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Atheist firebrand PZ Myers, aka Pharyngula, has a hilarious evening to tell you about.

(hat tip: Ginny)

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There are laws about how close a nosy tourist can sneak up on a whale, and most people assume that’s to keep the whales safe from the people. So imagine this couple’s surprise at learning the law also keeps people safe from whales.

Through some combination of whale movements and people movements, the kayakers got closer to this mother humpback and her calf than she approved. First she thwacked the water with a humongous flipper. A moment later she launched out of the water for a full-body layout to encourage the couple to put on a little more distance. Great picture of the splashdown here.

As a totally unexpected bonus, we get an eye-opening comments board at the Times Online’s version of the story. Comments aren’t about whale conservation or close calls with wildlife. They’re about how annoying the metric system is. Amazingly, almost all the comments are pro-Imperial units. And they seem serious! You almost think one of the commenters is Grandpa Simpson (“My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!”).

I’m still in shock from hearing recently about some U.S. undergraduates fighting to comprehend the metric system – one in particular whose preferred way to get from centimeters to meters was to convert to inches, then to feet, then back to meters. When did powers of 10 become arcane?

Maybe we should just measure everything in elephants, a la this Onion story. My favorite line:

We saw a rat in the street the other day and he kept going on and on about how huge it was, saying, ‘That thing must’ve been at least .074 elephants long!’

For the record, a full-grown humpback whale is only about 2 full-grown elephants long. But thanks to the power of allometry, it weighs in at 4 elephants. Probably only around 1 elephant of lifespan. Top speed? Just 0.5 elephant (but here the system breaks down: though slower on land, a humpback can surely outswim an elephant. Vice versa is just not worth contemplating.)

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I returned from Antarctica nearly two months ago to find it considerably busier ’round these northern parts. Among the things that almost slipped past:

Dumping iron in the ocean to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s premature to do it commercially, and it may never turn out to be a good idea. But we could learn a lot about how the ocean works if we do some more experiments in that direction. That’s the gist of a special issue of Oceanus on the subject, in which I got to write five of the articles. Also covered: It’s become quite common to ridicule the idea for various appalling but unspecified side-effects; here are some details. Also, could it ever work? Why are economists and carbon traders interested? And what makes us think it might work in the first place?

Apparently, way more water has been dragged into the bowels of the Earth under Costa Rica than anyone ever thought before. Time was you could just dig up a handful of olivine crystals and spin the story any way you wanted – but that was before Jenn Wade got ahold of some clinopyroxenes and squeezed from them the truth. The verdict: Throw away your boron, your beryllium. Cast out your futile barium/lanthanum assays. Stop clinging to the illusions conjured in your strontium-neodymium dens. There are two kinds of magma beneath Costa Rica, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise any longer. Questions? Ask the magmatic maverick herself (and check out her dancing skills) at Danger Bay.

There’s a fascinating story about whether chickens came to South America in Spanish galleons, via the Atlantic, or Polynesian outriggers, via the Pacific, here. (Thanks to El Nuthatchenyo for the tip.)

And thanks to the New York Times for keeping tabs on kimchee‘s inexorable expansion around the globe… and into outer space.

p.s. Hands up who wants to hear the best parts from Bleak House?

There Goes the Neighborhood

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File under Not-Cute Baby Pictures #1: Large white shark eats small elephant seal at Ano Nuevo State Park, about 25 miles north of Santa Cruz. (Photo via park ranger-surfer Ziad, via Heathcliff, via GeeVeePee.)

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Every once in a while the New York Times runs an article just to see how many jokes it can slip under the radar; today is just such a day.

How else do you explain the most revered newspaper in America dedicating valuable paper (ca. $1,200 a column inch, if I’m not mistaken) to news about the punctuation on a city train? Siccing their reporters on the likes of Louis Menand and the woman who wrote “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” (never mind Menand’s arch New Yorker review of ES&L, which was far more haughty than a mere pan; here, they agree)? Digging up a Kurt Vonnegut quote that includes both Hemingway and his second-most despised punctuation mark? Someone even drew out the perfect quote from Noam Chomsky, giving Bush detractors and Chomsky haters alike something to laugh about.

And the coup de grace – was this the brilliant late addition of an overworked copyeditor? – bringing a mass murderer into the story; it’s just a setup for a groaner at the end of the sentence.

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

(Thanks: C.A.H.)

(Image: semicolon subway commuters; Scribble Images)

Funny sign alert #5

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You know you think about it every time you have to ride over the tracks. Or those storm drains with the big slots in them.

(Christchurch, New Zealand)

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Would you read a story about a new advance in in vitro fertilization, whereby an inherited mitochondrial disease is averted through transplantation of a fertilized nucleus?

How about a story about scientists creating the first embryo with three parents?

That’s what I thought. Never mind the scientists, who in one well-reported story, said “it would be incorrect to say that the embryos have three parents.”

What really happened was a neat but unfrightening transplant of a fertilized egg nucleus (with the standard set of DNA from two parents) into a donor egg containing a third woman’s mitochondria. As you may remember, mitochondria are those little steam engines that live in our cells by the thousands. They have their own set of DNA that governs how their machinery converts glucose into energy the rest of the cell can use.

Interestingly, mitochondria are the descendants of bacteria that our cells enveloped way back in the mists of evolutionary time back when “we” were some version of multicellular sludge in a tidepool somewhere. Mitochondrial DNA has had very little to do with the rest of our genes ever since – it’s one reason why they’re so useful to biologists tracing evolutionary lineages. So given the origin of mitochondria, you might just as well argue that we all have three parents.

But what good is explaining all that to a headline writer who has only 10 words with which to catch the eyes of thousands of readers? That’s how we get “Brit scientists brew up three-parent embryo” and similar rickety headlines appearing all over the world.

Fortunately, the world has someone who calls out headline abuses such as these: the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. It’s his job to scan news stories each day and point out what’s been done right and wrong. It’s much-needed peer review for journalists, conducted by one of their own with four decades (correct me if I’m wrong) of experience. Worth checking regularly.

And how did the Tracker resist the too-easy headline for his own post? He bypassed “parents” and went straight for the oldest attention grabber of them all: Sex triangle – though the headline continues, honorably: “An embryo with one woman’s mitochondria, and another’s nuclear DNA (a man’s involved too) ”

(Image via the X-men)

Nuthatch Pipes Up

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It’s been several months since anyone’s heard a peep out of the Contemplative Nuthatch, who you may remember in connection with a Brazilian Nuthatch Snow Party last year.

He’s back with a story and trademark nice photos of a red-tailed hawk that’s been causing trouble in his Ithaca environs. If you’re squeamish, avert your eyes from the bottom half of the post. But be sure to watch the video, a quick half-minute of crows letting the red-tail know it’s not welcome. I love how they cluster mildly around the hawk until it gets nervous enough to leave. Then as soon as it spreads its wings, the crows pounce.

(By the way, despite those pale patches on the wings, these are not oversized lark buntings – they’re just wing-marked crows under study by Cornell ornithologists.)

Miracle at Gate C15

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Fortunately, I had put on my brown leather Adidas yesterday morning, and checked everything but my shoulder bag. Thus unencumbered and with the best possible traction, I was able to pick up amazing speed on the moving walkways of O’Hare.

My plane from Syracuse, which took off three hours late, landed 30 minutes after my San Francisco connection was supposed to have taken off. But this was O’Hare, where all flights are delayed at least a little. The monitor said United flight 155 to SFO was still at C15, status “CLOSED”. I ran.

A shuttle bus connects concourses F and C, and from the window I could clearly see the beautiful bulbous nose of a Boeing 767 nuzzled up against gate C15, jetway still attached. The bus pulled up to C concourse’s slushy back entrance and I bounded upstairs, ran over a Japanese teenager standing dead in the middle of the moving walkway, and crashed into gate C15.

Which was empty as a morgue save a few bored travelers already awaiting the next departure. No blue-suited United personnel anywhere. I beat on the closed jetway door. Contemplated opening the door, but chickened out. Cursed a few times.

That was how I came to be pressing my face against the window and gesticulating at the pilots through their window not 30 yards away. (The other travelers didn’t even look up.) I thought I saw the copilot look over. I waved my ticket and pointed at the jetway. Now the pilot looked over. I put my hands together as if I were a Catholic holding a tearful conversation with Mary. He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. I cursed some more and went back to the jetway door to beat on it.

Three more guys, businessmen, arrived, puffing. I told them what was up, and we all gathered at the window, staring at the pilots like choirboys. A flight attendant stuck her head into the cockpit and gave us the thumbs up. Miracles. Five hours later I could smell kelp in the air.

I have no idea where my bags are.

Google for Twitchers

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You’ve got to start back to blogging sometime, I guess. Here’s one for all you plugged-in readers who know what a twitcher is.***

Someone at eBird had the great idea to feed rare-bird sightings into a Google widget. Now you can get a fresh list, right down to the last harlequin duck and wandering tattler, every time you check your e-mail tally/Fox News headlines/stock prices. You even get a link to a Google map of the bird’s last known address.

Future versions of the widget might improve the text wrapping or make the regional selections more versatile, but this is a nice piece of software that ought to be lapped up by hordes of avid listers. Get it here.

***A twitcher is a kind of birdwatcher with an unwavering focus on rare birds. Your typical twitcher keeps a variety of lists, including all birds seen in a lifetime, in a year, on a continent, country, state, county, backyard, etc. In pursuit of the longest lists possible, twitchers are willing to travel great distances when birds show up in unexpected places.
As with most addictions, it’s not easy to tell when you have a problem, but one rule of thumb is that if you are willing to burn more than one tank of gas specifically to pick up a rarity, you might be a twitcher.

“Twitch” also works as a verb, as: “Last winter he spent MLK weekend twitching hawk owls. Drove nonstop from Cincinnati to Minnesota through the night. Lived off diet Cherry Coke and Pecan Sandies the whole time.”