Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

I figured you guys needed a break from swine flu, economic recessions and torture, so today I bring to you bogeying birds. Special thanks to green blogger Sarah Dowdey, who flagged this story as worthy of a post. By the way, if you haven't checked out Sarah's posts on ScienceStuff, do. She might know more about the planet right now than Mother Nature. Onward. Egocentric species that we are, most of us assumed that humans were the only animals that could dance, whether spastically like Elaine on "Seinfeld" or smoothly like Steve-O on "Dancing with the Stars." Not true. Birds got rhythm, too, according to Mark Kaplan's story for National Geographic. Don't believe me? Have a look at Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo kicking it to Queen's classic "Another One Bites the Dust":

When hair falls on the wrong side of the scissors, it typically ends up in the trash. It could end up in the ground, though, cozying up to the roots of your veggies and providing them with nutritious, hairy doses of nitrogen. According to Marketplace, a company called Smart Grow based out of South Florida uses hair -- yes, human hair -- to weave all-natural mats that crowd out weeds and act as organic fertilizers. The boiled, sanitized hair is imported from China (since it's generally less treated than Western hair), then stitched into rolls, circular mats or cubes that are placed at the bottom of pots or around the stems of plants. The product laces crops with nitrogen and other micronutrients while squeezing out weeds and helping to retain water. University of Florida plant pathologists found that the mats eliminated weeds better than the leading herbicides.

NASA's new Kepler telescope will help us pinpoint Earth-like planets spinning around distant stars, but now astronomers have something else to watch out for when eyeing other cosmic neighborhoods. Over the last 20 years, we've discovered hundreds of extrasolar planets, all orbitally bound to central stars like chicks to a mother hen. However, just like hamsters and mythological titans, sometimes these distant suns wind up chowing down on their young. Recent computer models indicated that it was possible for a parent star to pull a planet in with its gravitational pull and absorb it. As you might imagine, this is extremely important data for planet hunters to keep in mind. After all, who wants to go to all the trouble of exploring, colonizing and maybe even terraforming a distant world all so its sun can gobble it up?

You made it to the No. 1 super surprising recyclable item: your shoes. Unless you're a women's size 7 and want to donate them to me (I tend to be on the receiving end of my more fashion-forward friends' castoffs), plenty of places will happily accept your kicks, whether they're stilettos or sneakers. If you're short on cash but long on style, you could always sell them. Down-and-out socialites might fare better with this approach, as consignment stores tend to look for brand names. A pair of well-heeled vintage Chanel pumps = score. Your scuffed black boots from Target = not so much. The organization Soles for Souls seems to be less discriminating on the label front, but the folks behind it are still looking for new or gently used shoes. If you have a few laying about, you can ship them to one of its three U.S. warehouses or drop them off at one of its participating locations.

Electronics-Free, Chemical Robot Paves Way for Shoggoth Hordes

OK, so maybe not -- but when I read that scientists at Tokyo's Waseda University have created a mindless automation out of a polymer-based "color-changing, motile gel," forgive me if I grab an H.P. Lovecraft anthology and start flipping through some of my favorite tales for talk of blasphemous, amorphous horrors.

One thoughtful gaze into a clear night sky is enough to put our measly little lives in proper context. All those pinpricks of light have been traveling across the cosmos for billions of years, from stars born in a truly ancient galactic past. Last week, astronomers spotted something in the sky that surpasses everything we've seen before. According to New Scientist, NASA's Swift satellite spotted the gamma radiation burst from a star exploding 13 billion light-years away. Again, that's 13 BILLION years in the past -- a mere 640 million years after the big bang. Following the April 23, 2009, event, astronomers from around the world turned their attention to the inferred afterglow.

There's a closet in our house that's piled with stuff like old cell-phone chargers, various video games that my husband has never played and an oddly high number of headphones. Beyond compulsively tidying it, I never knew what to do with all this electronic junk, or e-waste, until I heard about the local electronics recycling day sponsored by the city of Decatur. And yeah, we actually did recycle our Mac one year, but it was one of those old desktops that resembled a TV. Nothing exciting enough to get freegans dumpster diving. E-waste may not be the most shocking item on this week's list of top 5 surprisingly recyclable items, but it feels irresponsible not to mention it, especially since it's a huge and growing problem for landfills. As our days become more digital, the electronics clogging our landfills swell, along with the amount of mercury, lead and other toxic chemicals leaching from these devices into the groundwater.

You're moving. You open up your medicine chest and an army of squat brown bottles with old prescription medications challenges you from the shelves. Deal with me in an efficient manner, they taunt. What do you do with them? You're not supposed to hang on to them past their expiration date. If you flush them down the toilet, will you be helping to create some superbug that flourishes in the sewage underworld and rises up to kill us all faster than you can say swine flu? Or maybe methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus? Relax. You have another option: recycle them. In the United States 37 states have passed drug reclamation, or recycling laws and started related programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislature. The organization's Web site lists the states that have enacted this type of legislation, as well as who will accept what. According to the site, almost all of the programs have the following requirements:

If you've ever sat through a viewing of Stephen King's "Cat's Eye," you know that cats don't actually climb into the beds of child actresses and suck their breath out -- you're thinking of tiny wall trolls. Still, a great deal of concern persists among cat owners whenever there's a new baby in the household. Will the cat and the baby become fast friends, or will one try to eat the other? How's a person to be both a responsible parent and a decent pet owner? According to an article from the Associated Press this week, the key is understanding how a cat reacts to the arrival of a newborn. Just think about the noises associated with a new baby. Think about all the curious new smells -- the utter chaos that a baby brings into a household.

Top 5 Surprisingly Recyclable Items - No. 4: Your Mattress

If you read yesterday's post, you know that I'm on a quest this week to expand your recycling outlook. In fact, HowStuffWorks.com has a bit of a green mission this week. Esteemed podcaster, writer, blogger and general funnyman Josh Clark is writing about 5 emerging green technologies to watch while green goddess and editor Sarah Dowdey is obsessed with five ways to cut energy costs.

No doubt you recycle assiduously, fishing out aluminum soda cans mixed with regular trash and rescuing them, like a demented George Costanza saving that tasty chocolate éclair resting on top of the garbage. This week, I'll be sharing with you five everyday objects that will have you scrambling among the trash even more, but only one a day, you greedy green people. Here's the first: your toothbrush. Ewwww. Who wants to recycle a toothbrush? I can barely stand to borrow my husband's toothbrush when mine can't be found. I'd rather just do that toothpaste-on-the-finger trick. But no, if you buy the "toothbrush made from yogurt cups" sold by Preserve, you can practice good dental hygiene and good stewardship of the Earth. When you're done with the toothbrush, you pack it up with the handy postage-paid label and send it back to be turned into reprocessed plastic lumber.

U.S. Swine Flu Cases Triple; Mexico in Worse Shape

And here we go. Since I first posted yesterday about swine flu, the number of U.S. cases has more than tripled from two to seven, plus another nine suspect cases, and Texas has been added to the list of states reporting swine flu infections.

Looking for something to do this weekend that's helpful yet vaguely rebellious? Whip up a batch of seed balls, or alternatively, seed bombs. I first heard about these little clumps of clay, compost and seeds in relation to guerrilla gardening. While guerrilla gardeners go all-out with their subversive plantings (laying out gardens on medians and abandoned lots while hazarding the chance of arrest), seed balls require a little less digging -- and risk. According to NPR, to make a seed ball, you start with a seed that's native and drought-resistant. You then create a mixture of seeds and mulch, giving it a red terra-cotta clay coating and rolling it into a ball. Because other kinds of terra-cotta will affect growth, it's important to use red. After the new seed balls dry on a tray or pizza sheet, they're ready for action. Bombardiers simply toss the seed-laden clumps into areas they think need improvement; after several rains, the clay breaks down and fresh seedlings appear.

If you're planning to hit any raves this summer, then a fluorescent puppy may sound like the perfect fashion accessory to go along with your giant polyester pants, purple fur bikini top and glow stick necklace. Imagine throwing some shapes to The Prodigy with a couple of these guys in your hands, eh? Of course, for many that may sound as ridiculous and irresponsible as, well, cloning transgenic dogs to produce a fluorescent protein that glows under UV lighting. But that's exactly what Byeong-Chun Lee's team at South Korea's Seoul National University did. According to an article on New Scientist, they pulled this off by cloning fibroblast cells that express a red fluorescent gene produced by sea anemones. That also means they're not available in purple yet.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported two independent cases of swine influenza A in a 10-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, both from Southern California in the April 21, 2009, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Both kids have since recovered fully. Here's the interesting part: Neither child reported exposure to pigs, although the little girl did go to an agricultural fair. Swine flu, as you no doubt guessed from the name, comes from pigs and primarily stays within pigs, although occasionally humans fall ill from it, but they tend to have more contact with pigs than you or I might. I'm guessing that not too many pig farmers read this blog, although slaughterhouses and agricultural fairs could pose other routes of transmission. Even though swine flu occurs regularly among pigs, it doesn't tend to kill them. So if it hasn't killed anybody and we only have two confirmed cases, what's the big deal?

Agribusiness Isn't Pleased by the Obamas' Organic Garden

In case it isn't obvious by now, everyone's looking to get a piece of the new first family. From shelter enthusiasts torn up over the Obamas' adoption of second-chance breeder dog, to big-name designers peeved by the First Lady's fashion choices, every decision the family makes seems to carry a wealth of import.

Can I pay a robot to say a quantum prayer for me?

If quantum theory holds true and ceasing to believe in something can keep it from happening, then couldn't enough belief steer us toward a future we want? Better yet, can't we just bribe a few robots to pray us into a better, alternate reality? The answers may astound and confuse you.

Curious about those weird growths on your co-worker's neck? Feel like uncovering whether your colleague's pregnant belly is sheltering a girl or a boy? Or are you just intent on stealing someone's lunch out of the break room, but want to know what's in the sack beforehand? Tough. An ultrasound-equipped smartphone might be able to help you do those things, but the new gadget won't be available to you, lowly consumer. Yes, fancy phones now have the capability of connecting to an ultrasound probe, technology designed by computer engineers at Washington University in St. Louis. They can instantly display your kidneys, liver, bladder and eyes, as well as various bodily cavities. They can even display what's going on in your veins and arteries so doctors and nurses can hook up IVs and central lines. According to the related press release: "Both medicine and global computer use will never be the same."

Is a PeePoo bag what it sounds like?

This isn't your typical plastic bag full of human waste, or "flying toilet" as they're known by wary residents of certain Kenyan slums. It also doesn't have anything to do with flaming sacks on doorsteps. According to Matt Embrey over at Green Upgrader, the PeePoo bag from Switzerland's PeePoople AB offers waterless human waste treatment to impoverished areas.

Happy Earth Day

It's that time of year again. Magazines put out their "green" issues. Comic-strip characters reveal their inner conservationist leanings. "The Price Is Right" features all eco-friendly products. Late April means Earth Day, and while environmental action has expanded far beyond the confines of one day, it's still the symbolic head of the movement -- the day most groups and businesses choose to highlight their efforts.