Thursday, September 30, 2010

Killing The Golden Pigskin

Has there ever been an expansion of a popular sport that fewer people asked for than an expansion of the NFL season to 18 games? Sure. Two more games onto the season. Woot.

On the other hand, you're not actually adding any extra football. You're just removing two preseason games- games that people tend to watch anyway- and replacing them with regular-season games. In the process, the starters- which would either have sat out those two games or played at half-tilt and handed things over to lower-level guys fighting for roster spots- will instead have to play every down at full-tilt. And with attention currently focused as it is on injury avoidance, two extra games added onto their current workload is something their bodies are simply not capable of. And everyone is seemingly willing to go to a work stoppage over it.

David Fleming of ESPN's Page 2 envisions the NFL paying dearly for those two extra games, and sooner rather than later. In the process, he also envisions happy days ahead for the UFL, a league that has been positioning itself explicitly as a minor-league outfit.

That's the UFL, which currently boasts talent such as Josh McCown, Brooks Bollinger, Ahman Green, Anthony Davis, Daunte Culpepper, Maurice Clarett, DeMarcus Faggins, Morton Greenwood, Marcel Shipp, and Tim Rattay. If you'd like a look at it, a game is on tonight at 6 PM Eastern on Versus, and boy, is that TV deal starting to look like the best move Versus ever made.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This Is Why There Are Fat People

Today, a quickie; this is a commercial profiling a popular diet candy of the 70's and 80's.

Anyone hazard a guess as to why these could possibly have stopped selling?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Lesser Of Two Evils

Not too long ago, I stated some reasons I was given as to why people did not vote in the Wisconsin primaries. Not among those reasons, though, was one of the most common reasons people don't vote, one of if not the major factor in the coming election, and why one of those primary nonvoters does not intend to vote in the general: the unwillingness to vote for the "lesser of two evils".

Granted. The field isn't exactly what one would call "strong" this year. In fact, some of the matchups just plain suck. Nevada in particular is facing a particularly dreadful decision, where they know Sharron Angle bites, they know Harry Reid bites, and yet one of them will wind up a Senator at the end of it all. The primaries might have eliminated your favored candidate. There might not have been anyone you'd consider acceptable to begin with. Maybe everyone good just got driven away from serving in politics and these dregs of society are who's left. The candidates set before you blow. Fair enough.

Don't think of it like that.

The purpose of your vote is so that you can set the best possible course for the future of you, your friends and family, your town, your state, your country, the world, whatever scope you want to use. The best possible course. Not necessarily the perfect course, but the best one possible given your options. Is not the lesser of two evils the best possible course in a two-horse race? Go for that. After all, every vote not cast for the lesser of two evils brings us that much closer to the election of the GREATER of two evils. And that's no good for anybody. It's not like the election will be canceled because you, or all your friends, or in fact half the country stayed home. Some elections can easily get all the way down to 15% turnout and the winners of those will have just as much authority to rule as a guy that wins with 100% turnout. There's no turnout threshold below which they cancel the election. Some places will even force a result of some sort even if nobody votes, candidates included. They might rerun the election with the same candidates and make you pick one anyway, as happened in Centerville, Mississippi as Parade Magazine reported on January 2, 1994 when nobody voted in a race for board of aldermen. (Denny James ran unopposed and got 45 voted in the rerun.) The incumbents might be able to simply appoint themselves back into office, as Pillsbury, North Dakota found out in 2008. Were such a thing to happen in the Presidential election, all that would happen is nobody gets 270 electoral votes, and when nobody gets 270 electoral votes, the election is taken out of the voters' hands and into those of Congress, with the House voting for President and the Senate voting for Vice President. (Hope there isn't a split Congress when that happens.) This is assuming that any tied states- tied at zero, but tied- do not simply decide to hold a runoff election and make you do it again.

What if there's a third party, and you think them to be better than the two major parties? Well, go for that then. Be aware that the greater of two evils may be hoping you do that, so as to siphon votes off of the lesser of two evils. In fact, the greater of two evils may have actively inserted that third party into the race, and funded it to a small degree, for the specific purpose of siphoning your vote off. But if you weren't going to take the lesser of two evils anyway, well, go for it.

Another thing to consider are the age-old enemy of clean politics, the lobbyists. The people that are tossing so much money into the race, more than you can afford or are even allowed to donate on your own. The people that have done so much to make the campaign as ugly as possible. The people that think, if they make things dirty enough, they can drive you to stay home.

Oh yes. This happens. This is a time-honored tactic: disgust you so much with politics that you outright refuse to vote. If you're refusing to vote on the lesser-of-two-evils basis, it looks like they've done their job. And that's good for them. It's one vote closer they are to getting their way.

After all, whether you vote or not, the lobbyists will vote. Do you think they're going to go through all this trouble and then stay home themselves? If absolutely nothing else, by going to vote, you dilute the effect of the lobbyist bent on driving you away. If you share a constituency, your vote directly cancels out that of one lobbyist. If you don't, your vote OUTSHOUTS every single out-of-constituency lobbyist that helped drag that race into the mud. And while one vote may not seem to you as very valuable, going into the booth knowing you're about to negate the vote of the dirtiest, most corrupt son of a bitch in the area- and overrule a whole slew of out-of-state slimeballs who don't know anything about your hometown but are willing to lie incessantly to decide its fate- THAT should feel pretty damned good.

"I think that by staying home, I'm sending a message." No. You're not. Really, you are not. You may think your silence is deafening. No. Your silence is silence and nothing more. By not going in and at least voting, you send no message at all. If anything, you FORFEIT your voice. If there is one type of citizen that is reliably, routinely ignored by elected officials, it is the citizen that did not vote at all. Why SHOULD they care? What are you going to do if they know that screwing you over will just make you stay home? Are you going to stay home even harder?

And there is one more effect that sucking it up and voting the lesser of two evils has. After the elections are all over, one of the things the parties look at is the margin of victory. The people who win in crushing, one-sided blowouts will be likely to be primaried from their own side in an attempt to go even further in that direction, if they are opposed at all. The people who only gain narrow wins are more likely to be vigorously opposed by the other major party next time out. By not voting for the lesser of two evils, you skew the voteshare in favor of the greater of two evils a little bit more than would have otherwise happened.

Which means that by not finding someone worthy enough to vote for in this election, you help ensure that there won't be anyone worthy enough next time either.

Monday, September 27, 2010

TV News Vs. Random News, Day 3/3

Saturday, narrow win for the RNG.
Sunday morning, decisive win for TV news.

But the prime-timers haven't had a go yet. In this, the final day of the competition, the RNG is pitted against the big names of primetime cable news, who really don't come out to play on weekends. What happens when ratings start to affect the story choices? The RNG doesn't care. The RNG doesn't know what ratings are. It picks what it picks.

This is about where I kind of regret picking this particular Monday for this competition, as it has been realized too late that Monday Night Football this week is Packers/Bears. In Wisconsin, that's a bit of an oversight. So I'll have to slalom between the game and the news.

But, that's my problem, not yours. TV, take your shot.

CNN: Rick's List, hosted by Rick Sanchez. He is announcing the results of a giveaway of a book he wrote, and promoting a book-signing he will be doing in Atlanta. That is... that is a poor showing there, Rick.
CNN Headline News: Nancy Grace.


Seriously. That's how the byline is written. With the exclamation point and everything.
FOX News: Bill O'Reilly's answering his e-mail. The specific letter mentions the Rally To Restore Sanity, which launches O'Reilly into a criticism of Stephen Colbert's testimony in front of Congress.
MSNBC: The crossover from Keith Olbermann to Rachel Maddow. Maddow begins her night with noting how Republicans are running national campaigns for the upcoming election, while Democrats are running local campaigns.
CNN International: Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, showing a report on Afghan civilians being killed for sport by US troops. Drew Griffin reports.
Bloomberg: Nigeria flooding causing fears of a food shortage.
FOX Business: Cavuto, noting how a Congressional vote on the Bush tax cuts was delayed until after the election. Or, as the byline put it, "CONGRESS PUNTS: TAX HIKES FOR ALL BEGIN ON JANUARY 1ST". (International readers should be reminded that this current Congress, regardless of the election's outcome, will still be seated until January 3rd.)

CNN International, Bloomberg and to a lesser extent Maddow rescuing an otherwise dismal lineup, damaged further by terrible coverage of those terrible story choices.

The RNG only gets 7 spins, but with the opposition it's been given, it shouldn't need more:

United Arab Emirates

Scores of potential. Very strong lineup, as strong as one could ask. But it still has to be converted on. And as you'll see, Serbia shows up twice. Intriguing gambit by the RNG.

Serbia 1: Assailants blew up the cars of two Serbs somewhere in that country's northern area; police think it's in response to the Serbs in question with Albanian minorities in Kosovo, a nation some Serbs do not recognize the independence of.
Spain: We have a corruption trial underway; 95 defendants accused of collectively making off with 2.4 billion euros from the coffers of the city of Marbella. Marbella was robbed so blind that it couldn't pay "even the smallest bills to local businesses, rubbish collectors and cleaners."
Norway: The nation's central bank is suing Citigroup for exactly what you'd expect them to sue Citigroup over.
Belize: Hurricane... er, Tropical Storm... wait, Tropical Depression Matthew passes over.
Serbia 2: Went to the Serbia well once too often; this time we can only come up with tennis player Viktor Troicki beating Marco Chiudinelli of Switzerland 6-3, 6-1 in the first round of the Thailand Open. Troicki is seeded 7th; Rafael Nadal is seeded 1st.
United Arab Emirates: They've banned Dead Rising 2. Why? No official reason given, but probably every single reason you'd want to play it.
Madagascar: A piece on Operation Smile, an organization of volunteer hospitals in the developing world; in this case in Antananarivo.

Only the one real clunker from the second try in Serbia; the gambit failed. That's a decisive RNG victory, making up almost entirely for the loss on Sunday.

Which leaves us in a bit of a pickle. Really, if you added the quality of the RNG's Saturday win to the quality of the Monday win, it adds up to basically the amount of TV news' Sunday win.

Scoring on rounds won, the RNG wins 2 days to 1. But on points?

It's a tie.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

TV News Vs. Random News, Day 2/3

In Day 1, the RNG achieved a victory over TV news, but not a very satisfying one. What should have been a crushing defeat of the Saturday crew became a fairly even matchup, with the RNG coming up with the strongest story choices of the day by a fair margin, thereby ekeing out the win, but the TV crews avoiding total embarrassment at the bottom end, something the RNG was unable to avoid.

Sunday. TV news puts its best foot forward today, particularly Sunday morning. The most respected names in the industry toil their entire careers for a shot at these timeslots, even moreso than the primetime hours. When one of the coveted Sunday-morning shows needs a new anchor, everybody's ears perk up. Fingers are crossed. Names are considered, dropped, considered again. Even if you've made enough enemies in Washington to choke a horse, even if half the town wouldn't consent to an interview with you if you put a gun to their head, capture a Sunday morning slot and it no longer matters. You have the entire Beltway on call. Your enemies HAVE to appear on your show now.

But can the all-stars of the Beltway defeat the Random News Generator in this, Day 2 of the competition?


NBC-Madison Affiliate: Today Show, covering the effectiveness of charter schools as part of the network's daylong focus on education. Al Roker hosting.
NBC-Milwaukee Affiliate: Meet The Press, panel discussion on education reform. Panel includes Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Randi Weingarten, Robert Bobb. David Gregory hosting.
CBS: Face The Nation. Discussing the Tea Party.
ABC: This Week with Christiane Amanpour. Queen Rania of Jordan interviewed about Israel/Palestine peace talks. (NOTE: I stopped here and let the interview run to completion before moving on.)
CNN: Reliable Sources. Jeff Zucker ousted from NBC; Jon Klein ousted from CNN. Howard Kurtz hosting.
CNN Headline News: A dropoff in prescription drug usage, with seniors turning in unused portions to pharmacies. Natasha Curry reporting.
FOX News: Interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
MSNBC: Obama's upcoming roadtrip to four states- New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Virginia. Mike Viequera reporting.
CNN International: A look at the fashion industry, specifically how some models are Photoshopped heavily before being depicted in advertisements.
Bloomberg: Bill Clinton interviewed concerning the upcoming election. Bill Hunt reporting.
WIS-E (a state-level public-access channel): 'Difference: Women In Law Enforcement'.
WPT (a PBS affiliate): Covering the Wisconsin governor's race. (This was added via one additional round through the channels, since that was done yesterday and I wish to be consistent.)

Few complaints about that effort. Let's see if the RNG can keep up. It's got 12 spins to work with.

New Zealand
DR Congo
Trinidad and Tobago
Azores Islands
Antigua and Barbuda

The dreaded Trinidad and Antigua, killers from yesterday, make return appearances, but also some great potential at the top end. But it's all in the stories that get picked.

Jordan: Their economy has grown in the second quarter.
New Zealand: They have decided they will take part in the Commonwealth Games, set for Delhi, India. India has hoped these Games to do for them what the Beijing Olympics did for China. As it turns out, not so much. Everything's breaking, the athlete's village has been described as 'unfit for human habitation', someone shot up a tourist bus recently, and the visiting athletes have been understandably skittish about the prospect of the whole thing. Canada had threatened to stay home entirely.
Djibouti: A status report on the nation's healthcare system, and... let's just say that despite the debate going on in America, be glad you've got this one as opposed to that one.
DR Congo: Two pilots, one from Ukraine and one from DR Congo, were released after a three-week kidnapping by Mai Mai rebel forces. Two other people were also released, apparently "without conditions".
Trinidad and Tobago: David Beckham arrived in the country to campaign for England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
Ecuador: Robert Mugabe has NOT arrived in the country to receive an honorary law degree from a discredited Christian university.
Azores Islands: Hurricane Lisa is weakening 955 miles south of the Azores. Close enough, right?
Namibia: Their soccer federation is threatening to report Zimbabwe's federation to FIFA over Zimbabwe poaching their national-team coach.
Guam: 40,000 welding jobs are on offer to help build a military base. Anyone out there up for it?
Antigua and Barbuda: The country is helping to celebrate World Tourism Day.
Uruguay: Oh, come on. Chess? CHESS? Really? Chess?
Fiji: More Commonwealth Games coverage. Or in Fiji's case, the explanation of lack thereof. Fiji had a military coup in 2006, earning them an expulsion from the Games and are still on the outs.

Not gonna sugarcoat it. TV won this round and not by a small margin. Lots of wasted potential here.

CHESS, for Pete's sake. I'm counting on you to not embarrass me, RNG. Get it together. And stop drawing Antigua and Barbuda.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

TV News Vs. Random News, Day 1/3

I have grown cocky in the abilities of what I've begun to regard as a trademark around here, my Random News Generator. It's drawn a couple duds, to be sure, but, top to bottom, it's done pretty well; given up some pretty good stories.

In fact, I would wager that, given as similar circumstances as possible, the RNG could hang with, and possibly even outdo, the guys on TV.

So today, we begin a three-day showdown between TV news and the RNG. I make it three days because this particular three-day stretch includes TV news' three major moods: Saturday Mode, Sunday Mode, and Weekday Mode. Saturday sees the news at its most lazy, by and large. Sunday- particularly Sunday morning- sees the news at its best. The weekdays- represented here by Monday- sees the news in a 'normal' mode, if you will. Therefore, it would only do to test all three in one go.

Here's how the showdown will work:


*The TV will be scored first.
*I will channel-surf on my own TV. I have Charter, in an area that serves both the Madison and Milwaukee markets, for reference.
*I will stop at any channel that is airing a news program at the time I reach it. Business channels count (such as CNBC), sports channels do not (such as ESPN), and entertainment channels do not (such as E!); though if a sports or entertainment story is aired on a non-sports network, it will count. Commercials are excused.
*I will record whatever story is being aired by that network at that very moment. Whatever they're reporting on, that's how they're scored. Top story, bottom story, fluff piece about cheese-rolling, doesn't matter. If I stop on a commercial, or I arrive too late in the piece to figure out what story they've chosen, the next story aired will be the one scored. If I can catch the name of the reporter in question, I will record that as well.


*The RNG will be scored second, as the first step in its scoring is to find out how many networks have contributed a report.
*However many networks have been scored, the RNG will be run an equivalent number of times. If nine networks have aired a news program, there will be nine spins of the RNG.
*Normal procedure is, I would take the 232 nations/territories/dependencies/etc. that make up the RNG, randomly select one, and cherry-pick the best news story from there as seen on Google News, unless the country is a total dud, in which case I spin again. That will not be done here.
*Instead, it will be the very first story given; the top result for the given country on Google News. If the nation's a dud, too bad. If the story is inferior to another one further down, too bad. If the particular link given is inferior to another write-up on the same story, too bad. An allowance will be given so as to ensure coherent use of the English language, but that is it. What comes up, comes up.

The aim here is to see, top-to-bottom, who does a better job of reporting in terms of story selection: the TV guys as a team, or my virtual dartboard. By 'story selection', I mean in terms of 'natural disaster vs. that Spanish tomato-throwing festival'.

This is Day 1 of the competition: Saturday. TV news at its worst. Its laziest. Most of the big guns of the industry are off at the bar or something. MSNBC is airing prison documentaries all day and I have decided they will be punished for that by having it scored and allowing the RNG that one extra spin.

Due to the sheer amount of stories covered here, we won't get too much into context. Just mention what is being reported, and move on.

So here goes. TV first.
ABC: Start of the Chris Matthews Show. It's election coverage, specifically comparisons between Obama and Clinton.
National Geographic: An episode of Explorer; Inside LSD.
CNN: A house party shooting in Los Angeles. 12 dead.
CNN Headline News: 4th lawsuit filed against Georgia pastor Eddie Long regarding sexual misconduct. Natasha Curry reporting.
FOX News: Panel discussion concerning US requesting that China buy a stake in GM.
MSNBC: Not prison documentaries, lucky for them. They'll put an actual story onthe board. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg donating $100 million as a grant to Newark schools. Rehema Ellis reporting, Alex Witt anchoring.
CNN International: Sports news. Specifically, the starting grid for the Singapore Grand Prix.
Bloomberg: Cris Valerio interviews FUBU CEO Daymond John. At the point I got there, the discussion had gotten to his role on ABC's 'Shark Tank'.

That makes for eight channels, a pretty low number, as there was a fair bit of paid programming to go through, and it took a second round through the channels to get ABC squeezed in. National Geographic snuck in by a lucky shot; Explorer is the only show on the network one could call a news program and including it really only helps the TV squad out. Eight spins of the RNG.

The RNG lineup:

San Marino
Trinidad and Tobago
Antigua and Barbuda

Bad, bad luck for the RNG here. That's a terrible draw at the top three. Picked a bad time to pull those.

San Marino: Their 6-0 loss to Sweden in Euro 2012 qualifying two and a half weeks ago.
Trinidad and Tobago: More soccer. A preview of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup final, held in Trinidad and Tobago, in which it will be South Korea vs. Japan.
Antigua and Barbuda: The second story was about three suspended members of their electoral commission, but that's not the one that scores. The one that scores concerns the 2010 Caribbean Surf Ski Tour.
Syria: Syria criticizing the UN nuclear agency, the IAEA, for not censuring Israel over a refusal to allow inspections.
Mauritania: Their army denies the death of 19 soldiers in a clash with al Qaeda in northern Mali.
Georgia: There were two dates in which the New York Philharmonic was scheduled to visit; these are now cancelled over budget issues on Georgia's side.
Romania: Their president has given up police protection after thousands of officers protested a decision to cut their pay by 25 percent. He still has Presidential security, though.
Panama: Drug enforcement agents seized three tons of cocaine, purported to be a record.

After the weak start, the RNG recovered very quickly.

The best faces put forward on Day 1 by TV would have to be the election coverage, Inside LSD and the Facebook grant to Newark schools. The RNG responded with the IAEA criticism, Romanian police protests and Panamaian cocaine seizure.

The worst faces: for TV, the Singapore Grand Prix, Daymond John interview and probably the pastor scandal. For the RNG, soccer and surfing.

TV on Day 1 wasn't nearly as strong on the front end, but it proved consistent enough to where the bottom-tier stories held up reasonably well. The RNG was very erratic: a strong top-tier, but a ruinous back end.

Both have two days to improve. TV's first string is still coming up; the RNG can certainly draw better than it did here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Monkeys On The Cover Edition

Today, from the Daily Show writers, it's Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race.

How is it? It's the Daily Show. It's got a very similar cover style to previous title America (The Book). It's funny as all hell.

An excerpt, from discussing corporate logos:

Bank of America
What you'd expect them to sell: Three-field crop rotation
What they sold: Your own money back to you

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars

Here's an interesting piece I stumbled across, entitled 'Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars'. The topic should be pretty obvious.

Small nations have a better record in wars against big nations than you'd think. A 2007 study, done by Patricia Sullivan for UC-Davis, caluclated all conflicts since World War 2 in which one of the United Nations 'Big 5'- the US, UK, France, China or Russia- fought someone else. This worked out to 127 conflicts, 34 of which involved the United States. A conflict was defined as anything involving at least 500 battle-ready troops. A win was recorded when the nation could leave and see the situation hold for at least one year. A loss was recorded when the cost of maintaining a conflict became too high to successfully impose its will, and the big nation walked away. Ties appear to have not been tolerated.

The Big 5, given those criteria, had a win rate of only 61%; with the Americans sporting a 24-10 record. (You may note that I use the term 'nation' for the designated underdogs. Sullivan found it really doesn't matter much whether the underdog is an actual nation, such as Iraq, or a nonstate actor, such as al Qaeda.)

The reason, it is argued, is that the underdogs go in knowing full well that if they play by generally-accepted rules, they are going to not only lose, but get their butts kicked. The obvious solution is to NOT play by the rules. Because, you know, they'd like to live and stuff. The bigger nation, playing by the rules, starts noticing that it's not experiencing the quick, easy victory that will pay for itself that they promised the folks back home (and oh, does that promise get thrown around). They start realizing they have to stop playing by the rules too if they want to win. The war quickly degenerates into a miserable farce.

The piece uses a soccer match between Barcelona FC and a random college team to make its point. Straight-up, Barcelona would win. The college team, knowing this, would extend the playing field into the bleachers, change the ball being used at will, bring in fans (some not wearing uniforms) onto the field, and if they were still losing by the end of the game, simply declare the game to not be over. Barcelona would start to have to pull like-minded stunts, such as calling in their youth team or going after fans who may or may not be playing because, hey, they might be. The game would only end when one team got sick of it all and left the field.

The wars tend to be lost when the cost of the war starts to exceed a value that was expected at the start of the conflict. So if you promise a quick, easy victory, it damn well better be a quick, easy victory or the war's going to get really old really fast.

Iraq was not scored- presumably; the window I had containing her piece crashed before I could see for sure- but Sullivan only gave it a win probability in the 20's.

Sullivan's full piece, mentioned earlier, is viewable in full here. The full list of conflicts is available, but, maddeningly, Sullivan failed to state which conflicts she scored as wins and which she scored as losses. I'll at least give you the US schedule, with start/end dates, opponent and location:

1948-49, vs. communist guerilla movement in Greece
1950, vs. North Korea in South Korea
1950-53, vs. North Korea/China in North Korea
1954-55, vs. China in Taiwan
1958, vs. Syria/leftist insurgents in Lebanon
1958, vs. China in Taiwan
1961, vs. new Trajillista regime in Dominican Republic
1961-62, vs. new Trajillista regime in Dominican Republic
1962-73, vs. North Vietnam/Vietcong in Vietnam
1962, Pathet Lao/North Vietnam/China in Thailand
1964-73, vs. North Vietnam/Vietcong/Pathet Lao in Laos
1965-66, vs. leftist Constitutionalists in Dominican Republic
1970-73, vs. Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
1970, vs. Palestinian fedayeen/Syria in Turkey
1983-84, vs. Amal-Draze regime in Lebanon
1983, vs. new Jewel/PRG regime in Grenada
1986, vs. Qaddafi regime in Libya
1988, vs. Nicaraguan Sandanistas in Honduras
1989, vs. Panamanian government in Panama
1989-90, vs. Noriega regime in Panama
1990-91, vs. Iraqi Hussein regime in Saudi Arabia
1991, vs. Iraqi government in Kuwait
1991-03, vs. Iraqi government in Iraq
1992-03, vs. Iraqi government in Iraq
1992-93, vs. warring clans in Somalia
1993, vs. Somali National Alliance in Somalia
1994-95, vs. Cedras regime in Haiti
1994, vs. Iraqi Hussein regime in Kuwait
1995, vs. Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia
1996, vs. China in Taiwan
1996-03, vs. Iraqi Hussein regime in Kuwait
1998, vs. Iraq in Iraq
1999, vs. Yugoslavia in Yugosalvia
2001-02, vs. Taliban regime in Afghanistan

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I am a lifelong gamer. I've been playing video games dating back to the Atari 2600- games like Combat, Bowling, Baseball, Kaboom!.

So why haven't I done a pure videogame piece since I started the blog back in February?

Specifically, let's do the topic of copy protection. As you know, modern games are encoded in pretty sophisticated manners. If you've got an inauthentic copy, the game simply won't run.

That's how it's supposed to work, anyway. In reality, pirated copies of any game worth playing are still floating around out there. Someone dedicated enough and with enough skill and time on their hands will- WILL- eventually pull it off; the aim is largely to slow them down long enough for it not to be worth the trouble. But before the advent of 'game won't run' protection, game developers had to come up with a variety of other methods of thwarting pirates.

These are people that came up with plumbers growing by eating mushrooms and shooting fireballs from flowers in order to save princesses from giant turtles. They have been rather creative over the years, and they do still revel in pirate frustration to this day.

*Old Carmen Sandiego games would come bundled with a copy of that year's World Almanac or, alternatively, a Fodor's guide. In order to advance in the game, every so often the game would ask you to copy some text out of the almanac provided. The intention was to get kids interested in using almanacs. In practice, hope you kept the almanac and didn't update it to a newer year with newer text, because if you did, you're screwed.

This was a very common tactic: allowing a pirate to play PART of the game, then stopping them cold at some point along the way.

*Startropics for the NES, at one point, asked you to dip a map in some water to reveal a code. The map came with the manual... which caused some problems if you didn't get a manual with the game. (This was remedied when Startropics was released for the Wii Virtual Console; the whole thing is placed in the game itself.)

*In Chrono Trigger, for the SNES and later DS, you are asked at many times during the game to travel in time. This requires entering a time vortex. If you are playing a legitimate copy, the game will let you back out of the vortex. (The DS pirates cracked this within hours, so quickly that it prompted a fan club to give out 3,000 copies of the game soundtrack- widely thought of as one of the best game soundtracks of all time- out to actual customers, two of which were autographed by the composer.)

*Starflight I and II, space-exploration RPG's, asked you to input a value based on some code words given to you any time you wanted to leave base. Screw the code up once, it'll ask you to try again. Screw the code up twice, and you'll get to leave base, but six game days later, the Space Police will arrive and accuse you of software theft. (Game developers will often call players out directly about this sort of thing, in the game itself. They kind of have to, lest rumors spread about 'random' crashes and bugs that lower the reputation of legitimate copies and depress sales.) Screw the code up a third time, and the police blow you up.

*King's Quest IV does this.

*Some recent games, starting with Operation Flashpoint, use a system called FADE, in which when piracy is detected, the quality of gameplay slowly degrades over time. Here's FADE doing its job on ARMA 2.

*At one point in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman needs to glide with his cape. If you have pirated the game, you will find this to be quite impossible. When one gamer showed up in the game's official forums to ask about it, first he was outed as a pirate by another forumer- the game was only released in demo mode, and the pirate asked about a room full of poison gas which the demo did not contain- and then the administrator popped up to state:

"The problem you have encountered is a hook in the copy protection, to catch out people who try and download cracked versions of the game for free.

It's not a bug in the game's code, it's a bug in your moral code."

*Earthbound for the SNES was the most brutal of all. When the game detected pirating- and sometimes it would detect it on legitimate cartridges that had simply been worn down from excessive play- it would take three levels of copy protection. First it would spawn a whole lot more enemies than usual. Second, it would make those enemies much tougher than usual. And just in case some player decided to regard this as a challenge and press on, third, not only would the game would freeze during the final boss fight, but when the player reset, they would find all their save files had been deleted.

The link for Earthbond provides a code in case you have an emulator or Game Genie and wish to try it out yourself. Why you would do such a thing is your business.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rule #1 Of The Internet

Today, the RIAA and MPAA learn a harsh, merciless lesson.




Piss off 4chan.

4chan does not give a damn about things like 'ethics' or 'laws' or 'privacy' or anything that might stop a normal person from doing awful things to you. They're not going to kill you or anything violent like that (although they will make threats), but they will bombard you with embarrasing things through the mail, they will DDOS your website (as has happened here), they will hack, they will post porn all over the place, all in the name of what they figure to be vigilante justice. Or laughs. Sometimes they do crazy things for laughs. It's sometimes hard to tell.

You remember when someone hacked into Sarah Palin's Yahoo Mail account during the 2008 election? That was 4chan.

You remember when seven different NFL stadiums had to deal with threats of dirty bombs in October 2006? That was 4chan.

You know Rick Astley? The whole rickrolling thing? That was 4chan.

You know those 'trending' topics on Yahoo? If you see something really strange for no good reason, like a swastika, or 'fried chicken', there's a decent chance it's 4chan.

Of course, to be fair, there have been several occasions over the years of some guy threatening violence through 4chan, and the rest of 4chan then turning on THAT guy, effectively handing him over to the police themselves. (They're not evil. Just chaotic.)

No, the rest of us on the Internet aren't about to try and corral them. Many of us dare not even speak their name, for fear of summoning them. We just watch them tear into somebody and we're glad it's not us.

RIAA, MPAA. I'm just glad I'm not you.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gratuitous Science Time

Just what I said. Today, we're making a 100-foot-long glow stick.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mmmm.... Sugar....

If you've been looking to reduce your intake of high-fructose corn syrup- a food ingredient widely thought to be leading the charge of What's Making America Fat- I've got good news and bad news.

The good news: you'll be seeing a lot less of it.
The bad news: that's because its name is being changed to 'corn sugar'.

I'm not sure how many people it's going to fool. Historically, changing the name of a product or organization that's had image problems tends to work, but usually the name change is total. Halliburton becomes XE. Philip Morris becomes Altria.

The word 'corn' is still in the name, and it's probably the biggest keyword in 'high fructose corn syrup'. If a consumer is looking for 'high fructose corn syrup', and they instead see 'corn sugar', the word 'corn' is still there, ringing a bell. You're not looking for 'fructose'. You're not looking for 'syrup'. You're looking for 'corn'. (If you're looking for 'high', that's another type of product entirely.)

Some probably are going to get fooled. Never underestimate the stupidity of the public. But it's not going to be nearly as many people as would get taken in had the corn industry somehow managed to get the word 'corn' taken out.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cooper School and Maddow School

One of the more enduring debates about a journalist's job concerns how to play their personal beliefs against the events of the day. Some think it's okay to allow your beliefs to provide perspective, others say to just shut up and report the facts.

I think there's room for both.

Most people might call the two groups 'journalists' and 'pundits', and leave it at that. That really doesn't tell the whole story to me; it implies that pundits aren't really practicing journalism on some level. They are. They're just doing it differently. And sometimes very, very, maliciously badly, but we'll get to that in due time.

I consider them more as two different 'schools' of journalism more than anything else, schools that I will here name after examples of each that I placed in my Journalistic Sweet 17- the Cooper School and the Maddow School. Both can be done well, and both can be done badly.

First, the Cooper School, named for Anderson Cooper. This is the 'journalist' half of journalism. This is the straight-laced, no-personal-opinion reporting, the school that believes your beliefs have no place in the report, and that you shouldn't express an opinion of any sort if the issue being addressed is at all in doubt or up for debate. Cooper School journalists will go to great lengths to preserve their neutrality; some will go so far as to deliberately not vote in elections, on the belief that the vote will give them a stake in the outcome, and unduly skew their reporting in order to favor that result.

When done right- when done perfectly- a Cooper School journalist will rarely make a big splash, but they'll make up for it in sheer respect. The people called on to moderate Presidential debates come exclusively out of the Cooper School. They're the ones everybody misses when they die. There's Cooper, Jim Lehrer, Tim Russert, Walter Cronkite.

Lesser Cooper School journalists, though, tend to make a few common mistakes. Poor story selection is always a killer. I'm sure that very few people got into the journalism industry so they could be the one to finally break the news on what Octomom is up to now.

Keep living the dream there, Radar Guy Clearly Too Humiliated By What His Career Has Come To To Bring Himself To Put His Name On The Byline.

The other major mistake Cooper School journalists make is trying too hard to force equivalency. At some point, viewpoints stop being equal. At some point, there stops being an ability to even have an honest debate. It's fine to have a debate on, say, illegal immigration. Having a debate about whether we landed on the moon makes you less of a journalist than, say, Adam Savage. And even when debates are warranted, it's not worth letting viewpoints go unchallenged, or undebunked, just so both sides can feel equal. Sometimes they're simply not. If one side's just filling the debate with lie after lie, call them out on lie after lie. That's your job.

Which leads to the Maddow School, named for Rachel Maddow.

These are who you would call the 'pundits'. The Maddow School gets to be in the Maddow School for a variety of reasons. Maybe they believe that true neutrality is impossible. Maybe they believe that they can't just stand idly by and let things happen if they believe they can improve matters by contributing their views. Maybe they just can't stop themselves. Maybe they don't give a damn. Whatever the reason, these are the people that mix news with opinion.

The important thing in being part of the Maddow School is this: while you by nature no longer feel bound by any false-equivalency concerns, you have to know how not to go too far in the other direction. You've made your biases known. Fair enough. Now that you've done that, you still have to be fair. You have to be willing to praise the other side, however begrudgingly. You have to be willing to call fouls on your own side. The pitfalls of not doing so are obvious. Fail to do this properly and you're not really thought of as much of a journalist anymore.

The kind of respect that lets you moderate debates is gone. You're not neutral. How could you possibly do a good job? On the other hand, Maddow School journalists have the tendency to be able to do things that will end up in front of a very wide audience, things that are going to stick much more easily in people's minds. They feel more free to express themselves, say things that need to be said but cannot be said by a true neutral. Nobody expects straight-laced equivalency at all costs from a Maddow School journalist, so one might as well do what one has to do to get a point across, things a Cooper School journalist couldn't risk doing for fear of losing respect.

Basically, being in the Maddow School means you get to do things like this.

Being in the Maddow School comes with two major caveats:

1. If you think of yourself as an entertainer, and you do things that would, as a journalist, put you in the Maddow School, nobody is going to buy it if and when you decide to retreat back to 'but I'm just an entertainer'. Yes. You are an entertainer. You are an entertainer that is practicing journalism, and will be critiqued on the merits of what you report same as everybody else. (Stewart and Glenn Beck both think of themselves along this line, though they use it for different ends. Beck goes 'I'm just an entertainer, I'm not to be taken seriously.' Stewart goes 'I'm just an entertainer, and yet here I am doing the media's job for it. What does that say about the rest of you guys when I'M kicking your ass?'Beck uses it as a crutch; Stewart uses it as a pressure point on the rest of the media.)

2. It's easy to get into the Maddow School. It's much harder to get out. And while you can dip your toe in the pool, once you've dived in entirely, you're not coming back out. Once you've expressed your views, you can't unexpress them. They're out there, and now you just have to deal with it. Be very, very careful about anything that might signal a transition from the Cooper School to the Maddow School. If the transition's intentional, tread lightly. Too jarring a transition, and it can be a swift fall from grace.

Keith Olbermann is a shining example of how you can screw up the transition, which he made around the time of Hurricane Katrina. It started with the occasional 'Special Comment', the concept of which he attributed to idol Edward R. Murrow. This was dipping the toe in the pool, which Murrow would occasionally do. Then the 'Special Comments' turned out to be happening rather often, and began to infect the rest of the program. Murrow had merely dipped his toe in the pool, but Olbermann had submerged himself completely, a fact that became obvious on December 18, 2006, the day when he devoted an entire program to rerunning previous Special Comments. Later, he would put out a book combining past 'Worst Person In The World' segments, and upon the close of the 2008 Presidential campaign, released a daily 'Campaign Comment'. By this time he had figured out that he was doing so many comments that they weren't very Special anymore.

Actually, no, he hadn't. He had to be told.

It has been 1,481 days- four years and half a month- since Olbermann's original Special Comment on August 30, 2006. Olbermann has issued 60 Special Comments- seriously, there is a Wikipedia page for this- and 9 Campaign Comments, which would have also been 'Special' had he not been warned away from that label. Not counting the Campaign Comments, it works out to one Comment every 24.68 days.

Now, Murrow would tackle some weighty issues himself. But he kept an even keel. He spoke calmly. He didn't yell. He didn't keep a daily list of the Worst Persons In The World. The feud Murrow is best known for is with Senator Joe McCarthy. Olbermann's best-known feud is with fellow Maddow School journalist Bill O'Reilly. And in the process of each, the two saw very different outcomes. Murrow defeated his prey. Olbermann became the equal of his.

Even if Olbermann wished to reverse himself, it's too late. From where he is, there's no going back to the Cooper School.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Random News Generator- French Guiana

The United States is depressing to look at right now. Let's fire up the Random News Generator and look away, at least for a day.

And certainly nobody looks at French Guiana much, but guess where we've landed today. It's a French territory, the easternmost of those three teeny little countries sitting on top of Brazil. In fact, a suspect in a French spy scandal was reassigned there recently while the government figures out what to do with him. You'd think spy scandals would be intriguing and thrilling, but this particular scandal involves political fundraising, marital infidelity, government agencies used for partisan purposes, and from here it just seems like a whole bunch of stuff I could just stay Stateside and look at every single day.

I fired up the RNG to get AWAY from that. If I could make it, I'd be at the just-announced Rally To Restore Sanity as a message that I'd like to see less of that.

This post is now about Dutch cheese markets. Suck it, French Guiana, for being secondarily related to a scandal I'm sick of hearing about on sight. I am petty like that.

The Netherlands has five cheese markets, in the cities of Alkmaar, Edam, Gouda, Hoorn and Woerden. (Yes, that is where the names of Edam and Gouda cheeses came from; a whole lot of cheeses get their names from their places of origin. Those cities, as you might imagine, feature those cheeses.) A cheese market works roughly like so, at least in the seemingly most popular of the markets in Alkmaar:

The first thing to note is that, while stalls line the periphery, kind of like any farmer's market you've ever been to, the 'traditional' part of the market, dating back to the 14th century, simply places a bunch of cheese wheels on a platform just barely off the ground.

There are men in white outfits and variously-colored straw hats; these people carry and weigh the cheese, using wooden barrows to move it. (What's a barrow? What's a wheelbarrow? Ditch the wheels and you've just about got it.) The colors designate which of four groups, or vemens (singular veem), they're aligned with; this seems to be primarily to split everyone into manageable groups.

The vemen start by arranging the cheese by supplier. They inspect it by knocking on it (to check hardness), scooping out small samples of the cheese, crumbling it, sniffing it, and passing it around the crowd to taste. (This is the crowd's primary function; the traditional method is more a spectator sport these days than anything else, causing some locals to think it something of a tourist trap.)

When a prospective buyer wishes to purchase some cheese, he and the supplier engage in a system called handjeklap- a system in which they clap hands to haggle over the price. Once a price is settled on, a veem takes the cheese and carries it to a weigh station, thereby arriving at a final price.

Here's what handjeklap looks like, in the Edam market:

French Guiana also likely eats a quantity of cheese.

In conclusion, the Rally To Restore Sanity is October 30th on Washington DC's National Mall.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Books-For-A-Buck Edition

The local library has an annual book sale this time of year; no book costs more than $1, unless it's one of those coffee-table deals. The last day of the four-day sale, they give you a shopping bag and you can fill it up with books for $3. You really have to dig to find anything good, as a large quantity of the selection is the stuff the library is getting rid of, but they're a buck each; what do you want?

Needless to say, I stocked up.

Boller Jr., Paul F.- Congressional Anecdotes
Brysac, Shareen Blair; Meyer, Karl E.- Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia
Nash, Bruce; Zullo, Allan- The Baseball Hall of Shame 4
Nash, Bruce; Zullo, Allan- Believe It Or Else!!, Baseball Edition
Pastis, Stephan- Pearls Before Swine: Sgt. Piggy's Lonely Hearts Club Comic
Pastis, Stephan- Pearls Before Swine: The Crass Menagerie

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Voted (And I'm About It)

This is a list of reasons given by various people to me at work today as to why they failed to vote in today's Wisconsin primaries. These are all actual reasons.

*Slept in (x3)
*Working two jobs (x2)
*Too busy (x2)
*At work all day (x2) (note: the law requires an employer to provide sufficient time away from work to cast a vote)
*Never voted before, juggling three kids
*Driving mother to hospital
*Didn't know any of the candidates
*Registered to vote in Alabama (note: this person did not vote in Alabama either)
*Didn't know they were today
*Didn't know there was such a thing as primaries
*Not registed to vote (note: in Wisconsin, one can register to vote right there at the polls)
*Politics not important (note: this person proceeded to explain that proposed high-speed rail line set to pass through town, municipal elections, city budgets, police, fire, roads, electrical grid were also not important to him re: politics)

Two additional people had not voted yet but intended to, two people did not vote and gave no reason, and five people actually, you know, voted. That figure of five includes myself.

Which makes for 5 votes, 2 maybes, and 19 nonvoters. Not counting the maybes, that is a 20.8% turnout. It could be anywhere from 19.2%-26.9% depending on the final fate of the maybes.

In conclusion, mandatory voting is enforced in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Cyprus, Ecuador, Fiji, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Nauru, Peru, Singapore, part of Switzerland, Turkey, and Uruguay.
It's mandatory, but not enforced, in Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Gabon, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Thailand, and the state of Georgia.
The linked agency, International IDEA, isn't really sure about DR Congo, Lebanon or Panama.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

And Back Down To Two Hikers.

Sarah Shourd's out. Two hikers to go.

We Will Recieve

Let's take a bet. Go grab a coin, and we'll flip it. Heads or tails?

Wait, wait, hold on. Before you flip it, which side is facing up?

I'll take that one.

According to a 2007 study by three researchers at Stanford and UC-Santa Cruz, Perci Diaconis, Susan Holmes and Richard Montgomery, a coin flip is not 50-50. The exact weighting depends on a couple things.

As noted, the first thing to look at is what side's facing up to start; the edge goes to the side facing up, which could land on that side anywhere from 51-60% of the time. Not exactly the advertised even odds at the high end.

But where along that 51-60% is the final number? It depends on a second factor, and unlike what Vince Lombardi liked to think, it's not the little bit of extra weight on the head side that made him pick heads all the time. Maybe the landing surface is a factor, but the study was done using grass as a surface, the same as used in some NFL stadiums, and similar to the FieldTurf used in others (which should make the implications here obvious).

It's how you flip it that counts. As the linked article explains:
Using a camera from the Stanford engineering department that snapped 1,000 frames per second, they determined that the laws of basic mechanics play a large role. Coins flipped from a thumb don't merely rotate around their axis, but they also spin like a Frisbee.

The degree of that Frisbee spin depends on the motion of the thumb.

The more Frisbee spin, the longer the side facing up stays facing up when the coin is in the air.

And the longer the side facing up stays facing up, the better chance it will land that way.

"Some people flip in a more biased way than others," Holmes said. "There's always bias to the side that's facing up, and the variance depends on the motion of the flipper."

Packers, I hope you're paying attention.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Random Alphabet Generator

Look down at your keyboard. Go on. I'll wait. You'll most likely see a format of letters going:


It's completely random. There's a reason for that. C.L. Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, knew he didn't have a machine that could keep up with fast typers. In 1860's Milwaukee, you didn't have that kind of technology yet. Typewriters jam when people hit too many keys too fast. (We had a typewriter in my house during my childhood that nobody used. It was primarily used to see how many keys you could stick at once.) Sholes knew this; an earlier model had gone straight alphabetical, and had all manner of jams on his hands.

Thus, the QWERTY format was created for the sole purpose of jam prevention. If it slowed down typers, oh well. Jams slow them down more.

It's not the only attempt to arrange a keyboard, though.

In 1932, Auguat Dvorak of Washington State University made this letter layout:


It served two purposes: first, all the vowels are next to each other on the left side- so as to encourage a kind of cadence between vowels and consonants- and second, the middle row is king. The Dvorak board does about 70% of the work in the middle row, as opposed to 40% in the QWERTY board.

Another shot was taken with the Colemak board, again trying to maximize the middle row:


Many other attempts have been made, though mostly only swapping a few keys from the QWERTY format, or to accomodate some other language.

And- because jamming is no longer an issue- some places have made straight alphabetical keyboards. But neither they, nor any other English-language keyboard, is in wide use.

Why? The QWERTY board came in the 1860's. Dvorak, the major competitor, wasn't until 1932. That's 70 years or so of people getting used to QWERTY, which became the major issue with every subsequent keyboard. It's muscle memory. Ultimately, the exact order of the alphabet serves no functional purpose and isn't in the ABCDEFG order for any purpose even approaching rationality. You can put the letters in any random order you want and it doesn't really matter. The only thing that matters is whatever order people know and remember. If they remember ABCDEFG in one place and QWERTY in another place, so be it.

QWERTY, in fact, has an advantage on ABCDEFG: it used to have a point.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How To Decline As An Empire

"This too shall pass."
-Abraham Lincoln, Edward Fitzgerald, Solomon, Sanai, Attar of Nishapur, Helen Steiner Rice, OK Go, etc.

Many nations over the years have, at one time or another, known empire or superpower status. They've been the big dogs. Smaller, lesser nations trembled in fear of their ire, had little choice but to do as they said, lest they be made to suffer for their insolence. Athens. Rome. Egypt. Persia. France. Macedonia. Spain. India. Teotihuacan. Portugal. The Netherlands. China. Mongolia. The Ottoman Empire. Britain. Germany. Russia-slash-Soviet Union. The Vatican. The Umayyad Caliphate, borne out of Mecca. Austria and Hungary. Even Bulgaria held sway as a regional power at one point.

But ultimately, it all falls away. Eventually, power ebbs. Eventually, the king of the hill will have to face the fact that it has taken a tumble, and will not regain its former glory for a long time, if ever again.

The United States is slowly, but surely, inexorably, finding that it's no different. Goods are increasingly made elsewhere. Top talent is leaving in the face of perceived lack of support and in some cases outright hostility. (Offering to abolish the Department of Education does not play well to your nation's best and brightest. They'll still be the best, they'll still be the brightest, but they'll simply go be best and brightest somewhere else, and let some other country reap the benefits while letting their former country twist in the wind.) Competitiveness is on a downswing. If China has not already displaced America as top dog, it will soon, and there's little America can do to prevent it.

Which leads to the next, critical question:

What now?

One may not be the big man on campus anymore, but there's still plenty at stake. The aim now is to make the fall as soft as possible, and end up in as strong a position in the global community as you can. Succeed, and you can end up in still a very influential position, albeit in ways other than the brute force you've been used to using, and leave yourself in a position to maybe make your way back to the top one day, as China has done. Fail, and you can get carved up completely as old enemies that happen to be in the neighborhood take advantage of your weakened state and destroy you utterly. (Remember, as we've established previously, the Macedonia you see on the map is not the Macedonia of Alexander the Great. That Macedonia is part of Greece. The Macedonia currently on the map is a smaller, lesser nation trying to pass itself off as same.)

So how do you handle the fall?

1: Don't fight it.

This is the most critical step, and at the same time the toughest pill to swallow. Go out with grace. You are going to lose power. By the time you've figured it out, it's probably already too late to prevent, like a tsunami you only notice when you see it with your own two eyes. The more you fight the fall, the more you you make wild, flailing, desperate, and ultimately futile attempts to claw power back, the more it's going to hurt when the fall inevitably comes.

EXAMPLE: The Soviet Union. You older readers will well remember the Cold War, you readers about my age will only remember the tail end of it, but we're all familiar with the gist of it: Two superpowers- the United States and Soviet Union- staring each other down, stockpiling nuclear weapons, sabre-rattling, bluster, telling school children that their desks are nuclear-bomb-proof and all they have to do to survive a nuclear war is hide under them, and proxy wars in a variety of countries that were not the United States or Soviet Union, up until the Soviet Union collapsed.

As it turned out, the Cold War ended not due to any military action or espionage, but simply because the Soviets couldn't keep up the arms race anymore, and went broke trying. By the 1980's, approximately 70% of their industrial capacity was going towards the military. Meanwhile, that capacity wasn't producing what it might have produced, because the actual workers felt little incentive to do so. With all the resources being poured into the military in order to keep up with the Americans, there was very little being allocated for anything else, and thus very little the average Russian could really go home to, point at and say 'This is what we're fighting for'.

Ronald Reagan's role in it all was simply to propose the last bit of expensive weaponry, in this case Star Wars, which never actually needed to be put into place, because the Soviets admitted they couldn't afford one of those. They didn't even care if Star Wars was ultimately going to work or not; they simply operated on the assumption that it would (as it turned out, an incorrect assumption). Cold War over. Okay, Americans, we admit you're better at dumping money into expensive weapons programs than we are.

Now what?

A bunch of the country declares respective independence, for one. For two, what is now Russia has to face the fact that they have dumped the vast majority of their economy into a military they no longer have nearly that much of a need for anymore, and the rest of the country's completely gone to hell. In addition, while the United States, being capitalist, had a large number of businesses available to offset the cost of all they were doing, the Russians didn't have that. There wasn't much in the way of military contracts to award. The people did the legwork. While a middle class now had room to form where none could previously be, in 1991 a practice of economic 'shock therapy' instituted by Boris Yeltsin, was implemented to attempt to put Russia on an immediate strong footing. Again, Russia was going too hard in trying to stave off the fall. The result was hyperinflation and disaster. It's estimated that the resulting economic collapse was significantly worse than the Great Depression. There might have been food in the markets where there was none before, but nobody could afford to buy it.

Then came 1998, when the ruble couldn't be propped up anymore. Only an increase in the price of oil- which Russia had in abundance- saved them.

2: Hope you've made friends.

When you start declining, your military might starts weakening. Your enemies will notice when your military might begins to weaken. They'll notice when they stop losing. When your opponents start taking ties or even wins off of you, when they start being able to turn you away empty-handed, it energizes them. It encourages other potential foes to take a crack at you. You might claim victory every single time, but people who didn't have a stake in the war's outcome will start begging to differ.

Soon, the empire will find that people aren't afraid of it anymore. It will find itself fighting several wars on several fronts, stretch itself too thin, and rapidly begin to pile up the losses.

If the empire is fortunate, they'll eventually regard the empire as ceasing to be a threat, and lay off.

If the empire has been particularly contemptible, their enemies will press through straight to the capital.

EXAMPLE: Rome. That first sign of hope for the opposition came in the Gothic War. This was brought on after some Visigoths were allowed into Rome via crossing the Danube River by emperor Valens as refugees against the Huns, but then terribly mistreated once inside the borders, desperate to the point that women and children were sold into slavery for dog meat. The remainder were invited to a "banquet" in Marcianople, part of an old trick the Romans liked to use, the gist being that the banquet would double as their last meal. The deed, however, was botched, and the Visigoths declared war in 376.

This is the part where the Romans might have regretted allowing many of the Visigoths to hang on to their weapons after crossing the Danube. The Visigoths fought to a situation where, six years later in 382, the Romans signed a peace treaty. Not with Valens, though; he was killed in 378.

That was the sign of hope everyone saw. It wasn't the part where Valens was dead, though that did serve to shock the Romans, who had always been used to killing Roman emperors themselves. It was the peace treaty's mere existence that got the rest of the world's attention. Rome did not sign peace treaties. Rome crushed, showing no mercy and giving no quarter. If they could be fought to a peace treaty, they could be beaten outright, right?

Everyone wanted to find out. Everyone except the Romans, of course.

As the old saying goes, be nice to everyone you meet on the way up, because you never know who you'll run into on the way down. When Rome was sacked in 410, who did the deed? The Visigoths.

3: Independence happens.

Hey. I never said anything about easy.

Odds are your empire contains a number of disparate cultures. You should know. You probably subjugated half of them. The day will eventually come when the ones that haven't been killed off completely decide they want to be their own nation again, and press for independence.

For a while, you may be able to hold them at bay. But a determined enough- and strong enough- community will eventually manage to pull it off.

If animosity is big enough, and the community isn't aimed at taking over the entire country beyond THEIR borders, it may be worth looking into what Czechoslovakia made known as the 'Velvet Divorce', where they split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It will hurt- losing land always does- but if you're going to lose land, you might as well lose it with as little in the way of hard feelings as possible.

EXAMPLE: Every single nation that's ever celebrated an Independence Day, and there are a whole lot of them. Particularly the ones that celebrate by way of mocking their former lord and master.

4: Take your pride and shove it.

What do you have to be proud about? You're not the one that brought about your country's glory days. That was not you. That was your forefathers. Your forefathers fought the big wars, made the big speeches, got things done on the grand scale. YOU are the little snot-nosed punk that let it all go pear-shaped and/or failed in the task, however impossible, to pull the country out of the tailspin.

You may be the 'party of Lincoln'. (Though only in name; Lincoln's Republicans were not the conservatives of their day but rather the liberals.) You may be invoking FDR's New Deal. You may be invoking Ronald Reagan at every opportunity. All of these people are dead, and not only that, Lincoln has no living descendants.

"Well, Aaron," I hear some of you saying, "unlike you, I BELIEVE in America!" Yeah. So do I. I also believe in trees, flowers, pencils, tampons, cream-filled centers, burgundy, the number 6, and my own asshole. What's your point?

Bombastic pablum gets you nowhere. Maybe it gets you re-elected. Maybe. But considering the situation you're in, first off, what exactly is left for you to lead anyway? You get to be the captain of a sinking ship! Yay you! Secondly, as we've already established, so much of living life as a lapsed superpower or empire depends on what the other members of the global community think of you. You may not like it. You may hate it like poison. Nobody asked you to like it. That's just how it is whether you like it or not. The rest of the world gets to tell you what they really think of you now. Remember, they're not afraid of you anymore.

And bombastic pablum does not carry outside a country's own borders. When some despot halfway around the world makes it sound like his tinpot dictatorship is really the best place in the world and you're just jealous, he may have people in his own country that eat up every word of it, but YOU think he's a loony. The same principle applies to you. The rest of the world is not affected (relatively) by what goes on within your own borders, and is thus an independent observer. A cold, no-nonsense observer that has no problem telling you off. If the global community thinks you're an idiot, they're going to call you an idiot. You're not the boss of them, and they didn't put you in power.

The second you shelve the talk, the second you learn some national self-deprecation, the second you suck it up and eat some humble pie, is the second you begin to earn respect. In the yes of the world, that's a sign that you've come to terms with the fact that you're no longer what you once were. It's a sign you've matured. It's a sign that they can tell you things and not be laughed off because they're not you.

EXAMPLE: All the former European powers- and while we're at it, quite a bit of the rest of Europe as well- that used to spend years upon years killing each other a gazillion times over, and surrendered a degree of sovereignty to form the European Union. Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom were all on the list at the top of this article; all are EU members. The Vatican, also mentioned, while not a member, does use the euro.

5: Beef up your diplomatic channels.

Once again, we must note that you are not going to be able to get your way by brute force from here on in. You had better learn to talk to people, seriously talk to people, and you had better do it fast.

Talking to people does not mean 'as long as you do everything we say, we're cool'. It doesn't work that way, particularly if the country at the other end of the table owns a bunch of your debt. You're going to have to, again, swallow some pride.

The good news is that, when done well enough, you will find that you don't really NEED all that military might you had for all those years. If you make enough legitimate friends, learn to get along, when the day comes that you need help with something, really need the help and find you can't save yourself anymore, you'll find the rest of the world, perhaps even your former colonies, lining up to help as best they can, not because they feel they have to, but because they want to.

What are friends for?

Friday, September 10, 2010

There's Three Hikers Again.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

This has something to do with that nutball in Gainesville, doesn't it?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

So... There's Still Two Hikers.

One of the three hikers detained in Iran since last July will, according to reports, be released on Saturday. No word on which one, or why.

In any case, that still leaves two.

EDIT: It's Sarah Shourd that's to be released.

Maybe It's Us

The day after 9/11, I remember sitting in school and listening to some of the reactions to it among other students (I was a sophomore in high school). One guy in the desk next to me was whooping it up about how we were going to "nuke the towelheads". I imagine the sentiment was shared throughout the country in various forms, and, I further imagine, so were the words. (Me? I was mostly just numb.)

Here we stand nine years later, winding down the resulting wars- plural- and we're still in the mood where we're having a national discussion about burning Korans on 9/11.

Fareed Zakaria is of the opinion that we just plain overreacted to 9/11.

Fareed is mistaken. The word 'overreacted' implies that we are no longer overreacting.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who IS Barack Obama?

The President, that's who. The guy who is under more media scrutiny than anyone else in America, who has fifteen cameras on him every time he burps. I'm sorry, Haley Barbour, but if you're still wondering who he is after he's been President for well over a year and a half, that's your problem, not his.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Splendiferous Balloon Escapades of S.A. Andree

If you are trying to be the first person in the world to get to a certain place on Earth- and these places do still exist; there are mountains still unclimbed, though they're obviously becoming rarer and rarer, and less and less worth climbing- it is as a rule incredibly dangerous. There's almost to a man a very good reason why nobody's been there yet. There's no local support structure; if you get stranded and in deep trouble, you're pretty much on your own. This is still to a degree the case with Mount Everest even though it's been climbed so many times that there are established camps along the most popular routes up (on the Nepal side, there's base camp and four higher camps; the Tibetian side sees a base camp, advanced base camp, and four higher camps). When someone dies on Everest, they're normally left where they drop.

The thing is, when you're trying to reach one of these places, the general rule is you have to lay a foot on it in order for it to count. To do otherwise would be kind of cheating. You might also wish to be in full control of your movement; you never know when a freak wind gust might screw you over.

Basically, don't be S.A. Andree.

The first to reach the North Pole's in a bit of dispute. Some say Robert Peary of the United States in 1909 (alongside American Matthew Henson and Inuits Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah and Ooqueah); some say Roald Amundsen of Norway in 1926, who flew over it with American Lincoln Ellsworth (though Amundsen himself doesn't); some say a Soviet party in 1948 containing an indeterminate amount and assortment of people.

What's important for our purposes, though, is that all of these happened after Andree's foray in 1897. This, of course, meant Andree was attempting to be the first. This was also prior to the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk, so planes were not an option. Working ones, at least.

Andree would go in a balloon.

Why a balloon? Andree was a balloonist. He rode in balloons. The quest for the North Pole did not concern him so much as the determination to prove balloons could go to these places. This is a fine way of thinking if this is a place someone has actually gone before; someone who has simply made it there by any means necessary. In fact, this line of thinking works best when the destination has been reached repeatedly and you're trying to prove that your mode of transport can get there too.

This does not work so well if you're trying to be the first to get there, period. Style points aren't a concern.

But, fine. A balloon it is. A mode of transport Andree had only been at for five years, taking his first balloon ride at age 38 in 1892. A mode of transport originally intended for a flight from Africa to South America to see how long a balloon could stay aloft.

Between 1893 and 1895 he would go up in a balloon 12 times, after which he started to publicize the North Pole attempt. Most who heard of it were optimistic and encouraging, perhaps due to whimsy, perhaps because it wouldn't be them in the damn thing. Most had not seen Andree's previous voyages, in which he was routinely thrown around by the wind, slammed into coastal rocks, and once thought the Baltic Sea was just a big lake and that he was actually over land even though he saw a lighthouse and some breakers.

Andree would end up with ample funds for the voyage- think the equivalent in today's money of about a million dollars- including a full-on media frenzy (up to and including board game) and a top-of-the-line balloon. Andree placed his faith as far as steering into drag ropes, which were intended to drag along the ground and make some parts of the balloon go slower than others, allowing it to turn by way of sails Andree had attached. Modern balloonists have described Andree's steering mechanism as, to put it nicely, a bunch of crap.

But never mind all that. Time to pick a crew for what had been dubbed Ornen (The Eagle). And there was no shortage of suckers- er, people to pick from. Andree selected fellow Swedes Nils Ekholm and Nils Strindberg, both of whom were brilliant scientific minds, but neither of whom had anything in the way of survival skills. Andree didn't figure survival skills were all that necessary. After all, this was only the North Pole, not one of those breakneck expeditions over the Baltic.

Ornen was delivered directly to the hangar at Danskoya on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard without so much as a test flight, and in 1896, the attempt was made.

Well, the first attempt, anyway. This was everybody's introduction to how the winds would actually be behaving up there. And the winds were howling. Not that it would have mattered much; Ornen was leaking at a disturbing rate due to eight million stitch holes that would not seal. It would get aloft, but it would not stay aloft. The balloon was designed to stay aloft for 30 days; Ekholm figured it was only good for 17 at best. The winds never allowed Ornen to get airborne; but unless Andree got himself a better-sealed balloon, he was not going up in it. This was something Andree was not prepared to do; the media pressure had been crippling and he couldn't bear to not only come back to southern Sweden empty-handed, but to ask for another balloon to boot. Ekholm was out.

Knut Fraenkel, a hiker and civil engineer from Karlstad, Sweden, was in.

Take 2 was on July 11, 1897, and this time the winds were better; good enough to go. Andree, Strindberg and Fraenkel set off.

This was more or less the last anyone back home heard of them, up to and including an early version of National Geographic, which back in 1897 was not a magazine but a real, honest science journal, established only a decade earlier in 1888. National Geographic had something of a handle on how things would turn out nonetheless; it states that "Many eminent geographers have regarded this expedition as an impracticable if not absolutely foolhardy enterprise". The article, published sometime after takeoff, also notes Ekholm, the one who backed out, who figures that Ornen would have come down somewhere between the Pole and Franz Josef Land, and that the group would start making their way towards a preestablished safe haven there. From here on in, though, for absolute information, we rely on expedition notes, which are extremely thorough.

This is how we find out that, within minutes of takeoff, the drag ropes were dumped. The drag ropes that were supposed to be the balloon's steering mechanism. Andree had added some screw holds so as to more efficiently get rid of any ropes that got caught on the ground, but the ropes had decided all at once that they hated the screw holds, and they mostly had to go right away. Also gone was 210 kg of sand, dumped to get Ornen up out of a close encounter with the water, but when the ropes went out as well, the balloon shot up to 2,300 feet, and the lower air pressure encouraged Ornen to leak faster than ever.

Essentially, now we have a very leaky balloon with three people and no steering, headed for, if all goes well, the North Pole.

Then it rained.

Then the rain froze as ice on the balloon. On the plus side, that will plug up some of those airholes.

Needless to say, the balloon did not stay aloft for 30 days. It did not stay aloft for 17 days. It lasted 10 hours and 29 minutes, followed by another 41 hours of what was essentially hopping, coming to a final stop 2 days, 3 hours, 29 minutes after takeoff.

The good news: everybody was unhurt and all the remaining equipment was fine.

The bad news: we have three people stranded someplace or other in the Arctic with little-to-no survival skills. They had a gun- which they would use frequently for hunting- but some of the food had been thrown overboard as ballast. (They did, however, keep the alcohol on board.) The North Pole was out of the question now. It wasn't even brought up anymore. Now it was a matter of heading for some sort of sanctuary, and they knew of two: Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land to the east, and Seven Islands back at Svalbard to the west. Seven Islands was much, much closer, but maps back then were pretty terrible, and they decided to head for Camp Flora.

Just as Ekholm had predicted in National Geographic.

About a week later, they noticed that the ice drift was making them virtually run in place, and on August 4, they started trying for Seven Islands instead.

The terrain wasn't any good that way either. Sometimes they had to crawl on all fours. And when they turned towards Seven Islands, the wind turned to push them away from that as well. The Arctic was positively merciless. They continued to push, but made no headway, and by September 12 it was clear that neither of the safe havens was to be reached. They decided to winter on an ice floe, building a hut out of water-reinforced snow.

The Arctic was not done with them yet. Not only did the ice floe launch itself south, but when the floe neared the island of Kvitoya, it cracked up directly underneath the hut. There was little choice but to gather up what was left of the supplies and make landfall on Kvitoya.

To the very end, Andree seemed determined to at least leave a good-looking corpse for the public. The last coherent entry in his diary reads "Morale remains good. With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever."

It's figured that everybody died a few days later.

If it's any consolation to Andree, the original Africa-to-South America trip he had planned wouldn't have gone any better. There wouldn't have been any place to land the balloon. There would have been no hopping, no skidding along the ground before a final stop, just one big splash. And when the remains were found- in 1930- the crew was, in fact, treated as heroes by a nation that, as it had turned out, had lost the race to both of the poles.

They even built a museum exhibit for them, the Andréeexpeditionen Polar Centre in the Grenna Museum in Granna, Sweden, Andree's hometown.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Anthropology Of Man-On-Horse

That oughta drive up the hit counter.

When a man races a horse in what is essentially a drag race, the horse is going to win. The human might "win", as Chad Johnson or Ochocinco or whatever did in 2007, but he had a 100-meter head start. As all humans do in these races. Why? Because otherwise the horse is guaranteed to kick their ass.

But that's a drag race.

In 1980, a pub conversation in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales got around to asking whether a man, over a long enough distance and over twisting, uneven terrain, could take the horse. Cue the Man versus Horse Marathon, a 22-mile race through the hills of Wales. As it turns out, it took 25 attempts, but a human did win the race, Huw Lobb, in 2004. Three years later, a second human, Florian Holzinger, managed it. But normally, the horses have the edge.

Llanwrtyd Wells, by the way, is a haven of insane sports.

But hey, the humans snagged a win or two. What if we made the track even longer? Say, 50 miles over Mingus Mountain in Prescott, Arizona? That's the aim of the Man Against Horse Race, and though the horses are currently on a three-race win streak, the humans are routine victors; the horse's win streak immediately follows an eight-race win streak for the humans.

Why is this? There has to be some sort of reason.

And there is: endurance is what humans were bred for. The ability to sweat- and thus cool down- plus the fact that we run on two legs instead of four sees to this.

Our current state as humans- a state where a 26-mile marathon is a great personal achievement- is really pretty weak for us as a species. Most of us, for all our advances as a species, would get smacked around in a marathon by our hunter-gatherer selves.

Running long distances was a key way for us to eat, and, as you'll see in the upcoming clip, still is for some tribes. Faster prey will get the early jump on us, but Mother Nature doesn't stick a finish line 100 meters away from the start of a chase. Predator and prey run until the predator either gives up or catches the prey. The early lead by the prey doesn't mean the chase is over. As the chase goes on, and the yards and miles pile up, the prey, running frantically to stay ahead, will slowly start to run low on energy, slow, stagger, and finally stop, while the human behind will slowly but steadily keep coming, like a life-or-death Pepe le Pew cartoon. It's called persistence hunting.

In Mexico's Copper Canyons, you'll find one tribe that has pushed this trait to its limit, the Tarahumara Indians (or as they call themselves, the Raramuri, meaning 'foot runner'). Almost any marathoner- or ultramarathoner- that you care to name will pale in comparison to a tribe that can easily rack up mile counts in the triple digits in a single sitting, and consider a 50-80 mile run a daily commute. And they do it while smoking and drinking. A lot. Smoking is part of the training regimen. Drinking is done so often that the linked article estimates that an average Tarahumara spends 100 days out of every year recovering from hangovers.

A horse wouldn't stand a chance.

Nothing coming tomorrow; Labor Day.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

How To Run A Successful Toy Company Into The Ground Like A Plane You Just Go KYAAAAAAA Into A Farm Somewhere

Okay, that title got away from me.

The post I was going to make got eaten somehow. So while I start that one over, let's talk Mego.

In 1975, Mego made a game called Ball Buster. I am far from the first on the Internet to bring this puppy up, so let's get it over with and run the ad.

You'll note that in the clip, YouTube shows a credit to UNKLE's song, 'Getting Ahead In The Field of Artist Management'. UNKLE make that song in 1997; they grabbed dialouge from this ad.

Mego was a big name when they decided to make Ball Buster, having specialized in action figures. This was primarily due to their having snagged a number of big-name licenses: Star Trek, Wizard of Oz, DC and Marvel, as well as a number of celebrities of the time, with Sonny and Cher kicking that line off in 1975, the same year as Ball Buster.

Then came 1976, and a little movie called Star Wars.

Mego turned it down.

They were at the moment busy hammering out a deal with Takara on a line called Micronauts, which took up their time as far as science fiction goes. The Mego Museum theorizes that the turndown happened simply because the pitch never reached senior management, and had it, it would have been accepted if only to protect Micronauts.

In any case, the deed was done, and Kenner became the luckiest bastards in the toy industry. While Mego did a fine job with Micronauts, Star Wars ate at them, and they were determined not to miss the next sci-fi boat, grabbing up every subsequent sci-fi line that they thought even had a chance at success, including Buck Rogers, Moonraker, Doctor Who (then still a show unknown in the US), Logan's Run, The Black Hole, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The next Star Wars wasn't coming. It still hasn't. Mego quickly went into a tailspin, and by 1982, the company was bankrupt. As if to add insult to injury, three top executives, including president Martin Abrams, wound up indicted for shareholder fraud.