Skeptical Reporter @ 2012-11-23

Skeptical Reporter for November 23rd, 2012

In San Francisco, the District Attorney has announced suspects in a bizarre ghost scam have been charged. The scam has targeted people in the Asian community and authorities were quick to launch an awareness campaign that ultimately led to the fraudsters being caught. Two women were arrested and now face jail time for grand theft, extortion, attempted extortion and attempted grand theft. The M.O. was the same as the last Chinese ghost scam from earlier this summer in the United States, where the suspects duped dozens of elderly Asian women to hand over their cash and valuables. In total, the suspects made off with more than $1 million, according to police. In September, three more women were arrested on suspicion of stealing victim's money after telling them there were evil spirits attached to them. One victim alone lost $35,000. Since then, the cops and the DA have been hosting community meetings to educate residents about this crafty scam. But on the 10th of November, the scammers struck again, targeting elderly Chinese women at the Alemany Farmer's Market.  The first victim was approached by three of the defendants who told her that she was plagued by "evil spirits" and that a family member was in danger, so she had to get her money and valuables and bring them over for a blessing. Frightened by the thought of evil spirits, the victim headed home to get her valuables. But on her way she recalled having just heard a warning on the news about this kind of scam. So instead of going home, the victim went to Ingleside Police Station and reported the scam. The cops responded to the market, where the victim identified the suspects.

France dashed the hopes of those who had planned to take refuge in one of the few places on Earth some believe will be spared when the world ends on December 21st. Local officials banned access to the Pic de Bugarach, a mountain in the southwest where rumour has it the hilltop will open on the last day and aliens will emerge with spaceships to save nearby humans. Eric Freysselinard, the state's top representative in the area, said he was blocking access to the mountain for public safety reasons to avoid a rush of New Age fanatics, sightseers and media crews. Believers say the world will end on December 21, 2012, the end date of the ancient Mayan calendar, and they see Bugarach as one of a few sacred mountains sheltered from the cataclysm. Freysselinard said the 100 police and firefighters he plans to deploy will also control approaches to the tiny village of the same name at the foot of the mountain, and if too many people turn up, they will block access there too.

An Indian publisher is drawing criticism for a school textbook that says meat eaters cheat,  lie and commit sex crimes. "New Healthway," a health and hygiene textbook published by S Chand for 11- and 12-year-olds, includes a chapter titled "Do We Need Flesh Food?". The book says "some of the characteristics" of non-vegetarians are that "they easily cheat, tell lies, forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes." Janaki Rajan of the Faculty of Education at Jamia Millia University in Delhi said the claims in the textbook are "poisonous for children". "The government has the power to take action, but they are washing their hands of it," she said. The publisher declined to comment.

On an episode of the syndicated TV show “The Doctors,” scientologist Kelly Preston promoted Kirstie Alley’s Organic Liaison diet program and also the producer of supplements for the diet. Unfortunately, the part that was not revealed in the program is that the “expert” at Alternative Laboratories that she talked to is a pharmacists whose license got suspended in 2004. Ryan Margot, who was presented as “doctor Ryan” pleaded guilty to 39 counts of obtaining drugs like Hydrocodone through fraud and got ten years in a Florida State Prison, suspended sentence, and 60 months of drug probation. For the last two years, Margot has worked for Alternative Labs, identified in Preston’s piece as the place Kirstie Alley uses to prepare foods and diet supplements. He gave Preston a short lecture on the value of “organic foods” and was identified as an expert on the subject. “The Doctors” apparently just took the taped segment from Preston without questioning it.

And now let's look at some news in science

Dwarf planet Makemake is about two thirds of the size of Pluto, and travels around the Sun in a distant path that lies beyond that of Pluto but closer to the Sun than Eris, the most massive known dwarf planet in the Solar System. Previous observations of chilly Makemake have shown it to be similar to its fellow dwarf planets, leading some astronomers to expect its atmosphere, if present, to be similar to that of Pluto. However, a new study now shows that, like Eris, Makemake is not surrounded by a significant atmosphere. The team, led by Jose Luis Ortiz from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia in Spain, combined multiple observations using three telescopes to look at Makemake as it passed in front of a distant star. Makemake's lack of moons and its great distance from us make it difficult to study, and what little we do know about the body is only approximate. The team's new observations add much more detail to our view of Makemake -- determining its size more accurately, putting constraints on a possible atmosphere and estimating the dwarf planet's density for the first time. Makemake was initially known as 2005 FY9. It was discovered a few days after Easter in March 2005, earning it the informal nickname of Easterbunny. In July 2008 it was given its current official name. Makemake is the creator of humanity and god of fertility in the myths of the native people of Easter Island.

In a breakthrough for nanotechnology and multiple sclerosis, a biodegradable nanoparticle turns out to be the perfect vehicle to deliver an antigen that tricks the immune system into stopping its attack on myelin. This has led to stopping a model of relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis from advancing in mice. The new nanotechnology also can be applied to a variety of immune-mediated diseases including Type 1 diabetes, food allergies and airway allergies such as asthma. In MS, the immune system attacks the myelin membrane that insulates nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. When the insulation is destroyed, electrical signals can't be effectively conducted, resulting in symptoms that range from mild limb numbness to paralysis or blindness. About 80 percent of MS patients are diagnosed with the relapsing remitting form of the disease. The new technology does not suppress the entire immune system as do current therapies for MS, which make patients more susceptible to everyday infections and higher rates of cancer. Rather it leads to the immune system resetting to normal.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no connection between lunar phases and the incidence of psychological problems. This is the conclusion reached by a team of researchers directed by Professor Geneviève Belleville of Université Laval's School of Psychology after having examined the relationship between the moon's phases and the number of patients who show up at hospital emergency rooms experiencing psychological problems. To determine whether the widespread belief linking the moon to mental health problems was true, researchers evaluated patients who visited emergency rooms at Montreal's Sacré-Coeur Hospital and Hôtel-Dieu de Lévis between March 2005 and April 2008. They focused specifically on individuals that complained of chest pains for which no medical cause could be determined. Psychological evaluations revealed that a sizable number of these patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts. Using lunar calendars, the researchers determined the moon phase in which each of these visits occurred. The results of their analysis revealed no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases.

A research team at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center say they have turned adult epithelial cells into a new stem-like cell that has attributes which may help regenerative medicine become truly possible. The scientists report that these new stem-like cells do not express the same genes as embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. That explains why they don't produce tumors when they grow in the laboratory, as the other stem cells do, and why they are stable, producing the kind of cells researchers want them to. "These seem to be exactly the kind of cells that we need to make regenerative medicine a reality," says the study's senior investigator, Richard Shlegel, chairman of the department of pathology at Georgetown Lombardi.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

Google will organize an event dedicated to 24 European students who have shown great potential in science and engineering at the third edition of the European Google Trailblazer Awards. The event will take place in Zurich on the 29th and 30th of November and six winners are Romanian. Google partnered up with the InfoEducation camp from Romania in the past three years and offered 220 students the opportunity to learn more about computers. In the three years 18 young Romanians have received the Trailblazer title and many of them have continued their scientific studies.

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