Saturday, July 31, 2010

C'mon, One Won't Hurt!

Over the past decade, Subway has gained a reputation as a fast food restaurant that... isn't. The fast food place that you can actually eat at and have a reasonable chance of eating healthy. The restaurant Jared Fogle ate at, and of which they've said since 2000. Subway: Eat Fresh. As seen on The Biggest Loser. Everywhere you look, there are healthy options. Instead of the cheese, have some lettuce. Instead of that root beer, have some lemonade. Or milk. Instead of those Doritos, have some Sun Chips. Or don't have any chips. Have some apple slices.

But then you hit the cash register, and amongst all this potentially healthy food, there they sit.


Oh yes. Yes, they will. According to Calorie Count, the, well, calorie count of Subway's various cookies reads as follows:

Peanut butter: 220
Sugar: 220
White macadamia nut: 220
Chocolate chip: 210
Double chocolate: 210
M&M: 210
Chocolate chunk: 200
Oatmeal raisin: 200

By comparison, the turkey breast wrap pulls down only 190 calories.

As several Subway sandwiches are (properly) advertised as having 6 grams or less of fat, one sugar cookie has 6 grams of saturated fat, never mind the overall, which stands at 12. The peanut butter cookie has 16 grams of sugar; the 6-inch cold cut combo has 8. Just about any wrap has fewer carbs than just about any cookie- the oatmeal raisin, for instance, has 30 total carbs, while the tuna wrap has only 16.

Just to remind you, we're comparing a single cookie to six inches worth of sandwich.

Subway is privately owned and doesn't release sales figures, so there's no information available on how many cookies- or how much of any other item- are sold in a given period. The fact that the cookies have remained on the menu for so long, though, surviving all those years of healthy-eating efforts, suggests a substantial amount of cookie sales.

How much fatter does America get from just those cookies? How many collective pounds could consumers shed just by cutting them out? Just by skipping that cookie at the register?

Subway did not respond to an e-mail asking for an explanation.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pill-Induced Quiz Time!

Been sick most of the day, so nothing big. I'm going with a quiz.

Name all 100 U.S. Senators. Never mind what the link says about 'as of 2009'; it's current. You have 10 minutes.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Must... Have... Coffee...

For today's historical bit of stupidity, we go to Sweden in the 1700's, and King Gustav III. Gustav didn't think much of coffee. It was fairly widely consumed in Europe at that time, but Gustavus thought it to be poison. He set out to prove it.

It just so happened that in a Stockholm, he happened to have two twin brothers condemned to death. The perfect foils for a little experiment. In lieu of being actively executed, Gustav would order one to drink three pots of coffee a day, and the other three pots of tea, as a control. Then they'd simply wait and, under the watch of two doctors, see who died first. Surely, the coffee drinker wouldn't last very long.

So who was the first to die? The head doctor. The prisoners, of course, weren't going anywhere. Soon thereafter, the other doctor died. Still no sign of weakness from the prisoners.

Okay, fine, then. We still have a coffee drinker and a tea drinker. Who dies first?

King Gustav III, that's who. In 1792, he was assassinated at the Royal Opera House. Or at least, he was shot, and died two weeks later from an infected wound.

The two brothers, though, continued to drink, though it's uncertain whether they were at this point ordered to continue or whether they themselves decided to keep it up. Finally, though, one of them did actually die.

At age 83.

It was the tea drinker. (The coffee drinker would last a few years longer; I've seen end ages of 85 and 87.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In Which We Blow Up An Air Horn

Today's question: what would happen if you blew up an air horn? Would it make a big air-horn-sounding boom?

Nope. Just a regular boom. An air horn makes its sound from the tiny little aperture made when you hit the button on the top of the can, and when the air travels through thr horn. When the can explodes, there's just a big gash. The same basic principle applies to whistling: you can whistle when you make a tiny, precisely-shaped hole with your mouth. When you have your mouth wide open, it's just breathing.

This concludes today's edition of Answers To Questions Nobody Asked.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Hall of Very Good

(NOTE: Broken link fixed.)

On Sunday, Andre Dawson, Whitey Herzog and umpire Doug Harvey were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, to forever take their place among the immortals of the sport.

This is not about those immortals.

This is about those who remain just outside the Hall. Always hoping to be enshrined, but always falling short; some never coming close, some tantalizingly so but always seeing the Hall remain just out of reach.

This is the Hall of Very Good.

The key names in the Hall of Very Good are well known to those who hope for their eventual enshrinement. Ron Santo. Gil Hodges. Dick Allen. Buck O'Neill. All have made their attempts at induction, all have failed, all (or at least all their supporters, as some are now dead) wondering not just when, but if. Will it ever happen?

The first and best clue as to whether you will get in falls on the results of the BBWAA ballot. So does the second-best clue. Note the rankings of where everybody finishes. Specifically, note the top five votegetters. Expect all five players to eventually be enshrined. (If you're on the 1945 ballot, in fact, expect to be in if you're in the top 33, because you are.) The list of Top Fivers not currently on the ballot to still be out is tiny.

Gil Hodges (topped at 3rd in 1970, 1976, 1977, 1981)
Roger Maris (topped at 5th in 1986, 1987, 1988)
Tony Oliva (topped at 3rd in 1988)
Steve Garvey (topped at 4th in 1996)
Ron Santo (topped at 3rd in 1998)

That's it. That's the whole group. Those on the ballot now that meet the Top Five criteria:

Bert Blyleven (topped at 2nd in 2010)
Roberto Alomar (topped at 3rd in 2010)
Jack Morris (topped at 4th in 2010)
Barry Larkin (topped at 5th in 2010)
Lee Smith (topped at 5th in 2008, 2009)

The other thing to note is the vote percentage. Famously, it takes 75% of the vote to be elected, and though the other voting rules have changed over the years, that has remained constant. But even if you've blanked out, that's not a lifelong condemnation to the Hall of Very Good. It in all likelihood is. Don't hold your breath. But there is precedent. Charlie Gehringer and Gabby Hartnett both got zero votes in the original 1936 ballot, and they both got in. Candy Cummings pulled the same stunt on the 'Old Timers Committee' ballot that same year, and he's in. All likely blanked due to an epic backlog-- 42 of the 50 players on the 'modern' ballot and 31 of the 60 on the 'old timers' ballot would eventually gain enshrinement- which puts a bit of a dent in the age-old argument of 'if he's not a Hall of Famer the first time, he's not a Hall of Famer the other times either'. Backlogs happen. Sometimes you want to vote for more people than you're allowed to vote for. And sometimes, someone's greatness only becomes apparent over time, when the years pass, their successors take over, and it becomes more and more apparent that they don't make them like that anymore.

The inverse can also happen- someone that looked one-of-a-kind when they first got on the ballot can look downright obsolete by their 15th. Look at Lee Smith. For a while, he held the record for career saves. He looked like it was only a matter of time. And then Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera showed themselves to be the next level of closer. Smith looks more like a Hall of Very Gooder every day.

But what percentage guarantees eventual enshrinement? Well, the highest percentage of a person not on the 2011 ballot to not yet be in is 60.1%, by Gil Hodges. Top 60.1%, and even if you don't get in right there, it's just a matter of time.

And if you're not Hodges, the news gets even better. The 75% threshold is regarded as a safeguard against enshrining anyone but the very, very best.

What if I told you it didn't even take majority rule? That Hodges is the only person to ever top 47.3% that is not yet in or still on the ballot?

What follows at the end of this piece is a list of the 185 people on the BBWAA ballot- or its pre-BBWAA equivalent- who ever gained at least 2% of the vote that are not yet in. That's 185 people, compared with the 203 in the Hall of Fame right now. They are listed in order of the highest percentage they ever gained, which precedes their names.

The percentages of those who make it into the Hall are often maligned- this person got in with a higher percentage than that person, look who got more votes than Babe Ruth, etc. The thing about that is that you only get voted in once. And you're voted in alongside a ballot whose contents are highly variable. Sometimes you're the only person on the ballot that looks worthy at the time. Sometimes you're part of a competitive group who bring down each other's vote totals. And there's always a couple people who hand in blank ballots for whatever reason that can affect the final percentage.

The people in the Hall of Very Good have had as many as 15 ballots to drive their totals as high as possible, among a variety of ballot types- first-ballot years, backlog-clearance years, deep years, shallow years, a significant amount of historical context. Their high scores are much more indicative of their comparative quality as players.

I present you with the contents of the Hall of Very Good-- the best place a baseball player never wants to be. Those slated for the 2011 ballot are bolded.

74.2 Bert Blyleven
73.7 Roberto Alomar
60.1 Gil Hodges
52.3 Jack Morris
51.6 Barry Larkin
47.3 Lee Smith
47.3 Tony Oliva
43.1 Roger Maris
43.1 Ron Santo
42.6 Steve Garvey
40.6 Maury Wills
40.0 Marty Marion
39.3 Harvey Kuenn
36.2 Edgar Martinez
35.9 Hank Gowdy
35.6 Phil Cavarretta
34.0 Johnny Sain
33.6 Allie Reynolds
31.7 Tommy John
30.9 Luis Tiant
30.4 Tim Raines
29.8 Johnny Vander Meer
29.6 Jim Kaat
28.2 Don Mattingly
25.5 Ken Boyer
25.5 Mickey Lolich
25.4 Mel Harder
24.9 Mickey Vernon
24.5 Dave Parker
23.7 Bucky Walters
23.7 Mark McGwire
23.2 Dale Murphy
23.2 Lew Burdette
22.4 Alan Trammell
22.2 Joe Torre
21.5 Fred McGriff
21.1 Minnie Minoso
20.7 Elston Howard
20.7 Tommy Henrich
18.9 Roy Face
18.5 Al Dark
18.0 Smoky Joe Wood
17.3 Pepper Martin
16.9 Dave Concepcion
16.7 Dick Allen
16.7 Lefty O'Doul
15.7 Vada Pinson
15.5 Thurman Munson
15.3 Don Newcombe
14.4 Ted Kluszewski
14.4 Walker Cooper
13.7 Babe Adams
13.5 Duffy Lewis
13.1 Sparky Lyle
12.8 Curt Flood
12.3 Don Larsen
11.7 Terry Moore
11.3 Dom DiMaggio
11.2 Orel Hershiser
10.8 Keith Hernandez
10.6 Bobby Bonds
10.4 Dwight Evans
10.2 Vic Raschi
10.0 Dickey Kerr
10.0 Jimmy Dykes
9.9 Johnny Kling
9.8 Charlie Grimm
9.5 Pete Rose
9.4 Bobo Newsom
9.0 Hal Chase
8.8 Jimmie Wilson
8.8 Ron Guidry
8.7 Vida Blue
8.3 Graig Nettles
8.3 Muddy Ruel
8.0 Lou Criger
7.9 Hank Bauer
7.9 Rusty Staub
7.7 Albert Belle
7.7 Bob Boone
7.5 Nick Altrock
7.5 Tommy Bridges
7.4 Dave Stewart
7.0 Wilbur Wood
6.9 George Foster
6.7 Glenn Wright
6.5 Lon Warneke
6.5 Sal Maglie
6.4 Nap Rucker
6.2 Fernando Valenzuela
6.2 Paul Derringer
6.1 Charlie Keller
6.1 Harold Baines
6.0 Doc Cramer
6.0 Freddie Fitzsimmons
5.7 Babe Herman
5.7 Cy Williams
5.6 Dolf Luque
5.6 Joe Judge
5.5 Fred Lynn
5.3 Frankie Crosetti
5.2 Stuffy McInnis
5.0 Bob Meusel
5.0 Fred Hutchinson
5.0 Hal Schumacher
5.0 Rudy York
5.0 Schoolboy Rowe
5.0 Willie McGee
4.9 Art Nehf
4.9 Red Rolfe
4.9 Steve O'Neill
4.8 Jeff Reardon
4.8 Stan Hack
4.7 Ewell Blackwell
4.7 Ken Griffey Sr.
4.6 Bobby Thomson
4.5 Bill Madlock
4.5 Eddie Rommel
4.5 Howard Ehmke
4.4 Wilbur Cooper
4.4 Will Clark
4.3 Al Oliver
4.2 Manny Mota
4.1 Andres Galarraga
4.1 Mark Grace
4.1 Wally Schang
3.9 David Cone
3.9 Del Crandall
3.8 Dan Quisenberry
3.8 Earl Whitehill
3.8 Frank White
3.8 Joe Carter
3.8 Tim McCarver
3.7 Mark Belanger
3.7 Ted Simmons
3.6 Wes Ferrell
3.4 Jack Quinn
3.3 Dwight Gooden
3.2 Carl Erskine
3.2 Dennis Martinez
3.2 Everett Scott
3.1 Bert Campaneris
3.1 Fred Tenney
3.0 Birdie Tebbetts
3.0 Dixie Walker
3.0 Frank McCormick
3.0 Jimmy Archer
3.0 Joe Dugan
3.0 Mike Donlin
3.0 Pete Reiser
3.0 Spud Chandler
2.9 Lou Whitaker
2.8 Dave McNally
2.8 Harvey Haddix
2.6 Bill Dinneen
2.6 Bobby Grich
2.6 Don Baylor
2.6 Harry Bracheen
2.6 John Hiller
2.6 Orval Grove
2.5 Art Fletcher
2.5 Bill Bradley
2.5 Bill Carrigan
2.5 Charlie Root
2.5 George Earnshaw
2.5 Jim Abbott
2.5 Kirk Gibson
2.5 Larry Bowa
2.4 Bob O'Farrell
2.4 Clyde Milan
2.4 Vern Law
2.3 Bobby Shantz
2.3 Carl Mays
2.3 Pinky Higgins
2.3 Roy McMillan
2.2 Bing Miller
2.2 Paul O'Neill
2.1 Bill Buckner
2.0 Bill Donovan
2.0 Bill Wambsganss
2.0 Bob Elliott
2.0 Bobby Richardson
2.0 Heinie Groh
2.0 Virgil Trucks
2.0 Willie Wilson

Stay strong, Hodges. One day.

La Oroya Update Mark II

Game over, Doe Run. Out of time, out of chances, and the Peruvian government will now start shutting down the La Oroya smelter.

Go about your night.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Voting With Their Feet

You've lost ground on an issue very important to you. A ton of ground, perhaps in one fell swoop. So much ground that you either can't stand your homeland anymore, or fear for your safety if you remain. Or perhaps you've simply slipped through your current society's cracks, and can no longer properly function within it And you don't feel very much if any hope of things going back to an acceptable state anytime soon.

However, there's somewhere else that remains acceptable, and is in fact more acceptable than where you are now.

If you have the means, what do you do? You vote with your feet. You go to the greener pasture and you don't come back.

As previously mentioned here, this is currently happening in Arizona as Hispanics of all stripes flee the state in response to their new immigration law. You'll also hear threats to invoke this in the runup to any Presidential election- 'if X wins, I'm moving to Canada'. (Only a handful actually do it.)

The term is sometimes used for things as mundane as quitting a job, but that's not really what we're talking about here.

Officially, it's known as the 'Tiebout model', after Charles Tiebout, who put forward the theory in 1956, in response to the 'free rider' problem: that there are those in society that consume more resources than their fair share, and/or contribute less. He assumed that, assuming perfect conditions and perfect information, people will move to the place most suitable to them. Specifically, assuming these conditions:

1.Mobile Consumers: Consumers are free to choose where they live. There are no costs associated with moving.
2.Complete information
3.Many Communities to chose from
4.Commuting is not an issue
5.Public Goods do not spill over of benefits/costs from one community to the next
6.An optimal city size exists: Economies of scale
7.Communities try to achieve "optimal size"
8.Communities are rational and try to keep the public 'bad' consumers away.

Of course, most of these are unlikely to occur in any given case, and for them to all happen at the same time is unheard-of. Perhaps if people could pick their time to move, but if you're moving in response to some external force, you're rarely ready for it. More often it's going to be something of a rush job to the first place that looks halfway decent; maybe just simply wherever there's a pre-existing family member.

And in a sudden exodus, assumptions 6-8 are going to be thrown out the window. Someone is probably getting flooded with a whole lot of people in a short amount of time.

What happens to the place left behind? Nothing good. When people vote with their feet, they're taking all their stuff with them to the new place. Money, possessions, a teeny bit of the existing or potential labor force. Every time someone goes, that's a little prick on the finger of the old location's general economy. Enough people leave, and it can cripple the old location with ease, as we're currently seeing in Arizona. In addition, there's a brain-drain effect- the smart people, the technically-skilled people leave, even if it's only a side effect of everyone else leaving too. Remember, everyone voting with their feet is in agreement with each other that whatever just happened, they don't like it. That's a lot of people that, until that point, may have been able to reverse the course of the new policy. The more leave, the more the old location is locked into the new policy, as there is less remaining opposition to it. Whatever they just did, they're going to end up seeing it, and all the consequences both good and bad, intended and unintended, through. They will be rendered, to put it bluntly, simply too stupid to fix any problem they've created.

Or put in Simpsons terms:

While Arizona is seeing a sudden effect, a longer, slower burn has been seen for years, decades, from Rust Belt to Sun Belt, as a decaying regional economy has sent and continues to send northeasterners and midwesterners south and west. Both, however, suffer the same effect: an economy lagging behind their peers. In the grand scheme of things, both pale in comparison to every mass exodus ever brought on by violence of all stripes. In the end, though, all wind up sharing a miserable aftermath.

After all, whatever problem you as a government were trying to solve in the first place will soon be the least of your worries if you suddenly have nobody left to govern.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

La Oroya Update

Okay, somewhere along the way the deadline for Doe Run to get La Oroya's affairs in order was moved back to Tuesday, instead of right about now. It appears to be little more than a stay of execution, however; the Peruvian government still fully intends to close the plant, and Doe Run says they won't be ready by then.

As you were.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Arizona's Amazing Transformation

UPON SB 1070'S PASSAGE: A state illegal immigrants don't want to be.
AS SB 1070 NEARS THE TIME OF ENFORCEMENT: A state no Hispanics period want to be. Illegal, legal, lifelong citizens, doesn't matter.

Considering that Arizona is famous for its significant Hispanic population, this has pretty much killed Arizona's economic recovery dead, or at least Phoenix's. The local economy has crashed so hard it's amazing.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Random News Generator- Kuwait

The United States is far from the only country with controversy over what they teach in their schools, as witnessed today in the Random News Generator, which has landed on Kuwait.

And, unsurprisingly, it involves the prophet Mohammed... or at least, two of his companions, which are a point of contention among Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Among Sunni Muslims, the companions are highly regarded. Among Shiites, they are demonized.

The controversy is that Minister of Education Moudhi Humoud met with some Islamic studies teachers concerning questions about the companions on a 9th-grade final exam, telling them that they might want to skip over the questions, which have been seen as promoting a Sunni viewpoint, sparking outcry from Shiites.

For this, some Sunnis in the Kuwaiti parliament are calling for a 'grilling', which is a line of questioning that means pretty much what you think it means, and which usually ends in the emir pressuring the minister to step aside before the questioning gets too probing. They've had it in for Humoud ever since she arrived, dating back to when she was sworn in without a headscarf.

We'll have to wait to see how that goes. While we're here, we should check in on some previous RNG stories...

UAE: The trial of the 17 Indian foreign workers on death row has been adjourned to September 1st. This is the third such adjournment; all have been over matters of finding a good interpreter. The first two, on May 19 and June 16, were due to no interpreter being available; this one is due to the found interpreter not being accepted by the court.
Macedonia: No, they and Greece still haven't come to terms over their name, preventing them from ascending to the EU or NATO. As far as the Macedonian public is concerned, that is perfectly fine by them.
Peru: The deadline for Doe Run to restart operations at its infamously polluting La Oroya smelter, under environmental regulations imposed by the Peruvian government, is tomorrow, or else Peru will shut it down for good. So far, it's not open, and a last-ditch effort by Doe Run to settle with its various creditors fell through last night. That probably has sealed La Oroya's fate, but we'll check back and make it official.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What Else I'm Working On

There is a book project I'm currently working on; been plugging away at it since January. If you've ever been to a bookstore and examined the selection on soccer- the Americans among you, at least- there isn't much to speak of. At all. Most of the books are just a bunch of youth drills, and most of the rest is completely World Cup-oriented.

Not much if anything on the club scene, which is what largely goes on the rest of the four year cycle, if anything at all. And the rare time you do see it, it's just general platitudes about Great Clubs of the World, and very little of which does anything to actually tell you about any of them. Imagine reading this about the New York Yankees:


Home: Bronx, NY
Colors: Navy blue, white
Founded: 1901
Titles (27): 1923, 1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1943, 1947, 1949, 1959, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2009

"The New York Yankees have won more World Series than any other team in MLB. Their greatest period was in the 1920's, when, led by players such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and manager Miller Huggins, they won the 1927 World Series with 110 wins. Over the years many other great players have been Yankees, such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera. They have played in Yankee Stadium, the second such park by that name, since 2009."

Bland as hell, isn't it? It talks about the Yankees, but it doesn't say a thing. It doesn't say who Babe Ruth is, or any of the others. It doesn't tell about the first Yankee Stadium, it doesn't mention the Red Sox rivalry, nothing that could tell you who the team IS. If you're just getting into baseball, you've learned nothing.

But that's pretty much what you tend to get for soccer bios, though usually in a longer form.

Now, for TV Tropes' writeup on the same team.

"The New York Yankees: Current defending champs. If you can name only one Baseball team, it probably is this one. Being the most sucessful team in the World Series era (27 titles) and the fact that it is based in the Big Applesauce have combined to make the Yankees the most popular team in America.... and the least popular team in America. You must, by internet law, either hate them with a passion that rivals the love you have of your own team or be a obnoxious, unpleasable pinstripe-wearing fan. An entire industry exists of anti-Yankee media, and although primarily centered in Boston, it thrives throughout North America, including New York itself. The same thing goes for pro-Yankee media. Depending on your point of view, is either The Evil Empire or The Chosen Team. Team owners George Steinbrenner and his sons are, however, universally considered an example of Evil Overlord (or at least a Mean Boss), while Lou Gehrig is universally beloved. This is not a new phenomenon. The play Damn Yankees!, about a man who hates them so much he sells his soul to the Devil to beat them, was written over fifty years ago. Notable for having not one (Ruth), not two (Gehrig), not three (DiMaggio), but four (Mickey Mantle) names in the argument for best baseball player ever."

Less about the vital stats, but you come away knowing a hell of a lot more about the team. This is basically the format I'm trying to follow, including the one-paragraph limit- it keeps me focused on what's really important to know about a team, and it also serves to keep any one team from overpowering any other team.

Because I'm doing what is primarily a guide to adopting a club soccer team, and I'm going through hundreds and hundreds of clubs. Far, far beyond 'great clubs of the world'. What about everybody else? What about all the teams those Great Clubs of the World had to step on to get where they are? Soccer doesn't stop at Manchester United.

Let's put it this way: so far I'm on Team #371, with no real end in sight. Two of the clubs done so far are from Botswana. Two more are from Haiti. Another is from the Faroe Islands. By the end I intend to have every single FIFA nation covered with at least one team apiece. (Again, they're why I'm instituting a one-paragraph limit. Yes, Manchester United deserves infinitely more accolades than, say, Presidente Hayes of Paraguay. But there should be at least one place where a lesser team gets to be on par with the big guns. Besides, why obscure the fact that Rutherford B. Hayes, of all Presidents, is the one to get a soccer team named after him? And in Paraguay?)

Just so you're aware, this is what I'm doing IN ADDITION to the blog. Any time I post little more than a YouTube clip, that's probably why.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mosquitoes: Why?



Ow. Not me, stupid. But yes, that's the general sentiment. They're buzzy and blood-sucky and annoying and they make you itch and the hardier ones go right through the damned bug spray and they spread malaria and West Nile and who knows what else and DIE DIE DIE YOU EVIL ACCURSED SPAWNS OF HELL.

But hang on. This is one of God's creatures, right? Surely everything must have a purpose! Even these blasted things!

Ehhhhhh, not all that much. If one lives in an ecosystem with animals that eat mosquitoes, then yes, the mosquitoes are important in a food-chain sense. Frogs eat them, fish eat them, and we certainly need frogs and fish.

But then, frogs and fish can eat other stuff too.

But if you're talking things like cross-pollination or a genetic trait we as humans can use... nope. No good reason for the things to exist.

This is the best defense that John Carlson of Tulane University could come up with when posed the question in September 2000:

The mosquitoes that were biting you in Coasta [sic] Rica probably do not have a purpose in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem there. Some may be eaten by frogs or fish, but there are plenty of other insects for those animals to eat. If all of the mosquitoes were killed, the ecosystem would probably not suffer, unless the poisons used to kill them also killed organisms that are required for the balance of the rainforests. (This is one very difficult problem with trying to control pest insects!)

No one knows, however, all of the secret chemicals those mosquitoes might have. One day, one of the chemicals inside a mosquito might be used to make a new drug. If all of the mosquitoes were killed, scientists would never have the chance to find out.

Also, mosquitoes have many fascinating life styles. They carry many fascinating parasites between different animals. So for people who love to learn about the strange way that life works, those mosquitoes have a purpose that way too.

So the mosquito's primary purpose in life is intellectual masturbation, then? Pass. I do that all the time around here anyway.

As far as you're concerned, mosquitoes are really only worth keeping alive if you're the kind of person who doesn't like to kill anything, no matter how small.

As far as I'm concerned, if they're spreading disease and have me on the menu, it's them or me.

So go ahead and swat that mosquito. Swat all you like. Do it for your health. Do it for your complexion. Do it... for America.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Record Amounts Of Pork Edition

Today's editions to the Rapid-Fire Book Club:

*Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook- Bourdain, Anthony
*Sex with the Queen: Nine Hundred Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics- Herman, Eleanor
*Getting Into Guinness: One Man's longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World's Most Famous Record Book- Olmstead, Larry

And also a copy of the Onion, but they give it to you free in Madison (and Milwaukee for that matter, plus I hear a smattering of other cities).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Golden Iranian Nugget

Twitter? No problem. The Ahmadinejad government- I hesitate to say 'regime' out of a probably-misplaced sense of impartiality- can shut that down without all that much trouble.

Green Revolution? No problem. They had some significant difficulties handling that, but the Ahmadinejad government has beaten them down considerably over time.

Non-governmental, purely economic-related protests and strikes in the Tehran bazaar? (And all for around ten bucks?) PROBLEEEEEEEEEEEEM!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Most Decisive Battle Of All Time

Across history, there have been lots of wars that have decided lots of world history. If nothing ever got accomplished through war, or if people didn't at least think it was going to accomplish anything, it wouldn't be such a big part of history.

And in those wars, there are battles that make up that war. Those often get things done as well. Kursk burned up so many German resources that from then on they were doomed to lose World War 2. Waterloo was the effective end of Napoleon. The Tet Offensive turned Walter Cronkite against the Vietnam War, and American public opinion went with him, and Lyndon Johnson knew it.

But none of them had the this-one's-for-all-the-marbles stakes of the Battle of Gaugamela, on October 1, 331 BC. Gaugamela was a little burg existing at the time; the battle is also sometimes called the Battle of Arbela for the city, the capital of Kurdistan, currently standing 60 miles east of the battle. One might actually be better off pegging it as about 15-20 miles north of Mosul.

The stakes? Nothing much, just the fate of Western and Eastern culture throughout the world from then on.

For the west, Alexander the Great of Macedonia and you've probably already figured out who's getting the W.
For the east, Darius III of Persia.

Alexander was looking for vengeance on Persia for their earlier having tormented Greece from 499-448 BC, and having killed Alexander's father, and by the time he got to Gaugamela, he'd already done more than his share of conquering. Darius was on his heels, just hoping to fend Alexander off. In an earlier battle at Issus (in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border), he'd lost but managed to slip away, and even though Alexander captured Darius' family at Issus, he wanted Darius himself.

Darius came into the battle with more troops than Alexander- Alexander had about 47,000, while Darius had anywhere from 53,000-92,000- but it's not like that mattered, as Alexander was vastly shorthanded at Issus and smacked Darius around there too. Darius knew exactly what Alexander was capable of doing to him, even shorthanded, and it utterly psyched him out. Especially since Alexander had spent the two years since Issus carving his way from south-central Turkey to north-central Iraq, by way of Gaza, and snapping up anything that happened to be in the way, a time during which Darius had tried to buy Alexander off with anything and everything- land, money, his daughter's hand. Maybe he could at least get his family back.

As far as Alexander was concerned, the whole of Asia was already his anyway, and if he wanted to marry Darius' daughter, he could just up and do it whether Darius liked it or not.

Darius had guessed that Alexander was going to cross the Tigris River at Mosul, set up a sentry there to intercept him after what was to be a tough river crossing, and housed the main army in Arbela.

Alexander did not cross at Mosul. He didn't want to deal with fording a fast-moving river and then fighting right afterward. He headed further north. Now Darius was forced to scramble, and semi-arbitrarily picked Gaugamela as a substitute battle site.

Bad move. (There probably wasn't a good move, but still.) He'd chosen a place where he was on a plain, and the Macedonians would be up in the hills where they could easily make out the Persian layout beforehand. When Alexander showed up, he chose to rest up for the night, do some recon, and fight in the morning.

Darius called for an all-night guard, just in case. Alexander was in his head and now his army would be pulling an all-nighter to prepare for a fresh Macedonian army to boot. Alexander was pulling an all-nighter too, but he was busy working out how he wanted to do this.

Assume a map divided into squares:


When they met, Darius was in Square 2 guarded by infantry, with Alexander in Square 5 and his second-in-command Parmenion over on Square 4. The Persians were in three lines, with the Macedonians winged back on both flanks so as to draw the Persian fire. After feeling each other out, Darius chose to concentrate on Square 4 and Parmenion's men. Alexander, originally in Square 5, headed over to 6 and took the Persians that sat in Square 3. The point was to draw as many Persians as possible off of Square 2, leaving as little defense as possible around Darius himself.

First out of the proceedings were the Persian chariots, who ran into the Macedonian lances. The first line of lances stepped aside. The elephants running the chariots ran into the gap and then stopped, not wanting to run into the lances deeper in. The first line closed the circle. No more worrying about chariots. The javelin-throwers had a field day.

Once enough strength had been siphoned out of the Square 2 defense, the Macedonians- who had been forming a giant wedge with the point poking through the top of Square 5- pressed through, with Alexander behind the point. The Persians were split in two. Darius ran like hell.

Alexander surely would have taken off in pursuit, but around that time he heard that Parmenion was in trouble back at Square 4, and he chose to help him out instead. A few Persians saw a gap in the Macedonian line and ran through it, but there wasn't much to be done with it except loot from the Macedonian camp, which wouldn't even make up for the looting Alexander would be doing as part of the spoils of victory (and was unsuccessful anyway, as the back-line Macedonians easily drove them back.)

And it was a victory. It's estimated that by the end, the Macedonians had lost about 500 men, compared with at least 40,000 Persians. The Persians were all over the place, with Alexander's bodyguards taking up the pursuit of Darius, soon joined by Alexander after he had bailed out Permenion. Among Darius' remaining forces was Bessus, a nobleman and relative. A relative who would kill Darius himself, taking the Persian throne. Or what was left of it. Most historians, while conceding that he would be the next-in-line, don't consider him a king of Persia.

What Persia?

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Yesterday I played in a charity softball tournament. My body is currently telling me how it never wants me to do that again. I am sore, I am sunburned, I cut up both my lega sliding into bases.

So I'm just going to throw up a Top Gear clip today and have done with it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Same Thing Said In 27 Different Ways

Perhaps mankind's most reliable source of conflict over the course of history is religion. My god is better than your god, and I am going to save you from hell if I have to send you there myself in the process. Christians hate Muslims. Muslims hate Christians. Islam has a standing death sentence to anyone who abandons Islam for some other faith. Both Christians and Muslims hate the Jews. The athiests hate everybody. Everybody hates the athiests. Factions within a particular faith hate each other. And we haven't even gotten into the non-Abrahamic faiths.

Personally, I belong to a Lutheran church, which on a day-to-day basis is just about as low-key and laid-back a Christian sect as you're likely to find. Getting absolved of all your sins basically involves going to church. Sometime during the congregation, you will be relieved of all your sins. That is literally it. No Hail Maries, no pilgrimages, no tithing, no confessions, no real spiritual exertion whatsoever.

But Lutheranism isn't really the end of it for me. Along the way, I also picked up a belief in karma. Not really a pure good-deeds-lead-to-good-fortune, bad-deeds-lead-to-bad-fortune cause-and-effect-- there's far too much evidence to the contrary for that, and when it does happen, the proximity of act to reciprocation is all over the place-- but more of a system where your deeds get played against your well-being at the end, deeds getting more weight. Humanity gets a chance to sort it all out on its own, and then metaphysics accounts for any imbalance at the end. Which basically means the ones who got away with it in life get it the worst in the afterlife.

But more importantly, I feel that it really does not matter, in the slightest, what you believe so long as you parlay that belief into being a generally decent human being that can on some level get along with as many people as possible. In short, if heaven doesn't have room for Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Socrates, all at the same time, I don't want to go there.

It all comes back around to the Golden Rule, and no matter what you believe, if you believe, or where you come from, there is almost assuredly a Golden Rule for you. Some would claim that karma itself is simply an enforced Golden Rule. As much as the moral codes of all the world's faiths and cultures differ, the Golden Rule is remarkably- and thankfully- resilient.

Some present it multiple times, but we'll keep it to one telling per faith (as best reckoned)...


"Do not return evil to your adversary; requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, maintain justice for your enemy, be friendly to your enemy."

Bahá'í Faith
"Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not." "Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself." (Baha'u'llah)

"This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you". (Mahabharata, 5:1517)

"Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga 5:18)

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12, King James Version)

"Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'" (Doctrine of the Mean 13.3)

Ancient Egyptian
"Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do." (The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 - 110)

"This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." (Mahabharata 5:1517)

"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." (Number 13 of Imam "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths.")

"A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated." (Sutrakritanga 1.11.33)

"What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

"If people regarded other people's families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself." (Mozi)

Native American Spirituality
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” (Chief Seattle)

Paganism, Greek
"Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you." (Socrates)

Paganism, Roman
“The law imprinted on the hearts of all men is to love the members of society as themselves.”

This one was founded off of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. Need I say more? I mean, really?

"Try to treat others as you would want them to treat you." (The Way to Happiness, by L. Ron Hubbard)

"Don't be a dick." ('t_be_a_dick)

"Be charitable to all beings, love is the representative of God." (Ko-ji-ki Hachiman Kasuga)

"We obtain salvation by loving our fellow man and God." (Granth, Japji XXI)

“The basis of Sufism is consideration of the hearts and feelings of others. If you haven't the will to gladden someone's heart, then at least beware lest you hurt someone's heart, for on our path, no sin exists but this.” (Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order)

"Regard your neighbor's gain as your gain and your neighbor's loss as your loss." (Tai-shang Kang-ying P'ien)

"This is the sum of duty. Do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you." (Mahabharata 5:1517)

“We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” (Unitarian principle)

“A'in it harm no one, do what thou wilt” (i.e., do whatever you want to, as long as it harms nobody, including yourself). (The Wiccan Rede)

Yoruba (Nigeria)
“One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”

"That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself." (Avesta, Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5)


In conclusion, here's a guy that completely misses the point.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Soccer, Technically

Sorry for no post yesterday; Charter decided that it didn't feel like providing Internet service for long enough to get anything fired off. They like to do that a lot lately.


On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile over Salvadore Allende. Pinochet's reputation, hopefully, precedes him. In the course of seizing power, he immediately went to work "disappearing" or just outright killing his opponents. Many of the opponents were shipped to Estadio Nacional, where they were tortured, raped, beaten, and often killed.

Meanwhile, the 1974 World Cup was looming, and Chile and the Soviet Union were paired against each other in a playoff. Winner goes to the Cup in West Germany.

It was a two-legged tie. The two tied 0-0 in Moscow, and Chile picked Estadio Nacional as the venue for the second leg. The Soviets- even they had standards- were horrified. The national federation appealed to FIFA for a change of venue.

The Soviets learned of the atrocities through a visit from a human-rights organization which, for some reason, Pinochet had allowed to visit. Things were spruced up for the visit, but the human-rights organization didn't buy it for a second.

FIFA organized a fact-finding mission, which given their findings, generated approximately zero actual facts, writing (pdf file, page 13):

In reply to our precise question concerning the stadium, [minister of National Defense Patricio Carvajal Prado] said that in a couple of days the stadium will be at the disposal of the sports organizations as it is expected that the interrogation of the remaining detainees will be terminated (our italics) and most of them will have gone home (p.4).

And in visiting Estadio Nacional:

As mentioned before, the stadium is at present being used as a 'clearing station' and the people in there are not prisoners but merely detainees whose identity has to be established (a large number of foreigners without valid documents)...The stadium is under military guard and entry is only with a special pass. Inside the outer fencing everything seemed to be normal and gardeners are working on the gardens. Inside the stadium itself the seats and pitch were empty and the remaining detainees were in the dressing and other rooms. The grass on the pitch is in perfect condition as were the seating arrangements (p.4).

The match was ordered to go ahead as scheduled, seeing as "life is back to normal". The Soviets fired off a telegram stating that they would not show up, with federation head Granatkin stating that "Soviet sportsmen cannot at present play at stadium stained with blood of Chilean patriots". Similar sentiments poured in from other countries, but FIFA stuck with its line.

The Soviets stayed home. The Chileans showed up.

That was not a highlight. That was the entire match.

FIFA head Sir Stanley Rous would be voted out of office just prior to the World Cup, with this episode part of a larger tendency to be tone-deaf towards world politics, and was replaced by Joao Havelange. Chile would be bounced in the group stage after three boring matches, including two draws, and forward Carlos Caszely would become the first player to receive a red card in a World Cup (they were introduced in 1970, but nobody was sent off then).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Which We Throw Another Immigration Proposal Onto The Pile

Immigration is and always has been a thorny subject in this country. I've long figured that there are 20,000 different ways to handle immigration, and listening to any debate on the topic, you will find every single one of them to be wrong.

One of the big problems behind that is that immigration, by its very nature, does not deal with people coming from anything even remotely resembling equivalent backgrounds. Billionaires immigrate. Penniless political refugees immigrate. Some people are essentially stateless. Some people don't really have a concept of geopolitical borders. No one way of handling things works for everyone.

The result, at least for the United States, is that there is what can be a decade-long process sorting out who is who-- in this particular story, the wait is actually 17 years- and for many of your more desperate cases, they simply cannot afford to wait that long. They're too poor. They're fleeing political instability. There's someone back home looking for their head. Something that makes them unable to go the over-the-counter route to citizenship because the wait makes them far too likely to die trying.

With no guarantee that they'll actually get accepted.

And then there's the matter of children who had no choice in the matter whatsoever because their parents were the ones making the decision, and simply dragged them over the border.

The real tragedy comes every time one of these children dragged over the border by their parents decides to make the most of it, turns out to be a prodigy that does something like pull a 4.0 GPA and snares a scholarship to the Ivy League, and just generally proves themselves to be a much better citizen than some of our actual citizens, and just then someone finds out they're an illegal immigrant and immediately the calls come to deport them just like everyone else. What was the child to do, fend off their parents with a stick so they could go the legal route? Go back home by themselves, sans parents, to God knows what? Say 'Mommy, I don't wanna go', assuming they were even old enough to speak at the time?

I won't speak for the situation of the proverbial parents here. The proposal I'm about to float would cover the proverbial child prodigy.

Well, maybe the parents too. It depends on how they've got on since they crossed.

The proposal is to introduce a group of what I call 'fasttrackers'. Their job would be to identify those people who are showing themselves to be not only worthy American citizens, but exemplary ones at that, and in fact so worthy that the United States could use them right this very second. A fasttracker, once they have identified such a person, would be able to permit their find to bypass the rest- or all- of the immigration process and, with a small bit of substitute paperwork (because there does have to be SOMETHING), singlehandedly bestow citizenship themselves. One stroke of the pen from them and all the red tape is gone.

Essentially, the fasttracker would be able to tell the immigration people, "It's cool. They're with me." That substitute paperwork would suffice until the rest of the now-citizen's documents can be obtained.

These would be people in the State Department- one under the employ of every foreign embassy and consulate the United States has, as well as, within the United States, one per state, as well as one for DC and each of the territories. By my count, that's 213 foreign fasttrackers, plus 55 domestic (50 states, DC, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam), for a grand total of 268 worldwide. (I didn't count the diplomats in the international organizations.) That's about the right number. You want enough to make sure the whole planet is adequately covered, but not so many that you just have this constant stream of people coming in. It needs to be a special thing, handed out rarely in the grand scheme of things. Attainable, but rare.

So you're aware, the current spread of embassies as shown on the Wikipedia page gives these countries more than one fasttracker:

23- Mexico
9- Brazil
8- Canada
7- China, France, Italy
6- Germany, Japan
5- India
4- Australia, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom
3- Bosnia and Herzegovina, Indonesia, Iraq, Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Turkey
2- Colombia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sudan, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Vietnam

They'd be based in the embassies, anyway. If they chose, they could get out of the office and do some milling about, or they could be homebodies and wait for people to come to them. It's their call how they want to go about looking... and, in fact, what qualifies as 'exemplary'. They can use whatever criteria they see fit, and admit as many or as few people as they like.

And in the event of the proverbial child prodigy 'too bad they're illegal' story, it wouldn't necessarily fall to the local fasttracker. If the person's in Texas, the Texas fasttracker wouldn't have to step in. It could be the one from Vermont, or Sweden, or Fiji, if they happened to get there first. Not every country has diplomatic recognition, and not every country we're on friendly terms with has an embassy, so you need to be fairly laissez-faire when figuring out who's fasttracking who. Whoever gets there first.

They don't want to go crazy, though. No walking up to a refugee camp and giving every single person within citizenship, though one might get soft-hearted enough to want to do so at some point. As far as job security goes, that is a death wish. Among that substitute paperwork is enough documentation to track the new citizen and tie them to the fasttracker. The citizen doesn't have to worry about it. The fasttracker does. They would be held responsible for the actions of each and every person they bring into the country.

If they are truly admitting the exemplary, the people we'd be proud to have as Americans, there's nothing to worry about. But remember this is supposed to be used only for the cream of the immigration crop. If one of the fasttracked citizens turns out later to be a drug dealer or racks up six DUI's or something else to make it clear the fasttracker chose poorly, there will be hell for the fasttracker to pay. It won't take very many wrong decisions for the fasttracker to be fired and for someone else to take his place. Which means a fasttracker would have to do their own due diligence when determining who to let in.

In short, they could bring in whoever they want whenever they want, but they damn well better be right.

It would only clear out a tiny amount of the immigration backlog. You'd still have a whole bunch of drugs and violence on the border with Mexico, you'd still have millions of people to deal with, you'd still have people waiting a decade-plus on the over-the-counter route. But a little- a very stellar little- is better than nothing.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Barbie's Resume

Barbie has had a lot of careers since 1959. Some very prestigious ones at that. Just in the year 2000, she became not only President of the United States (you don't remember that election? Funny that), but also a Starfleet officer and a paratrooper. In 1991, she served as an officer simultaneously in the Marine Corps and the Navy, one year after she became an Air Force jet pilot, a commercial pilot, and a UNICEF diplomat.

In 2008 alone, she was a swim teacher, a pediatrician, a veteranarian, a baker, a hairdresser, a designer, a pet stylist, a TV chef, a Presidential candidate, and a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys.

And all this is in addition to her ongoing jobs as fashion model, ballerina and princess.

She has to sleep, right? And consider that just about all the jobs Barbie takes are full-time affairs, many going far beyond the 40-hour-a-week standard. You can hold one, at MOST two at a time and have any time left for eating, sleeping, living in a house, or anything else.

And yet she still finds all this time to play around with Ken in her Malibu dream house, or the beach, or the mall, or whatever.

There is only one conclusion: she is terrible at every single job (at least every job that isn't model, ballerina or princess) and Mattel doesn't mention that she is constantly getting fired. This explains why, for example, she was President in 2000, but merely a 'candidate' in 2004 and 2008. She was thrown out of office, either by the voters in a re-election bid or by being impeached and removed in the middle of the term, and she hasn't taken the hint yet.

Perhaps this is why she is currently resorting to burglary.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Another Look At The Boston Tea Party

Let's talk Tea Party today. Specifically, let's talk the rationale behind calling it the Tea Party.

No, not the fact that calling themselves 'teabaggers' at first backfired spectacularly and provided easy rationale for their opposition to keep calling them that even after they realized their mistake and changed the name.

Something more basic. As popular history tells, the Boston Tea Party- that which served as the underlying story behind both names- was conducted in 1773 as a protest against British taxation under the Tea Act. Protesters dressed up as Indians, boarded a ship loaded with tea from the British East India Company, and flung the tea into Boston Harbor.

The Boston Tea Party happened, to be sure. But the reason behind it wasn't simply to protest British taxation.

You see, the American colonists had a tea trade going. A black-market tea trade. 90% of colonial tea was smuggled in, with the mast majority of that smuggled in by one John Hancock.

Hancock wasn't anything special; a lot of colonists dabbled in smuggling. The American taxes were worse than the ones the British imposed; in fact, were one to play by the rules, import duties, which could reach 100%, would quickly drive them out of business. Hancock just happened to be better at it than anyone else.

He was the one that stood to lose the most to the British East India Company, because even with the three-pence tax to be imposed, the Tea Act served to lower prices on British tea: along with the tax, the British East India Company was to be refunded a 25% duty they were paying importing the tea into Britain on the way to America. With that subsidization, Bohea tea bound for the colonies- the most common type- would see its price come down from three shillings per pound to two.

According to Benajmin Woods Labaree's book The Boston Tea Party, Hancock's price was two shillings, one pence.

Bohea tea made up 91.6% of the tea sent into Boston Harbor.

That was what kicked off the Boston Tea Party. The aim wasn't to protest taxes. It was more to protest competition than anything else.

Friday, July 9, 2010

So... There's Still These Hikers.

Back in April, I mentioned here three hikers being held in Iran- Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal.

It is now July, and they are still over there; it's been 343 days now. They could still, obviously, use any support they could get- spread the word, sign their petition, donate some money to help pay for various things, whatever. (If you're so inclined to do something more advanced, like host a vigil or fundraiser, there's a guy on Facebook running things named Brendan McShane Creamer. He knows what he's doing; he was a sizable part of the successful effort to retrieve Laura Ling and Euna Lee last year. You'll want to go talk to him.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Random News Generator- Latvia

We land in Latvia today, which, if you'll recall, was a part of the Soviet Union. You will also recall that the Soviets fought against the Germans in World War 2.

Which made it, to say the least, a poor decision to attempt to hold a parade last week commemorating the 1941 arrival of the Nazis in Riga. Commemorate. As in, weren't those the good old days.

Only about 20 revelers ahowed up, mostly the elderly, and four were arrested by police, as the person who petitioned for the parade was not present and it was therefore illegal under Latvian law. (It is probably not a coincidence that said organizer had been brought in for questioning at the time of the parade, making it impossible for him to attend.)

So why in the world would someone celebrate this? Luckily, someone thought to ask.

Despite the official halting of the event, some individuals did continue the walk to the nearby Freedom Monument individually. Sixty-eight-year-old Lotte Laurina from Riga placed a German flag on the monument.

When asked why she had done so, she replied that the Nazi occupation of Latvia had been "one hundred times better" than the Soviet occupations that preceded and succeeded it.

Other stories on the event elicit similar responses from other paradegoers: they're not saying the Nazis were rainbows and puppies, but the Soviets were worse, and in fact had incorporated Latvia into the Soviet Union not long prior.

One really should not have to point out that just because Option A is better than Option B, that doesn't make Option A any good- anyone who's ever voted in a democratic election will attest to that- but apparently it needs saying.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bitter, Bitter Irony

Here's a trivia question for you. When the Titanic hit the iceberg, there was a silent-film screening going on aboard the ship. What were they showing?

(Jeopardy music)

(more Jeopardy music)

(Death Cab For Cutie, for some reason)

Time's up. The film played at the time the Titanic hit the iceberg was... The Poseidon Adventure.

Back in 1912, even silent films were a new thing- replacing nickelodeons and flip-card movies- and the Titanic wanted this brand spanking new thing on the ship. They decided to go with a nautical theme for the film selection, and The Poseidon Adventure was the film picked for night 5, April 14.

The passengers (the second-class ones, at least; films were considered too disreputable for first-class) loved it, as they did the first film shown on night 3, The Lighthouse Keeper, which ended up getting a double showing on night 4.

Most of the way through the showing, the ship went thud on the iceberg.

The film patrons didn't even notice. Or at least, they felt a minor thud that didn't seem like much. In fact, they asked for a second screening of Poseidon.

And so that's what they got. The viewers didn't notice that the Titanic was sinking until they got outside... and found almost all the lifeboats already gone.

116 out of the 285 in second-class survived. Surely at least one of the Poseidon viewers must have made it onto a lifeboat or else nobody would have been able to tell that story. But the number can't be high.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

One Way To Use Less Oil

When you look at the list of ingredients on food or drink, at the very end you'll notice some pairs of colors and numbers. For example, this bag of Doritos sitting next to me shows Yellow 6, Yellow 5, and Red 40.

That's not good.

Those are dyes, meant to make a lot of the food you buy look like something you'd want to eat. There are plenty of drinks out there that could easily go without any color at all. But you as a consumer don't want that. You want your grapes to be purple, your oranges to be orange, your razzleberries to be somewhere in the color spectrum you normally associate with berries.

Red 40 is one such dye, and it is widely used in the United States. Like clothing made in China, you have to go way out of your way to even start reducing the amount of it in your house.

Why is that bad? Because Red 40 is a petroleum-based dye, linked to health problems on down the road. Not immediately, but later on. It's been banned in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. (Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, the other two mentioned on the Doritos bag, have shown a good deal of molecular similarity to Red 40.)

Essentially, every time you buy a food product with Red 40, you buy a tiny bit of oil. And then you eat it.

That second link is part of a website devoted entirely to Red 40. It's worth a click.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Changing Historical Context

The 2010 Siena Presidential Expert Poll is out. This is a poll of political historians that ranks all the presidents of the United States on 20 factors: background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck, willingness to take risks, avoidance of crucial mistakes, court appointments, executive appointments, domestic accomplishments, foreign policy accomplishments, handling of the U.S. economy, party leadership, relationship with Congress, ability to compromise, communication ability, leadership ability, overall ability, and present overall view.

The big story here is twofold:

A) Since the last poll in 2002, Ulysses S. Grant shot up the rankings to 25th position.
B) Since the last poll in 2002, George W. Bush shot down the rankings from 23rd all the way to 39th, fifth from last. (He didn't place last in any of the 20 categories, but he did place next-to-last in intelligence, foreign policy accomplishments, handling of U.S. economy, ability to compromise and communication ability.)

Here's the overall:

1- Franklin Roosevelt
2- Teddy Roosevelt
3- Lincoln
4- Washington
5- Jefferson
6- Madison
7- Monroe
8- Wilson
9- Truman
10- Eisenhower
11- Kennedy
12- Polk
13- Clinton
14- Andrew Jackson
15- Obama
16- Lyndon Johnson
17- Adams
18- Reagan
19- Quincy Adams
20- Cleveland
21- McKinley
22- Bush 41
23- Van Buren
24- Taft
25- Arthur
26- Grant
27- Garfield
28- Ford
29- Coolidge
30- Nixon
31- Hayes
32- Carter
33- Taylor
34- Benjamin Harrison
35- William Henry Harrison
36- Hoover
37- Tyler
38- Fillmore
39- Bush 43
40- Pierce
41- Harding
42- Buchanan
43- Andrew Johnson

And the full rankings in all categories are here. You can parse out just about any message you want: Obama is 6th in imagination while Washington ranks 9th. There are eight guys below William Henry Harrison, who died in a month. Harrison is, despite that, not ranked last in luck (he beat Hoover). Both Bush 43 and Clinton scored horribly in integrity (Bush ranked 39th, Clinton 41st). And so forth.

There are some criticisms floating around here. As is normal; there's hardly a ranking list out there, on any topic imaginable, that fails to draw the 'this list is stupid' criticisms. Let's take the ones I've heard so far, disregarding the 'this guy is higher than that guy?!' stuff:

1: Obama shouldn't be included, as he's the sitting President.

First off, I hope these aren't the same people arguing that Obama actually isn't President because of the whole birth-certificate thing. Because if they are, they don't know it yet, but they just conceded that point.

That established, I've no problem with including the incumbent. I take it as a kind of 'if a meteor fell on him right now, what would his legacy be' hypothetical. (His legacy would be that a meteor fell on him. But anyway.) Bush 43 was included in 2002, at around the same point in his term.

Besides, we form opinions on most everything before we have all the historical context available to us. Have you ever formed an opinion on a sports team early in the season after they got off to a good or bad start? I know I have. I'm a Cubs fan and I'm currently disappointed with the season they're having. It's early July. Theoretically, they could get hot and take the division yet. I don't have all the historical context yet. But as it stands, I'm disappointed and don't mind saying it.

2: The rankings are too volatile and are therefore untrustworthy.

Opinions change in eight years. In 2002, Bush was at about the peak of his popularity. He had also yet to enact the vast majority of his agenda. He had yet to go into Iraq or Afghanistan, Katrina was three years away, nobody was familiar with the phrases 'swiftboat' or 'enhanced interrogation technique' or 'waterboarding', he had a lot of 9/11-related benefit of the doubt. None of that had happened yet. Now it has.

After one leaves office, new things emerge about the administration. Things that were classified are declassified. New documents and photos emerge. New events play off of the old. People that were around at the time leave politics and write tell-alls. Things happen.

Even after one is long dead, perceptions can change dramatically. Early in my childhood, Christopher Columbus was this big thing. Columbus Day was this big thing. Here's the guy who discovered America.

Then he got one hell of a historical working-over. He didn't even set foot in America. Amerigo Vespucci discovered it. No, Leif Eriksson discovered it. How do you 'discover' somethng that's already inhabited, anyway? And what about all the stuff he did once he made landfall wherever it is he made landfall? Wait... we're celebrating this jerk? Ew! No! Stop!

By the time I'd gotten to high school, Columbus Day wasn't even really being observed anymore.

3: 'Imagination' and 'luck' are stupid categories.

Imagination is really very important. How effective can a President possibly be if they have no real direction in which they wish to go? Check the top 10 in imagination and you can really start to see where they're going with it:

1- Teddy Roosevelt
2- Lincoln
3- Jefferson
4- Franklin Roosevelt
5- Wilson
6- Obama
7- Kennedy
8- Madison
9- Washington
10- Clinton

And the bottom 10:
34- Benjamin Harrison
35- William Henry Harrison
36- Fillmore
37- Coolidge
38- Hoover
39- Pierce
40- Bush 43
41- Andrew Johnson
42- Buchanan
43- Harding

Some categories mirror the overall ranking better than others, and there was a pretty strong correlation between imagination and the overall.

As for luck... yeah, that one is kind of dumb. It appears to be the second-worst correlation to overall, ahead of background, in which Lincoln placed 28th and Hoover placed 10th. (The strongest correlations, aside from 'present overall view', look to be domestic accomplishments and executive appointments.) Bush 43 was our 18th-luckiest President, which means 9/11 and Katrina can hit in the same administration, the recession can hit during the stretch run of the election to choose your successor, and you can still be in the top half for luck.

Coolidge placed 12th in luck, likely on the back of dodging the Great Depression. Hoover placed last, surely on the back of not dodging it. They sit seven spots apart in the overall.

This criticism is valid. Luck doesn't make a President. How you respond to it does.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Urgent Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest Update

There are contract disputes and holdouts for more money... in a hot-dog eating contest.

God bless America.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What's With Miley Cyrus?

If you are a parent, or knows someone who is, or in fact have eyeballs, you are probably aware that Miley Cyrus is rather emphatically casting off the Hannah Montana persona for one of a definitely not Disney-approved nature. Her latest (and as she tells it, last) album, 'Can't Be Tamed', is full of barely-veiled shots at the House of Mouse. There were some warning signs beforehand, most notably the 2008 Vanity Fair shoot where she was photographed barebacked and topless- but as of late she has projected just about as wild and sexual an image as one can do prior to their 18th birthday (which comes November 23).

So what's going on?

In 1987 Daniel Wegner of Trinity University conducted a three-part psychology experiment. In the first part, students were asked to just say whatever they thought for five minutes. This was easily done.

Then in the second part, they were told to do the same, except they were told to try not to think of a white bear. Every time they did so, or said 'white bear', they were to ring a bell in front of them. Of course, now all the students could think about was the white bear. They'd try to block it out, but it was easier to do when they just, you know... didn't think of one. Now that they were told to suppress it, here it is and it won't go away. They'd end up ringing the bell rather often.

Then in the third part, the students were given permission to think about white bears. The result was that their thoughts just became 'white bear white bear white bear'. The white bear utterly overwhelmed them.

Compare to Miley. Early in life, Miley was pretty much any other pre-puberty girl, except that she happened to be the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus. She'd go to a Baptist church, wear a purity ring.

Then she moved to Hollywood in 2005 and became Hannah Montana, and along with it an army of Disney makeup and wardrobe people, and a rock-star persona. She also got a Disney personality construct: no overt sexuality, no excess showing of skin, nothing about boys that's not Disney-approved (she wound up dating a Jonas Brother). All white bears that Miley now had to suppress, while being made- and developing her own accord- into an attractive young woman.

The Vanity Fair shoot came about amidst all this. Ding. Prior to that, pictures surfaced of her flashing her bra strap and draping herself over an unidentified male. Ding. She broke up with Nick Jonas and decided to "just figure out who I really am." Ding.

But now she nears her 18th birthday, Hannah Montana will soon wrap, and now she, like all Disney teen idols, must strike out into the entertainment industry without Disney's assistance. Or to put it another way, she is now free to express herself however she sees fit.

White bear white bear white bear white bear white bear.

What does Miley need to do? Well, now that the white bear is here, it's pretty tough to make go away. But she does need to dial it back. Dolly Parton may be fine with the image, but she's had years of her own to properly develop, at her own rate. She started thinking of the white bear naturally, and just generally knows what she's doing. Miley didn't and doesn't. She is at risk of having it consume her at a young age, and needs some sort of proper guidance that, clearly, she is not getting.

None of this is to say Dolly is not worthy of advising Miley. In fact, Dolly Parton is probably the best mentor Miley could possibly have concerning this kind of thing. Like I just said: Dolly knows what she's doing. She knows how to convey a sexual image without having it consume her. She's actually a corollary to another aspect of the white bear experiment: some subjects were told from the beginning that they had permission to think about white bears, without any prior suppression. They thought of the white bear less frequently than those who had been suppressing it.

If sexual expression is the direction Miley wishes to go, Dolly's just the person to tell her how to go about it properly. But all the sound advice in the world does no good if it is never given in the first place.

It's a very delicate time in Miley's life, as it is with any child star, particularly Disney child stars. The most dramatic example is Britney Spears, a former Mouseketeer. Her mental derailment after leaving the safety of Disney is well-documented, which progressed to the point where she began making prominent appearances in death pools, in which people make predictions on which celebrities they believe will die in the next year. She recovered, but only after her father asserted legal control over every aspect of her life, control that is currently ongoing.

Miley, obviously, is nowhere near that point, and this should not be regarded as a statement that she will ever reach that point. Christina Aguilera was a Mouseketeer as well, and made the transition expertly. But Spears is to be regarded as a cautionary tale. Control the white bear, or the white bear will control you.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sri Lanka, Have You Lost Weight?

Apparently. A study has come out showing that gravity is not quite as uniform on this planet as you might think.

This is the finding of GOGE, the Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, a satellite launched last year to detect minute variations in gravity across Earth's crust and oceans.

What you're looking at is the geoid: likened to a level used in construction work, this is a level that covers the planet.

First, imagine an 'elipsoid'- a perfectly smooth surface covering the entirety of the planet, or at least its generalized shape. The geoid is not smooth; rather, the map shows the elevation in relation to the elipsoid that the geoid would have to be in order to ensure an equal gravitational pull at all points along the planet, a pull such that if you placed a ball along one of the geoid's slopes, it would not roll.

So if you're in Sri Lanka, the gravitational pull is weak enough that the geoid has to be about 100 meters under the elipsoid, and in Papua New Guinea, the pull is strong enough that the geoid must be about 80 meters above the elipsoid, in order for the two places to have equal gravitational pull.

Why is this important? If all the icecaps melted and all the meltwater went into the global ocean, and there wasn't any wind or currents or tides, this is the shape the water would take.

For more, click the link, because it's 2 AM here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rapid-Fire Book Club, It Was This Instead Of Summerfest Edition

Summerfest, as you may know, is the week-and-a-half-long music festival on the Milwaukee lakefront also known as the 'Big Gig'. My family hasn't gone in years, and there's a reason for that.

We're bad luck.

Every single year we have ever gone, the weather has either amounted to oppressive heat of the frolic-about-an-open-fire-hydrant variety, or driving rain such that it doesn't even matter how fast you run your wipers, you're still not seeing out of it. We came home miserable year after year after year and eventually we just all made a pact to never speak of the accursed place again.

I hit up a bookstore or two instead, meaning we have four new additions to the Rapid-Fire Book Club:

*Uncle John's Bathroom Reader: The World's Gone Crazy, by the Bathroom Readers' Institute
*Stupid American History, by Gregory, Leland
*The Shadow of the Sun, by Kapuscinski, Ryszard
*Kabul Beauty School, by Rodriguez, Deborah