Friday, May 31, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Hakarl.

I think some of my faith in humanity just died. Why? Because people actually eat toxic, 23-foot-long shark, and it's popular.

No, really. There are people who eat poisonous, polar bear-eating shark. In Iceland, there is a dish called hakarl frequently eaten in winter. It happens to be the national food of Iceland, and is made entirely of Greenland shark. There are different varieties depending on where it comes from. It still comes from the same shark that is about the size of Jaws and eats Christmas mascots as a snack.

How do they do it? By making the shark rot. They bury it in a pit for a month or five, using heavy rocks to add pressure onto the dead shark. Bacteria take out the toxins in the shark's flesh during that time, making it fit for human consumption. It is then hung up to dry. Note how "delicious" does not come up in that description. Just "fit for human consumption." It's edible, but by no means delicious.

Hakarl is definitely an acquired taste. Most first-timers are advised to hold their noses; like many fermented foods, hakarl tastes (slightly) better than it smells. But don't take my word for it; the video below has testimonials detailing exactly how bad hakarl is. Chef Ramsey himself could not stomach it. No wonder brennivin is consumed afterwards.

To be fair, we can see how someone would want to eat the shark. Traditional Icelandic stuff is made with shark teeth. Just about the only thing they weren't using was the meat. It's still a freaky way to use it; "hey, let's get this bad-tasting shark to decay, and hope the poison's out while the shark's still reeking from bacteria." Yep, great logic.

After Earth would never happen. Humans would decimate every habitat so much that nature would bounce back in strange, unpredictable ways, using exactly none of the cute, fuzzy animals in that movie. The future bat in Primeval is more realistic than that.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Creature Feature: Greenland Shark.

Want an animal that could still be around 10,000 years after humanity? Sharks. Sharks are badasses that ate dinosaurs.  If we haven't dehydrated the planet, sharks will live, and they will always be associated with Jaws music in the back of our minds.

Enter the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus). True to the name, it is native to the area around Greenland and Iceland. They are the largest species of dogfish and northernmost species of shark. Unlike most sharks that the general populace is aware of, these guys are probably primarily scavengers, picking on whatever carrion they can get. They also have live babies, just like boas and several other species of shark.

First of all, these sharks are huge. Jaws huge. They can grow up to 23 feet from head to tail and live around 200 years. Luckily for us, they swim only 1.6 miles per hour; a human can easily outdo that. If they did not have such derpy little mouths, we might be inclined to take them more seriously. Huge? Yes. Threatening? Hardly.


These sharks will eat any meat that fits in their goofy-looking mouths. Along with things that one might assume like seals and fish, Greenland sharks can eat reindeer and polar bears. Read that again: Reindeer and polar bears are on this thing's menu. Dear Hallmark: start marketing this thing on Christmas cards, because it's eating your mascots.

Did we mention that its flesh was poisonous? No? It is. The Greenland shark has an extremely high trimethyline oxide content in its skin. Sled dogs who eat the flesh won't die, but are unable to stand from the poison. In humans, the meat causes symptoms akin to high drunkenness. It tastes so much like piss that the folklore around the shark usually involves urine.

Wait a minute...what? Did I just say they actually ate that?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Creature Feature: Bongo.

Actually, those antelope in the trailer were kind of cool-looking. What were they, anyways?


Well, you're going to laugh. It's called a "bongo." Yes, like the drums. If you can't look at that without cracking up, its scientific name is Tragelaphus eurycerus. It is a nocturnal browser native to many parts of Africa, including Congo, Ghana, and Kenya. Kenya has a very small, unique subspecies of bongo that will come up again later.

Two things stand out about the bongo immediately: that coat and those horns. As in most animals with attractive pelts, the stripes are camouflage. The red pigment rubs off easily - so easily, it is said, that rain running off a bongo's back is stained red. Certainly a neat image, even if it is not true.

The horns are perhaps the bongo's most outstanding feature. Although looking somewhat similar to those of the eland, bongo horns twist only once and take on a sort of lyre shape. The bongo is actually one of the few species of antelope in which both sexes have rather decorative, spiraling horns. They are still larger in the male, but awesome nonetheless. Better yet, they are both functional and fashionable; a bongo's horns keep it from being caught in vegetation while running.

Oddly, there seems to be a lot of convergent evolution with the okapi going on. Both the okapi and bongo love salt licks. They also have long tongues to handle those licks. On a visual level, they are both red-brown with stripes. There was even an odd delay in discovery by Westerners. They aren't related - okapi are the only extant relatives of the giraffe while antelope are closer to cattle - but they sure evolved a lot of things in common.

As one might expect, some populations of bongo are endangered. The more common, western/lowland bongo is listed as near-threatened. Only the Eastern/mountain bongo from Kenya is in critical condition, with possibly fewer than 100 left in the wild. The usual suspects - poaching and eating - are at work. As if to put salt on the wound, bongo also have a high risk of goitre, i.e. they die from malfunctioning thyroid. Habitat destruction is another big factor in almost every endangered species. This one is no exception. Although  an interesting species of antelope,bonoshould probably be avoided in post-apocalyptic scenarios.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Potential Bio-Art: After Earth.

Or, "Ecology: You're Doing It Wrong."

The movie After Earth features Will Smith and his son on Earth...millennia after humanity has left it. My immediate worry was that this new Earth would be like the book Fragment. Earth has probably evolved into a whole planet of super-preds, each one deadlier than the last. Most likely, they will all exhibit "Hollywood Predator Syndrome," making them have moves that no real predator would have, like relentless pursuit of prey. (Ambush tactics are more effective on humans for a number of reasons.) Good idea, but will probably be flushed down the toilet.

The problem? Unless the ecology has become so cutthroat that everything is as intelligent as a human being, it does not have any reason to be as lethal to humans as the trailer proposes. Humans have been gone for quite a long time. In theory, we can demolish everything because it can't take us after lack of exposure. We've wrecked nature; we can do it again.

Let me put it this way: Humans are nature's nightmare. Intelligence solves most of the issues that keep other apex predators limited. We can eat anything. We have no reproductive season, allowing for a reproductive rate on par with rodents. Where humans go, environmental destruction follows. Let's not even get into the flora and fauna we absolutely must have everywhere.

Does this mean that a species could not possibly adapt to humans enough to be a formidable predator? No, not at all. Humans have some exploitable weaknesses.

For starters, we are really visual animals, enough so that hearing and smell have suffered in favor of things like color vision. We depend a ton on sight for things like body language, too. Unfortunately, we are still not as visual as eagles, leaving humanity with a very odd sensory spread. Sufficient camouflage or light diffusion would already give a predator a serious edge. Throw in a better reproductive cycle than most preds and you have something that could likely trim the human population down. Let me restate that: not demolish, but trim it down, eliminating the weak and sick like predators are supposed to do.

Another tip for anyone trying something like this: small things matter. It's easier to kill one large predator than it is to stomp out a lot of small ones. Humans are good at strength in numbers; some researchers think we learned this from wolves. When the numbers are even, the fight is suddenly a lot more terrifying. It's even more threatening when humans are outnumbered. Cloverfield actually did this aspect really well; the parasites on Clover were small, yet vicious, and perhaps even more threatening than the giant monster in New York City. The raptors in Jurassic Park were another stunning example of big not always being better. This trailer uses baboons of some sort; IMO, not a smart move.

Also, for a post-human scenario to work, something had to evolve to cripple technology. Sensing electromagnetic waves on land might actually help species survive; you can avoid/detect humans easily now that everybody's carrying a Blackberry or iPhone. Just out of spite, someone should sic electricity-sensing rodents on Facebook HQ and see what happens. I doubt After Earth will consider this, though.

Once I looked it up? Oh, wow. This looks to be as bad as The Room if the sheer amount of personal investment Will Smith put into it and Shaymalan as director are any indication. Nice try, Hollywood. I'll wait for Rotten Tomatoes to deliver you justice.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Creature Feature: Leatherback Sea Turtle.

So, what is a leatherback, anyways? We gathered from the news video that it was an endangered sea turtle. How endangered? Are they really that rare? Let's find out!

Leatherback sea turtles are unique sea turtles in the genus Dermochelys. They are found worldwide, including around Japan. There are several subpopulations, but are all the same species as far as we know. Finding one in Japan would be unusual, but not unheard of. It's Japan we're talking about; all manner of odd spawns from those islands.

What's in a name? The main thing that sets a leatherback apart from other sea turtles: its lack of a carapace. Leatherbacks are effectively shell-less turtles. They have protrusions called osteoderms and ridges, but do not have a distinct, bony shell.  Their scales also lack beta keratin, which makes them unique among reptiles, and also lack true teeth.In other words, they're almost more torpedo than turtle. Make that a Pokemon: Tortpedo, Water/Steel, high speed for a turtle.

Leatherbacks are such oddball turtles that they are almost living fossils. The other members of this family evolved during the Late Cretaceous - AKA "that time with all the cool dinosaurs." Leatherbacks are the only extant members of their family; the rest of the carapace-less turtles are now extinct. They are also the largest extant turtles, getting up to 7 feet (roughly 2 meters) long. They are large, aerodynamic relics from the days of the dinosaurs. Enjoy.

Unfortunately, the news was right: Leatherbacks are indeed endangered. A fair amount of adults are caught by fishing. Although banned by CITES, some leatherbacks are indeed caught and traded (with some hopefully going to research projects - sorry, needed to point that out). A few are caught for meat, but generally, leatherbacks are not good turtle soup. The eggs are treated as a delicacy in Asia, however, which hits populations pretty hard. The only time the turtles are really vulnerable is when they're young, but they get hit hard and fast at that stage in life.

Y'know what? Despite being endangered, these turtles are not pandas. We actually have a very good reason to keep leatherback turtles alive. These things eat jellyfish. A lot of jellyfish. If I did not cover the jellyfish invasion in a previous entry, I should have. Our oceans are being overrun with jellyfish. We need sea turtles before the jellyfish take over the world.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Newsflash: Young Leatherback Caught in Japan.

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Expect this to get a full-blown entry tomorrow.  Giant turtles are cool enough to merit full entries.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Creature Feature: Loosejaw Stoplight Fish.

Ah, back to the deepsea abyss. Regardless of how many people treat space as the final frontier, we have yet to truly know our own planet. Even taking deep sea trawling into account and having orange roughy constantly in classy restaurants, the abyss is almost as unknown as the rainforest. How similar can things down there be to life on land when it evolved without sunlight? The Sumerians believed that their embodiment of the ocean, Tiamat, birthed unholy monstrosities; they were right.


Check out this thing: the stoplight loosejaw (Malacosteus niger). It is a denizen of the deepsea abyss, eating anything large enough to catch in its teeth. It is not a very big fish by any means - only 25 cm long. A lot of abyssal fish are shown with the lens zoomed in; even the largest anglerfish can easily fit in the palm of one's hand. Just because it's easy cat food doesn't mean it isn't neat.

The stoplight fish gets its name from a single unique trait: it can produce not one, but two different colors of bioluminescence. It makes red and blue-green light - just like a traffic signal. Blue-green light passes well in the ocean depths; nine out of ten times, things will give off blue light if they glow in the depths. Red light is like its private hunting and communication signal; it also means that red-colored things are not safe from this fish's extending head.


Yes, the "loosejaw" part comes from a very loose jaw indeed. In fact, it can dislocate its entire head to snap up edibles. The only other thing that does that is a dragonfly nymph - an invertebrate. That's how creepy-cool abyssal stuff is: it can all but behead itself on a regular basis and be fine. C'mon, Hollywood- make a monster out of this. Swallowing things like that is a talent.

Don't be fooled by Ariel. The bottom of the ocean is not a place full of happy sea creatures singing about how great life is. It's a place of psychedelic darkness trying to kill you with pretty lights and jaws out of nowhere. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

They Actually Eat That: Space Food.

Hey, speaking of space, ever wonder what they eat in space? Wonder no more! "They Actually Eat That" will cover what they eat, how they do it, and where you can find some here on Earth. Disclaimer: no aliens were harmed in the making of this cuisine.

First off, imagine how difficult it must be to eat in space. We take gravity for granted. It is very difficult to assemble, say, a salad or hamburger without gravity helping you. In space, there is no gravity; that means food needs to be very, very different. Luckily, since swallowing is all muscle movement, gravity is no issue once the food is actually in your body. It's just assembling the food making sure it's, well, food that's the hard part.

The logic that goes into space food is much the same as that of TV dinners: quick, tasty, most likely dehydrated food that keeps well. There are several foods that meet these criteria by themselves - nuts, cookies, and nutrition bars are fine examples. Even a Chewy bar is a welcome replacement for, well, this:

When the space race first started, space food sucked. One Russian journal described it as "toothpaste." The U.S, and other nations had similar reactions. Everybody agreed that it tasted awful and could barely be called food.

Recent efforts and a lot of money have gone into making delectable dishes space-worthy. By no means are we talking actual gourmet banquets; Russian space flights have over 300 options when it comes to food, but fresh food needs to be eaten almost immediately. Anything that leaves crumbs is also right out (careful, they're ruffled!). I don't know how granola bars work with that, but they must have gotten better about crumbs over the years.

Specifically, something called the "retort process" makes many things more viable in space. The idea is similar to canning in that the food inside is cooked at a temperature so high that almost all microbes are eliminated. Camping and military rations use this process as well. We use retort pouches in things like Capri Sun and easy-cook rice. They are not hard to find if you know what to look for.

So what about things like "astronaut ice cream?" Yes, in theory, that is space food. Only Apollo 7 actually took ice cream into space. It's still worth a try if you want a taste of what dehydrated food is like. That is part of the astronaut diet, after all. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Creature Feature: Spitting Spider.

There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about spiders. For instance, most spiders are not dangerous, and are not malicious arachnids aiming to wipe out humanity. Another, less-crippling misconception is that spiders spit their silk. No- it comes out the other end.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. There is a group of spiders called spitting spiders.  The family of spitting spiders, Scytodes, do just that: spit silk. Oh, and the silk's coated in venom, too. Screw webs - this spider manages to snag prey and envenomate it all at once. The family is found worldwide. At least Spider-Man only shot gunk.

Spitting spiders have silk glands at their head. These are right next to the venom glands, thus allowing for poisonous string. The silk then shoots out of the fangs and onto whatever the spider sees as dinner. Suddenly, Twilight's venom fangs don't seem so implausible.

These spiders are also evil masterminds at what they do. They plot out the trajectory of their spit. Then, like the world's sickest icing, they drizzle the venomous filament over their target by zig-zagging. This lets the spider take down prey much larger than itself, including other spiders!

(Another one caught a brown recluse- one of the few spiders I'll kill on sight. Praise it. PRAAAAIIISE IIIIT!)

Spitting spiders are also surprisingly social. Families will dine on one corpse, live in the same web (which is not used to catch flies), and overall have a fun time together. Some even look after their little spiderlings. On the flipside, however, these spiders are also cannibalistic.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Science Art: A Real-Life Space Jam + Opening a Soda Can On the Ocean Floor.

Space. The final frontier. Nearly every sci-fi thing involves space in some way, shape, or form, in part because aliens are cool and One day, after our planet is destroyed, we may have colonies on the moon. For now, we have one guy playing a guitar. 

Yes, that video was edited. Commander Chris Hadfield still went up in space, filmed himself playing the guitar, and probably lipsynched just to get the song absolutely right. He had a glider scholarship since 15 years of age. In short, he is a solid badass who does more awesome things than you...and puts them on YouTube for your convenience.

Or how about crying in space?

Basically, anything mundane that you have ever thought of doing in space? This guy's done it. Then he put it up on YouTube to sate your nerdy curiosity.  Who would ask about nail clipping in outer space? I don't know, but you're probably looking it up on YouTube right now. You're welcome.

The fun does not stop in space. Commander Hadfield has also been to the bottom of the ocean, where he opened a soda can.

Yeah, you'll never see soda the same way again. Or Atlantis, for that matter.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Creature Feature: Lambeosaurus.

It seems that filmmakers have decided on a "set" of dinosaurs that must always make it into every dinosaur movie ever. T-Rex is pretty much a given. Triceratops is also popular. If there is a pterosaur, and there usually is, it's either a Pteranodon or some bastardization thereof. Miscellaneous herbivores include Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus, with Brachiosaurus being almost too distinct to be generic. They also usually include this one:

For those of you wondering what this bizarre-looking creature is, it's called a Parasaurolophus and is one of the many duck-billed dinosaurs (hadrosaurs) out there. It seems to have become the "default" duckbill. I'm not quite sure what "modern parallel" people see in Parasaurolophus and other hadrosaurs (ancient water buffalo?), but I digress. Point is, as with pterosaurs, there's always that one hadrosaur that popular culture falls back on.

Maybe it's about time we looked at some of the other hadrosaurs on this blog, yes?

Lambeosaurus probably should be the strange duckbill everybody knows. It has a very good fossil record from Canada, Montana, and Baja California. There is some debate over exactly how many species there are in the genus, but specimens are nonetheless plentiful. It is named for the guy who discovered the first few fossils, Lawrence Lambe. Like most of the cool dinosaurs, it is from the Late Cretaceous. It is also the largest hadrosaur, getting up to 50 feet long from head to tail.

As with many hadrosaurs, the most distinguishing feature about Lambeosaurus was its crest. This crest was hatchet-shaped, making the dinosaur look like a cassowary and a unicorn at the same time.  It's hard to get more awesome than that, yet here hadrosaurs are stuck with the goofy Parasaurolophus as their representative. Kinda sad, really.

Nobody is 100% sure what these crests were for. Snorkels and salt glands are also on the table. Maybe they could even make noise; again, people love shilling Parasaurolophus for this ("it's a dinosaur with a built-in trumpet!"). There is adequate evidence that hearing and sight were a Lambeosaurus's strongest senses, so all of the above are possible. We've never seen hadrosaurs in action, or in color, for that matter, so the purpose(s) of these crests will remain a mystery until we invent time machines.

I cold get into more about what makes a hadrosaur a hadrosaur, but that is best saved for another time. Hell, I should just make a "Hadrosaur Week." They're really rather interesting, albeit not my favorite dinosaurs.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

GreenFest 2013 Coverage.

And now for what you all really wanted to see: The stuff all set up!

Pop tab fashion. Now I'm really glad I save every pop tab I get. I got a bracelet from these people, simply because the idea is awesome.

This is a blanket for the homeless made out of plastic bags. That is what I call creative. 

Bumper stickers! So many bumper stickers! This isn't my favorite; the other two I got involved humans being hunted/food. Otherwise, it was pretty usual, PETA-esque merchandise.

Cobra Corn? Not sold at the Fest except as samples by one person. In short, it's popcorn coated in Indian spices. Not my thing, but if that sounds appetizing to you, Asian grocers might carry it. I had to take a picture of it regardless.

Clif Bar people almost always make it to GreenFest. For those of you who have not heard of Clif, they're amazing little health bars that are lifesavers for hikers and supercommuters alike. I personally like them quite a lot. Unfortunately, all the "Kit's Organic" stuff had almonds in it. Bummer.

Kefir! It's like drinkable yogurt, and is now available as frozen yogurt. Definitely good stuff. If you're into Greek yogurt, you will probably like frozen kefir, too.

The ad campaign against GMO's with the mouse was adorable. Plus, there really is nasty stuff in most things at your local supermarket. It works.

Ford had a HUGE presence. They're major sponsors, it seems, and have some of the most...reusable cars on the planet? Wow, this seems like a cheap attempt to compete with hybrids. OUR CARS USE CORN!

There was more where that came from, but the pictures either sucked or I didn't really take snaps. There were a lot of home improvement things that I did not bother with.  It might, however, be worth covering what makes something LEED-certified in a future entry.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Event Coverage: GreenFest Pre-Show Setup.

So yes. I am slowly starting to have a life outside of this blog. On Friday, I volunteered a good chunk of my day at Green Festival Chicago. Nobody truly awesome was there, yet, but here's what America's most eco-friendly fest looks like before it's set up. Just because stuff isn't completely up doesn't mean it isn't worth writing about.

For those of you unaware, Green Festival is the U.S.'s largest ecologically-friendly festival. It features fair trade items, organic food, and helpful information about why we're so not Earth-friendly right now. More on that in Saturday's entry. For now, know that you get in free if you volunteer, so next time one rolls around take a shift and have fun. Here's what I did and saw:

The lights along this thing? My doing.

The busts were my doing, too. Now the whole cafe's set up!

An arrangement of Buddha heads near the theater area.

For whatever reason, one of the volunteers brought his dog along. Poodles are a lot fiercer-looking up close than they are on fashion accessories. 

A lot of the media booths were starting to get set up on this day, too. While not particularly eco-conscious, it was still awesome to see big shots like CBS and the New York Times. There was a political debate going on while I watched the poodle.

Finishing touch: this globe was a moon bounce.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Sweet Sue's Canned Whole Chicken.

Along with apparently having fetishes for everything, humans will also put anything into a can. The idea of having food last almost forever is very tempting. However, there are some instances when the question is not can you, but should you, can this thing? This is one of the things that you should not can:

This is Sweet Sue canned whole chicken. As in, somebody took a chicken, stuffed it into a can, and pretended that it was done by somebody named Sue. I don't even know where they sell these. The 6th Ring of Hell is a fair enough guess. It seems to be a food made for foodies to try once, blog about, then promptly call disgusting.

Why do I say this? Because:

Sweet Sue, by which I mean Satan, does not lie and knows how to label hellish edibles. It's literally as if they stuffed a (small) chicken into a can. Not everything stays in tact, but there is undeniably a whole chicken in there. It also looks like it rose from the chickeny grave, only to die again, but nobody would ever be so desperate as to attempt chicken necromancy. At least it isn't false advertising.

So, how does it taste? In a word, bad. According to this blogger, it has a metallic taste, even after being cooked, along with being roughly like chicken soup in flavor. I will not touch this can, and if I do, I'm taking it to an exorcist. Or the Ghostbusters, whoever wants to deal with canned zombie chicken.

Morbid curiosity says that somebody, somewhere finds this appetizing. Alas, I do not know where these people are.  The rest of the world finds it the single strangest canned food in existence. Homestyle goodness indeed.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Newsflash: The Birds and the...Hornets?!

Tuesday was going to be a Creature Feature. I haven't done habu yet, except as a weird food. It would be awesome to get back into the swing of things. Then, however, a close friend of mine had to show me one of the weirdest articles I had ever read.

Without spoiling anything, this newsflash covers a fetish. This is the internet- you can't even look up Pokemon stuff without getting into fetishes. If weird fetishes disturb you...yeah, this one most likely will, too. I have never encountered a fetish as odd as this one. This was just so mind-blowingly dumb and astounding in other ways that I cannot help sharing it with a blog dedicated to weird things. 

"A man in Sweden has died after trying to have sex with a hornet's nest on his farm outside Ystad.
The 35-year-old, known only as Hasse, had 146 sting marks on his body, including 54 to his genitals, News Sweden said.

His body was found by a neighbour, who said Hasse was so swollen he initially mistook him for a whale carcass.

Hasse was unconscious when he was found but died an hour later from the injuries he sustained.
Neighbour Bertil Ståhfrääs said he called over to his neighbour to ask what he was doing: "At first [I thought he was lying there by] of choice, so I called 'Hasse' to ask what the hell he was doing.

"I walked up to the body and then I recognised his tattoo on his neck. I have never in my life seen such a swollen pelvic bone. It hid the whole package [and] the scrotum was enlarged. Right now it feels heavy and unreal. We did not talk very often, but he was still my neighbour."

An autopsy of Hasse's body showed semen on some of the dead wasps and a number of the victim's pubic hair was found at the entrance of the nest. His fingerprints were also found on the nest, leading the police to believe he had been trying to have sex with the hornet's nest when he was stung to death.

"To attempt to have intercourse with a hornet's nest is a very bad idea," Siv During Livh, a psychologist and expert on sex fantasies told the news website. (No, really?)

"I don't even think about the pain he must have suffered both within himself [from his fetish] and incurred by the wasp attack."

Hornet stings are more painful than typical wasp stings because of their venom. They can also sting multiple times.

The stings are not normally fatal to humans unless a person is allergic to their venom, in which case they can go into anaphylactic shock."- Source, because this really is a thing.

Holy carp. I thought poking a hornet's nest was a bad ides. Fapping to one sounds even worse. Of all the fetishes I have seen on the internet, this one has to take the cake.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Bio-Art: The Human Race Machine.

If somebody isn't white as bread, then it's usually easy to tell where somebody comes from based on things like skin color, eye color, facial shape, etc. I'm willing to bet that somewhere, in some bar, someone has asked, "hey, I wonder what I'd look like as a black person?" Well, wonder no more.

Enter the Human Race Machine by Nancy Burson. The tagline is "There's No Gene For Race," and indeed, there isn't. It was originally developed as a commission for London's Millennium Dome in 2000, but several copies have been made. They have since appeared on CNN, Oprah, and other major media outlets.

The Human Race Machine creates realistic images of how one would look if one was a different race. The machine has black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, and Middle Eastern variations on your own face waiting to be produced. It's certainly a neat device, and should you find one in a museum near you, please try it out. It's not necessarily revolutionary software (similar "morphing" programs have been around for ages), but definitely a good use of computer graphics.

As her site puts it, "the concept of race is not genetic, but social."Indeed, the concept of race is not genetic, but the traits leading to race are. Things like hair, skin, and eye color can all be genetically mapped. The site details the discovery of exactly one gene that coded for the amount of expressed melanin in Homo sapiens. We are indeed 99.9% alike beneath the skin.

This is another one where I feel pressed to ask, "is this really bio-art?" Considering how many things I have considered bio-art on this column, it'll count, but the only real science to this one is that race does not have a single gene. Also, it feels more warm and fuzzy than most of the entries here. Still, if it's good enough for the course I took on bio-art, it'll cut it here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Newsflash/Nature Strikes Back: Acts of Dog.

If you're a regular follower of this blog, you know my stance on dogs. Specifically, people see dogs through glasses so rosy that they forget that there's another species beneath that fur. Yes, dogs are helpful animals. Yes, they were the first domesticated animal. Yes, they can effectively mold themselves into human habits. Are they people? No. There's still a fair amount of wolf in there, and anthropomorphizing that away causes a lot of problems.That includes canine-related fatalities.

Dog attacks happen all the time. This most recent of reports shows exactly how easily it occurs. It's not even news- dog attacks just happen. That is how common they are. Granted, it still dwarfs the overall amount of dogs owned, but it's still pretty common.


That said, it takes special stuff to get a dog attack into the news. The blog above mentions a "pit bull" in the reports. I love the quotes around "pit bull," if only because it's a huge buzz word that practically guarantees a media review. The dog involves could have been 25% pit bull with retriever mixed in, but as long as there's some pit in there, it's legit fodder to get the attack reported. No wonder pit bulls have the most reported attacks; people know what the media wants to see.

Yes, reporting animal attacks has a lot to do with reputation. While I am not a dog person, know that these attacks are reported and/or occurred because the breeds listed are raised for aggression. The blog is 100% right that dogs that are not well-socialized become aggressive as well. You raise a dog to attack? Oh, and leave its balls on? Yeah, no kidding, you're asking for a bite. "My own dog bit my face off!" should not be a surprise at that point.

The reality? Chihuahuas bite far more than pit bulls ever will. Again, it's an issue of training, but this time in reverse: there's something called "Small Dog Syndrome" that occurs very frequently with small dogs, including Chihuahuas. Long story short, SDS occurs when a small dog presents dominant behaviors, but the human owners do not do anything about it, leading to all sorts of issues. Chihuahuas in particular have to be bred for docility. No doubt bites from Chihuahuas are frequent, but no media outlet would report on it because, well, no Chihuahuas have actually gone "killer bunny" on people and left corpses in their little wakes. Now that would be a news story!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Nature Strikes Back: The Infamy of Japanese Crows.

Crows are the last thing one would suspect after drunk elephants. Sandwiching them between elephants and big cats seems almost unfair. Nonehtheless. when it comes to species humbling humanity, it's hard to find a better example than Japanese crows. Well, that, or various bacteria and insects. Let's just stick with crows for now. Japan is in an all-out war with crows.

For starters, Japanese crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) are big. They're a great deal bigger than the crows in the United States. We'd make a joke about how this is the opposite of everything else in Japan, but one, that would be a lame joke, and two, Japanese hornets. For those of you who need a refresher, Beedrill, I choose you.

Japanese crows are not just big, they are smart, too. They have figured out how to use some big and fast like, say, a car or train to crack open a nut or shellfish. Step one: Put a nut or other crackable thing in the middle of a road. Step 2: Wait for a car or train to run it over. Step 3: Wait for said vehicle to pass. Step 4: Enjoy inner meat. It's quite an ingenious way to crack a nut, if I do say so myself.

Japanese crows take this to horror flick levels. There are several recorded instances of Japanese crows putting stones, not delicious nuts, on train tracks. This naturally caused train delays, although the jury is still out on While officials assure us that the crows were only putting small bits of gravel on the tracks, it's still a very odd behavior, and suggests a strange spirit to these birds - pardon the joke.

That's not all. These crows are evidently master trolls, too. In efforts to chase the crows away, exterminators look for crow nests...and hopefully find an inhabited one.Japanese crows are so smart that they'll predict where humans will look for a nest, then make a completely fake nest just to fool people. That's almost diabolical. If every criminal did that, the police wou- oh, wait. Was the Monster With 21 Faces in cahoots with these crows, by any chance?

Suddenly, what seems like "hey, that bird's using people technology to crack what it thinks are nuts or oysters - that's pretty smart" has become "we're glad these birds are using their intelligence to give us red herrings instead of outright killing us, Hitchcock-style." Welcome to Japan; it's a very scary place when you know some of the fauna. If corvid intelligence in Japan is any indication, they'll be around even longer than the people will.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Amarula/Marula.

Want to see for yourself if marula fruit works? Good news: Humans like marula, too. In fact, we like marula so much that marula trees are protected. Translated: don't chop them down, we want awesome fermented fruit!


Marula is so known for its alcoholic properties that it has "birrea" in its scientific name (Sclerocarya birrea). It can be found in southern Africa and Madagascar. One of the closest relatives to marula is the cashew plant, of all things. Marula is extremely popular in its native areas, with so many uses aside from liquor that it's insane.

First off, the fruit is edible. Much like most animals, people can enjoy the ripe fruit of the marula tree without getting wasted. The hard-cased seed is high in fat and protein. Other, less orthodox uses include a bite/sting painkiller, ink, and pesticide. It's not a panacea so much as "try marula for your household needs!" There is so much more to this fruit than just drunk elephants.

Finally, yes, marula can indeed be used to make liquor. The fruits naturally ferment after about three days. The most famous of these is Amarula, a marula and cream beverage that supposedly makes amazing cocktails. They use an elephant as a marketing mascot, if only because elephants love marula fruit. It is apparently so deeply associated with elephants that the clip from last entry might have some basis in fact.

Now, does the fruit really get elephants drunk? Probably not. They may, however, still get high off of the beetle-infested bark of the tree. Either way, they're still as fond of recreational drugs as humans are. I propose that the Animals Are Beautiful People clip not be entirely dismissed, seeing as elephants do get drunk. Marula fruits are indeed a natural source of liquor. Feel free to share it with your college friends.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Nature Strikes Back: Drunk Elephants.

A lot of religions, and even nonreligious people, like to think that humans are something special. "Closest to God" comes up a lot. Basically, we think very highly of ourselves, even though we have screwed things up - sometimes irreparably. We may build skyscrapers, but whoops, that's more undiscovered species dead!

This week flies in the face of that vain way of thinking. In other words, nature doesn't give a **** about how special humans supposedly are and causes havoc anyways, treating them just like every other animal on the planet. Every so often, there are events that will remind humans that, hey, there's a huge wild world out there, and we're just a small part of it that is slowly decimating the rest. We aren't just talking about predators going on killing sprees; we're talking about craziness like...

...drunk elephants. You are reading that statement 100% correctly.

Yes, elephants like drinking. There are plenty of animals that like altering their consciousness on some level. Anybody who has given their cat catnip will tell you that most of them seem to like getting high as a freakin' kite on the stuff. It's kinda rare for animals to like liquor - or, rather, to like liquor and be able to tolerate it. (Please don't give your dog beer; it's not worth risking their health for something funny.)

It turns out that elephants might be able to get drunk without the aid of humans as well. In South Africa, there is a fruit called a "marula" that is not only delicious when ripe, but ferments into potent liquor after being ingested. There is some doubt as to whether elephants in particular get drunk off of a few fruits, but the "documentary" Animals Are Beautiful People at the very least shows us what a drunk elephant might look like so that we can get the eff out of the way.

Basically, elephants are smart, huge animals that like getting wasted. They have figured out that humans have booze, and will go out of their way to get it. Talk about nature being adaptive; these elephants will literally trample right over people to get their fix. They act aggressive and awkward while drunk, and presumably say all the things they want to say but normally wouldn't in front of their elephant buddies.

Sound familiar? Yes? Well, add on the usual human drunkenness to tons of muscle and a 30 mile-per-hour charge. Suddenly, the image of a drunk elephant is not so funny. Multiply it by fifty; elephants can rush their version of a bar en masse, too. It happens a lot wherever humans and elephants happen to coincide. Y'know, as if the elephant had not already been subconsciously linked with liquor.

As a reminder, this is a thing.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bio-Art: Mendelian Video Games.

There is still a fair amount of debate over whether video games are a proper art form or not. A fair amount of gamers are in favor of comparing video games to high art like Picasso or Monet.

Here's my stance on it: Video and computer games are interactive art. That many people instead of one usually work on them is irrelevant; most would consider movies art, and a lot of people work on those, too. For video games, you have writers, composers, and several different sorts of graphic designers. It just so happens that certain forms of art happen to be crack, and addiction of almost any sort has some sort of consequence.

So, what if somebody made a bio-art video game?

One of the first forays into this area was made by a contest under the name of "Make Something Unreal Live." Unreal is a development engine for PC games, so the title is not quite as mystical as it first sounds. This contest is yearly and open to all college students studying game design in Europe.

This year's theme? Mendelian genetics. For those of you not familiar with the term, Mendelian genetics is the inheritable stuff we all know and love. Specifically, Gregor Mendel traced a simple recessive trait in pea plants while at a monastery. The tracking of dominant and recessive traits has been common in biology ever since. Your dog is your dog precisely because of Mendelian genetics. It's an awesome idea to base a game off of.

Here's what the winning designs were titled:  "Loch Ness," "Polymorph," "Mendel's Farm," and "Beings." Without knowing much more, these sound pretty promising. I'm sure "Mendel's Farm" is not as dry as it sounds if it can compete with Nessie. Technically, these are computer games, but that's splitting hairs. (I am prepared for the backlash from this statement.)  It's still quite an awesome way into science into a medium that some deem trash.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Creature Feature: Cuban Iguana.

Tip: You can tell how loose a state's animal laws are by how awesome their zoo is. If the reptile house in San Antonio was any indication, there were indeed some loose laws and low paperwork for venomous snakes. I did not expect to see this in the reptile house, either, and since a friend of mine's a big iguana fan, here goes:
Screw sourcing, I took this one.

The lizard lounging above is a Cuban iguana (Cyclura nubila), currently listed as "vulnerable" in terms of conservation. It is primarily an herbivore. This iguana lives in the rockier parts of Cuba, and is closely related to the Cayman Blue Iguana. It does not give a single flip that its island is communist, and walks around Guantanamo Bay quite freely. How fortunate that lizards can still enjoy the island because it's an island.

Cuban iguanas have some weird things about them just by being iguanas. All iguanids have what's called a "parietal eye" on top of their heads. It's a white dot that can detect light and shadow. The iguana's third eye is very active; their real eyes also have red scleras. There's more: their herbivorous diet, in this case, is supplemented by roundworms instead of the multiple stomachs and bacteria that ruminants have. This is just general iguana stuff- bet you didn't know they were strange by default.

Now THAT is eye-popping! Source.

Another weird thing: these iguanas are immune to cacti. Not just "they eat the stuff without getting pricked" - Cuban iguanas thrive around cacti. They make their nests in cacti, probably because other animals will avoid it. The cactus serves as a fortress complete with food. It's hard to get better than that.

Bizarrely, the Cuban iguana is probably the only reptile which has been viewed positively by the U.S. government. In a case concerning the legality of goings-on at Guantanamo Bay, attorney Tom Wilner pointed out that one could be punished for killing a Cuban iguana on-base, but torturing people was A-OK. Interesting argument, and props for looking it up. Not many lawyers would care about iguanas, even if they were endangered. Nicely done. 

Luckily, there are plenty of captive-bred Cuban iguanas. Most of the ones in the pet trade actually come from a feral population released south of Puerto Rico. Zoos breed them all the time. There is literally no need to take these guys off of Cuba, which is a good thing, considering humans, cats, dogs, and swine are responsible for the decline of the native population. They'll make a comeback; maybe the next leader of Cuba will be a lizard. ;)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Newsflash: Human Brain Cells Grown in Lab Mice.

"They're Pinky and the Brain 
Yes, Pinky and the Brain
One is a genius, 
the other's insane.
They're laboratory mice,
Their genes have been spliced,
They're Pinky, they're Pinky and the Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain..." 

For those of you not aware of the above ditty, it comes from a segment on an old (but very good) cartoon called Animaniacs. Listen to it here. The "Pinky and the Brain" shorts involved two lab mice who had been enhanced into super-intelligent, talking rodents, one of whom was hell-bent on taking over the world using various wacky means.  Now that we're putting human brain cells in rodents, there is a very good chance that mice, becoming ever more like humans, may well start taking over the world.

"May 3, 2013 — A key type of human brain cell developed in the laboratory grows seamlessly when transplanted into the brains of mice, UC San Francisco researchers have discovered, raising hope that these cells might one day be used to treat people with Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, and possibly even Alzheimer's disease, as well as and complications of spinal cord injury such as chronic pain and spasticity. 

"We think this one type of cell may be useful in treating several types of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders in a targeted way," said Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF and co-lead author on the paper.

The researchers generated and transplanted a type of human nerve-cell progenitor called the medial ganglionic eminence (MGE) cell, in experiments described in the May 2 edition of Cell Stem Cell. Development of these human MGE cells within the mouse brain mimics what occurs in human development, they said.


To generate MGE cells in the lab, the researchers reliably directed the differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells -- either human embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells derived from human skin. These two kinds of stem cells have virtually unlimited potential to become any human cell type. When transplanted into a strain of mice that does not reject human tissue, the human MGE-like cells survived within the rodent forebrain, integrated into the brain by forming connections with rodent nerve cells, and matured into specialized subtypes of interneurons.


"The hope is that we can deliver these cells to various places within the nervous system that have been overactive and that they will functionally integrate and provide regulated inhibition," Nicholas said.

One mystery and challenge to both the clinical and pre-clinical study of human MGE cells is that they develop at a slower, human pace, reflecting an "intrinsic clock." In fast-developing mice, the human MGE-like cells still took seven to nine months to form interneuron subtypes that normally are present near birth.

"If we could accelerate the clock in human cells, then that would be very encouraging for various applications," Kriegstein said." - Source with more.

Of course, the scientists are doing this to cure neurological disorders, That includes everything from autism to back issues. The result might still be mice with the intellects of human children, if the internal clock is to be believed.

That said, Pinky's more realistic.

Mind, this isn't quite gene splicing. It's a tissue implant of human cells into a rodent body. We really don't know what will happen with this; the neurotransplant technique is only a couple of years old. Give it time; they'll try to take over the world eventually. If the enhanced mice start talking and one of them starts saying "narf," we'll know for sure that these scientists have seen Animaniacs.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Sarsparilla.

So today's my last full day in Texas, the one state who appreciates the Old West like no other. San Antonio's basketball team is the "Spurs," for crying out loud. If only I had found an old-timey saloon and gotten a sarsaparilla.  Nope, drinking is not that fun, but hoo boy are there a lot of places to do it in Texas.

Wait. Was that still English? What's a "sarsaparilla?" Is it deadly?

Sarsaparilla is a soda associated with the Old West. It is also a plant, Smilax regelli, which is usually used to make the soda and is native to Central America. The soda was used in Western films, particularly in ABC's TV series Sugarfoot, and has been linked with the West ever since.

Like Coca-Cola, sarsparilla was originally marketed as a health tonic. It was patented to cure blood and skin problems. The plant itself was said to be a cure for syphilis. I'll file it with the other not-panaceas - just to be on the safe side. Since the original sarsaparilla used no sarsaparilla at all, however, these claims may have been made based on the birch root in the soda. Talk about false advertising! 

Worried about liquor in your herbal drinks? Nothing of the sort is in sarsaparilla. Part of the joke in Westerns that feature the drink is that real cowboys order hard whiskey. Ordering a sarsaparilla was certainly not manly. I mean, just look at that word, not to mention the common mispronunciation of "sass-parilla." Plus, it's all organic, and only chicks do that sort of thing, right?

People still enjoy sarsaparilla today...but mostly in other countries. The Taiwanese sarsaparilla above, for example, contains actual sarsaparilla and a few other ingredients. Australia loves sarsaparilla. It can also be found in certain stores carrying brewery-style sodas in glass bottles. Still, it's a piece of the wild, wild West that is quite hard to find these days in America. The rest of the world knows good soda when they see it.