Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The News Is Depressing

So here's a man who's carved a Tetris game into a pumpkin using LED lights and the stem as a joystick, along with a detailed how-to just in case this is something you're up to doing.

You're probably not. Because the news is depressing. New England and the eastern seaboard are a complete and total mess and while it doesn't look as irretrievably awful as what happened in New Orleans, that's really not a comparison you want to find yourself making.

Here's a link to the Red Cross' Sandy relief page if you don't really feel like looking at Tetris pumpkins right now and I totally understand if you don't.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Today's Disaster-Relief Donation Tip

In the first stretch of time after a disaster hits, such as Hurricane Sandy, charities get most of the donations they're ever going to get. It's crucial that, in this time, what they get out of that stretch is maximized.

What they tend to want, in the first stretch of time at least, is money and blood donations. The Red Cross, at least, has deals with wholesalers under which they are able to get bulk supplies at a discount. When they get donations of food or water or various other supplies, not only is the money not put to maximum use- the donating party bought at retail price instead of wholesale bulk price- but they have to spend time sorting those donations out, and possibly even throw some of the donations out for being unusable.

So if you awkwardly convert your campaign event in Ohio into a 'storm relief' event, make sure you ask that the attendees donate money, and not canned goods, water and diapers. (I was not able to locate how much money was donated, or if it was, whether it went to the Red Cross or to the campaign.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Who Asked Your Opinion?

Chris Kluwe is a punter for the Minnesota Vikings. He also happens to be one of the most unexpectedly popular players in the NFL, though it has nothing to do with his punting. It just so happens that he turns out to be possibly the most articulate man in the league, and has gained recognition for his writing, particularly concerning GLBT rights. It goes to show that, while credentials are always important, if you have talent, it doesn't really matter what your credentials are. You have talent and that's all there is to it.

This isn't really about that. Not quite. Not entirely.

What this is about is the specificity of credentials. The thing is, Kluwe's chief credential is 'NFL punter'. But with that credential, you know exactly what position he's arguing from. It would happen that his most appropriate credential is 'Internet message board veteran', which is where Kluwe says he gained his experience in crafting his arguments.

This does happen sometimes, that someone's most appropriate credential is not the one that is presented to you. More likely, you are likely to see the person's master status: their most recognizable credit. That's going to be either whatever they're most famous for doing, or whatever they've done most recently. Lisa Ling has for a long time been most famous for her time co-hosting The View. In her time since leaving The View, Ling has been a host of National Geographic Explorer and the OWN documentary series Our America, and this coming midseason will be hosting a CBS reality show called The Job. Chiefly, serious journalism of difficult topics. But look in any article about her, and the credential given to her was, for an entire decade, right up until her recent pregnancy announcement seemed to finally put Our America at the forefront, most likely to be 'former co-host of The View'.

Though the View byline still hasn't gone away completely.

Obviously, it's better that you get the most relevant credentials. But no matter what is specifically said, it's key that it is that it is in fact specific. You have some concrete information about them, and that's important. From that, you can start- start, not necessarily finish- to figure out how much weight you give their arguments.

Now in this case, Kluwe's credentials are those of a football player. (And World of Warcraft player, and part-time musician, and the accumulation of his other various life experiences. Let's not discount those.) Otherwise, outside of his personal fields of expertise, they're what we'll call 'irrelevant'. Irrelevant experience is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means he probably has about as much experience and expertise on a given subject at hand as you do. Which, well, welcome to the Internet, where anyone has the right to speak about anything. That's the beauty of all this. We can find guys like Kluwe. This needs to be made clear. Yes, celebrities often have irrelevant credentials, and some of them are quite unintelligent, just like any other occupation, but also like any other occupation, some of them can think circles around you. You don't want to automatically go 'Shut up and act/sing/punt/etc.' A good example here would be Danica McKellar, who you may recall from The Wonder Years. Danica has not only written three books on math, but also coauthored a math proof at UCLA, the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem. (PDF) Related to this would be the writers' room of Futurama, where Ken Keeler created a math proof of his own just to make a plot point work. (The equation, of course, wound up on-air.) You don't go around making math proofs without something going on upstairs.

Irrelevant credentials, it should be noted, are distinct from 'bad' credentials. Bad credentials are the types that actively reduce your credibility, moreso than if your credentials were merely irrelevant. These would be your birthers, your truthers, your lobbyists, your super PACS (assuming someone knows you're with a super PAC), and basically anything that will make most reasonable people think you're stupid, crazy or paid off to the point of corruption.

But good, bad, or irrelevant, specific credentials are specific credentials. There's some measure of honesty there. What you need to really watch out for, what we've been building up to here, is when the credentials start getting vague. When a credential gets vague, start thinking of the least impressive thing that could qualify for that credential, because there's a very real chance that's exactly what you're dealing with. The most common vague credential you tend to see, especially around election time, is "strategist". There are a few occasional known quantities who get the strategist label- Paul Begala, James Carville, the like. But it gets muddy in a hurry.

Maybe you get lucky and get a "strategist" like Ana Navarro, whose actual credentials were being national Hispanic chair or co-chair to John McCain in 2008 and Jon Huntsman in 2012. That's pretty decent (and is specifically mentioned in the link). Maybe you get unlucky and get a "strategist" like Hilary Rosen. In the link, Rosen is labeled as a "Democratic strategist" with no further specifics. It only takes a quick visit to Wikipedia to find her actual credentials: a former lobbyist for the RIAA and a consultant for BP during the Deepwater Horizon spill, the latter of which caused her to get fired from writing for the Huffington Post once they found out. She frequently can be found lobbying the White House.

Those aren't just irrelevant credentials. Those are bad credentials. This is not a person you ought to be listening to. Not only does she lobby for decidedly un-Democrat-like causes, she is bad enough at arguing for the Democrats that Barack Obama himself had to put out a fire she lit back in April.

You'll also see similar problems emerge when you get credits like the maddeningly nonspecific "citizen", "concerned citizen", "taxpayer", or, worst of all, "American", all of which serve the dual purpose of saying nothing while demanding that they mean everything. Odds are, if these are the credentials, they are self-given, often at town-hall meetings and letters to the editor, and hide the fact that the person speaking has as much expertise as you and I do in order to angrily insist that their opinion be the single most important thing in the country, something that everyone needs to drop everything to hear.

And there's no limit to the ways campaign ads can exploit this. When you see a random person get in front of a camera and start talking about a candidate, there is no way you, on your own, are going to be able to tell who this person is, and you're probably not going to question it offhand. Which opens the door for paid actors and campaign workers to pose as random voters. And attacks that the other guy is using paid actors, attacks which the attacker had better hope to God are accurate because they will hear about it if those turn out to be actual voters.

It doesn't just happen in politics, though. You also see it in the entertainment industry. Credentials here are a little more important; the viewers at home are less likely to snipe at what's being called a 'celebrity' if they think there are actual celebrities around, or at least, people who they can accept as viable celebrities that maybe they just haven't heard of. Panel-based game shows are notorious for puffing up the "celebrities" on the panel to maximum effect in order to avoid any problems here. Sometimes you'll get the person's latest or current project. Sometimes you'll just get the person's name- sometimes the celebrity truly needs no introduction; sometimes they have no billing for good reason. And sometimes you'll get vagueness.

Let's take Hollywood Squares as an example. Here's a sample intro from 1999.

This particular panel tops out at Rita Rudner, Bobcat Goldthwait and, of course, Whoopi Goldberg, which were all perfectly acceptable as celebrities in 1999, but let's single out Bruce Vilanch, one of that era's regular panelists. The billing given is "writer/comedian". Odds are you know of no other specific credentials for Vilanch aside from his tenure on Hollywood Squares. What was he writing? Hollywood Squares, that's what. He was head writer- meaning he was most responsible for all those joke answers the panel gave. (It's credit #554, under all the episodes he was in.) He does have some beef to his resume- he's been writing for the Oscars since 1989, and has been head writer since 2000- but it needs to be noted that his time on Hollywood Squares started in 1999, before he became head writer. (He's also written for a lot of other award shows; that makes up the bulk of his credits.)

Vagueness was taken to the extreme, though, in the 2006 GSN remake of I've Got A Secret. Here's the premiere episode, and once again, have a listen to the credentials.

Billy Beane got 'former major leaguer', although really, any baseball fan nowadays knows exactly who Billy Beane is: the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the man behind Moneyball, and one of the gods of sabermetrics. We'll skip the two in the middle, who have legitimate-but-weak credentials, and go to the end for Jermaine Taylor, who got the bizarre credential "our cup of tea". That's about as vague as it gets, while still somehow trying to make it look like he's someone worth tuning in to see. Why the heck did he get "our cup of tea" (and other similarly flighty phrases over the show's run) as a credential?

Because I've Got A Secret was Jermaine Taylor's first IMDB credit of any kind. GSN literally took a nonfamous person who a deeper search will reveal was bumming around the lower reaches of comedy and off-Broadway theater acting and writing, a person more suited to being a contestant or an audience member, and put him on the celebrity panel, after making him audition for it. And after I've Got A Secret wrapped, he got only two more credits since, one for an appearance on something called 'YourLA', and a panelist appearance on '100 Greatest Songs of the 00s'. That's it. Those are his IMDB credits.

Things do sometimes work out when credentials are lacking. Sometimes you stumble upon someone legitimately entertaining, such as when you're doing casting for reality shows, which need you to go find nonfamous people to fill out the rosters. We're not talking about the designated troublemaker or the producer's pet. Someone that legitimately breaks out. One good example here would be Ariel Tweto, who was cast on the first season of Wipeout. Here's Ariel running the first stage, the Qualifier.

That little performance (she eventually came in a very respectable 3rd out of the 24-person field that day) was considered so adorable that she quickly became a favorite. And it just so happened that up in Unalakleet, Alaska, her family ran a bush-pilot airline, Era Alaska. Cue three-season Discovery Channel reality show Flying Wild Alaska, starring the Tweto family and with Ariel front and center handling 'do not try this at home' duties, and regular stops to chat with Craig Ferguson.

(By the way: to address a point in the Wipeout commentary, Tweto was not doing a seal hop. It was a reasonable approximation considering, but it wasn't a seal hop. A seal hop is laying down face-first, holding your body up on your knuckles and toes, and bouncing across the ground like that. It is exhausting as hell.)

I'm not necessarily saying don't put these people on TV, don't listen to them. The likes of Kluwe and McKellar and Tweto are too much of a testament to the fact that sometimes you just never know where quality is going to come from. But let's be honest about where we consider quality to be coming from. We can let things go from there.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Random News Generator- Fiji

This is not the greatest choice the RNG could have dropped on me today. Fiji is having a slow-news period, which in the United States still means there's some politician saying something of consequence or someone doing a very bad thing to someone else or even bad weather somewhere. Or you could tackle some longer-term story that doesn't lend itself to daily reporting.

In Fiji, it just means there's a mighty big sports page and other places talking about it for tourism purposes. The thing that best qualifies as news for our purposes in Fiji is this short article out of the Fiji Times Online concerning Fiji suffering a brain drain.

...well, okay, there were these two kids who stole a bunch of money- $20,000 in Fijian money, which is $11,212 American- out of a parked car. So we're not totally bereft of news. We're just almost totally bereft.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Do You Have 80 Terabytes Of RAM?

Then you too can download a chunk of the Internet. Last year the Internet Archive went through the top million-ranked websites in the world as ranked by Alexa, and, naturally, got to archiving. The task lasted from March to December and saw them archive some 2.71 million URL's (2.27 million of them unique). They're interested in seeing how someone might be able to use what they've archived, so they're making the results available for download.

How much of a chunk is that? Well, total Internet traffic in 1993 was 100 terabytes. Internet traffic in one month last year was 27,483 petabytes (one petabyte is 1,000 terabytes). So, 27,483 times 1,000 times 12 is 329,796,000 terabytes.

There are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.

This is a big place.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Robot On A Tightrope

Robot on a tightrope, folks. We really have no clue who made this little guy, except that he's in Japan and he's going by the name Dr. Guero. But... robot on a tightrope.

Meanwhile in America, our robot creation is going like this. This is a robot fight from Robogames 2012 in San Mateo, California back in April, between Last Rites and Electric Boogaloo. (Remember Battlebots? Remember Robot Wars? Same thing.)

Yeah. Sounds about right.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In Other News, He's Not Touching You, He's Not Touching You

I'm not entirely sure how the bid of Julian Assange to escape to exile in Ecuador from his current trapped-rat status in an embassy in London is going to turn out. I'm not going to be so bold as to make a prediction.

I am also, as I extolled back in 2010, as always, conflicted as to his role in journalism. Wikileaks has provided a lot of useful information to journalists that they'll be able to draw off of for years to come even if not another word is breathed from them, but on the other hand, the actual technicals of his process have been very sloppy, overly antagonistic and underprotective of sources and vulnerable nontargets.

But one thing I can say is that if you're trying not to get sent to Guantanamo Bay- as is the ultimate fear- leaking files on prisoner treatment at Guantanamo Bay probably is not the wisest idea. Maybe you embarrass the US into not having you there... but there's still the matter of Florence.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What You Forgot About Poland

On October 14, three vans were stolen in Hoppegarten, Germany, by some Polish thieves. One of the vans, as they found out on the way to wherever it was they were headed, turned out to have 12 coffins in it; the van was originally going to a crematorium.

Okay, who out there made a Polish joke just now? Show of hands.

Congratulations. You have just furthered the legacy of Adolf Hitler.

No, seriously. In August 2010, we covered how the Mongolian army brought a cavalry charge to the Russian front in World War 2. I billed it as the last cavalry charge in history, occurring in 1941. (As it happens, someone else came up with an even later one, made by the Italians in August 1942, also on the Russian front. Amazingly, the charge was successful, with hints that that might not have been the last one either. It's a matter of what kind of scale you think qualifies.) Anyway, the 'Polish joke' got started with another such cavalry charge, made by the Poles in 1939 right as the Nazis were invading. What happened was that a Polish cavalry division got the drop on a group of Germans from the rear, and while normally the cavalry would have dismounted and launched an on-foot attack, given that they had the element of surprise, they figured they could afford to go for it on horseback. And it was going well... right up until the point where the German tanks arrived as backup. That having effectively settled that, the Polish cavalry ran like hell.

Okay, so by this point we can somewhat establish that the use of cavalry was at the tail end of its effective life in warfare, but it was still capable of getting its hits in if you knew what you were doing and knew when you were overmatched. Clearly, this could not stand. So when a couple of the German officers that hadn't actually seen the battle reported back that the Poles had actually mounted a frontal assault against the tanks. All they knew were that there were horses, there were tanks, and there were dead Polish horses on the ground. It seemed a logical conclusion to them. This interpretation of events had the whiff of massive stupidity and stubbornness on the part of the Poles to it... so the Nazis made a meme out of it. All the better to help reduce sympathy for Poland- and make them easier to conquer without resistance- if everyone was making jokes about how inferior a race they were. The Soviets, also with designs on Poland, figured this served their purposes too, so they weren't about to go correcting anyone.

Before long, the meme took root. Those in the Polish community, at least those aware of the history, are pretty united in charging NBC with introducing the Polish joke to the United States in the 1960's and 70's... and in fact, expanding it into a 'stupidity' joke instead of the 'stubbornness' joke it started out as. And, in fact, continuing to do so. From that, stupidity jokes turned into just one of those things people do regarding Poland.

Still want to make the joke?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Debate The Town Red

So as you may have guessed from the fact that the most popular article in blog history- clearly visible to your right- is a piece where I describe Taylor Swift concert afterparties, I went out and got her new album, Red. So did everyone else, apparently, looking around the Internet. There's probably a copy hidden in your underwear drawer right now. Given that it's launch and my store had a launch bonus going, there were some extra goodies thrown in like a little postcard and guitar picks and a little poster and a perfume sample and oh God I'm doing it again aren't I.

So it would come to pass that for this particular current stretch of time there's Taylor on the brain. I think we'll have to find some way to parlay this into a usable article before I go paint a 13 on some inappropriate part of the anatomy of not necessarily myself.

Taylor's dating Conor Kennedy, correct? Good. Let's work with the Kennedys. Let's talk about a piece of Presidential debate history that was making the rounds prior to last night's debate, which was billed as foreign policy but, as predicted here, had a tendency to veer into domestic policy, mainly the economy. Making the rounds was a topic from John F. Kennedy's debates with Richard Nixon in 1960. A dominant issue of the debates were two islands disputed between China and Taiwan called Quemoy and Matsu. At the time of the debates, Quemoy and Matsu were a Cold War flashpoint, with Communist China looking to take them off of Nationalist Taiwan, who was in control of them. It was figured that grabbing them from Taiwan would help to invalidate Taiwan's position on the world stage- at the time, Taiwan was the one represented at the United Nations; China would eventually supplant Taiwan in 1971.

This was 1960, of course, and China still had ground to gain. It was thought to be a critical issue heading into the election. Kennedy and Nixon went back and forth on it all night- Kennedy figured they were sitting too close to China to be defensible and weren't crucial anyway; Nixon wanted to defend them as a manner of principle.

The thing about any topic presented in a debate about the next four years is that they are essentially predictions about things the moderator thinks will be important. Just as things unexpectedly come up, you never know what, exactly, will end up being a moot point. As it happened, no real fight over them happened and Quemoy (now Kinmen) and Matsu remain with Taiwan to this day. The entire Quemoy/Matsu debate ended up being a gigantic waste of time that very well could have made a last-minute difference in a razor-thin election.

It'd be far too easy to go about picking out topics that didn't come up in the debates. So what we'll do today is take the topics that did. The topic selection is generally pretty decent- the topics given were important at the time and they were very likely to continue to be important- but occasionally there's a bit of a misfire. We'll use the transcripts provided by the Commission on Presidential Debates (from 1960 on), and examine some of the foreign-policy topics presented that didn't quite turn out as expected.


Debate #3 (Los Angeles/New York splitscreen): "Senator Kennedy, yesterday you used the words "trigger-happy" in referring to Vice President Richard Nixon's stand on defending the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Last week on a program like this one, you said the next president would come face to face with a serious crisis in Berlin. So the question is: would you take military action to defend Berlin?" -Frank McGee, NBC

Quemoy and Matsu, of course, show up here, but seeing as we've just gotten done with that, have a look at the other part of the question, about Berlin. As it happened, military action wasn't quite what history had in mind for Berlin. History had the Berlin Wall in mind, which was constructed the following year. The Iron Curtain had been constructed prior to the debate, but people trying to escape it were using Berlin as a gap in the fence and scampering through it. The military was needed to administer West Berlin along with the French and the Soviets, but the only real shooting happened from the East Germans when guards saw someone attempting to cross the Wall. And the guns were pointed at the defectors. By the time of his 'ich bin ein Berliner' speech in 1963, Kennedy had accepted that the Wall was there and not going away anytime soon.


Debate #2 (San Francisco, CA): "Mr. President, my question really is the other side of the coin from Mr. Frankel's. For a generation the United States has had a foreign policy based on containment of Communism. Yet we have lost the first war in Vietnam; we lost a shoving match in Angola. Uh - the Communists threatened to come to power by peaceful means in Italy and relations generally have cooled with the Soviet Union in the last few months. So le- let me ask you first, what do you do about such cases as Italy? And secondly, does this general drift mean that we're moving back toward something like an old cold - cold-war relationship with the Soviet Union?" -Henry Trewhitt, Baltimore Sun

This debate took place during what Italy refers to as the 'Years of Lead', because so many bullets were being fired in a conflict that was in fact taking place between the west and the 'Red Brigades', a Marxist/Leninist organization trying to foment revolution. And their most notorious act would take place in Jimmy Carter's term, the 1978 kidnapping and eventual murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who was attempting to reach a compromise with them. That act, though, was the start of a long slide downward from the level of support the Red Brigades had had up until then. Revolutions need people to carry them out, and prior to Moro's death, they certainly had the people to make a serious play for power. But after that, their base grassroots support started to draw away from them, seeing Moro's death as over the line and unnecessary. They compounded the problem the following year by killing Guido Rossa, a popular trade union organizer who had been referring the police to propaganda that the Red Brigades had been distributing. Given that Rossa and the Red Brigades were appealing to the same basic groups of people, this led to a whole lot of 'whose side are you on' disillusionment. The Red Brigades could be picked apart by investigative reporting and mass arrests from there. They officially broke up in 1988, the Soviets never having lifted a finger in the process.


Debate #4 (Williamsburg, VA) (and it was an utter shock to see that this particular debate was moderated by Barbara Walters): "Governor Carter, the next big crisis spot in the world may be Yugoslavia. Uh - President Tito is old and sick and there are divisions in his country. Uh - it's pretty certain that the Russians are gonna do everything they possibly can after Tito dies to force Yugoslavia back into the Soviet camp. But last Saturday you said, and this is a quote, "I would not go to war in Yugoslavia, even if the Soviet Union sent in troops." Doesn't that statement practically invite the Russians to intervene in Yugoslavia? Ah - doesn't it discourage Yugoslavs who might be tempted to resist? And wouldn't it have been wiser on your part uh - to say nothing and to keep the Russians in the dark as President Ford did, and as I think every president has done since - since President Truman?" -Joseph Craft, syndicated columnist

The Russians did not intervene in Yugoslavia. Tito- Josip Broz Tito, who had been leading Yugoslavia since 1953- ended up dying in May 1980. What ended up happening is Yugoslavia ran itself through a 9-person panel, representing all its various component parts (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Vojvodina, only the last of which is not currently claiming national sovereignty), and decided at the start how it would rotate leadership. They found themselves putting out an increasing number of fires lit by ethnic strife, leading to Yugoslavia's breakup a decade later.

Debate #3 (San Diego, CA- town hall): "Good evening. I'm Michael Smith. I'm an electronics technician in the Navy. My question was how you plan to deal with the trade deficit with Japan."

It was shortly after this that Japan's "lost decade" of the 90's (and some would argue the 2000's as well) caught up with it on this front, allowing China to overtake them as America's primary Asian economic antagonist.  While still a valid question, the trade deficit with Japan soon became less pressing than the trade deficit with China. You can see here that the eventual answer to the question, by the way, was and continues to be 'pretty much jack squat'.


Debate #3 (Winston-Salem, NC): "You said in the Boston debate, Governor, on this issue of nation building, that the United States military is overextended now. Where is it overextended? Where are there U.S. military that you would bring home if you become president?" -Jim Lehrer, PBS

This debate took place on October 17, 2000. This question was asked to Bush 43, the eventual winner. Anyone that needs me to tell them just why this became the most pointless, irrelevant question in the world within 11 months' time fell into a coma between those two points and has yet to wake up. Pray for their recovery.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Voting Open, Wisconsin

Early voting is open in Wisconsin as of this morning. If you've made up your mind- and the polls suggest you probably have- get going and lock that sucker in.

If you haven't made up your mind, well, there's another debate tonight, the last one. It's supposed to be about foreign policy, but something tells me it's not going to stay that way. Something tells me Obama and Romney are going to start drifting to domestic policy and there's not much that can be done to stop them if they do, because if you're still undecided, you probably don't give a damn what the debate's supposed to be about. You might not even be aware of it. You're going to go on what they actually wound up talking about.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Good Kitty

One of the things about living in your older cities is that the older the city, the greater the likelihood that one day someone's going to stumble across something old and forgotten. Every place has at least some history to it- your smaller towns tend to hang on to whatever they get because they tend not to get much of it- but as a rule, the older the town, the more history there is to stumble upon. A town that sprung up in the California Gold Rush, for example, might have a little something to it, but nothing compared to, for example, Rome.

As was put on display this past Tuesday, with the help of a stray cat. Two men, one named Mirko Curti and the other going unnamed, spotted the cat at about 10 PM near Mirko's apartment, and gave chase. The cat ran into a cave, recently unearthed due to rain washing away some of the rock covering, and started meowing. The two men followed the meowing and soon found themselves alongside ancient human remains, alongside carvings in the rock used to hold urns.

The kitty found some catacombs. It's estimated they date somewhere between the 1st century BC and 2nd century AD. (If you've been paying attention, you might notice that I've been fairly inconsistent over the life of this blog as to whether I'm going BC/AD or BCE/CE. It only looks like I'm being inconsistent. Those are notes. I always accompany my ancient history with haphazardly-written fanfare. Doesn't everyone?)

The Guardian article linked tells that catacombs litter Rome. They know they haven't found them all, and when one pops up, it's something the locals just have to work around and to a degree have become somewhat blase to. It's an unusual variant on road construction. The archaeologists, once they find one, have to work fast, because the same soft rock that can be washed away to expose the catacombs can also be washed away from the catacombs themselves.

On the plus side, kitty could use a bath.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I Don't Know Much About Art, But Yoink

We're making it TED talk day today. The locals aren't watching anyway; there's a Wisconsin/Minnesota college football game on I don't care about. So in the wake of the recent art theft in Rotterdam (a theft which has promptly led to articles on what the hell they think they're going to do with them now that they have them-- usually, they don't think that far ahead and often have no post-robbery plan whatsoever, but the sentence if caught is low enough that they go for it anyway), I give you Maurizio Seracini, speaking in June in Edinburgh speaking about art history.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Soup For You

Last week, Paul Ryan basically barged into a St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio after hours so he could get a photo-op of him washing pots and pans. (They were originally reported as already clean; later reports describe them as in fact dirty, but it's rather beside the point as you'll soon see.) He had not been invited and would have been refused had he taken the time to ask, because St. Vincent is and has always been apolitical and would never willingly allow themselves to be used for campaign purposes. Brian Antal, St. Vincent's local county president, said as much.

In the wake of that, the soup kitchen has found some of their donors pulling financial support for political purposes, above and beyond what St. Vincent's was trying to avoid. The exact amount being pulled isn't being made available, but it's described as significant.

If you are now outraged at the fact that anyone would try and actively harm a soup kitchen as a means of political attack- and you should be- you are probably wondering if there's something you could do to help out.

Yes, there is.

The folks over at Fark have put together a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo, active until December 2nd. You'll see a goal amount set at $10,000; don't mind it too much. This works a little differently than the all-or-nothing nature of Kickstarter. The money will be donated directly to the soup kitchen regardless of whether the goal is reached; the only difference between meeting the goal and not meeting the goal is how much IndieGoGo takes as a fee: 4% if the goal is met, 9% if it's not. There are a few rewards, but they're very minimal: donating $5 gets your name on a card to be sent to the soup kitchen, and someone in the Fark thread is kicking in T-shirts for the $50 level.

If you've ever wanted to help out a soup kitchen but never got around to it, well, here's your chance right here. If not, or if you've got any sort of issue with this particular campaign, you could always donate to St. Vincent directly. That works too.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

As The Flames Climbed Into The Clouds

We've started to get one of the most tantalizingly risky consumer products there is in at work on the loading trucks: turkey deep-fryers. Without fail, every year someone improperly uses a deep-fryer, and when they do, they've got themselves a massive grease fire that can easily end up burning down their entire house. The weather's getting colder. Let's not have anyone lose their home at this time of year.

So today, we're going to run through how to properly deep-fry a turkey. We're not interested in how well it tastes afterwards; I'm not claiming to be any sort of cook. We're just focused on doing it correctly and safely. If you want to cook it well, there are plenty of recipes out there.

Sam Sifton of Bon Appetit has one such recipe. He also does so on video.

The first thing you've got to do is... well, the first thing you've got to do is be sober during this process. Drunkenness and deep-fried turkeys do not mix. Get the deep-fryer well clear of the house. Ideally, find a clear patch of open dirt that won't catch fire just in case something goes wrong. Make sure it's a flat patch, and lay down a nonflammable flat surface to cook on. (Deep-fryers have a high center of gravity, and if yours tips over, you're in deep trouble.) Wear gloves and safety goggles. Sifton also advises wearing shoes, though if you're outside at this time of year, shoes are a given. Get a very long thermometer so you can keep your distance when taking the temperature.

Also: have fire extinguishers handy and ready to go if anything goes wrong. A hose won't work; oil fires don't get put out with water. Be ready to dial 911 on a moment's notice.

Now, as far as how much oil you'll need, don't go overboard. First, place the turkey in the deep-fryer, then fill it with water, then take out the turkey. How much water do you see in the deep-fryer? Don't put in a drop more oil than that. If you do, the oil is going to overflow, and that's exactly what you're trying to avoid. Bad things happen the second the oil comes out of the deep-fryer. If any of it gets on the burner- and if you're doing things wrong, it will get on the burner- you've got real problems.

After heating the oil, which you'll have to measure with the thermometer because there aren't really temperature controls on these things (don't let it get over the oil's smoke point, aka the point at which the oil starts to smoke and flavor begins to break down, and gets easier to burn besides; 350 degrees is generally an ideal temperature), put the turkey on the provided rack. Make sure the turkey is fully thawed out (allow 24 hours per five pounds), because otherwise the extreme shock in temperature change is going to cause the oil to bubble and splash uncontrollably, making hot oil fly everywhere. When you've got the turkey hooked and racked up, make sure your gloves and goggles are on, and then slowly lower the turkey into the oil. Slowly is the keyword here. You're going to need about a minute for the lowering process, because again, you'll have bubbling and splashing. You don't need to introduce any more splashing than absolutely necessary by trying to divebomb the turkey into the fryer.

Allow the turkey to cook (allow about 3 minutes, 30 seconds per pound). Then bring the turkey out of the oil. Let some excess oil drip back off the turkey before removing it and carving/eating it.

You're not done yet. You have hot oil to deal with now. Let it cool down on its own; allow 6 hours for that. Do not attempt to speed along the process by dropping ice into the fryer. To do so will have the same effect as if you had dropped a frozen turkey into the fryer earlier: the temperature difference will cause uncontrollable bubbling and even with the turkey out of the picture, it will still splash far above the rim.

As State Farm demonstrates, and no, no I couldn't get through this article without the inevitable video of deep-fryer horror. You've been patient enough.

Once it's cooled down, if you want to be green about things, you can put it to further use, including saving it to cook again with, but if it's become too degraded to cook with, you will need to dispose of it. You can look up your local disposal policies, but if you own a diesel car, you can filter it, pour it into the gas tank and drive on it. You've heard of biodiesel, right? That's biodiesel.

Which makes for a nice getaway method after the guy next door burns his house down.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Um, Yeah, I'm Gonna Need You To Go Ahead And Shoot That Guy

Switzerland, alongside its chocolate and watches and banks and army knives, is famous for being a synonym for neutrality. As you're probably aware, this is a position they withdrew into after abolishing, in the mid-1800's, their previous reputation as the planet's most feared army-for-hire. Aside from being the Pope's bodyguards, they now satisfy themselves with being ready to defend the easily-defended Swiss borders just in case something goes down nearby, taking a scorched-earth mentality if all else fails, which so far it hasn't. And given that their particular neighborhood is pretty peaceful and everyone respects their neutrality, they're largely left to just go about their business.

Which is why it's become rather interesting to some that they're drawing up military exercises. (Before you start, no, Switzerland isn't in the EU, so stow the Peace Prize talk.) There may not be a war going on around them, but a financial crisis sure is, and people tend to lose their composure when vast amounts of money are at stake. The Swiss government has become worried enough about economic unrest potentially bringing refugees over the borders that the military conducted exercises last month called 'Stabilo Due', involving 2,000 troops in eight cities around the country. The defense minister, Ueli Maurer, can't rule out a need for the army..

...although he is the defense minister. The concern exists that this may be just an excuse for the Swiss military to justify itself. Service in Switzerland is mandatory, and the army is called upon occasionally in situations that could easily be handled by the police. One former soldier, speaking to, said that soldiers were encouraged to fire a lot in training. According to him, "That meant: 'Use up everything, have fun, if we don't use it all up they're going to think we need less and cut the budget."

How many times have you seen that happen around the office.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Prep For A Very Weird Debate Edition

As we settle in for the second debate between Obama and Romney (and, hopefully, moderator Candy Crowley), one thought comes to mind: what books did I buy today? Well, amazingly narcissistic self, here's the answer, bought from Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee:

Bathroom Readers' Institute- Uncle John's Fully Loaded 25th Anniversary Bathroom Reader
Butterworth, Alex- The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Secret Agents
Kuper, Simon, and Szymanski, Stefan- Soccernomics

Please remember tonight that we're here to pick a President, not have two guys in suits bash each other over the head with beer bottles. We have Jersey Shore reruns for that.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Prizes, Prizes For All

Our final Nobel laureates of 2012 have been revealed today. The press on each of them is always considerable, so let's just recap them so we can get to business:

Physics: Serge Haroche, France, and David Wineland, United States, for work in quantum optics
Chemistry: Brian Kobilka and Robert Lefkowitz, United States, for their discovery of G-protein-coupled receptors
Physiology/Medicine: John Gurdon, United Kingdom, and Shinya Yamanaka, Japan, for their discovery that normal cells can be turned into stem cells. We actually covered outcroppings of that discovery here back in June.
Literature: Mo Yan, China, whose works largely skew towards social commentary. Not the first Chinese Nobel winner to go down that route, but certainly one of the least aggressive against the Chinese government; when China wins a Nobel for political commentary, it inevitably goes to someone being actively oppressed for their commentary, and Mo Yan's MO is to rein himself in enough to stay clear of the censors, a tack that's drawn some criticism as to whether the prize maybe should have gone to someone more outspoken.
Peace: European Union, for connecting nations in a way that makes them unlikely to want to go to war with each other as they have in the past... not that this reasoning kept some of the more debt-ridden nations in the EU from bursting out into open laughter. It is not the Nobel's proudest year, that's for sure.
Economics: Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapely, United States, for work on market design and matching theory

Some deserving winners to be sure, but again, not a year free of derisiveness from the critics, especially the Peace Prize. So like we did in 2010, what we'll do today is check out some reigning laureates of other Nobel-like peace awards. In each case, the link attached to the name of the prize goes to the Wikipedia page listing its previous winners.

INDIRA GANDHI PRIZE: Ela Bhatt, India. We met Bhatt in 2010 when she was the reigning laureate of the Niwano Peace Prize, and she won it for the same thing: being the founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India. Indian labor laws only protect workers with an employer; SEWA gives self-employed women something to work with.

NIWANO PEACE PRIZE: Rosalina Tuyuc, Guatemala. Tuyuc is the founder of the National Association of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), which she founded in 1988 in the wake of her father being kidnapped and murdered by the Guatemalan army in 1982, and her husband suffering the same fate in 1985, part of a wider genocide by the army against the indigenous population. She banded together with other widows to form CONAVIGUA. (Another member of the indigenous population, Rigoberta Menchu, was the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner.)

SYDNEY PEACE PRIZE: Sekai Holland, Zimbabwe. Holland is co-Minister of State for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration under Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. Holland wasn't crazy about the setup, because she's one of Tsvangirai's people and Mugabe's administration harassed and beat her repeatedly over the years for speaking out in favor of women's rights in Zimbabwe. She gets the Sydney prize for her work on that as well as her anti-apartheid efforts in both South Africa and Australia.

RAMON MAGSAYSAY AWARD (for Peace and International Understanding): Chen Shu-Chu, Taiwan. She sells vegetables at market. No big organization, no movement, nothing political about her. She just sells vegetables at market and squeezes a modest income out of it. She's not even really a particularly major vegetable seller; she wouldn't be out of place at your local farmers' market. Then she donates the money to charity. How much money? Pretty much all of it, beyond what she absolutely needs. As of August, the 61-year-old Chen has handed out $322,000 for things like a children's fund, a local library and supporting an orphanage. And she's perfectly fine with people not knowing who she is... though she doesn't seem to mind the fact that being in the spotlight is making others think a little more about what they do with their own money.

THOROLF RAFTO MEMORIAL PRIZE: Nnimmo Bassey, Nigeria. Bassey is the elected chair of Friends of the Earth International and, previously, the 2010 winner of the Right Livelihood Award. Bassey's chief focus has been on his work in the Niger Delta, a region exploited by oil interests, mainly Shell, to the degree where oil litters the ground and poisons everything in sight. Deepwater Horizon is nothing compared to the delta, and much of the spillage is deliberate, the result of sabotage. Bassey's viewpoint is that the oil is simply more trouble than it's worth, and the Right Livelihood Award came largely out of his work on fighting to get all the spills cleaned up. He's also been active on the climate-change front, where he's been arguing on how the people most victimized by climate change are largely the people that are least to blame for it in the first place. The Rafto prize is awarded for that.

PEACE PRIZE OF THE GERMAN BOOK TRADE: Liao Yiwu, China. Yiwu has been one of the more outspoken critics against Mo Yan's Nobel win, calling the award "a slap in the face" and deriding Yan as "a state poet". Yiwu has reason to complain, because he was harassed by the Chinese government for dissent.  Yiwu had nearly died as a result of the Great Leap Forward, watched his parents divorce during the Cultural Revolution as a way to keep he and their other children safe, and was imprisoned and beaten for a poem speaking out against the Tiananmen Square massacre (which he made an audio recording of, knowing the poem would never get published), and only managed to get permission to leave China in 2010 via the personal intervention of Andrea Merkel (he now lives in Germany). So when he sees a guy that measures his words to avoid running afoul of that same government get a Nobel for it, he's naturally going to call out the guy, and the Nobel committee, for lack of balls.

And one might observe from the sidelines that a different Chinese writer might have been more deserving of the Nobel.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Kitchen In-Class-In-Only-Your-Underwear

Back in the day, those of you in Chicago had a restaurant called 'The Great Gritzbe's Flying Food Show'. The restaurant opened in 1974, the product of Richard Melman's Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Melman has over the years had a stellar track record with his various restaurants, and the Great Gritzbe's was no different. A couple screenshots of the place can be found here.

So, no problem, right? Successful restaurant, part of a successful empire, nothing to see here? Not so much.

In 1983, sales were slipping- though still profitable- and the Flying Food Show had a lease coming up for expiration. Melman's decision was to change the name of the restaurant. Out of the ashes of the Great Gritzbe's Flying Food Show came...

...the Not So Great Gritzbe's. Complete with posters for Tums and Alka-Seltzer.

Now, to be fair, if the goal here was to get a laugh out of the customers, that certainly did the trick. Customers did laugh. But that's not the goal of a restaurant. That's the goal of a comedy club. The goal of a restaurant is to make money. And after the customers had their laugh, they went and found a restaurant that didn't have Tums and Alka-Seltzer on the walls. The still-perfectly-respectable profits went right out the window, and The Not-So-Great Gritzbe's became the Closed-For-Business Gritzbe's within six months.

As Melman himself admitted in the inc. article linked earlier, "Boy, that was stupid. It would have kept making money if I hadn't done that."

Friday, October 12, 2012

Finally, A Battery You Can Kick

My original intention here kind of collapsed on me, so now we've gotta get a little creative so you have some content to look at.

How about a power-generating soccer ball? One you can actually play with? That's the idea behind the Soccket, made by Uncharted Play. The inside of the ball contains a gyroscope hooked up to a battery. When you play with the ball, the kicking, bouncing, rolling and jostling gives the gyroscope a workout, and the energy from that is sent into the battery. The battery- while still inside the ball- can then be used for a six-watt output, good enough to power a small appliance, plugged into an outlet located on the ball's single orange panel (meaning you don't have to fumble around the ball looking for it). 30 minutes of play is figured to translate to three hours worth of battery life.

This, as you might expect, is a developing-world item. It's probably not going to see much use in, say, Denver, although it is made in the United States. But if you want in on the action, may I suggest the currently-in-development Ludo, featured on Uncharted Play's front page. What the Ludo is going to do is track how long you play with it, and send that information to Uncharted Play. They have an online donation platform they'll be setting up called the Play Fund. They'll convert your playtime into credits, which you can then use to donate items to various social projects. But that's not going to be until next year.

Until then, Americans will just have to generate power from soccer via using all the spittle gathered from yelling at Jurgen Klinsmann to power a hydroelectric plant. You had better manage to beat Antigua and Barbuda, Klinsmann.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Random News Generator- Tanzania

Back in April, we talked about the ivory trade, and the ban on ivory sales in 1990, intended to collapse the market. In the October issue of National Geographic- October being known primarily for coming after April- there's an article by Bryan Christy that details how things have gone since then.

It's been tough. The ban hasn't stopped poachers from shooting elephants anyway, and it hasn't prevented buyers from claiming post-ban ivory is pre-ban ivory. Still, things did die down a bit... until a one-time approved sale was made to Japan in 1999. Now that there was new, post-ban, legal ivory on the market, somewhere, anywhere, that caused things to quickly spiral downward. Japan immediately wanted the one-time sale to become a more-time sale. And then China, many citizens of which were now under the mistaken impression that the ivory ban was now over, started flashing its bankroll. And poachers were more than happy to come out of the woodwork to sell them all the ivory they wanted, even if their own request to buy ivory legally was shot down in 2005, on the grounds that they were the single largest cause of the ivory trade spiraling back out of control.

And then another request by China got approved in 2008. So that's two post-ban ivory sales, one of which was to a country that largely didn't think there was an ivory ban anymore and had even less reason to think so now. And all the illegal ivory now has ample amounts of cover. Essentially, all the hard work by the people trying to stop the ivory trade went right down the drain, possibly for keeps, and it's China and Japan's fault.

What does this have to do with Tanzania? Guess who'd like to make a third sale. To China and Japan. Also they would like to take elephants off the endangered species list.

Not really a fun day running the RNG, that.

If it's any consolation, here's a clip from Pawn Stars:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Where That Giant Coal Fire Is Coming From

The main thrust of trying to reduce global warming- or global climate change, or whatever term you wish- is reducing carbon emissions. In order to do so, one must first figure out where the emissions are coming from. And most of that has, to date, come from targeting specific items- a car here, a lightbulb there. If one wanted to figure out how much of an impact they personally have, they could, but asking someone to calculate their own 'carbon footprint' is a tad on the labor-intensive side, and a matter of self-reporting. Doing so on a large scale has gotten blurry in a bit of a hurry, with world maps generally being the order of the day.

Researchers at Arizona State have figured out a way to change that. A new system they've developed, called Hestia, allows them to see annual carbon emissions as a bar graph on a street level, with residences, commercial and industrial areas, and streets individually marked. They're going city-by-city; the picture in the article shows the first city they've done, Indianapolis, and are working on Los Angeles and Phoenix next. (If you notice one big bar shooting up way past everything else on the Indianapolis map, that's their coal plant, the locally notorious Harding Street Generating Station.)

The next step in Arizona State's plan is to have this done for every major American city, allowing covered cities to see exactly where the problem areas are. Which, it should be noted, is how Google Street started out.

The website for Hestia is here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Your Daily Reminder To Vote

A former member of the Arkansas state legislature, Charlie Fuqua, is running to get back to the chamber. He is of the mind that children who rebel against their parents should be able to be put to death, as he states in the book he wrote earlier this year, the name of which you'll find in this Huffington Post link but which will go deliberately unnamed here so as to limit the publicity it gets. In the same book, he also states that all Muslims should be thrown out of the United States.

Incumbent legislator Loy Mauch is running for re-election. A neo-Confederate, Mauch wrote a series of letters to the editor in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from 2000-2011. Among the statements made in those letters are a denunciation of the 14th Amendment- that's the one guaranteeing blacks citizenship- where he claims it was never actually ratified. He wonders why slavery is thought of as so bad on the grounds that it's not specifically condemned in the Bible. Abe Lincoln is referred to as a "neurotic Northern war criminal". Let's stop here before you throw up on your keyboard.

Incumbent legislator Jon Hubbard is also running for re-election. In a book he wrote which will also go deliberately unnamed here, Hubbard refers to slavery as a "blessing in disguise", claiming that slavery in America is better than free life in sub-Saharan Africa. He also claims that integrated schools are a bad idea, saying that black kids have made white kids dumber and that black kids would be better off "if they would only learn to appreciate the value of a good education".

All three of these people are or have been elected officials governing the people of Arkansas. All three are running to govern them again.

I know there are some of you out there who only vote in the Presidential race. This is why you need to pay attention to those downballot races. If you don't, this is what happens. These people end up making decisions about your life.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Happy Random Sports Factoids Day

I'm not really up for anything big today, so I'm going to hand you a Sporcle quiz or two.

For the North American readers, there are seven baseball statistics you'll need to keep track of: hits, home runs, RBI, runs, stolen bases, walks and strikeouts. Those are all stats for batters; no pitchers involved here. There are 30 teams in the league.

For the regular season just concluded, you are to name the team leader- or leaders- in each of the seven stats. You've got 20 minutes.

For the international readers, here's three soccer clubs from each of 40 countries. You have to name the countries. You have 10 minutes, though given the fact that I'm trying to get a book about club soccer published, of course I ran through the thing in 2:53.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wow! Old News Is So Exciting!

I assume you're familiar with the concept of those old-timey newsreels. Before the days of television, one way people got their news was from news clips played before movies- the place where you now see the previews, celebrity anagrams, and warnings to turn off your damn cell phone already.

But that was a long time ago. You may be familiar with the concept, but the newsreels YOU'VE seen have most likely all been parodies of the concept, created for modern media, such as that episode of Futurama where Bender gets into pro wrestling. You've probably never actually seen the real, actual newsreels.

Well, that changes today, because I'm linking you to an online archive of newsreels. The hub site for such a thing is, naturally, the Newsreel Archive. They in turn link out to archives of specific newsreel companies, such as Universal Newsreels, Hearst Metrotone (as archived by UCLA), and British Pathe (movies didn't stop with Hollywood).

For instance, here's the newsreel from 1945 announcing Japan's surrender to the United States at the close of World War 2. (As an aside, if you recall the thing about Obama using 22 pens to sign the healthcare bill into law and wondered why he did that... well, you'll see here that it's not a new thing.)

One man you'd be likely to hear doing newsreels- though not the one above- is Ed Herlihy, longtime newsreel anchor for Universal. He was also heard doing TV, radio, decades worth of ads for Kraft cheese, and just about everything right on up to a 'Newscaster' credit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. These days, think Don Pardo.

Here's Herlihy, alongside fellow anchor Ben Grauer (who would go on to be one of NBC's early and longtime voicemen), on a slightly slower news day in 1947.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sex! Now That I Have Your Attention...

One kind of book that will never, ever wind up on my shelf is a romance novel. You already know what's going to happen; the only question is how many times. (Answer: so many times.) Their only literary purpose is to be swiftly burned through so you can get to the next one. It's like trying to pretend you read Playboy for the articles.

And that's assuming their main purpose is even literary.

In 1966, a group of 24 journalists from Newsday, headed by Mike McGrady, banded together to test a theory as to just how much bad writing you could get away with as long as you threw in enough sex. Each writer took one chapter, written as deliberately badly as possible and including as much sex as possible, with an enforced minimum of two sex scenes per chapter. According to the outline McGrady provided the group, "True excellence in writing will be blue-penciled into oblivion. There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex." (And quite a bit of good writing did in fact get blue-penciled into oblivion.) The result, published in 1969, was the book 'Naked Came The Stranger', credited to "Penelope Ashe", the part of Penelope played by McGrady's sister-in-law. And of course people bought it, enough so that the Newsday crew eventually outed themselves out of guilt over how much money they were making.

So of course people stopped buying it. In fact, so many people stopped buying it that it hit the New York Times Best-Seller List and McGrady wrote a sequel the next year called 'Stranger Than Naked or How To Write Dirty Books For Fun'.

Fast-forward to 2012, the year of Fifty Shades of Grey, which you have undoubtedly heard of, and which a lot of you bought. You also bought a lot of other books just like it, so many that the best-seller list on iTunes is filled with random 'erotic fiction novels', which is the more pleasant way of saying 'books where all anyone does is just have sex all the time'. A couple guys, Brian Brushwood and Justin Young, hosts of the NSFW Podcast, saw this best-seller list and decided to reprise the Naked Came The Stranger concept. They didn't have professional journalists at their disposal, but they didn't need them.

They had the Internet. Which is full of bad writing, badder than the baddest banana in the bad tree bunch and then all the tree bunches had sex.

Brushwood and Young opted to crowdsource their project, which they called 'The Diamond Club'. They gave an outline of what they were looking for to anyone that wanted to try their hand at contributing a chapter. (They wanted sex and a lot of it. Also it would help if there were a main character or something. Other than that, they weren't picky.) They took their favorites, slapped them together without having contributed a single word of their own aside from the words on the carefully-designed cover, and called it a book. Needless to say, because none of the writers were working with one another, the chapters are disjointed, and because they just grabbed writing from random denizens of the Internet, they took in a lot of bad writing. Brushwood and Young described the end product as "a rambling incoherent mess", but published it under the name "Patricia Harkins-Bradley".

It hit the iTunes best-seller list, of course, partially due to the fact that they asked their helpers to buy a copy themselves to help get some momentum started. The reviews were terrible, but of course by that point the reviewers had already handed over their money. And of course, once they outed themselves,  the hey-look-at-the-trainwreck factor kicked in for them too, meaning more money.

They do not feel anywhere near as guilty as the Newsday staff.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Just A Precaution

According to the UK Press Association, a group from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland is going to try to create something analogous to a black hole using laser pulses, without actually creating a black hole. I'm not even going to begin to pretend I know the first thing about how this is supposed to work.

But just in case, I think we should all take a moment to go over this instructional piece on how to escape a black hole. Remember to make sure you're stocked up on canned goods and water, stay away from windows, and don't open the cellar door until you know the coast is clear and the black hole has passed. Unless I'm thinking about tornadoes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Have You Managed To Tick Off A Foreign Government?

In the past, you might find out about this via your computer being mysteriously nonfunctional, or perhaps far away from you because the government in question busted into your country and spirited you from your house in the dead of night to a place the existence of which is officially denied.

But now, it is possible to just Google that information. Back in June, Google launched a warning system for users that it pegged as under siege by state-sponsored attacks, in response to several such attacks over the previous few years, chiefly the doing of China and Iran. (Google has had a frosty relationship with China, having been hacked themselves, noting search terms on the Hong Kong search engine that may result in censorship, and recently shuttering their local music service.) Another such attack was seemingly detected on Tuesday, apparently the work of an assortment of Middle Eastern states, though Google isn't naming names in this instance. Google is also not going to say how they determine who's deemed to be under threat, the reason being that if they did, whoever's launching the attack is going to overhear and try to dodge the warning system, which has turned out to be getting a much more strenuous workout than they anticipated when they launched it.

If it should ever happen to you, it will come in the form of a red banner above the search bar, accompanied by a link to information you can use to help protect yourself. Changing your passwords would be an obvious first step; instituting a two-step authentication would also be a good idea.

Another thing not to do would be to bring up the fact that the Chinese government is pulling Ai Weiwei's business license for some reason or other that in practice just boils down to Flimsy Excuse To Screw With The Political Dissident Again. China wouldn't like if you mentioned the name Ai Weiwei. Really don't say Ai Weiwei. That name you shouldn't say is Ai Weiwei.

Nor should you say Liu Xiaobo, whose Nobel Peace Prize win so angered the Chinese government that they went and made their own peace prize, with blackjack, and hookers. Last year their peace prize went to Vladimir Putin, which tells you just how much stock to put into that thing.

And you really shouldn't bring up Tibet, where the Australian government has recently been refused permission to visit the parts where people are setting themselves on fire in protest of Chinese rule.

Folks, I haven't had a pageview from China since August and I'm clearly not angling to have that little streak broken anytime soon.

Ai Weiwei.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

You Kidding Me? Playoffs?

It's almost baseball playoff time, which can only mean one thing: someone somewhere is whining about the very existence of playoffs in baseball. I have seen fans that, no matter how many thrilling playoff races and playoff games there are, still are of the mind that there ought to only be two teams in the postseason: the team with the best AL record and the team with the best NL record. (Many of these same people will then go on to argue that the Astros not be the ones going to the AL next season to even things out at 15 apiece, but rather the Brewers on the grounds that they were there before and should be marched right back. That, or Major League Baseball ought to just contract all the way back to the classic 16 franchises that were around prior to 1961. But then, some of us are under 60 years old.)

But let's humor these people today. After all, the NHL and MLS give special recognition to the best regular-season records above and beyond simple playoff seeding. Let's go back as far as 1969- the first year with proper playoffs- redo things without them, and see what the World Series matchups would have been under the pre-1969 format of best-record-only. We're not interested in who would have won the World Series, just who would have gotten there.

The first matchup listed for each year is the one pitting the regular-season champions of each league. The second one, the one in parentheses, is the matchup that actually happened. In all cases, the American League representative is listed first.

You will also note three sets of asterisks; these denote instances where there were ties in the regular season. At the bottom, you'll see how each eventual representative was determined; thankfully, all three were able to be settled pretty easily.

1969: Orioles vs. Mets (Orioles vs. Mets)
1970: Orioles vs. Reds (Orioles vs. Reds)
1971: Orioles vs. Pirates (Orioles vs. Pirates)
1972: Athletics vs. Pirates (Athletics vs. Reds)
1973: Orioles vs. Reds (Athletics vs. Mets)
1974: Orioles vs. Dodgers (Athletics vs. Dodgers)
1975: Athletics vs. Reds (Red Sox vs. Reds)
1976: Yankees vs. Reds (Yankees vs. Reds)
1977: Royals vs. Phillies (Yankees vs. Dodgers)
1978: Yankees vs. Dodgers (Yankees vs. Dodgers)
1979: Orioles vs. Pirates (Orioles vs. Pirates)
1980: Yankees vs. Astros (Royals vs. Phillies)
1981: Athletics vs. Reds (Yankees vs. Dodgers)
1982: Brewers vs. Cardinals (Brewers vs. Cardinals)
1983: White Sox vs. Dodgers (Orioles vs. Phillies)
1984: Tigers vs. Cubs (Tigers vs. Padres)
1985: Blue Jays vs. Cardinals (Royals vs. Cardinals)
1986: Red Sox vs. Mets (Red Sox vs. Mets)
1987: Tigers vs. Cardinals (Twins vs. Cardinals)
1988: Athletics vs. Mets (Athletics vs. Dodgers)
1989: Athletics vs. Cubs (Athletics vs. Giants)
1990: Athletics vs. Pirates (Athletics vs. Reds)
1991: Twins vs. Pirates (Twins vs. Braves)
1992: Athletics* vs. Braves (Blue Jays vs. Braves)
1993: Blue Jays vs. Braves (Blue Jays vs. Phillies)
1994: Yankees vs. Expos (no World Series)
1995: Indians vs. Braves (Indians vs. Braves)
1996: Indians vs. Braves (Yankees vs. Braves)
1997: Orioles vs. Braves (Indians vs. Marlins)
1998: Yankees vs. Braves (Yankees vs. Padres)
1999: Yankees vs. Braves (Yankees vs. Braves)
2000: White Sox vs. Giants (Yankees vs. Mets)
2001: Mariners vs. Astros** (Yankees vs. Diamondbacks)
2002: Yankees vs. Braves (Angels vs. Giants)
2003: Yankees vs. Braves (Yankees vs. Marlins)
2004: Yankees vs. Cardinals (Red Sox vs. Cardinals)
2005: White Sox vs. Cardinals (White Sox vs. Astros)
2006: Yankees vs. Mets (Tigers vs. Cardinals)
2007: Red Sox*** vs. Diamondbacks (Red Sox vs. Rockies)
2008: Angels vs. Cubs (Rays vs. Phillies)
2009: Yankees vs. Dodgers (Yankees vs. Phillies)
2010: Rays vs. Phillies (Rangers vs. Giants)
2011: Yankees vs. Phillies (Rangers vs. Cardinals)

*- The Blue Jays and Athletics had identical records. Game 1 of the ALCS was used as the theoretical one-game tiebreaker, which the Athletics won 4-3 in Toronto.
**- The Astros and Cardinals had identical records. The Astros were awarded the NL Central title over the Cardinals based on their season series. The two did not meet in the playoffs.
***- The Red Sox and Indians had identical records. Game 1 of the ALCS was used as the theoretical one-game tiebreaker, which the Red Sox won 10-3 in Boston.

So what does this all say? Well, first off, the Cubs' curse of never making the World Series again would have been broken in 1984. In fact, it would have been broken three times over, with Steve Bartman having been bypassed completely. (Contrary to popular belief, the curse prevents the Cubs from merely making the World Series, not winning it outright. The former naturally prevents the latter, but if they got in, hey, who knows.) Second, boy would the Braves have been better off in the 90's.

The playoffs rendered the same result as a non-playoff setting in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1995 and 1999. 1992 would be there as well had the theoretical one-game playoff gone the other way.

Overall, though, what does this say? Who would have benefited the most from a lack of playoffs, and who has been hurt the most by their presence? For that, we're simply going to take how many times a team has made the World Series in real life, and subtract the number of times they would have made the World Series in a non-playoff alternate reality. The higher the resulting number, the more the team has benefited from the playoffs' existence. (We'll remove 1994, which wouldn't have had a World Series either way.)

Phillies: 5-3= +2
Red Sox: 4-2= +2
Giants: 3-1= +2
Marlins: 2-0= +2
Padres: 2-0= +2
Rangers: 2-0= +2
Cardinals: 6-5= +1
Dodgers: 5-4- +1
Royals: 2-1= +1
Twins: 2-1= +1
Rockies: 1-0= +1
Yankees: 11-11= 0
Reds: 5-5= 0
Mets: 4-4= 0
Blue Jays: 2-2= 0
Indians: 2-2= 0
Tigers: 2-2= 0
Angels: 1-1= 0
Brewers: 1-1= 0
Diamondbacks: 1-1= 0
Rays: 1-1= 0
Expos/Nationals: 0-0= 0
Athletics: 6-7= -1
Astros: 1-2= -1
Mariners: 0-1= -1
Orioles: 5-7= -2
White Sox: 1-3= -2
Pirates: 2-5= -3
Cubs: 0-3= -3
Braves: 5-9= -4

You'll first note that 29 out of the 30 clubs have a stake in the discussion (though the Brewers are arguable, because either way they'd only have 1982 against the Cardinals), and the 30th may be only days away from having one as well. 11 clubs have made more Fall Classics than they would have without a playoff; 8 have made fewer. The Marlins, Padres, Rangers and Rockies would not have made the World Series without the playoffs, while the Mariners and Cubs- especially the Cubs- have been rendered Series-less by the playoffs. Only one club has been zeroed out both ways- the Expos/Nationals- and they're the unofficial NL champs of 1994, and potentially this year's regular-season NL champs. They enter today tied with the Reds with two games to go; the Rangers lead the AL with the Orioles, Yankees and Athletics still capable of taking the title.

Well, capable of taking it after the playoffs get underway, at least. They and the Tigers, Braves, Giants, and either the Dodgers or Cardinals.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Not That This Makes My Screwup Okay

Okay. So I messed up and had to issue a correction yesterday. It's not the first time I've had to do so. I hate having to do that, but it's part of the game. You screw up, you fess up. In fact, I have an entire book of New York Times corrections on my shelf, called Kill Duck Before Serving.

The whole point behind a correction, though, is twofold: to provide the correct information, and to resolve to try not to do it again. (For example, I am now fully awake.) This will become important shortly.

One of the more common ways of screwing up these days is to mistake an article from the Onion as real, and to use it as a legitimate source. As the Onion writes its articles in the style of actual news reports, sometimes an article looks real enough to fool someone. There's a site, called Literally Unbelievable, that fires up anytime someone is caught out by an Onion article.

Among the recent victims was Fars, the Iranian state news service. On Friday, Fars got fooled by the piece 'Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad To Obama'. Which is embarrassing enough. But then Fars had to go and plagiarize the darned thing. That screenshot comes courtesy of the Onion (Fars had deleted the article), who twisted the knife by referring to Fars as one of their subsidiaries.

Remember that part about resolving not to do it again?

Fars, after being pointed and laughed at by the entire journalist population of Earth, has now managed to dig itself even deeper with its eventual correction.

Click on the link at 'referring' and the AP article attached will surrender this line at the end:

It's not the first time a foreign news outlet has been duped by The Onion. In 2002, the Beijing Evening News, one of the Chinese capital's biggest newspapers, picked up a story from The Onion that claimed members of Congress were threatening to leave Washington unless the building underwent a makeover that included more bathrooms and a retractable dome.

Now, let's go to the Fars correction, which turned into a long article about other news agencies' screwups (and yes, I recognize the irony in pointing that out):

 In 2002, the Beijing Evening News, one of the Chinese capital's biggest newspapers, picked up a story from The Onion that claimed members of Congress were threatening to leave Washington unless the building underwent a makeover that included more bathrooms and a retractable dome.

If you notice the lack of the 'not the first time' part, don't worry. That popped up three paragraphs earlier. That's right. Fars- who you really shouldn't be counting on for quality news in the first place- has not only plagiarized an Onion article, they have then gone on to plagiarize the correction. Word for word. That is so bad it's actually kind of impressive. I've never seen that before.

Hopefully I won't see it again.