Friday, May 29, 2009

Talking About Mice

Why can humans speak when other primates can’t? Well, anyone who lived through the Bush administration can tell you not every human is capable of complex speech. But those of us who are have our genes to thank. Compared to other animals, humans have two amino acid substitutions on our FOXP2 genes. It’s thought that these substitutions account for some of our ability to vocally communicate. People born without functioning FOXP2 genes can’t match facial expressions to the words they say, so the amino acid substitutions probably govern our ability to finely control muscles for speech. It turns out mice also have the FOXP2 gene, so scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology decided to try making human-like substitutions on the FOXP2 genes of mice just to see what the fuck would happen. Science! Turns out, stuff happened. Specifically, the new genes caused an increase in activity in the part of a mouse brain that corresponds to human brain circuits that govern speech. Also, the ultrasonic vocalizations of altered baby mice seem to be different, though researchers aren’t sure what this means, if anything at all. In other words, we’ve now confirmed what we already thought about those amino acid substitutions. Also, we may have made a huge step forward in achieving the long-held human dream of owning talking mice. This is great for scientific research, as talking mice will conveniently be able to tell scientists which of their organs have been shut down by experimental drugs. More details here.

Scientology Banned from Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee has voted to permanently block any edits to the free encyclopedia from IP addresses known to belong to the Church of Scientology or its associates. Apparently, Scientologists have been consistently trying to scrub information critical of the cult from Wikipedia, violating the website’s policy toward promoting only factual, referenced, and unbiased information. However, anyone who’s read Wikipedia can tell you that many articles obviously contain all sorts of biased and baseless edits. For quite a while, the entry on the Apollo 11 moon landing was altered to cast doubt on whether the event actually happened, inserting conditional phrases like “according to NASA…”. Still, the user-run community of editors is usually able to weed out bad information from the site very quickly. According to the ArbCom, Scientologists were abusing the system so much and so often that banning their IP addresses was the only to stop them. But even though it’s fairly well known that the cult has official policies relating to censoring information critical of Scientology, it’s also worth noting that Wikipedia has previously banned anti-Scientology editors from altering entries with biased language and baseless information. So it goes both ways. Though, obviously, Wikipedia is an evil organization bent on preventing Scientologists from exercising their religious right to lie about things online. Hey, I didn’t write that last sentence! What the hell? More details here.

Anti-GM Nonsense in Zimbabwe

The citizens of Zimbabwe don’t have a lot of rights under the dictatorial regime of psychopathic criminal Robert Mugabe, but at least they have a consumer protection agency in the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe. Only, the CCZ isn’t interested in protecting consumers so much as watching them starve. Like a lot of countries whose governments don’t understand simple science, Zimbabwe has banned the importation of genetically modified foods on the baseless grounds that they’re “unhealthy”. Unfortunately, Mugabe’s disastrous economic policies have forced most of the country’s home-grown food suppliers out of business, out of Zimbabwe, or out of their lives. So the government lifted its anti-GM policy in the case of GM corn imported from the U.S. Still, GM food is cheap and abundant, so many local stores have been buying it from South Africa and Brazil and stocking it on the sly. Now, the CCZ has swarmed in and closed many of these stores, leaving local citizens to starve while their health is being “protected”. According to the CCZ, many people have become sick after eating these GM foods. But there’s another important factor they seem to be overlooking. From their own spokesperson: “We have received a lot of reports of people, mainly children, getting sick after consuming the foods which in most cases will be expired.” Yes, there’s nothing in that statement that would seem to suggest these people are getting sick for any reason other than the fact that these foods were genetically modified. Nothing at all. More details here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Faith Healing = Murder

Leilani Neumann is an idiot and a nutcase. And according to the Wisconsin court system, she’s also a murderer. When Neumann’s daughter came down with diabetes, she didn’t take her to a doctor for treatment. Instead, she prayed for her daughter to be miraculously cured. But either God wasn’t listening or he’s a giant douche, because Neumann’s daughter is now dead. And for neglecting to seek secular (i.e. real) medical attention, Neumann has now been convicted of second degree reckless homicide. Her husband is set to be tried on the same charges. Obviously, Neumann sees this as a violation of her religious freedom, but I think that argument’s a little flimsy. For one thing, she murdered her own daughter. And for another, no one told her she couldn’t pray at the same time her daughter was receiving real treatment. If anything, that would have been a win-win scenario for Neumann, who, like so many other superstitious people in this world, could have chalked up the medical expertise of her daughter’s doctors and the steady advancement in scientific medical research to an all-powerful genie God who grants wishes. A little disingenuous maybe, but I would have been okay with that considering this young girl wouldn’t be, you know, murdered. More details here.

A Bigger, Better Thumb Drive

Digital storage has come a very long way in only a few years. When I was a kid, a terabyte of information would have to be etched into the freshly tanned skin of a female virgin sacrifice. It would have cost over a million dollars in development fees, hush money, and 24-hour wolf attack protection. Now, I can trot on down to Office Depot and snatch up a TB drive for under a hundred bucks. Sure, I could still sacrifice a virgin, but it would just be for a nostalgic thrill. Just because modern storage technology allows us to carry gigs and gigs of hardcore pornography on our keychains, however, it doesn’t mean our current system is perfect. Flash memory, with its solid state and rapid access, is the wave of the future, but it’s limited by the capacity of the silicon chips with which it’s made. They can only handle 10 to 100 gigabits of information per square inch, and they degrade over time. But using nanotechnology, scientists have discovered a new kind of storage that kicks silicon’s ass. Basically, it consists of an iron nanoparticle inside a carbon nanotube. The iron can be electrically manipulated within the tube with incredible precision, thus creating a new storage medium that can potentially hold a terabyte of information per square inch. Yes, that’s a shit ton of golden shower videos. Or BDSM, if that’s what you’re into. More details here.

Priest Shrugged Off Rape

Back in 2002, former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland retired from the clergy after it was revealed that he paid nearly half a million dollars in hush money to cover up a homosexual date rape allegation against himself. That’s bad enough, but he was also one of the many high-level priests who both knew about and attempted to conceal the rampant raping of children on the part of priests both under his jurisdiction and elsewhere. And like any disgraced scumbag in America, he’s decided to write a book about himself. In the upcoming memoir A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, Weakland explains his lax position on child rape by claiming he didn’t think it was a very big deal. Oh, he knew it was a “moral evil”, but he says he didn’t know it was criminal. Furthermore, he didn’t think it would have any lasting negative effect on the victims, because they would either forget about being raped or “grow out of it”. Some rape victims are up in arms over this confession, even going so far as to accuse Weakland of lying, since it seems inconceivable that a man with a functioning cerebellum and at least two working senses could possibly believe it’s not illegal to rape a child. However, I’d like to posit that Weakland may be telling the truth. After all, he also believed that he could please an invisible man who lives in the sky by dressing in black and not sticking his penis in other people. Sure, he didn’t actually practice the latter half of that belief, but that doesn’t mean the belief itself is any less crazy. More details here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Genes of the Bearded Lady

Scientists have pinpointed the specific DNA abnormalities that gave the original bearded lady her lustrous face-mane. Back in the 19th century, Julia Pastrana wowed looky-loos and fetishists the world over with her masculine chin whiskers (a.k.a. her soup scoop, a.k.a. her poon broom). Turns out female beardedness is caused by a genetic disorder called congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis with gingival hypertrophy. In addition to a fluffy face curtains, CGHT with GH also causes distorted facial features and, occasionally, enlarged gums. Buy studying people with the same affliction, Chinese researchers have discovered that the condition is caused by a defect on chromosome 17; specifically, missing DNA. Though in the few who also manifest enlarged gums, there are four to eight superfluous genes on the same chromosome. This is all to say that one day you may be able to walk into your local designer baby lab and choose whether you want your own bearded little lady. Science! More details here.

Standing Firm Against the Tide of History, Like a Moron

You ever wonder why gay marriage suddenly seems to be making such progress in the U.S.? It's because individual freedom has always been the force of change in this country. To stand in the way of that freedom based on religion or ignorance or hatred (or all three) is to stand in the way of history. But that's not stopping the dingbats! One such dingbat is New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, who's positively flummoxed that no one in his constituency seems to give two shits about keeping marriage an exclusive right between the be-penised and the be-vaginaed. "Wake up! Where are you?" he ejaculated toward his peeps. "It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and you’re losing — big time." Why, I haven't heard anything so encouraging all day. More details about the futile efforts of morons here.

Horror and Superstition in Africa

If you didn't already know, many countries in Africa have very serious problems with murder and oppression carried out in the name of superstition. Not the least of these is Gambia, where brutal dictator Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh, who insists on the honorific "His Excellency President Professor", has destroyed the lives of most of his country's citizens. Not only does he spread ridiculous and deadly misinformation about herbs and bananas being able to cure AIDS, threaten to behead anyone found to be gay, and plaster his disgusting portrait over every surface he can find, but he's also apparently commissioned gangs of soldiers and witchdoctors to roam the countryside and violently root out people suspected of being witches. In what sounds like a scene from Eyes Wide Shut gone horribly wrong, red-robed figures accompanied by gun-toting soldiers have been forcing people out of their homes and to undisclosed locations where they're forced to drink some kind of hallucinatory concoction. According to Amnesty International, at least six people have died just from drinking this potion, and many more may have been killed trying to escape their captors. Sadly, this isn't a surprising development on a continent that seems to have violent superstition flowing in its veins. Enter the Center for Inquiry, which has set up a new initiative to combat ignorance in Africa and provide a reasonable, secular alternative to murderous magical thinking. You can learn more about this initiative here. If you haven't already, this is an excellent reason to donate to CFI. The situation in Africa can seem hopeless, but it's a small comfort to know someone is trying to make it better. More details about Gambia here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


If you’re reading this blog, you probably have enough of a grasp on evolutionary history to know what modern humans didn’t evolve from Neanderthals as many people think. Though we had a common ancestor, we existed at the same time. We may have even gotten it on! But for some reason, Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end, and they died out about 30,000 years ago. (For you creationists, that was about 24,000 years before the Earth was formed.) It’s been hypothesized that a combination of relatively low climate adaptability and a losing battle for resources with the more clever and versatile modern humans are what led to Neanderthal’s demise. But a new discovery by French scientists may add another spoke in the extinction wheel. They found a cache of ancient bones, most of which were of modern humans. But one of them was a Neanderthal’s jaw bone. Interestingly, it bears the same kind of cut marks found on the bones of deer that were hunted and slaughtered by our ancestors. Which leads some to think that we may have actually eaten some of our hairy, dimwitted relatives. Sure, it seems a little gross to you, but keep in mind that some people still eat pork rinds even today, and there’s nothing more disgusting than that. More details here.

Cancer Kid Update Update

Well, it was good news. A Minnesota judge courageously and rightly ordered that 13-year-old Daniel Hauser’s cruel and ignorant parents had to provide their cancer-stricken son with life-saving chemotherapy and radiation treatment even though their ridiculous religion doesn’t believe in actual medicine. Sadly, when Daniel was subsequently x-rayed for the first time in months, doctors found that his tumor had grown to the size it was before his parents stopped treatment months before. And even more sadly, Daniel’s mother has now kidnapped him and gone on the lam to avoid any more treatments that could save her son’s life. I would say you have to admire this family’s conviction, but you really don’t. You should despise it, in fact. Here’s hoping this woman is caught, her son’s life is saved, and something can be done to reverse the superstitious and deadly brainwashing this poor kid has suffered all his life. More details here.

Death at First Bite

Like me, you might have once been told that the way a Komodo dragon hunts is to bite its prey, infect the wound with deadly bacteria, and wait for a delicious feast later on. Also like me, it appears you’ve been lied to! Scientists at the University of Melbourne (that’s on a magical island called Australia, which is full of charming, beautiful cunts) have discovered that the dragons actually infect their prey with venom, not bacteria. The bacteria theory came from observing the behavior of animals after they’d been bitten. They would wander around a while, then collapse in exhaustion and death. This led people to think that bacteria in the old clumps of meat between the dragons’ teeth were responsible for slowly killing larger and potentially more powerful prey. But these Australian researchers found that the venom excreted by dragons prevents blood from clotting in the bite wounds they inflict. The rapid blood loss, in turn, is what slowly kills their prey. In short, stay the hell away from Komodo dragons. And if you ever get a chance to make love to an Australian scientist, please jump at it. And take pictures. More details here.

Idiotic, Childish Congress Idiotic, Childish About Detainees

So, we have a bunch of terrorism suspects housed in cages at Guantanamo Bay. President Obama wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, as it’s a symbol of the previous Bush administration’s flaunting of due process and the basic legal foundation of the United States. Because the U.S. Congress is composed primarily of people who are terrified of the constituencies that they also consider to be morons, they’re afraid to vote for any measure that would allow for the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil. Morons and liars say that these prisoners will simply be let loose on our public streets, free to rape and murder their way to jihad. Others say that we could simply house these people in our maximum security prisons, where we’re perfectly content to keep our violent killers and, yes, domestic terrorists. If your brain works, this seems like a perfectly reasonable option, since it would also make it easier for these detainees to be tried in a court of law, which seems to be the whole point of closing the Guantanamo prison. Ah, but there are a couple of snags. Our Congress apparently believes all the liars and morons, so they’re blocking the funding to close the Guantanamo prison until they’re promised the prisoners won’t be transplanted to U.S. soil. Obviously, this creates a problem of logistics. Not only that, but the Obama administration now says it’s a-okay to continue Bush-era policies and hold these people without charges or trial for as long as we feel like. In other words, your confidence in our political system is woefully misplaced, and your crippling depression is justified. More details here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

War on Drugs Called Off

The Obama administration’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, believes that the war on drugs we’ve all been losing for decades now isn’t doing anything to solve the problems of our society. In fact, it’s hurting people. So he wants to do away with it. Well, he wants to do away with calling it the war on drugs, that is. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," Kerlikowske said. “We're not at war with people in this country." That makes perfect sense. If we’re no longer at war with drug users, that means we’ll stop arresting consenting adults for possessing and using drugs? Not quite. But that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made! Kerlikowske wants to increase the role of addiction treatment in dealing with drug offenders. But not all of his solutions are so nonsensically vague. For instance, he supports the administration’s efforts to eliminate the sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack. Previously, possession of the same amount of crack or cocaine would carry much stiffer penalties for crack users. That doesn’t make any sense, so I’m glad to see it go. But why can’t we carry that to its logical conclusion and do away with disparities in punishment for possessing other drugs like marijuana, alcohol, Ambien, or Red Bull? More details here.

Cancer Kid Update

Well, this is good news. Looks like the court has ruled in the favor of not killing children, ordering the parents of 13-year-old Daniel Hauser, who suffers from treatable cancer, to give him the chemotherapy that doctors say will mean a 90% chance of survival. Hauser’s parents are members of a quasi-Native American cult that doesn’t believe in real medicine. They reportedly planned on treating their son’s cancer with a rice diet. Fuck these people in the face. Ditto for their attorney, who offered this prize quote: “[The ruling] marginalizes the decisions that parents face every day in regard to their children's medical care. It really affirms the role that big government is better at making our decisions for us." Well, not “us” so much as “some people”. Specifically, these people. More details here. And thanks to Christian for the link.

Dobson Calls it Quits

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson is a gaseous mass of nonsense and bile. That should come as no surprise. But did you also know he’s a quitter? Dude totally gave up on a recent edition of his radio show, saying that the left-wing is just too powerful for conservative protestors to make any difference. He was talking about the ridiculous hate crimes bill that recently passed the House. While I would call it an act of resource hogging, redundant, and thought criminalizing legislation, Dobson calls the bill “utter evil”. A rhetorical difference, maybe. But instead of encouraging his listeners to fight this evil via the God-given weapons of angry phone calls and sub-literate emails, Dobson just threw up his hands and said “fuck it”. Quote: “I've been on the air for 32 years and I've never seen a time quite like this. It just illustrates what happens when we don't have what the Founding Fathers referred to as checks and balances…” Weird. I seem to remember a time not long ago when the GOP had control of both houses of congress and the executive branch. Good thing they didn’t use that power for anything torturously evil. More details here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Jenny McCarthy Song

So, some dude with the same name as me wrote a song all about Jenny McCarthy’s love affair with deadly, preventable viruses. And if that wasn’t enough nerve, he made a video for it and uploaded it to something called “The Official AmateurScientist.org YouTube Channel”. What a dick! Still, I have to admit the song’s pretty catchy.

Life Found a Way

For a while now, we’ve known that the formation of RNA was probably the first step on the road to the emergence of life from Earth’s primordial ooze. It’s the single-stranded ancestor of DNA, the building block of biology that all creationists don’t really get and that all rapists ultimately fear. RNA still exists in our cells, flittering here and there, transferring information. So we know what it’s made of. Only, we couldn’t synthesize it ourselves. Until now, apparently. Scientists at the University of Manchester have created RNA from its base components through a process not unlike what could have happened in Earth’s younger years. Basically, the component molecules were combined through a series of condensations and evaporations, which was the key in making the whole thing work. Previously, scientists had been trying to just slap all of RNA’s ingredients together in an old pickle barrel. Or something like that. More (and better informed) details here. And thanks to Tim for the link.

Another Kid Dying Because His Parents are Superstitious Morons

Daniel Hauser is a 13-year-old Minnesotan with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Doctors say that with chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he has a 90% chance of survival. Without them, he’ll die. But Daniel is refusing those treatments because his parents happen to be religious nuts. They’re members of the Nemenhah church, a quasi-Native American sect that doesn’t believe in medicine. Now the courts are deciding whether to force treatment on Daniel despite his and his parents’ wishes. The obvious reaction here is to say that, yes, Daniel is a child and doesn’t deserve to die at the whim of other idiots. But the Hausers claim that Daniel is capable of making his own medical decisions, as he’s an elder in their church. But there are a few problems with this reasoning. Number one: Fuck you assholes. Number two: This kid was reared in this religion. His belief is not a reasonable choice. And number three: The qualification to be an elder in the Nemenhah church is to be at least 13-years-old. That’s it. Which, in all fairness, makes sense when you consider how low their insane superstition probably lowers their life expectancy. More details here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Intelligent Women = Sexy Women

Sure, that headline's a little misleading. We're talking emotional intelligence here, not how high you scored on your SAT. Still, researchers at King's College London have discovered that women with a high EI score have more orgasms than those at the bottom of the scale. And what is EI? Well, it sounds a bit bullshitty, but I'm no psychologist. Apparently, it's a measure of how well a person to manage her own emotions and deal with the emotions of others. The scientists who did this study looked at sets of identical twins. Each twin answered a questionnaire to determine sexual history and EI. Turns out, those women in the bottom 25% of EI ratings were twice as likely to suffer from female orgasmic disorder. And here I was thinking I was just an expert cocksman. Turns out I just like stable women! More details here.

Craigslist Shuts Down the Fun

Bowing to pressure from several state attorneys general who most likely threatened massive lawsuits, Craigslist has agreed to revamp its erotic services section to make it a lot less fun. Instead of being a haven for random and semi-anonymous invitations to fulfill any number of your sexual desires, it will now be a policed forum for people who pay $10 per ad to politely inquire about what kind of vanilla (and legal) shenanigans you want to engage in. The officials brought pressure on Craigslist after recent killings in Massachusetts and Rhode Island committed by a man who found his victims on Craigslist. But they also muddied the waters a bit by claiming this as a victory in their fight against prostitution and pornography. For one thing, far more killings have been facilitated by print classifieds than those on Craigslist. Plus, as Craiglist rightly points out, their ads are even safer since there's an electronic paper trail to follow in the case of any foul play. And to these jackasses' other points, pornography isn't illegal, so it doesn't need to be fought. And prostitution is illegal for no rational reason at all. More details here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

NPR Protecting Homophobic Privates

A while back, filmmaker Kirby Dick directed a pretty decent documentary called This Film is Not Yet Rated. It was positioned as an expose on the MPAA, the semi-anonymous body that every film studio voluntary submits to for ratings. These few people watch just about every movie and decide whether it should be slapped with a G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17. Often, these ratings are pretty arbitrary. In looking at disputes over ratings through the years, Dick discovered the well-known acceptance of graphic violence over graphic sexual content in American films, but he also showed how certain political motives shape how movies are rated. For example, two men kissing is often seen by the MPAA as more "adult" than two women kissing. Since the MPAA is supposed to reflect the average moral and political values of America, this makes some sense. Still, it's homophobia in action. So Dick decided to track down and expose the identities of some of the MPAA's anonymous members. This is where I started to part ways with the movie. I didn't really see the point in outing these people beyond a self-aggrandizing, Michael Moore-ish stunt on Dick's part, and violating these people's privacy didn't seem to further the thesis of the film in any meaningful way. We know that the MPAA has a lot of cultural power and little public oversight, but knowing members' names and where they work doesn't speak to the greater point.

This is all relevant information when you consider that Dick's latest documentary, Outrage, involves the filmmaker digging up dirt on conservative, gay rights-opposing politicians who may actually be gay themselves. The film has raised a lot of the same issues about the value in invading these people's privacy (Outrage apparently features interviews with men who claim to have had sex with these politicians). So much so that NPR has created a minor scandal by censoring the names of certain named politicians (former senator Larry Craig and Florida governor Charlie Crist, specifically) in the broadcast version of their review of the film. According to critic Nathan Lee, NPR approved the naming of those names when he submitted the transcript of the review, but they were later cut out due to the network's privacy policy when it comes to reporting unconfirmed rumor.

It's easy to see NPR's point here. The facts presented in Outrage haven't been checked by them, and NPR isn't in the business of spreading baseless accusations. But the reality is that this wasn't a news story. This was a film review. And if the content of the film involves the naming of these politicians, then that's fair game for discussion in a critical context. To drag Michael Moore back into this, it's obvious that his excursion to Cuba in the movie Sicko wasn't presented in the film exactly as it was staged, but that doesn't mean a review can't mention that it was presented in the film.

But although I haven't seen Outrage, what I'm hearing gives me the same kind of sick feeling I got about Dick's hunting down of MPAA members in This Film is Not Yet Rated. So what if these gay-haters are also gays themselves? For one thing, it's possible for a gay person to also be against gay marriage and other gay rights. For another, the implied hypocrisy isn't nearly as contemptible as these people's voting records themselves. If a 100% hetero politician votes against gay rights, it's just as bad. It seems like the whole point of Outrage is to show that some politicians are disingenuous and deeply morally compromised. This is not news.

By the way, I once heard that Rick Santorum gave a dude a rusty trombone in the bathroom of a Lone Star Steakhouse.

More details here.

J-Lo: The Voice of Reason

I think I finally understand what Ben Affleck saw in Jennifer Lopez. Beyond that sweet, sweet ass, of course. I mean, she's a talented actress, but for every Out of Sight, there are three Maid in Manhattans (Maids in Manhattan?). But Jenny from the block must have a decent head on her succulent shoulders, because she's helped create a series of PSAs for the March of Dimes encouraging parents to vaccinate against the pertussis, or whooping cough, virus. It's encouraging to see someone of fame and beauty (aside from the lovely Amanda Peet) using her celebrity to further good, evidence-based medicine for a change. Perhaps this will not only encourage parents to trust the tried and true vaccination methods that have improved quality of life the world over, but also encourage other celebrities with critical thinking skills to come out of the closet. And while I don't know exactly where on the body the pertussis vaccine is delivered, I'm hopeful that future PSAs will feature Jenny showing us the injection bandage on her bountiful bottom. More details here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Vampire Math

Unless you're one of those preteen girls or emotionally stunted adults obsessed with the Twilight books, chances are good you don't believe in vampires. But just in case you needed mathematical proof that vampires don't exist, physicists Costas Efthimio and Sohang Gandhi have run the numbers in their paper "Cinema Fiction vs. Physics Reality". It seems completely obvious, but creatures that rely on human cannibalism for survival would quickly wipe out all of their food supply. One vampire bites a person, then that person bites a person, and so on and so on. Pretty soon, you have a world full of vampires and/or dead humans. Consequently, the fact that humans are still here necessarily means that vampires aren't. But as this excellent post on the sci-fi blog io9 points out, there are other mathematicians who take issue with this analysis. In their minds, these numbers don't account for vampire death rates or human resistance to vampire attack. The mind boggles. I just hope that if vampires do exist, they don't take a cue from those pedophile punks in Twilight and go after our teenage daughters. Especially if they're all into abstinence-only education like the ones in the books.

Orgone Sabotage

Four people charged with attempting to sabotage a hydroelectric damn in Mozambique may not have had any ill intent after all. Instead, they're probably just idiots. One of the men, Carlos da Silva, and the wife of another say that the alleged saboteurs are all members of a movement called Orgonise Africa, and that they were attempting to imbue the water at the damn with "positive energy" by using a substance called orgonite. For those of you not up on your pseudoscience, all of this is based on the work of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, an early 20th century psychoanalyst who claimed to have discovered a previously unknown particle called orgone, which he said was the source of all positive forces in the universe. This was never proven, of course, and Reich's life ended in professional embarrassment, but that hasn't stopped gullible people from taking up his nonsense. The "orgonite" these men planned to drop in the water was actually a shard of artificial resin with aluminum filings inside. Because the local authorities just saw a few nuts trying to dump something in the water supply, the men were arrested as suspected terrorists. I can't argue that Africa couldn't use some positivity these days, but I'm not sure dropping tacky trinkets in their water is going to do the trick. More details here. And read my PinkRaygun.com article on Dr. Wilhelm Reich here.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Holocaust Deniers Want to Friend You

Anyone who's used Facebook knows it's a confusing place full of horrible human specimens constantly trying to "poke" one another and show off spring break bikini pictures. This isn't such a bad thing, really. Just annoying. What is bad, though, is the fact that many of these people have started Facebook groups and pages devoted to their common interest in denying the reality of the Holocaust. These people are dumb and not worth your or anyone else's attention. But many other Facebook users are so angry with them that they're lobbying Facebook to delete these pages. I'm all for freedom of speech, but Facebook is a private company, and they have every right to delete whatever they want from their servers. As an American, I can snap a photo of my dong and email it to a friend, but I can't insist that Facebook let me distribute it via their bandwidth. And while the Facebook brass are hemming and hawing over what kind of censorship is too much censorship, those who want the Holocaust denial groups shut down interestingly point out that the site has previously deleted groups devoted to the KKK and other "abusive" or "hateful" topics. Since Holocaust denial isn't based on anything like historical evidence, its foundation really is a wiggly pile of antisemitic bullshit. Oh, the decisions! Sure, Holocaust deniers are scum, but do they click ads? While the Facebook powers are researching this issue, I'll exploit the distraction by uploading a picture of my dong. More details here.

Spare Some Change?

Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter recently made political waves for switching the "R" behind his name to a "D". He did this partly, he said, because he finds himself leaning more to the left of the GOP party line, but also because he was polling miserably behind the previous Democratic candidate for his senate seat. And the crass chicanery just keeps on coming. Lately, Specter has been talking up his new website, Specterforthecure.com. As a cancer survivor, it makes sense that the senator would be interested in raising money for cancer research and hopefully a cure for the disease. He's even introducing a bill which would free up such funding from the federal government. The only problem is that when you click the "Donate Now!" button on Specterforthecure.com, your money isn't going toward, say, finding a cure for cancer. No, it's going straight into Specter's re-election campaign fund. In all fairness, there are words to that effect on the website's front page, but they're tucked into a layout that looks suspiciously like a charity site. The moral of this story? Our political problems in the United States have less to do with how many Democrats or Republicans are in congress and more to do with the fact that our capitol building is overrun by raging sociopaths. More details here.

Portugal's Intelligent Drug Policy Pays Off

Did you know what Portugal has the most liberal drug policy in the Western world? It's true! Eight years ago, the country decriminalized personal possession of nearly every kind of drug. This was in response to a huge usage rate that was clogging their legal and penal system (sound familiar?). Instead of shipping drug users off to jail, those found with drugs are offered an addiction treatment program. This ends up being cheaper for the state than incarceration and keeps drug activity from being forced into a dangerous underground subculture. And if you're a drug user who doesn't want treatment, you can refuse it without any penalty. Far from turning Portugal into a wretched hive of scum and villainy, the more liberal and sensible drug policy has decreased the spread of HIV from needle swapping, doubled the number of people in addiction treatment programs, saved the government a ton of money, and even lowered the overall drug usage rates to levels the U.S. drug czar could only dream of. In short, decriminalizing a victimless activity engaged in by consenting adults has actually improved overall quality of life. Who'd've thunk? More details here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Demon Waterboarded, Woman Killed

Exorcisms might seem like good old fashioned fun (to the mentally disturbed), but they often result in injury and death. Unfortunately, a 22-yea-old New Zealand woman suffered the latter. Maori tribal elders were convinced she was possessed by a demon whose spirit was unleashed after a concrete lion was stolen from in front of a hotel. Makes perfect sense. What doesn't make sense, however, is the fact that they proceeded to try and wash the demon out of her body by pouring water into her mouth and eyes. This may have worked, but we'll never know. The woman drowned. Three men and six women have been charged with manslaughter in the incident, and some of them were also charged with child cruelty for similarly attacking a 14-year-old girl, who thankfully survived. My only question here is this: FUCKING MANSLAUGHTER?? What does a crazy person have to do to be tried for murder in New Zealand? More details here.

Freedom on the March...Backward

Freedom House has issued its report on worldwide freedom of the press for 2009, and the news isn't good. For the first time, net press freedom has declined in every region of the world, continuing a seven year trend of tighter restrictions on information. Some examples of press limitation include government restrictions on media outlets, court rulings against free expression, and intimidation and imprisonment of journalists. Israel, Italy, and Honk Kong actually dropped from "free" status to "partly free". But it's not all bad news. The Maldives saw the biggest improvement on the year, with the ratification of a constitution that explicitly protects freedom of the press. So, yay? More details here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

HuffPo Watch: Injecting Some Sense

Just yesterday I threw my skeptical hat (it’s basically a baseball cap with a picture of Charles Darwin’s nads on the front) into the ring regarding the recent sciency blog assault on the quackery and balderdash regularly afforded server space at The Huffington Post. To be sure, there are still plenty of quacks and balderdashers clogging up their headline pipes, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a shining beacon of evidence-based hope. Huffington herself must have had her head lodged in Bill Maher’s asshole for a moment, because Jacob Dickerman was inexplicably allowed to publish an article calling out homeopathy for the baseless pseudoscience that it is. Good on Jacob. Please, take a moment to read his article and leave a positive comment below.

Bullied Into Psychosis

According to a new study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (this month’s centerfold: your naked neurons), children who are bullied are twice as likely to demonstrate psychotic behavior later in life than those who are left the hell alone. Scientists at the University of Warwick (no, it’s not a school named after Willow) looked at survey data from 6,437 twelve-year-olds who had been filling out regular surveys since age seven. Of those, nearly half reported being bullied between the ages of eight and ten, and that half were twice as likely as the other half to have hallucinations, delusions, or thought disorders. The researchers aren’t sure whether these children were already predisposed to psychological problems that were triggered by bullying or whether bullying disrupts a child’s ability to handle stress. Or whether there’s another explanation entirely. Personally, I don’t think there’s much cause for concern. I bullied young children throughout most of my formative years, and I never noticed any negative effects. In fact, I used to repeatedly toss a kid named Jason Wilkington into the urinal at our school and subject him to what I liked to call a “pee pee bath”. Jason just phoned me up a few days ago, and he seemed totally fine. In fact, he’s here to pick me up for a game of ultimate Frisbee. I wonder why he’s wearing lipstick and deer antlers. And what’s with that rusty shotgun? More details here.

GM Crops Take Another Hit

Europe’s raving paranoia about genetically modified crops won out in a German court ruling against biotech company Monsanto. The country’s agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, sponsored a ban on MON 810 maize, a GM crop designed to be resistant to pests. Aigner and others believe that GM crops in general are bad news and that MON 810 is particularly dangerous because it kills predatory animals as well as pests. There’s no real scientific basis for this, and MON 810 has been proven safe enough for other countries to allow it. But part of the court ruling against Monsanto’s motion for an emergency injunction against the ban stated that Berlin didn’t have to scientifically prove something was an environmental danger before banning it as an environmental danger. I’ll let that sink in. While it’s true that Monsanto and many other giant corporations have previously been involved in some horrendous and inexcusable environmental crimes, there’s absolutely no scientific or rational reason to outright ban GM crops. Further scientific study is always welcome, but the overwhelming majority of evidence so far points to GM crops actually being more humanitarian and environmentally friendly than traditional agriculture in many cases. GM crops are designed to produce more resilient yields in greater quantities. Yes, particular genetic strains can be patented, but that’s no different from any company selling seeds to a farmer. If more crops can be produced on less land, that means a smaller environmental impact and greater profits for the farmer. It also means more food for parts of the world struggling to survive with traditional agriculture. And if these plants can be modified to resist pests, that means less toxic pesticide needs to be used. It’s a win-win-win-win-etc., and the loudest complaints about GM crops come from people either pushing pseudoscientific, quasi-naturalist bullshit and/or anti-corporate, misinformed whining. A bunch of poppycock, I say. Also, if eating GM corn causes us to grow bat wings and prehensile tails, how could that possibly be a bad thing? More details here.

Bachmann’s Greatest Hits

Sure, it’s probably a net disadvantage to the country that our House of Representatives is full of emotionally stunted psychotics, but politics just wouldn’t be as interesting without them. And by “interesting”, of course, I mean “heart-crushingly sad”. Case in point: Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann (R-Crazytown), who is either a cutting edge satirical performance artist or batshit insane. Either way, I fail to see how she’s anything approaching electable. But she’s undeniably entertaining. To that end, The Daily Beast pulled together a list of her most straightjacket deserving public moments. Some of the highlights? Her personal communications with God, her near-miss encounter with murderous lesbians, her pimping of her adolescent daughters, and her hiding in the bushes during a gay right rally. Among many, many other things. Read all about her here.

U.K. Rather Confused About Freedom

The U.K. may not have a constitutionally protected freedom of speech, but they always seemed like a country interested in protecting the basic human right of free expression. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Conservative radio host Michael Savage has been banned from entering the U.K. because his opinions contradict the “values” and “standards” of Great Britain. Just to be clear, Michael Savage is a douchebag. He’s a career attention whore who, after failing to impress the beat poets and counterculture icons he idolized, turned his back on all reason and became a racist, homophobic blowhard. He went from swimming nude with Allen Ginsberg to trashing the poet’s name after his death. Also, he’s not nearly as funny as he thinks he is. Plus, his penis is tiny. Like, the size of an ice cream sprinkle. Regardless, a free society must allow for the expression of every douchebag’s opinion, otherwise you aren’t a free society at all. In addition to banning Savage, the U.K. also denied entry to the gay-hating pastor Fred Phelps, among fourteen other people. And not only does she vow to keep banning people for their beliefs, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith also plans on releasing a blacklist with the names of everyone who doesn’t live up to the U.K.’s lofty standards. This is disgusting and backward and should be protested by everyone in Britain. If you expect anyone to stand up for your rights, you have to stand up for the rights of people you dislike. More details here.

Bend Gravity at GameSnobs.com

Over at our sister site GameSnobs.com, our favorite science poet and former Amateur Scientist Podcast co-host Richard Peacock has created a simple but fun browser-based game called Gravity Bender. By placing planets on a field, you can use the laws of Newtonian physics to fling pellets into a target. It’s sort of like what NASA astronauts do every day, only not at all. Go try and shear the top off the high scores.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Autism Warning Signs

When they aren’t allowing noted paranoid liar and professional ignoramus Jenny McCarthy to spread her anti-vaccination nonsense via ethically disastrous interviews, Time magazine occasionally offers some real science. They have an interesting article on how doctors are getting better at recognizing signs of autism in infant children, long before the typical autism diagnosis age of three years. This is important, because it’s another in the mountain of nails covering the coffin of the “vaccines cause autism” ruse. Previously, people like Jenny McCarthy claimed their autistic children were perfectly normal before receiving their rounds of vaccinations around age three, when they suddenly became autistic. This was originally blamed on mercury preservatives in the MMR vaccine. When that was proven to be untrue, they tried to shift the blame to the sheer number of vaccines given to children. When it turned out that modern vaccines actually have less antigens today than when children received fewer of them, the blame shifted to diet and environment and other vaccines and all sorts of other nonsense. But the fact remains that autism looks to have a very large genetic component, as evidenced by the fact that it can be recognized in children as young as twelve months. Once again, Jenny McCarthy and the rest of the anti-vaccination crowd are proven tragically, dangerously wrong. More details here.

Something in the Water

People living in the Oita prefecture of Japan are less likely to kill themselves than those who don’t live there. And according to some Japanese researchers, it’s not just the beautiful countryside. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, scientists from the universities of Oita and Hiroshima found that higher levels of lithium in Oita’s drinking water were responsible for the lowered suicide rates. Lithium is a common mental health treatment known for its mood stabilizing effects. It’s often used by people with bipolar disorder, but it may also help with broader psychiatric problems. The researchers also noted that it doesn’t take much lithium to create a statistically significant effect, with levels between 0.7 and 59 micrograms per liter showing a decline in suicide rates. Still, they stop short of recommending lithium be added to drinking water as an involuntary medication. Like fluoridation, they know that some might see this as forced drugging by the government. That’s a fair point, but it’s also a bit of a false analogy. Fluoridation only provides a positive physical benefit to the people who are fortunate enough to have it. But as a mental health medication, the effects of lithium aren’t quite to undeniably beneficial. Some people who take mood stabilizers don’t like the feeling of losing their mental highs and lows, for example. Also, excessive dosages of lithium can be poisonous, but that’s true of nearly every substance in the universe. Regardless, no suicide study can be considered complete if the researchers don’t also subject the test subjects to a 24-hour Make Me a Supermodel marathon. If lithium water can keep people from killing themselves after that, it might be worth trying after all. More details here.

Nothing to See Here

Recently, Al Jazeera television ran footage of U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan huddled around a stack of Bibles that had been translated into the local languages Pashtu and Dari. The implication, of course, was that these soldiers planned to hand these Bibles out to Muslim locals. And the fact that a military chaplain was caught on tape encouraging the soldiers to “hunt people for Jesus” seemed to confirm that implication. The military is denying any of those Bibles were ever distributed, saying that they were shipped to a soldier’s home address by his church and that he was forbidden from handing them out in Afghanistan by his chaplain. The U.S. military’s General Order Number 1 (sort of like the Prime Directive, except it’s not been repeatedly violated by James T. Kirk) expressly forbids soldiers from trying to convert locals to any religion. And it’s actually illegal in Afghanistan to try and convert a Muslim. But that doesn’t explain the words of the chaplain, who was supposedly “taken out of context”. Many idiotic bloggers have taken them to mean that he was encouraging soldiers to kill in the name of Christianity, but anyone who’s suffered through all the quasi-militaristic metaphors in an average evangelical Sunday school lesson can tell you he was likely speaking symbolically about aggressive “witnessing”. Still, this begs the question of why the U.S. military even has chaplains at all when religion has absolutely nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the armed forces. When you’re paying a religious leader, can you really be that upset when he preaches the basic tenets of his religion? Administratively, I mean. As a common taxpayer, you can obviously be upset. Very, very upset. More details here.

When Our Powers Combine…

As you’ve no doubt read somewhere else by now, Jenny McCarthy signed a production deal with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions that, among other things, will most likely give her a TV show all her own. Yes, this means that even more people will fall under the dangerous and deadly spell of her anti-vaccination lies, paranoia, and ignorance. Those of you with a particularly morbid sensibility can keep track of McCarthy’s Sherman-esque march through the world’s public health at this invaluable website. And those of you particularly interested in futile efforts to bash some sense into Oprah’s increasingly inflated head might want to shoot a message of protest to Oprah.com. She probably won’t read your email herself, but if you believe in The Secret like she does, you might be able to wish her into hiring an intern to read it aloud. More horrible details here.

HuffPo Watch: Premonitions and Other Nonsense

It’s been a long time in coming, but the broad coalition of skeptical science blogs have finally declared war on the ridiculous bullshit littering The Huffington Post. In large part, this has to do with the website’s continual promotion of anti-vaccination propaganda by people like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and others without critical thinking skills. And while all of that is definitely bad enough, there’s plenty of ludicrous woo-woo to go around. Case in point: the recent essay “Premonitions and Spirituality” by Dr. Larry Dossey. Unlike many other so-called “doctors” in the world of complimentary and alternative medicine (i.e. “medicine” that isn’t based on fact or evidence), Dr. Dossey really has medical training. Unfortunately, even actual M.D.s aren’t always immune to nonsense, and Dr. Dossey has seemingly turned his back on evidence-based reality in his wholesale embrace of precognition. In his essay, he gives the idea a spiritualist spin, claiming that premonitions aren’t only real, they’re also a method of tapping into the collective oneness of all living things. Like other new age quacks, Dr. Dossey tries to equate this “oneness” with the concept of God, even though to do so would be to abstract the historical concept of God to meaninglessness. (Just to use one example, the Judeo-Christian concept of God is in no way simply another word for some sort of quasi-philosophical universal force. He’s a real person who lives in another world and directly interferes with reality. Going even further back, He’s meant to be only the most powerful among a plethora of other gods. To draw a direct line between this concept and modern new age philosophy is theologically absurd.) It’s also worth noting that nowhere in the essay does Dr. Dossey ever give a shred of evidence to support the reality of precognition. Sure, there are a couple of anecdotal accounts of premonitions coming true, but there’s not a single documented case of a written or otherwise recorded prediction actually coming to pass at a later date. Dr. Dossey tells of a father who was sure that his newborn baby wouldn’t survive into adulthood and how that baby later died of SIDS. But this story doesn’t take into account the surely hundreds of thousands of parents sick to death with worry and paranoia about their children and who thankfully never experience any kind of similar tragedy. This is a pure example of confirmation bias and not proof of anything. But Dr. Dossey isn’t much interested in evidence. Judging by the post-script at the end of his essay, it seems he’s more interested in pimping his book, The Power of Premonitions. Another win for mindless credulity on The Huffington Post!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Egypt Pigging Out on Swine Flu

Egypt’s population is about 90% Muslim, and most of the rest are Copts, Christians whose ancestors walked on the beach with Jesus (metaphorically) way back before it was cool. Since Muslims don’t eat the pork, almost every pig farmer in Egypt happens to be a Copt. But the Egyptian government has begun systematically slaughtering the country’s pigs as some sort of hysterical response to swine flu. At least, they say it’s a response to swine flu. Many Copts aren’t so sure, and they suspect this might be an excuse for the notoriously anti-Christian Egyptian government to clamp down on their economic prosperity. In any case, it’s terrible science on the government’s part. Despite the fact that swine flu is a mutated form of influenza that exists in pigs, you can’t catch swine flu from eating pork. The World Health Organization has told the Egyptians this, but it doesn’t seem to be working. And while the medical authorities are trying to rebrand the virus with another name, it’s probably going to be an uphill battle. If nothing else, swine flu is catchy as hell. Pun intended? Maybe. More details here.

Europeans May Unlock History of Universe

Our pal Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy blog has a great post up on the European Space Agency’s upcoming Herschel and Planck missions. While NASA is busy tying strings to tin foil and hoping we can make a moon base out of the results, the Europeans are getting all up in our space grill. And with that typical European style! Herschel is an ultra-high resolution infrared telescope, and Planck will map the microwave frequencies in the background of space. To what end? Why, explaining just what the hell existed before the Big Bang, of course. Sometimes it’s best to shoot big. Head over to Bad Astronomy for the details on how those Eurotrash bastards will help all of humanity understand our existence a whole lot better.

Religious People Love Them Some Torture

A new Pew survey shows that those Americans who attend church once a week are more likely than non-religious people to support the torture of terror suspects. 54% of them said that torture is “sometimes” or “often” justified. White evangelical protestants were the worst, with over 60% loving them some inhuman horrors. People claiming no religious affiliation seem to be the most levelheaded, as only 40% of them supported torture. Wait, 40%? What the hell is the matter with people? Do that many of us really think that 24 and every ‘80s action movie is how the real world works? Just to be clear: it doesn’t matter whether actionable intelligence is gathered by physically robbing other human beings of their basic humanity. If we really wanted to kill Osama bin Laden, we’d carpet bomb all of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But we don’t do that because we still have something like a conscience. Well, 60% of us do. And by “us”, I mean people with critical thinking skills. More details here.

Obama Not Asking or Telling?

One of President Obama’s many campaign promises was to repeal Bill Clinton’s ludicrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on allowing gays to serve in the military. The administration even went so far as to list that promise on the White House’s website under their broader LGBT policy plans. But websites get updated. Things change. Promises are sometimes broken. After briefly removing the mention of repealing DADT from WhiteHouse.gov entirely, someone has reposted it with a slight but significant word change. Instead of “repealing” DADT, the official administration policy now seems to be “changing” DADT. What that means is anyone’s guess, but it can’t be good for those of us hoping Obama would give backward anti-civil rights policies a swift kick in the nads. Though the administration’s skittish non-support of gay marriage is sort of along the same lines. I like Obama. I voted for Obama. But it seems his actions so far have consistently been one step forward and two steps back. He doubles science funding, then doesn’t even mention NASA. He orders Guantanamo Bay closed, then he stands by illegal, warrantless wiretapping. Mr. President, I want to love you, but you’re making it hard. Baby, come back! More details here.

Gay Monks a Little too Swishy

I may not learn something new every day, but today is definitely one of those days. Did you know Thailand is full of trannies? I didn’t. And did you also know many of those trannies enter into Buddhist monkhood? You do now. Apparently, some Buddhists think the huge numbers of transgender and flamboyantly gay Thai monks are tarnishing the reputation of their open and accepting religion. So senior monk Phra Maha Wudhijaya Vajiramedhi is issuing new rules of etiquette to curb the enthusiasm. How flamboyant can these monks possibly be, you ask? Well, apparently many of them wear tight, revealing robes, pluck their eyebrows into pretty arches, and carry pink purses. How could this possibly be a violation of Buddhist teachings, you ask? Well, it isn’t really. Funny how these rules written to protect Buddhism’s reputation sort of tarnish its reputation for tolerance. More details here.

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