Friday, September 30, 2011

Welcome To The Jungle

This week, CNN has been running a series based on one question: why is the American government so broken? To claim that it's not is at this point almost comically ridiculous.

(In other news, William J. Bennett is almost comically ridiculous.)

As part of this series, CNN's iReport is soliciting ideas as to how to improve matters. Not that we've needed much provocation around these parts. But hey, what's one more for the occasion. I'm not averse to tossing out whatever idea crosses my mind and seeing what comes of it.

Let's start with one of the most common complaints: a two-party system that breeds, more than ever, a string of highly-charged partisan contests and highly-charged partisan government, if there is government at all. That's largely a natural consequence of our existing election format, commonly called first-past-the-post. In essence, first-past-the-post means there's one winner and second place gets jack squat. No matter how much you make noise about third parties, as long as you have first-past-the-post, the number of candidates that seriously contest will naturally reduce to two. People want to win at the end of the day. There's no place for making 'statement' votes when you want to win. You just want someone who stands a chance of winning, and however many candidates you start with, any time one falls far enough behind, supporters start jumping ship to a contender. The logical end point is that they jump ship and jump ship some more until two candidates remain.

The most common alternative presented is called 'single transferable vote', where you rank the candidates in order of preference. The votes are counted, and trailing candidates are removed- and their votes transferred to each voter's next choice- until someone gets a majority. But in a sense, that kind of happens now, naturally, in first-past-the-post, as the trailing candidates are knocked out of the race entirely.

Besides, we already use something much better.

From my observation, whenever it enters the public consciousness, probably the most popular voting format currently used in the United States, in terms of approval rating, is the jungle primary. In a jungle primary, instead of candidates from separate parties segregated into what amounts to a semifinal, every candidate in the field is pitted against all the others in a free-for-all, with the top two candidates advancing to the general election regardless of their party. The figuring is, with enough candidates from all sides of the political spectrum, you have to focus more on doing your own thing and making voters like you as opposed to making them hate the others. It's just more economical a use of resources.

But there are only two winners in a jungle primary. It's still too easy to focus on destroying the contenders.

What if there were 435 winners?

Another commonly-cited problem with Congress is the concept of gerrymandering- redrawing districts for maximum political advantage. It's a problem as old as the country and which has been complained about just as long. In a sense, though, state borders are a sort of passive gerrymandering: the borders determine where you can draw districts, and because every state must have at least one seat, it can give overrepresentation to underpopulated areas and vice versa.

Both problems, and several more besides, can be fixed in one fell swoop by eliminating all concept of district lines, including state lines, and creating a single, national jungle-style House election.

Here's how it would work:

*Every candidate, regardless of party, is permitted as many candidates as they wish to run. Once they get approved for the ballot, they get to skip the primary and proceed directly to the general election; there is no preliminary elimination round. However, because of the sheer amount of candidates, none of them will actually be on the ballot. They will all be write-in. Getting on the ballot merely makes you "election-eligible" (really just another term for having ballot access now), meaning votes for you will count and votes for people not on the ballot- say, Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, unless someone is actually named those things- won't count. Every candidate must run under a unique name (you can use middle names or initials to make this work), so that election officials know who to credit with which votes.

*On Election Day, a voter may select their favorite five candidates, or whatever number seems most appropriate. (We're not going to ask them to cast 435 votes.) If the voter can't remember anyone, they can request a catalog which every precinct will need to have on hand, listing all the candidates and their hometowns. (Parties will not be listed.) The 435 election-eligible candidates with the most votes are elected to Congress.

Some questions you might be asking; not an exhaustive list but enough to answer a fair amount of concerns:

So if state borders are gone, how are less-represented parts of the country supposed to get representation? Won't we just end up with 435 urban Congresspeople?

Not necessarily. Don't get me wrong, the urban contingent will very likely go up. That's just a natural correction from the current rural overrepresentation, and someone somewhere is going to get screwed over by it. But it's not going to be 435 residents of Manhattan either. Even without borders, people are going to gravitate towards candidates from their own home region, and candidates will get elected accordingly. At some point, the New Yorkers and Los Angelenos are going to cannibalize themselves and limit the number of people they send to Congress. The makeup won't get too far away from reality, I don't think.

But still, how are you going to make sure you have a member of Congress to represent you?

That's not really a thing with this system. You won't have one Congressman. You'll have 435 of them, all of which you're responsible for and all of which answer to you (theoretically). Whether you get someone from your home region is up in the air, but even if they're all halfway across the country, they still have to answer to you regardless. Everyone has to answer to everybody. Eventually I figure most people will get used to it. (As a side effect, this will cut down on members of Congress grabbing pork for their districts. WHAT district?)

So my guy from Minnesota has to answer to people in New Mexico? Seriously?

Yes, but don't get too nuts with the idea, because, again, people naturally gravitate towards their home regions. That will include the candidates. They're free to press for votes from wherever they wish. They can choose their own base. (And some bases will naturally cross state lines. Consider the Chicagoland are, which crosses into northeast Indiana, or the city of Texarkana, which straddles Texas and Arkansas.) But in practice, they're going to look for votes from the places they know, and those places will be places they live or have previously lived. Candidates from Minnesota can go after votes from New York if they want, but New York voters will be so much more likely to want New York candidates that it's much more worth their time to just stump for Minnesota votes instead. They will, in practice, be liable to wherever it is their votes are coming from. New Mexico can threaten Minnesota, but unless votes are coming from there, it's not much of a threat.

Won't the incumbents just all ride that incumbency to re-election? How do the challengers get enough name recognition?

Maybe at the top of the leaderboard, yes. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner aren't going anywhere under this system. But first off, they're not going anywhere anyway. And second, if you're trying to reduce incumbency, you're looking at the wrong end of the standings. Look towards the guys you've never heard of. At the bottom of the pile, the incumbents have name recognition problems of their own because the more recognizable members of Congress have stolen all their airtime. That makes them more vulnerable to a challenger.

How is this going to make people attack each other less?

Too many targets and too much difficulty in figuring out who your best target is. You may be competing for home-region votes with someone, but you are still competing against everybody. If two people attack each other too much, and their home-region voters are fed up enough to send their votes outside the area, it could end up sending the both of them out. And while the more well-known members of Congress provide tempting targets, odds are you're not getting rid of them precisely because they're well-known. It's only worth it to attack, in a pragmatic sense, if it means you'll win at their expense. In a 435-seat jungle format, that's almost impossible to ensure.

The polls aren't going to be able to help you. They're built to look for the leaders. The polling system we have now may tell you who's going to come in first, but if you're on the bubble and you need to know whether you're in or out, good luck with that. There are polls that don't even ask the opinions of 435 people; let alone enough to find out who's in 435th place. You have no idea who to most effectively go after. There are too many bogies on too many sides of you to know which ones need to be shot down. And even if you and the media do find the bubble, everyone on the bubble is going to get focused on immediately, thus raising the name recognition of everyone on the bubble, shifting them around as opinions solidify on a whole bunch of under-the-radar names, and before you know it there's a brand new bubble. All you can really do is build yourself up and hope for the best.

So hang on, if someone is going to entrench themselves further just by being the biggest ass possible, doesn't that just make things worse?

That is a risk, granted. In order for it to work, you have to be a very public ass. And that carries its own risks. But that is a downside to the plan.

Then how is this going to give us better representation?

Well, aside from the fact that Congress would convert from a group of 435 individuals into one 435-member team, the partisans won't have as much power. They will still exist. The most partisan groups will coalesce behind candidates and send them through. But they won't have a stranglehold. In addition, you will see third parties emerge with seats. In 435 one-seat contests, it's always going to come down to Democrat vs. Republican. The third parties, while they have support, can't gel that support in any one district and go home empty-handed. In a 435-seat national jungle, the third parties can band together, put forward a few chosen names, and sneak them in in 389th place or something. They'll have their seats. They'll have their footholds. From there, the rest is up to them.

For the same reason, you'll also see a greater number of candidates. A lot of people don't run for office because the district in which they reside is too stacked against them, or the incumbent too formidable. I'm going to be drawn into a district containing Jim Sensenbrenner in the next election. This is the guy that was given the task of authoring the Patriot Act. Were I to run, the district is way off my leanings and Sensenbrenner would absolutely paste me. In a jungle election, I could just sidestep Sensenbrenner entirely. I could say to myself 'All I need to do is perform better than, say, this random freshman from Missouri and I'll be in good shape', and find support from places more likely to support me. Through that route, I could.... well, let's be honest, I'd still get my ass handed to me, but it'd be a lot closer than if I had to face Sensenbrenner in a one-on-one scenario. Besides, in a first-past-the-post format, all his guns would be turned on me. In a jungle scenario, he'd have far too many other opponents to worry about to focus on me. I'd at least have a fighting chance at being able to have my own voice.

More candidates means more options, hopefully better options, and more chances for voters to find something they actually want.

Okay, so let's suppose someone dies or resigns or whatever and leaves a seat open. Then what?

Fair enough concern. Let's work it like this:

Any time a seat is vacated, a two-month clock starts on a special election, which works the same as the main election with the addendum that, if any additional seats are vacated during that time, those seats are filled in the same special election. So if Al leaves office and leaves one seat, and five people run for the seat, the winner gets it. But if during those two months, Bob leaves as well, the top two of those five candidates get seats as opposed to just the winner. (If a seat is vacated with six months or less until the next general election, it will remain empty because at that point, it's not really worth it.)

What about the Senate?

Whole other story. Not my focus today. But a ton of Senate candidates come out of the House, so it will have an effect there as well. I can't guarantee the third-party candidates would be able to get that promotion, but the groundwork would be at least partially in place for it to happen.

If you have any questions not addressed here, by all means, bring them up in the comments area. That's what it's there for.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

That Just Happened

My brain broke trying to process last night's happenings in baseball. I am far from alone. All I can do at the moment is just replay the highlights over and over and over again. I think I was going to do a Random News Generator today; that's out the window because I'm still mentally doing this:

I'm also fairly sympathetic to Red Sox Nation. I'm a Cubs fan. I know what baseball pain is. I know they know what baseball pain is. That's not fun for any fan to go through.

Still don't mean it's not fun to read, though. So here's Bill Simmons' running diary on Grantland. Then- once their server recovers- here's the non-Simmons section of Red Sox Nation, on the message board Sons of Sam Horn, beginning from the top of the 9th in Baltimore.

Condolences to Atlanta Braves fans as well, even though I hate the Braves.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How To Say "Ding" In 41 Languages

We've talked about the Scripps National Spelling Bee more than once around here. And why not: it's bright young kids with equally bright futures powering their way through the filthiest knuckleballs the English language has to offer; struggling with etymology, every rule, every exception, until only one remains.

That's the thing, though. The spelling bee works precisely because English is such a mongrel language, willing to take any word from any language and steal it as its own, maybe changing the spelling in some way over the years. Some other major languages are far more rigid in their construction, and the speakers often far more adamant about maintaining the language's structural integrity. Spelling bees for these languages can't work, because once you're fluent and know the rules of the language, it becomes relatively easy to spell any given word. Dutch can pull it off, with the Grand Dictation of the Dutch Language, and the Spanish community got a bee up and running earlier this year, but hold a national spelling bee of, say, French or Japanese, and odds are you'll run out of words before you run out of spellers.

Foreign spellers do compete in spelling bees, but they compete in the Scripps bee, open to anyone from an English-speaking area that hosts a local qualifier. And English-language bees are held outside the United States, in such places as Canada, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and a pan-Asian bee, the MsRRS International Spelling Bee.

More rigidly structured languages have language competitions. They just don't rely on spelling. French speakers, rather, opted to test grammar, with Quebec, like the Scripps bee, hosting an international field (including the odd American) in the Dictee des Ameriques. Held from 1994 to 2009, their final round consisted of a passage being red aloud and the contestants being asked to dictate it word-for-word.

The Japanese, with English spellings being simple and with kanji not spelling-friendly, conduct the Japanese Kanji Aptitude Test, aka the Kanken. Unlike the Scripps bee, it's not done for recreation. In fact, it shows up on your resume. The Kanken is split into 12 levels- 10 through 1, along with pre-2 and pre-1. 10 is easiest, 1 is toughest. Levels 10-4 are given to preschoolers and elementary schoolers, 3 is about high school level, and most people don't bother with anything past level 2. Which basically means level 1 is for people that have said 'come on, hit me with your best shot'. About 2000 people take up the challenge every year, with a pass rate of about 15%.

If you want to try the Kanken yourself, there are several Nintendo DS games for it, but you'll have to import them from Japan and they aren't going to translate anything into English for you.

Chinese asks more than just knowing the language. They ask you to know Chinese culture as well, in something popularly called the Chinese Bridge Competition. The Chinese Bridge competition asks that contestants display a wide range of skills, such as speech-making, poetry, singing, and even performing in a talent competition that can range from joke-telling to martial arts demonstrations. Turkish follows a similar model, with the Turkish Language Olympiads.

Italian and German proved problematic to find. I'm pretty sure they've got a competition of some sort, but I couldn't get the specifics on any wide-scale competition and what's required in them. But it's pretty likely that yhou--


--wouldn't be good at any of them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Chester A. Arthur Fall Down

I was contemplating expanding on LZ Granderson's words in his column today for CNN. In it, he theorizes that the reason American government is so broken is that too many of the voters are just pants-on-head stupid.

But on further reflection, I decided to just go ahead and let him tee it high and let 'er fly, because there is nothing I could possibly add to his piece that I have not already said a thousand times. Have fun.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lock Them Up And... Okay, That's New

Australia's SBS supplies today's video. (Originally it was Journeyman Pictures; however, since I found the source, I decided to go with that.) Nick Lazaredes, for the SBS program Dateline, headed up to Greenland recently to examine their prison system. Suffice to say, they do things differently in Greenland.

Specifically, they unlock the inmates' cells in the morning and give them the keys to their own cells, so they can have some privacy. Also the inmates get to have rifles. And for the past several decades, it's actually worked out pretty well; however, it was designed for a different society than Greenland is growing into...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Congress And Soccer: America's Two Favorite Things

Most of the suggestions that float around concerning ways to reform Congress- and there are a lot of people that want some sort of reform- generally revolve around one end goal: making it easier to kick people out of Congress. The thing is, though, most of that 'most' takes a blanket, carpet-bombing approach: namely, kick everybody out at once, or instill term limits to make sure nobody sticks around too long.

That's where the debate tends to stagnate. While some are sufficiently ticked so as to want everybody gone, others view this as throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as there are always at least some genuinely decent people in the chamber that would get swept out as well. The opponents of kicking everyone out indiscriminately, but still favoring making it easier to boot, want to find a way to boot more people while keeping the good ones around.

The general compromise is to just ask people to vote out their own members of Congress. But let's face it, if that worked, and worked as intended, people wouldn't be so angry at Congress. We've just had three elections in a row where more people got voted out than usual, and people are angrier at Congress than ever. So clearly just voting people out isn't going to get the job done by itself. Votes get bought. Administrative agendas diverge from campaign agendas, and given the results of the 2010 season, that has emerged as a deliberate campaign tactic. And recalls, or parliamentary systems allowing for irregularly-scheduled elections, would require a Constitutional amendment, and these days, that would almost require a new Constitution entirely. (This is another common pitfall: aiming so big with reforms that you basically tear down the entire American political system and start over. In practice, good luck.)

So we need something simple enough to stand a chance of implementation, yet capable of booting out people between elections while leaving the worthy unmolested. Those are the required parameters.

How about a soccer referee?

In the world of sports, soccer is known for providing their referees with more influence on the game than any other sport. They're given broad latitude to interpret a small number of rules, they can eject people, they can eject people for arguing with the ref (which goes down in the books as "dissent"). Their word is final and law.

And, as far as we're concerned, they have a simple way of handing out punishments: yellow card is a warning, red card means you're tossed, two yellows equal red.

The proposal we'll put forward today involves setting up a list of offenses that would be classified as 'yellow card' and 'red card' offenses, and then hiring maybe three referees per body to interpret and enforce (and for God's sake, don't let Congress or the President directly appoint them). And let's make sure they're enforced. Congress has a mechanic to punish its own, but it's far too based on partisanship or outright scandal to be effective enough for our purposes. One of the factors of our current environment is that, in order for a deliberative body to properly operate, the body must first agree amongst itself to abide by certain rules and customs. When that basic agreement breaks down, the body cannot operate.

So we need something with teeth, that can operate even when the body cannot and, if order cannot be maintained, is able to impose it. This is important; if the majority party is the one committing the offenses, they are not likely to punish themselves to any degree that will actually get the point across.

Actually, let's add a third card while we're at it. There's a small competition in the Vatican involving Roman Catholic seminaries, called the Clericus Cup, that uses a blue card for conduct that doesn't quite warrant a yellow. A blue card is equivalent to hockey's penalty box: you're sent off the field for five minutes, then you come back.

Let's define the cards, which we'll allow to reset at the start of each new Congress so you don't end up taking it on the chin partially because of something you did 20 years ago:

BLUE CARD: For minor offenses. As it's worth five minutes in the Vatican game, let's make it worth a five-day stay in the Congressional penalty box. What that will mean here is that you could not sit on committees, could not participate in floor debates, and could not cast votes during that time. Those activities would be reconstructed so as to best be able to go on without you during that time. Allotted time in committee hearings and debates would be redistributed, and vote tallies would be scored as if there were simply one less person around. You'd still be able to do things like contact constituents and have conversations with colleagues off the floor, but you're not in the committee room, you're not on the floor, and you're not voting. If it screws with your side's numbers on a vote, too bad. You may accrue any number of blue cards without being issued a yellow or red.

YELLOW CARD: Nothing happens to you on a single yellow card. It is, however, a warning to watch yourself for the rest of the term. You only skate this way once. Next time you get a yellow, you'll be sorry.

RED CARD OR ACCUMULATION OF TWO YELLOW CARDS: Because two yellows equal a red, and as any soccer fan knows, a red card means you're sent off the pitch. You get a red card, and you're booted out of Congress. You're not booted out permanently; after all, soccer players who get red cards aren't banned for life. But you will have to sit out the next Congressional election season, which means that when you run again (and oh, they will run again), you'll have to do it as the challenger as opposed to the incumbent. That makes it that much tougher to get your job back. In the meantime, if your constituency wishes to hold a special election to replace you, they certainly may.

Though if the red-card offense wound up getting you arrested in addition to whatever the referee did to you, running again at all may be a difficult ask. (Should you be a Senator booted during an election season in which your state has no Senate seats up for grabs, this will carry over to the next Senate election your state has.)

YELLOW CARD FOLLOWED BY STRAIGHT RED: When this happens in soccer, it gets punished more severely than if you'd gotten just the red. We'll do that here as well. A normal red forces you to the sidelines for one Congressional election season. Yellow plus red will mean you sit out two. (Or whenever the next two Senate elections in your state happen, if you're a Senator.)

This, of course, leads to the question of what exactly constitutes a bookable offense. This is the most important part: what kind of behavior are we going to try to enforce. Understand that we can't just make everything a red-card offense, much as you might want to do so. That defeats the whole point.

There are certainly worthy offenses I've missed, and time will bring new behaviors that need classification, but here's a starter set:

*Violation of minor existing House/Senate ethical rules (e.g. smoking or profanity on the floor,)
*Insulting a constituent (constituent and referee must agree that an insult has been made)
*Public displays of ignorance on a topic in which you are on a committee, presenting legislation, or taking an active part in legislative debate (e.g. Ted Stevens' 'series of tubes' comment while he was on the Commerce Committee; Lynn Westmoreland wanting a display of the Ten Commandments on the steps of the Capitol but can't name more than three of them). It's one thing to be ignorant on a topic. The credo of this site is that everyone's stupid about something. But when you're on a committee concerning a topic, you're expected to know that topic. When you're in the thick of a debate in Congress, you'd better know what you're talking about. And if you're presenting legislation without knowing what you're doing... no. Just no. Go to that giant library complex right down the street, do your homework, and try again in five days.
*Egregious question-dodging (e.g. completely ignoring a debate question and talking instead about something unrelated)

*Violation of major existing House/Senate ethical rules (e.g. keeping your spouse on staff in a paid position; not giving sufficient notice prior to holding a committee hearing- this second one originally sounded like a blue-card offense until I remembered the extent to how this violation tends to get abused)
*Any misdemeanor conviction
*Failing to hold at least one town hall meeting during August recess (except in case of illness or injury)
*Creating a scene during a Presidential address

*Violation of essential existing House/Senate ethical rules (e.g. leaking classified information to which you are privileged due to your committee; casting a vote for someone else or attempting to allow someone to cast a vote for you)
*Any felony conviction (you're headed to jail anyway, but just to get our bases covered)
*Becoming disbarred, or equivalent depending on non-Congressional job (David Durenberger, R-MN, would have gotten this card in 1990)
*Committing physical violence against a colleague (self-defense excepted)

VARIABLE OFFENSES: Not all offenses can be tied to the same card all the time. Sometimes it's a matter of degrees.

*Violation of other existing House/Senate rules (depends on the rule)
*Hypocrisy (Hypocritical words are probably going to be blue; hypocritical legislative maneuvers may warrant a yellow; hypocritical acts- breaking rules you've spent years shouting from the rooftops, such as adultery by family-values people- stand a strong chance of being worthy of a red)
*Unsportsmanlike conduct (This is where that broad brush comes in for enforcement. This amounts to "don't be an asshole", and is usually going to be blue, but particularly jerkish moves may warrant a yellow. This is also why, again, we have to bury the appointment in as many layers of bureaucracy as it takes to keep Congress or the President or anyone with an axe to grind from getting anywhere near it. If that can't be done, this is all just going to cause more problems than it solves.)
*Voter fraud/caging/intimidation/etc. (This will always be at least a yellow. You can't let this stuff slide. Whether the card becomes red depends on what exactly happened, how involved the candidate was in the fraud, how many votes were affected and how likely it was that the fraud changed the outcome of the election. If the fraud changed the outcome, it automatically goes red; this person should not be in Congress in the first place. The referee doesn't necessarily need to wait for formal convictions; if they're satisfied with the evidence, they can issue the card at any time. What tends to happen otherwise is accusations tend to wither on the vine after the winner gets seated.)

Sex scandals are not going to be a bookable offense. Apparently, we do just fine punishing those ourselves. Sometimes we do a little too fine, but that's a whole different can of worms.

Now, the big question, aside from implementation and how the constituencies in question are going to feel when it's their guy getting red-carded out (especially if it's someone popular back home), is if any of this is going to actually be effective. More importantly, is it going to be effective in the way we're intending? I know this is unsatisfying to hear, but that I don't honestly know. Parties may try to operate through having people commit yellow-card offenses to get their way, hanging back, and letting the next guy commit a similar yellow-card offense to keep their way. The referee may be too stringent, or too lenient. We may be stepping on some rule or other with the referee's mere existence that would need to be taken care of before anything can be done. Most importantly, there may very well be something I'm missing about the referee's independence even after I copped out with 'whatever keeps it away from being an appointment by Congress or the President'. It may be that the very nature of the position causes Congress or the President to follow the thread, figure out what chain of people leads most quickly to the referee, and politicize that thread. The incentive to do so would be strong, as we've alluded to twice now: get control of the referee, and you can clean your opponents out of office. Something similar could happen even if the referee is truly independent, but merely poorly chosen.

Which is a reason that we may want to sit on this one a while. I don't think I've got this one perfect, but I do think it's worth at least a bit of time to think about. Some kinks need to be worked out, the list of bookable offenses needs to be fleshed out, the referee's selection process, place in the organizational chart and chain of command needs to be gotten just right. But I'm fine with sitting on it. Just because you come up with an idea, even if it's a good one, that doesn't mean that the time to implement that idea is now. Sometimes it's good to just toss out an idea whenever it is you get it, and then just let it stew until conditions are right. Sometimes conditions become right. Sometimes they don't. In the meantime, you can always come back and work on the idea, or get extra sets of eyes on it.

So we leave today with a loose end. It happens. But it's okay to have an idea with a loose end. A loose end just means you have a start.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Between A Rock And A Sandy Place

In the wake of the civil war in Libya, as in the wake of any war, there have been those that either didn't wish to fight, have wound up on the losing side, or just got their home blown up, and figured it was high time to run and start a new life somewhere that wasn't so violent. In the war's early goings, stories emerged about Libyan refugees fleeing north, east ans west, most notably to Italy, but to Tunisia, Egypt and Malta as well.

There is one more direction on the compass, though.

"Now hang on a minute. Wouldn't going south involve crossing the Sahara Desert and winding up in some country we only hear about when it's having a famine, rigged election or genocide?"

Yes. That's exactly what it involves. Specifically, Chad and Niger. And Chad and Niger are about as equipped to handle tens of thousands of Libyan refugees as you would expect, though they do appreciate the fact that these refugees bring money and have taken an interest in acquiring that money, even at the cost of neglecting their own homegrown, some of whom have grown resentful.

The flow, until the war, was actually reversed, from Chad and Niger into Libya. What has now happened is that each country has refugees from the others.

Of course, as it's tougher to go south, and the destination less desirable, it's a route mainly taken by people who stuck around and can't go north, east or west for some reason. That's primarily going to be people loyal to Gadhafi, and the rebels know it. This is why, recently, the roads south have been a priority for the rebels, who think Gadhafi himself may have taken one such road.

Which would make it a case of closing the barn door after the horse has left.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Break It Down

The word of the day is 'stele'. Pronounced like "steely". Don't worry, the Blogger spell-check doesn't recognize it either. A stele is a structure built out of some type of rock in order to mark or commemorate something, or to show off in some way, shape or form. Whatever showing off is done, is done through carving some sort of design into the rock. Think something that exists somewhere between a slab, an obelisk and a totem pole. (Though some stelae aren't very design-oriented; the Rosetta Stone is a stele.)

The closest we come in form and purpose in the United States is the Washington Monument, a marble obelisk topped with a small, 100-ounce pyramid of pure aluminum. (When it was built in 1884, aluminum had the reputation gold does today. An ounce of the stuff cost as much as one day's wages of the average worker building the monument. To use it as a capstone was to say 'Look, world. Look how disgustingly rich we are, that we can just stick a wad of aluminum up there like it's nothing.')

Whatever it's classified as, though, it's meant to invoke some sort of glory. Which is what stelae tended to do. Here's the thing about monuments of glory, though: they had damn well better be glorious.

Just ask the Aksumite Empire.

The city of Aksum, today, sits in what is now northern Ethiopia, not far from the border with Eritrea. In 300 CE (remember it's not AD anymore), this was a major trade route, as eastern Africa's vast resources funneled through Aksum into Egypt, Arabia, India and Europe. Being the focus point of a trade route, now, then and forever, means your town gets stupid rich. And in that time period in African history, being stupid rich was symbolized by building a stele that went close to the 'obelisk' part of the stele spectrum. And in Ethiopia, stelae were made of a single piece of rock, something that required more work and additional cost. It made for a degree-of-difficulty bonus, and that's before you factor in the sculpting and carving.

It went deeper than that, though. As told by It Looked Good On Paper by Bill Fawcett, Christianity was gaining ground in Ethiopia around 300 CE, and with Aksum a paganistic society, this was a threat. No society is exactly keen on being converted from anything to anything else, especially if the current leadership is of the faith that's playing defense. The stele would serve this purpose as well: through its size, it would pierce the sky, disperse storms, and drive away evil gods... gods such as the one from this "Christianity". And the bigger the stele, the better.

So they'd make the biggest stele anyone had ever seen.

The specifications were daunting. One single piece of nepheline syenite (it looks like granite), weighing about 500 tons, standing about 100 feet tall- taller than any obelisk anyone else had made- and beautifully carved down to the finest detail. Once it was completed, it was hauled from the quarry of its construction to a field four kilometers away, amongst other stelae, and stood upright.

On a foundation that was not prepared to support a 100-foot, 500-ton tower of rock.

Nobody's really positive how long it stood, but estimates go from a couple hours to a couple days. Some even think it didn't survive the process of standing it up. Whatever the elapsed time, before long the stele began to tilt, and then it fell. The sound of the crash must have been tremendous. Upon impact, the stele shattered into several pieces.

And there they'd stay. There they stay to this day. Nobody even had the heart to perform a cleanup operation. Whatever message of power and faith was trying to be sent was as destroyed as the stele that would now remind the world of the Aksumites' failure every time someone passed that way.

Aksum would benefit from the trade route for about 300 years beyond the crash. It takes more than a broken pile of rock to kill a trade route. But if your religious beliefs involve constructing giant towers of rock to show the power of your gods, and that rock fell in less time than it took to create it, well, it doesn't take much work to draw a conclusion from there. It was the last stele the Aksumites attempted. Christianity suddenly had a lot of spiritual free agents. And while the trade route stayed, the Aksumites were eventually driven away from their sphere of influence by Muslim forces around 700 CE.

Though the Aksumites didn't lose out entirely. After all, they showed their civilization as notable enough to where someone on the other side of the world is still talking about them 1,700 years later. The stele field was declared a World Heritage Site in 1980.

Some of the stelae in the field remain standing. Maybe they're helping.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Tale Of Two Executions

A few hours ago, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail after a brief delay in which the state waited for a ruling from the Supreme Court, who declined to act. From the time of his conviction to the time of his execution, seven of the nine witnesses recanted their testimony, leading to serious questions about his guilt and an accompanying outcry for clemency, an outcry that ultimately was rebuffed, as were the recantations. As part of this outcry, as with any death-penalty protest, a call was made to outlaw the death penalty entirely. Among those in Davis' corner were Amnesty International, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Earlier in the evening, in Texas, Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed for the 1998 dragging death of a black man, James Byrd Jr. The murder was one of the most gruesome and shocking that Texas had seen, the aftermath of which would draw the attention of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers. An accomplice, John William King, remains on death row. Here, though, no last-ditch motions were filed as they were with Davis, no doubt was ever cast on Brewer's guilt, and no protesters stood outside calling for the end of the death penalty. In fact, as a result of this case, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Shepard was tortured and murdered in Wyoming in 1998 due to perceived homosexuality) was introduced to Congress in 2001, increasing the number of groups protected under hate-crime laws. President Obama signed it into law in 2009 on its fifth attempt. The only outcry was from Republicans who thought the legislation went too far.

Now, we've shown here how murder rates and rates of execution do not correlate favorably (if only by a rough measure). I unequivocally side with the Davis supporters. However, it is necessary- not something comfortable to state by any means, but necessary- to note that a total ban on the death penalty, while saving Davis, would also save Brewer, even if only by commuting his sentence to life imprisonment. In order to argue against the death penalty in all cases, you must make peace with that fact. It's like how people just grit their teeth at the Westboro Baptist Church when they show up to protest a funeral, muttering under their breath about freedom of speech. It's why despite really wanting to stick it to them, when taken* to the Supreme Court, they ultimately ruled 8-1 in their favor.

You'll have to grit your teeth and save Brewer as well, or at least, you'll have to go try and save King now that Brewer has been executed. Even though nobody really wants to.

*- Link goes to one of my famously wrong predictions, where I forecast that they'd rule against Westboro while noting how I was about to get Russ Feingold's Senate race wrong. I really need to stop predicting things of any more importance than a football game.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

So... It's Finally Over.

Shane and Josh have finally, finally, FINALLY been sprung from Iran. They are at last report on their way to Oman for some processing before heading back to the United States. There's really little more to say without accidentally breaking into freedom-related showtunes.

If you happen across them, be sure to give them a hug or buy them a beer or something, because two years of virtual isolation in an Iranian prison is going to take a significant amount of social support to overcome.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Random News Generator- Cuba

We should probably lead this edition of the RNG with this piece from Fareed Zakaria, fresh this morning. Zakaria here thinks back to the BP oil spill, and notes that Cuba, not overly far away, has oil reserves of its own- estimates go from 5-20 billion barrels. (The BP spill was about 4.9 million., to put it in perspective.) Zakaria goes on to note that there's no shortage of countries lining up to drill that oil, but because of our embargo on Cuba, not only is none of that oil is going to be ours, but in the case of another spill, there's nothing that we can do but watch. We don't even get to try to clean it up- the embargo prevents that as well- until it washes up on the Florida coast.

First in line: Spanish company Repsol, which plans to be drilling by mid-December. They'd be drilling sooner, but they're waiting for hurricane season to end.

The embargo is weakening in another field, though. Saturday marked the first charter flight from Fort Lauderdale to Havana since 1987. Fort Lauderdale joins 10 other cities that are permitted to fly to Cuba, as per an authorization in March: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Tampa, Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

However, the people taking those flights travel as the window for warmer relations appears to be closing. American government subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested in December 2009 for supplying Internet equipment to a small Jewish community, and was sentenced last month to a 15-year prison term. Earlier this month, Bill Richardson made a visit to Cuba to try to negotiate Gross' release, but Richardson was, contrary to expectations, given the coldest possible response: a flat rejection of any discussion whatsoever, after having been invited by Cuba. Richardson would not be leaving with Gross. He would not be allowed to meet with Gross. He would not be allowed to meet with Raul Castro concerning the matter. He would not even be given demands on how the situation might be resolved. The end.

After a week of fruitlessly trying to open up any sort of avenue whatsoever, Richardson left so embittered that, despite previously warm relations, he isn't sure he could ever return to Cuba as a friend. According to Richardson, "Perhaps the Cuban government has decided it does not want to improve relations. Perhaps that is the message it is sending." And indeed, the incident underscores a sharp backslide in relations that had been steadily progressing, but since the Haiti earthquake have been on markedly less steady ground.

And so Gross stays put. Indications are he may be staying put for a very long time.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Did You Buy Any Of Those "Liberty Dollars"?

You remember those things advertised on TV? Advertised as legal tender?

They're not and the government now wants them all surrendered for destruction. Including any you bought. You can't have them. No, you are not getting a refund. It's your fault you thought they were actual money or fell for the "alternative currency" garbage. If alternative currency were legal, the company you work for would likely be paying you in scrip. (Actually, this announcement was made back in August, but I just got wind of it now.)

It says so right here.

18 U.S.C. §486

§ 486. Uttering coins of gold, silver or other metal
Whoever, except as authorized by law, makes or utters or passes, or attempts to utter or pass, any coins of gold or silver or other metal, or alloys of metals, intended for use as current money, whether in the resemblance of coins of the United States or of foreign countries, or of original design, shall be fined under this title [1] or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

"Current money" basically means money you can get at one place and use at some other place. A poker chip can't be used outside of the casino, so it's not current money. (Though it was used as such way back in the day.) A quarter can, so it is. A liberty dollar was portrayed as such, and was not authorized as such, so it's got to go bye-bye. (Those local currencies you hear about every so often, where a bunch of shops in some town or other make up some 'community currency' to encourage local business, could probably be shut down too if the government really wanted to, but I'm guessing they opt to let it go because it's not really hurting anything.)

Long story short, if you bought any liberty dollars, you used real money to buy fake money. Nice work. Hand it over.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Surprise Library Book Sale Edition

Today- or more accurately, yesterday- marked my visit to the annual book sale held by my local library to get rid of the books they're not going to be using anymore. This year it was more of a case of serendipity that got me into the book sale; I had forgotten about it, but I was hungry and headed out to get something for dinner. I passed the library on my way, which was, it turned out, about ten minutes from closing for the night.

That was more than enough time to leave me in a room with a bunch of books on sale for a buck. Though, of course, it was more of a sprint than I'm accustomed to.

The take, running me a total of $3 for the whole lot:

*Bordewich, Fergus M.- Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century (copyright 1996)
*Hardy, David- What A Mistake!: The Greatest Blunders, Mistakes, Bungles, Bloopers, Slip-Ups, Howlers & Misfires of All Time (copyright 1983)
*Johnson, Donald S.- Phantom Islands of the Atlantic: The Legends of Seven Islands that Never Were (copyright 1994, and none of them are Atlantis; in fact, the word "Atlantis" is only uttered once in the whole book)
*Lewis, Michael- Liar's Poker (a book about Wall Street, copyright 1989- is there any better copyright year when looking for a book about how crazy Wall Street can be?)

I had KFC, by the way.

Friday, September 16, 2011

How Monkeys Explain The World

If you don't visit Cracked, you really rather should. First off, it's funny. Certainly funnier than the days when they had a magazine. Second, though, amongst that humor, they've gotten to be as much a trivia website as a humor website.

...actually, that's not quite right. Sometimes 'trivia' isn't really the right word. Sometimes it goes far beyond anything that might ever be called 'trivia'.

For example- and really, this may be the single greatest thing ever written at Cracked- back in 2007, David Wong attempted to explain everything from why there's racism, to why you're less affected by thousands of dead earthquake victims in the Congo than you are by your friend dying in a car crash, to why "the government" and "corporations" are so easily blamed for things, to why religions have all-knowing deities, to why the guy behind the counter at McDonald's keeps screwing up your order, to the very credo of this blog, all in one article.

His reason: something he calls the Monkeysphere. (The second page may have some background problems. Just highlight the text and press on.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

So... Back To The Drawing Board, Again, Some More.

Remember that thing about Shane and Josh maybe getting freed soon? Not so much. The judiciary of Iran has overruled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's efforts to put the two up for bail. This may be a by-product of that... let's be diplomatic and say "disputed" 2009 election.

However, due to the opening Ahmadinejad gave, efforts to get the two out have been stepped up, sensing a window of opportunity. Iraqi President Jalal Talibani is on the case; the money appears to be easily obtainable, and an Omani plane is all set to go, in addition to the American-based efforts.

So, not a total loss.

How To Rob A Bank

Step 1. First, try not robbing it.
Step 2. The teller has the money and may elect not to give you that money. All the teller has to do is stall for time until the police come. You may be forced to run without getting anything if the teller is taking too long.
Step 2-A. Although it won't score you any intimidation points by running at the first sign of resistance.
Step 3. Try and fill the gas tank of the getaway car before robbing the bank. It may be a long chase.
Step 3-A. At the very least, try to make sure your getaway car isn't running on fumes.

Other things to consider in your criminal career:

*Try not to launch your criminal career in front of the police station.
*After you rob someone, they may not be swayed by attempts at bribery.
*Do not walk into a courthouse carrying an open case of beer and openly drink the beer while slurring your speech and offering the cops a beer as long as you can keep some for yourself. Especially if you had no appointment at the courthouse in the first place.
*Watch who you text before you try to make a drug deal. Try to be sure that you are not texting the cops.
*Do not stuff ribs down your pants. Whether you are committing a crime or not. Nothing good ever comes from ribs down your pants.
*If you are attempting to steal 255 gallons of gas in one trip, the gas station may become suspicious before you have even finished obtaining the gas. Especially if you are obtaining it directly from the reservoir as opposed to the pump.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Skid Row, and Skid Row Lite

In January- internal way-too-far-in-advance programming note- I intend to head down to Los Angeles for vacation. Some particulars have to be sorted out yet, but that's the plan.

Originally, I was intending to vacation in early November and deciding between Los Angeles; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon. However, I do work in retail, and we've been discouraged from taking vacations in November or December so that we may properly oversee you fighting over Lego Ninjago or Monster High or whatever it is that you'll be fighting over this year. This pushed things back to January, and pushed me south. I have no intention of spending a January vacation driving around northern Oregon, and while San Francisco is climate-controlled, the outlying areas I was hoping to go aren't, resulting in too much of the same problem. This, of course, left Los Angeles.

When my parents found out where I'd settled on going, the initial reaction was to say the least apprehensive. For one, there's the whole driving aspect. Driving in Los Angeles is famously harrowing, and I've never driven anywhere larger than Milwaukee or Minneapolis. But it was Los Angeles' more unsavory aspects that really scared them; my mom in particular. (She's not really a city girl.) In fact, the very first local landmark that was brought up by my mom was Skid Row. (NOTE, 1:20 AM: Mom says it was actually my dad, who visited Los Angeles a number of years ago, that brought up Skid Row. She's more worried about traffic. Got the two mixed up. Sorry about that, mom.)

Now, let's be clear: Skid Row is not a good place to find yourself. It is known as America's ultimate rock-bottom. The dumping ground- often literally- for the alcoholic, the addicted, the destitute, the physically handicapped and mentally wayward. The name for what is officially Central City East (although nobody calls it that in practice) is synonymous with ruined lives, with failure, with loss of hope, with being left on a sidewalk to drink and drug yourself to a miserable death amongst the sounds of gunfire from local gangs and your own silent tears.

It's not exactly a tourist hotspot.

To be sure, I've no intention of placing Skid Row on my itinerary. This is, after all, intended to be a vacation. However, even though I don't intend to go there, while I won't be at THE Skid Row, I can say I have witnessed A Skid Row, and having seen it, my heart goes out to anyone whose life has relegated them there.

For I have been to Hawaii.

Driving north on Oahu's west coast, as you near the last accessible stretch of the Farrington Highway before Ka'ena Point, you'll notice a lot of campsites, not all of them on the beach. Some are amongst the trees. They're not all campsites. Many of them are homes. They're not all occupied by the unemployed or the down-and-out, though my traveling party didn't realize that at the time when we drove along that stretch last November. Some are merely people for whom Oahu's sky-high housing prices have risen too sky-high to be able to find a home in which to live. They pack up camp in the morning (so as to get around local laws prohibiting residency), drive to work, then drive back and reset camp at night. It was an utter shock to us all to see this long stretch of road that contained so many people who considered the beautiful stretch of road we were driving on to be their last resort.

That stretch of road is far from unique in Hawaii, a state tied with Oregon for the third-highest homeless rate in America, behind Nevada and the District of Columbia. (California is next on the list, in fifth.) If people with jobs who would on the mainland likely be able to find housing are driven onto the side of the highway, you can imagine how the less fortunate make out. An ever-shifting array of local ordinances and police patrols, combined with the fact that Oahu is, after all, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with all flights to more affordable locales prohibitively expensive, results in homeless camps emerging and moving all over the island despite all efforts by the local government to provide low-cost housing or at least shelter. And they must do this on a budget that is simply not equipped to handle such a wide-scale problem that geography forces them to handle themselves.

Not far west of Waikiki Beach, still within the part of Honolulu frequented by tourist trolleys, is Ala Moana Beach Park. You may know it best by a big black wall. (It might be a tarp. Not sure. Didn't check.) One day, while the rest of my group wanted to go east to visit Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay, I opted to go west and take a walk through Honolulu proper. My walk took me to Ala Moana, which as it turns out is probably the most enduring- and most dangerous- of these camps, not that I knew it at the time. Peppered throughout the park, there sat tents. Tarps and plywood arranged into the shape of tents. Shopping carts. Broken people, broken lives, sheltered in their tents, under trees, under several layers of clothing in some cases, against walls, visible on Google Earth if you like, not so much surviving as existing. It was one of the most depressing sights of my life.

It was quickly followed by one of the most infuriating.

Directly across the street from Ala Moana Beach Park is the Ala Moana Shopping Center. Visible from the sidewalk of the park, one can see a storefront for Neiman Marcus.

Neiman. Marcus.

If there is one business establishment on Earth that defines "idle rich", Neiman Marcus is it. While day-to-day they mainly deal in high-end apparel, Neiman Marcus' very foundation revolves around selling overpriced testaments to audacious luxury to people with more money than sense. It is ingrained into their corporate culture as back in the 1950's, they began trying to score cheap headlines through offering something expensive and ridiculous in their Christmas catalog every year. It got to the point where by 1960, Edward R. Murrow and then-assistant Walter Cronkite would ring up then-owner Stanley Marcus directly to ask what outrageous thing was going on offer this year. They've made a business out of it ever since, while making sure to offer outrageous things at a wide variety of prices.

Over the years, Neiman Marcus has made available for sale in their Christmas catalog such things as his-and-her airplanes, a toy tiger encrusted with jewels (price: $1 million), a $130 14-ounce tin of caviar (with airmail rush delivery), a milk-chocolate Monopoly board (price: $600), a Dallas Cowboys endzone in your backyard (price: $500,000), and a truckload of pink air.

Outside of Christmas, in fact available now on their website, you will find such things as:

*A $300 Christmas ornament
*A $250 crystal candy heart
*A $421 fork
*This $4,000 whatever the hell it is
*And don't forget the gourmet online food court, where you can order such things as $85 worth of Maine lobster pot pies.

This monument to frivolity stands one street crossing (two if you count the median) and what might as well be a galaxy away from a group of some of the most desperate people on the island, almost as if to taunt them as time and again, someone with little idea what to do with their money, instead of using it to help their most helpless of fellow men, instead buys a $605 set of envelopes or something, right in plain sight of those same helpless.

The only reason I did not march into the mall's food court and buy lunch for one of those people right then and there is that, as far as I could see, they happened to be asleep, and I didn't want to wake them up. I ended up feeling immensely guilty about it. I still do. As a tourist from deep inside the mainland, I couldn't offer housing, or a job, but I could have at least offered a meal. Later in the trip, I would try to make the slight up to myself and to the homeless community by seeking out some other person in similar circumstances and buying that person a meal, but it still felt kind of hollow, like I was now forcing it. And the person I ended up buying a meal was in a much better-trafficked part of town, and was in better position to be helped than those who I passed up and would not pass again for the remainder of the trip.

At least it was something, I guess.

It is still nothing close to the Skid Row of Los Angeles infamy, but they share at least one similarity. Only a handful of blocks away is the start of the Los Angeles skyline, as stark a contrast as that on either side of Ala Moana Boulevard. The nearby development even provides a sort of visual cue as to where Skid Row is. The streets get grimier, the skyline fades from view. The border streets are like an asphalt River Styx: on one side of the street, prosperity and life; on the other, pain and death.

Instead of shifting campsites strewn across an entire landmass, Skid Row is a concentrated community that has endured for decades, and its population centralizes on one street in particular, San Julian Street. To some, Skid Row is not a neighborhood; it is this one single street. No report about Skid Row is complete without a visit there. And despite sincere efforts by a number of blessed souls to help the residents get out of Skid Row and back on their feet, their more powerful local peers only blocks away are more interested in the increasingly attractive and potentially valuable land on which they sit. Their inclination is to get the residents out of Skid Row, arresting them if need be (most commonly through jaywalking tickets that cost more than the homeless person's net worth), and then to consider the problem solved. As if a magician's cape had been waved and they all just vanished into thin air. The only reason they have not is a decade of legal battles fought by the charities, clinics and shelters on the ground.

Part of the reason for Skid Row becoming Skid Row is because homeless services have been concentrated in that area of town, to the point where people are directed there for services, even as the police attempt to direct them right back out. Attempts at development are short-lived, as the concentration of services means there are few other places in Los Angeles for those who need help to go. But even if Skid Row were to be cleaned out and developed to its limit without truly helping those who have been driven there, they aren't going to just march into the ocean and drown themselves. They will merely go somewhere else. Perhaps multiple somewhere elses, like on Oahu. And you don't know, or get to decide, where they'll pick, unless services are spread more evenly throughout the city.

Failing to do so would make a Los Angeles life, not to mention a vacation, much less safe.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So... Anyone Got A Million Bucks?

According to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the two remaining hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, recently sentenced to eight years in Iranian prison, will be released once a $500,000 bail is posted for each of them.

It's blood money, of course. But none concerned care at this point. it's blood money all concerned are quite prepared to pay if that's what gets the two home. The Swiss government, which represents the United States in Iran as Iran has no American embassy- stepped in and fronted the money when the third hiker, Sarah Shourd, was given the same bail. No word on if they'll do so again, though there's no word that they won't, either.

Hopefully this will all be over soon.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What Is This Thing You Call 'Page Six'?

Last November, I brought up the concept of automated news. When I presented the piece, what I showed you was slapdash, barely even intelligible combinations of words that vaguely resembled news articles, things that were created purely to generate hits.

This has been identified as a problem. However, the problem being addressed isn't that computers are generating news articles. The problem being addressed is that they're doing it badly.

The Big Ten Network is currently using a service called Narrative Science, which takes the facts and figures from, in their case, a football game- the New York Times here gives a sample from Wisconsin/UNLV- and selects phrases and word choices from a database appropriate to the circumstances. If you've ever played a sports video game with commentators, Madden for example, it's kind of like what they do there to make the commentary sound realistic, but more sophisticated. Entire game reports can be generated within seconds.

The thing is, though, Narrative Science wants to expand the concept beyond sports. They figure the basic structure can be plugged into any other field heavy on statistics; another company is using the technology for housing markets. And they want to go further than that. Co-creator Kris Hammond predicts that the technology will be able to compete for a Pulitzer Prize within five years.

Which, of course, raises a very real concern for any human journalist. The creators present it as a supplemental tool for existing journalists. However, in a penny-pinched industry, the allure of an attention-grabbing computer that can write just like a human, and for a lot less money, might just cause the media organizations to replace those human journalists instead.

On the other hand, someone has to go obtain the data before it can be crunched and spit out by Narrative Science. And it is still humans that are making news. We still don't have anything that's passed the Turing Test yet. Human journalists will still have to go gather information that isn't being given up willingly. Humans still have to conduct interviews. It will still take a human to go into a warzone or disaster-ravaged region and be able to express what it is they see, smell, or experience. Opinions are still uniquely human, at least until Narrative Science creates something self-aware.

Sportswriting, game recaps especially, are actually pretty easy to automate when you think about it. There are only so many types of things that can happen in any given game. Each game follows a set structure. Numbers are everywhere. Unless you are at the very top of the class, there are only so many ways to describe this limited number of possible events before a lot of sportswriters have to start reusing words and terms. Sooner or later, yeah, it starts to seem conveyor-belty. Same goes for things like Treasury rates, housing markets, and most of the other stuff you see in the financial section.

The more complicated topics, however, the ones that aren't so stat-heavy, that require opinions, experiences, human contact (e.g. interviews, debates) and Freedom of Information Act requests? That's a tall ask. Even in the sports section, while some of the stories are formulaic game reports, others are game preview analysis, off-the-field happenings and good old-fashioned arguing, which is really half the fun of sports when you think about it.

Even if Narrative Science manages to somehow pull it off, though, it's not like it's going to stop people from commenting on the day's events anyway.

It's less a danger to journalism (unless we let it be one), really, than it is a sad commentary on how boring it has become to read recaps of what is, in the end, a form of entertainment.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Usually when I post a science experiment here, it's skewed towards the 'try this at home, kids' end of the spectrum. Usually.

Well, today we're doing something that is, to say the least, a little more advanced. For today, you're going to learn how to make a Tesla coil. Here you are going to have to have some idea going in about what you're doing. You'll need to have had some hands-on experience with electricity already. This is not, repeat not, a project for the kiddies, and unless they're some sort of prodigy, odds are they couldn't pull it off anyway.

Friday, September 9, 2011

So Cheap, Yet So Valuable

The super-rich, as has been made painfully clear, have gotten an increasingly large vice grip on the levers of power in the United States. We don't need to even bother going over that. That gets made clear through enough text generated daily to spew out of your screen because the Internet ran out of room.

But the United States isn't the only country with a rich-people problem.

Take China. China has internal morale problems of its own, coming from being the police state so many people like to accuse America of being. Ai Weiwei, prohibited from giving interviews due to the conditions of his "parole" or whatever, did an end-run around the conditions and wrote an article instead, published by Newsweek and reposted here by the Daily Beast. As the Guardian notes, the piece comes on the heels of China planning to give itself the power to detain people for six months without informing their families.

Weiwei's article, predictably, was censored in China, but the censoring was done very lazily. When the local edition of the magazine- which included the article- arrived in China, local officials just tore out the page with the article, which happened to be the last page. In doing so, they forgot the part where Weiwei's article was advertised on the cover. And they forgot to censor the online article, which was quickly seized upon by readers.

In the face of such a living arrangement, the super-rich in China have one thing on all their shopping lists: passports. They want to take their money somewhere else where they can be left alone to do their thing, maybe have a second kid, and, notably, hang on to their money, something they feel is at risk of being lost to corruption and land-lease programs.

And most commonly, they figure the United States meets that description, as well as Canada, Australia and, less expectedly, Mexico.

There is one thing they may be overlooking, however: another factor for leaving China, according to ABC News, is the uneasiness of being in a country with as wide a gap between rich and poor as China. Being rich in such an environment means being resented. Being rich means having a target on your back. And the United States, with its own gap between rich and poor increasing and the accompanying resentment less constrained, may turn out to make that problem worse.

But even if they're worried about that, they clearly consider it a price worth paying.

And with a perspective completely unlike that of American super-rich, it'll be, if nothing else, intriguing to see how the relationship between the two groups plays out.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Russian Hockey Team Killed

Yesterday in Russia, a plane carrying the hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, of the Kontinental Hockey League, crashed shortly after takeoff on their way to Belarus. All but two people on the flight were killed, including all but one player on the team, left wing Alexander Galimov, and four members of Lokomotiv's farm team. A crew member, flight engineer Alexander Sizov, is the other survivor. The two survivors are both in critical condition. Lokomotiv was to play its first game of the season.

The plane, according to investigators, was still on its wheels 400 meters past the end of the runway, and after getting airborne, hit a radio tower and burst into flames, crashing into the Tunoshenka River, which feeds into the nearby Volga.

Lokomotiv is known as one of the top teams in the league, with three Russian league titles and having finished third in the KHL last year, so aside from the tragedy of the event in and of itself, the KHL lost a huge cache of talent. The city of Yaroslavl is also a hockey hotbed; sportswriter Slava Malamud of Russia's Sport-Express compares the city's sporting profile to Buffalo, Edmonton and Calgary, smaller-market cities where hockey is the main game in town.

So that the club can still field a team for the season, KHL president Alexander Medvedev has requested that the other 23 teams in the KHL donate up to three players each. This resembles the response to a similar tragedy in 1979, when the soccer team Pakhtakor Tashkent was killed when their plane collided with another on their way to play Dinamo Minsk. Pakhtakor was given donated players from the rest of the league and given safety from relegation for three seasons. Right now, though, that's the furthest thing from the minds of Yaroslavl fans, some of which have accused Medvedev of failing to show proper respect, and some of which have also blamed him for holding a preseason forum in Yaroslavl's home stadium that forced Lokomotiv to open the season on the road (coincidentally, also in Minsk), thus necessitating the fatal plane trip.

Also receiving blame is Russia's commercial airplane fleet, notorious for its age, lack of funding and lax safety standards. The specific airline carrying Lokomotiv, Yak Service, had been previously prohibited from entering EU airspace over safety concerns. The aircraft itself had also been prohibited in 2009 during service under another airline, and in its current state, it would have been prohibited again regardless of airline.

It's not just Lokomotiv taking flights on planes like this. Jamie Rivers, who played for CSKA Moscow four years ago, recalled some of the flights he took: "There were a lot of flights we went on where I put in the iPod and tried to go to sleep and just figured well if we go down, we go down, I don't want to know about it."

In response to the crash, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has demanded reform in the Russian airline industry. Many of the problems in the industry come from smaller carriers; the larger Russian airlines have been shoring up their safety standards and account for 85% of the flights. It's the other 15% where the problems largely lay. Regulations are soon to come into effect that will essentially drive those smaller carriers out of business, including Yak Service. By 2012, airlines flying routes with planes of at least 50 seats must have a fleet of 10 planes; by 2013, they must have 20 planes.

I join everyone else in extending fullest condolences to everyone connected with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One Wonders How Dad Stays Rich

When someone starts to lose financial standing, as you might expect and very well may have experienced firsthand, they start to worry about what they're going to do about it. Scaling one's life down is a difficult, difficult thing. As the situation gets more and more serious, and the consequences more and more dire, the person gets more and more worried, angry, despondent.

And, sometimes, panicky and desperate for help. Any kind of help.

When this happens, the people with the resources to potentially do something can do a couple different things. They can step in and help. They can... not step in and help. Or, if they're evil, they can step in and take advantage of the person losing their money in order to take even more of their money even faster.

Which brings us to our subject of the day, a financial seminar that has been advertised recently on WIBA, 101.5 FM in Madison. Perhaps you've heard similar ads at some point. The seminar- free, it's noted- claims to be based on the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and advertised four teaser topics.

Try not to laugh at the four teaser topics.

1. "Your home is not an asset."
2. "Why you may not want to diversify."
3. "Why you may not want to invest in 401K's or mutual funds."
4. "Why saving money will never make you rich."

It doesn't even seem necessary to attend the seminar to see in what direction things are clearly heading. Knowing nothing except the content of the ad, most of my co-workers burst into open laughter. (The only one who didn't, didn't out of sadness that people get taken in by things like that.) You're being asked to take some of the most basic, fundamental, taken-for-granted tenets of investing, up to and including the concept of saving money, and are then told to throw it all in the garbage.

And when you do start to dig, it's not particularly hard to guess the kind of words that are going to pop up. "Exposed." "Scam." "Investigates." "Rich Dad" is Robert Kiyosaki, and I am far from the first to get on him. ABC's 20/20, for example, took a run at Kiyosaki back in 2006. Three kids were given $1,000 and told that they had 20 days to invest it in anything they wanted, as long as it was legal and ethical. At the end of the month, they could keep any profit they got.

That was pretty much all they got told. And that was the problem. One kid in fact turned a profit of $243, though only after managing to get a piece of actual advice- namely, 'promote heavily'- halfway through the time period. Another made $540, but was penalized, and berated by Kiyosaki, because he gave it all to charity, namely public schools in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Take a second to contemplate that.

The third not only lost the $1,000, but put in another $1,000 of her own money and got nothing back. This was after spending the first week with no idea what she was doing. You might think someone who had gotten expert advice would have been able to avoid such a performance.

And this is the primary criticism of Kiyosaki, both from the kids and more generally: that he DOESN'T give actual advice, merely a bunch of abrasive cheerleading. This criticism has been leveled ever since his (self-published) book came out in 1997, though it didn't stop him from making an appearance on Oprah, which, knowing Oprah's ability to sell books, is probably how the book took off. You can take any article about Kiyosaki that's been written since Rich Dad, Poor Dad hit it big and it will read pretty much the same as the others. Here's one from 2002, written by Slate's Rob Walker.

The book itself is described by Walker as blunt yet bland common-sense advice- much of which isn't even good advice- disguising advertisements for Kiyosaki's other financial-advice enterprises. When anecdotes are provided as to how Kiyosaki himself got rich- his substitute for more detailed advice- it turns out to be glossed-over stories of real estate speculation.

(Please refer again to teaser topic #1. Try to reconcile it with the anecdotes.)

The Sydney Morning Herald was blunter upon their encounter with Kiyosaki in 2004, using him as a foothold to attack get-rich-quick empires in general. This article quotes investment adviser John T. Reed, who was even blunter than them: "Rich Dad, Poor Dad is one of the dumbest financial advice books I have ever read. It contains many factual errors and numerous extremely unlikely accounts of events that supposedly occurred."

Reed's full double-barrel unloading- or actually, unloading of one of those arsenals you see in propaganda war posters- can be found here, but be warned that you absolutely will not be able to get through the entire page in one sitting unless you are Rain Man and also you have meals delivered directly to your computer. It is a rant of Biblical proportions, unlike anything I have ever seen on the Internet, and has become the gold standard of investigation against Kiyosaki.

Among Reed's charges:

*Kiyosaki advocates making friends so that you can better engage in insider trading ("That's what friends are for"),
*That he advises that vacations to Hawaii be deducted as business expenses,
*That he counts his cat as a business partner, and
*That he endorses a Texan proverb that goes "If you're going to go broke, go broke big."

Independent research- which included direct clips from Rich Dad, Poor Dad available through Google Books- has shown nothing to dispute any of these charges.

The Morning Herald also notes why the seminars are free: because there's no paid labor at the seminars. The staff is volunteer-only.

And the seminar itself has been covered as well, by CBS Moneywatch's Allan Roth. Real-estate speculation was pressed some more, as well as the concept of passive income (which here consisted basically of telling yourself how much of it you wanted), and sales pitches for courses that will run you up to $45,000. The first of the classes, a $500 three-day class, is little more than a play of Kiyosaki's board game, Cashflow 101; an urging to increase your credit card limit as much as possible on Day 1; a sales pitch for the next set of classes on Day 2 at prices that immediately bring those jacked-up credit card limits into play; and active eviction of anyone that starts to realize it's a scam, which usually happens around Day 3 with people that decided to come back anyway to warn the others. (In emergency situations, Day 3 can be abruptly cut short.)

Roth walked out of the free seminar after one hour and referred the reader to yet another source that had gone after the Rich Dad franchise, the CBC program Marketplace, which had actually managed to sit through the entire thing. Kiyosaki, it should be noted, was not present at either free seminar.

Further criticism of Kiyosaki can be found at the Fraud Files Blog, the Consumerist, The Simple Dollar, the Motley Fool, WorkAtHomeTruth, the Better Business Bureau, and a website for people who've already been conned called Rich Daddy Nightmares.

Guys like Kiyosaki are among the most dangerous people you can possibly get involved with when you're in a bad financial situation. At that point, you need sound advice that has been proven to be effective in getting people back on their feet. Advice like Kiyosaki's, seemingly designed to separate you from as much of your money as possible as quickly as possible without actually setting fire to it, will merely finish you off.

By the way: in late June, Kiyosaki advised investing in precious metals, buying a gun and stockpiling food, saying "Remember this, the police cannot prevent a crime, only you can do that. They can only investigate it after you’re dead."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Can We Pretend That Airplanes In The Night Sky Are Like-- No, Wait, That's Terrible, No, Forget I Said That

I'd like to dump some time into the club-soccer book (on deck: team #663, Jeju United of South Korea), so you won't be here very long today.

You may not want to, because if you have binoculars on hand, maybe you'll be able to catch a supernova in the sky. The link provided tells you where and how.

Those of you with only your naked eyes... well, the U.S. plays Belgium in a friendly in about 15 minutes. So there's that.

Monday, September 5, 2011


When a country gains independence or regime change, one of the first things the new government is going to need is recognition from other countries. It's a funny little aspect of being a country: part of being one is getting everyone else to call you one, or admit you're one.

So with that, today I feel like doing a little statkeeping. What follows is a list of countries, arranged alphabetically. Aside each country is the first other country to recognize that country's existence or independence. (By this, we're talking the kind of recognition that would cause the recognizing country to sponsor the recognized country for a seat of their own at the United Nations, as opposed to simply changing the people occupying an existing seat. For that reason, we limit ourselves to countries that are actually in the UN now.)

As one might expect, being the first to recognize a new country tends to pay off with relations between the two flourishing down the road. (Though it's no guarantee.) This is why, despite the fact that only one country can actually be first, several countries will claim to be first, or at least among the first, or the first in a particular region. I've done the best I can in sifting through all the claims, though just in case I'm wrong, other claimants are noted.

*Angola- Brazil
*Armenia- Argentina (Of all the places, Turkey also claims priority.)
*Bangladesh- Bhutan (India also claims priority.)
*Belarus- Turkey
*Belgium- United Kingdom
*Belize- Mexico
*Bolivia- France
*Brazil- United States
*Croatia- Iceland (Germany and the Vatican also claim priority.)
*Eritrea- Ethiopia
*Greece- Haiti (The United States also claims priority.)
*Guinea-Bissau- Brazil (Romania also claims priority.)
*Haiti- Really, nobody ought to get credit. Haiti was the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, spurred by a slave revolt in 1791. But to recognize Haiti as a nation would be to recognize the right of slaves to revolt. And nobody, at the time, wanted to make that admission. So nobody recognized Haiti... until France in 1825. Even then, they extracted as the price for recognition a restitution payment ten times Haiti's total revenue, because of all the money France had lost due to the slave revolt. It must be noted that four years before this payment, in 1821, Haiti recognized Greece. Greece, obviously, did not repay the favor.
*India- it looks like Bhutan.
*Indonesia- Egypt
*Ireland- a bunch of possible answers, but we're going to go with Russia. (Claims are also made for the United Kingdom, Argentina, Canada and Germany.)
*Israel- United States (The Soviet Union claims priority, but they were just the first to formalize it. The United States was the first to hit the threshold we're looking for.)
*Italy- United Kingdom (The United States also claims priority.)
*Kazakhstan- Turkey (The United States claims to be first, but missed out by nine days. Turkey got there on December 16, 1991; the United States got there on the 25th.)
*Kenya- Germany
*Liberia- United Kingdom
*Macedonia- Bulgaria
*Moldova- Romania
*Montenegro- Iceland
*Namibia- Angola
*Nepal- India
*North Korea- Soviet Union
*Pakistan- Iran
*Panama- United States
*Turkmenistan- Iran (Turkey and Pakistan also claim priority.)
*South Sudan- Sudan
*Suriname- China
*Timor-Leste- China
*Tonga- Germany
*Tunisia- United States (France may also claim priority.)
*Ukraine- Poland
*United States- Morocco (The Netherlands also claims priority.)