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Sarasota sea life massacre

According to this story, the red tide currently floating off the coast of Sarasota "has not killed fish or caused respiratory problems on Siesta Public Beach, Sarasota County's biggest tourist beach."

Um, wrong.

There were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dead fish on that particular beach yesterday -- mostly the ones in the cell-phone pic above, but also some pufferfish (pictured after the jump) and pinfish. About an hour up the road, snook have also been dying, apparently because of an underwater explosion. We think it bears repeating: It's hard out there for a fish.

By the way, the toxin involved in some red tides has a long and storied history involving, among others, Richard Nixon and the CIA. Find out about it here, or after the jump.

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A more insidious aspect of the colourful history of saxitoxin has to be its involvement in covert government operations and in chemical warfare. Saxitoxin is about 1000 times more toxic than a typical synthetic nerve gas such as sarin, and it is perhaps not surprising that in the 1950s, the CIA began experimenting with it, reportedly using it in suicide capsules provided to its agents (notably U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers).

In 1970, President Nixon ordered the CIA to destroy its entire stock of saxitoxin, painstakingly collected over several years, as part of the US commitment in accordance with the United Nations agreement on biological weapons. Nowadays, saxitoxin and ricin are the only two natural toxins classified as Schedule 1 Chemical Warfare Agents. However, in 1975 William Colby, the CIA Director, revealed to Congress that they still possessed over 10 grammes of the material in downtown Washington. Luckily, this supply of saxitoxin was eventually distributed to scientists and medical researchers under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In connection with this, STX, like many other naturally occurring toxins, has been an indispensible tool in medical research. It is a potent and extremely selective sodium-channel blocker, having no effect on potassium or calcium channels, or the flux of chloride ions, or indeed on acetylcholine release (whereas other marine toxins have similarly selective effects on these aspects of nerve function). Saxitoxin has been used for the labelling, characterisation and isolation of various sodium channel components, and this has opened up new avenues for the study of various nervous disorders.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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