Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who Do You Trust?

(Edited to add additional names.)

One of the most important measures by which we judge our politicians is honesty. At the risk of being Captain Obvious, one would prefer that their elected officials not lie to them. But yet, when it actually comes time to vote, honesty never actually seems to play a part in the decision. No matter how untrustworthy a candidate seems to be, no matter how many years we spend screaming about the broken campaign promises of those who have come before, we seem to judge the new candidates, on some level, by what they have promised, disregarding the possibility that these promises may be lies. We almost never account for the possibility that the person we vote for might have something else up their sleeve-- although, given how things have gone in Wisconsin this year with Scott Walker, maybe that will change a bit.

We do have a way to measure one candidate's honesty against another. At Politifact, they keep a record of the history of every person and organization whose statements they rate. We'll be using those histories today, as well at the ratings each statement has received. You know the ratings by now: True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False and Pants On Fire. We're going to assign each rating a point value, as follows:

True- 5 points
Mostly True- 3 points
Half True- 2 points
Barely True- 1 point
False- 0 points
Pants On Fire- -1 point

This point system is designed to give a little extra bonus for having all your lines crossed and I's dotted, with the jump from 3 to 5 points from a Mostly True to a full True. Neither False nor Pants on Fire are awarded any points- getting things totally wrong should not be rewarded- and if you've been given a Pants on Fire, the inclination is that you've made people measurably dumber for having listened to you. That is going to be penalized in a way for which you'd be better off never having opened your mouth.

Now, Politifact has issued some questionable ratings. A little bit of salt is to be taken along with the ratings. However, it's still the best we've got.

What we're going to do here is take all the Republican primary candidates for President, even the ones who have dropped out, and others who have been speculated into the mix, and measure their average rating per statement. We will also measure President Obama. The raw point total won't mean anything, as that is profoundly dependent on how often they are examined. (It will, however, be supplied to help show the math- total points divided by total ratings equals average points per rating, or PPR.)

To help combat small sample sizes, like a baseball batting title, we're going to ask for a minimum number of five "at-bats" to qualify for a PPR. We'll include the non-qualifying candidates, but they will be given separately, without a PPR.

A score will show up with the ratings, in descending order from True to Pants On Fire, shown in the format (0/1/0/2/3/0). This sample chart signifies one Mostly True, two Barely Trues, and three Falses. Followed will be the total points, and then PPR- in this case, 0.833.

As a control, the score for "chain e-mails" will also be given, as they are pretty much Politifact's resident butt monkey; the single least-reliable source Politifact regularly checks. Also included will be a variety of other notable people with at least 10 "at-bats".

Consider a PPR of 2.5 to be great, 2.0 to be good, 1.5 to be marginal, 1.0 to be bad, and anything below 1.0 to be awful.

Sound good?

First, we'll get the non-qualifying candidates out of the way...

Haley Barbour (0/0/0/1/0/0)
Jeb Bush (1/2/0/1/0/0)
Chris Christie (0/1/1/1/1/0)
Mitch Daniels (0/0/0/0/2/0)
Jon Huntsman Jr. (1/0/0/0/0/0)
Gary Johnson (0/1/0/0/0/0)
Fred Karger (0/0/0/0/0/0)
Thad McCotter (0/0/0/0/0/0)
Roy Moore (0/0/0/0/0/0)
Buddy Roemer (0/0/0/0/0/0)

Now that that's done, we'll introduce first Obama, the chain e-mails and the other notables, listed from highest PPR to lowest. A high PPR is, obviously, good. The higher the PPR, the more honest and truthful you are as scored by Politifact.

Dennis Kucinich (8/3/4/1/2/0) 18 at-bats, 58 points, 3.222 PPR
George Will (7/2/3/4/0/0) 16 at-bats, 51 points, 3.188 PPR
Hillary Clinton (32/8/22/15/8/2) 87 at-bats, 241 points, 2.770 PPR
Bob McDonnell (3/3/3/3/0/0) 12 at-bats, 33 points, 2.750 PPR
David Axelrod (2/3/4/2/0/0) 11 at-bats, 29 points, 2.636 PPR
Marco Rubio (8/7/5/4/4/1) 29 at-bats, 74 points, 2.552 PPR
Barack Obama (75/67/71/39/49/4) 305 at-bats, 753 points, 2.469 PPR
Charlie Crist (11/7/7/6/6/2) 39 at-bats, 94 points, 2.410 PPR
Joe Biden (10/9/10/8/5/3) 45 at-bats, 102 points, 2.267 PPR
Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (2/3/3/2/2/0) 12 at-bats, 27 points, 2.250 PPR
Jon Kyl (1/3/4/0/2/0) 10 at-bats, 22 points, 2.200 PPR
John Boehner (14/3/4/6/14/1) 42 at-bats, 92 points, 2.190 PPR
Michael Moore (2/4/0/2/3/0) 11 at-bats, 24 points, 2.182 PPR
Rick Scott (8/12/9/5/7/3) 44 at-bats, 96 points, 2.182 PPR
Mitch McConnell (2/2/2/1/3/0) 10 at-bats, 21 points, 2.100 PPR
John McCain (34/31/29/29/38/8) 169 at-bats, 342 points, 2.024 PPR
Harry Reid (2/1/3/2/3/0) 11 at-bats, 21 points, 1.909 PPR
John Kasich (5/4/7/5/6/0) 27 at-bats, 51 points, 1.889 PPR
Rob Portman (2/3/3/2/3/1) 14 at-bats, 26 points, 1.857 PPR
Eric Cantor (4/1/3/2/4/2) 16 at-bats, 29 points, 1.813 PPR
Rachel Maddow (1/3/3/1/4/0) 12 at-bats, 21 points, 1.750 PPR
Scott Walker (5/3/3/6/10/1) 28 at-bats, 45 points, 1.607 PPR
Nancy Pelosi (1/2/7/2/3/2) 17 at-bats, 25 points, 1.471 PPR
Glenn Beck (2/1/5/4/6/5) 23 at-bats, 22 points, 0.957 PPR
Ron Johnson (0/1/1/4/4/0) 10 at-bats, 9 points, 0.900 PPR
Chain e-mails (4/5/6/6/28/49) 98 at-bats, 4 points, 0.041 PPR

The one thing Kucinich will ever win against that field. George Will comes in second place and is the only other person here to crest the 3.0 mark.

And now the Republican candidates, again from best PPR to worst.

Ron Paul (4/5/2/1/1/1) 14 at-bats, 39 points, 2.786 PPR
Mitt Romney (17/7/10/5/9/4) 52 at-bats, 127 points, 2.442 PPR
Rudy Giuliani (7/6/9/7/5/2) 36 at-bats, 76 points, 2.111 PPR
Mike Huckabee (7/2/6/6/4/2) 27 at-bats, 57 points, 2.111 PPR
Tim Pawlenty (1/4/3/2/1/1) 12 at-bats, 24 points, 2.000 PPR
Newt Gingrich (3/3/4/1/3/2) 16 at-bats, 31 points, 1.938 PPR
Paul Ryan (1/1/2/3/0/1) 8 at-bats, 14 points, 1.750 PPR
Sarah Palin (10/6/7/9/13/5) 50 at-bats, 86 points, 1.720 PPR
Mike Pence (3/0/2/3/5/0) 13 at-bats, 22 points, 1.692 PPR
Rick Perry (10/6/19/9/13/7) 64 at-bats, 108 points, 1.688 PPR
Jim DeMint (2/0/0/1/2/1) 6 at-bats, 10 points, 1.667 PPR
Herman Cain (0/2/2/1/3/2) 10 at-bats, 9 points, 0.900 PPR
Donald Trump (0/1/2/0/4/3) 10 at-bats, 4 points, 0.400 PPR
Michelle Bachmann (1/1/2/5/11/7) 27 at-bats, 10 points, 0.370 PPR
Rick Santorum (0/0/1/0/3/1) 5 at-bats, 1 point, 0.200 PPR

Ron Paul wins honors in this field, beating everybody overall but Kucinich and Will. Cain, Trump, Bachmann and Santorum, meanwhile, come in below 1.0, beating nobody but the chain e-mails and each other. (Though Cain can say he ties Ron Johnson.)

Everybody's PPR will flesh out more as the campaign process continues and they get more at-bats. However, for now, it seems a fair starting point.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


A bit of a new wrinkle to the Name X In Y Minutes quiz to pass along: the minefield quiz given by Sporcle. Usually in a Name X In Y Minutes quiz, if you type in a wrong answer, all it costs you is a couple seconds. Here, one wrong answer is going to end the quiz.

That said, here's a quiz. Given 20 minutes, name the 100 most populous nations, without naming anything outside the top 100.

I managed 32 countries, including 21 of the top 25, before hitting #116.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Petty Theft And Highway Robbery

I'm of the philosophy that a diploma doesn't tell the whole story about your education or your level of intelligence. Often, of course, they do, or else they would be functionally worthless. But they're not a be-all-end-all, either. There are people that basically buy their way into the Ivy League and the diploma within, and then pretty much sit back and wait for the world to come to them, waving the diploma around as proof of an education that they only technically have. There are people from decidedly lesser colleges that, head-to-head, will think circles around the aforementioned Ivy Leaguers. Where an underachieving Ivy Leaguer may be so overconfident in their diploma that they fail to think things through and make some astoundingly bad moves, an overachieving small-college grad can realize they have ground to make up, and make that little extra crucial bit of analysis.

And then there's the occasional story of someone who doesn't have a college degree at all but nonetheless is one of the smartest people around.

Now, part of why I bring this up is a bit of a defense of my alma mater. Let's be honest. Madison Area Technical College- or Madison College; I think they changed the name recently- isn't exactly turning away perfect SAT scores left and right. But college is done and gone. MATC can only supply knowledge, and only while I'm enrolled. It's on me to make as much of what I was taught as I possibly can. I won't sit around and wait for people to be attracted to the MATC diploma, because MATC diplomas don't have that kind of drawing power. An MATC grad has a college degree, but they still have to go out and scratch and claw their way through, and put up a ferocious fight just to have the right to take on the Ivy Leaguers.

There are, however, worse degrees to have than that of a tech school.

You could have one from a diploma mill.

In 1989, an application for accreditation by Eastern Missouri Business College came to the International Accrediting Commission in Missouri. The catalog that showed up at the IAC, among other things, listed faculty members such as Arnold Ziffel, Edward J. Haskell, M. Howard, Jerome Howard, and Lawrence Fine; the college seal read "Solum pro Avibus Est Educatio"; the motto was "Latrocina et Raptus", and the marine biology textbook (offered through the mail, along with degrees in genetic engineering and aerospace science) was "The Little Golden Book of Fishes".

For those that didn't catch on already, those faculty members were from Green Acres and the Three Stooges, and the respective translations are "Education is only for the birds" and "Everything from petty theft to highway robbery." This was not a real college. It was a teeny little office in St. Louis, staged with a little bit of fake paperwork, a whole lot of blank papers, and no accounting records or actual classrooms. (Nowadays, the lack of classrooms wouldn't be a dead giveaway, given the proliferation of online colleges, but in 1989, that was a thing worth noting.)

Any accreditor worth their salt would have busted the Fightin' Eastern Missourians in about five seconds. Any accreditor worth their salt would have been tipped off at some point over the course of the catalog, maybe passed it around the office for laughs.

Instead, the head of the IAC, George Reuter, stopped by, wandered around for half an hour and noted how impressed he was. He then went out to have a steak dinner with the head of the college. Although they would pose for a picture of the "official passing of the accreditation check", which amounted to $500.

After later indicating that accreditation would be granted, and selling Eastern Missouri Business a "fancy plaque" for another $25, the faculty of Eastern Missouri Business sprung. They were in fact working for the state attorney general, and quickly got the International Accrediting Commission shut down.

Meet Accrediting Commission International. They popped up in Arkansas shortly thereafter, a state famous for not being Missouri. The fact that the name is the same as "International Accrediting Commission" with the words rearranged is surely coincidental. Them spelling 'commission' with three M's on the topline of your window when you go visit is presumably just a test and not to be read into at all.

And ACI is adamant that you don't read into it, or any other similarities to IAC. In a page entitled 'ACI Answers To Critics', they admit that from "the older organization" (they never state "the older organization's" name outright, although they do say that "most of the stories told about the other organization are only half-truths and outright falsehood"), about 25 colleges were carried over to ACI, as opposed to all of them.

Quackwatch, however, disagrees. They charge that ACI did in fact invite all the colleges under the auspices of ICA to be automatically accredited, which numbers about 250. Go to ACI, though, and you would never know, because they don't list the colleges they've accredited. (Unlike any accreditor worth their salt-- for instance, the Higher Learning Commission, a branch of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which will tell you that it's the one that accredited just about every college of note from West Virginia to Wyoming... including Madison Area Technical College.)

With a fair degree of legwork, though, some guys on the boards of DegreeInfo managed to track down about 100 of the places accredited by ACi. They are mostly Bible colleges. One of the ACI colleges, Wisconsin International University, is quite international indeed, because it has no campus in Wisconsin, or for that matter anywhere else in the United States.

Luckily, there is a simple way to avoid these places. In the United States, there are two institutions that approve accreditors: the Department of Education, and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. In effect, they accredit the accreditors. If neither of those two places think an accreditor is legit, it stains any college that's approved by that accreditor, to the point where people looking to transfer to a place the DoE or CHEA do approve of may have to start their college education again from scratch.

They don't approve of ACI.

Monday, June 27, 2011

North Koreans Starving Who Aren't Supposed To Be

The general public of North Korea being malnourished is, unfortunately, not exactly front-page news. At least, it isn't in the sense that car crashes and cancer deaths aren't either. They are all tragic, but avoid the front page at least in part due to their all being common, and common knowledge.

However, as Mark Willacy of ABC (Australia) reports, new footage out of North Korea by a local journalist who managed to smuggle it out shows that the North Korean army is now starving as well. That is something to take note of.

After the Kims themselves, the army gets fed first. The army is how the Kims project their strength, impose their will. They are the people who stand guard at the borders. They are the people who run the day-to-day operations at the gulags. They are the people who watch for and crack down on any signs of dissent. As long as they're kept at least somewhat happy, the Kims can continue to conduct business as usual.

In fact, the promise of being fed regularly is a strong incentive to join the North Korean army in the first place.

That promise can seemingly no longer be upheld, and on Saturday, One Free Korea compiled and reviewed a growing body of consequences. According to One Free Korea, and the video reported on by Willacy, the army is now attempting to obtain their food from the black market that is the main food source for much of the general public, either through "donations" or outright looting. In addition, soldiers are now suffering from a lack of winter uniforms.

Most notably, to underscore just why some soldiers are soldiers at all, the lack of food is causing some to desert. That sets up a few important questions:

First, how weak can the army's constitution get, and how small can the army shrink, while still remaining a projective force, especially in the face of a transition of power between the Kims?

And second, is the rest of the world going to be able to bear to watch?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

At Least I Get To Eat

Don't have too much time to spend on getting something out today; it's my mom's birthday and we're headed out of town to celebrate.

So we leave things today to Noreen Connolly, who is traveling through western Africa with Nick Kristof of the New York Times. Connolly, in a piece submitted yesterday, turned in a heart-warming-yet-rending report from Molii, a village in southern Niger.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

That's Some Nice Flutin', Boy

In one long-ago episode of the Simpsons, Ralph Wiggum had a flute up his nose. It was a long time ago. Specifically, this was the episode where Bleeding Gums Murphy died.

Today, playing Wikipedia Roulette, you are going to find out that a flute up the nose is done in some cultures on purpose. Unsurprisingly, the instrument is called a nose flute. It's found in Hawaii, DR Congo, China, the Philippines, New Zealand and India.

Here's a sample of the Hawaiian one, the most prominent of the nose flutes, also known as the ohe hano ihu, and more on why in blazes you're playing it with your nose. I'll just let the expert talk...

When playing it, you want to breathe gently. First off, it's not going to sound very good. Second, you never want to blow your nose into your musical instruments if you can avoid it.

If you'd like to buy one... unfortunately, this appears to be one of the few things you can't buy on the Internet. So you'll have to make your own. That's what you're supposed to do anyway. It's pretty simple; all you need is a stick of bamboo wood you can blow into, preferably with a thin wall, and get both your hands onto. Put one hole into the side of the wood towards the end; that's where your nose is going to go. Close the nose end of the stick. After that, place a couple finger holes onto the same side of the wood; those are your finger holes. It's your call as to how many holes you want, but the standard is three, with the middle hole in dead center.

That's really about it. The sound you get out of the flute is going to depend on the size of the stick's cavity, the length of the stick and the location and size of the holes. Every flute is going to sound different.

After that, it's a simple matter of explaining to your friends that, no really, this has REAL CULTURAL VALUE and will you stop talking about how you bent your wookie already.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Random News Generator- Latvia

Have you ever gotten a pop-up ad that launches into a virus scan you didn't ask for? Yeah, me too. I'll bet it found all sorts of nasty viruses and stuff in your computer, too, right? And then of course they'd offer some sort of antivirus software to fix all these problems you just found out about. Sometimes the ad is particularly persistent and reappears when you try to close the window.

In case you didn't already know, that pop-up ad is lying about all the viruses it found. The antivirus software that's being pushed on you? THAT'S a virus. It's known as scareware. It's a 21st-century version of those quack doctors that tell you you've got cancer, venereal disease, consumption, typhoid, dysentery, snakebite and broken leg all at the same time, and then they sell you a cure-all pill named after Dr. Somebody-or-Other that turns out to have mercury in it.

Due to the RNG landing on Latvia today, it is my pleasure to tell you that two international scareware rings that specialize in that kind of stunt have been rounded up by the FBI and US Department of Justice in a hunt called Operation Trident Tribunal. Trident Tribunal, aside from Latvia and the United States, has also involved Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

One ring was a two-man operation consisting- allegedly- of 22-year-old Peteris Sahurovs and 23-year-old Marina Maslobojeva. If you regularly visit the site of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, you've run into them at some point. Sahurovs and Maslobojeva are accused of having created a fake ad agency and told the Star-Tribune they represented Best Western. Once accepted by the Star-Tribune, they swapped the original ads for Best Western out for ads that triggered scareware.

By doing this, Star-Tribune readers were allegedly bilked out of $2 million. If you have at some point purchased something called "Antivirus Soft" for $49.95 after visiting the Star-Tribune website, you've been conned.

The other ring, a much larger operation, raked in $72 million from some 960,000 victims who got taken for $129 each. Five different bank accounts were seized from this larger ring. Paradoxially, less info is available on this ring than on the two-man Latvian operation.

Granted, as long as the info is 'the scary antivirus ad people are going to go away now', you probably could care less how they go away.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Journalism All-Star Draft Pool

As a policy, my journalism all-star team is staffed by individual journalists, not organizations. (To remind you of the current makeup of the team, in no particular order: Rachel Maddow, Mariana van Zeller, Soledad O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Nate Silver, Gwen Ifill, Stephen Colbert, Sanjay Gupta, Andrew Sullivan, Fareed Zakaria, Matt Taibbi, Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, and Laura and Lisa, the sisters Ling. Shepard Smith, due to his continued presence on Fox News, is on the DL.)

I don't have any jerseys to hand out today. But there are two places from which any new addition to the roster is likely to come.

First is Bill Simmons' new venture in sportswriting, Grantland. To a fair degree, Grantland looks a bit like what I would do if I were focusing solely on sports and pop culture, and deleted all the quickie give-you-something-to-do posts. Long-form, free-flowing wavering between covering a recent event and telling a story that just happens to be on someone's mind at the time. And Simmons has called upon quite the stable of writers. Depending on how I feel about adding a pure sportswriter, I may end up inducting someone from Grantland soon, perhaps Simmons himself, perhaps someone else. Haven't made up my mind yet.

The second place is Journeyman Pictures, which you can find on this YouTube channel. Based out of the UK, they do mini-documentaries on a wide variety of topics from around the world. They're like a higher-output, faster-turnaround version of the National Geographic Channel, but without all the episodes of Dog Whisperer.

Why no inductees from here? A few reasons: first, their website hides full hour-long documentaries behind a paywall, which in and of itself is a bit of an obstacle. (The YouTube channel is of course free, although there it's nigh-impossible to scrounge up any names at all.) Second, they don't do a very good job of sorting works by reporter, and as a result, I simply haven't gotten through any one individual's various works yet. Again, we reward individuals here, not organizations.

Although if our all-star team needed a home stadium, we know who we ought to call.

Here's one recent piece from Journeyman out of, what a coincidence, Wisconsin (amazingly, it has nothing to do with the recall efforts):

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ai Weiwei Free, Sort Of

If you've been up on your news concerning efforts to introduce or increase freedoms in China, you know the name Ai Weiwei. Weiwei is an artist, China's most famous (you know him as the guy who designed the Bird's Nest, the main stadium from the 2008 Olympics), who has been critical of the Chinese government, most notably over mishandling of the Sichuan earthquake, also in 2008. Over the past three months, Weiwei has been held on what many believe to be spurious-at-best charges of tax evasion. The rest of the world is certain that Weiwei's detention is just a way to silence a prominent critic, and China has been raked over the coals for it.

Well, today Weiwei has been released from his detention. He's not completely free, though. As he put it after his release, "I’m released, I’m home, I’m fine. In legal terms, I’m — how do you say — on bail. So I cannot give any interviews. But I’m fine."

Basically, China gets to monitor him for a year, place restrictions on his behavior, and hang on to his travel documents. Should they deem him to have violated those restrictions, he could be reimprisoned. But, for now, he's out of the hoosegow.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cleri, Cleri, Way Too Eerie

Reality TV, unless you live under a rock, you know as filled with preening, uninhibited, often intoxicated loudmouths who are willing to do anything to get their 15 minutes. (Minus some far-too-uncommon blessed souls.) Once in a while, one of these inherently hateable people somehow becomes a person that people love to hate, or at least is viewed as such by the producers, and is brought back for future seasons, or even guest appearances on other shows, or for a rare obnoxious few, a show all to themselves.

This is a large part of why so many obnoxious people show up. Aside from the stated, primary goal of the program, many of them hope that by standing out enough, by being the famewhoriest of the famewhores, they too will get their own show, or at least another appearance on the one they're on.

What none of them realize, however, is that they can't all have that. The punishment for failure in acquiring the Famewhore Holy Grail can have disastrous effects once the cameras go off. Relationships at home can be strained or ended. Employers may be humiliated to have these people on the payroll. And if you're on a talent-search show for a common job- a cook, a businessperson, an interior designer- and you make a disastrous blunder, or get eliminated early on, your career in that field can easily come to a screeching halt. Never mind getting the dream job the show was offering. What aspiring cook anywhere is going to take lessons from the person who, on national television, can't tell sugar from salt?

(Colleen, Season 5, Hell's Kitchen. I know you were wondering.)

If you truly suck at what you do, or if you truly suck as a person, reality TV has a billion ways to make sure you get yours.

Take 'The Moment Of Truth', technically a game show but with all the spectacle of reality TV. The premise is simple enough. You take a lie detector test prior to the show, are asked a series of questions (some more personal than others), and are given many of the same questions on air. You are tasked with answering honestly. The more questions you answer honestly on-air, the more money you win, up to a top prize of $500,000. (In the American version, at least, and yes, there were international versions.) But if at any point you lie, you lose everything and the game is over. Refuse to answer, and the game is also over, although you (and your loved ones) are given one opportunity to swap out one question you feel is better left unanswered by pressing a button.

On its face, it doesn't sound so bad. But once you start asking the kind of questions you expect someone to answer for half a million dollars- or $200,000, as nobody ever made it to the top of the money ladder in the US version- things go south in a hurry, especially since friends, family and other people in the contestant's life were commonly brought in by FOX to spectate and sometimes ask a question themselves.

And this is prime-time television. They know how you answered before the cameras go on. You know full well they're going to make a beeline for the most humiliating and damaging answers in the whole test. Which is the other thing: the answers are out there once you give them, whether you win any money or not.

The most spectacular revealing of skeletons in someone's closet came by way of Lauren Cleri of Piermont, New York, who would later flat-out admit to the New York Post that she was solely going for the money.

Lauren left enough bridges burned in the process to span an ocean. Host Mark L. Wahlberg, who you'll note as the person who signed up to host this show in the first place, felt the need to make a preshow comment that the episode containing Lauren, had Wahlberg had his way, would not have aired at all, and that it was "the most uncomfortable I've ever been on television."

The episode is available on YouTube here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Here is the line of questions Lauren faced, with her answers in parentheses:

1: As an employee of a hair salon, have you ever told a customer you liked their hairstyle when in fact, you didn't? (no)
2: Have you ever flashed a stranger just for laughs? (yes)
3: Would you give food to a stray dog before you would give it to a homeless person? (yes)

This one got the first groans from the audience. If they only knew what was coming...

4: Have you ever derived pleasure when one of your siblings has gotten into trouble? (yes)
5: Have you ever been fired from a job for stealing money? (yes)

Please note, Lauren hasn't actually won any money yet. The first prize level, $10,000, comes only after answering the first six questions.

6: If you knew you wouldn't get caught, would you steal money from your place of employment? (no)

Now she's won money. The next level is five more questions for $25,000.

7: Since you've been married, have you ever pretended to be asleep in order to avoid having sex with your husband Frank? (yes)
8: Do you blame your husband for your lack of close friends? (yes)
9: Would you ever be a surrogate mother for your sister if she were unable to have children? (yes)
10: Do you think your parents are proud of you? (no)
11: Do you know things about your father that you keep secret from your mother? (yes)

$25,000 and some long talks with Frank are now Lauren's... for now. Next up, four questions for $100,000. And those long talks are about to get longer, as at this point Wahlberg appears for a second advisory warning, mentioning the following to be the part that made him not want to air the episode.

12: Do you secretly stay in touch with any boyfriends that your husband does not know about? (no)
13: Have you ever taken off your wedding ring to appear as if you were single? (yes)
14: Do you believe you might have been in love with a former boyfriend on your wedding day? (yes)

At this point, Wahlberg is half-facepalming and telling Lauren "I can't tell you to walk away" while in the process strongly suggesting it. When she elects to continue, he just shakes his head. Lauren's aforementioned ex arrives on stage to ask the $100,000 question.

15: If I wanted to get back together with you, would you leave your husband?

Wahlberg is almost begging Frank to hit the button and swap the question out, but by now Frank's reaction is 'no, no, now I kinda want to hear this'. So Lauren's sister hits the button instead.

Fate can be cruel, Lauren's sister.

15-A: Do you believe I am the man you should be married to?

Not only was that fight not avoided, it actually got worse. Lauren said yes with disturbingly little hesitation. Coming back true (and making the skipped question easily guessable), she made it to $100,000, which by this point seems not nearly enough money to cover the costs of even attempting to undo all the damage.

So of course Lauren continues on for $200,000, three more questions away.

16: Since you've been married, have you ever had sexual relations with someone other than your husband?

Wahlberg: "I wish the button was still there."
Frank: "You're telling me."

Lauren answered yes. The answer is true. Frank is now burying his face in his hands. Lauren's face has gone cold at this point. ...well, it was prior, but now it is flat-out emotionless. Forget the long talks. There's no longer anything to talk about. This marriage has died right there on-stage.

And then reality TV rears up to give Lauren a good hard smack:

17: Do you think you're a good person?

The entire human race and several species of lichen found only in Antarctica immediately scream the answer. Frank shakes his head no before a word comes out of Lauren's mouth.

Lauren answers yes.

The lie detector begs to differ.

Game over. Lauren walks away with absolutely nothing. This is the end of the episode, and Wahlberg makes one final note in front of an empty stage:

"I honestly believe that some truths are better left unsaid. Hopefully, Lauren and her family can make peace with what happened here tonight. I wish them all the very best."

In fact, the marriage may have been doomed from the moment she was cast. As the New York Post reported:

The show's executive producer, Howard Schultz, said Lauren Cleri told him later that "she doesn't want a relationship [with her ex or her husband].

"She wanted out of her marriage, and she wanted to . . . tell the truth," Schultz told The Post.

"Perhaps some of it was then, 'If I'm going to end my marriage, then if I can win a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand dollars. I can start a new life with some cash in my pocket.' "

Asked if she went on the show to get out of her marriage, Lauren yesterday said "definitely" not.

In an update interview, Lauren noted that she and Frank split up. Or as she put it, "are no longer living under the same roof." An aspiring model, she also told the New York Post that no job offers came out of her appearance.

Considering the nature of modeling, and considering there has been no update on her since, she is in all likelihood still waiting. Her only stable job now is as a cautionary tale.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The 'Shrek Virus'

I really usually don't just post a link and be off, but... okay. There's this dating site called 'Beautiful People' that only allows beautiful people to be members.

Someone went and unleashed something called the 'Shrek Virus' that essentially allowed ugly people to storm the gates.

The article just got more utterly messed up from there. I don't comment on it mainly because of the sheer amount of dumbstruck.

No, He Didn't Vanish After Bush 41 Left Office

Sorry for nothing yesterday; was working on a larger piece I'm going to try and farm out first before I put it here.

Today, France is moving to extradite Manuel Noriega to Panama. For those of you for whom this falls into the category of 'wait, he was in France?': yes, he was. He had spent 20 years in prison in Florida for drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. In 1999, though, France tried and convicted Noriega in absentia for the money laundering. Last year, he was sent to France to begin serving the seven-year sentence handed down there.

Now, though, he faces being sent back to Panama to face charges surrounding the murder of his political opponents, after the United States offered consent for said extradition; France needed permission as Noriega's French sentence has no yet been served. Noriega, currently age 77, has the right to try to fight it; he'll have one month to start that process should he choose to do so. However, his lawyers have stated that Noriega won't stand in the way.

Panama has also tried Noriega in absentia; he stands convicted there of three counts of human rights violations. Each carries a 20-year sentence. The Latin American Herald Tribune also reports conviction on one count of corruption and one count of embezzlement.

Meanwhile, while Panama would love to have Noriega back, they would also love to be able to offload his old mansion. Two attempts to sell it at a $2.5 million asking price at auction have failed for lack of interest. The government is bound to try one more auction by Panamanian law, and if that fails too, they can drop the price by half and sell it directly.

Although to be fair to Noriega, it may not necessarily be all his fault that the place won't sell. It could also partly be the condition of the mansion itself, left to the weeds ever since Noriega's arrest. Anthony Bourdain, conduct the tour...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

When Is Green Bad?

When it's algae and it's actually blue-green and it's been found in Pigeon Lake in Peterborough County, Ontario, Canada.

Why is that bad? Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria because it's not really algae, can produce cyanotoxins into the water when harmed. These can cause all sorts of health problems up to and including Lou Gehrig's Disease. One 2005 study looked into cyanotoxins' potential military applications. We could run down a list of other potential symptoms, but those two tidbits ought to get the message across on their own: if blue-green algae is in the water, you're not if you know what's good for you.

There's also an advisory for Ohio's Buckeye Lake in Fairfield County, and it has shut down two ponds in Massachusetts and Meade State Lake in Kansas, among many others. The Great Lakes in particular have seen an explosion in blue-green algae blooms. Why? Long story short, zebra mussels, a type of mollusk that devour so much plankton and reproduce so quickly that they choke out the food supply of other fish. In the process, blue-green algae, which the zebra mussels aren't interested in, has a chance to grow unchecked.

Zebra mussels are to the Great Lakes what rabbits are to Australia: neither is supposed to be there, and in the minds of the local experts, the only good specimen is a dead one. The rabbits will eat your garden. The mussels will eat your boat, or at least clog the motor's intake valve. They'll also stick to the hull, and if not removed before the boat is used on another body of water, that body of water, if it didn't have a zebra mussel problem before, will have one now.

There's also the quagga mussel, which experts think is even worse.

The process for eradicating a land-based invasive species is long, incredibly difficult, and rarely if ever succeeds. The process for eradicating a water-based invasive species is 'yeah, good luck with that'.

You may want to stick to waterparks this year.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Swing And A Long Drive, There It Is, Number 500

This is the 500th post of the blog, and in most places, something like that might merit some sort of milestone celebration thingie.

But I spent most of the day playing in a company softball tournament, am completely spent and having not written a thing for today because I got up at 6:30 and basically just headed straight to the diamond.

So for Glorious Post #500, you get a TED talk.

...oh hell, it's a milestone, after all.

FIVE TED talks. What a guy I am. I'll give a brief description of each, view the ones you like.

First, from Long Beach, CA in March, here's John Hunter, inventor of the World Peace Game, a 4-layered game he made for a gifted class...

Also in March at Long Beach, Paul Romer gave an update on a 2009 talk he gave concerning a proposal for a charter city- a newly-built city with a particular working model you want but is too difficult to achieve by modifying an existing city. Basically, think a modification of Bender's immortal Futurama quote- go build your own city, with blackjack, and hookers...

Third, at Penn State University in October, computer security expert Bruce Schneier discusses security, and how the amount of safety we feel and the amount of safety we actually have are not the same thing...

Fourth, if anyone out there besides me is having fun with the new Discovery Channel series 'Deception with Keith Barry', here's Barry in 2004 working over an audience in Monterey, California. For those who haven't seen the series, here's a guy who loves nothing more than to hijack people's brains.

And finally, TED cheated a little bit and posted a talk from 2008's Entertainment Gathering, also in Monterey, so they could host the video of a talk from Mythbuster Adam Savage about dodo birds and the Maltese Falcon and you clicked at 'Mythbuster' don't you.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Political Bee

I've been watching two things of interest on TV lately.

(But wait, there's more!)

The first was Monday's Republican Presidential debate in New Hampshire. In my reasoned and not-at-all-biased mind of a commie pinko socialist liberal who hates America, the thing was frankly a two-hour seven-car train wreck. The consensus "winner" people seem to have decided on is a bit of a split. Some call it for Michelle Bachmann for her command of people's attention. Some call it for Mitt Romney because in a two-hour debate for a nomination that at most one out of the seven people on stage can win, and with Romney the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, the other six were given every opportunity to try to beat on him to drag his numbers down and seemed to actively avoid it as if to concede New Hampshire to Romney straightaway.

Gun to my head, I fall in the Romney camp. Unless the other six are trying to be Romney's running mate, failing to attack him made absolutely no sense. But then, neither did much else on Monday night. From where I sat, everyone was acting as if the general election were a week away and that, aside from whoever happened to be speaking, Barack Obama were the only other one on stage. And also that there was no moderator; anything CNN's John King asked was almost guaranteed to be taken as a suggested topic rather than a direct question to be answered, even if King made an explicit appeal to answer the original question.

No matter what the topic eventually turned out to be, most answers would inevitably end up as either a direct attack on Obama, a proposal to privatize something or other, or both. Newt Gingrich, most bewilderingly, suggested that privatizing NASA after the moon landing in 1969 would have been preferable to what we have actually done since, claiming that if we had privatized after 1969, we would "probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles." Romney, who you'll remember I had pegged as the "winner," implied to King if not outright stated that we cannot afford to fund disaster relief efforts. Herman Cain, asked about not being comfortable with having a Muslim in his cabinet, answered that "I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims- those that are trying to kill us. And so when I said I wouldn't be comfortable, I was thinking about the ones who are trying to kill us."

I'll spare you the rest. Suffice to say, you wonder just how people like this have been able to penetrate the highest, most important level of debate this nation can offer. You- at this point I am of course brainwashing you to think in a way that lets this article progress smoothly- realize that, with the exception of Cain, the voters at some point allowed all of these people to hold public office at a high level. You wonder if there isn't some way to nip these people in the bud before they get this far. Perhaps one could create an easy-to-understand, generally-acceptable, and above all reliable way to tell who at least knows enough of what they're doing to where they won't completely embarrass themselves.

I have to do everything for you people, don't I?

It so happens that the second TV show of interest was the National Geography Bee, coming fairly on the heels of the National Spelling Bee. In both competitions, you have some of the smartest kids in our elementary and middle schools facing off against each other in those two respective fields until only one remains to claim a big scholarship, among other prizes. Both bees, at their national finals, are full of kids with obviously bright futures ahead of them. After all, they just proved to a nationwide audience that they're smarter than millions of their peers in their age group. That tends to look good on a resume.

So why not make a Political Bee?

A Political Bee, as I imagine it, would consist of the kind of questions that we would expect an elected official to know the answers to. You can do this without being explicitly partisan. You couldn't ask, for example, 'Which economic system is better, that of John Maynard Keynes or that of Adam Smith', but you could ask 'Which economist first described the marketplace as an 'invisible hand'?' (Smith.) The general rule is, if Alex Trebek could use the information in Jeopardy, you could use it here. Remember, this is not a debate. This is a quiz, with explicit right and wrong answers.

Among the things that would work in a Political Bee:

*Knowledge of various issues important to the catchment area of the participants (the scope of questions would be scaled up or down depending on the level of competition; more on this in a bit)
*General and political history of the catchment area
*Electoral maps of previous elections
*How specific people in a particular legislative body voted on a certain major bill in the past (this wouldn't necessarily have to be recent- don't think TARP, think the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)
*How a particular person voted over time on a variety of bills
*The rules and procedures of the political process relevant to the catchment area
*An ethics round- various ethical dilemmas are presented, a solution provided, and the question is, do the rules say that was an appropriate solution

Questions would be scaled depending on the level of competition- at the local level, the school level (or sponsor level depending on how you conduct the preliminaries), kids would be asked local-level questions. In the written test to qualify for state, they get bumped up to county- and district-level matters. At the state level, they get asked questions about the entire state. Only in the national finals do questions about foreign policy, Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidency come into play. Why is this? Because not every politician is going to make it to the federal level. There are state legislators, mayors and city aldermen all over the place, though. Each level of the bee would be designed to test your capability to lead at that specific level. As you progress further into the bee, you get tested for bigger and bigger offices. Ideally, the last few standing would be kids fit to run for Congress.

These kids, and all others who had any sort of a showing in the bee, could then, ideally, use their bee performance as part of a campaign resume, should they decide to pursue politics. Voters would know just how far they got, and therefore, what level we could be reasonably certain they'd be fit for. If you won at school level, you proved you would be a good local official.

This has historical precedent. As we noted here back in April, China had for 1,300 years the Imperial Examination system, in which you essentially tested into the ability to hold high-level government jobs, and could make multiple attempts at it. In fact, the more I look at it, the more the Political Bee starts to resemble the exams themselves- different levels of exams for different levels of service; the ability to just brush yourself off after failing and try again next year; the general principle that anyone from any corner of the country, provided they test well enough, can prove themselves capable of leading at the highest levels.

There were two main problems with the exam system, aside from the emphasis on rote learning, but the bee can fix them easily enough. The first was corruption and cheating- some Chinese emperors cancelled exams and simply sold the political positions- but unless students are buying answers to questions, that won't be much of a concern. (And if it does get out that a participant in a Political Bee cheated, that's the kind of problem the voters can fix in a heartbeat when that person tries to run for office later.) The second is cost- studying for the exams was sometimes so expensive that only the elite could afford to do so. In this day and age, however, that's less of a concern than ever. Anyone with access to a computer or a library or even City Hall can study for a Political Bee. The only real issue is finding schools and/or sponsors willing to host the preliminaries.

Whether the eventual products of the Political Bee eventually use those smarts to do good or harm is ultimately up to them. But at the very least, we know those smarts will exist.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hold My Beer And Watch This

Guns and beer in Wisconsin are things that, even if you've never partaken in either, are pervasive in your daily life.

The beer should be obvious. For Bucky's sake, we have a professional baseball team called the Brewers, and they play at Miller Park. Milwaukee prides itself on being a beer capital, even if the major breweries have mostly moved away or folded. In some towns- like mine- drinking is almost a requirement in order to have any semblance of a social life.

On the flip side, state pride in beer leads to extremely lax drunk-driving laws, exacerbated by the fact that the state has the highest percentage of drunk drivers in the nation. Wisconsin is the only state in America where a first-offense DUI is not a crime, but rather a mere traffic ticket, this designation holding even after a toughening of drunk-driving laws in late 2009. Wisconsin also rates highly in underage and binge drinking, sometimes leading in one or both.

As for guns, every year, deer season comes along in the fall. And every year when I was in school, when deer season came along, half the class would vanish for at least one day, maybe several. They were out hunting. This is no exaggeration. Half, sometimes more. On one occasion in college, so many of my classmates were out hunting that class was cancelled. I'm positive that those of you in hunting-intensive regions have similar stories.

And what is a time-honored part of modern-day hunting? Drinking, of course.

These factors should have at least prepared me a bit for this study out of UC-Davis, but it proved no less troubling. According to the study, people who carry concealed weapons, and who engage in various irresponsible gun-related behaviors, are more likely to drink heavily- and drive drunk- than people who don't own guns. And the more dangerous the behavior, the more likely you are to drink heavily. One example showed that people who drive with loaded guns in their car were twice as likely to drink heavily as gun-owners who don't, who were in turn twice as likely to drink heavily as non-gun owners.

The data was gathered from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, using the results of a phone poll done over eight states in 1996 and 1997- the most recent data available. The eight states are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota and Ohio.

The article, and study director Garen J. Wintermute, note that four states explicitly allow concealed guns in bars: Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia. There is a provision that this is dependent on the person not drinking alcohol, but as Wintermute notes, because the gun is concealed, it seems difficult to enforce.

Wintermute notes the age of the data used, and calls for more research, with more recent data, to be done on the relationship between guns and alcohol. He will likely run into trouble, though. The only early responses we have are the comments in the linked article, and all eight comments as of this writing allege Wintermute of having an anti-gun bias.

They've had plenty of run-ins with Wintermute before. By 2007, he had racked up over 50 published articles on gun violence. Among his work is this piece on sales at gun shows, this piece exploring the risk factors of recently-purchased handguns being used in a crime or as part of trafficking, and this piece (PDF) on recently-purchased guns being used for suicides.

As the scientific community holds, though, that doesn't constitute a bias. Just a trend.

And as the trend goes any time Wintermute releases a study, he's in for another earful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Updates, Updates, Three Bags Full

I've been getting a little overboard with my writing hours lately and it caused me to bonk on Sunday at the job that actually pays me money after I forgot to eat lunch. This explains the off day I took yesterday.

Let's see if I can avoid being so monumentally stupid in the future.

Today, there's a little bit of updating we need to do. First, Duke Nukem Forever ships today. A delay (what else?) forced it to today from the May 3 date reported here back in January. Review copies are in, scores have been given.

How is it? Bad. Really bad. Screamingly bad. Intestine-twistingly bad. Maybe-it-would-have-been-better-to-remain-a-joke bad.

Sorry, fellow Penny Arcader slash000. (That pre-order is dated 2001, just in case the text is too small for you.)

Secondly, a second sustained protest has emerged in Madison; I attended the earlier one back in February. This is a little tent village set up across the street from Capitol Square, albeit a somewhat disorganized one, as Russ Feingold found out when he dropped by for a visit on Sunday. The AV Club- the Onion's non-satire branch with local coverage of Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver/Boulder, Austin and Philadelphia- has further current updates in the linked article on Wisconsin's ongoing partisan battle to the death. (Battle does not actually entail death.) Things are moving rather quickly now as the recall election ballots get scheduled and confirm their various challengers, and also as Republicans gear up to pass the budget that started the whole mess in the first place for a second time; the first attempt has been mired in a legal battle over the procedure used. This second run is sounding the alarm enough on the Democratic side that we may have a much larger protest once again.

Finally, back on March 5, I passed along Microsoft's request for you to stop using it. Microsoft's goal is to get worldwide IE6 usage down below 1% so providers can save themselves the hassle of supporting it.

As of then, worldwide usage was 12%. Norway and Finland were under the 1% threshold. As of now, the percentage is 10.9% still on IE6, with Sweden and Denmark now also under 1%. About half of the people still using it are from China, which still shows 33.9% usage of IE6. South Korea shows 22.3% usage, Vietnam 11.6%, India 11.5%, and Taiwan at 8.6% rounds out the bottom 5. The United States currently sits at 2.3%, with Canada and the UK both at 2.7%.

Also, sometime in the past month, someone rolled into here using Netscape. What's up with that?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You've Got It Soft

So you think television's going downhill. You think reality TV is rotting America's brain. You think our society couldn't possibly come up with anything worse than Teen Mom or 19 Kids and Counting or anything involving a Kardashian.

Uh uh. Fellow children of the 90's, let me lay out to you what our moms and dads, grandparents as well, went through. And be glad you're not them.

First off, you complain about reality overtaking all several hundred of the channels you've got. Here's the thing, though: you have several hundred channels. You only have to find something halfway watchable on one of them at a time. I can manage that much; i don't know about you. I have two 'default' channels alone- MLB Network and CNN International- that I go to in an emergency if nothing else is on. In our parents' day, that would be unthinkable. Laughable. Cable simply didn't exist. You had three channels, maybe four (ABC, NBC, CBS, and the now-long-deceased DuMont), back at the start of the TV era. If there's garbage on four channels now, you've got hundreds of others. If there's garbage on four channels then, you're watching garbage or you're watching nothing.

But more importantly, back then, shows were just as dumb as they are now. You could argue that they were even dumber, because a) the networks were still just feeling their way out from radio and had no idea what worked yet, b) a lot of shows were just straight carryovers from radio, and c) audiences simply weren't as sophisticated as they are now. The 50's were the era of pies in the face and not being able to say the word 'pregnant' because it would be too shocking. Laugh tracks had a long way to go before audiences realized they were being treated as too dumb to know for themselves when to laugh.

You have TV Tropes. Your parents, to say the least, did not.

In addition, any show format that survived was likely to be in its absolute most primitive form. So if a TV executive wanted to tug at your heartstrings, odds are you weren't getting a subtle, well-crafted, well-edited tear jerker. No, no. They were just going to shove melodrama right down your throat.

Enter Queen For A Day.

Now, you might have heard of Queen For A Day offhand at some point, and it's likely you heard of the show's gist as: housewives took turns giving the biggest sob stories they could come up with, and the one who gave the best sob story won enough prizes to open their own shopping mall, which they would also win. And then the winner would cry a bunch more in the process.

Yeah, pretty much.

Please excuse the static- this obviously came off a tape- as you see what your parents and grandparents had to watch in the 50's. Women in the audience, it is at this time that the management asks you to please put down any large, blunt Mack trucks you may have on hand, as your electronic device of choice may end up crushed underneath them otherwise..

Aren't you glad you don't have to watch that?

I mean, again?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mr. Akaka

The Washington Post on Thursday noted that in the current Senate, over 32% of total session time was spent on quorum calls. In practice, this usually entails calling the name of the first Senator alphabetically- in this case, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii- and then sitting around doing nothing because every single Senator is off doing something else. Maybe they're in a committee meeting. Maybe they're in their office. Maybe they're in their home state. Maybe they're in a round of Team Fortress 2. They're not on the Senate floor is what matters, and so C-SPAN plays classical music just to break up the static image on the screen.

The Post shows this as nothing getting done. And really, not much is. The Senate is only barely functional at this particular juncture and the increase in quorum call time is a reflection of that. But I would argue that there is a silver lining here.

The quorum calls serve to cut down on what I've come to call 'kabuki theater'.

I've used the phrase before, but I've never really delved too much into just what kabuki theater is. Kabuki theater is any political event that looks good for the cameras, that gives the media something to do and something to debate, but functionally accomplishes little and serves little practical purpose. It is anything that is a functional waste of everyone's time that could better be spent doing something else.

Kabuki theater is the daily White House press briefing that breaks no news and features a man who is very possibly the most out of the loop of anyone in the White House.

Kabuki theater is the debate featuring candidates who have memorized heavily scripted responses to every question the moderator is likely to ask, methods of railroading an unanticipated question back into scripted territory, and finely-tuned zingers to use in response to the response you have been briefed that your opponent will give, all of which results in the debate invariably being called a tie.

Kabuki theater is any speech given on a legislative chamber floor to an empty room.

Kabuki theater is any debate taking place on a legislative chamber floor the occurs despite all involved knowing at that moment exactly how everyone will vote regardless of what is being said, and who is going to get their way when all is said and done.

Kabuki theater is any debate on a political talk show that consists entirely of everyone yelling over each other and ends after five minutes with 'we'll have to leave it there' and a commercial break.

Kabuki theater is the default setting for most politicians skilled enough to make it to the federal level, any time they think there's a camera around. (Emphasis on 'skilled enough'. If this year has shown us one thing about state-level politics, it is that state legislatures are comparable to the minor leagues. There are people at that level who just aren't talented or seasoned enough to make it at the higher level, and you can see why.)

Kabuki theater, by definition, does not happen when everyone thinks the cameras are off.

This puts us in a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, if the things that happen on-camera are contrived and functionally useless, it would logically pay to put politics off-camera more often, or at least make it appear off-camera. After all, if there's no camera, kabuki theater cannot exist.

On the other hand, doing so would mean we have less of an idea what they're doing, and trying to eliminate most- maybe any- of these elements outright would probably just result in a lot of talk about smoke-filled backrooms and the Death of an Informed Populace. Who knows whose votes are being changed or even bought? And what, or who, made them change sides?

The solution really depends on the situation. What's the mentality of the people currently in office. remember that this is a job where the employees are in a constant mental arms race with each other. Anything put in place to solve Problem A will, sooner or later, be met with Loophole B. The rules and conventions thus have to shift and adapt to whatever legislative mentality may arise.

It also depends what you want out of your government. What attributes, if you had to choose, do you value over others. Do you most value openness? Do you most value compromise? Do you most value the quick passage of bills? Do you most value politicians simply buckling down and getting to work? Each answer requires different solutions.

There may even be the odd person that thinks, given the specific batch of people in office, the less they do, the better, and so the more time spent on kabuki theater, the less time spent actually passing bills. But it's reasonable to think that these people are in the vast minority.

The specific solutions aren't easy. I'm not going to promise anything of the sort. But the one thing that is certain is that simply stomping one's feet and going 'Fix it NOW! Shame on you!' isn't really going to help. Just yelling at them to stop the kabuki theater isn't going to make them stop. That's not enough. You need a plan. (You can always vote the offenders out, but remember that's far from a cure-all. The replacements may very well bring problems of their own.)
In the two previous pieces concerning kabuki theater, I put plans forward for press briefings and debates.

It might be that quorum calls are the solution to useless, time-wasting speeches on the Senate floor. The Senators once conducted most or all of their business from their desks on the floor, and now they have other venues of business as well. But then again, it might not. The time-wasting kabuki theater speeches can and will still be given, but at a later time or date.

I really am stuck on a solution, or even if there is a solution to be had. Aside from 'vote them out', any ideas?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Maybe It's Because

One particular group of commercials has drawn my ire lately.

No, but that's a really good guess.

Wrong aga-- wait, huh? What? Really? Wow. Just wow.

While these ads are undoubtedly the scrambled transmissions of the Hell-damned desperately trying to communicate their pleas for salvation to the living, they are not our focus here. No, we're focusing on ads that use a certain weasel phrase, one of the many, many finely-tuned techniques designed to separate you from your money or your vote.

That phrase is "Maybe it's because."

The typical set-up for the phrase will be for the ad to ask a question of some sort. A company may ask why their products are so popular or sell so well. A candidate for office might ask why their opponent voted a certain way, holds a certain view, or said or did a certain thing.

They will then answer their own question, starting with the phrase "Maybe it's because..."

Everything said after "Maybe it's because..." should be taken with enough salt to cure every pig in the old Chicago stockyards.

Why? Any definitive, absolute statement in an ad must be proven via FCC rules. If you make a claim without a qualification, and you're wrong, that's false advertising. With a qualification, however- any qualification- you give yourself much more legal leeway. If you make a "100% guarantee" on something, any failure of that guarantee can get you in trouble. But if you make a "virtually 100% guarantee", you have some protection when, say, someone's birth control pill fails. (As Violet Whittington of West Virginia found out in court against Eli Lilly in 1971.) You didn't actually promise 100% success. The "virtually" instilled doubt, at least for legal purposes.

"Maybe it's because" is another one of those qualifiers. Once you've said "maybe it's because," the rest of the sentence can be almost anything you want. It may be the reason. It may not. Your answer may be a total non-sequitur, or a weasel-laden string of words in and of itself.

The unspoken message given is 'Maybe it's the reason. But then, maybe it's not. Who knows? Not us. We're just speculating. It's a potential answer, but not necessarily the actual answer.' Of course, they'll never venture a second guess. And whatever their answer is, any relationship between it and the actual answer is likely to be entirely coincidental.

And that's assuming the question doesn't have flaws of its own. Take this Toyota ad...

The question is why "so many" car companies compare themselves to Toyota. But "so many" isn't defined in any way. All that you can really take from the question is that a plural amount of car companies compare themselves to Toyota. Obviously it's more than that, but you don't get a count. More to the point, you don't get a comparative count- whether more companies compare themselves to Toyota, or compare themselves to Toyota more often, than they do other companies. Maybe they in fact get more comparisons than others. But maybe they don't. Maybe other companies compare themselves more often to Ford, or Honda, or BMW.

And even if they kept a count, maybe Toyota's only counting Japanese car companies, or are using a friendly time frame, or any number of other things. It's not explicitly stated what exactly they mean by the question, and in an ad, if it's not stated explicitly, it's up for some pretty wild interpretation.

The actual "maybe it's because" answer, by the time it's given, is a naked excuse to tout sales rankings. Maybe they compare because Toyota has the sales. But then, maybe it's because the closest comparable car to whatever it is they made happens to be a Toyota. Maybe they like how their car stacks up against a Toyota. Maybe they were pouncing on Toyota's bad publicity gained from their accelerator/floor mat recalls. Maybe a Toyota ran over the opposition ad man's dog. Who knows? Who can truly know why a man does what he does? Certainly not Toyota. All they can do is speculate as to the mysteries of man.

Or, failing that, create their own.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Please Stop Talking About Some Guy's Clothed Wood

I'm not going to speak on the political implications of the whole Anthony Weiner scandal except to say that it is inescapable and that I would like to escape it. What Weiner did was dumb. That's undeniable. But I'm not clear on how dumb tweeting choices adversely affect one's ability to govern. One has to wonder just how misplaced our priorities are when the nation can, with high unemployment and a looming debt ceiling crisis and the ongoing labor battles, find itself so thoroughly distracted by a picture of a bump in a Congressman's pants. There's been more reaction to this picture than to bin Laden's proof-of-death photo.

And really, how much of this is being spurred on by the mere fact that the guy's name is Weiner? How much do we sound like one giant episode of Beavis and Butthead?

All this whole ordeal is really going to accomplish is to drive people away from the prospect of public office, as Mario Almonte of the Huffington Post exposits. We're sending the message that we care less about 20 years of public service than we do one tweet. It doesn't even take actual sex anymore. Just a bump in the pants and maybe a shot of you without your shirt.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi can be a straight-up dirty old man and be permitted to leave on his terms at a time of his choosing, weathering every storm.

That off my (clothed) chest, we might as well try and learn something from this mess, so here's Robert Weiss, founding director of the Sexual Recovery Institute, explaining the psychological aspects of why people do things like what Weiner did.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


The Chicago Cubs are not having a good season. Their record, as of today, is third-worst in baseball; the injury bug has not been kind; bad multiyear contracts abound; the players in the bad contracts aren't good trade bait; they're owed too much money to release; you can't very well send them to the minors and bring up someone else, so all you can do is watch bad players lose again and again. Manager Mike Quade and general manager Jim Hendry are both on the hot seat. I have contemplated wearing a paper bag over my head.

But I'm a Cubs fan. It could be worse.

MLB Network likes to do what they call a Prime 9 list- a top-ten list, but with nine items. "Why nine? That's baseball. Nine players, nine innings, Prime 9." With apologies to them, here's my Prime 9- or Subprime 9, more to the point- of the darkest hours in Chicago Cubs history...

9. Sammy Sosa's role in the steroid era
8. The June Swoon, 1977-79
7. The College of Coaches
6. Ball goes through Leon Durham's legs in 1984 NLCS
5. The black cat at Shea Stadium heralding the collapse of 1969
4. Trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio
3. Curse of the Billy Goat placed
2. Steve Bartman's foul ball in 2003 NLCS
1. Cap Anson

Cap Anson was one of baseball's first all-time greats. He was the first man to reach 3,000 hits (though the exact number has long been in dispute), played a still-record 27 consecutive seasons (and was the only player to do so at all until Nolan Ryan), and pioneered such things as the third-base coach, spring training, the hit-and-run, and the pitching rotation. His name is still, to this day, featured prominently in the Cubs' record book.

Because of his skill, he was also a very influential racist.

In the 1880's, Reconstruction was on the ropes, as ex-Confederates in the south took any means they deemed necessary to restore their pre-Civil War way of life. And, of course, the pre-Civil War way of life entailed treating blacks as subhuman, and treating people who gave blacks basic humanity as an enemy to be dealt with harshly. The period was rapidly approaching, 1890-1940, that historian Rayford Logan described first as "the nadir of American race relations", a period that might make one wonder if the Civil War had actually settled anything at all.

It is in this environment that the first black player in major league history took the field. It wasn't Jackie Robinson; he would not break through until 1947, after the nadir had passed. In order for Robinson to break through the color barrier, someone had to have put it up.

And so we return to the 1880's. In 1883, Moses Fleetwood Walker signed as a catcher with the Toledo Blue Stockings. It should be noted that catchers did not have any of the equipment back then that they do today. There was no catcher's mask, no pads, not even a glove. Nobody had a glove. You were catching everything the pitcher threw barehanded. Catchers as a result proved a perpetually-endangered species by default. (Here is an 1889 photo of the hands of catcher Doug Allison. Either that year or the year after, Allison would become the first known catcher to don a glove.) Despite several prior years of strong play, Walker was subjected several times to opponents who refused to play if he was permitted on the field. Sometimes he was allowed to play. Sometimes he wasn't.

On August 10, 1883, the then-Chicago White Stockings, led by Anson, arrived in Toledo for an exhibition game. Anson, like the others before him, refused to play with Walker on the field.

Or, as Anson put it that day, "Get that n****r off the field!"

Anson relented only when told that the White Stockings would forfeit unless Walker was allowed to play-- "We'll play this game here, but we won't play never no more with the n****r in." The irony here is that Walker was scheduled to take an off day anyway, but after Anson spoke up, Walker was inserted. Not to make a statement, but rather to see if Anson would forfeit, and therefore, give up his share of the gate receipts.

Walker, who was suffering injury, played in right field. Chicago won 7-6; (PDF) Walker was the only Toledo player without a hit. He did, however, reach base on an error, scored a run, and was serviceable in right due to having a much better glove (so to speak) than bat.

The following year, Toledo had joined the professional ranks of the American Association, and would see the White Stockings again on July 25, but this time, Anson had procured an agreement in writing that Walker would not play. (Chicago won that game 10-8. Anson had a home run in the 4th.)

Walker was not in much of a position to perform in any case. His batterymate, pitcher Tony Mullane, also harbored racist tendencies. According to Mullane, "[Walker] was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used anything I wanted without looking at his signals." As a result, Walker- the unpadded, ungloved catcher- was bombarded all season long with pitches he was not ready for, suffering a series of injuries, and ultimately being limited to 42 games. He batted .263 with 23 runs, two doubles and three triples. RBI's were not recorded. Despite the game limitation, Mullane's deliberate failures in communication caused Walker to lead the league in passed balls.

Walker would not get another chance for Toledo. While he could, with great difficulty, handle the prejudice of other players, Anson's influence was simply too strong. Even for the era, Anson's racism was, for lack of a better word, pioneering. People followed his example. There is dispute as to whether Walker's release at the end of the season was due to his injuries or due to the color barrier being put into place by the American Association.

Walker had not seen the last of Anson, though. He continued his career in the minor leagues, and in 1887, he turned up with the International League's Newark Little Giants, and drew a much friendlier arm: George Stovey, a fellow black player. They formed the first black battery in baseball history.

Stovey had had his own run-in with Anson during the offseason. The New York Giants made an attempt to sign Stovey for 1887. However, after Anson, who shared a league with the Giants, protested vehemently, the Giants relented. Newark claimed Stovey instead.

A few months of harsh treatment from fans later, the White Stockings arrived on July 11. Walker was off that day, but Stovey was set to pitch. Once again, upon seeing a black in uniform, Anson screamed "Get that n****r off the field!" But unlike in 1883, this time he would not back down for anything. Stovey, not wishing to embarrass Newark's management, faked an injury and was forced to the bench.

Cap Anson is not the only racist element in the formation of baseball's color barrier. That has already been shown, and ultimately, the owners could have signed whoever they wanted whether Anson liked it or not. But he was the opinion-driving straw that broke the camel's back. On the same day as Anson's forcing Stovey from the diamond, the International League voted 6-4 to institute what was in the day called the "gentleman's agreement" to not sign any new black players from their rosters. Over the next decade, all other professional leagues would do likewise. Despite winning 33 games, Stovey was released from Newark at the end of the season. (So was everyone else; Newark went bust in 1888.)

Anson was still not done with Walker. In 1888 and 1889, Walker, not a new black player, had found himself with the International League's Syracuse Stars. Anson's White Stockings turned up again in September 1888, and again Walker was forced to the bench.

Walker, for his part, was a shattered man after being so forcibly separated from baseball. He had been born on the Underground Railroad, and now he had been driven back from whence he came. He would try to find other pursuits- he obtained US Patent 458026 (PDF) in 1891 for an exploding artillery shell, applied for other patents on motion-picture equipment, even published a weekly newspaper- but ultimately, he could not escape the nadir of race relations. In April 1891, Walker was confronted and attacked by a group of whites in Syracuse. In self-defense, Walker pulled a knife and stabbed one of his assailants, Patrick Murray. The knife wound, entering Murray's groin, proved fatal. Now the whites wanted to kill Walker. He escaped, but was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder. In the nadir of race relations, especially in the South, a black could expect to be convicted, but in Syracuse, Walker was acquitted. Amazingly, the jury that acquitted him was all-white.

Walker, however, over the years would turn to the bottle, and as race relations deteriorated further, he abandoned all hope of integration. In 1908, Walker, fully embittered by a nation that had repeatedly wronged him, published a pamphlet (47 pages was considered a pamphlet back then) titled Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. In the pamphlet, Walker advocated that blacks return to Africa, feeling that "separation of the races is the only true solution."

Meanwhile, in 1907, Anson created a semipro team called Anson's Colts. One theory goes that Anson, being the best player in his day, was concerned about black talent potentially overshadowing him, and that part of his campaign against integration was a desire to shrink the talent pool so that he might maintain his status at the top. This may explain why, after his prime had passed and he was relegated to the semipro ranks, Anson was willing to take the field against black players. In fact, in 1908, the same year Walker released Our Home Colony, Anson's Colts played against an all-black team, Leland's Giants. Anson would even consent to a photo with black manager Rube Foster.

But it no longer mattered what Anson thought of black baseball players. The damage he had contributed to, caused and inspired had been done. Foster had no alternative but to found the Negro Leagues, and all other black players had no alternative but to bide their time until 1947.

Were Walker to gaze upon Wrigley Field today, the home of the Cubs, he would see something that would please him, and something that would not. The names of six players fly from the foul poles at Wrigley, their names honored and their numbers retired. Two commentators, Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray, are also honored, albeit not with flags. The bad news for Walker is that Jackie Robinson, the man whose number 42 was retired across Major League Baseball in 1997, is not among those names.

The good news for Walker is that Anson, a future Hall of Famer, is not honored at Wrigley either.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fork You

It's been a while since you've had a science project to not try at home because mom's going to freak when she sees what you've done with her forks.

This is going to be a two-parter. First, we show the trick.

And then, we explain it. The video allows you the option of the long version or the short version. The long version takes 12 minutes; the short version takes six.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bring Me My Hasenpfeffer

The Looney Tunes gang is enjoying a rebirth as of late on Cartoon Network, with not only a new program, 'The Looney Tunes Show', but also the airing of the old classic shorts.

The thing is, though, the old classic shorts are, well, old. Some of the references made in the old cartoons may be downright incomprehensible to modern eyes and ears. The "newer" of the classics aren't any newer than the 1960's.

So, for the benefit of those just growing up with Looney Tunes now, let's go over a couple of them.

WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Fed to Sylvester, causing his mouth to pucker up. Also fed to an opera singer, causing his head to shrink.

The Straight Dope explained alum back in 1999. Alum is used for these gags because it's an astringent- that is to say, it shrinks tissue. Because it's Looney Tunes, though, you don't see alum's alternative effect as an emetic. What's an emetic? Something that induces vomiting. Also, despite being an ingredient in cooking and pickling, you don't want it on the final product, not only because of the vomiting, but because an ounce of the stuff constitutes a lethal dose.

Sylvester and the opera singer got way more than an ounce.

WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Sung by the opera singer while his head shrinks. Also in a couple other cartoons that are basically music videos for classical numbers you mostly don't hear outside of those cartoons.

Obviously, it's an opera reference. Figaro is the name of the main character in a series of three plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais: The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Guilty Mother. The Barber of Seville would go on to be covered by Giovanni Paisiello and Gioachino Rossini; The Marriage of Figaro would be covered by Mozart. Figaro was the namesake barber.

*Come with me to the casbah
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Said by Pepe le Pew while he's being horny again.

Pepe uses it in reference to a 1938 film called Algiers, the first American film featuring Hedy Lamarr. Pepe himself took his name from the film's main character, Pepe Le Moko. It took four Oscar nominations, though it didn't win any of them. The 'casbah' is the citadel of Algiers and the surrounding area. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though degrading because of neglect and due to being a popular terrorist hideout. If someone offers today to come with them to the Casbah, run. Just run. Run far, far away in the opposite direction.

The film's in the public domain, so have a ball.

*Gas House Gorillas
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: The baseball team Bugs beats all by himself in the 1946 short 'Baseball Bugs'.

This is a play on the 'Gas House Gang', a nickname given to the 1934 champion St. Louis Cardinals. Leo Durocher coined the term, saying of the American League "They think we're just a bunch of gas housers." This was in reference to, well, gas houses, factories that produced coal gas, the forerunner to natural gas. They were dirty and smelled bad, much like the Cardinals' uniforms, which didn't go in the wash very often.

WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: When Bugs Bunny and a gremlin are in a plane that is about to crash and suddenly stops because it ran out of gas.

This was 'Falling Hare', made in 1943, during World War 2. At that point in time, fuel rationing was in effect. Cards- or stickers, really- were issued to American vehicles permitting them to buy certain amounts of gas. An A sticker was the most common and lowest-grade. It entitled the driver to 3-4 gallons of gas a week and that was it. A B sticker was for people whose driving was deemed essential to the war effort; they could get eight gallons a week. Further up the ladder, C stickers went to more critical people such as doctors and mailmen, T stickers were for truckers, and finally, there was the X sticker, meaning you were so important- police, fire, civil defense, a member of Congress- that it was essential that you get unlimited supplies.

The problem wasn't that we were short on gas. We were short on rubber. The Japanese had seized land in Southeast Asia that had served as our main rubber supply. More driving means more wear on tires means more strain on the rubber supply. Since driving faster also wore tires down, a blanket speed limit of 35 miles per hour was put into play for the duration. Also, you were not allowed to own more than five tires; any excess was confiscated for the war effort.

*Was this trip really necessary?
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Right after someone crashes into a wall.

The fuel rationing again. You were not supposed to be using the fuel you did get to take leisure drives.

*Wendell Willkie
WHERE YOU'VE SEEN IT: Whem Bugs wonders if that's a gremlin, the gremlin screams in his ear 'IT AIN'T VENDELL VILLKIE!'

Wendell Willkie was the Republican candidate for President in 1940- at the time of the cartoon, the most recent election. He was the guy standing in the way of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's unprecedented third term, and was steamrolled 449 electoral votes to 82. Were a similar joke made today, the gremlin would just plug in John McCain's name instead. Or, actually, as Willkie had never held political office before or since, and McCain has been a long-timer in the Senate, he might reference Sarah Palin, or maybe Donald Trump.

Willkie never really had a chance. His campaign was built on Roosevelt breaking the two-term tradition (and warning that Roosevelt would lead the country into war), but given the alternative of the party many still blamed for the Great Depression, the effects of which had not yet fully been shaken, voters were more than willing to try something different. According to his 1971 biography, Wendell Willkie: Fighter for Freedom, Willkie was met with people who threw rotten fruit at him. At one point in Pontiac, Michigan, someone connected with an egg, and the media gleefully splashed across the front page the image of an egg-stained Willkie, or at least his wife. At Grand Rapids, someone chucked a rock through his train car. Both images are shown in an issue of LIFE dated October 14, 1940, respectively on pages 25 and 24. (With bonus picture on page 23 of what someone who's just been skulled by a 5-pound metal wastebasket might look like.)

As for it being pronounced "Vendell Villkie" by the gremlin, that calls back to an incident at the Republican convention where the North Dakota delegate spoke with a Scandinavian accent. His accented pronunciation of Willkie's name went viral (or the 1940 equivalent of viral). As told in Boxing the Kangaroo: A Reporter's Memoir by Robert J. Donovan, the delegate said "North Dakota casts four votes for Senator Taft and four votes for Vendell Villkie." The speaker asked "For who?" The delegate repeated "For Vendell Villkie." The speaker told him to spell it. The joke evidently had enough legs to still be around three years later.

At the 71-year mark, though, it gets a bit stale.