Monday, February 28, 2011

Don Larsen vs. Roy Halladay

Spring training's underway, so time to get into baseball mode again. If you'll recall, last season Roy Halladay no-hit the Reds in Game 1 of the NLDS, only the second no-hitter ever thrown in postseason history. The other, of course, was Don Larsen's perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series.

I intend to prove to you today that Roy Halladay went to bed having had the better day than Don Larsen did.

Let's run through all the particulars:

Halladay: No-hitter (walked Jay Bruce in the 5th)
Larsen: Perfect game

Halladay: 1 (a perfect game earlier in the season; lifetime record so far is 169-86 with 1,714 strikeouts)
Larsen: 0 (Larsen was otherwise a journeyman pitcher with a lifetime record of 81-91 and 849 strikeouts)

Halladay: NLDS
Larsen: World Series

Halladay: Phillies lead Reds, 1-0
Larsen: Yankees lead Dodgers, 3-2

Halladay: 8
Larsen: 7

GROUNDOUT/LINEOUT/FLYOUT RATIO (groundballs are preferred)
Halladay: 12/1/6
Larsen: 6/4/10

Halladay: 104
Larsen: 98

Halladay: 4 runs off 5 hits
Larsen: 2 runs off 5 hits, with a home run by Mickey Mantle

Halladay: 1-3, 1 run, 1 RBI
Larsen: 0-2, 1 strikeout, sacrifice bunt in 6th that sent Andy Carey to 2nd (Carey would score on the next at-bat)

Halladay: 2:34
Larsen: 2:06

So far, it looks rather debatable. Larsen had the better result, brought his team closer to a title, and got his game over in 6 fewer pitches, 28 minutes faster. However, Halladay had his second no-hitter of the season, kept the ball on the ground more, had that one extra strikeout, got more support, and drove one of the Phillies' runs in himself.

There is, however, one more category to examine. Remember, we're asking who went to bed happier.

Halladay: No.
Larsen: Yes. They would split a month after the season; Don remarried a month after that. It was the prototypical shotgun marriage: Larsen had gotten his spouse, Vivian, pregnant, and married her out of a sense of honor. However, according to Vivian, he bolted three months afterward and failed to provide support; in addition to divorce papers, she wished his World Series money withheld.

Seems like a bit of a tiebreaker.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Who The Hell Is George Soros?

One shadowy puppetmaster down, one to go. Today, a primer on George Soros.

Born in Budapest, 80-year-old Soros, a Jew, was 13 years old when the Nazis invaded Hungary. Obviously, he survived or we wouldn't be discussing him right now. He moved to England in 1947, beginning a life in the financial sector.

Soros is sometimes referred to as "the man who broke the Bank of England," as on what is there known as Black Wednesday- September 16, 1992- he made over $1 billion US by short selling the pound, believing it would go down in value as England, which was giving out double-digit interest rates, had already tried just about everything else to prop up the pound and none of those plans had worked either. It did, to such a degree that the pound dropped out of Europe's Exchange Rate Mechanism, a precursor to the euro. Soros is still vilified for this in some circles.

In 1997, Soros was one of the actors in an Asian financial crisis, becoming rivals with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bim Mohamad. Mohamad had proposed that currency trading be made illegal. Soros called Mahathir "a menace to his own country." Soros had short-sold Malaysia's currency, the ringgit, as well, and Mahathir made anti-Semitic remarks in his placing of blame: "We do not want to say that this is a plot by the Jews, but in reality it is a Jew who triggered the currency plunge, and coincidentally Soros is a Jew. It is also a coincidence that the Malaysians are mostly Muslim. Indeed, the Jews are not happy to see Muslims progress." The two kissed and made up in 2006.

In 1988, he was approached about assisting in a takeover of French bank Societe Generale. He said no, but then went on to buy shares on his own. In 2002, a French court ruled that this was insider trading, fining Soros in the amount of money made from the trade, $2.3 million, going no further because of the 14-year delay. The ruling was upheld by France's supreme court in 2006; Soros has appealed further to the European Court of Human Rights, stating that the knowledge he traded on was public, and that court has agreed to hear the case.

Soros does his political financing chiefly through his think tank of choice, the Open Society Institute. Soros founded it in 1993, focusing largely on Eastern and Central Europe (remember, he's Hungarian). It is commonly cited as a key player in Georgia's 2003 'Rose Revolution'. He didn't get overly involved in American affairs until 2004, when he spent heavily to attempt to deny George W. Bush a second term, ultimately an unsuccessful effort. In the wake of that, Soros created another think tank, the Democracy Alliance, aimed at funding a variety of liberal causes.

Soros made an attempt in 2005 at becoming a minority shareholder in the Washington Nationals. It was scuttled when Republicans in Congress threatened to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption.

That should be enough to bring you reasonably up to speed. Just to recap one facet of our notes: If you see "Americans For Prosperity" tossed around in an ad, that means the Koch Brothers. If you see "Open Society Institute" or "Democracy Alliance", that's George Soros.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Who The Hell Are The Koch Brothers?

As of late, you've probably been bombarded with two names that, as far as the two respective parties are concerned, are secretly pulling the strings and running the country: the Koch Brothers on the right, and George Soros on the left. They're rich, they're shadowy, they're quietly funding everything that threatens to bring America down from the inside and fattening their wallets in the meantime.

Just one thing, though.

Who the hell are the Koch Brothers and George Soros?

That's the thing about shadowy types running everything. They're shadowy. The public knows jack and squat about them except EEEEEEEEVIIIIIILLLLLLLL. This is, of course, an easy fix. They may be shadowy to the general public, but that's because the general public hasn't taken the time to look up who they are.

Here's a primer on the Koch Brothers. George Soros will be tomorrow.

Charles and David Koch, namely. (Pronounced 'coke'.) The two run Koch Industries, a private conglomerate based in Wichita. Charles is CEO, but both have an equal share in the company. Koch is ranked by Forbes as the second-largest private company in America, behind Cargill. They employ approximately 70,000 people.

Among Koch's holdings are Flint Hills Resources (which operates three refineries that handle 800 barrels of crude oil a day, and among other things produces and sells midwestern asphalt); Koch Pipeline Company (which owns or operates about 4,000 miles of oil pipeline); Koch Alaska Pipeline Company (which owns, among other things, 3% of the Trans Alaska Pipeline); Matador Cattle Company (which owns about 425,000 acres and 15,000 cattle); INVISTA; which makes Lycra, Antron and Tactel fibers, Cordura fabric and Stainmaster carpeting; and paper company Georgia-Pacific, which is the one you're most likely to run into. They make, among other brands, Angel Soft, Brawny, Dixie, Mardi Gras, Quilted Northern, Soft 'n Gentle, Sparkle, Vanity Fair, and Zee. Georgia-Pacific has had an at best questionable environmental record; however, the bulk of their violations occurred before Koch Industries took over in 2005.

David, age 70, ran for President in 1980 as the Libertarian running mate of Californian corporate lawyer Ed Clark, running against incumbent Jimmy Carter and eventual winner Ronald Reagan; Salon has more on that. The ticket wished to, among other things, abolish Social Security, welfare, corporate taxes, the Federal Reserve, and minimum-wage laws, along with the SEC, OSHA, FTC, FBI, CIA and Department of Energy. They also wished to legalize recreational drugs, prostitution and suicide. The ticket's goal was 10% of the vote. They got 1.1%, which is still the Libertarians' best performance to this day. David became a Republican in 1984.

Charles (warning; disputed Wikipedia page), age 75, has not run for President, but he has co-founded the libertarian Cato Institute, which he and David have supported throughout its life. They have donated over $10 million each to try and defeat the Patriot Act, alongside George Soros-- again, we'll get to him tomorrow. They also fund the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which most recently has been heavily involved in the battle in Wisconsin on the anti-union side.

Most notably, although the Kochs officially deny it, financial records show them as having had a major hand in the origins of the Tea Party, with any lingering doubt shattered in October by video evidence provided by the online documentary [Astro]Turf Wars.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Quiz Time

I need to buy some time to work on the club soccer book, and also I've been having eyes locked on the goings-on in Madison, so today you're getting a quiz while I go do those things.

There are 51 original members of the United Nations. You've got eight minutes. Name them. (My score: 44.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Random News Generator- Indonesia

The Oscars are coming up, and you know what that means: the annual speculation on who will win the Montage of Dead People. (Come on. You know you do it.) Also there will apparently be some awards handed out for whatever people thought was halfway decent this year.

One thing you might hear about is people who use the nomination list for Best Picture as a kind of homework assignment: they feel obligated to watch everything nominated that they have not yet watched. In Indonesia, they would love to have this problem. Right now, however, they are fighting for the ability to be able to watch any of them, as the MPAA is ordering Hollywood films removed from Indonesian cinemas.

There are two reasons for the MPAA taking this step. First, the taxes on importing the film to Indonesia has more than doubled, from 20 cents per meter of film to 43 cents, plus an import duty tax and a cut of the profits. This is too expensive for Hollywood. Second, it's not like they see much of the profits anyway, as piracy is rampant. European and Asian distributors have thought along those lines as well.

So okay, maybe Indonesia is watching the movies. Just not the way they're supposed to.

'Why not just watch the locally-produced films', you might ask. Because, by their own admission, the locally-produced films suck, nobody actually watches them, and there aren't enough of them to meet demand anyway, that's why. In response to immense pressure from all corners, distributors, theaters and filmgoers alike, the tax has come under review; it will take about two weeks to render a final verdict.

Indonesia's Finance Ministry, for their part, has called it a misunderstanding, claiming that the taxes were simply being moved from the back end to the front end of the import process. It doesn't appear to be convincing anyone.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No 'Koch' Puns; I Have Dignity Today

Okay, I guess I'm getting screechy after all. Ian Murphy, the editor of the Buffalo Beast, an alternative newspaper that later went exclusively online, decided to pose over the phone as David Koch, one of the conservative financier Koch brothers. His goal was to get through to Scott Walker.

Normally when someone tries this kind of thing, they either get busted immediately, or best case, they get through but are busted partway through the call.

Murphy, meanwhile, not only got through, but held an entire conversation with Walker, whose office later confirmed the call as authentic. (As the Beast's website is throwing out 404's right now, I link to the Huffington Post instead.)

This is the audio of that call, evidently held at 2 PM yesterday, which means I was in Madison while this call was taking place.

EDIT: You know... it might help if I posted the second half of that audio too.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Madison Protests

Today, as advertised, I was in Madison, joining the protest against the budget proposed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to remove collective bargaining rights for public employees. (Full disclosure: My sister-in-law is a special-ed teacher, one of the key groups participating, and the ones targeted by the next items on the agenda: stripping funds from the Milwaukee Public School system, and to break UW-Madison off from the rest of the UW school system.)

On this, Day 5 since the departure of Wisconsin's Democratic state senators, the teachers themselves weren't actually there- they had returned to class for the proverbial sake of the children, resulting in a smaller crowd than there had been previously- but some substitute protesters were out in their place, some with signs stating who they were there on behalf of.

Since I've clearly taken a side, I'll let that speak to that aspect of the protests and downplay it the rest of the way. Does me no good to get screechy about it. If this Gallup poll is correct, there's a 61% chance we share viewpoints anyway. (My current employer and I do not. I do not begrudge them their views, I will not force my views on them, and as long as they don't force theirs on me, we're cool all around.)

So let's instead talk about the atmosphere in Madison. I arrived around 10:30-ish and saw what would be the first of many, many parades down Capitol Square, and the three chants that would dominate the day:

"Kill the bill!"
"Tell me what democracy looks like?" "This is what democracy looks like!"
"Hey hey, ho ho, Scott Walker has got to go!"

After making a loop around the square, I entered the capitol building itself.

It was as if the Seattle Mariners were back in the Kingdome and in the playoffs. The Capitol Rotunda has acoustics that greatly benefit a protest, and full advantage has been taken of this, with the vast majority of indoor demonstrators hovering around the Rotunda. Signs, letters, banners, flags, pamphlets, leaflets, people gathering signatures, and anything else that can be printed up... they were inescapable. A live feed of Wisconsin Eye, the Wisconsin equivalent to C-SPAN, was displayed on the top floor. Anyone that wished to address the crowd did so from the middle of the ground floor, where they might not be seen by everyone, but their voice would most easily bounce off the hollow dome above and through to the rest of the building.

For the record, I only noticed two comparisons to Egypt all day: a sign recalling a Paul Ryan quote that said Cairo had come to Madison, and this picture of an Egyptian at Tahrir Square standing with the Wisconsinites. That's about right. There are certainly parallels to be drawn if one wants: governmental leader trying to ram through something widely hated, large-scale multi-day protests that have been met with total obstination by leadership, solidarity from abroad, that old threat to pull out the National Guard (who subsequently told Walker to get bent). The drive to protest may even have been partly inspired by the recent successes in Tunisia and Egypt. But at the same time, nobody's getting shot, nobody's getting into any fights, Walker's term can only be measured in weeks, not decades, the media's not in any way being suppressed, protesters have had almost free run of the capitol building. It's like Egypt, but it's not like Egypt. So we're all clear on that.

There was a 'quiet study area' on the top floor, next to the Senate Gallery. This only meant 'less ear-splitting'. With fewer people than previous, it was viewed as quieter. To which I say: that is one loud quiet. (The major business for the Senate today: congratulating the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl.)

I may have chanted. I may not have. I can't tell. I couldn't hear myself talk. I may have said 'hey hey ho ho', I may have said 'salt my finger snakes'. I was mostly taking notes anyway, a tough thing because my pens kept dying.

The mood, however, was quite jovial. Intense, yet good-natured, as if all that had happened was the Wisconsin Badgers making the Final Four. It's a very Wisconsin mood. We are largely the nice, pleasant folks we and the rest of the north-central United States are stereotyped as. But underneath that niceness, below the surface outsiders normally see, there's a low-simmering sense of drama. It manifests every so often in daily life here, but not enough for you to notice. We have a fuse. It is a long fuse, but we are no Pollyannas.

For the love of God, do not let that fuse run out.

Once that fuse runs out, Wisconsin goes relatively crazy. We're considered a laboratory of progressivism, but it wouldn't be a lab without failed experiments. We are the state of William Proxmire, Russ Feingold, and 'Fightin Bob' LaFollette. But we are also the state of Aldrich Ames, Jeffrey Dahmer and Joe McCarthy. We are the state that created the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln's day (now unrecognizable to this era), but we are also the state where Teddy Roosevelt was shot. We are the home of Bob Uecker, but we are the home of Latrell Sprewell.

Reminders were everywhere to inform protesters that this is supposed to be a peaceful thing. Just in case.

For lunch, I visited Ian's Pizza. This unassuming pizza place, about a block and a half from Capitol Square on State Street- a pedestrian-only street connecting the capitol to UW-Madison- is the go-to place for hungry protesters. Around the world, people have been phoning in orders to Ian's on behalf of them, with the effect that the protesters- and anyone else that stops by- have been eating free for a while now; one employee stated that $25,000 in donated orders were recorded yesterday alone. All 50 states and DC have called in with orders. Someone from China has called in an order, Russia, Armenia, Turkey, Morocco, Antarctica. While I was there, an order came in from Jerusalem, Israel. The way it worked was, you're asked how many slices you want and if you want a drink or something, and they simply tally up the total number of pizza slices and drinks. There was no active register. Every time a foreign order came in, the nationality was announced to the dining room.

How can a little place in Madison feed tens of thousands of people? Not without employees imported from Ian's Chicago branch. (For further details, head to Ian's website and click on the State Street branch.)

The pizza, by the way, is excellent.

Back at the Rotunda, preliminary signatures were being gathered to help determine where to allocate resources for a recall effort. Not of Scott Walker; that can't happen until he's been in office for one year. Of eight Republican state senators. Three would be needed to flip in order to kill the budget bill, but should that not happen, Plan B is to recall enough Republican legislators to wipe out the advantage, and in turn, wipe out the bill. The preliminary signatures are needed because once paperwork is officially filed, a 60-day clock starts, and all recall petition signatures must be gathered by then.

Meanwhile, a group in Utah, the American Patriot Recall Coalition (great name; managed to shoehorn both 'American' AND 'Patriot' in there, just to show you're twice as American), has started the clock on a similar measure against eight Democratic state senators. Yes, apparently you can do that. A group in Utah can apparently try to have legislators in Wisconsin thrown out of office. So now everybody is recalling everybody else. And nobody is giving an inch.

As it stands, people are protesting in shifts; shuttle buses are active all over the state to get people into and out of Capitol Square, if protesters didn't show up in their own vehicles. If Wisconsinites need a break, out-of-staters have been perfectly willing to pick up the slack with bused-in protesters of their own. And with nobody conceding on collective bargaining, and everybody digging in their heels, the result is a virtual siege operation.

We could be here for a long time.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Suck It, Word-A-Day Calendars

Madison's postponed to tomorrow; roads are too uncertain. Last night it was literally snow on top of ice on top of snow, and it does me no good going into Madison if I'm just going to wind up in a ditch outside Marshall. So, we'll give it a day, let the roads get cleared, they should be good tomorrow.

In the meantime, let's make the most of it here. Let's learn some words. There are a lot of ways to do this: hear a new word in normal conversation, poke through the dictionary, the aforementioned word-a-day calendars.

Today we are doing none of those things. We're going to be dirty rotten cheating cheaters about it. This is the brute-force method, if you will.

What I want you to do is to think of a word that has a prefix. Actually, think of a bunch of them. Un-, in-, im-, sub-, dis-, de-, an-, non-, ex-, re-, whatever. Here's a big list of prefixes. Go nuts.

Now lop off that prefix.

Do you recognize the word now? If you do, pick another word and go again. If not, you just learned a word. (Probably. As with most English rules, there are always exceptions. Sometimes that prefix-looking sequence of letters isn't a prefix at all but an integral part of the word. Sometimes a word clearly does have a prefix, but then the root word isn't a word.)

A couple examples to get you started:

Coordinator---Ordinator (one who ordains, a director)
Disgruntled---Gruntled (in good humor)
Deodorant---Odorant (something that creates an odor)
Innocuous---Nocuous (likely to cause harm)
Unabashed---Abashed (to be shamed, to be guilted)
Degree---Gree (a prize or favor; alternatively, a step or rank)

Your turn. I'm not going to do all the work for you.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Something Old, Something New, Something Flaky Over You

Weddings, whenever possible, tend to be almost prohibitively expensive. Any wedding party, particularly those marrying for the first time, will readily justify it, as it's a once-in-a-lifetime event they hope to remember fondly until death do they part, and how can you possibly put a price on memories?

We're not going to delve into the merits of this. I'm not opening that can of worms. It's still too nippy out to be running for my life.

What we can do, though, is check off all the different things (in addition to the actual wedding license) that contribute to the price tag, of which one apparently must purchase as many as financially possible: the church, the reception, the tux rentals, the wedding dress, the catering, the photographer, a DJ or other entertainment, the honeymoon, limo rental, and of course the multi-tiered cake.

Have you considered smashing the cake over the bride's head?

If not, clearly you are not an ancient Roman. (Several other signs may point to this, chief among them the fact that you are not a skeletal zombie.) This was what was done with the earliest version of the wedding cake, which wasn't cake so much as crumbly barley bread. The bride and groom would both nibble at the bread, and then the bread was broken over the bride's head. The guests, for good luck, would then run in and try to pick up the crumbs.

Over time, the bread became a bunch of biscuits after Rome conquered England, buns (possibly topped with marzipan) in Elizabethian times, and fruitcakes with sugar icing in 17th-century France; all were still broken over the bride's head. The United States was the one to dump the cake-breaking custom, replacing it with cutting it into slices. They made two cakes- a pound cake for the bride, a fruitcake for the groom. Eventually, the two were stacked on top of each other. For a while, the fruitcake remained the top layer, until people decided they didn't feel like having fruitcake on their wedding day, at which point people just started flavoring the cake however the hell they wanted.

Why would someone decide that breaking cake over the bride's head was a good idea? It was thought that breaking the cake was symbolic of breaking the bride's virginity.

Today, if you broke the cake over the bride's head, it would be a symbol of you maintaining yours.

Programming note; I'm hoping to be in Madison tomorrow.

Friday, February 18, 2011

If You Can Fix Her, You Can Have Her

This is essentially what Detroit mayor Dave Bing is telling anyone willing to take one of 200 abandoned homes. A college student can get $2,500 in rent money and a $20,000 forgivable loan; a policeman willing to relocate can get, for $1,000 down, $150,000 in renovation money. The latter offer is an effort to get police officers to actually live in the areas being policed; a glut of abandoned homes and a lack of resident officers leaves some parts of Detroit woefully underpatrolled.

Two words of note, though. First, this more recent story by Business Insider rather prominently quotes 100 homes instead, which is incorrect, and the 100 homes they show don't appear to actually be 100 homes; most of the pictures are via Kevin Bauman's 100 Abandoned Houses. Look at #10, #19, #22 and #23. Nor are they all in the neighborhoods actually being offered, which are Boston Edison and East English Village. Also, this is first-phase thing, involving just the 200 homes, and if it works out well enough, more houses might be opened up. If the Business Insider story is the one you saw- and that's the one Fark greenlit, so it just might be- you got some bad information.

Second, you get what you pay for. Many of the abandoned homes in Detroit, offered or not, are slowly being taken back by Mother Nature, and she is quite far along the process in some cases, as #3 and #64 would indicate. If you decide to hop in, you are going to want to bring plenty of tools.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Feelin' So Fly Like A Cheesehead

Currently following the situation in Madison. In order to prevent a quorum on a vote that would drastically restrict, almost eliminate, collective bargaining rights for unions of public-sector employees in Wisconsin (excluding police and fire), all opposition Democratic state senators have flown the coop, getting out of the state and out of the jurisdiction of the State Patrol charged with bringing them in. Naturally, they are offering no clues as to where they might be.

Here's one possible location.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

We Must Destroy Humanity In Order To Save It

You might have heard that Watson, IBM's Jeopardy-playing computer, is having its way with Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. The first two days of the three-day competition ran through one complete game. In that game, Watson racked up $35,734, as opposed to Rutter's $10,400 and Jennings' $4,800. Today, Day 3, will feature a second and final match.

What you might not know is where the money won in the game is ultimately going. Watson, of course, has no use for such human things as money. Perhaps it may know that 'making it rain' doesn't necessarily mean producing liquid water precipitation, but it can't actually perform the act. Therefore, everyone's playing for charity: Rutter and Jennings pledging half their winnings, IBM pledging all of theirs. The winner will get $1 million, second place $300,000, and third place $200,000.

So what charities are getting that money?

Rutter will be donating to the Lancaster County Community Foundation in Pennsylvania, which hands out grants to a variety of projects across the county.

Jennings will be donating to VillageReach. They work to provide healthcare to remote communities in developing nations, as well as improve access to these communities (so as to make it easier to provide healthcare access), with a home office in Seattle and field offices in Mozambique and Malawi. They've been ranked #1 in international charities by reviewer GiveWell, and would almost certainly beat out the top-rated domestic charity as well.

Half of Watson's winnings will be going to World Vision, a general-purpose organization in developing nations, providing emergency relief, building up communities, and so forth. They also advertise a child-sponsorship program, but that aspect came into question when, in 2008, Andrew Geoghegan of Foreign Correspondent, a program on Australia's ABC, visited his sponsor child, Tsehaynesh Delago of Ethiopia, and found that, despite that World Vision had claimed, Delago spoke no English and had only recieved as direct support a pen and a denim jacket.

The other half of Watson's winnings is going to my favorite of the four, World Community Grid. They host a number of large-scale research projects, and ask anyone that happens by to donate their computer downtime. When your computer enters sleep mode, it is then given a small chunk of a research project to work on, and will stop when you start using your computer again for your own selfish, greedy, self-serving purposes. Among the most notable of these projects is Folding@Home, which, if you own a Playstation 3, you might already be familiar with.

If you've got any downtime on hand, you can head over right now, pick out a favorite project- AIDS, cancer, clean water, clean energy, muscular dystrophy, dengue fever- and hook your computer up. Doesn't cost a dime; it's like installing a screensaver.

If none of those projects looks good to you, there's another place, BOINC, that offers up another batch to pick from.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And Then They Wonder Why Nobody Trusts Them

After Anderson Cooper returned home from Egypt, he repeatedly called the claims of Hosni Mubarak "lies".

In doing so, Cooper got himself into just about the stupidest bit of trouble in journalism. You see, in American journalism, the word "lie" is a gigantic taboo, as if you went to a black-tie dinner and dropped one of George Carlin's seven dirty words at the top of your lungs. They might dance around it with synonyms and euphimisms like 'falsehood' or 'controversial statement' or 'disputed', but once someone says 'lie', it is monocles in the martini glass. Even Politifact, the entire point of which is to examine a statement and say whether it's the truth or a lie, dances around it, twice, with 'false' and 'pants on fire'. As in 'liar, liar, pants on fire'.

It doesn't even matter if you use it correctly. On CNN's Reliable Sources the following Sunday, we heard this:


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: What we heard were the same lies we've heard from [Mubarak] and his regime for more than two weeks now. What we heard is a man who clearly believes that he is Egypt. He kept repeating this lie that this is all some sort of foreign interference.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Chris Dickey, Anderson Cooper repeatedly using the word lies. Now I think most journalists would agree with him, perhaps most Americans would agree with him. But should an anchor and correspondent be taking sides on this kind of story?

Later, Kurtz deigned to "forgive" Anderson, due to the fact that Anderson was right, and besides, dude got punched in the head a whole lot by one of the sides. Maybe that's why he took a side! It doesn't excuse it, but maybe he just forgot his manners that one time!

Seriously, calling lies lies is the whole damn job description. If you don't want to call a lie a lie, if you think allowing a lie to gain credibility by not calling it for what it is to be the fair and objective thing to do, get the hell out of the business and let someone in that will actually do their job properly. You're not there to be nice to everyone; though it is certainly possible to do so, that's not the be-all and end-all. You're there to get the facts straight. If that means calling something a lie, then dammit, you call something a lie. If someone gets angry that you called what they said a lie, well, they shouldn't have lied.

Honestly. I can't believe I have to waste my time even typing this.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Arab World: What Next?

(EDIT: Lebanon section edited for clarity.)

Let's review: we've gotten revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, South Sudan voting in favor of independence, with steps, or attempted steps, towards similar ends, with varying degrees of success, in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Syria. The Guardian adds Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, Lebanon and Mauritania to the list. Bahrain and Iran look to be next to try, Iran for the second time. Kuwait is in the planning stages. Niger, while not experiencing protests, is in the middle of an election that, given its current direction, looks to throw out their current administration as well.

In short, the entire Middle Eastern and North African power structure is in the process of being blown up and rebuilt from scratch.

This is far from the first time the world has seen a region undergo such upheaval in short order. Europe has seen it several times- the rise of nation-states in the late 1700's, the era after the Treaty of Versailles, the post-Soviet era complete with Balkanization. South America saw it during the days of Simon Bolivar, and then again in the mid-2000's in what Hugo Chavez called the 'Pink Tide'. Africa did the same when, one by one, their various nations threw off colonialism. This is not a new thing.

However, it's one thing for an entire region to mutually decide that they don't like their respective leaders. It is another thing entirely for them to then agree on what direction to take going forward, or to actually pull it off.

Surely, it can actually work out that way. The Pink Tide saw Latin America shift mutually to the left; it had to have been one of Hugo Chavez's proudest moments. However, at the same time, Africa saw results that scattered across the ideological map. Sometimes things got better. Sometimes they got worse. Sometimes they got better only after a long struggle. Sometimes the new leaders became visionaries, but more often, the new leaders had learned too many lessons from the colonialists.

So that's the question: where do we go from here? In what direction, or directions, are we going to see the Middle East and North Africa progress?

In order to answer, we're at least going to have to give lip service to the possibility, however remote it may seem, that each and every country will undergo change in leadership. Remember, nobody saw Tunisia or Egypt coming. We don't know what else will flip, so for our purposes, let's assume that they all do. If you over the years haven't been able to tell one Middle Eastern situation from another, now is a good time to get yourself calibrated.

Running through the region in alphabetical order...

ALGERIA: Algeria's current head is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, though that basic fact is not without controversy; the constitution was altered in 2008 to remove term limits, and the ensuing election was marred by boycotts and fraud allegations. Poverty and unemployment have driven the protests we're now seeing.

Were these protests to succeed, the biggest opposition group is the Socialist Forces Front, with their leader being Karim Tabou, but he's stepped back from some of the protests, and that might cost him. The most likely name in Tabou's absence would be Said Sadi of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, viewed to be more of a liberal and secular group than the current leadership. Unfortunately, not much else is available about them. Sadi would thus be something of a wild card in the specifics.

BAHRAIN: Things haven't progressed very far in Bahrain yet, and aren't seen as likely to, as Bahrain is seen as already somewhat freer than the rest of the area. That reputation has recently taken a bit of a battering, however, leaving the ruling Khalifa family open to protests, which have been responded to with tear gas and rubber bullets. The main name to look at here is opposition leader Abduljalil al-Singace, who was arrested last August on charges of trying to overthrow the government, a charge that could carry the death penalty. As of now he remains in jail, or more accurately, the hospital, as he recently suffered a heart attack. Were an overthrow to succeed, odds are high that, health permitting, he would be quickly released and asked to run for, if not be appointed to, a leadership position.

Abduljalil al-Singace was, prior to his arrest, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Bahrain, as well as a director of the Human Rights Bureau of the Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy, a Shi'ite-backed faction that suffered a roundup alongside him in August and has reportedly endured torture during their detention. The current leadership is Sunni, giving a theological undertone to this particular incidence. This has historically been the norm in the Middle East, but religion has not been the driving factor in this particular wave of protests, making Bahrain a bit of an outlier. (For those unclear on the difference between Sunni and Shi'a, the poor man's version is to consider Sunnis as a Muslim equivalent to Protestants, and Shi'a as a Muslim equivalent to Catholics. Here's the middle-class version, and the rich man's. A change to Shi'a leadership, all other things being equal, would probably shift Bahrain right, and as the Haq movement is seen as somewhat hardline, along with most of the rest of Shi'a-majority Bahrain, this is probably what would happen in not only an al-Singace administration, but any change at the top.

EGYPT: Obviously, we don't need to assume there will be change here. The military is currently caretaking, having just disbanded parliament and restored Tahrir Square to usable condition, and they are respected among the Egyptians. The question is, who will be in charge in the long term, assuming it's not the military.

Until recently, the answer to that seemed to be Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei; however, his failure to take a more central role in the overthrow caused him to lose clout and has essentially taken him out of the race. A straw poll last week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed him at a mere 3%, well back of the leading 26% garnered by Amr Moussa, which is even worse for ElBaradei when one considers that Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak came in second and third in the same poll.

Amr Moussa is thus who we need to examine. He is a former foreign minister of Mubarak's, and recently stepped down as secretary-general of the Arab League in order to run for the office. When he left the Mubarak administration in 2001, the thought was that Mubarak had seen a potential rival and pushed him out. He would not be a clean break from the Mubarak era, though, and his outspoken criticism of Israel makes it likely that Israel could not count on Egypt to refrain from hostilities. He also faces charges of corruption and favoritism towards loyalists from his days in the Arab League. Support for him as leader is plurality, though by no means would be declared leader by acclimation or given an endless amount of rope were he to take the helm.

IRAQ: Years of war, an elected government that failed to meet for six months, and corruption pervasive even after it did meet has led to a country that lacks almost any services whatsoever, as this Al-Jazeera video reports. The Iraqi people will more or less take any government that can restore the nation's infrastructure, and who they won't have to bribe to do it. That means current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have to go, and he has pledged not to seek another term.

His main opposition in the December election was Ayad Allawi, and if there were to be upheaval in Iraq, it's reasonable to think Allawi, a more secular personality (both he and al-Maliki are Shi'ite), would be the natural next man up. His reputation is as a man who can wield influence more effectively than al-Maliki, who has largely struggled to cope. That can of course go too far in the other direction- this Washington Post article uses the term "iron fist"- and despite spending years, decades, putting together an ultimately unsuccessful coup attempt against Saddam Hussein, he was still once part of the Baath Party, and that fact gave the Maliki camp the opening to turn the election into a Bush/Gore redux, the hard feelings of which have evidently boiled over.

The question here is, is Allawi's iron-fist reputation what is needed to bring Iraq back out of the abyss, or does he become merely one more dictator and herald the return of the Baaths. There's only one way to truly find out.

IRAN: We've been through this story before, and the names have not changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains at the helm; Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who are calling the protests, remain on the outside looking in. Protesters in Iran are wary of the potential outcome of a second attempt, as are most observers, but they have begun to restart the effort. Assuming success, almost any outcome with Mousavi or Karroubi in charge- most likely Mousavi- would be viewed, internally and externally, as an improvement on the current situation. As the two are pegged as moderates to Ahmadinejad's hardline stance, this would almost certainly be the case.

JORDAN: Current leadership in Jordan is King Abdullah and Queen Rania; by Jordanian law it is illegal to say a bad word about either of them. Abroad, the law does not apply, though foreign mouths have nonetheless found little bad to say about the two, particularly Queen Rania, who is arguably one of the world's most universally respected foreign heads of state.

Keyword, foreign. Domestically, the couple has come under fire due to overseeing Jordan's flagging economy- Moody's recently downgraded their credit rating to junk status- and by Rania's involvement in politics in general; she has been accused by a consortium of 36 Jordanian tribes of overflaunting of wealth and of "building power centres for her own interests."

In response, Abdullah dismissed and reformed parliament, the new version of which has pledged a substantial reform package led by new parliamentary head Marouf Bakhit, and for many, that's good enough, but for some, it's not. These people, primarily Islamist but with a left-wing tinge, want straight elections. The tribes alone, meanwhile, don't want Abdullah gone, but they do want Rania gone, or at least silenced.

Which makes it difficult to pinpoint who would take the helm. Rania's departure would ultimately rest on Abdullah's decision to divorce her, and considering that the accusation of corruption has been dismissed by the royal court as not representative of the tribes, that does not appear to be happening. Were these tribes to gain control somehow, they skew hardline conservative, and are resentful of Jordan being something of a safe haven for Palestinians, who make up the majority of the country, and as Rania shares that ethnicity, she has received criticism for this as well. The tribes do not want Palestinians having that safe haven before a Palestinian state is restored, feeling that failing to do so would just let Israel use Jordan as the solution to their own mutually-exclusive problems.

KUWAIT: The Interior Minister, Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled al-Sabah, stepped down as a response to Kuwaiti protestation over corruption and curtailing of freedoms. Shikh Jaber in particular has taken blame for the torture death of a Kuwaiti man. The fact that his replacement, Shikh Ahmed a-Hamoud al-Sabah, is a cousin of the emir does not help matters.

The main opposition group, Fifth Fence, has decided to put off protests until March 8 as a measure of acceptance of the resignation, but will continue their efforts. Their demands are that the entire government go, including Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al Sabah. Fifth Fence is a youth group backed by some parliamentary opposition; however, not much past that is known about them. Kuwaiti parliamentary law permits any member of parliament to officially question any other member of parliament, including the Prime Minister, and as Kuwait's parliament has a reputation for action and rowdiness, any number of people could take a leadership role. None have really gotten out ahead of the pack, and it's simply too early to figure out who might.

LEBANON: Lebanon just went through a revolution, the Cedar Revolution, in 2005. The Revolution occurred in the wake of the assassination of then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and forced Syrian troops out of the country and, it was thought, brought four collaborators in his death to justice, which is something the Lebanese rarely expected of people in power. However, the revolutionary sentiments faded quickly, culminating in the 2009 release of those same suspects, who had never been charged with anything, as ordered by The Hague.

In Syria's wake, Hezbollah has filled the void, and Lebanon has become a virtual playground of proxy maneuvers by the United States and Iran, larger regional players, and Syria has even partially returned through their support of Hezbollah. Hezbollah's major act has been to stifle the investigations, fearful that some of their own might be held accountable. Hariri's son, Saad, now finds himself in the opposition after his unity government lost power last month.

This is from where Lebanon's current protests stem. Hariri is the obvious choice to retake power should a regime change come about, and the obvious first step for him would be to give the investigations a fresh head of steam. One would think the sentiments of the Cedar Revolution would be restored to some degree, but as it faltered once, one should also be skeptical of it taking the second time.

LIBYA: Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has been around since 1969, a known quantity to everyone from the Reagan administration on. With revolutions next door on both sides, a Libyan "Day of Rage," scheduled for Thursday, was to be expected. It is also expected that Qaddafi will fiercely contest it, as he has contested any other question to his control. A recent Wikileaks cable details the situation.

As Qaddafi has been in power for so long in an iron-fisted dictatorial fashion, like Tunisia, opposition figures are difficult to pinpoint at first glance. Any revolutionary figures have long since been driven underground or into exile, and all are thought of as weak on their own. It will take time to see if a leader emerges, but as of now, the opposition is too decentralized to declare a leader or a potential successor.

MAURITANIA: Mauritania has seen action from without and within. From without, president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was unsuccessfully targeted on February 2nd by an assassination attempt; al-Qaeda has claimed credit. From within, Yacoub Ould Dahoud set himself on fire in protest of the government; he died five days later in a Moroccan hospital. Such an action would raise eyebrows anywhere, but in Mauritania, suicide is almost unheard of, giving Dahoud's actions that much extra weight on the public consciousness.

However, Abdul Aziz's presence has evidently turned suicide into an option in Mauritania; in 2009, three days after Abdul Aziz claimed power in a disputed election, Mauritania witnessed its first-ever suicide bombing, and public reaction fell along the lines that, while the attack was regrettable, that doesn't excuse Abdul Aziz. He is a deeply controversial figure, having led two separate coups in 2005 and 2008.

The consequences of al-Qaeda having their pick of leader in Mauritania are obvious, but there is a formal opposition as well, the Rally of Democratic Forces, led by Ahmad Ould Daddah. Daddah supported the 2008 coup, but was against anyone who took part in it running for leadership positions. Were he to take power, and were Abdul Aziz to stay away this time, not much of his platform is available, but we can speculate based on the company the RDF keeps. the RDF is a member of Socialist International, a group of political parties worldwide that also includes, among others, the Australian Labor Party, the United Kingdom's Labour Party, Canada's New Democratic Party, and Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, the last of which is the party occupied by Morgan Tsvangirai.

MOROCCO: Moroccan leadership, headed by a royal family led by King Mohammed VI, made a pledge to add 250,000 jobs from 2008-12. They are not on pace to get anywhere in the ballpark of 250,000, and with a history of brutal repression of dissent, the royal family has been left vulnerable to being one more domino in the rally. While Morocco is not seen as likely to fall, if it does, dissident journalist Aboubakr Jamai is quoted as saying ""If Morocco goes up, the disparities in wealth are such that the rebellion will be much bloodier than in Tunisia."

Meanwhile, in Western Sahara, a Moroccan-occupied region south of the nation proper, there sit the Saharawis, organized into the Polisario Front. Or rather, they sit in refugee camps in Algeria, as while they had lived in Western Sahara until a civil war in the 1970's drove them out, in 1982 Morocco began placing more and more of Western Sahara behind berms- low sand-wall fortifications, armed and protected with a variety of ordinance up to and including landmines- until 1987, when they had claimed virtually all areas of value. (We've previously gone into this in more detail last May.) The Saharawis are left watching two separate potential revolutions, Algeria's and Morocco's, and trying to figure out if they should help out in one, the other, both, or to stand pat and hope for the best.

Under the right circumstances, a sufficiently-preoccupied Morocco could allow the Saharawis to make a break for it and attempt a bid for independence, taking their land back from the berms. The Moroccans would, however, have to be deeply, deeply preoccupied.

Meanwhile, in Morocco itself, the largest opposition group seems to be Justice and Charity, an Islamist group made up chiefly of the young and poor. They seek a pluralist system inspired by Islam. Their longtime leader is Abdesslam Yassine, and he would seem the natural poster boy were Justice and Charity to take the reins. However, Yassine does not seek Mohammed's ouster, only the dilution of his power, which would result in a more decentralized state with a semblance of checks and balances. Yassine, deeply spiritual, has not shown any signs of potential violence; he rose to prominence through letters sent to Mohammed VI and his predecessor, Hassan II. Hassan responded by committing him to a mental hospital.

NIGER: While there aren't any protests here, there is an election going on, brought on after Mamadou Tandja, who had attempted to abolish term limits, was deposed by the military in February 2010. A runoff is scheduled for March, with Mahamadou Issoufou taking 36.1% of the vote and Seini Oumarou taking 23.2%. Oumarou belongs to the same party Tandja does. Issoufou and Oumarou belong to opposing coalitions in a multiparty system, and while Issoufou's bloc, made up of his and four other parties, now controls 79 of 113 seats in parliament, Oumarou was projected as the favorite in the runoff until Issoufou began to build a solid list of endorsements among the eliminated candidates. Issoufou is now a solid favorite, provided the supporters of those who endorsed him follow the script.

Issoufou has been a mainstay in Nigerien politics since 1993, when Niger first held multiparty elections. It wouldn't be a major change in policy shift- all the candidates ran on similar platforms, as fighting al-Qaeda and trying to manage a 60% poverty rate and inequal distribution of income leaves little time to promise much else- but Issoufou's election would at least be seen as a break from Tandja.

OMAN: Oman has seen food prices rise as of late, and the country shares many of the social prohibitions as the rest of the region, though not as many. There has been one protest; however, that was on January 17, and there's been little if any word about protests in Oman before or since. If Oman were to topple, it would likely be only because there was nothing left to topple. Out of 135 countries, the United Nations Development Programme ranks Oman as the most improved over the past 40 years. But then again, Saudi Arabia ranked 5th, Tunisia ranked 7th, Algeria 9th, and Morocco 10th.

Even so, it's difficult to even identify an opposition group's existence, let alone a leader. Wikipedia identifies the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, termed a Marxist group, as having changed its name to the People's Democratic Front of Oman in 1992, but recent activity for groups going by either name could not be unearthed. Even giving the opposition every benefit of the doubt, the ruling Qaboos family appears safe barring further developments.

SAUDI ARABIA: Most observers think that Saudi Arabia's royal family is safe; the country seemed safe enough to ousted Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine ben Ali that he fled there. However, high unemployment among the nation's youth and inequal distribution of wealth, as well as any rare social progress in the nation coming at a glacial pace, has created dissent, and the age of those at the top of the royal family- the top two are both in their 80's- may leave the door open. The next in line, however, is Interior Minister Prince Nayef, and he appears to be more of the same.

While the royal family wouldn't be toppled, a sufficiently powerful youth movement, currently bubbling up on Twitter, may be able to force concessions of power, with some control being given to parliament. Last week, an opposition party was formed, Islamic Umma, which in and of itself is illegal in Saudi Arabia. Any seizure of control would be put towards breaking the gridlock to whatever degree and getting at least some of the proposed social programs implemented. The opposition knows they have the money to do it.

SUDAN: South Sudan has already voted to secede, and emphatically so. However, carrying out that secession appears to be another matter entirely, as South Sudan has the bulk of the Sudanese oil reserves, the revenues from which the north is loathe to lose. As such, violence has broken out. The south is busy trying to cobble together a government in the meantime, but in addition to the north, a variety of southern tribes have created internal strife.

Meanwhile in Khartoum, which remains in the north, president Omar Hassan al-Bashir is under fire for, among other things, allowing the secession to happen. With the oil revenues of the south gone, the north's current economic issues would only be exacerbated.

On February 10, Mariam al-Mahdi, daughter of Sadeq al-Mahdi, who Bashir overthrew in 1989, was arrested and detained. An overthrow of Bashir might result in her ultimately being placed in charge, but gender inequality would more likely favor Hassan al-Turabi, also detained earlier in the year. al-Turabi, though, would possibly face criticism of his own for having previously been in Bashir's administration. Which one takes over would determine whether northern Sudan ultimately skews left, as would be the case with al-Mahdi, or right, as would be the case with al-Turabi.

SYRIA: Facebook, previously banned in Syria for the last five years, has been opened up in an attempt to keep any regime-toppling protests at arm's length. Of course, the flip side to that is that Facebook's opening makes it easier for dissenters to find each other and compare notes; failure to be able to do so was largely attributed as the reason Syria's "day of rage" did not have the same firepower as that of other nations. However, that argument fails to hold water when one considers that Syrians have been able to use them anyway, using proxy servers, including the first lady, Asma al-Assad, who juggles several Facebook pages. When the ban was put in place, Google didn't even notice a significant dip in Syrian traffic. The net effect, thus, is minimal.

That all established, Syrian opposition has a long way to go yet to bring down Bashar al-Assad, who had a large security force out on the "day of rage," just in case. But assuming they pull it off, the Assads come from the Alawi tribe, traditionally minority Shi'a. Prior to the Assads, they were politically impotent, rising to power through cultivation of military influence. This is just about the only way an Alawi could gain power in Syria; they are the most hated ethnic group in the country. The Assads have ruled as could be largely expected of a military power base, with repression and widespread torture.

Thus, any loss of power by the Assads and the Alawis would likely open them up not only to their old persecution, but also to retribution, like a mad scientist that gives life to a creature, mistreats it, and then loses control of it. Who would take their place, though, is uncertain, as few ethnic groups want to be the one to make the first move, many fearful of being left to fend for themselves by the others. Kurdish leader Mustafa Ibrahim, for instance, has stated, "Let the Kurds not be the front-runners of any uprising in Syria, because then the regime will accuse them of separatism and of being backed by external forces. But if the Arabs take the lead and we follow, it will be better for us." Who takes the lead in the short term may determine who takes the lead in the long term. Both questions, however, remain open.

TUNISIA: Regime change here is not in question; Zine al-Abidine ben Ali has long since fled the country. Focus can thus be concentrated on identifying a successor. Germany has pledged support to Tunisia in holding elections and overhauling the judicial system. Who would win such an election, however, is still an open question, to the point where some Tunisians would prefer the six-month timeline be extended to allow more time for people to step forward and organize themselves. One potential candidate is Moncef Marzouki, jailed in 1994 for attempting to run against ben Ali, but he and any other candidate would be starting almost from scratch, as a recent opinion poll- Tunisia's first- shows that Tunisians have little knowledge of political options, with only three parties even being known by more than 20% of people, let alone candidates. General Rachid Ammar is also generating some buzz, and Rachid Ghannouchi, exiled for 22 years, has said he is out. That's about as far as anyone has gotten thus far, however: determining whether they're going to run or not.

YEMEN: Seen as the most likely to topple next, pro- and anti-government forces are in a fierce battle for control that has now gone into the fourth day, with protesters chanting "After Mubarak, Ali." Ali is Ali Abdullah Saleh, the current president, who has been in control since 1978. Reform here may not be enough to stave off a toppling. He has said he wouldn't run for re-election in 2013, but this is a promise he has broken before, and he had until recently been flirting with the abolition of term limits.

After that, however, it's not clear that Yemen would remain united, as the bulk of Ali's opposition comes from southern Yemen, while his allegiances lie north. The two were separate nations until a 1990 merger, under Ali's watch. If and when Ali is ousted, the two may very well reseparate. A civil war is possible, if not probable, and a more likely circumstance than free elections, which would be contested by highly fragmented factions.

And whoever leads a united Yemen would have a group of problems dumped into their lap that would be so much larger than them- water shortages, the oil reserves running dry, rampant poverty and unemployment, al Qaeda operating in their backyard- that it may not matter who wins.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Education Placeholder

I'm working on something rather sizable; it will not get done today and will all but certainly take me deep into tomorrow. In the meantime, so you still have something to do around here, have a TED talk.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Where Is John Connor? I Require His Genetic Information

A study conducted by the University of Southern California in 2007 attempted to calculate just how much information storage existed in the world at the time. This was done via adding up the information stored on 60 digital and analog media- books, newspapers, computer hard drives, smartphones, magazines, USB drives, CD's, videocassettes, credit card microchips, vinyl long-play records, etc. That study was just released... well, sort of; the full paper is still under embargo at USC.

The amount, as of 2007, turned out to be 295 exabytes of data, only 6% of which was analog. (Not that analog is going away; over the course of the study, which looked at the period since 1986, paper-based capacity, for example, went from 8.7 to 19.4 petabytes.) How big is that? As CNET puts it, "An exabyte is 1,000 petabytes, and a petabyte is 1,000 terabytes, and a terabyte is about what you'd get in a desktop PC hard drive these days." So about 295 million current desktop PC's... as of 2007. Another statistic showed that storage capacity was growing by 23% per year.

Some other numbers:

*Broadcast information in 2007 amounted to 1.9 zettabytes. A zettabyte is 1,000 exabytes.
*To do, by hand, all the computing that the world's general-purpose computers do in one second would take you from here to the Big Bang. 2,200 times over.
*Every day, if you're average, you take in the equivalent of 174 newspapers, and spit out six back.
*Digital capacity overtook analog in 2002.
*All of the stored information amounts to under 1% of the information stored in a single human being's DNA. Of course, given the previous statistic, you shouldn't get too smug about it. Plus, you and the world aren't adding very much information on a net basis. That remains something of a constant. The computers are gaining ground, and momentum, every day.

The man who led the study, Martin Hilbert, shows some rather esoteric statistics involving homing pigeons and grains of sand, but you get the idea.

The next question that Hilbert wants to look at: how much of this information is actually of use. "What's the value of watching a silly cat video versus reading an overpriced book?"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Save The Store Edition

One of my local bookstores, Book World- or 'Watertown Booksellers', if you go by the big sign out front- is slated to shut down on the 25th. This is apparently the decision of a guy in the Appleton home office, VP of Store Operations Antoine Tines. When I went in today to kill off a gift certificate I got for Christmas, I was handed his contact information, in hopes of making him reconsider.

If you live in the area and you'd like to help- and I'd appreciate it if you did; Watertown is a literary wasteland in its absence- his e-mail is, the phone number is (920) 830-7897, the fax- people still send faxes?- is (920) 830-3857, and the address to write in is:

Book World Home Office
1000 S. Lynndale Dr.
Appleton, WI 54914

That done, in addition to a commemorative Super Bowl Champion Packers Sports Illustrated, we have:

*2011 World Almanac (replaces the 2008 edition currently on my shelf)
*Simmons, Bill- The Book of Basketball (yep, this is his reader)

Mubarak Is Gone

Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as president of Egypt a little over a half hour ago, handing power to the military. He is currently thought to be in Sharm el-Sheikh, in the south; no word on whether he'll be staying there or hopping the border.

Any questions about what happens next seem unimportant to the crowd in Cairo. They'll figure all those questions out later. Right now, they're just rejoicing in the fact that Mubarak is out.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Books VS. E-Books: Fight!

Husna Haq of the Christian Science Monitor put out this article detailing "5 signs that e-books are here to stay," three of which are various themes on 'look how popular they are'.

I haven't heard anyone say that they weren't.

Granted, I for one have expressed a preference for the physical object, way back when I first introduced the Rapid-Fire Book Club. But the advantages of the e-book are so clear- the small size, the portability, the amount of reading material that can be packed into it, the lower cost of producing the product, the speed with which one can obtain a book that they've just heard about or the latest bestseller- that its usefulness is undeniable. I welcome its presence. Anything that gets people reading, or reading more.

But the physical books aren't going away either. Books and e-books can coexist peacefully, which has rather escaped the bulk of people who've written on the topic; most have suggested or implied some sort of existential fight to the death.

So here, in response, are five reasons books aren't going away:

1. Books can be broken and still be readable.

If you drop a steak knife on an e-book, and it pierces and hits the wrong piece of circuitry, you can't read it anymore. You've got a doorstop on your hands. If you drop that same steak knife on a book, you've got a little hole in each individual page. You can still read what's on that page, or worst-case, read around it and make out what the busted part said. You can do a lot of damage to that book and still read it. Even if you tear the book apart page-by-page, with enough work you can put the pages back in order, and still read the book.

2. Pre-existing infrastructure.

Even if you were to not publish one more physical book, you've still got just gobs of them laying around, and not many people are inclined to destroy them. Nor are they going to be subject to some sort of obsolescence-related cancellation of service. You won't open a book anytime soon and see 'This book's service period has expired. Thank you for understanding.'

3. The Internet has a backlog.

Despite the enormous potential of making reading material available online, with this, with Google Books, there are still titles that are going to slip through the net, books you for one reason or another simply cannot obtain in electronic form. You can't flip a switch and make 'books' online. You have to individually introduce each individual book to an online audience. Considering the sheer amount of titles that have been put out over the course of history, that's a task that will take time to complete, if it is ever completed at all.

How much time? You gamers out there, think back to all the times you've tried to achieve hundred-percent completion. Especially think back to those last frustrating percentage points. Now imagine that in real life, on a global scale, over hundreds, maybe thousands of years, and nobody's around to tell you when you've reached 100%. Good luck.

4. Ease of searching.

Oh, yes. Ease of searching. If you know going in what book you're going after, the e-book, Amazon, anything online is perfect. Type in the name, boom, there it is. And here are a couple related books as well.

There's a caveat, though. You have to know exactly what you want, and if you want a certain category, you can only view a limited number of books at a time- ten on a page, perhaps. And they're bound to only be the most popular in whatever category you're looking at.

But popular books and good books aren't the same thing. If you walk into a bookstore, it is a visual no online source can match. Dozens, hundreds of books, maybe even thousands in the right place within one glance. As many as you can handle, popular, obscure, books you've never heard of, books you never knew you wanted until that exact moment, and the only way they're not related is if the staff has been spectacularly incompetent.

5. Intangibles.

As was stated last March, there's a certain mojo that a book has that an e-book simply cannot replicate. There's more of the feeling that the book is a book, as opposed to a glorified online article. There's more gravitas to it. There's the experience of being in the bookstore itself- the slow-paced meandering along the shelves, the browsing, all the knowledge and literature around you being enlightening yet humbling simply by being abundant in close proximity.

That's also something the Internet can't replicate, not really. We all know how large the Internet is, but you're only looking at one or two glimpses of it at a time. You get the Internet in little bite-sized chunks.

Now walk into a large bookstore. The scale hits you like a ton of bricks. You can look straight ahead and see just how much reading material is in there. You hear references, once in a while, to obtaining the content of 'the entire Internet' somehow. You don't hear similar references about someone reading everything in a bookstore or everything in a library, despite there being much less overall content in a bookstore or library. People are much more aware of the likelihood, or lack thereof, of absorbing the entire content of a bookstore or library, than they are about doing the same with the Internet. It just seems larger.

But for another audience of potential readers, bite-size is the right size. And that's the primary factor: the two types of books attract two different kinds of people. Again to use video games as a proxy, you've got one hardcore crowd that wants Halo and Call of Duty, and another more casual crowd that prefers Peggle and Wii Sports. They both like games. Just not the same kind of games. In the same sense, both the book and e-book people like books; they just have different preferences as to hoe they want to have them. And others like having both: get the books, but when the bookshelf gets overrun, put the overage on the e-book.

In other words, they coexist.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Man From Porlock

One of the things that makes humans unique- one of the most crucial, certainly one of the most beautiful- is our ability to be inspired. Our ability to, in reaction to some sort of stimulus, create in our heads a new idea, a new thought, a new way to express oneself. It may be in direct reaction to something you see or experience, coming immediately. It may come in time, after the stimulus gels with the other things going on in your mind. It may come in a dream, utterly out of the blue. It may come out of the blue entirely; every once in a while no stimulus is even needed.

Many of our advances have come in a slow grind, through hard work and hard research, blood, sweat and toil. This is not that. This is when an idea hits you like a lightning bolt, fully or mostly formed.

In ancient times, this was said to be the work of beings called muses. (In Christianity, this is the purpose of the Holy Spirit, just in case you were wondering what exactly that guy did all day besides be something of a third wheel to the Father and Son, like the 1992 Dream Team including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton... and Christian Laettner. Who, for the record, was chosen over Shaquille O'Neal.) Even today, we use the term 'muse' to refer to whatever the stimulus is when something like this happens. Whatever inspires you, that's your muse.

This is Step 1.

Anyone who's had this happen- and hopefully that's just about everyone- has probably experienced, though not quite thought much about outside of the act, Step 2: recording that inspiration. An idea that you come across through the slow grind, while difficult to obtain, is by the time you get what you need fairly well ground into your head. An out-of-nowhere visit from a muse, however, is fleeting and fragile. There is as of yet nothing in your head for that inspiration to hang onto. Once it leaves the forefront of your mind, there is every chance that the idea will recede right back into the depths from whence it came, never to return. Even if you can recall it, it is not easy, and what you dig back up might look nothing like the idea that originally struck you.

And any idea that hopes to make an impact on the world around you cannot make that impact until and unless it survives the journey from your mind into said world.

This is why some people, upon being hit with an idea out of the blue, are gripped with a sudden urge to get the idea recorded somewhere, anywhere, while they still have it, and keep it at the forefront of their minds at all costs until they can. Write it down. Turn on a tape recorder. Turn on a webcam. Blog it. Something. Anything, quickly, before the idea is gone forever. In fact, this is the recommended thing to do; this Michigan State course syllabus, for example, says not to worry if the idea doesn't sound pitch-perfect. You have an idea. Unless the idea is utterly abhorrent, don't worry if it's not perfect. You can give it closer analysis later. That's Step 3. You're still on Step 2: get the idea down.

Some of your more creative types don't even wait for a free moment. They just abruptly cut themselves loose from whatever it is they're doing, sleep included, and get it down somewhere.

Once a place to record the idea has been found, the idea must still be actually recorded. And because you're not out of the woods until that has happened, this part of the process can easily become all-consuming. No external stimuli. The world is shut out. There is only a pen, paper, and a semi-frantic scramble to indulge whatever has gripped the mind of the inspired.

And it's not enough sometimes to get some of the idea down and come back later. Though when an idea for a blog post comes up at work, due to limited break time, I've gotten a sort of system down where I get down what I can, make it to a point where I can leave off and, through what I've written down, be reminded of what I'm supposed to write at the next opportunity. By writing down a certain part of a thought, I can remind myself of the rest of that thought. That might not work for you, though, and it doesn't always work out for me. For some people, they either record everything, or risk losing their inspiration halfway through the recording process.

It can happen to the best. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as he claimed, was struck with the entirety of the poem Kubla Khan in 1797, reportedly in an opium haze. Not a recommended source of inspiration, but hey, it worked for him. As he told it, upon waking from the haze, he immediately set about composing the poem, intended at 200-300 lines, but only 30 lines in, he got a knock on the door from "a man from Porlock". The two talked for an hour, after which he resumed writing. But in that hour, he'd lost it. He scrambled to reconstruct the poem, but petered out at 54 lines. The rest was simply gone. When reading Kubla Khan, the first 30 lines and the last 24 seem disconnected from each other. The man from Porlock isn't a universally believed explanation- theories range from it being an excuse for the two halves of the poem being so different from each other to the possibility that he got stuck, with the inspiration not even waiting the hour to abandon him.

Whatever happened, lines 37-47, coming after the break, read like so:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

This reads to a lot of people like Coleridge raging against the heavens, trying to recall lost inspiration, almost pleading for it to return. If he could only remember the rest of that poem, he'd put together the best damn writing you ever saw.

The 1954 movie On The Waterfront put it another way: "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody." Which is one of the most frustrating, exasperating thoughts a person can have.

Don't let that thought happen to you.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Above The Tree Line

When you think of Mont Ventoux--


...Well, you are now. Go with it.

Mont Ventoux, when AND IF you think of it, you know as one of the more storied climbs in the Tour de France.

...Yes, the Tour de France has characteristics beyond that of so many people doping that we've just about come all the way back around to a level playing field again. Stop interrupting.

The climb has gained notoriety over the years as one of the most difficult, downright brutal ascents in France, despite an elevation of only 6,263 feet, with no trees to provide shade, winds that blow riders all over the road, and the knowledge in the back of every cyclist's mind that the climb has in the past taken a life. In the 1967 Tour, Tom Simpson of the United Kingdom rode himself to exhaustion, collapsing and dying one kilometer from the summit. His last words were "Put me back on my bike." A memorial stands where he fell.

...what now? Oh, fine, let me go look. ....yes, he had amphetamines on him when he died. Shut up already.

In any case, there is more to this mountain than a bike race. This peak, while brutal to bikes, does not pose a great deal of challenge to straight climbers, though the lack of trees might necessitate carrying a decent amount of water. Mont Ventoux, because of that ease to ascend without a bike, is therefore about as good a mountain as any to be considered the birthplace of mountaineering.

To be sure, mountains have been climbed since time immemorial. But before 1336, it was done purely out of necessity- migration, military maneuvers, some sort of religious purpose. Mountains were not climbed merely to be climbed. However, on April 26, the Italian poet Petrarch, alongside his brother and a pair of servants, became the first to do it for fun. As he wrote after his climb, in 'The Ascent of Mont Ventoux', he states right off the bat, "To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer." Certainly he was not doing it to be first to the peak. Petrarch himself met someone who had, many years before, gotten to the top, but while the exact reason is not stated in the text, Petrarch's predecessor certainly did not have fun...

"We found an old shepherd in one of the mountain dales, who tried, at great length, to dissuade us from the ascent, saying that some fifty years before he had, in the same ardour of youth, reached the summit, but had gotten for his pains nothing except fatigue and regret, and clothes and body torn by the rocks and briars."

Petrarch was no expert climber. The easiest way to get up mountains is generally to find a ridge- the high road, basically- and follow that. By taking the high road, you are, obviously, climbing from a higher position, making for a flatter incline. Petrarch's brother followed this guideline, but Petrarch describes in the text how he instead elected to take valley routes, which is fine at the start of an ascent, but you have to cover the same amount of vertical either way, and a valley route just makes you do the vertical all at once at the end. Petrarch made this mistake several times, picking routes that in fact descended at some points.

"Suffice it to say that, much to my vexation and my brother's amusement, I made this same mistake three times or more during a few hours."

He did, of course, eventually reach the summit, and there, staring out into the distance, is where Petrarch cemented Mont Ventoux's place in the climbing world, not as a challenge, not as a feat, but as a pilgrimage:

"At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a mountain of less fame. I turned my eyes toward Italy, whither my heart most inclined. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance; the very same Alps through which that fierce enemy of the Roman name once made his way, bursting the rocks, if we may believe the report, by the application of vinegar. I sighed, I must confess, for the skies of Italy, which I beheld rather with my mind than with my eyes. An inexpressible longing came over me to see once more my friend and my country. At the same time I reproached myself for this double weakness, springing, as it did, from a soul not yet steeled to manly resistance."

And so it is that, to this day, when not occupied by the Tour de France, Mont Ventoux is occupied by climbers that, if they so choose, can follow Petrarch's exact route, GR4.

And not all of them are on steroids.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


(Obviously posted prior to the game.)

Everyone sing along!

So... The Two Hikers Go On Trial Today.

It's Super Bowl Sunday. Yes. And if the Packers win, I'm sure I'll be in here after the game whooping and hollering because I am a Wisconsinite and it is a law of physics.

Meanwhile in Iran, though, you have far higher stakes, as the hikers still there, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, go on trial for "spying" today when they allegedly crossed the border into Iran while hiking in Kurdistan. 'Allegedly' is important here, as one of the Wikileaks cables shows US military officials as not believing they had ever actually set foot on Iranian soil (as well as some speculation as to their intent).

Sarah Shourd, the third hiker, is also being tried, albeit in absentia, as she was released earlier on medical grounds. No sane person expects her to actually show up.

So keep them in your thoughts today; hope for the best. You don't have to agree with what they were doing there in the first place. Nobody's asking you to. Just lend some support for their release is all.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Random News Generator- Greenland

Obviously, when talking about Greenland, the first thing that's going to come to mind is its status as a front line in the climate change debate-that's-only-a-debate-because-it-would-cost-some-people-money-to-do-something-about-it.

And certainly that's not going to change today in the RNG. According to Earthweek, the water currently flowing into the Atlantic from the Arctic is the warmest in 2,000 years...

"That body of water between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago has warmed about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years.

That’s 2.5 degrees warmer than during the Medieval Warm Period, when Vikings farmed in Greenland from about A.D. 900 to 1300."

As part of a consequence of this warming, the Northwest Passage, heretofore frozen over, is opening up, and Greenland and Nunavut are teaming up to try and regulate any resulting shipping that might happen, worrying that ships not built for icy conditions might end up breaking apart and causing environmental catastrophe. At the forefront is a call for all ships going through the Northwest Passage to be double-hulled.

Meanwhile on stage, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne have teamed up on producing a play, 'Greenland'. And if you've ever heard the phrase 'a camel is a horse drawn by committee', that is more or less what's going through the reviewers' minds, with it coming off as shrill yet sleep-inducing, even though the actual message is sympathized with. This is the big problem when arguing an environmentalist viewpoint: too few people know how to argue it properly. Charisma counts. A lot of environmentalists forget that. You can't just roll in somewhere, shriek 'WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE AND IT'S YOUR FAULT BECAUSE YOU WON'T PUT DO X' and expect people to want to have anything to do with you. They might just go the other way out of sheer spite.

My suggestion: toss up suggestion after suggestion- keyword, suggestion, as opposed to direct order- until you find something that someone's able to agree on. Not every proposal is palatable to everyone, but the thing about environmentalism is that there are a gazillion ideas out there to improve matters in a gazillion different areas of life, and you don't necessarily have to hit on every suggestion. What appeals to one person may not appeal to another, but most people are going to be appealed to by something. You just have to figure out what.

For example, if you're looking to get better gas mileage in winter- and considering gas prices, some of you might- you may want to look at this.