Friday, October 31, 2008

How Computers Compute

by Richard Peacock

How Computers Compute

Unless you are some sort of psychic vampire currently reading my mind, you are enjoying this article on a computer. And if you are a psychic vampire, taste a little of this-- ha ha! That's right! I'm thinking about giving Henry Kissinger a sensual massage and there's nothing you can do about it!

But for the rest of you, you may be wondering just how it is that computers work. How does a chip made of plastic, metal, and ectoplasm perform mathematical operations and connect you to single women looking for a good time?

My silly old grandfather used to tell me that "fairies" used "magic" to construct computer chips. But, of course, every child must eventually grow up one day. So, as I got older and wiser, I began to wonder just how exactly did the fairies create electronics, and why did most of the world's fairies seem to live in Japan and Korea?

Computer chips (or "fairy squares") are composed of thousands, millions, billions, or even tens of transistors, all shrunk down to microscopic sizes using alien technology which the fairies acquired during their long struggle for independence/the right to own slaves. In fact, the first computer chips weren't chips at all, but large circuits made of several integrated transistors. It wasn't until the transistors became fruitful and multiplied did computers become truly powerful.

So what's the big freakin' deal with transistors?! Okay... first of all... calm down. Good. You see, Japanese engineers (ie, fairies in their larval stage) construct "logic gates" out of transistors, which let a chip send electricity down one pin or the other, based on some condition. If you string together logic gates in particular ways, you can create circuits to perform mathematical operations, which are at the heart of everything that happens in your computer; from doing taxes, to playing video games, to looking up amputee porn, it all boils down to chips in your computer doing math.

So what's next for computers? Some say quantum computing. Others say some kind of hamster-running-on-a-wheel based processor. But I believe the most likely course is that computers will remain exactly the same, both in power and in price, while fairies turn their attention to improving their newest invention: fleshlights.

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.

Priest Talking Straight

Catholic priest Father Peter Dresser of Bathurst in Australia has just published a book called God is Big. Real Big, which, aside from the grammatical disaster on the cover, seems pretty interesting. For those who don't know, the Catholic religion is based on the idea that a man named Jesus of Nazareth who lived about two thousand years ago was actually the fleshy embodiment of God--physical, but not quite human. Father Dresser says this is nonsense. “This whole matter regarding Jesus being God ... not only does violence to my own intelligence, but must be a sticking point,” he says. “For millions of people trying to make some kind of sense of the Christian religion ... No human being can ever be God, and Jesus was a human being. It is as simple as that.” Which isn't to put down any of Jesus' teachings. Father Dresser's only point is that believing in a sort-of-man/sort-of-god demi-being stretches the suspension of disbelief to a breaking point. This reminds me a lot of Superman II, actually. I'll buy that Superman can lose and regain his powers in some sort of crystal sun chamber, but throwing a Saran wrap "S" shield? Please. Anyway, the rest of the Catholic church is none too happy with Father Dresser's ideas. At least one fellow priest has even compared to the infamous German rabble-rouser and paper nailer Martin Luther. Although I wouldn't be surprised if a fair number of Catholic priests share Father Dresser's opinion of the Bible, contenting themselves with a life of ritual, dress-up, and making people feel better about their dirty, dirty sinnin'. More details here.

Quite an Intereshting Shtory

Phonagnoshia ish a dishorder that preventsh people from being able to dishtinguish one voish from another. It'sh ushually a shide effect of shtroke or brain damage, but one woman being shtudied at Univershity College London sheems to have been born with it. Call her on the phone, and she couldn't tell you who you are. But doctorsh have been exshperimenting with playing the woman clipsh of the voishes of famoush people. For shome reashon, they've dishcovered, her phonagnoshia doeshn't shtop her from identifying the dishtinct Shcottish brogue of actor/woman shlapper Sean Connery. By shtudying the tonesh and cadenshes of Connery'sh voish, doctorsh may now be able to get a better grashp on this dishorder and figure out how to help people overcome itsh limitationsh. More detailsh here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vikings: History's Metrosexuals

Historians at Cambridge University are hoping to bust some myths about Vikings with their new guide on the impact of the ancient Danes on British culture. For centuries now, Vikings have gotten a bad rap as the dirty, hairy, horn-headed rapists of northern Europe. Not so, according to these researchers. Vikings did not, in fact, wear horned helmets. They weren't dirty, either. They regularly combed their hair, took baths once a week, changed clothes often, and were sometimes criticized for being too hygeinic. Instead of spending their weekends raping and pillaging, Vikings were largely a peaceful race. And they were so stylish that they were known to wear fashionably baggy pants, not another relic from history known as M.C. Hammer. This dolling up of the Viking image has even trickled down to Hollywood, where I hear Marvel Films are seriously considering casting wax-faced realdoll Zac Efron as Thor. Or so I've just made up. More details here.

The Cyprus Serpent

Crazy people and other officials on the island of Cyprus are frantically searching for their very own Loch Ness Monster, a sea creature reportedly roaming the depths near the Kouris Dam. For three years, people have reported spotting the creature. Local city workers will try and lure the beast into the open by tempting it with live hens, raw meat, and succulent virgins. Okay, maybe not virgins. I hear they're not easy to find on Cyprus (zing!). Community leader Savvas Sava (sounds made-up...) even told a local newspaper that they'd better get to work building a facility to house the creature once it's found, since it will no doubt become a major tourist attraction. The only problem here is that there's no real evidence such a creature exists. Plus, the onset of sightings started around the same time a crocodile was known to have been released in the same waters. Furthermore, even if there is a mystical snake monster, you know the U.S. government will just steal it for weaponization purposes unless the charming boy who's grown to love it leads a daring rescue operation. That's just how these things work. More details here.

Utah Still Not a Place You'd Want to Live

Megaplex Theatres of Utah have decided not to show the new Kevin Smith movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno because they feel its content and subject matter fall short of their Mormon-based moral standards. If this decision were based on taste, they might have a point. After all, Kevin Smith hasn't made a particularly good movie since Chasing Amy, and that one doesn't hold up too well, either. (Although I have to say word of mouth on Zack and Miri is pretty darn good, so maybe Smith, like me, has finally found some inspiration in porn.) The perplexing thing about this whole affair is that Megaplex Theatres are still happy to show you Saw V this weekend, which, while it doesn't have the p-word right in the title, is nothing more than torture porn. Excellent work, Utah. You continue to do logic and morality proud. More details here.

The Hate Circuit

Scientists at University College London have identified the parts of the brain that process our feelings of hatred. They gave test subjects photos of people the subjects hated and scanned their brains for a response. Turns out all this hate lit up certain distinct areas of the brain, which the researchers are calling a "hate circuit". The hate circuit is separate from the parts of the brain that are associated with fear and danger, though it shares some pathways with aggression and romantic love. The scientists believe this is because aggression, love, and hate all contain a certain amount of irrationality, though I prefer to think that it's because we secretly want to sleep with those we hate the most. Which explains why I find Sarah Palin so sexy/horrible. More details here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ted "The Tubes" Stevens Found Guilty

Ted Stevens, the republican senator from Alaska, has been found guilty on seven counts of accepting what amounts to bribes from the corrupt oil company Veco. Stevens may be better known to you as the grizzly senator who once characterized the Internet as a series of tubes, or maybe as the grizzly senator who once sought to build a "bridge to nowhere" in his home state, or maybe even as the grizzly senator who didn't try to have gay sex in a public men's room... yet. He faces up to 35 years in prison, five years for each count. Since he's 84 now, he might not get out until he's 119. Maybe 110, with good behavior. Interestingly, Stevens intends to continue his bid for re-election on Tuesday, though members of his own party are calling for him to resign, including Sen. McCain, staing, "It is clear that Sen. Stevens has broken his trust with the people and that he should now step down." Personally, I am hoping that Stevens actually wins re-election, and at some point is forceably dragged from the senate floor by Dog the Bounty Hunter. Read more reasons why George Bush will probably just pardon the old bastard anyway here.

Liveblogging the Election

Only a few of you died from alcohol poisoning during our liveblog of the final presidential debate, so that means we'll be doing it again on election night itself (Tuesday, November 4th, for those of you too lazy to go to the polls). Like last time, we'll have a sparkling panel of resident and non-resident experts on hand to distribute off-color (and a few on-color) jokes at the expense of the candidates, the anchors, the pundits, and the blowhards that make our democracy great/scary. Our group will be checking in at the top of every hour until all the votes are counted. And you can be a part of the action as well, since the fine folks at Meebo will be supplying an open chat room for your vandalization pleasure. Even when the panel of experts are off crying into our Ben & Jerry's and/or numbing the pain with hooch, you'll be able to interact with fellow political nerds who've chosen, like you, to abandon friends and family in favor of visiting AmateurScientist.org.


There will also be an exciting giveaway of a spectacular prize to the one talented chat room attendee who can describe the most creative use for it. What is it? You'll just have to be here to find out. But I'll give you a hint: it's a relic of the past eight years of American infamahistory, and you can wipe yourself with it. See you then!

Psychic Confession

Those of you who tuned in to our liveblog of the final presidential debate know Elyse as the one who nearly allowed her alcohol consumption to get the better of her loins. Ah, good times. But you should know her as a regular writer for the amazingly vagina-friendly skeptical blog called Skepchick. And to let you know just what you're missing by not reading Skepchick on an hourly basis, I'll point you to Elyse's moving and enlightening essay on her conversion from a psychic believer to a psychic skeptic. Or should that be "skeptic of psychics"? Anyway, it's really good, and it also guest stars my nemesis and finalist for the Slimiest Douche in the World Award, Chip Coffey. Read it here.

Racists: Idiots

BBC News has an interesting/horrifying article on the impact of racism on voters in western Pennsylvania, an area that Pennsylvania's own congressman John Murtha described as both "racist" and "redneck". Racism is the X factor in the presidential election. Some are scared of the so-called Bradley Effect, that is, the tendency for poll numbers to incorrectly favor black candidates because white voters are too embarrassed to admit to pollsters that they won't vote for a black person. Of course, there's never been a major black presidential candidate, so there's no telling how much of an issue racism will really be across the country. But if the quotes the BBC was able to coax out of these Pennsylvanians are any indication, racists may be too stupid to find their way to the polls. From a local waitress: "I like McCain because I can say his name...[Obama's] from Africa or something...I think American presidents should be from America." From a local radio host: "I had one caller who said he thinks Obama is Osama with plastic surgery." And from a registered Democrat who refuses to vote for Obama: "Blacks just cause trouble, that's the taste I've got in my mouth." Which, I'm assuming, means this gentleman will suck a black man's cock before he'd vote for one. More horror here.

Al-Qaeda for McCain '08

Visitors to an Al-Qaeda friendly web forum have been posting about how they must throw their support behind electing John McCain for president. They believe George Bush's war on terror has crippled the U.S. economy and that McCain will be more likely to continue Bush's foreign policy then Barack Obama. But while some might see this as a blow to McCain, that's not necessarily the case. For one thing, Al-Qaeda is an organization of crazy people. The global economic collapse has nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy, and American defense spending (while way too high) isn't nearly as high as it was during the Cold War. Also, Al-Qaeda could be using a reverse psychology tactic to trick people into voting for Obama, who will, during his inauguration, peel off his rubber mask and reveal himself to be the Islamo-fascist lizard king some suspect him of being. But the most important thing to remember about this story is that it doesn't matter at all. A few wannabe terrorists posting on an online forum isn't going to shape the future of world events, and we all know Al-Qaeda would never really support either candidate, since both of them are friendly with Jews. More details here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Goodish Samaritan

A new (zoo?) review of past studies into altruistic (or “prosocial”) behavior published in the journal Science has uncovered some surprising results. And by “surprising”, I mean “obvious”. Turns out people who perform altruistic acts in the name of religion do so less out of empathy than a fear of reprisal from a higher power. Or they just want to be seen as morally upstanding citizens. Or they simply lie to researchers about all the altruistic acts they supposedly perform. Of course, such selfish and fearful motives for altruism aren’t exclusive to the religious. In a secular society, the long arm of the law can also act much like a terrible father figure watching to make sure you do good. And the biological origins of altruism may be rooted in the need for a species to cooperate in order to simply survive. The review also points out that selflessness in the name of religion can be taken to an antisocial extreme when it comes to suicide bombers or others who will sacrifice themselves to further the cause of their own particular group at the expense of some other group. I’d like to think my good deeds are entirely motivated by my empathy for others, but I know I’m no exception to the general trend. The only reason I donate to Jerry’s Kids is because I’m trying to get in the pants of that chick who can balance a chair on her pinky toe. More details here.

Dr. Computer

Space can be pretty taxing on the mind and emotions. Out there, you’re separated from your loved ones, you’re under constant pressure to perform, and after a few weeks of low-water space showers, any sort of romantic entanglements are an exercise in smell suppression. Which is why NASA and other researchers are working on ways to provide all the benefits of an expensive human psychoanalyst in an even more expensive computer. As part of the ongoing research project known as the Virtual Space Station, scientists are developing an artificial intelligence program to simulate a therapy session for psychologically strained astronauts. From the description, it sounds like a glorified chat program. Astronauts tell the computer their problems, and the computer uses problem-solving treatment to discover the root of the astronaut’s problems. Then, the computer offers a series of exercises and plans to deal with these problems. But this isn’t just going to be blinking text on a screen. The virtual therapist will present itself as a video recording. If I were an astronaut, I’d want my shrink to look like Dr. Katz. More details here.

Bronx Cheer for Your Health

I’m never one to indulge in cheap fart jokes unless a deadline’s closing in and I can’t come up with a good zinger about doo-doo. So it’s not with any humorous undertone that I report to you that scientists at Johns Hopkins University have discovered that smelling farts could help control your blood pressure. Well, maybe it’s not that simple. Hydrogen sulfide is produced by bacteria inside our colons. It’s this nasty smelling gas that makes our farts stink. But it’s also this gas that’s produced in our blood vessels to control blood pressure. Hydrogen sulfide relaxes blood vessels to prevent hypertension. But while shoving your nose in someone’s nether regions won’t necessarily benefit your health (sorry, James Joyce), this information could lead to the development of new kinds of drugs for patients with hypertension. So three Bronx cheers for that. More details here.

Elections Schmelections

CNN has a disturbing feature on the huge number of people who won’t be allowed to vote in November because their names have been wrongly purged from voter records. Turns out faulty record keeping and questionable registration practices can result in voter information “mismatches” that have, for example, flagged certain voters as non-U.S. citizens. These kinds of errors could be fixed, but some swing states like Georgia have decided to purge their voter records of mismatches just days before the election, not giving voters enough time to correct the errors. These people will be allowed to vote with provisional or challenge ballots until their information can be verified, but it’s up to state officials whether those ballots end up being counted. Of course, the accusation here is that most of the victims of these voter purges are likely Democratic voters (college students, minorities, MSNBC fans). I don’t know if there’s a conspiracy afoot, but there are federal election laws barring states from purging voter records so close to an election. You’d think a first world country like the U.S. would be able to hold an uncontested election once every four years, but I guess we’ll just have to keep the dream alive. More details here. And remember to keep your browser-o-graphs tuned to this frequency on election night, when The Amateur Scientist will be hosting an action-packed liveblog and public chatroom until all the votes are in, all the states are counted, and all the anchors are frazzled.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Indians on the Moon

India launched its first probe to the moon on Wednesday, joining what is quickly becoming a world-wide space race. The probe, called Chandrayaan-1 (or "moon craft" in ancient Sanskrit), will take high-resolution photographs of the moon's surface and will attempt to find water ice, among other things. After which, it will throw off its dull metal casing to reveal a colorful silk dress, in which it will sing and gyrate accompanied by a bevy of backup dancers. I'm assuming. More details here.

Elephant Flower

Sam Lal, a Hindu man living in Queens, was shocked to discover that the vaguely elephant-shaped amaranth flower growing between cracks in his pavement seems to have healed him of pain. He believes the flower is a physical symbol of the Hindu god Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, who could sometimes fly with the aid of a magical feather. Or something like that. Anyway, Lal suffered terrible pain from a bone spur near his spine and bulging discs in his neck until the flower began growing near a garage he's converted into a prayer space. I'm a little skeptical, and it's not only because I don't believe in any elephant god not named Babar. For one thing, pain is subjective. If the flower had really healed Lal, he wouldn't have that bone spur or those bulging discs anymore. And for another, the amaranth isn't native to the U.S., so it probably didn't just start growing in Queens spontaneously. Lal denies having sculpted the flower himself. Still, the chill of autumn will most likely kill the plant. If this happens and Lal's pain suddenly returns in full force, then we'll all know for sure that Ganesh, while a Remover of Obstacles, is also kind of a dick. More details here.

Sticky X-Rays

Scientists at UCLA have been spending valuable time and money spinning out rolls of sticky tape. Are they mad men? Maybe, but we can't rightly judge from this experiment. Turns out that simply unrolling tape at three centimeters per second produces enough of an x-ray burst to photograph the bones in your fingers. The mechanism for this x-ray burst is still a mystery, but the cause is pretty well understood. When two surfaces rub against each other, one becomes positively charged and the other becomes negatively charged. When the tape unrolls, the charge difference between the adhesive and the polyethylene roll builds to the point that an electron jumps between the two with enough energy to create an x-ray burst. Practically speaking, this technique could be used for cheaper x-ray photography. According to one researcher involved, the same mechanism could be used to generate fusion. Though one of his colleagues points out that the energy used to unroll the tape would be greater than the energy produced by the fusion process. But you know, I'm not sure this is a new discovery. It actually explains a lot about that time I was abducted by the KGB and tied down while they twirled rolls of Scotch tape around me. I wasn't fatally irradiated, but they did discover a scalpel left in my skull after the lobotomy. More details here.

Princeton Publishes Hacking How-To for E-Voting Machines

Poor E-voting. It really seems like a good idea, doesn't it? No more paper to fool with, no more tedious hours of counting and phoning in results. Everything could be done by computer. No errors. No hassles. Totally accurate. Well, it may be there one day, but not today, as is evidenced by previous posts here, here, and here. And now Princeton has published their findings on how shockingly easy it is to hack a Sequoia voting machine, a competitor of Diebold. In a 148-page document, they explain how they were able to break into the computer's locked cabinet in 13 seconds, with no lock-picking experience at all, and install a new ROM chip onto the circuit board which would give more votes to one candidate over another. "The fraud cannot practically be detected", the report states, "There is no paper audit trail on this machine; all electronic records of the votes are under control of the firmware, which can manipulate them all simultaneously." And, once installed on one machine, you can easily infect other voting machines without even touching them through viral propagation. Meanwhile, my cousin's Facebook poll on who's gayer: Gandalf or Magneto, is still running smoothly. Read more here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hot, Hot Tidal Heat

Let's face it, the Earth is in a sweet spot. We're not too close to the sun or too far away. While those poor bastards on Mercury and Venus can't go outside without burning their skin off, we can spend our weekends lounging on blankets, perfecting our tans/melanoma. Which is why it was once thought that the habitable zone around a star would be a fairly fixed area. If we were going to find life on other planets, the thinking went, their orbits would have to be similar to ours relative to their stars' heat output. Not so, according to some know-it-all scientists. A planet's Goldilocks zone can be a lot larger thanks to tidal heating. When a planet has an elliptical orbit, tidal forces squish it in the middle when it's closest to a star. The further away it travels, the less squishing it suffers. The more severe the ellipse, the more squishing/unsquishing action you have. Like bending a piece of metal over and over again, this tidal action produces heat. In other words, some planets are able to generate enough heat to sustain liquid water and life because of their orbits. Knowing this, we can broaden our search for life-supporting extrasolar planets that might one day fall to the horrible plunder of the Human Galactic Empire. Here's hoping, at least. More details here.

Excommunicated Education

Chad Hardy wanted to change the image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormon church, a.k.a. the Church That a Con Man Built) by creating a calendar of hunky, shirtless missionaries. For this, he was excommunicated. Considering the controversy dramatically increased sales of his calendar and not being a Mormon means you don't have to wear the magic underpants, this would seem like a win-win. Unfortunately, Hardy was also a student at Brigham Young University, whose moral conduct code considers any excommunicated student to not be in good standing with the school. So, even though Hardy has completed his degree, BYU won't give him his diploma. I know what it's like to be at the mercy of your school. ICS wouldn't give me my double degree in hotel/restaurant management and gun repair until I released Sally Struthers from my basement. I said "sex game", they said "hostage situation". It all worked out eventually. But Hardy won't have it so easy. Unless he's somehow allowed back into the church, BYU can sit on his diploma with their magic underpantsed backsides. Let that be a warning to any other BYU students who might want to one day live a normal life of caffeine-fueled heresy. More details here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Promise of Buckypaper

Well, it’s official. Carbon nanotubes will one day rule the world. These little cylinders of carbon molecules can be used to make materials that are lighter, stronger, and sexier than just about anything else we have. The central column of Japan’s proposed space elevator will most likely be built from carbon nanotube ribbon, and 9/11 conspiracy theorists are already working on theories about how planes could never bring down a building made of carbon nanotubes. (“Have you ever seen carbon nanotubes melt? I don’t think so! Building Seven!”) Now, researchers at Florida State University have successfully created “buckypaper”, a sheet of thin material made from carbon nanotubes that when layered in a composite is lighter and stronger than steel. It also dissipates heat, yet it’s still an excellent conductor of electricity. It’s not as strong as it could be right now, but scientists are hoping to remedy that within a year or so. I don’t know what kind of profit sharing they have for research assistants at FSU, but I’m thinking a lot of these people will soon be flying around in their own private jets. Which, obviously, will be made of carbon nanotubes. More details (including video!) here.

The Smell of Space

NASA has hired fragrance maker Steven Pearce to whip up a space-smelling perfume to help train astronauts. Now you might be saying to yourself, “Isn’t space a vacuum? You can’t smell anything in a vacuum! NASA should know this! Is Sarah Palin running NASA now?” Well, cool your jets. NASA’s only looking to recreate the smells of space travel, which would be those aromas you’ll sniff on board the International Space Station or the Space Shuttle while in orbit. According to astronauts, space smells an awful lot like hot metal, welding, and fried steak. In other words, space smells manly. Also, apparently, space smells pretty cruel. How are you supposed to concentrate on whatever it is astronauts do when you’re constantly being tempted with fried steak smell? Especially when NASA’s idea of fried steak is a kind of chalky brick in a shiny plastic pouch. More details here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I am the Very Model of Biological Evolution

by Richard Peacock

Gilbert and Sullivan have taught me many things in my young life. They taught me to appreciate a snappy tune, for example. They taught me that pirates are actually far gayer than I previously thought. And they even taught me not to give dictatorial words to British tars, as they are ever ready for a knock-down blow. But they never taught me anything about evolution. Or what the hell a British tar is, for that matter.

So let me pick up the slack where G&S fell short. I present to you my version of "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" as sung by a variety of life forms through the past three billion years of evolution. Enjoy!

I am the Very Model of Biological Evolution

(sung by a lone single-cell bacterium)

I am the very model for the start of life on planet Earth
Not animal or vegetable, but before you judge my worth
Consider how my genesis did not result from random chance,
But instead from other life all struggling for dominance.

If my genes are tough enough I'll outlive my competitors
And pass down my genetic traits just like did my progenitors
To my offspring who will survive far longer than the other cells
Giving them the chance they need to grow and reproduce as well!

(chorus of bacteria)

Giving them the chance they need to grow and reproduce as well!
Giving them the chance they need to grow and reproduce as well!
Giving them the chance they need to grow and reproduce as well-as-well!


I only have one chromosome that forms a circle in my cell.
I haven't any ribosomes or membrane-surrounded organelles.
I'm not animal or vegetable, but before you judge my worth,
Recall that I'm the model for the start of life on planet Earth.

(chorus of bacteria)

He's not animal or vegetable, but before you judge his worth,
Recall that he's the model for the start of life on planet Earth!


(sung by a female tetrapod* leaving the ocean for the first time)

I am the very first chordate to ever walk upon the beach.
I've been living in the shallow shore with food and safety within reach,
But it wasn't till I lost my gills that I could stand upon dry land.
I am the ancient grandmother of modern-day amphibians!

With nothing that can hunt me now I can evolve to fill this niche.
For wherever there's a food supply life will adapt to eat the dish.
And of course the best survive to reproduce another day.
For the ones that find food first will pass along their DNA.

(chorus of tetrapods)

For the ones that find food first will pass along their DNA,
For the ones that find food first will pass along their DNA,
For the ones that find food first will pass along their DN-DN-A.

(female tetrapod)

And even though I love the land and walking on my brand new legs,
The water's where I still must go to reproduce and to lay eggs,
But one day soon I will evolve to live always upon the land,
I am the ancient grandmother of modern-day amphibians!

(chorus of tetrapods)

But one day soon she will evolve to live always upon the land,
She is the ancient grandmother of modern-day amphibians!

(sung by a primitive mammal in the Jurassic period)

I am the very product of a 3-billion year long ancestry.
An endothermic quadrupedal live-birth-giving mammal is me,
I will survive the asteroid that soon extincts the dinosaurs,
'Cause while the world is cooling fast my fur and hair will keep me warm.

My body size helps emphasize I don't require a lot of food.
Tyrannosaur eats a ton or more, while I only need a pound or two.
This means of course in times of drought and famine I will do just fine,
While dinos that require much food will meet their maker in no time.

(chorus of primitive mammals)

While dinos that require much food will meet their maker in no time.
While dinos that require much food will meet their maker in no time.
While dinos that require much food will meet their maker in no time-a-time.

(primitive mammal)

With the dinos gone we're all alone with nothing left to hunt us now.
And all the niches opened up: the sea and air and on the ground.
Our new homes select for change and force us to diversify,
Forming all the furry life from bats to dogs to humankind!

(chorus of primitive mammals)

Our new homes select for change and force us to diversify,
Forming all the furry life from bats to dogs to humankind!

* It was once thought that ancient lung fish were the origin of land-dwelling tetrapods (four-legged animals), but new fossil discoveries have proven that some ancient fish were developing legs, arms and even hands long before they ever decided to go for a stroll on dry land. The picture is a recreation of Icthyostega, an intermediate fossil between fish and amphibians.

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.

The Amateur Scientist on the News

Thanks to everyone who pointed their browsers here for the final presidential debate Wednesday night. All the panelists had a really good time, and there were plenty of lively commentators to go around. And some of those commentators may have been students at the University of New Mexico, where PAC505 (unbeknown to us) projected our humble liveblog along with the debate itself for about a hundred sexy coeds. Think I'm lying? It was on the news, sucker. Watch for yourself here. And thanks to Mark for letting us know.

Blair Witch Gnome 2: Book of Shadows

Last October, some teenagers in Argentina recorded cell phone video of what they say was a black-clad, sideways-stepping "midget monster" in a pointy hat. That came after sightings of a similar creature were reported the previous October. Well, October has rolled around again, and Argentina's Blair Witch Gnome is back. This time, a group of young people were singing and dancing around a fountain in Clodomira (yes, living in Argentina is exactly like Evita) when they say they spotted the creature. Luckily, they were also able to capture some footage, and it definitely looks like whatever the teens from earlier this year saw. Except that these people claim the gnome was "barking like a dog". This would seem to suggest that it might actually be a dog, which is what many skeptics have said about the first footage. Honestly, it's hard to see a dog in either clip, but one thing does seem strange. Both pieces of footage are remarkably similar in how they're staged. Everyone's hanging out in the middle of the road, having a good time, when suddenly there's panic and the camera phone operator zooms in on the gnome. No one goes to investigate. No one laughs and says something like, "Is that a midget in a gnome hat?" It's a little too perfect to believe, so I'm leaning towards the hoax theory. Plus, this comes from The Sun, which is about as scrupulous and reliable as one of Sarah Palin's speeches. Also, there's the not insignificant fact that gnomes are fictional characters. More details (with video) here.

This is Your Brain on Bullshit

A congressional study into the effectiveness of the decade-long National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has shown that the annoying number of grainy, melodramatic anti-drug ads riddling our Saturday morning cartoons aren't nearly as effective as anyone hoped. In fact, the ubiquitous ads just make kids feel like all their peers must be using drugs. If this study is true, it's just another nail in the increasingly airtight coffin of America's ill-founded "War on Drugs". As is often noted, the "war" is only on some drugs. While the possible instant death effects of hard drug use might be worth telling kids about, it's hard to make anyone feel like smoking marijuana is any more harmful than drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. While a few beers can turn you into an obnoxious ass who shouldn't drive, a joint or two will just turn you into an obnoxious ass with lower standards of comedy. Who would just rather walk anyway. The government is, of course, refuting the study it funded by citing statistics showing a 40% decrease in teen marijuana use over the last ten years. If this is true (and it's really difficult to know one way or another), there must be something besides anti-drug ads driving down the numbers. Teens who reported significant exposure to the ads were no less likely to use drugs than those who didn't see them. But who can trust a teenager to tell the truth in a survey, what with them being all hopped up on grass. More details here.

The Race Goes On

A local California Republicans' club called the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Federated (their club uniform consists of conservative pants suits and blood diamonds) printed a newsletter this month featuring an illustration of a ten dollar bill with Barack Obama's head, a bucket of fried chicken, a plate of ribs, the Kool-Aid man, and a slice of watermelon. The club's president, Diane Fedele, says she received the image of "Obama Bucks" in an email ridiculing a comment Obama made about not looking like previous presidents. Of course, she says, she didn't mean any offense with the cartoonish racism she so eagerly reprinted. "It was just food to me," she said. Like the McCain campaign as a whole, Ms. Fedele apparently thinks you're an idiot. The club actually has a black member, who said she cried for forty-five minutes after reading the newsletter. I get that she was hurt over the fact that members of her own social and political group were so stupidly insensitive, but are these stereotypes really that bad? I mean, they're barely sensical. So what if black people like chicken, ribs, Kool-Aid, and watermelon? I'm so white I'm nearly translucent, and I like all these things, too. Regardless, I imagine we're going to start seeing more and more of this nonsense in the weeks before the election. The simple fact is that racism is far more rampant in this country than we'd like to believe, and the impending reality of a black president will start to wring some of this stuff out. All the more reason to vote Obama on November 4th. It'll really piss off America's morons. More details here.

Australia to Begin Filtering Internet

Australia has always been a land down under, where women glow and men chunder. But that could all change very soon as the Aussie government plans to implement a national Internet content filtering system. Known as the "Plan for Cyber-Safety," ISPs will be required to implement the blocks. Users may not opt-out. But they do still have options: you can either be under a blacklist which excludes material inappropriate for children (I'm thinking porn), or under a different blacklist which only excludes illegal content (I'm thinking freaky porn). I'm sure Australia's heart is in the right place on this, but the fear is always that the filter will be expanded to exclude non-porn materials, like protest sites, drug blogs, or all-night video feeds of men waltzing their matildas. Let's hope this site doesn't get banned again. Read more here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Presidential Debate Liveblogapalooza

Greetings to everyone, and welcome to AmateurScientist.org, your one-stop shop for science, skepticism, politics, and dick jokes. More or less in that order. Below, you'll see a window with a live stream of tonight's final presidential debate provided by Hulu. Underneath is the window for the Amateur Scientist/Skepchick/Pink Raygun Liveblogapalooza of said event. Feel free to leave comments during the debate, and we'll do our best to ridicule/address you in a timely fashion. And remember: do a shot every time McCain says "my friends" or Obama says something intelligent. (We accept no responsibility for any alcohol poisoning incurred.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An Even More Inconvenient Truth

I can’t say I’m too concerned with global climate change in my day-to-day life.  It’s not like I’m driving a Hummer to work while Aqua Netting my hair with the windows down, but I also don’t, for instance, worry about buying green-friendly paint when I’m redecorating my oil rig.  But I try to do my part where I can.  I don’t litter, and I routinely protect our atmosphere from deadly methane by corking cow anuses.  But according to the Food Climate Research Network, most of our plans for fighting global warming are off track.  Their new report on the impact of food on the environment suggests that the only way to avoid massive climate change is to ration our meals to four modest portions of meat and a single liter of milk per week.  For someone who enjoys Taco Bell’s Beefy Beef-Wrapped Beefcrunchers (with meat sauce) and a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew for nearly every meal, this will be especially difficult.  But while the rabid vegans of the world have been decrying global cattle farming and meat consumption as the number one cause of global warming, the FCRN says the rationing attitude is a much better fit.  After all, developing countries that rely on meat diets and animal byproducts like leather and genuine pig hoof earrings can’t afford to switch to a vegan diet.  In addition to rationing meat and eliminating low-nutrition foods like candy, alcohol, and Funyuns, the FCRN provides a few more guidelines for stabilizing the climate.  Cooking in bulk and using seasonal ingredients are encouraged, and so is levying a carbon tax on those foods that cause more harm to the environment to produce.  In other words, force good eating habits on the public through the power of monolithic government intervention.  Their argument (and it’s a hard one to refute) is that meager “awareness” campaigns don’t work, so you have to hit consumers where it hurts.  No, not their fat-gorged abdomens.  Their genuine camel leather wallets.  More details here.

Ticking Book Bomb

For those of you who don’t know, the Koran claims that the Prophet Mohammed married a six-year-old named A’isha  and had sex with her when she turned nine.  Later, she became one of his favorite wives.  Those were wacky times, so many Muslims are fine with this.  So fine, in fact, that they don’t like anyone saying anything bad about Mohammed or A’isha.  But to save time actually reading and discerning the meaning of things, they’d just prefer you didn’t mention A’isha at all.  And by “prefer you didn’t mention”, I mean “would like to murder you for mentioning”.  Case in point: the new book Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones, which is a fictionalized retelling of the A’isha story with particular emphasis on the idea that A’isha became one of Mohammed’s closest and most trusted advisors.  The offices of Gibson Square Books, the UK publisher, were attacked by arsonists, and Random House refused to publish the novel in the US for fear of similar attacks.  Courageously, Beaufort Books has stepped in to release it in the states.  Like those offended by this book, I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if it’s any good.  But that really doesn’t matter.  Those Danish Mohammed cartoons from a few years back weren’t particularly clever either, but someone needs to call out instead of defer to the crazies.  And it helps to be reminded from time to time that freedom also includes the freedom to cause offense.  That said, I will kill you and your family if you ever say anything bad about The Goonies.  I just love that movie.  More details here.

Liveblogging the Final Presidential Debate

UPDATE: Just in case you haven't seen it above, the post for the Liveblog event is here.

Tomorrow (Wednesday, the 15th) will be the final presidential debate between John "Campaign by Proxy" McCain and Barack "My Middle Name is Irrelevant" Obama.  As a public service to you, the reader, a federation of the world's leading web-based news and entertainment sources will be covering the debate in a liveblogging extravaganza.  Christian Walters and myself from this very site will be taking part along with representatives from both Skepchick and Pink Raygun.  Plus, if you're good, a few surprise guests.  You'll be able to participate in the event by submitting your own questions and comments as you watch us pummel the candidates with our carefully selected words.  And if you really want to be part of the fun, you can partake of our presidential debate drinking game, wherein we take a shot every time McCain says "my friends".  Keep your eyes on this or any of the above sites tomorrow at 9pm eastern.  You've been warned.

Eyes to the Sky

This is it, people. Today's the day Australian actress/psychic channeler Blossom Goodchild predicted the Federation of Light, an association of uncomfortably loving extraterrestrial societies, will finally make itself known to Earth. Goodchild was told via the advanced technology of voices in her head that a massive, prolonged UFO event will occur today somewhere in the southern portion of the northern hemisphere.  The name she was given was "Alabama", though she's not sure if that means the E.T.s will appear over the U.S. state or over someone named Alabama who, I'm assuming, is probably a stripper.  Regardless, this event will be notable in a couple of ways.  For one, we'll make first contact with an extraterrestrial race, thereby shifting the way we think about ourselves and our place in the universe.  And for another, it will finally be irrefutable proof of the existence of psychic phenomena.  Of course, there's also the very slight possibility that absolutely nothing alien-related will happen today, and we'll continue to go about our day-to-day business of crying into the empty well of our 401ks.  I'll let you know if a giant spacecraft hovers for hours over throngs of TV cameras later on.  And I'll also let you know how Ms. Goodchild attempts to explain herself tomorrow.  In the meantime, you can visit Ms. Goodchild's blog here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Yeti = Goat

When yeti hunter Dipu Marak recently forked over some mysterious hairs he claimed came from the legendary Himalayan ape-man, the world held its breath in anticipation of a breakthrough zoological discovery.  Those of us who still have oxygen in our blood can finally inhale once more now that scientists have determined through DNA testing that the hairs actually belonged to a goral goat.  There’s still a small element of discovery here, though.  The hairs were found in an area far south of where the goral goat is known to roam, so it may have a wider range than we once thought.  Exciting!  While disappointed, Marak says his belief in the yeti hasn’t been shaken, since so many eyewitness reports couldn’t possibly be wrong.  He believed these hairs in particular belonged to a gray-brown haired Indian version of the classic abominable snowman called mande barung, or “forest man”.  And while it’s interesting that giant ape-man myths exist in so many parts of the world, there’s no reason to believe they’re based in fact.  Especially since centuries of investigation have only turned up one known ape-man: the legendary creature known as Robin Williams.  More details here.

The $7.5 Trillion Challenge

Jesus, and I thought James Randi’s million bucks were pretty impressive.  Turkish creationist, or “ignorant person”, Adnan Oktar (pictured here looking like a Batman villain) has offered ten trillion lira (about $7.5 trillion) to anyone who can produce an intermediate-form fossil demonstrating evolution.  Putting aside the fact that there are quite literally trillions of transitional fossils just lying on the ocean floor and other places, it’s important to note that Oktar, like every other person in the world, doesn’t have $7.5 trillion.  At least Randi can cough up the bank statements for his measly million.  But as New Scientist’s Colin Barras points out, ignorant people like Oktar often use transitional fossils as evidence that there are no transitional fossils, since they believe each transitional fossil just opens up two more gaps in the evolutionary chain on either side of it.  Make sense?  Of course not.  More details here.

Dowsing the Drought

Much of California has been suffering from a drought for the past couple of years, necessitating water rationing and cutbacks on farming across the state.  Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, so it seems many Californians have thrown out their better judgment and reasoning skills to hire dowsers, or “water witches”, to find some relief underground.  Dowsers are those people who believe that by gingerly holding a y-shaped willow stick or a couple of bent coat hangers, they can find things that normally go unseen, like underground wells.  They can’t explain how dowsing works in their day-to-day lives, nor can they explain why it never works under controlled scientific study.  Still, dowsers are in high demand in California, since people need water and are unwilling to pay for real things like seismic testing or electromagnetic imaging.  The New York Times has profiled one such water witch, Phil Stine, who works in exchange for gift certificates and has a long list of satisfied customers.  The profile doesn’t mention this, but it’s well known that dowsing is simply a misinterpretation of the ideomotor effect, the phenomenon whereby subtle, unconscious movements of the hands can make loosely-held objects appear to move of their own accord.  The profile also fails to mention that water can be found under the most of the world’s surfaces, so tricks like Mr. Stine’s aren’t all that impressive.  Now if he could only dowse for oil…  More details here.

Nature’s Terrifying Truths: Flesh-Eating Fish

Just when you thought it was safe to wash your succulent young flesh in India’s Great Kali river, we find out the thing may be chock full of mutant man-eating fish. The goonch is a kind of gigantic catfish that frequents these waters. It’s naturally one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, topping out at 161 pounds and six feet long. But the local tradition along the India/Nepal border of burning the dead on funeral pyres and dropping their charred corpses in the river may have given the goonches a taste for human meat. In 2007, a Nepali teenager disappeared after being dragged into the river by something identified as an “elongated pig”. Biologist Jeremy Wade has been looking into the murderous goonches for an upcoming BBC Five documentary subtly named Flesh Eating River Monster, and he thinks some unusually large mutant goonches may have grown even bigger by feasting on barbequed man-hock. In other words, start booking your hotels now. More details (including video) here.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Scientists have confirmed the second known case of virgin birth in a shark.  A pup carried by a female blacktip shark in Virginia contained no genetic information from a father and was the result of a rare kind of asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, enjoyed by some bony fish.  Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that God has decided once more to bless us with the presence of his One and Only Son (only this time with awesome shark teeth).  Parthenogenesis happens when the Force decides to concentrate its midi-chlorians in the womb of a virginal Hutt slave.  Just kidding.  That would be fucking stupid.  No, parthenogenesis happens when the mother's chromosomes split and are rejoined again as a full set during egg development.  It's likely that this isn't some sort of "life finds a way" survival technique and is instead just a freak occurrence.  After all, the resulting pups are so genetically handicapped that they probably wouldn't survive long in the wild. So just think about that before you try to circumvent the adoption board and make with a little parthenogenesis yourself.  More details here.


The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have apparently been caught filing thousands of fraudulent voter registrations in Indiana and other states.  The forms were flagged after poll workers noticed many of the signatures looked the same.  Turns out several were in the names of dead people, and another was in the name of a fast food restaurant.  ACORN is a left-leaning group that has endorsed Barack Obama.  Obama's campaign paid one of ACORN's subsidiaries $800,000 to help register voters ahead of the November election.  Obviously, the Republicans have latched onto this as evidence of Obama trying to commit voter fraud.  And of course, that's not quite the case.  For one thing, there's no evidence that Obama's campaign money went to pay for these fraudulent registration forms.  And for another, voter registration fraud isn't the same thing as voter fraud.  In other words, no fake votes were cast, and there's no way all these fake voters could possibly show up at the polls anyway.  (They are, after all, dead.)  ACORN is claiming these charges are a government conspiracy to keep voters disenfranchised.  I don't know about that, but the whole scheme still doesn't make any sense.  If you're going to throw an election, you have to do one of two things: cast actual votes or use a Diebold machine.  More details here.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Banned in China

It's with great honor and humble dignity that we inform you that The Amateur Scientist, the very site you're now reading, has been banned in China.  Whether this has to do with our continual mentioning of Tibet, our enjoyment of free speech, or our distaste for lead-based paint is anyone's guess.  It's probably the Tibet thing, though.  Which is funny considering we don't have anything nice to say about the Dalai Lama.  Regardless of the cause, we couldn't be happier.  Thanks to "maydont" over at the SGU forum for the tip.  And to help us celebrate, put your hands together for British singing sensation Cliff Richard!  Cliff, take it away!

Attempted Witch Burning

I tend to have a generally optimistic view of other humans, but it's this kind of thing that makes me question my faith.  Darin Najor, a 20-year-old adult education student in Ferndale, Michigan (pictured here wondering what all the fuss is about), has been charged with assault and battery after dousing his teacher with holy water and trying to burn her with a lighter because he thought she was a witch.  Details are sketchy, but the incident apparently resulted from a discussion of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.  In addition to being criminally insane, it appears Najor also isn't much of a critical reader.  Nor does he understand how to properly burn a witch.  If someone's wet, you're going to have a hard time burning him or her.  Yes, even if the water is holy.  More details here.

Putin You on the Mat

I plan to celebrate my 56th birthday like I celebrate all my birthdays: gurgling vodka and shooting a shotgun in the air.  But such paltry entertainments are not enough for Russian Prime Minister/Dictator-for-Life Vladimir Putin.  For his b-day, he released an instructional judo DVD featuring himself teaching you how to throw a guy to the ground and beg for mercy.  I can't think of a better present than making the people of your country fear and admire your physical prowess.  This comes after Russian state media tales of Putin's heroic tiger battles and the beefcake, bare-chested fly fishing photos he nearly reluctantly released to the press several months ago.  You can catch a glimpse of Putin's judo prowess below.  But let it be know that the wisest judo masters understand judo isn't always the answer in a confrontation.  Sometimes it's best just to simply have your subordinates murder your enemies via bullet and/or radioactive poison.  Especially if those enemies are journalists and/or defectors.  More details here.

Voodoo Bounce

George Ann Mills, a South Carolina voodoo high priestess (lake pharmacists, these people can get work anywhere), is alleging that Annette Kesting, an Atlanta, Georgia county commissioner, tried to pay her to cast curses on a political rival and bounced checks in the process.  Kesting was defeated in a Democratic primary runoff by Woody Thompson, and Mills claims Kesting wanted her to use her voodoo mojo to make sure Thompson got cancer or had a car accident.  Kesting says the whole story is ridiculous, but the charges should be easy enough to prove.  According to Mills, Kesting's two checks totalling $3,000 for the voodoo services bounced.  But Mills also says that she refused to cast the curses, since any self-respecting voodoo high priestess doesn't use her powers for evil.  Which makes one wonder why she tried to cash the bad checks.  If true, of course, Kesting's hot check writing is a crime.  Though, according to South Carolina's Law Enforcement Division, there's no law against soliciting a voodoo curse.  More details here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Anglican Priest Wants Tattoos on Gays

Reverend Peter Mullen of the venerable Church of England is in the hot seat these days (no, not Hell, silly, it doesn't exist) for comments he posted to his personal blog which some are now trying to claim is offensive to gay people. The reverend merely suggested: "Let us make it obligatory for homosexuals to have their backsides tattooed with the slogan SODOMY CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH and their chins with FELLATIO KILLS." I understand the "sodomy can seriously damage your health" thing, because, hey, who among us hasn't been rushed to the emergency room with sodomy burns? But "fellatio kills"? I think he's doing it wrong. To their credit, the Diocese of London ordered Mullen to remove the comments, but he defended his posting, claiming that it was just a light-hearted joke. He told a British newspaper, "I certainly have nothing against homosexuals... Many of my dear friends have been and are of that persuasion. What I have got against them is the militant preaching of homosexuality." Read more reasons to convert to Anglicanism here.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Better Wine Through Science

A British inventor named Casey Jones (no, not the hokey mask wearing friend to high-kicking turtles, nerd) has created a machine that he says will turn a cheap-ass box of wine into something similar to a high-dollar vintage. The Ultrasonic Wine Ager, which is about the size of an ice bucket, is alleged to work by colliding the alcohol molecules within the wine, simulating the effects of aging. According to Jones, any kind of beverage that’s supposed to taste better aged will benefit from the device. He’s even gotten a wine maker or two on board, though he stresses that restaurants shouldn’t use the device to try and pass off cheap wine as something that will impress your date. The one odd bit about this story is that Jones says he used the machine on orange juice, which then looked brighter and tasted fresher. But isn’t this thing supposed to do the opposite? Or am I just not letting my O.J. age properly? More details here.

Furry, Milky, Possibly Endangered

Let’s face it, there’s no animal like a mammal animal. Some of us may have a little thing for bugs or birds or whatever the hell a platypus is, but there’s something familiar about our fuzzy-headed (most of the time), droopy-titted (sometimes) brethren. Which is why it’s all the more disturbing that 25% of mammals are staring down the barrel of extinction. That’s according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Swiss organization of conservationists. While numbers like this are always a little up in the air (no one can tag and track every mammal species on the planet), the bulk of our knowledge isn’t looking good. Particularly threatened are primates, hippos, bears, and hogs. The common thread here? They’re all delicious. Except for hippos, which are mostly killed in self defense. They are, after all, hungry hungry. More details here.

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