Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Killed The Neanderthals?

Apparently, us.

Yeah, sounds about right.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Unauthorized Life Story

On Tuesday, Kentucky Fried Chicken launched, a website dedicated to collecting stories about the life of, well, Colonel Harlan Sanders. Sanders, of course, was the founder of KFC and the man who came up with the 11-herbs-and-spices recipe.

Sanders died in 1980, so it's on KFC to gather up stories and documentation about him. Granted, being KFC, you probably are not going to get the unvarnished account, just story after story about how great and nice and occasionally funny he was.

Now, KFC maintains that the site is about preserving Sanders' life story and not about just selling chicken. I find that rather hard to believe. But just in case, I offer this story.

Sanders sold his interest in KFC in 1964 for $2 million to John Brown and Jack Massey, but would spend the rest of his life as a spokesman inspecting restaurants personally right up until his death in 1980 at age 90.

Sanders wasn't to remain idle himself, however. After selling his interest on KFC, he and wife Claudia soon afterwards founded a new restaurant, Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, Kentucky. And while his face would remain with KFC, the menu itself was now out of his control. This didn't sit well with Sanders, who sued the then-owners, the Heublein Corporation, for $122 million. First, they were preventing him from franchising the Dinner House. Second, they were putting his name on the new menu items. (They settled out of court, possibly out of embarrassment. Sanders was allowed to franchise and sell his recipe in the Dinner House.)

So what on KFC's menu did Sanders not like? The Extra Crispy recipe. The 'Original' recipe is called that for a reason. That's the Colonel's recipe, or at least the current version of it. Extra Crispy was introduced by Brown, who swiped the idea for a crispy recipe from one of Sanders' competitors, Church's Chicken. (Which, if you don't live in the South, you should know has a national franchise of its own these days, though only one place in Kentucky itself.)

Sanders was quite happy with the original recipe, thank you. He didn't like Extra Crispy. He hated it, in fact. Just hated it. In fact, he didn't like a lot of the new menu. He hated it so loudly and fervently, in fact, that KFC sued him back in 1978 for defamation. The case was dismissed because none of the claims were deemed sue-worthy.

Among Sanders' comments on the new menu:

"The stuff on the mashed potatoes, for instance.

"My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I've seen my mother make it.

"To the 'wallpaper paste' they add some sludge and sell it for 65 or 75 cents a pint. There's no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it.

"And another thing. That new crispy recipe is nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken."

If the aim of KFC is really just to tell Sanders' life story, and not to sell chicken, one would think this should be included.

I'm willing to bet it won't, though.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Random News Generator- Afghanistan

I think we're all rather well-acquainted with the minor little squabbles in Afghanistan. So let's just hop right in.

In Helmand Province, roadside bombs killed 23 people yesterday- 19 from a minibus and four from a tractor. The number was difficult to ascertain due to the damage to the minibus, and also because when security officials arrived on the scene for cleanup, they were attacked by Taliban forces.

This comes one day after an attack by suicide bombers in Uruzgan province that killed 19 people- 12 of them children- and wounded 35. Statistically, the current situation is the deadliest things have been for civilians since the war began a decade ago.

Things are also more deadly for donkeys. No. Really. Afghanistan is now seeing donkey-based IED's. The exact details have quickly fallen victim to urban legend and the telephone game, ranging from simply strapping bombs to them like you would any other suicide bomber to having "shoved explosives into a place no living donkey would ever tolerate," but one way or another, donkeys are being loaded up with bombs and sent on their merry way. The soldiers seeing them in action can do little but laugh, because it's really either that or go crazy worrying about it.

As far as soldiers returning home, according to the terms of a class-action lawsuit, over 1,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are set to receive PTSD benefits that were previously denied them. When you're diagnosed with PTSD, long story short, you're sent home. That happened with the veterans in the settlement. However, they were denied PTSD benefits because the military did not assign them at least a 50% disability rating. That was the basis of the class-action, which also affects several thousand more veterans who will now see their benefits go up. (Debt ceiling notwithstanding, of course.)

And finally, along those same lines, a press release from the Department of Defense announces $60 million in new grants designed to prevent veteran homelessness. The grants are being handed out to 85 organizations in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Among the grants:

*$600,000 to Housing First, Inc., Mobile, AL.
*$753,399 to Shelter Network, Burlingame, CA.
*$100,000 to PATH Achieve Glendale, Glendale, CA.
*$730,000 to Shelter, Inc., Martinez, CA.
*$610,000 to Catholic Charities Hawaii, Honolulu, HI.
*$639,000 to United Way of Central Indiana, Indianapolis, IN.
*$1 million to Veterans Inc., Worcester, MA.
*$999,559 to Southwest Counseling Solutions, Detroit, MI.
*$590,928 to Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, Wyandotte, MI.
*$1 million to Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, St. Paul, MN.
*$574,651 to Goodwill Industries of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM.
*$124,999 to St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, Eugene, OR.
*$1 million to Crisis Ministries, Charleston, SC.
*$684,000 to Opportunity Council, Bellingham, WA.
*$507,000 to Community Psychiatric Clinic of Seattle, Seattle, WA.
*$1 million to Center for Veterans Issues, Milwaukee, WI.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

So... It's Been Two Years Now.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. You know them better as "the hikers". Still in Iran after two years.

What the movement for their release is currently trying to do right now is call the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran- that's in Washington- en masse and kindly- KINDLY- ask for their release. The hope is that the sheer volume of calls on their behalf might be able to force a bit of progress.

If you do call, you're requested to be nice. That can't be stressed enough. Don't go yelling at them. Yelling may only make matters worse.

The number is (202) 965-4990. That number specifically. The requested details to hit upon in the call are here. They may ask for you to follow up with an e-mail; the address for that is If they tell you they're not a political office- and they may- just tell them to pass the message along to one.


I have to issue a correction on Tuesday's piece concerning Big Brother.

In the article, I said that Big Brother aired two months after Survivor 1's finale. What happened was I was looking at Survivor 1's film date, not the air date.

Survivor 1 filmed from March 13-April 20, 2000.
Survivor 1 aired beginning on May 31, and ran through August 23.
Big Brother 1 began on July 5, 2000, the same day that Survivor 1 aired its sixth episode, in which Joel was voted out.

However, that sixth episode had drawn 24.5 million viewers. The first and second episodes drew 15.5 and 18.1 million viewers respectively, and from the third episode to the second-to-last, the ratings steadily increased from 23.3 to 28.7 million. The finale drew 51.7 million. It was not scored as part of the television season, because it aired in the summer, but had it been ranked, it would have come in as the second-highest-rated show of the 1999-2000 season.

The dates were wrong, but CBS' excitement and anticipation for Big Brother were the same nonetheless. That point remains unchanged.

On the date of the Survivor 1 finale, it was Day 50 in the Big Brother house, in the middle of Round 4. (In the week leading up to the Survivor finale, the Big Brother house was memorizing major highways with the object of being able to tell which interstates to take to get from one city to another.)

Thanks to Pinyan for catching me out on that. Apologies for the screw-up.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Has A Sad

These are the saddest of all possible flicks,
Fire up 'Bambi' and 'Champ'.
Duo of movies as sad as the Styx,
Fire up 'Bambi' and 'Champ'.
Ruthlessly jerking the tears from our eyes,
Turning a giddy mood into a cry,
Watch them only to see happiness die.
Fire up 'Bambi' and 'Champ'.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Live, Cause You're Living Today

Barring a deal- and honestly, I'm increasingly doubtful that one will be reached (though I've made wrong predictions here before)- on August 2nd, the United States will default on its debt.

We've already covered here a rough overview of what would happen in a default. Pain. Lots of pain.

And also, reality shows.

In our last talk about debt default, it was noted that when Argentina defaulted in 2002, as part of the fallout, their local television stations moved heavily towards reality shows. They are the cheapest to air, and anything else was simply too expensive to keep the network afloat. So if and when we default, if you don't like reality shows, bad news: it's gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

And with reality shows come people you really don't want to get to know very well. You may have wondered at some point what would happen if a reality show simply filled the cast with generally decent people who enjoyed each others' company. What would happen if there were a reality show without jerks. Without contrived conflict.

It has already happened. And it was a laughingstock.

Flash back to July 2000. The first season of Survivor had just wrapped up a few months ago. It was not merely a smash hit, it was an American cultural event. How much of one? Ask around, and odds are eventually you will find someone who can, 11 years later, still give you the first and last names of all 16 original Survivors. Not only that, they could quite possibly name them in the order they were voted off. Some of them, such as Richard or Susan, can still be found kicking around the news wires every so often. Others, such as Colleen and Greg, have essentially dropped off the face of the earth with no intention of being found again. It took the Survivor Sucks board's "where are they now" thread, named for fan favorite Colleen, until this past June to get a lead on Colleen's current whereabouts after a four-year search- apparently, she's a producer for an intentionally-unnamed company in New York and, while as good-natured as she was on the show, really wouldn't mind if people stopped bringing up her Survivor tenure to her because it was a whole entire decade ago and she's done other things in her life too, you know. The search for Greg has been entirely fruitless.

I, incidentally, happen to be one of those people that can still name all 16. Play along if you wish; the answer is at the end of the article. Needless to say, you've already been given four first names.

Now try the same thing with any other elimination reality show, including future seasons of Survivor. Including shows that are airing right now. I'd bet cash money that you can't do it. That's how big Survivor 1 was.

A few months after that, Survivor's network, CBS, launched the second reality show of the modern era (which basically means everything but Real World and An American Family). This second show had already proven itself in Europe as a drama-filled screamfest.

This show was Big Brother.

The format for the fateful first season was quite different from the form Big Brother currently takes. In Big Brother's 2000 incarnation, ten people were placed into the house. There was no immunity, merely nominations. Each week, each contestant would nominate two of their fellow contestants for elimination. The two with the most votes would be put to a vote amongst the audience, who would decide which one left.

This sounds reasonable enough. It worked just fine in Europe, and would continue to work fine, with various tweaks, as each of the international editions ran through their respective lifespans (or continue to do so). Even so, America's Big Brother, in its current format, is a unique incarnation. It remains the only version of Big Brother, out of 45 franchises worldwide (one of which happened in the online game Second Life), to have the contestants vote each other out directly.

America's Big Brother 1 is why.

Big Brother 1 opened to high hopes. Much was made on premiere night about all the cameras in the Big Brother house, the total lack of privacy, how the toilet was the only place where footage would not be broadcast-- unless, of course, things started happening in there.

Here's that happening:

Who's that guy? I have no idea. I forget. But look at he and main-and-soon-only host Julie Chen go on and on about this house and what a huge event living in the house is going to be. Look at the sheer production made out of this. Look at the crowd gathered to see them go into the house. This went on for the rest of the premiere. Clearly, everyone involved expected another huge hit. Clips from foreign versions were played as well, just to make everyone aware of exactly what to expect.

Had they cast properly, odds are they would have been just fine. A game that takes the ultimate power of elimination out of the hands of the players requires a cast that is naturally antagonistic, that needs little to no prodding to set upon itself, so as to create more interesting television. An audience, or at least an American audience, is not overly inclined to provide a large cash reward to someone they find abhorrent. Should a contestant figure this out and become more likable than the others, all the nominations in the world will not eliminate them, as the audience will vote to save them every time. Their victory is assured. Therefore, a good cast must be full of people to whom such a thing would never occur while in each other's company.

Big Brother 1 had two contestants that fit this role: Will "Mega" Collins of Philadelphia, who upon his elimination would be revealed as a Black Panther, and Jean Jordan, a stripper and exotic dancer from Roanoke, Virginia who went by her last name.

The problem, of course, was that there were ten contestants, not two, and none of the other eight would prove to have much of a problem with each other. They did, however, have problems with William and Jordan; William quickly made enemies by accusing fellow contestant Brittany Petros of racism. So when it came time to nominate two people for the vote, William got 6 nominations out of a possible 9, and Jordan, who hadn't exactly been friendly either, got 5. Nobody else got more than 3.

Uh oh.

William was promptly booted. Jordan was the subject of a campaign by David Letterman, also of CBS, called "Save The Stripper", in both rounds 1 and 2.

It didn't work. Jordan was the second person cut loose, with New York lawyer Curtis Kin kept in favor in the Round 2 vote. Gone were the linchpins of drama in the Big Brother house. And with those linchpins gone, the other eight came to enjoy each other. And with little to do in the house but hang around, talk, and participate in the occasional reward challenge- some of which were done over the course of an entire week- all drama vanished in a flash. The house had eight nice, decent people, and nobody there to wreak havoc as they sat around and generally enjoyed each other's company for the remainder of the summer. Voting held little interest for them, because all eight knew that in the end, the audience would decide which of them would win. So they all just hung around and let the audience do just that.

Jim dandy if you're one of those eight. Absolute catastrophe if you're a producer looking to get ratings out of it.

Third to go was Karen Fowler of Columbus, Indiana. Why did she leave? She asked the audience to vote her out so that she could see her kids.

The fourth elimination saw the votes fall in such a way that five of the seven contestants were tied for second. Had one vote fallen differently, all seven would have been tied with two votes each. This is how much they acknowledged their ultimate control over their fate. When the audience voted out Brittany, the surviving contestants all ran to the walls of the house and screamed "WE LOVE YOU, BRIT!" as she departed.

Double uh oh.

In Round 5, the contestants openly talked about mutually splitting the money for the top three places- the only three that earned money- evenly amongst themselves. Ratings were plunging. "Chicken" George Boswell of Rockford, Illinois, who got the nickname from caring for the chickens the house was given, debated whether to lead the house in a mass walkout, which would basically bring the season to a screeching halt.

This could be exploited. In fact, the producers had little choice.

First, CBS played up the walkout in an attempt to boost ratings. Second, they grabbed an alternate from the casting process, Beth. She described herself as "opinionated" and a "bitch". She was a bald-faced attempt to inject drama back into the house. The only problem was, in order to get her into the house, someone in the house would have to leave voluntarily. The producers weren't particularly worried. After all, George was leading a rebellion! They were going to offer $20,000 to the first person to volunteer, but, as they stated, only the first person. So speak up quick! Beth, for her part, was informed that upon entering the house, if she won, she would only be eligible for $140,000, an amount based proportionally on the amount of time she would be in the house.

There were just two little snags in this plan:

1: By the time of the live elimination show, the walkout had been cancelled. "The Chicken Man's staying." And so was everyone else.

2: When actually offered the money, none of the contestants wanted it. The offer was upped to $50,000- "third-place money", as Chen made sure to note to the contestants. And remember, one of you is leaving tonight in sixth and getting nothing! You might as well take it! Come on! Anyone!



Pretty please with sugar on top we're on our knees begging here?

No takers. Beth would never enter the house. The elimination proceeded as normal, knocking out Cassandra Waldon of New York City, and the season proceeded to play out its boring, boring life. By the time it got down to four, said four were given the task of playing the show's official board game. It was a long way south of the sex, profanity and titillation promised on premiere night. When those four went to nominate for eviction, it was, in fact, a four-way tie.

Eventually, the game was won by Eddie McGee of Commack, New York, who received 59% of the final, three-way vote. Eddie was a one-legged cancer survivor. Audiences, at least what is left of them, feel warm and fuzzy giving money to one-legged cancer survivors when given the option to do so.

At the finale, Will Mega proclaimed that, without him, the show was "Big Boring". He found little disagreement, and while the producers were duty-bound to put a happy face on the numbers in public, behind the scenes they bowed to reality.

The season was swiftly disavowed. The game format was torn down and rebuilt from the ground up to become "a summer-long power struggle", with twist after twist dominating the proceedings ever since. Contestants would now not only nominate each other, but vote each other out directly, veto and/or replace each other's nominations, compete against and alongside exes and blood relations and previously unknown blood relations and former contestants, and institute Survivor's jury system, in which previously-voted-out contestants vote for the winner. Only two people would ever be nominated at a time from then on. For several years afterward, not only was Big Brother 1 not mentioned by the show, but future contestants were asked not to bring it up either. The house was changed. The logo was changed. The theme music was changed. The live audience would not return until season 10.

The only true nod to Big Brother 1 came in season 7, an all-star game, in which all previous seasons contributed at least two players to the cast... except Big Brother 1, which contributed one out of a sense of obligation more than anything else. The producers sent in Chicken George. Placed in a game alien to him and thrown to the wolves against some of the most skillfully manipulative people ever to play a game that now attracted them like flies, he came in 5th in a field of 14, surviving three consecutive nominations before losing to eventual winner Mike "Boogie" Malin of Concord, New Hampshire.

This time, people were actually interested in seeing how he did.

Three postscripts to this story:

1: Will Mega ran for Philadelphia City Council in 2003 as a member of the Education Party, describing himself as a "hip-hop political activist candidate". Shockingly, this didn't work.

2: In season 12, the American producers made another attempt at adding a Beth-style mechanic to the game. This time, they added a 'Saboteur' to the initial cast, Annie Whittington of Tampa, Florida. She was not eligible to win, but if she could wreak five weeks of havoc in the house without being voted out, she would win $50,000.

She was voted out in round 1. In fact, she was voted out unanimously. This was the big twist of the season. Panicking again, in round 5, another player, Ragan Fox of West Hollywood, California, was offered the Saboteur role for two weeks and $20,000. He warily accepted and avoided eviction, though only because he had won the right to veto his own nomination in the second week.

3. In case you're wondering about the article title, at one point the Big Brother 1 contestants were subjected to their own season's theme song. It had lyrics.


As for the identities of the original 16 Survivors, in the order of their ouster, here's the answer: Sonja Christopher, B.B. Andersen, Stacey Stillman, Ramona Gray, Dirk Been, Joel Klug, Gretchen Cordy, Greg Buis, Jenna Lewis, Gervase Peterson, Colleen Haskell, Sean Kenniff, Susan Hawk, Rudy Boesch, Kelly Wiglesworth, Richard Hatch.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grief Bacon

Back in May, I brought up a quirk of the English language: its ability to basically kidnap foreign words and press-gang them into service as English words. Words are brazenly stolen from other languages and made into English all the time. If we have no word to describe something or someone, but some other language does, well, congratulations, foreign word. You're English now.

Today, per the suggestive influence of Mental Floss, we're compiling lists of words with no English equivalent. We'll start with their list. Then we'll add this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and oh my word this one.

Some highlights from the lists:

Pana Po’o (Hawaiian)
To scratch your head to remember something you forgot.

Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
To go outside to see if anyone is coming.

Ilunga (Tshiluba, Southwest Congo)
Someone who will forgive an abuse the first time, tolerate it the second time, but never a third time.

Ya’aburnee (Arabic)
Translates as 'you bury me', this is telling someone you hope you'll die before them because of how hard it would be to go on living without them.

Tingo (Pascuense, Easter Island)
The act of removing everything you want from someone's house by slowly borrowing all of it.

Nylentik (Indonesian)
To flick someone with the middle finger on the ear.

Biritululo (Kiriwani, Papua New Guinea)
To settle a dispute by comparing the sizes of one's yams.

Kummerspeck (German)
Excess weight gained from overeating due to emotional problems. Translates as 'grief bacon'.

Koro (Japanese)
A man's fanatical fear that his penis is receding into his body and here is a link that'll tell you all about it if you don't believe me.

Taarradhin (Arabic)
To solve a problem in such a way that nobody loses face. Not the same as a compromise.

Guanxi (Mandarin Chinese)
A kind of informal social currency. Do things for others, you gain guanxi. Ask for things to be done for you, you spend guanxi.

Igunaujannguaq (Inuit)
A game that translates as 'frozen walrus carcass' in which a person is passed around overhead and tries to remain stiff throughout.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Open Letter To Norway

Yesterday, as you know, Norway was attacked by twin terrorist attacks, a pair of bombings in Oslo and a shooting on nearby Utoya Island. At least 92 are now confirmed dead.

For most readers here- the Americans, Brits, Spaniards, Danes, anyone from the Middle East, even the Mexicans- you more or less know the drill. It's happened in recent memory, and you have at least a dim view of what happens next.

For Norway, though, this is completely out of the blue. This is the single worst thing to have happened to them since World War 2. Norway is one of those completely innocuous countries, along with Belgium, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and maybe a few others, an attack on whom is talked about largely as a joke, the action of someone so utterly war-happy that even these places seem a viable target, to be hit somewhere between the invasions of Antarctica and Mars.

Apparently, we are no longer joking.

The Norwegian people, distraught as they are, have shown themselves to be surprisingly level-headed in the face of such events. With an explosion, gunshots, and the sight of a man disguised as a police officer at a youth meeting full of Norway's best and brightest freshly seared into their heads calling people over and shooting them one by one, Oslo conducted a simple evacuation, as if this were a giant fire drill, and the shooter was apprehended, alive at that. He is Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old man described as a right-wing extremist with ties to militant groups. A more complete profile, perhaps a bit too complete actually, can be found here. (The possibility of a second shooter is being explored.)

Now comes the aftermath. Norway, you may not have experienced this before, As an American, though, I have. Domestic, homegrown terrorism. We know that one. Oklahoma City. The Atlanta Olympic bombings. Unsuccessful attempts from shoe bombers and underwear bombers and every nut with a gun and a militia. The most analogous attack to yours is probably a combination of Oklahoma City and the 2008 hotel attacks in Mumbai, India.

So take it from an American... and don't take it from an American. This is, again, the worst thing to happen to you since World War 2, and in the worst thing to happen to us since World War 2-- 9/11-- we messed up the aftermath. We messed it up big-time. Learn from our mistakes.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we Americans told ourselves, if we allow 9/11 to change our lifestyle, the terrorists have won. If that was the benchmark, the terrorists won so handily that we cancelled the rest of the season in shame. Our lives changed. They changed drastically. Our banks changed. Our airports changed. Our schools changed. Most importantly, our attitudes changed. We allowed the fear, the anger, the... well, the terror, to consume us and cloud our judgment. We lashed out at anything remotely, even tangentially connected to anything threatening. We went to war with people who were not even responsible for our plight and questioned the patriotism of anyone who objected, war that to this day we are still waging. Anyone that matched the description of the attackers, no matter how peaceful and kind they actually were, instantly became The Enemy and was treated as such.

9/11 was a decade ago and the man who plotted the attacks is dead by our hands, yet there are those of us who are actually more afraid now than they were on 9/11 itself.

And for our trouble, we have gained such a reputation that the website Wikitravel includes a page for non-American travellers about how to avoid setting foot in the United States for even so much as a refueling stop. Great care is taken on the page to instruct on the convoluted contortions a traveller from the Asian Pacific must take to avoid passing through Hawaii or Alaska.

For you, you don't have the factor of a minority group having perpetrated the attack, as much as most of the media so readily assumed. (That's why yesterday's update here was so brief. When you strip away all the speculation early in such an event, you're not left with much.) The attacker was the same blond white profile as the rest of the country. So that won't be a problem for you. However, the emotional aftermath is universal. That is where you must exercise caution.

Do not give in to fear. Do not pass laws for the sake of catharsis. Before you take future preventative acts, take a step back, take a deep breath, and calm and center yourselves. Only take action with a clear and rational head. Doing otherwise can and will result in legislation that may feel good at the time, but that you will soon come to loathe.

Ambrose Bierce once said, "Speak when you are angry, and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret." Heed his words. This is especially important for those of you who happened to be on Utoya Island yesterday, those of you attending a meeting for youth members of the ruling Labor Party.

You on Utoya have a future in politics. If and when you run for office, odds are your presence on the island will to some degree consume your campaign. Don't let it consume your policy, and don't let it consume your life.

Don't do what we did.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Oslo Bombing

There has just been a pair of explosions in government buildings in Oslo, Norway; one near the Prime Minister's office and one nearby Parliament. Windows in multiple buildings were blown out. Two people are confirmed dead. Police are calling it a bombing.

At some point after the explosions, shots were fired at a politically-oriented youth meeting on Utoya island, just off the coast of Oslo by a man disguised as a police officer. The meeting was well-attended by the Labor Party, the party currently in power in Norway.

Right now, most other details are still very, very sketchy.

EDIT: The death toll now sits at seven.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Random News Generator- Guatemala

Well, we should probably start with the lady who had a sinkhole open up under her bed. That happened in Guatemala City. As the linked article states, while sinkholes can happen anywhere, lots of rain and volcanic deposits make Guatemala City particularly susceptible. Eight sinkholes from the past couple years are given with the article; two of them are in Guatemala City.

How do you fix a sinkhole? There are a couple different techniques, which alternately involve dumping a whole bunch of rock into the hole, and shoring up the foundation followed by dumping a whole bunch of rock into the hole.

Alternately, you probably know that some illegal immigration into the United States originates from south of Mexico. We've already covered that here. That, of course, includes Guatemala, one of Mexico's neighbors. So today's RNG will be used to tell you that in addition to hiking, swimming, car trunks, tunnels, speedboats, trains of death and drug submarines, not to mention overstayed visas that came over with everybody else, the new mode of transportation in play in the illegal-immigration game is: zip lines.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ur Mouth

One of the things we sell at work are those big letter stickers you use on your house or on signs or what have you. Every so often, some customer will come along and rearrange these stickers so as to form words or phrases, their own little unique take on the world and all its foibles.

Last night, one such person used these letters to announce to the world an earth-shattering hypothesis, something that could, if true, very well change everything we know about our civilization. According to this person, this prodigy, and I must take the utmost care in transcribing this theory to the letter, "BALLSACKINURMOUTH."

Now, for those unaware, 'ur' is a German prefix meaning original or primitive. Knowing that, what this theory clearly states is that not only did the first known mouth evolve after the invention of ball-related sports, but that a container for those balls could fit entirely inside this original, proto-mouth.

But like any potentially game-changing hypothesis, we should probably test it before we start throwing the Nobel Prize Minting Machine into overdrive so that we may shower this genius with the accolades befitting of a revelation on the scale of BALLSACKINURMOUTH.

So let's first figure out, when was this Ur Mouth conceived?

As it turns out, the origin of the mouth is caught up in a bit of a chicken-or-egg-type debate in evolutionary circles alongside the origin of the anus. Essentially, the debate is whether the anus came first and, as the gut evolved, it eventually reached the other side of the body to become a mouth; or whether the mouth evolved first and the gut eventually became an anus on the other side.

I'm not the best as deciphering the particulars here, but the focus centers around a certain part of the animal kingdom family tree. First comes bilaterians, which branch off to flatworms on one side of the tree, and protostomes and deuterostomes on the other. If none of these sound familiar except 'flatworm', that's because these aren't species. We're much higher up the classification scale, into the realm of subkingdoms and superphyla. (You were taught that it was just kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, right? Not quite. Biologists have intermediate categories too. Also, there's another category, 'domain', that sits above kingdom as of 1990.)

We're not, however, interested in which came first. What we need is when the mouth showed up. That answer seems to be just as vexing as which came first. The answer is probably somewhere in a 2008 paper in the journal Nature called "Acoel development indicates the independent evolution of the bilaterian mouth and anus", by Andreas Hejnol and Mark Q. Martindale at the University of Hawaii, but the article costs $32 to read. Just in case you have $32 for this, here you go. It, by the way, appears to put together a weird third theory: that the gut came first in two parts- one for the mouth, one for the anus- and the whole mouth-or-anus question is simply a matter of which side the gut, which would of course connect into a single whole, busted through first. What I was able to coax out of the paper without having to hand over $32- which consists of three of the tables- seems to indicate that the paper centers around an acoel flatworm, Convolutriloba longfissura.

Outside of that paper, though, the focus on learning about it appears to center around how we can more effectively murder it (PDF), as it's seen as a pest in larger saltwater aquariums. As a result, we'll need to back up to the larger class, acoela, and go from there. Acoels, as it happens, date back to primitive times. We'll take that rough figure of 'primitive times', which in this context generally means hundreds of millions, potentially billions of years ago, and move to the other end of the equation, ball-based sports.

The question is, did ball-based sports come into existence billions of years ago? If so, we'll have to try and narrow things down further somehow. If not, though, eye-opening as it may seem, the BALLSACKINURMOUTH theory will have to go by the wayside.

Figuring out the ball's invention is murky as well; its creation can't be pinpointed to any one culture in particular. (Lot of definitive answers we're getting today, aren't there?) However, like the mouth, we can pin down a range. While documentation of the usage of balls dates to the Mayan culture, China's Ts'in Dynasty, and the ancient Romans and Greeks, the earliest of the known references to a ball used for sport comes out of ancient Egypt, at around 2500 BCE. Some in the Chinese camp claim as early as 5000 BCE.

The Ts'in Dynasty game vaguely resembles soccer. Two bamboo poles were set up, and a net was strung between them, with a hole cut in the net. In order to score, the ball- made of leather and stuffed with animal fur- had to be kicked through the hole in the net. Players could not use their hands.

The ancient Egyptian game, brought up by Robert W. Henderson at the University of Illinois to dispel myths about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball, maintains that balls were used in a fertility ritual, replacing human heads. Several different makes of ball have been figured upon, including cloth balls filled with seeds, catgut wrapped in leather or deerskin, and one ball made out of linen found in a tomb, visible here. The bocce ball crowd, in an attempt to re-one-up the Chinese, pegs a stone ball as being used in ancient Egypt as early as 5200 BCE, according to hieroglyphics. Naturally, the game resembles bocce ball.

However- tragically as it is- all of these dates are nearly hundreds of millions of years more recent than 'hundreds of millions of years ago', and almost billions of years more recent than 'billions of years ago'. This is to say nothing of the sack the balls need to have been in, or the size of Ur Mouth, which considering the size of acoels is many, many times smaller than these earliest balls, much less their sack.

In fact, the year difference is so far off that it's almost a perversion of intelligence to make claims about BALLSACKINURMOUTH. It's really rather disgusting.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Apparently, Not Still Dead

During the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, a program was in place in which babies, possibly as many as 300,000, were stolen from their mothers at birth, who were told their babies had died. These were poor mothers, commonly ones who opposed Franco. The babies were then sold to families looking to adopt- some within Spain, some abroad- and all documentation either lost or falsified to make it appear as if the adopting family was the biological family.

Recently, residents of Spain have started to take steps to fix whatever damage they can, as ABC Australia's Philip Williams reports via Journeyman Pictures (which, by the way, yay, an actual name attached to one of these reports!)...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reverse Ferret

My feelings on the News Corp hacking scandal shouldn't really have to be guessed at. Nor should I waste time mincing words. Assuming News Corp is guilty as charged, I want them to go down and go down HARD. Hacking the phones of your subjects has no place in journalism or decent humanity. Add that to your subjects being murder victims and 9/11 victims, and your hacking actively impeding the investigations of same, and to say the least, you have no place in the journalism industry. Or polite society.

Bribing the cops to give you your scoops? Seriously, come on.

That established: one of my new favorite phrases has come out of this whole sorry affair. You know, one of those phrases you say you're going to start working into everyday conversation, and then you actually do that maybe twice before realizing you have no place for it in everyday conversation. That phrase is 'reverse ferret'.

As the story goes, Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of The Sun, loved to go after people. When he had a target in his sights, he'd instruct his newsroom to "put a ferret up their trousers." At the same time, though, Mackenzie wasn't stupid. He knew that sometimes, taking this tack, he would have to back off lest The Sun get into trouble, legally, financially, politically or in the court of public opinion. When The Sun was at risk in this respect, he'd go into the newsroom and yell "Reverse ferret!" This was the signal for The Sun to play nice until they were out of danger.

You'll hear the phrase a fair bit over the course of the scandal. First, 'reverse ferret' is the most wonderful phrase in the world and every excuse should be taken to use it as much as possible. Reverse ferret. Reverse ferret. Reverse ferret. Second, the meaning of the phrase- back off the outrage and play nice- describes why Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp., is completely and utterly screwed. One of his holdings needs a specific, special emergency phrase just to tell them not to be jerks.

Translation: there's really no apology or measure of restitution Murdoch could possibly make to get himself out of this mess on his own terms. Any such measure will simply be called a reverse ferret and all investigations (oh, the glorious, glorious investigations) will simply continue on schedule.

Case in point, take Rebekah Brooks, editor of News of the World when the catalyst for this entire saga, the hacking of the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler, occurred. When Murdoch closed News of the World, the very first thing that crossed people's minds was that it was a move to protect Brooks. There was no celebration, no relief, no 'this is a positive step' editorials. No reaction whatsoever that would have signified a successful reverse ferret. The stink was not with News of the World, even though it was there too. The target was Brooks herself.

A few days ago, Brooks resigned from News Corp. Earlier in the scandal, that might- MIGHT, not a guarantee- have worked as a reverse ferret. Now, though, it's too late to be a successful fix. Enough time had passed to where the scandal had spread to every corner of Murdoch's empire. Brooks' departure was characterized by The Independent as "After 52 years, mogul's ally quits to protect jewel of US empire".

The phrase 'to protect'. Meaning, 'that's nice and all, but we have a bigger target in mind and we're not going away'. And the target is now Murdoch himself. Considering that News Corp. is centralized around Murdoch- structured to be so- to the degree that nothing really gets done without his say-so, that's a gigantic threat. Murdoch's been able to take a slow, steady stream of loyal opposition, but he hasn't dealt with something on the scale of the FBI and a united British Parliament going after him simultaneously.

So what happens to him, ultimately? On the American side of the Atlantic, the major criticism in my social circles is that while England may savage him, America won't care enough, his supporters are entrenched too deeply, for him to suffer in America or for Fox News, his most prominent American holding, to take any true damage.

My rebuttal is twofold. First: reverse ferret.

Sorry. Couldn't help it. First, the 9/11 victim-hacking aspect of this story hasn't fully unfolded yet. There is speculation, investigation, but so far nothing solid. So far, all the official, confirmed aspects of this scandal are UK-contained, and so given America's inclination to only care about America, more airtime has been given over here to Casey Anthony. (Which is downright shameful.) If the 9/11-victim link goes official, though, if the name of an affected victim comes out, well, all bets are off over here. There's no way that can't blow up... at least outside of Fox News, which is Murdoch-owned and thus has every incentive to try to save itself. Those who only watch Fox News still won't have a clue, but they're not the ones conducting the investigations. And the ones conducting the investigations are the ones Murdoch has to worry about.

Second, the kind of empire Murdoch has built isn't really structured so that he can just run to the other side of the Atlantic. If Murdoch goes down hard enough in Britain, it won't matter what he has going for him in America. Rupert Murdoch does not have clones running around. He is one man. If that one man, that one man that the entire empire is structured around, is taken down, the whole fortress is liable to crumble in his absence, like a video game boss whose lair collapses the second you beat him. News Corp., in Murdoch's absence, could do anything from undergoing a semi-orderly transition to shattering into a billion pieces.

And every new wrinkle, every new body found buried, only fuels the investigation further and digs the hooks in deeper, making Murdoch's ultimate departure more and more likely. For example, this newly-breaking news about the original News of the World whistleblower ever-so-magically turning up dead. The police do not, at least initially, consider it suspicious, but even official statements from the police have been rendered suspect, with multiple high-ranking officers of New Scotland Yard under investigation themselves for their roles in the scandal.

As deep as Murdoch's problems are in Britain, whether he suffers fallout in America is almost beside the point. He is liable to suffer a fall in America merely by proxy, rendered unable to operate in America to the degree he has been accustomed due to the damage suffered in Britain. It's all the same empire in the end.

So could he make an orderly transition to save News Corp from maximum damage (and there's almost no telling what 'maximum damage' might entail)? Given that he's 80 years old, he's certainly made plans. He would prefer to hand it down to his children. However, they've all got problems of their own, ranging from inexperience (42-year-old daughter Elisabeth) to past corporate failures (39-year-old son Lachlan) to being consumed by the scandal themselves (38-year-old son James). Elisabeth has been spotted verbally attacking James, saying that he "fucked the company". Shareholder pressure exists to hand control to someone from outside the family entirely, someone that doesn't have the tainted Murdoch name. Were that to happen, whoever took over almost certainly would not run things in so centralized a manner.

Which would probably be the biggest reverse ferret of all.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

We Love You (name of city), Good Night!

I want to sink some time into the club-soccer book.

So you're going to get a List X In Y Minutes quiz. Mental Floss, using the 2010 Census, gives you ten minutes to name the most populated cities in America.

Specifically, the largest city beginning with each letter of the alphabet. (My score: 16. I don't know how in blazes I came up with the answer for X.)

Or, if naming those cities is too easy, head to Sporcle and name the 50 largest cities in 2009... that end in 'ville'. You have seven minutes for that. If that seems short, don't fret it. You could have 70 minutes and you would not get them all. (I was brazenly looking through an atlas the whole time and only managed 24.)

Or you can spend 20 minutes trying to work through as many of the 7,500 largest cities on Earth as you can. To make it interesting, the cities are grouped by population into chunks of 25. Give one answer in the group, and you're given credit for the entire group. That makes for 300 groups you have to hit. Tagging one of the 6.7 million-plus cities is child's play. Hitting the mid-64,000 group, that's a bit harder. (Haven't tried this one.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

We'll Put You In One Of Those Crooked Homes We Saw On 60 Minutes

My grandma, Gerda Allermann, died back in 2007. For years leading up to that, she was in a nursing home, Golden Living in Watertown. By that time, we didn't want her in Golden Living. For one, we- and she- would greatly have preferred she die at home. Second, Golden Living was not a good nursing home. There was little stimulation beyond our visits to the point that she was getting bedsores, the physical rehab she was supposed to be getting never happened despite endless prodding from us, and eventually she was left so much to her own devices that Alzheimer's was setting in by the end.

We didn't get her out mainly because she didn't want to go to the other main nursing home in town, and she was the one in charge. By the time we had found a suitable replacement home nearer Milwaukee, she'd taken a turn for the worse and could no longer be moved that kind of distance. She didn't have long after that.

My aunt later found Golden Living listed in one of those ads that was gathering up people for a class-action lawsuit. Last I heard, they're still battling it out in the courts.

As poor as that treatment was, though, there are worse nursing homes. The worst of the worst are listed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as "Special Focus Facilities" or SFF's. The idea behind this listing is , normally a facility is inspected once every two years. However, some places would be shown where they're going wrong, make just enough changes to be in compliance, but then by the time the next two-year inspection rolled around, they'd lapsed back into old habits. On that knowledge, the SFF designation was created, under which the facility is inspected every six months until such time as they either show sustained, significant improvement or they're kicked out of the Medicare/Medicaid program, upon which they usually shut down. If they stay open regardless, focus switches to getting the inhabitants somewhere else.

There are five kinds of places listed in the SFF program, the most recent update of which is shown here in full in a PDF file. These are: new listings; facilities that have shown significant improvement since their listing; facilities that haven't; facilities recently graduated from the program; and facilities that got kicked out of Medicare/Medicaid. According to the stat sheet, about half the facilities listed end up graduating within 24-30 months, while 16% are kicked out of Medicare/Medicaid.

By 'significant improvement', as the stat sheet puts it, the CMS "means that the most recent standard survey (and any later compliant investigations" found no deficiencies in which there was actual harm to any resident, and no deficiency in which there was systemic potential for harm".

On that information, from that list, we're going to single out some places: the places that have been kicked out- there are three- and the facilities in the 'not improved' category that have been on the list for the longest time.

While there is caution advised in the stat sheet that there could be some lag time in the data and that there is no substitute for actually visiting the facility yourself, Golden Living wasn't even on the list and my grandma got treated with neglect, so I am advising regardless of lag that if you or someone you know has a loved one in any of the facilities about to be named, get them out. Get them to literally any other nursing home in America.

And if you're considering putting a loved one in a nursing home, I advise first heading here and seeing how places in your area stack up against each other.

First... well, first, here's Golden Living's readout. That done, we go to the ones kicked out of Medicare/Medicaid, and the deficiencies that caused them to get kicked out. For reference, if you see 'actual harm' and 'immediate jeopardy', the latter is the more serious charge.

Arbor Place of Clinton, Clinton, KY
James S. Taylor Memorial Home, Louisville, KY (closed last December)
Fort Worth Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Fort Worth, TX

And then, the 15 'no improvement' facilities that have been listed the longest, in descending order of months listed as of June 16, each linked to their catalog of exactly what it is that they've done or not done. This is not necessarily the worst 15 of the bunch, but they are the 15 that have had the longest chance to fix things and haven't: If they're not the worst, they're close enough.

1. Hidden Hills Health and Rehab Center, Omaha, NE (77 months) (also known as 6 years, 5 months)
2. Embassy Health Care Center, Wilmington, IL (46 months)
3. Eagle Pointe, Parkersburg, WV (41 months)
4. Mapleshire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Morgantown, WV (37 months)
5. The Oaks of Mid City Nursing and Rehab Center, Baton Rouge, LA (32 months)
6. Mount Royal Towers, Birmingham, AL (30 months)
7. Seven Hills Health and Rehabilitation Center, Tallahassee, FL (30 months)
8. Autumn Healthcare of Zanesville, Zanesville, OH (30 months)
9. Cedarwood Villa, Red Lodge, MT (29 months)
10. Pueblo Care and Rehab, Pueblo, CO (26 months)
11. Legend Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Gardner, MA (26 months)
12. St. Camillus Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Stamford, CT (24 months)
13. Westview of Derby, Derby, KS (23 months)
14. Britthaven of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC (23 months)
15. Plaquemine Manor Nursing Home, Plaquemine, LA (22 months)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are You Switching To Google+?

Fair enough.

But you should take it under advisement that Google+ is owned by Google, which has your Google account. And if you misbehave on Google+, Google can and will delete your Google account.

Think about all the things you have on your Google account.

I advise against being stupid on Google+. And if you're not willing to risk it, stick to Facebook.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Bad Would Default Be, Really?

The matter of the debt ceiling crisis has left everybody in America scrambling to try and figure out what, exactly, is going to happen. After all, the United States has never defaulted on a debt.

I'm not going to claim I've got an answer either. But I will say that if there are no suitable analogs in the United States, that doesn't mean we have to run around in general chaos going We Have No Idea. In case anyone's forgotten, there are other countries in the world. And the rest of the world has had money problems too.

So what I'm going to do today is provide a sampling of foreign analogs to the American situation.

*The most commonly-referred to situation, when someone does go foreign, is Greece. Their debt per capita is similar, it's recent, it spawns from the same basic global meltdown, they're also tossing around the word 'austerity'. However, the one thing to keep in mind is the manner in which their austerity is being conducted. Namely, the Greek legislature literally has no choice in the matter. They've taken bailout money from the International Monetary Fund. The EU is more or less dictating to Greece what their remedy will be, on pain of possibly being kicked out of the Eurozone, as there has been discussion of doing. The United States has China as its major creditor, and buys a lot of treasury bonds, but a majority of American debt is internal- Medicare, Social Security, etc. Greece has a formal, explicit obligation to follow the rest of the Eurozone's instructions. Surrender of a degree of sovereignty is a condition of membership. The United States, being so fiercely independent, cannot relate. A bailout of the United States would almost certainly come from the IMF, but as that would entail the IMF imposing solutions of its own, taking a degree of control out of the hands of America, such a bailout seems unlikely, even if the IMF and United States have had historically cozy relations.

*There is a second European nation to considering the same Euro crisis, and that's Belgium. Their main characteristic is their partisanship. As the United States has Democrats and Republicans, the Belgians have ethnic Walloons in the south and Flemish in the north to serve a similar purpose. Flanders has a larger population, but the Belgian legislature is split nearly down the middle. Belgium has a multiparty parliamentary system, which if you're one of those people that wants to bust up the Dems and GOP and go to a multiparty system seems just fine. Belgium, however, shows the downside of a parliamentary system. No matter how you slice the population up, once the elections are over, some combination of people has to form a majority in order for the legislature to function and laws debated and passed.

Belgium has gone for over a year now without finding that majority, a world record. As such, the Belgian interim government is crippled and near-powerless to stop the crisis from reaching them unless they find a majority somewhere in their ranks; elections would leave the country completely government-less at a really bad time. And given that they aren't even speaking to each other, that appears an unlikely ask.

Some Flemish are talking of independence, or at least increased autonomy.

It sounds a fair bit like our situation, only turned up to 11. The problem with using this as an analog, though, is that we don't know how their story ends. The whole point here is to figure out what to do in our situation, and to do that, we need to know how the story ended for others in similar situations. We don't know if they get swept up in the Euro crisis, find common ground at the eleventh hour, or what.

So we have to keep looking.

*The largest pre-recession sovereign default was of Argentina in 1999. Their recession lasted until 2002, and while their economy is now growing more stable by the year, some would say they're still trying to get out from under the fallout. The reason for that is that, upon their default, all of their creditors scrambled to be repaid immediately, and first. Likewise, nobody was about to lend them a dollar more.

The tricky thing about Argentina, though, is in how they valued their currency, the peso. While the dollar is used around the world as a reserve currency- a currency everyone else holds in reserve and measures their own currency against- Argentina, pre-default, tied the peso directly to the dollar. Whatever the dollar was worth, Argentina made the peso worth an equal amount. Once the default hit, Argentina floated the peso- that is, stopped tying it to the dollar. The peso's value promptly went down the toilet.

As a side effect, Argentinian TV stations had to rely heavily on reality shows in order to get by, and cancel the more expensive educational programming.

Argentina would have had to gut their budget, just absolutely gut it, in order to pay the money they owed to everybody. What they ultimately did, though, was stand firm for four years- four years where they were shut out of the international financial market- until they got their creditors to agree to a debt restructuring plan where most of their debt payments were reduced and stretched out until 2006, when an uptick in the economy left Argentina more able to pay debts in full. They have come steadily out of their hole since then; the gap between rich and poor has shrunk. About a quarter of the debt's representatives held out, though. As of 2010, 7.4% of the debt remains unrestructured.

The trouble here is in pre-existing standing: while Argentina was shut out of the financial market, the United States to a large degree IS the financial market. The world could go on without
Argentina's participation, but the United States has too many fingers of too large a size in too many pies to just leave alone like that. Argentina itself had, again, directly tied the peso to the American dollar. America is not currently tying the dollar to the Argentine peso, or any other currency. The dollar is in fact a reserve currency- a currency everyone else holds in reserve, just in case something were to happen with their own.

So three analogs, all with a nagging problem that keeps any of them from being 100% perfect. However, all three, along with other defaults we didn't get into such as Russia in 1998 (PDF), Mexico in 1994, Latin America's "La Decada Perdida"- lost decade- in the 1980's, and anything beyond those listed on the timelines here, have a common thread: pain. Lots and lots of pain. Even getting into the situation in the first place causes pain. Anyone that tells you that an American default would not be painful, one way or another, is stupid and/or lying.

The question is simply, how much pain. Are you hitting your hand with a mallet, putting it on a stove, or shoving it into a wood chipper?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

All Points Bulletin

Everywhere is the center of the universe. Or at least it seems that way sometimes. No matter how isolated a town is from the rest of the world, they're always going to think about places and events in relation to where they are. Any city of any size will, however rightly or wrongly, think of itself as the hub of the county, the region, the state, the country, the world. Everything goes through them (solve for value of "everything").

As such, it will sometimes happen that one of these places will construct a road sign or a compass or a globe or some sort of large-scale 'You Are Here' sign.

For many countries, this takes the form of something Wikipedia has blanket-referred to as Kilometer Zero. Kilometer Zero is a marker or monument located somewhere in the country- typically the capital, but not always- from which all distances in the country are intended to be measured.

France's Kilometer Zero is this marker in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Spain's is this marker in Madrid's Puerta del Sol. Indonesia's is this building on the west coast of the island of Sabang. Ukraine's is this monument in Kiev. Canada's is the western end of the Trans-Canada Highway on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The United States has a Kilometer Zero, called Zero Milestone. It was created in 1923, sitting within eyesight of the White House. However, in practice, it only serves as Kilometer Zero for Washington DC. Everybody else does their own thing. Mile markers might measure the distance to the county line or state line. Highway distance signs have no definitive answer I could hunt down. When looking for what a sign signifying distance to any given city uses as its point of reference, I came up with the post office (though which one?), some other public building, 'a point close to the center of town', and 'the edge of town'. You're on your own for that one.

Italy's current Kilometer Zero is the top of Capitoline Hill in Rome. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, though, they used the Milliarium Aureum, a golden milestone (that's the translated Latin) with gilded bronze finishing. It's thought, but not confirmed, that the Milliarium Aureum had listed on it distances to all the major cities in the Roman Empire (hence the term 'all roads lead to Rome').

Not many modern Kilometer Zeroes list city distances. That role has largely been relegated to signs that look like this one at Lake Louise Ski Resort in Alberta:


Those are the fun ones, incidentally.

But the undisputed Kilometer Zero champion has to be- and if you've ever driven in South Dakota, you know it already- Wall Drug. It's not every tacky tourist trap that can get itself a sign in Amsterdam. Or Antarctica. Or Bagram AFB in Afghanistan. Or a sign that tells you about their other signs in Kenya and London.

Or this blog.

It's 676 miles to Wall Drug, South Dakota.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Send Food

On June 24th, I told you about a lack of food in Niger.

Today, suffice to say that on the eastern end of the African continent, it's even worse. Some 10 million people across the Horn of Africa- Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya- are facing what is thought to be the worst food crisis in 60 years, after two straight years of drought. Less food means higher food prices for what is there, and that has made food too expensive for many.

You remember when Sally Struthers got on TV and told you about how everyone was starving over there? It's even worse now than it was then.

Let's not mince words: aid organizations need enough money to feed 10 million starving people across three countries, one of which is perpetually politically unstable. That's kind of a lot of money. UNICEF is probably your best bet if you want to contribute.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Your TV Is Not A Legal Advisor

I promise this is the only time we'll talk about Casey Anthony. Promise with sugar on top.

Now, full disclosure, I have barely followed a word of the trial. I quite honestly could not care less. I think it has something to do with someone dead, but that's it. However, my interest was piqued when I caught Erik Uliasz of chalking Anthony's not-guilty verdict for whatever it is that he did- perhaps insider trading- to the CSI Effect.

That little phenomenon is something we can work with. The CSI Effect's been written about before, by a lot of people, but apparently, we need to go over it some more.

If you're ever on a jury, be advised that most evidence is circumstantial. That's evidence which you need to infer something in order to tie it to the case at hand. By itself, it's not too strong. But as circumstantial evidence builds, it becomes corroborating evidence: each piece of evidence helps the others build a case. It is very possible to make an ironclad case out of nothing but circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence, meanwhile, is something from which you have to infer nothing.

If a witness says "I saw Al shoot Bob", that's direct evidence. You saw Al shoot Bob. If a witness says "I saw Al grab a gun, go into Bob's house, then there was a bang and screaming", that's circumstantial. All signs point to Al shooting Bob, but you didn't actually see it. You have to infer it from all the signs.

Juries, though, tend to not be up on these things. A lot of them don't even want to be there. They just want to call a verdict and go home. All they know is what they see on TV. They're not in the legal world for a living. And what they know is that circumstantial evidence is a Bad Thing. They want direct evidence. In fact, if it's not direct evidence, sometimes they just plain won't convict.

The CSI Effect is an extension of this. Again, all the jurors often know is what they see on TV. And what they see on TV is CSI, where every case is solved with DNA evidence obtained in ways that, a good 40% of the time, are impossible. (The CSI effect has also been linked to other procedural of the era, such as NCIA, Bones and Cold Case.) What happens to the jury is that they demand DNA evidence, or else they won't convict. No matter how strong the rest of the case, if it's not DNA, they might as well replace the whole trial with episodes of the Muppet Show.

Not only that, but they demand absolute 100% slam-dunk conclusiveness. When a forensics expert mentions the 1-in-umpty-gazillion chance (and one does exist) that the DNA could give a false positive, that measurably harms the credibility of that DNA evidence in the minds of the jury, who has taken 'guilty beyond a reasonable doubt' to mean 'they better have found the killer standing over the victim cackling maniacally'.

This is not the first time a TV show has caused juries to be overly critical of the prosecution. TV's black-and-white era brought us a similar phenomenon called Perry Mason Syndrome. This, arguably, was even worse, because in every episode of Perry Mason, they would arrest the wrong guy, but at the end of the episode, the real culprit- who was always in attendance, whether they were called as a witness or not- would just leap up out of their chair and confess.

Perry Mason ran from 1957-1966. No prizes for guessing what the juries of that era were looking for.

Perry Mason Syndrome hit the actual defendants as well. Perry Mason made such an oversimplified mess of the technicalities of the legal system that it caused some defendants to forgo lawyers, thinking that law was so easy they could do it themselves. This tended not to end well. (WARNING: It'll run you $12.50 to the LexisNexis people to read the full text of that linked piece.)

Let's just recap here: Perry Mason, CSI, and every other procedural and legal show out there are TV shows. They're not there to teach you about the legal system. They're there to entertain you. And if entertaining you means whooshy graphics and dramatic confessions and darkened crime labs that in no way resemble how the actual criminal justice system works, that's what you get.

If you would like to see actual TV coverage of how the legal system works, TruTV has it on from 9-3 Eastern on weekdays, called 'In Session'. It's a remnant of their earlier, less reality-intensive life as Court TV. How often do you watch it?

Yeah. Me neither.

Now let us never speak of Casey Anthony again or his acquittal of, I believe, public nudity.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Venues Less Desirable Than Summerfest

Musicians live and die on their concerts. Getting gigs is how you get your name out there and how you make a lot of your sales and money. It's also a way to get people who only know one song of yours to listen to a bunch of your other songs.

If they hate what they're hearing, though, it also gives the fans direct access to the offender.

Meet, via Wikipedia Roulette, Haji Saifo, a folk singer of Tajik descent, in his prime during the 1980's. Recordings of Saifo's songs are rare- he lived in Central Asia, after all.

Though a video of him is available here.

But recordings of Saifo missed the point of listening to him. The point of listening to Saifo was to see just what he would say next. Saifo's songs were never the same twice. He would follow maybe a particular topic, but then go ranting on that topic, or maybe some other loosely-related topic, long beyond the point where an album could hold him anyway. Sometimes a song might last a half-hour.

And quite often, Saifo would end up dragging the audience into the lyrics, guests of honor included. He was not necessarily flattering, either. Or sometimes he was too flattering. Sometimes he would question the manhood of a groom at his own wedding reception. Sometimes he would hit on the bride, or at least the bride's breasts. How the audience took Saifo's rantings depended on the audience. Some had fun with it, knowing what they were getting themselves into. Some got a little uncomfortable. Some threw food at him.

And according to accounts, this was his downfall. Remember, Saifo was performing in Afghanistan, with a prime in the 1980's. It was only a matter of time before he would rant to the wrong people. As the story goes, in 1998, he found the wrong people: the wedding of a Taliban general. It's not clear what exactly happened, or what he said. But the story maintains that he said something in his lyrics, and the Taliban audience responded by doing something with their guns.

Tough crowd.

Your Atlas Is Obsolete Again

Congratulations to South Sudan on their now-official independence. Best of luck to you.

And, of course, best of luck also to what we should probably start calling North Sudan, which has now lost most of its oil but keeps the long-ongoing Darfur crisis, and sprouts a new crisis in South Kordofan, which wanted to join South Sudan but didn't get the chance.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Outside The Lines, Inside The All-Star Team

Recently, I ruminated about the wisdom of including sportswriters on the Journalism All-Star Team. This was done after being confronted with Grantland. Grantland includes some very stellar writing, but then, the focus is on sports and pop culture, two of the lesser-heralded beats of the industry. The fields just plain are not as important as others in the grand scheme of things; when world events such as 9/11 or the death of Osama bin Laden intrude on sports, sportswriters will often make a mention of how, when it gets down to it, it's just a game.

It is not, however, impossible to practice true, traditional, thoughtful journalism in these fields. It's just a lot harder to do than in fields of greater importance.

Which is why I am today kicking myself. There is someone covering sports, at ESPN yet, that practices true, traditional journalism day in and day out to such a degree that they deserve an All-Star jersey. In fact, there are two. But I was so worried about Grantland that I failed to notice.

Why did I not notice Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap earlier?

Ley, along with Chris Berman, is one of the only two anchors from ESPN's founding in 1979 to still be with the network. You currently know him as the host of Outside The Lines, and the most straight-laced reporter ESPN has. Ley was one of the anchors ESPN went to for the only airing of SportsCenter on 9/11, sitting alongside Trey Wingo. When ESPN has a deep, controversial issue to cover, one that is too heavy to be given the usual treatment of a couple of guys yelling at each other, you can be pretty sure Ley, an eight-time Sports Emmy winner, is not too far away. He has stewarded Outside The Lines from its start in 1990 as a monthly special to its current half-hour weekday timeslot.

And when Ley needs a day off, Jeremy Schaap is usually the first person turned to as a substitute. He has six Sports Emmys to his name for his work on Outside The Lines, as well as SportsCenter and fellow investigative show E:60, a weekly one-hour program. On occasion, you'll also see him on the mainstream-news circuit through appearances on Nightline and ABC's World News Tonight.

As is what we might as well call tradition at this point, Ley and Schaap will now be shown at the top of their respective games.

Ley first, showing how traditional journalism can be done at the sports desk on a daily basis with this discussion concerning concussions in hockey:

As for Schaap, when you type his name into YouTube and view the suggestions, above even his name alone will be his name sitting alongside Bobby Fischer. This will lead you to his most famous moment (one that got him one of his Emmys), the 2005 report "Finding Bobby Fischer". I remember this piece from when it was first presented, and part of why it got the level of attention it did was the fact that Schaap, who almost never editorializes, did so in this piece, and to Fischer's face at that.

Editorializing in journalism is a bit like using the word "fuck", or a comedian cracking up at a joke during their skit. The power it has when you do it is inversely proportional to how often you do it. If Quentin Tarantino says "fuck", you don't notice. It barely even registers. If the Dalai Lama says "fuck", you can just hear the record needle scratch.

In the same way, the more a journalist editorializes, the less you tend to notice any one editorial, including those in op-ed section itself. If you see an editorial by George Will, it probably won't register for long. It's George Will. That's what he does. That's ALL he does. But if Walter Cronkite editorializes, holy hell, sound the alarm bells.

The latter is what happened with Schaap when he, well, found Bobby Fischer. As it happened, Fischer had long ago befriended Jeremy's father Dick, but Dick over the years had become dismayed over Fischer's brewing anti-Semitism. Especially since the Schaaps were Jewish. As was Fischer. Dick would eventually remark that Fischer "did not have a sane bone left in his body," words still ringing in Fischer's years decades later when Jeremy found him in Iceland...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Flying Car!

Ever since the year 2000 hit, you've probably been wondering where the hell is your flying car.

Here it is. The Terrafugia Transition Roadable Aircraft, cleared for highway use on June 30 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In order to get there, they had to give it some exemptions from regulations other cars have to follow- a lighter windshield, aircraft tires, and the FAA had to give it a weight exemption allowing it to fly 110 pounds heavier than other planes in the 'light sport aircraft' category into which it has been placed.

It's not going to be the greatest car in the world. It's only got 100 horsepower. It will only do 65 MPH on the road and 115 MPH in the air. You'll need 1,700 feet of road in order to take off, plus room to fold out the wings, which will take 30 seconds to do. But hey. Flying car. You wanted a flying car, here's a flying car.

If all goes well, it will be available at the end of 2012 and will run you a mere quarter-million dollars.

Meanwhile, Urban Aeronautics out of Israel is trying to develop a flying car of their own, called the AirMule. It's not ready yet- steering and stability are still kinks that have to be ironed out- but not only do they plan to make it fly, they want to add robot arms to it as well. That, however, is going to keep it off the showroom floor; the robot arms are intended for inspection and maintenance- power lines, bridges, things like that. You won't get to have new and amusing ways to cut off some guy in traffic.

And also, they don't intend to make it a manned vehicle. It's to be operated remotely. Which is a total buzzkill.

You can't get too down, though. One flying car is plenty to be giddy over.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Too Much Information Edition

I think I dropped about a pound of sweat in my car today heading to Milwaukee.


Anyway, two books need an adding, obtained via Boswell Book Company, a nice little place on the north side near Lake Michigan...

Kean, Sam- The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements
Purdy, Dennis- Kiss 'em Goodbye: An ESPN Treasury of Failed, Forgotten, and Departed Teams

You may recall Kiss 'em Goodbye as a source from my article about the Tonawanda Kardex. Why's it here now? Because at the time of the article, I found the book for the first time via Google Books. And now here it is in the Rapid-Fire Book Club. (So that's one sale Google Books has generated.)

While we're here, congratulations to Pyeongchang, South Korea for being awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics. You best have snow when we all roll into town, though.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Nothing Left To Lose

Have you ever watched one of those police-videos shows? Usually, whatever the person the police are chasing did to have the cops going after them, the smartest thing they can do, at any given moment of the chase, is to pull over and surrender. Their chances of getting away are minimal at best, especially if the chase happens to be one that gets picked up by the local news. The longer they run, the more cops chase them and the more opportunity they have to make things worse for themselves by racking up additional charges.

However, every so often, you'll see a video where the consequences facing the fugitive in question are so severe that it becomes a case where they feel they have nothing left to lose, or at least where the narrator interprets it as such. They have such a sentence facing them that, in a coldly pragmatic sense, for them pulling over would be pointless. These are the ones who tend to face either life or effective life without parole, the death penalty, or in a few rare cases, are destined to die where they stand facing off against the cops. These people tend to yield the most harrowing and spectacular chases of all. The last category- the fugitives destined to go down in a blaze of glory- is almost a first-ballot Hall of Fame of the police-video set: the North Hollywood shootout, the Killdozer, the San Diego tank rampage.

It's troubling, but at the same time, it is a natural human response. When someone feels as though they have nothing to lose, inhibitions, reservations, and anything else holding that person back all fall away. All that is possible becomes a potential course of action, and all thought to be impossible is considered anyway. After all, might as well. The feeling is responsible for some of humanity's most dramatic and heroic moments, but it can also lead to some of its worst.

Over the weekend, one of these moments happened in Columbia, South Carolina. Kenneth Myers was found dead on Saturday after having killed his wife, her twin sister and mother, and his ex-girlfriend before turning the gun on himself. His relationship with the ex-girlfriend slowly deteriorated over seven years, and his marriage was doing the same. The economy was also negatively affecting his business in auto glass repair.

Michael Rushton of the Wagoner Police Department noted of Myers, "At one point in time, whenever he tried to evade us, I saw his face for a brief second, and you could tell he was a different person," Rushton said. "He had gotten to the point where he thought he had nothing else to lose. He figured he was done for, I'm assuming, and I really hate that he had done what he had done."

Which leads us to a bit of a problem. Any effective punishment or treatment, or threat of same, depends on the target believing that things will be measurably better if they cease their undesirable behavior. If that does not exist, they won't stop. And if they reach a point where they are convinced that they're screwed no matter what they do, that allows them to let loose. Instead of one dead body, there are five. Instead of a surrender, there is a shootout.

At the same time, though, to a degree, properly calibrating a punishment so that this feeling is not triggered is outrageously difficult, and may not even be possible. Again, usually a punishment's effectiveness depends at least partly, and sometimes completely, on the offender's perception of it. If the offender doesn't think it's worth restraining themselves over, they won't. And if they think they have nothing to lose-
think being the keyword- well, we've just gone over that.

Whether or not there is even a minorly feasible way to prevent the nothing-to-lose sentiment from taking hold in the mind of a suspect, the failure of one to be identified results in tragedy that need not happen every time it does. The consequences of not having a preventative procedure are such that at least some brainstorming should be devoted towards trying to make one.

Maybe a fix is possible. Maybe it's just one of those things that happens. But whether or not there's an answer to the problem, it's at least worth asking the question.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Four For Fighting

It's the Fourth of July. Independence Day in the United States.

I suppose some of you are expecting me to make some high-minded speech where I once again decry the toxic political discourse in this country. Which, don't get me wrong, is completely unacceptable for a nation that has any right to call itself a moral compass or global authority. You're probably looking at me, on this day, to reach back to the Founding Fathers and talk about what they'd think of us were they to see how we lay into each other on this most patriotic of days.

I can do that for you. But you may not like what you hear.

First, let's cover the revolution itself. The revolution was not a united group of colonists against the British; let's make that clear. Some of the colonists were loyal to the British crown. What's not as cut-and-dried is the exact split of loyalists to patriots, and how many people were undecided, as it were. The long-standing conventional wisdom on the topic was that it was an even three-way split. More recently, though, the split's been refigured more like 15-20% loyalist, 40-45% patriot or patriot-sympathetic, and the rest neutral. A little more in favor of the patriots than before.

And, of course, as things progressed, the patriots pressed their numbers. Much of the war revolved around trying to win the hearts and minds of the undecideds. This was accomplished partially through persuasive argument and, eventually, partially through forcing the loyalists to shut up via lootings, beatings, harassment and various other indignities. After the war, some of the loyalists got out of Dodge. Just like Liberia was "founded" by Americans leaving America, Sierra Leone was "founded" by black loyalists who had fled to Nova Scotia and discovered that life wasn't much fun there either.

Most of the loyalists, however, stayed put. However, they continued to harbor loyalist feelings for the remainder of their days. Sentiments you went to war over die hard, win or lose. In the end, when the first political parties in America were formed, one, the Federalist Party, took a decidedly more pro-British tack. It's not hard to figure out where the loyalists went.

This would come into play over the Fourth of July.

If you happened to be perusing the Daily Beast last year, you'll have noticed Sean Wilentz talk about exactly what the Founding Fathers were up to on Independence Day: sniping at each other. The two parties of the time, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, wouldn't even hold events with each other.

The Democratic-Republicans would spend the day attacking the Federalists over the Sedition Act, which made it illegal to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or officials within. In practice, the law basically made it illegal to criticize then-President John Adams, especially since the law had an expiration date that just so happened to also be Adams' last day in office.

In turn, the Federalists spent the day attacking Thomas Jefferson and downplaying his role in writing the Declaration of Independence. A few scattered loyalists were still around, and they had huddled with the Federalists. One, Timothy Pickering, called the Declaration "high-wrought Philippic against Great Britain and her King.”

Albert B. Southwick of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette recalls here how things went down in Worcester in 1808. The ill will harbored by each party in that story was repeated nationwide; the book Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic by Len Travers tells about how that same year in Philadelphia, Federalists aimed to "excite hostility even to blood," with both parties threatening each other, each attempting to goad the other into throwing the first punch so they would have an excuse to fight.

So what happened to calm things down on the Fourth? Simple: the Federalists died off as a party. When Jefferson became the third President in the 1800 election, the Federalists found themselves on their back heel. Accustomed to an upper-class lifestyle, they found themselves out of touch. And when Jefferson's handpicked successor, James Madison, was elected to two terms of his own, they found themselves near death. (Opposing the War of 1812 didn't help their case any.) By the time James Monroe came along in 1816, they barely had enough power left to even field a candidate to oppose him. They would informally send twice-defeated vice-presidential candidate Rufus King to oppose Monroe, and when that failed, by 1820, the Federalists were left fielding only a candidate for Vice President, Richard Stockton, without a Presidential candidate for him to run with. It was the last gasp before the party dissolved entirely. And without two parties that could attack each other on the Fourth, and without a party sympathetic to the British, Independence Day became a day of unified patriotism.

The immediate post-Federalist era was known as the Era of Good Feelings. It wasn't entirely good feelings; the issues that would later result in the Civil War were beginning to take root. But for one day a year, at least, it was an improvement.