Pages

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

RNG Week- St. Helena

TODAY: St. Helena
WEDNESDAY: Liberia
THURSDAY: Gibraltar
FRIDAY: Turkey
SATURDAY: Congo-Brazzaville

St. Helena is a small volcanic island in the South Atlantic that is home to fewer than 5,000 people. It's the place Napoleon spent the last six years of his life after Elba proved to be not far enough away from France.

Hopefully, you will forgive me for wishing Napoleon would rise from the dead overnight so there'd be something to cover here. This is not simple 'nothing happening that's worth covering'. This is the RNG sensing arrogance in my resolve to cover whatever it gives me without exception and smiting me with great vengeance. This is the RNG sensing arrogance in my having put a ball saying 'St. Helena' into the virtual bingo hopper in the first place.

The most recent St. Helena story available is from May 5, which you will recognize as nearly a month ago. The story is that two accountants from Sheffield, England were to travel to St. Helena to conduct an audit of Solomon and Company, a UK-registered business resident to the island.

That's it. That's the entire story. Two accountants are traveling somewhere so they can audit something. Your life is now complete.

There is, interestingly enough, a news organization for which St. Helena is part of the regular beat, as well as the other British islands in the South Atlantic. These include Ascension Island, British Antarctic Territory, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha. If it weren't for the Falklands, one imagines they might be playing Minesweeper all day long.

The most recent article about St. Helena they have on file in from April.

This is not me merely griping about a bad draw. This is actually representative of life on St. Helena, as the BBC reported in January 2010. A ship shows up once a month carrying supplies and groceries and everybody has to live off that until the next ship comes. Unless the ship is in for repairs, in which case there's no ship coming at all. The bandwidth for the entire island is less than some individual households in the UK. Anyone young enough to find employment on the mainland moves there the first chance they get.

In conclusion, Napoleon is buried in Paris.

Monday, May 30, 2011

RNG Week- Canada

TODAY: Canada
TUESDAY: St. Helena
WEDNESDAY: Liberia
THURSDAY: Gibraltar
FRIDAY: Turkey
SATURDAY: Congo-Brazzaville

Canada, today, is seeing a campaign to make 43,000 square kilometers of Manitoba/Ontario boreal forest east of Lake Winnipeg, the largest intact boreal forest on Earth, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The land is currently home to the Bloodvein River First Nation, as well as Atikaki Provincial Wilderness Park. The effort is being led by a group called Pimachiowin Aki, and is being backed by the province of Manitoba, as well as conservationist David Suzuki.

Suzuki stresses 'intact': "The important thing is the "intactness". If you drive a road through a part of a forest, if you put pipes in, or if you put electrical wires through, you don't have an intact forest left. And then degradation is inevitable."

This comes with opposition. Canada's Conservative Party, led in Manitoba by Hugh McFadyen, wants to put a hydro line through the forest, in the interest of supplying electricity to southern Manitoba, as well as exporting energy to Minnesota and Wisconsin. This fight has been going for several years now; when the New Democratic Party took power in 2007, they moved the proposed line west of Lake Winnipeg- still through boreal forest, but not through the forest in dispute. A provincial election in October, if won by the Conservatives, would see the line put back through the east side, effectively killing the World Heritage bid despite Conservative claims that it would not.

There is precedent for worry about UNESCO's opinion. One of the only two World Heritage sites ever to be delisted, Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley, was delisted in 2009 due to the construction of the Waldschlosschen Bridge, which cut through the valley.

Suzuki, for one, is incredulous, saying, "If the planet in which we live, the very things that keep us alive, become a political issue, we're screwed. We're absolutely screwed. We're talking about the life-support systems of the planet. How can that possibly be a political issue?"

Becoming a World Heritage site wouldn't completely block the area from development, but it would serve as a powerful deterrent. In addition to the prestige, World Heritage status allows the site to apply for a portion of a $4 million (US) annual fund allocated to sites in danger, as well as providing a boost to tourism.

Were the boreal forest to gain World Heritage Site status, it would be the first between Alberta and Ottawa. 15 Canadian sites currently enjoy World Heritage status:

Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Alberta/British Columbia
Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta (yes, that is its name. They have a book on sale there, called 'Imagining Head-Smashed-In'.)
Historic District of Quebec, Quebec
Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Nova Scotia
Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek, Yukon/British Columbia/Alaska (shared with United States)
L'Ase aux Meadows National Historic Site, Newfoundland
Miguasha National Park, Quebec
Nahanni National Park, Northwest Territories
Old Town Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (you may actually know Lunenburg from those Cisco ads done by Ellen Page)
Rideau Canal, Ontario
SGang Gwaay, British Columbia
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, Alberta/Montana (shares with United States)
Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta/Northwest Territories

The annual World Heritage Committee meeting is from June 19-29 in Paris. A majority of committee members must vote in favor for a site to be enshrined. They are currently Australia, Bahrain, Barbados, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Iraq, Jordan, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.

42 sites are currently to be considered; the list can, as per Rule 13.4 of the Rules of Procedure, be revised until 48 hours prior to the meeting. No Canadian site is currently among them.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

RNG Week- St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Today will mark the beginning of something we'll call RNG Week. It's pretty simple: the Random News Generator is run once a day for the next week. We're doing this mainly so I can do a little bit of assignment training for when and if I make it into the pros. The idea is, the Random News Generator gives me a country and I then have to work within that. But then, up to this point, I've picked the days I want to go to the RNG. The training I have in mind is to see how I do when I have a solid week of limited control over the choice of topic. Odds are, in the event I'm taken on by someone, that will end up being a regular thing.

In addition, normally, if I determine there truly is nothing going on in the place that's been selected, I can just spin again. Not here. I'm taking that privilege away from myself for the week, because we're going to make the schedule right now, in front of everyone, and stick with it. Be kind to me, RNG...

TODAY: St. Vincent and the Grenadines
MONDAY: Canada
TUESDAY: St. Helena
WEDNESDAY: Liberia
THURSDAY: Gibraltar
FRIDAY: Turkey
SATURDAY: Congo-Brazzaville

That was not being kind. I gave you life, I hope you know.

Fine then. Today, it's St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Back on Tuesday, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Coast Guard picked up three nationals of Trinidad and Tobago in a boat five miles off the coast of Ottley Hall Marina & Shipyard in Kingstown. The three were carrying 11 bags filled with 472 pounds of marijuana. The street value is over $4 million, though that's given a piece written in Trinidad and Tobago, which uses the Trinidad and Tobago dollar. That works out to about $630,000 American. Authorities believe the three, traveling in a boat with two Yamaha outboard motors running 200 horsepower apiece, had acquired the marijuana in St. Vincent and were headed for Trinidad. The ages and hometowns of the three were released, but names are unavailable. They are at last report being held at St. Vincent.

St. Vincent is, according to the US State Department, St. Vincent is the largest producer of marijuana in the Eastern Caribbean, partially a result of the country trying to diversify away from bananas, which currently make up half the economy and employ 60% of the workforce. The rise of marijuana, and its subsequent distribution throughout the Caribbean, has in turn given rise to a conflict in the region. On one hand, the Rastafarian community is thrilled, seeing as they need marijuana for religious purposes. On the other, marijuana is not legal in the Caribbean, and on top of that, the Rastafarians have over the years felt discriminated against. That includes Jamaica. Junior Spirit Cottle of Agencia Prensa Rural tells of underestimating the marijuana community playing a factor in the 2001 defeat of the ruling New Democratic Party, though most other sources tell more of a party that had become complacent and corrupt. The NDP, however, has since returned to power.

They return in the wake of the opposition ULP instituting a two-week eradication program in the spring of 2009 called "Vincy Pac". Vincy Pac resulted in the destruction of 51 marijuana fields, 42,683 pounds of dried and compressed marijuana, and 8.5 million plants and seedlings. 12 firearms were seized, and 30 people were arrested.

Over the past decade, the marijuana community, until then largely a nonvoting group, has attempted to flex some political muscle, in St. Vincent and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

As it stands, they still have a long way to go.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

So... There Are Still Two Hikers, Amazingly.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal are still being held in Iran. It's about 21 months now they've been held. Their lawyer got word of them going on a 17-day hunger strike. He has merely 'heard of' it because he hasn't been permitted to meet with them for a trial on charges that don't even really matter anymore because the trial has been postponed and cancelled and delayed several times now for seemingly no good reason, including any trial dates we may have mentioned here in the past. This would be at least the fourth one; the third hiker, Sarah Shourd (who has since been released), told of three separate occasions that they had all gone on hunger strikes during her time of detention.

In solidarity, friends and family of Shane and Josh have begun what they're calling a 'rolling' hunger strike- that is, one or more of them hunger-strikes for at least a day, then they hand off to someone else. They've said that will go on until Shane and Josh are released.

Meanwhile, Muhummad Ali has joined in the effort. No word on whether he'll be joining in the rolling hunger strike, but he's lent his support.

If you're so inclined to join in, they'd undoubtedly appreciate it. Be sure to make it known you're doing it, though; otherwise it doesn't really do much good.

Friday, May 27, 2011

And He Is Us

One of America's greatest points of appeal- at least we like to think it is- is that anyone can come in from anywhere on Earth and, if they apply themselves hard enough, find success through some means or other.

Perhaps America's darkest legacy is our repeated, often unapologetic efforts to make as many of these anyones feel as unwelcome as humanly possible. It has happened to nearly every ethnicity in the book at one time or another in one form or another, through war or immigration debates or, depressingly, again, some more, questioning someone's eligibility to be President. (It's not even Obama this time. It's Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio.) Right now, it's Mexicans, Arabs and anyone that looks too much like an Arab (including Iranians) that get the brunt of it, but it's also happened to blacks (which essentially covers the bulk of Africa and the Caribbean all on its own), Germans, Poles, Jews, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Irish, the British, the French, Italians, Russians, Slavs of all stripes, Spaniards, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, even Native Americans. On a more benign level, one can add Canadians, Scandinavians and the Dutch. And note that I've in all likelihood missed someone.
Whenever this happens, those doing the oppressing- and that's what it is- will justify it through some form of an Us Vs. Them mentality. Whoever we're picking on isn't a true American, like I am! That other nation is going to get its butt kicked! Screw whatever group of people that is! And let's conveniently ignore the fact that our ethnicity might be next!

Every time we do, though, we betray who we are at our core. A small percentage of us are Native Americans. As of 2006, that percentage was 0.8%. The rest of us, the other 99.2% of us, are a nation of everyone else, a percentage large enough to in turn all but make Native Americans 'everyone else' in their own country. Now, unless you're from East Africa, and for many of them even then, some quantity of your bloodline came from somewhere else. However, in many nations, their lineage to their homeland stretches so far back that the amount of blood that comes from somewhere else is negligible. A native Chinese, for example, may trace their bloodline back thousands of years without leaving China. They're Chinese through and through and cannot think of themselves as anything else.

Americans, save for the Native ones, do not share that situation, or at least, do not think they do. However American you may feel you are, 99.2% of you almost certainly trace your lineage back to somewhere that isn't America. You're of Irish descent, of Chinese descent, of Mexican descent, of Italian or Korean or Jamaican or Portuguese descent. Even people that go so far back as to claim their ancestors came over on the Mayflower at that level recognize that they are ultimately of British descent. Some people will even claim more than one. Tina Fey, for example, identifies dually as German and Greek. I claim dual Norwegian and German descent (though more Norwegian). Barack Obama traces his father to Kenya and his mother primarily to England.
And on some level, no matter how much we like to claim otherwise, we like it that way. Often, someone will trace their family tree, but as soon as they hit whatever generation it is that came to America from somewhere else, they stop. They don't go any further, as if to say 'okay, I know where I came from now; great job, everybody.' Even if you've never traced your family tree, there are a myriad of cues to let you know where it is your bloodline is from. Your name. Your physical attributes. Little trinkets around your house, up to and including a flag stand that holds the flags of the United States and one other country. A special dish your family prepares for Christmas. Some local heritage-pride festival you've gone to.

Often, we Americans will, in the process of making an immigrant feel unwelcome, pressure them to learn English, or attempt to scare fellow Americans that if we lose status compared to some other nation, or lose a war to them, we'll all have to learn their language; these days that's most likely to be Mandarin Chinese. We might also tell a former war ally that 'if it wasn't for us, you'd all be speaking language X', language X usually being German.

The funny thing is, English is in the same boat as America. Just as America is a nation of everyone else, English is the language of everyone else. A large quantity of the English language is simply words appropriated from other languages, either slightly modified or adopted whole cloth. It's the major reason the concept of the spelling bee works, in fact. Other languages do not have spelling bees, because too much of the language all has the same etymology. The bee would be too easy. Too many of the words could be guessed by following a few simple rules of thumb. English is such a patchwork language that no set of rules can contain it. Exceptions to all manner of rules abound.

In fact, one of the few hard-and-fast rules that applies to English every time is that, if there's something that English doesn't have a word to describe, but some other language does, you can just plug that word into an English sentence and make it English. One of the best examples of this is the word 'schadenfreude'- taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune. English didn't have a word for that, so people just started using schadenfreude in English sentences. Eventually, it became an English word.

And even if English wasn't being learned by someone for your sake, it would be learned for everyone else's sake. While Esperanto was intended to be a universal language, English is much closer to that ideal in practice. It's the language of business. It's the language of music. It's the de facto native tongue of the Internet. It's easy to learn (at least compared with other languages), its alphabet is small, it's very adaptable. And it's ever-evolving, as speakers worldwide continually create, and adapt from other languages, new words to describe their world.

Also, going back to the Mayflower descendants, English isn't truly America's original native tongue. We adapted it from England. The native tribes encountered by the pilgrims did not speak English. We taught them English, but that wasn't their original language. The first tribe we had contact with that wasn't in a shoot-on-sight capacity was the Wampanoag, who had a language by that name. That's just the one we talked with first. That doesn't take into account the hundreds and hundreds of other tribes, each with their own language, that originally lay within what is now the United States. Or Hawaiian, for that matter.

We have always traded on a version of this knowledge, that we are not a nation of this kind of person, or that kind of person, but rather a nation of ideas, of ideals, of principles, of the idea that anyone from anywhere can come in and change the course of the nation. And while we often have problems keeping ourselves true to those ideals, the meta-ideal- the ideal that we are a nation of ideals- ultimately, eventually, sees the best of us through any storm and keeps us pushing for something better than we have. We see it in our names. We see it in our bloodline. We see it in our language. We, ideally, see it in our policy.

How red-blooded American are we? Less than we like to admit.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Glorious Computers For The People

Yesterday, a report came out that North Korea was going to make three models of computers available for office and home use. Gizmodo, among others, carries some of the details about what North Korean state TV reported. Because it's coming out of North Korea, it's probably best if we skip what they claim- somehow, I doubt learning foreign languages is going to actually be a feature.

It fell to Business Insider to point out the obvious: 'You people are getting your information from North Korean state television? What in blazes is wrong with you morons?' They allow that North Korea might be buying some computers on the cheap from elsewhere and slapping their own label on them, but they're not building their own. (Their assertion that "nobody in North Korea believed that report", though, is woefully underestimating of the sheer level of brainwashing that goes on there.)

Why give the people computers? It's speculation, of course- with North Korea it usually has to be- but maybe they figure that if they supply their own heavily-monitored computers, people might stop trying to bring in cell phones and such from outside. 'Look! We have technology! Why would you want anyone else's?' (Not that it'll actually stop the people who are bringing them in in the first place.)

The Gizmodo readers quickly identified one of the computers in question as a Sylvania laptop running Windows CE, a computer normally available here for $99; one reader pegged the version as 3.1. The fact that it's a laptop makes things interesting, because laptops are portable. More to the point, laptops are smuggle-able. All it's going to take is one refugee that manages to get over the border somehow with a laptop (we'll just leave it at "somehow"), and that laptop could easily find itself in the hands of a Western hacker. Assuming the hacker can bring the hideously-underpowered computer to heel, things would get very interesting from there.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bad Credit? No Credit? No Problem!

Credit is a fickle, fickle mistress. Used the way it's meant to be used, you can break down one gigantic payment into a number of smaller, more manageable payments.

But, as so many people have so harshly learned, there are so many ways credit can come back to bite you. And when it bites, it bites down hard. The Jews in the Old Testament had a novel way of overcoming this. Deuteronomy 15 describes a process where, once every seven years, all debts were cancelled. That simple. The system could, conceivably, be gamed by simply not extending credit as the cancellation day drew near, but this is addressed in Deuteronomy 15:9- "Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin."

While that essentially was the invention of bankruptcy, we're not quite that lenient these days. Debtors must pay, and creditors must collect.

This story is not about the debtor. Kind of.

W.T. Grant was a dying 25-cent store. (The price point has altered over the years to reflect the times, from Woolworth's beginning the format at the five-and-dime price point, to today's dollar stores.) Poor, uneven design of new stores, and insistence on paying dividends no matter what the balance sheet said, had brought them to the brink by the late 1960's. In an effort to get sales numbers back up, W.T. Grant decided they would set up a generous credit program.

Quite generous.

36-month, $1-per-month repayment plan generous.

In addition, while some companies today advertise that they don't require a credit check, Grant actually meant it. Every single customer was offered credit at the register. Every single one. In fact, if a customer wanted, they could open up multiple credit lines simply by going to multiple stores. The store managers, failing to properly communicate with each other, would not know that the person they were offering credit already had it.

And they had plenty of places to go. Grant had a concurrent plan to open stores in places competitors weren't. Between 1969 and 1973, Grant opened 369 stores in small towns.

Suffice to say that there was a reason the competition wasn't in those places.

Not that the store managers were in much of a position to care where customers got their credit or how many lines they had, just so long as one of those lines was with them. They were under an incentive program for the ages. On one hand, managers were offered a $1 bounty for every customer that was signed up. On the other hand, they had quotas to meet. Managers did not want to miss these quotas. Missing these quotas might mean getting served beans instead of steak at the next promotion dinner. Or getting a pie thrown in their face. Or getting their tie cut off. Or being dressed in a diaper and sent running through a hotel lobby. Or made to push a peanut across the floor with their nose (the last one via Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach by Richard H. Robbins).

Of course, the problem about extending credit is making sure people pay the debt back. If they don't pay the debt back, you've essentially given them free stuff. Allow this to happen too often, and you soon run out of merchandise with no money to purchase more. (There are of course the issues with usurious interest rates, but as we've long since established, they do not apply here.) In order to prevent people not paying the debt back, one would do well to not extend credit to people unlikely to repay.

Grant, meanwhile, was offering credit to "every deadbeat who breathed." Even the fact that a large and growing number of accounts showed bad debt was obscured by Grant's accounting system, which would every so often consolidate those multiple accounts from customers into a single account. Every newly-consolidated account was labeled current at the end of the process, even if no component account actually was at the beginning. Two delinquent accounts would be merged into one account in good standing. A customer that was delinquent could also refinance their account and pay a tiny amount of money to make it current again. Remember that the original plans could be for 36 months with $1 minimum payments.

Shockingly, this didn't work.

In 1974, the credit system was scrapped. But by then, the damage was done. They had reached the point where, as it was warned two years earlier, "Grant would run out of money if it paid all of its bills" (as told in the 1975 case Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York v. Charles G. Rodman, as Trustee of the Estate of W. T. Grant). The rest of Grant's story consists of various banking maneuvers to keep the company afloat, none of which were able to dig them out of the gigantic hole they'd created for themselves. Eventually, the banks just stopped extending credit.

Something W.T. Grant might have learned from, had they survived the lesson.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Very Long Reading Assignment

Nick Kristof of the New York Times comes at you today with a quiz, regarding the position of the Bible on various social issues. (It's seven questions and isn't automated, so grab a pen and paper.)

The gist Kristof is getting at- aside from promoting the book Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust- is that what the Bible says, and what you think it says, are often two very different things.

So in addition to the seven questions Kristof provides, I'm going to add something: have you ever, at any point in your life, read the entire Bible front-to-back? The whole thing, from Let There Be Light to Jesus at the end of Revelation saying "Surely I am coming soon". Everything. Every word.

The number's uncertain- one unsourced statistic claims 10% of Christians have, a Rasmussen poll claims 31% but it must be taken with a fair amount of salt because it's Rasmussen. Most places that quote a number seem to prefer the unsourced 10% without ever giving a hint as to where that number came from. The number is probably in that ballpark, though. As much as I read, I know I can't count myself in that group.

If you're part of some other religion, substitute the appropriate piece of scripture and ask the same question of yourself. If you're atheist, don't know what to ask of you.

That established to the meager extent we can establish it, here's the next question to consider.

For all the bickering in the world about how Religious Sect X is more true than Religious Sect Y, fill in however you like... never mind your piece of scripture. Have you ever read theirs, back to front? If you're Christian, have you ever cracked open a Koran? If you're Muslim, have you ever cracked open a Bible? Have either of you read a Talmud? Or one of the Eastern texts? I'm willing to bet not.

In fact, have you ever read any of the competing piece of scripture at all? And, though the adherents' actions are one thing, how can you judge their faith if you haven't?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let's Embarrass Some Gay-Bashers

Much has been made of the bill introduced in the Ugandan legislature to make being gay punishable by death. That's good. That kind of thing needs to be called out and made to be an embarrassment for anyone that attempts it, no matter if it's an international hotspot or not.

As it stands, the parliament that was debating what has been deemed the 'Kill The Gays' bill ran out of time before the end of the session. However, a new parliament has been sworn in, and they intend to reintroduce the bill. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, in power for 25 years, is starting a fourth term in the wake of a disputed election. Even without the bill, Uganda isn't in a good way.

There are, however, so many other fronts on the battle for gay rights as to be bewildering. Pick your favorite.

Here's a sampling of a few of the other fronts:

*The United Belize Advocacy Movement is challenging the constitutionality of a law making gay sex acts punishable under sodomy laws, carrying a 10-year prison sentence.

*Last Monday, Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika gave an inflammatory anti-gay speech. In his words, "You will never see dogs marry each other. These people want us to behave worse than dogs. I cannot allow it." Unlike heterosexual dogs, of course, who, like, totally get married and everything.

*Then there's this chipper little screed out of Muhummad Qasim's keyboard from The News International in Pakistan, where things are going on that are not the continued death of Osama bin Laden. The headline reads "Homosexuality an emerging threat to health and norms in Pakistan". It goes on from there.

*Finally, there's St. Paul, Minnesota, where Bradlee Dean, pastor of ministry You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, was invited to give a prayer on the floor of the Minnesota state legislature. This was a mistake. Dean's "prayer" went so far off the rails that afterwards, the chaplain was brought in to do the prayer over again. Dean has, in the past, said things such as:

"Muslims are calling for the executions of homosexuals in America. This just shows you they themselves are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible of the Judeo-Christian God, but they seem to be more moral than even the American Christians do, because these people are livid about enforcing their laws. They know homosexuality is an abomination."

And:

"On average, they molest 117 people before they’re found out."

To their credit, the Republicans that invited him quickly denounced every word that came out of his mouth. Hopefully, Dean hasn't caused any lasting damage.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

World Fails To Spontaneously End, Again

If you're reading this, you have already figured out that the Rapture has not come.

Normally, this would go without saying. But today it's apparently news. For the second time in a short while.

How many times do we have to go over this? How many times does the world have to not end before people get the point? How many times do we have to hear that the world will end "soon" before we start asking these people to stop predicting things? I understand you only really need to be right once, but come on now. This isn't predicting. This is throwing a dartboard at a calendar.

And how many people do we have to hear predict the end of the world more than once?

A cursory search of all the times the world has been predicted to end but failed turns up so many entries that I quickly lost count trying to pin down an exact number. All I can say for certain is that we are numbering in the hundreds. It's not even worth my time to try and pin down an exact count.

There is a culture, the Piraha tribe in the Amazon, that has no word for any number beyond two, and just refers to any number bigger than that as "many". (And 'one' and 'two' aren't necessarily one and two, but rather relative values, more akin to small, medium and large.) This is that. There are "many" predictions.

Let's just put it this way. Here's a list of failed end-of-the-world predictions, with the restriction that all the predictions were set for 1998.

Not that this will stop anyone from bringing up the Mayans and December 21, 2012. Or, when that prediction gets proven wrong too, simply moving on to some other guy who will predict the Rapture will come just in time for New Year's.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sarah At The Bat

(With apologies to Casey At The Bat)

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Elephants that year,
Their field was far from settled, with straw polls drawing near.
And when Mike Huckabee withdrew his name, and Don Trump did alike,
Republicans worried far and near; who else could come down the pike?

Although from the Tea Party many wished to turn the page,
Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney were both so very beige.
Ron Paul was as loved and hated as the Malaysian durian,
Jon Huntsman Jr. stood accused of being Manchurian.

Rick Perry stuck in sev'ral minds; he'd bring the race alive.
But did he stand for fifty states, or one becoming five?
Herman Cain and Gary Johnson would bring a fresh perspective,
But asked who the heck they are again, they let loose much invective.

Speaker Newt lost face when he questioned Paul Ryan's notion.
As for Paul himself, he thought running quite the big demotion.
Haley Barbour of Mississippi shared Mike and Donald's fate;
He'd dropped out early in the race... or maybe decades late.

Mike Pence of Indiana would have fired up the base,
But also expectant mothers, who would've slapped him in the face.
Buddy Roemer emerged after a quarter-century in the mists,
But those who noticed him would rather quickly slit their wrists.

Rick Santorum's name would prove too easy to besmirch;
All a voter has to do is launch a Google search.
Jeb Bush is just unlucky; his name's too much of a curse;
Fred Karger and Roy Moore are only useful for this verse.

Giuliani's moment has long passed, but no one's thought to tell him yet,
Where most have brains, some think Bachmann has an off-key string quartet.
Mitch Daniels, Christie, Jim DeMint, none invoke conservative thrills.
The thought of two-term B. Hussein had begun to give them chills.

But then, a thought began to form: the former running mate.
Perhaps we could persuade the Grizzly to step up to the plate.
In, then out, but in again? the right began to chat.
Intrade would put up even money now, with Sarah at the bat.

Many dismissed this as crazy and despaired. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
"Sarah captivates with every tweet; she'd prove a hit for sure!
'Twas the fault of John McCain that voters proved overly demure!"

While some then looked up the word "demure", the others hit the books
And concluded Sarah's appeal was primarily her looks.
Rape kits, rambling, Tina Fey had combined to conspire,
"The "lamestream media" may be right, Sarah's outlook appears dire."

Sarah's reaction to Gabby Giffords had damaged her severely.
"This poll has Texas up for grabs! Are you guys thinking clearly?"
The believers, though, would not be budged; faith in Sarah was unmoving,
This was a race of principle. To hell with all the disapproving!

"Get lost, you dirty sexist pigs; bark up some other tree.
All I know is what I hear on Fox News and TLC.
I see a common-sense mother tough as nails, doncha know.
She's just like me, just with a chopper and backyard studio!"

"Fool!" cried the maddened liberals; moderates also shouted "Fool!"
"Before she runs, could she at least go back to grammar school?"
But Sarah does not listen when people tell her how to be;
Even if her willing-advisor count had plummeted to three.

The sneer has gone from Sarah's lip, her teeth are clenched in hate;
Which makes her ready as ever for any September debate.
And now she processes the Facebook feed, and now she will respond,
And now the media's enraptured, save for those across the pond.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, but here there's a cold sweat;
The Elephants are cringing-- Sarah may lead this ticket yet.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How To Become Internet Famous

Step 1: Come up with a plan to set part of a playground on fire with the intent of taping yourself playing on that playground while it's on fire, with the intent of broadcasting the stunt to the Internet.
Step 2: Ignite said part of playground.
Step 3: Watch fire spread to rest of playground, causing 20-foot flames and $50,000 in damage.
Step 4: Run. Run like the wind.
Step 5: Fail to run sufficiently. Get arrested.
Step 6: Do this in New York City, where New York media and half of Brooklyn will try and figure out figure out what might possibly have possessed someone to set a playground on fire.
Step 7: Be the son of the guy who runs Alliance Films, which just so happens to be the distributor of The King's Speech, a picture of irony that will prove irresistible to anyone considering reporting on the story, here being no exception.
Step 8: Also, do this at a school attended by the son of a Real Housewife.

Congratulations! You're famous! Just not in the way you'd hoped! Also I never actually mentioned any of your names! Hope that's okay!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Get Somebody Warming Up Edition

As I've said before, the early days of a professional sports league always seems to have the most fascinating stories, due to the low-budget, start-up, we-don't-really-know-what-we're-doing-yet nature of things. And yet, they rarely get brought up much when talking about established leagues, due to a tendency to trend towards recent happenings and to limit lists, records and tracked statistics to the "modern era".

Which brings us to today's entry, Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. In 1884, Radbourn had 59 wins and 12 losses, though due to imperfections in stat-keeping back then, other places put him at 60 (the Hall of Fame) or 62 (Radbourn's tombstone). No matter how you count it, it's the all-time record. He pitched 678 2/3 innings, second all-time and four outs shy of the record set by Will White of the Cincinnati Reds five years prior. The record of Radbourne's team, the Providence Grays, was 84-28.

This was, to say the least, in the days before five-man pitching rotations. Or four-man rotations. Or three-man rotations. From July to the end of the 1884 season, Providence didn't even have a two-man rotation. Radbourne didn't pitch every day, but as he started 40 of the Gray's final 43 games, he essentially was their rotation. That's how he wound up becoming the pitcher of record in 63% of the team's games.

This is back when the win-loss record really meant something.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Random News Generator- Iceland

You may recall that, a few years ago, Iceland's economy went off a cliff. Granted, so did everybody else's. But Iceland stood out for the severity of their downfall.

The good news for Iceland today is that Standard and Poor's has today removed Iceland from their negative credit watch. This was done on the heels of measures taken to encourage- or force- money to remain in the country; Icelandic citizens are less able to invest overseas than they were at the start of the crisis, and non-Icelandic people are less able to exchange Icelandic krona for some other currency.

The bad news is that even after openly becoming a money vacuum, Iceland's financial state is still fragile. In the eyes of Standard and Poor's, Iceland is very nearly a junk investment, a designation Fitch has already assigned. Their situation remains fragile. A program with the IMF expires this year, and voters last month rejected a repayment plan concerning online bank Icesave, a move that very nearly caused S&P to downgrade Iceland to junk.

When Icesave's parent company, Landsbanki Islands, collapsed in 2008, investors in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands moved to repay depositors for their losses. The referendum was on whether to pay those investors 4 billion Euros, plus interest, as compensation. By a 60-40 margin, voters killed the repayment, sending the matter to the European Free Trade Association.

Fitch's junk rating, they warned, could be in place as long as those restrictions on investing outside of Iceland remain in effect. The Icelandic government has made their own warning that those restrictions could be in place until 2015.

For more on just what in blazes happened in Iceland, a new book is out, Deep Freeze: Iceland's Economic Collapse by Philipp Bagus and David Howden. It's available free on Kindle or iBook.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Against The County Judge, They Held A Grudge, But Not Forevermore

In order to have something named after you, usually it takes you having done something that someone finds worthy. Unless you name stuff after yourself. Hi, Donald Trump. Hi. Robert Byrd. Or unless someone does it as an insult. Hi. Dave Barry. But we're getting away from the point. Generally, if you have something named for you, it's an honor.

And the bigger the thing named after you, the more of an honor it is. There are plenty of buildings to go around, plenty of streets to go around. After that, though, scarcity starts to take hold, and for cities and up, not only are there only so many places, it gets progressively more difficult to rename something. So when you get up into counties, states, and especially countries, you want to be very careful in who you choose to honor.

States and countries are too easy to look up. So we'll do counties.

Plenty of counties have been named for Presidents. 24 Presidents have counties; the leader is George Washington with 31, followed by Thomas Jefferson with 24 (one of them encompassing the bulk of my hometown), and Andrew Jackson with 21. Why only 24? Note once again the difficulty and inertia in renaming something this large. The most recent President to carry a county name is Warren Harding. That means nothing for Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 or Obama.

Here are three of the others...

BREMER COUNTY, IOWA

Bremer County, county seat Waverly, is named for Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer. She was raised to be a member of the Swedish aristocracy; however, she found this too patronizing and too unfair to women that were not as fortunate. This actually included herself; for all the money that surrounded her, the only money she controlled was the money she made from her writing. One of her books, Hertha (an excerpt here), written in 1856, was so highlighting of the lack of women's rights, including her own lack of control over money, that it caused a debate on the floor of parliament, and served as such a sparkplug to a Swedish feminist movement that the Swedish women's movement named its journal Hertha.

FORREST COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI

Forrest County, county seat Hattiesburg, is named for Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, which is just about the last guy an American county ought to be named after, seeing as he was, among other things including the previous, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

I should not have to go any further about him, his history as a slave trader, or his actions at the Fort Pillow Massacre, because we already did that here last year. Suffice to say, Hattiesburg and the state of Mississippi ought to be embarrassed.

CHARLES COUNTY, MARYLAND

Charles County, county seat La Plata, is named For Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore. The now-defunct title refers to Baltimore Manor in Ireland. The 2nd Baron, Cecilius, is where the city of Baltimore got its name; the manor is deeply entrenched in Maryland etymology and a descendant, Charles Benedict Calvert, was elected to one term in the House of Representatives. But we're here for the 5th Baron, Charles.

State pride being what it is, though, you wonder why Maryland is here for him. For a short time from 1732-1733, he took charge of the then-colony, which was then undergoing a border dispute with Pennsylvania. William Penn had made a surveying error in 1682 that, among other things, put Philadelphia in Maryland. Philadelphia was too valuable to shrug off, and hostilities commenced largely due to the instigation of Thomas Cresap, dispatched by Maryland in 1730 to settle in the disputed region and prevent Pennsylvania from doing the same. The dispute would take his name, Cresap's War. In 1732, using a map which was, to not mince words, a piece of garbage, with measurements that were missing and wrong anyway, Charles reached a settlement with Pennsylvania. The settlement was in Pennsylvania's favor, with Maryland ceding 1,000 square miles of territory including Philadelphia. And, while we're at it, Gettysburg. The rest of Maryland would try to invalidate his blunder in court, but to no avail. An English court ruled that Charles' agreement counted, and the border was set in 1867 upon the completion of the work of two English surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. (Hence the name, Mason-Dixon Line.)

The man that single-handedly lost Philadelphia for Maryland has a county named for him by Maryland. Go figure.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

In Bidding War, There Are No Winners

There are some ads I've been seeing lately that jump out at me. Maybe you've seen them; you very might well have seen at least one of them at some point because Mike and Mike of ESPN are in one of them. They follow a central concept, known as penny auction sites.

Actually, let's run those ads first and get you familiar with them...





The description of the second ad precedes the driving point here. Listen up, because we're going to break down just exactly how these two ads constitute a stupid tax. We'll take them as a group, because the sites work on the same principle, as do a multitude of others.

First and foremost, note the "small fee" you pay to make a bid, and SkoreIt offering "$10.00 in free bids".

Let us repeat that: you are paying to make a bid. Not paying for the item. Paying for the bid to attempt to gain the item that you may or may not actually win. That's on top of whatever it is you're paying for the item itself, if you win it, which you might not. If you get into a bidding war with a guy and bid 28 times in a single auction, you're paying for 28 bids, with no guarantee of winning the item.

On eBay, bids are free. Always have been.

Also, please take note of the price going up by "as little as" one penny. The addition of "as little as" means it can go up by more. SkoreIt will increase its price by up to 8 cents. The actual price of the item can still be kept low. It doesn't have to go up by large amounts.

Why doesn't it have to go up by more? Because the sites are making their money off of the bid fees. Every bid placed generates one bid fee that is paid no matter what. The goal of the site, therefore, is to generate as many bids as possible. If the auction price gets too high, people stop bidding. If the auction price is low, people keep bidding. They won't internalize the price of the bid, only the price of the item itself. How often do you internalize a sales tax- that is to say, how often do you take the sales tax into account prior to the moment of purchase? That's a key principle at play here.

They also keep bidding if the increment is low. Again, the bid fee is not internalized, only the It's Only One Penny More mentality that you're supposed to have.

What's the bid fee? Quibids tells you up front when you type its name into Google: 60 cents per bid. SkoreIt advertises the same. So in a bidding war for an item in which you place 35 bids because the price went up by Only A Penny, you've in fact paid $21 and stand a chance of getting nothing in return. After all, this is an auction. Not everybody can win. If you do win, you've paid $21 plus the price of the item itself.

Doesn't sound so good now, does it?

Also consider the odds of your actually winning. If you've ever bid on eBay, you know full well the horror stories of getting sniped at the last second. You probably have them yourself. You're frustrated enough when the bids are free. Imagine your reaction when you've paid for all those bids.

And on penny auction sites, sniping is common. In fact, sniping is encouraged, with invitations to snipe repeatedly on the same item. Every bid placed adds a small amount of time to the clock on a given auction, sometimes with a forced minimum the clock resets to if a bid is placed with less than that amount of time left. A clock that reads 20 seconds left is essentially meaningless. The auction can theoretically go on eternally, as long as bids continue to be placed.

And they will continue to be placed for a while. Brian Kongszik of the Florida Council for Compulsive Gambling told USA Today back in February that he had taken calls from people seeking help because penny auctions had sucked them in too deeply.

And, of course, even if you win- not when, but if- you must take into account not only what you paid for the item, but what you paid for all the items you didn't win.

Stick with eBay, and that's not something you have to worry about.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Do Not Let This Man Near Your Smartphone

So let's recap where we stand on the upgrade-ancient-computer front...

THE INTENT: Buy a webcam. Also, buy computer- as it turns out, an HP carrying 4 GB of RAM- to replace the current computer carrying 256 MB.

THE REALITY:

Hoo boy.

Buy webcam, buy computer. Have brother install computer because I know not what the hell I'm doing. Things go semi-smoothly right up to the point I install the brand-new webcam which should now easily run on the literally-just-out-of-the-box computer. A restart is required to complete installation. I restart. The webcam works fine- though it turns out my voice, long thought to be at about the pitch of Local Newscaster, is actually about at the pitch of Star Wars Basement Dork- and also the Internet no longer connects. Call to Charter tech support ensues. Call ends when, instructed to disconnect the router, I discover that the very first plug out of the router was for the phone I was currently using. Call to HP tech support ensues. An hour and 26 minutes later, I have reformatted my just-out-of-the-box computer and am now stuck at a screen where I'm asked the name and password the computer is registered under. This information has been lost to the mists of time as the person who supplied it has since moved to Colorado and changed his phone number. Many blind guesses ensue. Shockingly, none of them work. A SECOND call to Charter ensues, in which we start by asking for the password. They don't have that. After long-winded bouts of frustrated babbling, I hand the computer off to a member of the family that can sort of speak Tech Supportese. Bouts of alchemy later, a guy is scheduled to come over on Monday, and until then I will have essentially swapped my old, fuddy-duddy 256 MB computer for a spanking-new, freshly reformatted 0 MB computer.

In the meantime, I attempted to throw a pizza in the oven for lunch. By the time I was roused from computer malinstallation long enough to remove the pizza, it had turned roughly the color of Selena Gomez's hair and could be turned upside down without losing its shape or any ingredients. Potential use as a Frisbee was considered.

In the meantime, here are people with brains.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Jim Lehrer To (Semi-) Retire

We have the impending departure of one of our All-Stars to report: as of June 6, Jim Lehrer will be stepping down from his post as the 36-year anchor of PBS' Newshour. He won't be gone entirely, but the 76-year-old Lehrer will take a more limited role in the program, coming in on Fridays to do week-in-review analysis.

It's a sad moment; Lehrer has more than earned his semi-retirement. But he leaves some gigantic shoes to fill, such that you really don't want to see him go. Even if you've never watched him on Newshour, his absence will be felt when he's no longer tapped to moderate Presidential debates. He is the undisputed king of the Presidential debate, with 11 tours of duty on his record, and given our current political climate, finding a man or woman to ably take the helm in his stead will be no easy feat. Not to mention finding a new daily anchor for Newshour; Meet the Press had to deal with similar circumstances upon the sudden death of Tim Russert, and David Gregory has only served to prove just how much Russert is missed.

As our All-Star team only includes active journalists, and he's easing out of 'active' territory, we'll be removing him from the team upon the conclusion of the June 6 broadcast; with no replacement pending, the team will stand at 16 members. He, however, leaves the team with the highest honor. We're gonna miss you, Jim.

In Other News, America's Collective Head Exploded

How far of a disconnect is there between the media, the government, and everyone else in the country?

A new poll is out saying that 52% of Americans favor tax increases as part of a plan to balance the budget.

How much news or political speech have you seen lately that would have given you anything resembling that idea of where the nation stood on taxes? (Granted, the poll didn't ask whether these same people would want their own taxes raised; that number is bound to be lower. Odds are, the number consists largely of people wanting to tax the rich. But this is still something of a shockingly high number that I'd like to see expanded on in future polling.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's Okay, Sir; I'm From The Internet

Are you any good at games with guns? Okay, great. Now how are you at the non-shooting parts of those games? The tactical aspects?

Also, how good are you at tweeting? That's kind of key.

If you're good at all of that, the Office of Naval Research has a favor to ask: would you be willing to help with their ongoing Somali piracy problem.

Meet MMOWGLI: Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet. What the Navy is looking for is basically brainstorming. They want you to answer two things: what new resources could improve matters on the Navy's end, and what new risks could pop up that make things tougher or change the landscape. From there, it's your basic peer-voting contest.

Aside from a brainstorming session, the Navy is looking to see whether MMOWGLI is actually going to generate anything usable or whether it'll just be a bunch of people asking if the Navy will get ninjas to fight the pirates and asking if the Navy can has cheezburger. Probably in an effort to weed out the lolcats, they're limiting the participant pool to 1,000 players. If it works out, the concept could easily be applied to other problems.

Considering that you have to answer each question in relation to solving a very complicated problem in the space of a tweet, I'm betting the usefulness may be limited a bit. (That's why I use Twitter on the order of once every couple months: if I have a thought, it's almost certainly going to come in over 140 characters.) But if you think you can make hay of it, head over, register and see if you get in.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Life Of A Birth Control Pill: A Play In Four Acts

There will be a brief intermission between acts two and three.

ACT ONE



ACT TWO



HEY FOLKS! IT'S INTERMISSION TIME!



ACT THREE



ACT FOUR



Thank you for your patronage of tonight's program.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Clinton List

Last year, in the runup to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, we explored one of the many facets of how soccer and politics have been intertwined over the years. Despite all efforts from FIFA to prevent it, politics, both domestic and global, have more of an effect on soccer than in any other sport. There's simply too much civic and national pride at stake and too much of the world involved at every social level for politics not to pop up in multiple forms.

Take the case of Colombian club America de Cali.

For a long time, the Red Devils operated under that most malicious of sports tropes, the anti-title curse. (Us Chicago Cubs fans know a little about those.) Their curse came way back when the club decided to convert from amateur status to professionalism in 1948. Benjamin Urrea, a fan known as Garabato, was extremely disillusioned by this, to the point where he said that if America went pro, they would never be champion. That curse, it's widely believed, was broken in 1979, 31 years later, when America claimed its first league title.

Key phrase, widely believed. A funny thing about soccer is that 'being champion' has more than one meaning. Soccer doesn't work like most sports in North America. For teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB, victory really only means winning their respective league titles. In soccer, though, being champion can mean not only the league title, but also being champion of lower tiers of play, or champion of a knockout cup competition of some sort, or champion of a larger competition a club gains access to through quality performance in their league, or even champion of some random invitational tournament that pops up from time to time. It is this quirk of the sport that leads some America fans to believe the curse is still alive until such time as the club wins the South American continental competition, the Copa Libertadores.

Enter Bill Clinton.

On October 21, 1995, then-President Clinton signed Executive Order 12978. The order dealt with drug trafficking in Colombia, freezing the American assets of any entity connected with local drug cartels and preventing anyone that does business with American citizens from also doing business with those entities. This is otherwise known as the "Clinton List".

America de Cali was one of those entities. Two high-ranking members of the Cali drug cartel, Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, were America fans and used some of their drug money to support the club. Convicted in 1998 and placed into a Colombian prison that barely even slowed them down, their involvement landed the Red Devils on the Clinton List that same year along with any other business that involved the brothers.

In a way, the Curse of Garabato had manifested itself: if it couldn't prevent league titles, it could force the club to do without professionalism's benefits. Not only would no sponsor touch America, but they could no longer win prize money from any competition that involved American clubs. That came up in 1999, when the Red Devils won the Copa Merconorte, a competition involving American clubs, and missed out on $200,000.

With no way to make money other than gate receipts and merchandise sales, America's financial situation became dire. All they could afford to pay players was $3,000 a month, or $36,000 a year. There are not many quality soccer players that will take that kind of pay. In fact, you personally quite possibly make more than that yourself, even if you're not an athlete. The club's debt promptly ballooned, and as long as the Rodriguez brothers maintained control of the club, in fact as long as America de Cali remained a business in their current form, getting off the Clinton List was impossible.

Despite this, on the pitch, the Red Devils did surprisingly well. For one thing, they still exist as a soccer club. For another, they racked up five more league titles in 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2008 (the last two after Colombia converted to a split-season format known in Latin America as Apertura/Clausura). A more familiar way to illustrate different measures of success from team to team is the fact that America considers this a subpar showing.

In 2010, America finally escaped from the Clinton List by restructuring the club to be run by the city of Cali; the Rodriguez brothers had been extradited to the United States in 2004 and no longer had any control- Gilberto to Pennsylvania; Miguel to Kentucky. It just took several more years to wrestle control from the rest of the Rodriguez family. The Red Devils are free, but not without accruing $2 million in debt that they now have to try and pay off.

And while sports curses only hamper one club, the political world has no such restriction. For while America de Cali has freed itself of its drug-addled past, another Colombian club, Santa Fe, has found itself under suspicion of being financed by another trafficker, Bogota kingpin Daniel "El Loco" Barrera.

The Clinton List looms once more.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

And Now For Pencils

Okay, so while I figure out what I need to do to get 256 MB of RAM (never mind the fact that that is exactly how much my computer has), and how much it's likely to run me, onwards. Quick, let's find something.

Pencils. Lots of pencils around. That's a subject. Good for writing things. Plenty of yellow and green metal bands and pink erasers and always, always #2. Why? Why are they always #2? Where's the #1 pencil?

That's a scale of hardness. #2 is the standard, as it falls in the middle of the hardness scale. #1 is a softer grade; the scale goes to #4 for harder grades. But, that's only the American way of grading pencil hardness- just like the metric system, America and Europe rate this differently.

The European system works using a series of H's and B's- H for hardness, B for blackness. The more of each (up to 9), the closer you get to each extreme of the scale. There's an F (fine point) in the middle, as well as HB, one grade softer than F. A #2 pencil generally (but not always) corresponds to HB. Softer leads are preferred by artists who can more easily get a range of greys; harder leads are preferred by engineers who are more concerned with the lead's shape not deforming and smudging a line.

Where the pencil falls depends on the ratio of graphite to clay. Contrary to what you probably just guessed, the clay makes the pencil harder, not softer.

Also, while we're on the subject of pencils, according to the Straight Dope, if you stab a guy with a pencil and some of the graphite gets stuck under his skin, you can totally give him a tattoo. (This information is supplied for educational purposes. The blogger assumes no responsibility for frothing masses of pencil-wielding mobs randomly stabbing people in the streets.)

Or Perhaps Not!

Apparently, completing installation requires 256 MB of RAM. Apparently, I don't have that at the moment.

Fly-by-night operation around here, folks.

Words! In Verbal Form!

I have come into possession, via a method known in mysterious circles as "purchasing", of a webcam. Specifically, a Logitech HD Webcam C310H. I got it for the purpose of making the occasional post by, well, webcam. Pop it here, pop it up on Youtube, see what comes of it. As a plus, you'll get to see my beautiful visage.

You'll also see my face. Not quite as nice as the visage, but you work with what you got.

Just one issue: my experience with webcams or any sort of video recording is precisely squat. No clue what I'm doing whatsoever. (That's another reason for getting it; to get some experience doing video stuff.) So at least at the start, expect the video entries (I refuse to use the word 'vlog' because it is the worst word ever) to be pretty technically rough, at least at first.

In fact, what I'm most likely to do is make the first entry a reprint of an earlier entry, basically a 'best of', as most of my energy is going to be placed into learning what exactly it is I need to do to make sure I don't do anything that will land me a Tosh.0 web redemption. Once that's covered, we'll get into making new pieces for video, maybe the odd further 'best of' if I feel like it. For now, though, baby steps.

So just a heads-up on that.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wisconsin Recall Update

We have allegations of recall signatures being gathered from, among others, the dead.

How's democracy going where you live? (That includes you, first Tunisian visitor who just showed up. Welcome aboard, guy.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Five Days

I'm disappointed in all of you. Really. All of you.

For all our differences, even given the constant, unending, incessant drumbeat of mutual partisan loathing that is the American political landscape, in which both sides are absolutely convinced that the other is hell-bent on willfully destroying the country beyond all hope of repair... even given that, it seemed a given that Osama bin Laden, at least, brought us together on one simple front:

We all wanted the guy dead, and weren't overly picky on how it got done. Just as long as it got done.

This had been a point of agreement ever since 9/11, perhaps even since the bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that landed bin Laden on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List back in 1998. 13 years, we had been clear and simple on the idea that the untimely demise of Osama bin Laden would be a Good Thing. Full stop.

Then on Sunday night, we actually managed to kill him.

Here we are, a mere five days later, and it has become depressingly clear that bin Laden's death has not rallied the nation together at all. We have merely turned it into one more national flamewar.

Initially, the news was picture-perfect. Osama's dead; a Navy SEAL team got in and out in 40 minutes, DNA'ed him, took pictures, facial recognition, positive ID from a wife, no American casualties except for a helicopter that broke, no casualties outside the compound. In the coming days, we discover that we also snagged a cache of intel from the compound. What could be better than that?

Apparently, everything. In five days, not only have we not proven satisfied with the haul, we have managed to rack up a seemingly endless amount of complaints. Obama choosing not to release the proof-of-death photo is merely the beginning. Here is an incomplete list- INCOMPLETE- of the things I have seen brought up as complaints since the news broke (complaints do not reflect the opinion of Random Human Neural Firings):

*Without seeing the photo, how do we know he's really dead?
*Why did they bury him at sea so quickly? What are they hiding?
*He didn't deserve a proper Muslim burial!
*Why did we ease him into the sea? Just dump him!
*What do we care if the Muslim world would be angry with seeing the photo/desecrating the body? They get angry at everything!
*Killing Osama violated international treaties that say you can't kill a sovereign leader!
*We violated Pakistan's sovereignty!
*China is reverse-engineering the helicopter we left behind and blew up!
*Osama needed to be taken alive so he could stand trial!
*Osama was unarmed! Why'd we have to shoot him!
*We should have taken Osama's body, paraded it through the streets of New York, and displayed it as a trophy at Ground Zero as a warning to others!
*You gave him 'Geronimo' as a code name? That's offensive to Native Americans!
*The victims of 9/11 EARNED that photo!
*We need to see that photo as a reminder of the horrors of war!
*Osama's death changes nothing! He was just a figurehead!
*How dare Obama get credit! The credit should go to the soldiers!
*How dare Obama get credit! The credit should go to Bush!
*Osama was never charged with 9/11! How do we know he was actually responsible?
*Look how much it cost! It was too expensive!
*He's been dead for days/weeks/months/years and Obama's just trotting him out now so as to win re-election!
*You've made al Qaeda angry! Now they're going to retaliate!
*Oh, great, now we're under another terror watch! Say goodbye to what's left of your freedom, citizen!
*I don't trust that DNA test!
*Couldn't we have just blown up the compound with a drone?
*How dare you celebrate a man's death!

In five days, we've managed to tear into each other this much and more about something that we had been united about for a decade. Five days. In fact, call it four, because we were well into the flamewar yesterday too.

And while some of these complaints admittedly have merit, others are downright ridiculous. We have needless antagonization of the Muslim people; we have in the display-the-body-at-Ground-Zero demand a regression to the Roman Empire; we have the resurfacing of the 9/11 truthers; we have people who think a photograph is more trustworthy and less fakeable than a DNA test. And as far as that can't-kill-a-sovereign-leader treaty... al-Qaeda is not a sovereign nation. I've looked at a lot of maps and I can tell from the pixels that al-Qaeda doesn't show up on any of them.

But this is where we stand as a nation. We have reached a point where, given five days, we will gleefully rip each other to shreds over something we had previously been in agreement on for over a decade.

If the death of Osama bin Laden can't even remotely bring us together as a people for five days, is there anything that will?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Filter Bubbles

I have some personal matters to attend to right now. Have a TED talk.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Emergency Breakdown Edition

First off, a little driving tip: If your car is going to break down in Madison to the point where you are coasting with no gas or brakes and barely any steering, try to break down in the rightmost lane, directly in front of an auto repair shop that has a large, half-empty strip mall parking lot next door you can dive into.

True story.

While waiting for my car to get fixed (it had something to do with a sensor), I added to the Rapid-Fire Book Club, because I had to do something walking up and down Willy Street for two hours and there was absolutely no way a longer piece was getting done today for all the time sunk into the breakdown...

*Halliday, Ayun- No Touch Monkey! and Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late (five books down the shelf from Eat, Pray, Love; I will be damned if the best-seller list is going to tell me what I read)
*Murrie, Matthew; Murrie, Steve- The First Book of Seconds: 220 of the Most Random, Remarkable, Respectable (and Regrettable) Runners-Up and Their Almost Claims to Fame (it was a buck; can't go too wrong at that price)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Today's Episode of 'You Can't Win'

On May 14, 1896, Nicholas II was crowned the tsar of Russia; as it would turn out, he'd be the last tsar. We're not interested today in the end of his reign. We're interested in his coronation.

A celebration of his coronation was held at Khodynka Field in northwest Moscow (now the site of an airport) four days later, to be attended by anyone that wanted to show up. It was to be followed by a ball at the French embassy; that was for the diplomats and aristocracy. The people attending the celebration at Khodynka were informed that there would be free stuff at this celebration. And there was. Everyone was to get a sausage, some gingerbread, some pretzels, a bread roll, and a beer mug. For free. What a deal. Estimates are that half a million people showed up. (To compare, remember that Obama's inauguration drew about half that.)

During the celebration, though, a rumor began to make its way through the crowd. A shocking rumor. A rumor that would rock the Russian people to their core.

There might not be enough free beer or pretzels for everybody. (There is also the account that the people were simply told of 'expensive gifts' and they thought 'the gifts' would soon run out. We're going here with the version that contends they knew what the gifts were.)

Now, let us reiterate, in case it hasn't drilled into your head yet, that this beer, these pretzels that the people MIGHT not get- that there's a CHANCE they won't get- is free. A normal person might respond 'Aw, man, that sucks. But it is a huge crowd, and hey, I'm still getting free sausage and gingerbread and a bread roll and perhaps still the mug even if there isn't any beer in it. So I'm still making out pretty well.' And even in the 'expensive gifts' version of the story, and they worried they might not get anything at all... free. That's the worry no matter what the story is. That there might- MIGHT- not be enough free stuff to accommodate half a million people.

But that is why you were not a Russian on May 18, 1896. The correct response to this rumor of a minor inconvenience is as follows:

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I WANT MY FREE BEEEEEEER! AND THE PRETZELS I GUESS! BRAIN! SHUTTING DOWN! ACTIVATING STAMPEDE MODE!"

There were about 1,800 policemen on hand. But there were 500,000 people to corral. 500,000 people rushing to the free beer are too many for 1,800 to handle. The exact number of dead varies, but seems to settle at 1,389, with 1,300 more injured.

Nicholas was shocked at the news. And not just because he had learned how nuts his people would go to make sure they got every single bit of the free stuff that was offered. He wanted to forget the rest of the ceremonies and head to the hospital to meet with some of the victims. He certainly didn't feel like attending the ball at the French embassy. However, the younger brothers of the previous tsar, Alexander III, basically forced him to go, because they figured not going would be an insult to France, and that would be even worse than ignoring the death of nearly 1,400 people.

Ultimately, Nicholas went to the ball. Wrong move. Even though he made sure to follow it up with plenty of aid to the victims and their families, not only did Nicholas catch harsh criticism for attending the ball, the disaster itself was enough to cripple Nicholas' approval rating right out of the gate. Some mystics took Khodynka as a bad omen for the rest of his reign. (Mystics were a thing back then; remember that Rasputin arrived later in Nicholas' reign.) It wouldn't have mattered if he had attended or not, but Nicholas didn't improve his image any.

All for having the audacity to maybe not provide enough free stuff.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden Dead

But then, you've in all likelihood already known that for a couple hours now.

Took ten years. Took a whole lot of pain and anguish and doubt we'd ever get him. We have to be mindful of what happens next; you know al Qaeda won't be taking that kind of news sitting down. They'll probably lash out in pure rage, so everyone keep on their toes for a little while.

But we got our man. After ten long years, we got our man. We avenged each and every person that died on 9/11. We got closure.

Well done to the soldiers that carried out the mission. And well done to Obama for planning and overseeing it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Wiki Walk

You know what we haven't done in a long time? Pore through some Wikileaks diplomatic cables. Since everyone's kind of gotten bored with going through them every day and going 'hey, look at this' to every single thing, we're going to have to go to Wikileaks itself for the cables, which means the links that follow are not safe for military types.

The news organizations that don't have the entire stack of cables notwithstanding, so far 11,218 of the 251,287 cables have been released. That's 4.46% of the total.

That said, let's go browsing. Again, we're linking directly to the cables, so click with care.

First, let's just note the oldest cable in the group (for now), coming out of 1966. It comes out of Argentina, dealing with national jurisdictions in coastal waters. Argentine legislation under consideration at the time would claim territory six miles offshore, and 200 miles as "preferential". The Argentine navy claimed that it would soon be standard throughout the Western Hemisphere. (The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea set a maximum of 12 miles where a country can exert total control, a further 12 miles for more limited control, and an exclusive economic zone of 200 miles, which gives a country the rights to resources but doesn't let them restrict access. So Argentina wasn't too far off.)

The second-oldest is from February 1972, dealing with the sale of F-4E fighter jets to Iran. Ah, Cold War. How morally ambiguous you made us.

A psychological profile of Iranians in general made in 1979, written by one Victor Tomseth, isn't overly flattering. As you'd think back then. It was leaked way back in November, but it's the first you've likely heard of it. The first sentence of the profile is "PERHAPS THE SINGLE DOMINANT ASPECT OF THE PERSIAN PSYCHE IS AN OVERRIDING EGOISM." It goes on like this.

One of today's leaks comes out of Colombia, where in December 2007, president Alvaro Uribe agreed to an "encounter zone" in which to retrieve hostages taken by the paramilitary group FARC that at the time included Ingrid Betancourt. More surprising is the $100 million (US) set aside in a fund as an incentive for FARC members to release hostages and leave the group. In another cable released today, Uribe, during the visit of an American delegation led by Harry Reid, Uribe compared the threat Hugo Chavez posed to Latin America to the threat Hitler posed to Europe.

In a cable from April 2004, Panama's Supreme Court voted 8-1 that it lacked jurisdiction to prosecute Israeli arms smuggler Shimon Yalin Yelinek in the transfer of arms from Nicaragua to Colombia, despite the fact that he was living in Panama, that he was alleged with falsifying Panamanian National Police documents, and that they had used a boat registered to Panama. The cable notes charges that all eight majority judges received bribes to vote the way they did. At the time of the cable, Yelinek was also under investigation by America's DEA on money-laundering accusations. (Yelinek is at large to this day, supplying support to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico's drug war.)

In a cable from June 2006, Ban Ki-Moon, in his days prior to becoming Secretary-General of the United Nations, offered congratulations for the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That's about all there is to that cable, but that's all one really needs to wonder if that's something becoming of a guy who'd go on to be put in charge of an organization dedicated to world peace.

A cable from January 2003 shows that supposed illegal immigrants from Pakistan within the United States, persecuted by anti-Arab attitudes in a post-9/11 America, and fearful of deportation back to Pakistan if they made themselves known in any way to the INS, re-defected to Canada to seek political asylum. The cable makes no mention of how those requests turned out.

And let's finish out with a February 2008 cable from the consulate in Kolkata, India, mentioning that in 2007, it rejected about 60% of applications for religious worker visas. Why? The applicants weren't actually religious workers. In some cases, the problem was as simple as being a maintenance guy who wasn't partaking in any actual religious duties at their place of worship, or not living within the consulate's jurisdiction. In other cases, though, people went so far as to make up a place of worship so they could claim it to the consulate. Not only didn't it work, but they'll likely have some interesting questions to answer once they meet whoever's in charge of them metaphysically.