• When your professor is dead, but teaches anyway

    A real-life example leads to questions on education, labor, and economic worth. Aaron Ansuini made a surprising discovery with all kinds of implications.

    The university appears to have no problem listing a deceased professor as the "teacher" of this particular course.

    Yeah, it's a lecture class, but in most colleges, the job of teaching goes beyond lectures. Normally, professors have office hours to discuss issues with students, and they answer questions in and after class and by email. And they give grades. We can assume that there is a TA to grade papers and exams, and maybe even answer questions, but aren't they then the actual "teacher" of the class?

    Let's take that another step. What if this isn't just a one-off case of a popular professor dying. With so many classes online, why wouldn't universities just lay off any professor with a body of recorded lectures? We already know that tenure is harder to achieve every year, and schools are relying more and more on adjunct professors who teach a couple of classes on yearly contracts with no benefits. This scheme could save schools even more money! Of course, tuition will remain the same. One prof in the Twitter thread saw this possibility already.

    And you have to consider the scenario of a student who doesn't realize the listed professor is deceased, and requests a letter of recommendation. It's hard for me to imagine asking one from a professor I hadn't met, but it's totally possible in a world of social-distance learning. Aaron Ansuini is a proponent of online classes and using technology to make education more accessible, but this is a transparency issue because the students weren't notified of the professor's, um, status.

    You can read Ansuini's story at Threadreader or the entire discussion with replies at Twitter.

    [via Metafilter]

  • First preserved dinosaur butthole is 'perfect' and 'unique,' paleontologist says

    A well-preserved fossil of the dinosaur Psittacosaurus found in China has paleontologists waxing poetic about its well-preserved cloaca.  

    The dinosaur's derrière is so well preserved, researchers could see the remnants of two small bulges by its "back door," which might have housed musky scent glands that the reptile possibly used during courtship — an anatomical quirk also seen in living crocodilians, said scientists who studied the specimen.

    Although this dinosaur's caboose shares some characteristics with the backsides of some living creatures, it's also a one-of-a-kind opening, the researchers found. "The anatomy is unique," study lead researcher Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. It doesn't quite look like the opening on birds, which are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs. It does look a bit like the back opening on a crocodile, he said, but it's different in some ways. "It's its own cloaca, shaped in its perfect, unique way," Vinther said.

    The rest of the article at LiveScience is not quite so awestruck at the discovery, but has more information on the Psittacosaurus fossil. They used so many different terms for butthole that another dino comes to mind -the thesaurus. 

    [via reddit]

  • The earth's oldest existing lifeforms

    Scientists estimate that the earth is around 4.5 billions years old. In Western Australia, you can see stromatolites, rock formations built by organisms beginning about 3.5 billion years ago. And those organisms are still with us. 

    With a citizen scientist's understanding, stromatolites are stony structures built by colonies of microscopic photosynthesising organisms called cyanobacteria. As sediment layered in shallow water, bacteria grew over it, binding the sedimentary particles and building layer upon millimetre layer until the layers became mounds. Their empire-building brought with it their most important role in Earth's history. They breathed. Using the sun to harness energy, they produced and built up the oxygen content of the Earth's atmosphere to about 20%, giving the kiss of life to all that was to evolve.

    The stromatolites were eventually eclipsed by thrombolites, which were more adaptable. After lasting so very long, the structures built by these ancient organisms are now under threat from human populations and climate change. Read about them both at BBC Travel.

    [via Damn Interesting]

  • "Seasons of Trump": Randy Rainbow's tribute to the Trump administration

    As it comes time to bid goodbye to President Trump (yeah, I know he's not going away, but he won't have the title), everyone has their own way of saying good riddance. Randy Rainbow does it with a parody song, taking a look back and summing up the past four years to the tune of "Seasons of Love" from the musical Rent. Do NOT abandon this before the high note near the end! Let's just hope that Randy Rainbow never goes away.

  • Wolverine spotted in Yellowstone National Park

    Biologists at Yellowstone National Park set up camera traps to monitor cougars in 2014. You can imagine that these cameras saw a lot of different types of wildlife, but last month, a wolverine was seen running past the camera- the first time the park has captured one on video in more than a decade.

    Wolverines are in many ways ghosts of the forests. They prefer cold climates, are solitary, and require large amounts of space to roam in search of prey. There as few as 300 left in the Lower 48, so the odds of seeing one are incredibly low.

    Read more about the elusive wolverine at Earther.

  • What's with men who eat like little boys?

    How do you define a "picky eater?" We all develop dietary habits in childhood that persist through our lives, and what's "picky" depends on who is using the term. Many men who habitually eat the same processed foods they were fed in childhood don't think of themselves as picky eaters until they have a girlfriend who is horrified by their diet.  

    The proclivity to eat like a boy is only magnified when there's a partner around to bear witness. For example, when Ally met her boyfriend Brad, he didn't eat vegetables at all, only steak, pasta, burgers, nuggets and pizza bagels. "He's 28 now, and he still eats like a 7-year-old," Ally tells me. "He works at Family Guy, so he's surrounded by other adult children and a kitchen fully stocked with gummy bears and Capri Sun. What adult man regularly drinks chocolate milk with his meals?"

    Ally chalks it up to Brad's mom babying him and bowing to his every dietary whim when he was a child. "She'd cook three different meals if he and his brothers demanded it," she explains. "So Brad was an incredibly picky eater after 20-some-odd years of being nutritionally catered to by his (very lovely) mother."

    The reasons men fall into the nutritional abyss vary, but they mostly boil down to the fact that continuing on a pleasant path is much easier than changing it. Read what's behind the diets of men who eat like boys at Mel magazine.

    [via Nag on the Lake]

  • The first hypodermic needle

    The modern disposable hypodermic needle is a marvel: safe, clean, and almost painless compared to the reusable instruments many of us remember from years past. But how did this method of introducing drugs into our bodies start? Earlier physicians would wound the skin, as in variolation, but the first use of a needled instrument was in 1844, when Dr. Francis Rynd injected morphine acetate into the face of a woman who was most likely suffering from the painful nerve condition called trigeminal neuralgia.  

    The most interesting thing about this section of the report, however, is the 'instrument made for the purpose' of injecting the drug. Dr Rynd did not include a description or illustration of this instrument – probably a mistake, as it was his opportunity to publicise his invention. We do know what it looked like, however, from an article he subsequently published in 1861:

    This is not a hypodermic syringe but a novel type of trochar: an instrument with a sharp tip and a cannula through which fluids can be introduced (or evacuated). It had a sharp needle to puncture the skin, but no plunger to propel fluids into the body; instead, the drug was dropped into the cannula, using 'an ordinary writing-pen', and then left to infiltrate the tissues by gravity alone.

    The injection did deliver relief to the patient. Read about the case, and also the first injection using a syringe with a plunger a few years later, at Thomas Morris' blog.

    [via Strange Company]

  • What we know about sex with Neanderthals

    Most people today carry around at least a trace of Neanderthal DNA, the legacy of reproduction between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis thousands of years ago. Genetic studies show that such interbreeding happened time and again in different populations, and although we don't know the circumstances, we might assume that a variety of circumstances were involved over time. An article at BBC Future begins with a scenario taken from romance novels, but soon gets into the science of Neanderthal-modern human relations, like a study of Neanderthal dental plaque. Anthropologist Laura Weyrich discovered the common oral microbe Methanobrevibacter oralis, but this sample was the human version, not the variety that normally inhabited Neanderthal mouths.

    Weyrich explains that one possible route for the transfer is kissing. "When you kiss someone, oral microbes will go back and forth between your mouths," she says. "It could have happened once but then sort of been somehow magically propagated, if it happened that the group of people who were infected went on to be very successful. But it could also be something that occurred more regularly."

    Another way to transfer your oral microbes is by sharing food. And although there is no direct evidence of a Neanderthal preparing a meal for an early modern human, a romantic meal could have been an alternative source of M. oralis.

    Image: Clemens Vasters/CC BY 2.0

    Such studies also give us insight into Neanderthal-human transfer of sex-linked chromosomes, cancer, STDs, and immune systems. This much sharing may eventually lead us to conclude that modern humans didn't wipe out the Neanderthals so much as we just absorbed them.

  • Do not inject mushrooms

    Mood-altering drugs are not all the same. Opium is plant-based, LSD is synthetic (although often adulterated), and mushrooms are fungi. A fungus can go through a lot and still survive enough to grow. A yet-to-be-published report tells of a 30-year-old man, an experienced opioid user, who injected himself with a "tea" made from magic mushrooms, which led to a serious infection.  

    Days before the ER visit, he had decided to use mushrooms by first boiling them down into what he called "mushroom tea," then filtering the mixture through a cotton swab and intravenously injecting it. Soon after, he developed symptoms including lethargy, jaundice, diarrhea, and nausea, along with vomiting up blood.

    By the time he was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, multiple organs had started to fail, including his lungs and kidney. Tests revealed that he had both a bacterial and fungal infection in his blood, meaning that the mushrooms he injected were now literally feeding off him and growing. Among other treatments, he was given an intense course of antibiotics and antifungal drugs.

    The man spent 22 days in the hospital, and even after discharge is taking antimicrobial drugs. Read more of the story at Gizmodo.

  • The governornator's message to America

    Somewhere around 50 years ago, a young immigrant came to the United States to seek his fortune in pursuit of the American Dream. He spoke little English, and what he knew of the language was fairly incomprehensible to the rest of us. But he worked hard, flexed his muscles, swung a sword, traveled through time, married a Kennedy, and served as governor of California.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice is clear and precise in this video as he speaks of the insurrection at the Capitol building, comparing it to Kristallnacht in 1938. But he has hope and confidence in America. This is the kind of video that makes you stand up a little straighter and remember what kind of country we want to live in.

  • John Fogerty's new song captures our sorrow

    John Fogerty dropped a new song last Wednesday, just as rioters gathered in Washington, ready to invade the Capitol building. "Weeping in the Promised Land" addresses Donald Trump and the events of the past few years without naming names, but perfectly capturing the enormous sorrow those events leave in their wake. Here are the lyrics.

    Water in the well been poisoned with lies
    Weeping in the promised land
    Satan's dark angels are falling from the sky
    Weeping in the promised land
    Children of God, he turns into stone
    The sick and the weak, he dances on their bones
    Pharoah shouting down the medicine man
    Weeping in the promised land

    Fork-tongued pharaoh, behold he comes to seek
    Weeping in the promised land
    Hissing and spewing, it's power that he seeks
    Weeping in the promised land
    With dread in their eyes, all the nurses are crying
    Everywhere sorrow, everywhere dying
    Pharoah keeps preaching but he never had a plan
    Weeping in the promised land
    Weeping in the promised land

    Pharoah's army knocking on the door
    Weeping in the promised land
    Shoot you in your bed just like they done before
    Weeping in the promised land
    Out in the street, on your neck with a knee
    All the people are crying your last words
    "I can't breathe"
    And the white judge say "there's been no crime here today"
    Weeping in the promised land
    Weeping in the promised land

    (via Nag on the Lake)

  • An insane amount of cool space things happening in 2021

    While we look forward to things calming down here on Earth, there's going to be plenty of activity in the heavens. Ars Technica put together an overview of plans that include everything from innovative rockets to private flights to the construction of a new space station. And three different nations have spacecraft scheduled to land on Mars in February!

    The United Arab Emirates' first mission to the Red Planet, Mars Hope, is due to arrive on February 9. At this time, the spacecraft will make a challenging maneuver to slow down and enter orbit around Mars with an altitude above the planet as low as 1,000km. If all goes well, the spacecraft will spend a Martian year—687 Earth days—studying the planet's atmosphere and better understanding its weather.

    China has not said when, exactly, that its ambitious Tianwen-1 mission will arrive at Mars, but it's expected in mid-February. After the spacecraft enters orbit, it will spend a couple of months preparing to descend to the surface, assessing the planned landing site in the Utopia Planitia region. Then, China will attempt to become only the second country to soft-land a spacecraft on Mars that survives for more than a handful of seconds. It will be a huge moment for the country's space program.  

    NASA's Mars Perseverance will likely be the last of three missions to arrive at Mars, reaching the Red Planet in mid-February and attempting a landing in Jezero Crater on February 18. This entry, descent, and landing phase—much like with the Curiosity lander in 2012—will be must-see TV.

    Read what else 2021 has in store for space exploration at Ars Technica.

    [via Digg]

  • The man who faked the Aztec crystal skulls

    There's something very appealing about human skulls carved out of crystal. We now associate them with an Indiana Jones movie and the inspiration for a celebrity vodka, but for more than a century, they were sought-after relics of the Aztec Empire. In the late 1800s, these beautiful icons that illustrated the Aztecs' fascination with skulls began to be found in Mexico and sent to museums. It appears now that they are all fakes.  

    When you combine the pre-Columbian fascination with skulls with the technical prowess at carving stone, it may have been easy for some to believe that these ancient people could have carved skulls out of crystal. And for nearly 150 years, that subtext helped a number of museum exhibit curators feel comfortable about displaying their crystal skulls, despite long-standing questions about these objects' true origins.

    It was only thanks to a number of investigations like Walsh's in recent years that archaeologists have largely come to the consensus that these crystal skulls are fakes. Some still display them from time to time because of the public's extreme interest.

    So how did the crystal skull craze get started? Research traces them back to one man, who was able to profit handsomely on their authenticity because he was himself an expert on the authenticity of Mexican relics. Read that story at Discover magazine

    [via Strange Company]

  • Lessons on enduring a lonely winter from Antarctic voyagers

    If you want some advice on how to spend a long lonely winter inside, safe from viruses but at risk for boredom, maybe we can take some tips from the Antarctic expeditions of a hundred years ago. Before permanent science stations and before the internet, these men knew the risk of being stranded meant they had to take along their own distractions. Most expeditions included at least one musical instrument, brought by someone who knew how to play it. The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-1904) included a designated piper, Gilbert Kerr, pictured above. (This image was the subject of some Wikipedia shenanigans a few years ago.) The crew also produced diaries and newspapers, which I guess only differed from each other by whether they were shared.

    There is a long tradition of polar explorers creating newspapers for themselves. Reports on the weather or accounts of visits to penguin colonies were interspersed with short stories, poetry, interviews, crossword puzzles and word games. They were illustrated with both humorous and artistic drawings. Over time, these texts took on a great deal of sexual content, including lewd jokes and fantasies.

    As one explorer explained, "The importance of not allowing any sense of depression to become a part of the atmosphere of our life was clear to all."

    There were other methods these explorers used to keep their sanity, which you may find utterly dreary in comparison to video games. But you work with what you have. Read the rest at Atlas Obscura.