Friday, November 30, 2012

Oh Geez, Here We Go Again

Another dollar-coin misadventure? The Presidential dollars and the Sacajewea dollar and the Susan B. Anthony dollar and the Roosevelt dollar and all the others didn't get the message across yet? America does not want a dollar coin. Full stop. Maybe it saves $4.4 billion over 30 years. That's $146.67 million a year. Americans may be loath to spend tax dollars for things, but if 25 guys in Los Angeles Angels uniforms can be paid $154 million this year, I'm pretty sure 311 million people will, on the whole, be willing to hand over 47 cents a year so they can not have a bunch of extra bulk in their wallets.

Criminy. You take the money you spend trying to promote this again and again and again and put it towards something else, there's some of your savings right there.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Galactus Must Feeeeeeed

Space is full of really oddball things. For example, there's this one planet with a whole bunch of critters running around on it. How many planets do you know of that can say that?

Today you're presented with the latest really oddball thing: a black hole. Now, you may already know that there's a black hole at the center of the Milky Way, or at least, there's suspected to be one. It's believed that most, if not all, galaxies have one at their center. Bust most of them are comparatively pretty tiny when placed up against their galaxies. Typically, the central black hole will take up about 0.1% of the galaxy's central core. The record size to date is about 11%.

Well, that was the record until now. The title belt has now been spaghettied into a singularity by the black hole in the center of NGC 1277, which has been calculated at 59%. And what's more, there are five galaxies nearby that might have similar stories, which is interesting in and of itself, because the team gathered at the University of Texas- which discovered the black hole (after quite a bit of rechecking their figures because the size was so far out of whack with everything else that they figured they had to have gotten it wrong somehow)- didn't think galaxies influenced each other like that.

The thinking beforehand- which is now open for re-examining- is that the size of a black hole was linked to the size of its accompanying galaxy: as a galaxy grows, the black hole gets more material to feed on, but when the black hole eats too quickly, it generates a big wind that blows the galaxy clear of it, which in turn limits the galaxy's further growth and the black hole's future menu. That, clearly, has not happened here. There is an alternative explanation ready to go- essentially, that the growth is merely steady according to age and this is just a really, really old black hole.

But then, both explanations- and the next one, and the next one, and the next one- could all very well be wrong too. That's fine. After all, we do know how discovery works.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Is Art?

What is art?

Well, really, art is whatever one makes it out to be. That's the vaguest possible description, but there you go. It is literally the vaguest possible thing.

But that said. What is art?

Art is the 1947 Jackson Pollock painting, 'Sea Change', that the Seattle Art Museum is taking in for a restoration. There was a coat of varnish placed on it in the 70's, and they're looking to get it off before it interacts too much with the paint.

What is art?

A controversial painting by Michael d'Antuono called 'The Truth', placed on display at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The painting, created in 2009, depicts Barack Obama in a crucifixion-style pose while wearing a crown of thorns, standing in front of a large Presidential seal. d'Antuono intended the message of the painting to be an attack on conservative media: a twin commentary on Obama's perceived 'crucifixion' by the conservative media and the imagery provided by them that he was a savior or the Messiah. Given his other works, it's pretty easy to see that he's not just saying that. (And imagery aside, in a purely technical sense, he's really a pretty good painter.) But then, how the artist sees their art and how the audience views that art can be two completely different things. Viewers of the piece saw The Truth as an example of the very thing d'Antuono claimed to be attacking and generated so much protest that the painting had to be withdrawn until now.

What only thinks it's art?

The Barack Obama bobblehead doll that Glenn Beck, inspired by The Truth, has recently placed in a jar of what was called urine but was actually beer, called 'Obama In Pee Pee', and tried to sell on eBay for $25,000. eBay removed the listing as 'offensive material'.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I Don't Like That It's Seven Separate Videos Either

It's been a while before I could even get to the blog, so there isn't much opportunity to write much of anything. So, I guess it's going to be documentary day.

Let's head to Suriname today for a 7-parter by Hans Arends called No Plant No Life, in which you're going to meet Fritz van Troon, the country's top botanist. Considering that Suriname is mostly taken up by the Amazon rainforest, that's no small feat. The total running time is around 55 minutes.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Monday, November 26, 2012

Running The Table

I have not been following college football this season. Like, at all. I've hit my breaking point with scandals, corruption, and a decade of covered-up child rape being made out to be somehow a lesser concern than maintaining the football team. I just can't take it anymore. But in any case, it has apparently happened that one of the scandal-ridden teams, Ohio St., has made it through the season undefeated. They are ineligible to compete in a bowl this season, though.

This has led a writer for Sportige going by the name Morgan to look back at some other teams that got through the regular season undefeated, yet didn't get into the title game. He has a fairly short list, though. He mentions Utah in 2008 and Boise St. in 2006, but skips right on over the less-heralded Hawaii in 2007. And he doesn't look any further back than 2004.

Let me try, Morgan. Let me do this for you, properly. I'll do you one better. I provide here the complete list of teams that went into bowl season undefeated, going off the information provided from Wikipedia, as well as College Poll Archive and Sports Reference. All of them, all the way back to the first matches between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, whether they hit the title game or not, and remember for most of college football history, there wasn't a title game per se. Or even bowls, in which case it's simply a matter of running the table outright. Ties are allowed here, though teams that tied are shown in italics. (We are ignoring any NCAA-adjusted results. What happened on the field happened.)

Regular seasons were a tad shorter in earlier seasons, as you'll see in evidence. There were also fewer bowl games, meaning most of the earlier teams didn't see those perfect seasons spoiled in the bowls. In the really early days, there weren't even enough bowl games to handle all the undefeateds. For example, in 1933, there were only two bowl games, and five undefeated teams. Only one of those undefeateds, Centenary of Louisiana, was invited to a bowl. They tied Arkansas 7-7 in the Dixie Classic in Dallas. One year earlier in 1932, there were nine undefeateds and only the Rose Bowl to settle things, which to its credit did actually invite two of them, USC and Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, traveling to USC's hometown using 1932 travel methods, was duly smacked around to the tune of 35-0. (They did, however, leave out fellow undefeated Colgate, which had not even been scored upon all year.)

And of course, in the really, really early days, there were no bowls at all.

So. Shall we?

2012: Ohio St., Notre Dame
2011: LSU
2010: Auburn, Oregon, TCU
2009: Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU, Boise St.
2008: Utah, Boise St.
2007: Hawaii
2006: Ohio St., Boise St.
2005: USC, Texas
2004: USC, Auburn, Utah
2003: None
2002: Miami (FL), Ohio St.
2001: Miami (FL)
2000: Oklahoma
1999: Florida St.,  Virginia Tech, Marshall
1998: Tennessee, Tulane
1997: Michigan, Nebraska
1996: Florida St., Arizona St.
1995: Nebraska, Florida, Toledo
1994: Nebraska, Penn St., Texas A&M
1993: Nebraska, West Virginia, Auburn (all of which came in behind one-loss Florida State in the polls, by the way)
1992: Miami (FL), Alabama, Texas A&M, Michigan
1991: Miami (FL), Washington
1990: Georgia Tech
1989: Colorado
1988: Notre Dame, West Virginia
1987: Oklahoma, Miami (FL), Syracuse
1986: Miami (FL), Penn St.
1985: Penn St., Bowling Green, Fresno St.
1984: BYU
1983: Nebraska, Texas
1982: Georgia, SMU
1981: Clemson
1980: Georgia
1979: Ohio St., Alabama, USC, Florida St., BYU, Central Michigan, McNeese St.
1978: Penn St.
1977: Texas
1976: Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Maryland
1975: Arizona St., Arkansas St., Ohio St.
1974: Miami (OH), Oklahoma, Alabama
1973: Miami (OH), Penn St., Notre Dame, Ohio St., Michigan, Oklahoma, Alabama
1972: USC
1971: Nebraska, Alabama, Michigan, Toledo
1970: Arizona St., Toledo, Nebraska, Dartmouth, Toledo, Texas, Ohio St.
1969: Texas, USC, San Diego St., Penn St., Toledo
1968: Ohio St., Penn St., Yale, Harvard, USC, Georgia, Ohio
1967: Wyoming
1966: Notre Dame, Michigan St., Alabama
1965: Michigan St., Arkansas, Nebraska, Dartmouth
1964: Notre Dame, Alabama, Arkansas, Princeton
1963: Texas, Memphis, Mississippi
1962: Mississippi, USC, Dartmouth, Texas
1961: Ohio St., Alabama, Rutgers, Utah St. (this year is notable for the fact that the Ohio St. faculty voted to decline the invitation the Buckeyes received to the Rose Bowl, worried that the school was placing too much emphasis on sports and not enough on education)
1960: Mississippi, Yale, New Mexico St.
1959: Syracuse
1958: Auburn, LSU, Air Force, Army
1957: Auburn, Arizona St., VMI
1956: Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Miami (FL), Wyoming
1955: Oklahoma, Maryland, Miami (OH)
1954: UCLA, Ohio St., Oklahoma, Virginia Tech
1953: Maryland, Notre Dame
1952: Michigan St., Georgia Tech, Mississippi
1951: Illinois, Maryland, Georgia Tech, San Francisco, Princeton, Michigan St., Tennessee
1950: Oklahoma, Army, California, Princeton, Clemson, Wyoming, Miami (FL)
1949: Notre Dame, Army, Oklahoma, California
1948: Michigan, Clemson, Army, Notre Dame, North Carolina, California
1947: Michigan, SMU, Notre Dame, Penn St., Pennsylvania, Kansas
1946: Georgia, Army, Hardin-Simmons, Notre Dame, UCLA
1945: Indiana, Alabama, Oklahoma St., Army
1944: Ohio St., USC, Yale, Tennessee, Army, Norman Pre-Flight, Randolph Field
1943: Purdue, Colorado College, Tulsa
1942: Tulsa, Hardin-Simmons
1941: Minnesota, Utah, Notre Dame, Duquesne, Duke
1940: Minnesota, Mississippi St., Stanford, Boston College, Hardin-Simmons, Tennessee
1939: Texas A&M, UCLA, USC, Georgetown, Cornell, Duquesne, Tennessee, Tulane
1938: TCU, Tennessee, Villanova, Georgetown, Oklahoma, Duke
1937: California, Dartmouth, Holy Cross, Fordham, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Santa Clara, Colorado, Alabama
1936: Alabama, Utah St., LSU
1935: Minnesota, Princeton, SMU
1934: Minnesota, Alabama, Stanford, Temple
1933: Minnesota, Michigan, LSU, Centenary (LA), Princeton
1932: Purdue, Michigan, Colgate, Auburn, USC, TCU, Tennessee, Centenary (LA), Pittsburgh
1931: Tennessee, Bucknell, Tulane
1930: Michigan, Washington St., Alabama, Notre Dame, Marquette, Utah
1929: Purdue, SMU, TCU, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Tulane, Utah, Notre Dame, Fordham
1928: Utah, Tennessee, USC, Georgia Tech, Detroit Mercy
1927: Minnesota, Illinois, Washington & Jefferson, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Pittsburgh
1926: SMU, Stanford, Alabama, Utah, Navy, Brown
1925: Washington, Tulane, Alabama, Colgate, Dartmouth
1924: California, Notre Dame, Dartmouth, Yale, Gonzaga, Stanford, SMU
1923: Michigan, Illinois, Texas, SMU, Colorado, California, Kansas, Yale, Cornell
1922: West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Michigan, Iowa, Drake, Army, Cornell, California
1921: Iowa, California, Washington & Jefferson, Penn St., Cornell, Lafayette, Vanderbilt (the first season with more than just the Rose Bowl)
1920: Texas, California, VMI, Notre Dame, Penn St., Princeton, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Georgia, Harvard, TCU, Ohio St.
1919: Texas A&M, Harvard, Notre Dame, Centre
1918: Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington (MO), Colorado Mines, Virginia Tech, Great Lakes Navy, Presbyterian, Mare Island Marines
1917: Washington St., Utah St., Denver, Georgia Tech, Ohio St., Mare Island Marines, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M
1916: Ohio St., Colorado St., Georgia Tech, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, Army, Pittsburgh
1915: Washington St., Cornell, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado St., Georgia Tech (the first season with a bowl game after 1901)
1914: Illinois, Texas, Colorado Mines, Nebraska, Harvard, Auburn, Tennessee, Army, Washington & Lee
1913: Chicago, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Washington & Jefferson, Harvard, Auburn
1912: Wisconsin, Penn St., Harvard
1911: Minnesota, Colorado, Navy, Princeton, Florida, Penn St.
1910: Baylor, Pittsburgh, Harvard, Navy, Vanderbilt
1909: Missouri, Penn St., Texas A&M, Arkansas, Lafayette, Yale, Colorado
1908: Chicago, Virginia, LSU, Pennsylvania, Harvard, Kansas
1907: Yale
1906: Wisconsin, Colorado Mines, Yale, Clemson, Princeton
1905: Chicago, Pennsylvania, Yale, Colorado Mines, Georgia Tech
1904: Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado Mines, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Pennsylvania, Dartmouth
1903: Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, Princeton
1902: Michigan,Yale, Nebraska
1901: Harvard, Wisconsin, Michigan (the first season with a bowl game)
1900: Yale, Iowa, Minnesota
1899: Chicago, Iowa, Harvard
1898: Harvard, Michigan, Princeton
1897: Yale, Pennsylvania
1896: Princeton, Lafayette
1895: Yale, Pennsylvania
1894: Yale, Pennsylvania
1893: Minnesota, Princeton
1892: Yale, Purdue, Minnesota
1891: Yale
1890: Harvard
1889: Princeton
1888: Yale
1887: Yale
1886: Yale, Princeton
1885: Princeton
1884: Princeton, Yale
1883: Yale
1882: Yale
1881: Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton
1880: Princeton, Yale
1879: Princeton, Yale
1878: Princeton, Columbia (Columbia played two games and tied them both, but technically that means they were undefeated- that ought to tell you how haphazard and short schedules were this far back and how small the field was)
1877: Amherst, Yale, Princeton (Amherst went a whopping 1-0, beating Tufts 8-4; Yale and Princeton were declared co-champions; nobody in the eight-team field played more than four games)
1876: Rutgers, Yale (Rutgers also went 1-0, beating Stevens 3-2)
1875: Harvard, Princeton
1874: Princeton, Yale, Harvard (Harvard is iffy; they've been declared co-champions by the NCAA, but their two games were against McGill, a Canadian college from Montreal, and played by two different rulesets; they won one and tied another-- it was an important development in the sport's history, just not really part of the season proper)
1873: Princeton (beat Yale 3-0 in their only game)
1872: Princeton, Yale (both 1-0)
1871: None (nobody scheduled any games, so... everybody, perhaps?)
1870: Princeton (beat Rutgers 6-2 in their only game)
1869: None (Princeton and Rutgers only had each other to play and the sport was way, way different; they split the two-game set)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Giving 'Street Lights' A Whole New Meaning

Liat Clark of Wired brings us today's topic. Let us assume for a moment that people actually funded roads properly in this country. And let's further assume that we didn't have things other than roads to also properly fund. Wouldn't it be cool if we could make those suckers light up like Tron?

That's going to be the case in the Netherlands next year along... well, just a few hundred meters of road at first, but they'll work on that. What's going to happen is, in the province of North Brabant in the south of the country, they're going to lay down some glow-in-the-dark, temperature-sensitive paint. During the day, when road conditions are easier to make out, the paint builds up a charge. At night, when road temperatures drop low enough, you'll see images of snowflakes appear on the road, signaling potentially slippery conditions.

This technology already exists on your can of Coors Light. They're just going to put it on the roads now.

If the technology works out, the designer, Daan Roosegaarde, is hoping to take the idea to America's west coast next, along with other concepts in the pipeline for North Brabant, including street lights that flip on and off as cars come into proximity (which would save a lot in energy and emissions costs) and wind-powered lights. India's come forward and inquired about getting the paint for themselves. (Yes, it snows in India. It's not all hot and humid.)

Of course, if it gets really cold and the road has a bunch of real, actual snowflakes on it completely covering the street, the glowing paint may not be visible. But then, you'd have a bunch of snow on the road. If that doesn't tip you off to slippery conditions, nothing will.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Smell Test

People discover new species. They discover new stars. They discover new elements.

They also discover new smells, apparently. That's literally what LiveScience has found itself leading with for a headline. 'New Smell Discovered'. I guess it makes sense- otherwise you couldn't have seemingly random celebrities coming out with their own fragrances- but it is just weird to see it written so starkly.

A new study out of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science (it's available at that link as a PDF) has spurred that headline after finding a smell they're calling 'olfactory white'. What is it made up of? Wrong question. It doesn't actually matter all that much what goes into the smell. The important thing is that there are a lot of things going into it. After you get up to 30 components or so, everything just starts smelling the same. It's white noise for the nose, hence the name olfactory white.

How they went about finding this was, the people at Weizmann took a group of 86 different molecules from across the olfactory spectrum, calibrated to be of equal intensity. (We're not talking 'coffee' or 'orange' or 'grass clippings'. We're talking 'chlorothymol' and 'diethyl sulfide' and 'hexaonic acid'.) They were thrown into a variety of mixtures containing anywhere from 1-43 components. (43 being half of the 86 used.) They then took these mixtures and provided test subjects with them under the made-up name 'Laurax'. After allowing them a few days to get acquainted with their own personal Laurax, they were then given a new set of four mixtures of varying numbers of components and asked which one was Laurax.

None of them was actually the original mixture. In fact, the lion's share of the new mixtures had not even a single component in common with the first mixtures. (A little bit of overlap was inevitable, as the four options had to be different from each other too.) What ended up happening was that the more components something had, the more likely it was to be called Laurax by the subjects. (There was one caveat: the components within each mixture should themselves be more spread across the olfactory spectrum if they wanted to be called Laurax.)

The original setup had the subjects label the four scents 'Laurax', 'Compound 2', 'Compound 3', and 'Compound 4'. They redid it to include an 'other' option so people weren't just calling things Laurax because the researchers were making them do it. (This would also be known as 'the correct answer'.) Didn't matter. Laurax was still being used on the high-component mixtures. Maybe it had something to do with the molecules used-- namely, maybe there weren't enough of them. So the researchers upped it from a pool of 86 molecules to a pool of 144 molecules. That didn't make a difference either. The testing was altered to being given 21 compounds, one at a time and none with any overlap, and being asked 'is this Laurax, yes or no'. If they had enough components, yes they were.

In the 144-component pool yes-or-no test, subjects were decent at distinguishing one smell from the other when there were 15 components per mixture. At 60 components, they might as well have flipped a coin.

So what does olfactory white smell like? As part of the testing, subjects were asked to describe each odor they were given. The researchers were given 146 different descriptors of mixtures that were later determined to qualify as olfactory white. The 20 most common are shown below, sorted by percentage of applicability.

72.9%- Fragrant
66.1- Chemical
63.6- Perfumery
62.3- Aromatic
62.1- Floral
60.7- Soapy
56.8- Sweet
56.2- Fruity, citrus
56.1- Medicinal
53.7- Fruity, other than citrus
51.3- Disinfectant, carbolic
49.8- Cleaning fluid
48.9- Cool, cooling
48.4- Light
45.9- Lemon
45.5- Musky
44.2- Incense
43.5- Alcoholic
43.2- Rose
41.6- Varnish

And for fun, the least common descriptors:

4.8- Sewer odor
4.7- Animal
4.3- Sooty
3.8- Beany
2.9- Burnt paper
2.9- Fishy
2.8- Popcorn
2.5- Kippery (smoked fish)
2.0- Fried chicken
1.9- Meaty (cooked, good)

You will also be pleased to know that only 6.2% described olfactory white as 'fecal'. That can be covered right up by the 'cat urine' smelled 6.7% of the time.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I Bet I Can Get You To Care About Japanese Government Bonds

Or at least, the Japanese Ministry of Finance thinks it can. After all, first you get the money, and then you get the women.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Train Leaves Paris At 9:21...

There's half a chance you're already aware of how the Prime Meridian got to be figured at the location of Greenwich Observatory in London. (If you're a British reader, I'm assuming it's just plain common knowledge.) What you may not be aware of- even though it's the logical conclusion- is that there were other cities in the running to be the Prime Meridian.

Let's build up to that with a recap. In the pre-timezone era of history, everyone just did their own thing regarding time of day. The 24-hour system was in place, of course, but individual towns would judge where the sun was relative to them and create a local time based on that. Which worked well enough before you had transportation options of any appreciable speed or distance, but then the world got smaller and trains were finding themselves reading some downright chaotic schedules. How chaotic? When the railroads made a temporary solution, making 100 different time zones for the United States alone was a vast improvement.

Eventually, in 1884 25 nations showed up in Washington for a conference to get everybody on the same page. Among the tasks was to determine the location of a Prime Meridian. They didn't decide on time zones, despite what you may have heard, but multiple prime meridians were an issue as well. Take a look at this map of southeastern Africa, for example; it's got five of the blasted things. Of course, Greenwich won, on the grounds that 72% of world shipping was already working on charts that centered on Greenwich, making it a path of least resistance.

Ultimately, Greenwich won via vote, and the vote wasn't exactly close. Washington was put forward, Berlin was put forward, Jerusalem was put forward, the Canary Islands were put forward as a neutral site, but ultimately, with 23 nations voting, Greenwich won 22-1. San Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) voted against. France and Brazil abstained. (It has since moved slightly from the marker Greenwich laid down.)

Why did France abstain? Because while they were the ones to raise the Canary Islands as an option, France really wanted the Prime Meridian to be in France. Or at least, they didn't want it to be in England, because France does not like to see England have nice things. After the Washington and Berlin camps dropped out and threw their support behind Greenwich, France saw the writing on the wall for Paris, so they started pressing for the Canary Islands. Once it became clear that it was too late and Greenwich was going to win, they pulled out of the vote. (Jerusalem was pushed by Italy after the conference.) Brazil, part of France's bloc, presumably pulled out in solidarity. San Domingo's vote doesn't show up anywhere I've looked, but also being in France's bloc, one can presume they voted for the Canary Islands.

And then France made their own Prime Meridian, with blackjack, and hookers. They put one in Paris and designated Greenwich time as "Paris mean time minus 9 minutes and 21 seconds". That nonsense continued until 1911, when France finally gave up the ghost, and it took the sinking of the Titanic to get them to adopt it on their maritime documents. But their reluctance was just the most outspoken; nothing settled in Washington was actually binding. Not many international agreements are when you get right down to it. It fell to every individual nation to get the job done on their own time, and they took their sweet time doing it. It took four years for Japan to formally adopt the Greenwich line; everyone else took at least a decade to do it... and when they did, they didn't always agree on whether Greenwich Mean Time was counting from midnight or counting from noon.

Hourly time zones wouldn't come along until 1918, when the United States just did it themselves. Other countries would make their own over the course of the next decade or so; it was never made uniform, so countries have always been free to shift the lines around or consolidate their nation into one timezone or align themselves with neighbors or even go to subhourly timezones (though usually it's the particularly antagonistic nations that go subhourly).

At least France didn't come up with a 25-hour system.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Last Sentence Is A Lie

I've decided that today is TED talk day. I present to you Cornell professor Jeff Hancock, speaking in Winnipeg in September about lying online.

Don't worry about it here, though. The headline is true.

Monday, November 19, 2012

For Science!

I'm going to be really quick today, because I'd like some time to give the soccer book another update-scrubbing. Haven't given up on that thing yet. So, that established, if you've ever taken a science class, you know all about the Periodic Table. Usually it's just a sheet, though: a chart that you just have to take or leave as it is and if you don't get it, you have to learn how to speak Periodic Tablese before you can.

So to fix that problem, here is an interactive Periodic Table. Everything's sortable my multiple properties, including melting and boiling points, conductivity, abundance, and when it was discovered, and any questions can be solved with a click on the element's box, which takes you to its Wikipedia page. (The one problem is that if you need help defining a term, if you don't know what, for instance, 'lanthanoids' are, the window opening to Wikipedia doesn't contain a search box. You might want to have an extra tab on hand to Google the term.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Other Things America Is Exporting

Black Friday.

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, marked as the "official" start of the Christmas shopping season. The thing is, though, the date of Black Friday depends on the date of Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving is a strictly American-only holiday. Which means you need to find some way to convince non-Americans that all of a sudden they need to bust down the doors of their local retailers.

Some nations are able to get the concept, with the ones that do inevitably comparing the size of their discounts to the size of the American discounts. Canada, proximity to the United States being what it is, understands rather readily. Brazil seems to be on board as well. Apple has introduced Australia to the concept, which seems to have gone over well, though Australians may just be going 'Apple is having a sale, who cares why'.

But then it gets a bit less straightforward. Last year, Black Friday was exported to Mexico under the name 'El Buen Fin'- The Good End- as part of an effort to stimulate Mexico's flagging economy. That's going on right now. While there isn't a Thanksgiving, there is Revolution Day, November 20, which falls on a Monday this year. Stretching El Buen Fin out to a four-day event so as to hit Revolution Day seems to help do the trick.

Which is why Black Friday hasn't gone over well in the United Kingdom, at least not yet. There's no holiday around this time in the UK to rationalize a sale, so when retailers attempted to introduce Black Friday there a year or two back, the British had no idea what in blazes they was talking about and didn't bite. There was no good reason to open up their wallets, especially when they're already trying to watch them. Besides, they already have their Black Friday: Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, during which they engage in typical Black Friday behavior.

Retailers are trying it again, rebranding Black Friday as 'early bird Christmas shopping'. Because why have one stampede when you can have two.

China, it appears, does not participate in Black Friday. Their closest equivalent, Bachelor's Day, happened a week ago. With that kind of timing, it would make no sense to hold Black Friday. The wallets just got emptied already. What's the point?

Russia doesn't either. They just plain don't get why those idiot Americans are clobbering each other. Here's Russia Today's opinion on it- Russia Today being little more than a Kremlin mouthpiece, and Pravda's, which is a Russian Communist Party mouthpiece. Neither is overly complimentary. Non-mouthpiece source RIA Novosti is more neutral on the topic, but says nothing about any Russian participation.

France is... well, France.

In fact, most of the world still sits it out. I saw Spain sitting it out, Germany sitting it out, India sits it out, South Korea contents itself with being online for the American sales, the entire African continent is absent. Most nations do have one day or other when sales traditionally spike, but it's already been picked out based on local culture. Arbitrarily exporting the day following an American holiday and telling the whole world to shop on that day just isn't going to go over everywhere. Especially when the Americans make such a poor account of themselves. To most of the world, Black Friday is nothing more than a reliable weird-news piece where they can watch stupid foreigners lose their minds from the safety of thousands of miles away. You ever watch the Taiwanese legislature get into a fistfight? Same thing.

Japan participates in Black Friday, but they absolutely refuse to submit to the mob mentality seen elsewhere. They look at the annual videos of stampedes and fistfights and are absolutely horrified not only by the fact that it happens, but that it is apparently encouraged. The closest thing they have to a mob- still no stampedes and trampling, though- is the 'lucky bag sale' on January 2nd. What happens there is, you buy a bag of unknown contents at considerable discount. No refunds, no exchanges. You open it up only after you buy it. Hope you get a lucky bag of stuff you actually want. If not, well, you can always trade with another customer.

Here is a video of Black Friday in Japan.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Real Tax... Was In Your Heart All Along

About a year ago, I mentioned here that Denmark had imposed a 'fat tax' on foods containing over 2.3% saturated fat, as an effort to bring down obesity rates. A planned sugar tax was also shelved.

Earlier this week, the fat tax was abandoned. Whether it was working is a little tough to tell, because it was only the one year. But we can infer a little bit. Some people did in fact switch to lower-fat foods, as per the aim; however, others did the exact same thing people do in the United States when they want to skirt cigarette taxes or buy fireworks or alcohol or whatever has different sets of state laws governing it: hop the border and buy from whoever's letting you have what you want. In this case, they hopped the border to Germany and Sweden.

So it would work about as well as any of those state laws would work here, really. Make of that what you will. It's one of those things that will have some effect, but if you really want the dividends to start paying, you need to go in with a neighbor or two.

That wasn't really the only reason, though. It was really abandoned as part of annual budget negotiations within a minority government. A minority government is, in a parliamentary system like Denmark's, a government in which no one party has an outright majority and a coalition has to be cobbled together from multiple parties in order to create a majority. In this case, four parties (containing 44, 17, 16 and 12 seats) aligned to make a three-seat 89-86 majority. That's a coalition with a lot of failure points, and things need to get negotiated and compromised heavily to make it through- if just two people break off the alliance and cause it to lose a vote of no confidence, a whole new election can be forced on the spot. And in this case, the fat tax just got caught out on political grounds. Officially, higher prices for consumers and potential loss of jobs were cited, but then, higher prices were kind of the point of the tax in the first place. And taxes aren't really a dirty word in Scandinavia anyway, at least not as much as they are in the United States.

A lot of the stories on the abandonment seem to take the 'higher prices, hopping borders, didn't work, COMPLETELY FAILED, I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR' tack and stopped right there. And then they cut to triumphant statements from the food industry amid dire warnings for anyone on the planet that ever dares try that again. Let me just say that I'm not about to take the word of at face value on this. They may be a little biased.

Although that may clue you in to one other reason the fat tax may have been abandoned.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Internal Programming Note

Just a little note that the share app I've been using over on the right kind of broke. Not just for me; looks like it broke for everybody using it. So in the meantime I'm using the best one I was able to get on short notice that didn't involve a gigantic, irritating skyscraper ad that I wouldn't even get any money from anyway. It's only got Facebook and Twitter on it, and it's still got a tiny ad attached to the bottom of it, but these days that's at least functional enough and better a tiny ad than a huge skyscraper ad.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

God Bless America, Athiest Comrade

This should be a simple quiz today: name the 50 states in 9 minutes and the 43 Presidents in 10 minutes. Shouldn't be too tough.

Oh, did I mention everything's written in Russian? Because everything's written in Russian.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gaze Down At God's Fabulous Parquet Floor

I was raised Lutheran. It's a really pretty laid-back branch of Christianity. As you already hopefully know, it's named for Martin Luther, who in essence founded it when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenburg in 1517. The chief aim of the Ninety-Five Theses was an attack on indulgences, things the church would sell you on the promise that buying whatever they sold you would directly help you or a deceased loved one get to heaven, or get there faster out of purgatory. You see a toned-down, subtler version of it these days- I doubt God is any more impressed by the size of all those megachurches than he is with the person who just silently prays before bed- but you shouldn't really be able anymore to get away with just straight-up saying 'Buy stuff and you'll get into heaven.'


Oddity Central has noticed- or been alerted to- a Russian coupon site called Kupon Klub, which has been hosting an offer for indulgences sold by an Italian Catholic church in advance of the coming Mayan apocalypse next month. At a 50% discount, of course. That's right, you or a loved one will be prayed for for the low, low price of $16. And all you have to do is not only believe that buying things will directly get you to heaven, but also believe in the whole Mayan apocalypse thing.

And they've gotten 110 buyers so far.

I don't know whether to be angry that this is still going on after all these centuries, depressed that people are still falling for it, or pleased that it's rare enough to qualify as weird news.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

With Blackjack, And Hookers

You may have seen in the past couple days that the White House's official site- which has a place where anyone can show up and write a petition (which will be responded to by the White House if it gets at least 25,000 signatures)- has seen a glut of people wishing their respective home states to secede from the Union. I counted 36 states, but given that you cannot see a petition until it's gathered at least 150 signatures, there are certainly more. The Daily Caller was able to hunt down petitions for 47 states.

Boy, it's going to be lonely when the United States consists of just Maine, Vermont and Washington, huh? Assuming they don't have petitions made since then too.

As of the moment I write this, Texas and Louisiana have seen theirs hit the 25,000-signature threshold, which means the White House is going to have to deal with this. Florida, Georgia and Alabama aren't far away; in fact, the top nine states in signature count are all former members of the Confederacy (Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas and Colorado round out the top 10).

Let's just say what this is. This is racists who can't bear the knowledge that a black man is not only President, but a two-term President. The last bout of mass secession we had around here was racially-based too and happened in the wake of a Presidential election, that of Abraham Lincoln. So let's just get that out of the way.

Let us further agree that any actual secession is not going to happen. This is a fringe element of people that found a place to flex their muscles and came running as soon as they heard there were secession petitions going on. A bunch of the signatures in any one petition are from outside the state in question, and if one took the time to cross-check them, you'll likely find a lot of repeat names. There is not going to be enough actual support in any of these states to get a real, bonafide secession effort off the ground, and any such effort would get smacked down in a hell of a hurry. Texas v. White, anyone?

And as for the competing petitions asking to deport anyone who's signed one of these petitions, well, that's the other thing. That gets at the heart of why secession is the topic at hand as opposed to the 'I'm moving to Canada' line you typically hear after someone's preferred Presidential candidate loses. People of the liberal persuasion (or for the international audience, liberal from an American perspective) know that the more livable nations other than their own tend to be quite liberal themselves, and that odds are they'd get along rather well. Conservatives don't really have that. The nations more amenable to conservative ideology are not generally places you'd want to move to, the livable liberal nations would never accept them (and at least a few have been preemptively banned from entering the United Kingdom, notably Fred Phelps and Michael Savage) and besides, American conservatives have spent so much time vilifying other nations' opinions that to suddenly move to one of them would be unthinkable now. The people signing these petitions don't want to leave the country. They want to still have America, but they want to run their designated patch of land their way or the highway.

Really. This isn't going to happen.

But what if I'm wrong?

Let's assume, just for a moment, that one of these states actually managed to make a break for it- it would take more than one little petition, believe me- and that the second American Civil War did NOT immediately break out. (Which, if it did, which side has access to the biggest guns again? I wouldn't be placing any bets on the Confederacy winning.) We'll assume a Czechoslovakia-style 'velvet divorce'. Let's just say that the rule against not seceding breaks down via everyone agreeing not to enforce it. What would happen next?

The most important thing to remember, in seceding, is that when you secede, you are officially on your own. You don't get to keep drawing on the resources of the nation you broke off from, at least, not unless you start paying them for the things they used to give you for free as part of the deal of being part of the country. You have to negotiate a trade deal now. If you're Texas and you secede, you don't get to have Nebraska corn and Iowa beef and Florida oranges and Wisconsin dairy and Washington apples and Idaho potatoes. Country music out of Nashville is now a foreign market. The Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers and San Antonio Spurs now need passports to go play away games just like the Toronto Blue Jays and Vancouver Canucks. Not to mention the Texas football colleges that are in all likelihood getting kicked out of the NCAA because the NCAA is for American colleges only.

Some measures of infrastructure, such as electricity and the Internet, would still be maintained, but only as far as getting linked up. Everything on your end of the line is your problem. There's no federal money anymore to fix your power lines or your roads. Just the money you raise yourself. So good luck with that.

And oh yes, this all means you may run up a trade deficit to your own former nation. (And let's not even get started on the matter of how much of the existing debt you'll be considered to be taking with you on your way out the door. Because to think you'd be taking no debt with you is a ludicrous notion. All 50 states have contributed to that debt. You're not walking off scot-free and sticking the other 49 with your share of the bill. Even though we all know you're going to try.)

Oh, and good luck with currency too, if you elect to create your own. You could still opt for the dollar if you wanted- several nations do- but remember, prospective Confederacy, that last time you made your own currency, you suffered hyperinflation and your currency is now only valuable as a collector's item.

So if you're on your own, you had better make sure your state can survive by itself. There's no guarantee any other states are coming to join you. Even the poorest states are better off than most nations, but how much of that is due to what is basically revenue sharing? How well does Louisiana get on if the other 49 states aren't chipping in? What does Katrina do to New Orleans if there is just plain no larger federal agency coming, ever? FEMA was way late, but they eventually showed up, not to mention the other federal agencies and random citizens who could simply drive across the Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi borders. If they're all dealing with border control before they can help, how many people that did come, don't? And what of the people of Louisiana who would need to go through it themselves in order to get out, to find some sort of evacuation sanctuary? Even if it's into Texas?

And you had better survive without the help of a former nation that will, in your absence, move further and further away from you. There are the littler things, such as the Texas Board of Education, which has a large hand in dictating school textbooks for the entire nation due to its population, no longer being able to do that, and New York taking up second place in Texas' stead behind California. But more fundamentally, if you're leaving, you're taking two electoral votes and two Senators with you, and the rest of your electoral votes, as well as all your House seats, are going to be distributed amongst the rest of the country. You remove a deep-red chunk of the country (and let's not even pretend that there are any appreciable number of Democrats signing these things), and the surviving chunk of the country gets bluer as a direct result.

Perhaps even blue enough to bring the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico into the nation as replacement states.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Random News Generator- Zambia

What seems to be heading the news in Zambia is the national soccer team's upcoming match on Wednesday against South Africa. It's not high stakes- some little thing called the Mandela Challenge Cup- but that's what heads the Google News listing right now. Zambia, reigning champions of the Africa Cup of Nations, Africa's chief national-team competition, is torn between trying to beat their regional rivals or giving some of their backups some playing time.

But past that.

News of higher consequence sees Zambia engaged in a border dispute with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The media in that part of the world has a tendency to be very antagonistic and accusatory, using very heated language to the point where even straight-laced news reports can easily end up sounding like fiery punditry, so the links we're using here may be too emotionally laced to be able to paint the full picture of what happened. But what looks to have happened is this.

There was a 17-year-old boy, Chabu Kanyinda, who died Friday in a hospital in Mufulira, Zambia, about ten miles from the Congolese border town of Mokambo. Rumors started flying that Chabu was felled by witchcraft used on him by his Congolese parents. (Witchcraft is commonly believed in around those parts.) On these rumors, things escalated quickly. A frantic effort ensued to have Chabu buried on the Congolese side of the border. This effort consisted of a mob of reportedly hundreds of Zambians trying to brute-force the coffin across the border by way of spotting a guy driving a minibus, telling him to drive the coffin over the border, and when he tells them no, smashing his window. The coffin was, unsurprisingly, ultimately placed on the minibus and driven to the border.

When you have a mob of hundreds of people trying to surge across an international border, the people on the other side of that border get very jittery very fast. When both sides of the border believe in witchcraft, and the other country finds out you're bringing in a supposedly cursed corpse to be buried with them, they get even very jitterier even very faster. When the Zambian mob hit the Congolese border, there was a fight, border guards got involved, and somewhere in the melee, a farmer named Frederick Mwandwe got shot in the thigh. He was one of six people to get shot. They're still trying to sort out who among the victims lives on what side of the border. (This is not a heavily-defended border in the abstract. Mokambo, according to Google Earth, has buildings sitting on both sides of the line; the actual border is just a dirt road. If you live in a town straddling two counties and someone built a road pretty much on the county line- as is the case in my town- that's more or less what you've got going on here. However, border defense in the abstract is not the same as border defense in terms of manpower.)

The mob was driven back over the border with tear gas, though that didn't entirely stop the riot. Chabu's body was thrown back over the border into Zambia.

There are conflicting reports as to whether the border remains open at this time.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How To Hoard Gasoline

Step 1: Do not hoard gasoline. Hoarding anything is bad.
Step 2: If you must hoard gasoline, know that during any time when someone might be well-served to hoard something, such as the aftermath of a hurricane, hoarding is something that is specifically monitored. If you are caught, you are guaranteed to instantly become known as the biggest asshole in town. They may even have procedures in place to prosecute for the hoarding.
Step 3: If you still must hoard gasoline, please note that gasoline is flammable. Do not place your gasoline near an open flame or other heat source.
Step 4: Despite sushi being raw fish, sushi restaurants do still serve hot food, and require heat sources, including open flames, to cook.
Step 5: Food is no longer edible after gasoline has gotten onto it.
Step 6: When transporting your gasoline, be sure you do not spill any of the gasoline.
Step 7: If you must spill the gasoline, do not do so in a sushi restaurant.
Step 8: Especially do not spill it in the kitchen.
Step 9: Especially do not spill 2 1/2 gallons of gasoline near an open flame. That's just right out.
Step 10: If arrested for a crime related to the hoarding of gasoline, the police may confiscate whatever remaining gasoline you may have.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Step 1: Everyone Rides A Reindeer To School

The American educational system, when ranked against other developed nations, has a tendency these days to come in at about the middle of the pack. Mid-high teens, generally. We're all in general agreement that that's not good enough. Not so much because we're embarrassed by how stupid we're getting, but more because we look at the rankings and see who we're getting beat by, and national pride gets severely wounded when a country you've never even heard of is beating you in something you're supposed to be good at. The reaction is always something like, 'What? We're losing to Estonia? But... they're Estonia!' (And at least as of 2009, we are.)

Not exactly the reaction you'd be hoping for, but the end result is the same. So, yeah.  Let's just go with that.

Finland is the country most often held up as the ratings-topper. As a result, there has been considerable attention paid to how their educational system works, at least among the global community. Which is perfectly logical: if you want to know how to improve your method of doing something, anything, it's only natural to look at whoever's doing it the best and start from there. There has been an excuse for not paying attention to it in the United States, that being that 'well, they're Finland, they're a small country and their system wouldn't scale up here'.

Well, too bad, because this is my blog and I pick the topics around here. So here's a four-video-long documentary on how Finland's educational system works.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rearranging The Drawers

Annnnd back to politics.

The first thing winner-and-still-President Obama is slated to be dealing with in his second term is supposed to be the 'fiscal cliff'- a set of big spending cuts and tax increases and Bush tax-cut expirations that, if nothing is done, will take effect on January 1st.

There is one bit of business that may throw off Obama's attention a tad while that happens, though: a Cabinet exodus.

A fairly recent development in the life of a President- it only really got going with Richard Nixon- is the Cabinet turnover that occurs between terms. People have their own reasons for leaving- sometimes disagreement with the President but hanging in to help him win the second term, sometimes personal reasons, sometimes the President essentially fires them- but it happens. Obama's aware of this; his Cabinet shuffle is reportedly already in the works, and it's slated to be a big one. There haven't been any exits yet, but don't be surprised when people start getting herded out the door.

So today let's go over the history of that. What you're going to see are the various Presidents who dealt with an interim period between terms. That means Presidents who were re-elected as well as ascendant Presidents who then won election in their own right (but does not include Grover Cleveland and his nonconsecutive terms). Alongside each President will be a listing of the size of their Cabinet, and every Cabinet position that went vacant within the first six months of their re-election, including those vacated by Cabinet officers that merely switched posts within the Cabinet (which does happen once in a while). We're using Election Day as the start date, so if Obama were to go on this list, we'd be counting his Cabinet departures between now and May 6.

One word of note: although Vice Presidents are Cabinet-level, we're not counting them.

Here's a Cabinet directory, if you need one.

George Washington: Four Cabinet positions, no changes

Thomas Jefferson: Five Cabinet positions, one change
*Attorney General Levi Lincoln Sr. out, John Breckenridge in (after Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith served as interim)

James Madison: Five Cabinet positions, two changes
*Secretary of War William Eustis out, John Armstrong Jr. in
*Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton out, William Jones in

James Monroe: Five Cabinet positions, no changes

Andrew Jackson: Six Cabinet positions, no changes (though there was an unrelated Cabinet shuffle shortly after the six-month cutoff)

Ulysses S. Grant: Seven Cabinet positions, one change
*Secretary of the Treasury George S, Boutwell out, William A. Richardson in

Theodore Roosevelt: Nine Cabinet positions, one change
*Postmaster General Robert J. Wynne out, George B. Cortelyou in

Woodrow Wilson: Ten Cabinet positions, no changes

Calvin Coolidge: Ten Cabinet positions, four changes from what was originally Warren Harding's Cabinet
*Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes out, Frank B. Kellogg in
*Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty out, Harlan F. Stone in
*Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby out, Curtis D. Wilbur in
*Secretary of Agriculture Howard Mason Gore out, William Marion Jardine in

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936-37 transition: Ten Cabinet positions, no changes

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940-41 transition: Ten Cabinet positions, no changes

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944-45 transition: Ten Cabinet positions, two changes
*Secretary of State Cordell Hull out, Edward Stettnius Jr. in
*Secretary of Commerce Jesse H. Jones out, Henry A. Wallace in

Harry Truman: Eleven Cabinet positions, two changes from Roosevelt's cabinet
*Secretary of State George Marshall out, Dean Acheson in
*Secretary of War James Forrestal out, Louis Arthur Johnson in

Dwight Eisenhower: Ten Cabinet positions, no changes (although Attorney General Herbert Brownell retired a few months after the cutoff with the intention of being counted here)

Lyndon Johnson: Twelve Cabinet positions, two changes from what was John F. Kennedy's cabinet (not including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy resigning before Election Day so he could run for the Senate)
*Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon out, Henry H. Fowler in
*Secretary of Commerce Luther H. Hodges out, John T. Connor in

Richard Nixon: Twelve Cabinet positions, six changes
*Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird out, Elliot Richardson in
*Secretary of Commerce Peter Peterson out, Frederick B. Dent in
*Secretary of Labor James Day Hodgson out, Peter J. Brennan in
*Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Elliot Richardson out, Caspar Weinberger in
*Secretary of Housing and Urban Development George W. Romney out, James Thomas Lynn in
*Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe out, Claude Brinegar in

Ronald Reagan: Thirteen Cabinet positions, five changes
*Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan out, James A. Baker III in
*Attorney General William French Smith out, Edwin Meese in
*Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan out, Bill Brock in
*Secretary of Energy Donald Hodel out, John S. Herrington in
*Secretary of Education Terrel Bell out, William Bennett in

Bill Clinton: Fourteen Cabinet positions, six changes
*Secretary of Defense William Perry out, William Cohen in
*Secretary of Commerce Mickey Cantor out, William M. Daley in
*Secretary of Labor Robert Reich out, Alexis Herman in
*Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros out, Andrew Cuomo in
*Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena out, Rodney Slater in
*Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary out, Federico Pena in

George W. Bush: Fifteen Cabinet positions, nine changes
*Secretary of State Colin Powell out, Condoleezza Rice in
*Attorney General John Ashcroft out, Alberto Gonzales in
*Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman out, Mike Johanns in
*Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans out, Carlos Gutierrez in
*Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson out, Mike Leavitt in
*Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham out, Samuel Bodman in
*Secretary of Education Rod Paige out, Margaret Spellings in
*Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi out, Jim Nicholson in
*Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge out, Michael Chertoff in

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

And Now To Shred Things

I presume you wish to hear no more election talk, unless of course your side won and then you want to hear nothing but. Or unless you wish to discuss Nate Silver, who it has been determined is probably a witch. Some of you are engaging in postmortems- we very well could do similar here in the weeks ahead- but for now, let's go find some stupid thing to do that has nothing to do with politics whatsoever. Sound good?

Cool. It's therefore time to play Will It Shred?

The answer is yes. Yes, it will shred. Because some company that makes industrial shredders, SSI, decided to go the Will It Blend route some years back and advertise their product by tossing any fool thing in the shredder. I don't think any of you are in the market for industrial shredders anyway, so not like it matters. Anyway. Less talking, more shredding.

Let's start off easy with a sofa and a refrigerator and a big ol' tire...

...and then move on to a hot tub...

...and then a torpedo...

..and 'specialty metals'...

...and oh, let's toss a VW Beetle in there.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Today's the day.

You may think your vote isn't going to be the one that makes the difference. Someone's will be. Nobody ever goes and figures out whose vote put the winner over the top, but someone's vote had to be the one. Maybe it'll be yours.

Take that chance. Vote.

Maybe it won't be the Presidential race. 538 is giving Obama 92% odds of victory as it stands now. That still leaves 8% for Romney. It's a slim chance, but it's not certain.


Have you been following the downballot races? You should be. Contrary to how most people think as they go into the booth, the more downballot the race, the more direct an effect it will have on your life. The President, for instance, MIGHT make some sort of policy that affects your child's school. Your school board WILL make a whole bunch of policies that affect your child's school.

Cover those bases. Vote.

And the downballot races are more likely, statistically, to result in that mythical one-vote difference. It's never exactly likely, but it happens, and it's more likely to happen when you get down to the races where only a few hundred people- or even under a hundred in some cases- are voting. And if those odds aren't good enough yet, drag a family member or a friend into the polls with you. Two-vote and three-vote and four-vote margins happen as well.


Do you not like the candidates? You had your chance to fix that in the primaries. That's when you make your true preferences known. That was the elimination round. This is the championship final. Your team may not be in the running anymore. Oh well. Now it's about making the best of the situation you've been handed. Take a third party if it bothers you that much.

But vote.

Do you think you're sending some sort of message by not voting? Well, you are. The message you're sending is, 'I am an unreliable vote and my opinion should be discounted accordingly in favor of people who actually do turn up to vote. You are free to ignore me completely if you wish no matter how much I scream about being a citizen and a taxpayer and an American. If I scream about being a voter, please slap me upside the head, because I'm NOT a voter. I had my chance to be a voter and I threw it in the garbage. So, yeah, nothing to see over here.'


Do you think your vote won't matter because all the candidates look the same? I'm not even going to bother arguing that they're not the same this late in the game. What I will say is that even if they look the same to you, they don't look the same to someone you know. Find out who they'd rather have.

Then vote for their sake.

You may be "informed" that, to cut down on congestion at the polling precincts, one party votes today and the other votes tomorrow. These people are lying. That's an old, old, ancient trick used to try and fool their opponents into staying home. Everyone votes today.


You may be "warned"- and some of you have- about the penalties for voter fraud, including prison time and a big fine. This is a scare tactic designed to get you afraid to vote for fear of going to prison- and there are calls that go out directly telling people that voting will lead to their arrest. Do not buy into any of this. Voter fraud is vanishingly rare to the point of near-nonexistence, and to commit it, you have to vote more than once or tamper with some other person's vote or do something that goes way out of your way to pull off.


You may be scared off by the weather. It might look icky out today. I have no sympathy for you. Here is a picture of a person who has cast their vote for 2012 from the South Pole. They have worse weather down there than you do. And they're further from their polling place than you are.


'But I was victimized by Hurricane Sandy,' you say? Okay, well, you have a bit of an issue there. If you're a New Yorker, at least, governor Andrew Cuomo has got you covered. Don't even bother with your regular polling place if you can't get there. Just find ANY polling place, any polling place in the state, and you'll be fine. New Jerseyites, you're being permitted to vote by e-mail. Or fax. I doubt you have a fax, but there you go. Pretty sure you have e-mail, or can find someone who does.


Do you not know where your polling place is? That's easy to find out and there are plenty of places that will be happy to let you know. If you've been told your polling place has changed, it could very well be a trick intended to get you away from your actual voting place.

Vote. Show up at your regular voting place first.

Perhaps you are worried that you cant find enough time in the day to vote. I have little sympathy for you, especially if you're in a place with early or absentee voting. Here in Wisconsin, you've had weeks to vote. You're telling me you couldn't find a single small stretch of time to head down to City Hall in weeks? I don't buy it. Besides, your employer, if need be, is required to give you time to vote if you need it.


Are the lines too long? Yeah, I'll bet they are. That's not exactly your fault. Some of the states- Ohio and Florida in particular- did that on purpose specifically to discourage you from voting. Do not let them push you around like that, or they're going to conclude that it worked, and they'll make it even harder for you next time.

Do not let them silence you. Vote.

Are you worried that the day is getting late and you're still in line? According to election law, you're fine as long as you stay put. If you are in line before the polls close, they have to let you stick around to vote as long as you continue to remain in line.

Do not leave the line. Vote.

Are you unaware of the voter-ID laws in force? I wouldn't be overly shocked. If in doubt, play it safe and haul every piece of ID you can scrounge up to the polls, and just start showing them until something works.


If you think you've been screwed out of your vote, there are people you can call that will raise holy hell in the media or with the Federal Elections Commission. Go find their numbers. If you've previously been told you may not be allowed to vote, go anyway. Make them tell you in person, and then raise hell.

Try to vote.

I do not care what your excuse is. I do not care what difficulties you have. I don't care what threat you have received. There are procedures in place to smooth out just about any difficulty in voting you could possibly have. There was one guy, a World War 2 veteran, who voted on his deathbed. You can drag yourself out of your bed.


This election is too important not to.

Monday, November 5, 2012

It's Tomorrow, Folks

So the big day's tomorrow. Just remember, when you go to the polls, there are other races on top of Obama vs. Romney.

To help drive that home, I provide a Sporcle quiz. There are 28 different offices that are elected through a statewide vote in at least one state. The Presidency is not one of them; that's a national vote. You have eight minutes to name them.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Meanwhile, Your Dad Is Still Looking For The 'Any' Key

The next time you're stuck on a set of instructions for something or other, thinking you're never going to figure it out, I want you to take note of an experiment run by the people at One Laptop Per Child.

Typically, the mission of One Laptop Per Child is to take inexpensive laptops into underprivileged parts of the world and teaching kids how to use them, and then running them through an education curriculum. The thing is, though, they've been finding the factoid-based method of doing things isn't working as well as if the children figure out a practical use for the knowledge they get. (As any American student will tell you.)

So one day they decided to just dump a couple boxes of laptops in a pair of villages in Ethiopia about 50 miles outside of Addis Ababa (one laptop per child in the area, naturally) and drive off. That's it. That's all the instruction the kids got. Here's a couple boxes, they're taped shut, they've got stuff in them. Have fun. Please note that the village in question has a literacy rate close to zero. They have no idea what these boxes are, they have no idea what these things are in them, they don't know what these strange symbols are on it, and that's before the things even turn on, assuming they even know that 'on' is a viable concept here. Just... here's mysterious stuff. Figure it out. The laptops came loaded with some tracking devices, just in case they figured it out, to see what they did with them.

It took all of four minutes to figure out that 'on' is a viable concept here, and to get a laptop to turn on. Within two weeks, the kids had loaded up an average of 47 apps per laptop. And then they got really good. Five months after the strange boxes of stuff had been randomly dumped in a nearly completely illiterate Ethiopian village, the kids had hacked Android. Hacked. As in, they got into things they were not supposed to. Specifically, One Laptop Per Child had locked the desktop-setting function, as they had meant all the desktops to look the same, and the kids managed to pick the lock and customize the desktops.

What have you accomplished today?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Flame War

I can fairly safely presume that you have, at some point, used the phrase 'fire in a crowded theater', or at least heard of it. I have too. (If for some reason you haven't, you'll pick it up soon enough. Just keep plowing on.) You may or may not also be aware that the phrase originated from an old Supreme Court case of some sort.

Okay. Which case?

I ask because you might not want to use it again once you hear that, well, first, the quoting is wrong. Trevor Timm of the Atlantic has a much better writeup on this than I do, but I'll give you the 99-cent version.

Anyway. The correct quote is, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Second, and more importantly, the case in question was Schenck v. United States back in 1919. The ruling was 9-0; the quote was given by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Schenck was Charles Schenck, of the Socialist Party. This was the era of World War 1, and the draft was active. What got Schenck hauled into court was that he printed and distributed pamphlets to potential draftees urging them to "assert their rights" and to petition for the draft's repeal. That's it. For that, Schenck was found in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it illegal to interfere with military operations or military recruitment, or to promote insubordination. In the Court's ruling, which upheld the Espionage Act, Schenck's mild little flower-power pamphlet qualified as a "clear and present danger" to military recruitment. Schenck wound up spending six months in prison.

Holmes realized pretty quickly that he screwed up. It was too late for Schenck, but it wasn't long- the same Court term, in fact- before he flipped and started ruling in favor of dissenters in similar cases. (The dissenters would still lose a whole bunch, though, because there were still eight other justices who hadn't come to the same conclusion.) In Abrams v. United States, argued later in 1919, Holmes was now saying, "The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

Ever since, the Espionage Act and the Schenck ruling have been slowly walked back, bit by bit. First, the war ended and parts of the Espionage Act were repealed. Whitney v. California in 1927 saw Holmes- though still on the losing end- pick up the support of Louis Brandeis. Hartzel v. United States, in 1944- during World War 2- saw another antiwar pamphlet distributor in front of them, but they overturned his conviction 5-4. Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 was the big shift, though, as the nation and feelings toward the military had changed significantly since then. Brandenburg explicitly overturned Whitney v. California and put a gash in Schenck v. United States by stating that the boundary was no longer "clear and present danger" but rather "imminent lawless action". That's about where things have stood ever since as far as the Court is concerned. Still enough to charge Bradley Manning, but anti-draft pamphlets weren't going to get you six-month prison stays anymore.

One last thing. The original 'fire in a crowded theater' quote-that's-more-of-a-paraphrase, though, was never overturned in and of itself. Why? Because there was nothing to overturn in the first place. That was something called dictum. Dictum is court-speak for an aside opinion that isn't to be considered part of the binding ruling.

Even if it's the most famous part of it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Random News Generator- Liechtenstein

When I load up Google News for the country the RNG has selected, I often go in with some measure of expectations depending on the country. When writing on China, for example, I've by now almost expected to end up talking about some form or other of political repression. Africa has been most likely to bring stories of either their various intractable problems or their efforts to emerge from under them. Scandinavia is likely to feature a story on some progressive, out-of-the-box idea, with Japan just plain being out-of-the-box. Small island nations will probably see me grousing about how nothing is freaking happening there.

But no matter what the country, I do not expect to see the entire nation being taken over for advertising purposes. I know, I know. It only seemed like Taylor Swift did this in the United States last week. You see albums sold as an upsell with your pizza, you tend to think things. But Swift did not drape the Statue of Liberty in a blonde wig or give the Space Needle a coat of red paint or anything.

Then there's Liechtenstein. Allegedly, at least.

The tiny little nation, flanked by Austria on one side and Switzerland on the other, reportedly found itself transformed into a giant advertisement for Halo 4 yesterday. The headquarters for the launch was the city of Balzers, where the signature feature of the town and one of the signatures of the entire nation, Gutenberg Castle, was converted into a military fort and hosted a LAN party. Balzers Quarry saw a grand entrance from main character Master Chief, and a mock battle was staged on a local farm.

A pretty audacious ad blitz, to be sure. However, whether they actually took over the entire nation for this purpose seems a little suspect. All the locations mentioned in the stories and the picture bylines are in or near Balzers, which sits on the southern border with Switzerland (the southern border itself was also used). One would think that Liechtenstein's capital, Vaduz, would have been used in some way, to say nothing of the northern reaches of the country, but nothing was reported outside Balzers. At least, nothing outside of The Sun, which from their writeup seems to have actually confused Balzers for Vaduz. I think what happened here, without being able to hop the next plane to Europe, is that Liechteinstein is so small that developer Bungie figured nobody would notice if they just called Balzers 'Liechtenstein'. And nobody did. The reporting media just took the free trip to Liechtenstein, went 'ZOMG MASTER CHIEF IN A REAL-LIFE WARTHOG AND EXPLOSIONS AND AWESOME' and swallowed the whole thing at face value.

Well, there's me, anyway, but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be stopping anyone from buying Halo 4.