Friday, February 27, 2009

Geezer Foot

Scientists have discovered the oldest known human footprints buried under layers of sediment in Kenya. How old? 1.5 million years. “Wait just a goddamn second,” you’re saying. “I know for a fact that there are 3.7 million-year-old footprints of Australopithecus afarensis! What the hell are you trying to pull?” Well, I’m not trying to pull anything, you angry bastard. While those footprints are much older, they don’t display the characteristics of a modern human foot meant more for walking great distances than for grasping tree limbs. There’s a surprising lack of fossil record showing the evolution of human hands and feet, since those tasty, bony bits are usually the first to be eaten by scavengers. So this new find is particularly significant in that it gives us a clearer understanding of when the foot our modern-day fetishists know and love came to be. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether these aren’t just Jesus’ footprints, as he was known to carry early humans from time to time. More details here.

Paltrow Just Misunderstood

I’ve done my fair share of ridiculing actress Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s just so easy! When show off your cupping hickies at a movie premiere, you’re just asking for trouble. What are cupping hickies, you say? Well, cupping is an ancient superstition that says sucking your skin into the vacuum of a cup placed on top of it will somehow encourage the positive flow of your body’s energy. Yeah, none of that makes any sense, and I wrote all about it over at PinkRaygun.com. But Paltrow isn’t satisfied with simply displaying her idiocy (and freakishly sharp shoulder blades) by way of backless dresses. No, she also created GOOP.com, a website and newsletter where she dispenses health, diet, beauty, parenting, and living advice. Her credentials? She wore a silly mustache in Shakespeare in Love! Oh, and she ran from Jeff Bridges in Iron Man. But obviously that last one doesn’t qualify her to tell you how to treat your body. Like her acting skills, Paltrow’s website is pretty laughable. In addition to promoting pseudoscientific nonsense, she also dispenses valuable bits of wisdom about how you would be happier if you did nice things for yourself and ate good food. GOOP.com takes self importance to such great new heights that it’s crashing into our geosynchronous satellites. But instead of looking at her website, saying quietly to herself, “Oh, Jesus Christ, that’s embarrassing”, and promptly ordering its deletion, Paltrow is instead responding to critics with the tried and true “you guys just don’t get it” chestnut. “"I think the people who are criticizing it or criticizing the idea of it, don't really get it, because if they did, they would like it...” she told People magazine in her trademark sleepy monotone. Like most celebrities, I’m sure Gwyneth Paltrow reads The Amateur Scientist, so I’m going to make a personal plea to her. Gwyneth, I understand what your website is all about. It’s about you and the ridiculous things you believe and how telling others about those ridiculous things will make them more like you. Because being you, according to you, is the ultimate gateway to true happiness. I get it. You’re just horribly, hilariously wrong. More details here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bobby Jindal: Still an Idiot

I live in Louisiana, and if there’s one thing all Louisianans know, it’s that you shouldn’t ride your alligator to work unless you bring your own meat lick. But if there’s another thing we know, it’s that Bobby Jindal (seen here wearing a deliciously minty tie) is an idiot. Or, at the very least, he does a wonderful job pretending to be an idiot. How else can you explain the fact that a Rhodes scholar would describe creationism as “the very best science”? And since many Republicans appear to believe that flaunting scientific idiocy is cooler than the Fonz, Jindal’s dimwittedness could just be a hacky way to make nice with the in crowd. Case in point: his delivery of the official GOP response to Barack Obama’s national address earlier this week. Obama tried to make the case for his gargantuan stimulus package, and Jindal fired back with a patronizingly sing-song diatribe about wasteful spending. Only he didn’t so much point out the wasteful parts as he did the necessary and important ones. Jindal poo-pooed a $140 million appropriation for volcano monitoring as if America all of a sudden thinks volcanoes are a bunch of whiney, pork-guzzling pricks. But of course, volcanoes exist near places where Americans live. And sometimes they spew forth ash and lava that can kill said Americans. The only way to know when this is going to happen is to monitor them, which requires paying scientists and purchasing equipment that costs money to maintain. You might even call volcano monitoring natural disaster prevention, which is the kind of thing that could have come in handy before Hurricane Katrina washed away many of the rational voters who would have kept Jindal out of the Louisiana governor’s mansion. Also, the $140 million will go toward the U.S. Geological Survey, which will spend only a fraction of it on volcano monitoring. So, Jindal is not only ignorant about science, he’s also ignorant about the facts he uses to support his ignorance about science. Several scientists have spoken out against Jindal’s idiocy, but I’m not sure whether any of this will deter people from referring to him as “the next Ronald Reagan”. If anything, Jindal is more advanced than Reagan, as his brain seems to have decayed much earlier in life. More details here.

Satanist Claims Discrimination Against His Stupid Religion

In a lawsuit filed against the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department in Montana, Jason Paul Indreland (pictured here wearing a douche patch on his chin) claims his religious rights were violated while he was in jail on felony drug possession charges. He was busted for having fifteen grams of meth, which is absurd since drug possession shouldn’t be a crime in the first place. But even more absurd is the fact that Indreland says he’s a practicing Satanist who was ridiculed, denied access to religious material, and had a protective medallion stolen. Not that there aren’t equally stupid religions (I’m looking at you, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), but Satanism? The very idea of Satan comes from Hebrew scripture, so you necessarily have to believe that crap to believe in Mr. Horny Forks. Satanism is nonsense based on nonsense and is only practiced by fans of ironic humor and assholes. Indreland is probably the latter, considering he has prior convictions for writing bad checks and theft. Still, I suppose he has as much a right to the silly books he bought in Barnes & Noble’s New Age section as anyone else does to a Bible. I’m just not sure he deserves the $10 million dollars he wants from the county, as he’ll probably just spend it all on candles and bullshit. More details here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Swarmin’ Mormons

The dreaded Mormon crickets that plague the American southwest are once again poised to swarm across Nevada and neighboring states, and local officials are worried. The pesky insects are known to eat precious crops and to migrate in such huge numbers that they can pose a visibility hazard on roads. Thousands of pounds of poison bait are spread around the area each year to keep the crickets at bay, but it’s not as effective as many would like. Technically, the Mormon cricket isn’t a cricket at all. It’s a type of shield-backed katydid. Also, it’s not actually Mormon, but was given the name after the legend that the first Mormon settlement in Utah was saved from starvation when a flock of gulls swooped in to eat a cricket horde that was destroying their wheat crops. But while they aren’t members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormon crickets shun caffeine, oppose gay marriage, and were officially a racist organization until the ‘70s. More details here.

Optimism Gene

British researchers have identified a gene they believe can determine whether someone is a cheerful optimist or a negative asshole. They showed test subjects both positive images (people hugging, people sailing, people failing on Dancing with the Stars) and negative ones (muggings, Paris Hilton at an ATM) and measured the amount of focused placed on each. Those who tended to ignore the negative and dwell only on the positive were more likely to have a certain version of a gene that controls the body’s production of serotonin. It’s thought that perhaps the “optimism gene” dampens activity in the section of the brain called the amygdala, which regulates emotions. Those with higher activity in the amygdala are prone to neurosis and anxiety. So the next time someone tells you to turn that frown upside down, go ahead and punch them in the face. Just blame it on your genes. More details here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Laws of Robotic Killers

With more and more U.S. military operations being handed over to robotic killers, the Office of Naval Research has been tasked with drafting an advisory report on how to handle our mechanized soldiers. While Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics (protect people, obey orders, protect yourself) would be fine for some namby-pamby pacifist mech, they’re crap for any cybernetic grunt sent to kill as many enemies as possible. The ONR suggests implementing a “warrior code” in all future military robots. Basically, we need to program our ‘bots with some form of ethics in order to prevent a Terminator-style uprising, but we can’t tell them not to hurt anyone. It’s a tricky challenge. And even trickier are the human-side ethics issues surrounding robot soldiers. If, for example, one of them goes rogue and starts killing civilians, who’s to blame: the robot, the programmers, or the military leaders? Well, I say these are tricky issues, but I’m sure they’d been hashed out ad nauseam by our nation’s hacky sci-fi writers. More details here.

God Hates Protests

Last week, U.K. officials stupidly banned Pastor Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps from entering England to protest a production of The Laramie Project, a play about Matthew Shepard, a student who was murdered for being gay. If you couldn’t tell from his nickname, Phelps doesn’t like the gays, and he was denied entry into the country because of his extremist beliefs. I wrote about why this was a bad move on the part of British authorities, but Phelps claimed that it would be no setback to his cause. According to him, several like-minded friends from across the pond would show up to protest the play regardless. Well, he was right. At least partially. One fag-hating dude showed up. And then he was chased away by counter-protestors. No word yet if England has suffered the terrible wrath Phelps predicted would befall it for stifling his holy rants. Although there was apparently some rain a few days ago, so that might be it. More details here.

Frozen Idol

Because I enjoy music and appreciate the ability of humans to perform and create it, I don’t watch American Idol. But because I own a television and have eyes, I know who Simon Cowell is. You probably do, too, and you probably also have an opinion of him. So, I’m sure it will either come as very good or potentially terrifying news that Cowell reportedly wants to be frozen via cryonics after his death so that he may live again. Of course, this information comes from an anonymous source who supposedly overheard it at a dinner party, so I’d take it with a rock or two of salt. Still, it’s always interesting to chat about the scientific plausibility of cryonics. While there are a few companies that will gladly fill your corpse’s veins with preservatives and lock you up in deep freeze pending some future medical breakthrough, there’s little evidence that a body could fully recover from the freezing and thawing process. Even if it could somehow be reanimated, cell damage may prevent the brain from preserving anything resembling a personality. Still, I think freezing Simon Cowell would be a worthwhile endeavor if only so future generations could marvel at the low standards of fashion and hair styling we required of our 21st century celebrities. More details here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bank Accounts, Shark Attacks Down

Remember a few summers ago when it seemed like everyone you knew was coming home from the beach with a missing arm or leg? Shark attacks were all the rage—more popular than celebrity adoptions or even parachute pants. But like any trend, it’s on the way out. 2008 saw some of the lowest shark attack numbers in years, and biologist George Burgess of the University of Florida thinks it might have something to do with the global economic apocalypse. He says that shark attack rates are directly proportional to the number of people in the water. And since most of us are now struggling to fashion crude outfits from leather straps and old pickle barrels, few people are splurging on beach vacations. "We noticed similar declines during the recession that followed the events of 2001, despite the fact that human populations continued to rise,” Burgess said. If this is the case, then I suppose it’s a silver lining in a very, very dark cloud. But it might also be true that sharks just don’t prefer the taste of poor people, which I’ve been told is an odd mixture of ramen noodles, discount liquor, and cumin. More details here.

Human Rights, Schmuman Rights

If being a great diplomat requires a backbone made of pudding, Hilary Clinton may turn out to be the greatest Secretary of State ever. Asked why she won’t be pressing the Chinese government on their rampant disregard for the basic rights of human beings, she shrugged off the issue. “We pretty much know what they’re gonna say,” she sighed, I’m assuming while making a jacking off motion with her fist. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new foreign policy: The “Eh, Whatever” Doctrine. Sure, we’d like it if Iran didn’t pursue the creation of nuclear weapons, but we all know they’re just going to say they want them. Eh, whatever. Clinton says she’d rather focus on where we might find common ground with the Chinese, namely on issues of the global economic apocalypse and climate change. I’d ask Secretary Clinton how she would explain this policy to China’s religious, journalistic, and social dissidents rotting in secret prisons and labor camps, but I already know what she’s going to say. Eh, whatever. More details here.

God Hates Britain

Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and his daughter Shirley were denied entry into the U.K., where they planned to picket a local production of The Laramie Project, a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard. For those who don’t know, Phelps and his church (which is almost entirely made up of his own family members) are well known for protesting the funerals of gay people, AIDS victims, and U.S. soldiers. They also run the website GodHatesFags.com, which features a clock measuring how long Matthew Shepard has been in hell for being gay. The British government cited its opposition to “extremism” in denying the Phelps’ entry. But as horrible and laughable and insane as Pastor Fred and his minions are, I can’t get behind state-sponsored censorship in any form. “Extremism” is a vague term at best, and in this case particularly it’s just an excuse to keep out people the government finds distasteful. But one of the costs of having a society based on free expression is that you have to put up with douchebags from time to time. The British people have a right to keep whomever they want out of their country, but this sets a terrible precedent for anyone interested in freedom. It would also serve everyone’s best interest if we let these people make fools of themselves in public. Suppressing their idiocy only adds some level of legitimacy to their views. It makes them feel dangerous and important, when they should really be made to feel useless, irrelevant, and ridiculous. Because that’s what they are. You can listen to my interview with Fred Phelps, Jr. here. And read more about the Phelps family’s travel problems here.

State Sen. Paul Koering: Idiot

Yes, there are gay Republicans. And yes, they’re sometimes even elected to public office by other Republicans. Minnesota State Sen. Paul Koering is one of them. He came out in 2005 after voting against an amendment to the Minnesota state constitution that would have banned same-sex marriages and civil unions. But now he’s voted against a bill that would legalize gay marriage for his state, and his reasoning is as idiotic as his smile is jolly. He says he voted to deny gay people equal rights because Minnesota has bigger problems to deal with. But unless the state legislature has a rule banning them from considering more than one issue at a time, this cop-out makes so sense at all. More likely, Koering just doesn’t want to rattle the conservative voters who gave him his job, which makes him a coward. That’s right, Koering. I’m callin’ ya yeller. He dug an even deeper hole for himself by conceding that some “gay activists” will be upset with him over this vote. If by “gay activists” he means “people who believe in the equal rights guaranteed in the U.S. constitution”, then he’s right. More details here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Natural ≠ Good and Other Ad Tricks

A survey of scientific claims in advertising done by the University of Cambridge and presented at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that (wait for it…) ads use pseudoscience to trick you. While many countries have laws against false advertising or governmental bodies that oversee the claims made by manufacturers, there are still plenty of dubious tricks that slip through. For instance, the study found that the makers of an anti-cellulite cream that claims to give people a slimmer silhouette will admit under questioning that they don’t think their consumers really expect the cream to affect sub-dermal fat. By “slim”, they really mean “smooth”. Also, products labeling themselves “chemical free” are really referring only to the colloquial definition of “chemical” as something man-made. Otherwise, there’s no such thing as a chemical free product. Still more advertisers get away with making outright false claims or touting the abilities of their products when those abilities have no role in the desired effect. An example of the latter is a “night repair” cream that’s supposed to improve the appearance of the skin overnight by protecting it from harmful UV radiation. The problem with this, obviously, is that there is no harmful UV radiation at night, since the sun’s on the opposite side of the world. Outright lies come from some probiotic and organic products, which tout their health benefits even though there’s no evidence that they have any. All of this should come as no surprise to most of you, but it’s always good to have a little concrete ammunition the next time your idiot friend thinks of ordering some crap off of TV. More details here.

Dog Bride Stops Tiger Kill

If you’re thinking that headline is just a collection of random words, you’re only partially correct. A one and a half-year-old boy in eastern India has been married off to a local dog in order to prevent his prophesied death via tiger attack. The boy had a strange tooth growing from his upper gum, which his tribe saw as a bad omen. By what I’m sure was a scientific and rigorous method of analysis, the village elders determined that this omen was of a deadly tiger mauling sometime in the boy’s future. The cure for future tiger murder? Marrying a dog, of course. But before you get all up in arms over the fact that this poor kid will be matrimonially bound to this bitch for the rest of his life, you should stop to consider the fact that the dog will be dead by the time this kid’s twelve. Fourteen, tops. After which, he’ll be immune to tiger bites, and he’ll be a sexy, brooding widower. Plus, he’ll have that awesome mutant tooth. Hot! More details here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Amateur Scientist on Ghost Divas – LIVE! Tonight

So, I’ll be chatting with the ladies of Ghost Divas – LIVE! tonight at 11pm EST. I’m not really sure what we’ll be talking about, but there’s a good chance we’ll touch on my review of A&E’s Paranormal State, which appears in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer. In other words, I’ll be making fun of people who run around in the dark waving thermometers. You can listen live via Para-X Radio here, or check the archive in a day or so. And for added fun, take a shot whenever someone says “ghost”.

Bristol Palin: Voice of, Like, Reason

Remember how John McCain once had that cancer attached to him? Well, that cancer had a daughter, and her name was Bristol Palin. At seventeen, Bristol became pregnant and remained that way throughout her mother’s vice presidential campaign. This caused a bit of a stir, considering the Republican Party has long promoted so-called “abstinence only education”, which isn’t so much education as it is making kids sign papers promising they won’t play with each other’s privates. Mostly because playing with privates is fun, this kind of crap doesn’t stop teenagers from having sex. Instead, it just raises their risk of pregnancy and STDs because the part-time preacher that gave them their promise rings never mentioned how to roll on a condom. Now, Bristol has joined the voices of reason, declaring in a recent interview that abstinence indoctrination is “not realistic”. Of course, she also added that abstinence is still the best option for teens. This is kind of like saying Pegasus is the best option for air travel. Palin went on to discourage other teens from following in her footsteps. “It's just, like, I'm not living for myself anymore. It's, like, for another person, so it's different. And just you're up all night. And it's not glamorous at all. Like, your whole priorities change after having a baby,” she said. That is, like, so true. More details here.

Stephen King: Assassin?

A man from California identifying himself as Steve Lightfoot recently used the public comments forum at a city commission meeting in Sarasota, Florida to drop the bombshell that horror writer Stephen King assassinated John Lennon. As proof, Lightfoot offered up his van, which “says it all over the place”. The commission had Lightfoot escorted away, claiming that the public forum is only for issues related to city business. But since King is a part-time resident of the area, I can’t think of any topic that’s more city businessier. Lightfoot went on to say that “Stephen King is the worst criminal the state of Florida has ever harbored”, but I think that’s a bit harsh. Dreamcatcher wasn’t that bad. (Well, maybe.) It’s tempting to assume that the Sarasota city commission is simply in on the cover-up here, but I suggest we all try to keep a level head about this. After all, everyone knows John Lennon was eaten by a Langolier. More details (including video) here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Tao of Darwin

At this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, psychologist Paul Ekman has posited that Charles Darwin’s views on compassion may have been influenced by Buddhist teachings. According to Ekman, both Darwin and Buddhists write about compassion originating with the relationship between a mother and her young. The fundamental idea, Ekman says, is that people seek to relieve the suffering of others because seeing that suffering makes us suffer. Of course, compassion makes evolutionary sense even without the influence of Buddhism. It’s in the best interest of the species for us all to try and get along, which means trying to understand and help one another. Obviously this isn’t an absolute, however, considering the existence of assholes. But Ekman suggests that Darwin may have been influenced by his correspondence with his friend, botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who had visited Tibet and learned about Buddhist teachings. This all seems very unlikely, though, since we all know Darwin was more influenced by Satan than the Buddha. More details here.

Cancer Cat

Canadian Lionel Adams is thanking his eight-year-old tabby cat Tiger for saving his life. He says Tiger was never a cuddly cat, but one day she started pawing at his left side. After a routine x-ray during a doctor’s visit, a tumor was found in Adams’ left lung. Look, I’d love it if cats had magical powers of medical detection. I’d much rather cover myself in adorable kittens than stand in a drafty hospital gown in front of a radiation machine. But there are a couple of problems with this story. For one thing, Adams didn’t go to the doctor because Tiger was pawing at him. As a reasonably sane person, a little kitty kneading didn’t immediately make him think “medical emergency!”. So, if we’re being specific here, Tiger didn’t really save his life. And for another thing, cats are always pawing people who don’t have cancer at all. And before you call up your lawyer, let me speculate that this is just normal cat behavior and not basis for a malpractice suit. More details here.

Shadow Life

A great deal of effort is spent detecting signs of Earth-like life on other planets so that we’ll know who to pillage and plunder when we finally achieve faster than light speeds. But what about life on non-Earth-like planets? Arizona State University astrobiologist Paul Davies suggests that not all lifeforms necessarily breathe oxygen and drink water. And he suggests that we may be able to find such freakish critters right here on our home planet. He calls these kinds of organisms “shadow life”, and he believes that discovering them here would give us even more reason to believe that all kinds of life are common in the universe. He suggests looking first in Earth’s least hospitable environments, namely the upper atmosphere and deep inside volcanic vents. We may find microbes that have a completely different chemical basis than our own. And they may be so exotic and alluring that we can’t help but have sex with them. (I’m hoping.) More details here. And I apologize to anyone who read the headline for this post and thought it would be about flesh-eating aliens on a planet that’s one giant library. If you are such a person, you are a beautiful nerd. And I love you.

Bad Memory Pill

Scientists at the University of Amsterdam believe they may have found a way to ease frightening memories using only blood pressure pills. When a fearful memory is recalled, it’s changed in a process called reconsolidation. This stage of recall has been shown to be susceptible to blood pressure medications called beta-adrenergetic receptor blockers. In their human studies, researchers showed pictures of spiders to test subjects. And just for a little sadistic thrill, they delivered a mild shock when each picture was shown, creating an even scarier memory. But subjects given a beta blocker had a greatly reduced fear response upon being shown the pictures again as opposed to those given placebo. I still don’t see how this is anything close to “erasing” bad memories, as some headlines about his study have claimed. If anything, the medication seems to only be reducing the stress and anxiety associated with a frightening memory. Still, this is potentially good news for people struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, as I am after having seen Pink Panther 2. More details here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pink Panty Protest

India’s Hindu fundamentalist group Sri Ram Sena recently barged into a local pup and harassed all the women inside for patronizing an establishment clearly meant for men. They’re similarly up in arms over anything they see as Western-style women’s liberation. They particularly despise Valentine’s Day, seeing it as a commercial enterprise built on spreading immorality. I can’t argue with the first part, but I’m definitely peeved that these asshats spend the holiday burning Valentine’s cards at local businesses and haranguing couples on the streets for being unmarried. But Indian journalist Nisha Susan is fighting back. She organized the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose, and Forward Women, which protested Sri Ram Sena this Valentine’s Day by sending its leader thousands of pairs of pink panties (or “chaddis”, as they’re known in India). If that won’t make him appreciate loose women, I don’t know what will. He says he’ll retaliate by sending members of the CPGLFW a bunch of saris to show them how Indian women should dress. But I guess he doesn’t realize that women in saris get me all hot. More details here.

Bird, Plane, or UFO?

Most UFO photos are just a blurry mess of nothing, and they really aren’t worth writing about. This one’s a blurry mess of...something. Which I guess makes it worth writing about. An unidentified amateur photographer in Kansas says he took this photo of a craft that made a quiet whirring sound, swooped down as if on a bombing run, and climbed back into the sky in one smooth motion. He sent the photo to UFO Digest, whose editor believes it may be some type of experimental military aircraft. A representative of Boeing says he can’t identify the object, and the Air Force has declined to comment. It could really be any number of things. To me, it looks like an odd angle on some kind of standard airplane, but some have said it could actually be two planes superimposed into one black blur or even a bird. It’s also possible that this is some kind of secret military craft, but that’s probably unlikely considering there’s no need to develop new military technology in the thousand years of peace we’ll enjoy under the rule of Barack Obama. (I hope so, at least.) What do you see? Personally, I think it’s Mel Gibson’s sanity, which was last seen flying somewhere over the Pacific northwest. More details here.

Saner Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has made moves to stem the tide of extremist Sunni rule in the country. He dismissed both the chief of the country’s oppressive religious police and a cleric who infamously called for the murder of TV executives who allow the broadcast of “immoral” content. Abdullah also appointed female deputy minister, which makes her the highest ranking female Saudi official in history. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a sort of triumvirate of religious clerics, a huge royal family, and the king himself. That Abdullah has been able to make such sweeping moderate gestures is a sign that he has broad support across all groups. Of course, the country still has a theocratic authority with law enforcement powers and an unelected monarchy. Still, progress is progress. Maybe in a few years, married Saudi women will be able to look at men who aren’t their husbands without fear of reprisal. Here’s hoping! More details here.

Fascist Bastard Suing College

In a lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defense Fund against the Los Angeles Community College District, the conservative Christian group claims that a student at Los Angeles City College had his First Amendment rights violated when his speech teacher called him a “fascist bastard” for giving a presentation on his Christian beliefs. The ADF alleges that Jonathan Lopez innocently pointed out the dictionary definition of the word “marriage” and read two Bible verses before Prof. John Matteson yelled at him. Matteson allegedly refused to give Lopez a grade for the speech, suggesting that Lopez instead “ask God what your grade is”. If you’re wondering how being yelled at by a teacher for being a bigoted dick is in any way a violation of First Amendment rights, I’m right with you. At the most, it’s a case of teacher misconduct that could easily be handled by the school without the need for a lawsuit. But spokespeople for L.A. City College say Lopez has refused to fill out the proper complaints that would lead to disciplinary action against Matteson. And according to other students in the classroom at the time, Lopez’s speech was a preachy mess that fell well outside the assignment. Assuming Matteson did call Lopez a “fascist bastard” and refused to give him a grade, the professor probably needs to be fired. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. More details here.

Friday, February 13, 2009

This Drink Tastes Like Piss

India's largest Hindu nationalist group, the RSS, is developing a new beverage made mostly from cow urine that they hope will take their country by storm. They see the popularity of non-Indian soft drinks like Coca-Cola as a corrupting force in Indian culture, so they want to bring people back to the kind of hard-line Hindu cow reverence that would inspire people to consume bovine waste as a cleansing agent. The RSS assures the public that the drink, called "gau jal" ("cow water"), won't taste like piss, but I think they're missing the point. While the main ingredient is indeed cow urine, there will also be some medicinal and ayurvedic herbs thrown in. This would just be harmless, disgusting fun except for the fact that the RSS promotes cow urine as a cure for all sorts of illnesses including liver disease and even cancer. I swear to cow, if one cancer patient dies from drinking cow water instead of getting chemo, I'm gonna... Well, I probably won't do anything because the RSS has guns. But I'll be upset, let me tell you. More details here.

Dumb Teenagers Getting Dumber

We all know that teenagers are dumb. Well, maybe not all of them. But those damn kids always on my lawn are definitely mouth-breathing morons. And now there's some scientific evidence to show that not only are kids these days idiots, but they may be getting even more idioter. Professor James Flynn of the University of Otago in New Zealand compared the average I.Q. scores of British teens in 1980 to those of today and found a two-point drop. Teens from middle class families, who typically have the highest I.Q.s, actually dropped by six points. This runs counter to the so-called Flynn Effect, which was a phenomenon also discovered by James Flynn that showed a steady increase in I.Q. in industrialized countries over the past century. Flynn doesn't know what's causing the drop, but he throws out a list of your standard suspects: peer pressure, rebellion, video games, text messaging, and all that other newfangled crap them kids are into these days. Personally, I think we just need to step up our efforts in shaking our fists at these hooligans. More details here.

Cold Mapped

Researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have mapped the genome of the common cold virus. This doesn't mean that a cure is just around the corner, but it gives scientists a clearer idea of how to begin planning a cure. The cold virus has at least 99 different strains, so part of the problem in treating it is knowing which strain a patient has. But with a map of its genome, we'll be better able to classify and identify these strains, which could lead to more effective antiviral treatments if not a vaccine. The bad news is that those of us who use the ubiquitous virus as a regular excuse to skip our soul-crushing jobs and stay at home playing Xbox all day may have to find another line of reasoning in the future. If only we could all have hundreds of grandmothers that die all the time... More details here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day!

It's that time of year again, people. No, I'm not talking about your annual pondering over whether you'd rather buy your significant other a Valentine's present or just break up with them. It's Charles Darwin's birthday! And some other guy's. Anyway, instead of linking to a bunch of obligatory articles from other skeptical sites or to some Richard Dawkins rant about how Darwin is great and Harry Potter is ridonculous, I bring you two Darwin-centric items from the fringes of the Internet. First, the humor blog over at hipster Mecca McSweeneys.net has a funny piece by David Ng entitled "Ways Charles Darwin Could Jump the Shark". And over at Gamasutra, veteran video game designer Noah Falstein explores the ways Darwin's discoveries have influenced the evolution of game design. Go get your geek on, people.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Am-Sci on Con-Skep

Our own Karl Mamer, writer of the Podcasting Without Pity column, hosts his own popular podcast, The Conspiracy Skeptic, and he was kind enough to interview me for the latest episode of the show. We discuss badmouthing Koreans, the origins of this very website, and the Illuminati. Give it a listen right here.

Shakin’ Station

Last month, the International Space Station made a rocket burn to nudge itself into a better position to receive incoming spacecraft. This is supposed to be a routine procedure that gently moves the station into another spot, but something went wrong. Due to a rocket malfunction, the station began shaking violently, up to five times more than what it’s supposed to handle. No one knows what caused the problem, but it looks like the thrusts modulated themselves to the station’s resonant frequency, which is why the shaking became so violent. For those who may not know, resonant frequency is the frequency at which an object oscillates at maximum amplitude. Just a small, periodic force at an object’s resonant frequency can amplify into quite a rattling. According to legend, madman inventor NiKola Tesla created a resonant frequency device that could topple a building. But the Mythbusters tested that, and it’s probably bunk. Anyway, I guess the point of all this is that you’ll probably have to reschedule your trip to the ISS until they figure out this problem. Sorry, vacationers. More details here.

HIV Gene Therapy

If I asked you what’s the most successful treatment for HIV, you’d probably say “homeopathic witchdoctoring”, right? Wrong. The answer is actually “modern medicine”. But even though actual science has developed highly effective treatments for HIV, there are still many infected patients who build a resistance to those treatments. And it’s these patients that will be participating in a clinical trial of a new HIV immunization treatment based on gene therapy. Scientists have discovered that people who are naturally immune to HIV have a mutated form of a common gene called CCR5. By cutting the CCR5 gene out of a person’s T-cells, they’ve been able to protect a tube full of human cells from HIV infection. The hope is that the same reaction will happen in the body, with the newly immune T-cells replicating and replacing those that still have the CCR5 gene. If so, this could potentially lead to a kind of gene therapy vaccine against HIV. And that would mean I could go back to what used to be my favorite hobby: sharing needles with performance artists in the back of Studio 54. More details here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Coleman and God: BFFs

Soon-to-be (maybe) former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman appeared on the conservative Mike Gallagher radio show last week to keep his name in the news during his epic legal battle to keep Al Franken from taking his congressional seat. In addition to waxing hypothetical about all the incredibly conservative and Mike Gallagher-esque things he would be doing right now if he was in Washington, Coleman told Mike Gallagher, "God wants me to serve." This puts Coleman in the same camp as George W. Bush, Pat Robertson, and every other idiot who claims to be on God's friends list. In all fairness, Coleman went on to say that he's not the only person who could serve in his former position, but he didn't specify if any of those other people include Al Franken. He also failed to go into how God's will could possibly be thwarted by the elections commission of the great state of Minnesota. If I were Mike Gallagher, I'd have followed up on that. More details here.

Autism/Vaccine Fraud

You've probably read about this elsewhere by now, but just in case you haven't, I feel this is important enough to reiterate. Reporter Brian Deer, writing for The Sunday Times, has uncovered evidence that Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the father of the "vaccines cause autism" boondoggle that's been sweeping the world's gullible, faked the data he used to back up that claim. The story is long and complicated, but Wakefield's original ten-year-old study forms the basis for many of the spurious claims about a non-existent vaccine/autism link that are still made today. But while this revelation is just another hole in the already leaky antivaccinationist boat, it's also true that even if Wakefield's claims weren't outright falsified, there's still plenty of evidence that they aren't true. There is no link between vaccines and autism, and it doesn't take the public disgrace of Andrew Wakefield to prove that. Still, the forces of unreason will no doubt keep moving on ahead. They'll find other causes for autism, other reasons to distrust vaccines, and otherwise keep their heads buried firmly in their asses. Read the whole article here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Psychic Leeches

CNN.com has a predictably fluffy profile on self-proclaimed (aren't they all?) psychic and apparent plastic surgery victim Roxanne Usleman (pictured), who says her business has been booming due to the global economic apocalypse. At $135 a pop, she sees five or six clients a day who come to her seeking financial advice from her team of on-call "angels". One happy client quoted in the story brings up the fact that he was pleased Usleman wasn't the kind of hokey crystal ball-gazing, palm-reading hack he expected. But this isn't much of an endorsement considering he probably never would have gone to such a person in the first place and people like that only set up shop in carnivals and red light districts these days. But whether Usleman is gazing into a stack of tarot cards or a tasteful Tiffany bracelet, it doesn't matter if her predictions don't amount to anything. And despite the fluffiness of this profile, there's not a single mention of Usleman's predictions coming true. In fact, there's a pointed quote from non-psychic financial adviser Ryan Mack, who says, "Regardless of what the stars say, regardless of what the map says in terms of--if Pluto is lined up with Mars...You have the ability within yourself to save, to plan and to be diligent." And blowing what little cash you have left on psychic readings is doing none of those three things. Read the whole piece here.

AIDS Fraud

Nigeria has the second highest rate of AIDS infection in the world, but the vast majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. So it's understandable that many of them turn to cheaper alternatives to potentially expensive AIDS medications. This means local healers and medicine men are raking in the cash. The only problem with this is that none of these folk remedies have ever been proven to work against AIDS, whereas real medicine has progressed to the point that AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Obviously there's a crisis of education and access to inexpensive medicine here, but Nigeria's Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development seems to be fighting the wrong fight. Instead of more actively discouraging people to visit these huckster "healers", they're pursuing research into whether these folk remedies actually work. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. After all, many modern medications are synthesized and refined versions of chemicals originally derived from herbs and other organic sources. But there's still the fact that these medicine men are more interested in making money that making sure people don't die. There's no reason at all to think that their so-called treatments have any possibility of working, but by devoting time and resources into testing their shams, NIPRD are lending them an air of deferred legitimacy. Meanwhile, people are dying of a treatable (if currently incurable) disease. Maybe when all those Nigerian businessmen finally get their email money from people overseas, they can start pouring it into more worthwhile causes. What's that you say about a scam? More details here.

Vampyre Busted

Since there's no reason to believe actual vampires have ever existed, many socially maladjusted and attention whoring individuals take it upon themselves to don cheap velvet capes, slick back their hair, and pretend to be their favorite sexually ambiguous, blood-sucking superantiheroes. Jonathan Sharkey (pictured) (no, seriously, that's him) is one such individual. Calling himself a "Vampyre" (so you know just how pretentious he really is), Sharkey ran for governor of Minnesota in 2006 as the candidate of the Vampyres, Witches, and Pagans party. Perhaps ironically, a 16-year-old girl became a supporter of his on MySpace, the social networking site of choice for immortal creatures of the night. Unfortunately, Sharkey's vampire powers don't include an irresistibly hypnotic allure. He allegedly harassed the hell out of this girl with messages and emails, forcing her to take the drastic step of telling him she was actually a member of a secret order of vampire hunters and they must end their online relationship for Sharkey's own safety. This is called feeding a delusion, and it's not a good idea. Sharkey declared that this girl was his "princess", and after another barrage of unwanted creepiness, he was charged with felony harassment and two misdemeanor coercion counts--possibly for threatening to drink the girl's blood. Sharkey is now at the mercy of his public defender, since apparently not all vampires are filthy rich. More details here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

It's Not the Size of the Bat'leth...

...except that it is. I mean, I was pretty damn excited when I heard a man in Colorado Springs held up a convenience store with a bat'leth. (And if you don't know what a bat'leth is, just move along.) Star Trek fans aren't known for their dangerously mysterious allure, and I was hoping one of our own going on a Klingon-fueled crime spree might give us the kind of street cred we've been so sadly lacking. But look at the size of that bat'leth! This tool couldn't spring for the deluxe model? It's barely big enough to slice open a Publisher's Clearing House envelope, much less rend the guts from a Breen foot soldier. Just pathetic. I hope this guy rots in Gre'Thor. More details here.

Obama Expanding Faith-Based Influence

Barack Obama will reportedly announce the creation of the President's Advisory Council on Faith during a prayer breakfast with various church leaders in the White House this Thursday. Why prayers are so often relegated to breakfasts is anyone's guess, but we do have some idea of what this council will do. Unlike George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives, which sought mostly to funnel federal money into religious charities and social programs, Obama will use the council as a sounding board for policy issues he feels could benefit from faith-based input. While it might seem like Obama is chipping away at the wall between church and state that Bush so clumsily crashed through, this is actually a much smarter policy. (Surprise.) Instead of just throwing cash at church groups, Obama will instead seek the advice of church leaders in matters of healthcare and outreach to the poor--areas where faith-based charities have valuable experience. Look, it would be wonderful if there was a huge infrastructure of secular charities that did as much humanitarian work as religious ones, but that just isn't the case. To take Hurricane Katrina as just one example, faith-based relief efforts were some of the first on the scene, as well as some of the most effective. These people have money and motivation, and a lot of them know what they're doing. It's just a shame that so many of them choose to couch their efforts in superstitious nonsense. In other words, this is another smart move from the Obama administration. Now if only they could get a clue about throwing trillions of dollars the U.S. government doesn't have at an economic problem only made worse by the fact that the U.S. is in the hole for trillions of dollars... More details here.

Littledick McCriminalstein

Researchers at Shippensburg University have published a study showing that kids with unpopular names tend to commit crimes at higher rates than others. They examined state crime records and cross-referenced those juvenile criminals' names with the popularity-name index (PNI) of their names. The PNI score was based on the contemporary popularity of that name. Turns out kids with rare names like Ivan, Ernest, Blitzkrieg, and Twinkieshorts were more prone to juvenile delinquency. The authors of the study suggest that kids with terrible names are often exposed to other factors that increase their chances of turning into little shits, including disadvantaged home environments and lower socioeconomic status. Also, of course, there's the possibility that all that teasing Fatass von Browneye suffered at the hands of his cruel peers might have pushed him over the edge. And obviously stupid names don't guarantee a life of crime. While Carrot Top's act might well be considered criminal, it's not technically illegal. Yet. More details here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dalai Lama Dilemma

The Dalai Lama, now adorably waddling into the end of his golden years, will be dead quicker than you can say "free Tibet". But there's a bit of controversy over how to choose his successor. Traditionally, Dalai Lama's are believed to be reincarnated. A team of trusted priests interprets vague, mystical signs and made-up portents to determine which young child has the D.L. all up in him. In Buddhist-controlled Tibet, an appointed regent would rule the country until the Dalai Lama came of age. Or the regent would just murder the young Dalai Lama and try again. People like to hold onto power, after all. (And make no mistake--the so-called "free" Tibet that existed before the Chinese takeover in 1959 was lorded over by an incredibly powerful religious caste system. The peace-loving Lamas enslaved Tibetans and forbade public education. Truly, a wonderful precedent.) Anyway, what with the volatile political situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama's next reincarnation is a tricky thing. The Chinese claim they have the legal right to appoint the Dalai Lama's successor. And the Dalai Lama himself is suggesting that he might break with tradition and choose his reincarnation before his death. (How this would work is anyone's guess, but it's best not to think too hard about such things.) Regardless of how this transition turns out, we should all take a moment to step back and appreciate the wonderful life that the current Dalai Lama has led. After being ousted as the theocratic dictator of his home country, he's bravely traveled the world posing for pictures, accepting celebrity donations, and selling t-shirts in the name of freedom. And by "freedom", of course, I mean the freedom to reclaim his cushy, unelected, and undeserved position at the top of Tibetan society. More details here.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Jellyfish

The world's oceans face a silent invasion from a native Caribbean jellyfish by the name of Turritopsis Nutricula. Unlike other jellyfish species, Turry doesn't die after mating. Instead, he reverts back to a juvenile state through cellular transdifferentiation, effectively aging himself backward and potentially rendering himself immortal. In fact, the only known way to kill one is if another immortal jellyfish cuts off its tentacles and absorbs its Quickening. Or, you know, by killing it any of the other ways you'd normally kill a jellyfish. You may be tempted to goad science into utilizing this post-coital age reversal in human beings, but you'd be a fool to do so. For one thing, immortality would mean an already crowded planet would become unlivable. And for another, we'd be finding vans full of freshly schtupped infants parked at every romantic lookout point in America. Think about it. More details here. And for a lovely poem about jellyfish, why not click here?

Fire Down Below

Scientists are convinced that Alaska's Mt. Redoubt, a 10,000 foot volcano, is on the steady march toward eruption. Within weeks, days, hours, minutes, or some other span of time, the peak will begin spurting ash and possibly a few dollops of molten lava. Look out Anchorage, things are about to get hot! Well, probably not. Anchorage, Alaska's most populous city counting all the rednecks, is a hundred miles from Mt. Redoubt. Though air traffic operations in the city had to be shut down during the volcano's last eruption in 1989 due to ashy air. Scientists believe that the impending eruption will be as powerful or weaker than the last one, so if you're a TV movie producer, I'm sad to say it looks like you won't be able to pitch a true story that's Dante's Peak meets Snow Dogs. The Alaska Volcano Observatory has set up a web camera at Mt. Redoubt's mouth, which serves two purposes. On one hand, it will allow for real-time monitoring of the eruption process, and on the other, it will provide a steady income from those willing to pay the $19.95 monthly fee to watch the volcano masturbate. More details here.

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