• Possible sign of life on Venus

    Astronomers reported today that they've detected phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, a possible biosignature of life on the planet. The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Manchester, and their colleagues published the news in Nature Astronomy and in another paper submitted to the science journal Astrobiology. From the New York Times:

    After much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation for the chemical’s source.

    Some researchers question this hypothesis, and they suggest instead that the gas could result from unexplained atmospheric or geologic processes on a planet that remains mysterious. But the finding will also encourage some planetary scientists to ask whether humanity has overlooked a planet that may have once been more Earthlike than any other world in our solar system[…]

    David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., who was not part of the work but has long promoted the possibility of life in Venus’s clouds, said, “That is pretty damn exciting!”

    The work needs to be followed up, he said, “but this could be the first observation we’ve made which reveals an alien biosphere and, what do you know, it’s on the closest planet to home in the entire cosmos.”

    "Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus" (Nature Astronomy)

    image: (c) ISAS/JAXA

  • Canada Post apologizes for stamps bearing decapitated head of prime minister John Macdonald statue

    Two weeks ago, activists in Montreal toppled a statue of Canada's first prime minister John A Macdonald who in the 19th century enacted cultural genocide against the indigenous peoples in the region. To celebrate the protest against colonialism with his own, a fellow named James Bone ordered custom stamps from Canada Post depicting the severed head of the Macdonald statue. Bone tweeted an offer to send the stamps for free to anyone "if you or your ancestors were f***ed over by Macdonald." From MSN.com:

    After getting several requests for the stamps, Bone tried to place another order for more sheets featuring the statue head — only to receive an email from Canada Post denying the request, saying the picture was "not appropriate for use" through the program.

    In a subsequent email to Global News, a spokesperson said Canada Post is investigating how the original stamp sheet cleared the approval process and was printed.

    "We apologize and will take measures to ensure our vetting and approval processes are strengthened and closely followed," the spokesperson said.

    Bone did not respond to a request for comment. His Twitter account has since been deleted, along with his LinkedIn page, which said he works as an archivist for Library and Archives Canada.

    (Thanks, Charles Pescovitz!)

  • New Netflix movie about the Chicago 7 trial, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman BoingBoing

    In 1968, political activists and Yippies Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were charged with conspiracy to incite riots and other alleged crimes during protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Their months-long trial was one of the most bizarre, hilarious, upsetting, and theatrical court proceeding in the United States, and a turning point for the youth protest movement and counterculture.

    Aaron Sorkin's new film based on those events, The Trial of the Chicago 7, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, premieres on Netflix on October 16.

  • Quadruped robot patrols sidewalks to urge social distancing

    University of Hong Kong researchers are testing a mobile robot to patrol sidewalks, track clusters of pedestrians, and encourage social distancing. At this point though, I think this approach is more likely to attract crowds, not disperse them. From their technical paper:

    We introduce a fully autonomous surveillance robot based on a quadruped platform that can promote social distancing in complex urban environments. Specifically, to achieve autonomy, we mount multiple cameras and a 3D LiDAR on the legged robot. The robot then uses an onboard real-time social distancing detection system to track nearby pedestrian groups. Next, the robot uses a crowd-aware navigation algorithm to move freely in highly dynamic scenarios. The robot finally uses a crowd aware routing algorithm to effectively promote social distancing by using human-friendly verbal cues to send suggestions to overcrowded pedestrians.

    Autonomous Social Distancing in Urban Environments using a Quadruped Robot (via IEEE Spectrum)

  • Snake, 62, lays eggs without having been around a male for more than a decade

    There is a ball python at the St. Louis Zoo that's approximately 62-years-old, more than two decades older than the average lifespan of its species. Now, this elderly animal has laid seven eggs. That's especially odd because she hasn't had contact with a male python for more than 15 years. Zoo herpetologist Mark Wanner described the python's age and immaculate conception (my words) as "kind of crazy." From the New York Times:

    Dr. Jonathan Losos, a professor of evolutionary biology at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in reptiles, said scientists had known for a while that there were some species of snakes and lizards in which no males exist and females reproduce asexually.

    “What we didn’t realize until relatively recently is that there are some species who normally are sexual — that is, require a male and a female to reproduce — that can occasionally reproduce without any sperm,” Dr. Losos said. Komodo dragons, for instance, have been known to lay eggs asexually, a process called facultative parthenogenesis[…]

    “We’re not banking on the fact that these eggs will hatch,” Mr. Wanner said, but “we’re hoping.”

  • Watch Blondie's Debbie Harry on a pogo stick explaining the punk Pogo dance (1978)

    Here's the great Debbie Harry of Blondie explaining the Pogo dance on a 1978 episode of TV Party, the iconic NYC public access cable TV program hosted by Glenn O'Brien and Blondie's Chris Stein.

    From Wikipedia:

    In The Filth and the Fury, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious claimed that he invented the pogo sometime around 1976 at punk shows in the early days of London's punk scene. Vicious supposedly invented the dance as a way of mocking people who came to see Sex Pistols' performances, but who were not part of the punk movement. Whether Vicious actually invented the dance or not, the pogo quickly became closely associated with punk rock. Shane MacGowan, himself an early follower of the punk scene, also attributes pogo dancing to Vicious, claiming that a leather poncho he wore to gigs prevented him from any form of dancing other than jumping up and down. In her autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., Viv Albertine of The Slits claims that the Pogo was inspired by the way Sid jumped up and down while playing saxophone. However, in the documentary Syd Barrett: Under Review (minutes 6:13 to 6:20) there is film footage from director Peter Whitehead's Tonite Lets All Make Love in London of the then called "The Pink Floyd" performing at the UFO Club in Tottenham Court Road in 1966 in which a gentleman directly in front of the stage is clearly "pogoing." It may not have been referred to as pogoing, but as far back as 1966 people were doing it.

    Worth noting: Men Without Hats' Ivan Doroschuk penned "The Safety Dance" after getting bounced from a club for pogoing.

    (via r/ObscureMedia)

  • Teen forced dentist to remove braces, at gunpoint

    I knew an idiot in junior high school who so wanted to impress some girls that he removed his own braces with a pair of pliers. What a waste of his parent's money. A few years later, in 1985, another bright young mind was also desperate to get his braces off but thought better (or worse) of the DIY approach. From a Central New Jersey Home News article unearthed by Weird Universe:

    The boy had apparently asked other dentists in the area to remove his braces before visiting Carstens' Mack Avenue office on Feb 8, "probably because he lives three or four blocks from my office," Carstens said. "He (came) in to see me and said he wanted them off. I said he wasn't finished with his treatment and I couldn't take them off without a letter from his parents and his regular orthodontist.

    "I had him in the chair and he leaned over and pulled the gun out of his pocket and said, 'Would this make you change your mind?' and I said, 'Yes,'" Carstens said.

    A dental assistant called the police, a scuffle ensued, shots were fired (fortunately into the floor), and ol' Tin Grin was apprehended.

    Dr. Carstens died in 2016 at age 79 but I'm sure it was a story he told often. The boy is not named in the article but I'm curious how he, and his teeth, turned out.

    image: MAKY.OREL (CC BY-SA 3.0)

  • US customs agents have already intercepted thousands of fake IDs this year at a single shipping hub

    The US Customs and Border Patrol in Cincinnati, Ohio announced that they've intercepted more than 2,000 fake driver's licenses and 1,600 "ID-making materials" coming through a single express courier hub just this year. Meanwhile, college freshman across the country bow their heads in sorrow. From Cincinnati.com:

    The counterfeit licenses, which came in 343 shipments, originated in China. The fake passports were from various countries in Africa and South America.

    The shipments were headed to addresses across the United States, and the IDs often shared the same photograph with different names, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection news release.

    (Thanks, Charles Pescovitz!)

  • Turning bricks into batteries

    Researchers have transformed ordinary red bricks into batteries by injecting gases that enable the material to store electricity . Developed by chemists at Washington University, each brick costs only $3 but, at this point, just lights up an LED bulb. From Scientific American:

    The brick-battery relies on the reddish pigment known as iron oxide, or rust, that gives red bricks their color. The scientists pumped the bricks with several gases that react with iron oxide to produce a network of plastic fibers. These microscopic fibers coat the empty spaces inside the bricks—and conduct electricity.

    More: "Energy storing bricks for stationary PEDOT supercapacitors]" (Nature Communications)

    image: D'Arcy laboratory, Department of Chemistry, Washington University in St. Louis

  • Pope: God says sex and food are A-OK

    Enjoying sex and food is not a sin and church leaders who tell you that are “overzealous," says Pope Francis. From the New York Post:

    “Pleasure arrives directly from God. It is neither Catholic nor Christian nor anything else; it is simply divine,” he tells [author Carlo] Petrini in the book “TerraFutura: Conversations With Pope Francis on Integral Ecology,” an English working title, out now in Italy. “The pleasure of eating and sexual pleasure come from God.”

    “The pleasure of eating is there to keep you healthy by eating, just like sexual pleasure is there to make love more beautiful and guarantee the perpetuation of the species,” said the Pontifex Maximus.

    image: Jeffrey Bruno  (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Fantastic Azerbaijan rug woven to look like it's melting

    Azerbaijan textile artist Faig Ahmed employs ancient craft to create mind-bending textile sculptures. His work is featured in an online exhibition at the Sapar Contemporary gallery, titled "Textile Traditions Re-Imagined."

    (via Laughing Squid)

  • Aviation museums' "most wanted list" of cool aerospace artifacts lost to history

    Aviation historians and museum curators like those at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum go gaga over any photos, correspondence, or curiosities related to Amelia Earhart. And of course her lost aircraft is at the top of many aviation museums' wish lists. But there are many more unusual aerospace artifacts that they'd love to find, catalog, and display to the public. Here are a few from Air & Space Magazine:

    Music in the Clouds

    “Blüthner, the Leipzig pianoforte factory, built an aluminum grand piano weighing only 162 kilograms [356 pounds] especially for the Zeppelin [Hindenburg], which, according to one reporter, delighted the passengers with ‘a particularly large and full tone’ despite its metal construction,” says Simone Lipski of the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany. “On the first trip of the Hindenburg to North America, the Dresden pianist Franz Wagner inaugurated the grand piano, playing works by Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms.” The piano maker’s staff say the instrument was removed from the Hindenburg in 1937 and placed on display in the factory, where it was later destroyed in an air raid. But the Zeppelin Museum has found evidence that the piano was last seen in 1938 in a shipyard crate. And there the trail goes cold[…]

    Animating Space

    “I’d love any of the spacecraft models used by Wernher von Braun in any of the 1955 Disneyland episodes, particularly the intricate and fanciful three-stage rocket in the episode Man in Space,” says Ben Page of the EAA Aviation Museum. An estimated 40 million viewers saw the episode on TV and, later, in theaters. “In those models, I see a moment where the space program was really ‘sold’ to Americans, taking full advantage of the communication medium of the day.”

    Are you holding?

    (image: "Wernher von Braun, above, right, with Walt Disney in 1954," NASA)

  • Kool & The Gang co-founder Ronald "Khalis" Bell, RIP

    Ronald “Khalis” Bell, co-founder of legendary funk-soul band Kool & The Gang and co-writer of classic jams "Ladies’ Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration," has died. He was 68. From Rolling Stone:

    In 1964, Bell and his teenage brother Robert “Kool” Bell, unable to afford drums, would collect old paint cans in their Youngstown, Ohio neighborhood and use them as makeshift percussion instruments. It was a crude way to learn music — the brothers would figure out different tones depending on how much paint was in each can — but it launched a musical career that lasted more than 50 years[…]

    Bell remained humble as he looked back on his legacy, insisting that his indispensable contributions were part of a greater whole. “A lot of the songs, I may have spearheaded ’em,” Bell told The New Yorker in 2018. “But it’s really, with a ‘K,’ the [collective] genius of a band called Kool & the Gang.” 

    image: Vannessajg (CC BY-SA 4.0)

  • US Navy bans hemp shampoos, lotions, and soaps

    The US Navy has banned sailors and Marines from using shampoo, lotions, and other body care products that contain hemp or cannabidiol. According to the official statement, their rationale is that the products could contain so much THC that it might "negatively impact mission readiness and disqualify a sailor from continued service." From Stars and Stripes:

    The new rule follows a ban imposed last summer by the Navy on the ingestion of products containing hemp or hemp derivatives without a valid prescription, after a 2018 farm bill removed low-THC hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.[…]

    The new rule still allows for the use of CBD-containing products that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, if a service member has a valid prescription. The rules do not prohibit the use of “durable hemp goods” such as rope, twine or clothing[…]

    “We have to be fit to fight and can’t take a risk in allowing our sailors to consume or use these types of products,” said L.A. Parker, head of the drug detection and deterrence branch of the 21st Century Sailor office.

    image: "Hemp Seed" by D-Kuru (CC BY-SA 3.0 at)

  • Tourist fined $1,200 for swiping sand from Italian beach

    Italian police fined a French tourist €1,000 ($1,200) for attempting to smuggle four pounds of Sardinia's beloved white sand out of the country. Authorities at Cagliari Elmas Airport discovered the sand in a bottle stowed in his luggage. Apparently, this is not unusual. From CNN:

    A spokesman for the island's Forest Rangers told CNN: "The bottle was confiscated and is in now in our operating room where we hold these confiscated items. At the end of the year we usually have many bottles of sand accumulated."

    image: Corpo Forestale

  • Motorized backpack self-adjusts its motion to feel lighter

    When you walk around carrying a heavy backpack, the movement of the pack against your body increases the amount of energy you need to take each step. Now, Huazhong University of Science and Technology professor Caihua Xiong and colleagues developed a motorized backpack that automatically adjusts the load you're carrying. From IEEE Spectrum:

    “Asian people utilized flexible bamboo poles to carry bulky goods, and Romans designed suspended backpacks to carry heavy loads, which show energetic benefits,” he notes. “These designed passive carrying tools have the same principle [as ours].”[…]

    In [the motorized backpack's] passive mode, two elastic ropes symmetrically arranged balance the weight of load within the backpack. Or, the user can choose to turn the system into active mode, whereby a rotary motor regulates the acceleration of load. The whole backpack weighs 5.3 kg, and was designed to carry loads up to 30 kg[…]

    Results show that, the motorized backpack in active mode reduces the load acceleration by 98.5% on average. In terms of metabolic costs for the user, motorized backpack design required on average 8% and 11% less energy, in passive and active modes respectively, compared to the standard rucksack.

  • Scientists clone endangered horse from genetic material frozen 40 years ago

    Kurt is a baby horse born last month. But Kurt is a very special horse because he's one of approximately 2,000 endangered Przewalski’s horses alive on the planet, and he was cloned from genetic material that's been frozen for 40 years. Revive & Restore—the wildlife conservation organization most famous for their efforts to resurrect the Woolly Mammoth and Passenger Pigeon—worked with the San Diego Zoo Global and pet cloning firm ViaGen Pets and Equine to create an embryo from frozen cells belonging to a stallion, named Kuporovic, that died in 1998. The scientists then implanted the embryo into a domestic horse that acted as a surrogate.

    “This birth expands the opportunity for genetic rescue of endangered wild species,” says Ryan Phelan, executive director of Revive & Restore. “Advanced reproductive technologies, including cloning, can save species by allowing us to restore genetic diversity that would have otherwise been lost to time.”

    From Revive & Restore:

    The Przewalski’s horse (pronounced “shuh-VAL-skees”) population faces the same struggle that many endangered species face—recovering from a severe historic bottleneck. Today’s Przewalski’s horses, of which there are now approximately 2,000, are descendants of just 12 individuals saved from extinction in the early 1900s[…]

    [Kuporovik's] cell line was chosen for genetic rescue cloning because an analysis of the captive breeding pedigree revealed that the genome offers significantly more genetic variation than any living Przewalski’s horse. Now that the genetic variation from Kuporovic “lives” again in Kurt, Kurt may become the most important horse in the North American captive breeding population. He may also become the first cloned animal to restore lost genetic variation to its species.

    (Thanks, Heather Sparks!)

    image: Scott Stine