Monday, May 31, 2010

Badasses Through History: Audie Murphy

It's Memorial Day, so why not honor a soldier. Specifically, today we honor quite possibly the single greatest soldier in American history.

From Kingston, Texas, Audie Murphy, a veteran of World War 2's European theater, has a list of military decorations that need only be read to get the idea across, and it should be noted that this is a partial list:

*Medal of Honor
*Distinguished Service Cross
*Silver Star (won twice)
*Legion of Merit
*Bronze Star (won twice)
*Purple Heart ('won' three times)
*Combat Infantryman Badge
*Presidential Unit Citation (won twice)
*U.S. Army Outstanding Civilian Service Medal
*French Legion of Honor
*French Croix de guerre (won twice)
*Belgian Croix de guerre
*Marksman Badge on rifle bar
*Expert Badge on bayonet bar

Did I mention that Murphy was fighting off malaria basically the entire time? And that Murphy, in case you're not counting, wound up with a complete set of American military medals for valor? Seriously. They awarded him everything they had, 33 American medals in all, to go with the five French and one Belgian.

And he had to lie to say he was of age to serve, take an Army post after the Marines, Navy and paratroopers rejected him for being too small, and had to fight off an assignment to baker's school after passing out during training- and just having that kind of face- just to get the opportunity.

Let's take the Distinguished Service Cross first. On August 15, 1944, Murphy's division made an amphibious landing in southern France. After a firefight, a German soldier walked forward carrying a white flag. Then the German soldier rescinded the white flag and shot Murphy's friend, Lattie Tipton. This was not a good idea. Murphy went nuts, grabbing a German machine gun and, along with the use of grenades, proceeded to lay waste to every German in the vicinity, spread across several positions.

As for the Medal of Honor, usually one need only read the citation, and here it is.

on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. It's crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to water. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50.

Lieutenant Murphy's indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy's objective.

And remember: this was while he had malaria.

Murphy died in a plane crash in 1971; not only is he buried at Arlington, but his gravesite is the second-most visited in the cemetery, behind only John F. Kennedy. It contains no special adornments- which Murphy would have been entitled to; Medal of Honor winners normally are given gold leaf on their tombstones- as Murphy wished to have a gravestone similar to that of an ordinary soldier.

It wasn't the first time he had downplayed himself. This is a man who, in the movie made about his service, To Hell And Back (in which he played himself), asked that his actual, real-life deeds be toned down for the movie because they would not be believable to a movie audience. He also would have preferred not to play himself; he thought it egotistical.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Ultimate Equal-Time Challenge

Recently, Ron Johnson stormed into the frontrunnership for the Republican Senate nomination in Wisconsin, picking up that party's nomination to challenge Russ Feingold. As he is a political newcomer- he's only been in the race a few weeks and has never held political office- and few know much about him, I e-mailed him a 10-item questionnaire to try and suss out his identity as a candidate. I have yet to recieve a response; I don't know if I will.

This blog is still pretty much held together by a wish and a shoestring, so I've no idea what kind of candidate, if any, would be willing to consent to an interview of any sort here. Yet. But what I can do is cast a wide net and see what I catch. And I intend to cast the widest possible net.

Basically, I don't even feel like trying to gauge what kind of drawing power I've got.

That is why I hereby issue an invitation to everybody. Anybody and everybody. No filter whatsoever. Any formally declared candidate for any elected office in America is welcome to drop me a line-; put "Equal-Time Challenge" in the subject line- and I'll give you my best. I don't care if you're an incumbent US Senator, I don't care if you're running for the school board in Lewiston, Maine. (If you are a school board member from Lewiston, Maine, though, you may want to give me a bit of time to bone up on the situation over there.)

I only set down two rules:

1: You must be a formal candidate currently in your race of choice. If you've been eliminated, or have not yet declared, stay away.
2: In the unlikely event that a queue forms, the highest office gets priority. Remaining ties are broken on a first-come, first-served basis.

Come get some, America. Readers, if you've got someone you'd like to see here, go fetch them, or at least fetch me so I can fetch them.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

These Politicians Today

"Nothing is more unpredictable than the mob, nothing more obscure than public opinion, nothing more deceptive than the whole political system."

That was said by Cicero. Cicero lived from 106 BC-43 BC, in ancient Rome. Something you could probably today put in the mouth of any random blogger, but they had their problems, and knew it, even back then.

For our purposes, we'll skip a few centuries past Cicero to 193 AD and one Didius Julianus. On March 28, 193, then-emperor Pertinax was assassinated in a soldiers' camp while trying to calm a mutiny. His assassins, having the benefit of no line of succession whatsoever, then announced that they would award the title of emperor to the highest bidder.

You see, they had a fucking valuable thing. You just don't give it away for nothing-- wait, what? Oh, these politicians today.

Okay. Emperor for sale. Pertinax's father-in-law and city prefect Titus Flavius Sulpicianus would have had a decent argument to the throne normally, but as it stood, he went ahead and started making offers. Meanwhile, Didius Julianus was sleeping at a banquet when his wife and daughter woke him up and filled him in on what was going on. Didius took off in a dead sprint for the camp, and when he found he couldn't gain entry, started shouting offers from the entrance. Titus offered 20,000 sesterces to every soldier- that being the currency of the time; Titus was essentially offering eight years' wages. Didius countered with 25,000. Auction over. Didius wins. Come on into the camp, New Emperor Person.

How did Rome in general react? They hated Didius on sight. Usually, they would cheer the new emperor. This time, they booed their lungs out, calling on multiple generals currently abroad to come home, oust this guy, and take the throne themselves.

Enter Septimius Severus, who simply declared himself emperor and made for Rome. (Another general, Clodius Albinus, would declare himself emperor as well, but Severus would get to Rome first.) Didius, being the corrupt office-buying unrespectable jerk he was and had been throughout his political career, found he didn't really have any allies to even begin to keep Severus out of Rome. People he sent as negotiators wound up defecting. He couldn't block Severus from entering, he sent assassins but they didn't do any good either.

And then he lost the soldiers from which he had bought the office. After some correspondence with Severus, they swapped themselves, proclaimed Severus emperor, and put out a hit on Didius. He would be assassinated on June 1, 193, "reigning" for a grand total of 66 days.

Just about the only person who didn't figure out why Didius Julianus was being killed off was Didius Julianus. Reportedly, his last words, as he was being assassinated, were "But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dangerously Short Tempers

As you may be aware, North and South Korea are getting progressively angrier with each other over the sinking of a South Korean ship by a North Korean torpedo. The two have cut all ties, and North Korea nullified any agreement meant to prevent further escalation.

Will this end in war? I'd give it about a 10% chance. North and South Korea have rising and falling tensions over the years- North Korea does something that angers everyone, they see how far they can push the envelope, and right before everyone gets angry enough to do something nasty to them, they back off and wait for everyone to calm down before the next episode. This episode, however, has a different air to it; unlike most things North Korea has done, this particular act- the deaths of a South Korean ship by North Korean weaponry- is an indisputable act of war and is being treated as such. If anything is going to lead to war, it seems like this would do it.

The mitigating factor, though, is that just about everybody knows basically how such a war would play out, and nobody would be happy with the result or else it probably would have happened decades ago: the second hostilities commence, North Korea fires every bit of artillery they've got directly at whatever has the most people in range, with Seoul tops on the hit list. While most of the artillery could not reach Seoul, and not all of Seoul could get hit by the artillery pieces, it would be squarely in the range of the second phase: the North Korean army swarming across the border. The deaths could easily reach into the millions. After that, though, the gross disparity in technology would take over, and North Korea would be driven back without much additional trouble by just about everybody in the Western world. The only reason North Korea wasn't smashed in the Korean War was because Douglas MacArthur pushed too far, across the Yalu River, and got China involved. It's been 50 years since then, and while South Korea and the Western allies have dramatically upgraded their weaponry, North Korea is using some of the exact same weapons they used last time.

China, meanwhile, would be too busy dealing with the swarms of refugees they've been propping up North Korea for the sole purpose of avoiding. They wouldn't be interested in bailing out North Korea again.

North Korea would this time be smashed, but at a terrible cost, and afterwards there would be a massive catch-up operation by whoever wound up looking after North Korea to bring them somewhat in line with the rest of the world, something nobody is overly thrilled about having to pay for.

In any case, over at Penny Arcade, a discussion has taken place over whether the ship-sinking that caused all this anger is, or ought to be, enough to justify all that.

Whether it is is really up to you. What I can say is that wars have been started over less. Much, much less...

*In 1925, a dog belonging to a Greek soldier scurried across the border with Bulgaria. When the soldier ran after it, he was shot by a Bulgarian border guard. The League of Nations calmed Greece down, but not before over 50 people, mainly Bulgarian civilians, had been killed in response.

*In 1896, the British Royal Navy was in Zanzibar, and stopped in to watch a cricket match. The sultan of Zanzibar, however, had not been informed that the Brits were stopping by, and he was a tad paranoid as he had (illegally) claimed power the previous day. So Zanzibar declared war on Britain. 38 minutes later, the sultan's palace was a pile of rubble, his one-ship navy was on the sea floor, and he was fleeing to German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania/Burundi/Rwanda). It is the current world-record holder for shortest war. The cricket match never took place.

*When Louis VII of France returned from the Second Crusade, he had grown a beard. At the time, according to Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, long hair was considered unholy by no less than Pope Urban II, to the point where the unshaven would be excommunicated. Louis shaved. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wanted the beard back. Louis said no. Eleanor got an annulment and married Henry II of England instead. Henry then told Louis to surrender Aquitaine to England, since according to him it should have gone to England with Eleanor. Louis said no. Cue Anglo-Franco hostilities for the next 301 years, going from 1152-1453.

Hopefully, the Koreas will be a bit more level-headed than that.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Western Sahara: A Primer

What do you know about Western Sahara?

Okay, funny joke, smart guy. It's in the western Sahara. Didn't see THAT one coming from a mile away.

What else do you know about it? Don't bother looking in an atlas, or the CIA Factbook, because unlike just about every other place on Earth, you'll primarily find a lot of occurrences of the abbreviation "n/a". Not available. When you see a map comparing how the various countries of Earth perform in almost any statistic, almost invariably, there will be a grey splotch of mystery right below Morocco.

Welcome to the Western Sahara. There's a lot more going on here than 'not available'.

In 1884, the Western Sahara- like the rest of Africa- became a European colony, in their case by Spain. Morocco took a degree of control on the close of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, and would assert further control amidst the end of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's rule, culminating in Spanish withdrawal in 1975.

This created a power vacuum consisting of three forces: northern neighbor Morocco, eastern neighbor Mauritania, and the independence-minded Polisario Front, comprised of a coalition of local Sahrawi tribes. A mutual neighbor to all three, Algeria, sided with the Polisarios, and alongside them would have to deal with Morocco in the north and Mauritania in the south. This came despite a finding from the International Court of Justice that agreed with Algeria and found that the people of the Western Sahara wanted independence. Thus began a period of armed conflict that would last until 1991, with the Polisario forming a government-in-exile in Algeria.

The Mauritanians gave in in 1979. Morocco, however, would wait the Algerians out for an additional decade. A UN peace proposal was floated in 1988, specifying a referendum on whether the Sahrawis preferred independence or to become part of Morocco. However, the referendum stalled, and when Algeria shifted focus to internal matters soon afterwards, Morocco had the upper hand. There would be no referendum. A cease-fire was declared in 1991.

Morocco had not gotten off easy- the war had proven costly even after being backed by aid from Western powers treating it as a Cold War proxy (Morocco was Western-aligned; Algeria was Eastern-aligned), but through the 80's, Morocco had been slowly constructing berms- low sand wall fortifications across various sections of Western Sahara. The berms aren't just sand, though. They include bunkers, trenches, barbed wire fences, landmines, and electronic detection systems, as well as rapid-response forces defending against Polisario incursions.

Here's a map of where the Berm was built and when. The yellow are on the map is Polisartio-controlled. Morocco controls all access to anything of value. This includes all cities of note. Morocco now refers to the area behind the Berm as the 'Southern Provinces'. The Polisario refers to the area not behind the Berm as the 'Free Zone'. The UN, wishing not to take sides, refers to the areas respectively as 'west of the Berm' and 'east of the Berm'.

The Free Zone is largely uninhabited desert, unsuitable for anyone except nomads. Most Sahrawi, and the Polisario leadership, to this day still reside in the Algerian camps in borderland Tindouf Province (also noted on the map), where Algeria is generally happy to have them. Some Moroccans regard even Tindouf as historically theirs, and not just Tindouf and Western Sahara, but the entirety of Mauritania and even parts of Mali. Aside from Western Sahara, though, it's not acted upon much aside from stoking internal emotions.

For a refugee camp in the middle of the Sahara Desert entirely reliant on aid from the host nation, the Sahrawi camps are actually fairly well done. Far from the ramshackle tents seen in Darfur, the Sahrawi have been able to construct solid housing, though tents were deployed after a 2006 flood. As of 1995 (unfortunately the most recent available figures), the literacy rate was pegged at 90%, a total reversal of the sub-10% they saw upon entering the camps. There's a functioning internal democracy, and as of last year, a university is under construction on Free Zone soil. However, there simply aren't enough basic supplies to go around, and sickness and malnutrition are widespread. While the Sahrawi have constructed a semi-livable environment, they'd much rather be home.

The Sahrawi continue to push for a referendum, but difficulties always arise given the fact that there is no reliable count of just how many refugees there are. The Polisario refuses to allow a census for fear of tipping its hand as to their potential strength in such a referendum, and nobody can be sure how many refugees have departed the camps for Mauritania or Mali. A UN mission, MINURSO, was conducted for the specific purpose of conducting the referendum, but it ended without success in 2004. The other major stumbling block is that Morocco insists on having its own Western Sahara settlers take part in the referendum, and since everyone's at least fairly sure that the Moroccan settlers outnumber the grand total of Sahrawis, this is a non-starter.

And so the refugee camps persist.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Anthony Bourdain Explains Cricket

My main computer's back, meaning I'm able to resume working on feature pieces. While I do that, have a clip from No Reservations.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Go Hug Your Children, Right Now

Some years back, if you're a fan of Anderson Cooper, you may have seen his 2005 series on Anderson Cooper 360, 'Starving In Plain Sight', concerning a famine that was hitting the country of Niger at the time.

The actual report, for some reason, isn't on YouTube, but there is a follow-up he did two years later in 2007 for 60 Minutes:

There may be a rerun on the horizon. If you'd like to help try and head it off, I'd suggest CARE. No sense waiting until a potential famine becomes an actual famine.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

DH Minutiae

Ah yes. The designated hitter. If you want a baseball argument guaranteed to devolve into a shouting match inside of five seconds, just say "DH" and run.

Just so you're aware, the DH is an evil evil thing. Bob Gibson wasn't above hitting. Walter Johnson wasn't above hitting. Satchel Paige wasn't above hitting, or Cy Young, or Sandy Koufax, or Lefty Grove, or Dizzy Dean. Three Finger Brown had to hit, and Three Finger Brown had three fingers.

And here's the other thing. Babe Ruth started as a pitcher. Had the DH been around back then...

...well, actually, had the DH been around back then, Ruth could still have hit. For you see, the designated hitter is an opt-in proposition. If the pitcher wants to hit, the pitcher can hit.

And, at least by American League rules, there is a potential stupid tax: you can lose the privilege of a DH.

*The DH cannot field; if you take out a field player and move the DH into that position, the DH is forfeit, and the pitcher must bat.
*If the DH chooses to pitch, for some reason, well, he's not a DH anymore; he's a pitcher who bats. And the pitcher must then bat.
*If a pinch-hitter comes in for some other position, and then goes in to pitch... he's now a pitcher who bats. Bye bye, DH.
*If the manager simply forgets to name a designated hitter? Well, that was stupid. Pay the stupid tax.

Also, there is no double-switching. That, for those not familiar, is when you replace two players at once and swap their corresponding positions' spots in the lineup- for example, if the catcher bats third and the shortstop eighth, and you replace them at the same time, you can end up having the shortstop bat third and the catcher eighth. You can't do that with a DH.

It doesn't happen often, though a DH forfeiture occurred on four occasions last season, including Game 3 of the ALCS, when DH Jerry Hairston Jr. replaced right-fielder Johnny Damon in the 10th inning. When Mariano Rivera's turn subsequently came up in the top of the 11th, he was pinch-hit for by Francisco Cervelli, who struck out. The Los Angeles Angels, no longer having to deal with Rivera, scored and won in the bottom of the 11th. Alfredo Aceves, who gave up the run, got the loss.

Of course, this is something the Yankees should have already had to deal with: bat Rivera, or pinch-hit for him, lose him, and hand the ball to the dregs of the bullpen you didn't really want to send to the mound?

RNG Update

Main computer's still in the shop. Still. So, we might as well get an update on some of our previous stories covered in the Random News Generator, linking to the original coverage of each story...

UAE: The court hearing of the 17 Indian nationals accused in the death of a Pakistani in Sharjah has been adjourned to June 16, after allowing them access to a Punjabi translator.

Nepal: Jordon Romero summitted Mount Everest yesterday, becoming the youngest person to do so. However, as Nepal wouldn't give him permission to climb on Nepalese territory due to his age, Romero did it from China, which doesn't care about age.

In December, he plans to climb Antarctica's highest peak, Mount Vinson, which would give him the highest peaks of all seven continents.

Macedonia: It's still called the Republic of Macedonia. Greece is still displeased. A whole lot of nothing has actually gotten done.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Boycotts For All!

As long as we're already boycotting Arizona, it's probably long past time to add BP to the pile in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which has been going for something on a month now. There was a live feed activated yesterday, which can be found, really, pretty much anywhere (all one must do is type 'bp' into Google to get an option of 'bp oil spill live feed'), but according to BP, it had been available for two weeks prior, not released to the public but rather to Congress. So we know they had the video, we know we would have been able to see just how big the gash was, but they sat on it for two weeks. At least.

And that's BP's version of events.

In the wake of it all, if you're not already doing so, it's a simple thing to stop at gas stations other than BP. It's not 'reduce gas consumption', granted, though you should be doing that too if possible. It also, granted, gives additional business to other oil companies.

Those other oil companies, at least in this specific case, are not the ones at fault. Chevron didn't have anything to do with this. Shell had nothing to do with the leak. It's BP and BP alone. All you have to do is skip the BP stations and stop at the next place down the road.

If you want to, you can skip the Exxon stations too, as we're still trying to get them to properly pay up for the Valdez spill. From 1989.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dead Like Me

It's not unheard of for someone who's been declared clinically dead to subsequently come back to life. (Let's be clear, by 'clinically dead' we don't mean 'we thought he was dead but it turns out he was just in a coma or sleeping'. We mean verified, flatlining beeeeeeeeeeeeep.) Clinical death is actually medically distinct from what everyone thinks of as death.

But if you're going to come back, you've generally got a window of, at the most, three minutes, at least if you're expecting to go on to make a full recovery. That's how long your brain will usually begin to sustain permanent damage due to ischemic injury, a thing all organs accumulate due to loss of blood flow.

Generally, at least. Every human dies, and seeing as we document as many deaths as we possibly can, you have what amounts to an immense sample size. And in a sample size that large, there will be outliers. So what's the record?

It appears to be an hour and a half, set by Don Piper of Houston, Texas.

Going into his near-death experience, Piper was a minister, having been one since 1984. Five years into his ministry, in 1989, Piper was on his way back from a church conference when his Ford Escort was struck head-on by a tractor-trailer. Clinically, he was killed instantly. Four different EMT's arriving on the scene would verify this.

Meanwhile, from Piper's perspective, he was standing outside the gates of Heaven meeting with dead loved ones. His experience interpreted Heaven as Christian-exclusive. The thing is, though, Piper admits that to be merely his interpretation; he was not told that explicitly by a higher power and in fact went the duration of his experience without a meeting from Jesus. He rather, in his website, uses John 14:6 to back up his claim, "No man comes unto the Father but through me", as well as having only met with other Christians.

In addition, near-death experience researcher Rene Jorgensen notes that Piper's experience is not unique. Jorgensen argues that people with near-death experiences tend to see afterlives compliant with whatever faith they've practiced in life, even if some experiences turn out to contradict one another. Essentially, you see the afterlife you think you're going to see. If you're a Christian, you get sent to a Christian afterlife. If you're Muslim, you get sent to a Muslim afterlife. Jewish, Buddhist, Shinto, Baha'i, Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, Aztec/Hindu Fusionism, the afterlife aims to please. As Jorgensen sees it, there seems to be no one single way to a desirable afterlife. You follow your own path, the other guy will follow his, and perhaps everyone can have their own happy ending.

Back to the side of the road in Texas. A fellow minister, Dick Onerecker, showed up within the hour and, according to him, God told him to start praying, which he promptly did next to Piper's body, which authorities allowed him to remain next to. After his praying, Onerecker began to sing the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus".

Which Piper ended up singing along to. Cue a long, hard recovery, followed by rock-star status in the Christian community, his own ministry, and a book, 90 Minutes In Heaven, followed by Jorgensen's rebuttal and expansion on the subject, Behind 90 Minutes In Heaven.

Piper got 90 minutes. You likely have three at the most.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Random News Generator- Uruguay

My regular RNG list is in the shop, so the FIFA World Rankings stand in as a substitute today... and spit out 18th-ranked Uruguay.

And of course the Uruguay wires are flooded with- what a lucky thing we used the FIFA rankings- World Cup news. But we've already covered Uruguay's biggest World Cup coup in our regular blogging; the 1950 final, a 2-1 victory over Brazil in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana, a win that so demoralized the overconfident Brazilians that fans were jumping from the nose-bleed section.

There's some scattered economic talk, but it's near-impenetrable and in Uruguay it's really just World Cup, World Cup, World Cup right now. Anything Uruguay notices about their economy, they probably won't notice until La Celeste has been eliminated. So let's just go with it.

But Uruguay... you list off names of World Cup winners, and in 18 tournaments, you expect the list to be longer than seven: Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany, England, France... and Uruguay. Who now seem unlikely, but when they won, they were still legit contenders. And the first time they won, they were the host.

But the tournament is, for an individual team, just seven games. Anyone that's watched baseball knows that a seven-game set's just not enough to truly determine the best team. So there should be more surprising winners than this, right?


Here's Uruguay's World Cup hub on ESPN; you should be able to reach the other 31 from there with no trouble.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Ling-Ling Edition

Out today and added to the bookshelf, Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home, by Laura and Lisa Ling.

Amazing writing from both of them. Amazing and chilling. Even though I knew how it was going to end, that little nugget of information kept trying to fly the coop over and over again. Every few pages, I'd have to remind myself "This has a happy ending. This has a happy ending. You know it has a happy ending. The ending did not change while you were asleep last night."

It should also be noted that part of the proceeds will be split among three organizations, so if nothing else, at least go ahead and help one or more of them out:

*Liberty in North Korea (LiNK)
*Committee to Protect Journalists
*Reporters Without Borders

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vote-Buying: A Time-Honored American Tradition

As my main computer is currently Blue Screen Of Deathed, small entries for now.

You might think George Washington as completely and utterly above politics as the Machiavellian free-for-all it is today, disapproving of any and all underhanded methods of gaining votes.

Not quite.

When Virginia was a colony, they had something called the House of Burgess- a precursor to the state legislature. At the time, there was a law forbidding 'treating', or giving 'ticklers' to prospective voters. That meant, essentially, no trying to buy the voters off with booze or whatever else they may want. It was common back then.

So, that's the election law, Washington would uphold it, right? Well, when Washington sought office in the House of Burgess, friend and county boss Colonel John Wood regarded the law as a quaint suggestion. The voters of Frederick were treated. Oh, were they ever treated. The account consisted of the following:
40 gallons of Rum Punch
15 gallons of Wine
Dinner for your Friends
13-1/2 gallons of Wine
3-1/2 pts. of Brandy
13 Galls. Beer
8 qts. Cyder Royl
30 gallns. of strong beer
1 hhd & 1 Barrell of Punch, consisting of 26 gals. best Barbadoes rum, 12 lbs. S. Refd. Sugar
3 galls. and 3 quarts of Beer
10 Bowls of Punch
9 half pints of rum
1 pint of wine

Washington won, but what did he think of all this? He only told Wood, after the election, "I hope no Exception was taken to any that voted against me, but that all were alike treated, and all had enough. My only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies And Statistics

We have some breaking news coming into the political desk.

There's a prospect of an improved outcome for Republicans in November.
There's a prospect of an improved outcome for Democrats in November.
It appears voters hate everybody in Congress.
The voters mildly approve of Barack Obama.
The voters hate Barack Obama.

I do not envy Nate Silver right now. If he can run the table in Senate predictions like he did in 2008, using nothing but his model that is heavily dependent on polling data, you can go ahead and start searching his house for the political equivalent of Gray's Sports Almanac.

Previewing The World Cup By Displaying The Exact Opposite

Next month, 32 of the greatest soccer nations on Earth will play in the World Cup.

This is not about the World Cup. Or any of those 32 nations. This is about two of the lesser soccer nations on Earth- Barbados and Grenada- and one of the lesser cups- the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup.

Let's set the stage. It's the end of the group phase. Barbados needs to beat Grenada by two goals to advance. However, in 1994, FIFA had a golden goal rule for international matches-- essentially, sudden death, next goal wins. Most international matches that aren't in a single-elimination round will be allowed to end in a tie, but this particular match needed a winner, and the golden goal rule applied.

So Barbados jumps out to a two-goal lead. How convenient. All is well until, with seven minutes left on the clock, Grenada busts through and makes the score 2-1. That's no good. Now Barbados has seven minutes to score against a now locked-down Grenada.

Except maybe not.

Somewhere along the line, some Caribbean Cup organizer decided that, in case of overtime, a golden goal would count as two goals instead of one. One of the Barbadian players thought fast and noted that, even though a goal on Grenada wouldn't be likely, they could still score on themselves, tie the game, go to overtime, get a golden goal, and still advance as the golden goal, being worth two, would make for the two goals they need.

So the Barbadian player, last name Sealy (soccer's not too big on the first names unless you're a major player) whips right around, takes a second to talk to a fellow defender, Stoute (probably to explain what he was about to do), and scores an own goal. Everybody's shocked for a second, then does the math and figures out the game. Now Grenada is in the situation Barbados just was, except they didn't have the option of scoring the kind of goal they're supposed to be scoring.

Once Grenada figured it out, they made for their own goal... only to find BOTH goals defended by the Barbadians. Regular time ended with the Grenadians trying to score in either goal and the Barbadians not having any of it. In overtime, Barbados sees their quick thinking pay off, as they get the golden goal, sending them through.

Grenada wasn't happy, obviously, and they had a point, but they had clearly demonstrated that they were willing to pull the same stunt. They just got outwitted. (In the next round, also a group stage, Barbados would come in third out of four teams and be eliminated. Trinidad and Tobago would beat Martinique in the final.)

There is video evidence.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Everything's Better When You Add 93 Years And Japan

That's an Octoauto. It was the brainchild of one Milton Reeves, who one day watched a train go by and said 'Look at that smooth ride it's getting. It must be all those wheels! If I put them all on a car, it will have a smooth ride too!'

Never mind that a train runs on metal rails while a car runs on what is essentially packed rocks. On 1911 roads. Or that more wheels means a much larger turning circle. Or that the damn thing just looked ugly as sin.

Absolutely nobody wanted it. Not a single order came in. Reeves' solution: make a six-wheeled car called the Sextoauto. That didn't work out too well either.

Reeves also invented the muffler, so he did have that.

Many years passed.

Cars are more advanced, roads are more paved, and in 2004, of all the things to look into, a team at Japan's Kelo University tried the Octoauto again. As an electric car.

Let us compare it in a drag race to a Porsche 911.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

You Will Obey

Oh, must it be a three-day stupidity run? It must.

On Tuesday, US House member Alan Mollohan (D-WV) was primaried out in favor of Mike Oliverio by the score of 56-44. The race is figured as a toss-up for the general in November.

Voters of West Virginia's 1st, I say to you, knowing little to nothing about Oliverio's actual policies, that you might as well vote Republican in November. For you see, Mike Oliverio has already doomed himself. Even if he is elected to Congress, he will never ever ever be in a position of influence.

For you see, Mike Oliverio has already made overtures about going rogue on the most important vote of all: the vote for Speaker of the House. He has called out Nancy Pelosi and indicated he might not cast his Speaker vote for her.

Going rogue on the Speaker vote is the single most damaging move you could ever make as a member of Congress. You could walk into the chamber naked and sodomize a page, and it would be less damaging to your political career than disobeying orders on the Speaker vote. You could grab the Mace of the House and beat someone with it, and it would be less damaging. You could kill and eat Dylan Ratigan, and it would... well, actually, that wouldn't be all that bad.

Never mind making these overtures when you're not even in Congress yet. That is a flashing siren saying, nay, screaming, "I AM TO BE LEFT TO FEND FOR MYSELF. I WILL PROBABLY WIND UP SWITCHING PARTIES SOMETIME IN MY FIRST TERM ANYWAY."

This goes for both parties. Once you are told who the party is supporting for Speaker- and there's no reason to suggest Pelosi wouldn't retain Democratic support for the next go-around- that is not a suggestion. That is not a hint. That is a direct order. Obey or watch your influence within your party, your influence on legislation, any committee memberships you might have, watch all of that die a swift, painful, agonizing death. You're done. You might have the seat, but the seat, and the vote that goes with it, is all you have from that point forward. Show up, cast your vote, go home. That's it. You're a tally mark and nothing more.

Maybe, MAYBE, if you at least vote for another person within the party, maybe they'll let you live. This is how Gene Taylor (D-MS) got by from 2001-2006, throwing his vote to Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania instead of the agreed-upon Dick Gephardt of Missouri and later Pelosi while Democrats were in the minority. (When they gained power, though, Taylor fell in line.)

But God help you if you cross party lines. Also in 2001, Jim Traficant's (D-OH) orders were to vote for Gephardt, but he instead, as he had warned for months beforehand, voted for Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and ended up thrown out of the Democratic caucus entirely as a result. (As it happened, Traficant would be expelled from Congress outright the next year on a corruption conviction.)

And, again, this is before Oliverio has even been elected yet. If your party even THINKS you're going to disobey on the Speaker vote if you get in, they'll simply make sure you don't get in.

And don't think the Dems aren't going to be looking for it. They already lost control of the New York State Senate in just such a manner last year. They know the partisan split could end up extremely close come next year's Speaker vote. They won't tolerate another Traficant. They likely won't even tolerate a Gene Taylor. They won't let that happen in Congress. And the Republicans are going to be the same way regarding John Boehner.

Maybe Oliverio's views are the best fit for West Virginia's 1st District. Perhaps he's the most capable choice. But by even hinting that he won't fall in line on that first vote, he guarantees he won't be able to effectively fight in any of the others. He's politically dead before he's even gotten to the show.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bernie Madoff Was An Amateur

Let's stay on the topic of stupidity today. It's such a rich vein to tap, stupidity. There's just so much of it to marvel at.

When's the last time you thought about Albania? Such an architectural marvel, that nation. But if you think America has been taken in by Enron and Goldman Sachs and the like, you haven't seen anything yet.

Tirana is not New York. Albania knows a lot less about how to play the financial markets than Wall Street. They weren't helped by being a Communist regime under Enver Hoxha until 1991. So when the Iron Curtain came down, one of the things Albania had to do was get itself a financial system.

Their first attempt was good old fashioned banks. Three state-run banks had 90% of the money. They also had some bad loans. Not being total lunkheads like we were, Albania's government started to regulate credit ceilings.

Unfortunately, the Albanian people WERE total lunkheads, and responded by pulling their money out of the banks. But where would the money go? There weren't enough private banks to serve the purpose.

Ponzi schemes. Gigantic Ponzi schemes.

As you might be aware from the Bernie Madoff scandal, a Ponzi scheme needs a steady influx of new investors in order to keep going. The continual addition of money by new investors helps to keep the old investors involved. The earliest ones even get paid some of that money.

Albania managed to break a Ponzi scheme. Not because they busted it. No, no. The government was fooled too, even calling the so-called private deposit-taking institutions good for the economy. In fact, when a bill was passed in February 1996 giving the Bank of Albania the power to close just such things, the Bank couldn't get the government on board. The scheme runners bought enough of them to make sure they were.

So the government didn't break the Ponzi scheme. Albania broke the Ponzi scheme because two-thirds of the country got in on the ground floor. In this paragraph from the IMF's story on it, you can see some of the competing schemes (oh yes, they were competing with each other) showing one of the warning signs- raising interest rates- as well as the fervor of the investing:
The proliferation of schemes had baleful effects. First, more depositors were drawn in. Although VEFA had the largest liabilities, it had only 85,000 depositors. Xhafferi and Populli between them attracted nearly 2 million depositors—in a country with a population of 3.5 million—within a few months. Second, the investment funds felt pressured to compete and began to offer higher interest rates on deposits. In July, Kamberi raised its monthly interest rate to 10 percent. In September, Populli began offering more than 30 percent a month. In November, Xhafferi offered to treble depositors' money in three months; Sude responded with an offer to double principal in two months. By November, the face value of the schemes' liabilities totaled $1.2 billion. Albanians sold their houses to invest in the schemes; farmers sold their livestock. The mood is vividly captured by a resident who said that, in the fall of 1996, Tirana smelled and sounded like a slaughterhouse, as farmers drove their animals to market to invest the proceeds in the pyramid schemes.

When the IMF stepped in to try and put a stop to it, they were smacked around by both bought politicians and lunkhead voters. Eventually, though, the situation became too dangerous for even the politicians, and they set up a committee to try and deal with the schemes.

It was too late. The first scheme, Sude, collapsed before the committee could even meet. (Who was Sude run by? A 32-year-old gypsy fortuneteller. With a crystal ball and everything. She was ultimately entrusted with $100 million.) The government finally acted, but only after other schemes, confidence shaken by Sude's failure, were collapsing left and right and there was no more money for the government to make from them. A law banning pyramid schemes was passed, but there was no definition of what a pyramid scheme actually was. Even some of the actual pyramid schemes were waved off as "bilateral loans".

It was too late for the government to even save itself; a full-scale uprising was underway by March 1997 that would soon see a new interim government seated that would actually do something. Some 2,000 people would die, the south was in anarchy, people would flee the country, those weapons taken out of the armory that weren't used in the uprising would end up largely migrating to Kosovo. The soldiers and cops weren't about to stop it; they'd already deserted and in fact had done some of the weapon looting.

And through it all, four of the ten major schemes were still alive. They obviously weren't getting any new money, but they stayed in the game by slowly- very, very slowly- paying back investors, just barely enough to get people convinced that everybody would eventually, on some distant day, get their money back. Regulators wouldn't gain control of the last of them until March 1998.

All could have been avoided had the Albanian people just gone along with the regulation of credit ceilings.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Daylight Savings Taken A Bit Too Far

Today, it's one of your... shall we say, less credible scientific theories.

Do you remember the years 614-911 AD? Of course you don't.

Because allegedly, they never happened. And everything you think you've seen from that era is an elaborate fake meant to disguise the fact that we actually live in the year 1713.

Yes. Someone actually thinks this. Specifically, a Heribert Illig of Germany. The theory goes that when the switch was made from the Juilian calendar to the Gregorian, there should have been, according to Illig's math. a discrepancy of thirteen days to correct, as the calendar deviated from the solar year by 10.8 minutes per year, or about one day per century. As it turned out, it was only adjusted by ten days.

Illig took this to mean there were three centuries somewhere that never happened and immediately went off looking for conspiracy theories. You can see here how such a theory eventually expanded to include the whole wide world.

An excerpt:
Raids of the Vikings were used to justify the lack of edifices within the west. They came in spring-time, every year, and burnt and looted the countries, before they retired before the winter. [Kinder/Hilgemann 131] Archaeologically, these pillages left no traces. [WU 97 ff.] Subsequent military expeditions of the Saracens were named to explain the missing of medieval churches in Georgia and Armenia.

You had better believe people have gotten their shots in.

Never mind the possibility that Illig just had his math wrong and that the ten-day adjustment was correct after all. Which he did, and it was.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Random News Generator- Norway

It's Norway today on the RNG. Not long ago we explored the effectiveness of the death penalty in preventing crime in America, and reached the conclusion that it is not a deterrent at all.

Norway's penal system operates on that very principle, taken to the logical extreme: sheer punishment as a correctional device does not work, and that rehabilitation stands a much better chance of preventing recidivism. Enter the brand spanking new Halden Prison, recognized in today's article from the Digital Journal as the world's most humane prison.

These are not low-level offenders Halden takes in. They are murderers and rapists and drug dealers, just like you'd find in any high-security facility in America. Halden, however, gives them a jogging trail, a sound studio, a two-bedroom house for visiting family, a soccer field, a "kitchen laboratory", flat screen TV's. There are no bars. Prisoners are regularly asked how their prison experience can be improved. Guards don't even carry guns, on the theory that it just serves to antagonize.

And Halden gives them color. Grey, stark, spartan-looking facilities are what we know in America.

While grey still largely pervades, this is what Halden Prison looks like. Note the murals. If I didn't tell you that was a prison, you might think it was a high school. Maybe a college.

This is not how one would want to treat a murderer or rapist here. It's not "justice". We want to make the bastards pay for what they did. You don't want them in a prison that is literally a nicer place to live than the house in which I live voluntarily.

But does Norway's way work? Obviously, since Halden's only been open a month, you can't speak for it, but Norway knows what it's doing. Given a two-year window of recidivism, Norway's rate is 20%. The American rate- and the British rate- both hover between 50-60%. And Norway simply incarcerates fewer people- 69 people per 100,000 populate Norwegian prisons, as opposed to 753 per 100,000 in the US.

And this is the big question. A punishment-based incarceration is centered around a feeling of 'we'll make sure they never hurt anyone ever again'. But is it better that this be simply forced upon the inmate, or is it better to 'coddle' them and increase the odds that they no longer have any desire to hurt anyone ever again?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Conviction In Being Wrong

Most debates end up fairly inconclusive. Everybody argues, but nothing is really settled, and everybody comes back the next day for more. Some questions can't be settled in this matter- just about any question that is at its core subjective, or that nobody really has proof of one way or the other, is usually destined to be finished more or less where it started. How do you best end a soccer match that ends in a tie? Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Should the toilet paper roll go over or under? Aruba or St. Lucia? Ford or Chevy? DH or no DH? Are we really alone in the universe? What happens after we die? All arguments that are destined to live for another day.

But on THIS day, you've really stepped in it. Your argument that the Civil War ended in a tie went down in flames the second someone brought up Appomattox Court House. You've been proven objectively, conclusively, irrefutably wrong.

Now what?

For most of us, this isn't even a question. You admit defeat, admit you had your facts wrong, and adopt the new thing you learned.

But let's face it: unless you're predicting doom and the reality is flowers and maypoles, being proven wrong sucks. Everybody is wrong on something. But it's hard to take for some people. It's an admission that you're, well, wrong. You're imperfect. You're human. Some people can come to terms with that better than others, but it's never fun.

Some simply can't come to terms with it at all. They can't comprehend the fact that they might be wrong, or it may be too painful in whatever way for them to consider. They dig in. They look for progressively more feeble reasoning to entrench in their original viewpoint.

Surely, if you've argued on the Internet long enough, you are positive you have dealt with one of these people, although most are dismissed as trolls. And to be sure, some are- people that don't truly believe what they argue but are needlessly nonconstructive for whatever reason.

Do not dismiss, however, the possibility that... well, first off, don't dismiss the possibility that, in fact, you're the one who's wrong. But we'll set that aside and assume that you are actually right and the other guy is wrong. Do not dismiss the possibility that your opponent is simply unable to comprehend their own wrongness.

These people do exist, but to best display that, we can't use anything even remotely political. So let's go back to 1954, when Leon Festinger of the University of Minnesota caught wind of one of your periodic doomsday cults, called the Seekers, led by Chicago grandmother Dorothy Martin, who professed that on December 21, 1954, a series of natural disasters would kill most people on the planet.

Festinger wanted to be there to see what would happen when the world failed to end. His theory: the Seekers would just keep on believing, and in fact would believe even harder than before. He had a theory he called 'cognitive dissonance'. Yep. This is where that term comes from. As Festinger figured, if you've sunk enough emotionally and physically into a certain belief- if you've staked your job, your marriage, years and years of your life- on a certain belief, coming to the realization that you've bet all your money on the wrong horse is a tad on the 'emotionally shattering' side. You will do whatever you have to do to avoid it. So instead of obeying the law of sunk costs, admitting defeat, and starting to rebuild, you just dig in. In fact, you try and convert others into believing your already-proven-wrong theory. After all, if other people believe it, it must be true, right?



Festinger, of course, was dead on, or else you wouldn't recognize the phrase 'cognitive dissonance' today. Festinger- and a crew- had to first gain admittance to the Seekers, which they were only able to do through the invention of anecdotes supporting the cult's position.

Specifically, Martin- who Festinger renamed 'Marian Keech' for his resulting book When Prophecy Fails- claimed to have been receiving messages via "automatic writing" from the planet Clarion, warning of flooding and tidal waves that would raise sea levels and swallow up the Midwest. This would be a problem for Martin, who lived in Chicago, but at the appointed hour- midnight, December 21- UFO's from Clarion would arrive to carry the cult away. (Though Martin thought the UFO might show up early.)

As Alex Boese argues in his book Elephants On Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments, Festinger had already tainted the experiment at this point, as he was providing the supporting viewpoints that cognitive dissonance craves, and thus artificially confirming the hypothesis. As it would turn out, though, if Festinger hadn't, someone else would have, because as December 21 drew closer, Martin's home was targeted again and again by a series of people trying to prank her. Just about everybody who pulled a prank wound up going home happy, including the man who asked the cult to come look at his flooded bathroom, and the man who claimed to receive a message from "Captain Video From Outer Space".

A note: Captain Video- specifically, Captain Video and his Video Rangers- was a TV show at the time, famous for its low budget. At this particular point in time, it was in its seventh and final season. A major character was a robot named "I TOBOR", named such because they accidentally stenciled the name onto the costume backwards.

Come December 20, there's nothing left for the Seekers to do but sit around, remove all metal items from their person (metal would conduct heat aboard the UFO), and hold out until midnight.

Midnight comes. Nothing happens.

12:05 comes. Nothing happens. Someone notices a clock saying 11:55. Okay, maybe that clock's right and it's not really midnight yet.

12:10 comes, or as the other clock says, midnight. Still nothing. The flooding is supposed to start at 8 AM.

4:00 AM. Nothing. The Seekers are lost for an explanation. Martin starts to cry.

Right here is when Martin really could have used someone to try and snap her out of the whole thing, but the only people that could were running an experiment designed specifically around finding out what she did unassisted.

4:45 AM. Martin receives an automatic writing message. The explanation comes: the Seekers had spread so much light that the world was spared. Soon afterward, another message comes telling the Seekers to spread the word. Merry Christmas!

The rest of the day is spent throwing open the drapes to the media, who until now the cult had been shunning, to the point that on the release of When Prophecy Fails, even though Festinger had changed Martin's name, it wasn't too hard to figure out it was her. She would later change her name to Sister Thedra and spend time making progressively less specific doomsday predictions in Arizona, moving from Chicago on threats from the police of being committed to a psychiatric hospital, and later Peru.

One final note on Martin, by the way: prior to the entire episode, she had been involved with L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, the forerunner to Scientology.

And we all know how hard they are to convince of anything.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Move Your Money

You are probably angry at big banks. You are also probably angry about Congress not doing enough to your liking to rein in big banks.

Question: where do you bank?

Big banks are only big banks because, well, because a lot of people bank with them. If fewer people bank with those big banks, those banks that treat your retirement fund like Monopoly money, sooner or later, those big banks won't be so big anymore.

This is the principle behind the Move Your Money movement. It encourages those who have their money in a big bank to get that money out of the big bank, and place that money in a smaller, more responsible community bank. Don't know which ones are responsible? They've already figured it out for you.

Hop to it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

People More Badass Than You

You've trained, you've sweat, you've sacrificed, but you finally did it. You've completed that marathon.


You've trained more, you've sweat more, you've sacrificed more, but you finally did it. You've completed that Ironman triathlon.


Try the Tendai marathon on for size.

Tendai Buddhist monks, based at Mount Hiei near Kyoto, Japan, are intimately familiar with the Tendai marathon; to them it is a path to spiritual enlightenment. For not only do they have to do the running, along the way they must meditate as well. This would normally be fine. Hey, great, a chance to stop and catch their breath.

Except there are about 255 of these stops.

And they have another marathon the next day. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. With peers completely unconcerned as to whether you live or die.

Welcome to the 1,000-day challenge. Just to qualify to run the 1,000 day challenge, one must first complete a 100-day kaihogyo, in which one must run 40 km (24.8 miles) per day, with all the meditation stops, every day for 100 consecutive days. There is a prescribed route, but it's unmarked, much of it along uneven back roads as well as the streets of Kyoto, and you aren't given a map. If you go off-course, too bad; you simply have to find your way back to the route. Your diet is to be vegetables, tofu and miso soup. You're running in a straw hat, sandals, and are dressed in all-white. Your day begins at 1:30 AM. With all the stops, a single 40-km marathon can easily last seven and a half hours.

You are only permitted to sit down once.

And all that time, you carry with you a dagger and a rope cord. That is the consequence for failure, and all along the route, you will see grave markers of countless 19th-century monks who chose that option. For you, it's pretty much symbolic, and nowadays you can simply try again next year, but face death on the mountain and your fellow monks won't be quick about treating you.

As if that weren't enough, one of the 100 days must be a kirimawari- a 33.6 mile (54 km) run. Runners will tend to lose an entire day of sleep completing the kirimawari, but they just have to push on through.

This is just the qualifier.

Should you complete the 100-day kaihogyo, you then have the option of undertaking the 1,000-day challenge. Should you say yes, you then embark on a seven-year oddysey.

And those 100 days you just did don't count.

In years 1-3, you'll be doing one 100-day kaihogyo per year just like the one you ran in the qualifier, except there's no kirimawari. Amidst it all, Tendai monks are required to partake in other training and duties in the Mount Hiei temple. 300 days down. (In the middle of each 100-day term, there's a four-day retreat during which you don't have to run, and which still count towards the 100 days. However, modern monks tack an extra four days onto the end of the run of their own free will.)

These first three years are referred to as "basic training".

In years 4-5, you're still doing a 40-km run, with the meditation stops as always, but now it's for 200 consecutive days. (You might be wondering at this point about what happens in winter. Yeah. Good luck with that, Mr. Monk.) 700 days down, 300 to go.

In year 6, you're back to a 100-day year. But you're not getting off that easy. Oh, no. Remember that 40 kilometers? It's now 60 (37.3 miles). Per day. For 100 days.

In year 7, the final year, you only have two kaihogyos to go. This is when they stop toying with you. Remember that 60 kilometers? It's now 84 (52.2 miles). Per day. For 100 consecutive days. With meditation stops. On back mountain roads and the streets of Kyoto. That dagger's probably looking mighty tempting right about now, though by this point there are plenty of people along the course rooting you on, as word gets around fast that someone's getting close to the end.

Oh yes. You are required to bless them.

The final 100 days send you back to the 40-km kaihogyo, which to anyone that's made it past the 84-kilometer hell seems almost like a victory lap.

A single Year 7 day can hit the 20-hour mark, meaning you aren't worrying too much anymore about performing the other duties and training in the temple, which is small comfort when you've only got four hours a day when you aren't running. As for the lack of sleep, the Tendais aren't too worried about you. They have a saying, "Ten minutes' sleep for a marathon monk is worth five hours of ordinary rest." In addition, by this point you should be trying to rest individual parts of your body during the run.

But wait, there's more.

During Year 5, you will face the seven-day doiri. Mercifully, you will not be running. You'll only be walking 200 meters a day, to retrieve water from a nearby well as an offering for the emperor.

Unmercifully, the walk takes place at 2 AM. And you will not be drinking any of this water. Or any other water. Or food. You won't be sleeping either. Of course there was a catch, silly. This is the Tendai marathon.

All day long, you'll be praying and chanting, performing 100,000 prayers, with two monks by your side simply to make sure you don't break any rules. Prior to the doiri, you'll be reducing your food intake in order to prepare your body. As the London Observer puts it:
The first day is no problem, but there is some nausea on the second and third days. By the fourth and fifth days the hunger pangs have disappeared, but the monk has become so dehydrated that there is no saliva in his mouth and he will begin to taste blood.

Day 5 seems like a slap in the face: your mouth is dehydrated and you're allowed to rinse it out, but you better spit out every last drop of water that you've got in there.

On the occasions you go outside, however, you are allowed to keep all the rain that you can absorb through your skin.

By the end of the doiri, that 200 meter walk can take hours. You will be pale at the end of it There is, of course, a spiritual purpose: to bring you face-to-face with death. Doiri participants report a kind of mental clarity beyond the concepts of good and bad.

Unsurprisingly, they can also smell food being prepared miles away.

The doiri used to last ten days. They shortened it after they found that almost everybody died by the end of Day 10. The idea is to get you CLOSE to death, not to kill you.

Anyone who manages to survive the 1,000-day challenge is declared a Daigyoman Ajari- Saintly Master of the Highest Practice, and only has a 100,000-prayer fasting ceremony to go, 2-3 years after the running is over.

However, since 1585, only 46 men have attained that rank (though some places report 49). Even taking the higher number of 49, that's an average of one completion every 8.7 years. The better part of nine years and of all the people who set out on the challenge, one guy makes it. The most recent completion was by one Genshin Fujinami in 2003.

Do you still feel like an ironman?

(For more information, oh dear Lord will you be shelling out money for a used copy of this book.)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Rapid-Fire Book Club, Minnesota Roadtrip Edition

As is custom here at Random Human Neural Firings, every time I buy a book intended for personal use, you hear about it. I figure that, me not being Oprah, the best and most direct endorsement of a book I can possibly give is me using my own money to buy the thing. Also, it's a window into what makes me tick.

Today's additions to the bookshelf, all acquired over the course of the Minnesota roadtrip:

Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition- 1742-2004; Campbell, Terry
God Made Me Do It: True Stories of the Worst Advice the Lord Has Ever Given His Followers; Hartzman, Marc
Soccer Against the Enemy: How The World's Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power; Kuper, Simon
Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation (Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid); Troost, J. Maarten

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Disrespect The Met

Having returned from Minneapolis, the obvious must be noted that Twins fans are eternally grateful for the return of outdoor baseball, and their new home, Target Field, is every bit as spectacular as you've heard. It's no Wrigley- Wrigley is a baseball religious experience that no new stadium can match, something sports fans are told they have to do before they die- but it's an outstanding, amazing ballpark. (And the Twins ran away early, winning 10-4.)

But now that it's here, even given the constant nods to the history of Minnesota baseball, not just Twins baseball (but only Minnesota- don't try looking for the Washington Senators because you won't find them), with memories invoked in all corners of the park, with all Twins logos prominent, all teams at all levels, all five retired Twins numbers (Jackie Robinson's #42 excepted) commemorated with their own individual entry gate, every single person who ever played for the Twins noted outside between Gates #29 and #34 on 'Tradition Wall', the walkway to Gate #29 showcasing every vaguely professional stadium ever built in the Twin Cities and every member of the Twins Hall of Fame... I worry that one part of that history may end up unduly forgotten: their previous outdoor stadium, Metropolitan Stadium, aka 'The Met'.

Metropolitan Stadium was the Twins', and for that matter the Vikings' home as well, from 1961-1981, and previously the home of the minor-league Minneapolis Millers from 1956-1960, deserves a degree of enduring affection even as Target Field shines anew. After all, had it not been for the Met, the Twins may not have come into town in the first place. It was built specifically to lure a major-league club from somewhere else.

The Millers, like all Minnesota baseball teams, stand fondly remembered in Target Field, as is, admittedly, Metropolitan Stadium, most notably commemorated by the flagpole used during the Met's life and seeing service at a local American Legion after the Met was demolished. Also remembered, very prominently, is the Twins' immediately preceding stadium, the Metrodome.

The Metrodome is not remembered fondly, mind you. But it is remembered prominently, particularly in the vast majority of the nostalgic clips played in the introductory vignette prior to the start of the game as the Twins display their finest hours.

This was the Metrodome's strength. While a bare-bones venue for fans- a spokesman at the time, according to the Baseball Hall of Shame 2, was quoted as saying "The idea is to get the fans in, let 'em see a game, and then let 'em go home," the noise kept in by the dome, as well as the unique conditions crated by a bouncy turf, the white roof that could conceal fly balls, and the 'Baggie' in right field, created a powerful home-field advantage that ultimately brought the Twins two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991, to the degree that the Twins were lucky to have home-field advantage for both Series, as in each case they would win all four home games and lose all three road games.

But it was a terrible place to be for a fan. Or an opponent. As Blue Jays coach Bob Didler said after Alfredo Griffin lost a hop over the mound in the lights, also according to the Baseball Hall of Shame 2, "Only in Minnesota could someone lose a ground ball in the lights during the day."

The day prior, I had been to the Mall of America, a much nicer place to be than the Metrodome in any sense of the word. After Metropolitan Stadium was demolished in 1985, the Mall of America was built on the site. I had heard that the place home plate stood in the Met was marked somewhere in the Mall, and resolved to, along with the other in-mall destinations I had set, find home plate.

It wasn't easy. Home plate was not marked on any of the Mall's maps or directories. I'd have to find it manually. Also preserved was a red seat commemorating the exact landing spot, elevation included, of the longest home run ever hit in the stadium, a 520-foot blast by Harmon Killebrew in 1967.

I would never find the seat. Nor could any Mall employee I asked tell me where it could be found.

It's a confusing thing. The Met saw an American League champion Twins side as well, in 1965, though here they would be defeated by the Dodgers, again in 7 games. Again, the Twins would lose all their road games, but in 1965, they only won three of four home games, with Sandy Koufax throwing a three-hitter in Game 7.

Metropolitan Stadium was built with no team in particular in mind, but in Minnesota, it really didn't need to be. Though common and in fact expected now, the Met was revolutionary in respect to its wholly cantilevered grandstands, drastically reducing obstructed-view seats. Even modern stadiums don't go all the way with it like the Met did; only New Yankee Stadium does this today as much as Metropolitan Stadium. And besides, what the stadium wouldn't do, the weather would. Minnesota in late March/early April, and deep into October, is not known for its warmth. Prior to their Metrodome days, the Vikings were as feared as any current cold-weather team, going 8-3 in home playoff games at the Met.

The big knock was the Met's poor state at the end of its life- in its final season, the upper deck was condemned as a safety hazard. But this was the Twins' fault; they failed to perform any sort of substansive maintenance on the Met. The other big knock was the poor sightlines. But the Metrodome was a multipurpose stadium built for football first and baseball second, and sightlines are never good in that circumstance either.

As BallparkTour puts it, "The final baseball game ever played there was on Sept. 30, 1981. It was played in a light rain, a condition similar to that of the major league opener 21 seasons earlier. Between those rains an entire generation was introduced to professional sports at the Met. That it was all outdoors will stand as the Met's lone heritage."

Outdoor baseball, though, is played heavily on by the Twins, whether at the Met or elsewhere. A banner just outside Target Field, on a nearby skyscraper, reads 'Outdoor Baseball Is Back'. In the second home game of the season against the Red Sox, rain fell, and the fans responded by chanting "OUT-door BASE-ball".

And then there's the Town Ball Tavern, situated by the left field foul pole, celebrating the heritage of amateur baseball in Minnesota. Outside are team photos of various state town ball champions. Inside are photographs of an assortment of local ballparks throughout Minnesota.

But even though outdoor baseball was back, nobody at Target Field, as I strolled throughout the park over the course of the game, gave off a real sense of why they were using the word 'back'. They were simply happy to not be in the Metrodome anymore and knew they played outdoors somewhere prior to that. Some wouldn't even say 'back' at all; the most prominent phrase used by Twins personnel to refer to the stadium was simply "the new capital of Twins Territory". This simply indicates a new stadium of some sort, not a restoration of what once was.

After nearly six hours of traversing the Mall of America the day before, I finally found what once was: home plate of Metropolitan Stadium. That's how long it took for me, amidst my shopping, to find enough people who knew enough of home plate's very existence to slowly direct me to its exact location: somewhere on the floor of the in-mall theme park, Nickelodeon Universe.

As my last act before exiting the mall, I found home plate. It stood utterly uncelebrated. Nobody else nearby, including multiple people wearing Twins paraphernalia, seemed interested or even aware of it. One person, while knowing of the Metrodome, was unaware that Metropolitan Stadium ever existed, despite standing no more than 30 feet from the home plate marker.

I tried, for a time, to imagine the stadium that lured professional baseball to Minnesota, to imagine Sandy Koufax bearing down on Harmon Killebrew, to try and look into the bleachers of the Met.

Had I looked just above the Log Chute ride, there, 520 feet away, was sitting the spot where Harmon Killebrew hit his home run in 1967.

No matter. It proved impossible.

The Rugrats Reptarmobiles were blocking my view five feet in front of me.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Programming Note

For the next three days (Sunday-Tuesday), this blog will be on hiatus, as I'll be roadtripping to Minneapolis. I'll be at the Mall of America whenever it is I arrive in Minneapolis tomorrow, and at the Tigers/Twins game on Monday night. (It'll be the first time Detroit has been in Minnesota since their one-game playoff.)

Projected starters are Max Scherzer for Detroit and Scott Baker for Minnesota. They previously faced the same opponents in a series in Detroit. Each was promptly shelled and yanked in the 4th inning. So if you're in that perfect-game pool all the kids are talking about, best to look elsewhere.

A Suspiciously Specific Analogy

Today, I'd like to ask you something.

Imagine that in 1993, Al professes a certain idea for a consumer product. Nothing much comes of it, and the idea lays dormant for a number of years.

In 2009, Al is working at a company alongside Bob. Bob professes a somewhat advanced idea for a similar product. Al, for whatever reason, spends the next year tirelessly, publically and vigorously attacking Bob's idea in every concievable fashion, using every rhetorical, bureaucratic and legal method he can think of to prevent Bob from getting the greenlight for his product idea. He fails to do so, but in the process, Bob's idea begins to bear a resemblance to Al's idea from 1993.

Not that Al lets on, as he remains steadfast in his opposition for the duration, to the point where the sheer intensity of same is eventually turned into a minor Internet meme.

Bob's proposal, towards the end of the process, also reminds people of an idea floated by Chris in the early 1970's.

After Bob's idea is approved, and while pre-orders are being taken, Al begins to tell people that part of the product was really his idea and demands credit for same, while simultaneously calling for the product to be taken off the market.

The question: how long would such a claim of credit last in intellectual-property court?