to catch with forceps, so they had to use a ureteroscope with a bladder stone-grabbing attachment. And you don’t need to know these things either, so don’t read the rest of the story here.

A New and Improved Wiping Experience

It’s hard to imagine a time before toilet paper. Legend has it that the idiom “the wrong end of the stick” came from the practice of using cloth-covered twigs to clean up after a bit of messy business. If you’re not careful where you grab it, the saying implies, you might have a sticky situation on your hands. Of course, we all know this saying has nothing to do with bathroom humor and everything to do with the point-sharpened sticks ancient peoples used for eye gouging during domestic disputes. Regardless, toilet paper has become an essential part of our daily lives, as we use it not only for its intended purpose but also to protect ourselves from the deadly plagues populating public toilet seats, for gingerly grabbing stomped cockroaches before flushing them down the toilet, and for decorating our enemies’ front yards. So it’s unforgivable that so little attention is afforded the continuing advances in toilet paper technology. Sure, there are still a lot of sore backsides after the whole scent-adding debacle of the last decade. Who knew so many people’s sensitive areas were so sensitive to harsh potpourri-smelling chemicals? But science has learned from its mistakes and moved on. And starting Monday, the world will be introduced to the greatest advancement in toilet paper science since perforated squares. That’s when the Georgia Pacific Innovation Institute will unveil it’s latest invention: three-ply Quilted Northern. That’s right, friends. Say goodbye to running out of plies after the first two. Now there will be three layers of highly-porous tissue paper separating your fingers from your feces. Of course, science is all about peer review, and not everyone is buying G.P.’s claims. They’re taking the marketing angle that 50% more ply equals 50% more softness. But others have pointed out that ply count doesn’t equate with softness so much as strength. This new Quilted Northern may hold up to more stubborn waste matter, but it won’t be any gentler on your bum skin. Does this mean that in addition to adding an unprecedented third ply, the new Quilted Northern will also feature tissue made from advanced fibers? Maybe. Have I spent way too long writing about toilet paper? Most likely. More details here.

Short and Long

The Guinness Book of World Records (celebrating forty-three years of sponsorship by one of the world’s finest beers) arranged this unusual photo shoot to promote its latest edition. He Pingping (no, there isn’t a more adorable name) is the world’s smallest man (height-wise, of course) at 2’5”. Svetlana Pankratova has the world’s longest legs at 132cm. My conversion tables are a little rusty, but I believe that translates to roughly seven miles. I mean, get a load of those gams! I’m not a leg man normally (got a thing for the bridge of the nose), but does anyone know the Russian for “hummana hummana”? Before you start bitching, I know this doesn’t really have anything to do with the topics normally covered on this blog, but how could I resist running a picture of a wee Chinese gentleman being straddled by an Amazonian ‘80s throwback from Russia? More details (and a hilarious video where you can catch Pingping sneaking a peekpeek) here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Haiku, Youku, We all Ku for The Sun-Ku

by Richard Peacock

I used to believe the Sun was a 32-mile-wide disc which hovered over the Earth at an altitude of 3,000 miles. Of course, now I know that it's actually 45 miles wide. But lately I have been wondering: what else don't I know about the Sun? And, could I summarize that information into a form of 17th century Japanese poetry? Yes. Yes, I could.

Haiku, Youku, We all Ku for The Sun-Ku

The Earth is massive.
The organic residue
On the top is us.

But even the Earth
Is tiny next to the sun,
The source of all life.

Sol is truly huge,
And an almost perfect sphere,
A main sequence star.

It is in motion.
Sol orbits the galaxy
In cold, slow silence.*

We are dragged along
Like barnacles on a boat
Through the Milky Way.

He has completed
Only twenty five orbits
Since his ancient birth.

The surface of Sol
Is slowly getting hotter.
Earth will die in fire.

In one billion years
The oceans will boil away
And all life with cease.

After much longer,
Sol will become a giant.
Earth may be swallowed.

We will mourn the Earth,
As we watch with telescopes
From ships past Neptune.

Our ancestral home
Will then be forever gone
But we will endure.

*Actually, the Sun (and the entire solar system) orbits the galaxy at a speed of 220km (136 miles) per second. It takes about 250 million years to complete one circuit of the Milky Way, and around 1,440 years to travel one light year through space.

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.


If it's not the black holes, it's the UFOs. I suppose because the Large Hadron Collider is such a monumental scientific achievement it has to draw a certain amount of attention. But the fact that it's located underground and it's conducting experiments related to the very nature of reality gives it a certain mysterious charm that's a magnet for pseudoscientists, nutcases, and the overly imaginative. Case in point: the recent rash of British and Dutch UFO sightings being attributed, for some reason, to the LHC. People have been reporting reddish orange lights dancing around in the skies above Swansea and Louth. The sightings seem pretty consistent, which means that the witnesses are either all seeing the same thing or being influenced by each other's reports. Although the LHC is in Switzerland, that hasn't stopped people from speculating about its involvement in the UFOs. Says one witness: "Could it be something to do with that experiment they are doing under ground in Geneva letting out pockets of energy or something?" Yes, it could be that or something. I'm betting on the something. More details here.

Planet Curious (Yellow Star)

Most of the planets detected outside our solar system so far have been orbiting brown dwarfs, where the dim light from their companion stars makes them easier to spot. Of course, the main reason we're looking for exoplanets is to find one like our own, since we fear and hate things that are different from us (like Michael Jackson). But a team of astronomers from the University of Toronto have captured an image of what appears to be the first known exoplanet orbiting a star like our own. It's still probably not especially Earth-like, since it's about eight times the size of Jupiter, but we're getting closer. At the very least we can share the thought that Superman would be incredibly powerful on both our planets. More details here.

Thinking Cap

The U.S. Army has awarded $4 million to a team of researchers at UC Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Maryland to develop a piece of headgear that could translate thoughts into electronic transmissions for voiceless communication between soldiers on the battlefield. The trick is in creating software capable of isolating those brain waves that indicate a soldier is thinking actual words. At first, those words would be translated via a computer-generated voice, but the hope is to perfect the technology to recreate a person's actual voice from his thoughts. If it works at all, this thought phone won't see any real use for ten to twenty years, so don't start saving your pennies yet. I'm looking forward to this technology hitting the commercial market, so I won't have to clandestinely text message my bookie during business meetings and will instead be able to send him my thoughts on how to financially ruin me. More details here.

...In Bed

A while back, NASA advertised for test subjects who wanted to lie on their backs for about three straight months to test the effects of zero gravity on astronauts. Yes, TV, the Internet, video games, and excessive masturbation were all available as entertainment outlets, but the rub of this experiment was that subjects would have to lie at a six degree tilt toward their heads in order to more effectively simulate zero g. But with $12,000 thrown in, it's no wonder that NASA was flooded with applicants. CNN.com has a profile on one of the testees (he he), a 40-year-old chemist named Roderick Jones. Since he was between jobs and trying to save for a move, Jones jumped at the opportunity, and then he didn't jump again for three straight months. The most interesting factoid from this profile? Keeping someone in bed for three months costs NASA a quarter of a million bucks. While this research could lead to treatments for people with osteoporosis in addition to better medicine for astronauts, I guess it's a small price to pay. But just to be on the safe side, let's hope congress doesn't get an itemized bill. More details here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Royal Society Education Director: Idiot

Michael Reiss, the Education Director of England's most prestigious and oldest science organization, the Royal Society, and an ordained Anglican minister, has proposed that Creationism be considered along side Evolution in science classrooms. In his science blog, Reiss states that, "Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson." You see, dear readers, Michael Reiss is an idiot. He also states, "I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view." Respectfully, Mr. Reiss, the belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old is wrong, plain and simple. It is a misconception by a factor of about 1 million. Ergo, sir, you are a git, a plonker, a wally, and whatever else it is the British say when someone is an idiot. Not surprisingly, his colleages in the Royal Society are now trying to get him fired. As RS fellow Richard Dawkins put it, "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch." Dawkins is probably referring to the fact that Reiss has a silly walk and a propensity for buying arguments. Read more here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Greek Hackers Attack the LHC

A Greek group of hackers known as GST (Greek Security Team) successfully hacked into one of CERN's control systems on September 10th, just as the particle accelerator was firing up for the first time. They placed several files on the computer, including one web page which boasted their accomplishments (view an image of it here). Since I can't resist believing in terrible James Bond-esque movie plots, this raises questions about evil geniuses gaining control of the facility and destroying the Earth with miniature black holes and lightning-fast porn. Luckily, the system they gained control of wasn't terribly essential, though, according to CERN scientists, from there they might have been able to access other vital systems where they could have switched off some of the components of the 17-mile long machine. And, as one unnamed CERN insider put it, "it is hard enough to make these things work if no one is messing with it." James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN, said that no real harm was done, and that the attack was "quickly detected." Read more here.

UFOs A-Coming?

Australian actress, writer, and part-time psychic channeler Blossom Goodchild (not her real name, I'm hoping) has stepped ahead of the massive crowd of self-proclaimed prophets making vague, broad predictions and claims that an extraterrestrial organization calling itself The Federation of Light will finally make itself undeniably known to the world by creating a massive, prolonged UFO event somewhere over Alabama on October 14th of this year. Please send your tailgating party invitations as soon as possible, because it's just rude to wait until the last minute. This news comes from reporter Stephane Wuttunee of UFOdigest.com. He seems pretty convinced that there's something to Goodchild's claims. For one thing, author, self-proclaimed psychic, and near death experience survivor Dannion Brinkley also says aliens will make themselves known sometime this year. That's a pretty impressive coincidence, considering Brinkley has never once made an accurate prediction and uses his extensive psychic powers to make money on the motivational speaker circuit. (Note to Dannion: You're still welcome to come on my podcast anytime you want. Why did you stop answering my e-mails?) Wuttunee goes on to question the naysayers who would say perhaps Goodchild has a financial motivation for making this prediction, though he seems to ignore the possibility that she's simply a self-deluded attention hound. Finally, he commends Goodchild for putting her credibility on the line by setting such an exact date, though it's not like a total lake of prophetic accuracy has hampered the careers of Pat Robertson, Ed Dames, or any of the other fraudulent or misguided individuals who have duped the public with their nonsense. Regardless, October 14th isn't that far away. Since my motto is always "better safe than sorry", I'm prepping my personal ion cannon just in case the whole "Federation of Light" thing is a smokescreen for a V-style invasion. Yes, I have a personal ion cannon. It's called the Second Amendment, suckers. More details here.

LHC Suicide

Chayya Lal, a 16-year-old Indian girl from the state of Madhya Pradesh, committed suicide this week, reportedly because she feared the activation of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would cause the end of the world. It's not completely clear that this was the cause of her suicide, though her parents say she was terrified about the LHC in the days before it was switched on. If she did kill herself because of the idiotic claims of those who spread baseless paranoia about the LHC, I have a short message for those people. Go fuck yourselves. More details here.

In Russia, "South Park" Could be Banned

Russian prosecutors (near-winners of the 2008 award for Job Title Most Indicative of a Total Lack of Humor before the award organizers were arrested and shot execution style) have petitioned the government to ban the broadcast of South Park, citing its attacks on certain religious beliefs and its "abasement of national dignity". The government received several complaints about the show after the airing of the Season Three episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics", which featured a singing lump of human fecal matter full of holiday cheer. I'm not sure how that particular episode insights religious hatred unless it's meant to make Jews feel insanely jealous of a holiday celebrated with singing poo. I suppose South Park has also gone after crazy cults like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Scientology, but is this really a bad influence on Russia's children? Maybe it'll help them realize that their government's propaganda about Vladimir Putin being some kind of hyper-masculine, tiger-killing, benevolent father figure/sex symbol is just as ridiculous as disembodied alien spirits and the idea that Joseph Smith stuck his head in a hat to dictate magically translated golden tablets. Or maybe that's the point of the ban. More details here.

Scientology in Le Court

As soon as next year, the Church of Scientology could find itself in a French court facing charges of organized fraud. The case stems from the experiences of one plaintiff, who said that after receiving a free personality test from the church, she ended up in a financial racket, ultimately forking over more than 20,000 euros for courses, books, medications, and useless equipment. At first I wasn't sure this was a good idea, since people should be free to believe whatever they want and shouldn't necessarily be able to sue someone for their own gullibility. But as more and more former Scientologists tell their stories to the public, it's becoming very clear that the church isn't a religion at all and is instead a massive moneymaking scheme. To their credit, the French and German governments have never granted Scientology official religious status and have kept the church under close watch. If this lawsuit ends up seeing Scientology convicted, the church could be dissolved in France and all its financial operations there could be banned. But of course, this could all be evidence of Prince Xenu's growing power ahead of his upcoming interplanetary invasion. Hey, now that I think about it, that invasion could make for a great movie someday. Maybe starring John Travolta and that hot up-and-comer Barry Pepper*. Wait, where are you going? More details here.

*Apologies to Mr. Pepper, who was actually very good in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Attenborough vs. Creationists

Sir David Attenborough, the British naturalist whose BBC documentaries have brought the wonders of hot animal-on-animal and plant-on-plant action to the world, is pissed off that his work has been edited in other countries to reflect creationist beliefs. The Dutch organization Evangelische Omroep (Evangelical Broadcasting) has aired Attenboroughs documentaries with all references to evolution and an over 6,000 year timeframe of the Earth removed. A consortium of over three hundred biologists have signed a petition to the BBC asking them to exert greater control over the content of their documentaries sold to foreign markets. Attenborough is particularly peeved since his name is still attached to the altered versions, completely misrepresenting his views (you know, the correct ones) about reality. The BBC says their policy is to allow up to five minutes of editing to all the broadcasts they sell in order to fit with the formats of other markets and that EO’s edits didn’t exceed that amount. However, you’d think that content would trump length when it comes to editing, simply to protect the BBC’s brand image. Just for one example, wouldn’t editing five minutes of disembodied alien sex from every episode of Torchwood ruin its chances of success overseas? We all know the answer to that question. More details here.

The Blue Skin Blues

A while back, I wrote about Paul Karason, also known as the Blue Man (but not a member of the Group), whose skin has turned a permanent shade of blue after years of using the pseudoscientific cure-all known as colloidal silver. Sadly, Karason believed his condition was due to foolishly rubbing colloidal silver on his face to treat a skin condition and refused to admit that taking the stuff at all is not only medically ineffectual but actually harmful to the millions taken in by its fantastical claims. Rosemary Jacobs, on the other hand, knows better. She’s a 66-year-old former Spanish teacher from Vermont whose skin turned blue in her teens after years of taking colloidal silver nasal drops to fight allergies. After a lifetime of abuse, ridicule, and painful skin treatments, Jacobs has started speaking out about the dangers of colloidal silver and similar supplements sold over the Internet and at so-called health stores. While the effects of colloidal silver are pretty difficult to ignore, it’s also important to note that other pseudoscientific supplements such as homeopathic remedies may have no immediately negative side effects but pose an incredible danger to those who take them instead of evidence-based medicine for life threatening conditions. As terrible as Jacobs’ condition is, she and others defrauded by snake oil salesmen are lucky to make it out with their lives. More details here.

Mark of the Beef

Several community cattle farmers, including many Amish, are suing the federal government for requiring them to implant RFID tags into their livestock. The government says RFID tagging will help track the movement of diseases through cattle populations, but the farmers maintain that the tags violate their religious beliefs in two ways: for one, they would be forced to use technology they otherwise wouldn’t, and for another, RFID tags are the Mark of the Beast. For those who’ve never read the classic fantasy novel called the Bible, the Mark of the Beast is the number (often referred to as “666”) which those living in the end times will have to have printed on their hands or foreheads in order to purchase goods or services under the rule of the villainous Satan and his evil minions. This lawsuit doesn’t seem like it will hold up, since the Amish are already legally required to violate their technology-shunning ways when it comes to public safety—posting reflectors on their horse carriages, for instance. Also, RFID tags probably aren’t the Mark of the Beast, since they aren’t tattooed numbers and Satan is a figment of pop culture. However, the lawsuit also claims the government has no evidence that RFID tags reduce animal disease. While I don’t know if this is true, it’s at least a testable, fact-based objection. So, you know, good for the farmers, I suppose. More details here.

Living in Space

It’s a well known fact that exposure to the harsh vacuum of space will cause the human body to expand grotesquely before exploding in a cascade of guts and chum. But no matter how well known this fact is, the fact remains that it’s not a fact at all. In fact, humans and some other animals can survive in space for minutes at a time before our blood bubbles and our heat radiates away. That’s a fact. Bacteria and other simple organisms can survive much longer, handling the pressure of pressurelessness quite well. But an experiment by scientists at Kristianstad University in Sweden has discovered the first complex animal that can survive in space. They strapped two species of tardigrades (also known as water bears), microscopic animals that live in lichens and mosses all over the world, onto the European Space Agency’s Foton M3 orbital mission. One species was exposed to the vacuum of space only, while the other was additionally exposed to UV radiation. Turns out both species were able to survive, though the UV-exposed ones had a significantly higher casualty rate. This is promising news for those interested in space seed theory, which posits that life forms from other planets in the solar system could potentially hitch a ride on a rock and find their way to Earth. This is not to be confused with “Space Seed Theory”, which is the notion that the first appearance of Khan was the greatest Star Trek episode ever. More details here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Get to Know a Hominid: Part 2 - Paranthropus boisei

by Richard Peacock

Welcome to Part 2 of my thrilling Science Rocks series, Get to Know a Hominid. A few weeks ago you may have been thrilled and/or aroused by my coverage of Homo habilis. But for this week, we shall peek a little earlier in time at Paranthropus boisei (pronounced "boy-see-aye"), which is known to biologists as our grumpiest ancestor, as the following recreation demonstrates:

P. boisei lived mostly in woodland areas, rather than the jungles and dangerous "low-income" apartment buildings inhabited by his less civilized progenitors of genus Australopithecus. Because of his abnormally large flat teeth, it was long believed that P. boisei's diet consisted mostly of roots and nuts, earning him the nickname "Nutcracker Man." But we now know that he actually earned this nickname due to his sterling performance in the Russian ballet classic, The Nutcracker, in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This is why some modern paleontologists refer to P. boisei as "sugar tits."

This ancestor to modern humans lived around two million years ago, and was sexually dimorphic. No, that doesn't mean he swung both ways. Lacking a tail, it would have been difficult to swing through trees while maintaining proper balance. Instead, sexual dimorphism refers to the fact that the males were larger than the females. Also, they were bisexual.

It was once believed that P. boisei was the first hominid to use stone tools. But modern research shows that P. boisei was simply the wacky neighbor of Australopithecus robustus, and as such was always borrowing his tools and never giving them back. He was also known to pop in on A. robustus unexpectedly and at inopportune times, often uttering his well-worn catch phase: "Sorry neighbor! My cranial capacity is only 89% that of H. habilis!"

Though he may have been annoying and his evolutionary line just sort of petered-out, we should never forget our friend and colleague, P. boisei.

Extra insight

Science Rocks is written by Richard Peacock, inventor of the communication satellite. He now lives in Sri Lanka where he ponders the riddles of this, and other worlds. Email him at richard@amateurscientist.org.

Earth Destroyers Targeted

Tomorrow the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland will finally fire up and attempt to recreate conditions that existed moments after the Big Bang. It's hoped that this, humanity's largest scientific experiment to date, will offer a glimpse through the murky fog of our universe's origins, revealing once-hidden truths about reality and allowing us to reach our primitive fingers into the void and brush the face of God. Or the world will be sucked into a black hole and we'll all die. While the first option is arguably preferable to the second (there are more than two, but I'm simplifying here), there are many who believe that switching on the LHC will more likely than not spell doom for our planet. And by "many", I mean "nuts". This has all been written about before, so I won't go into details again, but the gist of the situation is that some physicists believe the energy output of the LHC will spawn black holes or quantum strangelets that could suck us all up or transform us into pure energy. What these physicists don't understand (and the vast majority do) is that the same theory that would allow for the creation of a black hole under these conditions would also necessarily require that black hole to evaporate almost instantaneously. In other words, black holes aren't going to form, but even if they did, they'd be gone before they caused any harm. Regardless, the world's tinfoil hat wearers have fired up their word processors and uncorked their inkwells to send off death threats to the scientists working on the LHC. I guess this is understandable if you truly believe mad professors are going to destroy the world, but it's also a little futile. Here's hoping they stay firmly planted in their armchairs for the safety of these kindly scientists, but don't these death threateners sound like the laziest superheroes ever? More details here.

Stem Cell Shit Storm

You can always tell when a presidential race is nearing the finish line by how much the campaigns begin acting like petulant, vindictive children. Case in point: Democratic VP pick Joe Biden, who recently claimed that people who don't support stem cell research (like Republican VP pick Sarah Palin) don't care about people with disabilities. As we all know by now, Palin courageously gave birth to a child with Down Syndrome, and the McCain/Palin campaign spokesman has hit back at Biden for implying Palin doesn't care about her own baby. No one knows for sure whether Palin cares about her disabled baby or not, but there's also no telling whether Biden was even referencing Palin in his statement. Regardless, though, Biden's wrong. People who don't support stem cell research may very well care about the disabled. They just don't think it's morally correct to save the lives of the born by thawing out frozen embryos that would otherwise be tossed in the bio-garbage. They're not heartless, Biden. They're just idiots. More details here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Haunted Spice Rack

A New Hampshire gentleman has placed his spice rack for sale on eBay, claiming that it's been the epicenter of all the paranormal activity in his kitchen. He says he sometimes hears an elderly woman humming as if happily cooking away and that the spice rack's contents will spontaneously rearrange themselves as if to fit the ghost cook's peculiar organizational system. I wish the man well and hope that he can find spiritual peace and mounds of undeserved cash through this auction, but I can't help but wonder whether selling the ghost's beloved spice rack will send it away in peace or launch it into a homicidal rampage. You can bid for yourself (for the next several hours, anyway) here.


Pastor David Allison of Havens Corners Church in Blacklick (what?), Ohio has had enough of that les-cute, Jill Sobule-knockoff, club hit monstrosity "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry, a singer no one cared about before this summer and whom no one will care about by next summer. He thinks the song's video is borderline pornographic, but I beg to differ. I've seen pornography, sir, and pornography this song isn't. Regardless, Allison thought a loving way to coax young girls away from other young girls trying to seduce young men by kissing on each other would be to spell out a helpful message on his church's bulletin board. "I kissed a girl and I liked it then I went to hell." There are a lot of problems with this message, not the least of which being that it's an awkward run-on sentence. But putting grammar aside, one has to wonder who the speaker here is supposed to be. Allison posted the message himself, but he's obviously not going to burn in hell for kissing girls. Unless, of course, they aren't his wife. So is he writing in character? And if so, how could this hypothetical girl send this message from hell? I'm just confused. And a little turned on. More details here.

Beetle Junk

You might be wondering why there are so many more distinct species of beetle on the Earth than any other animal. And if you're wondering this, you're probably also wondering why people place such an importance on healthy social interaction. While I can't help you with the second problem (getting rid of the fanny pack might help [for our British readers, I'm not talking about a vagina carrying case]), scientists from Indiana University may have answered your first question. Turns out, it's all in the penis. Some horned beetles have large horns and tiny penises, while others don't have much in the way of facial decoration but are definitely swinging some pole. This has to do with competition for nutrients during development. There's a limited supply of growth, so one or the other has to be larger. And while big horns can give some beetles an advantage when fighting over mates, beetles with huge junk and tiny horns can sometimes sneak away with willing females and make love on the sly. They're like big-dicked sex ninjas, which, by the way, was the name of my college ska band. And since beetles with different sized genitals can't mate with one another, new species form very rapidly to keep up with all the various penis sizes. This, friends, is science. More details here.

Space without U.S.

In a leaked e-mail to his top advisers, NASA chief Michael Griffin vents all the frustrations he's been feeling over the comically mishandled U.S. space program. Despite the titillating "leak" description, there's nothing too shocking or even surprising here. NASA's budget has been severely limited, the space shuttle is due to retire years before its replacement makes it off the ground, and the growing megalomania of the Russian government may make it difficult for congress to approve the payments needed to buy U.S. astronaut seats on future Russian space flights. All valid complaints, but instead of pushing to extend shuttle flights as Griffin seems to want to do, why not push to build the shuttle replacement sooner? If another one of those rickety old gliders blows up, there won't be a U.S. space program to complain about. More details here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lying to Your Trainer for a Better Life

by Christian Walters

I joined a gym. I get motivated during the Summer Olympics, but I guess that's common. You see all the taut, athletic bodies, and you think "I wonder how many sit-ups I have to do to seduce that person." For this Olympics, it's Natalie Coughlin. I figure I'm one Avogadro's Number of sit-ups away from Natalie saying "Oh man, do I need a night of no-strings-attached debauching with that guy, or maybe a weekend. I hope he's sensitive, like a writer."

But it's hard to break in a new gym. You get all these personal trainer people in your face who say things like "try that with some weights" or "put the Baconator down." Like I have time to eat breakfast later. And these trainers talk like having big muscles gives you a degree in human physiology and nutrition. (They don't, but they do get you scholarships, especially if you go to an SEC school.) But I've come to realize that the wisdom of the personal trainer isn't always from higher education. No, much of it is an oral tradition. Like Beowulf.

I've been six or seven times now, Natalie hasn't called (although I had someone hang up when I answered -- coulda been her), and I'm already getting the same song from my trainer. Since I'm currently immobile anyway, let's set some things straight.

You Can't Fight Big Glucosamine

Ah, glucosamine. A lube job for your innards. Cures what ails ya, if what ails ya is osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia. (Are there other supplements that are used for both humans and dogs?) Active ingredients: desperation, fear of surgery.

I hear about glucosamine a lot, because I have a bad knee. My only souvenir from an epic beach volleyball game when I was in college.


At the time, spiking the ball into my trash-talking friend Steve's crotch was worth it. Still is, really. Better to limp around as a stud than to skip freely as a wuss. But I am paying the price now in not being able to do a lot of lunges and squats in a gym, damn it all. And it's good that gymkata went out of style, despite the fortune I spent on lessons in the '80s. Of course, I tell every new trainer this, and every new trainer thinks I'm lying until I am face down on the mat, sobbing like an orphan over the sounds of crinkly noises in my knee.

"Let's get you started on glucosamine. That will re-grow the cartilage around your knee, and we'll work on strengthening the muscles. Also, ice it down and take a lot of ibuprofen." Uh huh. And Crunch Berries are a part of a nutritious breakfast that features two bran muffins, a bowl of cantaloupe, and a party ball of orange juice.

Funny thing about glucosamine, though: it doesn't work. According to the most recent studies, the differences between glucosamine and a placebo are statistically insignificant. But don't trust me; read it directly from the study:

At baseline, both groups were similar in demographic and clinical variables. Overall, WOMAC pain did not differ (mean difference [glucosamine sulfate minus placebo], –1.54 [95% CI, –5.43 to 2.36]), nor did WOMAC function (mean difference, –2.01 [CI, –5.38 to 1.36]). Joint space narrowing also did not differ after 24 months (mean difference, –0.029 [CI, –0.122 to 0.064]). Only 1 of the sensitivity analyses, based on extreme assumptions regarding missing assessments due to total hip replacement, provided results consistent with a glucosamine effect.

I totally can decode every word of that, assuming none of you have follow-up questions. It says that taking glucosamine is as effective as praying to Zeus (less effective, if you pray from a reclined position with your leg elevated and sporting an ice pack).

So why am I not blowing the lid off this? Why don't I run to my trainer, shout SEMPER SIC TYRANNUS and throw a handful of glucosamine pills in his face?

The reasons are legion, but chief among them is that I'm not an idiot. Ever sit with a devout Christian during the news, and see a report about a tornado that killed 13 people and knocked out everyone else's TV reception right before The Ghost Whisperer? Did you notice their faces when you say "good thing there's no God, or that would be a truly dick move on his part"? They get a little testy, don't they? Now imagine if that devout Christian were an ex-Special Forces guy who is holding an 18-pound medicine ball while you're doing pushups. I think you get my drift. (And it might not be just glucosamine. I'm looking at you, fish oil -- I'll be passively attacking you later...)

So I'll stick with my current plan: tell him I'm taking glucosamine, but take something that actually works. I'm thinking about a mix of chocolate coffee beans and uppers. It's actually legal here in Georgia, if you're straddling the Tennessee state line. Or have Natalie rub her glutes on my shins until the pain goes away.

So remember, folks. Don't let someone tell you what to do just because that person can fold you into a manila envelope and slide you under an aerobics mat during a Pilates marathon. All he really wants is your lunch money, or more specifically, $40/hr.

If you want to keep your defiance quiet, your secret is safe with me. From a distance, a glucosamine pill looks a lot like a peanut M&M.

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.

Death by Cop

Spanish doctor Manuel Martinez Selles has studied sixty cases of sudden death in young men arrested by police and believes he's identified a new syndrome. In a report delivered to the European Society of Cardiology, Selles laid out his theory: that a surge in adrenaline caused by being arrested results in elevated levels of chemicals called catecholamines, which can contribute to cardiac arrest. In other words, once you're popped, your heart can stop. Selles claims to have ruled out other contributing factors such as drug use, but the fact remains that this is a hypothesis based on analysis of a very small sample group. Of course, testing this in a laboratory might be difficult. For one thing, the research might have an uncomfortably high body count. And for another, scientists pretending to be cops always come off looking like strippers. More details here.

Bible Trumping

According to state law, Texas public schools will now be required to offer Bible as literature courses if fifteen or more students express interest in taking them. While this seems like a gross violation of the establishment clause, let's play Jesus' advocate for a minute. It is true that an understanding of the Bible is critical to the appreciation of much of English literature. Without having at least a cursory knowledge of the King James Bible, it's tough to get all of Shakespeare's bawdy references. The rub, though, is that there are several works of literature that are important to a well-rounded education (the works of Homer, for instance), yet they aren't being made a requirement by law. It's obvious that this is just a backhanded, passive-aggressive, and cynical attempt to inject Christian religion into public schools. What are the chances that the poor English teachers and assistant football coaches forces to teach these classes have anything approaching a theology degree? If the marijuana legalization movement knew how to engage in these backhanded legal wranglings, Tommy Chong never would have been jailed. More details here.

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