Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Epic Fail Edition

Two of the topics that will most reliably get me to buy your book are:

1. Stupid people.
2. Epic fail.

My bookshelf is littered with those two topics. On one level, it's a way to become less stupid yourself; part of knowing what to do is knowing what not to do. On another level, it's just plain entertaining.

And so it was that The Little Book of Big F*#K Ups: 220 of History's Most Regrettable Moments by Ken Lytle and Katie Corcoran Lytle was added to my ranks.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Tinkerbell Effect

Several facts of society, facets we take for granted, aren't quite as intractable as they seem. They're plenty intractable, but the reason for that is that we say they are. Things like money, the rule of law, government, even society itself only exist because we all agreed at some point that they should be so. A 2004 article (PDF) in the Macquarie Law Journal by Cameron Stewart referred to it as the Tinkerbell Effect. If everyone agreed that, say, planes couldn't fly, that doesn't make that true. The plane will still be airworthy no matter how many people claim otherwise. But if everyone agreed that planes should not be ALLOWED to fly, if nobody is willing to take the plane up in the air, the plane won't fly. It COULD fly, but it won't.

We could bring up several things to illustrate the point of what happens when people as a group decide to stop existing under a particular societal setup- riots, mobs, rebellions, revolutions, even the odd community that prints its own local currency- but today, we have something much more unique.

Ken McElroy of Skidmore, Missouri was not a nice man. In fact, Skidmore's nickname for him was "the town bully". He had a rap sheet that would stretch halfway to Kansas City, including theft, rape, pedophilia, arson, assault, cattle rustling, even burning down someone's house... or at least, he would have had he actually been convicted of anything. He would, on 22 out of 23 occasions, escape conviction via witness intimidation- sometimes by making threats, sometimes just by parking outside the witnesses' houses and watching them. After acquittals would come the bragging- once safe via double-jeopardy law, McElroy would taunt townsfolk about what he was now free to admit he did. After one acquittal in 1973 over the attempted shooting of a farmer, McElroy bragged to Skidmore that he might as well have killed him. Through the multitude of offenses, townspeople terrified of McElroy kept turning to law enforcement, but every time, all they got back was a message that there wasn't anything they could do, but keep an eye on him.

Then there's the matter of that one conviction. McElroy was convicted of shooting grocer Bo Bowenkamp. Trena McElroy, Ken's wife, accused Bowenkamp's wife, Lois, of accusing Trena's daughter of stealing a 10-cent piece of candy. After a threat from Trena to "whip her ass" and the brandhishing of a pocketknife by Ken, Lois banned them from the store.

After several nights of parking outside the Bowenkamp house, at least two of which involved firing his shotgun, and one offer of $100 to Lois to settle the dispute with Trena via a street fight (Lois was in her 50's; Trena was a teenager), he pulled up behind the grocery and shot Bowenkamp. McElroy was convicted in April 1981 and sentenced to two years in prison.

But not for long. McElroy appealed, won the appeal mere hours later, and was freed on bond. Not long afterward, he showed up to a local tavern, rifle in hand, threatening to finish the job. This immediately violated his bond, and several witnesses were willing to testify, but McElroy's lawyer managed to get the hearing postponed. That was all the town could stand.

On July 10, 1981, less than three months later, much of Skidmore gathered at the Legion Hall to demand the county sheriff do something. He suggested a neighborhood watch program. They responded that that's supposed to be his job. Meanwhile, McElroy arrived at the tavern. It was no coincidence; he had heard about the meeting. The sheriff, upon wrapping up the meeting, headed out of town for the county seat of Maryville, 15 miles away. The rest of the meeting-goers soon decided to head to the tavern. Soon, over 40 people were there, about 30 in the tavern itself. Some of them had never gone there before. McElroy left, got into his truck, and the crowd followed.

Then McElroy was shot from at least two directions, in the middle of the day, in July, with a crowd of a reported 45 people present. Trena was spattered with blood; she was not shot and soon rushed to safety. The sheriff got word over the scanner and rushed back into Skidmore.

But nobody saw anything.

Obviously, this was a bald-faced lie- dozens of people were standing right there- but the town had mutually agreed that nobody saw anything. Nobody had told the sheriff of anything during the earlier meeting. And, as per the Tinkerbell Effect, so it was. Trena, Ken's wife, wasn't in on this, and made accusations, but with nobody else willing to back her up, her word alone was not enough to press charges. Every time a potential witness was asked, they would simply say that they heard gunshots, hit the ground, and saw nothing. A hotline was set up for tips. Nobody called, unless you count the media.

And the media wasn't being talked to either, at least after the initial stretch of time. As daughter Cheryl Bowenkamp recalled 25 years later,

"Right after the shooting some of us here in Skidmore were willing to talk about what we had gone through in the year prior to the shooting. No one was going to talk about the shooting itself. But it only took the first couple of stories that were printed for us to realize that it didn't matter what we said. It was going to be twisted. So...everyone quit talking. That seemed like the best way. Most of the stories that got printed were blown out of proportion and would have made a great western."

The shooting was in 1981. 30 years later, no further progress on the case has been made. None is likely to be made.

The town of Skidmore, still refusing to finger a shooter, doesn't regret it, because they feel to this day it had to be done. Had McElroy not been shot, he simply would have continued his reign of terror, and law enforcement would have continued to allow it. But at the same time, they do regret it, as the incident is all the otherwise very sleepy town is likely to ever be known for. As it happens, the media only appears interested in Skidmore when someone gets killed there, and every time they come around, Ken McElroy's name is thrown around again.

Skidmore, which mainly caters to truckers and farmers, has an annual four-day Punkin' Show in the fall, which includes such things as dance contests, tractor pulls and frog-jumping contests. It is by all accounts lovely. If that sounds boring and sleepy, good. That's just the way Skidmore would like it.

But everyone else has determined that Ken McElroy will be Skidmore's claim to fame. And so it is.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Birthinators

In the wake of Jon Stewart's admonishment of the media concerning whether it's time to let the Obama-birth-certificate matter drop (his point being, they pick what the news is, so why not just stop talking about it instead of talking about whether to stop talking about it), I labored for a while on whether to go ahead with a rant of my own.

My determination: I'll make one comment on the matter, and then that is it.

In the wake of Obama releasing his long-form, and the birthers immediately asking next for his school records, a lot of the media has been talking about whether the whole matter isn't just a bunch of closet racism. After all, no white candidate has had to jump through so many hoops to prove themselves to people as eligible. One could probably expect the birthers to complain about having the race card played against them, if some haven't made such a complaint already. They would surely say, if a suspected foreign-born candidate came out of their party, or was white, they'd be just as hard on them.

If you hear this point put forward, I'd like you to respond that the opposite has already happened.

We only have to travel back to 2004- the most recent pre-2008 election. Ultimately, of course, the Republicans kept George W. Bush. However, in the early stages of the primary season, Arnold Schwarzenegger's name was placed into consideration for 2008. Schwarzenegger is widely known to have been born in Austria, a place equally as widely known for not being the United States.

Schwarzenegger was not merely suspected of being a foreign-born candidate. He was known to be foreign-born; the pride of Graz, Austria until the day he didn't pardon Tookie Williams. (But that's another story.)

Were there to be intellectual consistency on the part of those who would ultimately become birthers (we can reasonably assume that many if not most of them are currently over the age of 7 and thus were around for that campaign; in fact, many if not most of the same people from 2004 are still in the political arena today), you would think that Schwarzenegger's campaign would... really, it wouldn't have even become a topic of discussion at all, come to think of it.

This was the opposite of what happened. In fact, there were calls from some Republicans, including Orrin Hatch, to amend the Constitution to allow foreign-born candidates, so that Schwarzenegger might be able to run.

Contrast to now, in the wake of that 2008 election. About 30% of people on either side of the aisle supported a so-called 'Schwarzenegger amendment'. While Hatch, for once, admitted as early as 2009 that Obama was natural-born, there is no foreign-born amendment on tap, being discussed, being supported, or in anyone's fever dreams. Nobody is going 'well, if he is foreign-born, why don't we make an amendment to make it okay?' Nobody has polled it lately, but if 30% of Republicans currently support a Schwarzenegger amendment, I will eat my house.

So what changed between then and now? Given that the first debate centered around Schwarzenegger, one would have to think that what changed was the candidate involved, and little else. And there are two (2) blindingly obvious and mutually-inclusive differences between Schwarzenegger and Obama:

1. Schwarzenegger is a Republican, and Obama is a Democrat.
2. Schwarzenegger is white, and Obama is black.

There are, of course, substantial differences in policy, but those always have a measure of doubt and cloudiness from the general population. There is also the fact that Obama was actually born American, while Schwarzenegger was born Austrian, but unfortunately, some people are going to be unsure of that until the day they die. We've already covered that phenomenon here a year ago. Those two factors shown are the only differences that are indisputable to even the most delusional.

After this sentence, I for one stop giving them the time of day.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Are You Using Friendster?

I'll wait for you to stop laughing.

...oh, come on, it wasn't that funny.

Fine, let's rephrase it. Have you ever used Friendster at some point? If you have, you may want to head on over and clean out anything in your account you may have forgotten you had, because on May 31, they're going to delete it all so they can relaunch as a games site aimed at Asians. They were bought in 2009 by a Malaysian digital payment company called Money Online. Your account will still be there, but your data won't.

Why Asians? Because Friendster, against all odds, is still popular in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

...what? No, they didn't "ban Facebook".

Anyway. Friendster's set up an exporting app that will help get your data off of Friendster and placed somewhere else. This is of course assuming that you have data at Friendster that you don't have somewhere else already. I, of course, being what the kids today refer to as a "hep cat", have already done so by virtue of never having an account there in the first place.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trade Me, Will You?!

When the story of Hernan Cortes is told, it usually follows a certain path: Cortes lands in Mexico at such a time in the Aztecs' calendar and looks enough like their god, Quetzalcoatl, that they mistake him for that god, and he proceeds to conquer Mexico and effectively wipe out their entire race.

When hearing the story, one might respond 'oh, that evil Cortes' or the less-defensible 'oh, those stupid Aztecs'. But here's another way to look at it:

'Well, that's what you get for keeping and selling slaves.'

Meet Malinali. Her pre-Cortes background is cloudy, but we know she was born somewhere in the neighborhood of the year 1500, as a member of the nobility. Her father died when she was a child, then her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. Royal families being royal families, men took precedence, and with a son now in the picture, there wasn't any more political use for Malinali. She was handed off to a Mayan slave trader and forgotten about.

Enter Cortes. Malinali met the Spanish in April of 1519; given the uncertain date of birth, she was either in her late teens or her early 20's. Whatever her age was, she was presented to the Spanish as one of 20 slaves offered as part of the housewarming package. She stood out from the other 19 because of her beauty, and as it turned out, she was also valuable as an interpreter; being sold from Aztecs to Mayans gave her a degree of understanding of both linguistic families (the specific languages were Maya and Nahuatl). Cortes originally gave her to a top lieutenant, Alonzo Hernando Puertocarrero, and then later took her as his own mistress. She was given a Christian name, Dona Marina, and paired with a Spanish priest, Geronimo de Aguilar, who knew Maya. Dona Marina would hear Nahuatl speech, give it to de Aguilar in Maya, and then Aguilar would give the message to Cortes in Spanish.

This did not last as an arrangement. Being now handed off to the Spaniards, Dona Marina would learn Spanish as well. Having done this, she managed to cut de Aguilar out of the equation, and became the sole nexus of communication between the Aztecs and Spaniards. She played this for everything it was worth. 'Dona' was a title of respect in Spanish, which was nice, but nice as it was, it was still a slave name. Slaves don't like slave names. As close as Dona Marina was to Cortes- the two are often depicted together- and in the position of power she had worked herself into, she was going to get her old name back. And not just any old name. She was going to upgrade her old name. She demanded the Aztecs henceforth call her Malintzin, '-tzin' being a title held by nobility- the nobility she used to be before being sold into slavery.

At this point, we should get into her place in history as viewed today. Malintzin is variously interpreted as a traitor, a schemer, a survivalist, a victim, the start of a new Mexican people (she had a son with Cortes in 1522, Don Mahin Cortes), but my reading is this. From her perspective, the Aztecs turned her from a noble to a slave and sold her to the Mayans. The Mayans kept her as a slave and gave her to the Spanish. The Spanish, meanwhile, wined and dined her from day one and placed into her hands more power and influence than she had ever had before. As far as she was concerned, she was just paying back everyone for how they respectively treated her. She was Spanish now.

(Malintzin's story depends heavily on context, and as such lends itself to an endless amount of interpretation; mine is only one possible reading. Some believe she betrayed her own people; some believe she did what she had to do to survive alongside Cortes; some believe she was drunk on power; some think the son she had was the beginning of a new civilization. To get a better picture of her and to draw your own conclusions, the book Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico by Camilla Townsend should provide an excellent starting point.)

And as a Spaniard, she helped bring down the Aztecs. She knew their language. When they made plans against Cortes, Cortes couldn't understand what they were saying, but Malintzin could. Any plans she overheard were relayed to Cortes and promptly squashed; this happened at least twice, once in Cholula and once in Honduras.

After her part in bringing down the Aztecs, Malintzin receded back into the mists, such that her year of death is even more uncertain than her year of birth. Estimates range the year from 1527 all the way to 1551. A move to Spain is placed between the two ends of the spectrum, as Cortes returned to Spain in 1529, and dispute exists as to whether she went to Spain with Cortes to live out her life, or whether she died around the time Cortes left.

What is known is that he built her a house not far south of Tenochtitlan, making sure that however many years she had left, she was well taken care of. It's not certain what exactly she had, though, beyond the house. There is dispute, for example, as to whether she was given slaves.

If she knew her own history, the smart move would have been not to have them. You never know how they might respond if you lose track of them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Random News Generator- Somalia

Any roundup of the day's news in Somalia looks, for all the wrong reasons, like any other from the past 20 years: fighting and killing here, a town taken or retaken by some faction or other over there, a terrorist arrested or killed in this other place, piracy off the coast, and children starving all the while.

Most of the people who try and improve matters end up completely ineffective at best and targets at worst. The last link provided involves 20 teenagers arrested by one of the factions, Al-Shabab, for refusing to fight, or more specifically, refusing to fight for Al-Shabab. They've been taken to an unknown location.

Just to let you know, every single one of those links has been from an article written this weekend, and the last one is the only article not from the last 24 hours. Not a single story concerning anything that could clearly be considered as good came out of that same period. Believe me, I looked. I thought I'd found one from Friday, concerning a singer by the name of Sado Ali Warsame, but the piece turned out to be largely a screed against Somaliland, which has been noted here a year ago as the only place in the country that could even begin to be described as stable or functioning. Even a piece about shoe-shining children from April 15, which I originally thought might be a cute little flicker-of-hope story about an odd job to make money, turned horrific when it went into detail about how the shoe-shiners get caught in crossfires when the soldiers whose shoes are being shined get shot at, are frequently unpaid, and then shot deliberately if they press the issue.

These are children, mind you, of ages ranging in the article from 9-14.

There's nothing new under the sun in Somalia. And that's the worst news of all.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Draft Matters

As I do every year, I intend to follow the NFL Draft with interest. Usually, it's to follow the selections of the Packers, and while I'm at it, the rest of the NFC North. And the first round pick of the Raiders, but that last one's just for the comedic value.

This year, it'll be a little different. There's significant drama behind this year's draft, due to the lockout; the players selected won't be able to get to training camp or any team facilities or anything else official until the work stoppage ends. There is much being made of picking players who are going to be ready right away. The early picks will be presented with a player-sponsored event called 'The Debut' and asked to attend that instead of the draft (as it happens, the players are largely choosing to attend both).

I'm not interested much in that.

For me, the real drama comes two days later, in rounds 4-7. Specifically, the tail end, when players begin to wonder whether they'll be drafted at all. In a normal draft, you'd almost rather go undrafted than be taken in the last few selections. Immediately after the final selection is made, all undrafted players become free agents. Just because a player's undrafted doesn't mean they're unwanted, as immediately after the draft, teams rush the phones, trying to snap up as many undrafted players as they can. With many undrafted players getting calls from multiple teams, they get to choose their own situation, and sign with the team that gives them the best chance at a roster spot. Compare to the drafted player, who has their team chosen for them; if he gets cut, by the time it happens, the other teams have likely settled into their roster and it becomes significantly harder to displace someone.

With the lockout in effect, the situation is completely different at the draft's back end.

Players can have no contact with coaches, trainers or the front office in a lockout, save for labor negotiations. Nobody can be signed. For the drafted players, this is an obvious inconvenience, as they can't get contracts worked out or do any training at their team's facility. But they know they have a team, and as such, they can contact their new teammates and set up unofficial practices.

This is something the undrafted players don't have. Not having a home in a work stoppage is not an inconvenience. It is a disaster. They have no teammates. They have no team. They have no link to the NFL to hang onto over the course of the stoppage. Until they have a team, they don't even have much of an argument: if they have no team, they're not playing anyway, and they're not being locked out of anything until they belong to a team. They can't exactly count on other football leagues either, such as the arena league, UFL and CFL, as these jobs in the event of an extended stoppage could be taken by better, more proven players- NFL veterans and high-round draft picks seeking to keep their form up and make some small bit of money while waiting the owners out. (In a lockout, they are unemployed, and can rent themselves out like that.) The UFL will try to poach some of them, but there are only five teams in the UFL, and only so many jobs. And with an enforced disconnect from all 32 teams, and no NFL teammates to turn to, all that the undrafted players unable to find work in the UFL or some other league can do is wait and hope that the lockout is resolved, and fast. Because you may be wanted by the NFL, but they're not going to go out of their way to look at you. If they wanted you that badly, they'd have drafted you.

In the event of a lockout that loses the NFL the entire season, the non-UFL undrafted will have mostly wound up a year out of football. Football is not a sport where you can take a year off with no job and pop back in. Once you stop playing, you usually stop playing. Worse yet for the undrafted, in the case of a lost season, between them and the first NFL game stands not only a year of no link to football, but if a deal is reached after the season is called off, a deal reached between the cancellation of the season and this time next year would lead to a second draft. That's a whole new set of draftees, and a whole new set of undrafted players, players just like them but not a year out of football.

And even if a deal is reached in time for the season, the reason all those undrafted players get called up is that the teams have 80-man rosters to fill for training camp, which will eventually be cut to 53. Undrafted players help make up the numbers and fill out any bare positions not filled in the draft. The longer the lockout, the less the teams can mess around with extra roster spots, and the less opportunity the undrafted get.

Either way, this year, if you don't get drafted, and the UFL doesn't call, you're pretty much hosed.

Usually, the NFL draft is watched to see highly-touted players at the very beginning of their careers. This year, at the other end, you might see players for whom this is either the beginning, or the end.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Trees Demand Hug, RAAAAARGH


Earth Day today, although I couldn't tell it by looking outside; the day is what one might describe as "icky". In the spirit of the day, we need a green article, so here's one from Treehugger (run! Run, those trees have pointy and splintery arms of love!) concerning a brainstorm out of the Netherlands to embed solar panels in their roads. Not just off to the side; literally on the part your car will be driving on top of. Or at least your bike, for now.

It's still in the planning stages, but a test program is planned for the city of Krommenie, a bit outside of Amsterdam. How it's supposed to work is, first they lay down the asphalt, then a thin layer of solar cells, and then a layer of toughened glass. It's supposed to take in 50 kilowatt-hours per square meter per year.

Cross your fingers.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Colleges Used For Things Other Than Football

There are two major principles in the world of scientific journals, or at least, two you'll need to know today:

1) Papers cite other papers.
2) The more your paper is cited, the more important it is.

These are the principles behind a set of interactive maps you'll find through this link. The idea is to map out the most important science cities in the world, or at least the top ones in physics, chemistry and psychology.

First, the mapmakers counted up the number of papers generated by each city. That number's represented by a circle laid on top of the city; the bigger the circle, the more papers you put out.

Second, the mapmakers examined the top 10% of papers cited. Each city was scored on how many papers they put out that were in that 10%, compared to how many that they should have had considering the number of papers they put out. This scores the quality of a city's papers as opposed to quantity. Cities that tend to put out important papers show up in green. Cities that put out a bunch of junk show up in red.

Big green circle = a lot of good papers.
Small green circle = not many papers, but they make them count.
Big red circle = a mountain of garbage.
Small red circle = little impact on the community.

The system isn't perfect; the direct link asks about language barriers and researchers who only cite each other, but all in all, it's more useful than useless.

A short recap:

*In the physics map, Moscow has the biggest circle in the world, but it's also one of the reddest. The Soviet bloc as a whole doesn't do very well. Some of your better performers abroad: London and Cambridge, England; Paris, France; Prague, Czech Republic; Seoul, South Korea; Hefei, China; and Munich, Karlsruhe and Garching, Germany. Within the United States, Chicago and Urbana, Illinois; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Berkeley and University, California; New York, New York; and Cambridge, Massachusetts rate highly.

*In chemistry, it's the same story with Moscow. Urbana, Berkeley and both Cambridges score big again, as well as Houston, Texas; Kyoto, Japan; Beijing, China and Singapore.

*In psychology, all the circles loaded the same size for me. But South America and the Carolinas didn't do so hot; Spain and Turkey underperformed as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Remember The Goat

Sunday, on Lisa Ling's Twitter feed:

Horrified by the new Battlefield 3 commercial I just saw--especially after working with U.S. veterans with severe PTSD.

To the Battlefield gamers out there: I have no prob with the games, but when commercials come on randomly, it can trigger things.

Here's the ad she's referring to. So as not to cause the highlighted problem, it's a link and not an embed. Her first comment got picked up by a couple gaming forums, and the reaction was pretty largely 'who cares what she thinks' and 'idiot media is trying to stir up videogame controversy again'.

I'm not going to speak to the actual PTSD-causing quality of the ad- my dad, a Vietnam veteran, will commonly talk in his sleep using statements that frequently seem military-related, though to my knowledge he's not yet seen the ad and hasn't shown any waking-hour flashbacks of any stripe; otherwise he wouldn't be watching war stuff all day.

Though I will say that that particular ad isn't really all that outstanding or notable considering the genre. There are plenty of games just like it who have done similar ads. Unless this is some sort of crazy Pikachu-causing-a-seizure instance where the specific blend of images causes a trigger, I don't think she has much to worry about here. I think it might just be a side effect of her having been, as she said, working with PTSD veterans. Being around the subject a lot lately, it was fresh in her mind when she saw the ad, noticed it when she wouldn't have noticed it previously, and had the reaction she had. I think she overreacted, but I get her train of thought.

It's easy to see where the gamers are coming from too, particularly for me, a gamer myself. I grew up on the Atari and NES. A number of fights with the media and even governments over the years over a wide variety of games- Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Postal, Doom, Night Trap, Death Race 2000, just to name a few off the top of my head- has given gamers a sort of 'oh, geez, here we go again' attitude towards any new controversy, or anything that even has the whiff of a controversy. They brace themselves any time a videogame is even tangentically connected to something bad in the news. If a kid shoots up a school, after 'that's terrible', one of the first reactions you'll likely get from a gamer is 'please don't let there be an Xbox in his room when the cops show up at his house,' because if there is, they know exactly what's liable to happen next. Whatever game was spinning in his Xbox at the time is at risk of being the next controversy, especially if it was a game with guns in it.

And since the Battlefield 3 ad doesn't really stand out, the reaction is pretty much to dismiss Lisa as one more stupid journalist that has no idea what she's talking about.

Epke of the forum NoobToob, however, made a different point:

EA [the publisher] will be pleased, there is no such thing as bad press, BF3 will sell more because of this.
And what is the biggie? it is not like the airport massacre in [Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2], just war like war is.

That's the other thing about 'controversial' games: controversy sells. People want to see what all the fuss is about. And oh, it can get much, much worse.

How much worse?

In 2007, Sony was promoting God of War 2 at a European release party in Athens, Greece. Fitting, as God of War references (read: kills) a large chunk of Greek mythology. In this release party, Sony went for the theme of an ancient Greek orgy. Attendees were treated to topless women.

Nobody noticed the topless women.

This is because everybody was too busy noticing the decapitated goat. The Daily Mail kicked off the controversy by describing it as such:

At the event, guests competed to see who could eat the most offal - procured elsewhere and intended to resemble the goat's intestines - from its stomach.
They also threw knives at targets and pulled live snakes from a pit with their bare hands.
Topless girls added to the louche atmosphere by dipping grapes into guests' mouths, while a male model portraying Kratos, the game's warrior hero, handed out garlands.

Sony released a statement in response saying that this was irresponsible reporting. Nobody was eating out of the goat, and it was returned to the butcher afterward. Well, that just makes it SO much better.

Everybody got in an uproar over this one, gamers included. Sony's explanation barely even slowed anyone down, with the response being simply 'you're still using a dead goat to promote your game'.

Here's actual footage of the event, so as to get away from he-said-she-said. You'll note in the video that snakes were not pulled out of a pit, but rather a key from a box filled with snakes, and the goat thing consisted of drinking something out of a large pot; Sony claimed it was punch. The knife-throwing, though, seems to have been described accurately.

God of War 2, of course, sold like gangbusters.

The eternal knock on violent games has been that the gamers somehow can't tell games from reality; that they'll put down the game, go about their day, and then mindlessly shoot someone thinking they'll get points for it, or something else of that nature.

Everything described by the Daily Mail, even that which was shown as wrong, is something most gamers would do in a game without thinking twice about it. Killing a goat is nothing. Using an in-game goat as a golf ball is a story you repeat on forums. In real life, though, when a goat gets killed, those same gamers will react like everyone else.

Battlefield 3 shouldn't be any different, for gamers or veterans. At least, that's what I'm hoping.

UPDATE: Lisa took the time to respond...

"Thx Aaron...I JUST returned home from a veterans retreat where men had been dealing with severe ptsd for decades. They told me that any realistic portrayal of war sends them into a panic. When I saw that commercial out of the blue, I couldn't help but think of those guys. I have nothing against the video game itself, but seeing the commercial on TV--and how real it is just startled me."

"Any realistic portrayal of war" is a fair bit more disheartening; as I stated, Battlefield 3's ad isn't that unusual. Ads and trailers for franchises like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, as well as the rest of the Battlefield franchise, aren't going to be any easier on them. Halo, Killzone and Metal Gear would easily count as well if the threshold for 'realistic' is adjusted low enough.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Queen Sperm The First

I'm not inclined to watch the royal wedding, or care all that much about it really. Don't get me wrong; I'm happy for William and Kate, they seem like they'll make a good couple, but I classify it about the same in my head as I would a wedding of some random A-list celebrity, because given the status of the royal family these days, that's about the place they belong. We give reverence to the Queen, but when we get down to business, we're all looking at the Prime Minister. Let's not kid ourselves. Earlier in England's history, of course. The royal family ran the show for hundreds of years. But none of those years are this one.

Similar feelings pervade this story, concerning a proposal to change the law of succession, in which men take precedence over women; currently a daughter would take over only if there were no sons. On the one hand, absolutely a good move. Yay gender equality and all that. On the other, it might have been an even better move had it been made before the royal family became little more than the English media's personal zoo exhibit.

And besides, the Daily Mail here has now got us- or at least me- talking about the royal status of someone who hasn't even been concieved yet. We're basically sitting here furrowing our brows going "but what if it's a girl?" when right now it's not an anything yet. There's a good chance William hasn't even developed the specific piece of sperm that will become the baby yet.

So let's not get too ahead of ourselves.

(BONUS BACKSTAGE LOOK: When I write something, the first thing I usually do, unless the intended post is really short, is put it on Notepad before I commit it to the 'create post' window. Partially, this is to give myself the time I need to get my thoughts in order. You can save a Notepad file. But mostly it's to give myself a backup file. That, I would very much have liked to have, as I went to spell-check, misclicked, and went away from the page. I got lucky this time; the blog auto-saved somewhere along the line here.

Just to show you what kind of fly-by-night operation we run around here. Sometimes I hit a groove and turn out something I really like in the span of an hour or two, sometimes I'm Craig Ferguson slapping the camera to get it to work.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

It's Tax Day

It's three days late this year due to the weekend, but it's today.

So this is your friendly reminder to please not be stupid and claim that the 16th Amendment is illegal or that it was never ratified or that Ohio wasn't actually a state until 1953 and so their ratification doesn't count or whatever other fit of idiot libertarianism you come up with that equals "hey, I don't have to pay taxes!" Someone tries it every year, and every year it just ends in that someone's arrest and a cheap laugh for the rest of us. It is regarded as so utterly ridiculous that legally, it is classified as a frivolous argument, which means not only 'you're an idiot; get out of my courtroom', but, due to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules for Civil Procedure, it also means 'the law firm that took your so-called "case" is an idiot too for making me put up with you, and I'm going to punish them for making me have to listen to your crazy'.

Also, you should note that, under section 7482 of the tax code, "The United States Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court shall have the power to require the taxpayer to pay to the United States a penalty in any case where the decision of the Tax Court is affirmed and it appears that the appeal was instituted or maintained primarily for delay or that the taxpayer’s position in the appeal is frivolous or groundless," and frivolous arguments in United States Tax Court, under 26 U.S.C. § 6673(a)(1), could result in up to a $25,000 penalty.

How counter-productive of you.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


On February 21, 1955, Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year old girl from Hiroshima, Japan, was hospitalized with leukemia, brought on by the atom bomb dropped on that city in 1945, when she was 2. She was about one mile away from Ground Zero at the time. The bomb had taken a decade to do its damage to Sadako, but the damage was done. Doctors gave her a year to live, if that.

Sadako had other ideas. An old Japanese belief holds that a person can be granted a wish by making 1,000 origami cranes. (A group of 1,000, held together with string, is called a senbatsuru. Thus the post title.) Sadako had a wish. She wished to get better. On August 3, she was given a crane by her friend, Chizuko Hamamoto. At that, she resolved to fold the necessary cranes, and spent hours every day working towards the 1,000-crane mark. There was a lack of the amount of paper she would need at the hospital, but Sadako made do however she could, with whatever kind of paper was available. Medicine wrappings, the wrapping paper from other patients' get-well presents, Chizuko would bring paper from school, whatever worked.

Unfortunately, after 644 cranes, Sadako ran out of time. She died on October 25. Her classmates folded the other 356, and laid them as well as her own to rest along with her. (Although the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum maintains that she made it to 1,000.) A statue of her stands at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, where cranes continue to be placed to this day. There's a good chance that, if you think back, you'll recall reading the story in school once.

Given that Japan is, once again, dealing with nuclear radiation, it feels appropriate to bring up the story. While far and away the best thing you can do to help from home is always going to be to send money (hint hint), here's an instructional video on how to make an origami crane.

You know. Just in case.

Re, A Very High-Impact Drop Of Golden Sun

The movie Tangled (now on DVD in all your favorite stores!) tells the story- or at least Disney's interpretation of the story- of Rapunzel. You know the one even without the film. Girl in a high tower with hair so long you can climb it and amazingly not make Rapunzel scream in agony because there's a full-grown adult climbing up her hair.

As the movie tells it (which, being Disney, is a whole lot different from the actual story), a drop of golden sun grew a magic flower which had healing powers. After various shenanigans involving a witch, it wound up in the tea of a local pregnant queen, who gave birth to Rapunzel, whose hair carries the same healing powers.

All this from a drop of golden sun.

What would happen, you may be wondering, if--- no, not if your hair was like that too. What would happen if a drop of golden sun actually landed on Earth?

A drop would be about the size of a pinhead. If it landed near you, suffice to say that you would be thoroughly screwed. In fact, if it landed within 90 miles of you, you'd be dead from the radiant heat.

Which is why the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena decided they'd only bring back some particles. They launched a capsule, Genesis, sent up in August 2001 to gather particles ejected from the sun due to solar wind, in order to find out what those particles were made of and otherwise poked and prodded for all manner of purposes. In September 2004, Genesis was set to return. They hoped to grab Genesis out of midair by helicopter on its way down, in hopes of preserving the particles.

It sounds very unlikely to be able to pull that off, but we'll never know for sure. All of Genesis' parachutes failed, and the capsule slammed into Utah's Dugway Proving Ground at 193 miles per hour on September 8, and it only came in that slow due to air resistance. Nobody had discussed that possibility much, or at least, not in public. The capsule broke open on impact, damaging most of the particles were contaminated. The good news is, some did come away undamaged, and in addition, some of the contamination was actually removable. Despite the crash, there were enough ultimately usable sun particles to do all the research they wanted to do.

A month later in the postmortem, it was found that the accelerometer was installed backwards, causing it to fail. This, interestingly enough, backwards accelerometers were the exact type of design flaw that led to the creation of Murphy's Law. A rocket-sled test was conducted in 1948, designed to impose 50-G forces on a test subject and then subject him to rapid deceleration. This caused significant physical trauma on the subject. Dr. John Stapp. The tester, Edward Murphy Jr., then had to announce the test was voided because all the accelerometers had been put in backward, causing them all to fail to produce any measurements.

Genesis did get a measurement. However, 'how big a crater can we make in the Utah desert' wasn't the measurement they intended.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Back Page, Before They Cut It All To Fill The Back Page With The Royal Wedding

With it hailing out, and me working on something larger- might be tomorrow, might not, but still- today we'll do something of a back-page roundup. I'm going to fire four stories at you that I'm banking you haven't seen today, and we'll see if anything socks you in the eyeballs.

*Bolivia is on track to to pass a law, the Law of Mother Earth, giving nature the same rights as man. The Guardian shows them as "the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered," as well as the right of nature "to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities." They're also trying to get something similar through the United Nations, though that shows far poorer chances of success.

*The FDA has given approval to a hat, the NovoTTF-100A, that fights brain cancer by generating electric fields using the electrodes on your scalp to attack tumor cells. It comes with a gazillion caveats- the type of brain cancer, how much the cancer has progressed, what else has been tried- but it got a narrow approval after a clinical study showed it was as effective in the test group as chemotherapy, with less of some side effects (and more of others). That paves the way for further testing in other circumstances.

*Women in Tajikistan are increasingly taking note of a quirk in Tajik society that leaves them at major risk, according to Eurasianet. Divorce rates are on the rise, but the common way for Muslim spouses to get married is a religious ceremony called a nikkah. Couples that opt for a nikkah frequently do not obtain paperwork officially recognizing the marriage. No official marriage means no prenuptial agreement, and with women's rights lacking in that part of the world, the husband-that's-not-officially-a-husband can easily wind up with just about everything; according to the article, about 80% of female spouses wind up without property or child support, usually because they didn't register. Women can be hit from the other end as well, as even the ones that register and obtain a divorce (Tajik law enforces a 50-50 split) can end up shunned by their community because of the divorce.

*And finally, let's head over to Alicante, Spain, where authorities have recovered two priceless paintings stolen in the late 1990's: "La AnunciaciĆ³n" by El Greco and "La ApariciĆ³n de la Virgen del Pilar" by Francisco de Goya. The paintings are reportedly undamaged; the thieves looked after them well. That's about all they could do; as they were both placed on the Art Loss Register and made known to the art community and to police, they couldn't easily be resold. When they reportedly started trying to do so in October, the cops got wind of it and began an investigation that led to the paintings' eventual recovery.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Home Page

It's a TED talk today. Specifically, say hello to Ethan Zuckerman.

How global do you think the Internet truly is? Despite the ability of the Web to connect you to what's going on in the rest of the world, how often do you actually do so?

Because Ethan's got a nasty surprise for you.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Voting closes tomorrow on the 2011 Time 100 poll. Mercifully. Time intends for you to, given a list of notable people from the past year, help decide who is influential and who is not. The winner, the person who is voted most influential (by way of 'influential' votes minus 'not influential' votes), gets a place in the Time 100.

That's the intent. Being a poll on the Internet, it has devolved into a gigantic popularity contest. The defending champion is Korean pop singer Rain, who it cannot possibly be argued has been influential beyond influencing Korean girls to yell EEEEEEEEEEEEEE, and given the current standings, he is winning again going away. In a distant second is Jay Chou, AKA Kato from The Green Hornet, and far behind Chou in third: Susan Boyle.

The rest of the top 25, as it reads when I get there:

4- Cheng Yen, head of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation
5- Beyonce
6- Chris Colfer, aka Kurt from Glee
7- Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great
8- Bradley Manning, the soldier being held for leaking to Wikileaks
9- Lady Gaga
10- Julian Assange
11- Ron Paul
12- Glenn Beck
13- Fukushima power plant workers
14- Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-cart owner who set himself on fire and in the process kicked off all the Arab protests and wars and revolutions
15- Wisconsin's 'Fab 14' state senators (these would be the Democrats who went to Illinois)
16- Han Han, a Chinese writer/blogger who gets away with criticizing the government because he is also a celebrity and racecar driver
17- Rihanna
18- Dan Savage and Terry Miller, founders of the It Gets Better Project
19- Tawakul Karman, head of the Yemeni group Women Journalists Without Chains
20- Mohamed Elbaradei, part of the Egyptian opposition to Hosni Mubarak
21- Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford
22- Gabrielle Giffords
23- Wael Ghonim, who kicked off the Facebook movement to bring about Egyptian revolution
24- Mark Zuckerberg
25- Mahinda Rajapaksa, president of Sri Lanka

Exhibit B that the poll has descended into farce: the middle of the pack. Michelle Obama, the First Lady to Barack, is 26th. Barack himself, the president of the United States, is 46th. Aung Sun Suu Kyi (40th) comes in six spots back of Betty White (34th). Vladimir Putin (67th) is 15 spots behind Conan O'Brien (52nd). Benjamin Netanyahu (86th) is two spots back of Jamie Oliver, aka the Naked Chef (84th). David Cameron (110th), John Boehner (112th), Joe Biden (109th) and Dmitri Medvedev (105th) are all losing to Katy Perry (100th). Justin Bieber (137th) is four spots up on Kathleen Sebelius (141st) and 17 spots up on Hamid Karzai (154th). Aaron Rodgers (176th) is two spots ahead of the Nobel Peace Laureate, Liu Xiaobo (178th).

Exhibit C: the other end of the list; the bottom. Supposedly, the 'least influential'. The bottom 25 (of which Xiaobo only misses by one spot):

179- Ai Weiwei (Chinese artist and activist; detained by Chinese authorities earlier this year)
180- Jenna Lyons, executive creative director of J.Crew; Michelle Obama wears a lot of their stuff
181- Bruno Mars (aka the guy who would catch a grenade, throw his head on a blade, jump in front of a train, take a bullet straight through his brain for you, but is miffed that you wouldn't do the same)
182- Bob Dudley, CEO of BP
183- Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil
184- Sarah Palin
185- Grant Achatz (American chef doing molecular gastronomy, like pretty much everyone else at that level of cooking after they heard about Ferran Adria, who now can't go out for a simple cheeseburger without getting three-hour presentations of pizza foam or malted scallops or other insane things he's done himself, better)
186- Michael Vick
187- Annette Bening (from The Kids Are All Right)
188- Russell Brand
189- Aziz Ansari (from Parks and Recreation)
190- Silvio Berlusconi
192- Newt Gingrich
193- Lady Antebellum
194- Rooney Mara (The Social Network, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
195- Gwyneth Paltrow
196- Scott Walker
197- Zach Galifianakis
198- Chelsea Handler
199- Kim Kardashian
200- Charlie Sheen
201- Snooki
202- Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom
203 (last by miles and miles and miles)- Kanye West

Thankfully, the very bottom is mostly populated with annoying celebrities. Where they should be, assuming they even belong in the poll at all. But then you've got Scott Walker and Sarah Palin in there. And two different heads of state. You may hate them. You may want them out of the political arena. But to say they're not influential? You might make a case for Newt Gingrich, who has had a problem getting traction in Republican primary polls, but Sarah Palin not influential? Come on now.

It's not like Time didn't know this would happen. Back in 1998, they opened up their Man (changed the next year to Person) of the Year vote to the public. That is intended to be the person who had the most influence on the year, for better or worse. (This is the standard response every time someone brings up the fact that Hitler won it once, even though Time has been known to shy away from people who would draw a similar reaction in the United States.) The public decided that this should be Mick Foley, professional wrestler and, that year, author of the book Have A Nice Day. Time responded by removing him from consideration. The title eventually went to Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr.

Now, over a decade later, they've just decided to go with it. They've given up. If people want to say Rain is influential and make Stephen Colbert shake his fist screaming RAAAAAAAAIIIIIIINNNNN, then that's what Time is now prepared to do.

And if you take out the people who clearly have no business being 'most influential', leaving it just to the newsmakers, that creates another set of problems, as with votes come campaigns for those votes. Not debates. Campaigns. That's why you see the likes of Palin, Walker and Berlusconi at the bottom. Are they influential? Do they have an impact? Who cares? Suck it, Walker!

The best solution is simple: cancel the vote and put the decision back in the hands of the Time staff. If you want the job of deciding who's influential done right, you've got to do it yourself.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I Make Them Good Girls Go Ba-a-a-a-ad

There aren't many sources available for this one, given that it's a small local case file from 1311, so it's brief today, but there's enough to go on, including one of our recent Rapid-Fire Book Club entries, Uppity Women of Medieval Times by Vicki Leon.

Back in 1311, sheep were abundant in Ireland. Really, they still are, but we need some sort of flimsy lead-in here, so go with it, because we need to introduce a woman by the name of Eva Giffard. She was a weaver and wool seller from Waterford. With all the sheep around, this shouldn't have been all that bad, at least considering it was Europe in the Middle Ages.

But, the price of wool had gone up, leaving her less able to turn a profit on the resale. What's a medieval wool seller to do?

There is, of course, only one logical solution: break into the pen of old man Ivor Obrodir, walk up to twenty sheep, and rip the wool right off of them with her bare hands. Shockingly, the sheep had a problem with this innovative method of shearing, and she was caught. As Leon wrote, Giffard defended herself such that she almost managed to get acquitted.

Another difference between now and 1311: it took until the late stages of the trial for someone to go check her priors. And as her rap sheet went, she was a "common robber of sheep, calves and hens".

The record is silent on what was done with her, but let's hope 'an eye for an eye' was not applied.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Random News Generator- Zimbabwe

You're expecting Robert Mugabe's name to show up here, right?

Nope. Today, the focus goes to Raoul du Toit, one of six winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman Prize is awarded annually to one person on each of the six inhabited continents (though 'continent' is defined somewhat loosely, with other winners this year coming from Germany, Russia, Indonesia, the United States and El Salvador); each winner gets $150,000 on top of it.

du Toit is director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust. In 1992, poaching along Zimbabwe's border with Zambia had driven Zimbabwe's black rhinocerous population below 600. The poachers seek the rhino's horn, believed in Asia to have medicinal properties but which in fact contains just about the same medicinal property as your fingernail; the horn and the fingernail are made out of the same stuff. du Toit's goal has been to get the surviving rhinos away from the border and into a protected area. He did this by working with cattle ranchers, setting up perimeter fencing so both the ranchers and rhinos had room to do their thing without having to worry about outside threats. This worked out well.

Until 2000, when Robert Mugabe engaged in "land reform", which basically entailed reforming the names on the deeds to a whole bunch of land. Okay, so his name did pop up. Sue me.

The ranches du Toit was working with suddenly had the legs taken out from under them, and by extension, so did du Toit. Subsistence farming encroached on the ranches, and the rhino habitats, and a breakdown in security meant the poachers were back. It was a major setback, but where other conservation efforts gave up, du Toit perservered. He began again, working with any local entity or community available. He envisions a sort of trust fund set up for communities that house a rhino. He would fund that trust with money from international development funds and wildlife tourism, with dividends paid to the communities whenever a rhino is born to them. The $150,000 prize awarded by Goldman is earmarked for that purpose. In this way, du Toit hopes to somehow make the rhino more valuable to the community than to the poachers; to, in effect, outbid the Asian medicinal market.

There's not an entirely happy ending here- poaching is still the major issue, with 71 rhinos falling victim in 2009, with a current surviving population of only 530 under du Toit's watch by the San Jose Mercury News' count ("over 400" by the BBC's count) and 4,800 across Africa- but there is progress; the number poached was down to 21 in 2010. A community watch, while nice, is still inferior in du Toit's mind to harsher measures against poaching. Currently, as he says, "The penalties and fines are still not as much as we would like to see and some of those caught go back and shoot more rhinos to pay legal fees and bribes. That's the blowback from efforts to deal with them." If the poaching can be stifled completely, the unthreatened rhinos would stand to increase their ranks by 10% per year.

The mere fact that this fight is still taking place, the fact that the black rhinos are still out there with a fighting chance, is according to many solely due to du Toit. One of those many is outdoor sporting goods company Orvis, which since 1994 has taken up a number of environmental goals. du Toit recieves some of their attention in 2011; they intend to match any customer donations up to $60,000. If you'd like to nudge the donation thermometer a bit, click that last link and they'll send you through to Paypal.

du Toit and the other winners are to be honored tonight at the San Francisco Opera House.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Horrifying Cover Shoots Edition

Fey, Tina- Bossypants

Just wrapped it up today, and Tina Fey is not Tina Fey just because she and Sarah Palin look like each other. The book is kind of a cross between memoir and essay collection. Either way, she's hilarious, but particularly in the essays. The two highlights are probably right in the beginning, when she brings up women's body standards, and towards the middle, when she responds to a series of people on various message boards who in all likelihood figured Tina wasn't going to see what they wrote.

Towards the end, though, she starts to reprint things she's written elsewhere; if you saw a piece in the New Yorker recently by her, you've basically got two of the later chapters right there. (No, I will not link to it, or tell you the title of the piece for Google purposes. You want to read it that badly, go spend money. You're lucky I even spotted you the 'New Yorker' part.) So it makes for a comparatively weak ending to the book if (IF) you've read any of those reprints the first time, but even if you have, it's not all that big a chunk of the book, and the rest is absoutely worth buying anyway.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Nicked Votes

Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus has apparently, due to "human error"- namely, her own- failed to input 14,315 votes from Brookfield, which when added into the totals hand David Prosser a 7,000 vote lead. That's just barely enough to push the race out of the realm of an automatic recount, meaning Joanne Kloppenburg would have to pay for it, at the cost of $5 a ward.

When one looks at Nickolaus, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports, it becomes clear she is used to this kind of attention...

In the 1990s, she worked as a staffer for the Assembly Republican caucus, one of four GOP and Democratic legislative groups that were shut down following a criminal investigation into state staffers doing campaign work on state time.

Prosser led Assembly Republicans as minority leader in that House from 1989 to 1994 and than as speaker in 1995 and 1996, giving him oversight of the GOP caucus in that House.

"To my knowledge (Prosser) has not had any contact with Kathy since she left the caucus," Prosser campaign manager Brian Nemoir said.

The caucus investigation eventually led to the resignations and criminal convictions of leaders in the Senate and Assembly for directing caucus and staff employees to engage in illegal political activity during their state employment.

Nickolaus, who earned $54,000 a year as a data analyst and computer specialist for Assembly Republicans, was granted immunity in 2001 by authorities conducting the investigation.

In a criminal complaint issued in 2002 against then-Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and others, prosecutors claimed Nickolaus developed a computer software program that was used by state officials to track donations. According to a Journal Sentinel report, Nickolaus said she developed the software on her own time because she wanted to sell it to the state elections agency for use in automating state-required campaign reports. She left the caucus around that time.

Given the timing of the find, the very coincidental amount of votes found, the place they were found being Prosser's and the Republican base, and Nickolaus' previous history, even after 538 pegs it all as incompetence rather than corruption, it seems fishier than the Time Bandit. Either way, it means Nickolaus has messed up badly.

If this is corruption, Nickolaus has stolen an election.
If this is incompetence, Nickolaus has disenfranchised 14,315 people, even if only for two days.

Either way, she should not be allowed anywhere near the inner workings of the political process at any point in the future.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I'm Live In Washington, And As You Can See, Everyone In America Is A Congressman

If you're from anywhere that isn't a national or at least regional media center, parachute journalism has probably happened to you at least once. Rick Larson of the Tri-City Herald in Washington state is putting up with it now. Parachute journalism, as he explains, comes when something notable happens in your hometown that you, being a local, can readily understand. Your local paper will probably do a pretty good job of reporting on it.

But that's not the report anyone outside your hometown is likely to see, because in come the bigger papers, the TV affiliates, to make camp, to do their reports on it for their larger audiences. And they, not being locals, are less capable of understanding what's going on or why, so their reporting is lackluster. They often do such a hack job of the story that the locals just end up wanting all the out-of-towners to go away.

Larson mentions it in relation to the area's Hanford nuclear reservation, the cleanup of which has caused many parachute journalists to come in and frown at it. Chronically high unemployment has been handwaved by the parachuters by basically going to the mall, failing to find a parking space, and marveling at a new store selling $800 handbags.

It has happened to us in Watertown. We're about halfway between Madison and Milwaukee. Some years ago, there was a tire fire just off the west end of town. Someone had stored way too many tires, it got to be unsafe, they caught fire somehow and off they went. You could see the black plume of smoke from any point in town, and probably a lot further afield as well. It was pretty bad- it took days to put it out- but beyond that, most of us in town treated it as something of a novelty. We found this bluff at a safe distance a couple farming fields away, parked our cars, set up lawn chairs and just watched the thing burn for a while. It was something different. The owner eventually ended up paying a huge fine; the fire engines involved got honored at a picnic in nearby Lebanon later that summer.

If you were to watch the news, though, you got a slightly different take on things. To hear the Madison and Milwaukee affiliates tell it, this was some huge, life-changing thing that brought Watertown to a screeching halt. A couple children's extracirricular activities were cancelled- you don't want the kids getting bits of rubber raining into their hair (something that didn't happen to me at any point)- but that was literally it as far as disruptions went. We get worse disruptions from snow in the winter. As far as the affiliates were concerned, though, that was enough to consider the city's collective life to be "on hold".

CNN's Wolf Blitzer, meanwhile, took the time to note that the plume of smoke was visible from a satellite photo. This is a distinction that becomes less meaningful every day. I can find my house on Google Earth. You can, and probably have, found your house too.

More recently, concerning the ongoing labor struggle and subsequent electoral fights, it's happened again. Wisconsinites have made a point of not really paying much attention to what out-of-state media was saying one way or the other. As soon as the national media began to assume that Wisconsin's state legislature worked just like Congress, and started asking why it doesn't, and why don't we make it like Congress, we pretty much tuned the out-of-towners out completely. When I was in Madison for the protests, I remember having to tell a CNBC guy from Cleveland not to stand under the tree that's shedding snow, because he's liable to get dumped on.

In their absence, we've gone to seeking coverage from the actual locals. The in-state affiliates, particularly the Madison affiliates. They're from Wisconsin. They send represenatives from their areas to Madison. They know how the state legislature works.

They have some idea what they're talking about.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Boy, Did You Ever Vote

At the close of business in the David Prosser/Joanne Kloppenburg race for Wisconsin's state Supreme Court, it turns out that it isn't actually the close of business. At this particular moment, a mere 585 votes separate Prosser, the current leader, from Kloppenburg, with 99% of precincts reporting. A recount seems inevitable.

But even though only one side can win the seat, the one thing we know for sure is that the overarching theme- the race being for all intents and purposes a referendum on Scott Walker- is by no means settled. Both sides would like nothing more than to claim a mandate for their given side, but to do so in a race that is headed for a recount is virtually impossible, as any claims of a mandate or the gains of political capital are overshadowed by the narrow margin of victory. And should things be so poetic as to end in a margin of exactly one vote- I'm not placing money on it, but if it were to happen- you couldn't stop the margin from being the story. As it well should be, were it to happen. It's a heck of a poke at all the non-voters out there, giving them no choice but to ponder the fact that they personally could have changed the outcome of the race had they only bothered to show up.

But in any case, no matter how this ends, this is only the undercard in what is sure to be a yearlong struggle for control of Wisconsin. After this, the two camps will return to collecting signatures to trigger recall elections of the various state senators. Then the corresponding recall elections will be held. And then, at the one-year mark of Walker's term, the main event begins: collecting signatures for his recall, and if they are gathered, the election to potentially see him out.

Someone will eventually win the seat on offer in this vote, but nothing has been settled.

UPDATE: The final precinct, located in Lake Mills, Jefferson County, has reported, or at least has just about reported, with 24 handwritten votes remaining. There's been a lead change- Kloppenburg is now in front- but the margin is even slimmer than at last check; it is now 219 votes.

We won't get the one-vote margin, but the point should be made anyway: those who stayed home, are you still happy with that decision?

UPDATE 2: Lake Mills has finished up; the margin is now 204.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Go Vote, Wisconsin

Today is the spring election in Wisconsin, headlined by the first vote in the Scott Walker saga, challenger Joanne Kloppenburg vs. incumbent David Prosser. Walker supporters are backing Prosser, Walker's opposition backs Kloppenburg.

There aren't any polls on this race. At least, no publicly available polls. Prosser had won 55% of the vote in a jungle primary (judicial elections are nonpartisan, technically), but the race had not yet gained the attention it currently has, and the anti-Walker contingent had not yet coalesced behind Kloppenburg, so the primary isn't really a usable gauge. All I know is when I went to vote earlier this morning, I had never seen such a turnout at my precinct, even in November.

If you have not yet done so, fellow Badgers, go vote. If you already have, pat on the back.

Also, programming note while I've got you: this coming Sunday, the 10th, I'll be at the Cubs/Brewers game at Miller Park. There'll be nothing coming on that day.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Eats, Shoots And Leaves

When Americans go out for Chinese food, one of the items they are most often going to see is General Tso's chicken. (Actual Chinese people, not so much. Anyone that's ever seen a travel or food show that's visited China will know that American Chinese food and actual Chinese food are two completely different worlds. If you go to China, General Tso's chicken in all likelihood won't be on any menu.)

You, however, have probably wondered at some point just who General Tso is and why does he have chicken named after him.

Well, isn't this your lucky day. Assuming your lucky day wasn't when Salon answered the question, or NPR, or the Washington Post, whose direct link is wonky but it was reprinted elsewhere so here. It's new to you, right?

General Tso is Zuo Zongtang, born in Hunan province in 1812. He was planning on a career in civil service, but in Imperial China, he needed to pass an exam in order to enter civil service, and he failed seven times.

That wasn't actually particularly embarrassing as far as the Imperial examination system went. China's bureaucracy is historically where everyone wanted to be; that's where the political power and perks have always been. There was no stigma in failing, even in failing repeatedly, so as not to discourage anyone from keeping interest and trying again later on. It was tough to get into the bureaucracy; it was supposed to be. Only 5% of exam-takers passed.

After seven times, though, Zuo called it quits and headed back home to farm silkworms, and was living quietly when the Taiping Rebellion erupted in 1850.

What's the Taiping Rebellion? In brief, it was a huge civil war from 1860-1864, that pitted the ruling Qing dynasty against the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which was led by Hong Xiuquan, who had failed the exams four times himself. After his last failure, he found Christianity. In fact, he found that he was Jesus' younger brother. He found followers, two of which claimed to be channeling Jesus himself, as well as God, and as such they tried to usurp authority from a mere younger sibling of Jesus. This of course led to Jesus' younger brother killing God in 1856.

Bet that's the first time you've ever read that sentence.

Hong and what was left of his followers found a Confucianist government in charge, and decided China needed to be a Christian nation. An eye-popping 20 million dead people later, he and the movement found their grave. (He also, in all likelihood, found a very sad Jesus asking him how 20 million deaths could get brought on by someone claiming to be the younger brother of a guy known for loving everyone.)

Zuo's part in this was to, over the course of the war, march into the Taiping capital of Nanjing and assist in dethroning the second and final Taiping leader, Hong Tianguifu, who was handed the reins after Xiuquan's death and thus subsequently executed at age 16 despite by all appearances having absolutely no idea what was going on at any point in the proceedings.

Taiping started Zuo up the Chinese military ranks. He would be called upon in three more conflicts: the Nien Rebellion in 1868, the Dungan Revolt lasting from 1862-77, and the Sino-French War in 1884-85.

Nien, by the way, is notable as it stemmed from men who turned to banditry because there were not enough women to go around and single men- 'bare branches' had a much harder time sustaining themselves economically. In 2007, China's one-child policy had led to families preferring sons that could support them in their old age, leading to an imbalance of 119 men for every 100 women. In 1850, pre-dating the one-child policy (and the Nien Rebellion, but not the Niens), the ratio was 129:100. Not only was there an economic incentive, it was exacerbated by a famine, meaning not only was a girl less valuable in the long term, in the short term a girl was just another mouth that families could not afford to feed.

But back to the main question. Why does Zuo- or Tso- have a chicken dish named after him, and why is it not an actual Chinese dish? There are two possible origins. One has Zuo's wife making him the dish one day, but that's the less likely origin. The much more likely origin is that during the Communist revolution that put Mao Zedong into power, one person, Peng Changkuei, fled China, settled in New York, and invented the dish there. It was a toned-down dish, replacing spicy Hunan elements with sweeter Cantonese elements to appeal to a larger Cantonese community in New York. It became popular because Henry Kissinger was in the neighborhood a lot, ate at Peng's restaurant all the time, liked the chicken, and spread the word.

Why it got named for him, though, is hard to peg. Maybe it was just named after a big name in Hunan history, as Peng was Hunan. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was a new dish and Peng wanted some sort of unique name to be able to advertise with. Maybe it was a bit of gallows humor. General Tso's chicken is chopped, and General Tso chopped up a lot of his enemies- they still used swords in China during the Taiping Rebellion- and so perhaps the chicken got his name that way.

Coming soon: how Happy Family traces its origins to the movie Soylent Green. Or not.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama

Arms are on fire from last night at work. Not going to do anything big today.

So... 12 minutes, start naming world capitals. Go. (The clock starts as soon as the page loads. If it catches you off-guard, reload the page to reset the clock.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I Pity The Fool

Yesterday, I warned you to watch yourself.

Then I checked the hit counter and watched FlagCounter tell me I got a hit from a pirate.

Here's a repository of some of the other April Fools pranks that were floating around yesterday. Go check and see if you got caught out by anything, because every once in a while one of these April Fools winds up getting legs and goes into urban-legend territory because April 1st came and went with people never getting the joke, thinking it's real.

Friday, April 1, 2011

There Will Be A Test Later

First off, April Fools' Day today. Watch yourself.

Today we're going to do a little mental exercise. I need you to answer each question in the order it is given. Please do not skip ahead; in fact, try not to even read questions beyond the one you're currently working on. Reading ahead might skew your answers and to a degree invalidate what we're doing here. To discourage reading ahead, I'm going to add some white space between each part of the exercise.

For this exercise, we're dealing with political opinions. We'll establish an imaginary scoring system to measure one politician against another, from 0 to 10. This measures how often a given politician does something you agree with-- the percentage of the time they do so, divided by 10. (Since it's a hypothetical, we won't bother with decimals. Whole numbers are enough.) A politician that does something you agree with every time will score a 10. One that never does something you agree with scores 0. 30% of the time is a 3, etc., you get the idea.

Got all that? Dandy. Let's get started.


1. Imagine, if you will, two hypothetical politicians. The first is from your party. During his campaign, he ran on a platform that would, if followed, score a 9 against your views. However, once elected, as his term played out, this politician faltered. He lost a battle or two, events in the news drew him off or counter to his focus, something you held dear turned out to be a peripheral part of the agenda not seriously pursued. His accomplishments end up measuring something more akin to a 5. That's a pretty steep drop down from what you'd imagined. You're disappointed. You think this first politician could have done better. Much better.

The second politician is from the opposition party. You hated this politician's guts from the moment you saw him. He ran on a platform that scores a flat 0. Can't stand him. He, however, won, and turns out to be doing just what he said he'd do. He's enacting his agenda, but it's an agenda you despise. You are filled with rage every time he opens his mouth, but he's effective nonetheless.


2. Of these two politicians, which are you harder on: the one who is noble but disappointing, or the one who is outrageous but successful? Which one do you denounce more often, more forcefully?


3. Take back whatever answer you just said.


4. Now, I'd like you to replace the hypothetical politicians with real-life politicians you've seen in your lifetime that come as close as you can manage to these two archetypes. If you can come up with ones that ran directly against one another, a noble-but-disappointing person vs. an outrageous-but-successful person, all the better.


5. Think back and imagine how hard you ultimately were on the politicians you've come up with, in comparison to each other; how often and forcefully you denounced each of them.


6. In the event you were able to come up with a disappointment vs. outrage race, think back as to how you voted. Who did you vote for? (If you didn't vote due to the poor quality of the candidates, that counts as disappointment.)


7. Which force, disappointment or outrage, ultimately had the greater effect on you, as shown by how you reacted to actual, non-hypothetical candidates?


8. Think back to your answer to part 2. Does your answer match the one you gave in part 7?


9. If not, why not?