Breaking: Joss Whedon confirmed as writer/director for Avengers 2, plus a Marvel series

Just coming through the wire: Disney has announced that Joss Whedon has officially signed on to write and direct Avengers 2 for Marvel Studios. Not only that, but he has also signed on to develop a Marvel TV series for ABC. Stay tuned for more details, because this is what we Marvel geeks like to call "Holy crap, emphasis on the holy." (via Variety's Marc Graser on Twitter)

Volcano killed thousands of British people in the 13th century

In the 1990s, archaeologists found a mass grave in London, filled with more than 10,000 skeletons. There have been plenty of things over the centuries that could wipe out tons of Londoners en-masse—the Black Death, famine, fires, you name it. But this grave has turned out to be filled with victims of a far more unlikely natural disaster. Scientists now think those people were killed by a volcano.

Not a volcano in England, of course. But a massive eruption thousands of miles away.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth's surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: "The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain... Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died."

The really interesting bit: Nobody is sure yet where that volcanic eruption actually happened.

Read the rest of the story in The Guardian

Via Cort Sims

Image: Eruption, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tjt195's photostream

Does sunscreen actually prevent skin cancer?

It does successfully prevent sunburn, but what about the evidence for sunscreen protecting you from skin cancer later in life?

The answer: Nobody is really sure. Last year, I wrote a short piece for BoingBoing that looked at this a little bit. The key point: Cancer takes a long time to happen and we haven't been using sunscreen long enough to have much evidence about it.

But, at Discover's The Crux blog, Emily Elert expands on some of the other problems in play. One of the key things—and something that will hopefully be fixed by this time next year—there's nothing on the sunblock you buy to tell you how protective it is against skin cancer. SPF is all about the burn. So even if some sunscreens do protect against cancer, you don't have a good way to know whether or not you're using one of them.

First of all, the way sunscreen’s effectiveness is measured—its SPF rating—basically only describes its ability to block UVB rays. That’s because UVB is the main cause of sunburn, and a sunscreen’s SPF stands for how long you can stay in the sun without getting a sunburn (a lotion that allows you to spend 40 minutes in the sun rather than the usual 20 before burning, for example, has an SPF of 2).

UVA rays can cause cancer but not sunburn, so they don’t factor into the SPF calculation. That means that if you slather on a high SPF sunscreen that only protects against UVB, you’d still absorb lots of UVA radiation, potentially increasing your long-term cancer risk.

Soon it will be easier to tell which sunscreens include ingredients that block or absorb UVA as well as UVB. According to FDA regulations passed last year, products that pass a “Critical Wavelength” test—meaning that they block wavelengths across the ultraviolet spectrum—will carry the label “Broad Spectrum” alongside the SPF, while sunscreens that don’t pass the test will be forbidden from claiming they have such capabilities. However, those regulations don’t go into effect until December, so for this summer, you’re still stuck with SPF. And, by the way, you probably need to apply twice as much sunscreen as you think to actually get an SPF as strong as that marked on the bottle: manufacturers test their products’ SPF with the assumption that you will slather on obscene amounts. This discrepancy could be contributing to the fact that the NIH, when looking the connection between sunscreen use and skin cancer in large populations, doesn’t see clear evidence that sunscreen is effective in reducing the risk of skin cancer. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that there is a clear genetic component in some skin cancers, so just avoiding sun or using sunscreen regularly are not the only factors that determine whether someone gets it.)

Read the rest of the story at The Crux

Image: Beer, cigarettes and sun block: Roskilde Festival 2009 essentials., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wouterkiel's photostream

Martian Mt. Sharp vs. Mt. McKinley

Philip Bump put together this great comparison of Earth's Mt. McKinley and Mars' Mt. Sharp (as photographed by the Curiosity rover).

Officially, it's Aeolis Mons, and it stands 18,000 feet above the crater floor. Here's how that compares to Mount McKinley, America's tallest peak at 20,320 feet. The sea levels / floor levels are roughly comparable. But this is just an approximation. Do not make wagers based on this.

Via pbump.net

Behold the Wall Breaker

Thanks, Ipo!

Remembering Marvin Hamlisch with a performance of his work by Gilda Radner

You have probably heard by now that composer and EGOT -- that's a winner of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards -- Marvin Hamlisch has passed away at the age of 68 following a "sudden, brief illness." He worked for stage and screen, composing scores for movies including The Spy Who Loved Me and Sophie's Choice, and songs for shows like A Chorus Line and The Goodbye Girl. Most recently, he worked on the score for the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. But for many people, he made a huge impression with The Way We Were, which starred Barbra "Katie" Streisand and Robert "Hubble" Redford and was about "an outspoken Jewish girl with a big nose who goes to Hollywood with her beautiful blond husband and gets disgusted." At least that's how Gilda Radner told it when she performed "The Way We Were" in her show, Gilda Live. And I think it's a sweet way to remember a man who wrote songs that could bring a deeply romantic geek to tears. (via YouTube)

What do Christian fundamentalists have against set theory?

I've mentioned here before that I went to fundamentalist Christian schools from grade 8 through grade 11. I learned high school biology from a Bob Jones University textbook, watched videos of Ken Ham talking about cryptozoology as extra credit assignments, and my mental database of American history probably includes way more information about great revival movements than yours does. In my experience, when the schools I went to followed actual facts, they did a good job in education. Small class sizes, lots of hands-on, lots of writing, and lots of time spent teaching to learn rather than teaching to a standardized test. But when they decided that the facts were ungodly, things went to crazytown pretty damn quick.

All of this is to say that I usually take a fairly blasé attitude towards the "OMG LOOK WHAT THE FUNDIES TEACH KIDS" sort of expose that pops up occasionally on the Internet. It's hard to be shocked by stuff that you long ago forgot isn't general public knowledge. You say A Beka and Bob Jones University Press are still freaked about Communism, take big detours into slavery/KKK apologetics, and claim the Depression was mostly just propaganda? Yeah, they'll do that. Oh, the Life Science textbook says humans and dinosaurs totally hung out and remains weirdly obsessed with bombardier beetles? What else is new?

Well, for me, this is new:

"Unlike the "modern math" theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute....A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory." — ABeka.com

Wait? What?

Read the rest

Mars Curiosity rover: NASA's John Grunsfeld and Miles O'Brien on PBS NewsHour

[Video Link] It took just minutes for Curiosity to complete her landing sequence on Mars. But the journey to that point took years of work back here on earth. The celebration of the rover's successful landing continues, and the mission itself will continue for 2 years. On this PBS NewsHour segment, Judy Woodruff talks to science correspondent Miles O'Brien and John Grunsfeld of NASA about Curiosity and the years NASA scientists spent planning the journey to Mars.

Related: From Miles' blog, "Why the Curiosity over Mars…"

We've been teased and taunted, and today Arrested Development finally (actually) went back into production

The part where the actors arrive on set and say the words and do the things in front of the cameras? That is happening with the new season of Arrested Development, and it's happening today, according to Deadline, who is also reassuring us that everyone in the cast -- everyone -- will be returning. They will film 10 brand new episodes of the show, which will all lead up to a feature-length movie, all of which will be streamed on Netflix next year. In case you, an Arrested Development fan, were feeling less loved today, here is proof that you are loved. (via Geeks of Doom)

What NASA fears most on Mars (image)

"Curiosity makes me very angry, very angry indeed!"

By David Silverman, of Simpsons and Tubatron fame.

Film about Mexican mental asylum run by the patients

What happens when the inmates run the asylum? Mark Aitken's forthcoming documentary "Dead When I Got Here" answers that question. It is a film about a Juárez, Mexico mental asylum where the patients are the administrators. I first saw excerpts from this film-in-progress at the flat of my friend Mark Pilkington who is composing the soundtrack. The striking images of madness, poverty, humanity, and hope have stayed with me. From the director's diary:

Just past the last junkyard on the curdled fringe of Juárez, Highway 45 begins to cut through open desert. Distant mountains frame scattered abandoned houses. Silent witnesses to thousands of people escaping poverty and violence or those dismissed in shallow graves. The US border is only several miles away. There’s good reason why a mental asylum run by its own patients exists here.

In 1998, ‘El’ Pastor Galvan, a street preacher from Juárez, started to build the asylum in the desert for the dispossessed. He called it Vision and Action.

‘We started with four rooms – abandoned houses without a roof. 25 patients and 2 donkeys – the donkeys where utilized to carry firewood to the kitchen. My wife was with me and she was the one who cooked and cleaned the dishes.‘

Some years later Juárez photographer Julian Cardona was driving down Highway 45 with his friend, writer Charles Bowden. Julian was going to take advantage of the late afternoon light to photograph a replica of the English Uffington White Horse etched into a mountain. The horse was paid for by Juárez cartel boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes, so called ‘Lord of the Skies’ because of his fleet of Boeing 727s.

While taking pictures they encountered people wandering the desert, draping mesquite bushes with blankets so as to burn off bloodsuckers in the sun. These people said they ran their own mental asylum nearby. The photographer and writer were amazed at what they found.

"Dead When I Got Here"

Russian synchronized swimmers performed to the theme from Suspiria to the delight of Olympic horror nerds

The Russian synchronized swimming team performed their routine at the Olympics today. I won't spoil the results if you're waiting to watch the performance at another time, but you can check out the results here. Why is this noteworthy? Because their routine was set to Goblin's theme from Dario Argento's classic 1977 horror movie Suspiria. Suspiria. (And Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, but Suspiria!) The video above is not from today's performance, but from their qualifying routine that took place back in April that used the same music, so it's probably the same routine (or close). Watch and listen as Natalia Ischenko and Svetlana Romashina turn dainty, graceful water dancing into a horrific painted-doll opera of limbs. Synchronized, twisty, demented limbs. (via Trailers From Hell)

Daniel Day-Lewis completely disappears into Abraham Lincoln and it's kind of crazy

We can provide just a tease, but you will definitely want to see this: Daniel Day-Lewis is playing Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and the first official photo of him -- courtesy of Entertainment Weekly, where you can see the full picture -- has been released. Honestly, I don't know how Day-Lewis does this. Every time. He completely hands his whole entire body and soul over to other people, fictional and non-fictional, and brings them to life.

Lincoln, which is coming out November 9, will follow the country's beloved 16th president in the days leading up to his assassination. It's adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, which tells the story of how Lincoln stocked his cabinet with a bunch of guys who disagreed with him so he'd have a whole slew of perspectives on his presidential decisions. I know -- this sounds like science fiction and not historical fact, but it totally happened. If all of that isn't cool enough, the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner (Angels in America). So there is a very good chance that a historical movie about Abraham Lincoln that is written by Kushner, directed by Spielberg, and starring Day-Lewis will win some Oscars next year. In fact, maybe everyone else should just stay home.

Here's our first official look at Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln! [Ain't It Cool News]

Paper fasteners banned due to injuries

The UK's Manchester National Health Service Trust has reportedly banned metal paperclips paper fasteners due to staff injuries. If this policy spreads, it may be time for Henry Petroski to write a new afterword to his classic book "The Evolution of Useful Things" that includes the fascinating history of the paper clip. From Metro:

In a memo to staff, it was warned that the use of metal fasteners was 'prohibited' and the offending clips must be 'carefully disposed of immediately'.

'Due to recent incidents, NHS Manchester has decided to immediately withdraw the use of metal paper fasteners,' explained the memo featuring an accompanying picture of a paper clip - just to avoid any confusion. 'Please ensure any that remain in use be replaced by similar plastic fasteners.

'The use of metal fasteners is prohibited and must be carefully disposed of immediately. Thank you for your co-operation.'

"NHS health and safety chiefs ban 'dangerous' metal paper clips"

UPDATE: According to the Manchester Evening News, it is metal paper fasteners, not typical paper clips, that have been banned.

Redd Kross - "Stay Away From Downtown" (MP3) - Boing Boing Exclusive!

Sound it Out # 31: Redd Kross - "Stay Away From Downtown"

The brothers Steve and Jeff MacDonald are the core of Redd Kross, who played their first show opening for Black Flag at a middle school graduation party in 1978 (Steve was 11; Jeff was 15). The band quickly became a big part of the LA punk rock scene - their pop sensibilities and long hair made them stand out from the crowd. Their energy and charm made them beloved in nearly any setting.

As Redd Kross matured, they became more and more fascinated with pop culture; they wrote songs inspired by the likes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, breakfast cereal, and Linda Blair. They had a few major label deals, opening spots for giant rock tours and some radio and MTV play, but somehow never acheived the success of their peers.

34 years after opening for Black Flag, Redd Kross is back with Researching the Blues, their first album in 15 years (out today!). The record is 32 minutes of melody-laden pop/rock,  and “Stay Away from Downtown” is a worthy introduction to the band and the new record. Download it below.