Friday Evening Reads: Scientific Discoveries, Cats from Hell, and Romney Reads

Good Evening Sky Dancers! I’m filling in for Minkoff Minx tonight. I’m a little weary of all the nonsensical arguments fomented by the right wing nuts and the red beanie pedophile enablers, so I’m going to avoid those issues in tonight’s roundup. Instead, I’m going to go with some odds and ends that piqued my fancy today.

Russian scientists have finally reached Lake Vostok in Antarctica.

Opening a scientific frontier miles under the Antarctic ice, Russian experts drilled down and finally reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake, an achievement the mission chief likened to placing a man on the moon….

Lake Vostok could hold living organisms that have been locked in icy darkness for some 20 million years, as well as clues to the search for life elsewhere in the solar system….

The Russian team made contact with the lake water Sunday at a depth of 12,366 feet (3,769 meters), about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) east of the South Pole in the central part of the continent.

Scientists hope the lake might allow a glimpse into microbial life forms that existed before the Ice Age and are not visible to the naked eye. Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite its high pressure and constant cold — conditions similar to those believed to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

That sounds pretty amazing. Read the whole article to learn about the possibilities and goals of the study.

Did you ever wonder why Zebras have stripes? To be honest, I never did, but now that someone has discovered the likely reason, I do find the answer kind of interesting. It turns out that zebras have stripes because they discourage horseflies.

While it is widely-known in the scientific community that horseflies and other insects prefer animals with dark skin to animals with white skin, a study published this week in the Journal of Experimental Biology examines evidence that zebra stripes actually discourage horseflies from biting. Prior to the study, researchers thought that the primary purpose of zebra stripes was to confuse predators. However, the study suggests that predator confusion is secondary to horsefly deterrence.

“We demonstrate that a zebra-striped horse model attracts far fewer horseflies (tabanids) than either homogeneous black, brown, grey or white equivalents,” the researchers write in the study’s abstract.

Horseflies, which can carry diseases and distract their victim from feeding or drinking, are unwelcome visitors to zebras and other animals that graze. According to Gábor Horváth, one of the study’s authors, horseflies are attracted to horizontally polarized light because the sunlight that reflects off of water is horizontally polarized. When horseflies and other aquatic insects discover water they can mate and lay eggs. The female variety of horseflies, however, are also attracted to linearly polarized light that reflects off of the hides of their victims.

Is your pet making you crazy? Do you have a cat? Then you might want to read this article at The Atlantic–or maybe not. It’s about a scientist who believes that a feline parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, is affecting his brain and altering his personality.

As a student of development, I’m familiar with this parasite, because it has to be avoided by pregnant women because it can affect the fetus and lead to severe brain damage or death. The parasite is excreted by cats, so pregnant women must not change cat litter boxes or get too close to them But Jaroslav Flegr suspects it may be causing other problems in non-pregnant humans. For one thing,

T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage.

Is is commonly believed that:

Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells…

Au contraire, says Flegr.

the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

An evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague, Flegr has pursued this theory for decades in relative obscurity. Because he struggles with English and is not much of a conversationalist even in his native tongue, he rarely travels to scientific conferences. That “may be one of the reasons my theory is not better known,” he says. And, he believes, his views may invite deep-seated opposition. “There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite,” he says. “Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. Reviewers [of my scientific papers] may have been offended.” Another more obvious reason for resistance, of course, is that Flegr’s notions sound an awful lot like fringe science, right up there with UFO sightings and claims of dolphins telepathically communicating with humans.

But after years of being ignored or discounted, Flegr is starting to gain respectability. Psychedelic as his claims may sound, many researchers, including such big names in neuroscience as Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, think he could well be onto something.

eeeeeeeek! Go read the article if you dare!

The headline of that article reminded me a great show I recently saw on the Animal channel, My Cat from Hell. It’s a “reality” show that documents the adventures of an “animal behaviorist” named Jackson Galaxy. He’s a rock musician by night and helps people with crazy cats by day. I thought I’d share a couple of clips from the show with you. The first one is an introductory promo.

Here’s a clip from one of the episodes.

Here’s a video of Galaxy working with a cat from hell.

I love this show! It’s even better than It’s Me or the Dog.

I’ve got a couple of crime stories for you. First, police in Washington state searched a storage facility owned by Josh Powell, the man who recently murdered his two sons and killed himself by blowing up his house. They found a comforter that tested positive for blood.

Investigators had considered Josh Powell a person of interest since his wife, Susan Powell, disappeared in Utah in 2009. At the time, Powell said he took his two sons ice camping in subfreezing temperatures.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said presumptive tests are conducted with a field kit and that a determination of blood won’t be confirmed until the item is examined in the lab. “Field tests are not infallible,” he said.

Lindquist said he expects the finding will be something law enforcement will share with colleagues in Utah who have been investigating Susan Powell’s disappearance.

I wonder why that storage facility wasn’t searched sooner?

In Illinois, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy pulled a gun on a pregnant woman because she had two many items in a self-serve line at Walmart. Her husband was arrested for trying to defend her.

Just one week from her due date, Nicole Thurmond said she feared for her life while checking out at a Walmart store in Oswego on a recent Sunday.

“I felt someone close behind me. He started being really rude and said, ‘Don’t you know how to count? You are holding up the whole store,” Thurmond recalled.

Thurmond said she didn’t know it at the time, but the man in plain clothes was off-duty deputy Craig French.

Thurmond’s husband had been getting eggs at the time and said he could see his wife was upset when he returned to the checkout area.

“There was a guy in her face, yelling at her,” said Jason Thurmond. “In an aggressive manner he steps toward me, and I just push him back to keep him away from my wife and myself, and before I knew it I just froze because he pulled out a gun.”

Jason Thurmond said the man didn’t show his badge, was “waving a gun in a store,” and at one point asked them if they were on welfare.

The case is now being investigated.

Well, of course you know I have to indulge my Mitt Romney obsession, so I have a few Romney reads. Have you heard that Romney “can’t wait to get his hands on Washington?” He said so at CPAC today.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Friday tried to convince attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to vote for him by reminding them of his “severely conservative” record, including preventing Massachusetts from becoming “the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

“History will record the Obama presidency as last gasp of liberalism’s great failure and a turning point for the conservative era to come,” the candidate predicted. “I know this president will never get it, but we conservatives aren’t just proud to cling to our guns and our religion, we are also proud to cling to our Constitution.”

“As governor of Massachusetts, I had the unique experience of defending conservative principles in the most liberal state in the nation,” Romney said. “Even with a legislature that was 85 percent Democrat, I cut taxes 19 times and balanced the budget all four years. I cast over 800 vetoes and cut entire programs. … And I can’t wait to get my hands on Washington!”

Ooooooooh! He was “severely conservative.” How impressive.

This one is a little old, but it’s so funny that I had to share it. It’s a brief humor column from the New Yorker by one of my favorite writers, Calvin Trillin, called “President Romney Meets Other World Leaders.” It’s based on a New York Times article that addressed some of Romney’s “peculiar habits” on the campaign trail. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

When Mitt Romney introduces himself to voters, he has a peculiar habit of guessing their age or nationality, often incorrectly. (A regular query: “Are you French Canadian?”)
When making small talk with locals, he peppers the conversation with curious details. . . . Mr. Romney has developed an unlikely penchant for trying to puzzle out everything from voters’ personal relationships to their ancestral homelands. . . . Mr. Romney likes to congratulate people. For what, exactly, is not always clear.

And here’s just a bit of Trillin’s piece playing off that quote:

The moment President Romney entered the room where the opening reception of his first G-8 summit was being held, he was approached by a small man who shook his hand and said, “Je suis Nicolas Sarkozy.”

“Are you of French-Canadian origin?” President Romney said, smiling broadly.

“I am French,” Sarkozy replied, looking somewhat puzzled. “I am, in fact, the President of France.”

“Congratulations,” President Romney said. “Lipstick contains a substance made from fish scales.”

Before Sarkozy could reply—in fact, before he could think of anything to say on the subject of lipstick manufacturing—they were approached by Angela Merkel, of Germany, who looked eager to greet the newest leader in the G-8. President Romney peered at her briefly and then said to Sarkozy, “Your aunt? Your mother?”

“This is Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Sarkozy said.

Please go read the rest–it’s very short but funny.

Here is Charlie Pierce’s latest blog on our former Governor: What the Self-Manufacturing of Romney Hath Produced

The transformation is now complete. Willard Romney, my former governor, the man who campaigned here for the Senate and lost, and who campaigned for governor here and won, has fashioned himself into the most carefully manufactured fake in the recent history of American politics. I used to call him the Piltdown Man of American politics — a candidate fashioned from a jawbone picked up here and a shinbone picked up there and whatever position on whatever issue he happened to find at hand at the time — but that may no longer be sufficient to explain him. After all, and even though it took more than 40 years, eventually they busted the Piltdown Man as a hoax. Willard’s transformation, from what he was here in Massachusetts, to what he is now, is so full and thorough that he has successfully constructed an entirely new Willard for himself. Of course, they had to hurry him off the assembly line because of the urgency injected into the race by the stunning (if remarkably delegate-free) triple play pulled off on Tuesday by Rick Santorum, who has never taken a breath in which he was not the authentically wingy wingnut that Willard has labored so hard to make of himself.

I’ll let you savor the rest at Charlie’s place. I hope everyone has a great Friday night and a fabulous weekend!

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