Boing Boing 

Meet NASA's apocalypse expert

OK, I know that I promised to never post anything ever again about a certain hypothetical disaster that rhymes with Schmapocalypse MiffyMelve, but hear me out. This really isn't about that. Instead, I want to highlight an excellent profile of a scientist whose work and interactions with the public have been affected by that unnamed bit of urban mythology.

David Morrison is a 72-year-old senior scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. He runs NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" column, and considers it his way of following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan. In this story, written by Dan Duray at The Awl, we learn about Morrison's deep commitment to communicating science to the public ... a commitment that has led him to spend the last eight years answering a increasingly heavy flood of letters about the end of the world. It's an interesting look at the effects pop culture has on real people.

The questions that Dr. Morrison receives circle around a surprisingly cohesive set of theories, each grounded in some kind of real science that then veers off in a wild direction ... It's possible that many of the people who write to Dr. Morrison are trolls, or have Kindle books to sell, or want to garner enough YouTube views to merit an ad before their videos (some of the "Nibiru exposed" videos now feature a pre-roll for the conspiracy movie Branded). But his younger questioners certainly aren't faking it. He read me some of the more serious emails over the phone:

"I know that everyone has been asking you the same question but how do I know the world is not going to end by a planet or a flood or something? I'm scared because I'm in 10th grade and I have a full life ahead of me so PLEASE I WOULD REALLY LIKE AN ANSWER TO MY QUESTION."

"I am really scared about the end of the world on 21 December. I'm headed into 7th grade and I am very scared. I hear you work for the government and I don't know what to do. Can someone help me? I can't sleep, I am crying every day, I can't eat, I stay in my room, I go to a councilor, it helps, but not with this problem. Can someone help me?"

It's not all serious business, though. In one of the funnier moments, a 72-year-old man tries to figure out how to deal with YouTube commenters accusing him of being a secret Lizard Person.

Read the full profile at The Awl

Image: Apocalypse, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from torek's photostream

Why some technologies fail, and others succeed

My second column for the New York Times Magazine went online today. It's about the history of technology and the forces that determine which tools end up in our everyday portfolio and which become fodder for alternate history sci-fi novels.

The key thing to remember: The technologies we use today aren't necessarily the best technologies that were available. We don't really make these decisions logically, based solely on what works best. It's more complicated than that. Technology is shaped sociocultural forces. And, in turn, it shapes them, as well. The best analogy I've come up with to summarize this: The history of technology isn't a straight line. It's more like a ball of snakes fucking. (Sadly, I couldn't figure out a good way to reword this analogy for publication in the Paper of Record.) One of my big examples is the history of the electric car:

There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.

Read the rest

Why the fedora grosses out geekdom

The fedora draws increasing controversy in internet circles. In just one hour I found no less than three Tumblrs related to shaming people who wear the creased, curve-brimmed hat—formal with a touch of classic dandy—and the censure is interestingly specific. The targets are usually men.

Read the rest

The champagne of national unity

According to a survey of 200,000 Americans, Miller High Life is the most bi-partisan of beers. Republicans favor Samuel Adams and, apparently, there are a lot of Democrats drinking Heineken. (Although one might argue that these results are heavily skewed, as the survey did not include either microbrews or microparties. God only knows what the Libertarians are drinking.) There's a chart. Yay, charts! (Via Kevin Zelnio)

Black American sign language and American sign language are different languages

I've been fascinated by the history and development of sign language for a while now. Highly linked to local Deaf cultures, individual sign languages have deep roots in the home-made systems people came up with in order to communicate with one another and with their families at times when Deaf people were often a lot more socially isolated than they are today. That means that each sign language is unique — even British and American sign language aren't at all the same thing. English is spoken in both countries, but the cultural history that gave birth to sign was sufficiently different to produce two completely different languages that are unintelligible to one another. (Meanwhile, American sign language is much closer to French, because it also has roots in a system imported from France in the 19th century.)

In that case, it was a physical distance that lead to the development of two different sign languages. But, within the United States, the same thing happened because of social distance. Turns out, there is a Black American sign language that is distinctly different, as a language, from ASL. Its roots lie in segregation, and especially in separate-and-not-at-all-equal school systems. Ironically, though, that meant sign language had a more prominent place in black schools for much of the 20th century. At white schools, up until the 1970s and 1980s, students were heavily pressured to speak and lip-read, rather than sign — because it was thought to be better. Meanwhile, at black schools, sign language continued to be heavily used, growing and changing. By the late 1960s, the two systems were almost completely different languages.

Carolyn McCaskill remembers exactly when she discovered that she couldn’t understand white people. It was 1968, she was 15 years old, and she and nine other deaf black students had just enrolled in an integrated school for the deaf in Talledega, Ala.

... The teacher’s quicksilver hand movements looked little like the sign language McCaskill had grown up using at home with her two deaf siblings and had practiced at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind, just a few miles away. It wasn’t a simple matter of people at the new school using unfamiliar vocabularly; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students.

...So, McCaskill says, “I put my signs aside.” She learned entirely new signs for such common nouns as “shoe” and “school.” She began to communicate words such as “why” and “don’t know” with one hand instead of two as she and her black friends had always done. She copied the white students who lowered their hands to make the signs for “what for” and “know” closer to their chins than to their foreheads. And she imitated the way white students mouthed words at the same time as they made manual signs for them.

Read the full story at The Washington Post

PREVIOUSLY
Martha's Vinyard: Birthplace of American Deaf Culture
What the invention of Nicaraguan sign language teaches us about the human brain
How To: Spell with your fingers in different languages
CWA: Your language is your worldview
The sign language of science
Learn the sign language of physics, male genitalia

Via Stan Carey

Death on Mount Everest

Back in May, we linked you to the reporting of Outside's Grayson Schaffer, who was stationed in the base camps of Mount Everest, watching as the mountain's third deadliest spring in recorded history unfolded. Ten climbers died during April and May. But the question is, why?

From a technological standpoint, as Schaffer points out in a follow up piece, Everest ought to be safer these days. Since 1996 — the mountain's deadliest year, documented in John Krakauer's Into Thin Air — weather forecasts have improved (allowing climbers to avoid storms like the one responsible for many of the 1996 deaths), and new helicopters can reach stranded climbers at higher altitudes. But those things, Schaffer argues, are about reducing deaths related to disasters. This year, he writes, the deaths that happened on Everest weren't about freak occurrences of bad luck. It wasn't storms or avalanches that took those people down. It wasn't, in other words, about the random risks of nature.

This matters because it points to a new status quo on Everest: the routinization of high-altitude death. By and large, the people running the show these days on the south side of Everest—the professional guides, climbing Sherpas, and Nepali officials who control permits—do an excellent job of getting climbers to the top and down again. Indeed, a week after this year’s blowup, another hundred people summited on a single bluebird day, without a single death or serious injury.

But that doesn’t mean Everest is being run rationally. There are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter. Many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring. But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start. And while some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash.

It’s a recipe that doesn’t require a storm to kill people. In this regard, things are much different now than in the past: they’re worse.

Read the rest at Outside

Image via Outside and photographer Rob Sobecki

The grisly business of buffalo bones

By this point in your lives, most of you are by no doubt aware of the massive slaughter of buffalo that happened in the United States in the late 19th century. Across the plains, thousands of buffalo were killed every week during a brief period where the hides of these animals could fetch upwards of $10 a pop. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, so it's hard for me to say what that's worth today. But we know from the context that even when the value of buffalo hides dropped to $1 each, the business of killing and skinning buffalo was still considered a damned fine living.)

You might think that the business ended there, with dead, skinned buffalo left to rot on the prairie. And you're sort of right. But, in a story at Bloomberg News, Tim Heffernan explains that, a few years later, those dead buffalo created another boom and bust industry—the bone collection business.

Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar -- a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.

... And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it. Carted to town, a ton of bones fetched a few dollars. Sent to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, that same ton was worth between $18 and $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, it was worth as much as $60.

... By the 1880s, however, a few reporters were expressing nervous awe at the scale of the cleansing, and even despair for what had been lost. In 1891, not 25 years after the slaughter began, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a dispatch titled “Relics of the Buffalo.” The relics were the animals’ empty pathways and dust wallows, worn into the surface of the Manitoba plains over countless years. The bones, let alone the living creatures, were long gone.

Read the rest

David Byrne's How Music Works

Former Talking Heads frontman and all-round happy mutant David Byrne has written several good books, but his latest, How Music Works, is unquestionably the best of the very good bunch, possibly the book he was born to write. I could made good case for calling this How Art Works or even How Everything Works.

Though there is plenty of autobiographical material How Music Works that will delight avid fans (like me) -- inside dope on the creative, commercial and personal pressures that led to each of Byrne's projects -- this isn't merely the story of how Byrne made it, or what he does to turn out such great and varied art. Rather, this is an insightful, thorough, and convincing account of the way that creativity, culture, biology and economics interact to prefigure, constrain and uplift art. It's a compelling story about the way that art comes out of technology, and as such, it's widely applicable beyond music.

Byrne lived through an important transition in the music industry: having gotten his start in the analog recording world, he skilfully managed a transition to an artist in the digital era (though not always a digital artist). As such, he has real gut-feel for the things that technology gives to artists and the things that technology takes away. He's like the kids who got their Apple ][+s in 1979, and keenly remember the time before computers were available to kids at all, the time when they were the exclusive domain of obsessive geeks, and the point at which they became widely exciting, and finally, ubiquitous -- a breadth of experience that offers visceral perspective.

There were so many times in this book when I felt like Byrne's observations extended beyond music and dance and into other forms of digital creativity. For example, when Byrne recounted his first experiments with cellular automata exercise for dance choreography, from his collaboration with Noemie Lafrance:

1. Improvise moving to the music and come up with an eight-count phrase (in dance, a phrase is a short series of moves that can be repeated).

2. When you find a phrase you like, loop (repeat) it.

3. When you see someone else with a stronger phrase, copy it.

4. When everyone is doing the same phrase, the exercise is over.

It was like watching evolution on fast-forward, or an emergent lifeform coming into being. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. Then one could see that folks had chosen their phrases, and almost immediately one could see a pocket of dancers who had all adopted the same phrase. The copying had already begun, albeit in just one area. This pocket of copying began to expand, to go viral, while yet another one now emerged on the other side of the room. One clump grew faster than the other, and within four minutes the whole room was filled with dancers moving in perfect unison. Unbelievable! It only took four minutes for this evolutionary process to kick in, and for the "strongest" (unfortunate word, maybe) to dominate.

Read the rest

Meet "Big Trash"

Over the long run, keeping stuff like tree limbs and compostable waste out of landfills is good for cities. There's only so much space in a landfill and getting more land is extremely expensive. So why haven't more cities hopped on the curbside composting bandwagon, or at least banned yard waste from landfills? There's probably a lot of factors that go into those decisions, but one, apparently, is the influence of large, private companies that handle waste collection and see the diversion of re-usable waste as a detriment to their income. (Via Chris Tackett)

The best cat video on the Internet

That is a high claim, I know. But over Labor Day weekend, a combination of dedicated curation and popular vote resulted in Henri 2, Paw de Deux being named the best Internet cat video.

The Internet Cat Film Festival, sponsored by Minneapolis' Walker Museum of Art, drew a live audience of more than 10,000 people last Thursday night. Videos were curated from a massive collection submitted online, and were grouped into thematic categories— foreign films, for instance, or comedies. Henri 2 took home the Golden Kitty, a People's Choice award.

Bonus: If arguing about the merits of Henri 2 weren't enough of a gift to your procrastination tendencies, you can also check out a full list of all the films screened at the festival, including links.

Better services, less piracy

John Brownlee on why he stopped pirating music:

It’s clear to me, in retrospect, that my piracy was mostly mere collecting, and like the most fetishistic of collectors, it was conducted with mindless voracity. A good collection is supposed to be made up of relics, items that conjure up memories, feelings and ideas for the owner so strongly that he gets pleasure in simply being in close contact with them. A tended garden. My collection was nothing like this: it was just a red weed, swallowing up and corroding anything I did care about within its indiscriminating mass.

tl;dr newer streaming/subscription services, such as Spotify and Rdio, have nailed it.

Passing the Drum (video)

[Video Link] The 30 Days Ramadan guys have put out a wonderful new short film in their series of profiles on Muslim life in America. This one was directed by Zeshawn Ali, and focuses on a father-son legacy of music, in Brooklyn. Snip:

Mohammad Boota walks the streets of NYC walking Muslims up with a dhol drum during Ramadan - a rich tradition he inherited from his family in Pakistan. He came to America in 1992 and spent 9 years saving enough money to bring the rest of his family over. Now, fully reunited with his family, he rekindles the bond he has with his son over their love for drumming.

As you watch, remember that these are the regular people the NYPD and DHS want to surveil all the time, every day, solely because of their heritage.

You can subscribe to the 30 Days Ramadan YouTube channel for more great videos like this.

Seed artists support marriage equality

I've written here before about seed art at the Minnesota State Fair. Every year, Minnesotans glue thousands of tiny seeds to heavy backing material to create some surprisingly elaborate examples of portraiture and political commentary. Oddly, given that this is folk art at a state fair in the Midwest, most of that political commentary is solidly liberal.

I wasn't able to make it to the Minnesota State Fair this year, but Minnesota Public Radio's Nikki Tundel was there. At least four different entries in this year's seed art competition feature marriage equality themes—responses to the coming election when Minnesotans will decide whether or not to enshrine discriminatory marriage laws into our state constitution. It's safe to say: Minnesota's seed artists want you to vote "No".

You can see all the marriage equality seed art at the MPR News Tumblr blog

Via the Stuff About Minneapolis blog, and Andrew Balfour

Happy Women Reading Comics in Public Day!

When I was about 10, I developed an obsessive love for The X-Men. It started with the Saturday morning cartoon show, but quickly became about comic books, as well. To this day, long-overwritten plot points from the Marvel universe take up a significant portion of my memory space (as my husband can attest). In my marriage, I am the one who is called upon to flesh out the backstory and conflicts with source material after my husband and I have seen an action-hero movie.

But I didn't own a single comic book until I was 19.

In fact, I'm not sure my parents or friends even knew I liked comic books. All my reading, for nine years, was done in secret. I'd slip into the comic book aisle at the bookstore when nobody was around to see, grab an anthology off the shelf, and spend the next two hours nestled in a corner somewhere — with the comics safely hidden behind a magazine or large book. I did the same thing at the public library. Never even checked one out. If I couldn't finish a library comic anthology in one afternoon, I'd hide it in a seldom-used section and come back the next day. (My apologies to the librarians of the world for that.)

Partly, that shame and fear came was about being labeled a nerd, in general. But there was, for me, also a pretty heavy gender component. Tall, clumsy, nerdy, ignorant of fashion or makeup, and definitely not "attractive" in the way that sheltered pre-teen and teenage society defines it, I spent a good chunk of my adolescence paranoid about my identity as a female. Where and when I grew up, there weren't a lot of good role models for diversity of female experience. My parents always supported who I was, but society and my peers seemed to have a pretty strict definition of who girls were and what they liked ... and I didn't fit. Admitting that I was into comics felt like it would be just one more thing I did wrong. That's why I really, really love Women Reading Comics in Public Day, an unofficial holiday started by the bloggers at DC Women Kicking Ass.

Read the rest

How the refrigerator got its hum

Technology solves problems. But there's usually more than one way to solve a problem. Cars don't have to run on internal combustion — and they don't have to look like smoothly curved pods. (In fact, when I was in grade school, they didn't.) Our electric grid isn't the result of a rational discussion about ideal technology. Instead, it was built partly based on convenience and speed, and partly based on cost.

Basically, there are lots of ways to solve a problem and for almost every tool we use there's an alternative we chose (somewhere along the line) to not use. I'm working on my second column for The New York Times Magazine, which will come out in September. In the course of researching that, I stumbled across a really fascinating research paper about the history of the refrigerator. See, the electric fridge we're all familiar with wasn't the only option in home refrigeration. In the 20th century, the low hum of the electric refrigerator competed with a silent version powered by natural gas.

"How the Refrigerator Got its Hum" is an article written by science historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan. It was published in 1985, in a book called The Social Shaping of Technology. The article traces the development of the refrigerator and the story of why we use electricity, rather than natural gas, to cool our food today. I couldn't fit it into my NYT column, but it's absolutely fascinating and well worth the read. The key point of Cowan's article: Our world is full of "failed machines", technologies that worked just fine, but that we don't use today.

These are not junked cars and used refrigerators that people leave along roadsides and in garbage dumps, but the rusting hulks of aborted ideas; patents that were never exploited; test models that could not be manufactured at affordable prices; machines that had considerable potential, but were, for one reason or another, actively suppressed by the companies that had the license to manufacture them; devices that were put on the market, but never sold well and were soon abandoned. The publications of the Patent Office and the "new patents" columns in technical magazines reveal that the ration of "failed" machines to successful ones is high, although no scholar has yet devised a formula by which it can actually be determined.

Read the rest of "How the Refrigerator Got its Hum"

Image: Refrigerator in a parking lot., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from memestate's photostream

Great Moments in Pedantry: Librarian critiques Twilight Sparkle's professional practice

At Neatorama, librarian John Farrier helpfully points out some places where fictional pony librarian Twilight Sparkle could stand to improve her professional practice. It is simultaneously a dedicated bit of pony fandom and an interesting overview of the many responsibilities of a real-world librarian.

Conducting a reference interview is the act of translating a patron’s request into terms that are congruent with the library’s resources. It may surprise non-librarians to learn this, but yes: reference interviewing is a skill. And it is one that Twilight should develop.

A good reference interview begins with the librarian conducting him/herself in a manner that is welcoming. Helping the patron is the first priority of a librarian working the reference desk. The patron is not a distraction or an annoyance. In the first reference interview in the series, Twilight interacts with her patron, Rainbow Dash. “Can I help you?” is a good beginning. But her tone and body language suggests that she would rather not.

... Twilight has some good reference interviewing sense. One pitfall that rookie librarians fall into is to give professional advice instead of information—especially medical and legal advice. In “Cutie Pox,” Applejack and Applebloom visit the library and asking for medical advice. Twilight, aware that doing so could expose the library and herself to liability, deftly avoids doing so and refers Applejack and Applebloom to Zecora, a qualified medical professional.

Read the rest of the story at Neatorama

Cow week: Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public’s fascination with and fear of sharks.

Read the rest

Why does nobody think Usain Bolt cheated?

Covariation theory is a psychological idea that helps explain why we instantly suspect some record-breaking athletes of doping, while giving others the benefit of the doubt. (Via Melanie Tannenbaum)

How old is post-traumatic stress disorder?

It is very hard, and very weird to try to get a handle on how human health has changed between the 19th century and today. Obviously, the way we live has changed dramatically. But understanding how that impacts health (or doesn't) is complicated by the fact that healthcare, science, and public health research changed dramatically during those years, as well.

And all that science hasn't happened in a vacuum. The names we give various disorders change. Whether or not we consider something to be a disorder, at all, might change. And our cultural understanding changes, too—especially when it comes to mental illness.

At the Mind Hacks blog, Vaughn Bell has an excellent breakdown of two recent studies that try to put the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into a cultural and historical context. Many people assume that PTSD is just a new name for something that has always existed—look at shell shock, which made it onto Downton Abbey last season. But these new papers suggest that the distinction between what soldiers experienced in the past and what they experience today might go deeper than naming conventions.

The diagnosis of PTSD involves having a traumatic experience and then being affected by a month of symptoms of three main groups: intrusive memories, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of reminders or emotional numbing ... there has been a popular belief that PTSD has been experienced throughout history but simply wasn’t properly recognised. Previous labels, it is claimed, like ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’, were just early descriptions of the same universal reaction.

But until now, few studies have systematically looked for PTSD or post-trauma reactions in the older historical record. Two recent studies have done exactly this, however, and found no evidence for a historical syndrome equivalent to PTSD.

A study just published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders looked at the extensive medical records for soldiers in the American Civil War, whose mortality rate was about 50-80 greater than modern soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, there would have been many more having terrifying experiences but despite the higher rates of trauma and mentions of other mental problems, there is virtually no mention of anything like the intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of PTSD.

Read the rest at Mind Hacks

David Dobbs adds some more context to Bell's post at the Neuron Culture blog.

The social science of IUDs

IUDs are the weird form of birth control. We don't really know exactly how they work, for instance. And they've been largely unpopular my entire lifetime—really, ever since a couple of poorly designed IUDs set off a mini-panic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But IUDs are effective birth control. The ones that you can buy today are safe. And, more importantly, they represent birth control that you don't have to think about, and birth control that is really hard to get wrong.

If you've ever done research on the effectiveness of various methods of birth control, you'll notice that the statistics usually come with a little asterisk. That * represents a concept that few of the people who rely on birth control ever think about—perfect use. Let's use condoms as an example. With perfect use, 2 out of 100 women will get pregnant over the course of a year's worth of condom-protected sex. Without perfect use—maybe you don't use a condom every time, maybe you don't put it on right when you both get naked—the number of accidental pregnancies jumps to 18 out of 100. The same basic problem affects birth control pills, as well. Ladies, did you know you're supposed to take those things at the same time of day every day? That's the kind of use error that can make a difference between 1 out of 100 women getting pregnant in a year, and 9 out of 100 getting pregnant.

In contrast, IUDs represent a fit-it-and-forget-it method of birth control. Which is a big part about why they're up there with outright sterilization as the most effective means of birth control available. Bonus: Depending on which kind you use, you can avoid hormonal side effects. This, experts say, is why IUDs are experiencing something of a resurgence in popularity. In an article at Wired, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel writes that 5.5 percent of American women who use birth control use IUDs. That's up from only 1.3 percent in 1995.

Somewhat unbelievably, no one is quite sure how they work, but the theory goes like this: The human uterus has one overriding purpose, which is to protect and sustain a fetus for nine months. If you stick a poker-chip-sized bit of plastic in there, the body reacts the way it does to any foreign object, releasing white blood cells to chase after the invader. Once those white blood cells are set free in the uterus, they start killing foreign cells with efficient zeal. And sperm, it turns out, are very, very foreign. White blood cells scavenge them mercilessly, preventing pregnancy. In copper- containing IUDs, metal ions dissolving from the device add another layer of spermicidal action.

... Most modern IUDs incorporate copper, which has an assortment of benefits, including increased durability and effectiveness. They’re also free of hormones and can be made cheaply, a boon for women in developing countries. But copper IUDs can cause heavy menstrual bleeding and cramping. The Mirena solves that problem by forgoing the metal for a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone. Here again, the mode of action isn’t completely understood, but researchers suspect that the hormone thickens cervical mucus, which makes it nearly impossible for sperm to swim upstream. It may also thin the uterine lining, rendering it inhospitable to an embryo should fertilization occur. The hormone-based IUD has the opposite side effect of the copper ones: It sometimes leaves women with little uterine lining to shed, so they hardly get any period at all.

... Even though many more doctors are comfortable with the IUD, a generation of doctors didn’t get practice inserting it. And if they don’t know how to put one in, they’re less likely to recommend it as an option. Also, the devices are expensive—the ParaGard costs $500, the Mirena $850. “It’s absolute highway robbery that these companies charge so much,” Espey says. “If you went to Home Depot and got the raw materials for a copper IUD, it would cost less than 5 cents.” And the hormones don’t contribute much more to the cost, she adds. In fact, amortized over years of use—10 for the ParaGard and five for the Mirena—an IUD is far cheaper than birth control pills, which can cost $30 or more a month. But the initial outlay is difficult for some women to manage, and it’s not always covered by insurance.

Read the rest of the story at Wired

Read more about different kinds of birth control, their effectiveness, and how to use them correctly at Planned Parenthood

Via Scicurious

Image: X-Ray showing an IUD in place. Photo taken by Wikipedia user Nevit Dilmen, used via CC license.

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

Associated Press: As dozens of Eagle Scouts resign, Boy Scouts of America ignores them

I recently posted a couple of articles featuring heartfelt letters from people who had earned their Eagle Scout awards as boys, but no longer wanted to be associated with the Boy Scouts of America and its rule banning gay scouts and GBLT troop leaders. Instead, they were choosing to return their awards to the BSA, in hopes that scouting's national organization would recognize that this rule isn't something all scouts want. In fact, many wrote about their frustration with what they see as the BSA failing to live up to the values that scouting teaches.

As of August 4, more than 80 former Eagle Scouts have sent photos of their resignation letters to the Eagle Scouts Returning Our Badges Tumblr blog, where the letters and the protest they represent are being archived.

Reading the comments that have turned up here at BoingBoing, I get the sense that there are many more Eagle Scouts—and active Boy Scout troops—that also disagree with the BSA, but don't want to resign from local connections that don't reflect the national organization's bigotry. In fact, the Northern Star Council, which represents 75,000 scouts in Minnesota and Wisconsin, is openly bucking Boy Scouts of America policy, and has been for years.

The Associated Press ran a piece yesterday looking at this dissent and the effect—or, it seems, lack thereof—it is having on BSA policy.

Deron Smith, the Boy Scouts' national spokesman, said there was no official count at his office of how many medals had been returned. He also noted that about 50,000 of the medals are awarded each year.

Beyond the Eagle Scout protests, the Boy Scouts' reaffirmation of the no-gays policy has drawn condemnation from liberal advocacy groups, newspaper editorialists and others. In Washington state, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, an Eagle Scout, joined his Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee, in suggesting the policy be changed.

But overall there has been little evidence of any new form of outside pressure that might prompt the Scouts to reconsider.

The leadership of the Scouts' most influential religious partners - notably the Mormons, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists - appears to support the policy. And even liberal politicians seem reluctant to press the issue amid a tense national election campaign.

Read the rest of the Associated Press story

Patent on a method for exercising a cat

When you pull out a laser pointer and get your cat to chase the dot of light around your house*, you are using a patented method of cat exercise. The rights are owned by Kevin Amiss and Martin Abbott (both of Virginia), who patented it in the early 1990s. In the abstract, they describe this method of cat exercise as:

A method for inducing cats to exercise consists of directing a beam of invisible light produced by a hand-held laser apparatus onto the floor or wall or other opaque surface in the vicinity of the cat, then moving the laser so as to cause the bright pattern of light to move in an irregular way fascinating to cats, and to any other animal with a chase instinct.

In other words, they own the rights on doing this with ferrets, as well.

This might also be a good time to note an NPR story from this week, which documents IBM and Halliburton attempting to patent the process of patent trolling.

Method of exercising a cat: United States Patent 5443036

*Fact: This game becomes more fun if you have a rug. Just run the light up to the edge of the rug and then turn it off. The cat will become convinced that the little red light has gone under said rug and you will get to amuse yourself watching your cat try to lift the corner of something heavy without the use of opposable thumbs.

Thanks, Sam Ley!

Image: Gotcha!, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from drregor's photostream

All the way to Timbuktu

Timbuktu is, for the record, in the West African country of Mali. But how did it end up immortalized in Western idiom? Pamela Toler at Wonders and Marvels explains. Here's a hint: In the 14th century, the city was one of the major book-making centers in the entire world.

Happy Sysadmin Day!

A very happy Sysadmin Day to Boing Boing's own Ken Snider (@orenwolf on Twitter), and to all the others who toil in the server room coal mines. Without them, you would not be reading this blog post.

Read the rest

The graffiti of Pompeii

Pompeii is the city frozen in time. Which means that nobody ever came through and cleaned up all the (often incredibly dirty) ancient Roman graffiti (or added their own, more modern, stuff).

So, what you find is a really cool time capsule of the way random, average puellae et pueri talked, at least in certain situations. This is colloquial Latin, and that's not something we get many chances to see.

It's also hilarious. I've seen some of these examples of Pompeiian graffiti over the years, but, as far as I'm concerned, it never gets old. (Ba-DUM-ching!) Some good examples:

From the Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio: "Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!"

From the Bar of Prima: The story of Successus, Severus and Iris is played out on the walls of a bar: [Severus]: “Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”. [Answer by Successus]: “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.” [Answer by Severus]: “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

From the House of Pascius Hermes; left of the door: "To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy."

From the basilica: "The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian."

Check out more of these at the Pompeiana website

For more about average Roman life, I really recommend Terry Jones' documentary "The Hidden History of Rome". You can watch it streaming on Netflix. It's a great overview of the little bits that we know about how non-elites lived thousands of years ago.

Via The Nation

Image: Pompeii, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from editor's photostream

The First Knight of Ramadan: A Muslim Nerd's Dilemma (video)

[Video Link] Aman Ali, one of the guys behind "30 Mosques," tells Boing Boing, "Instead of doing a roadtrip this year, we're releasing short films."

I love this one. In it, a Muslim nerd "is excited for the new Dark Knight movie," but it releases on the first night of Ramadan.

The short film stars Aman Ali, is directed by Musa Syeed, and was shot by Omar Mullick. Subscribe to their YouTube channel for more.

Religion, space, and the power of cultural connections

That's a picture of an Orthodox Christian priest, blessing the launch of a Soyuz spacecraft.

It seems like a weird and outdated pairing: Religion and space exploration. But they're actually a lot more intertwined than you might think, writes Rebecca Rosen at the Atlantic. A lot of astronauts are religious. A lot of astronauts that aren't really religious seem to have an urge to carry the cultural traditions of religion into space. And religion returns the favor. For instance, The Book of Common Prayer now includes an astronaut option in its prayer for travelers: "For those who travel on land, on water, or in the air [or through outer space], let us pray to the Lord."

I'm sorry. I'm an atheist and that just kind of gave me the shivvers. Basically, being out in space, so far from your fellow humans and in such an alien environment, makes for a really good example of the way religion (and ritual) can serve as a tie binding us to the rest of humanity. For some people, it's a connection to a bigger sense of history. And when they look the future (and/or the vast emptiness of space) full in the face, they need that connection to humanity. It doesn't work for everybody. But the relationship between religion and space travel is a good place to start when you want to have a conversation about the fact that there really don't have to be conflicts between religion and science. (Really, people. For serious.)

Here's the scene: It's Christmas Eve, 1968. The spaceship with three men on board had hurtled toward the moon for three days, and they have now finally entered the moon's orbit, a move requiring a maneuver so dicey that just a tiny mistake could have sent the men off into an unwieldy elliptical orbit or crashing to the moon's surface. But all went smoothly, and they are orbiting the moon. On their fourth pass (of 10), astronaut William Anders snaps the famous Earthrise shot that will appear in Life magazine. On their ninth orbit, they begin a broadcast down to Earth. Astronaut Frank Borman introduces the men of the mission, and, then, this:

"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said, 'Let there be light," Borman read.

Read the rest of the article at The Atlantic

I can't remember who sent this story to me. If it's you, let me know, and I will credit you here!

Thin Mint Haters: Rise against your cookie oppressors

TIL that Thin Mints are not the most popular Girl Scout cookie. Yesterday, in Cincinnati, President Obama was booed when he mentioned that he preferred Thin Mints to all other Girl Scout cookies.

This surprised me. For several reasons. First, I didn't realized they took cookies that seriously in Cincinnati. Maybe it's time to visit Ohio. Second, as someone who has long preferred Samoas (aka Caramel deLites), I always felt as though I was in a serious minority. Like my family grudgingly ordered one box, mostly for me, out of an order that was primarily made up of Thin Mints.

And, on the one hand, this is a realistic perception. Thin Mints are the Girl Scouts' best selling cookie—accounting for 25% of all cookie sales. And yet.

And yet ... that does not tell the whole story. After all, if we Samoa and Peanut Butter Patty (Tagalongs) fans were to join forces (and we should), we would account for 32% of cookie sales. And if you look at the Girl Scouts' online poll, you find that 33% of respondents preferred Samoas—compared to 28% who preferred Thin Mints.(Not a very scientific poll, but this doesn't seem to be the sort of thing Gallup covers, so the Girl Scouts were my best shot at providing nationally relevant results here.)

So, basically, people who are only kind of okay with Thin Mints—you can feel justified. People who absolutely hate them—that's cool, too. You aren't alone. There's more of us then there are of them, we just aren't a cohesive voting block.

Washington Post on Obama's Cincinnati visit

Girl Scout cookie sales data

Results of Girl Scout cookie poll

An annual shooting spree in North Carolina

In certain parts of the United States (including Birmingham, Alabama) shooting guns into the air is one way that some locals celebrate major holidays, like the 4th of July.

For those of us who didn't grow up with celebratory gunfire, this cultural practice can be difficult to understand—especially given the fact that it is dangerous. Bullets that go up come back down, and they can injure and kill people. It's unclear exactly how risky the practice is. If you're hit by a falling bullet, your chances of death are significantly higher compared to a normal gunshot wound. And a study of celebratory gunfire injuries in Los Angeles turned up 118 victims, including 38 deaths, between 1985 and 1992. But I wasn't able to find a good analysis that put deaths into perspective with shots fired. (So, for instance, for every x shots fired into the air, x number of people are injured. Without that, it's hard to tell whether celebratory gunfire is really, really dangerous or only kind of dangerous sometimes. But either way, when you do it, especially in urban areas, you're taking a risk of killing someone.)

Usually, though, when we talk about celebratory gunfire, we're talking about unorganized huzzahs fired off with impromptu vigor in backyards and at family gatherings. In Cherryville, North Carolina, however, the whole thing is a lot more official ... and safer. Starting at midnight on New Year's Eve, the Cherryville New Year's Shooters go door to door throughout a three-county area singing traditional New Year's shooting songs, and calling residents out to shoot with them. It's a lot like going caroling, but with weaponry. Thankfully, it's all done with blanks these days.

For more than 18 hours, and through three different counties — Gaston, Lincoln, and Cleveland — the shooters follow the route bringing ceremony and good tidings to neighbors. At each stop along the way, a crier recites the “Chant of the New Year’s Shooters,” and then participants fire their muskets, one by one, each loaded with black powder, no bullets allowed. The noise of the musket is thought to drown out evil spirits and bad luck; while the chant — part poem, part speech, and part song — asks for peace and prosperity in the New Year.

Joyce Green sent this story in to me. While she was raised in one of these communities—Shelby, North Carolina—she would like you to know that, "I never wake up on New Year’s day and think, 'I’d better get on down to the nursing home and fire off a couple of shots to bring in the New Year right.'"

Read more about the Cherryville New Year's Shooters

Read more about the dangers of celebratory gunfire that involves real bullets.

Image: Black Powder Shot, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from theknowlesgallery's photostream