Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Are You Wearing Your Blue And Yellow?

Happy Leap Day! It's the glorious day when Leap Day Williams emerges from the Mariana Trench and trades children's tears for candy!

Of course, we all celebrate Leap Day in our own special way. Take Richard Conn Henry and Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University, for example, who are proposing that we do away with Leap Day. Now, before you start poking their eyes and pulling their hair, hear them out. Instead, they propose that we go to a 364-day calendar (364 being divisible by 7; everything would be on the same day of the week every year), and every 5-6 years, there would instead be the magical, fantastical Leap Week!

And in Sweden, they still talk of the time when the Swedish Empire, switching from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian, had to move 11 days forward to come into alignment, and in order to do so, canceled Leap Day for the next 40 years. The children were distraught. Would they ever see Leap Day Williams? Would they stop believing in Leap Day? And when February 1700 came with no Leap Day on the calendar, depression reigned over Sweden, and by the end of the month, they had found themselves in the Great Northern War with Russia, Denmark-Norway, Saxony, Prussia and Poland-Lithuania.

But then fate intervened. Sweden was so distracted by the war that they forgot to cancel Leap Day for 1704 and 1708. Leap Day Williams would emerge from the sea after all! And when Sweden subsequently decided to put off switching to the Gregorian and go back to the Julian for the moment, they needed to put back the one day they'd already lost. And so it was that in 1712, children rushed to their calendars to find not one, but TWO Leap Days! There was a February 30! A once-in-a-lifetime February 30! Not even Leap Day Williams himself thought that February 30 was possible! Joy! Joy and celebration reigned throughout Sweden!

You know. And also the war. Which would drag on until 1721 and resulted in the Swedish Empire losing what are now Estonia and Latvia.

Maybe Sweden just wasn't wearing enough blue and yellow.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Random News Generator- Ireland

The major news out of Ireland, far and away, is that Ireland is going to hold a referendum on the eurozone treaty; the vote could be held by summer. The EU didn't want that to happen, because throwing a vote on the eurozone to the voters right now is kind of like throwing Lebron James into a room full of angry Clevelanders.

However, there are thousands and thousands of people who could write on that more eloquently than me. Economics isn't exactly my wheelhouse. I'll let those more eloquent writers who better know what they're talking about do that, and go do something a little less heavily covered.

So, also in Irish news is that airline Ryanair will be offering in-flight online gambling. If you've never heard of Ryanair, this may seem surprising, but if you have heard of Ryanair, you'll know this to be par for the course.

Ryanair, if you don't know the name, is notorious throughout Ireland and, indeed, Europe as well. On their face, they are a low-cost airline. Behind that face, though, all you're promised is a cheap plane ticket. Everything else is up for grabs, sometimes to the point where the authorities have to step in and force them to include certain things.

Here's some of the more mundane things Ryanair dings you for, but among the other things Ryanair considers worth charging a fee for, or eliminating:

*Check-in desks at the airport. Gone.
*Checking in at all. That's a 5-pound charge. And remember, you have to do it online, or that's another, larger fee.
*Window blinds. (This was one of the things the aviation authorities made them put back.)
*Reclining seats.
*Seat pockets.
*Toilets. They were going to remove all but one toilet from their planes, charge for use of that toilet, and offer 4-pound standing-room-only seats. The authorities struck down the standing-room-only part; the airplane manufacturer refused to remove the toilets.
*Being fat. There was even an online vote to decide how, specifically, to charge the fat tax. And then they decided it would take too long to figure out who to hit with it, so they dropped the idea.
*Having someone load the bags onto the planes for you. Do it yourself, you lazy tourist.
*Oh, yeah, and if you find out at the airport that you have to check the bag, that'll be 100 pounds in the high season. For the first bag. For those in the United States, here's the conversion. When I clicked, it was $158.84.
*Stranded passengers. Even if you personally are not one of them, you're asked to pay up to compensate them.
*The advertised prize for being the millionth customer. (She took them to court. Ryanair lost.)
*The co-pilot. (Needless to say, this one won't be happening.)

One supposes that by allowing online gambling, Ryanair hopes passengers will win enough money to pay for all the charges.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What Part Of 'Mild Winter' Do You Not Understand?

Okay, fellow Wisconsinites. By request of my mom, who alerted me to your recent exploits, we need to have a chat.

Winter's been mild around here. You know that. I know that you know that. It's a very common topic of discussion here. We barely get snow. We got a decent snowfall here a few days back, but that's mostly melted. Barely any other snow's fallen all winter, at least in this part of the state. The weather has been warm enough that some of the time, it's been rain instead.

Now, Oshkosh isn't all THAT far north of Watertown. It's 63 miles to Oshkosh. You're north, but not by too much. So you haven't seen it get too cold either.

So let's, you and I, go through a little review course on the finer points of mild winters.

Q: What happens in mild weather? More to the point, what doesn't happen?
A: Ice freezing.

Q: What happens to frozen ice in mild weather?
A: Why, golly gee, Mr. Wizard, I believe it melts!

Q: Does ice frozen on Lake Winnebago melt as well?
A: I should goddamn hope so.

Q: What kind of event can you not hold on a lake when the ice is melting or has melted?
A: An ice fishing contest, among others.

Q: Why is this?
A: Because the ice might not be able to support the weight of those people and objects on the ice, and those things might break through the ice.

Q: What should you not put on a frozen lake when it is melting?
A: A motor vehicle, unless you're doing that thing where you park a beater out there and start a pool on what day it goes through, which kind of pollutes the lake so please stop doing that while we're on the subject.

Q: Should you listen to police when they advise you not to take a vehicle out on thin ice?
A: Yes.

Q: Should you listen to police when they advise you of this multiple times?
A: For the love of all that's holy, yes.

Q: So why the blue hell did you ignore multiple warnings from police and put 50 cars on Lake Winnebago on a mild day towards the end of a mild winter for an ice fishing contest, creating conditions under which 36 of your cars went through? Especially after cars had been going through the ice all month?
A: ...still waiting for an answer.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Today's Recycling Tip

Your local recycling center is probably not equipped to handle your torpedo. The materials used in the torpedo can be recycled- well, at least most of them; don't know if it's 100% recyclable- but that will require a much more dedicated deconstruction than your local place is able to do.

Also, what the hell were you doing with a torpedo?

However, if you have Christmas lights you want to get rid of, please feel free. Seriously. If you still have the Christmas lights up, take them down. There are people in Watertown alone who've already reconfigured them for Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day in the time you've left them up.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Way-Way-In-Advance Endorsement Note

So let's see. What's been going on in politics lately?

Well, only.... this. And this. And this and this and this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, these, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.

This is all just in the past couple weeks, mind you. And I've very likely missed some things, as well as leaving things out from beyond the past couple weeks. It is just a field of thisles as far as the eye can see.

Behind each and every one of those links lies a different glimpse into the eyes of madness, mostly shockingly and alarmingly so and one or two of which we've already discussed here. And in each and every glimpse, it is one or more Republicans who are being shocking and alarming. It has become so constantly heart-stopping to watch that it's almost- but not quite- deadening to the senses. And by all appearances, it is going to get worse before it gets better, and it will not get better by November, let alone better enough to even so much as get back to even.

So here, way out in February, I'm already making an official endorsement for the November elections. It shouldn't be a gigantic shock that I'm backing Barack Obama for re-election.

That's not the endorsement.

The endorsement is a blanket endorsement to any candidate for office, anywhere in the country, that is running against a Republican. Whichever one has the greatest probability of winning their respective race. Usually that will be the Democrat, but I'm allowing that there will be some races where a third party candidate is more likely to win; any such candidate gets my blessing as well. Priority 1 is that the Republican loses.

This may seem a bit reckless. This may seem like I'm, well, pick your favorite term if you're a Republican reading- a water-carrier, a flunky, an apologist, a liberal toady of the loony left. Well, if this makes me loony, then call me loonier than a Canadian coin. There are, obviously, Democrats who do bad things as well. To claim otherwise would be ridiculous. But to sit here and give the 'both sides are bad' argument is just as ridiculous, not to mention lazy. You cannot plausibly make a list as long as the one I just did of things that are just as bad, done by Democrats. You cannot. You certainly can't do it using just the past few weeks.

If it were just that, that wouldn't be cause for a blanket, straight-ticket endorsement. There is, however, also the partisanship to take into account, specifically the extreme level of No True Scotsman behavior going on, again particularly on the Republican side of the aisle. Wavering from the extreme faction of the agenda in any way, even temporarily, even on one issue, is grounds to be branded a RINO- Republican In Name Only- and abandoned in favor of someone even more extreme. What you see in the Republican primary is a race founded, built, teetering precariously, and now collapsing on that principle, as Matt Taibbi points out in his review of the Arizona debate. The two candidates in the primary considered 'moderate' were Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman Jr. Neither ever really got into the race, and Pawlenty was the very first candidate out of the running. Pawlenty dropped out on August 14, ten days before Jonathon Sharkey.

In this environment, reasonable Republicans simply cannot survive. They are rendered politically impotent, or run out of office outright in favor of the latest vision of what constitutes a 'real Republican'. This is why I'm invoking the Lincoln Chafee Corollary: even if the Republican in office is a genuinely decent guy- and I know some still exist- they still have to go solely because of the R next to their name. Chafee was swept out of the Senate in the Democratic wave of 2006 primarily due to the R next to his name. The voters of Rhode Island in essence told him 'Lincoln, we like you, we respect you. That's what makes this so hard.' And then they booted him for Sheldon Whitehouse.

Which highlights one other thing: the decent Republicans may in fact be Republicans In Name Only. Chafee certainly was. After his defeat, he formally changed allegiance to independent, endorsed Obama in 2008, and without the R next to his name, he went back in front of the voters of Rhode Island in 2010, and they made him governor. On Wednesday, he was named co-chair of Obama's re-election campaign.

What I'm getting at here is that the no-true-Scotsman process leads to what I hold to be an unacceptable risk of any given Republican, anywhere in the country, doing something that is just as crazy as anything in the opening list, and that, at least for the time being, no reasonable Republican can hope to accrue influence amongst the people they're made to regard as partymates. And any gain in ground, at least in this election, is only going to be regarded as a 'mandate' or whatever word constitutes a greenlight to go even more extreme than this. They're going to think that this is what America wants and needs. It's that simple. That can't be allowed to happen. This is not about partisanship, even though it is, if that makes sense. This is about being a decent human being. There is, of course, some level of disappointment in the Democrats not doing more, but there is little that can be done when one side not only needlessly obstructs the process, but actively runs things this far in the opposite direction. Before anything else can be done, the elements of madness must be removed from the process.

There's an old saying about the US House of Representatives that the most important vote they cast is the first one: the one for Speaker of the House. Everything that occurs over the course of the ensuing two years hinges on who's got the gavel. Similar statements can be made up and down the ballot, and that first vote, that decision on who controls the process, is the one I'm focusing on.

Because people who make the moves like those above should not be controlling the process.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Read A Map

No, no. Not Google Maps. Google Maps is not going to help you here. Those old-school paper maps? Much more helpful.

Why? Because it's a Name X In Y Minutes quiz today. You're going to be given a list of 144 geographical abbreviations, and your task is to say what those abbreviations stand for. You have 20 minutes. (My score: 128.)

And if you think it's just going to be countries, you are in for a shock. There are administrative divisions, terms for landforms and bodies of water, anything and everything that you might see on a map.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Online Bomber What Bombs Online

Today's activity comes through Neatorama; it's something creator Alex Wellerstein calls 'Nukemap'. Or, to be caps-lock correct, 'NUKEMAP'.

What you have is a marker placed on Google Maps; you may place it wherever, or you may pick one of the presets- major world cities that conventional wisdom says would be the primary candidates to have a nuclear bomb dropped on them if things ever came to that, as well as historical nuclear sites such as Bikini Atoll, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and that Nevada test site.

Then after that, you select a yield- the strength of the bomb. Again, you're given a number of preset values- you can pick Fat Man, Little Boy, some of the warheads currently in the American arsenal, the smallest and largest warheads tested by North Korea, maxing out at 'Tsar Bomba', a warhead from the USSR that only saw one test in 1961 and was primarily created to make the biggest possible boom the Soviets could come up with.

Then click 'detonate' and see how much area gets devastated. In my case, the Tsar Bomba that was tested, centered over my house, would create a thermal radiation radius (which is third-degree burns for everyone inside of it with exposed skin) from the Madison isthmus to about West Allis/Wauwatosa/Mequon, not far outside downtown Milwaukee. Going south, it stops a bit short of Janesville and Elkhorn; going north, the blast eats the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge whole, reaches into Kettle Moraine State Forest and gets uncomfortably close to Fond du Lac. Watertown itself is inside the radiation radius, inside of which everybody's going to die and it's only a question of how long it takes for the radiation to kill you, and most of town would be within the actual fireball if I didn't live towards the edge of town.

If you're not one of my Wisconsin readers, plot that out over your house. Go ahead. Map's right there.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Stay In School

First off, Wisconsin, there's a primary today, perhaps, depending on where in the state you live (we don't have one in Dodge County). This is the first election where you're going to need a photo ID, so make sure you bring it with you.

That said, today I'd like to issue a simple reminder to kids to stay in school, concentrate on your studies, learn as much as you possibly can. Here's why. If you do, if you get really really good at math and science and really stick with it, one day, you may get to do this.

Although you gotta wait until you're really really good. Launching rockets into the aurora borealis isn't one of those experiments you get to try at home.

For something you can technically try at home but really really probably shouldn't because your parents will strangle you, here's an experiment colloquially known as 'Elephant Toothpaste'. You'll need a big test tube, some hydrogen peroxide (the more potent the better), dish soap, and potassium iodide (that last one may be a little tougher to get ahold of than the others; in a pinch, yeast will do). You might also want to add some food dye. Combine and back off.

And for something you really, really, REALLY should not try at home, here's what happens when you try to make liquid nitrogen ice cream. In a blender.

Monday, February 20, 2012

SOPA Update

Just so you're aware, SOPA itself- the so-called 'Stop Online Piracy Act'- that has been put on the backburner, alongside its sister bill, PIPA. (Not killed. On the backburner.)

However, what seems to be happening now is that bills similar to SOPA are being presented, over and over and over again, under a different name every time, until eventually one of them breaks through Congress. The latest attempt, numbered HR 1981, has been given the name "Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act", a name which, like so many bills before it on every topic under the sun, is merely a blatant attempt to garner votes regardless of the bill's actual content. You name a bill the 'Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act', and the implicit threat is 'vote for whatever garbage is in here or else we're going to tell the voters that you're against protecting children from pornographers and we will destroy you'. Don't get fooled by the name. It's just another SOPA-type bill- in fact, it's sponsored by Lamar Smith, the same guy who sponsored SOPA- and it has to go down like any other SOPA-type bill.

Specifically, what HR 1981 wants to do is give your internet service provider the ability to track your IP at all times, just in case they ever suspect you of anything and want to go over your browsing history to see if, in fact, you've ever done anything they can nail you for. Warrant unneccesary. If you don't want that kind of invasion of privacy to happen to you, HR 1981 needs to die.

Just giving you the heads-up.


As further proof that absolutely anything can be found on the Internet, today we here at this one-man operation that insists on referring to itself as if it has some kind of a staff or something are committed to bringing you the very latest in olive oil news.

First, our Olive Oil Exclusive Hyper News Flash 7000 bureau chief in Marrakech, Morocco that we don't actually have but wouldn't it be awesome if we had that kind of budget (okay, it's actually Derek Workman of The View From Fez, reprinted at Moroccoboard) (NOTE: originally credited as just Moroccoboard) brings us to La Clinique du Ballon, a little shop where a guy named Kamal Boukentar hand-stitches old-school leather balls. And old-school-style leather balls with patterns they never considered using back then. A normal soccer ball has 18 panels; Boukentar has a ball on display with 72 of them. The leather starts out beige; three coats of olive oil give them the old-school color.

Not that they tend to actually get used to play soccer. You could, but there's a reason they don't use leather balls anymore. Leather balls are hard and chunky. They're mainly display things.

...well, it's interesting to me. I've been working on a soccer book, remember.

ULTRA-SUPER LIGHTSPEED OLIVE OIL NEWS WORLD PULSE SHIFT TO SPAIN did I tack on enough buzzwords? We go to the Olive Oil News- the olive oil news leader- who brings word of a cartoon recently produced called "Piqui and Mandy: The World of Olive Oils". In this cartoon, viewable here if you can read Spanish, olive oil production is compared to the production of orange juice. In the process, olive oil is referred to as a fruit juice, and after generally being an ad by the olive oil people, Piqui and Mandy conclude that olive oil and orange juice are the same. wait just a minute here.

Technically, the fruit juice thing is on-point. Olives are fruits- they are the product of a flowering plant. Vegetables are just straight-up plant parts. In fact, speaking botanically, the word 'fruit' can be taken wider than you think. Tomatoes are just the start. What else is the product of a flowering plant? Well, cucumbers, for one, and beans, and squash, and okra, and eggplant, and peppers, and peas, and pumpkin, and zucchini, and corn. Yes, botanically speaking, corn is a fruit. You will never in a million years get away with telling a kid that at the dinner table, but there you go. When speaking of food, we more commonly divide fruits and vegetables by taste- sweet vs. savory- rather than their biological makeup.

So okay. An olive is a fruit and olive oil is a fruit juice. You have that one. But then let's get into this 'olive oil and orange juice are the same' business.

Try drinking olive oil straight sometime.

People have done this. Selena Gomez made them do it, and Kelly Clarkson made Selena do it. Kelly heard that drinking olive oil improves your singing voice, so she started drinking it. Selena heard it from Kelly, so Selena started doing it. Random people on YouTube heard it from Selena, so they started doing it.

Many of them immediately stopped. Why? Because drinking olive oil is terrible. And Selena told them as much. In a 2010 interview on Ellen, shown below (skip to 5:11), she said of the practice, "It's awful. You let it go down and it coats your throat. I gag every time. It's gross."

From what I've seen poking around, there are only two reasons anyone drinks olive oil straight. The first reason is for some sort of health benefit, such as Selena taking it for her voice. (Or you can not drink it and still get health benefits. Put it in your hair as a treatment for head lice, perhaps.) The second reason is because someone told them or dared them to (such as Selena taking it because Kelly Clarkson said to). The people who drink it for the second reason end up regretting it.

Like this girl, whom you will note is barely even coating the bottom of her glass:

Same as orange juice. Right.

In fact, I'm so angry about this blatant pro-olive oil agenda being foisted upon my reading audience by the Olive Oil Exclusive Hyper News Flash 7000 news team that I'm shutting down the whole division. COME INTO EXISTENCE SO I CAN FIRE YOU!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rapid-Fire Book Club, It's Winter Somewhere Edition

So last night, there was this sale on children's books at TriBeCa, a bookstore/cafe here in town, and after my family went out to dinner, we dropped my brother Erik and my sister-in-law Erica off to poke around in there and see if they could find anything for my nephew Mason, and then we just kind of drove around the neighborhood while we waited.

We drove around for a bit.

We kept driving around for a bit.

Then we parked and I went in to see how they were doing.

Then I poked around, found a book, got it bought and resumed waiting while they kept poking around and apparently Erica got herself a coffee somewhere in there.

Among their books bought- the only one I happened to get the name of- is Where In The World Is Henry? by Lorna and Lecia Balian. The book I got is The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History Of The Search For The Northwest Passage by Anthony Brandt.

I'm not yet sure if I'm going to find Henry eating his boots in the Arctic somewhere, but I guess I'll find out.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Russian, Englishman, Dead, Spy

I don't really have any sort of leadup to this story; I just like it, though one of the sources I was using (my primary source is The Worst-Case Scenario Almanac: Politics by David Borgenicht and Turk Regan) noted that it was referenced in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's a spy story. You people like spy stories, right?

The most obvious- and the most critical- occupational hazard to be aware of when spying is that people aren't always on the side they seem to be on. If you aren't up on that little detail, you have literally never seen spy fiction in your life of any kind and I would like to play poker against you sometime. Almost as important to know is that people can change sides; they defect. Basic, basic stuff.

Meet Konstantin Volkov, a Soviet diplomat assigned to Turkey. He also happened to be in the NKVD, which for all intents and purposes was what they called the KGB at the time. In 1945, Volkov decided that he didn't want to be Soviet anymore. He wanted to defect to the United Kingdom. So one day he loaded up a briefcase with Soviet intelligence and made an application for British citizenship.
When you're a defecting spy, you have to do something to prove yourself. So, as his effort to do so, he offered to reveal the names of a number of double agents in Turkey and the UK, including two of them in the British Foreign Office. One of them, it would turn out, was named Kim Philby.

The application, as it happened, had to go through the British Foreign Office. The first person to get a hold of the application: Kim Philby.

This is what we call an 'uh-oh'.

Philby, staring his own exposure in the face, took... steps to ensure the problem was taken care of. Steps. Just steps. No need to know what those steps are, stop asking questions, you're going to know too much. All that's really clear from the sources I have is that he called a meeting in Istanbul to discuss Volkov, made some other calls, and that he showed up to it three weeks late.

When Philby arrived, Volkov was not there. It may have had something to do with the fact that a guy wrapped in bandages was hustled onto a Soviet plane bound for Moscow. Perhaps the two are connected somehow. Reportedly, Volkov was subsequently tried and executed via live cremation, while Philby enjoyed a long and illustrious career of being a Soviet mole before putting out his memoirs and going peacefully in 1988 at age 76.

We won't have anything here tomorrow; it'll be a pure soccer-book day on my end. Or for normal people, Carnival kicks off in Brazil tomorrow. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

State Flags 101

Everybody knows the American flag, right? You probably know a number of other national flags as well (how many of them you know, that depends, though it should be assumed that you at least know the major ones like France, Japan, China, Canada, etc.)

State flags are a little trickier- though there are a few instantly-recognizable ones like Ohio, Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado- but shouldn't actually be too much more difficult because, although a lot of American state flags look alike, a lot of them also have the name of the state printed right on them. My state, Wisconsin, is one such state.

But it's understandable if the average person can't name some of them.

The average person.

If you make your living writing about politics- say, if you're Donovan Slack of Politico- the bar gets raised a little bit. You really ought to know your state flags at that point.

This is the flag of Wisconsin.

(source: Flags of the World)

This is not the flag of a local union called "Wisconsin 1848".

The article has since been taken down from Politico-- which is why I link to Gawker, who snagged a cached version of it.

This has been your entry-level geography lesson for the day. For those of you who already have the state flags down, as your reward, you instead get to have a world map showing what languages people are Tweeting in.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Benton Harbor Update

Bit of an update from the Random News Generator from Saturday; on Saturday we noted how Joseph Harris, emergency manager of Benton Harbor, Michigan, put the city's radio station, WHBC, on eBay. (He had shut the station off in January.)

Well, turns out he doesn't get to do that. The FCC must approve any transfer of a radio license, and the transfer must be made locally. eBay has cancelled the auction. A Colorado-based nonprofit, Public Radio Capital, has stepped in to try and acquire the station, though again, they're looking for someone in Benton Harbor to assume actual control.

So if you live in Benton Harbor... well, really, if you live in Benton Harbor, do whatever you can to stop living in Benton Harbor, but failing that, would you like to own a radio station?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Do You Use Reddit?

There's been a change in the rules at Reddit lately, so I thought it prudent to tell you that as of now, you are no longer allowed to post your kiddie porn to Reddit.

In other news, until now, apparently it was okay to post your kiddie porn to Reddit.

You can still post your pictures of dead children, though.

If you'd like essentially this same post, but much longer and infinitely more snarky, ExtremeTech has you covered.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jonathan's Card

Last July 14, a guy from Providence, Rhode Island named Jonathan Stark decided to engage in a little social experiment. He had a Starbucks gift card. Lots of people go to Starbucks. So what would happen if he made public the barcode of his gift card and allowed this one card to be used by anyone? If they wanted to buy a coffee with it, they could go ahead. If they wanted to load their own money onto the card, well, isn't that nice of them. Stark uploaded a card, made a website, "Jonathan's Card", and a Twitter account explaining the idea behind it and keeping track of the current balance on the card, and let the chips fall where they may.

As it turned out, people played along pretty much as he'd intended. A lot of people played along, in fact. The card went viral, up to and including its being the topic of a Penny Arcade strip. As the strip indicates, clearly, not everyone was totally pure-hearted about it, but then, this was a social experiment, and you have to account for that possibility. And it did cause a lot of the users to carry on the pay-it-forward nature of the exercise.

And it would have probably just gone on as such, had Jonathan's Card not also attracted Sam Odio, who had an exercise of his own: write a code telling him when the balance on the card got up to a certain amount, sit at a Starbucks, wait for the code to tip him off, and when it did, head to the register and transfer all the money on it to his own card. Over five hours, he had walked off with $625. Granted, this plan had a second phase- sell his card on eBay and donate the proceeds to the charity Save The Children, but it wasn't enough to make up for the fact that he'd compromised Jonathan's Card and ruined things for everyone else, who now had to worry about whether any money they were putting on the card was going towards coffee or towards Odio, and while some people supported Sam, most verbally unloaded on him. (The eBay listing was removed because of a rule that says gift cards for sale can't exceed a value of $500.)

Odio's older brother Daniel, meanwhile, was putting whatever money Odio took right back onto the communal card. Sam, catching a whole lot more flak than support from people offended by his actions, offered to hand back the money he took if Stark thought Odio was stealing; Stark responded, "My impression is not the one that matters. The impressions that matter are those of the people who have been touched by and participated in Jonathan’s Card. If you’d like to speak to them, you can do so on their Facebook page." The entire episode gave all observers and participants a pretty meaty ethical debate to chew on for a while; the second link in this paragraph shows Techdirt trying to work through that dilemma.

Meanwhile, there was a lot of speculation that Stark was actually a Starbucks employee and this was some sort of piece of viral marketing. It wasn't, though Starbucks knew of the card and was rooting it on from the sidelines even though, technically, Starbucks cards aren't supposed to be used communally and its very existence was a violation of the terms of use.

Besides, Starbucks isn't very good at doing its own viral marketing. In 2006, they e-mailed some of their employees in the southeastern US a coupon for a free iced coffee and told them to forward the coupon to friends and family. They did. Then the coupon got forwarded some more. And some more. And some more. And some very much more. And the coupon got out of the southeast in a hurry to boot. In almost as much of a hurry, the coupon had gotten out to so many people that Starbucks had completely lost control of it, so much so that they opted to stop honoring the coupon. This was not a popular decision amongst all the people who had coupons, which by now was quite a few people. One of those people, upon being refused a coffee, walked straight to a nearby lawyer and struck up a $114 million class-action lawsuit (no word on how it turned out). Meanwhile, competitor Caribou Coffee, who was at the time selling iced coffee of their own on a trial basis, announced that for one day, if Starbucks wasn't going to honor the coupons, they would.

A couple years later in 2009, Starbucks tried again. Operating on the theory that some people thought Starbucks was just an uncool place to go to and drowning out the mom-and-pop cafes in town, they decided to take three Starbucks in Seattle and, as a trial, strip all indicators that they were Starbucks shops, instead rechristening them as things like "15th Avenue Coffee & Tea" that were "inspired by Starbucks". Nobody was fooled for a second. Even if you change the decor, the locals are going to remember that there was a Starbucks there immediately beforehand and the employees are the same and the coffee tastes the same, and the dots are going to be connected pretty quickly. And if they weren't clear on the concept, the actual neighborhood cafes were all too happy to shout it from the rooftops. In 2011, 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea was turned back into a formal Starbucks. One of the three targeted for remodel didn't even get as far as the renaming. (As far as I'm aware, the other one, Roy Street Coffee & Tea, is still under that name, though it's widely known as the "stealth Starbucks".)

So seeing as Jonathan's Card was actually working out pretty well for them for once, until Odio came along, Starbucks was willing to look the other way on it. But now that the card had been compromised and the social experiment ruined, they pretty much had no choice but to let Stark know they were shutting down the card. That happened on August 12, a little under a month after the experiment began. Stark, for his part, looked at the bright side, noting on the card's website after receiving the notification from Starbucks:

We believe this is the start to a bigger more glowing picture. In the last 5 days or so, we've received hundreds of stories of people doing small things to brighten a stranger's day: Paying for the next car at the drive through. Sharing a pick me up with someone who has had a rough time. Charging up a phone card and sharing it with strangers at the airport. The list goes on, and on, and on...

So, tonight we lose our barcode. But of course, we never needed it in the first place.

As for Odio, Stark noted, "The card wasn’t hacked. He was standing in the store swiping the card just like anybody else." He was also critical of the notion that one person screwed it up for everyone, saying, "From the inside that's not how I see it at all. Tons of people were way more generous than I thought. Just because one person spray painted the mural doesn't make it a failure." Keeping in that vein, a Facebook page devoted to Jonathan's Card was maintained to direct people's energies toward related efforts, though it appears to have faded to silence in December.

And for the most part, the social experiment appears to have ended in success.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Run For Your Lives

Oh God. The robots know origami.

....oh God. The robots ARE origami. Foldable paper robots are lifting 100 times their own weight and operate only on puffs of air that are about twice the strength of human exhalation. And the link is showing that they've teamed up with the bendy invertibrate robots I warned you about back in November. We're screwed now. Run. Run for the hills.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Random News Generator- United States

I was wavering between doing an update on Beyaz, a birth-control pill we've covered here last May, or running the Random News Generator.

The RNG landed on the United States. (Yes, the US is in the hopper as well. Our number just hadn't come up until now.) So I guess we're covering Beyaz anyway.

First off, though, since there's free rein now to do any story out of the United States, let's give a mention to Benton Harbor, Michigan, where since the spring of last year, an appointed 'emergency manager', one Joseph Harris, has been given dictatorial-level authority to run the town in whatever manner he deems necessary in order to bring the city out of the red financially, stripping the power from Benton Harbor's elected officials, who had no authority to do anything but call and adjourn meetings and take minutes, until such time as they were barred from even attending them without Harris' permission. In the time since, Harris has given this list of orders, viewable at your leisure. They include firing and replacing the mayor pro tem, cancelling Constitution Week, and condemning a hotel which sat across the street from Whirlpool headquarters. Whirlpool, for its part, stands accused of essentially blackmailing Benton Harbor into giving Whirlpool whatever it wants on pain of them leaving town and taking thousands of jobs with them.

So far, Benton Harbor is still running a deficit, and was late in paying its taxes besides.

Rachel Maddow and Eclectablog have been watching Benton Harbor particularly closely, and they've now found that Harris has put the town's radio station on eBay. There are, as of this writing, two bids; the high bid is $5,100.

That noted, back to Beyaz.

Our last visit to the topic was a running of a series of commercials that showed, in order, the ad for a pill called Yaz; a government-mandated 'clear-up' ad manufacturer Bayer was forced to then run; an ad gathering people for a class-action suit because Yaz put pregnant women at risk of blood clots; and finally, an ad for Beyaz, which was quickly called out as basically Yaz with some vitamin B9 tossed in, which does little for the blood clots.

Watson Pharmaceuticals, a generic-drug company based out of Parsippany, New Jersey, is currently working on a generic of Beyaz. Which is well and good- except for why we'd want more of that pill around- but you have to wait for the patent to expire before you can do that. Bayer's patent on Beyaz doesn't expire until 2014. Bayer has, of course, balked. The patent's still active, after all. They have to defend it.

What brings us here is that Watson has formally challenged the patent. Watson does a lot of this kind of thing, having recently settled generic-drug lawsuits with Johnson & Johnson (Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo, a birth control pill) and Mallinckrodt (Exalgo, a pain pill) just in the past month. A quick search also uncovers a lawsuit with Momenta and Sandoz over blood-thinning pill Lovenox, another one with Unimed over testosterone gel AndroGel, and there's this and there's this and there's this and there's this and you get the idea. If you get the feeling that it's actually part of Watson's business model, you'd probably be right; after a drug's patent expires, if you're the first generic to get approval, you get 180 days of market exclusivity before the floodgates open to everyone else. The clock doesn't necessarily start when the generic hits store shelves- court tie-ups can run the clock dry before the drug can be brought to market- but sometimes it does start when it hits the market, and it's enough of an incentive to want to be first in line, even if you have to jump the gun to do it.

And if Watson didn't jump the gun, someone else would. Lawsuits of this nature are routine (PDF) in the generic-drug industry, and often end in a settlement in which the generic holds off on entering the market until an agreed-upon date in exchange for a) being first, and b) not being financially de-pantsed by the patent-holder. If you'll go through the Watson lawsuit stories linked, you'll find that that's how things typically end.

So if things hold, you can expect Watson to release generic blood-clotting birth-control pills to a pharmacy near you before you know it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Election Coverage Do's And Don'ts

Since we're getting into high-gear election coverage, before we get too much further into the process, let's just take today to remind all you people covering the election what is and is not something that voters might be able to use when they step into the booth, using recent election news as examples:

*The congressman facing an insider-trading probe, in this case Spencer Bachus of Alabama. Especially if he's chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
*People convicted of voter fraud. Especially if they're the top election official in the state, as happened in this story out of Indiana.
*Where candidates are getting their money or looking for money, or maybe not getting their money anymore. In this case, Sheldon Adelson has been single-handedly keeping Newt Gingrich in the race, and Foster Freiss has been doing likewise with Rick Santorum, but Adelson may be about ready to call it quits, meaning Gingrich has big problems.
*The potential of foreign money coming in as donations. Pick your least favorite country. Imagine money from there bankrolling a candidate. Enough said.
*In fact, pretty much anything that involves the words 'Citizens United' is an excellent choice.
*The topics that candidates choose to spend their time talking about given the chance. Although be wary of putting too much stock into it; given what happened after 2010, the topics candidates focus on during the campaign and the topics they'll focus on in office cannot be assumed to be one and the same.

*A candidate's campaign playlist. Does anyone but you really care how many songs on the playlist are by non-American bands? Do YOU even care? Has anyone ever gone into a voting booth and said 'Well, I was going to vote for Bob, but he used a Beatles song of all things! We declared INDEPENDENCE from England, you cur!' The only way this might matter in the slightest is if the artist tells them to stop using it, and then that's getting into matters beyond the song itself.
*Ralph Nader. Honestly, he's the reincarnation of Harold Stassen at this point. I'm pretty sure my 3-year-old nephew has more of an impact on politics than Nader does at this point.
*Where people are getting their election news. Let me tell you where they get their election news: everywhere. Everywhere they turn. Let me tell you who cares: the media and that's about it. Let me tell you who cares who got the best ratings or who was first to call the election: nobody except the media. Who was first to call the 2008 election for Obama? I don't know, you don't either, and whoever was first was probably only first by, like, two seconds because everyone called it for him as soon as the West Coast polls closed. Here's what people care about: you not blowing the call entirely like you did in 2000. That's it. Get the call right and you're golden. Nobody cares who called the race first. People care about who won the race.

Oh, and bit of an update on yesterday's post: Steve Holland, who introduced the bill to rename the Gulf of Mexico as the 'Gulf of America', turns out to have done so for the purposes of satire. Holland, a Democrat, did it to poke at the kind of things the Republican Party spends their time and energy on. I'll cop to having gotten taken like everyone else that saw the article, but again, I wasn't worried about what the Republicans thought of it. I was worried about what Mexico thought of it. And also: if you have to explain that your joke is in fact a joke, your joke didn't work.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Freedom Post

You know what never stops getting stupid every time I hear it? Legislators trying to change the name of something carrying the name of a country they don't like to something blindingly patriotic. You look petty, you look foolish, and the odds are heavily stacked against you regarding the likelihood of the name actually taking.

Your mind has probably already gone to "freedom fries". Good first move. For those unfamiliar, back when the United States was gearing up to start the war in Iraq, France balked. In response to France's opposition, House representatives Bob Ney of Ohio and Walter Jones of North Carolina introduced legislation- legislation which passed- changing the name of French fries in the Congressional cafeteria to "freedom fries" and French toast to "freedom toast". An assortment of other restaurants across the country decided to score a cheap political point or two and do the same. The French embassy, for its part, basically told the United States that it had bigger things on its mind than what to call potatoes and to grow the hell up.

It was changed back to "French fries" in 2006 after Jones changed position on the war in 2005, coming to regard it as a mistake.

But it goes further back than that. In World War 1, when the United States was fighting Germany, sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage", dachshunds were renamed "liberty hounds" and German measles were called "liberty measles". This came amongst beating up people who didn't buy war bonds and the mob in Collinsville, Illinois that lynched a German immigrant and wore red, white and blue ribbons to court where the jury let them off while a band played patriotic music, but that's not our focus. (Though it does further illustrate just how idiotic blind patriotism can make you if you let it.)

Mental Floss compiled a list of other renamings that don't just involve the United States- the Arab world made a Coca-Cola alternative called Mecca Cola in response to anti-Arab sentiment in America, New Zealand renamed French bread as "Kiwi bread" in response to France conducting nuclear testing in the area, and Iran called Danish pastries "Roses of the Prophet Muhummad" because of that cartoonist guy, among others.

Today's offender: Steve Holland, state legislator from Mississippi, who has introduced a bill to change the name of the Gulf of Mexico to the 'Gulf of America'.

Which is actually getting into more serious renamings. When you change the name of food, it just annoys your adversary. When you start trying to change the name of a part of the map that the two of you share, you start running the risk of getting into international-incident territory and, when it happens, it often veers into the realm of straight-up territorial disputes.

You see international disputes over naming rights fairly commonly on the map if you take the time to look. Eastern Asia sees it at least three times with China, Japan and the Koreas, not counting the dispute over the Korean peninsula itself in case you forget about that. First, you have what's internationally called the Sea of Japan, which South Korea prefers to call the "East Sea" and North Korea calls the "East Sea of Korea". There's also what are internationally called the Liancourt Rocks- South Korea calls them Dokdo; Japan calls them Takeshima. Third, there's what's internationally called Socotra Rock, which isn't even above sea level but which China calls Suyan Rock and which South Korea calls both Ieodo and Parango.

Granted, you might still not cause a stir with the act itself. After England ordered the Libyan embassy in London closed in 1984 in the wake of the death of policewoman Yvonne Fletcher at the hands of Libyan embassy officials, Moammar Gadhafi responded by ordering Libyan maps to remove England. There'd just be water there bordering Scotland and Wales. (The real source is one of my books, Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest by John J. Kohut. Sorry about the best online source I'm able to find being some guy's sermon.) But even then, relations had already deteriorated to the point where embassies were closing. The map change, again, is petty in the grand scheme of things.

Let's just hope Mexico sees the 'Gulf of America' proposal as petty and not anything more.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Sacred Band of Thebes

It's probably a moot point now in the United States, given that Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been killed and buried. But A, there are still plenty of other countries out there and B, I came across it after the fight was already over anyway.

No matter. When the debate over ending it was taking place, a major argument against ending it was basically that gay soldiers would be too distracted by being around others of the same gender, despite the fact that, given that gay soldiers kept getting booted out for being found out, gay soldiers were already serving without any problems and the straight soldiers kept attesting to that.

But we could have gone back to Ancient Greece and found a fighting force built specifically around not just gay soldiers, but gay lovers. Now, if the distraction theory held, they'd have done terrible and this would be one of those adventures-in-stupidity stories I love telling.

Not so much. The force was called the Sacred Band of Thebes. Theban commander Gorgidas, in 378 BCE, compiled a group of 150 gay male couples, plucked from the regular Theban army. (No women, of course. This is still ancient Greece we're talking about.) The idea for an all-gay force germinated a few years earlier from a writing of Plato, called the Symposium (it's dated somewhere between 385 and 380 BCE), where a series of people speak, one at a time, on the topic of love.

The idea for the Sacred Band came from a speaker named Phaedrus, who took quite the opposite tack. Far from being a distraction, Phaedrus theorized, having your lover beside you would be an inspiration and incentive to fight even harder:

For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to the lover, than a beloved youth. For the principle which ought to be the guide of men who would live nobly – that principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honour, nor wealth, nor any other motive is able to implant so well as love ... And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city ... and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him.

Gorgidas decided to give it a shot. At first, couples in the Sacred Band were paired up, but still split amongst the balance of the army- this group would get a few couples, this other group would get a few couples as well, etc. When Gorgidas was succeeded by Pelopidas shortly thereafter, the couples were made into a single, separate band of troops, placed right at the front. The Sacred Band became shock troops, the very first soldiers the opponent would see. And Pelopidas stood right there amongst them.

And they saw plenty of the Sacred Band. The force lasted for 40 years. That may not sound like all that much in the grand scheme of things, when you're talking something that happened thousands of years ago in the first place, but think of it from your perspective. That's as long as The Price Is Right has been around. (At least, the Bob Barker/Drew Carey version. Don't write in and bring up the old Bill Cullen version that started in 1956.)

Were they any good? Well, the 40 years they were around coincided with Thebes' heyday. Among the first people to see them were the Spartans, which was another reason for the Sacred Band's creation: in 382 BCE, Sparta had taken over a Theban citadel and Thebes needed something to drive them back out.

At the city of Tegyrae, the Sacred Band ran into a group of Spartans while on a recon mission, with the Spartans outnumbering them at least by a 2:1 ratio, maybe even 3:1. It didn't matter. The Sacred Band smacked the Spartans silly.

...wait, what?

Nobody saw that result coming. Thebes didn't see it coming. Sparta certainly didn't. Both thought that even an evenly-matched fight was going to be a struggle, and with that kind of advantage, the Spartans should have beaten the Sacred Band into the ground. Given what actually happened, Thebes got a boost of confidence while Sparta was left to figure out what just happened. Both geared up for a long war, one that would end at Leuctra in 371 BCE with Thebes thoroughly breaking Sparta's back, a win that would permanently ruin Sparta's influence over Greece.

Typically what would have happened is that each side would have put their big guns on the right side of their formation- it was a tradition thing- with the more inferior soldiers being put further and further to the left of the formation. Both sides' elites would presumably exploit their respective mismatches and the battle would go from there. That's not what happened at Leuctra. What happened at Leuctra was that the Theban commander flipped the script: the Sacred Band was put on the left of the Theban formation with a thick stack of backup troops behind them, while his inferior troops were not only placed toward the right, but toward the rear as well, in something of a diagonal formation. The Spartan elites wouldn't get their traditional mismatch. It worked; the Spartan elites couldn't handle the Theban elites plus the deep bench behind them, and never really made an impact on the fight. Things fell apart from there; the rest of the Spartans, seeing what was happening to their best troops, lost their resolve.

Let's just reiterate here that the band of gay lovers was used as not only soldiers, but the Theban elites, and that they're the ones who ended up breaking the influence of Sparta. Not bad.

So what ultimately happened to them? Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great happened to them at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. That's what it took to beat them. Thebes- and most of the Rest of Greece as well- got steamrolled and added to Alexander's empire like everyone else. Interestingly, in the process of losing, while the other Thebans ran like hell, the Sacred Band, true to the original theory from the Symposium, stayed and fought to the last man. It may have been Alexander the Great bearing down on them, but that's still the person they love that he's bearing down on. Everybody died where they stood.

After the battle, Philip II took a survey of the field, and happened across the bodies of the Sacred Band. When he was told that that's who they were, he reportedly broke into tears and said, "Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Breaking News From Atlantis

It doesn't exist again, despite great confusion on this matter.

Next time, when the NOAA tells you there was a screwup with the sonar, you may want to pay heed to the possiblity that perhaps there actually was a screwup with the sonar and that those little bumpy lines aren't in fact streets.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Random News Generator- England, we are not covering the diamond jubilee, and we just noted how cold it is over there.

Instead, let's talk about England's much-maligned CCTV cameras, the ones that give everyone there creepy Big Brother vibes... and the newest fight over them that will do absolutely nothing to allay those vibes.

Namely, the CCTV cameras are talking.

At a number of places in London, the town council of the suburb of Camden installed and activated a number of talking cameras. When someone comes into the range of the cameras, they say in an American voice, "Stop. This is a restricted area and your photograph is being taken. It will be sent for processing if you don't leave the area now." It will do this even if you are a legitimate visitor. It will do this even if you happen to live at the building being watched. Or at least, it would. It creeped so many people out to such a degree and caused them to push back so much that Camden Council wound up turning the voices off, claiming they were never supposed to be on in the first place. According to the council, the batteries were changed in the cameras 4-5 weeks ago and in the act of replacing them, the voices accidentally got turned on.

That still, of course, leaves the question of what the voices were doing even sitting there in the software to be potentially turned on. There are two reasons for that. First, Camden Council cited safety concerns- an effort to cut down on crime- though as the Telegraph noted in an article focusing on one apartment complex in particular where the cameras were activated, that complex saw no criminal activity whatsoever over the most recent year with figures available.

Needless to say, the 1984 and Robocop references have been coming hot and heavy. Nick Pickles of the group Big Brother Watch noted, "This kind of technology may be acceptable in a police state or a science fiction film, but it is absolutely not in modern Britain... The idea that a Robocop recording will tackle antisocial behaviour and crime is as laughable as it is a total invasion of privacy. Who knew councils had the authority to take your photograph simply because you walked into a communal garden?"

Which leads to the second reason the voices were in the software: this is not the first go-around in England over talking CCTV cameras. This particular innovation dates back to a trial run in Wiltshire in 2003, and has popped up at various locations across England over the ensuing near-decade. This appears to be the first implementation of them in a residential zone, though CCTV cameras in residential areas have been implemented before, notably in 2009 at an apartment complex in Torquay. The residents there appeared to be equally angry, especially since they were assessed a rent hike to pay for it. More typically, the talking cameras are employed in commercial areas to break up what is most commonly called "antisocial behavior", which generally means littering, graffiti, loitering, vandalism and things of that ilk.

Which hasn't gone totally perfectly; in 2007, a talking camera in Middlesborough mistakenly issued a warning to a mother for littering when she hadn't actually done anything wrong. The police ended up issuing a formal apology after the incident wound up on the local news.

Perfectly or not, though, the voices are there, and while they may have gone away in Camden, at least for now, England can count on them speaking up again.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

In Case You're Actually Choosing Gardening Over The Super Bowl

As Super Bowl Sunday's pregame show kicks off and we in Packer Nation prepare to formally hand over the title belt, the major complaint a lot of people have is that they don't like the matchup: a rematch of the Giants and Patriots. Some fans would rather see literally any other combination of two of the 32 NFL franchises than watch the Giants and the Patriots.

Well... you could be out in your garden.

In fact, as you may have noticed this winter (at least if you're not in Alaska or Europe; you guys can blame something called arctic oscillation), and as the USDA is indicating with their updated hardiness maps, it's a pretty good time to be out in your garden. For those that don't go playing in the dirt much, the USDA hardiness map divides the United States into a number of different 10-degree climate zones (each of which are then further divided into two 5-degree subzones apiece), based on how cold the average winter is expected to get in different areas. By knowing what zone you're in, you then know what kind of plants will survive the winter, when it should be safe to plant the ones that can't, and when to get your crops in and out of the ground.

The new map, takes into account the past 30 years, as opposed to the past 15 years used in the last map (which was released in 1990), and the map is warmer than the 1990 map, generally a half-zone warmer. That means different plants and earlier planting. The USDA, for its part, is going out of its way to stay out of the climate-change fight, but it's pretty hard to conclude anything but the blindingly obvious.

If you do play in the dirt, the interactive map is here. Once you find your zone, check what will grow in that zone. For example, I'm sitting in Zone 5, so if you're likewise, you'll want to go here.

After the game, of course.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not The Random Music Generator; It Just Sounds Like It

It's going to be a TED talk today. Or actually, make that a TED performance. Today you'll be meeting a guy named Scott Rikard, who last September in Miami discussed the matter of repetition in music, and the importance of same.

To prove the importance of repetition, Rikard, a mathematician, set out to create a piece of music that had no repetition whatsoever, using the keys of a piano and something called the Golomb ruler.

*The keys chosen for each successive note were selected by multiplying by successive powers of three (1, 3, 9, 27, 81, etc.), and then dropping sets of 89 from the totals until the number provided could match a key on the piano (...9, 27, 81, 243-178=65).
*The Golomb ruler is a ruler on which integers are marked off in such a way that no two distances between plotted points are the same distance apart. This was used to create pauses between notes.

The idea was to create, by way of the lack of repetition, the world's ugliest piece of music. Interestingly enough, though, the commenters on the TED website, after listening to the piece, generally figured it to be at least a little better than it was made out to be. A few even considered it to be rather beautiful, if in a really strange way. One commenter compared it to an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Judge for yourself.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Two-Year Anniversary

Today is the two-year anniversary here at Random Human Neural Firings. If you've joined us for the first time over the past year, during the one-year anniversary I told how this blog came to be. So if you're interested.

The part that's important here is that it was created as an attempt to build a profile to try and get into professional journalism. Part of that involves writing quality pieces. I'm doing the best I can on that front; whether I'm good enough is really up to you. The other part of that, though, is getting that writing in front of the people who make such decisions.

There, I'm going to admit that I don't know enough about what I'm doing. It's frustrating. I have a marketing degree and yet I can't seem to market myself for some reason. The most I typically seem to be able to accomplish as far as getting links out there involves waiting for someone to bring up a topic that I've already covered at some point in greater detail, linking to the article in question as part of a response, and I get a couple extra hits that way. Submitting to larger places, I don't ever get responses, I don't know if I'm presenting the links to them correctly, I don't even know if, through the hit-counter statistics, the link has even been clicked.

The other thing is, with the soccer book also being worked on, I'm noticing that I'm not accomplishing as much marketing as I could be doing. When I get the blog post done for the day, I typically pivot straight to the book, as if to say 'okay, that piece of writing's done, now quickly on to the next piece of writing'. It's not a total waste- I am still getting book work in- but it's still a failing of mine on that front, and I need to figure out how to fix it.

That mea culpa accomplished, as with last year, what I'm going to do is provide links to what I consider to be my ten best articles over the past year, in chronological order. They are as follows:

2/14/11- The Arab World: What Next?
3/23/11- The Famewhore Experiment
4/29/11- The Tinkerbell Effect
6/8/11- Capped
7/1/11- The First Professional Wrestler
8/21/11- Stop Reading Chain Letters, Seriously, Come On
9/7/11- One Wonders How Dad Stays Rich
9/24/11- Skid Row, and Skid Row Lite
12/1/11- Getting Tough On 'Tough'
12/21/11- The Spurious French Connection

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Up With People

Assuming you'll be watching the Super Bowl halftime show, as opposed to something like the Puppy Bowl, you already know Madonna's going to be the halftime act. As soon as she was announced, the wardrobe-malfunction cracks immediately started flying, to the point where she had to officially deny that any nudity would happen.

This would not be a matter of speculation if the NFL had gone with the most experienced of Super Bowl halftime acts: Up With People.

Founded in 1965, Up With People is an organization that has operated as a singing ensemble consisting of... well, really, you could dance around it with terms like 'positive young people' and 'multinational cast' and 'clean-cut troupe', but really, the best term is 'happy-dappy nonthreatening Glee rejects who are so cheerful it's actually creepy'. Every six months, they assemble a 'cast' and send them off to go inflict cheer on people.

That's what they are now, anyway. They were founded under far cloudier circumstances; they were created in 1965 by the Christian movement Moral Re-Armament, which was in turn founded by Frank Buchman and his 'Oxford Group'. Buchman was as happy-dappy as the Up With People derivation would suggest. This was something of a bad thing, as Buchman, over the course of the late 1930's, was too happy-dappy for his own good. In the pre-Pearl Harbor era of World War 2, as America watched the Germans and Soviets antagonize each other, Buchman backed the wrong horse, meeting with Heinrich Himmler and speaking praise of him and Adolf Hitler.

Further down the timeline, Up With People itself was co-opted by corporate interests during the 60's and 70's, on the theory that if hippie liberals were going from town to town singing happy-dappy songs, they weren't going from town to town singing protest songs and speaking out against the Vietnam War. The group was bankrolled by the same sorts of interests until 2000, by which time they had become a punchline, the corporate interests had pulled the plug, and the fees to join had become so high (so as to make up the difference) as to become prohibitive. Finding alternative funding, they resurfaced in 2004.

Then there were the parts about the cult-like behaviors such as arranged marriages and denials of sex prior to said marriages. But we'll leave that alone.

The place did give some people their start in show business, most notably Glenn Close. But if you ask Close, she will deny it. She absolutely does not want to talk about it. Nor do a lot of the other alumni.

So now that you're sufficiently squicked out, please enjoy the halftime performances of Up With People!

SUPER BOWL X, 1976- Steelers 21, Cowboys 17 (Orange Bowl):

SUPER BOWL XIV, 1980- Steelers 31, Rams 19 (Rose Bowl) (EDIT: I had originally posted a repeat of XVI's show here):

SUPER BOWL XVI, 1982- 49ers 26, Bengals 21 (Pontiac Silverdome):

SUPER BOWL XX, 1986- Bears 46, Patriots 10 (New Orleans Superdome):

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Define "Phenomenal"

You know what's phenomenal?

Revolutionizing the way people go about saving historic buildings from the wrecking ball. That was what Lee Adler, who died on Sunday at age 88, spent his life doing. The method he pioneered in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, was that preservation groups would buy historic buildings slated for demolition and then resell them to people who would pledge to restore them. Not only did it prove to be repeatable nationwide, it got a lot of groups to think beyond saving one building at a time and on to thinking about saving entire blocks and neighborhoods.

You know what's phenomenal?

Discovering a type of fungus that eats plastic. That's what some students from Yale managed on a trip to Ecuador last year, finding one previously undiscovered type of mushroom- Pestalotiopsis microspora- that can not only eat plastic, but survive on nothing but. Given that plastic doesn't decompose, this is potentially huge, especially because it can do so in an anaerobic environment, meaning without the presence of oxygen. Or to put it another way, the kind of environment you'd find at the bottom of a landfill. The detailed findings have been published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, viewable here if you've got $20 to burn.

You know what's NOT phenomenal?

Thinking "I'm no spring chicken anymore and I really haven’t done anything phenomenal"... and responding to this by getting 107 of your online friends- or really, three of them, because most of the others got sick of it- and setting a Guinness world record for most comments on a Facebook item. Especially if most of your share of the 1,001,152 comments consist of "go". Not only is this spectacularly useless on its face, the Guinness record will very likely attract challengers now that it's out there and announced. That's what most records that get into the book are these days: something referred to as 'Guinnessport'. Beating a Guinness record for the sole purpose of beating a Guinness record, no matter what the category. Or, alternatively, creating a record. That's where all the records for things like 'most eggs smashed on forehead' and 'longest distance traveled doing The Worm' reside, as well as, of course, the record for the most Guinness records. People wouldn't be doing them if Guinness didn't give them a platform. I guarantee you that all across Facebook, groups are forming right now just to try and beat that mark even if they don't know the mark exists (how many times have you seen 'I bet this group can get a million likes'?), and sooner or later, one of them is going to do it.

That's not phenomenal, unless you count phenomenal wastes of time.