Monday, January 31, 2011

The Nika Riots

It is one week to the Super Bowl, and while Packers and Steelers fans are plenty passionate, win or lose, one can reasonably expect both sides to retain enough composure to refrain from overturning cars or breaking storefront windows. And even if they can't, they certainly won't band together and threaten to overthrow the Bears-loving Obama administration.

You know where we're going with this, right?

Back in the Roman Empire, and continuing into the Byzantine, chariot racing was one of the sports of choice. There were four chariot teams in Istanbul (then Constantinople)- the Reds, Blues, Greens and Whites; however, at the time we'll be looking at, the Blues and Greens had basically killed off the Reds and Whites. The fans were passionate beyond almost anything in modern times, with rivalries going far past Yankees-Red Sox and more along the lines of Partizan-Red Star, as team members tended to take political views as well, often shouting these views during races.

It didn't help that, in previous years, emperor Anastasius had abolished two other sources of entertainment, the venationes (animal hunts) and pantomimes (a tad raunchier than the mimes we know today), which put even more importance on the chariots than usual.

On January 10, 532 CE (remember, it's not BC and AD anymore; it's BCE and CE), some Blue and Green partisans were to be hanged for murders that had happened during a recent bout of hooliganism. Most were. For one Blue and one Green, though, the hanging was botched, and they managed to escape into a church.

Justinian, the current emperor (and a Blue supporter), was not a giving man. Taxes didn't quite go far enough for him. When someone rich died, Justinian was prone to claiming that their will left him all their money. When a noble was held for ransom, Justinian claimed that the noble agreed with his decision to not pay the ransom, and then took the ransom money himself. He confiscated military bonuses, claiming that he won the peace and the soldiers should be happy to reward him.

Each faction was more than willing to help their fellow partisan out, and since there was one Blue and one Green, there was a united mob protecting the two, calling for them to be pardoned. When Justinian instead only commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, the Blues and Greens had a literally old-fashioned sports riot, with fires set all over Constantinople. Three days later, another race day was held at the Hippodrome, the stadium these races were held at and which Justianian's palace conveniently overlooked.

The people had plenty of gripes with the emperor, and while this wasn't their greatest concern, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. Instead of shouts in favor of the Blues or Greens, everyone shouted 'Nika'- 'victory' or 'conquer'- towards the palace. It wasn't hard to figure out what they wanted to conquer. Justinian certainly knew. There was a five-day bout of rioting. The situation was serious enough that some opportunistic senators declared a new emperor, Green supporter Hypatius. Again, a mob formed around the two partisans, but this time, when they were refused, the prison was burned down with the two inside, as was, among other things, the Hagia Sophia.

Justinian ran for his life, taking along his inner circle, including his wife, Theodora. But on the way to exile, Theodora stopped and stirred Justinian's resolve, expressing that she would rather die than run. The exact quote appears in question, but here we'll go with "Purple is a fine burial shroud." Well, if the wife was willing to fight, Justinian couldn't well run now, could he?

Part of the inner circle were two of Justinian's best generals, Belisarius and Mundus, who the emperor quickly put to use, as well as a eunuch, Narsus. Narsus was sent alone to Hypatius' coronation at the Hippodrome, the base of operations, with a bag of gold, and confronted the Blues with the reminder that Justinian was a Blue himself, while Hypatius was a Green.

This proved persuasive. The Blues, after some discussion, walked out of the coronation. The Greens couldn't believe it.

Meanwhile, Belisarius and Mundus had maneuvered themselves to opposite ends of the Hippodrome, sealing in the Greens and any Blues that were still there. Every rioter still in the Hippodrome after the walkout was slaughtered, totaling some 30,000 dead.

That was that. Justinian had reasserted control. Just to be safe, he also executed the senators who put Hypatius up as emperor, as well as Hypatius himself. He was in fact stronger than when the whole mess had started; he would never be so threatened again. Much of that money he had built up, along with a whole lot more he would proceed to take, would be put towards rebuilding Constantinople.

If you're in Istanbul, stop by and check out the work he had done on the Hagia Sophia.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Disney Aging Process

Last July, we discussed here the struggles Miley Cyrus was having in her transition from a child into an adult. It was theorized that a major contributing factor to her difficulties was the fact that her formative years were stunted via Disney imposing a heavily-regulated teenhood in order to maximize her marketability.

She is not the first teenager to be put through the Disney teen idol machine and not come out quite right on the other side. Nor is she the last.

Just ask Demi Lovato, one of the next teen idols in line. Her vehicles are the series Sonny With A Chance, and the movie series Camp Rock, in which she co-starred with the Jonas Brothers. In October, during a world tour with the Jonas Brothers, Lovato cracked. Lovato had been bullied so badly in school that she pulled out and took up home schooling. Self-image problems had led to her cutting herself, an incident that her camp passed off as candy jewelry leaving an indent. Further teasing during the tour, in which she was called 'Demi Drama', plus the fact that she had recently broken up with Joe Jonas but still had to share a concert tour with him, plus a promotional blitz for Camp Rock 2, eventually all proved too much, culminating in an airport in Peru where Lovato reportedly got into an "altercation" with a backup dancer and made threats to Joe's new girlfriend.

Unlike other Disney teen idols, though, Lovato did not sweep the incident under the rug so as to continue the tour and the show. Instead, she pulled out of the tour, cleared her schedule completely, and on November 1, she checked into a treatment center in Chicago, spending three months pulling herself back together, remaining at the center even while she won two People's Choice Awards in absentia. Yesterday, Lovato completed her stay in the treatment center and will now begin an outpatient program back at home in Los Angeles; she reportedly appeared fairly chipper upon her return. There is no timetable for her return to Sonny With A Chance as of yet; it's not yet certain that there will even be a return.

I'm proud of her for sticking to the program, and more importantly, I'm proud of her having the guts to admit she needed help. That's an extremely hard thing to admit for a lot of people. But at the same time, I can't comfortably stomach the prospect of her returning to Sonny With A Chance. She'd be going back into the Disney machine that put her into the treatment center in the first place. I don't want them to do that to her again. It's a bit scary that, in their story about her release, the Examiner asked "How happy are you that Demi is back in a more accessible position yet again?", a question that carries some troubling connotations.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm not a kid anymore myself. When you're the age that Disney is targeting with these shows- when you're the age to star in these shows- you don't know any better. You're really not supposed to. You're just asked to sit and enjoy the childhood escapist 'what do you want to be when you grow up' fantasy of being a rock star or a wizard or a psychic or the object of affection for a cute guy or girl. You're asked to cheer on these little kids who are big stars, made possible through Disney. But when you grow out of it, when you enter college or the workforce, those fantasies fade. You can't be a teenage rock star. You're not a teenager. What do you want to be when you grow up? You're grown up now and you're some schlub flipping burgers at McDonald's.

I remember when I had that epiphany. For me, it was Chuck E. Cheese's. Back in my childhood, we'd go there for my birthday, unless I got sick, which was fairly often because my luck with such matters was awful back then. We'd go a couple other times as well, and when we did, it was the most fun in the world- the ball pit, the pizza, the arcade games, and there was Chuck E. Cheese himself singing on stage.

Then after a hiatus, we went one last time in my early-mid teens, I want to say around age 15. This last time, though, things seemed... different. The ball pit seemed too small. That's odd, it seemed so much bigger last time. The games seemed fairly expensive. That's strange, I never noticed the price before. Chuck E. Cheese wasn't singing anything good, and also, he was some stupid animatronic robot. And this pizza is terrible. How do people eat this stuff?! The prizes you could buy with the tickets you won at the games weren't even any good, even though they were largely the same kind of prizes as last time.

I may have only been in my teens, but I spent the next few days feeling very, very old.

In a similar way, with age came altered feelings about teen idols. Once, they were the stars of shows I knew and... well, not really loved; I was more about Nickelodeon back then- Salute Your Shorts, Clarissa Explains It All, Hey Dude, Secret World of Alex Mack. The basic concept is the same, though. I knew them almost by heart at the time. But as time progressed, the older names faded (quick, who played Alex Mack? What's she done since?), and I became more aware of the kind of all-consuming vortex that a child had to step into in order to achieve that kind of ultimately temporary stardom, I went from cheering them on as a peer, to finding them annoying as a comparative elder, to ultimately feeling sorry for them, hoping less that their respective vehicles do well and more that the stars can merely hang on and come out of the other end of the machine as well-adjusted adults.

They're kids. They never had any idea what being a teen idol actually entailed. They didn't know any better.

They were never really supposed to.

Friday, January 28, 2011

'Yeehaw' In A Dignified Context

Earlier this month, we talked about Hobe Sound, Florida, which in an attempt to become the next Hollywood changed its name to Picture City. They are not the only Florida city to change their name.

There's a good possibility that, if you've been to Orlando, you've stopped in nearby Yeehaw Junction at some point, if only for coupons. It's a tiny town, so you probably took 'Yeehaw' as a sign that you're in the sticks. In fact, there are two schools of thought about where 'Yeehaw' came from: a mule, or the Creek Indian word for 'wolf'.

It's still a step up from the previous name: Jackass Junction.

This was absolutely a mule-related name- mules were used to haul lumber back when the town got roads in the 1930's- but you could also pin it to the patrons of the Desert Inn, which was, let's not mince words, a whorehouse. And the local watercooler.

This was fine when there were no tourists around. Eventually, of course, tourists came. So did the Florida Turnpike. A town called "Jackass Junction" was not good for business. In 1957, the state legislature ordered Jackass Junction to change their name.

One can imagine how gritted the teeth were as they accepted the new name.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

We're Gonna Need More Fingers

The governor of Jakarta, Indonesia, Fauzi Bowo, is announcing plans to combat the sea, and the fact that Jakarta is sinking 6 millimeters- two inches- per year due to pumping water from an underground reservoir, by constructing a giant dike, not unlike what you'd see in the Netherlands or New Orleans. Bowo isn't entirely sure how this is going to work as of yet, but there isn't any time to waste. The sea levels in the Jakarta bay area are currently rising at just under the same rate that Jakarta is sinking- 5.7 millimeters per year, far outpacing the global average of 1-2. That adds up to the sea gaining 11.7 millimeters, or four inches, on Jakarta per year. Currently, 40% of Jakarta sits below sea level.

Doesn't sound like much? Imagine getting pelted one day with a storm that dumps four inches of rain on you. Now imagine that the next year, you get hit with an identical storm. And then another one the next year. And another. And another.

Now imagine that none of the water from any of these storms ever, ever drains away. In just three years, that's a foot of water you've been socked with that you're just going to have to live with from that day forward, unless you find a way to get rid of it yourself.

Most of you are fully aware of this, particularly the overseas readers. You're not the ones that analogy was for.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

For Science!

Science experiment day here at RHNF... dear God, now that I look at it, that acronym is awful and I am never using it again. It looks like what a dog would say when it's trying to bark at the mailman with a mouth full of marshmallows. 'Rhnf! Rhnf!'

Today, we are making a fire tornado. Needless to say, if you are considering trying this at home, please refer yourselves to the sentence below the title of this blog.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Possible Egyptian Revolution

There are mass protests in Egypt right now, far too many for police to handle. Heir apparent Gamar Mubarek is thought to have fled to London, though that is not confirmed. Things are moving way too fast for us to keep up here; head to the Guardian for the latest.

With Tunisia and Lebanon in protest mode as well, the western Middle East and North Africa are going even further off the rails than usual.

The First Re-Election Campaign (As Far As We Know)

In ancient Babylon, the new year, at least according to their calendar (think about the time of the spring equinox), was marked by the Akitu Festival. The festival lasted for 12 days, or nearly a third of our modern year-ending Christmas festival. As part of this festival, the king had to face re-election.

Democracy, however, had not been invented yet. Early in civilization, rulers positioned themselves as having the favor of the gods as rationale for being ruler. If things were going well, the gods must like the man in charge. This led to some quick deposings when things weren't going well, because the rest of the populace could figure out for themselves what that must have therefore meant.

On the fifth day of the Akitu festival, the king was therefore required to present himself inside the temple of the primary Babylonian god, Marduk, and the temple's high priest. The priest would strip the king of all his vestments, his crown, his scepter, anything that would identify him as a king.

Then the priest would slap the king in the face. Hard. Just rear up and let him have it. Potentially, he'd be slapped again, and again, and again, until the pain caused him to produce tears. According to Julye Bidmead in The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia, the king was actually slapped at two separate points during the ritual, the first prior to even entering the temple. There was also ear-pulling, just in case the slapping didn't do it.

This was done to humble the king. You may be a king, but your god can and will backhand you on an annual basis and you can't do anything about it. You still answer to someone. Keep that in mind when you get back to work.

At this point, the king would, in tears of course, kneel before Marduk and proclaim to the people that he had not done anything wrong in the previous year. He had not stolen from the treasury. He had not allowed Babylon to be conquered, or its city walls to be breached. He had not lied to the people. He had not humiliated the people, or struck them in the face.

How ironic.

After this proclamation was complete, then, and only then, was he given back his vestments and allowed to resume his regency.

The end result was a foregone conclusion, the humiliation a mere prelude to another year of rule. But some people would still probably trade their current election cycle for a chance to slap the guy in charge once a year with no repercussions.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Green And Yellow Edition

First off, clearly, this must be done.

And an NFC Champions shirt must be bought. That done, an addition to the Rapid-Fire Book Club was done in the meantime; there was a Barnes & Noble gift card that needed a workout.

Bathroom Readers' Institute- Uncle John's Bathroom Reader: Colossal Collection of Quotable Quotes
Fuller, Alexandra- Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (suggested by someone on a Fark thread)
Grant, John- Discarded Science: Ideas That Seemed Good at the Time...
Sass, Erik; Wiegand, Steve- The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits

In addition, my birthday brought three Penny Arcade collections: The Warsun Prophecies, Birds Are Weird, and The Case of the Mummy's Gold, which makes that a complete set of the first six books there.

In conclusion, in the interest of equal time, here is the Steelers' equivalent song.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Random News Generator- Russia

A five-story mall in Ufa, Russia went up in flames yesterday, injuring 15 people and killing two, according to RIA Novosti. One of the injured, a 27-year-old man, is in serious condition with burns to 34% of his body. An official with the Emergency Ministry has stated a possibility of the roof collapsing.

Officials still aren't entirely sure what happened to trigger the fire, though it seems that whatever happened, it caused an explosion, perhaps from a gas tank in a restaurant. The possible causes appear to have been narrowed down, however, to either a short circuit, mishandling of fire, or violation of fire safety rules.

As RIA Novosti explains, this would make the Ufa fire an all-too-common incident in Russia. They atate an annual death toll of 15,000 Russians per year due to fires, which with an estimated national population of 141,850,000, works out to 10.57 deaths per 100,000 people. In comparison, page 6, table 4 of this PDF file shows the rates for 25 developed nations, the most deadly of which is Hungary at 1.98 deaths per 100,000, followed by Finland at 1.87 and Japan at 1.67. Singapore, the safest, shows at 0.19 deaths per 100,000, followed by the Netherlands and Switzerland at 0.47 each.

And that's a Russian source's death count. External sources seem to gravitate towards "up to 18,000" per year. That would push the total to a potential 12.69 per 100,000.

Why is Russia burning so brightly? The chief cause is subpar safety standards, aggravated by corruption and bribery. Barely a fire in Russia goes reported without some mention of the poor safety record. Stories like this occur with depressing regularity. The forests are prone as well, with a particularly bad heatwave last year leading to wildfires that wiped entire villages off the map. However, despite the continual pressure to improve matters, fires in Russia are something of a longstanding tradition, as Cathy A. Frierson explored in her 2004 book, All Russia Is Burning!

The tradition does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever Releases On May 3

If you're not a gamer, it is almost impossible to express the significance of this news in the videogame world. But let us try.

The average lifespan of a videogame console is roughly five years. In this time, oountless games are developed for these consoles, most in far less time. Sports games, for example, are commonly on an annual development cycle. Developers experiment with the new hardware, come up with ways to use the hardware, push it to its limits, and eventually find those limits, all within those five years, through the development of game after game after game. If a game actually takes five years to develop, it's seen as a torturously slow process, usually rife with speculation on whether the game will be made at all.

Duke Nukem Forever's development cycle is 13 years. It was first announced in 1997. That means that, over the course of its development, it has had to technologically revamp itself completely, twice, to account for two new console generations, as well as 13 years of advancement in personal computers. It is getting cheered not for the content of the game (about as raunchy and violent as you'd expect a product with roots firmly in the 90's to be), or through any belief that the game will be good. There's been next to no discussion of that. It is getting cheered simply for being a completed product that will be available in stores. It's like a last-place finisher at a marathon who got beat by a bunch of people that decided on a whim to run the route three hours after it started.

In Duke Nukem Forever's case, the marathoner was found laying drunk on the curbside at the 18-mile mark, loaded into a taxi, and driven to the finish line. Original publisher 3D Realms originally planned to release it in the summer of 1998, and then spent the next decade-plus goofing off and having Nerf gun battles. Occasionally, every few years, the slightest, smallest, most pathetically puny piece of content would be released to the public that only served to underscore just how little was actually going on and provide even more comedy fodder.

In September 2010, 3D Realms ceased to exist. Another developer, Gearbox, took over the license and, unlike 3D Realms, decided they'd actually like to ship a product. On May 3, fingers crossed, we'll finally have one.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Other Other Hollywood

If you're reasonably up on your trivia, you might know that there's a Hollywood in Florida. If you know that much, you have almost certainly, at some point, used it as part of some lame joke in which Hollywood, Florida is mistaken for Hollywood, California.

You've probably also mistaken it for some trailer-park backwater, probably somewhere in the panhandle. In fact, it is the twelfth-largest city in the state, housing over 140,000 people, and is quite firmly part of the same South Florida metropolitan area that includes Miami. A first-time visitor to Miami could get sufficiently lost to stumble into Hollywood without even realizing it.

Were you to get even more lost, and travel north out of the metro completely, fairly soon you might find yourself in Hobe Sound. At only 11,000 people, and with a much less-developed oceanside, Hobe Sound might come a lot closer to your initial vision of Hollywood, Florida, though it's still not a trailer-park town.

What you would never guess is that Hobe Sound put a lot more effort into becoming the next Hollywood, California than Hollywood, Florida ever did.

Thomas Edison, as you had better be well-aware, was a very proficient inventor. One of those inventions was the motion picture. He was the first to get it to work, patenting the 'kinetoscope' in 1888, even though the groundwork had been laid as early as Leland Stanford. However, he was not the only one with a patent relating to motion pictures, and since this was a new, major thing, not a small bit of chaos resulted. Imagine if Microsoft had a patent on video game consoles, Nintendo had a patent on video games themselves, and Sony had a patent on the CD's the games were printed on. It's not a perfect analogy, but it'll hold up long enough for us to proceed. The rivalries were largely sorted out in 1908, when many of the competing companies banded together to form the Thomas Edison Motion Picture Patents Company with an eye towards creating a monopoly, and made everyone in the budding film industry pay them licensing fees in order to remain in business.

Some paid, and play no further part in this story. Some didn't. Those that didn't, the "independents," chose to run far, far away from the prying eyes of Edison, or any other authority that might make them pay up.

But where to go? It had to be far from Menlo Park, obviously. Another factor that went into the decision was local climate. Since they are picking out a preferred location, it might as well be friendly to filmmaking. Someplace warm. Someplace with nice weather. Someplace with a variety of settings they could use.

Someplace like Hollywood, California. Here, the independents could work with plenty of lead time on the authorities and develop their craft-- producing, distributing and exhibiting. When Edison threatened the supply of film used by an exhibitor, the exhibitor would just start making their own films and proceed merrily along. Eventually, the courts struck down the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1915 as part of the trust-busting movement, but by then they were more or less rendered moot anyway.

What does any of this have to do with Hobe Sound? In the 1920's, Florida, then a very rural state, experienced a land boom. As part of this land boom, Hobe Sound, like the rest of the state, got some fairly grand ideas in their head. They wanted to become the next Hollywood. Led by the Olympia Improvement Corporation, streets were renamed after the Greek pantheon. The town was renamed "Picture City." Fancy lightposts were built. Building construction was started all over town.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers would never get a chance to arrive. While construction was still underway, the land boom collapsed in 1926. Two years later, the Okeechobee hurricane, currently the 9th-deadliest Atlantic hurricane of all time, slammed into Florida. There was no way they were going to be the next Hollywood now. Picture City was changed back to Hobe Sound.

Not that fate was done with them yet. A year after that, as if to rub salt in the wound, the Great Depression hit.

No studio ever got built. The street names remained, the lightposts remained, but that was about it. To this day, the town has remained virtually untouched by the filmmakers they were trying to attract, with the only released feature film ever shot there being the 1972 movie Charcoal Black. Hobe Sound went back to being the sleepy oceanside town it was before and remains today.

Meanwhile, Hollywood, Florida, primarily by virtue of being a Miami suburb, has attracted a number of filmmakers, among them Martin Scorsese, who used the town as part of the backdrop for his 1991 remake of Cape Fear, starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange. So was The Hours, a 2002 Best Picture nominee. Among the other productions that have used Hollywood, Florida: Midnight Cowboy, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Striptease, and episodes of Burn Notice and Dexter.

Some cities have all the luck.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

We Don't Know Jack 2.0

As a follow-up to yesterday's bit about the civics test, I decided to go find a test that was more than 10 questions. As it happens, the History Channel has a 96-question remake of the official citizenship test here.

I got 93 of the questions correct, though it should be 94 because I misclicked on the 'who was the first President' question. Either way it's an easy pass; as far as the naturalization people are concerned, I breezed through it. In the actual test, you are given 10 questions, and you must get six correct to pass. That option is available through the link. But we're thorough around here, so you need 58 correct to pass on the full test. That shouldn't be any trouble for actual citizens. It will be, as we've seen far too often, but it shouldn't. This is the minimum we ask of people asking to come here, so the people already here should lay waste to the damn thing.

An important word of note: this particular test is as of the period immediately prior to the November election. That will come into play during the test.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cable News

It's been way too long since we checked in with the diplomatic cables coming from Wikileaks. Perhaps you don't like Julian Assange. Fair enough. He's quite the hateable person. It doesn't change the content of the leaks themselves, as Berry Smutny just found out when a leak came out referring to the Galileo project, a European competitor to GPS, as "a stupid idea that primarily serves French interests." Smutny is chief of OHB Technology, which won a contract to make 14 Galileo satellites. He's been suspended; most say fired.

Or ask Tunisia. 10 days prior to the utter collapse of the Tunisian government, a supposedly innocuous gossip cable came out describing the ruling family as corrupt, widely hated and out of touch. Innocuous to us. Enough in Tunisia to serve as a flashpoint of protest, and in turn enough to cause the chaos we've since seen.

US officials are privately saying the damage from Wikileaks is limited, at least as far as they're concerned. Those in northern Africa might beg to differ.

Or, while we're at it, Panama. Or South Africa.

So far, 2,444 cables of the 250,000-and-change have come from Wikileaks itself, though two places, Aftenposten and Die Welt, have copies of the entire stack and are making their own leaks at their respective paces.

That said, here's a quick roundup of other recent leaks...

*The Dominican Republic was afraid of the return of Baby Doc Duvalier as of 2006, and didn't want him returning through them. (He of course has returned, was quickly arrested, and is now waiting to see if he will face trial, which is a likely prospect.)
*A German thinktank, the Institute for Security and International Affairs, advised the US to sabotage Iranian nuclear sites, saying covert operations would be "more effective than a military strike".
*Turkey was used by the US for extraordinary rendition. I know. Big shocker. Look at the shock.
*Costa Rica: not as easy-going and neutral as you might think. They're not big fans of Venezuela.
*Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom referred to Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu as a "fabrication" of Elizabeth Burgos, who wrote Menchu's biography.
*Iran made arms deals with North Korea, and the money went through a bank in Seoul.
*Nepal was worried, as of 2005, that failure by the US to support King Gyandendra Shah could lead to the country being overtaken by a Maoist faction.
*Right before Iceland's economy went belly-up, Timothy Geithner got a letter that started "Dear Tim, could the federal reserve lend Iceland $1 billion?" (They couldn't.)
*Colombia is not keen on free trade with China, as of 2009 at least, on fears that China will pretty much run them over.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We Don't Know Jack

One of my least favorite stories to have to read is the one where someone gives a civics quiz to the American public and then has to report that America failed miserably. You know the ones, where it turns out that half the people can't find their home state on a map, 30% think the Bill of Rights was written by a mind-reading chicken, 25% identify Abraham Lincoln as "perhaps a type of building material", etc.

Well, here's the latest one. This one, however, has a twist on the concept: a subset of the people polled was a group that had been elected to office at some point in their lives.

The general public scored 49% on the quiz.

The elected officials scored 44%.

Ten questions from the quiz are here, click that if you don't want some of the questions spoiled by the article). Without revealing question or answer, I missed Question 6 but got everything else correct. Americans in the audience, please, please PLEASE tell me you can get more than five right.

Today's Handy Home Redecoration Tip

Never pull the pin on a grenade unless you would like the grenade to explode. It doesn't matter how old the grenade is.

Also, do not use grenades as bookends. You know what, in fact, don't even keep grenades in the house at all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Self

I turn 26 today, and as such, I claim perogative to post Weird Al and knock off early.

Hey, at least I'm honest about it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Primarying The President

In a discussion yesterday on Facebook, I was linked up by Kevin Zeese to this interview given to The Nation by Russ Feingold, who as you may recall was defeated in November by Ron Johnson. The reaction of a couple of Zeese's friends was sharply negative because during the interview, Feingold stated his support for President Obama's renomination in 2012, or at least, his reluctance to support a primary campaign against him.

Zeese is a Green, and ran as such in 2006 for a Senate seat in Maryland- he of course lost or he'd be in the Senate right now instead of eventual winner Ben Cardin- and so are, to a large degree, Zeese's friends. They aren't Obama fans, viewing him as too conservative, and when I stated that Obama was not going to draw a serious primary challenger, I received a fierce denunciation from one person who proceeded to call me a "Reagan Democrat".

First, it must be said that this assertion, as liberal as I am, is not entirely off base. While today, knowing what I do, Ronald Reagan would never receive my vote, hindsight is 20/20. Had I been alive (I was born in 1985) and been eligible to vote in Reagan's election years of 1980 and 1984, I have to admit that Reagan would have gotten votes out of me on both occasions. On Election Day 1980, I imagine I'd have been mighty skeptical of incumbent Jimmy Carter's performance- the oil crisis, boycotting the Olympics, stagflation, the swimming rabbit- and would not have had all the information about the hostage crisis in Iran, which was dominating news at the time. As a result, I'd probably have booted him out. As for 1984... Walter Mondale. What a disaster he was. It wasn't that Reagan was particularly great or anything, merely that his opposition had imploded in front of him.

So I guess you could call me a Reagan Democrat. Or a Reagan Green- I identify more with the Green platform, but caucus Democratic for primarily strategic purposes. But you get the idea. Anyway. That established.

The point I was intending to make was not simply that Obama would not receive a serious primary challenge. My point- or as we should probably restate at this point, my hypothesis- was that Presidents just don't get seriously primaried. It's almost a perk of the office. You usually only really get one shot in your life at the White House, unless you are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Richard Nixon or Bush 41, in which you get two, or unless you are Ronald Reagan, in which you get three. You need to spend so much political capital, call in so many favors, and it is such a power struggle at that high level that even when you get to the top, it's a damn hard thing to stay there. If you go for it and lose, you may never get another shot. So unless you are drafted into the race, you have to keep your powder dry and wait for the most opportune possible moment.

When your party is in the White House, taking on the incumbent President, one-on-one, is not an opportune moment. At least, not if you would like to remain significantly involved in politics. God help you if you lose and the incumbent retains.

This is not to say incumbent Presidents don't get primary challengers. Just not good ones. That's the hypothesis, anyway.

But again, this is something that needs to be shown. It's not something people look at a lot, and it's really along the lines of conventional wisdom. I'd hate to look stupid.

So I need to back up my argument. What The Royal We must do is to examine all previous years in which an incumbent President has stood for re-election. Every President has either been a Vice President, Senator, House representative, Governor, Cabinet member (and Hoover's the only one that wasn't State or War/Defense) or an Army general, so you can't just grab a guy off the street and have him go 'But I AM serious!'. It's got to be someone of stature. Additional information is often needed to determine if someone is truly a threat (Nancy Pelosi would, for example, serve as a greater challenge to Obama than Laura Richardson, even though they're both House members from California), but generally this is what you're looking for.

Sound good?

1792: George Washington, who identified with no party, ran unopposed by either side and was in fact coaxed out of retiring to engage in the second term.

1800: John Adams, a Federalist, was the incumbent. He drew two primary opponents- Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, former ambassador to France, and John Jay, governor of New York. Pinckney became Adams' running mate.

1804: Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.

1812: James Madison, a Democratic-Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.

1820: James Monroe, a Democratic-Republican, was the incumbent, and ran unopposed by either side.

1828: John Quincy Adams, a Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.

1832: Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.

1840: Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.

1852: Millard Fillmore, a Whig, was the incumbent. He had taken over after the death of Zachary Taylor, and historically, these Presidents have had a hard time gaining respect. He did draw opposition, and was in fact defeated for renomination by Army general Winfield Scott. Daniel Webster, a former Senator, a legendary one, in fact, also sought the nomination.

1856: Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, was the incumbent, and really, when the party's official campaign slogan became "Anybody But Pierce", he really should have bowed out and saved himself the embarrassment. He didn't. James Buchanan, who came in as ambassador to Great Britain, won the nomination and the White House. Also involved were Senators Stephen Douglas and Lewis Cass. Cass wasn't running- he had missed on his chance in 1848- but drew a few votes at the convention anyway.

1864: Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was the incumbent. He was basically unopposed for renomination. There was some initial question as to his re-electability, and a smattering of support for Army general Ulysses S. Grant, but the war turned in Lincoln's direction and the Grant issue was solved by taking Andrew Johnson as a running mate. We'll call it opposition, but you can't really call it serious, especially due to the fact that Lincoln would have crushed Grant anyway.

1868: Despite coming one vote away from being thrown out of office, Andrew Johnson, who again, had taken over after the death of Lincoln, still thought for some reason he could get renominated. 13 opponents begged to differ. 22 ballots were cast at the convention; Johnson never led or threatened to, and stopped getting voted for after ballot 18. Former House representative George Pendleton led early on; Army general Winfield Hancock and Senator Thomas Hendricks deadlocked late; former Governor Horatio Seymour became the compromise nominee.

1872: Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.

1884: Chester A. Arthur, a Republican, was the incumbent, and defeated by former Senator James G. Blaine. Two other Senators, George Edmunds and John Logan, also sought the nomination. Arthur, again, was an heir of a White House vacated by death, in this case James Garfield.

1888: Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.

1892: Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, was the incumbent. He saw opposition by Governor William McKinley and Secretary of State James G. Blaine, but he had already taken his shot as the nominee in 1884 and lost, and by this time was easily defeatable by Harrison, especially because he was drafted into the race but did not run himself, and because McKinley had sucked up enough votes to kickstart his own 1896 election. Which was just as well; Blaine died in January 1893. It wasn't really serious opposition. More like showpiece opposition. These were the days where when you wanted someone else at the convention, you just went and voted like it, as opposed to the current practice of the nominee being hashed out well in advance and becoming nominated by acclimation.

1900: McKinley, now the Republican incumbent, was unopposed for renomination.

1904: Theodore Roosevelt, the latest ascendant President, was opposed by Senator Mark Hanna, but Hanna died prior to the convention and no additional opposition stepped up.

1912: This was the first year of primary elections, and two Republicans decided to take a run at William Howard Taft: former President Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Robert LaFollette. Taft was Roosevelt's handpicked successor, so the fact that Roosevelt, who put him in, was trying to take him back out was, you could say, a slightly serious challenge. LaFollette was no slouch either, winning two of the first four primaries. Taft won a bitter nomination, leading to Roosevelt forming the Bull Moose Party and gaining 88 electoral votes to Taft's 8. Woodrow Wilson was perfectly happy watching the two cancel each other out and claiming the other 435.

1916: Wilson was unopposed for renomination.

1924: Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, was the incumbent. He had taken over for Warren Harding, and the party had no problem with him. LaFollette was in the mix, as was Senator Hiram Johnson, but both had already made unsuccessful runs and were never really in it.

1932: Herbert Hoover, a Republican, was the incumbent. Against the party's better judgment, and also because Hoover had a lockdown on the party, he was renominated without much debate and with only token opposition from obscure former Senator Joseph Irwin France. And boy did they pay for not finding someone else.

1936: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, was the incumbent. His only challenger was Henry Breckenridge, who 20 years prior had been Assistant Secretary of War and in 1934 ran for a Senate seat in New York as part of the "Constitutionalist Party" but came in fifth, getting doubled up by the Communist. He got predictably smothered in the primaries.

1940: Roosevelt was always going to draw a challenge by virtue of being the guy that broke the then-unwritten rule of a two-term limit. In fact, some geared up on speculation that he wouldn't try it. In this case, former Postmaster General James Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner took their shots, and Senator Millard Tydings and Secretary of State Cordell Hull also drew votes at the convention, but Roosevelt, once confirmed that he would run, took them all out with no trouble.

1944: Roosevelt was unopposed this time.

1948: Harry Truman, a Democrat, did see a movement to drop him by party leaders who preferred Army general Dwight Eisenhower. When Eisenhower declined, though, Truman's renomination was assured. However, that didn't stop conventioneers from casting votes for Senators Richard Russell or eventual running mate Alben Barkley, or West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore from winning a favorite-son primary. Former Governor Paul McNutt and one-term House representative James Roe also received votes.

1956: Eisenhower, having declared himself ready and elected in 1952, was unopposed for renomination.

1964: Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat ascendant to John F. Kennedy, got the same treatment that ascendant Presidents usually do. Governor George Wallace and a slew of favorite sons weren't going to cut it, though, and thus the primary season was largely figured as going through the motions.

1968: Johnson said in March that he wouldn't seek another term. Everybody blames this on Vietnam. What gets forgotten is that at the time he said that, he was seeking another term. He was losing, badly, and made his exit upon seeing an internal poll showing him getting plastered in Wisconsin, the next primary in line, by Senator Eugene McCarthy. The nomination eventually went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. As far as I'm concerned, it's serious opposition, serious enough to hound the President out of the race.

1972: Richard Nixon, a Republican, was the incumbent, and had only to swat away a pair of gadflies, House representatives John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey.

1976: Gerald Ford, a Republican, was the incumbent, but as he was the only President to not be officially approved by the voters in any way, shape or form, there was no way he wasn't drawing opposition. Ford's opposition was Ronald Reagan, who Ford beat, but not by much. There was also Harold Stassen, but his big opportunity had come and gone in 1948, and he had been running every time since right up through 2000. Look up 'perennial candidate' and if there's a picture, it's certain to be his.

1980: Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was the incumbent. His term had gone badly enough that Senator Ted Kennedy decided this was his chance, and while he put the hurt on, taking 12 states from Carter and building late momentum, it wasn't enough. Governor Jerry Brown also took a primary, Michigan's. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie's name was put forward as a compromise just in case the convention became deadlocked.

1984: Ronald Reagan, as we established early on, was the incumbent. All he had to do was beat Harold Stassen. In 1984, I could probably have beaten Harold Stassen and I wasn't even born yet.

1992: George H.W. Bush- Bush 41- was the Republican incumbent. His opposition was columnist Pat Buchanan, who put in a scare in New Hampshire but ultimately didn't win a thing. Oh, and also there was Harold Stassen. 8,099 people voted for Stassen, probably as a joke.

1996: Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was the incumbent. Lyndon Larouche mounted a challenge, despite the fact that he had taken his big shot in 1976, and also there was the little issue of his being on parole at the time. He claimed two delegates, who were both thrown out because the Democrats wanted no part of LaRouche's crazy ass. He's still involved in politics, putting Hitler mustaches on Barack Obama on his PAC website.

2004: George W. Bush- Bush 43- was the Republican incumbent. Bill Wyatt, a T-shirt maker from California, was Bush's strongest opposition. He claimed that his 4% in the Louisiana primary was a victory, as it sent a message to the party. Whatever message it was, it was deleted unread.

Let's add all that up...

Races: 36
Races where the incumbent was completely unopposed: 13
Races with serious opposition: 9 (1800, 1852, 1856, 1868, 1884, 1912, 1968, 1976, 1980)
Races with serious opposition where the incumbent had not taken over the term through the predecessor's early departure: 4 (1800, 1856, 1912, 1980)
Races where the incumbent was defeated: 5 (1852, 1856, 1868, 1884, 1968)
Races where a President not completing a term abandoned through the predecessor's death was defeated: 1 (1856)

Well, okay, I wasn't entirely correct. Incumbent Presidents can draw serious opposition. But in order to get it, half the time it takes a President who wasn't elected President. And unless you count Lyndon Johnson- and almost nobody does- no incumbent President has actually been unseated in the primary since 1884, an era prior to anything we would recognize today as a primary season. And if you cut it down to Barack Obama's current situation- an incumbent completing a term he began in his own right- the only president who has lost the primary under those circumstances is Franklin Pierce.

The slogan of the Democratic Party in 1856 was "Anybody But Pierce".
The slogan on the website of the Democratic National Committee today is "Change That Matters."

Bit of a difference.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Random News Generator- Bermuda

As if it were news, yes, the recession has hit Bermuda too. Big surprise. This, however, is about the point when it's really starting to pummel the island. As of late, the local industrial union has agreed to forego overtime pay for three months; meanwhile, there's been a heavily increased strain on a number of social assistance programs, pushing them far over budget, as people try to buy food and pay bills. Churches in Bermuda have stepped up support, but there's more help needed than available. The Food Bank, for example, has reported spending $80,000 on a budget of $23,000. That's not due to waste. There's just that many more people in need than usual.

As far as the analysts are concerned, Bermuda isn't getting out of it anytime soon. To put it bluntly, if you're Bermudian, this year is going to suck. And with Bermuda being a known tax haven, the rest of the world is more likely to kick them while they're down more than anything else.

We should probably end on some sort of up note here... let's see... that's bad... that's depressing... ick.. ick... ick...

Ooh. Here's something nice.

Hey. For all you know, those hamsters are in Bermuda.

(checks), wait, the person who posted that video is from Australia. Never mind.

Friday, January 14, 2011

It's The Humidity

We know what absolute zero is. It's 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit below 0. It's 273.15 degrees Celsius below zero. It's Kelvin zero. That's as cold as something can possibly get.

You would think that, with an absolute coldest temperature, one might also know what the absolute hottest temperature is.

Not so much.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hail The Glorious Estranged Motherland

Easing back into normal business, let's do a Wikileaks run. Don't imagine much attention's been paid to the more recent cable dumps since Tuscon.

*China has been complaining about "well-fed foreigners" pointing fingers at them.
*The US is concerned about the influence of the Mafia in southern Italy. Oh, yes. They still have some amount of pull in the US. They didn't go away with John Gotti.
*The Whale Wars people are a bunch of counterproductive idiots.
*If you think China is a problem for Tibet, you ought to hear them talk about climate change sometime. (The previous link handles this one too.)
*There is radioactive soil in Kazakhstan that needs securing.
*And here's a cable about negotiations over a region called Transdniester.

Transdniester, you ask? Is that a hockey player or something? Yeah, me too. Transdniester is a little strip along the eastern edge of Moldova, which itself is wedged between Ukraine and Romania. They consider themselves independent (the "capital" being Tiraspol) and in fact more Soviet than anything else- remember, Moldova was a part of the Soviet Union- greatly preferring the Russians to the Romanians, and holding firm on any negotiations due to the presence of Russian troops after the Soviet breakup. The rest of the world has refused to play along. They control a good chunk of Moldova's infrastructure, but then, Moldova controls a good chunk of Transdniester's too.

Transdneister has, however, adopted some elements of capitalism, resulting in what MSNBC described in 2009 as a "surreal" picture of someone eating a burger while talking on a cell phone in front of of pictures of Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, and the most productive workers in town.

The region deals largely in two things: organized crime, and poor people. The crime centers around trafficking of, well, whatever, really, but primarily, drugs, weapons, and people.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Easy Answers Where None Exist


I've had three days to get my head together. Let's take a run at this.

Almost as soon as the initial events in Tuscon had concluded, before the name of the gunman had been known, one of the very first things circulated online was the now-familiar crosshair map. 20 districts that Sarah Palin wanted for the Republicans, all with crosshairs over them. Gabrielle Giffords, of course, was one of those 20. This was merely the first salvo in what has become an all-out war, the object of which is for each side to pin Jared Loughner's political affiliation to the other side.

This is a fairly straightforward task if you happen to be a Democrat: after all, given the level of eliminationist rhetoric heard from the Republicans and Tea Party over the course of the past few years, crosshair map included, the fact that it was a Democrat that was indisputably the primary target, and the fact that among Loughner's favorite books was 'Main Kampf', thought to be a hallmark of only the furthest of far-right nuts, as well as favoring the libertarian-proposed gold standard, among other things, it would seem clear.

If you're a Republican, it's a tad more difficult, though you're not without ammo of your own. There has been the scattered rebuttal post of Democrats using violence-related rhetoric, though not nearly as eliminationist, along with eliminationist signs, albeit without the added element of someone actually turning that rhetoric into action. There is also a map of states Democrats were targeting to turn blue in the 2008 Presidential election with bullseyes over the most likely states, though it as well comes as less eliminationist and targets no individual in particular. Just as often, though, the tack taken here is that Loughner was simply a random nut who had no coherent political beliefs of any kind, that it is irresponsible to blame any one side, and that for the Democrats to blame the Republicans is nothing more than the exploitation of a tragedy.

That alternate view, that Loughner is simply crazy, is not without merit, though the Republican version of that argument comes with a fair amount of defensive self-interest attached, a suspicion deepened by the rapid excising of eliminationist rhetoric archived online, and one of Palin's staff rebranding the crosshairs on the map as "surveyor's marks". In addition, alongside Mein Kampf on Loughner's reading list is the Communist Manifesto, the equivalent left-wing nutball hallmark.

There is a Democratic he's-just-crazy argument as well, though this argument is largely concentrated in the most thoughtful corners of the party. This argument is steeped in a well-established history of mental illness among a large segment of assassins and attempted assassins. It largely comes without the stipulation that no one party should be blamed, replacing the area of concern with mental illnesses or gun control or, most commonly among all stripes of the party, the general tone of political discourse in America. It may not have led Loughner all the way down his path, but it might have pushed him over the edge.

That last sentiment is about where I fall. True. Loughner's hatred of Giffords began in 2007, when she failed to address to his satisfaction a very oddball question, and the spike in eliminationist rhetoric came in 2008. And all one need really do is look at his mugshot, gaze into his eyes, to see that we are dealing with a very disturbed individual. But at the same time, you can't really call him completely insane. Not legally, at least. An insane person needs, under current law, to not know the difference between right and wrong. The fact that, for example, Loughner is being uncooperative with police, is not saying a word to them while previously he was quite talkative, suggests that he doesn't want to give the cops something to use against him, or at the very least, the thought is going through his mind that this is a very different situation than normal and that he really shouldn't be talking about what he just did. That in turn suggests that even if he didn't think what he did was wrong, someone else would beg to differ. That's all it takes to be legally able to distinguish between right and wrong, which makes you sane and able to be charged as such.

I cannot, in any case, simply dismiss Loughner as an indecipherable nut and be done with it. The ENIGMA code was indecipherable too, until you cracked it. It took a lot of work, a lot of big brains working on a big problem, but the indecipherable became decipherable. Whatever ended up running through Loughner's head came from somewhere. We've already determined, for example, where his hatred for Giffords came from. If we've figured out one piece of the Loughner puzzle, we can figure out others.

Let's go back to that book list. In addition to Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto, there is also a variety of books from any and all parts of the political spectrum, as well as the apolitical. The list consists of: Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Wizard Of Oz, Aesop's Fables, The Odyssey, Alice Adventures Into Wonderland, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, To Kill A Mockingbird, We The Living, The Phantom Tollbooth, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pulp, Through The Looking Glass, The Communist Manifesto, Siddhartha, The Old Man And The Sea, Gulliver's Travels, Mein Kampf, The Republic, and Meno.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center does see a more generic anti-government theme running through the books, and I can concur with that assessment. That doesn't help or hurt any one side- remember, Congress is currently split- but merely says that he doesn't like 'the government'. It doesn't blame any one side in particular, but hurts everyone all the same. That may be reading too much into the list, but one must remember that answers aren't always easy. They're not always black and white. Sometimes the smoking gun simply does not exist, and truth must be found in a long, slow grind of piecing together bit after bit after bit, hoping, in the absence of any clearly-visible moment of completion, that all the bits will one day resemble something recognizable.

Whatever Loughner's beliefs are, or however strong or weak his grip on reality, or however much or little violent rhetoric played a part or even who used more of it, it surely cannot have helped matters. I'm absolutely down with using this incident, this... 'opportunity', as it's been called in some circles (what a strange place to use that word), to do something about mental illness and gun control. These are both fields that really haven't gotten the attention they deserve, and in gun control particularly, everyone is simply too scared of the NRA to think anything is capable of being done, and so usually they don't even try. ('Usually' does not, however, apply here, as several pieces of gun control legislation have been introduced.)

Besides, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with the shooting, even if Loughner's head turns out to be telling him that his cheese is made of teeth, a national moment of reflection on the state of our political discourse is, I think, a good thing. If that is the ultimate lesson that America at large takes from this discussion- that maybe not using eliminationist rhetoric could prevent someone from actually committing eliminationist acts- I for one am willing to let that be the lesson. Does it really matter if it was actually the cause? We've been decrying the tone of discussion anyway.

If the lesson learned is about mental health issues, great. If the lesson learned is about gun control, great. If the lesson is about the tone of political rhetoric, that words have consequences, great. If the lesson learned is a combination of the three, outstanding.

But let there be a lesson learned. Let us not let the six people killed by this tragedy die for nothing.

A Distraction

I, like a lot of people, am still trying to work through the Tuscon shootings emotionally. And I know I'm not alone in the fact that I've thought some things over the past few days that are for me completely out of character. I've almost said them out loud before stopping myself. I might have actually said them out loud. I've seen some very nice, very respectful people say things they under anything resembling normal circumstances, even during other shooting massacres, would never, ever find themselves saying. If you find yourself in this situation, know you're not alone. Try not to take some of what other people you know to be generally decent say too personally. They may be having a hard time dealing with it all as well.

That's why nothing was posted yesterday, largely. Partly, I'm still in my own little world of mourning, but also, I didn't want to say something I'd regret later. Right now, the thing I need, the thing a lot of us need, is some sort of silly little distraction. Something light to keep us going so we can better get through this.

So here's Jeremy Clarkson trying to drive a three-wheeled car called a Reliant Robin.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I'm still too consumed by a mixture of shock and despair and outrage to get anything of substance out today. It's as if the events of yesterday in Tuscon had been handwritten by some celestial scriptwriter to generate as much grief as humanly possible: a member of Congress who had just survived (survived... such a loaded word) a highly contentious election against half-crazed opposition shot in the head at point-blank range; the member of Congress married to an astronaut; one of her aides dead, a federal judge dead, a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11 and active in student government dead; the shooter having a reading list that includes the Communist Manifesto and Main Kampf. The fact that it happened at a town-hall meeting. The fact that, when the House read the Constitution on the floor, she was given the First Amendment, the part that addresses peaceable assembly and redress of grievances. The fact that Giffords actually appears on her way to recovering from a bullet to the brain. It's an overwhelming amount of emotional angst, topped with the most tragic of miracles.

In lieu of anything more substantial, here is a profile of the victims of the shooting.

It's Sunday. A good time to do some praying.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

They Came Armed This Time

Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic member of Congress from Arizona, has been shot in the head at a town hall meeting in Tuscon. Five other people were killed. According to local police, she remains alive but in "grave" condition.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Musical Equivalent Of MS Paint

In 1992, Mario Paint was released for the Super NES as a showcase for the 'Mouse' peripheral that would then see fairly common use through the rest of the life of the Super NES. The main attraction of the game was, of course, the painting: you got 40 different colors, 60 textures, some stamps, and a couple coloring-book pages if you want them; have fun.

There was also a music composition device. You were given 16 different sounds and a musical scale. It doesn't sound like much, and the default song given doesn't exactly inspire greatness:

Surely, I never came close to making anything decent. Neither did my brother, despite playing the trumpet in middle school. Perhaps it was because of too much time spent making "elephant noises", and as you can plainly see, there is no elephant available on the menu.

But when any sort of creative tool is given to a mass of people who have grown up surrounded by technology, there is always going to be somebody who can take a minimal amount of tools and get maximum value out of them.

A hack of the tool has been made, Mario Paint Composer, which over time has added the ability to further fine-tune the tempo, speed it up way past the high end allowed by the Super NES, and a few other things, including, over time, four new sounds, but has stuck to the spirit of the original tool.

Which means with enough talent, someone can go do this...

...or this...

...or even this, which has got to be the king of Mario Paint compositions, with extra credit for sticking to the original 16 sounds...

I'm still not anything resembling musical. Though I at least now know that music composition isn't supposed to go "Okay, we had an A flat, so now we should have a sharp, let's say F sharp, and then we should have a C to balance it out. What haven't we had in a while? B? Get one of those in; make it a flat." Maybe you can do better.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Never Mind The Constitution Reading

This is probably the more indicative action taken by the new Congress.

Two years, ladies and germs.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

That Was Tina Fey, Dammit

From XKCD:

That's a hell of an idea. Get cracking. Odds are sooner or later we'll get to one or more items on the list in further detail, and in fact we did get to one of them on Friday, but to get you started:

*Sarah Palin didn't say 'I can see Russia from my house',
*Al Gore didn't say he invented the Internet,
*Napoleon wasn't short,
*You can't see the Great Wall of China from the moon,
*Cold weather doesn't give you colds,
*Shaving doesn't make your hair thicker,
*Guys don't think about sex every couple seconds, and even if we do, there's no way you can actually test that,
*If a guy's in the water waving his hands and screaming that he's drowning, he's not drowning,
*A fatwa is not a death sentence,
*A jihad is not a holy war,
*And they don't dump toilet waste out of moving airplanes.

Now never say these things again.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nature Doesn't Care

A recent poll from Pew Research showed a partisan split on the question of global warming. When asked "Is there solid evidence the Earth is warming?", self-identified Republicans come down 53-38 against the existence of global warming, while self-identified Democrats are convinced be a 79-14 margin. Indies are convinced 59-31.

A sub-question asked those convinced why there's global warming. The Dems and indies come down on the side of human activity over natural patterns, 53-18 and 32-17 respectively, while the convinced Republicans come down 18-16 on the side of natural patterns.

A Fark headline from earlier today, as Fark headlines so often do, cut right to the point:

"Pew poll finds 53% of Republicans do not believe in global warming. No word on whether global warming cares what Republicans think of it"

And there's the rub.

Nature doesn't care.

When nature decides it wants to do something badly enough, it really doesn't care what the humans think of it. It doesn't care what speeches are made, what laws are passed, who wins an election, how much money is spent, whether the budget's been drained. The only thing the humans can do is make something strong enough to stop it. There had better be a barrier high enough, long enough, thick enough and strong enough to hold back the water, or there's going to be a flood. There had better be enough water to cool the lava flow quickly enough, or it's going to swallow up whatever it wants, and even then it may not be enough. The heating or heat retention system had better be robust enough, or you're going to freeze in that blizzard. And on the inverse, when nature doesn't want to make any more of a finite resource, you'd better be done using it by the time it runs out, or there's a whole lot of things that aren't going to be usable anymore. Hope you didn't need them.

Quite often, the human resources required to hold back these acts of nature are far beyond what humans could ever hope to muster. Too bad. Nature doesn't care. If human capacity were, hypothetically, only strong enough to earthquake-proof structures against, say, an 8.0 quake, and then a 9.0 comes along, those buildings are coming down. Humanity's best just isn't good enough. And if it's not good enough, there's little humanity can do except run for its life.

And there's no partial credit given either. A $10 million levee that barely fails and a $10 levee that completely fails end up looking exactly the same in the end. Either way, there's a gigantic floodplain and a bunch of broken construction remnants afterwards. The levee holds, or it doesn't. The house withstands the earthquake, or it doesn't. The house is rendered unlivable by mold, or it isn't. The volcano swallows up the house, or it doesn't. The ground underneath the house on a hill is stable enough to keep from being part of a mudslide, or it isn't. The house is high enough to stay out of the flood, or it isn't. People survive through a natural disaster, or they don't.

This also applies to proactive measures taken by humans. You don't believe in global warming? Fine then. We won't use global warming as an example. Let's set that entire discussion aside. We'll use invasive species. No denying the existence of those and in order to be considered invasive, a species' introduction must be indisputably the act of human intervention. We could use starlings, rabbits, killer bees, the Asian long-horned beetle, carp, or anything else you find on this list, but we'll focus here on kudzu, which is common throughout the heavily-Republican south (imagine that). Japan introduced it in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia; it looked nice enough that Americans used it for decoration. In the 1920's, people started actively planting it, and in the 1930's, it was promoted as a form of erosion control during the Dust Bowl, with farmers being paid to plant it by the 40's. It grew very well. Too well. Way, way too well. So well that it started choking out everything that wasn't kudzu. So well that by 1972, it had gone from being something the government paid to have planted to being something the government called a weed.

Kudzu grows better in the United States than in its native Asia, mainly for the reason that when it came over, the insects that eat kudzu didn't come with it. And that's a common theme with invasive species: the places to which they're introduced lack their natural predators, and in nature, no predators means unchecked growth.

But even after being called a weed, kudzu is still hell to remove. Once again, nature doesn't care what kudzu is called. If you want it out, it means an effort that lasts several years to get rid of a single weed. As advises, "To successfully control kudzu, its extensive root system must be completely eradicated by cutting vines just above the ground and mowing every month for two growing seasons—all cut material must be destroyed." Clemson University goes even further, saying "Because of its rapid growth (up to 60 feet per year), a single surviving kudzu plant can spread and re-infest a site within a few growing seasons. Eradication requires multiple broadcast applications of herbicide and follow-up spot treatments over a period of 4 to 10 years. Establishment of pine trees or other crops should not be attempted for at least 4 years after control measures are initiated."

If you can't muster that effort, too bad. Kudzu doesn't care. Have fun with your kudzu, and as Southerners will advise, close your windows at night or the kudzu will creep in.

Believe in global warming or don't. But, like kudzu, like any form of nature's wrath, if and when the consequences of it show up at your doorstep, either be ready to deal with them, or be ready to run. Nature never asked your opinion about it. Nature does not refrain from plowing over humanity because that might not poll well. Nature doesn't care.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Random News Generator- Belize

First RNG of the new year. We are taken to Belize today, where they, after having made TIEA's (Tax Information Sharing Agreements) with Australia, Belgium, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom, they have been removed from the blacklists of the OCED and G20.

This is important to Belize because they offer themselves as a tax haven, and being on the blacklist would ruin that economic approach by preventing investors from the first world from putting their money into the country. Coming off the blacklist comes at a price, however; with the TIEA's in place, investors cannot remain anonymous, which for some is part of the appeal of doing business in Belize in the first place.

Which, to bring us full circle, is why the OCED and G20 want Belize to have the TIEA's: to limit the options for those kind of investors as much as possible. Anonymous investors in tax havens normally aren't doing nice things.

Here's the problem, though: TIEA's aren't what you would call 'effective'. The Guardian's Richard Murphy goes into more detail, but suffice to say that you can't ask for anything from prior to when the agreement was made, and come to think of it, you have to ask for information, and asking has more hurdles attached to it than a Freedom of Information Act request about Jimmy Hoffa. As Murphy puts it, "To ask a successful question under the terms of a TIEA means you already have to know the answer." The result: barely anybody asks anybody about anything.

All hat, but very little cattle, so to speak.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Go Away, I'm Watching The Packers

Here. Name all the elements of the periodic table in 15 minutes and shut up while Daddy watches his stories.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Houses Made of Diamonds: A Bad Investment

The Mega Millions jackpot has gone unclaimed for long enough that the jackpot has grown to $290 million. This is about the point where everybody and their mother buys a ticket and fantasizes about what they're going to do with $290 million; the linked article, although brief, makes sure you know about some of the larger jackpots claimed in lottery history. Not even former jackpot winners are immune from the lure of a second payday.

Far too often, these same people, after winning these gigantic jackpots, are found years later broke, miserable, and wishing they had never bought the ticket at all.

So where do so many people go astray? My theory is that a lot of the winners simply have no real-world concept of the larger jackpots. One it gets up into $290 million territory, the number... the exact number is irrelevant. The previous jackpot was $242 million, but the $48 million difference does not register. It all reads "$Texas" to some people. If this jackpot goes unclaimed, and it climbs past $300 million, it won't make much difference there either. When it's given to you in one big pile, it looks like All The Money In The World. Which as people who are actually rich for a living will tell you, it is not.

This is if you take the lump sum option, at least. If you were to split that up into 30 parts, as would happen in an annuity, it's still a lot of money, but one is much more easily able to wrap their head around the idea of $10 million as opposed to the idea of $300 million.

The problem is, despite any argument you may hear about which of the two payment options is better- the lump-sum or the annuity- when it actually comes time for the winners to choose, it turns out to be barely a debate at all. Winners almost unanimously pick the lump-sum, shown on the official Powerball website as "cash", save for the smallest of jackpots. Since 2003, Powerball records only three winners as having gone to the annuity, with the three jackpots having sat at $18.7 million, $19.8 million, and $20 million. One additional group opted for 'mixed'- which means at least one person took lump-sum and at least one person took the annuity- and this jackpot was quite large: $208.6 million. The jackpot was, however, split among 100 people, and 99 of these 100 winners chose the lump sum, leaving just over $2 million for the person who opted for the annuity. Every other winner since 2003, every single other person, has taken the lump sum.

And this costs all of these winners roughly half of their jackpot straightaway, even before taxes. What a lot of people don't realize is that the amount advertised is the amount they think you'd get if you took the annuity. The Powerball people have this misconception covered in their FAQ:

When we advertise a prize of $100 million paid over 29 years (30 payments), we actually have less than $50 million in cash. When someone wins the jackpot and wants cash, we give them all of the cash in the jackpot prize pool. If the winner wants the annuity, we invest the $50 million in cash to fund the annuity payments. The winner gets the cash plus the interest earned. When you see an estimated jackpot annuity prize, we are estimating both sales and what the market's prices on certain securities will be. The annuity jackpot amount and the cash jackpot amount that we announce are always estimates until sales are final and, for the annuity jackpot, until we take bids on the purchase of securities.

Federal and State Income tax apply to whatever income you actually receive in a given tax year, whether it is wages or lottery prizes. If you take the cash amount (say $50 million), then you pay income tax on $50 million). If you take the annuity (say $100 million), then you pay income tax on the money you actually receive each year. Just like your wages, a withholding amount is required to be taken out immediately. The lottery will send you a W2-G form and you figure your actual tax at tax time.

Here's the other thing. You only win that jackpot once. As earlier stated, when you first come into such a large amount of money, it's hard to wrap your head around it, and a fair amount of people get blinded by that. Sometimes they get their heads back on straight. Sometimes they don't. But with the annuity, you've got 30 attempts to figure out how to deal with the money, spread over 29 years. Eventually, with practice and a bit of smarts, you can figure out how to handle large amounts of money. That's not a guarantee that you will- some people will never get the hang of it- but you give yourself the best possible chance at success. With the lump-sum, you've only got one shot. Blow all the money in the first annuity payment, you've got 29 more coming. You've hopefully got the stupid spending out of your system. Blow all the money in the lump-sum, and that's the ballgame. You're right back to where you were, and sometimes even worse off than when you started if you can't figure out where your winnings end and your pre-existing net worth begins. And if you're the kind of person to blow hundreds of millions of dollars in one big splurge, odds are you can't. If you want more money, you're just going to have to win the lottery twice.

Good luck with that.

And that bit of smarts is a crucial factor. To see why, you need only look to another source of windfall income: professional sports. You've surely heard about the lack of emphasis in college football and college basketball on actually educating the students and the increased emphasis in finding talent for the NFL and NBA. (Ask yourself: when's the last time you saw a televised game mention a student's major?) There's little to be said about all the college kids that never make the pros. There's no windfall for them, and so there's nothing really to discuss. The players that do make the pros, however, having had such a focus on making the pros, come out of their schooling ill-prepared to handle the giant amounts of money given to them. They were steered towards the next game. They had teachers under pressure to give them good enough grades to make them academically eligible to play. Players at big-name programs are routinely funneled into specific classes regardless of what they actually want to be studying, for the purposes of having large segments of the team in the same place. Often, the students left college early. In some scattered cases in the NBA, including that of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, they never went to college at all.

What happens when the bright lights go away? Most of them, never having gotten the kind of financial education they needed for this type of lifestyle, and in some cases having what education they did get beaten out of them on the field, quickly go broke. According to a March 2009 article from Sports Illustrated's Pablo S. Torre, 60% of all NBA players, regardless of money earned or time in the league, are broke within five years of their departure. 78% of all NFL players, regardless of money earned or length of time in the league, are broke within two years. Athletes on the financial scrapheap can be easily found regardless of the sport. The article did not show the figures for Major League Baseball, but listed the former players in similar situations as "numerous". The fourth page of the article even comes right out and says:

Salary aside, the closest analogue to a pro athlete is not a white-collar executive. It's a lottery winner—who's often in his early twenties. "With athletes, there's an extraordinary metamorphosis of financial challenge," says agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented the NFL's No. 1 pick a record eight times. "Coming off college scholarships, they probably haven't even learned the basics of budgeting or keeping receipts." Which then triggers two fatal mistakes: hiring the wrong people as advisers, and trusting them far too much.

"That's the killer," Magic Johnson says. Johnson started out by admitting he knew nothing about business and seeking counsel from the power brokers who sat courtside at the old L.A. Forum, men such as Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and Sony Pictures CEO Peter Guber. Now, Johnson says, he gets calls from star players "every day"—Alex Rodriguez, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Plaxico Burress—and cuts them short if they propose relying on friends and family. "It won't even be a conversation," says Johnson. "They hire these people not because of expertise but because they're friends. Well, they'll fail."

And it doesn't just happen in those three leagues. Here you'll find a list of 25 athletes who went broke. Just 25. In addition to the NFL, NBA and MLB, you'll also find representation from the NHL, soccer, track, boxing, tennis, the WNBA, even figure skating, represented by Dorothy Hamill. Michael Vick made the list at #4 prior to his comeback.

There's one key difference between athletes and lottery winners, though. Lottery winners choose when they get to play. High-level athletes, unless mandated otherwise, are usually pressured by the demands of any given sport to focus on it as soon as physically capable. If you wait until you've gotten your college degree to focus on it, it's too late. They're already looking at the kids coming up behind you. As a result, few athletes get the education they need to handle any sort of windfall payout, and most are dumped by the financial wayside.

Quick, how many players or managers in MLB on June 1, 2009 had a college degree of any kind? 26. That's enough to fill one team. Out of thirty.

However, it takes no skill to play a lottery. Drive down to the gas station and hand the cashier a dollar. You don't even have to pick your own numbers if you don't feel like it. And you can play whenever you want. You can get lottery tickets as birthday presents the day you turn legal. You can be 90 years old and in a wheelchair and still have enough physical capability to say "Quick Pick".

What that means is that before you play the lottery, you have all the time you need to go educate yourself on how to handle the money should you win. And even if you don't win, you can still apply the same principles to whatever smaller amounts of money you handle.

If you do win, keep your head on as straight as you can, realize that the money is finite, and really, give some thought to the annuity. Consider letting the lottery people invest that jackpot for you. They handle large amounts of money for a living. They know what they're doing.

And they'd really prefer to not have their winners become cautionary tales.