Monday, October 31, 2011

Meanwhile, You're Scraping Your Windshield Again

Last year, Scotland had a particularly snowy winter. Some of this snow, as snow will do, fell on train tracks. What that does is, it gets under the train and, with enough snow and even ice, it messes with the undercarriage. There's also the matter of de-icing the train once it pulls into a depot. Scotland saw 70 trains damaged last year from ice falling from the train. Two trains even got stopped in snow, and you know how much it takes to stop a train. To add insult to injury, the second train was a rescue train sent out as a response to the first. (Passengers ended up having to walk, in howling wind and snow in the middle of the night, all the way back to a third train.)

Scotland is ready for that if it happens again. They've borrowed some technology from Finland- and the local farm. They'll be using 75-meter polytunnels- usually used for protecting crops- which are heated and contain powerwashers. Skirts have also been added to the trains, which project to be de-iced in a third of the normal time- a cut from six hours to two.

And, of course, workers at the depots have plows and shovels on hand. You would hope.

Am I bitter that we were going to get high-speed rail in Watertown and it got ripped right out of our hands by idiots? No. Why do you ask?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Land Ho

Bit of writer's block today. No real getting around it. So I'm just going to have to settle for a quiz.

We've got here a list of historical border expansions. You're given the expansion, you need to name the country that did it. There are 20 of them; you've got 5 minutes.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


That is going to be one of the worst URL's ever.

Apparently, we have another date you're going to need to be aware of: November 9. I was alerted to this last night over the radio; you're going to want to know as well so you're not surprised.

You know those Emergency Broadcast System tests? The ones that break into programming every so often and beep at you for a couple minutes? While they've been done on state and local levels all the time, recently it occurred to someone that they'd never actually done a test on a national level and they don't know if the EBS works on that scale and, in fact, they've never really known.

So on the 9th, that's what they're going to do. The test will take place at 2 PM Eastern time, 1 PM Central, and they figure it'll run for about three minutes. They want to get the word out now because they figure if they don't, there are going to be people that get fooled by the screen that says 'this is only a test' and call 911 complaining of excessive stupidity. In fact, they don't know whether that 'this is only a test' screen is even going to show up. That's the thing. They don't know. They've never tested. Through the entire Cold War and aftermath, it never occurred to them to run a large-scale test.

So you're aware.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Give A Hoot, Recycle

Okay, I think we've gotten Taylor Swift out of our system.

...well, actually, over the course of the past week, I've pretty much gone from 'like Taylor's music' to 'I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy', but that's beside the point. This is, amazingly enough, not yet a Taylor Swift fansite, so we need to move on to other topics.

So. Coming up on November 15 is America Recycles Day. I could recite to you all the stats about how wasteful Americans are, but I get the feeling that it sounds so much like a lecture about how bad a person you are that the numbers and the stories and everything just have this way of turning people off and causing them to chuck stuff out of spite. So in the interest of moving things in the right direction, we will dispense with the lecture here. If you'd like a lecture, the Huffington Post is happy to supply one.

Here, I'll only mention that, economy being what it is, practicing the three R's is going to become more and more of an essential skill. The more you reduce what you use, reuse the stuff you do, and recycle what can't be used anymore for its original purpose, the less stuff you will need to buy, which means the more money you will save. And when you do buy something, putting them into practice means you're a little more willing to go into places like Goodwill and St. Vincent and garage sales and reuse things other people don't have uses for anymore. That's also going to save you money. Sound good? Thought so.

So at that first link, you'll see the day's official website, where entire events are being planned around the third R, recycling. There you will also find a link to Earth911- well, you'll find it here too now, I guess- where, if you've ever wondered if something can be recycled- say, single-use batteries (you know, the ones you've got in your remote) and where you can recycle it, you can find out. (Unfortunately, not very many places. For me, if I wanted to remain in-STATE, I'd have to drive to Deerfield.)

Are we jumping the gun a bit? Sure. Is that a bad thing? No.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Would You Doooo-o-o For A Taylor Hug?

We're doing another Taylor Swift piece. There was this one story that I came across while researching Tuesday's article that I had no room for, but it is just so irresistible that I want to give it attention.

Tuesday, we established two things: first, the bulk of the Swifties out there want nothing more than to meet her; and second, they like her not just for her music, but for who she is as a person. Because one of Taylor's defining characteristics is, when she's not slamming an ex in a song, she is just overwhelmingly, unrelentingly nice, with the ability to see things in perspectives far beyond her years. A frequent theme of many of Taylor's songs is that, no matter how far off in the future a point in your life may seem, one day that future will become your past, and after that, all you're going to have are your memories because life only goes the one direction. That's a large part of why she's so constantly awestruck by all the awards and all the crowds and all the fans. It's not just her young age. She realizes that, even if it's decades down the road, she's eventually going to run into a day when she's no longer selling out open-air stadiums and having millions fawning over her, and so she's got to enjoy it while it lasts so she'll have the best possible scrapbook to show her grandkids. And she knows the same principle is true of all the people around her, many of which are a lot closer to that day than she is. Granted, many people say they realize that, but Taylor's one of the few, especially at her age, that never forgets it.

And being nice makes for a much better scrapbook, not to mention it just feels right. So she's nice. Like, really nice. Exceedingly nice. Her fans feed off it, partially just because nice is nice, but partially because nice is also something they don't see nearly often enough in the world these days. You've got a world where far more people than would ever be tolerable are poor and out of a job and desperate or angry to the point where they take to the streets in protest or violence, and they look at the people in charge and conclude that at best, nobody cares or else they are too incompetent to fix anything, and at worst, those in charge actively want these problems to happen, and it's all so ubiquitous and depressing and infuriating and hopeless and soul-shattering... and then here's this young girl, this sweet, inspirational girl, this ray of sunshine, going around hugging everyone and taking in the world with genuine wide-eyed wonder and assuring everyone that things are going to be all right, and it's such a breath of fresh air, such a relief to see these days, that people can't help but respond to it and spread the word that good people can still prosper.

(Geez. I teared up a bit just writing that.)

Which leads us to what has to be the quintessential Taylor Swift story, the one that all by itself encapsulates the nature of the culture Taylor has created around her.

In January 2010, two roommates from Auburn University, Ryan Leander and Michael Wekall, along with cameraman Matthew Mahaffey, set out to accomplish one goal: get a hug from Taylor. They had heard that Taylor's a hugger, and decided to embark on the mission to get one themselves. Very quickly, Swift's larger fanbase caught wind of it and gave it all sorts of attention. The roommates were quick to remind the onlookers that it was ultimately Taylor's call:

"One note however, if Taylor doesn't want to go through with what we are doing, I don't want you all to be like, Oh Taylor is so mean for not letting them get a simple hug. She doesn't have to do this, if she does agree to do it she is doing it out of the kindness of her heart, and if she doesn't do it we aren't going to hate her, we will still be big fans of her, and we want you to be that way too."

In March, Taylor caught wind of their mission, and decided she was game for it. But she wasn't giving away this particular hug for free. The rest of this article is going to be very video-intensive as we show the back-and-forth between Taylor and Ryan/Michael, so note that. (As usual around here, you are expected to watch the video before proceeding.)

Now, let's just reflect on this for a second before we move on. Here you've got one of the biggest music superstars on the planet, and two of this superstar's fans are on a mission to get her to give them a hug. Not concert tickets or an autograph or anything like that. A hug. And when that superstar decides to give them a challenge, instead of asking that they, perhaps, embark on some giant or potentially embarrassing project, she asks them to help a little old lady cross the street.

In what world does any of this even happen? Could you imagine a mission called 'A Hug From Lady Gaga' or 'A Hug From Nicki Minaj' or 'A Hug From Jay-Z' or anything like that? (You could imagine it of Katy Perry, perhaps, but could you imagine it in a context devoid of interest in her boobs?) How many acts in an average Billboard Top 100, aside from Taylor, could you ever realistically imagine issuing a challenge to their fans to help an old lady cross the street?

Ryan and Michael were, of course, up to the challenge, but they decided that, as long as they had everyone's attention, they might as well see who else out there was up to helping old ladies cross the street. As it happened, quite a lot of people were...

So we'll call that a "pass". But remember, that was only challenge #1. We go back to Taylor, who in the meantime has established a brief straight-hair kick...

The challenge was just to use her lucky number, 13, in some creative way... but again, note the examples she used. She doesn't say 'make a giant 13 billboard' or 'mow 13 into the grass on Auburn's football field'. She says, maybe bake 13 cookies for someone. Plant 13 tulips. More basic good deeds.

Ryan and Michael's response? Do not one task relating to 13, but 13 of them. And one of those 13 would be handed back to the crowd of Swifties they had on hand, with the top three making it into the video...

8 of the 12 tasks they did themselves are more good deeds. And many of the other Swifties, including those who didn't make the cut, did good deeds themselves. All this... so Taylor will hug them. Remember that that's why that video happened. That's why any of this is happening. They're doing this for a hug. Just reflect on that for a moment. A hug. A simple hug. (Those heart signs at the end, by the way? That's Taylor's signature hand gesture.)

Taylor, what do you think of all that?

Back to Ryan and Michael then, who find out that while Taylor isn't requiring any further good deeds, she has upped the ante for what would prove the final challenge...

That was a little more than a hug. That was several hugs (Matthew got his too). And kisses. And a surprise concert. And, as the conclusion of that video teases, Taylor also invited them to one of her regularly-scheduled concerts in Greenville, South Carolina. As VIP's.

By way of this entire chain of events, you can see just why people love Taylor so much. How many entertainers of her level of talent would do anything like this? Who else would, or could, use some little silly thing like this and use it to induce so many people to be so nice to each other, most of them by pure serendipity? How many of her talent get lost in their fame and forget why they've made it big, or fall far, far short of that kind of good nature, or both? Where else does one see such a combination of talent, perspective and heart?

And why don't they see it more often?

Random News Generator- Australia

The RNG had a rare false start today. Guadeloupe was drawn as the location, but the biggest thing I could scrounge up was talk about an upcoming BBC miniseries, Death In Paradise, that was filmed on the island. For instance, here's Lenora Crichlow talking about the weather.

We're not going to do that. A second spin drew Australia, where a refugee seeking asylum from Sri Lanka committed suicide in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre last night (or early today Australian time), ultimately drinking poison. The refugee, Daya Jayasakara, had been waiting without success for a security clearance to live in the community for two years, before he ultimately gave up. It is only in the last few months that his application was accepted.

What's thought to be the thing that may have pushed Jayasakara over the edge was the denial of a request to attend a local Hindu festival so he could visit a friend. However, because there doesn't appear to have been a suicide note, and since Jayasakara can no longer be asked why, it's impossible to know for sure.

Australian law dictates mandatory detention for seekers of asylum. That policy, in the wake of Jayasakara's death, is now under attack from those who want to see easier refugee access into the community. Villawood in particular is under fire and has been for a long time; according to Dr. Michael Dudley, head of Suicide Prevention Australia, six refugee deaths have occurred since September 2010, and four of them came at Villawood. The facility was described in 2008 as "prison-like" by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunites Commission, particularly its maximum-security area, where Jayasakara had spent some time after participating in a rooftop protest in April, witnessing one of the other suicides while held there. That protest saw Villawood being lit ablaze by refugees.

If you're drawing some comparisons to Guantanamo Bay, note that there are differences. Things move a tad bit faster at Villawood, there is a rate of turnover, and they're not being blanketly accused of being enemy combatants. However, the abuse, the stark nature of the facilities, the outsider nature of the refugees, the fact that they are considered refugees and not enemy combatants- and the fact that none of the people held believe themselves able to go back home- they're refugees for a reason- combine to make Villawood just as big a lightning rod.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ain't No Party Like A T-Party

Taylor Swift is immensely, insanely popular. But you didn't need me to tell you that. Even though Taylor herself still can't quite come to grips with it sometimes. Every single concert on her currently-winding-down Speak Now Tour is filled to the rafters by legions of screaming, half-delirious fans, most of whom aren't quite sure whether to like her more for her music or for being the kind of person she is and has remained despite her fame. (Check out her rider from the Fearless tour; the list of demands an act asks of their various venues. It reads less like the outrageous demands of a huge music superstar and more like 'could you guys do my grocery shopping, please?' The most demanding thing there is that if there happens to be a Starbucks, have a couple cups and a pumpkin loaf to her bus by 11 AM.)

And I mean 'filled to the rafters' literally. Thus far, over the course of the entire Speak Now Tour and all the gigantic venues booked throughout, up to and including Cowboys Stadium, Swift has only left 300 total seats empty, all in a single show in London. The venue is irrelevant. It has sold out. Several times they've added additional shows, and an entire leg in Australia and New Zealand, so they can sell those out too. Swift could probably sell out the moon right now. (UPDATE: Okay, so apparently she left about 1,100 empty seats the previous night in Manchester, England as well.)

If you were to ask any random Swiftie- that's what they call themselves- what, out of all possible Taylor-related things that could happen, they would wish for most, at least 90% of them would probably tell you that they'd want to meet Taylor. But there's a good chance they'll put it a little differently.

Hey, conveniently-located Swiftie. What do you want more than anything in the world?

"Oh my God I wanna be in the Tea Party!"

In case you're wondering, this is why Taylor Swift is today's topic. I heard 'tea party' and wondered what the hell is going on here because I don't think I've heard Taylor ever express any political opinions at all.

As it turns out, that phrase, amazingly enough, had much more benign, friendly connotations until a few years ago and I had forgotten about them. And also I spelled it wrong in this context. It's not 'Tea Party'. It's 'T-Party'. got confused too. So it's not just me. If it happens to you, if you ever hear the phrase in relation to Swift and get confused, here's what it means.

Every Swift concert has this little private after-party, which Taylor dubs the T-Party. It's a fairly elaborate meet-and-greet. Throughout the show, Taylor's mom and an assortment of other people in the entourage look through the crowd for whoever they deem to be the "most spirited" fans of the night, and somewhere around 20 fans a show get invites in the form of little Livestrong-style bracelets. Sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less, but 20 is about the target. There's no real set criteria- sometimes they pick the loudest, craziest person in the building, but sometimes they look in the nosebleed section for someone really quiet and just happy to be there. A trip to the T-Party is, in Swift's fans' eyes, the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and probably plays at least a bit of a part in why things get so crazy.

Because unless you really, truly are that way, let's be honest, you're not going the quiet and shy route. More often, over-the-top schemes are hatched the instant people know they're going to the concert. The presence of glowsticks has been identified as somewhat increasing one's odds of getting a T-Party invite, so one common strategy is to cover oneself in as many as one can get on one's body. (Taylor does notice and appreciate all this; she spends a fair bit of time just looking around, seeing just what people are doing to stand out and wondering 'wow, how long did that take you to put together? And you did that for me?')

In fact, as she noted in a YouTube interview in September, her shows eventually start to resemble less a concert than a taping of Let's Make A Deal. (skip to 23:09)

"A lot of people have been going for the costume route. So we'll look out, and my guitar player will lean over to me and be like, 'That girl is dressed like a chicken.' And I'm trying to find the meaning, I don't know why, but you know, we'll look out and there's, like, a Santa Claus. Or people who've duct-taped their entire body in neon duct tape. Or people who have just made giant cupcakes around themselves, and they're like, they're this big. (gestures with arms) Or people who have dressed up from the Mean video, or something like that. But then there's just these ones where the girl is dressed as, like, there's a clown and a starfish. And we're like, 'I don't know why, but I love it.' And so there's been a lot of costume stuff lately on the tour, so if you look around and you see someone dressed up as a giant cow, and you don't know why, we don't know why either, but it's welcome."

And that's the thing. Taylor is of the mindset that, hey, she is performing with her friends, mom in tow, in front of tens of thousands of people chanting her name and going totally bonkers in the hope of getting to say hi to her and maybe having her write her name on something, and all she has to do is basically sing her diary to them. If the worst thing that happens on a given day is that she can't figure out why one of her fans- her fans, she has fans- dressed up like a cow beyond 'she really wants to meet me', that's a really good day.

Otherwise, she would not be closing out her pre-encore Speak Now Tour setlist with 'Long Live', which is five-plus minutes of her telling her band, aka her "band of thieves in ripped-up jeans", just how awesome their lives have gotten and how much everything that's happening to them ought to be appreciated. (No, YouTube commenters. It is not about Harry Potter. Repeat, NOT about Harry Potter.)

And why not? She gets to go to every T-Party.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Or We Can Clone The Marshmallows

If you've got a kid, about 4-6 years old, go grab a treat they like, a marshmallow or cookie or something- and take them into the emptiest room in the house. Tell that kid that they will get the treat, but you have to go do something or other, and if they can go 15 minutes without eating it and it's still there when you get back- but only if it's still there- they'll get a second treat.

Now see what happens. Honor whatever result you get. Odds are about 2 out of 3 that that marshmallow won't be there anymore.

You now know a fair bit about how your child is going to do in life. What you're testing here is delayed gratification, and you're doing the same thing done in a 1972 experiment at Stanford by Walter Mischel.

I found that there is actually a TED talk about this, and TED talks are always good. Joachim de Posada, take it away.

You really do not want to see that marshmallow gone, because every time follow-up studies are done on former participants, the ones who resisted turn out worlds better than the ones who didn't. They were more successful, had better grades, and in some cases, it's been the difference between staying in school and dropping out. Seeking instant gratification as a kid means seeking it as an adult, and I'll leave it to you to fill in your favorite example of instant gratification that turns out sour later.

In fact, the difference can be seen in your brain, as shown here. Some of the ex-kids who either made it or ate the marshmallow almost immediately were re-tested as adults, with various faces substituted for the marshmallow. The instant-gratification group showed increased activity in the ventral striatum. On the crazy off-chance you've never heard of the ventral striatum, it's been correlated with things like addiction, OCD, and even schizophrenia.

If your kid ate the marshmallow, though, you don't need to start thinking doom and gloom, and even if the marshmallow is still there, don't rest on it. It's not set in stone. Recent years of follow-up studies have shown that the status of the marshmallow can change from year to year. If your kid ate the marshmallow, what you want to do is to make self-control a priority lesson. Sesame Street made it their lesson of the day back on June 3... which quickly led to Stephen Colbert taking the test.

Try not to be like Stephen.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Captain Planet Is Not The Father

A team of scientists from Australia and the United States have found a new, bouncing baby planet, using the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (NOTE: Do not try to bounce a planet at home.) The planet is estimated as being no older than 50,000-100,000 years old, the youngest planet yet observed. The planet, dubbed LkCa 15b, is about six times the size of Jupiter and a little closer to its sun- itself only about 2 million years old- than Uranus is to ours. You obviously are not going to see it from your lawn, but if you did, you'd see it as a deep red, almost infrared, due to the heat from the planet's ongoing formation.

Why is this important?

Again, it's the youngest planet yet seen, a planet still in formation. There is a lot science doesn't yet know about planet formation; a lot of what we go on concerning planets is still just educated guessing. (Another example of planetary educated guessing: what exactly the center of the Earth looks like. You've heard mantle, outer core, inner core, but do you really think anyone's been down there to have a look?)

What led the astronomers to this particular find was the fact that a debris cloud surrounding a star, had a big gap in it. When a planet forms, what's thought to happen is that the debris cloud starts exerting enough gravity on itself to pull itself together and form a big mass. The mass, creating an orbit, collects more debris as it goes. You can actually form multiple planets from the same cloud, but whether that's happening here is going to require further observation, alongside the determination of orbit path. Astronomers have seen the big debris cloud, they've seen the final result, but this is the first time they've seen the process from A to B.

Since the actual photo leaves a bit to the non-scientist's imagination, pretty much every story on the subject includes an artist's rendering, shown here on its own.

Now to go look for any other gaps in debris clouds.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Yay For Bathroom Readers Edition

I guess there's more soccer book work in my future because there's only one book to report on here, and it's this year's main edition of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader; the 24-Karat Gold Bathroom Reader.

I go through these a lot looking for topic ideas. Heck, my name even shows up in a couple after having submitted stuff to them (though they seem to prefer spelling Allermann with one N, which to be fair, a lot of people do). Generally what I'll do is go after their shorter stories, things where they don't go into very much detail- often this will end up being the 'running feet', the little factoids at the bottom of each page- and I'll go expand on that.

So hey, one more, one merrier.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Do You Like 50 Cent?

Well, maybe you ought to. Or at least his energy drink, Street King. Or at least, you ought to 'like' it on Facebook. Every time you do, 50 Cent is going to donate a meal to the UN World Food Programme, with a million-meal bonus if Street King tops a million likes in a week. As I check it, it's at 197,298.

And if you're actually willing to drink the stuff, that's worth a donation too, one meal per can sold over the next five years.

Or if you want absolutely nothing to do with 50 Cent or his stupid-head energy drink, you could always just go to the World Food Programme site and donate directly.

Bit of a quickie today; want to get some book work in.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Least-Wanted Land In The World

In a world that has been explored, GPS'ed and Google Earthed to the point where any random guy in Arkansas can survey any remote Asian wilderness, something we take for granted is that every inhabitable piece of the planet belongs to someone, that at least one group of people lays a claim to every part of the planet where it's remotely feasible to set up a tent and a mailbox. (Antarctic wasteland excepted.)

You would be wrong.

Along the border between Egypt and Sudan, you'll see two regions of dispute, Bir Tawil and the Hala'ib Triangle. In 1899, when the United Kingdom was running things in the area, they set the border at the 22nd parallel. That's the border you're likely familiar with. However, three years later, the British moved the borders around a bit to accommodate some residents who lived closer to and identified more with Khartoum than Cairo. This border moved the Hala'ib Triangle into Sudan and Bir Tawil into Egypt (some Egyptian tribe was using Bir Tawil for grazing).

The Hala'ib Triangle has some decent soil. Egypt has even declared part of Hala'ib as Gebel Elba National Park. Bir Tawil is sandy, rocky, mountainous and generally worthless land, not to mention being much smaller than the Hala'ib Triangle. So, naturally, both countries would prefer Hala'ib. Egypt claims the 1899 borders, which gives themselves Hala'ib and Sudan Bir Tawil, and Sudan claims the 1902 borders, giving Sudan Hala'ib and Egypt Bir Tawil.

Which leaves nobody wanting Bir Tawil. Claiming it would screw up the claim for Hala'ib. A third party would have trouble ruling over it, because they'd have to get through one or both nations to get there.

Not that nobody's tried.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To The Cloud

(via Treehugger, Tiego Barros)

You know you want to click and see what in blazes is going on here. (Yes, that is concept art, and no, while it may be high, you are not.) (Presumably.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy The Tax Code

I guess I'm just in an idea-making kind of mood lately. There are certainly worse moods to be in, and it's a hell of a lot better than having writer's block.

Let's start by noting that I never expected Occupy Wall Street to take off the way it has. Like a lot of people, I had it pegged as being too disjointed and lacking in clear policy ideas to really get a foothold.

But a funny thing happened. It turns out that specific policy proposals have been quite unnecessary. Occupy Wall Street and its ever-growing number of supporters have operated on this sort of mind-meld, a single mutual wavelength visible right there in the name: "Occupy Wall Street". You 'occupy' a place, in the sense of the term used here, because you wish to take it over for however long it takes to change the way that place is run. Why one might want to occupy Wall Street is so obvious to so many people that they either express support or grab a tent themselves and head to their nearest large city.

And every time there's a clash with the police, support accelerates because the images- and resulting ever-growing disparity between protesters in jail and bankers in jail who caused this whole mess in the first place- only serve to underscore the struggle and the imbalance of power between Wall Street and everyone else. Every single clash- the recent incident with Citibank being a particularly potent example- makes more people subconsciously think 'Oh my God, if I don't hit the streets right now, the movement will be crushed and THEN what chance do we have?'

No further communication necessary.

In the end, though, some policy proposals will have to step forward from somewhere. They surely won't get tackled right here and now. Not with this Congress. But with the right result next November, maybe they get tackled in the next Congress. As previously stated, the three pillars I think should be given the highest priority are the restoration of Glass-Steagall, the overturning of Citizens United, and of course, tax hikes on the rich.

But how you handle the tax rate is a bit tricky. It always is. In fact, 'a bit' tricky is a gross understatement. The tax code goes through annual overhauls for that very reason. What rate do you tax at? What should be the highest tax bracket? How do you work it to minimize unfair gaming of the system?

I'm electing to tackle it in two steps, both a bit of a departure from the more common proposals. (Because going way off the reservation is what we always do here with these policy proposals. It's a new way of looking at things, and besides, it's more fun.)

My first step is to index tax brackets so that they are all proportions of a single figure indicating very low income (currently, the brackets are decided arbitrarily). I've selected the poverty threshold, as determined annually by the Census Bureau. Everyone is taxed in relation to that number. If you make 1.2 times the threshold, you pay this much; if you make 1.4 times the threshold, you pay that much, if you make 1.5, 1.6, 1.8, 2, 2.5, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 times the threshold, you pay all these other amounts.

(At this point, just a reminder that each tax bracket has no bearing on the ones before it. If there are three tax brackets of 10%, 20% and 30% at $10,000 increments, and you make $30,000, you don't pay $9,000. You pay $6,000: $1,000 on the $10,000 taxed at 10%, $2,000 on the $10,000 taxed at 20%, and $3,000 on the $10,000 taxed at 30%.)

The idea here is that the better-off are taxed not strictly according how well-off they are, but how well-off they are in relation to those at the bottom of the ladder. Build up the impoverished and improve their lot in life, and it's effectively a tax cut for everyone else. Pick on them, take services away, call them lazy and 'welfare queens', and it results in a tax hike. (Originally, I was going to use the minimum wage, but then realized the math is too easily broken by eliminating the minimum wage, which is exactly the opposite of what we're trying to do here. The poverty threshold isn't a number that you can alter for political purposes.)

The second part of the plan involves the high end of the tax bracket. A lot of the argument revolves around what the highest rate should be (currently there are six brackets- 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%) and how high your income should be to get there. However, the argument doesn't scale. The argument revolves around 'well, how do you define rich?' and it ends up being largely fighting over whether we're talking a million dollars or a quarter-million. Either way, it's way below the incomes of the people we're all angry at, people who can pull in multi-million dollar bonuses even when they run their company into the ground. What I'm looking for is something that will scale infinitely, something that can make an endless amount of tax brackets without ever quite hitting 100%. (You're already doing them online or handing them over to a pro, right? You can let the computer figure out the math. That's what it's there for.)

I ultimately opted for logarithmic scale. The best way to describe it to the layperson is to give an example of what a logarithmic scale is. Luckily, there's one in common usage: the Richter scale. You're (hopefully) aware that each point on the Richter scale indicates an earthquake ten times stronger than the point before it. An 8.0 earthquake is ten times stronger than a 7,0 earthquake is ten times stronger than a 6.0 earthquake is ten times stronger than a 5.0 earthquake.

That's a logarithmic scale. Every unit increase in a logarithmic scale increases in value exponentially from the unit before it. With the Richter scale, that exponent is 10.

If you take the exponential increase, and turn it into an exponential decrease, I think you could use it for tax brackets. The way you'd figure the math here is, you'd figure the amount a taxpayer gets to keep- starting at 100%- and then adjust it downward based on income. The more you earn, the higher the tax rate, but the less it increases by as you keep going up (it'll never hit 100%, but it can keep inching up by microscopic decimal points). The debate is then on what the exponent needs to be, and if it doesn't quite scale properly, finding the place where the scaling starts to fail and resetting the exponent to something where it does. (The unit here, of course, is the person's income.) As opposed to the current system that only shifts brackets in increments of tens of thousands of dollars, theoretically you could scale logarithmically to every single dollar.

This, of course, flies directly in the face of everyone who's ever wanted to simplify the tax code. You would absolutely need a computer here to figure out what your tax burden would be. But simple tax codes have a nasty tendency to be flatter and thus more regressive. Flat taxes sound nice and even catchy, but in practice they just make the poor poorer. (In short, if you have a flat tax of 10%, someone who makes a billion dollars can still live just fine on $900 million. Someone who makes $10,000, who has to work infinitely harder to stretch every dollar to make things work, is going to feel their $1,000 tax a hell of a lot harder than the billionaire feels their $100 million tax.) If you want fair taxes, they're going to have to be bracketed. Here we just take it to the next level.

But before we take it to that level, there are a whole lot of other, blunter levels we still need to push past.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Who The Hell Are The Lord's Resistance Army?

As you may or may not be aware, Obama has recently made the decision to send a small (for us) number of troops- about 100- to Uganda with the intent of assisting in the regional fight against the Lord's Resistance Army, with a focus on leader Joseph Kony. This is being done to fulfill a commitment made by Obama and Congress in May 2010 via the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act.

Now, it's quite possible you're not sufficiently versed in African politics to know what exactly the LRA is or what they've done to draw Obama's attention. Rush Limbaugh should serve as an example and cautionary tale in this respect. His immediate reaction, showing an astonishing lack of comprehension, was to endorse the LRA. As quoted by Christianity Today:

"Lord's Resistance Army are Christians. It means God," Limbaugh said on his program. "Lord's Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them."

At some point after that, someone must have gotten in Limbaugh's ear about what he'd just endorsed. The Washington Post whipped up a primer, but in short, the LRA has been responsible for a chilling array of war crimes. Kony claims to be a spokesperson of God, hence the name. The LRA is deliberately composed of child soldiers, who are induced to perform torture, mutilation, sexual slavery, mass displacement of entire villages, and the murder of their own families, among other things. There are even accounts of these child soldiers forcing people, including other children, to engage in cannibalism before killing them.

In long, here's a film from Al Jazeera. It runs 47:33. I do need to warn you of some graphic images, but if you're going to understand who the LRA is, it's important you have a look. (By the way, if you have hangups about Al Jazeera, don't. They're really quite good and not at all a propaganda outfit like they've been accused of being. In fact, they're almost shockingly straight-laced from an American perspective. You watch their news feed sometime, you start thinking there's something off about it, and then you realize that what's off is that there aren't any shouting matches.)

After Limbaugh found out about all this, going back to Christianity Today's account:

"Is that right? The Lord's Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff?" Limbaugh said later in the program. "Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We're gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys - and they claim to be Christians."

Ladies and gentlemen, let Limbaugh's example serve as a warning to the rest of you. Do your due diligence research BEFORE saying something you're going to profoundly regret. And if you find you have said something you will profoundly regret, profoundly regret it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Internal Way-Too-Far-In-Advance Programming Note

This is to let you know that the trip to Los Angeles alluded to last month is now official. Tickets bought and everything. I will be in the LA area from January 25-31. Hopefully, I'll be able to have more computer access then than I did in Hawaii, when all I was able to do was fire off this frantic missive about dollar coins at the Waikiki Apple Store.

But don't expect any feature-length pieces even if I do find a computer; it would be a poor use of a vacation to spend it all in the hotel room writing articles. More likely, I will spend half the trip looking at every single person and wondering if I know that guy from that thing. I will not, except in the one case where it actually is that guy from that thing and it turns out to be someone who was last relevant a decade ago.

But, just so you know.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Click Boy

Right now, American Idol is winding its way through its various qualifying rounds, as it is every year. And once again, Ryan Seacrest will be at the helm, as he is at the helm of an increasing amount of everything ever. This job, American Idol, is what he will certainly go down in pop-culture history for doing.

But it's not what I'll remember him for.

While American Idol is where Seacrest made it big, it's not his first TV hosting gig. When I was growing up, I saw him in that pre-Idol gig. And that gig left a big impression on me, such that when he was announced as one of the two people that would host Idol's first season (hi, Brian Dunkleman! Have you lived that genius decision down yet?), my first thought was 'hey, it's that guy!'

Why did the show leave such an impression? Because the kids were idiots.

The show was called Click, and it ran from 1997 to 1999, with reruns on Game Show Network. So it was a couple years prior to Idol, which began in 2002. Back then, the Internet was still fairly new to everyone, so someone thought it made sense to theme a game show about it.

To this day, I refer to Seacrest as "Click Boy".

Let's set the Internet Wayback Machine to 1997 for a sample episode, and if someone could maybe hack into the Fox feed during a live show and run this stuff, that would be awesome and I disavow all knowledge of your actions.

(Preview question: If you won the Indy 500, what kind of flag would be waved?)

(Preview answer: "American?")

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Just Accept It

Let's start today by making one thing perfectly clear: the class war in America has gone hot. It may not be fought with guns, but it is a hot war nonetheless. We are not 'under threat' of class warfare. That warfare has already begun. In fact, it's been going for quite a while; the top 1% never really did stop after the 1980's. They've been continually fighting it through supporting such things as the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Citizens United ruling, and tax breaks and bailouts for, well, themselves. The war is simply more noticeable now because the Occupy Wall Street movement has given the opposition a face.

Funny how one can call a group consisting of 99% of America, including himself, the "opposition". But there you go.

So this ad, which began airing shortly before Occupy Wall Street took to the pavement may have eluded your attention. I'd like you to have a look at it.

This ad came from Ally Bank (formerly GMAC), but really, it could have come from any large bank. The Financial Brand, among other places, is confused as to what's going on here, as this is Ally's third ad campaign in two years, but to me it's rather clear.

The real message of this ad, you see, is not 'bank with Ally'. Ally's presence here is barely even necessary, and any message about their offered services is completely irrelevant. The services Ally offers are not the point, because this is not an ad for banking services. Not truly.

This is a demoralization attack.

Go back, run the ad again, and click pause immediately after the man hits 'accept'. Ignore the rest. Those first 23 seconds are all Ally REALLY wanted to show you. The rest is there as a throwaway, something to make it a commercial instead of a political ad.

Think of the underlying message here...

"Hi. We're a gigantic bank. In fact, we're one of the banks that got you and everyone you know into the mess you're all in, but we changed our name so that most of you wouldn't notice it was still us. We would like to inform you, the consumer, that you are completely and utterly screwed. We own your ass. We and all the other banks are going to, sooner or later, wheedle you out of every dime you have. And you know we're going to do it. And you know you can't stop us, either, because a) if you keep us from screwing you one way, we'll screw you another way, and b) we're just too powerful.

In fact, we're so confident that you can't stop us, we're taking out an ad campaign to rub it in your face.

And even if you could stop us, you won't. Because even starting to stop us would require you missing your precious little movie night and you're not even willing to do that because it'll piss off your spouse. And you'd have to get through a whole bunch of people tearing down any effort you make to stop us because we've beaten them down too. So you just take your little hissy fit, cram it where the sun don't shine, and get back to giving us your money. We won. You lost. Accept it."

That's basically what this ad really said. It's passed off as 'that's what the OTHER banks do, so bank with us', but keep in mind, GMAC/Ally got bailout money- three rounds of bailout money- that the Congressional Oversight Panel later determined that they really should not have gotten. They're part of it too. Ally was one of 17 banks sued by the federal government in September for subprime mortgage fraud.

So to all you out there wondering why the man in the ad ultimately caved and didn't make some bold statement like 'No! I reject this fee! I'm going to Ally!'... that's why. He's not supposed to. That would have implied that you had a way out.

That was not an ad. That was a taunt.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It's Like A Party In My Mouth And The Mythbusters Are Invited

Netflix recently and rapidly cancelled their proposed separate DVD rental service, Qwikster. Qwikster would have handled the DVD-by-mail services while Netflix would concentrate on online streaming.

In response, Aimee Groth and Jay Yarow of Business Insider supplied a list of other products whose lives were nasty, brutish, and short. Thing is, they go into very little detail on any of their list. (And you already know about several of the items anyway. New Coke. Edsel. Crystal Pepsi. McDonald's Arch Deluxe.) The piece smacks of knocking off early for lunch.

So courtesy of Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo's Misfortune 500, let's add one to the list.

In March 1984, the Adams Natural Beverage Company rolled out Napa Natural, which they advertised as "the world's first natural soft drink" because they used fruit juice. Now, the Mountain Dew I'm nursing right now has fruit juice as well- the ingredients list 'concentrated orange juice'- but with Napa Natural, they were talking 67% fruit juice, and no preservatives. The concept was a hit- it's soda, but HEALTHY soda! How could it lose?

And for six months, it didn't lose. Napa Natural flew off the shelves, beating out a sales record set by Perrier (my best guess is that it's for American sales of upscale drinks in the first six months). It was an explosive success.

And beginning in September 1984, therein laid the problem.

You see, when wine goes into a wine bottle, that wine is flat. It's basically grape juice. But over time, that grape juice ferments, helped along by yeast that can come from several sources, including the grapes themselves. (You know that little dusting you see on grapes sometimes? That's called bloom. It's got yeast in it.) During fermentation, carbon dioxide is released, increasing the pressure in the bottle, which is why you need to work to get the cork off.

Adams Natural- which it must be noted was based in Napa Valley, California- somehow let that little detail slip their minds when they put on the shelves a beverage with enough fruit juice in it to be able to ferment. The Napa Natural Bottles were not wine bottles. They couldn't take the fermentation buildup, and eventually, the Napa Natural bottles went kablooey right there on the store shelves.

Cue the recall and two-month-long retooling of Napa Natural to bring the fruit juice content down to 51 and then 30 percent. It didn't matter what they lowered it to, though. Your product blows up on store shelves once and you can never sell that store anything ever again. The stores didn't even want to stock it now.

Meanwhile, Pepsi came out with Slice, containing 10% fruit juice.

That was pretty much that. Adams Natural made an attempt to relaunch Napa Natural, but with a bad reputation and Pepsi deciding to compete head-to-head, they never stood a chance. The last report on it comes from October 1986, after a deal to sell the company to Schweppes fell through and the owners were looking to get out any way they could.

Of course, blowing yourself up and getting run out of the market by Pepsi is one way to get out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Try Not To Connect These Particular Dots

Back on August 1, we talked about the War of the Triple Alliance, a war that lated from 1864-1870 that pitted Paraguay against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and nearly resulted in Paraguay ceasing to exist. It survived as a buffer state for Brazil and Argentina.

Paraguay suffered through that due to a dictator named Francisco Solano Lopez. A century later, they would suffer through another, a man by the name of Alfredo Stroessner. Stroessner's policies did lead to economic prosperity, but it came at a high, high cost of lost freedoms, elections rigged even when they didn't have to be, and routine torture. His chief torturer's favorite technique was to immerse his subjects in a bath of human excrement, and as an inducement to talk, he would ram a cattle prod up their butts. One man was torn in half with a chainsaw while Stroessner listened on the phone.

Sorry if you were trying to eat lunch.

Stroessner was forced out in a coup in 1989. Since then, the country has struggled to rid itself of Stroessner's legacy while hanging onto his economy. They've been less than successful. As a result of all this, they've had a persistent population problem. Namely, they can't hang onto it. Their people keep leaving, despairing of opportunities at home, and head primarily for Argentina, Spain and the United States. Without their presence, and the presence of those who fled during Stroessner's rule, the brain drain leaves Paraguay facing longer odds of being able to move forward.

This is why, on Sunday, voters approved by a wide margin a proposal to allow expats to vote. 80% of the voters approved it, though it should be noted that turnout was a microscopic 12.5%. (Normally, voting is mandatory in Paraguay; however, this vote was not.) The proposal, though, still faces approval by the Paraguayan legislature, which has bitterly opposed the current administration, led by Fernando Lugo, has tried to do. So even though the vote has come down in favor, the effort's fate remains uncertain.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Your Horrifying Thought Of The Day

Right now, at this moment, you are sharing a planet with a man in Sierra Leone who, upon looking at a 2 1/2-month-old girl, not only wondered "I wonder whether I could fit in there", but then decided he just had to find out.

Not only that, but right now, at this moment, that man walks free, unburdened by a society that in cases of rape prefers to blame the victim, as Nick Kristof of the New York Times details in the linked article.

As it turns out, the baby in question died as a result.

This has been your horrifying thought of the day.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Did I Roll Six, Or Only Five?

Currently on the shelves at work is something called the Logo Board Game. It is just the encapsulation of everything we think is wrong with society today. Just think about the concept here for a second. It's a game devoted entirely to the glorification of corporate brand names.

They'd be fine as part of a larger, general-knowledge game, but when that's all the game is, it's really actually kind of disturbing.

But at least it's disturbing in a nonviolent way.

Meet the Subway Vigilante Game, produced in 1987 by Paperback Games. In this game, you play a guy trying to navigate the New York subway system from Brooklyn to your home in the Bronx; first player home wins. Along the way, you have to get through a number of 'punks'. Your game token is one of four types of handguns, and you begin the game with six bullets. Run out, and you get mugged and have to go back to start.

When you land on a 'Punk' space, you draw a card that plays out the encounter. Among the cards you can draw here are "Stop to watch punks paint graffiti- choice: use 1 bullet or lose turn", "Punk raises arms to surrender- choice: use 1 bullet and roll again or no bullets used", and "Punk shot, but still moving- use 2 bullets".

In addition, there are "Make My Day" spaces, in which you draw more cards. Among the options here: "Bystander gives you bullet- get bullet from player in the lead", "Put gun to Punk's head- move ahead 2 spaces", and "Cock your gun's trigger- move ahead 3 spaces"

The back of the box goes on like this. "The game is a perfect gift for that trigger happy law and order conservative. (Definition of conservative: a liberal who has been mugged.)"

The game, amazingly enough, was designed as a stimulation for debate. A few years earlier, New York did have a subway vigilante, Bernhard Goetz, who shot at four attempted muggers in 1984, paralyzing one of them, and was subsequently subjected to one of the many Trials Of The Century that occurred over the century. A jury acquitted him of the shooting, only convicting him on illegal possession of firearms, and might have acquitted him of that too had they known he'd do prison time.

So in that vein, the game supplied 15 discussion questions. There's no full list available, but one was relayed by the Orlando Sentinel- "What do you think are the main causes of crime?"

This is a question to be asked AFTER you've just gone Clint Eastwood across two boroughs.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Nobel Peace Prize, 2011

Congratulations to the winners, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia; and Tawakul Karman of Yemen. The three have won for their efforts in securing women's rights. Sirleaf is the first female president of Liberia; Gbowee has been active in uniting Christians and Muslims against local warlords; Karman has been in a sit-in camp since February as part of the Arab Spring.

The decision, according to the New York Times, was made to give the award to that combination of women in order to ensure that everyone understood the prize was being given out for women's rights and not for something else. Had it just gone to the Liberians, it may have been seen as taking sides in an upcoming re-election campaign, and had it just gone to Karman, it might have been seen as expressing support exclusively for the Arab Spring.

They were burned in that respect in 2009, when Barack Obama was awarded the prize chiefly for his agenda on nuclear disarmament, and he ended up being held to it by Republicans for far more than that. This year, the Nobel committee is not leaving the message to chance.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Our Jobs Got Taken

In a small, tiny, rather insignificant way of honoring Steve Jobs, today let's go gaze upon the realm a bit with a name-X-in-Y-minutes quiz or two.

Here, you're asked to name the 15 most popular websites in each of 12 countries. You have 8 minutes. (If that sounds like way too little time, note that some of the websites repeat and when you find one, it'll fill in everywhere it shows up.)

And in a more Apple-related capacity, name all the Apple product lines- essentially, the Steve Jobs body of work- in 7 minutes.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The South Sea Company

Big corporations these days have, to put it mildly, a poor reputation. They stand accused of such crimes as buying elections, corrupting government to the point of making constituents irrelevant to the process, severe exploitation of workers, disregard for communities, and using every trick in the book- including ones they make up as they go- in order to take everything of value that they can from everyone that is not running a big corporation, nearly to the point of confiscation, and then hoarding it so that money, once in the hands of the super-rich, never leaves it.

What if I told you that corporations have been, historically, even worse than that? They could just take over the world outright, with guns.

In the Age of Exploration, the kind of company most influential to world events- and almost certainly the most influential of all time- was the chartered company. A chartered company was what you made when you needed to raise money to fund an expedition overseas for the purpose of exploring, trading, and often conquering and colonizing whatever happens to be over there. By funding the expedition, you got to share in the spoils, whatever they were, however much they were. The companies were always named after wherever it was the expedition was headed. The American settlements at Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts were separate parts of one such company, the Virginia Company.

Probably the most notable of the others from the era were:

*The Hudson's Bay Company, set up to capitalize on Canadian fur trade and which is actually still around, headquartered in Toronto and currently in ownership of several Canadian retail chains.
*The Dutch East India Company, whose land holdings after dissolution effectively became Indonesia.
*The British East India Company, which ruled India for an entire century until the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. That rebellion was brought on when Hindu and Muslim sepoys (local term for soldier) were made to use ammunition that required them to bite the end of the cartridge before loading into the gun. The cartridge had been coated in animal fat, very likely beef or pork. When the soldiers refused, citing religious sensibilities, they were punished by Company soldiers, who didn't see what the big deal was. They soon found out; while the rebellion was eventually squashed, the Company ended up handing control over to the British crown.

These were the successful ones.

Then there was the South Sea Company.

When someone says "South Sea" today, they probably are talking about the South Pacific, places like Fiji and Tahiti and Samoa. In 1711, though, when the South Sea Company was founded, "South Sea" referred to South America and the surrounding maritime area. In that year, Robert Harley- a British politician mainly notable today for his influence in literature- established the company alongside a man named John Blunt. The aim: exclusive rights of trade in South and Latin America, which when set up would help pay off 10 million pounds worth of government war debt. That all seemed like a great deal and a surefire winner. After all, Latin America was so rich in resources, and gold and silver.

There was just one problem, though as told in Charles Mackay's book Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and again in the Guinness Book of Historical Blunders by Geoffrey Regan (you can see where this is headed just from the titles of those books): none of this land actually belonged to England. Locals notwithstanding, it belonged to Spain and Portugal, though as far as we're concerned here, really just Spain. And Spain wasn't really keen to allow England to horn in on its market, though after the War of Spanish Succession in 1713, they did allow one British ship a year to trade with Chile, Mexico or Peru. And even then, then-Spanish king Philip V got to tax that ship's cargo at 5%, and take a quarter of the profits.

Not that anyone cared. Gold! There's gold in them thar hills! The gold tells us to disregard reality! (No! It will do us harm!) We must obtain it! (But we cannot have it!) WE WANT IT!

While the public worked itself into a frenzy, 1717 arrived, where England and Spain went to war after England, getting presumptuous, announced that Spain would expand trade rights without the part where you inform Spain about these things. More debt was incurred, the British government became concerned about paying down the national debt, and the South Sea Company- which now had even less cooperation from Spain than the scrap they had when they started- offered to take on some of that debt, and allow the public to invest in the company to help get the money back.

Basically, they were now making a company centered around getting the general public to reimburse the directors after they had helped pay down the national debt, and dressing it up by invoking images of Spanish gold that stood a snowball's chance in hell of coming to fruition.

One man in Parliament, Robert Walpole, made a warning about just how thoroughly the public was about to get fleeced and how unethical it was to do it. Nobody listened. In fact, the rest of Parliament went out of their way to not listen. Whenever he was getting ready to speak on the topic, members of Parliament fled the chamber. Needless to say, in 1720, they approved everything by comfortable margins. In the meantime, the directors of the Company talked up predictions that Spain, who was actually still at war with England, was suddenly going to just hand over a Peruvian silver mine in Potosi. (Spain did lose that war in 1720, but didn't hand over the mine and would continue to be to odds with England for most of the rest of the century.)

The public's reaction: GOOOOOLLLLLD! WE WANT GOLD!

The second the South Sea Company made the 1720 England equivalent of an initial public offering in February, the stock price took off like a rocket, tripling in value on Day One. So many people arrived at the London exchange to buy stock that they shut down traffic. More rumors of inexplicable Spanish generosity came from the South Sea directors to drive it up even higher.

In the meantime, a whole range of people who weren't taken in decided to get in on the act themselves, creating short-lived scam companies on similarly ridiculous claims. Their short-lived nature and their tendency to pop out of existence without warning led them to be referred to as "bubbles".

Thus coining the term.

How ridiculous were the bubbles? One sought to trade in hair. Another asked for money to make a perpetual-motion machine. A third asked for money "for extracting silver from lead." Yet another asked people to invest in square cannonballs. Just about everybody's favorite when they examine the topic, though, was "a company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage but nobody to know what it is." It was created in the morning, drew in 2,000 pounds, and the director fled the country five hours later, the second he had hands on the money.

In June 1720, Parliament, for whom Walpole's warnings would have rung in their ears had they allowed themselves to listen to them in the first place, bravely went on recess. The king, somewhat more sensible, declared the bubbles a public nuisance on June 11, and formally dissolved them the next day.

Too late for the South Sea Company investors. Which wasn't shut down anyway.

The South Sea stock price started to get shaky around May, when some investors, no longer caring about South America, started to take their profits and get out, figuring whatever was in Peru wasn't really worth hanging onto the stock much longer. On June 3rd, the stock, now at 890 pounds a share (they had been at 130 pounds on February 1), started to crash for lack of buyers, stopped at 640 pounds only through the directors performing a buyback and getting it back up to 750 pounds, and 1,000 by August through some feverish manipulation.

Then, one day, word got started, whether true or not, that John Blunt, one of the original directors, had cashed out. Game over. The stock cratered despite all efforts by the directors to ensure the people that the nation had actually been enriched, never mind the fact that the very name of the company implied that this was not how the people were supposed to be enriched. And the stock had a big crater to make before it even got back to its original price. Every day saw the stock going further and further down, drawing increasing fear and anger from investors who saw themselves flung closer and closer to begging in the streets. By mid-late September, the directors couldn't go out in public without risking assault.

Finally, people thought to listen to Robert Walpole. But by now there was little he could do. Walpole tried, employing various methods- most notably issuing bonds- but it was simply too late. Panic had gripped the nation and, by the end of September, the stock had come all the way back down to 135 pounds. Eventually, the banks refused to let things carry on any longer.

Curiously, from birth to death, the South Sea Company's stock price never once dipped below that of its IPO, as viewable on the logarithmic scale shown as Figure 1 of this PDF file.

Under Walpole's advice, Parliament set about punishing those they deemed most responsible in December. They managed to convict five people, and John Aislabie, a member of Parliament who was given 20,000 pounds to promote the company, wound up being sent to the Tower of London. The treasurer, Robert Knight, was highly sought, but managed to skip the border in time. He was picked up in Belgium, but insisted to be tried in the nation where he was captured, citing local law. He got his way, and then escaped again while awaiting trial. John Blunt was eventually stripped of all but 5,000 pounds of his 183,000-pound estate; other directors met similar fates as their assets were confiscated for reparations. (No word on what became of Robert Harley.)

One would like to think we've gotten smarter over the years- though there is always someone- but even so, smarts are a relative thing in this case. As investors step up their intelligence, those who look to fleece them step up their game, requiring people to be smarter and smarter in order to avoid getting taken, and eventually trying to seal off the exits entirely.

And once they consider those exits sealed, intelligence becomes irrelevant, any mask maintained can drop, and those who end up with the money feel comfortable doing this...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Yes, In 2011

In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, outlawing slavery. As far as Americans are generally concerned, that's been the end of it. We don't do that here, at least not anymore.

We do, however, have fast food here, and supermarkets. Have you ever gone to a fast-food restaurant and ordered something with tomatoes? Have you gone to the store and bought tomatoes?

Well, congratulations, sir or madam. You have supported slavery in Florida.

William Bornhoft of the UW-Milwaukee Post has the details. Or, as told by Devin Nunez of the Gainesville Sun, if you're in Florida, perhaps you'll stumble across a traveling museum attempting to raise awareness, run by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Random News Generator- Czech Republic, Sort Of, Reluctantly

Once again, we're messing with a Random News Generator. However, this time it's not due to writer impotence brought on by epic Boston Red Sox fail, but rather due to the fact that the writer found something much more entertaining.

You see, the RNG landed on the Czech Republic today. Usually, that would be the end of it. But the Czech Republic's newswire is of a particularly dry nature- a story about connecting a Czech gasline to an existing regional pipeline; a report on factory sector growth, which is at its slowest pace since 2009; planned anti-Roma protests cancelled due to hot weather. (That's Roma, not Rome. You know the Roma better as 'gypsies,' but they consider that a slur.) All fine topics, but for me, it'd be a grind trying to get through them. But if they're your thing, there are the stories for you. We'll count it for statistical purposes. Have fun. (Of course there are stats. Trinidad and Tobago currently leads with three RNG appearances. Eight other countries have two each. 64 different entities have made at least one appearance.)

Honestly, you'd think the anti-Roma protest would be a thing, but you read the article and you find out it got slightly more attendance than a Down With Kitties rally. The weather was basically just an excuse for the protesters to save face.

Anyway, while making an attempt at the Czech Republic, I came across something much more interesting, from Kim Bhasin of Business Insider. There is an airline reviewer called SkyTrax. They review airlines. (Duh.)

Their highest rating, five stars, is currently given to six airlines: Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Hainan, Kingfisher, Qatar and Singapore. A seventh, Malaysia Airlines, is currently under review.

That wasn't what Bhasin was interested in.

On the other end, you have only one airline that has gotten the minimum score, one star. That airline: Air Koryo. The official airline of North Korea, serving themselves, China, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Kuwait.

*Their fleet can be best described as "Soviet", with international flights tending to use Ilyushins and Tupolevs.
*Their food on the flight in is generally pegged as generous portions of what just stops short of being called "something-or-other", although one reviewer on a group tour (Beijing-Pyongyang is the only route available to most visitors) describes being only served bread on the return flight to Beijing, and others report no food service at all.
*The flight is commonly described as "exciting", which sounds nice until you realize that an invasion by Daleks could also be called "exciting."
*The in-flight entertainment consists of North Korean propaganda, up to and including the music. This includes thanking Dear Leader for beverage service.
*That last link, from 2007, debunks a 2006 review anticipating frequent-flier service. There is no frequent-flier service.
*One reviewer makes sure to note, "We landed safely." Another "was very happy to land!"
*The air conditioning is shot. Sometimes you'll get so much water vapor that the inside looks like it's smoking, sometimes you get no air conditioning at all.
*One reviewer notes that other parts of the Air Koryo fleet, visible from the plane, are nothing more than shells, gutted so that other planes may stay in the air.
*There are no overhead bins, just racks. Luggage can very easily fall out of the racks.

The more positive reviews, on that note, really don't tend to view Air Koryo as an airline to be reviewed as a serious airline, but more like a B-movie. You know the flight is going to be insane on every level when you sign up for it, so just enjoy the absurdity.

And then land in North Korea.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Revenge Of Book It!

Chris Higgins of Mental Floss gave his remembrances Thursday on Pizza Hut's Book It! program. Launched in 1984, it's lasted so long that it now sells retro shirts at the program's online store. Higgins gets into a lot more detail than we will here about the history of the program- but in short...

For those unaware, the Book It! program involves working with classrooms to give kids a tangible incentive to read. Over the course of a month, kids are tasked with reading books for a certain amount of minutes, tracked by their teacher or their parents or whatever adult feels up to it. Once they've done the required reading, they get a coupon which gets them a personal pan pizza. Some places might have an incentive to read a larger amount of total minutes for some sort of bigger prize. (No group prizes. People need to do their own reading.) While there have been concerns about tying reading to fast food, Book It! helps a lot more than it hurts.

Needless to say, I like books. Equally needless to say, I like pizza. And so it was that, back in elementary school, I had my own run-in with Book It!

I forget what year it was exactly. I think it was several years, actually. But free pizza was something not only I was down with, but also my parents. It got me reading, and hey, it got them out of wondering what to do for lunch once a month if I was going to get fed for free. I ended up banging out months and wolfing down pizzas.

Then came the year with the larger incentive.

One year, if my memory is correct, every time you read 100 minutes, you'd get a pan pizza and a little star on this button they gave you. There was room for six stars on the button, and if you filled the button, you'd get tickets to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. Now, none of us had been to Six Flags, but damned if it didn't sound like a good idea for a summer vacation spot.

The kicker was, enough tickets were offered in one go to cover the whole house.

My parents- or really, my mom- also noticed that while the task was to read the minutes, nobody was really checking to make sure the minutes were tallied up properly. It was on the parents to do the counting on the honor system.

Our family made a group decision that we all wanted to go to Six Flags.

We were not above chicanery to get to Six Flags. So we cheated. I did read- I read quite a lot- but after I was done, my mom would adjust the numbers upward while still making them halfway plausible. 10 minutes became 15. 15 became 20. And so on, until we reached 600 minutes. Would I have gotten there on my own. legitimately? I know I did most of the reading, so it's quite possible I would have. But we'll never know for sure, because we left nothing to chance. We were all in on it.

It worked. We got the tickets.

Now, usually back in those days, we'd visit Noah's Ark in Wisconsin Dells. We knew our way around it, to the point where Erik and I, little kids, would go to the complete opposite end of the park- a large park- as our parents, and as long as we told them what general region of the park we were in, they were fine because it's not like they were going anywhere and all we had to do was go back to them.

This is one thing when you know the lay of the land. Everyone does their thing, everyone has fun. Six Flags Great America is a park we had never been to before, so that was out.

The other thing is that Noah's Ark is a waterpark. Six Flags Great America is not a waterpark. Great America's backbone is in its roller coasters.

Roller coasters are not, for one, my thing. Nor were they my parents' thing. (Erik took a mild interest, but not enough to actually get on any.) I have ridden one single solitary roller coaster in my life, and it is not a Six Flags coaster. It is a coaster from Little A-Merrick-A in Marshall, Wisconsin. I believe it was the Wild & Wooly Toboggan.

Here are photos of the Wild & Wooly Toboggan.

So when you go to a roller coaster park and you don't want to do the roller coasters, that cuts down a little bit on what you can do while you're there. But don't fret. Before Six Flags had an old man dance like nuts, it turns out they had a tie-in with the Looney Tunes folks. Looney Tunes are fine and all, but on your terms, not crammed down your throat all day long.

"Hey, what are you complaining about! The tickets were free!"

The tickets were free, yes.


You cannot eat tickets. Well, you can, but they're not very filling. To this day my parents' first memory of Six Flags is how expensive everything was- food, gift shop stuff, etc., to the point where by the end of the day, we didn't even take into account the non-cost of the tickets. We had a miserable time and never went again.

Looking back on it, it is hard to call it anything other than karma crawling up and biting us. Not that Pizza Hut is all that interested in karma; these days larger rewards are discouraged, presumably because of things like what we did. Again, it's the honor system at the end of the day. Handing out pizzas are not going to get anyone to go overboard. For a small reward, they'll go ahead and read. For amusement park tickets, the honor system starts breaking down a bit. I'm not saying what we did was right- it wasn't- but it can't have been only us.

I guess what I'm saying is, read books honestly or you too will have a bad time at an amusement park. We can use that as a moral, right?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Why Won't You Stay Poor?!

If you were having a nice day prior to this, sorry to ruin it, but a thing on the rise lately that banks are doing- and set to ramp up- is called a deficiency judgment.

Here's how it works:

You've been foreclosed on, and you've lost your house. The bank sold it. Now you're on the street living out of your car. Thing is, though, the bank didn't get the amount you owed for it. They got, let's say a quarter of what you owed. Not your problem anymore, right?


A 'deficiency judgment' is something the bank can obtain to come after you- the person who's already had their house taken away- for the amount they didn't get for the house when they resold it.

'But I'm poor now! I'm freaking homeless because of that! I don't have any money to give them!'

Don't worry. They'll wait until you get back on your feet so you build up some money again. THEN they'll come after you and take it in the deficiency judgment. Most states allow the banks to wait 20 years before they come after you. Oh, and while they wait, the interest on that outstanding debt can grow at an 8% rate.

'I refinanced, didn't I? Didn't I owe less?'

As far as the banks are concerned, you can take your petty refinancing and shove it up your ass.

Usually, because they've been worried about the public outrage that's almost guaranteed to result from such a thing, the banks have only really used deficiency judgments on people who were flipping houses and abandoned them the second they became money-losers, but now they're getting more brazen and starting to attack homeowners who simply got underwater. It's not like their public image can get much worse anyway.

Have a nice day.