Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In the Hole

A team of scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder have created a visual simulation of what it might look like to fall into a black hole. It’s based on a computer model of the general theory of relativity, and the virtual black hole is set to have about five million times the mass of the sun—about the mass of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Not pictured: the load you would have dropped in your space pants. For more info about what you’re seeing, click over to NewScientist.

Big Post-Big Bang Big Bang

Astronomers (with the help of NASA’s Swift satellite) have seen the most distant object ever recorded in space—the gamma ray burst from an exploding star thirteen billion light-years away. For those of you who are slow on the uptake, the distance of the explosion isn’t as significant as the time frame it represents, since we’re now seeing a stellar event from thirteen billion years ago. That’s just 630 million years after the Big Bang itself, and it shows us that even the early universe was probably full of stars and possibly even galaxies. Why do we care? Because knowing how long it takes for complex structures to form in the universe gives us a better idea of just what’s out there and what it’s been up to all these years. As always, though, there’s another possible explanation—that this “explosion” is really just God poking a thumbtack through the black paper dome that covers our flat Earth. Though only one of these hypotheses is likely. More details here.

What is the Impending Robot Uprising?

On Monday, the sexy, black-suited thugs who work at IBM announced the creation of a new supercomputer they’re planning on entering as a contestant on Jeopardy!. Actually, the supercomputer isn’t really the contestant. It’s the artificial intelligence program that will run on the computer. The creators of the program (called Watson after IBM’s Thomas J. Watson, Sr.) say that it’s capable of pulling contextually correct information from a set database of stored knowledge that it can then phrase into an appropriate response for Jeopardy!. The potential breakthrough here isn’t in the program’s ability to think so much as its ability to understand the subtleties of human language. For example, when given the answer “Bordered by Syria and Israel, this small country is only 135 miles long and 35 miles wide”, the program is able to respond with the correct question, “What is Lebanon?”, by contextualizing the information it already has. The Jeopardy! Producers hope to lure back all-time champion Ken Jennings to compete with Watson. So at the very least, we have a pretty good idea who the first casualty of the Robot Wars will be. More details here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama Spreading His Hope and Change All Over Science

I've been pretty critical of Barack Obama so far in his presidency. I voted for the guy, but I can't but be disappointment in his tacit support of some of the more egregious Bush-era policies like suspension of Habeas Corpus, warrantless wiretapping, and legal immunity for government torturers. Like any presidential candidate, he made a lot of promises on his road to the White House, and he's broken plenty of them. Or at least, he's been waffling about making good on many of them. But one of his promises--to expand governmental support for scientific research--seems to be a real priority. As Phil Plait wrote about at his Bad Astronomy blog, Obama has revealed in a recent speech to the National Academy of Sciences that he's throwing a butt ton of federal dollars at the kind of research projects that really create the technological, environmental, and medical future of our world. Click on over to read more, including the caveat that amongst all this money throwing there seems to be a disturbing silence about the future of NASA.

Delicious, Delicious Space

Astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy were scouring a dense region of space junk around a new star in Sagittarius B2 for signs of amino acids, the building blocks of life as we know it. But while they didn't find what they were looking for, they did discover ethyl formate, the molecule that gives raspberries their flavor. The gasses in this area of space absorb radiation from the star they surround and then re-emit it at frequencies that indicate their makeup. So by studying the radiation, astronomers can tell what kinds of molecules are in the gasses. Ethyl formate may not be a sign of life, but it is one of the largest molecules yet detected in space, so it's a good indicator that complex substances can be fairly common even in the middle of nowhere. Lest you hop in your warp bubble and try to take a bite out of this gas cloud, you should also know that they found propyl cyanide as well. So, it's probably a very delicious and refreshing poison. More details here.

Glowy Puppy

Scientists in South Korea have created the first batch of transgenic dogs; that is, dogs with modified genomes. They used a virus to inject fluorescent genes into the nuclei of beagles' fibroblast cells, then they transferred the nuclei of those cells to nucleus-free egg cells, which they fertilized. Later, the created embryos were placed into surrogate mothers. The resulting puppies now produce a fluorescent protein that glows red under ultraviolet light. This is an important step in animal research in that dogs make for more useful disease models than test animals with shorter lifespans, like mice. So transgenic dogs may be useful in studying reproductive diseases that affect humans. On the other hand, the process is slow and expensive. Plus, only a small percentage of the dogs produced actually survive long-term. Which, as a beagle owner, gives me the willies. More details here.

Feng Shoe

An exhibition of wooden Dutch clogs has been rejected for display in a Hong Kong skyscraper over fears it would be bad feng shui. For those who are blissfully unaware, feng shui is an ancient Chinese superstition that involves arranging your life (and architecture, and furniture, and decorations) in such a way that they generate good luck. In other words, it's bullshit. But the management of the Cheung Kong Center believe in it so much that they've canceled the exhibition, which was meant to raise awareness of Dutch culture in Hong Kong and raise money for Chinese children. Apparently, the Cantonese word for "shoe", "hai", sounds similar to an exasperated sigh. No, this doesn't make any sense to me either. But that's a good sign, as it means we have critical thinking skills. Fortunately, another building has agreed to host the exhibition, so the citizens of Hong Kong will be able to soak in the culture of ludicrously uncomfortable footwear. More details here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Russian Cops Told How Not to be Dicks

Even though its the glorious motherland with a sexy and infallible ruler in Vladimir Putin's penis, Russia has been in some dire straights recently. Protests are erupting all over the country, mostly in response to the government's gross mishandling of the global economic apocalypse, but also because the state infrastructure seems to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy. In an effort to improve the image of their police force, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has drawn up a code of conduct to distribute among Russia's finest. But while these guidelines are all good ideas, their odd specificity is a bit unsettling. Among the newly discouraged behaviors for Russian cops? Gambling in casinos, engaging in "indiscriminate sex", having "questionable relationships with people with negative public reputations such as criminals", getting drunk on the job, talking on cell phones on public transportation (that's so annoying), doing drugs, offering or accepting bribes, and taking part in "gross jokes and wicked irony". That last one might seem a little odd until you realize that most Russian police officers moonlight as alternative standup comedians. More details here.

The Robot Dog Whisperer

The mad scientists at Darpa are tasked with dreaming up the most dastardly and/or cartoonishly absurd technologies they can think of to benefit the U.S. military. If we ever build an army of telepathic robot monkeys, it's a good bet they were dreamed up by Darpa. But sights aren't always set so high. One of their latest ideas is a portable electronic dog training device. Because when you're on the battlefield, do you really have time to reward your puppy with treats? Among other things, Darpa hopes the imaginary device will be able to teach dogs "Discrimination of objects, verbal commands and olfactory clues; retrieval and transport of objects between locations; and association of human vocabulary with object of actions". In other words, rabid bloodlust. Oh, and fetch. More details here.

Once You Go Black...

Japanese scientists have created the blackest material ever out of (what else?) carbon nanotubes. Seems like carbon nanotubes are the stuff awesome will be made of, as they've been floated as the solution for everything from sticky Spider-Man gloves to space elevator ribbon. These particular nanotubes absorb between 97 and 99% of all known wavelengths of light. By comparison, the blackest paint you can buy absorb between 84 and 95% of light. This means that the nanotube material appears perfectly flat, like a deep hole in the surface of whatever they lie upon. The practical applications? Well, for starters, this material could be used as a more efficient coating for solar cells, especially those designed to gather light power from the darkness of deep space. Also, it's a great material for slapping on canyon walls when you're being chased by Wile E. Coyote. More details here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Astrologer in Trouble

Emil Leshtanski, a Bulgarian astrologer, predicted that a massive earthquake would hit the city of Haskovo on Easter night, killing 80,000 people. Like most atrological predictions, this one didn't come true. But the abysmal track record of psychics and charlatans didn't stop hundreds of people from sleeping in tents and in their cars for fear of being crushed by collapsing buildings. Now, those people are seeking Leshtanski's prosecution for spreading false information and inciting a panic. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to two years in jail. But while it's always good for a fraud to be so publicly exposed, I'm not sure prosecution is in order. People, after all, should have freedom of speech. Though it could be said that telling an entire city they're all going to die is the same as shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. Still, it's not unreasonable to assume that the person shouting "fire" might have actually seen a fire. But believing someone who says the Earth is going to shake because of how the stars are positioned? Not quite the same thing. More details here.

Close, but no Earth 2

A team of European astronomers has discovered two exoplanets that inch us closer to finding Earth's twin around a distant star. Gliese 581 e and d are both about 20 1/2 light years away from here, but e is the smallest exoplanet discovered so far. It's only about 1.9 times the size of Earth, which means its surface could be similarly rocky. It would be a good candidate for life as we know it if only it wasn't so close to its sun. However, Gliese 581 d is in just the right orbital spot to support liquid water at the surface. It's probably too big to be rocky, but it could possibly exist as a sort of water world. [INSERT URINATION CONSUMPTION JOKE/DENNIS HOPPER INSULT/ADMIRING COMMENT CONCERNING JEANNE TRIPPLEHORN'S ASS] More details here.

Cheney vs. Clinton vs. Sanity

Poor Dick Cheney. No one takes him seriously just because he's a heartless, rage-fueled golem cartoonishly obsessed with personal secrecy and the establishment of a foreign policy that looks like Machiavelli playing a game of Risk. And now that he's out of office (or, more specifically, out of his undisclosed, underground, taxpayer-funded lair), he's the butt of even more yucks. Case in point: Hillary Clinton's recent reaction to Cheney's request that the Obama administration release classified CIA documents showing the useful intelligence gained from torturing terror suspects. See, Obama released previously classified memos laying out the specifics of the Bush administration's torture techniques. Stuff like throwing detainees into concrete boxes with insects and slamming them into walls. You know, guy shit. Anyway, Cheney thinks this was an awfully one-sided move. And he's probably right in the sense that releasing these memos, while historically significant and well within the boundaries of the law, did serve to make the Obama administration look comparatively great, even in the face of the global economic apocalypse. And it was rather classless of Clinton to simply laugh off Cheney's request and quip that he's not a "particularly reliable source of information". Come on, Hillary. Dick's an easy target, plus your comedy act doesn't speak at all to the substance of his claims. Instead of trying to out-dick Dick, you might instead have noted that it doesn't matter what intelligence was gained via torture because THE UNITED STATES SHOULDN'T FUCKING TORTURE PEOPLE! More details here.

Hate Crime Lies

Congress will soon be considering a new federal hate crimes bill, and the religious right are up to their usual lying spin. In a bulletin sent to pastors, the Family Research Council claim that if the bill becomes law, religious leaders will be subject to prosecution for preaching against homosexuality. But the fact is that H.R. 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 would do no such thing. The bill calls for granting the federal government jurisdiction to prosecute people for violent crimes based on race, color, religion, nationality, disability, gender, or sexual orientation if local officials refuse to prosecute. It would also provide some sweet, sweet federal money to law enforcement agencies for hate crimes recognition training. But because the U.S. has a constitutionally protected freedom of speech, the bill obviously can't (and isn't designed to) stop people from verbally expressing their idiotic views about gays. Still, as I've said before, hate crimes laws in general are a useless waste of time and money. Any criminal act committed because of racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other deranged notion is already a criminal act that can be prosecuted. Even motivation is already a factor in that there are separate degrees for murder, assault, rape, and other violent crimes. Someone who kills because he's a racist is no more dangerous than someone who kills just for the hell of it. In effect, hate crimes bills are introduced mostly as political footballs meant to sail through congress because no one wants to seem like they support "hate". Meanwhile, the bills can be loaded down with plenty of earmarks that can pass without a second look. Just absurd. More details about the crazy religious reaction to this bill here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Transforming Carbon Dioxide

Researchers at Singapore's state-funded Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology claim to have discovered a new way to transform dangerous carbon dioxide into useful methanol. They aren't the first to try this conversion, but they say their technique is faster and uses less energy than previous methods. I'm no chemist, so I don't know if any of this makes sense, but apparently they used N-heterocyclic carbenes (NHCs) and hydrosilane. The hydrosilane's hydrogen bonds with carbon dioxide, which is then catalyzed by the NHCs to produce methanol. Because of the law of conservation of energy, of course, the amount of energy produced from the methanol won't match the amount of energy put into the reaction, but this may be a way to dispose of atmospheric carbon dioxide safely. Assuming we aren't all burned alive by the time this technology can be implemented on a mass scale. More details here.


Scientists at ETH Zurich have created a flagellum-propelled micro robot as small as a bacterium that they can remotely control using magnetic fields. The Artificial Bacterial Flagella have a coiled tail made of indium, gallium, arsenic, and chromium, and they have a tiny magnetized head made of a chromium/nickel/gold tri-layer film. They have no moving parts, but the coiled structure of the flagellum acts as a sort of propeller, and the magnetized head is used for directional control. Hopefully, the ABFs will be able to carry microscopic material such as medicine to parts of the body that would otherwise be too small to reach. And one day, if we're lucky, they'll finally make cinematic dreams come true and carry a tiny Dennis Quaid through Martin Short's veins. More details here.

Jackie Chan Dropkicks Freedom

For some reason, Jackie Chan recently addressed a meeting of Chinese political and business leaders. If that weren't bizarre enough, he also took the opportunity to tell his audience he's not sure Chinese people should be free. According to him, too much freedom can lead to chaos. "[China] could end up like in Taiwan," he said. Which is a pretty good point, considering rampant freedom has turned Taiwan into a bloodthirsty societal wasteland. Or am I thinking of something else? In any case, Chan went on to suggest that perhaps there's something about Chinese people that requires them to be controlled, though he then lamented the fact that the governmentally micromanaged Chinese manufacturing industry produces the types of products he won't buy for fear they might "explode". Way to prove a point, Mr. Chan. And before you ask, this speech was apparently not one of his trademark slapsticky stunts. More details here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hairy Women May Need Help

I'm not embarrassed to admit I have a bit of a thing for hairy women. I'm not talking full-on bearded ladies here, but a bushy eyebrow or a wisp of pit hair never bothered me. There's something primal and earthy about it. As long as I don't have to listen to any Indigo Girls, I think it's pretty hot. But excess female body hair can also be a warning sign of certain medical problems, doctors say. In the five to fifteen percent of women who "suffer" from the condition, it's caused by polycystic ovary syndrome seventy to eighty percent of the time. Hairiness can also be a symptom of certain tumors or thyroid problems. Research into the problems associated with female hairiness is especially important because many women are too embarrassed by the condition to seek medical help. They either shave regularly or, in my experience, take jobs in the twenty items or less line at Walmart. More details here.

Venomous Cephalopods

Look, I knew the blue-ringed octopus was venomous. I could deal with that. I mean, even if you count all their tentacles, humans probably still outnumber them. At the very least, we could beat them in a game of rock paper scissors. But now comes word that all octopi are venomous. And so are all cuttlefish! And some squid! Run for your lives! (Or swim, as the case may be.) True, the blue-ringed octopus is the only one of its disgusting kind that's dangerous to humans. And also true that by studying the properties of cephalopod venom, we can potentially develop better medicines for pain management, allergies, and even cancer. But the fact remains that these squishy beasts could at any minute combine their deadly proteins into a single stream of murderous molasses! Assuming, that is, they can get close enough together to combine their venom shooters. And even if they could, the loud, wet slapping sounds would probably tip us off well in advance. More details here.

Icy, Iron-Eating Microbes

Scientists have just discovered a new group of microbes that live underneath an Antarctic glacier and use iron for energy. We've known for a while that Blood Falls, a red waterfall-like feature on the side of Taylor Glacier, got its color from oxidized iron, but it was a mystery how that iron made it to the surface of the ice. The team of researchers led by Jill Mikucki believe the microbes extract iron from the bedrock beneath the glacier, metabolize it, then extract it to the surface. Not only does this tell us why Blood Falls is so damn bloody, it also gives us a better understanding of how life can exist in extreme conditions. Potentially, similar microbes could live on cold, airless planets. Assuming these aren't already alien beings who've been patiently waiting under the ice to kill us all and absorb our technology. Always a possibility. More details here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Noah's Ark Found in China

Three Chinese billionaires have built a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark outside a ruined financial district near Hong Kong. Sure, replica's of the mythical boat have been attempted before, but the Kwok brothers insisted theirs be built to the exact specifications laid out in the Bible. Why, you ask? Well, that's a little murky. Apparently, the project has been in the works for seventeen years. Since there's a luxury hotel inside, I assume is was some sort of touristy moneymaking scheme. But since the global economic collapse, turning a profit seems a little iffy. Now, the brothers claim the ark is meant to raise awareness of global warming and the dangers of rising sea levels. Also, something about showing the world that the "financial tsunami" will soon be over. Anyway, only 67 pairs of fiberglass animals fit on the thing, which is pretty interesting when you consider this conclusively proves that the Bible is full of shit. More details here.

Paul Proposed Privateer Program. Purpose? Pirates.

Ron Paul, the galactic overlord of 9/11 truthers, antisemitic conspiracy theorists, and tinfoil hat models, has proposed a tried and true solution to our current pirate problem. He says the U.S. government should once again issue letters of marque to private companies and citizens who wish to arm themselves and go off hunting pirates without the aid of taxpayer money. In the Age of Scurvy, these privateers were rewarded for their services by being allowed to keep whatever booty they could claim from their pirate enemies. Sure, modern day pirates don't horde treasure chests so much as hold people for ransom, but I'm sure the government could come up with some sort of compensation. Chuck E. Cheese vouchers? I don't know. But while I normally ridicule Paul's obsession with turning America into an isolationist echo chamber, I stand behind this idea. For one thing, I'd rather the government spent taxpayer money on more pressing issues than pirate hunting. And for another, I've always wanted to be a privateer. Plus, I'd love to see the look on Ron Paul's face when the Letters of Marque office becomes another bloated, money-sucking bureaucracy. More details here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pleasure Nerves Identified

A team of scientists working across several universities has pinpointed which nerves in your skin are responsible for delivering pleasurable sensations of touch, and they've also learned how to activate those nerves. Pleasure and pain are tricky things in the body. They aren't well understood, and they can often manifest with no discernible cause. When it comes to pain, one person's capacity to handle it can be very different from another, making the sensation weirdly subjective. The same is true of pleasure, but by studying which nerves are active when people are being touched in a way they find pleasurable, we now have a clearer idea of how these messages are transmitted to the brain. The studies showed that test subjects who reported pleasurable sensations from touch had activated "C-tactile" nerve fibers. And the optimal stroking speed to activate these fibers is about four to five centimeters per second. Oddly, these fibers are only present in skin that also has hair follicles. So, for example, you're much less likely to feel pleasure from being stroked on the palm of your hand. The researchers suspect this might be an evolutionary trait designed to keep us from feeling too much excitement when using our hands as tools. This makes sense when you consider how much work you wouldn't get done if masturbation was twice as pleasurable as it already is. This also explains why Robin Williams can have an orgasm by rubbing against a cat scratch pole with any part of his body. More details here.

Busting Columbine Myths

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School. And like any horrible, large-scale media circus, the Columbine shootings are surrounded by a lot of bullshit. Information was flung at all the news outlets covering the event live so quickly and so haphazardly that speculation, mistakes, and outright lies were reported as fact and have stuck in the popular consciousness ever since. As Greg Toppo at USA Today reports, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren't goths, they weren't bullied, they weren't members of the so-called "Trenchcoat Mafia", they didn't target black people or Christians, and they weren't loners. It's now clear that the narrative of lonely, outcast kids seeking revenge against their oppressors is probably the biggest myth of all. As you might expect from mass murderers, they weren't normal teenagers pushed too far, but were actually psychopaths with mental problems far beyond and unrelated to everyday teen angst. If only they'd been normal teen social pariahs, they might have favored bad, tortured poetry over bullets. Read Toppo's article here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Einstein, Newton: Autistic?

Scientists at Cambridge and Oxford believe that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein may have both had a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. Some of the symptoms of Asperger's include eccentricity, social awkwardness, and tendencies toward obsessive focus on complex subjects. Check and check. As a child, Einstein was a social outcast who repeated single sentences over and over. He became more adjusted as an adult, but he also retained his fair share of eccentricities, including wearing the same clothes every day and fucking any pretty young thing that looked at him sideways. Newton's symptoms were even more severe. He was testy, intensely focused, and was so single minded that he'd lecture to empty rooms. Of course, it's possible that these are also just symptoms of superior intelligence and the tendency for geniuses to function slightly outside the norms of our rube-based society. But if Newton and Einstein did have Asperger's, this is just proof of what Jenny McCarthy's been saying all along. If those evil vaccines hadn't tainted their minds, the world would be a much better place. More details here.

God Hates Elephants

A conservative Polish politician has some harsh words for his local zoo, which purchased a supposedly homosexual elephant for its new elephant-housing facility. "We didn't pay 37 million zlotys ($11 million) for the largest elephant house in Europe to have a gay elephant live there," Michal Grzes said. It's not that he hates the idea of man-on-man elephant sex, it's just that he feels the zoo should be purchasing elephants in order to breed a herd. Also, he hates man-on-man elephant sex. Methinks he doth protest too much? Regardless of whether Grzes is himself sexually attracted to male elephants, zookeepers say that it's a little premature to declare this particular elephant gay. Sure, it loves on other dudes right now, but it's only a 10-year-old child. Elephants don't reach sexual maturity until 14. So, this could just be a youthful phase similar to what Michal Grzes went through at his childhood summer camp. More details here.

Twitter May Turn You Into a Sociopath

According to researchers at the University of Southern California, too much exposure to rapid-fire information through services like Twitter could dampen our ability to feel admiration and compassion for others. They discovered that while the brain can respond very quickly to signs of physical pain in others, it takes longer to process emotional responses to other situations. So, for example, if a child suffered a lifetime of emotional abuse at the hands of her parents, you'd be less likely to feel sympathy if you read about it on Twitter. By the same token, rapid exposure to stories about people doing admirable things also lessen your ability to feel the kind of humbling admiration your should occasionally feel for others. Of course, this is only a single study, and there are a huge number of variables here. Not least of which is the fact that even people who use immediate news services like Twitter or even feed readers probably have wildly varying ways in which they process that information. Speaking for myself, there are some feeds I breeze right through, only glancing at headlines. But there are others that I'd rather stop and take my time with. Often, these are the ones dealing with more emotional information. But on the other hand, when I read on Twitter that Stephen Fry stubbed his toe, it probably speaks to my emotional deadening that I simply replied with, "@stephenfry Fuck your toe." More details here. (By the way, if you want to destroy your humanity with me, my Twitter name is AmSci.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Joss Whedon: Lifetime Humanist

Joss Whedon is responsible for some of my favorite things. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dr. Horrible. The man's a genius and a sexy ginger to boot. Plus, he's an unabashedly godless humanist, which is always a plus. Because of this (and because it's always nice to draw a crowd), Harvard University's undergraduate secular society presented him with their 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. io9 has a summary of the proceedings, which I'll link to at the end, but here are a couple of highlights: Joss raised an interesting point about humanism having an element of faith in that humanist choose to believe in the goodness of humanity despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Also, he seemed "pessimistic" about the chances of his new show, Dollhouse, coming back for a second season. I sure hope the thing gets canceled so Joss can go back to making more of my favorite things. More details here.

John Safran's Balls of Steel

Even if he wasn't our first ever Amateur Scientist Podcast guest, we'd still love the hell out of Australian radio and TV personality John Safran. Not only is his series John Safran vs. God one of the greatest religious dissections ever transmitted, but his Sunday Night Safran show on Triple J radio soothes the gaping holes where our souls should be. Now, Safran's gone and made us love him even more by really putting himself in the sandals of Jesus this Easter and having himself nailed to a cross. On Good Friday, the insanely faithful in many parts of the world reenact the trials and tribulations of Jesus to varying degrees of bloody accuracy. In Manila, where Safran took part in the festivities this year, they actually nail themselves to crosses. It's easy to imagine why the insane would do such a thing, but why Safran? Well, according to his friend and radio co-host Father Bob Maguire, John probably did so out of "forensic" curiosity. So, he's sort of like one of those CSI investigators, only real and awesome. Apparently, John's okay, and we'll try to have him on the podcast to talk about his giant steel balls sometime soon. More details here. Thanks to Linley for the link.

Area 51 Exposed

Nothing spawns a mystery like a truckload of ludicrous secrecy, and that's exactly what the U.S. government has dumped on Area 51 for the last fifty years. Absurd military bureaucracy has forced the government to deny the place even exists, despite the fact that tourists, hippies, UFO hunters, and Google Earth have all seen it. Maybe if they'd come out and said "yes, Area 51 exists, and this is where we test our top-secret spy planes" we'd have gone without all the backward-engineered alien spacecraft/interdimensional extraterrestrial organ trafficking stories over the years. But while the government still hasn't come clean, a few retired military and CIA men have spilled the beans on just what's been going on at Groom Lake. Don't get too excited, though. Instead of launching flying saucers and anally probing sleepy civilians, the staff and crew of Area 51 were responsible for developing and testing many of the country's secret weapons against those commie bastards during the cold war. Specifically, they launched over 2,000 test flights of the A-12 OXCART, a super-sexy spy plane that rocketed along at three times the speed of sound. There are a few interesting details sprinkled throughout these men's interviews. At least one A-12 crashed in the desert, forcing the military to release a cover story and scare a few farmers into keeping their mouths shut. Also, the special mix of jet fuel the plane required was also top secret and stored in even more secret locations around the world. Plans within plans... Boring stuff for anyone who isn't sexually aroused by powerful airborne machinery, to be sure, but it's nice to have these stories out there. None of this will stop the nutjobs, since it probably can't be proven that these men aren't androids spreading disinformation on the part of the Illuminati, but what'reyagonnado? More details here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Lorraine Day: Deadly Moonbat

by Christian Walters

Been awhile since I wrote here, but I've been fighting a medical issue that's sort of gripped my mind: thyroid cancer. It has a way of grabbing your attention by the head and giving it noogies until you don't have the energy to properly mock a prosperity cult.

So researching cancer led me to Lorraine Day. She was once an actual doctor, rising to seemingly distinguished posts, such as Vice Chairman of the Department of Orthopedics at UC San Francisco, and Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at San Francisco General Hospital. She also claims to be a world-renowned AIDS expert, which makes her claim that AIDS can be transmitted through kissing sort of interesting. Sounds like you become an AIDS expert if you learn medicine from Bill Frist.

Anyhow, she has a cure for cancer that would totally turn modern oncology on its head if any cancer victims who tried it ever lived long enough to be in a study. Let me compare and contrast:

- "Traditional" or "Real" medicine: Surgery and radiation

- Lorraine Day's cure: Prayer and beets*

*Cure not valid for Jews
*Also, cure only valid for cancers caused by beet deficiency

As you might guess, there are naysayers out there. Probably beet-hating Jews who think Lorraine is a seriously unbalanced crackpot that will drive innocent people into horrible, agonizing deaths. With bright pink tongues.

Not that surgery is any fun. I didn't find out about the beet option in time to skip surgery because my subscription to Batshit Weekly lapsed. When I was lying awake and immobile in my hospital bed at 2am watching Crocodile Dundee twice in a row, I realized that horrible, agonizing deaths get an unfair rap.

Big Beet vs. Big Medicine. No one wins, except Big Medicine.

Still, Lorraine has her detractors. No one of consequence, really:

- Dr. Dean Edell
- Dr. Stephen Barrett (from Quackwatch)
- The FDA
- The FTC
- The Seventh Day Adventists (you know how they are, with their fierce dedication to the scientific method)

Did Lorraine become a cowed, frothy, libelous, self-aggrandizing harridan? NO, she was NOT cowed! No, she is striking back with PRAYER! That will bring the FDA to its knees.

Lorraine's other website is a little unconventional for a woman of science. You can learn about the Jews, of course, but also the New World Order, how cola drinks are used in pesticides, why traditional cancer treatments drive people to suicide (damn you, Crocodile Dundee), and pretty much everything else you'd ever want to know. Except what makes an orthopedic surgeon a cancer expert, and why you would trust anything this weirdo says.

Oh wait. She allegedly got cancer, although even that is shrouded in mystery. As near as I can tell, she was holding a beet when she realized it had gone into remission. I sometimes wonder about Ted Nugent's book Self-Gratify Your Brain Damage Away.

My own treatment has gone well and it looks like I'll completely recover. I haven't licked a beet in decades, and I didn't have to become a Holocaust denier. Dean Edell still likes me, in the sense that he's never been mean to, or heard of, me.

Yet I can't help but wonder about Lorraine, being abused by Big Pharma, Big Scien, and... umm... Big Common Sen just because people who follow her advice will die. Just in case, though... go long in beet futures.

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

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The New Age of Reason

Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey has an interesting blog post today about the death of the political maneuverings of the Christian Right and the rise of what might be a new age of reason in the U.S. Quoting Chris Stirewalt, Bailey raises the interesting point that the recent inclusion of gay and lesbian parents on the White House Easter egg hunt list, the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont, and the new support for embryonic stem cell research haven't met with nearly the outcry they would have even just a decade ago. He goes on to argue that America's Fourth Great Awakening, a religious revival begun in the early '70s, is coming to an end. Recent survey data showing a decline in religious identification seems to support this claim. While my fellow skeptics might (rightly) welcome this turn of the tide, I can't say I'm too enthusiastic. I'm afraid becoming a majority might rob us of our ever-important cool factor. Who wants to stand up for science and reason when everyone else is doing it? I might have to start an evangelical blog for the same reason I refused to wear flannel or Doc Martins between the years of 1989 and 2005. Read all of Bailey's post here.

Vatican Won't Suffer Pro-choicers

The Vatican (under orders from Pope Joey Ratzo, of course) has rejected three candidates floated by the Obama administration for the position of U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See because they were pro-choice. This could make Obama's upcoming visit to the Vatican a little awkward if there's no U.S. representative there to accompany him. And while I know Obama hasn't been the most tactful president when it comes to international protocol, I'm hoping he'll deal with this situation in the most appropriate manner. Namely, he should exit Air Force One in Rome, flip Ratzo the bird, and hop back on his sweet-ass plane. Seriously, fuck the pope on this one. Why (other than to protect its massive, massive riches) is the Vatican its own country, anyway? And if they don't want our appointed ambassadors, who really gives a shit? Unless some contrived romantic comedy situation has an American tourist stranded in St. Peter's Basilica without a passport, what use is an American embassy in the Vatican? Also, you'd think if the Pope wanted to cut down on abortions, he'd have a more reasonable view on condoms. If, that is, you assume the Pope is capable of reason. More details here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Geoengineering on the Table

In a recent interview, the Obama administration's new science adviser, John Holdren, raised the possibility that global warming may become so severe that cutting back on carbon emissions won't be enough to cool the planet. In which case, he says, we should begin discussing ways to alter the climate with technology. It's really refreshing to see someone discussing geoengineering without any of the usual paranoid doom and gloom caveats. While it's true that testing massive geoengineering technologies would be tricky, there's no reason not to pursue them--especially when the planet is getting warmer by the minute. One possibility Holdren raised was to shoot heat-reflecting particles into the upper atmosphere. Another is the creation of so-called "artificial trees", machines that would filter and store carbon dioxide from the air. Of course, any such machine would have to have an energy source, so it would be worthless if it didn't clean more air than it polluted in the process. But that's why we should get to work on this stuff now, so by the time we might need to use it, we'll know what we're doing. But since that would require governmental prudence and foresight, it might be best to just start spending a few weeks out of the year in the deep desert to acclimate yourself to the dystopian future in store. Also, it wouldn't hurt to start training in your own homemade Thunderdome. More details here.

Junk in DNA Trunk

A new evolutionary hypothesis could explain why some species are better able to quickly and drastically evolve than others. Scientists at Murdoch University have found that those lifeforms with the most transposable elements (or "junk") in their DNA are also the most likely to have evolved significantly in the past. They believe that these inactive genes are utilized in reproductive cells to potentially create new and adaptive traits for a particular species. This would explain parts of the fossil record that show sudden and drastic spurts of evolution instead of the slow process of selection for random mutations. By comparison, human beings have greatly evolved over time, and our genome contains about 46% TEs. The coelacanth, on the other hand, has relatively few TEs and hasn't evolved at all in 400 million years. If this research plays out, it could also explain the unevolved brains of people like Rush Limbaugh, whose genetic lineage is woefully lacking in TEs. More details here.

Fuck You, Rick Warren

In his ongoing attempt to be all things to all people and therefore nothing to anyone, megachurch pastor Rick Warren recently tried to distance himself from the Proposition 8 debacle on The Larry King Show. Between Jenny McCarthy and Mr. Warren here, Larry's had a banner week for morons. Said Rick: "I am not an anti-gay or anti-marriage activist. Never have been, never will be. The whole Proposition 8 thing, I never once went to a meeting, never once issued a statement." Quite rightly, most everyone who's been paying attention to Warren over the last year or so has called bullshit. In an interview with BeliefNet, Warren did indeed express his support for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. He went on to equate gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. To be fair, though, Warren did say that he didn't oppose equal marriage rights for same sex couples, he just didn't think they should be allowed to use the legal term "marriage" for their union. Still, he seems to be speaking out both sides of his ass. Despite the fact that he told Larry King he didn't issue a statement about Prop 8, he did send a letter to members of his church telling them he supported it. Also, he preaches a religion which very clearly condemns homosexuality as a sinful act. Especially in light of the recent victories for equal rights in Iowa and Vermont, it's time we took the gloves off with these people and called them out as the bigoted, anti-freedom bastards they are. Capitulating words and soft tones can't hide the fact that what Warren wants is a separate but equal situation for same sex couples. That wasn't good enough forty years ago, and it's sure as shit not good enough today. People like Warren are on the wrong side of history, and they're just plain wrong. More details (and video) here. And if you're wondering about the picture up there, it's a drawing of Rick sitting on a turtle, holding a fork full of Earth with a lady playing volleyball in the background. No, I don't know what the fuck.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

They're Digging in the Wrong Place!

Now that high-rise buildings allow citizens of Mecca to look down on the city, they've noticed that some two hundred mosques have faulty prayer niches. Each mosque is supposed to have a section pointing toward the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site in Mecca's Grand Mosque. Turns out, a lot of them are off. This is a big deal, since a strict interpretation of Islamic scripture would seem to suggest that any prayers made in the defective niches are invalid. (Allah, apparently, has a really shitty WiFi receiver.) But the local religious leaders say there's nothing to worry about. They're making adjustments to the necessary buildings, and there's no reason to think any misaligned prayers are invalid. Why? Just 'cuz. Please, go about your silly business. More details here.

Afghanistan Legalizes Rape

For reasons known only to insane people, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has signed into law a bill that sets strict domestic rules for Shiite families. It's now illegal for a Shiite woman to refuse her husband's sexual advances unless she's ill. On the flip side, Shiite husbands can only refrain from having sex with their wives a maximum of four months at a time. Some are saying Karzai signed the bill to appease potential Shiite voters who make up about 20% of Afghanistan's religious population, but that still doesn't explain why this supposedly liberated country would have such a bill in their legislature to begin with. Sometimes it's really frustrating to see how far secular freedom has to go in much of the world. And by "sometimes", I mean "every waking moment". More details here.

Obama Says One True Thing, Won't Say Another

At a press conference in Turkey, President Obama said of America, "...we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." These are indisputable facts, but apparently some people seem to think the President saying them is worth noting. These people must be jaded for some reason. Maybe because they've lived lives where their elected leaders make disingenuous doublespeak a part of their everyday routine. Case in point: President Obama, who now refuses to call the Armenian genocide a genocide after saying during his campaign that we can't not call it a genocide or we risk cheapening the meaning of "genocide". And just as a reminder, this genocide was committed by the Turks, who hosted Obama during the aforementioned press conference. In other words, I'd say this is a wash. More details here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Warp Drive May Need a Miracleworker

Well, nerds, it looks like we may have to wait a little longer to warp around the galaxy in our own starships. For decades now, physicists have been trying to work out how we could achieve faster than light speeds, and the most promising hypothesis so far has been the Alcubierre warp drive. In 1994, Mexican physicist Michael Alcubierre posited that a vessel could be encased in a warp bubble sitting in a volume of flat space-time. The distortion of the bubble would shrink space-time in front of the vessel and expand it behind, creating faster than light propulsion. However, a group of Italian physicists now say that the Alcubierre drive becomes unfeasible once quantum mechanics is applied to it. The bubble, they say, would be too unstable and would also fill with Hawking radiation. So it looks like our best bet at warp speeds might be for Scotty to come back in time and give me the schematics to the Enterprise's engines. How would anyone know I didn't invent the thing? More details here.

Hooray for Iowa!

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the state's law limiting same-sex couples to civil unions violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution. In short, gay marriage will be legal in Iowa starting April 24th. Not only is this just a wonderful affirmation of equal rights, it's also an important social message. As a Midwestern state, Iowa's approval of gay marriage sets a new standard for areas outside of the traditionally liberal east and west coast zones. Also, all those repressed corn farmers will finally be able to make honest men out of one another. I have to take issue with some wording in the Des Moines Register story on the matter. "The ruling is viewed as a victory for the gay rights movement in Iowa and elsewhere, and a setback for social conservatives who wanted to protect traditional families." First of all, this is a victory for the human freedom movement, not just for gay rights. And social conservatives aren't so much interested in protecting "traditional families" as they are in preventing the establishment of new families. More details here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Taxi Driver Resurrected

Nkosinathi Ntsente, a former taxi driver in Transkei, South Africa, says he was shot and killed eight years ago, but has now returned from the grave with the aid of witches. The 39-year-old claims that rival taxi drivers stopped him in 2001 and shot him in the forehead, right knee, stomach, and spine. Only, it wasn't really him they shot, as he became separated from that body and watched the whole thing happen. He went on to observe his own funeral, before being taken into some woods by four witches, where he met up with other people who'd been abducted. While living in the forest, he and his companions survived on sorghum, wild berries, and human blood. But when the witches determined he was too strong to do their evil bidding, they let him go. The factual details of this story are fuzzy. Ntsente's family allegedly confirm that they did, indeed, bury him eight years ago, but this seems unlikely considering he clearly isn't dead. But assuming his story is true, here's hoping he's brought to justice for all that human blood he drank in the woods. I mean really, sir, you didn't have the strength to resist that? More details here.

Jupiter Becoming Less Spotty

Scientists at U.C. Berkeley have discovered that in the decade between 1996 and 2006, Jupiter's famous red spot shrank by 15%. If the trend continues, Jupiter could be spot-less in some amount of time I'm too lazy to mathematically calculate. This is probably good news for Jupiter, as the unsightly blemished has really cramped its style over the last several centuries. With a clear atmosphere, it can now enter a more adult stage of its planetary life. Maybe Jupiter can start dating. I hear Saturn's available, though its ridiculously oversized abstinence rings might be a deterrent. Still, I hear those "saving themselves for Jesus" chicks will still take it in the butt. And that's not nothing. More details here.

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