Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Most Quotable Man In The World

The 'man on the street' interview is one of the biggest crapshoots in the news industry. It's also pretty easy to do. Instead of finding someone who's done something newsworthy, or someone who's an expert on whatever's newsworthy, you find some random guy, or several some random guys, and see if maybe they say anything smart. And if they can't, well, gasp, the ignorance of the American people on important issues of the day!

Or perhaps you want to know which of two celebrities looks better in a given piece of clothing and judgment must be passed on these two Earthlings who dared to wear similar things, dammit.

But typically, you take for granted that, if nothing else, even if they just filter out anyone that doesn't agree with a predetermined storyline, you can at least assume that these are a bunch of different people, that it's any random guy off the street.


Not quite.

Meet Greg Packer, a highway construction worker from Huntington, New York. In fact, meet him a lot. Meet him way too much. Packer is a random man on the street. However, he's far less random than anyone else. Packer is a man on the street who has a really sad hobby: be first in line for big events, things likely to get covered by New York media. While in line, he tries to get the reporter's attention. Once attention has been given, Packer then says whatever he thinks the reporter wants to hear in nice, media-friendly soundbite form. Is he contradicting his earlier soundbites? All the time, but who cares? He's just some random guy on the street, after all.

Packer has used this hobby of his to be first in line for such things as greeting Bush 43 upon his inauguration, purchasing an iPhone, purchasing an iPad, purchasing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the opening of the viewing platform at Ground Zero, as well as all manner of parades and sporting events and Brandy concerts.

Who exposed Packer? You're never going to believe this, I certainly didn't, but Ann Coulter of all people. Seriously. Ann Coulter. Credit where it's due. In the course of slamming a Hillary Clinton memoir, Living History, Coulter busted Packer.

Another average individual eager to get Hillary's book was Greg Packer, who was the centerpiece of The New York Times' "man on the street" interview about Hillary-mania. After being first in line for an autographed book at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble, Packer gushed to the Times: "I'm a big fan of Hillary and Bill's. I want to change her mind about running for president. I want to be part of her campaign."

It was easy for the Times to spell Packer's name right because he is apparently the entire media's designated "man on the street" for all articles ever written. He has appeared in news stories more than 100 times as a random member of the public. Packer was quoted on his reaction to military strikes against Iraq; he was quoted at the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Veterans Day Parade. He was quoted at not one -- but two -- New Year's Eve celebrations at Times Square. He was quoted at the opening of a new "Star Wars" movie, at the opening of an H&M clothing store on Fifth Avenue and at the opening of the viewing stand at Ground Zero. He has been quoted at Yankees games, Mets games, Jets games -- even getting tickets for the Brooklyn Cyclones. He was quoted at a Clinton fund-raiser at Alec Baldwin's house in the Hamptons and the pope's visit to Giants stadium.

Coulter clearly figured the New York Times knew full well about Packer- after all, why in blazes would someone do this kind of thing if they weren't working in concert with the media somehow? As it turns out, they didn't know about Packer. But they did now, to the point of the Times quickly running a piece specifically about Packer. As he told the Times, "Sometimes I need to stick my face in a camera. I just need to show people I'm alive."

Okay, so now I'm quoting him too.

Meanwhile, after Coulter's column ran, the AP quickly sent out a memo to its staff, noting, "The world is full of all kinds of interesting people. One of them is Greg Packer of Huntington, N.Y., who apparently lives to get his name on the AP wire and in other media. It works: A Nexis search turned up 100 mentions in various publications... Mr. Packer is clearly eager to be quoted. Let's be eager, too — to find other people to quote."

At this, Packer gained the kind of reputation the media gives to the naked guy running across the field at a sporting event: turn the camera away and stop encouraging him. For the most part, he stopped getting quoted, at least by the major outlets. Not that it's entirely stopped Packer from slipping through, as was the case at a Dave Matthews tribute concert in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. He is still quoted on occasion, though now articles featuring him are at least as likely as not to make specific note of his hobby.

Take this Gizmodo writeup when he was found in the iPad line, with the headline "Oh For God's Sake, Not Him Again" and an article that reads simply "Seriously, Greg Packer, you are the worst. Get a job, you walking embarrassment." Business Insider opted for the headline, "The Same Stupid Guy Who's First In Line For Everything Is The First Guy In Line For The iPad".

And then there was the case where he slipped through without slipping through, at a Columbus Day parade. Nicholas Confessore was suspicious, not quite placing his face, but got the soundbites... and then made a routine ask of name and age. Packer didn't even get his full name out before Confessore was able to finish the name for him. Then he slammed his notebook shut, went to find someone else to quote... and then recounted the entire exchange with Packer for the article.

For more on Packer, well, he should be easy to find tonight. I'd bet cash money he's going to be at Times Square for another New Year's celebration, hoping to get on camera. And the throngs of media there will be doing everything possible to make sure he doesn't.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Border Wars

Quiz day today. I really want to dig into the soccer book.

Today's subject is national borders. We're going to be working on two levels: not-so-tough, and holy-shit-why-are-you-doing-this-to-me.

For a 'not-so-tough' test, you have 10 minutes to name the 30 longest borders on Earth. (I scored 21.)

For a 'holy shit' test, name the 30 shortest. (For sanity's sake, I'll allow you to do what I did here and reach for the atlas straightaway before you even begin. I still only got 22. Small borders mean hard to find in an atlas.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Are You Visiting From Samoa?

No. No, you're not. We haven't had any visitors here from Samoa.

But if you were, at the end of the day today, you'll be crossing the International Date Line alongside Tokelau, moving from the east side of it to the west, and thereby jumping ahead a day. For you, December 30 will simply not exist.

Why? Samoa and Tokelau mainly deal with Australia and New Zealand, who are on the western side of the line, and being a day behind them wreaks havoc with trade relations. It's just easier to rend the fabric of time itself than to deal with Samoan and Australian weekend hours not matching up.

So, heads up on that. Everyone else... Tokelau is the name of an island in the Pacific Ocean. They live under New Zealand jurisdiction.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How to Run A PR Company Into The Ground

As demonstrated by one Paul Christoforo of Ocean Marketing, which employs, essentially, Paul Christoforo.

1. Provide poor customer service.
2. Mock customer.
3. When customer goes to media- in this case, Mike Krahulik, one of the guys who runs Penny Arcade- mock him too. (That link goes to the complete e-mail exchange up to that point.) When Mike threatens/promises to make you the subject of the next comic, relish the publicity.
4. Clumsily change name of PR company while still in spotlight.
5. Misspell new name of PR company in Twitter account ("OceanStratagy"). After you have already misspelled the old name ("OceanMarketting").

According to Kotaku, whatever its name is, Paul's out of business (or at least fired by his client), on a third Twitter account as of this writing (OceanDeepSea). Not only that, but when you get the Internet coming down on you like it's coming down on Christoforo, the Internet digs up absolutely everything on you. Kotaku spotted him on a steroid forum. Someone else dug up a domestic violence case on record from 2008. There may be more out there; this is still a fresh scandal and the Internet hasn't gotten bored with it yet.

Now, Paul has made an apology- which nobody is accepting at this point, including Krahulik- and has noted this on his Facebook page. Of course, he has noted this in the form of saying "PLEASE STOP CALLING ME PEOPLE!!! I HAVE APOLOGIZED PLEASE I AM TRYIN TO RUN A BUSINESS!!!"

Not anymore you're not, Paul.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mail Call!

Time to dip into the old Random Human Neural Firings Mailbag!

...wait. What do you mean we don't have a mailbag?

...we don't get mail? say to stop repeating everything you say for the sake of exposition?


Okay okay, fine. I still want to do a mailbag. But we'll need to find people asking questions that we can answer. Where can I... ooh! I know. We're going to fire up Google, and type in single words that commonly begin questions: who, what, where, when, why, how, are, is, can, which, did.

What will then happen is Google AutoComplete will come into play and show some trending searches. Naturally, they'll predominantly be questions. We'll answer some of those questions.

"who framed roger rabbit"

Judge Doom. It wasn't obvious from his name? He's named JUDGE DOOM for Pete's sake.

"what does smh mean"

It means "shaking my head", not that I have ever once seen anyone use this acronym. I never get tired of this. You see these big lists of Acronyms You Must Get Familiar With Immediately Before Your Kids Have Sex With Online Strangers Right Through The Computer Monitor, and then at least two-thirds of them are these acronyms you've never, ever seen before and will never see again because everyone you know actually types those things out if they say them which they often don't anyway.

Take this list of "50 More Internet Acronyms Every Parent Need To Know". Of the 50, I myself see the following in actual regular usage:

brb= be right back
diaf= die in a fire
lbgt= lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, which isn't even an online-only expression so much as the mainstream, offline, semi-official term used by those fighting for increased rights for those groups
lol= laughing out loud
rotfl= rolling on the floor laughing, though these days everyone lops off the T
so= significant other

That's it. Six out of the 50. (Maybe a seventh, ttfn= ta-ta for now, but that one's usage is rare where I go.) The others, if I see them at all, only get used if you are mocking someone's stupidity, want to be roundly mocked by the group for being stupid yourself, or if you want to possibly even be formally punished for not using proper English. You don't substitute 'you are' with UR or 'later' with 'l8r' unless you have a damn good reason or are actually text-messaging or tweeting someone, in which case you have the excuse of needing to be economical with your character count.

Seriously, if someone is using 'banana' as a slang term for penis, that is mild. You're infinitely more likely to actually hear the word penis. Or any of a gazillion other, much more colorful terms.

"why are manhole covers round"

Ah yes, the infamous (alleged) Microsoft job-interview question, actually recently answered offhandedly on-air by Adam Savage of Mythbusters, in the middle of testing the myth that a methane explosion in a sewer could launch manhole covers into the air. (Confirmed, by the way.) The answer Microsoft is looking for (allegedly) is that it's the only shape that won't fall into a like-shaped hole. The Straight Dope, back in 1984, went into a lot more detail, noting further that you don't have to spend any time trying to line up a circle with its hole- like you would have to do with, say, a square or triangle- and that there's a certain type of triangle that also fits the won't-fall-in-the-hole criteria, a Reuleaux triangle. The way you make a Reuleaux triangle is, you take three circles, make a three-way Venn diagram out of them, and if you've lined them up perfectly, the shape in the middle is a Reuleaux triangle.

The key here is that both shapes have what's called a curve of constant width. What that means is that you can take the shape, put it into a square of the relevant width, and no matter how you rotate that shape, it will always be able to touch all four sides of the square at a single point without intersecting the boundary of the square. The Wikipedia page on the concept demonstrates with a Reuleaux triangle.

"when is halloween"

October 31. Honestly now.

"when is thanksgiving"

Fourth Thursday in November. You kidding me?

"when is cyber monday 2011"

The Monday following Thanksgiving, after all the shoppers have been given societal permission to flip the hell out on Black Friday and people have been pepper-sprayed over a discount hair dryer in four different states.

"how to delete facebook"

Quite the ambitious person we have writing in! Unfortunately, or perhaps very fortunately, the average person does not have the ability to wipe Facebook from the face of the virtual Earth, but there are three ways to go about it. First, be Mark Zuckerberg and shut the site down. Second, wait until some other social networking site comes along and steals so many of Facebook's users that the site gets closed down for lack of interest a decade down the road. Third, steal into the building or buildings containing the site's server and engage in the most violent orgy of destruction until such time as the archives have become completely irretrievable. (NOTE: This third method is illegal in at least 16 states. Check with local authorities first.)

"are vampires real"

Unless you are referring to vampire bats: no. No, they are not.

"are shingles contagious"

Not in the sense that someone with shingles can give shingles to someone else. They can, however, give someone chicken pox.

"are the packers undefeated"

No, but we have the 1 seed. That's all that matters. Suck it, Bears!

"why is a raven like a writing desk"

The question has no answer. When Lewis Carroll wrote it into Alice in Wonderland, he intended for there to be no answer. Not that even an outright statement from Carroll to this effect- because people wouldn't stop bugging him for the answer- itself stopped anyone from just going ahead and coming up with their own answers.

It was supposed to be a joke. You people ruined it. Nice work.

"is selena gomez pregnant"


"is jessica simpson pregnant"


"is justin bieber a father"

No. Technically we're waiting on that DNA test, but seriously, no.

"is aaron rodgers married"

No. He's taken, though.

"is anderson cooper gay"
"is daniel tosh gay"

The hell does it matter if they are?

"can dogs eat apples"

Yes. You might want to cut them up first, though. The link mentions that the apple seeds contain a tiny bit of cyanide that could end up harming the dog, but in reality, it's such a tiny amount that you'd have to go way out of your way to eat enough for them to have any actual effect (think thousands of them), and besides, apple seeds are really pretty tough, so you won't have much to worry about anyway. How many people do you know that died from improperly eating an apple anyway?

"which pokemon are you"

I'm Spoink. I have to bounce on my springy tail constantly because every bounce restarts my heart and if I ever stop bouncing, even while sleeping, I shall die. I also balance a pearl on my head while doing so and if I drop the pearl I shall quickly weaken and may also die. My every moment is spent in constant mind-shattering mortal fear and also I have a stupid name.

"which disney princess are you"

(checks pants) Next question.

"did lil wayne die"


"did he make the putt"

No. Lil Wayne is a terrible golfer. We have time for one more...

"why is my poop green"

Seriously? ...okay, apparently seriously. Well, in that case, it actually has several different valid answers. It could be your diet (most foods turn brown, but not all), it could be the use of antibiotics, it could be food coloring. You can turn your stool all sorts of different colors with food coloring, including pink. Pink stool is most closely associated with the original Franken Berry cereal, which debuted alongside Count Chocula in the 1971. It was a reddish-pink that wound up scaring the parents enough to take them to the doctor, thinking there was some sort of internal bleeding, and pink poop ended up gaining the medical slang term "Franken Berry stool". It was, specifically, the dyes Red #2 and Red #3.) Franken Berry has since been reintroduced, with a more digestible dye. Count Chocula probably had the same problem, but it's not like anyone's going to notice brown food coloring in that context.

This concludes this mailbag. Stay tuned for next week, when I kidnap random people off the street and force them to ask me about the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Christmas Edition

In which I list off the books that showed up under my Christmas tree this year. It's not strictly meeting the criteria for inclusion- the criteria normally being 'bought the book with my own money'- but given that I put books on my list every year, an exception can be made.

Anyway. Santa-slash-family put the following under the tree:

*Boese, Alex- Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide To Hoaxes And Other B.S.
*Bongiorni, Sara- A Year Without "Made In China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy
*Ripley Publishing- Ripley's Believe It Or Not!: Utterly Crazy

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Break

We'll be taking Christmas break here, but not before handing you off to NORAD, which is tracking Santa. They look to have upped the production values this year; we now have a camera following Santa around on Google Earth, so if there's a kid in the family wondering where Santa is, well, there he is in the flesh.

Where is he right now? As I type this, Santa's en route to the Taj Mahal.

Or, if you're desperate to find some sort of non-Christmas material on the Internet today, here's a TED talk. David Damberger of Employers Without Borders talks here in Calgary about what happens when an NGO admits they've failed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Quaid-e-Azam Day! ...I Think! Maybe! Perhaps!

It's December 23rd, and that of course means only two days remain until the big day I know you've all been waiting for.

That's right: it's almost Quaid-e-Azam Day!

Christmas, as I'm sure you know, is a Christian holiday. Pakistan is explicitly not a Christian nation. It was created that way. Pakistan was originally, prior to its creation in 1947, part of British India.

Quaid-e-Azam, which translates to "Great Leader" (real name: Muhammad Ali Jinnah), is celebrated in Pakistan on December 25th for being the catalyst in gaining independence.

In 1906, the All-India Muslim League was founded in Dhaka. If you recognize Dhaka as actually being in Bangladesh, well, it was. After 1971. In 1906, it was part of India too. The AIML was the place to be if you were a Muslim in India looking for political clout, and Jinnah was no exception. Though his goal was originally home rule for India, his politics took a more Muslim tack upon the rise of Mahatma Gandhi. Jinnah sought to achieve his aims through the hals of power, and dressed in a Western style. Gandhi, dressing explicitly Indian, went the nonviolent-activism route. Jinnah was worried that such an approach was just going to drive a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Whether or not it was Gandhi's influence that did it, a wedge was, of course, driven. Jinnah, then part of India's legislature, resigned in 1920, convinced the Muslim community was getting shafted.

Fast forward to 1940. Jinnah now heads the AIML, espousing the "Two Nation Theory", which had been proposed to the AIML in 1930 by a guy named Muhummad Iqbal. The Two Nation Theory was that Hindu and Muslim differences had by now become so irreconcilible that the only sane thing to do would be to give each side a country and let everyone get on with their lives. in 1940, the "Pakistan resolution" became the AIML's number one goal. Over the next several years, Gandhi would meet with Jinnah several times in 1944 to try and get Jinnah back on board, but if there's anything Gandhi could have told him, it came too late, and in fact, the fact that the talks were held at all was held up as proof that Gandhi didn't speak for a unified India.

In 1946, things came to a head. Britain was on their way out, and India had to figure out how self-rule was going to work. It wasn't. The Muslim community was too worried about being marginalized by the Hindu community, and demanded the two-state solution. The Indian legislature rejected that proposal, which is probably the moment when you can pinpoint the crystalization of the India/Pakistan rivalry that continues to this day, particuarly Jinnah's. What happened next, on August 16, 1946, was officially called "Direct Action Day", but in practice was widespread Muslim rioting and looting in Calcutta, spurred on by Jinnah's proclamation: "We shall have India divided or India destroyed." Some 5,000-10,000 Hindus ended up dead as a result, and copycat riots were triggered across India, including one in Noakhali (in modern-day Bangladesh) that has subsequently been referred to as genocide.

That was pretty much that. There was no way India could remain united like this. There was no choice but to split off Pakistan into its own Muslim nation. It was made official on August 17, 1947, with the provinces of Punjab and Bengal being split in half in a very haphazard split drawn up by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who didn't have good maps and didn't know what in blazes he was doing. To say the least, this was a messy transition. As there were millions of people of one religion living on the side given to the other religion, most of those millions (not all; some Muslims in India stayed behind) had to get the hell out of their respective Dodge, and not all of them made it over the border alive, especially as the border made for a very handy collision point as the two sides passed each other on the way. The best estimate is that the transfer killed half a million people, though some claims range up to a million dead. And at the end of it, the region of Kashmir was mutually claimed. They still haven't worked out that one.

One way or another, Jinnah is credited with essentially founding Pakistan. He didn't stick around to see how things turned out for it, though; he died in 1948, only about a year after independence. So why does Pakistan celebrate Quaid-e-Azam Day on December 25th? By now you're very possibly guessing that it's some sort of stick-it-to-the-West thing, but no, it just happens to be Jinnah's birthday.

A birthday that only Pakistan really notices, but then, by now they're probably fine with that.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Random News Generator- Costa Rica

Some days the RNG just gets moody. Today, it landed on St. Helena. Back in May, St. Helena was covered as part of RNG Week, and shown to be a tiny little island in the South Atlantic that continually bleeds residents to basically anywhere that isn't St. Helena.

They're getting a baggage carousel. Aren't you just so excited? Soon they hope to have an airport where they can put it to use.

So we spin again and land on Costa Rica. Beautiful country, lots of rainforest, very ecologically progressive, surrounded by a lot of Central
American strife...

...and what comes up first on Google News is that Miley Cyrus dropped an F-bomb while visiting when someone called her an asshole. Seriously. The local Costa Rican news has video and everything. Well, just stop the F-ing presses, huh?

That, right now, is showing 104 articles on the topic on Google News. What is only giving a handful of articles, maybe five or six, is how Costa Rica has recently been coming increasingly under threat from Mexican drug cartels and Colombian suppliers, which is of particular threat to the country because it has no military with which to defend itself and their police force has never had to step in for military-like purposes. For every person that cares about Costa Rica coming under fire like this, there are, at least in the media, 10 that care that Miley Cyrus used a curse word. That is appalling.

You don't even want to know how many hits there are on Google News for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wanting to move down there, even though "news" on that broke a week and a half ago.

And then they go and wonder why people keep making blogs on the assumption that they could do a better job.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Spurious French Connection

Nostradamus has become, over the centuries, nearly synonymous with the word 'prophecy'. His book, Les Propheties (The Prophecies), was written in 1555, yet to this day, whenever some major world event happens, from World War 2 to the Kennedy assassinations (John and Robert) to 9/11, almost inevitably someone will haul out a Nostradamus quatrain and give him credit for predicting it. Occasionally, some prankster will just make up a quatrain and give it to Nostradamus.

Oh, yes, we are going to be poking a couple holes in this one today. I'm not the first, certainly, but taking to task interpretations of a 16th-century French mystic? Hey, it's something to do on a Wednesday.

The most common criticism of following Nostradamus isn't really going to be our focus, but we do need to touch on it- namely, confirmation bias. In The Prophecies, Nostradamus made 942 quatrains worth of long-term predictions. 942 of them. (He actually made several thousand more, in regularly-published 'Almanacs', but nobody really counts those.) And they are all famously vague, explained as Nostradamus wanting to avoid being hit with charges of being a heretic. When something major happens, if you're looking through 942 vague four-line predictions looking for something that sounds like what just happened, odds are you're going to find it whether it's actually there or not. It's like looking for shapes in the clouds. Sure, the cloud looks like a ducky. The cloud probably did not go out to intentionally make a ducky, but it's not about to correct you. This isn't helped by the standards of typesetting at the time; you can't really find any two original copies of The Prophecies that are exactly alike, which means the words may change from copy to copy.)

Which leads into the more substantial of our points: people almost always look at the wrong clouds.

You see, they're called 'quatrains' for a reason: they're four-line poems. Nostradamus was making, on one level, poetry. Poetry requires one to take some significant liberties with the language. A skilled writer, especially one doing poetry, needs to know and use every trick of allusion in the book. Similes. Metaphors. Idioms. Entendres. Nostradamus has been credited with anagrams; specifically, a type of anagram that allows you to change one letter. This is how the name 'Hister' tends to pop up in interpretations, as an anagram of Adolf Hitler.

(Which, again, just to note: Nostradamus is trying to avoid being labeled a heretic in the 1500's... so he anagrams the name of a guy who won't even be born until hundreds of years after everyone in his world is dead. Logic!)

He's not the first historical source of prophecies to rely heavily on vagueness. The Oracle at Delphi traded on much the same thing; the Oracle has a fairly lengthy profile on TV Tropes in 'Prophecy Twist', (scroll down to 'Real Life') which shows off the danger of trying to actually use such vague predictions: the high likelihood of reading the vagueness incorrectly. More than one army, more than one king, went to Delphi, got a vague riddle about some event, and then watched as something completely different happened that the Oracle could possibly also have been talking about, if the Oracle was in fact talking about anything at all and not simply wording things very carefully, in a way that could be regarded as correct no matter what happened. If the interpreter was wrong, well, that's not the Oracle's fault.

Anagrams and idioms in particular rely heavily on the specific language used by the writer. They simply do not translate. And neither, for that matter, do rhymes. You, the person reading this blog, have been reading them in English. Nostradamus was French, and wrote as such, though he also tossed in Greek, Italian, Latin and Provencal. None of which, you'll note, are English. (And one of which, it should be noted, actually uses the word 'Hister' in its language- Latin, as the term for the Danube River, which happens to border Germany, and the people living in the region. Which doesn't entirely stop Nostradamus fans- after all, Hitler came from Austria and grew up along the river- but doesn't it seem a lot more reasonable that Nostradamus was talking about the river?)

This is important when it comes to poetry. Take the Canadian national anthem, O Canada. There is an English version and a French version, but when you translate the French version into English, you'll find two different sets of lyrics. Poetry, translated literally, doesn't look like poetry anymore.

Here is one collection of the quatrains that supplies both the English version and the original. Let's take one of the quatrains, doesn't matter much which one in particular... oh, say, X 46, which is on this page:

In life, fate and death a sordid, unworthy man of gold,
He will not be a new Elector of Saxony:
From Brunswick he will send for a sign of love,
The false seducer delivering it to the people.

First off: go on, figure out what that one's supposed to be predicting if you're so smart.

Secondly, we should use this as a typical example of why Nostradamus likely wasn't going to get anything in North America properly predicted. He frequently states locations, but when he's not naming planets, he's naming places in Europe, North Africa or the Middle East. He is, after all, from France, and it's entirely possible, that he was simply focusing on the future of the region and not the entire world. Even if he was trying for the whole world, he wouldn't know about all of it yet. Which makes it a bit silly for Americans to try and figure out how it affects them. Here you see Saxony and Brunswick, but elsewhere in The Prophecies, he gives- and this is a partial list- Aix, Algiers, Ancona, Angers, Aquitaine, Arles, Avignon, Austria, Barcelona, Bayonne, Blois, Bordeaux, Brussels, Burgundy, Carcassonne, Crete, Egypt, France, Genoa, Ghent, Greece, Italy, Leon, Libya, London, Lyon, Malta, Marseilles, Monaco, Montferrand, Nantes, Naples, Narbonne, Orleans, Persia, Pisa, Poitiers, Ravenna, Reims, Rhodes, Seville, Sicily, Siena, Spain, Switzerland, Syracuse, Thessaly, Toulouse, Tours, Tunis, Turin, Tuscany, Vercelli, Verona, and Vienna. The furthest distant from France I noticed a specific location go is the Ganges, in II 60. Clearly, Nostradamus wasn't much interested in Japan or China or Australia or sub-Saharan Africa or a United States which didn't exist yet and which was barely even known to Europe at the time. Or, for that matter, any place in the Americas whatsoever.

The main point on this quatrain, though, is clearly, the words gold, Saxony, love and people do not rhyme. But let's look at the same quatrain in the original language:

Vie sort mort de L'or vilaine indigne,
Sera de Saxe non nouueau electeur:
De Brunsuic mandra d'amour signe,
Faux le rendant au peuple seducteur.

Even if you can't read French- and certainly I can't- you can tell straightaway, if nothing else, where the rhymes are: indigne and signe, and electeur and seducteur. Again. Poems don't translate. Had Nostradamus taken the time to do English translations on his own, there's every chance he'd have effectively made entirely new quatrains so as to get them to rhyme.

Which means, of course, a whole new slate of words, a whole new slate of literary allusions to interpret in almost whatever way the reader wants, and a whole bunch of new things to give Nostradamus credit for. Whether he deserves it or not.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Breaking News: People Not Dead

I know several people that got fooled by this yesterday, so really quick, let's try and put this particular fire out.

Jon Bon Jovi is not dead. Repeat: not dead. The link goes to him posting a picture of himself holding a sign saying "Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey," which is not the afterlife people think of when they think of New Jersey, but point made. Some guy wrote up a hoax and a whole bunch of people fell for it. Hopefully not you, but if you did, don't worry, he's fine.

Lil' Kim is also not dead; though I didn't see any of that floating around, rest assured that some people were dumb enough to see Kim Jong-Il's death announcement and get confused, including former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher-- two people who really ought to know better.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong Il Dead

As you've most likely heard from a thousand different places before you came here, and will almost certainly hear a lot more about in the days and weeks to come, Kim Jong-Il has died at age 69. North Korea is certainly the place to be looking at to right now; it's an unstable place under normal circumstances, and with a leadership change underway and a massive artillery pointed right at Seoul from a totalitarian state that has nukes (very poor-quality nukes, but nukes nonetheless), for the moment, the world has little choice but to stop dead in its tracks and pay attention. Nobody has any real idea what the new man in charge, 27-year-old Kim Jong-Un, is capable of, and nobody wants to find out the hard way.

I can't profess to tell you either. It is quite possibly the most important piece of information in the world right now and nobody really knows the answer. All anyone can do is speculate, keep their guard up, and wait to see what he does. It's fairly safe to assume, though, that what WON'T happen is that Jong-Un throws open the borders and pledges reconciliation with South Korea.

We do know that North Korea's neighbors are interested mainly in making sure there isn't a total breakdown. South Korea is all but certain that if North Korea goes critical, the fallout will come down squarely on them. China is thinking similarly. Their main worry is preventing a mass exodus of refugees from stampeding across the border, where they would then have to deal with them as they began a long end-run journey to South Korea or whatever country will have them. Whatever you think of China's stance on keeping them from crossing, that's their mindset. And given that the North Korean border guards can themselves defect, as happened in November, they can't count on very much help from them should such an exodus occur.

Japan isn't really sure what to think, but for the moment they're primarily watching their stock market, which responded to Jong-Il's death by immediately tanking due to the uncertainty. They do, however, have the issue of North Korea having abducted several Japanese citizens over the years; the families of the abductees are using the death to try to get the issue to the forefront.

We also know that, even though the preferred end-state all around is a peacefully unified Korean peninsula, nobody knows how to get there, nobody knows if such a thing is even possible, and above all, nobody knows how to prod a North Korean endgame into place without it backfiring into North Korea deciding to go out in a blaze of glory, leveling Seoul and taking it with them, forcing a bloodbath with possibly millions dead, and getting to the point where North Korean loyalists hide in the hills for decades afterward like the Japanese soldiers of World War 2 who were deployed to the Pacific islands and were never told the war was over. Maybe a nuclear warhead gets launched as well. Lacking a way to avoid the blaze-of-glory endgame, all anyone can do is maintain the status quo until and unless some sort of semi-safe solution presents itself. That, of course, has not happened.

We don't know much, though, and we won't know much until Kim Jong-Un starts saying and doing things. We never do when North Korea is concerned.

EDIT: Adrian Hong of Foreign Policy is willing to try to put together a roadmap to that semi-safe solution. It's a long, complicated road with a lot of blind alleys, and there's no way to make things go as quickly as one might like to make them go, and there are a thousand different failure points- which in itself underscores just how difficult a task it is- but it's a roadmap nonetheless.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cliffs Notes: Utah Campaign Finance Edition

This is one of those cases where excess words obscure the point. Once in a while that happens in a story. Most of the time you're best making an in-depth explanation of what's going on, but every so often, you just have to get to the point. So we'll condense this to the bare minimum.

THE PEOPLE: Utah state legislators Dave Clark and Carl Wimmer.
THE "PROBLEM": State campaign laws prevent them from fundraising while the legislature is in session.
THE "SOLUTION": Resign from state legislature and concentrate on their bids for seats in Congress.
CLARK'S EXCUSES: "Any candidate who is looking at federal office will find it becomes extremely difficult to do both jobs." "The amount of money that would be needed for a federal race is a multiple many times of what is needed for a state race."
WIMMER'S EXCUSES: "I can't put my own money into this race." "I am a middle-class, blue-collar American worker."
THEY WOULD CHALLENGE THE LAW, BUT: They don't want to taint their image with voters.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

From The 'Sure, Why Not' Department

Hopefully, you're not one of those people that have bought into the notion that the world is going to end on December 21, 2012 because of the Mayan calendar. Hopefully, you have taken into account all the other end-of-the-world predictions that pop up on at least an annual basis that all end, inevitably, in the world stubbornly refusing to end.

Honestly, you don't think the Mayans wouldn't have just recycled the calendar once 2012 came around if they were still here? 2012 was so far in the distance relative to them that they probably just didn't care.

However, if you just can't resist worrying about it, the city of Tapachula, Mexico, down in Mayan territory near the Guatemalan border, is willing to shrug their shoulders and give you what you want. They don't have very much going for them as it is, being a crossing point for Central American migrants who then proceed to board a train that goes by the names "The Train of Death" and "The Beast" (which is a story all by itself, a much more substantive one, as reported here by Mariana van Zeller), so they figure they might as well set up a countdown clock and play along with statements like "It is hard to say what you will be able to see that day." It'll haul in some tourism dollars, and it's certainly more fun than dealing with the train, the people who get on it, and the people who fell off. (Did I mention that you have to ride on the outside of the train?)

Again. This really isn't a tourist town. At least not in the traditional sense of the word.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Kyrgyzstan, And Also Things Other Than How To Spell It

Last week, we noted the practice of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. I kind of thought that'd be the last I'd be saying about that country for a little while.

Apparently not, as Journeyman Pictures has just provided a 27-minute primer on the country's post-Soviet life, narrated by Eugene Huskey of Stetson University. Granted, a little of that time could very well have been sliced out with some better editing, but content is what counts. So, back to the 'stans for us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dollar Coin Dies Unloved, Again, Some More

First, let's note the official end of the war in Iraq today. Thanks to everyone who served over there.

That established, back during my trip to Hawaii last year, I... well, let's be honest about it, I spouted off something in a hurry about the dollar coin because it was either that or go a week and a half without an update.

Back at that point, the program of Presidential dollar coins- like the state quarters, but for Presidents- had gotten up to Abraham Lincoln.

The program has now been scrapped, as every dollar-coin program has before it, due to lack of interest. (And Wikipedia is showing this as at least the 11th attempt.) How often have you actually seen one of them in circulation? Exactly. 1.4 billion unused and unwanted dollar coins are currently taking up space in the mint. Coins for remaining Presidents will be made only on request, for collectors.

Aside from general lack of interest, though, and the dollar coin's history of failure, you could see this coming from a mile away anyway. Look at where the series stands now. It's not Abe Lincoln. It's the point between James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. As Vice President Joe Biden sums it up, "And as it will shock you all, the call for Chester A. Arthur coins is not there."

Presidential coinage sounds fine when you're talking about the Washingtons and the Lincolns and the Roosevelts and the Jeffersons. The thing is, though, most of those top-tier Presidents already have coins of their own, coins that actually get used. You want a Washington coin? Break a dollar and you'll get four of them, while in the process giving up a bill that also has Washington on it. You want a Lincoln coin? Check the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny jar.

Nobody asked for commemorations of James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. A fair amount of Americans can't even name them.

The state-quarter program, aside from the fact that it used quarters, worked because states are easy. Everyone wants their own state, and while you're waiting, you might as well go get all the others too. Or wait for them to come to you in your change. Plus the extra bit of speculation about what each state put on their quarter didn't hurt either. You don't have any of that with Presidents. You have to actively go out and look for the coin, there's no speculation about what's going to be on the coin, and there's no local pride driving you. There's no single President that's, for the purposes of collection, "yours", unless maybe one came from your hometown or your home state has only sent one person to the White House.

And then there's the matter of the Presidents themselves. The program died in the middle of a rough patch of obscure, unloved Presidents that came after Lincoln. If you're going chronologically- and they were- you don't get to pick the order of release to keep the interest up. Between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, you have, in order, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland again, and William McKinley. As the cancellation showed, nobody cared.

And not only that. Not only do you have obscure Presidents, you have infamous ones as well. Between Teddy Roosevelt and the next really good name, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, there's a five-President stretch that goes William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Harbert Hoover. Warren Harding was possibly the most corrupt President in history, Coolidge is blamed by some historians for causing the Great Depression, Hoover is blamed by everyone else. Do any of them really seem like someone you'd want to reward with a coin? I hope not.

And not only that. As you get into more recent Presidents- say, everyone after FDR- you get into the problem of partisanship and personal memory. Coin collecting's supposed to be this fun, benign thing. Do we really need the reaction that is inevitably going to pop up when it gets to be John F. Kennedy's turn (even though he was on a half-dollar coin himself), or Richard Nixon's turn, or Jimmy Carter's turn, or Ronald Reagan's turn, or Bill Clinton's turn, or Bush 43's turn, or Obama's turn? Do we really need that? Half the country would collect any given coin, the other half would throw it at the first half.

Well, okay. 'Half' is wildly overstating things. This is a dollar coin we're talking about, after all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Haiti: Still Totally Screwed, In Case You Forgot

As you can see, there wasn't anything yesterday. My time was poured into the soccer book.

The earthquake that devastated Haiti happened nearly two years ago. So it's probably been put out of your mind by now. Considering that the scale of the destruction was such that I can still remember one estimate from the actual time of the quake saying it would take 20 years for Haiti to recover. Looking around, that estimate hasn't changed.

We're less than two years in.

And very few outsiders have the heart to keep at post-disaster recovery for two years, let alone 20. As it stands in Haiti, actual reconstruction has barely even started. Aid organizations are still working on cleanup and basic survival needs; only about half of the rubble has been cleared, at most. Still. They're also dealing with containing an ongoing cholera epidemic. The reasons for the long recovery are many- lack of government, prohibitive delays at customs, destroyed records, the cost, the various agencies all running around doing their own thing, the sheer amount of damage, among other things. And the aid money is drying up, which in turn is threatening to bring what relief efforts are in place to a standstill.

Many of the Haitians themselves, naturally, are in turn not willing to wait around for two years, let alone 20. That is proving problematic as well. The simplest solution, you'd think, would be to head east to the Dominican Republic, but in the minds of the Dominicans, Haitians crossing their border are to them what Mexicans crossing our border are to a lot of us: nothing more than illegal immigrants that ought to be sent back where they came from. There was a grace period in the aftermath of the earthquake, but that grace period is over. This sentiment is taken to the point of there being talk of stripping citizenship from people born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, people that under normal circumstances would have birthright citizenship in the Dominican Republic. Because Haiti doesn't do dual citizenship, that would leave those people stateless.

Any alternative destination requires leaving the island of Hispaniola, and to that end, refugees have scattered across the Western Hemisphere- in addition to the United States, Canada, Chile and Brazil have also taken in Haitians, albeit with varying degrees of tolerance. In all cases, integration is extremely difficult, as after all, the refugees are going from one of the poorest countries in the world to some of the most prosperous, with most of what little they had in the first place taken by the quake. In Brazil, refugees never even get close to the population centers along the eastern coastline. They arrive through the western borders and end up trying to find jobs with Amazon infrastructure projects. Many end up getting no further than the tri-national area along the borders with Bolivia and Peru, where they tend to make the crossing.

Technically, the refugees headed the Brazilian route aren't recognized as immigrants, and that section of the Brazilian frontier has been fortified with additional border guards. However, given the sheer isolation of their eventual ending point, the distance traveled, and where they came from to get there, the locals that aren't border guards generally don't have the heart to do all that much about it when someone gets through. They know that nobody who has made it that far along that route is about to turn back and return to Haiti anytime soon.

After all, the refugees have 18 years to kill.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Free Publicity For All-American Muslim; That's All-American Muslim, Sundays At 10 PM Eastern On TLC

TLC, in the days since they got rid of shows like Junkyard Wars and Robotica and Full Metal Challenge in favor of shows like Jon and Kate Plus Eight and A Baby Story and, really, anything you could think of relating to pregnancy, giving birth or the product thereof, utterly and completely lost me as a viewer.

Which means I completely missed the part where they introduced something requiring actual thought to the airwaves for the first time in who-knows-when, All-American Muslim, which follows the lives of five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, a Muslim population center in the United States. The idea is to show these completely normal, benign families and their struggles with lingering post-9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry from people that just automatically think that every Muslim in the world is by definition a terrorist.

A noble concept. But it still really didn't register much on my radar... until Lowe's pulled their advertising from the show in response to protests from anti-Muslim bigots that just automatically think that every Muslim in the world is by definition a terrorist.

Oh, wait. I meant the Florida Family Association. Sorry I got their name wrong. The FFA called the show "propaganda" and demanded that it contrast the lives of the normal Muslim families with reminders of Muslim terrorism. They have claimed some 60 companies that have pulled ads alongside Lowe's; however, one of those companies, Home Depot, noted that you can't really pull ads from a show that you never bought ad time on in the first place.

Now, snide jokes about Detroit aside, correct me if I'm wrong, but I haven't seen Michigan get blown up lately. But I can't make the comprehensive beatdown of the FFA that I would normally be inclined to do, because again, haven't seen the show.

James Poniewozik, however, has seen the show, and so I'm going to toss you to his comprehensive beatdown of the FFA, and while he's at it, Lowe's as well, which has found itself under more fire for pulling the ads than they could possibly have been getting for running them.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Random News Generator- Guatemala

One defining characteristic of America's foreign policy, historically, has been that nonpowers- countries that stood no real threat to the United States and had little diplomatic heft- were little more than playthings; chess pieces to be moved around at leisure in response to actions by other powers (who often took the same view, particularly the Soviet Union).

If you're fairly on the ball, you may know about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Between 1930 and 1972, poor black men, former sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama, who were under the impression that the government was providing them with free healthcare were in reality being studied by the Public Health Service for the effects of syphilis on the human body, when left untreated. Despite doctors knowing that 399 of the 600 men had it, they were deliberately left untreated, even after the discovery of penicillin as a treatment for the disease, and were actively kept away from penicillin treatments available to the general population. The study would have gone longer than 1972 (by which only 74 of the 399 were still alive) had someone not finally leaked to the media.

The RNG today takes us one step further, as in Guatemala, from 1946-48, the Public Health Service didn't wait around for locals to contract syphilis. They instead actively infected people with it, and then gave them antibiotics, in order to test penicillin as a treatment. Or at least, about half of them got it. There wasn't enough penicillin to treat all the subjects while still keeping the U.S. Army supplied with it. In a PDF file detailing the study we'll be linking to shortly, one Public Health Service man on the ground was shown to say "We shall use our supply sparingly so as to have it available at all times for use in demonstration programs and to build good will."

This pops up here because it was previously thought that about 1,300 people were infected as part of the study, though even this wasn't known until Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College stumbled across old records detailing it while studying the Tuskegee experiments. (The Obama administration issued a formal apology to Guatemala last year.) Reverby's report on her findings can be found in this PDF file. However, going through those records further, the number has shot up to 2,082... and six of them are known to still be alive. Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom, who called the experiments a "crime against humanity" when receiving the apology from the United States, is currently looking into ways the survivors can be compensated.

Aside from giving them those 65 years back.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Do You Have a 2010 Or 2011 Mercury Milan Or Ford Fusion?

If so, Ford would like it back. And you may want to hand it back.

You know, unless you like having the wheels fall off your car in the middle of the freeway.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Never Gonna Pick You Up, Never Gonna Put You Down

For pretty much all of literary history, if you as an author have opted to self-publish, that's been a huge stigma. It said you weren't good enough to get a publisher, it said you very likely haven't had a professional editing it, it said you basically don't know what you're doing. You don't get into bookstores, you don't get in front of book reviewers, you don't have an advertising budget, your book gets doomed to obscurity as a result, and pretty much you suck to the point where you would have trouble finding a publisher in the future just for the fact that they knew you had to resort to self-publishing.

Then came e-books.

Now, I'm not an e-book person myself. Prefer the hard copy. Personal preference. It seems like the kind of thing I'd use maybe three times and leave in a drawer. But there are a lot of people that do use them. E-books, by definition, are available online. And the funny thing about things online is that every so often something goes viral. Little advertising is needed, as word of mouth spreads about whatever's just become wildly popular.

Which means, if you have to self-publish, you now have a semi-viable route to actual success: make your book an e-book, spread the word online, and hope you catch a tailwind. And should you manage to make it work, there's one big upside: no publisher taking a cut of the profits. You get all the money. Or if you want, the publishers might come calling later on, after they see the book's already a success.

The best route is still by far to get a publisher. But it's not totally hopeless anymore if you can't get one.

Alexandra Alter of the Wall Street Journal here profiles one such self-publisher, Darcie Chan, and her book, The Mill River Recluse.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fire Burn, And Frozen Bubble

It is now well into December, and as such, temperatures are dropping below freezing. At least, in places where they drop below freezing.

...hang on a second.

Dear Los Angeles metropolitan area: If it is below freezing down there when I come to visit in January, I will take your ass home as a souvenir.

Anyway. One of the places where it does drop below freezing is the observatory at Mount Washington, New Hampshire. That is putting things mildly to the point of absurdity, but never mind. Today they're going to demonstrate how to make frozen bubbles.

Of course, first you'll need the proper mixture. Just a thing of soap bubble solution's not going to do it. The Mount Washington crew went with this:

3 Teaspoons Dawn dish soap
1/2-1 Teaspoon Sugar
1-2 Teaspoons of hot water
Mix gently so as not to make bubbles in the solution

Then, it's just a matter of blowing a bubble in calm winds and below-freezing temperatures and letting the bubble sit on the wand. The lower the temperature, the less time you'll have to wait; because of Mount Washington's notoriously cold weather, though, they didn't even have to wait for the bubble to make it back to the wand...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stupidity + Time = "Tradition"

Tradition can be a weird thing. It causes us to do some fairly stupid things for no other reason than we've been doing them for years.

Sometimes, this is relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things, such as in the case of the current setup of the BCS. Here, you have a system where one predetermined postseason game decides the national championship, and 34 other bowls (it's 34 this year, at least) do not feed into this championship and cannot determine the championship. Several of these games used to help determine the championship, as the pre-BCS system allowed for any bowl to potentially be the deciding factor, but the current system has removed that. In any other sport, these games would be recognized as the structurally irrelevant games that they have been rendered (as college basketball's NIT tournament demonstrates), or simply not played at all. However, when confronted, many people- maybe you're one of them- will still step in to defend the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the like, insisting that they still mean something.

What defense is typically used? Tradition. The fact that they USED to mean something is, apparently, proof that they still do, even when they have been stripped of all that made them mean something.

But again, that's relatively harmless. It's ultimately just a football game. Tradition is also used to defend more serious practices, such as bullfighting- which has recently been banned in Barcelona, Spain, much to the chagrin of some Spaniards. That, along with the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, really don't need too much explaining to those of us in non-bullfighting countries to know why Barcelona banned it: suffice to say that in The Onion's book Our Dumb World, Spain's national sport was listed as "Cornering a dazed bull and stabbing it to death in front of 50,000 people". It has become increasingly common, when seeing footage of the Running of the Bulls, to openly root for the bull.

So why are some Spaniards getting teary-eyed? Tradition. They've fought bulls for hundreds of years! Ernest Hemingway gushed over it! It's our national soul!

And then there's Kyrgyzstan.

Have you ever heard of bride kidnapping? It's how nearly half of all marriages in Kyrgyzstan are formed, and it's exactly what the name implies: a man seeks out- or lures- a prospective mate, and then just up and grabs them and drags them off, kicking and screaming, to be married. An estimated 15,000 women a year are married off this way.

For some couples, this is actually mutually agreed to beforehand, and the act- played out in front of the bride's parents- is just that, an act. But for many, it's not, and to the naked eye, both look the same. Often, the man doesn't even know the woman beforehand, and just grabs her off the street. Once kidnapped, the woman's parents, lacking leverage, are forced to consent to allow their daughter to be married to her kidnapper. The marriages more frequently end in divorce than in non-kidnapping marriages, spousal abuse is more common, and suicide rates among the women are higher. It's estimated that a quarter of the women are raped prior to marriage, which in Kyrgyzstan causes the woman to lose honor and standing within her family and become less able to marry by normal means, because as we again establish, Kyrgyzstan is a place where you can kidnap your desired wife in broad daylight and get away with it.

Technically, this practice is illegal in the country, and Kyrgyzstan's outgoing president, Roza Otunbayeva, has called on the country to step up enforcement, but in order to step up enforcement, the law must first be enforced, period. The men almost never face prosecution, and everybody involved knows it. And even if it is enforced, it only carries a three-year prison sentence compared to ten years for other types of abduction.

Why not? Tradition. Those defending it cite a folktale from a national epic poem, the Manas, in which a mutually-consenting couple staged a kidnapping in order to avoid paying a very expensive dowry. However, according to Russell Kleinbach of the Kyz Korgon Institute, this story actually doesn't appear anywhere in the Manas. He figures the practice started in the 19th century and gained popularity during the Soviet era.

Otunbayeva only made her call to end the practice as she left office. The new president, Almazbek Atambayev, took over on December 1st. There is no word on his stance, but it may not matter, as a mere one day after he took office, his parliamentary coalition fell apart. Hopefully, once someone settles into office, they'll run with the torch Otunbayeva has lit.

But tradition can be a hard thing to overcome.

For more on the practice, VICE has put together a three-part report; Part 1 is here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesdays With TED

Looking like it's two straight days of Lisa Ling. Why? Because she hosted a session of TED talks this past Thursday (specifically, part of a spinoff called TEDxWomen), and I just found the video of that session, and we never say no to TED talks around here. She didn't give a talk herself, at least not officially, but hey. No matter. Have some TED talks.

Just note, though: you're about to be sitting here for two hours. That's why these things have pause buttons.

Watch live streaming video from tedxwomen at

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nice Doggie, Good Boy

If you've got OWN, and only watch one show on the network (which, granted, is one more OWN show than a lot of people watch), the ratings are saying it's most likely Our America with Lisa Ling. Despite the fact that it's Oprah's name in the title of the network, Lisa appears to have what's turning out to be the network's flagship show.

Lisa being a friend, I have absolutely no problem with that.

In the season just wrapped up- well, kinda sorta; the season, originally slated for six episodes and an update show, has had eight episodes added to it- Lisa has said that the most important of the batch- and "one of the most important things I've ever done"- is the episode on post-traumatic stress disorder, titled "Invisible Wounds of War". I- or rather, Lisa- touched on that episode in this article, which after seeing it I really rather regret writing at this point because the cases of PTSD she profiled were just so far beyond what it was that I was imagining that my article really comes off as callous to me now.

I'd post a video of the episode, but it's not available online, so you'll pretty much just have to keep an eye on OWN's broadcast schedule for the next airing. Or maybe see if Our America gets onto DVD at some point. Haven't asked Lisa about it. It should, though.

In any case, the reason I bring this all up is this article from James Dao of the New York Times, showing that PTSD affects not only humans, but dogs as well, to the tune of about 1 out of every 20 dogs currently deployed by American forces to find enemy soldiers, clear buildings and sniff out mines.

And the dogs are a lot harder to treat. They can't tell you what's wrong, and if they're shell-shocked out in the field, and can't say anything about it while on a mission, that not only puts the dogs at further risk, but the humans relying on the dog as well. Even after you've made the diagnosis, you can't really tell when, or if, the dog has been healed. About half the dogs with PTSD have to be retired. PTSD can, outside of the military, also affect normal household pets given certain triggers. Trauma doesn't just mean war. It can also mean a car crash, or certain levels of abuse by the owner, or natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Cats can get it too.

Which may on some level explain the behavior of our new cat, Mooch. After we got her in late August, it turned out that she had been languishing in a shelter since January. Not only that, but one day my mom noticed a pair of little scars on the back of Mooch's ears, which may indicate some abuse by the previous owner. It's December now, and Mooch has only slowly, very very slowly, been learning to venture out of little corners of rooms, particularly during the day, and if I make anything beyond the slightest, gentlest of moves towards her, she will still instantly take off running and hide somewhere.

I don't know what exactly went on, I can't know, and Mooch can't tell me, but whatever happened, it's still eating at her pretty strongly. But if nothing else, there's a pet waiting for her any time she wants it.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Soccer Book Update

Previously here, I've mentioned that I am also, outside this blog, working on creating a book on club soccer. To remind you, the idea of the book is to be a primer on selecting a club for adoption, assuming that the reader has no team to start out with. And there are still plenty of those people in the States. To that end, I'm trying to give little starter profiles on as many clubs as possible, to try and show what kind of culture and environment a fan can expect with each club.

That's the key there. I'm focusing less on how much a team has won than on who the team actually is. 'The New York Yankees have 27 World Series titles, won in these years' isn't what I'm looking for. 'The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox hate each other with a passion, were the longtime home of Babe Ruth (which is a large factor in said hatred as then-Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees to finance a Broadway play), and once had Monument Park- featuring plaques of all the players whose numbers the Yankees have retired- in the field of play; they're the biggest love-them-or-hate-them club in the league and you need to know that before you adopt them' is what I'm looking for.

And because there's more to soccer than just the U.S., England, Spain, Italy and Germany, I've made an effort to include- or in cases where info is sorely lacking, at least mention- at least one club from every FIFA entity, as well as some selected other locations. Recently, I managed to hit that little milestone. As of this writing, the book's draft contains 767 featured clubs from 218 different national entities, along with national profiles for each entity. (Most recent team added: Celta Vigo of Spain. On deck: FC Basel of Switzerland, who really should have made it in a lot sooner, but seeing as I'm picking teams from an on-deck circle mostly via RNG, their number just didn't come up for a long time.)

Now, I don't consider the thing done- I'll consider it done when I stop finding teams with good stories to tell, and so far there's no sign of that happening- but I am at the point where I'm getting told it'd be a good idea to start putting out feelers. So while I'm certainly not going to be neglecting you guys or anything, what may happen is I might be relying a little more on shorter posts for a little while to get me through the day so I can devote more time to the book and, fingers crossed, finding it a good home.

And, of course, should anyone out there actually have a contact I could borrow, or better yet be one, that'd be awesome.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nuclear 116-Legged Sack Race

Remember how we just got done introducing three new elements to the periodic table?

Well, say hello to two more. 114 and 116 have been given their official names, respectively livermorium (Lv) and flerovium (Fl). Spots 113 and 115 remain empty for now, though the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia have claimed them along with 117 and 118.

The two have also discovered livermorium and flerovium. Each lab took one element to name. No prizes for guessing livermorium's namesake. Flerovium, the one the Russians named, is named for Georgy Flerov, who founded and whose name also adorns one of their labs. Flerov's other legacy is alerting Joseph Stalin to the fact that the United States had gotten strangely quiet while talking about nuclear fission, a suspicion that was on-target, seeing as the Manhattan Project was going on and all. That kickstarted the Soviet nuclear program.

The Joint Institute, assuming joint custody, now has seven elements on the table, alongside rutherfordium, nobelium, dubnium, seaborgium and bohrium. For Livermore, this is their first time on the scoreboard.

Friday, December 2, 2011

In Case You Needed A Spiteful, Vengeful Pick-Me-Up

The founder of the hedge fund Galleon, Raj Rajaratnam, convicted on 14 counts of insider trading, has lost his final appeal that could have spared or delayed his having to go to prison. He will begin an 11-year prison sentence on Monday, the longest prison term ever given for insider trading. Rajaratnam will seek further appeals, mainly relating to government use of wiretaps, but he will have to do so from the inside of his cell. Bail was denied; though the ruling from the court did not say why, Rajaratnam was considered an unreasonable flight risk by the prosecution due to his background in Sri Lanka and the fact that, when someone flees to Sri Lanka, the United States has yet to get anyone back through extradition.

The SEC is also assessing a $92.8 million penalty against Rajaratnam, another record for insider-trading cases.

So yes, someone is getting punished for it. And more might be; key witness Roomy Khan, who has been cooperating in a probe that has resulted in the convictions of 29 people, Rajaratnam included, evidently is not done cooperating yet.

Galleon was responsible for $7 billion.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting Tough On 'Tough'

Recently, I had a little bit of fun with the media's usage of a certain term, 'surviving Thanksgiving'. At least, I hope to God you recognized that for what it was.

However, that isn't the only media term that's gotten on my nerves. There's a certain word that is used in far more serious circumstances, and through its very use colors the coverage of those circumstances.

That word is 'tough'.

When you see the word 'tough' take a prominent position in a news story, at least one outside the sports world, most of the time it's going to be in the context of someone proposing, or enforcing, a notably stringent policy. This is a typical example. The headline, from AFP, is "US Senate advances tough new detainee rules". The rules, as the article notes, require military detention of people suspected of terrorism, and confirm through law that American citizens, though not included in that, can be detained indefinitely without trial if they join such a group. (Obama has threatened to veto it, by the way.)

Outside the headline, the word 'tough' is used three different times in the article itself, all performing the same basic function, though for different proposals. Domestically, the word finds very common usage when referring to Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who has titled himself "America's Toughest Sheriff". He picks up the word here from the New York Times when endorsing Rick Perry for the Republican nomination for President. The headline: "Perry Gains Endorsement From an Arizona Sheriff Tough on Immigration".

The endorsement, by the way, did not go well, as Perry mispronounced "Arpaio" and then incorrectly referred to the voting age as 21. (It's 18, for those non-Americans in the audience.)

Here's the thing, though. There are a lot of other words you can use. I used one just three paragraphs up, 'stringent'. You write for a living. I assume you know how to find a thesaurus. You can find one, for example, by just typing "thesaurus" into your address bar and tacking ".com" onto the end. Though here we'll use the Merriam-Webster page. There's harsh, strict, stern, firm, rigid, stiff, severe. All will serve the purpose fine.

'Austere' is another, but 'austerity' has been earmarked for economic stories and is out of play for purposes such as this.

Some of the other synonyms, though, begin to illustrate the point. The words I just used are really rather neutral; they get the point across as to the nature of the policy, but don't really take much of a side. Some of the other synonyms can't say the same. Were you inclined to paint these policies in a negative light, you might choose words such as oppressive, heavy-handed, hostile, authoritarian. If you really wanted to go on the attack, there's brutal, cruel, inhuman, murderous, crushing, merciless. All of these words paint the proposer as a power-mad dictator. There's also 'crackdown', a frequently-used word, though this is a very mild negative, if it can be considered a negative at all as opposed to a neutral word, and only tends to get used when authorities have turned violent.

If you wanted to paint things in a positive light, though, you might use words invoking images of strength in the face of terrible foes: strong, formidable, unflinching, unyielding, tenacious. But 'tough' is by far your best choice.

Why? Think of where, within the last generation, it's found the most political usage: the phrase "tough on crime", or "tough on" whatever else. "Tough on crime" has been drummed into the national psyche as being a good thing, something that, if pressed, you almost have to promise you'll be if you want to win public office. This is further illustrated by the word's chief antonym in this context, "soft", as in "soft on crime". Someone who is referred to as- or, more to the point, accused of being- "soft on crime" is normally done so amongst imagery of the most dangerous criminals one can imagine being released from their prison cells and placed back on the street, where, presumably, they will make a beeline directly for your house, and, it is often added, your children. Then the released criminals will have their way with you and your family while, presumably, the person "soft on crime" is caught up in a particularly enthralling round of Minesweeper, because this all came into vogue in the 80's and Angry Birds hadn't been created yet.

And of course, golly gee, that's a bad thing! Whether or not that scenario has anything to do with reality! And that's the guy who's "soft" on crime? I don't want that! Better to take the guy who will keep my children safe from these criminals! Better to vote for the one who's "tough" on crime!

In short, a fear-based reaction.

There's a little more to it than fear, though. 'Tough' is also a very masculine word. It's used in ad slogans to invoke blue-collar masculinity. Built Ford Tough. Tonka Tough. It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. It goes, in the process, right alongside all the other blue-collar ads, most notably the Miller Lite 'man up' campaign. In that campaign, and the Miller High Life campaign with the beer truck guy bestowing and removing licenses to sell that brand, Miller goes into varied detail, ad by ad, about what exactly constitutes manhood, and pressures men to not only conform, but to- naturally- drink Miller products while they do so. Fail to conform, and you're not really a man, or at least not sufficiently so.

This, of course, extends beyond the ads. As a personal example, you'll recall here how I've crossed into the realm of Taylor Swift fandom. When first mentioning this elsewhere, I was told by one person to "turn in my man card" and to purchase a Volvo (considered an unmanly car). That's just for being a fan of a certain musician. (The man-card concept in and of itself gets way too much play. As if you need to have your gender meet official, licensed approval.)

And men are supposed to be tough. Remember back at the beginning of this article when I had to qualify the word's usage in news articles by first removing all the sports stories. Athletes, after all, need to be tough, physically and mentally. Sports are, in society, still considered a very masculine thing; while women's sports are gaining support by the year, it is still in many cases a very fits-and-starts proposition. The most prominent sports typically have the men's product galaxies ahead in development from any women's equivalent (see also: Lingerie Football League), and even the sports in which women are the primary athletes (such as gymnastics), or in which the two are seen as roughly equals (such as skiing), tend to be those you only think about every four years at Olympic time, if even that. Only tennis really bucks the trend to any appreciable degree. The two genders are still a long, long way from sports equality. And until that changes- and here's to hoping it does- sports, and the toughness inherent in them, are going to remain, subconsciously, a masculine thing.

And while women are making increasing amounts of headway, positions of power in media and politics remain largely a men's world as well, and the headway made isn't nearly as much or as quickly made as women would like to see. This particular topic has been the subject of the recent documentary Miss Representation, which made it into Sundance this year and which gets play once in a while on OWN. Add all that up- media in the hands of men, politics in the hands of men, sports in the hands of men, and advertising pressuring men to value their sports and a certain ideal of manliness- and the word 'tough', among other things, is able to maintain a very positive reputation, especially in comparison to its antonym 'soft'. Being soft means being a wimp, and you're not a wimp, are you?

This all leads back to our original point: the use of the word 'tough' to describe a policy. To do so is to give the policy a form of tacit approval, and to subconsciously tell those listening to approve it as well. It's really a low-key form of campaigning more than anything else. And that's likely the aim in some cases. In which case, the listener should consider this an advisory warning. But if it's not, if you're a writer not trying to take sides, and you're trying to figure out a way to describe a policy that makes things significantly more difficult on those who run afoul of it than they were beforehand, honestly, it's time to stop leaning on one word and put some new ones into your toolbox.

And if you can't handle that, tough.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Graphic Scenes Of Disembowled Machinery

We go from brand new machinery to something a little older, found via Neatorama, one of my new bookmarks. (Switching monitors left some spaces open. You'd be amazed how many bookmarks you can have if you're economical titling them; I have 18 just on my main screen and, with Neatorama, 28 more on my side menu without it having to scroll.)

A guy named Todd McLellan, for the sake of art, has taken apart a number of older-style gadgets- a clock radio with the flippy numbers, a rotary phone, a typewriter, a push lawnmower, etc.- and displayed all the component parts in a series of pictures he calls "Everyone has a piece of the puzzle". You can check it out here at his website; click 'New work' and it'll be right there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

No, Stop, I Am Your Creator

Every so often, a video of some robot or other will make its way around the Internet. You're going to get one now. But this robot is different from those other robots for one very notable reason: none of those robots were inspired by invertebrates.

This little bundle of creepiness comes from Harvard, out of the lab of one George Whiteside. The basic idea is that the robot is powered by compressed air (note the trail of wires). The outer layer is made of something they call "elastomers", which I suppose is as good a word as any, and inside are some compartments, acting as balloons. Inflating, deflating and compressing certain compartments at certain times makes the robot move and walk.

And yes, before you ask, it can walk on Jell-O.

As IEEE Spectrum notes, "You could probably smash this thing with a hammer a whole bunch of times and it would still keep coming for you. And that's part of the idea." So, have fun with that line.

'Soft' robots like this are becoming more and more common; this is just the first one you're likely to have seen. Researchers are working on how to give robots more fluid movements that a more rigid traditional-looking robot can't do. There are two main problems to work out: the potential for puncturing, and the external power source (again, note the wires).

Of course, those external power sources may be the only thing giving humanity hope to stop them. After all, hammers won't work.

Monday, November 28, 2011

For A Hint, Watch The NIT Sometime

Keeping with the 'random' part of this site, it's quiz day. Your task: name all the schools in NCAA Division 1 basketball.

Just to make things interesting, the BCS conferences- in their current incarnations- have been taken out of play. No driving up your score on the backs of Duke and Kansas and Kentucky and the, well, BCS polls. You want all those random cupcakes they play at the start of the year, and that they play in the first round of March Madness.

You have 20 minutes.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Verdingkinder

Not sure how the writing for this one is going to come out, because I'm still in rather a bit of shock over it, but we have today an article from the Associated Press written on Thursday.

The article concerns a period in the history of Switzerland from the early 1800's up until the 1960's, during which time the country built itself partially on the backs of verdingkinder. The AP translates that as "contract children", but I would use "verdingkinder" to do your searching because "contract children" is only going to get you reprintings of the AP article itself.

Verdingkinder were, at least legally, foster children taken from parents deemed too poor to care for them. In practice, single mothers and parents who had become 'morally destitute' were targeted as well, which amounted to whoever wasn't meeting society's expectations. Once sold, children became little more than farm slaves. Authorities auctioned the children off to whichever set of parents submitted the lowest bid- who would agree to be paid the least for helping to raise the child- and then the child was expected to work in the fields so as to earn their keep. They would be at that farm for a few years, and then resold to some other family, repeatedly, until reaching adulthood. Any education the child might have been receiving came to a screeching halt the second they became a verdingkinder.

The child was completely at the mercy of whatever family got them. Some children got lucky and were given to families that treated them well, but often they were barely fed, barely clothed, and physically and sexually abused. Some children attempted escape, but they usually could not find a sympathetic ear. Where could they go? The entire country was in on it.

Not only that, but after reaching adulthood, the verdingkinder that hadn't committed suicide (and many did) had to live with a heavy stigma. Not only did they now lack an education, not only were their career options largely limited to whatever it is they did in the field, but once someone found out they were a verdingkinder, they were looked down upon, as if they had committed a crime and their time as a verdingkinder was their punishment. As a result, most verdingkinder just tried not to talk about it. In fact, when journalist and former verdingkinder Turi Honegger was writing a book about the practice in 1991, he was advised by his publisher to tone the book down, because the publisher didn't think anyone would believe this was a thing that had happened in Switzerland.

This episode in Swiss history is not very well-documented, though as the AP article notes, efforts are now underway to change that using those verdingkinder who are still alive, which is estimated to be as many as 30,000 people. There is also a campaign underway for an official apology- the government is reluctant to talk about it as well- as well as reparations in the form of back pay for all that unpaid labor.

As a first step, though, historian Marco Leuenberger, whose father was a verdingkinder and who has been heading up the effort to document what went on, would be happy with just getting the story out and seeing former verdingkinder step forward. (If you read German, Leuenberger has written a book, Versorgt und vergessen - Ehemalige Verdingkinder erzählen.)

Hope this helps, Marco.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

American Idiot

Something you may or may not know about Time Magazine is that they make covers for each of four regions every time they put out an issue: U.S., Europe, Asia, and South Pacific. Often, these will all be the same cover. However, sometimes they won't. For any of a variety of reasons- importance to the region, what they think will sell copies, whatever- the cover will often be changed to suit the needs of the region.

The December 5th, 2011 issue of Time, though, is an illustration of what some suspect is a much more distressing reason to change the cover: dumbing it down for the Americans. For Europe, Asia and South Pacific, as you can see here, the cover story picked was 'Revolution Redux', concerning the Egyptian military taking such control of the country that it's spurred a possible second revolution there. The U.S. cover, meanwhile: "Why Anxiety Is Good For You (as long as you know how to use it)".

Knowing this, I went through the archive of cover comparisons, as far back as I could, and while there have been some occasions where the U.S. actually came out ahead on the headline, or where it's been something of a wash, after a while the trend does show that, for whatever reason, Time doesn't think Americans can handle the hard stuff. Other regions also will run some of the subpar American covers separately; however, they will do it a few weeks later, after running covers of more pressing matters. The U.S. will get them first.

Frequently, one region's cover story won't even be included in another region's issue at all. You can do the math.

I have thus compiled a list of the 20 most egregious dumbing-downs Time has inflicted on their American readers in the last five years, including that of the December 5th issue. Prior to that, the U.S. cover was usually copied for the South Pacific, which for our purposes disqualified it. To qualify for inclusion, the U.S. version could not be the same as any of the other three regions, so cases where two regions ran one cover and the other two regions ran a second cover are out, even if the U.S. came out with the worse of the two.

At the start, it's bad, but not quite as bad as it could have been. Towards the end, it is.

#20- 6/22/2009
Europe: "Why Britain Wants To See The Back of Gordon Brown".
Asia/South Pacific: "Containing Kim Jong Il".
U.S.: "How Not To End Up Here", "here" being a hospital bed.

#19- 5/25/2009
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "How Pakistan Let Itself Down".
U.S.: "The Future Of Work".

#18- 1/12/2009
Europe/South Pacific: "Again", concerning fighting on the Gaza Strip.
Asia: "Democracy: Why it's failing in Asia and how it can be helped".
U.S.: "Why We Need To See The Light About Energy Efficiency".

#17- 7/16/2007
Europe/Asia: "Keeping An Eye On Terror", concerning an increase in security measures in Britain.
South Pacific: "Culture of Violence", concerning ethnic gang violence in New Zealand.
U.S.: "How We Get Addicted".

#16- 3/7/2011
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Last Stand", concerning Moammar Gahdafi.
U.S.: "Understanding Pain".

#15- 9/28/2009
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "China's Moment", concerning the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic.
U.S.: "Mad Man", concerning Glenn Beck, who on the cover is sticking out his tongue.

#14- 4/6/2009
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "All Together Now (Please?)", concerning the then-upcoming G-20 summit and the issues facing the countries therein.
U.S.: "The End Of Excess: Why This Crisis Is Good For America".

#13- 11/29/2010
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "The Lady Returns", concerning the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.
U.S.: "Who Needs Marriage?"

#12- 10/3/2011
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Why Germany Can't Save The World", concerning the Eurozone.
U.S. "Why Mom Liked you Best: The Science of Favoritism".

#11- 4/19/2010
Europe/South Pacific: "Why Britain's Election Should Be About Her", "her" referring to a representative female soldier on the cover.
Asia: "Obama's China Challenge".
U.S.: "Should Schools Bribe Kids?"

#10- 9/20/2010
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Pakistan's Despair", concerning the aftermath of massive flooding in that country.
U.S.: "What Makes A School Great?"

#9- 8/18/08
Europe/South Pacific: "Ethiopia's Harvest of Hunger".
Asia: "Beijing: 8/8/08", concerning the Beijing Olympics.
U.S.: "Rick Warren: The Purpose Driven Pastor".

#8- 2/8/2010
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Haiti: The Aftermath".
U.S.: "The Most Dangerous Game", referring to football.

#7- 2/2/2007
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Talibanistan".
U.S.: "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School (but very, very carefully)".

#6- 7/5/2010
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Seeking Refuge", concerning the growing difficulties of people seeking asylum around the world.
U.S.: "The History Issue: Thomas Edison".

#5- 1/28/2008
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Ny-lon-kong", concerning how New York, London and Hong Kong drive the global economy.
U.S.: "The Science of Romance".

#4- 10/24/2011
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Why The U.S. Will Never Save Afghanistan".
U.S.: "The Return of the Silent Majority".

#3- 8/8/2011
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "Travels Through Islam".
U.S.: "Chore Wars".

#2- 12/5/2011
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: 'Revolution Redux', concerning the Egyptian military.
U.S.: "Why Anxiety Is Good For You (as long as you know how to use it)"

#1- 9/14/2009
Europe/Asia/South Pacific: "The Global Economy: One Year Later".
U.S.: "Jay Leno Is The Future Of Television. Seriously!"