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Skeptical reporter @ 2013-06-14

Skeptical Reporter for June 14th, 2013

Jurors at the Michael Jackson trial heard testimony from a surprise witness: the ghost of Michael Jackson! Randy Phillips, CEO of concert promoter AEG Live, testified about a chat he had with his longtime friend Brenda Richie, who claimed to have talked to a medium who had channeled the spirit of Michael after his 2009 death. Allegedly, Jackson’s ghost absolved Dr. Conrad Murray of any guilt in his death and admitted he “accidentally killed himself,” Phillips said. Brian Panish, a lawyer for Michael Jackson’s family, objected to Phillips’ ghost story, calling it triple hearsay, since Phillips was relaying a chat from Richie, who had heard from a medium, who — allegedly — spoke to the deceased. Remarkably — over the laughter of courtroom spectators — LA County Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos allowed Phillips’ explanation to stand. Jackson’s family is suing AEG Live, claiming that concert promoters knew the King of Pop was in declining health, but did nothing to help him — other than hire Murray. AEG officials insist they had no idea Jackson was in such fragile shape and argue the company shouldn’t be held liable for Murray’s criminal acts.

Deadly violence linked to witch hunts is an increasingly visible problem in Papua New Guinea — a diverse tribal society of more than 800 languages and 7 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers. Experts say witch hunting appears to be spreading to parts of the country where such practices never took place before, but they and government officials in the South Pacific nation seem at a loss to say why it appears to be growing. Some are arguing the recent violence is fueled not by the nation's widespread belief in black magic, but instead by economic jealousy since the country has experienced an economic boom. The changing economic situation has widened the divide between the rich and the poor and the unfortunate resort to the belief system to eliminate those who are perceived as well-off. The United Nations has documented hundreds of cases of sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea in recent years and many more cases in remote areas are thought to have gone unreported. Until last month, the country's 42-year-old Sorcery Act allowed for a belief in black magic to be used as a partial legal defense for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery. The government repealed the law in response to the recent violence.

Conspiracy theorists have dismissed US radio host Alex Jones as a government stooge designed to make conspiracy theorists look ridiculous, following his meltdown on live BBC television. Jones used his appearance on Andrew Neil’s Politics Show to make shouty conspiracy theorists appear mentally ill in front of an audience of millions. The BBC have been congratulated for opening their doors to those suffering from paranoid delusions and other undiagnosed mental disorders. However the conspiracy theorist movement have spoken out to disown Alex Jones in the strongest possible terms. Conspiracy blogger Chuck Matthews stated: “He’s not one of us, no way. Alex Jones is clearly a plant by a government desperate to silence the conspiracy theory movement by making us all look like complete idiots.” The BBC's Sunday Politics was the setting for a confrontation between host Andrew Neil and US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was labelled the worst person to be interviewed on the show and an idiot. He had been invited on the show alongside journalist David Aaronovitch to discuss the secretive Bilderberg conference, which took place near Watford.

The controversial Australian Vaccination Network is now effectively blacklisted as a media source after the Australian Communications and Media Authority reprimanded a regional broadcaster for using statements from founder Meryl Dorey. In an August 2012 report about a measles outbreak in Sydney, WIN News Illawarra included the following statement by Ms Dorey: "All vaccinations, in the medical literature, have been linked with the possibility of causing autism...". According to ACMA, using the statement conveyed a "higher level of controversy and uncertainty about immunisation than was justified by the facts". WIN was found to have breached two provisions of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice. The findings come as a new local group to combat misinformation about vaccination has emerged. The Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporter Group was started by polio survivor Ross Cornwill.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

The mysterious dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe could be composed, in part, of invisible and nearly intangible counterparts of atoms, protons and electrons, researchers say. Dark matter is an invisible substance thought to make up five-sixths of all matter in the universe. Scientists inferred the existence of dark matter via its gravitational effects on the movements of stars and galaxies. Most researchers think dark matter is composed of a new type of particle, one that interacts very weakly at best with all the known forces of the universe except gravity. This might not hold true for all forms of dark matter, though. Now, researchers suggest a new kind of dark matter could exist, and it could be as plentiful as conventional matter. "There is no good reason to assume that all the dark matter in the universe is built out of one type of particle," study author Andrey Katz of HarvardUniversity explained. These new dark matter particles would essentially consist of heavy "dark protons" and light "dark electrons." They would interact with each other far more than other dark matter particles. The interactions between dark protons and dark electrons could make them lose energy over time. As such, they might slow down enough to clump into flat disks around galaxies, just like regular matter does. This concept means galaxies would have two disks, one made of regular atoms and one of dark atoms, which is why the investigators call their idea the double-disk dark matter model.

A project currently on Kickstarter would give supporters the tools to remote-control a cockroach using their smartphones. Called RoboRoach, the project is billed as "the world's first commercially available cyborg" and comes from a group of educational researchers called Backyard Brains. RoboRoach has three components: a cockroach with surgically implanted electrical stimulators, a cockroach-size "backpack" that transmits these signals to a smartphone and an app that allows users to send the cockroach directional commands. The controls build off of the cockroach's existing biology: cockroaches navigate by feeling their surroundings with their long antennae. The RoboRoach takes advantage of this natural mechanism to control the cockroach's direction. It's a technique similar to the deep brain stimulation currently used to treat Parkinson's disease, or treatments for deafness such as cochlear implants. Neither the surgery nor the actual process hurt the cockroaches, Backyard Brains says. The project's developers explain that it's more than just a neat trick — it's a learning tool, designed to teach neuroscience principles to people at a young age.

An ultra-faint collection of 1,000 stars orbiting the Milky Way is the most lightweight galaxy ever discovered. The dwarf galaxy known as Segue 2 is bound together by a tiny clump of dark matter. Scientists who measured it say the finding adds support to theories about the formation of the universe. Models predict that the outskirts of our cosmic neighborhood should be teeming with tiny galaxies, but scientists have found far fewer satellite dwarf galaxies in the Local Group than they expected. Astronomers' inability to measure these cosmic bodies "has been a major puzzle, suggesting that perhaps our theoretical understanding of structure formation in the universe was flawed in a serious way," said study researcher James Bullock, a University of California, Irvine cosmologist. "Finding a galaxy as tiny as Segue 2 is like discovering an elephant smaller than a mouse," he added. Segue 2 has a luminosity just 900 times that of our sun. The Milky Way, meanwhile, is 20 billion times brighter. The researchers say there could be thousands more very low-mass star bodies orbiting the Milky Way, just beyond our ability to detect them.

Restricting the use of psychoactive drugs in research represents the most serious case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo, some scientists say. In a paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a group of researchers argues that drug laws enacted in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s have hindered vital research into the drugs' functions and therapeutic uses. The laws were designed to prevent drug use and drug harm, but they failed to do that, said paper co-author David Nutt, a psychopharmacologist at Imperial College, London. Nutt and his colleagues focused on three classes of drugs restricted by national laws and international conventions: cannabis (marijuana), MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics. Prior to restrictions, studies investigating these drugs had demonstrated important therapeutic uses, the authors argue. Aside from medicinal uses, the scientists say psychedelic drugs can play a role in probing the nature of consciousness, because they induce changes in the conscious state.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

A Romanian student has invented a very small and easy to use device that will recharge your mobile phone if you run out of battery. After a semester of research, Răzvan Mărcuş has created the device that looks like a phone case and will keep your phone permanently charged. It is easy to use and much smaller that other such technologies. It works like a generator and can be adapted for any kind of phone model.


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