Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pro-tip: Your vacation activity choices should not include rhinos...

'Stand closer to the rhino' results in grave wound

This headline from an AP story pretty much says it all.  As I have reported here before, South Africa seems to be a hot bed of places where you can go to get your picture taken with large dangerous animals.  Note my intentional use of the word "dangerous" here.  These animals are so-called because they are, in point of fact, capable of hurting, even killing you.  Hence they are labelled, "dangerous."

Let's review what we know about the rhino:  Large pointy horn on it's nose, bad eyesight, evil temper, small brain, weighs in at 2 tons...that's 4000 pounds, about what my Dodge 1500 pickup weighs.  What about this says, "cuddly, wild, and, oh-I-so-want-to-have-my-picture-taken-with-this-thing creature"?  Wait...let me answer that for you:  Nothing.

Again, people...enjoy your vacation, but try to avoid dying.

I am indebted to Mike Elgan on Google+ for bringing this story to my attention.  I hope he forgives me for totally stealing the above picture.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Our continuing saga of bad vacation choices...

I frequently use this space to report on various bad vacation choices people make.  Mostly, I have focused on poor choices of location; pleasure boating in pirate infested waters, camping on islands where hungry polar bears out-number humans, that sort of thing.  However, I feel compelled to also report on poor activity choices people make while on vacation.  For example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a sight-seeing trip to the Farallon Islands, but when you throw scuba-diving into that mix...well, you've made a poor choice.

In that light, I present, for your edification, zorbing.  What, you may ask, is zorbing?  Zorbing is a "sport", recently become popular in Russia.  Basically, it consists of allowing yourself to be strapped into a large plastic ball and then said ball is rolled pell-mell down a ski slope.  Yes...I know.  You just said, "What the fuck??", right?  So did I.  Nonetheless, it is a thing in Russia these days and, apparently, a very popular thing, indeed.

For those still unclear on this concept, the Los Angeles Times has helpfully posted a video that demonstrates the whole zorbing concept and, at the same time, shows why it is an egregiously bad idea:  Don't try this at home and it's probably not a good idea to try it on vacation either.

Let's note:  One man killed, another critically injured.  Let's also note that the manufacturer of zorbs is quoted as saying, "It's all or nothing.  They either survive or they don't."

You've been warned...

Friday, November 9, 2012

Confessions of a Reformed Conservative

For my entire adult life, I have voted as a fiscal conservative.  I viscerally believed that the government that governs least, governs best.  Consequently, through the last few election cycles, my voting decisions have been based almost entirely on which party and candidates were most likely to support debt reduction and entitlement reform.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I voted for Romney/Ryan this past Tuesday.

Obviously, Tuesday's election didn't go the way that I had hoped.  Elections are like that sometimes.  So be it; the people have spoken, etc., etc., etc.  Entitlement reform, while a huge deciding issue for me, was apparently not so for the majority of the American electorate.  Millions of voters showed up to vote for a party and a candidate that have consistently acted to expand entitlement programs over the past few years.  Other millions of voters stayed home because Mitt Romney was a) not socially conservative enough, b) not promising them enough free stuff, c) a really rich guy, or d) a Mormon and, by staying home, gave tacit approval to entitlement expansion.

Thinking on the results of the election, I had an epiphany:  I've been wrong.  Totally wrong.  Utterly and completely wrong.  The American electorate does not want entitlement reform; in fact they consistently and relentlessly vote against it and elect representatives who lack the will or inclination to enact reform.  I live in a society that has institutionalized entitlements and, through all these years, I've been tilting at windmills by basing my votes on entitlement reform.  It's time to step back and, finally, accept the will and apparent wisdom of the people.  Actually, I am going to do more than accept it.  I am going to embrace it like William Hurt embraced Kathleen Turner in Body Heat...which is a rather disturbing analogy now that I think about it.  Sorry...

In point of fact, supporting entitlement reform is no longer in my best interests.  I'm 58.  In four years, I will be eligible for Social Security, at which point, every month the U.S. taxpayers will send me a check that is roughly half of what I have been contributing every year since I started working.  Every month until I go down for my dirt nap, I will get a check, for doing nothing.  Since the wrath family DNA clock seems to max out at 90 or so, that's potentially a lot of scratch.  But taxpayer largess does not end there.  There's Medicare.  There's my lifetime pass into national parks and monuments.  There's the $1.25 taxpayer subsidized lunch I can get at the Henderson Senior Citizen Center.  Of course, the menu there is going to need some help.  I'd like to see an artisanal cheese plate with fresh fruit, a baguette, and a glass of Columbia Valley merlot or a brie, bacon, and tomato sandwich on lightly toasted six-grain bread with a pint of a nice hoppy IPA served up on a daily basis.  No matter, once my fellow seniors and I organize a few "Henderson feeds their senior citizens dog food" protests, I'm sure the city fathers will come around...it's not like its their money after all.  They'll just get more from the taxpayers.  Also, there must be a free Obamaphone program for seniors.  If not, I'll join AARP - they've been bugging me to join for, like, eight years now - and get them to make that happen.  Oh...and that comes with unlimited data, right?  I gotta be able to use my tablet when I'm having my subsidized lunch down at the Senior Center, don'tcha know?

Food stamps!  Oh, hell...I almost forgot about food stamps.  I'm going to freaking wear out the magnetic strip on my EBT card....and I'm not talking frozen pizzas here.  Look for my column in Bon Appettit, "The EBT Gourmet".

Oh...and all the young people who turned out of support a second term for our President?  You might want to think about a second job.  Actually, you'll probably need a third one, too, since part-time jobs are going to become the rule when Obamacare kicks in.  Can you do that for me?  Yeah, um, thanks...I'll buy you a (subsidized) lunch sometime.

...and then there's my mortgage.  I've been making mortgage payments for thirty years; never missed a payment, never even paid one late.  In another age, this statement would have been a point of pride, but now it's a confession of just being plain stupid.  Mortgage payments are optional these days.  I'll leave it to the administration and their pals in the mega-banks to conjure up whatever fiscal fantasy they need to keep this senior citizen on a fixed income from being foreclosed.  In the meantime, my current mortgage payment will pretty handily cover the lease and insurance on an Audi R8.  Sweet.  Thank you, Mr. President.

Yes, intellectually, I still understand that this entire system is unsustainable and becomes increasingly unsustainable as fewer people are working and more are opting for living off government largesse.  At some point, to quote Jim Morrison, "...the whole shit house goes up in flames."  I just figure that I might as well live in a nice shit house - that I don't pay for - before someone throws in the match.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Another oopsie for NASA

Remember a few years back when NASA announced that they had discovered a microbe in Mono Lake that used arsenic in its DNA and ATP instead of phosphorus like all other life on the planet.  It was a big deal for a while; big NASA press release, big NASA press conference, stories all over the popular press...all for a piece of work that was published on-line without peer review.  The discovery of a form of life  whose basic biochemistry was based on anything other than phosphorus would be extremely significant.  The NASA group even speculated that this microbe might have been a throw back to the earliest forms of life on the planet, when Nature was still experimenting with biochemistry, if you will.  An intriguing thought, but one that completely ignores the fact that the geology that created the conditions in and around Mono Lake are only 3 millions years old at the outside.

However, almost as soon as this "discovery" was announced, the scientific community began to express doubts as to the nature of the NASA group's experiment and their interpretation of the results.  Public discussion of this soon faded into the background, but it remained an active debate in the scientific community as the publication of two recent papers in Science demonstrates.  Both papers refute the NASA claim that the microbe was incorporating arsenic in its DNA and both suggest that the NASA study was compromised by potential contamination.  In other words, the results from a sloppy experiment were rushed into print, press release, and press conference before anyone bothered to double check the results.

The lead author of the NASA study, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, responded to the new papers saying, "there is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data."  Apparently, English is Dr. Wolfe-Simon's second language because two papers claiming that your results were due to contamination  is pretty much contradicting your data.

Abstracts of the two Science papers can be found here and here (Since Science is a "real", peer-reviewed scientific journal, you have to pay to read the full paper).

Why make such a big deal over sketchy research that hasn't been confirmed?  Why go public with results without getting comments from your scientific peer group?  Quite simple:  Someone's funding was coming up for review and what better way to demonstrate how important your research is than to hold a press conference to announce a "breakthrough".  In truth, this sort of thing happens all the time; probably 90% of the scientific articles you read in the popular press are a result of these fluffy, attention-whore press releases.  It goes without saying that the bureaucrats at NASA that make the funding decisions lack the technical skills to critically evaluate Wolfe-Simon's work, so to them, a press release is just as good a sign of "progress" as a paper in a refereed journal, besides a press release is shorter and not filled up with all that technical stuff.

Sic transit gloria scientia...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dinosaur flatulence

Popular science reporting is so egregiously bad these days that, for the most part, I just roll my eyes and let things slide, but every once in a while, I come across a story that is so heinous I have to say something.  This bit of douchery for instance: Dinosaurs a gas, gas, gas, scientists say.

Doctors Ruxton and Wilkinson would have us believe that dinosaurs farted out so much methane that it effected a climate change that ended up killing them off.  Two things are immediately obvious in this article.  First, we are not told what Doctors Ruxton and Wilkinson are actually doctors of.  Second, there is no reference to the journal article where, one assumes, this work is to be published.  Perhaps, this is just sloppy reporting and, for the sake of argument, I'll assume this is the case.  But a story that does not establish credentials and reference the original literature is automatically suspect.

But, let's assume this is just sloppy reporting and accept what we are being told.  Fine...even then, this story has so many things wrong with it, it's hard to know where to start criticizing.  The doctors reference an argentinosaurus and point out that it would have produced "thousands of liters of methane per day".  Let's assume that the good doctors recognized that a reptile metabolism is much, much slower than a mammal's and scaled their methane production rates appropriately.  We don't know as we have no original literature to reference back to.

But, now we come to the really mind-blowing part of this story:
Ruxton and his co-researcher David Wilkinson, of Liverpool John Moores University, designed a mathematical model to work out how much methane the animals, thought to have numbered in their billions, would have generated during the Mesozoic era, from 250 million to 65 million years ago.
"Thought to have numbered in their billions..."  Where in the name of all holy fuck did the number "billions" come from?  The planet is very marginally able to support a few billions of 150 pound (plus or minus) human beings and Doctors Ruxton and Wilkinson tell us that there were billions of 90-ton reptiles roaming the planet during the Cretaceous.  Seriously?  No, really...are these guys saying this with a straight face?

The "billions" of giant sauropods number is so patently absurd that any person with brain function has to call, "bullshit" on this nonsense.  However, let me make on additional comment.  Methane is reduced carbon, which is why we combine it with oxygen and burn it.  When it is released in the atmosphere, its greenhouse effect is transient, because it tends to break down relatively quickly when exposed to oxygen and the sun's ultraviolet radiation.  Methane emissions from dinosaurs over the course of tens of millions of years are just not a vehicle for climate change.

If shame exists in the scientific community anymore, the unnamed "Canadian science website" that published this silliness should be ashamed of itself.

Bad vacation choices, Part something-something...

In this year's Bad Vacation Choice awards, Large Animal category, we may have a winner: Man photographs cheetahs attacking wife.

Before we get to the "large animal" part of the story, let me get one thing out of the way:  Squirrely's Rule of Marriage #23 - When cheetahs are attacking your wife, you may want to put down the goddamned camera and, I don't know, like maybe, TRY TO FUCKING SAVE HER!!

Just sayin'...

Having addressed that, back to the large animals.  Apparently, it is possible to go to this game preserve in South Africa and get your picture taken while standing next to "pet" cheetahs.  Yeah...and Sea World should let tourists swim with their "pet" sharks.  Here's the thing:  I've had pet cats for most of my life.  I like cats.  I like their independence.  I even like their aggravating "What? Were you talkin' to me?" attitude.  However, I completely understand the one-sided nature of my relationship to my cats.  Cats don't give a fuck and haven't given a fuck since ever.  When the Duke hops up in my lap while I'm reading the paper in the morning, he's not being friendly, he's cold.  When Duke's sister, the very aptly named Morgana le Fey, pokes me with her paw at 4am every morning, it means she's hungry and is checking to see if I'm dead.  When Admiral Halsey starts rubbing against my leg, he's not being friendly either.  He's hungry and figures I'll either feed him or he can get me to trip and kill myself.  Halsey's good either way.

To cats, humans are animals that are too big to eat (while we're alive anyway), but are convenient to have around to provide food, open doors, clean up the disgusting messes they make, and other, similar services.  Let's face it, the Tribe of Tiger has been around for most of the Cenozoic and, after 60 million years, the cat brain is pretty much hard-wired to kill things and, even today, there are parts of the world where humans are still very much on the cat menu of dietary choices.  As Siegfried and Roy discovered several years back, there is no such thing as a "pet" cat.  Inside even the fattest, laziest domestic kitty cat, the kill switch is always a hair breadth from being engaged.  Timbuk 3 has very succinctly summed up the situation with cats:
"Cats will be cats, and cats will be cruel
Cats can be callous, and cats can be cool
Cats will be cats, remember these words
Cats will be cats, and cats eat birds
Cats will be cats, and cats eat birds"
...or humans as the case may be.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Another look at Sharia law...

In yet another example of Sharia law barbarity, Saudi Arabia recently beheaded a woman for being a witch, after a trial that, it's presumed, looked a lot like this.  However, buried in Uri Friedman's story on this bit of Islamic pleasantry was a reference to "an Eritrean national [who] was imprisoned and lashed hundreds of times for "charlatanry"..."  Wow, I thought, maybe there are some aspects of Sharia law we could learn from; these charlatanry provisions, for example.  Imagine if the FBI formed an Anti-Charlatanry Unit, charged with rooting out and expunging charlatanry wherever it existed.  Why, I would personally turn in 535 members of Congress, the entire management groups of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Department of Education, and the Department of Energy, the entire Nevada State legislature, and the Clark County School Board.  Oh, yes...the Special Charlatanry Prosecutor would have a full docket.

Don't get me wrong...I consider Sharia law a barbaric anachronism that should have died at the Battle of Lepanto (Lesson: Mess with capitalists and you'll get your ass kicked, Islam), but "charlatanry" laws...think about it.