Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's Opening Day

The Cubs are tied for first. And, at least for today (they play tomorrow), they have a perfect record.

This year, dang it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Many if not most countries have their share of long-running pop culture icons. They might wax and wane in popularity, but they always seem to stick around, often reaching a point where they remain alive, in one form or another, partially because of tradition. Canada has Hockey Night in Canada. The United Kingdom has Doctor Who. The United States has Bugs Bunny, Superman, Batman, Saturday Night Live, a number of others. Europe in general has Eurovision. For much of the Latin world, it's Sabado Gigante. Japan has, among others, Ultraman, Gundam and Lupin III.

China has Sanmao.

Sanmao ("three hairs", as that's all he's got) is an unusual kind of pop culture icon. He spent his formative years as a homeless orphan, barely able to feed himself. But through the power of reader sympathy, Sanmao has lasted as long as anyone, being a part of the Chinese pop culture universe since 1935.

Shanghai-based Zhang Leping in part was drawing what he knew; he grew up poor as well. He got into drawing after being encouraged to go to art school, found he liked making comics, and came up with Sanmao. It wasn't total sympathy that got Sanmao over- humor helped- but what really did it was when Japan invaded China in 1937 in the Second Sino-Japanese War, which would ultimately be rolled into World War 2. (If you need your memory refreshed, the Rape of Nanking also happened in 1937. It wasn't the start of the conflict, but it wasn't long after it.) Zhang was recruited by the government to draw up propaganda posters for the war effort, and he made Sanmao part of some of them.

At the close of the war in 1945, Zhang went back to working on Sanmao, starting by telling the story of Sanmao's war experience in a series called 'Sanmao Joins The Army'. The humor began to fade, though there was still a place for it in the same way there was a place for army humor in Bugs Bunny wartime cartoons. By the end of it, he wasn't just a pop-culture hit, he was a Chinese hero. But at the end of the series, when Sanmao leaves the army, he is faced with a choice: go back to the country where he came from, or move to Shanghai. In both directions, there were graves everywhere.

He chose Shanghai. At this point, things turned dark. According to the linked article from The World of Chinese...

“On one snowy night, Zhang Leping was walking home from the office,” Hong Peiqi, Zhang’s publisher, remembered. “He passed by an alleyway and saw three street children huddled together. For shirts, they wore used grain sacks. For pants they had old, threadbare trousers. They warmed themselves around a fire. The next morning, when Zhang passed the same alley, he found two of these orphans had died overnight.”

This kind of thing was not uncommon. “Was there really such a child as Sanmao?” Zhang reflected later. “Homeless children were in every street and alley you walked along in Shanghai.”

Zhang incorporated it into Sanmao's next series, 'The Wanderings of Sanmao'. Sanmao would survive, of course, but not without immense difficulty and hardship, in a postwar city filled with them. Now Sanmao wasn't just a Chinese hero. Now he was a Chinese hero that needed love and support.

He had plenty of places from which to receive it. Sanmao has been an easy comic to follow, because it doesn't use words if at all possible. The aim with Zhang was always ease of reading by anyone, even an illiterate, which has been an important factor if it was actually to be seen by China's impoverished. As Zhang's son, Zhang Rongrong, explained to China Daily in 2005, upon Sanmao's 70th anniversary, "Sanmao was created for all the people, including the poor and the illiterate... Every time when my father finished a cartoon, he always showed it to us first to see whether we could understand - if we couldn't, he would restart."

Zhang took heat from the Central Daily, a paper run by the ruling Nationalist government, but that was rather the point. Zhang was going after them for corruption and for creating too much of a rich-poor gap in Chinese society. Sanmao wasn't really for them anyway, and besides, Zhang's hometown was attacked by the Nationalists in 1927. Sanmao was for the masses. Sanmao was, it would happen, for the Communists. And when the Communists took power, Sanmao took part in the celebration.

Given his 1935 start, you may have asked, how did Sanmao survive, oh, say, the Cultural Revolution where so much of Chinese culture did not? That's why. Sanmao may have been an impoverished orphan, but he knew the right people to get in with. Sanmao would never be quite such a picture of desperation again, and for his fans, it came as a joyous relief. He'd suffered enough. Today, Sanmao is healthy, well-educated, and most importantly, no longer homeless. But to his fans, he will always be the poor, starving orphan boy.

Zhang died in 1991, but as in so many comics in America, the mantle was passed on, specifically to Zhang Rongrong, who has put his energies into placing Sanmao into other forms of media.

Here's a sample of Sanmao comics. You'll note little numbers in the bottom-right corner of each panel; that's the order they're meant to be read in. Left to right, top to bottom, just like you'd expect.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Libyan Dilemma

I'm conflicted over our endeavor in Libya for much the same reasons everyone else is. On the one hand, if we didn't go in, the rebel forces would have been crushed, and Gadhafi/Qadaffi/Kadafy... whatever his name is, he's a head of state that the world would certainly be better off without. (We'll go with 'Gadhafi'. As good a choice as any. You'd think we'd have made up our mind after 40 years.) On the other, it is a third military front for a nation stretched threadbare by two, and you can't forget the cost at a time when our national pocketbook is already pretty light. (Not empty. But light.) And of course, we said the same thing about Saddam Hussein, and look what happened.

There are other concerns, though, that I think are merely being overly skeptical; the kind of things that under Bush 43 would have been well-founded concerns, but under Obama are unproven cases of once-bitten-twice-shy. It must be first established that this is the first conflict under Obama that is completely, unambiguously his. Iraq and Afghanistan were inherited over half a decade in, each. Whether he is doing well with the hands dealt him is not the issue at hand; we'll leave that debate alone. All that matters here is that he was dealt those hands, and thus was forced to occupy his time reversing, not reversing, or dealing with the consequences of irreversible actions taken over years upon years, decisions that were not his to make. You can grade him, certainly, but only really in the sense that you can grade the performance of a manager hired in midseason to replace a guy who led his team to last place and no chance at the playoffs. You don't really start judging him until he has a season all to himself.

The most major concern raised that fits this category is how, no matter what the timeline aimed at by the administration, no matter how much the administration says they're only going to provide air support, many just automatically leaped to the conclusion that Obama is lying and that there are going to be ground troops, eventually, and that we'll be in Libya for the next decade. This came about almost immediately upon the planes showing up. Immediately, people assumed a 10-year occupation, virtually on Day One. This seems gun-shy to the point of near-ridiculousness. America is capable of short wars. Relatively recent ones, too. Grenada. Kuwait. Bosnia. Somalia. Not all wars are open-ended meat grinders. We've just forgotten what the short wars look like. This seems to me like a very straightforward thing with a very straightforward goal, no matter how much anyone wishes to pretend there's no endgame: the ouster of Gadhafi and that's it. Unless I see actual boots on the ground, actually see them and not just rumors or speculation of them, or until we stay past the ouster of Gadhafi, I'm not inclined to make the open-ended argument myself. I'm willing to trust, at least for now, that this will be kept as short as possible.

In addition, Jon Stewart and John Oliver of the Daily Show did a skit about 'freedom packages'. Since my non-American readers won't be able to load the clip, I'll give the gist. Three 'packages' were outlined: a 'bronze' package, in which we say 'Oh, how sad' and then don't do anything of substance (Sudan was provided as an example), a 'silver' package in which we utilize diplomatic channels but don't send a military (Egypt was their example), and a 'platinum' package, in which our military does get involved (Libya, of course). So far, so good. But then Oliver claimed that the countries in question don't get to decide which 'package' they get.

Under Bush, and in fact under a lot of Presidents, true enough. Under Obama, though, not so fast. Technically, yes, it's true. Other countries can't decide what we do with our instruments of government.

But they can make requests. And Obama has actually been rather accommodating in granting requests. There have been three high-profile cases thus far- Iran, Egypt and Libya- in which a request has been made of the United States or the West in general. Egypt and Iran's rebels both asked for no outside involvement, both on the grounds that as soon as the West showed up, the rebellion would instantly cease to be about the rebels and instead be about the West, as their respective dictators would instantly seize the chance to paint the rebellion as a Western puppet, stripping the rebellion of any grassroots credibility. It was something that, no matter the odds, they had to do themselves. Both wishes were granted. One turned out well, one turned out badly, but both wishes were granted. (The Daily Show painted Iran as the US being too scared to take them on. Perhaps that is true as well, but that neither agrees or disagrees with this, and so we'll merely acknowledge it and otherwise leave it alone.)

The Libyan rebels, meanwhile, did request our help. They begged, pleaded, groveled for Western assistance, and quickly, lest they be killed. At the eleventh hour, the day before they were predicted to be slaughtered by Gadhafi ('bloodbath' was a popular word), help came. Again, wish granted.

Sudan, for their part, would now like similar intervention and are stunned they didn't get it before Libya did, and in the story, while Sudan is requesting the so-called platinum package, the administration remains seemingly as committed to bronze as every other administration. Fair enough. Wish not granted, and not likely to be granted anytime soon. Point for the Daily Show there.

It must be further established that Obama was in a bad spot from the get-go, Libya-wise. There was no right decision for him to make. His choices, for all intents and purposes, were but two: Either go in, and be denounced as a warmongering flip-flopper who's spending money we don't have, or don't go in, and be denounced as sitting back and doing nothing while brave freedom fighters are mercilessly cut down by a brutal regime, cursing his name as they die. Either way, he was going to get savaged by both sides of the aisle. It's the exact kind of decision that they don't put in the promotional materials when they try and encourage someone to run for the office. It's the decision that makes Presidents age prematurely.

As Obama's actions have borne out thus far, it appears, by my reading, that he would have preferred to see the rebels saved but to have someone else do the heavy lifting so he wouldn't have to. Say, NATO. Could the rebels turn out to be ideologically against us as well? The allied forces appear willing to take that chance.

'Couldn't he have asked Congress for approval beforehand?'

To put it bluntly: no.

Specifically, Obama would have had to go through the House, controlled by the Republicans, who have said up and down that their big goal is to defeat Obama in 2012. Anything they can hang on him, they'll do.

In the last days before the airstrikes began and the no-fly zone enforced, you may recall that the rebels were on the ropes, the media and the Gadhafi government giving them 72, 48, 24 hours before they were massacred. If I'm John Boehner, and I'm thinking only of Obama's defeat, I don't exactly want to make this call either, but I do know that I want whatever Obama's decision is to be wrong. My solution is, if Obama asks for approval, I run out the clock. I drag my feet, let Gadhafi do what Gadhafi will do, render the vote moot so I don't have to make a stand on it, and then hit Obama over the head with 'look at all those dead freedom fighters, why didn't you do something' as if he'd never even asked in the first place, counting on the fact that 'asking Congress' won't count as 'something'. If Obama had asked Congress, it would have ended the same way, and he would have gotten the same amount of credit, as if he'd watched the rebels die on a live feed while munching on a bowl of popcorn. If Obama wanted to help the rebels out, he had to go over the head of Congress.

For all of the many factors and difficult decisions, though, there is one area in which Obama has a distinct advantage.

He has the benefit of the war having front lines.

Front lines were a staple of war for the vast, vast majority of human history: one army on one side, the other on the other side, and most of the fighting happens where the two brush up against each other. As air technology advanced, though, front lines began to vanish, as it became much easier to deposit troops in any part of a warzone, and extract them as well. Battles could be fought in the air, or from the air. A war could be fought throughout a theater, as opposed to in one specific region.

In Libya, though, this is not the case. The theater is something like a football field. Gadhafi's forces are trying to get to an endzone in Benghazi. The rebel forces are trying to get to an endzone in Tripoli. The only way to either end zone is to go straight through the enemy and push them back, as all the key cities in the battle are along the Mediterranean coastline. The first team to reach their respective endzone wins.

This makes things very easy on Obama as far as the actual prosecution of the conflict goes. First, there is no ambiguity as far as being able to tell who's winning and who's losing. Just color-code a map according to who controls what. Not only can you tell at a glance who's winning, you can also tell who's driving downfield. Second, it cuts a huge country down to bite-sized chunks. You know exactly what parts of Libya need support. A child could draw up an air strategy. Just note the front line, point out the first key point west of it, circle it on a map and write 'BOMBS GO HERE'.

In order to make it to Tripoli, though, an upgrade of guns for the rebels is likely necessary. At the moment, while Gadhafi's forces are well-armed, the rebels are scraping by with whatever random assortment of guns they can scrounge up. For them to make the kind of gains they need to make, they may need further reinforcements. But does anyone, most importantly Obama, have the stomach to go down a road of arms deals that has burned America so many times before? Do we even have the stomach to clear the rebels' path for them all the way to Tripoli for as long as it takes for them to get there, even though regime change is the only possible desirable outcome and that goal is the worst-kept secret around?

Be glad you're not the one that has to make these calls.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Sentence You To Life, And All Its Horrors

Amnesty International today issued their annual report on the state of the death penalty worldwide, and they are overall showing a fairly sharp decline over the past year... as long as you exclude China. China is by far the biggest proponent of the death penalty worldwide, executing more people than the rest of the world combined, so much so that if you included China in the count, it would skew the reading.

So excluding China, 719 people were executed worldwide in 2009. In 2010, the number was 527. At least, as far as we know; some countries aren't totally forthcoming in releasing their statistics. China, meanwhile, has at least 2,000 by Amnesty International's count, with rumors of it being as high as 8,000.

You see now why China had to be excluded?

22 other countries were scored as having at least one execution in 2010. Iran had 252, North Korea 60, Yemen 53, the United States 46, Saudi Arabia 27, Libya 18, Syria 17, Bangladesh 9, Somalia 8, Sudan 6, Palestine 5, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea and Taiwan 4, Belarus and Japan 2, and Iraq,
Botswana, Malaysia and Bahrain 1. Most of those countries, though, might have higher counts beyond what was scored, and Vietnam and Singapore might have also carried out at least one. (The confirmed count adds up to 521. Amnesty misplaced six executions here somewhere.)

It must be noted that these are actual executions. Not death sentences. While death sentences are given out in the thousands- 2,024 given by 67 countries- often, they aren't carried out.

Belarus is probably under more scrutiny than any other, outside of China. They are the only country left in Europe that still executes, in defiance of pressure placed upon it by the EU, which will not start officially talking with Belarus until it, among other things, abolishes the practice.

Over the past decade, 31 countries have. Gabon is the most recent, the 139th overall, while Mongolia instituted a moratorium- not abolition, but a step in that direction. Here in the US, Illinois recently abolished the death penalty, the 16th state to do so. Texas accounted (PDF) for 17 of the 46 American executions; if it were a country, it'd be ranked 8th in 2010 executions. Ohio had 8, Alabama 5, Virginia, Oklahoma and Mississippi 3, Georgia 2, and Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Utah and Washington 1. There would have been more save for the fact that almost all American executions are by lethal injection, and there was widespread difficulty in obtaining one of the drugs in the cocktail, sodium thiopental. Arizona had to get theirs from the United Kingdom. Texas, down from 24 executions in 2009, has also been dealing with fallout from the executions of inmates who have later been exonerated; as a result, they've been more deliberate in proceeding.

In China itself, last month they abolished the death penalty for 13 'economic' crimes, a move which Amnesty International derided as "legal housekeeping", as China rarely carried out the executions for those crimes anyway. Among the crimes: tax fraud, tomb robbing, fossil stealing, and the smuggling of cultural relics. The death penalty was also abolished for those over age 75. That still leaves 55 crimes that can get you killed in China.

Still a long way to go.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

If You Try This At Home, You Deserve What You Get

Sometimes it's the simple everyday household questions that need answering. You've got a random bit of food, and you wonder whether it would taste good coming out of the microwave. You've got a non-food item, and you wonder whether it's microwave-safe.

Or you've got something that's obviously not microwave-safe and you're wondering what would happen, in which case, put it down, let these guys from Massachusetts do it, you can see what it looks like and you don't have to do it PUT DOWN THE MICROWAVE.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro, 1935-2011

Today comes news of the death of 1984 Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who has lost her battle with blood cancer at age 75. Ferraro has been derided on several fronts over the years, most recently for her comments during the 2008 Presidential primaries, which out of respect we'll leave at that. She's been criticized for being part of the Walter Mondale ticket, a campaign that got its clock so thoroughly cleaned that Mondale's name has become something of a byword for a campaign that has been soundly defeated. As the campaign went so poorly, she's further been derided as a show pony, the 'first woman on a Presidential ticket' tag meant to prop up a candidate who was going down in flames.

As history is slowly showing, though, however badly Mondale's campaign went, that doesn't change the fact that she was the first woman on a Presidential ticket. She didn't sink the ticket- it was sunk to begin with- and that's really all anyone ever asks of a running mate. However contrived the breaking of a glass ceiling, the fact remains that Ferraro broke it. Lou Gehrig once extended his consecutive-games streak in 1934 by taking one at-bat in the first inning and then sitting for the rest of the day. Nobody holds it against him today.

Women are today fully viable options as candidates. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were also unsuccessful in their respective campaigns, but to dwell on their losses rather misses the point that was made by two women being taken seriously in the same Presidential campaign- one being placed on a ticket (whatever I or anyone else thinks of that), the other very nearly winning her party's nomination on her own merits, losing to another similarly glass-ceilinged demographic superlative. The questions 'will there be a female head of the ticket' and 'will there be a female President' are not really viable questions anymore. It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when, and who. It may not happen immediately- too much depends on the specific bodies in the field, new Presidents are elected only every 4-8 years, and of course, only one person can win- but it's going to happen, sooner or later. Without Geraldine Ferraro getting the 'first member of a ticket' milestone out of the way, publicity stunt or not, in an otherwise disastrous campaign, who knows if we can say that today.

Here's her acceptance speech from 1984.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Random News Generator- Romania

Sorry for nothing yesterday; a citywide circuit breaker tripped or something. The whole town seemed to lose power at once for a couple seconds, which was enough to eat yesterday's post.

That post was supposed to be a Random News Generator anyway, so we'll just spin again, and we land on Romania.

First off, if you're Romanian, don't forget to set your clocks forward. Daylight Savings starts on Sunday.

That established, the movie Periferic, about a prison inmate who gets released for 24 hours and decides to use it to flee the country, is to be released online in Romania, because there aren't enough theaters to make a theatrical release worth it. Only 182 screens exist in the country.

And alongside Bulgaria, Romania is, according to German foreign ministry state secretary Werner Hoyer, on pace to join Europe's Schengen area by the end of the year. That may sound nice, but this is a schedule slip. They were supposed to be in by this month, but corruption problems in both nations, and their failure to adequately punish the corrupt, have delayed their ascension, and several countries remain in opposition, including Germany.

What is the Schengen area? It is a region, encompassing most of Europe, in which there is no border patrol between countries (and strengthened border control with non-Schengen countries). They just pull up stakes on the border stations and let everyone move freely within the Schengen area. The only thing you'll often see at the border is a 'Welcome to (name)' sign. Of course, law enforcement works the same way, making it a situation something like that within the United States: a fugitive can cross the state line, but so can the cops, including in hot pursuit. That's what Romania and Bulgaria hope to get. But with the corruption problems, the other Schengen nations would be allowing Romanian and Bulgarian corruption to move freely into their countries as well, meaning they would have to take up Romania and Bulgaria's slack. As it stands, there's still just too much slack to pick up. The entire European-multistate-harmony concept teeters on the fact that the group is only as strong as its weakest link. One bad apple can drag down everybody.

They are under pressure to make it happen, though; Schengen compliance is something required of all EU nations aside from Ireland and the United Kingdom, and along with Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria are the only countries that are not yet in compliance.

Maybe it would help if they set their clocks forward.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Famewhore Experiment

You are probably familiar with the Milgram experiment, named for its creator, Stanley Milgram. In fact, it's probably the most famous psychology experiment of all time. In order to test human obedience to authority figures, and more specifically, to see whether Adolf Eichmann's accomplices in the Holocaust really were in mental league with Eichmann or whether they might have been just average Joes afraid to stand up to authority- essentially, whether a similar situation could happen outside of Nazi Germany- subjects were given a scenario. They, after being given $4 for showing up, were paired with a plant who would answer- and eventually, deliberately answer incorrectly- a series of word-association questions. Every time the plant got an answer wrong, the subject was to administer electric shocks of increasingly dangerous voltage, topping out at a fatal 450 volts. (The shocks were fake, but they didn't know that.) The plant made sure to mention in front of the subject that he had a heart condition, and would, at predetermined voltages, start yelling and screaming from the pain. Or, at least, a tape recorder would do so; the plant was not in direct view of the subject, and once out of the subject's sight, played no further part in the proceedings.

If a subject expressed concern at any point about administering the shock, the experimenter would give the following succession of verbal prods, in order:

"Please continue."
"The experiment requires that you continue."
"It is absolutely essential that you continue."
"You have no other choice, you must go on."

If the fourth prod did not cause the subject to continue, or if the subject gave the 450-volt shock three times in a row, the experiment ended. It didn't really matter how much prodding it took to get the subject to press the button. All that mattered was did they press the button. As it happened, 65% of the subjects went all the way to 450 volts. And while the subjects that stopped, stopped, nobody demanded that the study itself be stopped, and nobody went to check on the plant. Various objections were raised from multiple corners, especially since those in the know predicted that only 1-3% would go all the way, and the experiment has been redone many times over the years with many different tweaks and twists, but no matter what the circumstances, no matter what kind of psychological pressure has been placed on subjects to stop, people keep pressing the button, normally with percentages in the high 60's or low 70's.

Which brings us to an experiment conducted in France last year. The premise of this particular revisit centered around the effect of television on someone's decision-making process; how much more likely someone is to do something just because they're on TV. A fake game show was created for a documentary called Le Jeu de la Mort- The Game of Death.

After being given 40 euros, and being told they wouldn't win any money because it was just a trial run for a pilot, subjects were given essentially the exact same experiment as Milgram, only replacing the experimenter with a game show host, a studio audience chanting "punishment", and all the bells and whistles and flashing lights and dramatic music a prime-time game show deserves. The 450 volts became 460, the word-association questions were replaced with trivia, but otherwise, it was the same thing.

65% of subjects followed the original Milgram experiment to the end- 26 out of 40.

The Game of Death saw 80% of its subjects do likewise- 64 out of 80. (Time here claims 81%; their math is wrong.) That's about as high a percentage as any replication has shown.

And when you think about it a bit, 80% actually seems low.

In more recent iterations of the Milgram experiment, subjects have had to be screened beforehand to ensure they weren't already familiar with it. If this isn't done, the results would skew low; subjects would try to present themselves as the kind soul who would never hurt a fly. They wouldn't press the button, but it wouldn't mean anything, because they'd just be giving the answer they know the experimenters want. (There might also be some smartasses that just start jamming on the buttons all at once, like they were playing a piano or something.)

In The Game of Death, however, the results might be skewed low already. The setup, while replicating a TV game show, went without two critical factors. First, there was no actual money at stake. The subjects were given 40 euros at the start and then told no more money was on the line. That money is a crucial factor in getting game show contestants, and reality show contestants, to do things they normally would not do. You might not shock this guy for free... but would you do it for a million dollars? Or to place even more pressure on the contestant, would you do it if you had $500,000 in hand, and you would win $1 million by shocking him, but if you don't shock him, we'll drop you down to $25,000, or even nothing? Do those 16 that didn't press the button still not press the button with life-changing amounts of money on the line?

Second, it wasn't actually going to be broadcast, and the subjects knew that going in. It was presented as a test run for a pilot. There are a lot of pilots that never see air. What happens if the show is already on the air, and the contestant knows that they will, guaranteed, be on national television, in prime time? And to take it even further, what happens after the show has been on long enough that they have to put out casting calls? Everybody that sees that casting call knows exactly what would be expected of them if they made it on the show. Does anyone that would refrain from pressing the button even apply for the show? After all, they might get on TV, but they would lose. Wouldn't the contestant pool just wind up being a bunch of people ready and willing to knowingly apply fatal shocks to another human being for the sake of money and 15 minutes of fame?

Even if you were to invoke some kind of twist, like strapping in a loved one to take the shocks when you press the button, even then, anyone that couldn't bear to make the shock would never in a million years apply for the show. The most you'd get out of the 'loved one strapped in' stipulation would be family members predetermining prior to applying how far they're willing to go and how much money that would earn them, and then abruptly stopping the second they hit that point.

But they'd still be pressing the button.

Which leads to another set of questions: if such a show ever made air, how many people would watch?

And how many would watch more than once?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Louis, Louis, (unintelligible)

Back in August, I provided a list of 17 journalists I highly respect. A journalism all-star team, if you will. 17 people that are among the best in the business. To remind you, they are, in no particular order: Matt Taibbi, Jon Stewart, Shepard Smith, Anderson Cooper, Sanjay Gupta, Gwen Ifill, Andrew Sullivan, Mariana van Zeller, Rachel Maddow, Christiane Amanpour, Stephen Colbert, Soledad O'Brien, Jim Lehrer, Nate Silver, Fareed Zakaria, and the Ling sisters, Laura and Lisa.

A few months later, this blog declared Fox News as inherently untrustworthy. It was also mentioned that this affected Smith. Obviously, it's nothing against Smith. He is doing his best over there. However, the culture at Fox News is so utterly poisonous that it makes quality journalism impossible. The day Smith finds work at another organization, he'll be back on the team, but until then, he has to come off the active roster. We'll say he's on the disabled list.

Luckily, there's someone else that can be called up to the all-star team. That person is Louis Theroux.

If you're American, you almost certainly have not heard of him. That's because he's with the BBC. He began in 1998 with a series called 'Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends', and his personality and style of reporting has always been somewhat in that vein, but ever since he started, the topics he's selected have been more intriguing and heavy than weird. Just like Stewart and Colbert, he does the kind of work you wish it wouldn't take him to be doing.

And that's always been the most prevalent criticism of Theroux: that his topics, particularly some of his more recent topics, are too heavy for him. That he's sometimes really not up to the tasks he gives himself, that he sometimes lets his aloofness get in the way. To which I say: well, why don't you get out and do it better.

When Theroux is on his game, though, he is absolutely sublime. As we did with the original 17 all-stars, Theroux will be shown here at his best. And his single finest hour appears to his his 2003 report, 'Louis and the Nazis', in which he explores California's Neo-Nazi subculture.

Like I said. Heavy subject matter.

Here's that report, segmented into six parts as per Youtube time limits...

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

If a piece on Nazis is something you're simply not comfortable viewing, there are plenty of other Theroux pieces available online, and I can accomodate by linking to the opening parts of some of his other works (subsequent segments should pop up in the 'related videos' area if Youtube knows what's good for it)...

African Hunting Holiday
Law and Disorder in Johannesburg
The City Addicted to Crystal Meth (note: the city is Fresno, California)

Welcome to the squad, Theroux.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Such A Timely Matter, Here, At The Start Of Spring

Burned out from a hell night at work, so in all things burnout-related, we turn to Top Gear to save the day. Here they answer the question, can you make a snowplow of a combine harvester.

They would ultimately show that on country roads, the combine was really rather effective. But first, they tried it in a town. Skip to 6:00, and note that the uploader reversed the footage to get around a copyright issue (never had any idea how that manages to be effective, but there you go)...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Long Way Around

One of the most infamous parts of American policy towards Cuba is what is commonly referred to as 'wet foot, dry foot'. When, as commonly happens, a group of Cuban refugees attempt to escape Cuba for the United States by setting sail in a lashed-together boat made of a junked car, inner tubing snd hope, they have what in older times would be considered a 'sporting chance': if they can set foot on American soil before the Coast Guard picks them up, they have a 'dry foot' and get to stay. If the Coast Guard catches them, they have a 'wet foot' and are sent back to Cuba.

Given that it's a relatively small distance, 90 miles, there is no shortage of Cubans willing to attempt the trip. However, given the consequences of getting caught wet-footed, and the size of the Coast Guard patrol along the route (which isn't difficult to figure out), Cuban refugees have explored alternative routes.

The most obvious alternative route is to start from Cuba's western tip and make landfall at the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, then come into the United States along with everyone else using the Mexico-U.S. border. The distance to the Yucatan is 140 miles, twice the distance, but there's no Coast Guard to worry about. Cubans who take this route are termed 'dusty foot'. However, this also carries risk; many who take this route use the same resources as those in the drug trade, often hitching rides on boats with smugglers. The ride given by the smugglers is harrowing and expensive, often extortionary, not only by the smugglers, but by Mexican authorities asking for bribes. Capture can mean anything from months in a Mexican prison to death at the hands of the drug war.

And then there's Honduras.

Honduras is the one country in Central America that doesn't automatically repatriate Cuban immigrants. Instead, they're given what is akin to 30 days to make their own way out of the country. That's all the Cubans need, not only to get out of Honduras, but to make it into the United States via Guatemala and Mexico. The 400-mile sea route, is, according to that last article, more popular than the 90-mile route to Florida, though no source could be found to compare the numbers of Cubans going to Honduras to those going to Florida. They still must deal with the Mexican authorities when passing through, but as they're not landing there, one key meeting can be avoided, and the drug smugglers can be bypassed.

It is, however, a much longer voyage at sea, and a much longer route overland, both of which come with dangers of their own. 400 miles at sea can take six days in calm waters. In the article just linked, rough seas made the trip three times as long.

But for a growing number of Cuban would-be refugees, Mother Nature is an opponent they prefer to any human.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Real Men Of Genius

Bud Light presents: Real Men of Genius.


Today we salute you, Mr. Mansa Musa, 14th-century king of Mali.

(Mr. Mansa Musa, 14th-century king of Mali!)

You came to the throne of Mali through the practice of appointing a successor whenever the king, as ruler of a Muslim kingdom, made his pilgrimage to Mecca or left on some other adventure. Your predecessor had sent a fleet to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and when only a single man returned to tell him of the danger, he left with a fleet ten times the size of the first, and never returned.

(Well, BLOW me dooo-oown!)

Ruling as Musa I, you were extraordinarily wealthy and respected, with Timbuktu gaining the glamorous, mystical reputation as a center for trade and knowledge it still carries today, despite the fact that anyone who visits these days is quickly disabused of any such notions, and most of the trade centers around the illegal export of the city's trove of ancient manuscripts. Sometimes it's for money, sometimes it's just to get them out of town and recorded on something that isn't going to be rendered unreadable.

(Don't cram the tourists in all at once now!)

In 1324 you made your Mecca pilgrimage, and used it to put the wealth of Mali on full display. You carried 60,000 followers with you, including 12,000 servants (read: slaves), 500 of which had gold scepters, and 500 more of which were carrying scepters on behalf of your wife. 100 camels were loaded with 300 pounds of gold each.


And what did you do with all this gold? Well, what's gold good for if you can't spend it?

(It only goes up in value!)

Every Friday, wherever your caravan stopped, you would fund the building of a mosque. And it's a long way from Timbuktu to Mecca. It was even longer, because when you rolled into Cairo, you stopped for what can only be pegged as months, being what can only be pegged as generous.

(Lightening the camel's load!)

All that gold you brought with you was systematically transferred to the Egyptians like you were starring in a prequel to Brewster's Millions. Mark Twain may have asked "I wonder how much it would take to buy a soap bubble if there were only one in the world," but only you had the gumption to try and find out.

(How much for those cone things?)

In fact, you proved the inverse of Twain's words as well, because you spent so much gold that you devalued it in Egypt due to overabundance, tanking their economy for the next ten years.

(They've never been so ductile!)

You pushed your bank account to the absolute limit. Literally. When you returned to Cairo on the way back, a few accounts have you borrowing some of the gold back in order to relieve the Egyptian recession you caused, but it's much more likely that you just plain ran out of money and needed a loan to get home.

(Brother, can you SPARE a nugget?)

In the end, though, the extravagance did exactly what you intended for it to do: display Mali's vast wealth to the world.

(It worked OOOOUUUUT?!)

You brought home several advisors, experts and architects who applied what they saw on the pilgrimage to the Malian kingdom, including the construction of universities, libraries, and a mosque that still stands today.

(Wait, you made it out to me like he was some kind of moron!) (He is still singing, by the way.)

For centuries afterward, you were often displayed on European maps that included Mali, and Mali was as often included with a pile of gold. Timbuktu quickly became a jewel of the Muslim world.

(And what am I doing singing about medieval African royalty anyway? I'm from a freaking BEER commercial!)

So crack open an ice-cold Bud Light, oh, Trump of the Tuareg, (kshhh) for showing that when it comes to civic prestige, you get what you pay for.

(Screw you! Screw the whole establishment! I'm gonna go honor Mr. Ceremonial-First-Pitch-Thrower-Outer!)

You already did him.

(Mr. Mansa Musa can kiss my ass!)

Bud Light, Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Missouri.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Curse You Morehead State Edition

If you'll recall, Louisville was in my Final Four. (I also biffed the BYU-Wofford game, and those were actually my only two misses on the day. It's good enough to co-lead my pool.)

I have some unfinished book-club business to handle; got this group a few days ago and need to record it here...

Fischler, Shirley; Fischler, Stan- The Best, Worst and Most Unusual in Sports (evidently given to someone as a Christmas present back in 1980, given the note inside the front cover)
Leon, Vicki- Uppity Women of Medieval Times
Olmert, Michael- Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser & Curiouser Adventures in History
Smith, Anthony- Explorers of the Amazon: Four Centuries of Adventure Along the World's Greatest River

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I've got a theory. If you'll allow me some spitballing-- well, even if you won't, it's my blog; I'm-a do it anyway.

When so many state legislatures seemingly went off their rocker immediately upon Wisconsin's having done so (Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey and Michigan come to mind, and that's just the Rust Belt), it seemed rather interesting that they would all go so hard, so fast, so shockingly to the right in so short a time in proximity to the Badger State, and that they would retain such focus on their respective goals despite a withering backlash from voters. It's possible that they're all true believers, that they honestly think it's how to best improve the country. It's possible that it's a display of raw power.

There is, however, another reason I think we may have such a single-minded Tea Party focus.

During Scott Walker's phone call with what he thought to be David Koch, he mentioned Ronald Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers, and envisioned himself as the next Ronald Reagan. More recently, he made a seemingly out-of-nowhere remark that he wasn't running for Vice President.

I think that that's quite possibly exactly what he's running for. He doesn't want to be the next Ronald Reagan. He wants to be the next Sarah Palin. I think a fair number of the state legislators and governors do.

Consider: until Sarah Palin was named as John McCain's running mate, she was some middling-to-lousy governor nobody had ever heard of and who wasn't really going anywhere. Then, out of nowhere, along comes McCain. Palin was instantly whisked away from her humdrum existence in Alaska to the magical world of Presidential politics, hobnobbing with the biggest names in the party, all of which had the sole task of trying to make her the second most powerful person in America. Anything she said was automatically taken with the utmost seriousness (and not a small amount of snarkiness). After all, this is a Vice-Presidential nominee! We better listen to her every word, just in case she wins!

And even after her loss, she still had automatic credibility for the next four years, people still hanging on her every word, devoted fans all across the country. After all, she was on a major-party ticket in the last election! They don't get just ANYBODY for that kind of thing! She might run for President next time, and she'll have a leg up on the field, being on the ticket last time! We'd better listen to what she says! Just in case she wins!

And the most beautiful part of the gig? She never actually had to work for any of it. She was appointed as John McCain's running mate by John McCain. That's the sum total of approval from others she needed to cash in on this amazing political bonanza. She did not run for President in 2008. She made no speeches, put forward no policy, until called upon by McCain. She didn't have to. She needed the approval of nobody. Nobody except John McCain. She pleased exactly one person, the right person, and thus glory was hers, win or lose, for the next four years.

Nice work if you can get it.

My theory is that at least some of the state legislators and executives currently tossing a steakhouse full of red meat to the Tea Party want to get that nice work. They all know they have no shot at actually running for President. They may think they'd make a good President, but if you're not already being talked about as a potential candidate, you might as well forget it at this point, at least for 2012. In lieu of that, an informal competition was quickly formed to see who can excite the Tea Party the most from now until the eventual nominee has to name a running mate. And the winner, the person who can get their name shouted the loudest by the Tea Party base, will, they believe, get to be the Vice Presidential nominee. They will be the running mate if only because the base will more or less force them upon the Presidential nominee, lest they punish the ticket with voter apathy or, worse, a third-party Tea Party ticket that would essentially guarantee President Obama's re-election.

'But, Aaron,' I have been asked when I originally put forward this theory, 'what if a Tea Party candidate wins the nomination, like Palin or Michelle Bachmann? Wouldn't they have to take an establishment Republican to ideologically balance the ticket?'

Not really. If you look at the two major scenarios- an establishment Republican wins the nomination, or a Tea Partier wins the nomination- both are likely to end in a Tea Party running mate. If an establishment Republican wins, they will think in terms of balancing the ticket, and, with the Tea Party likely furious that they didn't get their choice of nominee, the establishment nominee will take a Tea Party running mate if only to avoid a third-party Tea Party ticket.

If the Tea Party wins the nomination, though, they will not return the favor. Their defining characteristic is that, once they decide on a course of action, they do not compromise with anyone for any reason. It is their way or the highway, and they'll set up every roadblock they can grab on the highway to steer things toward their way anyway. A Tea Party candidate won't even consider an establishment running mate. They're trying to change the Republican Party to suit their needs, and they're not about to think in terms of ideological balance, no matter what it does to their chances of defeating Obama in the general election. If the establishment loses the Presidential nomination, they're off the ticket entirely, mere spectators to a Tea Party campaign that is disinclined to listen to a word they say, before or after the election.

This has been their modus operandi in elections across the 2010 election cycle- working for the Tea Party even if it harms the Republicans as a whole (here Nate Silver discusses that)- and there's no reason to think this line of thought would not carry over to 2012 as well, either in pushing policy or in forming a Presidential ticket.

And as their goal is to take over the party, some of the party's off-Congress contingent may have seen the writing on the wall, and decided that if that's the direction of the party, they might as well start going in that direction themselves, the better to lead the party in the future.

Say... 2016?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Happy News Generator

I think we can all agree that the world's basically done gone blown to hell lately. If I mention Japan, you'll think of the hell that's broken loose there. If I mention Wisconsin, same thing. Or just about anywhere in the Middle East or North Africa. The South Pacific got hit with the same tsunami Japan did, as did the entire rest of the Pacific rim. The UN is looking at deteriorating conditions in Libya and responded with its all-too-stereotypical response of bickering. Arizona's the laughingstock of the country, even as half the rest of it wants to take after either Arizona or Wisconsin, if not both. Italy is getting hit with a flood of Tunisian refugees. Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives continue to slowly sink into the sea. And this is not counting the other ongoing trouble spots and disaster zones- North Korea, DR Congo, Mexico, Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti.

It's all getting to be a little too much to handle all at once. You just want to curl up into a corner and cry until all the bad things go away.

So here's what we're going to do. We're going to take some spins of the Random News Generator, but with this caveat: we're going to only cover nice things. We kind of need nice things at the moment. We'll take three spins.

ENGLAND: Is considering a revision of its libel law, allowing for more freedom to express honest opinion. As it stands, the laws are such that the papers there often have to dance around what they think might have happened in a particular incident, relying on euphemisms and double entendres. It's also, many believe, stifled scientific and academic debates, with sides self-censoring opinions, wary of triggering a lawsuit. Lawsuits can also currently be brought years after the original publication (publication online is currently considered as continuous); revisions in consideration would place a time limit one year from the date of original publication.

TANZANIA: Is seeing a couple of improvements in their healthcare system. First, they've acquired a medivac- air-based evacuation- that will cover the entirety of the country. Second, there are two new pediatric HIV clinics in the cities of Mbeya and Mwanza. With HIV as rampant as it is in much of Africa, particularly southern Africa, the disease is commonly passed on from mothers to their children. However, out of an estimated 140-150,000 children in the country with HIV, a dismal 8% are recieving care for it. The linked article notes that 5.6% of Tanzanians have HIV, with Mbeya, one of the cities in which a clinic was placed, clocking in at a downright tragic 9.2%.

CAMBODIA: Has been trying to repatriate Vietnamese corpses from fighting in that country during what we know here as the Vietnam War. Over the past decade, they've located and transferred 5,100 sets of remains. Of course, in order to make this particular piece of news happy, one must look past the fact that they all died in the war, or that it took so long to find the bodies, or the fact that they're still looking for more, and simply focus on the fact that these particular 5,100 who fought, no matter whose side they were on, are, sooner or later, finding their way home.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Scroll Down For Wrong Predictions

Over about the past week or so, half of Watertown has worked oh-so-dilligently to give me whatever kind of horrible disease they came down with. As a result, now it's my turn to be sick. As such, I'm just going to punt today, and post my bracket. Not that I've been following college basketball this season, like, at all, but if office pools across America are any indication, that's actually how you win.

Since my Yahoo Exclamation Point bracket won't actually be visible to you until tipoff Thursday (as they don't let me pick the First Four), here's what I've filled in and, had the First Four been available, what I would have filled in...

Texas-San Antonio over Alabama St.
North Carolina-Asheville over Arkansas-Little Rock
USC over Virginia Commonwealth
Clemson over UAB


(1) Ohio St. over (16) Texas-San Antonio
(9) Villanova over (8) George Mason
(5) West Virginia over (12) Clemson
(4) Kentucky over (13) Princeton
(6) Xavier over (11) Marquette
(3) Syracuse over (14) Indiana St.
(10) Georgia over (7) Washington
(2) North Carolina over (15) Long Island

(1) Duke over (16) Hampton
(8) Michigan over (9) Tennessee
(12) Memphis over (5) Arizona
(4) Texas over (13) Oakland
(6) Cincinnati over (11) Missouri
(3) Connecticut over (14) Bucknell
(7) Temple over (10) Penn St.
(2) San Diego St. over (15) Northern Colorado

(1) Kansas over (16) Boston U.
(9) Illinois over (8) UNLV
(12) Richmond over (5) Vanderbilt
(4) Louisville over (13) Morehead St.
(11) USC over (6) Georgetown
(3) Purdue over (14) St. Peter's
(7) Texas A&M over (10) Florida St.
(2) Notre Dame over (15) Akron

(1) Pittsburgh over (16) North Carolina-Asheville
(8) Butler over (9) Old Dominion
(5) Kansas St. over (12) Utah St.
(4) Wisconsin over (13) Belmont
(11) Gonzaga over (6) St. John's
(14) Wofford over (3) BYU
(7) UCLA over (10) Michigan St.
(2) Florida over (15) UC-Santa Barbara


(1) Ohio St. over (9) Villanova
(4) Kentucky over (5) West Virginia
(3) Syracuse over (6) Xavier
(2) North Carolina over (10) Georgia

(1) Duke over (8) Michigan
(4) Texas over (12) Memphis
(3) Connecticut over (6) Cincinnati
(7) Temple over (2) San Diego St.

(1) Kansas over (9) Illinois
(4) Louisville over (12) Richmond
(11) USC over (3) Purdue
(2) Notre Dame over (7) Texas A&M

(1) Pittsburgh over (8) Butler
(5) Kansas St. over (4) Wisconsin
(11) Gonzaga over (14) Wofford
(2) Florida over (7) UCLA

(1) Ohio St. over (4) Kentucky
(3) Syracuse over (2) North Carolina
(1) Duke over (4) Texas
(3) Connecticut over (7) Temple
(4) Louisville over (1) Kansas
(2) Notre Dame over (11) USC
(1) Pittsburgh over (5) Kansas St.
(2) Florida over (11) Gonzaga

(1) Ohio St. over (3) Syracuse
(1) Duke over (3) Connecticut
(4) Louisville over (2) Notre Dame
(2) Florida over (1) Pittsburgh

(1) Ohio St. over (1) Duke
(2) Florida over (4) Louisville

(2) Florida 76, (1) Ohio St. 63

Monday, March 14, 2011

Remember What I Said About Japan Still Not Having It Quite As Bad As Port Royal?

Yeah... never mind.

Seriously. Never. Freaking. Mind. Still technically true, per capita, but never mind.

Whoever's up there-- God, Shinto gods, Godzilla-- you can stop now. You proved your point, whatever it is.

(In related news, if we could cut out the talk about the effect on Japan's stock market until we're a bit further into cleanup, that'd be great. The Nikkei is probably the least of concerns for a whole hell of a lot of Japan right now. Businesses that can supply food and water? That's much more useful.)

If you have any spare money laying around, the American Red Cross could use it. This donation link will cover readers in the United States and Canada; other nations, there's surely a charity near you.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Blame Game

Politifact is one of the best things going in political journalism these days. It is factchecking in its absolute purest form: take what someone said, and figure out whether they were right or wrong or outright lying. Note what a politician said on one day and compare with what they said on some other day. Note exactly what a politician promised, and see whether or not they follow through. If you don't already go, do so.

But there is one key weakness in their model. I've spoken about how they avoid using the word 'lie' in their Truth-o-Meter, instead saying 'false' and 'pants on fire'.

That's not the weakness.

The weakness we're addressing today comes on the other major venture, the promise meter. Once elected, a chief executive's promises made during the election are catalouged, numbered, and tracked during the term. All promises start without a rating, but are eventually assigned one of five labels: In The Works, Stalled, Promise Kept, Compromise, or Promise Broken.

Promise Broken is the weakness.

By Politifact's rules, a promise is considered Broken when action has been completed on a promise, but not in a manner consistent with the promise. Fair enough. But it says nothing about why that is so. Sometimes the executive in fact actively went against or neglected the promise. But sometimes they make an attempt on the promise, only to get stifled by the opposition in some manner. Sure. The promise wasn't kept. There wasn't a compromise. But you can't really call it a BROKEN promise either. However, as per the rules of Politifact, that is how the promise is scored. And due to the wording, what will inevitably end up happening is, no matter the cause, too much of the public won't read enough into why. They'll just see 'Promise Broken' and automatically chalk it up as the chief executive being a lying so-and-so that must pay on Election Day, and will just make the situation worse by improperly assigning blame, giving power to people that will only move further away from the original promise.

Sometimes Politifact instead assigns such scenarios a 'Stalled' rating if action isn't yet 'completed', even though it never will be. I don't think that quite works either. That tosses them in with items that have every intention of being completed, but have gotten placed on the backburner for more pressing matters.

I think the promise meter needs one additional category: Promise Defeated.

Part of uncovering the truth in politics is the act of assigning blame when things go wrong. For all the talk about people 'not wanting to play the blame game', we all eventually have to blame someone when we go into the booth. We either blame the incumbent for not keeping their promises (or keeping ones we disagreed with in the first place), or we blame the opposition for defeating promises that might otherwise be kept (or not doing enough to defeat promises we disagreed with). It's not enough to go 'okay, this didn't happen, this didn't happen, this did, this did, this didn't'. Why the promises that didn't happen, didn't happen, is important.

This is what Promise Defeated would help to determine. When it becomes clear that a stated promise will not be fulfilled, Politifact should begin the process of figuring out who had more to do with the promise's death. If it's determined that the chief executive set the promise aside, or took actions contrary to the promise, or was especially weak-willed, abandoning the promise after putting up virtually no resistance, then it in fact would be a Promise Broken. If, however, the matter died because of a lost vote in the legislature, the opposition stalling it to death somewhere along the line, funding being refused, or something else along those lines, that would be scored Promise Defeated.

As Election Day rolls around, and a voter carries resentment over something being done or not being done, far too often they simply blame 'those politicians'. That doesn't help. Sure. Politicians were to blame.

But for matters to improve, they need to decide who is more to blame. No matter how much one wants to claim 'they're all the same', you can't split a vote in half. By distinguishing between broken promises and defeated promises, that decision would be easier.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

At Least Only The Water Is Acting Like Water

As horrific as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and across the Pacific has been, as much misery as has been caused, the silver lining is that, if an 8.9 is going to strike, Japan is where you would, absent someplace completely uninhabited, want it to hit, for lack of a better term. Japan is among, if not the, best on the planet at dealing with both types of disasters, both in damage prevention and knowing what to do after the damage is done. The talk is that a death toll could reach 1,300; it currently stands at 680 as confirmed by NHK World; some reports have the number higher by a couple hundred.

Were that to have hit most anywhere else on Earth, that death toll would be much, much higher than that. The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 struck hardest in Indonesia, which has drastically less capable infrastructure. The estimated death toll there eventually was estimated at 230,000.

Obviously, 680 dead is 680 too many. But it's a whole lot better than 230,000.

And then there's the fact that Japan has some sturdy ground. This is critical in an earthquake, as Port Royal, Jamaica learned on June 7, 1692.

Back then, Port Royal was, unofficially, Jamaica's capital. It was also a pirate capital; its location made it easy to reach a number of choke points along the Caribbean side of the Atlantic. This is historically a popular way for pirates to choose a base of operations: find narrow passages where all the shipping boats have no choice but to traverse, and set up camp nearby. Somalia and Singapore are two other such locations. Four different well-defended ports also served to make it a safe haven. If a pirate was being chased and made it to Port Royal, the chase was as good as over.

With such a population, Port Royal acquired a reputation for wealth and depravity, earning it the nickname "the wickedest city in the world".

Port Royal had one other weakness: the city sat on a large sand spit just beyond Kingston, upon which, as the city grew, they would place more and more buildings of heavier and heavier weight. Port Royal was only populated with about 6,500 people, but that was still a pretty good size for that time period. This was the situation when the earthquake struck, measured at 7.5. A recovered pocket watch from the site puts the time at 11:43 AM.

When sand, or any kind of soil, is shaken up such that it loses stiffness and stress resistance, a process called liquefaction occurs, in which the ground begins to act like a liquid. Loose sand, combined with large quantities of nearby water, provide for a quite profound liquefaction. The multitude of heavy objects that made up Port Royal suddenly had no substantial foundation.

And so 33 acres of the city, two-thirds of the town, sank into the ground, buildings, ports, riches, pirates and all. According To Robert Renny's 1807 book An History Of Jamaica, "All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing. The tops of the highest houses, were visible in the water, and surrounded by the masts of vessels, which had been sunk along with them". When the earthquake stopped, so did the liquifaction, and the sand became solid again, trapping all that had sunk. This distressed the survivors on two fronts: first, the resolidification made rescue and recovery efforts almost impossible, and second, they weren't done looting the dead bodies yet. As one report recalled, "The Dead were robbed of what they had about them, some stript, others searched, their Pockets pick'd, their Fingers cut off for their Rings, their Gold Buttons taken out of their Shirts." (People liked capitalizing nouns back then for some reason.)

There was a tsunami as well, but by then it was overkill. Port Royal was effectively finished as the capital of Jamaica; Kingston would over the years progressively take over.

Because of Port Royal's reputation, and due to the time period, some were quick to call the disaster divine retribution, particularly by one pastor, Emmanuel Heath, who also lived at Port Royal and claimed his home made it through unscathed. The Jamaica Council recommended that every June 7th thereafter "be kept and observed by all the inhabitants of this Island, an an anniversary day of fasting and humiliation."

Five years later, a visitor described the remaining inhabitants as having gone right back to normal, stting that the locals "regard nothing but Money, and value not how they get it."

If the original earthquake was a warning from God, God must have decided Port Royal just didn't get it, and acted accordingly. Disease from the dead bodies, a fire in 1703, a hurricane in 1722, another fire in 1750, another hurricane in 1774, another fire in 1815, a cholera outbreak in 1850, and finally another liquefaction-causing earthquake in 1907 combined to essentially wipe the town off the map. It now sees importance primarily in archaeology.

Approximately 5,000 died in Port Royal in 1692, from either the earthquake itself (about 2,000) or the immediate aftermath (about 3,000). Compare to Japan's astronomically higher population base, and you start to get an idea of just how well prepared Japan was.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake Off Japan

CNN is reporting an 8.9 earthquake has struck not long ago approximately 150 kilometers off the coast of Honshu island, Japan. (By comparison, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that struck off Banda Aceh, Indonesia was a 9.0.) Various types of tsunami watches, warnings and advisories are out for basically the entire western half of the Pacific Ocean, and considering that tsunamis can cross entire oceans, not just half of them, the eastern half of the Pacific Rim should be expecting problems as well in the coming hours.

If you're reading right now from the western Pacific coastline, get to higher ground. If you're reading from the eastern Pacific coastline, be ready to wake up real early just in case.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

So Very Angry

I can count the times I have been angrier in my entire life on one hand, and one of those involved the day I found out my half-brother Jason had six months to live. I know I'm supposed to be trying to have some sort of journalistic integrity, but dammit, after the stunt the Senate Republicans pulled to pass the anti-collective bargaining bill, I cannot help it right now.

I want Scott Walker gone. I want the Republicans in the state senate gone. I want the Republicans in the state assembly gone. There is no point in even pretending to participate in governmental debate in the state of Wisconsin at this point. The very idea of civil discourse appears to be dead and no longer worth reviving. Not with this batch of people in charge. All there is left to do is declare all-out electoral nuclear war.

To that end, I've laid down my money here to help fund the recall efforts. I'd like as many of my American readers as possible to do likewise.

Scott Walker hasn't seen anything yet.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Government Cheese

As you know it, 'government cheese' is an inherently funny-sounding phrase we all got a hold of in the 1990's, and then it became increasingly played-out until the only people that would touch it were the most desperate of hack comics.

But how many people got through that entire time without ever actually knowing what government cheese is?

(source:, now defunct)

This is government cheese. Its distribution began in 1981, the act of which would soon come under the auspices of the Emergency Food Assistance Program. (PDF file.) The cheese served a dual purpose: in addition to providing food assistance for those on welfare, it also helped solve the government's problem of what to actually do with surplus food supply from the Commodity Credit Corporation- other staples such as powdered milk, butter and flour also come government-issue. Eventually, you want someone eating that food. Better to make a welfare program out of it than to throw it away. (In more recent years, it's also been distributed as part of disaster-relief programs.)

Here is the official USDA guideline on making it. (Another PDF file.) It is made in two- and five-pound blocks, intended for distribution once a month.

What kind of cheese is it? This discussion thread about it on the website Chowhound pegs it as something of a cross between American cheese and Velveeta. That's about what the USDA is going for; according to the guidelines, "Its flavor shall be pleasing and characteristic of process cheese made from mild to medium cured American cheese, and shall be free from undesirable flavors and odors."

Stories from those who've eaten it tend to differ: some like it with nachos or macaroni, others can't wait to get away from the stuff. One person on Chowhound assigned a plastic-like favor to it.

While we're on the subject of government food, there are also two varieties of government peanut butter: one for issue under these same premises, and a second one, called "Standard Reference Material No. 2387", designed to be absolutely scientifically perfect. It costs $220 for a six-ounce jar, but you can't actually buy it because it's used as quality control for the stuff you can buy.

It's probably best if you don't read too much into the implications.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Practical Home-Invasion Advice

1: Do not engage in home invasion.
2: If you must break into a home, take your shower before performing the break-in.
3: Be out of the house before the owner comes home.
4: Make sure the homeowner does not have a gun.
5: If you are concerned about the owner's gun, you may call 911, but understand it will result in your arrest. Because you broke into his home, remember?
6: Make sure the owner actually has a gun.
7: While many homeowners who own dogs also own guns, many others do not.

(Whether the owner had a gun is uncertain.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wisconsin Q&A

Because I've had to answer these questions over and over again, let's just get it all out of the way now.

First off: no, the Democratic state senators had no other recourse but to flee the state if they wanted any chance of altering the budget/collective-bargaining bill to suit their needs. No compromise has been offered by Scott Walker; all but one of the Republican state senators have marched in lockstep from the outset (Dick Schultz has been the exception, but three Republicans would need to flip, not just him.)

Were the Democrats to return, they could simply vote no. But they would get nothing. Absolutely nothing. Considering the antics of the State Assembly on this same issue, they might not even get that vote. Any protestation to the bill they made on the floor would pretty much go in one ear and out the other. They might as well recite the lyrics to John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt for all the good it would do.

There is another aspect to the Democrats having run. Without them having run, had the vote just gone along as scheduled, how aware would you be of the issue in the first place? For a significant number of you, it likely would have flown under your radar, and been dismissed fairly quickly, as there was no time for it to stick in your mind. As it is, though, you know full well where everybody stands. You know what Walker wants to do, you know what the Democrats want to do, and you know neither of them are budging. That doesn't happen if the Democrats stay in Madison.

As for 'doing their job'... their job is to protect the interests of their constituents, using whatever parliamentary maneuvers are at their disposal, just like any other elected official. If that can only be done by hopping the state line and preventing a vote that they believe heavily damages the interests of their constituents from taking place, their job is to prevent that vote. For them to return to Madison and allow the vote they believe damages the interests of their constituents, that would be them not doing their job.

For those who say 'I agree with the Democrats, but did they really have to go to Illinois?', the answer is yes. As it stands now, that's all there is to it. With the fundamental lack of trust by either side for those across the aisle, and the utter impossibility of compromise at our current state, the fate of collective bargaining currently rests on how long the Democrats remain in Illinois.

So what happens if nobody folds? That's the second thing I've heard over and over.

Imagine an MMA fight. Right now, both sides are employing a number of submission holds, trying to get the other side to tap out. But tapping out is ultimately the decision of the fighter in the hold. No matter how strong the hold, even if the opponent's arm is snapped clean off his body, if he doesn't tap out, the fight continues. (We are assuming no referee around to stop the fight.) As of right now, submission holds are all either side has to work with. Nobody yet has a knockout punch to throw, something that would not give the other side the option of continuing to fight. For all the talk about the pressure building and doubling down and whatnot, as long as the Republicans opt not to compromise, and as long as the Democrats remain in Illinois, all they can do is apply submission hold after submission hold. And with the fight being as existentially hostile to compromise as it is, submission holds do not appear sufficient to end the fight. The two sides appear fundamentally incapable of working with each other. It would take a knockout blow, something that changes the personnel involved.

Knockout punches are available, in the form of recall elections. But those take time. Both sides have started gathering signatures for recall elections on the eight state senators per side currently eligible for recall (you have to be in office for one year). It takes 60 days to gather those signatures, though- both sides have started the clock, but neither is that far along. The signatures must be turned in no later than 5 PM on Day 60. Chris Bowers outlines the process for Daily Kos. Republicans in the audience, the procedure is the same for you; just alter the names. The signatures gathered must be 25% of those votes cast in the constituency in the last gubernatorial election. As it stands, that works out to around 15-20,000 signatures per senator at risk.

If the signatures are gathered, a six-week certification process begins, followed by a 6-10 week election period. 6 weeks if there is no primary, 10 weeks if there is; the primary, obviously, takes up the extra four weeks.

Who would go first? It depends on several factors- are there any primaries, when are the signatures handed in and certified, etc. However, the Republicans started the clock first, though, so all things being equal, it'd be them by a couple days. They only need to knock out one Democrat to get their quorum. However, a group from Utah started the clock, and little if any time was taken to gauge where the signatures they need might be. That may hinder their efforts.

If they fail to knock out any Democrats, the Dems (who did go out looking to see where the signatures are; I touched on this in my Madison report) then get their shot a few days later. Again, all things being equal. They need to knock out three Republicans in order to retake the majority, splitting the state legislature and effectively killing the budget as proposed. Knocking out two might bring swingman Dale Schultz into play, who is not currently eligible for recall.

Added up, from giddy-up to whoa, should nobody tap out, it could be a six-month wait to see anyone knocked out.

That's one long submission hold.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Random News Generator- Trinidad and Tobago

Actually our third go-around with the Trinidadians; they're the first country to be able to say that.

To celebrate this completely meaningless statistic kept by a small-time one-man blog in Wisconsin, they have opted to hold Carnival, the largest such celebration in the Caribbean. Not as large as Rio's Carnival or New Orleans' Mardi Gras, but large. Carnival there lasts for two days, the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which here means that it kicks off tomorrow.

Curiously, while poring over the stories concerning it, while most coverage of it has centered around your basic detailing of the various festivities, the Trinidad and Tobago Express has been running piece after piece detailing what a sad and scary thing the Trinidadian Carnival is: this piece by Lennox Grant, this letter to the editor, stories about and by the police presence here and here and here and here. And while Marion Miller appears to be caught up well enough in the celebration, he doesn't appear to have much company on the staff of the Express. Not sure what to make of that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Are You Using Internet Explorer 6?

If you are, please stop. That browser is a decade old now and Microsoft, not to mention a whole lot of website developers, would love nothing more than to see people stop using it so they can stop having to support it in their designs, thus saving themselves a whole lot of work.

Right now, Microsoft is showing 12% of the world as still using IE 6. They'd like to get that number under 1%. China by far is the biggest offender, with over a third of users there still on IE 6. Asia as a continent is causing most of the problems, so if you're here from Asia, this may well concern you. Norway and Finland, you're already under 1%; good for you.

If you want to keep using Internet Explorer as a browser, the most recent version is IE 9. Here's where you can download it, though you need to be using Windows 7 or Vista first. If you aren't, here's IE 8.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Reading The Stars (Entirely Wrong)

I've been a little reluctant to tackle astrology as a topic here. Scientifically, there's really nothing in it, and the fact that the zodiac everyone's been using turned out to have been a month off and missing a 13th sign didn't exactly help matters. Nor did the ensuing debates over whether the 'new' zodiac was actually new or not, whether only certain age groups should use it, or whether it would ever catch on. Never mind that the altered signs were based on thousands of years of alterations in Earth's position to the sun, and that such positions aren't really up for debate.

At the same time, it's not like it's really hurting anything in the grand scheme of things. It's a fun little thing in the newspaper, it provides something of a mental center for some people, sometimes couples even hook up partially due to having 'compatible' signs. I'm not overly inclined to dump on that.

However, I do enjoys me the stupid people stories.

For today's stupid people story, we have to first bring up another astrology staple, the birth chart. A birth chart maps out the positions of the stars on your time and place of birth. From that, you are supposedly supposed to have your life path predicted.

Apparently, you can get your birth chart here, using the old, fuddy-duddy 12-sign setup. Just for kicks, I did mine. It said, among other things:

Venus in Pisces

Very sentimental. He is easily moved. He is melancholic, romantic. When he loves, it is the most generous of loves.

Weaknesses: risky and confused loves, insane hopes.

Anyone that actually knows me has just busted a gut.

Pluto in Scorpio

Great sexual activity.

Flattery will get you nowhere, birth chart.

-64 Square Moon - Mars

He is very emotional and is driven to do things by his emotions. He does not think things over or through in a given situation. He is irascible and sometimes violent. Marital disputes.

Marital disputes require the presence of marital.

In any case. On to the stupid, originally pulled out of Discarded Science by John Grant. In April 1968, French statistician Michel Gauquelin ran an ad in Ici-Paris for a free horoscope reading. He got 500 replies. Each and every respondent received the exact same birth chart, that of a man named Marcel Petoit. Gauquelin then waited to see what kind of responses he'd get.

94% of those who responded said the chart, including phrases like "instinctive warmth", "adaptable", "organised", "bathed in a sea of sensitivity", "total devotion to others", "altruistic sacrifices", and "endowed with a moral sense which is comforting", fit them to a T. Moreover, when the chart was shown to friends and family, 90% of them agreed as well. If you'd like to see an online version of Petoit's chart, head here.

This would be a good time to mention that Marcel Petoit was beheaded in 1946 for killing 27 people, though he claimed 63. He would sell people an escape route from World War 2 to Argentina, then kill them and steal their stuff.

On the other hand, you never know. Perhaps Gauquelin only got responses from serial killers-for-profit. After all, the online chart does mention being "unconventional" with "a highly profitable career" and "a commanding presence, which instills confidence and wins trust", though not without "constant moral slippage towards excessive aggressiveness".

Thursday, March 3, 2011

September Surprise

One of, if not the, biggest problem with Presidential debates is that they really aren't. Candidates frequently, at the Presidential level, engage in debate camps beforehand. I link to a story about Barack Obama setting up his 2008 camp, but it could have been anyone. We could even link to a West Wing episode about it. They are peppered with whatever questions that they deem the moderator as most likely to ask. They rehearse answers, including rebuttals to what the opponent is likely to say, and how to steer an answer from an uncomfortable topic to a more comfortable one. The result is largely 90 minutes of kabuki theater, with the bulk of the drama centering around who messed up their script and who got off the best zingers.

Not far behind is another major, yet underrated, problem: all sides involved are fighting the battles of the previous term. Questions from a moderator will usually, nearly always, revolve around major topics that have been fought over during the previous 2-4 years. Sometimes, these topics will carry over to the next term as well.

But sometimes they won't.

Monday morning quarterbacking the previous term- 'well, I'D have done things this way, and if you vote for me, I will'- would be fine if issues carried over from one term to the next. And as we just stated, sometimes they do, issues such as the economy and any ongoing wars. Time, however, marches on. Sometimes the issue turns out to have already been settled, and will not come up to a large degree in the next term. Sometimes whether the issue is settled depends on who ultimately wins the election. And the next term is always filled with events which have not yet happened, and will push issues to the forefront that were never covered in the debate and which nobody focused on.

Case in point: how many of you over the course of the previous election figured that Egypt, Tunisia and collective bargaining were issues that merited serious examination before you cast your vote? Whoever raised their hand is a liar.

Obviously, trying to anticipate these things is nigh-impossible to do reliably. Attempts were made to mix up the topics over the course of the 2008 Presidential primaries by allowing people to submit questions online, but the online entries were either fighting the previous term as well, or asking about obscure niche topics that would never in a million years become a hot-button issue.

Both of these issues- the debate-camp problem, and the previous-term problem- can be addressed, maybe not solved entirely, but improved upon, with a debate format I call 'September Surprise', after a month debates will commonly take place in. (Yes, I realize we're a year and a half away from there. Like that's going to stop me.)

September Surprise's premise is to attempt to simulate, as best as possible, the next term, a period filled with unforeseen events that can cover a much wider range of topics than one is currently considering. The first step, of course, is for a moderator to try to figure out what might be one of those topics. This, you do by compiling a list of topics. Obviously, the current hot-button issues would have their place- Iraq, gas prices, partisanship, budget deficits, Medicaid, and so forth. But also in the list should be a wide range of topics that, while they may not be big now, one could reasonably consider to be an issue that might flare up under the proper circumstances or is at least is of sufficient importance. These would be things like tobacco, health food, imported goods, homelessness, bridge infrastructure, any country that stands a fair chance at popping up in the news regularly. I've tried this myself, and I got into the 150's before I got bored and called it quits. I wasn't done. I just got bored.

You can't just toss any topic into the list. Some things will always be minor issues or fringe issues. The gold standard, for example. That is just not going to be a hot-button topic. School uniforms, Swaziland, and college football playoffs may have their place, but they're not going to be big huge things. They just aren't.

Step 2 is to construct one question pertaining to each topic on the list. (Much as one might like to see what happens, you can't just go 'Candidates, you now must discuss corporate personhood. Go.') As the debate goes along, pick topics one at a time, right in front of everybody (use a random number generator, a bingo hopper, slips of paper out of a hat, however you want to do it), and read the corresponding question. If Afghanistan gets picked, fine and dandy. If gun massacres come up instead, or airport security or Taiwan or patent law or multilingualism, well... surprise.

No debate camp in the world is going to be able to completely prepare for that. However, since there are too many topics to anticipate, focus would likely be shifted to trying to steer things toward their preferred topics. But that defeats the entire purpose of September Surprise. A candidate who is unwilling or unable to stop fighting the previous battle is a candidate less prepared to handle the next battle. The moderator must therefore be vigilant about keeping things on topic. If a candidate jackknifes a question about the tax-exempt status of churches into a question about the Bush tax cuts, it's the moderator's responsibility to jackknife it back to the churches, interrupting the candidate if absolutely necessary.

After all, some of these things might become important later.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Doing It The Hard Way

For years now, we've been fretting about the long-term effects of global warming: rising sea levels, disappearing polar regions, vanishing polar species, more severe, unpredictable weather patterns. And the solutions are so complex, long-term and reliant on several mutually antagonistic countries taking actions they view as hamstringing themselves competitively, that implementing those solutions has been difficult-to-impossible.

If, though, one is truly serious about reducing global warming, right now, National Geographic has found a solution.

However, it comes with a couple minor tradeoffs...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Save-The-Store Update

Back on February 11, I mentioned that a bookstore in my hometown, Watertown Booksellers, was at risk of being shut down on the decision of Book World VP of Store Operations Antoine Tines, working out of Appleton.

Yesterday, three days after the store closed, this showed up in my inbox.

Good afternoon Aaron –

After much consideration and taking into account the community support and response – the decision has been made to keep Watertown Booksellers open. We will reopen your store Thursday, March 3 –

Thank you for voicing your opinion and Thank you for your continued support -

Antoine M. Tines, CTP ®
Book World, Inc