Monday, December 31, 2012

How To Make A New Year's Resolution

1. Really, don't get your hopes up on your New Year's resolution. We all know how fast these things go by the wayside.
2. If you still want to do one, pick something you were about ready to do anyway. That will give you the best odds. Arbitrarily picking something way out of left field and starting it on an arbitrary date on the calendar just leads to madness. You're ready when you're ready, not when the calendar says to be ready. If you don't have a goal you're ready to move on as it is, don't bother.
3. Pick something halfway achievable. It's not quite as satisfying as a big-time, life-changing goal, but setting your sights lower increases your odds of actually following through. 'Lose 50 pounds', for example, probably not going to happen. 'Lose 5 pounds by X date', you've got a better shot, and then once you hit that number, you can just set it again, at your own pace, and go for 10, and 15, and 20, and if you do it enough, eventually you'll get the 50 anyway.
4. Which reminds me, set little checkpoints along the way. Big, tough goals become a series of bite-sized, easily reachable goals. Have some sort of plan.
5. Tell people what your resolution is. You have more people that can remember the resolution is there that way, or at least, you have people that can hold you to it and mock you the second you look like you're failing.
6. If you do start slipping, remember that you have a resolution. If you're serious about it, you'll at least make an attempt to recover. If you just immediately go, 'Well, that's that resolution broken', you weren't serious.
7. New Year's resolutions, by definition, start on January 1st. That is tomorrow. Whatever resolution you make, at least adhere to it tomorrow. Because if you can't even do that, I can't help you.

So, hey, good luck to you, and happy 2013.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sell, Mortimer, Sell!

Congress, at this point, is all but resigned to going over the fiscal cliff tomorrow night. That, you've been watching for a while. What may be lost in the mix, though, is what the rest of the world is seeing when they look at the same thing.

So here today is a sampling of other nations and how they view America's fiscal cliff.

Australia: 'We've got a good thing going; even so, we may want to brace for impact a bit ourselves. It's not like America's economy doesn't have any effect on us.'
Brazil: 'Eep. This could be kind of bad.'
Canada: 'You know, if you guys paid attention to what goes on up here more often, maybe we could give you a couple pointers.'
Cayman Islands: 'Hey, what's Code Pink doing here? They just waltzed off the boat mid-cruise and started protesting? What the hell did we do? ...oh. Right.'
Central African Republic: ''ll probably hurt the foreign aid deals of everyone else around these parts, but you just closed your embassy here three days ago because of a budding civil war we've got going, so... yeah. Last thing on our minds right now.'
China: 'Hi, we're Dagong, China's major credit agency, and we're moving the US to a negative debt outlook.'
Colombia: 'What Australia said.'
Eurozone: 'Sigh. Here we go again.'
India: 'This AND the girl that got gang-raped to death? Man, we do not need this.'
Israel: 'Hey, how closely does our economy tie into American foreign policy again? Hopefully not a lot. ...say what now?  ...ohhhhhhh crap.'
Japan: 'Busy over here, thanks. We've got an unruly yen to get under control.'
Mexico: 'You can just go ahead and stop talking about that fence now. You'll be in no position to be patrolling it. Also, ouch our wallets.'
Portugal: 'Oh, to hell with you guys, we have our own problems. We've got a fiscal earthquake. Beat that.'
Thailand: 'This could sting a little bit.'
United Kingdom: 'Google Translate is fun!'

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ghost Towns, Theme Parks, Wax Museums And The Place Where You Can Drive Through The Middle Of A Tree

I was busy most of today working on a book proposal, so I'm going to hand you a Sporcle quiz.

Unlike most Sporcle quizzes, you will have unlimited time to do as much of the quiz as you are able. On a Flash attachment, you'll be linked up to Google Earth and shown a map of the 1,000 largest cities in the United States. Your task is to name as many of them as possible. As you progress, you'll be given codes marking your progress. You put in those codes and you'll see what milestones you hit. Only the part where you fill in the codes is timed, but by then, you have them already.

For me, I managed 276 cities adding up to 55.5% of the total population.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Jimmy Eat World

You're familiar with the Disneyland ride It's A Small World, right? If so, good. If not, well.... sorry, readers already familiar.

Well, now that's in my head for the rest of the day. Yours too, probably. That having been done to all our brains, though, let's talk about it a bit. The ride was originally constructed for the 1964 World's Fair in New York, held in Flushing Meadows Park, across from the then-like-new Shea Stadium. (In fact, Walt Disney constructed several things for the fair, envisioning a permanent World's Fair in New York, but that wasn't to be, so he moved them to Disneyland instead, including the Carousel of Progress and Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, now part of the Hall of Presidents.

By the way, these days? Not only do World's Fairs not come to the United States anymore, the United States was the very last nation out of 192 participants to even agree to show up at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, after failing to show up at all in 2008 in Zaragoza, Spain. The pavilion was entirely corporate-sponsored and the US caught hell for brazenly not caring.

Anyway. It's A Small World was built with fiberglass boats- which saw decades of service- and a shallow pool to float them in. The pool didn't have to be deep, just deep enough to float the boats.

In 2007, the boats stopped floating, prompting a closure of the ride to get new boats and deeper pools. Disney's official explanation was that the boats were getting old and patch-laden, and the pool had gotten less shallow over time due to accumulated repairs. The real reason, though, was your fat ass.

No. That was the reason.

When the ride was built in 1963, engineers figured an average passenger weight of 135 pounds for women and 175 pounds for men. That was fine in 1963. People have gotten rather fatter since then, 25 pounds fatter (Buster, the Mythbusters dummy representative of 95% of American males, comes in at 195 pounds), causing the boats to start floating lower in the water, and lower, and lower, until finally, early in the ride at the Canada/Scandinavia segment, they hit the floor. Ride operators hid the problem for a little while, leaving empty seats on rides with particularly lard-encrusted passengers, but this only drew complaints from people waiting in line, and eventually the problem came to a headcheese. I mean head. The ride had to be shut down to go get more buoyant boats and lower the floor.

Inconvenienced passengers- the fatter ones causing the problem had to be pulled off the ride every time it happened- were given food coupons. Because of course that's how you handle someone who is fat enough to sink a boat.

While they were fat-proofing the ride, they went ahead and did some renovating on the rest of the ride as well, so that, for example, the United States had a little more to it than just a cowboy and a Native American singing next to each other, or Hawaii could see Lilo and Stitch added on. The video above is of the renovated version; compare to this version from 2006.

If this happens again, maybe all the singing international puppets on the ride should just be replaced with one.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Please Don't Eggs-hume The Corpse

So even if you've never actually seen it, I imagine you at least know of the scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman bets that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs within one hour.

If you don't know of it, here's the scene.

You see how utterly wrecked Newman is at the end? He may be an actor in a movie, but that's a pretty accurate representation of what you will look like after 50 eggs. It's something that competitive eaters are asked if they can attempt, and there is the occasional video of people attempting what has now been dubbed the 'Cool Hand Luke Challenge', even going so far as to shave time off the clock.

A related challenge is drinking 50 raw eggs. It can be done; in fact, this man can drink 50 raw eggs in 20 seconds...

...but be advised that it's still 50 eggs and you will still likely be wrecked. In fact, eggs in that amount can potentially kill, as evidenced by a story coming out of Tunisia. 20-year-old Dhaou Fatnassi of the city of El Baten was the unfortunate victim here. The bet was 30 eggs, the time undisclosed, and Fatnassi keeled over at 28 and died on the way to the hospital. Officially, the cause of death is not yet determined, so maybe one of the eggs was rotten or had salmonella or something, but

It shouldn't take a whole lot of explanation to get into just why 50 eggs are hard to eat, but Jonathan Hare and Robert Llewellyn over at Open Learn have busted out a math equation and internal organ diagrams and everything to walk you through it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Christmas Edition

Of course there were books under the tree with my name on them. There were never not going to be. So now we must chronicle them here:

*Cava, Pete, and Logan, Bob- Amazing Tales from the Chicago Cubs Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Cubs Stories Ever Told
*Claus, S.- Stocking Stumpers, Sports, 2012 Edition
*Publications International Staff- The Book of Useless Information

Apparently Santa is getting into sportswriting now. There's also a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card, which will before too long merit another set of book club selections. But that will come later.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Murder Day!

Merry Christmas. Eve. I got you all something. A board game.

The game is called Kill Doctor Lucky. The object is... well, take a wild guess. In Clue, you start with the murder victim already dead and the object is to figure out who did it. Here, the murder victim is still alive and the object is to fix that. Why? Why not? The winner is the one who kills Doctor Lucky. If you're looking for a place to go buy it, there's no need. This is a Christmas present, remember. All you have to do is print the stuff out; the materials can all be found here. If that's too much work, an online game room has been set up here. They made the game to be free, anyway.

You go around the mansion collecting cards to put in your hand, some of which move you around the mansion, some of which are weapons, and some of which are 'failure' cards we'll get into in a second. You have a large amount of potential murder weapons available to you, such as a Civil War cannon, rat poison, a duck decoy, or a loud noise. If you're alone in a room with Doctor Lucky, when no other player is positioned to see you, you can take a whack at whacking him. You can try to kill him barehanded, or use a weapon to improve your odds. A point value is added up to determine how strong the attempt is. (Most of the weapons are more effective in specific rooms. For example, the loud noise is worth 2 points normally, but if you make the noise in the Carriage House, it's worth 6 points.)

However, Doctor Lucky is lucky. He has 'failure' cards in the deck, or rather, your opponents do, worth anywhere from 1-3 points. (There are many ways to fail. For example, "You have somehow mistaken a child's toy for Doctor Lucky." Or, "A wizened kung fu master intervenes on the Doctor's behalf, then vanishes." Or, "You are stupid, stupid, stupid.") When you make an attempt on Doctor Lucky, play goes once around the circle to the other players, who may each make one decision to play a failure card or not. Once a failure card is played, it's out of the game for good, so overkill trying to foil a murder attempt may not be a good idea. As failure cards are removed, the odds of success improve... especially since each failed attempt earns you a Spite Token, worth a permanent +1 to all subsequent murder attempts. Early on, attempts will likely fail, but Doctor Lucky eventually runs out of luck as the attacks get stronger and the defenses get weaker.

Nothing tomorrow. Enjoy the holidays.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Birds And Snakes And Aeroplanes

The world is ending today.

Yes, yes, I know, the world ended two days ago, but it's ending again today.

You know Warren Jeffs? Hopefully not personally? Warren Jeffs is the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Mormon sect centered on a couple small towns on the Utah-Colorado border. Jeffs was sent to prison last year on two counts of child sexual assault and just generally running the religious equivalent of the Penn State football program; however, he continues to run the sect from his cell through a series of edicts.

Jeffs has found the time- he's in prison; he's got nothing but time- to write a 900-page book of revelations, which was sent to a library in South Salt Lake City. According to him, the supervolcano under Yellowstone is supposed to blow today and that's supposed to kill us all. I'll stop there. I don't think we need to be giving unnecessary publicity to a child-molesting cult leader, but I do so on the theory that there is no faster way to lose credibility and gain a reputation as a crackpot than to predict the end of the world happening within your own personal lifetime. Except possibly, upon the prediction being wrong, to go and predict it again. You join an ever-lengthening line of unmitigated, irrefutable, complete, total and utter 100% failure.

And few deserve to join that line more than Jeffs.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

I Doubt Even Newgrounds Remembered That Game

Yesterday, NRA head Wayne LaPierre gave what has been regarded as a callous, tone-deaf speech in response to the Newtown shootings. LaPierre blamed virtually everything except guns, up to and including an extremely obscure 10-year-old game on Newgrounds called Kindergarten Killers.

But perhaps I'm being too harsh. After all, look at all the dangerous things in video games that might be repurposed to kill someone.

For example, swing sets.

Or leaf blowers, or toasters.

Or curling stones, or pencils, or snowmen, or refrigerators, or snowflakes. (Embedding disabled.)

Or people. (It's true! People do kill people!)

See, this is the thing, Wayne. Video games are ridiculous. It's their thing. Anyone that's ever played one knows they're ridiculous. We're past the point where anyone is seriously claiming that video games cause violence due to people not being able to tell the games from reality. This is not, nor is it ever going to be, a video game debate. This is a gun debate, no matter how much you desperately want it to not be a gun debate.

You have to remember, back in 1983, we called this 'realistic'.

Eight years later, we had this:

And last I checked, Frank Thomas never packed heat on the basepaths.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The World Ends Today

And I've spent a good chunk of this last day before the Mayan undead come for us all clearing off snow. A Bobcat was deployed at one point. As such, it hasn't left much time to write, so today we'll make it short.

It didn't actually used to be this way. Before the advent of cars, snow was actually something of a good thing to have on the roads, at least within reason. It was easier on the horses. In fact, people went around and put snow on places that had clear roads just so there would be an unbroken path.

Mental Floss' Matt Soniak has more.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jesus Haploid Christ

Let's start today by making clear one crucial thing: I admire Penn Jillette. You should know the name already; if you don't, he's the talkative half of Penn & Teller. (Teller's going to be left alone here. After all, Teller doesn't talk.) He's very smart, very analytical, and all too willing to not only call out liars and fakers but show you the tricks they use to do so, all as part of an ongoing quest to encourage you to not take everything you hear at face value. Worthy attributes, all.

That having been said, today we're here to talk religion.

Penn is a longtime atheist, and as of late, this aspect of himself is what he's been playing up. In 2011, he wrote a book entitled God, No!, and a sequel this year called Every Day is an Athiest Holiday!. And this year he launched 'Penn's Sunday School', a weekly podcast where, although other issues of the week are discussed, the chief topic is religion. And Penn is not shy- he never is- in attacking the very idea of religion. Some of his quotes on the topic can be found here and here; we'll be using a few of those quotes momentarily. Although there are other aspects of his viewpoint- the aforementioned picking apart of what he considers lies; the resultant need to value life right now as opposed to waiting for greater rewards later and to treat people right the first time because there's no greater being to forgive your sins- probably the most succinct sum-up of his proselytizing is this:

“What I have a problem with is not so much religion or god, but faith. When you say you believe something in your heart and therefore you can act on it, you have completely justified the 9/11 bombers. You have justified Charlie Manson. If it's true for you, why isn't it true for them? Why are you different? If you say "I believe there's an all-powerful force of love in the universe that connects us all, and I have no evidence of that but I believe it in my heart," then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that Sharon Tate deserves to die. It's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that you need to fly planes into buildings for Allah.”

Let us first establish that I disagree strongly with Penn's assertion. You will quite often hear the phrase 'This person claims to be a Christian', for instance, when a particularly abhorrent person such as Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson says or does some jaw-droppingly offensive thing in the name of Christianity. I presume that similar sentiments hold for other faiths as well. A person can absolutely hold a faith and cringe at those who twist it to mean some terrible, hateful thing. That said, the general idea is that the faith of religion makes people do crazy, violent things, and that the downsides of that aren't worth it.

Let's start here.

You see, Penn- if someone ever happens to run this piece by you; maybe me, I'll have to see how I feel about it after I'm done- I was raised Lutheran. Whatever may have happened to found Lutheranism hundreds of years ago in Germany, here, now, it is decidedly not one of your more outspoken branches of Christianity, like the Roman Catholics or the Southern Baptists. It's really rather laid-back, at least from my experience: you go in, sit in a pew for about an hour, awkwardly try to follow along in the hymnal 3-5 times over the course of the hour, listen to a sermon that will probably last about 10-15 minutes, and you get all your sins forgiven at some point during the process, no questions asked. There are baked goods at the end of it. Now let's all go home and watch some football. With that kind of religious upbringing, I was never going to get overly loud about it.

Over time, I've taken to adopt an even more laid-back belief: that being, I really don't give a darn. I don't care what you believe, how you believe, or if you believe, so long as whatever you believe makes a decent human being out of you. I may have said those words here before; well, here I am saying them again.

As ugly as some people can be made by the power of religion, as horrifying as the ends are that they will go to in order to further those beliefs... there are also people who use that power for much more constructive and peaceful purposes, in fact quite beautiful purposes. Osama bin Laden was deeply religious, but then, so was Gandhi. Fred Phelps is deeply religious- or at least he claims to be- but then, so is the Dalai Lama, who's so peaceful that he will give mosquitos multiple warning shots to give them a chance to fly away safely. Religion need not be a bludgeon to be used against other religions. We're all sharing the same earth and we've got to get along with each other.

More than that, some people need religion. Even if it's not the correct answer- and whether it is or not I will not be discussing today because to me it isn't the issue at hand- there are people who don't so much need the higher being as much as they need the moral center provided by one.

You remember when the human genome got cracked? Ever since then, scientists have been checking out different genes within the genome and trying to figure out what each one does and who among us has what. In a report for National Geographic Explorer, Henry Rollins looked into one such gene, dubbed the 'warrior' gene. The episode can be viewed here. The warrior gene, which causes people to be prone to higher levels of aggression and anger, was tested for amongst a variety of people, including five MMA fighters, three Buddhist monks, and Rollins himself. Of those people, while Rollins did not carry the gene, nor did any of the MMA fighters, all the monks did. The monks had previously stated that two of them had been bullied in school, and the third had grown up in wartorn Vietnam. With a genetic predisposition towards aggression, it's very possible that devout Buddhism was needed to curb any possible urges to go down violent paths.

And beyond genetics, well, people behave better when they think someone's watching. You know the old chestnut, 'the boss is coming, look busy'. If a boss is always watching, no matter what, one is less likely to misbehave. And as much as faith has led to extreme, violent ends... atheism isn't exactly clean itself. Some nations have made atheism the official state religion over the years, most notably Communist nations such as China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. You probably know just from that lineup where we're heading with this: with the state removing religion as an institution, the state itself effectively becomes the religion. The Soviet Union persecuted religious belief with Lenin quoting Karl Marx and Stalin sending dissidents to Siberia; North Korea has clamped down on religion just as they've clamped down on everything else (they've implemented 'juche' as a substitute, which boils down to 'nobody's coming to help you; every man for himself', a school of thought that it shouldn't be surprising that North Korea would implement), and China attacked all things religious as part of the decade-long angry mob that was the Cultural Revolution. It may not be a spectacular explosion of violence- well, the Cultural Revolution was- but grim, grey, industrial-scale death in the name of lack of religion is death in the name of religion all the same.

But Penn would probably bristle at that. He once said:

“Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.”

No. Atheism is technically not a religion. However, atheism takes as much of an active role in religious discussion as any actual religion, enough so that atheism is effectively treated like everybody else. Jon Stewart is subject to a similar characterization in the realm of journalism: technically, he is a fake journalist, but he spends so much time critiquing journalists, analyzing stories, interviewing substantive newsmakers, and informing the public about some really rather horrifying stuff that they otherwise would not have gotten somewhere else, that despite any protestations from Stewart about how he's not a real journalist, he is treated as one. In fact, he's treated as a damn good one.

In both cases, if you act enough like what you claim you're not, you're going to be treated as what you claim not to be anyway. And on page 62 of God, No!, Penn writes:

"Atheists are also morally obligated to tell the truth as we see it. We should preach and proselytize too. We need to help believers. Someone who believes in god is wasting big parts of his or her life, holding back science and love, and giving "moral" support to dangerous extremists. If you believe something, you must share it; it's one of the ways we all learn about truth."

Preaching and proselytizing. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You can't go preaching about your lack of religion and then turn around and say you can't be held to the same rules and standards as everybody else because atheism isn't a religion. Again, if you act like a religion, you're going to be treated like one. And as such, atheists are subject to the same general characterization as everyone else. For example, Buddhists, as we've established, have the characterization of being intensely peaceful. The Shintos aren't too far behind. The Baptists are characterized as rather fiery in their rhetoric. The Scientologists are characterized as crazies and contestants on Celebrity Pyramid Scheme.

And the atheists have a characterization, too: as loud, brash jerks who, while intelligent, constantly tell people that everything is a bunch of BS. While there are plenty of perfectly pleasant atheists out there- Mythbusters Adam, Jamie and Kari, for example, as well as David Suzuki, Ron Reagan, Matt Smith, Bjork- the archetype runs much more along the lines of George Carlin, Jesse Ventura, Julian Assange, Bill Maher, Andy Rooney...

...and Penn Jillette. Really kind of the elephant in the room, that. Penn is really a nice enough guy, but one look at his on-camera persona and the support given to it by his outspokenness and you can't really get away from it.

And that characterization ties into the moral-center point raised earlier. Some people need religion as a governing force in their life, a way to help them make themselves better people. Whether the religion is correct or not, I personally am loathe to remove that governing force from places where it isn't hurting anything. If someone needs religion to center themselves, and it is removed, all you have done is create a moral vacuum in this person, and quite possibly given them license to become a complete and total jerk to people on the grounds that it doesn't matter in the end anyway. Potentially, they may be driven to 'preach' the wonders of casting aside religion to others, perhaps quite forcefully. After all, Karl Marx was an atheist. Che Guevara was an atheist. Joseph Stalin was an atheist. Slobodan Milosevic was an atheist. Enver Hoxha was an atheist. (Checking around, the two major counterpoints to this particular argument by atheists, at least from what I'm seeing looking around, is that it isn't relevant or that at least some of them actually were not atheist. To which I say: when atheism is what you're telling the masses to adopt, yes, it absolutely matters; and come on, nut up and own them. The followers of all the other beliefs at least go 'this horrible person CLAIMS to be one of ours/does not speak for the rest of us'. You can do likewise. I gave you the nice people; I'm asking you to take the jerks and the dictators along with them.)

At the end of the day, the overarching idea is to free people from religion so that they can "focus on science and love", which will make the world better. Long story short, whether someone's moral center is based on fact or not, if their morals are good, by removing their center, how have you made the world better?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Yesterday, I mentioned, or at the very least linked to, how Facebook was updating Instagram's terms of service. The changes would permit them to be able to use any photo from any user for any commercial purposes without compensation, and the only way to opt out of this arrangement was to delete your Instagram account before January 16. If you deleted your account after that date, too bad, Facebook could sell your photos anyway.

Many, many people immediately decided to take them up on that 'delete your account' option. Several of those people were fairly prominent accounts, such as, oh, say, National Geographic, who has suspended theirs and is considering deletion. In fact, a website quickly popped up called Free The Photos which people can use to migrate their Instagram photos to Flickr.

You would be amazed how fast newly-publicly-traded companies will react to a sharp, sudden dropoff in business. You'd also be amazed how surprised an online entity would be that people are actually reading the blasted user agreements nowadays, or at least that one person that did read it can tell people who haven't what scary language has been inserted. Because Facebook has already begun backtracking, pledging to have another look at the we-can-sell-your-photos provision and going 'no, no, that's not what we were intending to do'.

Given how many times people have seen someone get busted planning to do something, backtrack, and then do it anyway the second people aren't watching them anymore, that's not likely to keep Free The Photos from racking up the hits for a while.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Oh, Protect Me From The Germans

A basic tenet of Facebook is that, unlike a lot of places on the Internet, you're asked to use your real name. (Keyword, asked. Search for, say, 'Selena Gomez' sometime, or whatever other celebrity, and you will quickly find just how many people disregard such silly notions as real names.) It's the logical endpoint of a trendline in the overall life of the Internet where we began as being afraid of giving out any personal information, because who knows who might use it for who knows what. While certainly not an unfounded concern, a few brave souls began putting their real names out there, and when they didn't immediately get abducted and held for ransom in Somalia, others took the plunge, and then more and more and more. While anonymity is still highly valued, as is the control of one's identity- as Facebook is finding out in response to their announced changes to Instagram's terms of use- it's more on a site-by-site basis these days, and there is now a certain amount of pressure to come out from behind the veil and stand by your words. (As Anderson Cooper has become fond of demonstrating on his Twitter feed, to much entertainment.)

The German state of Schleswig-Holstein is now challenging Facebook's real-name requirement under a German law protecting a person's right to use an online pseudonym. That law, of course, applies all over the country, so while Schleswig-Holstein is the only state making a run at Facebook now, it probably won't be long before the other German states do likewise. Their commissioner has given Facebook two weeks to comply or face a fine. The fine will be of negligible monetary value considering how much Facebook is worth, but the symbolic value will be far greater.

You remember that Selena Gomez comment I just made? So does the challenging party, the Unabhaengiges Landeszentrum fuer Datenschutz (ULD), a data-protection agency; they cite that Facebook's edits are not adequate to prevent abuse or keep people safe. Facebook, for their part, is pushing back, saying that they already comply with European and, a bit surprisingly, Irish law. Needless to say, the ULD isn't buying the notion of an American entity using Irish law to justify practices in Germany.

That's not the end of Facebook's German problems, as a consumer group, Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband (VZBV), is suing them over the way their various apps share data. They've already beaten Facebook in court earlier this year, and has taken them to court multiple times over user's address books and the Friend Finder app.

Thus going to show no matter how small you make the world, there are still always going to be some cultural boundaries, and some things people don't want shared.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Or Perhaps You Need A Horsey

Last month, a series of horse races took place on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, near the city of Bima. Nothing too odd about that. Horse racing's certainly taken a tumble in reputation since its heyday, because knowing the horses could easily die in the process, and often do in such events as England's Grand National (two died in this year's running, seen here; despite what you might think, the horse behind the tarp at fence 21 was not being euthanized, but one of the two fatalities, that of According To Pete, happened at the very next jump; the other was the then-riderless Synchronized at fence 11), rubs people the wrong way a lot more than it used to. But horse racing in and of itself, we realize, still takes place.

What got Reuters to take notice, though, was that there were children riding these horses. And it was an 11-day event, attracting some 600 horses, during which the kids miss school. (In fact, one child jockey interviewed for the article had missed two months of school for the event.) And that the prize was, converted into US dollars, about $100, with cows as prizes for winning preliminary groups.

There isn't really very much out there on the Bima races other than other places running this one article, and the scattered photo. There ought to be, though. After all, there's been attention placed on the UAE after a 2005 ban on child jockeys for camel racing has been defied. Hopefully, someone out Indonesia way could explore it a little further.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Perhaps You Need A Kitty

It's been two days straight on my end of endless, unceasing argument about guns in the wake of the Newtown shooting- and, for that matter, the shooting in an Alabama hospital, and the plotted shooting in the high school in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

I was too caught up in that to post anything yesterday, and am still caught up in that. If you don't want to take part, I understand. If you need a pick-me-up, I understand as well.

Perhaps you need a kitty to get through this. Perhaps you need a puppy to get through this. If you do not have one, a shelter near you can probably hook you up. You can head here and browse.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Let's Get Right To The Point This Time

I really do not feel like reprising my talk from July about the Aurora shooting, or even the one from 2011 in the wake of the Tuscon shooting, to reflect the shooting today in Newtown, Connecticut. If you'd like to read either of them again, go right ahead and do so. Just replace the sickening thought of guns in a movie theater with the unspeakably sickening thought of guns in an elementary school and go from there. I'm not up today for making another long, impassioned diatribe that won't result in any good being done.

So let's take a different approach, and use some cold, hard numbers instead. I am of the mind that almost any issue can begin to be solved by analyzing what portion of the world is handling the issue the best, and then moving in their direction. So that said, here is the UN Global Study on Homicide for 2011. Here are the raw numbers for firearm-related death rate per 100,000 population, sortable by homicide, suicide and unintentional deaths. Knives, the general second choice for murder weapons worldwide, can have their numbers found here (sans per-capita rate), and even though they're not the issue at hand, the United States doesn't look good there either.

You go through the numbers, and you'll find Japan to be at or near the front of the class on curbing gun deaths. Which means, let's go have a look at what Japan is doing. Max Fisher of the Atlantic will lead you from there. And some of you are going to hate hearing this, but it starts with pretty much doing the exact opposite of everything the United States is doing.

You will also find South Korea in a prime position, which may come as a shock if you remember who their next-door neighbor is. Their national freedom is at much more acute risk than America's and has been for decades. And yet, for all the talk in America as to how 'criminals will always be able to get guns', in South Korea, they struggle to do so. For more on that, I direct you to UC-Davis professor Kyu Hyun Kim. For a second opinion that is presented in text format as opposed to audio, here's the blog 'Ask a Korean' tackling the question.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Trip To Tahiti? WE WON! WE WON!

It's that time again.

'To count our chickens before they hatch?'
'To count our chickens to make sure KFC got the order right?'

No. It's time to learn the day's lesson. And to find out what it is, we must turn to the TED of Morality.

TED of Morality, turn, turn, turn, tell us the lesson that we should learn.

...Markham Nolan of, last month in London, speaking about trying to tell fact from fiction online.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Are We Becoming Self-Aware?

This is way way way over my head, but I'd like to pass along today the item that a physicist named Martin Savage has proposed a scientific experiment to figure out if we're living in a computer simulation as opposed to reality. We don't have the technology to simulate enough of reality to have a usable sample size, but as supercomputers can simulate tiny parts of space, using something called lattice quantum chromodynamics- good luck deciphering this- one can extrapolate that eventually they'll be able to simulate enough to be able to tell.

I pass this along to raise a simple question: if our reality were indeed a simulation, and the tests we carried out a simulation of the simulation, would it not be logical to think that the primary simulation, or whoever's running the primary simulation, would account for the secondary simulation, and conspire to produce a result that confirmed things as reality?

Or is the fact that I myself am aware of this a disconfirmation of that theory, thereby showing that we are in fact real? Or is it an imperfect simulation, and I merely a bug that hasn't yet been caught?

Or did I just blow your mind?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Six White Flags

Michigan is not the happiest place of states. (Oh, boy, are they ever not happy right now.) They haven't really been happy since the economic downturn of the 1970's, when the American auto industry lost its footing and never really got it back. Flint, particularly hard-hit, wound up becoming one of the more emblematic cities of the era.

Flint didn't like being one of the more emblematic cities of the era.

At the time, plans were in place to construct an automotive hall of fame. However, the concept was languishing, mainly because there already was one in the germinal stages and it had moved from Washington, DC to Midland in 1971. (It now sits in Dearborn.) People still wanted to do something with the concept, but after Midland got the hall of fame, it couldn't be that anymore. The plans languished for a decade while people tried to come up with a Plan B. And more to the point, agree on a Plan B. Designers, constructors and local officials couldn't get on the same page. And in the meantime, Flint, and Michigan, bore the brunt of the entire 1970's recession.

Now it's the 1980's. The recession was over, greed was now good, but Michigan hadn't come back. Finally, an idea has come forward: a theme park. Theme parks were in vogue at the time, and Six Flags in particular was laying down steel at a furious pace. To the organizers, this was their in. A Six Flags theme park it would be. A Six Flags theme park that told of the past glory of Flint, the glory of the American automobile that Flint helped create, and the glory that would surely come again.

And so in 1982, construction on Six Flags AutoWorld began.

AutoWorld was built as an EPCOT-style geodesic dome, or more accurately, a geodesic mound. Inside, you would find a highly idealized version of 1900's-era Flint, with cabins, a faux Flint River, and a faceless mannequin at the entrance. When you pushed a button, the face was lit up with a projection of the face of Jacob Smith, the founder of Flint, who would tell you about the history of the town. There'd be rides, there'd be an IMAX theater, it'd be great and tourists will flock to it and Flint will be back on the map in no time.

By July 1984, everything was ready. Six Flags AutoWorld was all set to announce Flint's return to the big time. There was ribbon-cutting, there were dignitaries, there was excitement.

There wasn't for long.

First off, that mannequin is creepy. Second, Flint just isn't that much of a tourist destination and never really has been. It was a factory town. Unless the history is overwhelmingly major, like at Gettysburg, tourists aren't showing up in Six Flags-type numbers to learn about a town's history. They'll do that only after they've been drawn to town for some other reason. Beaches, perhaps. Third, cars may be a good basis for a ride or two, but an entire theme park built around them really isn't a viable concept, not compared to a race track or go-karting. To have fun with cars, you pretty much need to drive the cars sooner or later, and the closest AutoWorld came to that was bumper cars.

Which leads to the fourth and probably principal problem: this is a Six Flags theme park, right? Six Flags! Aren't there supposed to be, like, rides here? Really fun rides? Bumper cars are the best this place can do? A carousel, really? A moving sidewalk? An arcade where all the games are provided by the D.A.R.E. program? Where are the roller coasters? Where is all the exciting stuff the ads were promising? Where is the stuff that makes this place more than a glorified museum? We came to Flint, Michigan to go to a glorified car museum? Why am I here looking at a gigantic car engine? This sucks!

People visted Autoworld. Once. They didn't come back. After the initial flurry of attention, some of which saw attraction closures and malfunctions as early as the second day, the park emptied out fast. Flint was also emptying out; the General Motors plant closings were underway and had been for some time. Unemployment was skyrocketing and would go even higher; crime was on the rise to the point where, when ABC's Nightline tried to do a story on the plant closings, they were cut off because a laid-off worker stole their news van in an incident that would eventually end up in the Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me. This was no place for an amusement park.

Within two months, AutoWorld stopped issuing weekly reports about how many people were coming to the park. Within six months, it was closed. Six Flags would try again the next year, installing the world's largest indoor Ferris wheel, but a Ferris wheel is not a roller coaster. And the Six Flags name was removed. The 1985 relaunch failed as well. From there, the park would only open, and only partially, for special occasions, such as school proms, until a permanent closure in the early 1990's.

The next several years were spent trying to figure out a Plan C. A 1994 proposal to turn the building into a casino was shot down in a voter referendum. A soccer complex was floated; a corporate training center; a game show arena (though what kind of game show would take place in Flint I have no idea). Eventually, in 1996, the University of Michigan-Flint expressed interest in the land.

The land. Not AutoWorld. The following year, the complex was imploded to make way for a parking lot.

Which is, perhaps, one final testament to Flint.

Monday, December 10, 2012


The state of Florida is gearing up to hold what they call the 'Python Challenge'. Burmese pythons are considered an invasive species in the state, having pushed several other species to the brink of extinction, and in addition to a regular reptile hunting season from March 4-April 14, a hunter is allowed to kill a python during any other hunting season should they come across one. The Python Challenge, scheduled for January 12-February 10, allows anyone, licensed hunter or not (in fact, the licensed python hunters are split into a separate contest), who pays a $25 entry fee and takes a 30-minute online training course, to sign up to kill as many pythons as they can scrounge up. The person who kills the most pythons will win $1,500, and the longest python wins $1,000.

Go ahead and make the Whacking Day jokes. Stephen Messenger of Treehugger probably beat you to most of them anyway. Between Homer Simpson gags, Messenger, while conceding that Burmese pythons have wreaked untold havoc on Florida's ecosystem and that fairly drastic measures such as this may in fact be necessary no matter how many jokes you want to make, points out the potential folly in allowing any old person off the street, whether or not they're even a licensed hunter, license to kill snakes with wild abandon, especially if they don't know the difference between a python and whatever snake it is they come across.

After all, some random tourist in for the week from Minnesota or wherever drops in, never seen a snake up close outside of a zoo, doesn't know the difference between a Burmese python and a corn snake, barely knows the difference between a Burmese python and a Slinky, sleepwalks through the training course (which is supposed to tell them about exactly that kind of thing, but which you can take as many times as you need to pass it and which therefore can eventually be passed by luck or rote memorization), wanders into the Everglades, sees one of the species listed as threatened or endangered and goes 'Woo! Thousand bucks, baby!' and all of a sudden it's the worst Whacking Day ever.

There are some rules in place to discourage people from going too crazy- for example, killing a native snake, someone's pet or anything outside the designated contest hunting grounds will get you disqualified, you can't shoot them (the preferred method is to sever the head with a machete), please refrain from running them over with your car, and please please please don't post anything disturbing to YouTube- so the organizers do have some idea what fresh hell they're getting themselves into.

But then, we all know how well tourists follow local protocol sometimes. It only takes one guy. And when you open things up to the general public, you open yourself up to whatever the dumbest person in the competition ends up doing.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Random News Generator- Panama

Well, if Panama City, Florida were what was selected, we'd be fine here. But no, we've got the actual Panama to cover today, and Google News says the big story there is that some guy from Lonely Planet showed up.

So let's not cover that and try the order that Panama's Ministry of Finance, in the wake of recent flooding in the waning days of November, gave to the government asking that official celebrations for Christmas, New Year's and Mother's Day be cancelled. If that last one sounds weird, Panama celebrates it on December 8 and they take it very seriously. So seriously that the order came too late to prevent a lot of the money from having already been spent preparing for the celebrations.

Which in and of itself isn't an awful rationale. If you've spent the money, you've spent the money. But we're talking about 'in the wake of recent flooding' here, with five reported deaths and 1,570 homes taking damage, with many of them being leveled, forcing some 6,500 people out on the street. It seems rather callous to keep the celebrations going after that, and especially callous to keep spending money on them that could be going towards relief efforts.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Furby On Spruce Goose May Be Unnecessary

If you've ever flown on an airplane, you know you're supposed to turn off your electronic devices during takeoff and landing, on the theory that they might interfere with the equipment. That may change soon, as the FAA, with the support of the FCC, is considering possibly ending that ban. There are a couple reasons for this: first, it would boost productivity; second, a lot of people are skeptical as to whether they cause any problems; and third, some people have already forgotten to shut them off and they haven't caused a plane to crash yet.

Just to cover their bases, though, they're still going to have to check... well, everything against everything. All your plane models have to have all your various different generations of all your different products in them, and that'll take around two years until they figure they get the idea.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Two Or Three Fat Ladies

So for those of you following the NHL lockout, it's become clear that the fat lady is warming up her vocals on the season.

Who exactly is the fat lady, though? When you hear that phrase, odds are you get the imagery of some gazillion-pound opera singer in valkyrie garb ready to shatter glass. Someone who actually knew a little bit about opera- and Wikipedia- would give you the name Brunnhilde, who closes out Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung with a ten-minute belt-fest.

That's likely not quite it, though.

There's a Southern phrase dating from the early 20th century that goes, 'church ain't out until the fat lady sings', which stemmed from the fact that, well, there were often fat ladies singing at church. That's pretty much your answer right there and you could stop here if you wanted, but what the heck, I'm going to keep going with this. On December 11, 1969, the Philadelphia Flyers played the 'God Bless America' rendition of a woman named Kate Smith, a reasonably popular singer at the time and one who was rather large. The Flyers beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-3. The Flyers played Smith's version some more. The idea took hold that the Flyers won more often when it got played- and they needed something to latch onto, because the Flyers were terrible that season. So Smith's rendition got played more and more and eventually all the time.

By 1973, it had gotten to the point where Smith showed up to the Spectrum to sing it herself prior to the Opening Night game on October 11, also against the Maple Leafs. The Flyers won 2-0, the first step on the way to back-to-back Stanley Cup title. The phrase "It ain't begun till the fat lady sings" took hold. By 1987, a Kate Smith statue stood outside the Spectrum; the Spectrum now demolished, it sits in front of Xfinity Live, an entertainment complex in South Philadelphia.

On March 3, 1976, Texas Tech men's basketball commentator Ralph Carpenter introduced the opera aspect to the phrase. Late in a conference tournament game against Texas A&M, A&M had just tied things at 72. Co-commentator Bill Morgan said, "Hey, Ralph, this is gonna be a tight one after all." And Ralph said, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings." And there you had it. Cue the valkyries. (Texas Tech won 74-72.)

I guess it's better work than J.G. Wentworth ads. Or... well, singing at NHL games, come to think of it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Olympics Medal Update

The International Olympic Committee has stripped four Eastern European athletes of their medals won at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. They've also announced their intention to do the same to Lance Armstrong, though they are waiting for cycling's governing body, the UCI, to formally give that go-ahead, which they haven't yet done.

The affected events:

*Yuriy Bilonoh of Ukraine was stripped of his gold medal in the men's shot put. Adam Nelson of the United States will move up to gold. Joachim Olsen of Denmark will move up to silver. Manuel Martinez of Spain will move up to bronze. (They haven't formally moved up yet; there's the matter of actually reclaiming the medals first.)
*Ivan Tskikhan of Belarus was stripped of his silver medal in the men's hammer throw. Koji Murofushi of Japan's gold is unaffected. Esref Apak of Turkey will move up to silver. Vadim Devyatovskiy of Belarus will move up to bronze.
*Svetlana Krivelyova of Russia was stripped of her bronze medal in the women's shot put. Yumileidi Cumba of Cuba's gold is unaffected, as is the silver medal of Nadine Kleinert of Germany. Nadzeya Astapchuk of Belarus will move up to bronze.
*Irina Yatchenko of Belarus was stripped of her bronze medal in the women's discus throw. Natalya Sadova of Russia's gold is unaffected, as is the silver medal of Anastasia Kelesidou of Greece. Vera Popsisilova-Cechlova of the Czech Republic will move up to bronze.

I'm not exactly sure how to feel about Belarus getting stripped of a silver and bronze and gaining two more bronzes in return.

If and when Lance Armstrong is stripped of his medal- a bronze in the men's time trial in the 2000 Games in Sydney- Viacheslav Ekimov of Belarus and Jan Ullrich of Germany would remain at gold and silver. Abraham Olano of Spain would move up to bronze- that is, if the medal is reallocated. The UCI hasn't been big on reallocation of honors lately.

One more case remains pending, that of weightlifter Oleg Perepechenov of Russia, who holds bronze in the men's 77kg category. In the event that medal is also stripped, Taner Sagir of Turkey and Sergey Filomonov of Kazakhstan would remain at gold and silver. Reyhan Arabacioglu of Turkey would move up to bronze.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Are You Ethnic Albanian?

Well, just in case you were ever thinking of heading back to the homeland (or ancestral land, whichever), good news. Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha has announced a plan to grant citizenship to all ethnic Albanians worldwide.

Which would be just a nice little thing if it weren't for the fact that neighboring Kosovo is 90% ethnic Albanian, and also-neighboring Macedonia is a quarter Albanian, and the Albanians in Macedonia nearly sent that nation into civil war in 2001. Oh, and also last week, during Albania's centennial celebrations, Berisha referred to Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Greece as "Albanian lands", in the process angering a whole lot of neighbors.

So if you're ethnic Albanian, maybe also steer clear of all Albania's neighbors right now. But Albania itself, well, free game to you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

America Is Not Supposed To Act Like America... Or Something

You'll be able to find more information on this elsewhere, but let me just sum it up and point you to the more detailed writeups.

There's a UN treaty, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, that just came up in front of the lame-duck Senate. It is heavily modeled after the Americans With Disabilities Act, and has been ratified by 126 countries, including the other four permanent-veto nations, and signed by 155. (Most of the non-ratifiers are in Africa, as well as Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea.) The United States, already a signatory, voted today on ratification, needing 67 votes to do so. Seeing as it not only required the United States to do absolutely nothing it wasn't already doing, but was modeled after things the United States is doing and for all intents and purposes told the rest of the world to be more like the United States, this should have been a no-brainer.

The treaty failed, only gaining 61 votes. 38 Senators, all Republican, voted against the treaty, which was negotiated by Bush 43 and walked past 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole, who was sitting in a wheelchair, on the way to vote against it, because- I am not making this up- they feared it would threaten American sovereignty. They literally rejected a treaty modeled after American legislation because telling the world to act more like America was a threat to America.

If your brain just broke trying to make sense of that, don't worry, because everyone else's has too.

Rick Santorum- not a Senator anymore- argued that it could be used in American courtrooms, which is wrong, because only American law can be used in American courtrooms and this is American law anyway. Jim Inhofe- who is a Senator- argued against "cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society", ignoring the fact that the regulations do not encumber or infringe upon American society in any way because the treaty was modeled after American law which is a really funny thing for an overzealous anti-American organization headquartered in America's largest city to do, don't you think?

Though really, when America acts like this, who would want to act like us anyway?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Remember This Guy?

Do you remember this clip from an episode of Hardball in 2008?

(It was 1938.)

Do you remember Kevin James? Well, it has just come to my attention that James is running for mayor of Los Angeles, an election with a March 5 primary and a general election in May in the very likely event that nobody settles things in March. In fact, he's been running for a good long while; here's an article from May 1 talking about him running. He's a longshot and always has been- he's a Republican running in heavily Democratic Los Angeles- but as the most recent poll is showing (an Election Day exit poll), there are 8.7% of Los Angelenos- at least, of those who have made up their minds- willing to actually vote for this guy. Which puts him in a fairly distant fourth place. (The top two go through.)

Let's reiterate: 8.7% of committed Los Angeles voters looked at that clip and went 'I want that guy running my city!'

By the way, here he is speaking at a Tea Party rally in Van Nuys on Tax Day 2009.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Pennies From Hairven-- I'm Sorry, That Was Terrible

You know what we haven't done in a while? A science experiment. What you're going to need for this is a bunch of pennies, a pencil, a height to hang the pencil from, some tape... and one strand of your hair. The object is to see how many pennies it takes to break the hair.

I reiterate: you will need a lot of pennies.