Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Follow That Toad

If you see the toads leaving, run for the hills.

The Common toads appear to be able to sense an impending earthquake and will flee their colony days before the seismic activity strikes.The evidence comes from a population of toads which left their breeding colony three days before an earthquake that struck L'Aquila in Italy in 2009.

How toads sensed the quake is unclear, but most breeding pairs and males fled.

They reacted despite the colony being 74km from the quake's epicenter, say biologists in the Journal of Zoology.

It is hard to objectively and quantifiably study how animals respond to seismic activity, in part because earthquakes are rare and unpredictable.

Some studies have been done on how domestic animals respond, but measuring the response of wild animals is more difficult.

Even those that have been shown to react, such as fish, rodents and snakes tend to do so shortly before an earthquakes strikes, rather than days ahead of the event.

However, biologist Dr Rachel Grant of the Open University, in Milton Keynes, UK, was routinely studying the behavior of various colonies of common toads on a daily basis in Italy around the time a massive earthquake struck.

Her studies included a 29-day period gathering data before, during and after the earthquake that hit Italy on 6 April 2009.

The quake, a 6.3-magnitude event, struck close to L'Aquila city, about 95km (60 miles) north-east of Rome.

Dr Grant was studying toads 74km away in San Ruffino Lake in central Italy, when she recorded the toads behaving oddly.

Five days before the earthquake, the number of male common toads in the breeding colony fell by 96%.


Common frogs (Rana temporaria) mating
Dr Grant has also shown that many amphibians around the world synchronize their mating activity by the full Moon, a phenomenon not reported before
The world's first truly monogamous amphibian was described earlier this year
Listen to a common toad croaking

That is highly unusual for male toads: once they have bred, they normally remain active in large numbers at breeding sites until spawning has finished.

Yet spawning had barely begun at the San Ruffino Lake site before the earthquake struck.

Also, no weather event could be linked to the toads' disappearance.

Three days before the earthquake, the number of breeding pairs also suddenly dropped to zero.

While spawn was found at the site up to six days before the earthquake, and again six days after it, no spawn was laid during the so-called earthquake period - the time from the first main shock to the last aftershock.

"Our study is one of the first to document animal behavior before, during and after an earthquake," says Dr Grant.

She believes the toads fled to higher ground, possibly where they would be at less risk from rock falls, landslides and flooding.

Exactly how the toads sense impending seismic activity is unclear.

The shift in the toads' behaviour coincided with disruptions in the ionosphere, the uppermost electromagnetic layer of the earth's atmosphere, which researchers detected around the time of the L'Aquila quake using a technique known as very low frequency (VLF) radio sounding.


Use this map to explore coverage of the Italian earthquake in video, audio, pictures and text
After the quake, L'Aquila was described as a 'broken city'
Read 'A history of deadly earthquakes'

Such changes to the atmosphere have in turn been linked by some scientists to the release of radon gas, or gravity waves, prior to an earthquake.

In the case of the L'Aquila quake, Dr Grant could not determine what caused the disruptions in the ionosphere.

However, her findings do suggest that the toads can detect something.

"Our findings suggest that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues such as the release of gases and charged particles, and use these as a form of earthquake early warning system," she says.

Ants ignore quakes

One other study has quantified an animal's response to a major earthquake.

Researchers had the serendipitous opportunity to measure how the behavior of the desert harvester ant (Messor pergandei) changed as the ground began to tremble in the Mojave Desert, California, on 28 June 1992.

The largest quake to hit the US in four decades struck during the middle of an ongoing study, which measured how many ants walked the trails to and from the colony, the distributions of worker ants and even how much carbon dioxide the ants produced.

However, in response to that 7.4 magnitude quake, the ants did not appear to alter their behavior at all.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bring on the Chocolate

Women, children and many men have been saying it for years... "Chocolate is good for you!" A report out today states "Chocolate 'can cut blood pressure and help heart". with Easter just a few days away confirms that. Chocolate eggs are part of celerbrating Easter, the egg cybolizing a new birth, fresh start etc.

Easter eggs and other chocolate can be good for you, as long as you eat only small amounts, latest research suggests.

The study of over 19,000 people, published in the European Heart Journal, found those who ate half a bar a week had lower blood pressure.

They also had a 39% lower risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Heart campaigners warned that too much chocolate is damaging because is has a lot of calories and saturated fat.

The study looked at the chocolate consumption of middle-aged men and women over eight years.

It compared the health of those who ate the most and least chocolate.

The study found that those who ate more chocolate cut their risk of heart attacks by around a quarter, and of stroke by nearly half, compared with those who ate the least.

Chocolate lovers dream

But Dr Buijsse warned that it was important people ensured that eating chocolate did not increase their overall intake of calories or reduce their consumption of healthy foods.

"Small amounts of chocolate may help to prevent heart disease, but only if it replaces other energy-dense food, such as snacks, in order to keep body weight stable," he said.

The researchers believe that flavanols in cocoa may be the reason why chocolate seems to be good for people's blood pressure and heart health.

And since there is more cocoa in dark chocolate, dark chocolate may have a greater effect.

I can hear the rustle of wrapping paper already.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Pub For One

Ever thought have owning your own island complete with a pub, just for yourself? Well a Swiss business man has gone one better than that.

A Swiss businessman is thought to have paid about £2.5m for a small group of islands off the west coast of Scotland.

The deal includes the island of Sanda, which has its own pub but only one resident, as well as the neighboring Sheep Island and Glunimore Insland.

I must admit the "Island of Sanda" sounds very like the location where Thomas the Tank engine and his friends shunt their stuff, which is the "Island of Sodor". Perhaps he's going to turn it into a train theme island??

The three islands lie off the tip of the Mull of Kintyre, 13 miles south of Campbeltown.

The sale was confirmed by Dick Gannon, who had owned the three islands for the past 20 years with his wife Meg.

The buyer was named locally as Michi Meier, who is originally from Switzerland but now lives in Sweden.

Mr Gannon, 59, said: "The island is sold, close to the asking price, to a customer sent over by Hamburg-based selling agents Vladi Private islands, but I can't say any more about the sale than that.

"The new owner is taking over at the end of April. It's a bit of a mystery what he is going to do but I am hoping it will go on as it is now, as a business, as a tourist destination."

I think it is a bargain. Sanda is a beautiful island, you can farm there and you have also got six self catering cottages and an award winning pub
Dick Gannon
Previous owner

Sanda had been on sale since August 2008. It was originally priced at £3.2m but dropped to offers around £2.5m.

Mr Gannon said: "I think it is a bargain. Sanda is a beautiful island, you can farm there and you have also got six self catering cottages and an award winning pub."

Mrs Gannon has always lived at the family home in Campbeltown while her husband was the island's only listed resident.

Although they have three sons and a daughter, none of their family was interested in taking over Sanda.

Mr Gannon said: "20 years we have had Sanda and it's been the experience of a lifetime really but it's a bit like hiding away and I now want to visit a few places and do a few things. There is a life outside Sanda."

Mr Meier could not be contacted, but has been speaking to a number of business people in Kintyre about services for the island in recent weeks.

Terry Smith, who owns farm land at Southend, near the Mull of Kintyre - the nearest mainland point to the 314 acre isle of Sanda - said Mr Meier had visited him last week.

Tourism destination

He said it was his understanding the new owner intended to run Sanda for his family's private use.

Kintyre Councillor Donald Kelly said: "I would sincerely hope that Sanda will stay as a tourism venue and that the community will be able to work constructively with the new owner to the benefit of Kintyre."

Sanda was home to only a few derelict buildings when the Gannons bought the three-isle chain for £250,000 in 1990.

Mr Gannon spent years building the island into a unique tourism destination, renovating the buildings into the award winning Byron Darnton tavern and six self catering cottages.

The Gannons, who marketed Sanda as "a piece of paradise", are selling up because of their decision to separate.

The island's 350 breeding ewes are included in the sale, along with chickens which produce free range eggs and enjoy such a good reputation that customers, including Princess Anne, have sailed in specially to buy them.

The other two islands in the chain are uninhabited apart from a flock of 60 Soay sheep on Sheep Island.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Burger with Fries to go... I mean really to go.

They say an army marches on it's stomach, but for those troops in Afghanistam, this will no longer be full of burgers and pizza.

It was announced that burger bars and pizza joints at Nato bases across Afghanistan are being closed down in an effort "to increase efficiency across the battlefield".

A Nato spokesman said that "amenities" at bases across the country are being phased out for logistical reasons.

He said officials at each base will decide exactly when they are axed.

Nato's top Afghanistan commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, made it clear last year that the days of Burger King, Dairy Quest and Pizza Hut on Isaf bases were numbered.

He expressed concern that burger bars, pizza restaurants and other stores in large International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) bases at Kandahar, Bagram and Mazar-e-Sharif served as a distraction to the military mission.

'Get refocussed'

"For several months now we have been in the process of bringing 39,000 extra troops to Afghanistan - in addition to extra equipment, ammunition and supplies," the Nato spokesman told the BBC.

"Soldiers will still be able to eat pizzas and burgers - but served up in military canteens rather than in commercial outlets."

A blog written in February by a senior Isaf morale welfare and recreation officer states the argument bluntly for closing down outlets such as Burger King, Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen.

"This is a warzone, not an amusement park," the blog written by Command Sgt Maj Michael T Hall says.

"In order to accommodate the troop increase and get refocussed on the mission in hand, we need to cut back on some of the non-essentials.

"Supplying non-essential luxuries to big bases like Bagram and Kandahar makes it harder to get essential items to combat outposts and forward operating bases, where troops fighting every day need to be resupplied with ammunition, food and water."

Command Sgt Maj Hall said that closing such outlets will free up much needed storage space and reduce the amount of flight and ground convoy traffic across Afghanistan.

He said it would also free up "water and electricity needs required to run these businesses".

Correspondents say that while the closures are not likely to bother troops on the frontline who live in tough conditions, many in the larger bases on lengthy 12-month tours may complain it places an added burden on them.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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It Fell of the back of a lorry... honest

A term used often in England for when caught supishus items is that "it fell of the back of a lorry". Well yesterday in Ohio it did just that.

Police in the US state of Ohio say tens of thousands of dollars are missing a day after a bag of cash fell from an armoured car, sparking a money grab.

A mad rush to pick up $20 bills broke out after the bag fell from the car in Columbus and split open.

It is unclear how much cash was in the bag, but US media say it was at least $100,000.

Officers are reviewing mobile phone and surveillance videos to identify who has the missing cash.

"It's not free money," said a police sergeant.

If people were found with the missing cash they would be charged, Sgt Dan Kelso told Associated Press news agency.

He said he did not know how the bag of money fell from the armoured car.

Witnesses told local media that people were scooping up as much cash as they could carry.

"People were jumping out of their vehicles," one person said.

Another described it as like a feeding frenzy by "a school of piranhas".

Workers at a nearby flower shop helped police gather up the money in boxes. Several people ended up bringing some of the cash into the police station.

But only about $10,500 dollars had been recovered by the end of the day, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

FarmVille - is it taking over the world?

I have remarked on my radio station in the past how things have changed with my children. It used to be dashing home from school, to see some TV program, or get homework done so they could go out to play. In the last year though comments have changed so it's now. "I have to get onto facebook to feed my fish", or "harvest m crops". As a Facebook Farmer, Builder, fishminder and Mafia Killer, this article on the BBC website today really put a smile on my face, so I thought I'd share it with you all.

A Bulgarian official has been sacked after being caught milking a virtual cow on the hugely popular online farming game, FarmVille. So what is it about it that's made it so popular?

At the end of a hard day seeing to patients at the surgery there is more work to be done. Tending to the crops, feeding the cows and making sure the fields are ploughed.

For one GP, who is too embarrassed to be named, the internet game FarmVille has become a part of daily life.

The premise of the game is simple - you are a farmer, albeit a virtual one - with your own plot of land. Your job is to cultivate it and rear animals. You get points depending on how successful you are and the aim is to get the highest score you can.

On her farm, the GP grows potatoes, watermelons and keeps chickens and cows. She never tends to her fields during her working day, but is on it most evenings.

"It does seem like a terrible waste of time," she says. "It's like watching trashy TV though, a bit of escapism to help you unwind."

For her and many others, FarmVille has become a guilty pleasure. The game was launched in June 2009, since then more than 80 million people have signed up to it. While it's highly unlikely that everyone who has joined the game plays it on a regular basis, there is no doubting it has a huge regular following, with people around the world, from all ages and backgrounds playing it.

FarmVille is accessed as an application through Facebook and now has its own website too. But it's the game's presence on the social networking site which has given the game such a wide reach, allowing it to tap into Facebook's already large user base.

And its availability on social networks has created a new wave of computer gamers, who wouldn't normally go near a console.

Meaningful effect

Like full-time mum Gemma, for whom FarmVille has become part of the daily routine, in-between nappy changes and feeds. Both her sisters and her mum are signed up too. She was initially dismissive of FarmVille when she was asked to join, but is hooked now. So, what is the appeal?

"It becomes a personal experience and something you care about," says Johnny Minkley, a computer games expert. The game has a certain "stickiness" to it, because of the nurturing element involved, he says.

"What you're doing needs to have some meaningful effect, like the planting and growing of crops."

The game also has a competitive element - it's about having the best farm and earning the most money to see to its upkeep. But it can also be co-operative and it's possible to interact with your friends' farms on the site by watering their plants and feeding their animals.

The game is free to play, but if you want to buy extra coins to keep up your farm, you are given the option to buy more with your credit card.

Parallels can be drawn between Farmville and the Tamagotchi craze in the 1990s, where people looked after a virtual pet housed in a plastic egg, developing an emotional attachment to their virtual being. But the fact FarmVille has been introduced in an age of social media has had other effects.

For the embarrassed GP, it resurrected an old friendship - sort of.

"There's a girl I went to school with, and who I never speak to, but I now fertilise her crops for her," she says.

To the uninitiated, this behaviour might seem bizarre, but hardened FarmVillers say all of this helps you win extra points and prizes.

It is this sense of reward which keeps people playing, says psychologist Dr Mark Griffiths. He describes FarmVille as "virtual Lego", where building something from scratch and seeing it grow gives players a sense of accomplishment and a "psychological high".

Educational tool

Dr Griffiths specialises in researching technological addictions and says what underlies any addiction is the reliance on constant rewards. But saying you are "addicted" to FarmVille is a bit like saying you're addicted to chocolate, he argues.

"What people really mean is that there is a 'moreishness' quality about it. There's nothing wrong with spending hours on it, as long it's not affecting your personal relationships and work."

There are those who see FarmVille as a blight on their daily Facebook feed, when every time they log in they discover that Georgia has traded 50 gold pieces, or that Andrew has harvested his chicken coop.

Top five FarmVille countries
1. United States
2. Turkey
3. The Philippines
4. The United Kingdom
5. Italy

Others say it is not just a blight, but a downright distraction. It was recently reported that a councillor in Bulgaria was sacked after he was discovered milking a virtual cow on his laptop during a committee meeting.

There are many others who agree with the superiors in Plovdiv and the game has its fair share of detractors. There are several Anti-FarmVille groups online, one called Not Playing FarmVille has more than two million members.

"If you are doing this you have... I repeat if you are doing this you have too much time on your hands", writes one member. Another says, "everyone's worried about the swine flu, but I think we need to be worried about this FarmVille epidemic".

Bill Mooney, VP and general manager of Zynga, the company behind FarmVille brushes off these kind of negative comments.

"If FarmVille is affecting people in a positive way, then we're all for it," he says.


"The best thing is, FarmVille is played in 5-10 minutes sessions, so you really don't have to get too preoccupied or diverted for a long time. It's more like a coffee break or break from studying."

Does it provide a "real sense of farming"?
Mooney says the game has had other positive benefits, like generating an interest in real farming. Before the game was developed the company did a lot of research into the area, so they could make the game accurate and give people a "real sense of farming".

In the US the appeal of FarmVille is being seen as one possible way of attracting younger people into farming. But at the Scottish Agricultural College in Aberdeen, Alison Campbell who lectures in farming says the parallels between real and online world are limited.

"A lot of the students we have here come from farm backgrounds. It is quite tenuous to what they know to be real life [on a farm]."

On a virtual farm, it's all about instant gratification - you don't have to wait six months for your aubergines to grow. But then again, you can't eat them either.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Message in a Bottle

A Sting once song, "message in a bottle", in this case not just one bottle but 1200.

A group of led by environmentalist and banking heir David De Rothschild are set to sail a boat made out of 12,000 plastic bottles on a voyage from San Francisco to Sydney to spread awareness about pollution in the world's oceans. The boat is appropriately named Plastiki.

Their 11,000-nautical mile journey will go past the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - a sea of waste about five times the size of the UK or twice that of Texas.

Four out of five plastic bottles end up in a landfill, according to the UN.

"It is time we beat waste and this is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue that needs to be addressed," Mr De Rothschild told the BBC earlier this month.

The 31-year-old adventurer, who has completed expeditions to both poles and various jungles, was already tweeting on Saturday, hours after the boat set sail on its three-month voyage.

"Travelling 2.0 Knots ummm! That's a lot of ocean ahead!" he said on his Twitter page. "Just saw our first bit marine debris - a plastic cup!"

Green credentials

The Plastiki takes recycling to a whole other level.

The 12,000 used water bottles are filled with carbon dioxide to make the vessel durable and buoyant.

The catamaran is powered by solar, wind and sea turbines.

An exercise bike will power the boat's laptops and there is also a composting bathroom and gardens to grow food.

Critics say the expedition only perpetuates the belief that it is acceptable to use plastic as long as people recycle it, rather than encouraging people to cut down on its use entirely.

They also point out that if the Plastiki were to break apart mid-journey, it would dump thousands of bottles directly into the ocean.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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A Sign of the Times

A most people know who live in Great Britain there is a railway station in Wales which whose name is the longest word in the British language. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, is a Victorian composition primarily for the benefit of tourists, for the station serving the village of Llanfairpwll on the North Wales Coast Line from London Euston station to Holyhead.

This week however the Welsh language again caused a few issues.

When officials asked for the Welsh translation of a road sign, they thought the reply was what they needed. Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated".So that was what went up under the English version which barred lorries from a road near a supermarket.

"When they're proofing signs, they should really use someone who speaks Welsh," said journalist Dylan Iorwerth. Swansea Council became lost in translation when it was looking to halt heavy goods vehicles using a road near an Asda store in the Morriston area

All official road signs in Wales are bilingual, so the local authority e-mailed its in-house translation service for the Welsh version of: "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only".

The reply duly came back and officials set the wheels in motion to create the large sign in both languages.The notice went up and all seemed well - until Welsh speakers began pointing out the embarrassing error.

This is not ehe only time Welsh has been translated incorrectly or put in the wrong place:

Cyclists between Cardiff and Penarth in 2006 were left confused by a bilingual road sign telling them they had problems with an "inflamed bladder".

• In the same year, a sign for pedestrians in Cardiff reading 'Look Right' in English read 'Look Left' in Welsh.

• In 2006, a shared-faith school in Wrexham removed a sign which translated the Welsh for staff as "wooden stave".

• Football fans at a FA Cup tie between Oldham and Chasetown - two English teams - in 2005 were left scratching their heads after a Welsh-language hoarding was put up along the pitch. It should have gone to a match in Merthyr Tydfil.

• People living near an Aberdeenshire (Scotland) building site in 2006 were mystified when a sign apologising for the inconvenience was written in Welsh as well as English.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

New York police say sorry with a cheesecake

According to Wikipedia cheesecake is a dessert consisting of a topping made of soft, fresh cheese on a base made from biscuit, pastry or sponge. However for the new York police force it is a way of saying sorry to an elderly couple in Brooklyn.

The New York's police chief delivered the cheesecake to an elderly couple in Brooklyn, to apologies for dozens of mistaken police visits to their home.

A computer glitch had led officers to Walter and Rose Martin's home 50 times in the past eight years, police said.

The latest intrusion came on Tuesday, with officers pounding on the front and back doors, shouting "Police, open up!"

Thursday's visit - cheesecake in hand - went well. The Martins, aged 82 and 83, shared pictures of their grandchildren.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly visited the couple's modest home on Friday to "apologies and explain" for the mix-up, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told the Associated Press.

The problem started in 2002, when the Martin's home address was used as "test data" for a new computer crime-tracking system.

The couple complained about the harrowing visits in 2007, but the data remained in the system despite efforts to "purge the records", Deputy Commissioner Browne said.

He added that the Martin's address had now been flagged with alerts "barring officers" from questioning the octogenarians.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Playboy Accidentally Played Out On Children's TV

Oh Mommy what are those people doing?

TV bosses in the US have apologised after preview clips of the Playboy channel were accidentally played out on two children's channels.

A Time Warner Cable (TWC) spokesman said a "technical glitch" was to blame for the mistake, which lasted two hours in parts of North Carolina on Tuesday.

The company was made aware of the error after parents called in to report it.

TWC said it had procedures in place to catch errors, but it was not picked up as it affected only a small area.

'Worst time'

"We're very, very sorry it happened - we know parents are concerned," spokesman Keith Poston told local news station WRAL.

"It took about an hour or so once we were notified of the problem to actually get it fixed.

"It was a technical glitch and unfortunately it hit at the worst possible time on the worst possible channels," he added.

The error occurred on the Kids On Demand and Kids Preschool On Demand channels where clips from Playboy TV appeared in the top right hand corner.

Although a menu of available children's programming was listed on the left side of the screen, previews showing nude women engaged in explicit conversations were shown where previews of children's shows normally would appear.

Mr Poston said the explicit content aired from about 0615 to 0815 local time in parts of Cary, Garner, Morrisville, Wilson, Goldsboro, Willow Spring and Johnston County, but added most areas just went black when the equipment failed.

Time Warner said it regretted the glitch and had fixed the problem so it would not happen again.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

Stoned Wallabies Creating Crop Circles

Australian wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around "as high as a kite", a government official has said.

The attorney general for the island state of Tasmania, said the kangaroo-like marsupials were getting into poppy fields grown for medicine.

She was reporting to a parliamentary hearing on security for poppy crops.

Australia supplies about 50% of the world's legally-grown opium used to make morphine and other painkillers.

"The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles," the hearing was told. "Then they crash, and we see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high."

Rick Rockliff, a spokesman for poppy producer Tasmanian Alkaloids, said the wallaby incursions were not very common, but other animals had also been spotted in the poppy fields acting unusually.

"There have been many stories about sheep that have eaten some of the poppies after harvesting and they all walk around in circles," he added.

Retired Tasmanian poppy farmer Lyndley Chopping also said he had seen strange behaviour from wallabies in his fields.

"They would just come and eat some poppies and they would go away," he told ABC News.

"They'd come back again and they would do their circle work in the paddock."

Some people believe the mysterious circles that appear in fields in a number of countries are created by aliens. Others put them down to a human hoax.

Of course this brought in a huge load of comments, here's a few of the better ones...

I have seen a stoned wallaby but I don't know about them making crop circles. The one I saw was slurring his words and asking me for a dollar as he was trying to get the boat to see his brother in New Zealand - he looked in no mood to be formulating a series of complex agricultural design patterns

Funniest headline of the year so far. Trippy Skippy.

And my favorite...

I saw a whole bunch of them dingos going mad in my corn field only last night. I'm not sure if they were high or not but I'm pretty sure they were. One of them had a ghettoblaster and they were listening to some kind of fast electronic music.

Barry Eva (Storyheart)

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