Monday, September 1, 2014

Annnnnd They're Off

If you've ever been to Death Valley, you might have stopped by a place called Racetrack Playa. It's a dried-up lake famous for the rocks that have, for some mysterious reason, been moving around the lake bed, leaving trails in their wake. Some move further than others, some move in different directions than others, some change direction, but they move.

I bring this up because we now have an explanation as to why. The first thing to note is that just because Death Valley is notoriously hot doesn't mean it's always hot there all the time. Deserts, in fact, have wildly shifting temperatures. A key function of water is that it moderates temperatures; it takes longer than air to heat up and longer than air to cool back down. The abundance of it makes life possible not just because you can drink it, but also that it spreads out heat evenly enough that temperatures don't get too extreme.

Which means Death Valley, a desert, can get cold as well. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have any water. It does rain once in a while, and a thin layer of water does show up on the playa from time to time as a result. When the area gets cold enough at night, it changes into a very thin layer of ice... that the rocks are laying on top of. In the morning, the temperature heats up, the ice cracks, and when the wind picks up (it doesn't take much), the ice hydroplanes and pushes against the rocks, driving them down the playa and leaving tracks in the mud.

And nobody is visiting under those conditions.

Credit cousins Richard and Jim Norris, who've been on the case since 2011 and managed to finally crack the code last winter, on December 20, when for the first time they happened to be around to see it in person. Or, well, blame them maybe, if you're one of those people that really kind of hoped the mystery never got solved because it was more fun that way.

Maybe Skip Bali This Year

Bali is an Indonesian tourist hotspot. Trips there might pop up once in a while as a game show prize (or quite often if you happen to be reading this in Australia). Which is fine and all. But here's the thing about tourists: they leave trash laying around. In better-heeled countries this can be handled, the United States, France, Japan and such, but Indonesia isn't nearly as rich. The World Bank, for means of comparison, shows the United States with a per-capita GDP of $53,143 in 2013. France is $41,421. Sweden is $58,164. Surrounding them in the rankings are the other usual Western suspects.

Indonesia? $3,475. There's a lot of infrastructural issues and a lot of impoverished folks. Trash gets put on the backburner... and it builds up. And the conflict between revenue-generating tourism and land-depleting trash has kicked up friction. I toss you to this report from David O'Shea of Australia's SBS Dateline.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

I'd Like To Ask The Audience

Have you ever been in a situation where you're stuck on... something, doesn't matter what... to the point where you needed advice? Of course you have. We all have. We're human. We don't know everything. That's the credo around here, remember?

Let me reposition the question. Have you refrained from asking for that advice for fear of how stupid you'd look while asking? Again, I'm sure you have. I have. It's hard to swallow your pride and admit ignorance sometimes. You may also have gotten some general advice saying there's no such thing as a stupid question.

According to a new study [PDF] by Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino of Harvard, and Maurice Schweitzer of Wharton, you would do well to listen to that advice. (Yay, I don't have to warn you about some $30 paywall for once!) You are, according to the study, perceived as looking smarter, not dumber. This is something that the researchers noticed had not been covered very much: not the advice given but the act of asking itself.

The study was actually a set of five studies. The first was to prove the hypothesis in the first place, that people are actually afraid of looking dumb. People were asked to imagine a situation at work where they needed to ask help from a coworker, and asked to predict how they'd be looked at by doing so. Proving the hypothesis, respondents thought they'd look dumber.

The second study went about testing that, and there are a couple repetitions here in various permutations, but they all involve the basic setup of people being asked to 'partner' with what they thought was another subject but in fact was a computer controlled by the researchers. They would do brain teasers of various types depending on the specific test, and then their 'partner' would go, but before they did, the subject would either be asked, or not asked, for advice. Then, after the computer, well, gave the performance it was predetermined it would give, the subject would be asked to rate how intelligent they thought their 'partner' was.

The third study measured the difficulty of the task. It worked like Study 2, but in one permutation, subjects were asked to do simple match problems, like adding together 4-digit numbers. In another, they were given a harder task in which they were given a 3x3 grid of decimal numbers and asked to pick out which two of those nine numbers added up to 10. The fourth study was the same thing- using just the add-up-to-10 grid- but the 'partner' was allowed to ask either the subject or 'another participant in the lab'.

The fifth study was done online. After passing some reading and comprehension checks, subjects were asked some biographical information about themselves- where they lived and their competence level on a set of subjects. Then they were told someone else in an imaginary four-person group was asked to do a brain teaser that did not in fact exist. They were either told whether or not the 'partner' had asked them for advice or not- leaving ambiguous whether they'd asked someone else- and if they had, they were either asked about their best subject or their worst.

There are three basic things to note here:

1) People who ask about something difficult are seen as smarter than those who ask about something easy. Or rather, asking about something easy doesn't make you look dumber- you stay about neutral- but you look smarter when asking about something hard.
2) You look smarter to someone when you ask them personally for advice, though asking someone else doesn't actively hurt you. What's happening here is a variation on the concept- and this has been studied as well- that whatever you say about other people. that's how other people look at you. So when you ask someone for advice, what you're effectively saying is that you think they're smart enough to be able to supply that advice, and in return, you get thought of as smart enough to know to come to little old them.
3) You look smarter when you ask an expert than when you ask a non-expert. That's only natural; if you're going to get advice, ask someone who knows what they're doing. You are in fact looked at as dumber if you ask a non-expert, the only part of the study where this is the case, even by the person you're asking ('why would they ask me, I'm clueless'). So if you're going to ask someone, ask someone who knows what they're talking about.

Asking repeatedly was not tested for, so the annoyance factor is left on the table. But go ahead and ask if you don't know something. Just make sure you ask someone who might actually know the answer.

Still Sick

I guess I'm going to be giving you another video or two tonight, because I have to go chase down the lung I just coughed up. Come back, lung!

I'm picking from the HowStuffWorks suite of shows, specifically Stuff Mom Never Told You (hosted by Cristen Conger), and supplying you with two videos. The two get into the topic of hair length: namely, why it is, culturally in the West, supposed to be short hair for men and long hair for women. Something you've probably wondered about yet never cared enough to go look it up. Well, there you go. Have at it.

There's no embedding option here, so you'll just have to click over.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Future Of Tomorrow... Today!

Given that my head is currently full of phlegm and runny nose stuff and pills you take to cure runny nose stuff from happening, and that I am currently rapidly depleting the world's forests to blow runny nose stuff into the byproducts, I'm going to opt for a short, quickie post.

So I am going to inflict upon you some old retro prediction films. Enjoy.

Achoo. Achoo. Achoo. Achoo. Achoo. (Play that back at about the volume of a train crashing through a brick wall.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hello Kitty Is Not A Kitty

There's supposed to be a Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit's being put together by Christine Yano of the University of Hawaii. Naturally, because it's Hello Kitty, Yano went about constructing the text for the exhibits portraying her as the most iconic Japanese kitty that ever kittied.
This was both her first and second mistake, apparently, because Sanrio very firmly corrected her. Because there is something to correct about this matter.

Hello Kitty is not a kitty and isn't Japanese and her name isn't Hello Kitty. The big cat ears and whiskers and tail belong to a human girl named Kitty White, daughter of George and Mary White, who also look like kitties but are not actually kitties, living just outside of London, because Japanese women were on a British kick in the 70's when the character was created. Kitty owns a kitty named Charmmy Kitty who looks like Kitty, but Kitty but is not herself a kitty. The cartoon character walking upright all the time means something, dangit. It's important.

Her blood type is A.  If you're Japanese, real or fictional, you will have your blood type announced (positives and negatives are discounted, just A, B, AB or O). It's considered something of a personality test. Kind of like your horoscope, except blood type outranks horoscope in Japan. Type B's and especially AB's actually tend to get discriminated against.

Now, if you're a Hello Kitty fan, you possibly already know this. Possibly. There's a real good chance this is a revelation to you too. There are comments to both effects on Hello Kitty's official Facebook page, which I have copied and pasted verbatim:

Paige Haggard: "Is it weird I already knew all of this?? And she's is actually a human, not a cat. Her real name is kitty white...After a 3rd grader named that. But Sanrio says she is not a cat, but she has a cat. She's is a little girl. #HKfanatic #obsessed #loyal #sinceiwaslil"
Gemma Jerez: "Um I kinda knew that already. I don't get why some people are making a huge deal out of it. If you look at hello kitty, shes not a cat except for her face-hence the "kitty" her hands and feet dont look life paws. And she doesnt have a long tail like a cat. I dont care if she is a,cat or a girl. But the fact that she is a she and that shes cute is why I loved her since I was a kid."
Tina Buadaeng: "I'm obsessed with HK! she IS a cat!!!! Wiskers and Kerroppi not a frog because he isn't on all four legs and have little slits on his round nubby hands? NO. This sanrio claim is rediculous. P.s. a cat shouldn't have a pet cat.."
Rhian Hill: "she may not be a proper cat as she acts human as does her whole family, she also has her own proper pet cat. but she is a cat girl. like many anime have. half cat half girl. as are the rest of her friends. half human half animal. that doesn't mean she is not cat at all."
Lauren Theresa Ermilio: "Lol I really like that this is a legitimate discussion. Because we all know that anyone with a serious obsession (like I have and pretty much anyone who cared to comment on this probably shares with me) really doesn't care what she is because you love her no matter what. And yet I'm sucked in to this thread. For no reason. Go Sanrio."

So... cat, girl, catgirl, if you're hardcore enough, you don't care.

I am not hardcore enough, and therefore... oh, Japan.

The Against Chess Olympiad

In international competition, more than anything else, things always seem to get the weirdest when Israel is involved. Whether it's their doing or the doing of someone else, contingency plans and special arrangements always pop up out of the woodwork.

*In international soccer, Israel was moved from the Asian confederation, their natural location, to Oceania and then Europe because their neighbors in Asia refused to play them, nearly leading to Israel qualifying for the 1958 World Cup by default.
*Palestine has to play their home games in Qatar using expat players because Israel won't let their homegrown players out of the country to play games of their own (leading to Palestine having to forfeit a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Singapore after 18 players were refused permission to travel) and sometimes actively targets Palestinian soccer players in the broader conflict.
*In the Olympics, Iranian athletes will immediately withdraw from their events if they are placed against Israeli athletes (whatever their official excuse may be). And it isn't just the Olympics, and it isn't just Iran.
*Every four years, someone will pressure the IOC to hold a moment of silence for the Israeli team that was killed at Munich 1972 (which itself can be included here), and every four years the IOC will say no.
*The Maccabiah Games, an Olympic-style competition, are a thing that exists, open to Jewish athletes and Israelis regardless of religion, and is held every four years in Israel. (And every four years, Israel dominates the medal count.)
*I've already spoken at length about the Games of the New Emerging Forces, started in part to Israel being ejected from the Asian Games in Jakarta.

But this behavior isn't limited to purely athletic endeavors. Of all things, chess also has a competition for national teams, called the Chess Olympiad. There are doping tests and everything, and in 2004 they actually had an effect as two players from Bermuda and Papua New Guinea refused to submit to a test, which is counted as an automatic fail. As in any international competition, there is a host. This year's Chess Olympiad, held earlier this month, was hosted by Tromso, Norway. China won.

The way it works (at least in the 'open' section, the main event), is, every day of the competition, each four-man team is paired off against the members of another four-man team. (In 2014, there was also a deaf team, a blind team using Braiile to play, and a physically-disabled team.) The host gets to enter two teams and, if there's an odd number of teams, they get to enter a third as well. In each round, teams are paired off according to their points scored during the tournament (a team win is worth two points, a draw one point, a loss gets nothing), except in the first round, when they're paired off according to the ratings of their individual players. If by way of withdrawls they have an odd number of teams, the last-place team gets a bye, though no team can have more than one bye. The goal in each round is to pair teams as closely as possible in score (tied in match points whenever possible), except in the first round, when the ratings function as seeds. Teams must play new opponents in each round, so it can happen that mismatches wind up occurring.

The tl;dr version: Round 1 features the top teams engaging in a ritual slaughter of the dregs of the chess world; from that point on, winning puts you against better teams later on; losing gets you scheduled against worse teams. So as an example, the eventual champion Chinese (out of a field of 177), was scheduled to play the following over the course of the tournament to play, in order:

Guatemala (eventually finished 96th; China won 4-0)
Albania (60th; China won 3.5-1.5)
Hungary (2nd; China won 2.5-1.5)
Russia (4th; China tied 2-2)
Netherlands (12th; China tied 2-2)
Egypt (23rd; China won 3.5-0.5)
Serbia (16th; China won 3.5-0.5)
Azerbaijan (5th; China won 3-1)
Ukraine (6th; China tied 2-2)
France (13th; China won 2.5-1.5)
Poland (15th; China won 3-1)

So. Now that we're clear on how this works. In 1976, Haifa, Israel was selected to host. Until then, the tournament had used a format of preliminary round-robin groups and a final group, but with the number of entries growing by the year, the current format was in use starting in Haifa. Now, this was going to be Israel's second hosting gig- Tel Aviv hosted in 1964- so you'd think this wouldn't have caused much of a ruckus. But then, in 1964, Israel, because of the group-stage system, had been segregated from nations that would object to their participation. Israel had been grouped with Hungary, Sweden, Scotland, France, Ireland and Luxembourg. Iran was present, but grouped with the United States, Poland, England, Norway, Turkey and Portugal. And no other nation that had a particularly gigantic issue with Israel was in the field.

But by 1976, the Arab delegation was much larger. Two years earlier in Nice, France, the field showed not only Iran but Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, among others. This meant that there were more voices to raise objection to traveling to Israel to compete. And while Israel had been able to dodge playing Arab teams until then (with the exception of being grouped against Tunisia in the B final), with the new system, anyone could play anyone at any time.

So the Arab nations boycotted. And they took the Soviet Union with them, who also did not recognize Israel, as well as a lot of the Eastern Bloc and many Soviet allies. Given that the Eastern Bloc is the traditional geographical power bloc of chess, and given that the Soviet Union was the 12-time-defending champion, this was what you might call 'a total disaster'. The tournament went ahead, sure, but with a greatly reduced number of teams. 74 had competed in Nice; only 48 arrived in Haifa. With the Soviets out, as well as 1972 runner-up Yugoslavia, the United States- third in Nice- naturally wound up winning. Israel finished 6th.

The tournament was notable for heavy Israeli security presence swarming the grounds, just in case. The Israeli Olympic team had only been killed four years earlier, after all. They weren't taking any chances.

But there was another tournament. The boycotting nations weren't going to stand idly by and just let Israel... do things. They were going to host their own tournament. ...well, some of them were, anyway. The Soviets and the Eastern Bloc chess power base sat things out entirely, having little to prove, especially against the likes of the Arab nations, who are largely more than a little shaky in the global rankings.

Moammar Gadhafi offered up Tripoli as a host city for the alternative tournament. Not only did he offer the city, he organized the tournament himself. In pre-tournament literature, the purpose of the whole affair was not left to the imagination, as the event was titled the "Against Israel Olympiad", though it was later changed to the "Against Chess Olympiad".

Just imagine, for a moment, the mental gymnastics that have to take place before one gets around to deciding that naming an international chess competition the "Against Chess Olympiad" is a good idea. Especially considering that this is a tournament that is supposed to be hosting people who are smart enough that they are able to play high-level chess.

Politically heated as it may have been, your average person probably can't name any big-time chess players currently active, so it really wouldn't have mattered who attended. Tripoli certainly got It Didn't Matter to attend all right. Even though Gadhafi offered to pay full expenses of any attendees, not a single grandmaster showed up, which would cover something like the top thousand or so players in the world. The next level down is International Master, which covers the next couple thousand, and there was only a handful of them there. As such, things were bound to get a little screwy, and they did. They got so screwy that El Salvador of all people somehow walked off with the title, which even for this depleted field qualified as a huge upset.

Libya finished 24th in a field of 34. So there went that little bit of propaganda.

If you're wondering about whether there was some sort of revenge boycott, you wonder correctly. Though 'revenge' is a bit of a strong word, as the boycott was legitimately provoked. In 1986, hosting duties went to Dubai, who as you might expect took the opportunity to just eject Israel outright. The United States made a big show of threatening to boycott if Israel wasn't allowed back in, but seeing as the UAE wouldn't have been that broken up if the United States went away either, it didn't work. The Americans eventually backed down and sent a team, but much of Western Europe did not, and many top individual players didn't show up either. But the Soviets did show up, and that was really all that mattered, as they romped to what would be their fourth straight title in a streak that would eventually stretch to 12 as they eventually became Russia. (To recap that bit of history, from 1952-2002, the Soviets/Russians won 24 out of 26 tournaments, with one of the remaining two being a boycott... and the other a legitimate loss to Hungary in 1978.)

The hosting duties have steered clear of the Arab world ever since.

The next tournament in 2016 is slated for Baku, Azerbaijan. Immediately upon being awarded the hosting job, speculation turned to whether Armenia would attend... but that's a logistical international competitive nightmare all its own.