Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Don't Know Olympics, But I Know What I Like

Probably the biggest story out of yesterday's Olympic action, and the place from which we may have the most enduring image of these Games so far, was the ultimately unsuccessful hour-long protest of South Korean fencer A Shin Lam over a disputed point by Britta Heidemann of Germany, a point Shin argued happened after time had expired. That point ended up costing her a chance at gold and sent her into the bronze-medal match, a match she would lose to Yujie Sun of China. The replay, available in video and animated GIF form at the attached link, shows that at the very least, Shin had a point, and from my personal perspective, she was right.

This is not the first poor judging decision in Olympics history. Everybody knows about the 1972 basketball final in Munich, the silver medals from which still to this day sit in a vault in Switzerland. The United States and South Korea can both add some bad boxing decisions. For the United States, there's Roy Jones Jr.'s controversial loss to Park Si-Hun in 1988. For South Korea, there's Choh Dong-Kih's 51-minute sitdown protest over his disqualification against Stanislav Sorokin of the Soviet Union in 1964. There's also Byun Jong-Il's 67-minute sitdown over his loss to Alexander Hristov of Bulgaria.

And let's not forget the double gold medals of Salt Lake City.

But let's go further back and talk about another questionable judging decision. Or more to the point, a whole set of questionable judging decisions.

In 1912, as per Baron de Coubertin's vision for the revival of the modern Olympics, an Olympic art competition was added to the program, with categories in architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. They would hand out real medals for this the same way they would hand out medals for running and jumping and swimming. The trick is that everything had to be inspired by sports.  Mental Floss has a more detailed history of the competition.

Now, on the face of it, this sounds really noble, something that gives you a whole bunch of warm fuzzies for humanity. But hang on with that. You know how in every event where judges exist, every place where there's room for subjectivity, there always seems to be some controversy sooner or later? Boxing, gymnastics, diving, figure skating, etc.?

Now apply that principle to the most subjective thing in the world, where there is no measurable, objective scoring system whatsoever.

Baron de Coubertin won gold in literature the very first competition, 1912 in Stockholm, while writing under a pseudonym. In addition, there wasn't any rhyme or reason as to how many medals the judges could hand out or what colors they had to be. In everything except sculpture, gold was the only medal awarded. In Antwerp 1920, painting and architecture went without a gold medalist. Belgians won six of the 11 medals handed out, including a medal sweep in sculpture.

Some revision of the rules was made in Paris 1924, but largely it was for for IOC insurance purposes, protecting them against fire and such. There were two silvers and two bronzes in literature, two bronzes in sculpture, and no gold in architecture. In Los Angeles 1932, Americans submitted over half the entries, and took 7 of the 23 medals, not including the 'Merit for Alpinism' given to Toni and Franz Schmid for the first ascent of the north side of the Matterhorn. Music only handed out a silver. And not everyone was impressed with the art at all, never mind being medal-worthy. Arthur Miller of the New York Times wrote, "Either the good painters do not paint sports or the Olympic committees do not know art.”

And then Hitler got a hold of the art competition. 34 medals were awarded in Berlin 1936. Germany won 11 of them, including a medal sweep in Compositions of Songs for Soloist or Choir, With or Without Instrumental Accompaniment. 11 more were split between Austria, Italy and Japan. The silver in architecture went to a design for something called 'Reich Stadium'. The Germans also tried to get filmmaking recognized as a category. If you can guess where that was heading, well, so did Coubertin.

There was a competition in London 1948. The Americans stayed away, soured on it after Berlin (interestingly enough, the United States did take one silver medal in the Berlin competition). Prior to Helsinki 1952, though, the Finns announced they weren't going to be able to put an art competition together, and that was essentially that for art as a medal event. The IOC was still enamored to the idea of including art as part of the program, just not for medals anymore; they no longer officially recognize the art medals. What eventually came about was the Cultural Olympiad, a four-year blitz of high-culture events to take place after the Closing Ceremony of the previous Olympics. Barcelona was the first to do it in the period between Seoul's Closing Ceremony and their own Opening Ceremony, and it's been part of the general Olympic package ever since.

After all, nobody has to win anymore.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Attention Olympic Attendees

The IOC would like you to please not tweet live updates of events. You might cause GPS congestion from all your rabid tweeting. Please, Londoners, stop all that tweeting. This tweeting has gotten quite silly now.

Let the people watching the live broadcast on the Internet tweet the results instead. Or post them to Facebook, or whatever other site they are on. That way we can all have the results live.

Even us Americans.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Go World

In 1911, Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku swam 220 yards- 201 meters- in 2:42.4. That doesn't sound impressive now-- in Beijing in 2008, the last-place-finishing swimmer, Emanuele Nicolini of San Marino, swam the 200-meter freestyle in 1:59.47. And he came in dead last. Michael Phelps swam it in 1:42.96.

But this was 1911. And Duke was swimming in a Honolulu harbor, without getting to make any turns. The time sounded so incredible that when it and Duke's other times that meet were submitted to the Amateur Athletic Union, they figured there must have been some mistake. In fact, they refused to recognize his times, and then tried to claim he was aided by some sort of current in the harbor.

Duke did get some other times recognized, though: the times that won him a gold and a silver in Stockholm in 1912, two golds in Antwerp in 1920, and a silver in Paris in 1924. His Antwerp gold set a then-world record in the 100-meter freestyle, a time of 1:00.4, and he ran the anchor leg in the 4x200 freestyle relay to help set another then-world record of 10:04.4.

But Duke's true strength wasn't in the water-- it was on it. He is known as the Father of Modern Surfing, popularizing the sport and in fact introducing it to Australia. And one year after his Olympic days were over, he performed perhaps his greatest surfing exhibition.

In 1925, a ship capsized off the coast of Corona del Mar, California, killing 17 people. 12, however, were saved. Eight of them were saved because Duke had paddled out on his board to grab as many people as he could. The other four were saved by a friend of Duke's, Gerard Vultee, also on a surfboard.

A few years later, Vultee would work with a man named Tom Blake to develop the first hollow surfboards. Blake worked as a lifeguard.

And now you know why lifeguards carry surfboards.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

When Good Opening Ceremonies Are Given To Bad People

NBC has faced intense scorn for their coverage of the Opening Ceremony last night. Not just from me. From pretty much everybody that had any knowledge of what the ceremony looked like uncut. Let's break it down into list form...


10. Repeated derision of any country not named the United States
9. The repeated reliance on mentioning how war-torn various nations are or have been instead of mentioning their athletes
8. Commenting on North Korea by mocking Kim Jong-Il's alleged 11-holes-in-one golf game after they have already caused a delay in competition after perceived political slights
7. Four-hour tape delay in the social-media era
6. Spoiling the cauldron lighting
5. Inserting Idi Amin into conversation as Uganda was marching, noting that Winston Churchill never met Amin
4. Speculating that the Maldives can fight rising sea levels by winning medals
3. Giving zero camera time to Barbados and Ukraine
2. Cutting of the athletes', coaches' and judges' oaths
1. Cutting of the London bombing memorial segment for a Michael Phelps interview

Dishonorable mention, in no particular order:

* Spoiling the industrial-era and National Health Service segments right as they were beginning, as well as the ending of the digital-era segment
* Referring to Borat as Kazakhstan marched
* Going to commercial in the middle of a segment
* Insisting on mentioning the deceased Omar Bongo as Gabon marched, over the 1-1 draw with Switzerland their men's soccer team had already achieved
* Making the Djibouti joke during a major world cultural event
* Making a big deal over the lack of a minute of silence for the victims of Munich
* Referring to San Marino as "sort of an island"
* 24 commercial breaks
* Repeated mangling of countries' names
* Making reference to the Falklands War as Argentina marched
* Cutting a shot of two women kissing as Saudi Arabia marched, even though they are the first female athletes to compete for that country
* Talking over virtually everything in the cultural segment save for when Rowan Atkinson made a fart joke

Now, as we did with Uzbekistan in Vancouver, we're going to honor the Barbados and Ukraine delegations here, as NBC failed to do. There are too many to show individually, but the BBC has compiled profiles of every athlete online (unlike NBC). This is Team Barbados. This is Team Ukraine.

In addition, for those American viewers who missed it, Deadspin has provided video of the tribute segment NBC cut so that Ryan Seacrest could interview Michael Phelps.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Commemoration in the Opening Ceremony

The Opening Ceremony is tonight. For those looking for live coverage of the Opening Ceremony, as NBC will not carry it live, my best guess is to try this feed of Telesur, covering it in Venezuela. (The NBC delay is one of about four hours.)

During NBC's coverage, Bob Costas has announced that he intends to hold a minute's silence when Israel marches in the Parade of Nations. Israel asked for- well, demanded is probably the right word, actually- a minute's silence in remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the Munich shootings. The IOC opted not to do so; instead, a separate memorial was held on Monday. Another was held yesterday at Trafalgar Square. The Israelis do not consider this to be good enough. Obviously, neither does Costas.

With a shiny new #nbcfail hashtag, the question now becomes, does this qualify. Is there some sort of inherent wrong here, or is this simply a bit of controversy you can come down on either side of? I come down on the side of the former. It would appear at first glance to be the latter. After all, the 1972 massacre of the Israeli Olympic team is quite arguably the single worst tragedy in the history of the Games. The 40th anniversary would seem, at first glance, to be a good time to single it out.

But on the other hand, remember: Olympics happen on a quadrennial basis. It only takes five Games to reach a 20-year anniversary. Commemmorating things that happened at 20-year intervals would pretty quickly swamp a ceremony. This is the 40th anniversary of Munich, but it is also the 20th anniversary of Barcelona, the 60th anniversary of Helsinki, the 80th anniversary of Los Angeles, and the 100th anniversary of Stockholm.

Which doesn't seem to be all that great an argument; those Games weren't particularly commemoratible. But shift it four years down the road to 2016 in Rio and present the same scenario. That's the 20th anniversary of the Atlanta bombings. It's also the 40th anniversary of Nadia Comenici's perfect 10 in Montreal, the 60th anniversary of the only split-hosted Olympics in Melbourne and Stockholm, the 80th anniversary of Berlin and Hitler and Jesse Owens, and the 100th anniversary of the Olympics that never were; the 1916 edition was cancelled due to World War 1. And, lest we forget, the 120th anniversary of the first modern Games in Athens.

Do we ask Rio to commemorate all that? Of course not. There wouldn't be any time left over to run their own ceremony. And that's the thing: it's not Israel's program to put together. It's Great Britain's ceremony. It's London's ceremony. It's the IOC's ceremony. And it's definitely not Bob Costas' ceremony, as much as he would frequently like to think it is. That is what makes this an inherent wrong instead of a mere debate. You're not merely dictating to the host nation how to run their own Olympics, which is bad enough in its own right. You are actively hijacking it and inserting your own agenda.

This is not to say Munich is not worthy of being remembered. It is. It has been, in fact. Twice. And we're talking about it now to boot. But you need bigger anniversaries, bigger occasions than just 'it's a nice round number year again', to commemorate it in the Ceremony itself. Namely, you need the 100th anniversary, or, failing that, you need to wait until Germany is once again called upon to host the Olympics. Then it becomes their ceremony, and they will be much more inclined to commemorate Munich regardless of how many years it's been. And of course, should Israel ever get to host, then they can do whatever they want at their pleasure.

But in London, a city and country that had nothing to do with it, there's a whole other set of Olympic history to commemorate. There have been two other Games in that very city. If anything from Olympic history is to be remembered during the Opening Ceremony, it will be the Games of 1908, 1948, and another pair of Games that never were, the Games of 1940 and 1944, cancelled due to World War 2.

A pair of Games cancelled, it should be noted, due to other very bad things that were happening to what would later become Israelis. Unless they've forgotten.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Tripartite Commission

The Olympics is a place where the best athletes on the planet come together. That's pretty obvious. But there's always that little catch of limiting the number of athletes per country, and there are always those athletes from minor, inconsequential sports nations that clearly have no chance at doing anything but going out meekly in the first round of whatever event they're in and just seem to be there to make up the numbers. And boy, doesn't it seem strange that every single competing nation managed to qualify someone somewhere? You'd think sooner or later one of these countries would fail to qualify anyone. How do the Vanuatus and St. Lucias and Albanias and Mongolias and Equatorial Guineas of the world keep managing to get someone into the Olympics?

Their qualification is the work of the Tripartite Commission.

The Tripartite Commission springs into action after all the events have determined what nations are sending which and how many people to the Olympics. In team events, every one of those spots is accounted for in qualifying. But in individual events, a couple spaces are held open. Sometimes, additional slots become available when someone who has qualified drops out.

Major nations like the United States, China, Russia, Australia, France, Great Britain, and just generally anyone who you'd expect to see on a medal stand once in a while don't need these slots. The Tripartite Commission is concerned with nations that have sent six or fewer athletes to the previous two Olympics (and, one would think, anyone over that average that has somehow not managed to qualify a single person this time around). Those nations are eligible to be allocated slots.

Those nations send applications to the Tripartite Commission nominating their nations' best athletes in the sports that have slots available. There are still minimum qualifying standards for these places, so you can't just send anyone. No more Eddie The Eagles.

Athletics (aka track and field) and swimming are used as essentially last-resort sports. While applying nations can request spots for athletes in those sports normally, if a nation can't get anyone qualified anywhere else and still need to send that one athlete, it's a simple matter to just hold another heat of the 100-meter dash or the 50- or 100-meter freestyle (the absolute last-resort events) and slot in the nation's best runner or swimmer there. They're the simplest sports in execution (just run or swim to the other side of the track as fast as you can), and besides, it's easier than adding an extra name to a bracket, as would be the case in sports like boxing, archery or judo.

For instance, here's the qualification breakdown for athletics. in the men's marathon, the Tripartite Commission selections- noted on the Wikipedia page as 'Universality', a principle the Commission tries to meet- are Zatara Lunga of DR Congo, Mithqal Al-Abbadi of Jordan, Marcel Tschopp of Liechtenstein, Mike Tebulo of Malawi, and Augusto Ramos Soares of Timor-Leste. In the women's marathon, the selections are Triyaningsih of Indonesia, Mamoroallo Tjoka of Lesotho, Ni Lar San of Myanmar, Claudette Musakakindi of Rwanda, and Juventina Napoleao of Timor-Leste. As for the last-resort events, 31 men and 16 women are in the 100 meter dash on the back of the Tripartite Commission. 24 men and 31 women are in the 50-meter freestyle this way, as are 21 men and 16 women (and not the same men and women) in the 100-meter freestyle. Note that several more were projected to need the Tripartite Commission as well, but managed to set an Olympic qualifying time and get in on merit.

Here's a PDF copy of the rules for London.

Once all the applications are in, the Tripartite Commission convenes and makes their selections, in all the events, simultaneously. Their task is to qualify the best athletes they can using the available slots while still making sure every country is able to at least send the one person. In the circumstance that they can't find enough people from qualifying nations to fill the available slots in a particular sport, the Tripartite Commission will simply hand those slots back to the sport to be filled with whoever would have normally qualified next, so if you're paying attention around that time, you will still see major-nation athletes who barely missed the cut in qualification also hoping the Tripartite Commission will call their name- and every so often they do. For the women's boxing competition, making its debut this year, about 30% of the field was filled by the Tripartite Commission, so for them, they just decided to go ahead and take the best available boxers overall, clearing the way for the selection of, among others, American Queen Underwood.

And that's why you're taking multiple pee breaks during the Parade of Nations.

You. Not me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Olympics Coverage

We will, as we did in Vancouver, be switching to exclusively Olympics-related postings here for the duration of the Games. Normal service will resume when the cauldron has been extinguished.

In the process, you may want to lend a hand on Twitter. For London, I'll be giving myself the task of tracking NBC's much-maligned coverage of the Olympics. (Their handle is @NBCOlympics.) My handle is @aallermann. Every time I catch them screwing up the coverage- and I've already caught them twice, even though the Olympics are less than five hours old- I will use the hashtag #nbcfail to record what went wrong. If you catch them doing something wrong in their coverage, I would ask you use the same hashtag. Teaming up, hopefully we can all embarrass NBC into providing halfway decent coverage. They have a national monopoly on it; make sure they don't abuse it.

And if they really get bad, there's always going to and hunting down some other country's coverage.

The Cauldron Lighting Repository, 2012 Edition

Two years ago, I posted a link to a post on the Penny Arcade boards in which I compiled videos of all the Olympic cauldron lightings I could find.

This year I'm going to do the same, but host it internally. Besides, a lot of the links from last time have since gone dead. The two biggest questions of any Opening Ceremony are, who's the final torchbearer, and how is the cauldron going to get lit.

I can't say how it will be done in a few days' time. But here's how it was done before. Click any Games to find its corresponding video and the best available clip I could find.


Amsterdam 1928
Los Angeles 1932
Berlin 1936 (skip to the 7:00 mark if you want to skip Hitler)
London 1948
Helsinki 1952
Melbourne 1956
Rome 1960
Tokyo 1964
Mexico City 1968
Munich 1972
Montreal 1976
Moscow 1980
Los Angeles 1984
Seoul 1988
Barcelona 1992
Atlanta 1996
Sydney 2000
Athens 2004
Beijing 2008

Oslo 1952
Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956
Squaw Valley 1960
Innsbruck 1964
Grenoble 1968
Sapporo 1972
Innsbruck 1976
Lake Placid 1980
Sarajevo 1984
Calgary 1988
Albertville 1992
Lillehammer 1994
Nagano 1998
Salt Lake City 2002
Torino 2006
Vancouver 2010 (link goes to video of full ceremony; torch approaches the stadium at 2:58:00)

OTHER GAMES (the Commonwealth Games, encompassing the former British Empire, despite having a relay, do not have a cauldron lighting; instead, they use a baton handed from the Queen to the first runner and which is handed back to her or a representative by the final runner; it carries a message officially opening the Games)

Asian Games, Delhi 1982
Asian Games, Seoul 1986
Asian Games, Hiroshima 1994
Asian Games, Bangkok 1998
Pan-American Games, Winnipeg 1999
Southeast Asian Games, Kuala Lumpur 2001
Asian Games, Busan 2002
Pan-American Games, Santo Domingo 2003
Paralympics, Athens 2004
Southeast Asian Games, Manila 2005
Asian Games, Doha 2006
Gay Games, Chicago 2006
Southeast Asian Games, Nakhon Ratchaisma 2007
Pan-American Games, Rio 2007
Paralympics, Beijing 2008 
Southeast Asian Games, Vientiane 2009
Asian Games, Guangzhou 2010
Gay Games, Cologne 2010
Paralympics, Vancouver 2010
South American Games, Medellin 2010
Youth Olympic Games, Singapore 2010
Asian Winter Games, Astana 2011 (full ceremony; torch approaches the stadium at 2:35:00)
Pan-American Games, Guadalajara 2011
Southeast Asian Games, Palembang/Jakarta 2011 (take note of how this one goes wrong in more than one place)
Winter Youth Olympic Games, Innsbruck 2012 (entire ceremony; torch approaches the stadium at 1:19:23)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

They Say 'Do Not Eat' For A Reason

We'll make it short today. You've probably seen those little packets of silica gel at some point. You know the ones. They're those little clear beads, they come packed with some sport of product or other, you're told they're 'non-toxic' and 'do not eat'.

Why don't you want to eat them? Because they absorb water. A lot of water. About 60% of their mass. There is a lot of saliva in your mouth. Do the math.

Here's what silica gel beads do in a glass of water:

And here is what happens if you try to eat the silica gel beads you are told to not eat:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Analyzing Aurora

It's now been a couple days since the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado, at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Sometimes you need that long to get everything properly processed. The discussion over the shooting has, unfortunately, started down the exact same path all shooting tragedies in America tend to take, as the Onion demonstrated the same day.

I'm not so naive as to think this will be any different. Although this one, somehow, is a bit more insidious than the others, and requires commentary.

Part of any shooting-aftermath discussion will tend to include an analysis of the weapon used in the shooting, which a lot of the time is some hulking thing typically used by the Mythbusters to reduce various objects to a fine mist. In this case, the shooter was mainly using an AR-15 assault rifle; that's where the resulting discussion has centered. He was also carrying an 870 Remington 12-gauge shotgun and two .40-caliber Glock handguns, one of which was on his person and one of which was left in his car. (We won't use the shooter's name here, just in case the as-yet-unclear motivation behind the shooting included a bid for notoriety.)

Every time the shooter uses an overpowered weapon such as an assault rifle, inevitably there will be a cry of 'surely, you do not need THAT to defend your home from a burglar,' as there has been here. And just as inevitably, there will be a competing cry of 'if we ban that, what's to stop people from banning ALL guns?', as has been done here (never mind that nobody has disputed the shotgun or the handguns).

Although, really, think about it a second. If you are in a situation where an assault rifle proves to be insufficient firepower, the three most plausible situations for you to be in are:

1) Your adversary is the type who is likely to simply fire through the door and kill everything inside before even entering, or alternatively, the type that will kick the door open and then start blowing away everything in sight, leaving no opportunity for whoever's inside to have any response whatsoever. Perhaps you are the subject of a mob hit. And your adversary probably has backup as well.

2) You are in a warzone- like, an actual, honest-to-God warzone- and your adversary is currently driving a tank or piloting a drone plane. Your adversary probably has backup here too.

3) Your adversary is the Terminator.

In any case, in this instance, another, more insidious angle has been taken: blaming the victims for not carrying guns themselves. That is where I'm stepping in. There have been plenty of commenters- let's say, oh, Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX), or Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI)- stating that if one of the moviegoers had been carrying a concealed gun, they might have been able to stop the shooter.

Let us rip this argument apart limb from limb.

First off, let's note that, at first, the victims thought that the shooting was part of the show. Remember, this was a special midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, a dark, gritty Batman movie in which the main villain is Bane, a violent, roided-out hulk of a man who dresses in black, as does Catwoman, who also appears in the movie, and Batman himself. To have a guy clad in black come out and start acting like he was blowing the crowd away with half an arsenal, after first throwing a canister of smoke into the theater, would be a totally plausible publicity stunt. (Fun fact: the Joker, who isn't in this movie but is Batman's most iconic villain, uses a gas weapon as part of his arsenal. It makes the victim laugh uncontrollably.) By the time they realized it wasn't a stunt and he was actually trying to kill them, the shooting had already begun.

If the other guy is firing before you've even realized there's a guy with a gun trying to kill you, it really doesn't matter if you have a gun of your own. It doesn't matter if you have an RPG on hand if you get shot before you can fire it. You've seen those Old West duels. Reaction time is everything.

Second, let's talk duels. From a cold, unfeeling shooters-duel perspective, let's examine how likely you are to actually win this duel.

We've already established that the shooter has the element of surprise on his side. We know that he has drawn and fired his weapon before anyone realized there was something amiss. He is in a darkened movie theater (remember he's wearing black), and has thrown a smoke grenade, allowing himself cover of darkness and a smokescreen cover as well- a cover he himself can clearly see through well enough to target and shoot people attempting to flee the theater. The shooter is wearing Kevlar and a helmet; nobody else in the theater has any armor whatsoever beyond maybe whatever flimsy protection a Batman costume might provide. Some theaters have a raised platform immediately in front of the screen; using this platform would also give the shooter the high ground over many of the moviegoers. (Whether that platform existed or not, I'm not certain; all the video I've seen of the actual incident is of people exiting the theater and I quite frankly don't have the stomach to look for video of the shooting itself.) Even if one or more of the moviegoers had been carrying guns, it's almost certain none of them would have been concealed-carrying anything as strong or stronger than an assault rifle; that would give the shooter superior firepower as well, and that's before you take the shotgun or handgun into account. He has many different targets; the moviegoers, who have superior numbers but are unable to use those numbers in any way, have one. The shooter is paying well enough attention that any move for a concealed weapon would all but certainly have resulted in that person going for their gun being the next target. Even if a moviegoer got their gun out without being noticed, they're only going to have one shot- through darkness and smoke at a target clad in black, and who is wearing armor on both his body and his head- before the shooter's attention is absolutely aroused. If you do not quickly and discreetly draw your weapon and just as quickly either find a hole in or punch through the shooter's armor and not just hit but completely kill or otherwise incapacitate the shooter in a single bullet, it is certain to result in you being shot next, in direct response, until dead.

Oh, and be sure not to hit any of the other moviegoers, or allow them to think that you're a crazed gunman yourself and draw fire from any guns THEY might have on hand.

Call me crazy, but I don't think you're going to win that duel. Try to fight that duel and I guarantee you will get yourself killed trying.

See, this is the thing. So many people, given stimuli such as this, think they're some sort of armchair hero. They see some horrific act, they see dead bodies and wounded victims, and they always seem to think that, in the same situation, they'd have saved the day. They'd have known what to do. They'd have gotten the bastard. You'd think we'd never have any helpless victims of anything (because very few are willing to admit that they wouldn't be the hero, and even fewer will admit to being one of the victims). But the thing is, they don't know what they'd have done. Nobody ever really does. Personally, I think I would be one of the victims. I think I'd be one of the people that tried to run out of the theater and got gunned down trying. But I don't know for sure either. The only way to know for sure what you'll do in a given situation is to actually be placed in that given situation. The only people who know for sure how they'd react in the case of the Aurora shooting are the people who were actually in that theater. And some of them didn't even get the opportunity to react.

There's a reason that, when you're the victim of an active robbery or mugging, the number one thing police advise is to just give them what they want. Your first priority is to not get yourself killed. Everything else is secondary.

Third, how low have we sunk as a society when we're berating people who have been shot and in many cases killed for not packing heat to a goddamn movie theater? How banally violent have we become that a person is now expected, as a societal norm, to carry a gun to every single life situation, no matter how innocent-seeming, just in case there's a maniac nearby ready to shoot them? Have we lost that much trust, have we become so utterly terrified of our neighbor that that is the way we have to live our lives? Because that's an awful, frightening society in which to have to live.

I would hope that I could walk down the street without having to think that every single person I lay eyes on is in turn laying eyes on me, ready to blow me away at a moment's notice, with them thinking I am secretly doing the same. And I would hope that the fact that I myself don't carry a gun and never intend to could be regarded as something other than stupid and dangerous, and that I could go about my life without being pressured- or God forbid, ordered- to start carrying one.

I respect your right to bear arms. Please respect my right not to.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Inducting This Old Cub

Today is the induction ceremony for the Baseball Hall of Fame. As a Cubs fan- a Cubs fan with some current issues concerning ownership that go well beyond the field, but still- this is basically going to eat up my day.

Barry Larkin and Ron Santo, welcome to Cooperstown. I've got nothing to say regarding Larkin, but here's the call made by Santo and play-by-play man Pat Hughes on August 7, 2001, against the Rockies.

What was the play being called? This (includes the TV call):

Friday, July 20, 2012

Floating Cities

It's time for an entry from Aaron's Big Book O' Useless Lists.

The United States Navy uses a wide range of American symbolism in naming its various vessels, usually designating specific types of Americana for different types of ships. Past battles, counties, mountains, various officers, other people, states, cities, rivers, islands, Native American tribes, etc. One set of ships is named for California missions.

There are also others named for constellations and foreign ports and rocks and flora and fauna and semi-random words maybe or maybe not relating to the ship type and then there were those ships that got loaned out by commercial owners during World War 1 that never got renamed, leading to names like the USS High Ball. But let's conveniently ignore that.

What I've done is make, to the best of my ability and I'll bet anything partially incomplete (though closer than anything else I've seen), a list of the American cities used to name US Naval ships at some point in time. This is regardless of how much or how little action was seen, or if it got scrapped before it was even completed. We're not going to designate what type of ship each city got; just the fact that the city got a ship named after it. The full list of ships can be found at Wikipedia.

One note: we're only counting cities that are a direct namesake, not cities that share the name with a namesake county or person or whatever. Also, note that several cities can be a mutual namesake. Again, this is all but certainly not perfect, but it's reasonably close.

Hi, USS Watertown.

Alabama: Andalusia, Birmingham, Eufaula, Huntsville, Jasper, Mobile, Montgomery, Opelika, Tuscaloosa, Tuscumbia, Tuskegee
Alaska: Anchorage, Galena, Juneau, Ketchikan, Kodiak
Arizona: Bisbee, Douglas, Flagstaff, Kingman, Nogales, Phoenix, Prescott, Surprise, Tuscon
Arkansas: Little Rock, Van Buren
California: Alturas, Arcata, Banning, Bel Air, Benicia, Coronado, Escandido, Eureka, Fresno, Glendale, Hanford, La Jolla, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Marysville, Oakland, Oceanside, Pasadena, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Sausalito, Sunnyvale, Susanville, Ukiah, Vallejo
Colorado: Boulder, Denver, Durango, Lamar, Pueblo, Ridgway
Connecticut: Bridgeport, Farmington, Groton, Hartford, Naubuc, New Haven, Niantic, Stamford, Stratford, Watertown
Delaware: Dover, Elsmere, Wilmington
Florida: Apalachicola, Apopka, Crestview, Dania Beach, Key West, Lakeland, Miami, Ocala, Orlando, Palatka, Pensacola, St. Augustine, Tallahassee
Georgia: Atlanta, Augusta, Brunswick, Dahlonega, Forsyth, Macon, Marietta, Milledgeville, Savannah, winder
Hawaii: Hilo, Honolulu
Idaho: Arco, Boise, Pocatello, Rexburg
Illinois: Chicago, Columbia, Galena, Mascoutah, Metropolis, Olney, La Salle, Peoria, Rockford, Springfield, Vandalia
Indiana: Evansville, Gary, Indianapolis, Mishawaka, Rushville, Tipton, Worthington
Iowa: Burlington, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Glenwood, Grinnell, Hampton, Keokuk, Ottumwa, Sioux City, Waverly
Kansas: Abilene, Emporia, Fredonia, Galena, Hutchinson, Neodesha, Topeka, Wathena, Wichita
Kentucky: Covington, Lexington, Louisville, Paducah, Pikeville
Louisiana: Alexandria, Campti, Eunice, Houma, Natchitoches, New Orleans, Shreveport
Maine: Bangor, Bath, Belfast, Castine, Kittery, Machias, Portland, Presque Isle, Saco, Skowhegan
Maryland: Annapolis, Baltimore, Frederick, Frostburg, Galena, Olney, Rockville
Massachusetts: Agawam, Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Concord, Fall River, Gloucester, Groton, Hingham, Hyannis, Marblehead, Natick, New Bedford, Northampton, Plymouth, Provincetown, Quincy, Salem, Saugus, Somerset, Springfield, Watertown, Worcester
Michigan: Chesaning, Dearborn, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Grosse Pointe, Houghton, Kalamazoo, Lapeer, Ludington, Manistee, Mecosta, Muskegon, Munising, Petoskey, Saginaw
Minnesota: Anoka, Duluth, Glenwood, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, St. Paul, Worthington
Mississippi: Biloxi, Corinth, Gulfport, Iuka, Jackson, Natchez, Pascagoula, Vicksburg
Missouri: Columbia, Galena, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Moberly, Rolla, St. Louis
Montana: Havre, Helena, Kalispell, Missoula
Nebraska: Grand Island, Omaha
Nevada: Carson City, Las Vegas, Minden, Reno, Winnemucca
New Hampshire: Concord, Hampton, Manchester, Nashua, Portsmouth, Somersworth
New Jersey: Bayonne, Camden, Passaic, Metuchen, Newark, Princeton, Trenton, Wanamassa, Weehawken
New Mexico: Albuquerque, Alomogordo, Deming, Gallup, Santa Fe, Tucumcari
New York: Albany, Amsterdam, Attica, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Canandaigua, Canastota, Cooperstown, Larchmont, Manhattan, Massapequa, New York, Niagara Falls, Plainview, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Schenectady, Solvay, Tarrytown, Watertown, White Plains
North Carolina: Ahoskie, Albemarle, Asheboro, Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Edenton, Greensboro, High Point, Laurinburg, Kitty Hawk, Raleigh
North Dakota: Fargo, Grand Forks, Mandan
Ohio: Akron, Cadiz, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Conneaut, Dayton, Defiance, Galena, Gallipolis, Lorain, Marietta, Piqua, Port Clinton, Sandusky, Toledo, Tontogany, Vandalia, Wapakoneta, Wauseon, Worthington, Youngstown
Oklahoma: Altus, Bethany, Guymon, Muskogee, Oklahoma City, Okmulgee, Pawhuska, Tonkawa, Tulsa
Oregon: Astoria, Coquille, Eugene, Fairview, McMinnville, Oregon City, Portland
Pennsylvania: Allentown, Chester, Gettysburg, Gladwyne, Glenolden, Hollidaysburg, Honesdale, Kittanning, Lancaster, Malvern, Mars, Mechanicsburg, Nanticoke, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, Scranton, Tamaqua, Uniontown, Waynesburg, Wilkes-Barre
Puerto Rico: Ponce, San Juan
Rhode Island: Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, Westerly, Woonsocket
South Carolina: Batesburg-Leesville, Beaufort, Charleston, Cheraw, Clemson, Columbia, Hampton, Sumter
South Dakota: Huron, Pierre, Watertown
Tennessee: Chattanooga, Greeneville, Kingsport, Knoxville, McMinnville, Memphis, Nashville, Oak Ridge
Texas: Austin, Beaumont, Beeville, Brownsville, Burleson, Corpus Christi, Dalhart, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Galveston, Houston, Huntsville, Kerrville, Longview, Marfa, Olney, Orange, Plainview, San Antonio, San Marcos, Waxahachie
Utah: Ogden, Provo, Richfield, Salt Lake City, Santaquin, Tooele
Vermont: Bennington, Brattleboro, Montpelier
Virginia: Abingdon, Accomac, Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Hampton, Jamestown, Leedstown, Monrovia, Newport News, Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke, Williamsburg, Yorktown
Washington: Anacortes, Bremerton, Chehalis, Everett, Hoquiam, Kelso, Olympia, Pasco, Richland, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, Wapato, Washtucna, Wenatchee
West Virginia: Charleston, Clarksburg, Elkins, Huntington, Wheeling
Wisconsin: Antigo, Chetek, Grafton, Green Bay, Kewaunee, Lake Geneva, Manitowoc, Marinette, Menasha, Milwaukee, Portage, Racine, Sheboygan, Sturgeon Bay, Watertown, Wauwatosa
Wyoming: Casper, Cheyenne, Worland

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ground Boro Mosque Update

Back in 2010, you may remember the issue of the 'Ground Zero Mosque', a Muslim community center in Manhattan- not in fact a mosque- the intended opening of which was bitterly contested on the grounds that it was too close to Ground Zero. That's what spawned this article. In any case, that community center was ultimately built and opened last September. Its official name is Park51.

The 'too close to Ground Zero' argument carried at least some weight, being two blocks away... but then got contradicted when some actual mosques nowhere near New York were also vehemently protested in the same timeframe, most notably a proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

I bring this up because, even though the mosque has since been built, it is only now that a federal judge has removed a block imposed by a Rutherford County judge that was preventing the congregation from actually entering the mosque. Until now, they've been meeting in the parking lot.

It won't be ready in time for Ramadan, though (Ramadan starts at sundown tonight). There are still final inspections and maybe some touch-ups to do; that will run about two weeks. Meaning it will hopefully at least be good to go for the close of Ramadan on August 18.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Random News Generator- Wales

Because we don't field a Team Great Britain either.

The top story on Wales' Google News listing is a rise in their unemployment figures by 2,000 people to create a 17-year high of 133,000, and an unemployment rate of 9%. (The unemployment rate is figured out the same way as the United States; there's a standardized definition created by the International Labor Organization. To find that standardized number in the United States, look for "U3 unemployment", which is here.)

Beyond that, we have the impending opening of the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, where the show is largely filmed, after moving from an exhibition in London. It's set to open on Friday. These have popped up on occasion over the years, as can happen with a show running this long, the exhibits changing to reflect the show's status at the time. The prices are described in the article as "ex-tor-tion-ate" (38 pounds for a family of four), but hey. Doctor Who.

Brits certainly seem more interested in that than Olympic soccer. Seriously, of all the countries to see gigantic amounts of soccer tickets go unsold, the United Kingdom? The birthplace of the sport? Really? And then they complain when England crashes and burns in the quarterfinals of Euro and the World Cup and the others don't even qualify?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How To Get More Fired

Robert Pagliarini of CBS has written an article called '5 phrases that will get you fired'. The phrases are "There's nothing I can do,' "It's not fair," "That's impossible", "I wish," and "But we've always done it that way."

I work in a job where people every so often get fired- as one does- and where all five of these phrases have been tossed around with some measure of regularity. Nobody, to my knowledge, has been fired for any of them. They cause mild irritation at worst, and often are perfectly legitimate things to say. The most common phrase that gets people fired at my workplace, from my observation, is "I'm not coming into work today." And even then you have to repeat it over and over in rapid succession.

This is not the first 'phrases that will cost you jobs' article out there, and it won't be the last. But they all dance around the phrases that will ACTUALLY get you fired in a hurry. They all look like 'phrases you're taught not to say in a workplace training video' rather than phrases that you can't say in the actual workplace. If you need to get fired, there are far more efficient things to say. For example:

"Attention customers: my boss is ramming his genitals up the tailpipe of your cars, right now."
"Nice shoes. Let's have sex."
"This is a stickup. Put all the money in the bag." (NOTE: you will need a gun for this one)
"I've peed on everything!"
"I've poured other people's pee on everything!"
"Attention customers: you all are not fit to (insert favorite sex act here)."
"Surprise boxing match!"
"Hitler was misunderstood."

"My anus has been surprisingly clean lately! Here, look!"
"It's fine. That's close enough to age of consent."
"Your cancer is amusing to me."
"You know what my favorite ethnic slur is?" (NOTE: If you have not been fired after asking this question, try answering it.)
"Attention customers: we are now announcing a sale. Everything in the store is free!"

Really, now, Robert. Use your imagination.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Summer Reading List Edition

It's been a while since my last book run, so today I went and fixed that in Madison. Barnes & Noble, Browzers Bookstore and Paul's Books all contributed to the haul. I was hoping to find a soccer book that might help in adding to the research pool for book editing. I didn't find one- the selection was even thinner than usual- though I did find plenty of reading material.

Today's offerings, quickly, before my Charter service goes out again:

Bathroom Readers' Institute- Uncle John's Bathroom Reader: Nature Calls
Leon-Portilla, Miguel- The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico
Pizzo, Stephen; Fricker, Mary; Muolo, Paul- Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings & Loans
Ravikant; Tarun K. Saint- Translating Partition
Schieffelin, Edward L.; Crittenden, Robert- Like People You See In A Dream: First Contact in Six Papuan Societies

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Today's Money Tip

Go into your wallet and pull out your debit card and/or credit card. Get a good look at it? Okay, great. Looks all nice and plastic-y, right? Now, I need you to go find a camera, point it at the card, and never ever ever click the button. Seriously, why would you do that? That's just crazy.

Yes, it's another day when I never thought I'd have to explain something blisteringly obvious, but people apparently need to be told not to post pictures of their credit or debit cards on the Internet. You would rather have me teaching you this than the Twitter account @NeedADebitCard ("Please quit posting pictures of your debit cards, people"), whose sole purpose is to retweet the posts of people who have as punishment for their overwhelming stupidity. Since May 23, the account has recorded 16 such occurrences, one of which came earlier today.

One would think the lesson had been learned from the CEO of LifeLock, Todd Davis, who displayed his own Social Security number in an ad campaign in 2006 and, to the surprise of absolutely nobody (me included; I buried my face in my hands the second I first saw that ad), proceeded to have it stolen over and over and over again until eventually people just kind of stopped counting. It might be 13, it might be 20, it might be something higher and probably is since people stopped following along in 2010. LifeLock actually wound up in court for basically running a scam operation. And lost.

Should you be as monumentally stupid as Davis, here's how to get a new Social Security number. Not that that will actually fix all your problems; in fact, it may create new ones.

But if you're just giving that stuff away on the Internet of your own volition, you've already got plenty of problems.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Vulture Variety Hour

You may have realized it by now. You may not have. But it's pretty hard not to see it once it's pointed out: the hot genre on TV right now is the vulture show.

What is a vulture show? Simple: as a result of the weak economy, many people end up selling, trading, or sometimes outright forfeiting valuable property. A vulture show chronicles the people who acquire that property, usually for the purpose of reselling it at a profit, which means much focus is placed on the price paid for the property and the sell-on value. The people acquiring the property are, of course, the eponymous 'vultures', which is just going to be the catch-all term we use to describe these people as a group for the remainder of this article. That's really the most accurate term: swooping in to gain off the remains of others. Any additional connotations... well, we'll get into that.

You can name a whole slew of these shows off the top of your head. Storage Wars. Storage Wars Texas. Pawn Stars. Cajun Pawn Stars. Auction Kings. Storage Hunters. Baggage Battles. Hardcore Pawn. Barter Kings. Lizard Lick Towing. Operation Repo. American Pickers. Picked Off. And Discovery Channel's new offering, Property Wars.

Now, if you can manage to focus on just the stuff, the money and the personalities of the various vultures, it's all good clean fun. But you have to keep in mind, the goods involved didn't pop up out of thin air or grow out of the ground. The producers cannot possibly have just planted all this stuff day in and day out. It all had a previous owner. The previous owners are often relegated to background roles, treated in these shows as just a silly little thing that ties the show together, as though they were the long-lost points from Whose Line Is It Anyway?

And that's where the problems start.

I'm not necessarily averse to the genre; I watch and enjoy a few of these shows myself. However, the previous owners do play a part for me. The reasons the stuff may be relinquished by the previous owners are varied. Sometimes they just don't want or need something anymore. That's cool. But not everyone is giving up these items on a timeframe convenient to them. As the reasons get more desperate, the more I root for them. The harder it becomes to see them being taken advantage of. Even when the justification of 'well, they should have paid their bills' is taken into account, we've all seen just how easy it is to fall behind through no fault of one's own. Cars break down. People get sick. It's rarely explored as to why things have gotten to the point where the vulture has stepped in. We just know that they have. People are already miserable enough right now. I don't really want to see yet another American fall through the cracks. But in most vulture shows, it's almost inherent that they do. Often the fact that they already have is the reason the vultures are there in the first place.

The first vulture show I watch manages to skirt this entirely: Auction Kings. I mentioned additional connotations to the word 'vulture', but they don't apply here. The intent is the same: acquire someone's stuff and resell it- but an auction house doesn't work the same way other vultures do. There's a much classier reputation to the endeavor than there is to other types of auctions (the storage auction, the sheriff's auction) or to pawn shops or any of the other vulture professions. Remember, Sotheby's is an auction house. Auction houses get a much higher proportion of clientele who are not selling due to necessity, or if it is, the necessity is something like 'I need to de-clutter my home'. (Which is the usual clientele of pickers.) In addition, the auction house has zero incentive to stiff the previous owner. Unless the item has been picked and paid for before ever making it to the auction house, the auction house is working on consignment, working directly for the previous owner- marketing the item, rounding up potential bidders, and squeezing as much money as humanly possible out of those bidders. A high auction price means that not only does the auction house make money, but the previous owner does as well. So even if you keep the previous owner in mind, you're still on the same page as the show.

And in any case, the staff of the auction house in question, Gallery 63 in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs, is just too darned likeable. The on-air employees- which judging from the website appears to be all the employees- all get along famously and are all generally good-natured. There's so little on-air drama between them that in Season 3, the show had to go out and follow a couple of wise-guy pickers from Michigan- even though Gallery 63 has a picker in-house- just to have some semblance of personality conflict. Add in the organizations consigning items to raise money for charity, and this is totally harmless viewing, no guilt necessary.

Then there's Storage Wars. Here's where guilt starts entering the equation. Again, I watch. I've tossed out more YUUUUUUPS than I care to count. But the show almost entirely skips around the fact that the storage lockers had a previous owner who has now lost their stuff. The opening exposition, 'When storage units are abandoned', is often the end of that uncomfortable issue for the duration of an episode. When it's not, it's brought up only in the context of 'yes, yes, but was their stuff any good?' Which is almost by necessity; it's not as if you can go track down the owner of the storage locker and interview them in the episode where their locker goes up. The viewer- and for that matter, the buyers- are not told who even had the locker except on a single occasion where one was filled with nice furniture and sold for charity. Other than that, the buyers are forced to make their own guesses. On only two occasions, save for the charity auction, has a previous owner ever been specifically identified by a buyer, and both times, the previous owner was a celebrity: on one occasion Suge Knight was identified by buyer Barry Weiss, and on the other, buyer Nabila Harris was said to have made her name off buying a locker offscreen that was owned by Paris Hilton.

The show would almost certainly be at least a bit more depressing if the previous owners as a whole got taken into account, in particular the people who it is speculated had their entire house in the locker, and especially the person- pegged as a hoarder- who had six lockers full of stuff sold off.

With Pawn Stars, that's not possible to avoid. Not entirely. It's a pawn shop. People have a certain, not entirely-unwarranted image of pawn shops, an image played up on competing show Hardcore Pawn. Not that lengths aren't gone to to try and tone down the uncomfortability. It's said that 60% of the business of the pawn shop in question, Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, is pawning: getting a loan in exchange for an item that is then lost if the money is not repaid within a certain time period. But pawns are rarely shown on Pawn Stars- a lot of the same people come in to pawn the same items over and over and a lot of the pawners don't want to be on camera. You can hardly blame them. Showing up in a pawn shop carries a lot of down-on-your-luck connotations, typically accurate, and that's not how anyone wants to show up on national television.

Even when the pawns are scrubbed out, and the focus is placed on people looking to sell their items outright, and even when you've set the show in one of if not the nicest pawn shop in Vegas... it's still a pawn shop in Vegas. You're still not entirely safe. For every person that comes in looking to sell something for gambling money (a notion somewhat squirm-worthy in its own right), there's a person needing to raise money for an unspecified-but-serious purpose who finds out their item is worth a tiny fraction of what they had been thinking it was worth for most of their life, if it's worth anything at all. I see some nice old lady needing to raise money, get told that her family heirloom is worthless and ask the camera in near-tears what she's going to do now, and I just want to reach through the screen and hug her.

It's still possible for me to watch. But I started watching far after I got into the first two, and even though the employees repeatedly go into what they have to do to maintain an above-board and profitable place of business, that doesn't entirely make it guiltless. There's still a chance everyone walks away happy- when something turns out to be worth more than the seller thought and they get more than they were hoping for, namely- but they're still, inherently, really close to the line.

A line crossed by Property Wars. There's just no getting around the ugliness of it all here. Even if you could, let's not because I've already committed myself to making you squirm in your seat as much as possible today. The property in question is real estate. Foreclosed homes in the Phoenix area. The very type of item that got us into this mess in the first place. The buyers profiled here are vultures in every sense of the word. The previous owners are people who have just lost their homes. How one could possibly be rooting for the buyers on this show is beyond me. The option to root for the previous owner is not possible- after all, here's their home being sold at a foreclosure sale. It's sad to profile, it's sadder to see trailers depicting one of the buyers screaming "WHO'S THE KING NOW, BABY!"

The properties can't be entered until the sale is final, and the drama of the show is in what's behind the door. No matter what's behind the door, it's depressing to contemplate. You might find a nice home, with a lot of nice things in it. But that's not going to stay that way, as Lisa Ling explains here.

And on the other end of the spectrum, you will, statistically as often as not, find a home that has been completely and deliberately trashed by the previous owner, a possibility also touched upon, though briefly, in the trailer. Fixtures removed, holes in the walls, garbage all over, spraypainted messages from the previous owner. All the pain, all the sense of loss by someone who has just lost their home- and you know that nobody with more than one home is going to be doing anything of the sort- made manifest in an orgy of frustrated, vengeful destruction, invisible until it's too late. Does it depress the value? Absolutely. Does the previous owner care anymore? Not in the slightest.

How much can they trash the home? The all-time champion probably comes out of Merced, California:

There's no happy ending anywhere in sight. There's nobody to root for. There's no way to come out of the show feeling any better about anything or anyone save for a brazen, naked worship of money. I can't watch that.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Where's My Foodaracacycle?

Along with the flying cars and jetpacks we were promised, the future was supposed to have food pills as well. This didn't go over quite as well, because it turns out people prefer their food to look like food. Eating a pizza and eating a pizza pill are not anything resembling the same thing and I don't know anyone that would, with a straight face, say they prefer the pizza pill.

A company in Japan called Kracie doesn't look to have gotten that memo. They've released a line of 'DIY' food products for kids, which are powdered versions of things like donuts, bento, sushi and pizza/spaghetti. Now, most of these are really little more than candy, and you can see that here in America on occasion with gummi hamburgers and gummi pizza and whatever else.

But then there's the Happy Kitchen Hamburger and Fries. This is actual powdered hamburger- contains pork products and everything- and powdered french fries. And powdered soda.

By all accounts, it tastes like ass.

What follows is a link to a video of the whole meal being put together. The makers of the video have made a request to not embed it; while it's possible to do so anyway, I'll abide by that request and merely post a link instead.

For an embedded video, we'll just have to use the video for Happy Kitchen powdered ramen and gyoza candy. Which seems more expensive, more sad, about as labor-intensive, and results in less food than, I don't know, buying actual ramen.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In Which We Engage In Rapid Frantic Typing Of Country Names

Interesting name-X-in-Y-minutes quiz I came across today. This is from 2010, so the statistics may be slightly out of date. But knowing that, what is supplied is a sampling of 20 categories in the theme of 'most likely to'. You're tasked with naming the five highest-ranking countries in each of those categories. And it is a diverse set, with no one set of nations a key to knocking large chunks of the quiz out in one go, as sometimes happens. Although most of the categories do take a negative tone, such as 'most likely to be obese' or 'most likely to die in childbirth'.

Remembering that it's as of 2010, you have eight minutes.

As for quizzes where many of the answers can be knocked out in one go (the challenge there is more in not missing any of the major answers and mopping up as many of the minor ones as possible), here's one asking for the top three origins of foreign-born residents of each of the 50 states and DC. Due to the fact that some countries end up in a whole bunch of top threes, you're only getting two minutes.

Or to go the other way, in a straight-up single-list quiz, here's one for the 30 countries that sent the fewest visitors to the United States in 2009, specifically as tourists or business travelers. You'll have seven minutes to dig deep.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

High-Speed Rail Is For Wussies

Real men go by 2,500-mph vacuum train.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Freedom By Way Of Being Totally Screwed

The nation of Tuvalu has recently come under fire from Howard Berman, the ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, for violating American sanctions on Iran. Specifically, Berman is noting that Tuvalu has been reflagging Iranian ships, allowing them to operate under Tuvalu's flag, which is an action that Berman warns may lead to sanctions on Tuvalu.

It should be noted that Tuvalu is looking like the very first country that is slated to sink beneath the waves due to rising sea levels caused by carbon emissions from, among others, the United States, who it should be noted they're particularly peeved at for same. The sinking process has actually already started. And even if sanctions were to be imposed on Tuvalu, it's not like the two really trade with each other much in the first place, or that Tuvalu has much to trade even if they wanted to, unless you count the .tv domain name. Tuvalu mainly operates on subsistence farming.

Also, Tuvalu and the United States don't even have diplomatic relations with each other. And the United States has diplomatic relations with just about everybody.

So it's not exactly clear what incentive or reason Tuvalu has to listen to a single word that comes out of Berman's fool mouth. They can just stand there going 'You're basically causing our country to cease to exist as it is. Go screw yourself'. Heck, they could say so using literally that exact phrasing. Tuvalu's head of state could probably fly to Washington and personally urinate in Howard Berman's coffee cup without Tuvalu suffering any real ill effects beyond that which they're already going through. What's the United States seriously going to do? Bomb them? It's not like Tuvalu has much of anything left to lose anymore. Anyone that can either hold back the seas or give them money to buy alternative land to live on or at the very least send some evacuation ships is okay in their book. And Iran has shown up with ships and money, making Iran Tuvalu's new best friend.

Tuvalu is past the point where they give a damn what other nations are doing to each other. All they really care about or have any reason to care about is what's being done to them, or for them. Iran is doing things for them. The United States is doing things to them, and threatening to do more things to them. It's that simple.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Do Not Dip Nachos In This

It's around time for a science experiment video, and for today's, I'll again resort to plastering Steve Spangler all over your screen. Today, the object is to expand a bit on the old can't-mix-oil-and-water chestnut.

By not mixing seven layers worth of stuff, with water in the middle, lamp oil on the top and honey on the bottom. You'll note numbers on the labels; that's the specific gravity level. Water is the baseline at 1.00; everything else is relative to that. For a more complete list (not complete, but more complete) of liquids, go here.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Message From Those Of Us Who Work In The Service Industry

We are cool with you using pennies to pay for things. As much maligned as they can be sometimes, they are still useful.

But please, use them in moderation. Try to limit your usage to four pennies per transaction. The more you use past four, the more annoyed we will be. If you choose to use pennies to conduct the entire transaction, we will become quite cross. At the very least, it will eat up vast amounts of our time and energy to ensure you have the correct amount of pennies. We may in fact elect to refuse service, and as you'll see, may go further than that. Technically, they are legal tender, but private businesses and, it seems, local governments are free to specify how they wish to be paid (though it's preferred that we specify prior to transaction). It's their call if they want to deal with you or not. If you want the pennies to be taken, you had better be nice enough about it to be deemed worth dealing with.

There was an experiment run here by a group of people in New York, to see what happened when they tried to pay a bill of about $1, give or take, with pennies. What they found in their self-admittedly-small-scale experiment was that it wasn't so much the pennies themselves. It was more the fact that it would take more work and more time to count them all. The cashiers tended not to think all that much of it until the people behind the experimenters in line started getting agitated and impatient, at which point the cashiers started feeling pressure to just get the transaction done and over with.

That was just for a dollar. Two people in the news got lucky with their pennies when paying much more. One man, Thomas Daigle of Milford, Massachusetts, was dealing with the Milford Federal Savings and Loan Association, and he was nice enough to call in ahead of time and let them know; it was something he'd been working towards for 35 years and he'd always wanted to make his final mortgage payment in pennies. They approved it.

Let me reiterate: the paying-off of a mortgage with 62,000 pennies is something that had to be specifically approved.

There's also Faith Hammock of Indiana, who has been gathering 500,000 pennies to help pay for her daughter's college tuition. The story here on that doesn't get into how she intends to turn in the pennies, but she'll find someone to take them.

But these people are the lucky ones. On the other end of the spectrum, you have people like Ron Spears of Cle Elum, Washington, who attempted to pay a $330 property tax bill in pennies and was refused. He ultimately paid in the manner of a normal person.

And then there's Jason West of Vernal, Utah, who paid a $25 medical bill- one he was disputing- in pennies. Jason was not being a pleasant person to deal with, especially since he just up and dumped them on the counter, causing pennies to fly everywhere.

West, who was paying a $25 bill, was subsequently cited for disorderly conduct, which carries a $140 fine.

And then there's the case of Frank Gilberti of Nutley, New Jersey. In 2008, Gilberti had a $56 traffic fine to pay (he wasn't wearing his seatbelt). He went out and got some rolls of pennies. The Bloomfield municipal court told him no. Gilberti persisted, pestering people to take his rolls. At one point, he was told to write his drivers license number on each roll. He asked if he'd have to do that if he paid in bills too. And then came the part where he found out the municipal court had actually put out a warrant for his arrest. And then they revoked the $90 bail after his uncle- doubling as his lawyer- said Gilberti would be pleading not guilty. (The media seems to have gotten bored with the case before finding out how it ended.)

Keep in mind, this only applies in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the penny equivalent, the 1-penny and 2-pence pieces, actually cease to be legal tender in amounts over 20 pence, meaning someone could shoot you down and have full legal backing to do so.

To reiterate: pay in dollars, or with a debit or credit card, and you won't go to jail. Pay in pennies, and we cannot make any guarantees.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

I Sentence You To 212 Words

One thing that gets perpetually brought up as a complaint about government is that the legislation put out by it is just too darned hard to make sense of. Individual bills get called out for perceived excessive length and obtuseness all the time, the tax code being a perennial favorite target. Someone is almost bound to tout a proposal that all legislation be given some sort of limit. Two pages, for instance.

There's a tradeoff to that, though. Legislation is meant to do very specific things. Poor wording, corner-cutting language, can easily lead to unintended consequences. You all know the fictional stories of people who find a genie, wish for, oh, say, "a ton of money", and then end up getting flattened by an anvil made of dollar bills. Legislation is essentially that in a real-life setting. Loopholes, exceptions, and unexpected prohibitions and permissions await the constituents of anyone that doesn't do the job right.

In practice, for one recent example, one could point to the Nebraska 'safe haven' law passed in 2008 offering parents who had just given birth, but could not support the child, the chance to drop the child off at a hospital, no questions asked. The law, poorly written, failed to include an age limit, leading to parents from all over the country descending on Nebraska to drop off teenagers. 35 non-infant children were dumped in Nebraska before the state legislature could get back to the chamber and write in a 30-day limit.

"Please don't bring your teenager to Nebraska," governor Dave Heineman found himself saying.

But today let's talk about the actual writing act, as opposed to the end result.

In March 1958, Senator Arthur Vivian Watkins of Utah was reading through the instructions for filing one's 1040 tax return for 1957. As he was doing so, on page 8, under 'Additional Charge for Underpayment of Estimated Tax', he came across a sentence that clocked in at 212 words. (On MS Word, it gets counted at 218, but 212 was the operating number for this story.)

You can't really get away with shirking on a section like 'here's what happens if you don't pay all your taxes'. That part's kind of important. Just tossing that out there.

This is the sentence, which you can find here in a PDF file.

"The charge with respect to any underpayment of any installment is mandatory and will be made unless the total amount of all payments of estimated tax made on or before the last date prescribed for the payment of such installment equals or exceeds whichever of the following is the lesser-

(a) The amount which would have been required to be paid on or before such date if the estimated tax were whichever of the following is the least-

(1) The tax shown on your return for the previous year (if your return for such year showed a liability for tax and covered a taxable year of 12 months), or

(2) A tax computed by using the previous year's income with the current year's rates and exemptions, or

(3) 70 percent (66 2/3 percent in the case of farmers) of a tax computed by projecting to the end of the year the income received from the beginning of the year up to the beginning of the month of the installment payment; OR

(b) An amount equal to 90 percent of the tax computed, at the rates applicable to the taxable year, on the basis of the actual taxable income for the months in the taxable year ending before the month in which the installment is required to be paid."

Pretty dense, right? Watkins thought so. He passed it around to some of his Senate colleagues; they thought so, too. In fact, he thought so to the extent that he put together a contest. He challenged average Americans to rewrite that sentence, in 300 words or less (and, please, more than one sentence), in such a way that the result was easier to read and the meaning of the sentence unchanged. The winner, as judged by a panel of experts from New York University's School of Commerce, would get a Bible and a copy of a book called Simplified English, which Watkins suggested the winner autograph and send along to then-IRS commissioner Russell Harrington. NYU kicked in a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In addition, from the accounts of the story, the reveal of the winner was to be televised as the culmination of a program on simplified language.

Somewhere between 600 and 700 people tried their hand at rewriting the sentence. (About half were considered serious efforts at the task. No word on what the other half consisted of, but there was likely much angry ranting disguised as contest entries.) If you'd like to give it a shot, the sentence is right there and the context is a click away. Feel free to take a crack at it. The winner of the contest was Page A. Mead, a sales engineer from Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. But in truth, there was no winner.

Because nobody could pull it off. Not even the panel could do it. The best the panel could do was inserting the occasional period into what was already there.

Mead's entry may have won the contest, but it still didn't meet the essential goal of simplifying the sentence without changing the meaning. He made five grammatical errors in his rewrite, three of which changed the meaning. However, he was given kudos by the panel moderator just for being able to understand the thing.

The panel came to the end conclusion: "Brevity is not necessarily a virtue in official documents, but precision is. The taxpayer is responsible whether he understands it or not."

And that was a contest asking you to convert a single 212-word sentence into several sentences that could be up to 300 words. It permitted you to add length to the text if that's what it took to understand it better while keeping the meaning intact. It still could not be done.

What do you think your odds are of achieving such a result by condensing a gigantic bill to two pages?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Big Bay Bust

Here in Wisconsin, due to the high temperatures and lack of rain, a ban was placed on commercial fireworks in parts of the state. In addition, some local fireworks displays were cancelled. You never know where that firework shrapnel is going to come down or if it's going to start a fire somewhere.

If your community saw its display cancelled, it's okay. We'll have one here today. In the process, we'll also answer a question that may have crossed your mind at some point: fireworks displays are stretched out to 20, 30 minutes or something like that; it depends on the city. What would happen if you set all those fireworks off at once? You get a bit of an idea at the end of a display, when they speed up the pace and set off whatever they have left right in top of each other. But what would happen at its logical conclusion: the entire display, lit off at the same time? What would it look like?

Thanks to a technical glitch in San Diego, we now have the answer. I present to you the 2012 Big Bay Boom. The entire thing. And an instant replay.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cue The Very Tiny Confetti

About two weeks ago, we mentioned here that two teams of scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, looking for a '5-sigma' result in looking for the Higgs boson, meaning that what they wanted to find needed to have only a  0.000028%. Rumors suggested that the two teams had each come up with a 4-sigma result, meaning there was a 0.13% chance of it being a statistical outlier as opposed to what they've been looking for. The buzz came from the fact that in this case, 4-sigma plus 4-sigma might equal 5-sigma.

This morning, the two teams announced their official results.

Both reported 5-sigma. The Bad Astronomy blog at Discover Magazine goes into the nitty-gritty of it here.

Unless there is a spectacular misjudgment going on, they've found it. And unless someone comes along to disprove them- and the community's surely going to do their due diligence- it's just about a given that three of the people who helped find it have a Nobel speech in their future.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Today's Thing I Can't Believe I Have To Clarify

So there was this show on Animal Planet called 'Mermaids: The Body Found'. It was fiction, conspiracy and crap piled on crap, aired as part of 'Monster Week' back in May, and the filmmakers admitted as much. Apparently, the filmmakers saying outright that they made "science fiction" was not enough for some people, who now think that the filmmakers have made a very plausible case for the existence of mermaids. After all, there was CGI and interviews with people from the NOAA and there were some actual facts sprinkled in amongst the crap piled on crap! After all, if you shake candy sprinkles into your toilet, the result is always delicious, right?

The NOAA has been forced into taking time out of their day- time they would otherwise be using to monitor hurricanes- to give an official denial and make sure you're aware that mermaids, in fact, do not actually exist, nor have they ever. You will not meet Ariel at the bottom of the ocean. You will not get to date the mermaid lady from Splash. You will not have to deal with the problem of what's down there to have sex with, and by extension, nor will you ever meet a reverse mermaid with a fish head. And if I hear one word about 'well,  that's the GOVERNMENT'S word, and are you really going to trust the government like the rest of the sheeple', I will cut you.

Honestly? We had to cover this?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Plan B. Yes. B.

The typical line of thinking when a business really, really wants to use land that's currently occupied by a house or a neighborhood is conventionally thought to be 'get the land and to hell with whoever's living there'. You hear horror stories of eminent domain and lost local heritage and starting construction on all the land except one house occupied by a holdout and the like.

What you don't normally hear about- what doesn't tend to even come close to happening- is what's happening in Morococha, Peru, or at least what's being attempted.

Morococha is a small mining town 67 miles northeast of Lima- 92 if you drive (and 20 miles from the notoriously polluted and currently-shutdown La Oroya mine), housing about 5,000 people. It's more or less what you'd expect a poor mining town to look like. It also happens to sit in the way of the Toromocho copper mine, owned by a Chinese state-owned mining company, Chinalco. (Specifically, it's intended to be an open pit mine.) One might expect that, it being a Chinese company, and the town sitting inside land designated for mining by the Peruvian government, they'd just go ahead and start whacking houses down.

Not quite.

The Chinese government is at least dimly aware of the importance of maintaining not-entirely-hostile relations abroad, and really, how would you feel if your own personal home got targeted for demolition by a company owned by a powerful foreign government on the other side of the world?

On the other hand, how would you feel if that same foreign government was offering to basically build your entire town a brand new, much nicer town 15 miles down the road, rent-free? You might feel a little different about things now. There's also a $2,000 cash payout, which doesn't sound like much to American ears but is a lot more significant in an impoverished Peruvian mining town. (Well, most of the town will get this, anyway. There was a 2006 moving-in deadline. If you arrived in town after that, then it's pretty much just the first scenario.)

The key word here is 'might'. There's still a debate raging in Morococha. Not that it's going to matter much in the end- this move is going to happen, as per the results of a 2008 referendum- but there's still a debate. Naturally, the people not getting new homes are in the 'against' camp. The mayor of Morococha led some protests two years ago citing concerns that Chinalco still isn't meeting enough of the residents' needs, that the payout is too low compared to what they feel they could have gotten, and that the new town's location is too humid. (Protests that were broken up by the cops, as viewable here.) And of course, there are always those people that, no matter what their home is, still consider it their home and they'll be damned if they get moved from that spot until they're good and ready.

Chinalco puts the percentage of residents currently in favor of the move at 75%. But then, that's Chinalco's number. I can't get it confirmed elsewhere. All I can get is the fact that a "majority" voted in favor in 2008.

The fact that it was indeed a referendum that kicked off the move does help take the edge off things a little bit. And it's certainly better than what Chinalco could have pressed for. But displacement is still displacement.