Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Random News Generator- Belarus

Well, here's what happened. I had spun the Random News Generator, and it landed on Belarus. I spent a good chunk of the day writing a nice little piece built around this story concerning two people convicted in a Belarus court of spying for Lithuania, and how this reflects on their larger relationship with each other. In short, both nations put on a smiling face for the rest of the world, they have good trade relations, but they internally undermine each other, harboring the other nation's opposition and cracking down on those who have too many ties to the other, though Belarus is way worse with it. I was going to talk about how Lithuania, being the better-viewed of the two, plays it up to the international community about how they hope Belarus will come to the table soon and yada yada you know the rhetoric. I was even going to relate the whole matter to the depiction of the nations in anthropomorphic form in the anime/manga series Axis Powers Hetalia, where Lithuania's character is depicted as harboring romantic feelings for Belarus, who in turn harbors unrequited romantic feelings for Russia, who in turn harbors unrequited semi-romantic feelings for Lithuania.

Then Blogger went haywire on me and ate the whole goddamned thing.

So I'm pretty much left with that one-paragraph summary on what you WOULD have seen, and am relegated to passing you off to this more detailed overview of their relations. So, happy new year, everybody except Blogger, who can go eat a dick.

Falling Asleep In Fargo

I am tired. I'm sick with a cold or the flu or whatever it is this is they both feel the same to me anyway. I want to go to bed. So for nobody's benefit but my own, I am going to go find the most sleep-inducing video possible and put it up here.

...oh, okay, here we go. A time-lapse drive from Milwaukee to Seattle, taken in July. The route goes through North Dakota. The video lasts 2 hours, 43 minutes. By the time I get to Montana (Montana is entered an hour 16 into the video) and actual decent scenery (flatness ceases 22 minutes after entering Montana), I'll be long since asleep.

Nighty night.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Empty Quarter

When it comes to deserts, the largest one, the Sahara, is typically the one to capture everyone's imagination. There are, of course, some others- Gobi, Atacama, Mojave, Kalahari, the Outback- and of course you have your occasional wiseass who likes to remind everyone how a 'desert' just means a lack of precipitation as an excuse to toss in somewhere like Greenland. But one of the most forboding deserts is really more of a subset of the larger Arabian Desert that encompasses the Middle East: the Rub' al Khali, or Empty Quarter, which makes up southeastern Saudi Arabia as well as much of Oman, Yemen and the UAE. The Empty Quarter is the largest pure sand desert on Earth- the largest desert, that is, that meets the description of 'desert' that a small child would have. Every larger desert is going to have rocks and cliffs and such; here, we are talking nothing but sand the whole way.

And that makes it magnitudes harder to, oh, say, cross. Of course you can drive across it; 1,000 kilometers isn't exactly the Dakar Rally- heck, it's not even the Baja 1000, where spectators like to construct homemade booby-traps and put them on the course- and Dakar veteran Moi Torrallardona of Spain recently set a new record time crossing the Empty Quarter, managing 849 kilometers of it in 10 hours, 22 minutes.

It's walking it that's the problem. You have to work just to find a water hole, and that's all you'll find, apart from some occasional shrubbery. No settlements for the vast majority of the quarter (though ask the UAE about the roads and luxury resorts sometime that have relegated that section of the crossing to little more than hiking on the side of the freeway). No shade. Most of the time, not even a decent footing. That car you're driving can still easily sink into the sand. And sink. And sink. A lot.

For those of you who never played Uncharted 3, here is footage of a plane landing at an airport situated in the Empty Quarter. You'll get the basic idea.

The first non-local to cross it- first European, really- was Bertram Thomas of the UK in 1931, going from Muscat to Doha two years after Lawrence of Arabia himself mocked the very idea of it. Thomas had the aid of local guides, but they were guides who were kept in the dark about what in blue hell Thomas had gotten it into his head to attempt because otherwise they'd never have agreed to it. The Saudi segment of the desert is still as nasty as advertised, though the experiences of previous explorers means people attempting the crossing nowadays don't have to do like Thomas did and negotiate for three days to get guides and lead a whole entire expedition and look over the horizon for potential enemies of the guides. You still, though, have to bring everything you're going to be using. No living off the land, like you could try to do in expeditions elsewhere.

Until you get to the UAE. Then you just flag down the first person willing to drive you to Dubai.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Starting January 1...

...portions of the Affordable Care Act will kick in. A tax on health insurers will commence; Medicare Advantage programs will have to spend at least 85% of their subscriber premiums on actual medical costs, as opposed to administration and profits; and employers will be permitted to tie as much as 50% of their employees' insurance costs to their participation in various wellness programs- 30% for general wellness, or 50% for programs aimed at quitting tobacco.
...the Boy Scouts will accept gays.
...40- and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs will no longer be available.
...Colorado will see the first state-licensed marijuana retailers open.
...13 states will raise (PDF) their minimum wages; 1,441,000 workers nationwide are currently paid salaries below their new respective minimums and will therefore get automatic raises, and 1,122,000 additional workers stand to get raises through restructuring of employer payscales. The largest increase is in New Jersey, going from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $8.25. New York will also decouple themselves from the federal minimum, rising to $8.00. will no longer be able to smoke on the campus of San Diego St.
...Los Angeles will ban grocery chains from using plastic bags.
...residents of Albemarle County, North Carolina with junked cars on their property must completely cover or screen them so that neighbors cannot see them. Tarps are not acceptable. mothers in Oregon can take the placenta home if they want.
...fracking operations in California will be required to disclose, to a certain extent, what chemicals they're using during the process.
...Illinois' speed limit will tick up from 65 mph to 70 mph. Using your cell phone while driving will also become illegal.
...Australian workers who believe themselves the victim of bullying in the workplace may apply to the federal Fair Work Commission to seek redress.
...Latvia will join the eurozone. Most Latvians aren't happy about it. will note that you didn't even bother to make a resolution this year because you're just going to break it anyway.

Friday, December 27, 2013

How To Troll On The Internet

1. Do not troll on the Internet. Yeah, I know that might be a hard Step 1 for a change.
2. If you must troll on the Internet- and some of you certainly feel that way- do at least be careful not to push your victim over an emotional cliff. Establish some limits.
3. Say, if the person in front of you has posted a picture of their arm after having engaged in cutting, that is not an appropriate time to troll. If there is an appropriate time to troll, it's over comparatively petty things, like a sporting event, where it can be written off as smack talk. A person cutting themselves is a person that needs genuine support.
4. So it should go without saying that a person cutting themselves should not be told to continue cutting themselves.
5. If your online handles both reference the same thing- such as, say, establishing the both of you as fans of Selena Gomez- this is a further sign that this is not a person to troll. After all, perhaps the two of you would like each other if you got to know each other a bit. You know you have the one thing in common.
6. Many celebrities keep a close eye on their online fanbase.
7. Selena Gomez is one of those celebrities.
8. Celebrities are very often mindful of when their fans engage in behavior that is in opposition to the message they intend to spread.
9. Selena Gomez is friends with Demi Lovato, who at one point checked into rehab over, among other things, cutting.
10. If your handle is "selenagomesfan", be particularly careful of behaving in a manner consistent with that which Selena Gomez hopes to promote. The same goes for equivalent names of any celebrity. You more than anyone else are the ambassador for that celebrity; the way you treat others is going to factor into how others view the celebrity and particularly their fanbase.
11. You are also among the most visible fans to the actual celebrity.
12. Selena Gomez has a very large fanbase, large enough to where she can afford to jettison the occasional misbehaving fan.
13. Selena Gomez is well aware of item #12.
14. If you are "selenagomesfan" on Instagram, it may be time to get a new handle.

A Study In Studying A Study

You are probably aware, from your having had to sit through endless political shouting matches in the media, that a story can take on some wildly different tones depending on who is reporting it and how they view the event in question. What I provide today isn't political at all, but just because something isn't political doesn't mean it won't be similarly parsed.

The source story is an article published in the journal Cancer assessing the effectiveness of acupuncture. In case you need a refresher, in acupuncture, the object is to stimulate specific areas of the body in order to improve the flow of chi through it by puncturing those areas with needles. The full article's behind a paywall, but in summary, the study, led by Ting Bao of the University of Maryland, took 47 women who had breast cancer ranging from stages 0-3 who were taking aromatase inhibitors, which help treat the cancer but may also induce menopause-like side effects (women taking them are already post-menopausal). 23 of the women were given an acupuncture treatment, but the other 24 were given what was deemed a sham-acupuncture treatment, in which the needles were placed more or less randomly and not actually inserted into the body. The study found no significant difference in how the subjects responded to either treatment; both responded just as positively. The conclusion was that, while either method showed a positive response, acupuncture's effect was akin to a placebo.

Going through previous studies on the matter, this study is consistent with the majority of previous studies I located, though there are certainly studies that disagree and have found the real acupuncture to have outperformed the sham acupuncture. I can't really be sure which side constitutes the true majority. It appears that even the act of studying it requires its own studies into how the sham acupuncture should be carried out (for one, the person administering the acupuncture may be biased); neither Bao nor Patricia Ganz of UCLA, who are interviewed here, think this particular study to be conclusive and agree that more and larger studies need to be done, though Bao admits it's probably worth a shot if you're in that situation. 47 people isn't all that great a sample size, and in science, you're not done until you can consistently repeat results, something that isn't being done here. The abstract of the source article further declares a need for additional study specifically on differences in response levels among different ethnicities, as African-Americans responded comparatively better to the sham treatment.

That's about the most even-handed summary I'm able to manage.

Enjoy it. You won't see much more of it. Now it's time to go through an assortment of other writeups on the study.

*The HealthFinder article linked above, referencing Ganz, went with the headline "Acupuncture No Better Than 'Sham' Version in Breast-Cancer Drug Study" and waited until the main body of the article to start introducing ambiguity to the matter. Though once it does, the body of the piece heavily emphasizes the need for further study.
*An obscure place called PR Pick, meanwhile, characterizes it as "Both Real And 'Sham' Acupuncture Reduce Side Effects Of Breast Cancer Chemo", and wonders whether it matters whether it's real or not, though it does eventually get around, in the late stages of the piece, to allowing that the sample size was small- PR Pick specifies that there were only nine African-Americans in the study- and that, yes, further study is warranted. At least it made it in there.
*Lauren F. Friedman, for SFGate via Business Insider, gets a tad bit starker for the 'anti' side with the headline: "New Study Exposes Acupuncture As Pseudoscience". There's nothing in this article about requesting further study, even though it links the HealthFinder article.
*Nicholas Bakalar of the New York Times takes the 'pro' side with his interpretation: "Acupuncture, Real or Not, Eases Side Effects of Cancer Drugs". He emphasizes Bao's comment that it's worth a shot and, again, does not mention a need for further study.
*Jaleesa Baulkman of the University Herald goes so far as to praise the sham acupuncture in her headline, "'Sham' Acupuncture Treatments Can Ease Hot Flashes, Side Effects Of Breast Cancer Treatments", focusing on the specific areas where the real acupuncture and the sham acupuncture improved on not having acupuncture. And- once again- there is no mention of the need for further study.

Most of the articles written on the topic take the 'pro' side of the argument over acupuncture, emphasizing that they both produced positive results over and above the fact that neither did any better than the other. Which is fair enough; the results did show that, after all. It's not like much of anyone's coming out and saying acupuncture's going to kill you or anything; at worst it's pretty much harmless as long as you're using clean needles. Many, though, did not also feel the need to call for further study: the New York Times did not, while PR Pick of all places did. The places that called for further study earliest and most prominently were industry-related publications that have been through this rodeo before, such as News-Medical ("Acupuncture treatments may help alleviate side effects of breast cancer drugs"- note the word "may" in there) and PsychCentral, where the very first words in the article were "A new pilot study", aka 'this study is hopefully the first of many'. These two pieces are most interested in the possibility that the sham treatments themselves may be beneficial in their own right, without outright implying that they are, as the University Herald piece did. 

Think of acupuncture what you will. Personally I don't think much of it on the basis that I don't need perfectly good skin getting needles poked into it by the bushel, though I allow that placebos can have a surprising effect on people. Your brain can trick you into one hell of a lot, for better or worse. But whatever you make of it, the only truly responsible way to report on this study in particular is to emphasize, as early as possible, that the study didn't tell the whole story and the study leader said as much. Running full-speed in one direction or the other and acting like this is the end of the story is not what you do here. 

And when PR Pick understands that and the New York Times doesn't, we have some issues.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas, Utah

The 10th Circuit court in Denver has today refused to stay the ruling by Robert Shelby of a federal district court that Utah's ban on gay marriage, as approved by the voters in 2004, is unconstitutional. This sets the stage for the rush in gay marriages that are a result of the ruling to have several months to continue while the appeals process plays out, while a stay of the ruling by them, or by an initial appeal to Shelby that was also denied, would have stopped any further marriages until the legal process played out. The only further appeal that can be made is to the US Supreme Court, but as Republicans in Utah wish to halt the marriages as quickly as possible, the 10th Circuit is their fastest option... unless the 10th Circuit upholds the ruling as well.

So all the options for a quick stoppage of the marriages have now been exhausted. Merry Christmas, gay couples in Utah.

For The Record

I suppose, as it is Christmas Eve now, it might be a nice idea to provide some videos of other people's Christmases. So since I'm not up for providing anything bummer-worthy this particular stretch of days, here's a compendium of videos from this Christmas season, with one common theme: each and every video depicts a Christmas-themed Guinness world record attempt, the category of which is provided in parentheses.

COLLEGE STATION, TX, UNITED STATES (Largest gingerbread house; successful)

WAUKESHA, WI, UNITED STATES (Most people caroling; still waiting for official verification but projected to be successful)

COBOURG, ON, CANADA (Heaviest sleigh pulled by Santa Claus; successful)

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL (Tallest floating Christmas tree; successful)

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND (Largest simultaneous cracker pull; successful)

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, ENGLAND (Most people in Christmas jumpers; failed)

GRAVESHAM, WALES (Largest gathering of Santa's elves; verification undetermined but believe me, it doesn't matter in the slightest)

IASI, ROMANIA (Largest gathering of Santa's elves; successful)

WAIT, HOLD ON; NORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND (Also largest gathering of Santa's elves; successful)

NO, STOP THE PRESSES; WORTHING, ENGLAND (Also largest gathering of Santa's elves; successful)

BANGKOK, THAILAND (Most people in a human Christmas tree; successful)

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (Most lights used in a decoration; successful)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Random News Generator- Chile

About a week ago, Chile held a presidential election. The winner, Michelle Bachelet, previously held office from 2006-2010, and was returned in Chile's first presidential re-election since Arturo Alessandri served in the 1930's. (Although do remember that little interlude with Augusto Pinochet.) Bachelet defeated Evelyn Matthei by a margin of 62-38, Chile's widest margin since 1946.

Bachelet is aligned to the left; Matthei to the right. Matthei got pasted in the election largely due to her ties to unpopular outgoing president Sebastian Pinera, aligned center-right, as well as Matthei's father having been part of the Pinochet regime; the election was defined largely as a referendum on Pinochet, which the Pinochet-aligned candidate is always going to lose. Pinochet ruled from 1973-1990, meaning there are a lot of people in the electorate who remember what living under him was like. Bachelet took full advantage by loading up her campaign platform with outright reversals of lingering Pinochet-era policies, be it on abortion or education or the constitution itself, last written in 1980, which she has pledged to rewrite.

That is obviously the big news in Chile right now. Elsewhere:

*In 2010, as you might recall, a tsunami hit Chile as the result of an 8.8 earthquake. Some 525 people died as a result, and their supreme court has ruled at least one of them as preventable. You see, the tsunami warning issued by the government was lifted a little too early, meaning some people who needed to evacuate ended up remaining in their homes instead. The court case in question regards one such person, Mario Ovando, whose home was hit with him inside it 20 minutes after hearing a radio report stating no danger from the tsunami. The government reissued the warning, but only after it was too late, and Chile's supreme court has as a result awarded his family 55 million pesos, which is $103,840.

*Doug Tompkins, co-founder of outdoor apparel company The North Face, has donated 94,000 acres of land to help create a new national park, Yendegaia National Park, in the extreme south of the country. The acreage, combined with 276,342 acres contributed by the outgoing Pinera administration, will be next to both the previously existing Agostini National Park and Argentina's Tierra Del Fuego National Park. Which is all nice and awesome and spiffy... but how in the world did Doug Tompkins manage to acquire that much land in Chile? The land, as it happens, was previously owned by a drug dealer, whose name I can't seem to track down. The drug dealer, headed for jail, needed to sell some of his property to help pay his lawyer and pay off his debts, and in 1998, Tompkins came calling.

The reaction he's getting is a big step up from the suspicion that initially greeted Tompkins after his purchase. A national park has always been his endgame; a conservationist, his goal was to hold the property he'd bought until the government could muster up the resources to protect it themselves. And it's not the first time he's donated land for the purpose. But he does still have his opponents, who state, in essence, 'who are you to tell us when we can own our land'. They contend that Tompkins' holding of the land obstructs regional development of economy, infrastructure and tourism to the area. It's land they have other plans for.

Which, of course, is the whole reason Tompkins holds onto it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Guess Which One's Using The Battleship

Today is TED talk day, celebrated randomly whenever I feel like it, so start making circles on your calendar. Any circles. I'll make them for you, in fact. Just bust into your house with a Sharpie and draw circles on anything that looks like a calendar.

Today's speaker is Paul Piff, a social psychologist at Cal-Berkeley; he spoke in San Rafael, CA in October. The subject is, at its center, whether money makes you mean. As the talk goes on, it gets more into general economic inequality and matters you've likely heard before, which by itself wouldn't result in my selecting it for usage here. But the first half of the talk in particular is what I want to pass along. It concerns a series of experiments he and his people did regarding the small-scale behavior of individuals when that inequality is taken into account. He begins with everybody's favorite game to rage-boardflip, Monopoly, by giving one player twice the money and twice the speed on dice rolls as their opponent, and seeing how they acted towards each other.

Drug Consumption Rooms

Today I'd like to point you towards an article from Sidsel Overgaard of NPR concerning a policy you'll only see in the most socially liberal of locations, such as your Amsterdams, your Vancouvers, your Sydneys, scattered locations around Europe, and in the article's case, Copenhagen. It's called a drug consumption room, or DCR- Copenhagen calls them 'fix rooms'. (The first DCR to be officially sanctioned, for the record, was in Bern, Switzerland, in 1986.)

The theory behind a DCR is this: a user of your harder drugs, even if they don't want to be on the drug and want to quit, are nonetheless usually not exactly able to stop taking it without at least some form of assistance or support. So trying to hunt them down and arrest them when they have to respond to that addiction isn't really going to get them any closer to quitting, and besides, chasing them down only serves to drive them deep into the city's nooks and crannies, making those nooks and crannies more dangerous for everyone else. A DCR is a place where a user with an addiction can openly come, anonymously through a nickname, and take care of that addiction in a safe place, using sterile equipment, under the supervision of a nurse, without fear of arrest or public humiliation. While they're there, if they do express an interest in quitting, resources to start along that path are placed within easy reach.

Copenhagen has a 2-square-mile zone around at least one of their two DCR's where drug use does not make you a candidate for arrest; police will instead try to point you in the DCR's direction. (Dealing drugs, meanwhile, will still get you arrested.) They've had the DCR program in place for about a year, and while it hasn't completely taken drug use off the streets, you could be forgiven for thinking so, as one region of town formerly rife with users, needles and drug paraphernalia has been made nearly clean through users going to the DCR instead. They also report that, while there have been overdoses along the way, so far, nobody has died from one, at least not in Copenhagen.

Meanwhile, a study published in 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine, using Vancouver's DCR as a test subject, showed increased enrollment in detox programs among users of the facility. There are a couple possible reasons for that: the program is within the easiest possible reach; lessened fear of punishment for having the drugs on them in the first place; a buildup of trust of the authorities through continued positive interaction with them; and as one Copenhagen user in the NPR article notes, being at the DCR allows users to be amongst people that they can be social with on whatever level, be it authority or fellow user, and just being social at all- as opposed to being alone in some alley somewhere- helps show users some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite that evidence, let's not get too ahead of ourselves. This is very much the kind of thing that's only going to grow on a city-by-city basis, because asking cities to open a facility where people can legally take drugs, even for a reason and goal as that, is a lot to ask someone to wrap their head around. Any city that adds a DCR is not going to be cajoled into it; they're going to need to see proof to their individual satisfaction that the concept works, because otherwise the worry is going to be that you're just allowing people to shoot up unencumbered and so people are going to start using more often, thus making their problems worse. Which despite the evidence so far is not an easily-dismissed argument, and in some cities, maybe those fears even get realized, especially if a city runs their DCR poorly or halfheartedly and/or fails to gain the trust of their local users. Copenhagen has buy-in from their local police, and they work to make it function properly, but in some of your harder-line locations, where police are more collectively inclined to punish, trust would be a much rarer commodity. Joe Arpaio, the self-styled 'America's Toughest Sheriff', could never put one in Phoenix, to use an extreme example. He'd have no credibility. The users there would likely dismiss it as a sting operation, and the way some of the authorities there would run it, there's a possibility they'd be right.

All you can really say is, any city that adopts the practice, you need to commit to it wholeheartedly and sincerely. And best of luck to you.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Floozy... Wait, No, Terrible Title, God, Aack

The price of bitcoin has straight-up crashed by half, on news that the Chinese government has banned their country's financial institutions from accepting it, exchanging it, or having anything to do with it. Now, I could join the throngs of observers whose reactions amount to 'DIE FASTER, DAMMIT'. But then, I already attempted to do that back in May, when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission took a run at bitcoin, and that proved premature.

I have a better idea.

Let me tell you about a currency called flooz. Yes, that was its name. Founders Robert Levitan and Spencer Waxman took an Arabic word for money, fuloos, and altered it to 'flooz'. Flooz, the hallmark of, was created in February 1999 as part of the dot-com boom. Levitan had just left a successful venture, iVillage- which is still around after a 1995 launch, making it outrageously long-lived in Internet terms- and his personal stock was hot. As such, he had no trouble launching Flooz.

The idea was this: a consumer would purchase flooz, and send it in an e-mailed greeting card to someone. Flooz could then be used as currency at participating retailers. The intent was that Flooz would make money from commissions paid to them by the retailers from purchases made with flooz. They were not the only company with this idea, so they had to stand out from the market.

That certainly tends to happen when Whoopi Goldberg is your spokeswoman. Of course, Whoopi Goldberg also costs a lot of money.

Now, back in those days, people were scared to give their credit card number over the Internet, as they were with most other information, such as their real name. Nowadays, that's not an issue, but back then it was, so a digital currency that didn't require you to supply a credit card number to exchange was useful to some people that wouldn't want to exchange actual legal tender. You needed one to buy the flooz in the first place, but after that you were in the clear. However, other people that aren't consumers also find the lack of credit card numbers useful.

People who can steal one credit card number, for example.

In June 2001, the FBI called Flooz to inform them that $300,000 in currency had been sold to credit card thieves in Russia and the Philippines over a three month period as part of a money-laundering operation. Needless to say, this money probably was not going to be spent at and Tower Records. The trigger for this was the people with the stolen credit card numbers finding strange charges on their accounts, and complaining to the credit card companies. The credit card companies, in turn, decided that this was not something they wanted to be a part of anymore, and stopped processing flooz transactions until they'd built enough money up in reserve to cover the fraudulent transactions.

And with a key player in the transaction system out of play, that was the whole ballgame. Consumers began getting error messages trying to purchase new flooz. The retailers honoring flooz took down their links to it. Flooz, the company, stopped getting money from people buying flooz, because nobody could buy it anymore. The end came very quickly: in August, having burned through $35 million, they closed access to online accounts and said only that they would have an announcement "soon". That announcement would, of course, be the company's closure... and when that happened, all the flooz in the world vanished. E-Commerce Times, linked earlier in this paragraph, quotes one poster from the MyCoupons forum:

"I am going to cry. I lost about $350.00. $200.00 of this was NOT prize money; it was MY hard earned real money! I am so sick right now. I was saving this money for Christmas presents. How can they do this to people? I have a good mind to write to Whoopi Goldberg and tell her the only reason I bought Flooz was because she was the spokesperson. I can't believe they can just steal our money like this."

The bitcoin subforum on Reddit is currently stickying a link to a suicide hotline.

In all seriousness, if that last link is relevant to your interests, put down whatever it is you've picked up. The sun will rise tomorrow.
I am going to cry," one poster wrote. "I lost about $350.00. $200.00 of this was NOT prize money; it was MY hard earned real money! I am so sick right now. I was saving this money for Christmas presents. How can they do this to people? I have a good mind to write to Whoopi Goldberg and tell her the only reason I bought Flooz was because she was the spokesperson. I can't believe they can just steal our money like this." - See more at:
I am going to cry," one poster wrote. "I lost about $350.00. $200.00 of this was NOT prize money; it was MY hard earned real money! I am so sick right now. I was saving this money for Christmas presents. How can they do this to people? I have a good mind to write to Whoopi Goldberg and tell her the only reason I bought Flooz was because she was the spokesperson. I can't believe they can just steal our money like this." - See more at:
I am going to cry," one poster wrote. "I lost about $350.00. $200.00 of this was NOT prize money; it was MY hard earned real money! I am so sick right now. I was saving this money for Christmas presents. How can they do this to people? I have a good mind to write to Whoopi Goldberg and tell her the only reason I bought Flooz was because she was the spokesperson. I can't believe they can just steal our money like this." - See more at:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Update Your Maps

You may have missed this, I certainly did for a little bit, but back in October, the nation of Cape Verde- sitting off Africa's west coast- submitted a name change to the United Nations, preferring to call themselves Cabo Verde. It still translates to 'green cape' either way, but now the official name is all in the same language.

It hasn't completely made it around the grapevine yet, as Cabo Verde isn't the most prominent country on the planet. You'll still hear it being called Cape Verde for a while, but it should trickle through eventually. In the meantime, the designation will probably be something like that on, "Cabo Verde (formerly Cape Verde)".

So just a heads-up, the next time we get around to talking about them.

It's Mostly Cloudy In Detroit

Seeing as kicker Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens just single-handedly defeated the Detroit Lions 18-16 with six field goals, closing with a ridiculous 61-yarder with 28 seconds left, the city of Detroit is not happy right now. The Lions' playoff hopes just took a big hit.

You are very likely making some crack about the city of Detroit itself right now. Pretty much everybody does, including the media. It seems like every time you do a story about Detroit, it's going to fall into one of two general categories:

A: How Detroit is a tough old bird and it's coming back really we mean it this time.
B: No it's not.

I suppose the reality is a little bit of both: while pockets of enterprise and small-scale success are present, as they are in most any city, especially of a city of Detroit's ever-shrinking size, those pockets aren't enough to even come close to fully counteracting the larger trend of ongoing decline. It would be preposterous to say the decline ends in some extreme such as Detroit becoming a ghost town. That would be silly. The bottom hits somewhere before that. The question is, where is that bottom.

But that having been noted, those little pockets are worth noting, and Aaron Lewis of SBS Australia, in the middle of following Story Category A below, has told of a couple such pockets, of which I'd like to highlight Detroit SOUP.

Detroit SOUP works kind of like a cross between Kickstarter and Shark Tank: once a month, an event is held where, for a $5 cover charge, you can come in, get a bowl of soup, some salad and some bread. You hang out with whatever other random people showed up that day, and in the process, you're presented with a series of four project proposals to improve the city in whatever fashion. Projects get four minutes to present and four questions from the attendees to field. After hearing them, they all chat and hang out and discuss, and then they vote. The project with the most votes gets all the cover-charge money.

Of course, I don't think they'd say no if the occasional out-of-towner clicked that Donate button on the website, to help cover the logistics costs of hosting the events.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reverse The Polarity Of The Electromagnetic Flow

That, up there, is a rather labored Doctor Who reference, but it's also something you might be affected by in the near future. The Sun reverses magnetic polarity about once every 11 years- we're not sure quite why- and its latest reversal is slated to happen within the next three, four months. The magnetic field will slowly weaken, go down to zero, and then reverse course. This specific reversing has its north pole changing to a south polarity before the south pole changes to north, meaning for now, the Sun effectively has two South Poles.

As it happens every 11 years, you should be able to tell that it won't do anything too major to the planet; however, there will be some geomagnetic storms as a result, which might screw with some satellites and inconvenience any electronic devices you might have on hand. Not bricking or anything; should just be the odd blackout. You'll also be able to see the Northern Lights more easily, if you're far enough north for that to be a reasonable possibility.

After all, lots of planets have a north.

Everybody's Just The Worst

The world is rather concerned about North Korea again, after Kim Jong Un had his uncle executed in what is widely believed to be a consolidation of power, and who has followed that up by summoning businesspeople in China to North Korea in what appears to either be a loyalty test or a prelude to further purges. While we could try and parse out what this means or try to guess what Un will do in the near future- and many are doing just that- here we'll leave it at the obvious observation that Un is proving himself to be not only most cold-heartedly bloodthirsty of the three Kims by a significant margin, which is really saying something, but that when family members that close to you are purged that dramatically, you're on your way to the all-time Ruthless Bastard Dictator Hall of Fame.

As something of an appreciation of what that means, I have here a Sporcle quiz providing you with a list of 20th and 21st-century dictators (with one exception ruling before that period). There are 99 on the list. Your official task is to say what country each of them ruled, with 20 minutes on the clock. As this quiz was made in 2011, Kim Jong Un is not included, and neither is Kim Jong Il, though Kim Il Sung is. This is because no country is represented more than once. Your unofficial task, though, is to run through that list populated exclusively by some of the absolute worst people to walk the Earth over the past century or so, and to compare Un, or what we at least know of him, to the group displayed. Un does not project to match up favorably with very many names here.

And in the very likely event many if not most of these names don't ring a bell at all, well, pick one and start reading up.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rich Portuguese, Poor Portuguese

There appear to be a pair of paths to gaining citizenship, or at least residency, in Portugal as of late, should that be a thing you're inclined to do. Neither of them are exactly paths the average reader would be able to pursue, though. One path is for the very rich, one is for the very poor.

THE POOR PATH: Asylum. For this path to work, of course, you have to be in a country deemed by the one you're entering to be a country worth seeking asylum from. This generally requires living in an active warzone or an extreme dictatorship. The 74 asylum-seekers we're referring to here happen to have a country of origin that qualifies on both counts, namely Syria, but they weren't really supposed to make it all the way to Portugal. Using fake Turkish passports, they managed to fly from Turkey to Morocco, and then from Morocco to Guinea-Bissau- a former Portuguese colony- and then on Tuesday, they flew from Guinea-Bissau to the airport in Lisbon via Portuguese flagship airline TAP.

Since they're already there, Portuguese authorities figured they might as well go ahead and hear the refugees out, and began the application process for asylum, which at least permits them to stick around for however long that takes (which, think about two months). However, citing security lapses in Guinea-Bissau- and by 'lapses' they mean 'the authorities in Guinea-Bissau forced the plane crew to board the refugees'- they have also suspended all flights to the country, an action which predictably made Guinea-Bissau unhappy.

THE RICH PATH: Buy your way in. Literally buy your way to citizenship. In response to a flagging economy and money heading outwards as opposed to inwards, in October 2012, the Portuguese government introduced what's been called the Golden Visa program. It's very simple: if you buy a house in Portugal for at least half a million Euros, you get citizenship for five years. They intend to limit the program to 400 visas per year, lest some rather obvious, shall we say, hostile-takeover schemes emerge from a sufficiently wealthy nation, such as China, who in September leased 5% of the land in Ukraine. You can also get in by investing one million Euros in the country, or by creating ten jobs. China, where you cannot actually own land, only lease it, is leading in application count, followed by former Portuguese colonies Brazil and Angola.

Portugal is far from the only country to attempt such a scheme, with several other nations in Europe- Latvia, Ireland, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Malta just last month (though Macedonia has reversed course)- offering similar or sometimes better citizenship situations, with prices and offers varying depending on the country. This CNBC article and this CNN article note countries outside Europe, selling citizenship of some sort by investment or purchase.

Such as the United States, where the Immigration Act of 1990 permits (PDF) foreign investors to obtain a green card- specifically, an EB-5 visa, valid for two years- on condition that they invest $1 million and create ten jobs. The investor and immediate family don't count. Or, you can get in at the $500,000 level presuming that your investment is made in high-unemployment or rural areas. Again, China leads the way. There is a limit of 10,000 visas available this way per year, and while that hasn't been hit yet, as of late the cap is getting a run for its money, a development that's drawn the attention and concern of Senator Chuck Grassley, who believes that China and Iran may be exploiting the rule for purposes of espionage.

No word on what he thinks about what Guinea-Bissau might do.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fragile, Brittle China

It is cold. It is likely you are also cold. We both wish to be warm.

Throw yourself on top of the furnace vent and never ever get off of it.

Also kill Florida.

I hear Greece is nice and warm this time of year, so here's a game that takes place there. It's called Minotaur In A China Shop. The idea is, you're a minotaur fresh out of the labyrinth, and you've had some... anger issues, being a minotaur and all. It's not your fault. At least, legally it isn't. You have rage insurance that covers anything you might do, or break, while sufficiently angry. But you're trying to go straight.

So you open a china shop. Customers come in, ask for merchandise, and you go get it and bring it back to them. Another customer comes in, asks for something, and you go get-- oh, dear, how clumsy of you, you've accidentally knocked something over. But it's okay, it's all right, don't get upse-- well, fine, you broke another piece of china, but hey, you're not all that nimble on your feet, it's fine, you're good for the cost of th-- another one? Well, at least your rage insurance has kicked in, and it'll cover anything else you break from that point forward. But you are rather angry. We'll have to call security.

Word of note, I lasted until Day 3 before I dropped the pretense of even attempting to serve customers. But I'm breaking stuff where it's warm, and that's the important thing.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Crayon Rock Cycle

After two days of that kind of stat compiling, forgive me for being a mite bit wiped. So let's stick to an at-home science experiment today. We'll make crayon rocks.

There are three types of rocks, as you know: sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous. You can use the same set of crayons to make all three types. You just need some crayons you're okay with not using anymore, and parents, I assume you're the ones I'm talking to.

Here's the video form; I'll explain it again below:

First, you make sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock is formed when layers of sediment settle on top of each other. To make this, all you have to do is take some crayons, shaving them with a knife to create 'sediment'. You'll want different colors to create different layers. It's suggested that you separate out each color and pile them on top of each other after you're done; one video doing this used cupcake wrappers to keep the wax in one place. Press them on top of each other so the whole mass of crayon wax sticks together- you don't want to do it too hard just yet; you just want it all to stick together- and voila, a sedimentary rock.

Next is metamorphic. Metamorphic rock is characterized by the intense heat and pressure it's been placed under, changing it from a previous form. You can get this from your sedimentary rock by tamping it down even further. Really start pressing on it. If you want to generate heat, you can do that either from the heat of your hand, or by generating friction by placing something between your hand and the crayon wax- a book cover, maybe- and pressing and rubbing around so that the book creates friction on the wax. In the clip above, there's also a layer of aluminum foil employed so that you don't just end up coloring the book cover.

Finally, there's igneous rock, which is of volcanic origin. All you have to do here is melt the wax into 'lava' and then let it cool. That simple. I'd suggest you use a candle here, as putting that aluminum foil into a microwave would be kind of bad for your microwave.

And then, of course, you have one big, brand-new, slightly misshaped crayon at the end.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

You're a Big Fat Loser


Time for a silly little sports statistic. Since we're entering bowl season in college football, what I'm going to do is take the site Winsipedia, list off every school in FBS, and using Winsipedia's database of head-to-head results, find the opponent that each school has played the most times without winning once. Listing every school they're winless against, of course, would take forever. We are just looking for each school's historical personal Kryptonite.

Now, originally we used Sports Reference for this purpose. This article originally went up with them as the main source. However, Sports Reference doesn't have complete results. They only keep track of the results of 'major schools', which basically means FBS or FBS-like entities, and should there be a game in which a school was too far below their radar to be noticed, it won't be included in the results. Florida's recent loss to Georgia Southern, for example, was not included. Winsipedia counted more thoroughly on a per-team basis. Why did I not go to Winsipedia first? Because I only found them after I was like a hundred teams and most of the day into Sports Reference. There were swear words exchanged with Google for not alerting me to Winsipedia earlier. But there was little to do but go through the entire list again. I went as far as I could Tuesday night until I couldn't take it anymore; I come in on Wednesday fresher and prepared to finish it off. Links go to each school's overall head-to-heads as well as other assorted info we're not interested in here.

FBS schools only, of course, are listed. We'll only count active varsity football programs against them, but they don't have to be FBS opponents to be counted. So if the opponent at the top of the standings no longer plays varsity football, such as Xavier (in the case of Louisville), Xavier gets discarded and we take the next team down. But if the opponent has since moved down to a lower division, or was there the whole time (the Ivy League schools, for example), they count.

Sound good? Here is what I've got.

AIR FORCE has never beaten Baylor, Kansas St. or Penn St. (3 attempts each)
AKRON has never beaten Virginia Tech (5 attempts)
ALABAMA has never beaten Rice (3 attempts)
ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM has never beaten Kansas, Louisiana Tech, SMU, Tennessee or Tulsa (4 attempts each)
ARIZONA has never beaten Rice (4 attempts)
ARIZONA ST. has never beaten Notre Dame (3 attempts)
ARKANSAS has never beaten Miami (FL) (3 attempts)
ARKANSAS ST. has never beaten Mississippi St. (16 attempts)
ARMY has never beaten East Carolina (8 attempts)
AUBURN has never beaten SMU (3 attempts)
BALL ST. has never beaten Purdue (8 attempts)
BAYLOR has never beaten Georgia (4 attempts)
BOISE ST. has never beaten Washington St. (4 attempts)
BOSTON COLLEGE has never beaten Brown (5 attempts)
BOWLING GREEN has never beaten Ohio St. (4 attempts)
BUFFALO has never beaten Ithaca (10 attempts)
BYU has never beaten Florida St. or Iowa St. (4 attempts each)
CALIFORNIA has never beaten Texas (5 attempts)
CENTRAL FLORIDA has never beaten South Carolina (4 attempts)
CENTRAL MICHIGAN has never beaten Kentucky (6 attempts)
CINCINNATI has never beaten Florida St. (6 attempts)
CLEMSON has never beaten Centre (3 attempts)
COLORADO has never beaten USC (8 attempts)
COLORADO ST. has never beaten Nebraska (6 attempts)
CONNECTICUT has never beaten Boston College (12 attempts)
DUKE has never beaten Florida St. (19 attempts)
EAST CAROLINA has never beaten Florida St. (7 attempts)
EASTERN MICHIGAN has never beaten Michigan (10 attempts)
FLORIDA has never beaten Villanova (4 attempts)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC has never beaten Michigan St. or Oklahoma St. (3 attempts)
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL has never beaten Maryland (4 attempts)
FLORIDA ST. has never beaten Alabama (3 attempts)
FRESNO ST. has never beaten Arizona St., St. Mary's or Stanford (3 attempts each)
GEORGIA has never beaten Pittsburgh (4 attempts)
GEORGIA TECH has never beaten Arizona, Carnegie Mellon, Fresno St. or Utah (2 attempts each)
GEORGIA ST. has never beaten Old Dominion or Jacksonville St. (3 attempts each)
HAWAII has never beaten USC (9 attempts)
HOUSTON has never beaten Alabama (10 attempts)
IDAHO has never beaten USC (8 attempts)
ILLINOIS has never beaten Notre Dame (12 attempts)
INDIANA has never beaten North Carolina St., TCU or USC (4 attempts each)
IOWA has never beaten Miami (FL) (4 attempts)
IOWA ST. has never beaten Wisconsin (7 attempts)
KANSAS has never beaten Miami (FL) (4 attempts)
KANSAS ST. has never beaten Michigan St. (6 attempts)
KENT ST. has never beaten Kentucky or Pittsburgh (7 attempts)
KENTUCKY has never beaten Duke or Kansas (4 attempts each)
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE has never beaten LSU (22 attempts)
LOUISIANA-MONROE has never beaten Auburn (9 attempts)
LOUISIANA TECH has never beaten Auburn (12 attempts)
LOUISVILLE has never beaten Tennessee (5 attempts)
LSU has never beaten Nebraska (6 attempts)
MARSHALL has never beaten West Virginia (12 attempts)
MARYLAND has never beaten Oklahoma (4 attempts) (dishonorable mention for Alexandria Episcopal High School of Virginia, also at 4 attempts)
MASSACHUSETTS has never beaten Brown (7 attempts)
MEMPHIS has never beaten Kentucky (4 attempts)
MIAMI (FL) has never beaten Kansas St., Middle Tennessee St. or Western Kentucky (2 attempts each)
MIAMI (OH) has never beaten Ohio St. or Michigan (5 attempts each)
MICHIGAN has never beaten Arizona St., BYU, Mississippi St., Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Toledo or Wesleyan (1 attempt each)
MICHIGAN ST. has never beaten Miami (FL) (4 attempts)
MIDDLE TENNESSEE ST. has never beaten Mississippi St. (5 attempts)
MINNESOTA has never beaten Notre Dame (5 attempts)
MISSISSIPPI has never beaten Texas A&M (6 attempts)
MISSISSIPPI ST. has never beaten Georgia Tech (4 attempts)
MISSOURI has never beaten Maryland (6 attempts)
NAVY has never beaten Ohio St. (4 attempts)
NEBRASKA has never beaten USC (5 attempts)
NEVADA has never beaten USC (5 attempts)
NEW MEXICO has never beaten Boise St. (5 attempts)
NEW MEXICO ST. has never beaten Boise St. (11 attempts)
NORTH CAROLINA has never beaten Oklahoma or Yale (7 attempts each)
NORTH CAROLINA ST. has never beaten Alabama (5 attempts)
NORTHERN ILLINOIS has never beaten Northwestern (7 attempts)
NORTH TEXAS has never beaten Texas or Arkansas (9 attempts each)
NORTHWESTERN has never beaten USC (5 attempts)
NOTRE DAME has never beaten Chicago (4 attempts)
OHIO has never beaten Iowa St., Ohio St. or Purdue (7 attempts)
OHIO ST. has never beaten Alabama or Florida St. (3 attempts)
OKLAHOMA has never beaten BYU (2 attempts)
OKLAHOMA ST. has never beaten Air Force, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi or Ohio St. (2 attempts)
OREGON has never beaten Ohio St. (8 attempts)
OREGON ST. has never beaten LSU or Michigan (4 attempts each)
PENN ST. has never beaten Yale (7 attempts)
PITTSBURGH has never beaten Michigan St. (7 attempts)
PURDUE has never beaten UCLA (5 attempts)
RICE has never beaten Oklahoma (7 attempts)
RUTGERS has never beaten Miami (FL) (11 attempts)
SAN DIEGO ST. has never beaten UCLA (22 attempts)
SAN JOSE ST. has never beaten Boise St. (11 attempts)
SMU has never beaten Army or BYU (3 attempts each)
SOUTH ALABAMA has never beaten Arkansas St., North Carolina St. or Troy (2 attempts each)
SOUTH CAROLINA has never beaten Tulane (3 attempts)
SOUTH FLORIDA has never beaten Georgia Southern (2 attempts)
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI has never beaten Mississippi College (10 attempts)
STANFORD has never beaten Columbia (3 attempts)
SYRACUSE has never beaten Yale (11 attempts)
TCU has never beaten Auburn, Georgia or North Carolina (3 attempts each)
TEMPLE has never beaten Western Michigan (7 attempts)
TENNESSEE has never beaten USC (4 attempts)
TEXAS has never beaten Syracuse (3 attempts)
TEXAS A&M has never beaten Florida St. or Ohio St. (4 attempts each)
TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO has never beaten Rice (2 attempts)
TEXAS ST. has never beaten Baylor (7 attempts)
TEXAS TECH has never beaten Georgia or USC (3 attempts each)
TOLEDO has never beaten Arizona (4 attempts)
TROY has never beaten Arkansas or Nebraska (4 attempts each) (dishonorable mention for Montgomery Sidney Lanier High School in Alabama, also at 4 attempts)
TULANE has never beaten Florida St. (10 attempts)
TULSA has never beaten Boise St. (6 attempts)
UCLA has never beaten Notre Dame (4 attempts)
UNLV has never beaten Washington St. (6 attempts)
USC has never beaten Florida, Florida St., Kansas St. or North Carolina (2 attempts each)
UTAH has never beaten Washington (8 attempts)
UTAH ST. has never beaten Nebraska (8 attempts)
UTEP has never beaten Boise St. (5 attempts)
VANDERBILT has never beaten Michigan (11 attempts)
VIRGINIA has never beaten Boston College (5 attempts)
VIRGINIA TECH has never beaten Princeton (3 attempts)
WAKE FOREST has never beaten Florida (4 attempts)
WASHINGTON has never beaten Notre Dame (8 attempts)
WASHINGTON ST. has never beaten Ohio St. (8 attempts)
WESTERN MICHIGAN has never beaten Michigan (6 attempts)
WESTERN KENTUCKY has never beaten Kansas St., Vanderbilt or Xavier (3 attempts each)
WEST VIRGINIA has never beaten Pennsylvania (5 attempts)
WISCONSIN has never beaten USC (6 attempts)
WYOMING has never beaten Boise St. (8 attempts)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Someone Build A Really Big Straw

There are a couple semi-related things that catch my attention today; three, in fact. But two of them are really pretty obvious. The first relates to a new record being established of the coldest temperature recorded on Earth, clocking in, at least for now, at -135.8 Fahrenheit. The previous record was -128.6 degrees, recorded at Vostok Station in Antarctica. It will not surprise you to know that the new record, measured in 2010 by satellite, is also in Antarctica, this time at a random spot of land in the middle of the continent.

Story #2 regards the sun, long known as a place where, shall we say, the property values are rather low. When you get a close-up view of the sun, you can figure out pretty fast that it's kind of hot and inhospitable there. The story revolves around NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) getting a picture of the sun's interface region- the area between surface and atmosphere- and the story is, wow, it's even more inhospitable than we thought. If you'd like to get into the nitty-gritty of it, great, it's there in the link for you, but here I've got something better.

According to a release from Flinders University of Brisbane, Australia, a group of researchers has discovered some 500,000 cubic kilometers of freshwater. (The Black Sea, for reference, stands at 547,000 cubic kilometers.) Where is the freshwater? Oh, nowhere special, it's just below the saltwater, underneath seabeds off the coasts of Australia, South Africa, China and New Jersey. Lead author Vincent Post notes this to be "a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900 … This volume of water could sustain some regions for decades."

Let's note right now that scientists did already know that freshwater can sit below saltwater like this. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, the coastline will go in and out depending on the sea level. When it's low enough, such as during the Ice Age, rainwater can seep into aquifers. By the time the Ice Age ended and the glacial melt had filled the oceans to their current level, layers of clay and sediment had reached the aquifers, blocking them off and keeping the saltwater from contaminating the freshwater below. What's happened here is that the amount of that freshwater is being shown at way higher levels than previously thought.

However, even though it could sustain parts of the Earth for decades, 'decades' does not mean 'infinitely'. The water is definitely not renewable. You can, given enough time, drain a lake by way of bucket brigade. Once the water is used up, that's that until such time as the sea level falls to a level far below what it is now. And with the sea level rising due to global warming, don't hold your breath.

And that is assuming we're able to actually grab all of it without a leak. Do remember, in the event of an offshore drilling leak, oil and water don't mix. Theoretically, the oil can be pulled out with enough effort, though it will likely take more effort than we're able to expend. But you know what does mix? Saltwater and freshwater, and when you mix them, you get saltwater. You screw up drilling for freshwater, and your freshwater reservoir becomes a saltwater reservoir, and that means game over. So you have to be very careful with this.

But I'm sure the people operating offshore drilling rigs would never let something like a leak happen. Right?

The Runaway Husband

One of the general tropes of immigration is the immigrant who moves abroad in order to find work that will pay enough to make a better life for the rest of his family. The immigrant migrates alone, makes some money, they wire some of it home as remittances, and perhaps if they make enough money, they can bring the remainder of the family over the border and they can be a single unit again. That's the goal, anyway.

Often, though, that plan fails. The immigrant can't find work that pays enough, or even find work at all. Now what? It's not quite as simple as 'just head home'. For one, sometimes they just don't have the money left to get themselves home. That's what they showed up to find in the first place, and failing to find it, they find themselves stranded. For two, perhaps they just straight-up die overseas. For three, going back home is an admission of failure and a severe loss of face, and there are a lot of people and a lot of cultures where that kind of loss of face is simply not an option. You suck it up and make the most of the situation you do have, no matter how miserable, because even death is preferable to returning home a failure. And while you're at it, when contacting home, you do everything you can not to draw attention to it. You lie; you say that you're doing fine, or at least, that you're doing better than you actually are. If that can't be done... you just kind of stop contacting home.

Which brings us to Tajikistan, where a global-high 47% of the nation's gross domestic product for 2012 was generated through remittances, through migrants abroad, mostly in Russia, sending money back home. Tajikistan is far ahead of everybody else in this regard, with second-place Liberia getting 31% of their 2012 GDP via remittances and third-place Kyrgyzstan sitting at 29%. And Tajikistan's percentage is still climbing, being slated to hit 48.1% by year's end. It's a rather humiliating statistic for the Tajik government, especially because since so many of the migrants are in Russia, sending home Russian money, it leaves Tajikistan particularly vulnerable to Russian influence with regards to policy. If Russia doesn't like what Tajikistan is doing, it's a simple matter to start deporting Tajik workers and sending them back home, with Tajikistan taking a hit in its GDP every time they do.

It can't be good to also be seeing these two stories centering around Tajik wives who have basically figured out the game, contacting Tajik authorities at the rate of about 15 a month and asking them if they can please have their husbands deported. They don't remit, they don't write, they don't call, they haven't for as much as eight years in one case, we think they're cheating on us, so could you make them come home and support their family? The problem is, the game's been figured out too late to do any good. This is something of a desperation gambit, with other avenues for gaining anything out of this arrangement proving ineffective, and  given that it's Tajik authorities being contacted and not Russian authorities (who can be notoriously tough to contact when they don't want to be contacted), they have no jurisdiction to actually do anything.

In addition, the wives themselves don't have much in the way of recourse either. Tajikistan is a heavily Muslim nation, chiefly Sunni, and some Sunni interpretations of Muslim doctrine hold that a husband is permitted to divorce his wife simply by saying the word 'talaq' ('I divorce you') three times. (Shia doctrine disagrees, stating that it's a pre-Islamic custom that Mohammed banned in his time. They instead mandate a period in which the couple attempts to reconcile.) This is supposed to be done with witnesses present, and with a waiting period between each utterance of 'talaq'; however, some Tajik wives have found themselves getting triple-talaq'ed over the phone, or via text message.

Women, it will not surprise you to learn, have a number of hoops to jump through if they want to be the divorcer as opposed to the divorcee, such as surrendering child custody, repayment of marriage expenses and dowry, and in Tajikistan's case, acknowledgement of the increasingly stark gender imbalance. As more men take off for Russia, the women are left with fewer and fewer prospects for remarriage, and are faced with the choice of trying to go it alone; sending their children to institutions or even going themselves; or joining polygamous marriages. Tajik law, though, doesn't recognize polygamous marriages, so the excess wives can get victimized all over again if their new husband tires of them.

Presumably, taking off for Russia before their husband does isn't an option either.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Internal Programming Note

I have had a shift change at the job that actually pays me money, which is going to affect when in the day things get posted rather substantially. My shift was 4PM-1AM (Central time, of course) with variable days off. My shift is now 11AM-8PM, with set days off on Tuesday and Wednesday. It may take a little bit of time to figure out the best way to allocate my writing time in my new off hours, which now skew more towards the evening than the morning/early afternoon, like they used to. On the other hand, I'm probably not going to be nodding off and going back to sleep in the middle of putting together the day's content anymore, which was getting to be an issue.

Content is free, folks.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Your Stupidly Early World Cup Forecast

The World Cup draw happened earlier today, and the outlook for the United States, projected to be grim, turned out to be... yeah, 'grim' would be the right word. Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the latter of which has knocked the US out of the past two World Cups. But let's figure out just what happens here. At first glance, scary. At second glance, maybe not so much.

It is at this stage that I remind you I am terrible at predicting things. And we have no idea what the roster makeups will be. But hey, why not. Everybody else will, so why not give my own take on how I think the Cup will shake out now that we have everybody slotted into a schedule.

The schedule can be found here. We'll begin with the group stage.

GROUP A (Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon): Brazil's going to pull 9 points, so let's just get that out of the way. The real fight is for the second transfer spot, and that'll essentially come down to Mexico and Croatia, who meet in round 3 by lucky happenstance. Croatia hasn't had the greatest form lately- they only managed to beat Liechtenstein 3-2, for example- but Mexico's had their own problems. They probably draw and it becomes a goal-differential battle, and Mexico's prone to higher scorelines one way or the other than Croatia is. I put Mexico through.

GROUP B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia): This may look like a deep group, but really, Spain and the Netherlands are the class of the group. They meet in Round 1, though, and if someone walks off having lost, Chile and Australia have two rounds to upend things. (Though their game is essentially an elimination game; a Chile/Australia loser is not going to find the points they need elsewhere.) The winner of Spain/Netherlands wins the group. The loser will essentially play the winner of Chile/Australia, presuming there is one, for the second transfer spot. Netherlands, on almost impeccable form lately, wins the group, Spain overcomes home-continent advantage to knock out Chile. Australia knows they're up against it and will probably be happy just to take points off whoever they can.

GROUP C (Colombia, Greece, Cote d'Ivoire, Japan): Cote d'Ivoire has been buried by tough draws in recent Cups. No excuses this time. Japan will make a strong showing for qualification- they'll have more of a home edge than a lot of people think as there's quite a bit of Japanese/Brazilian cultural exchange. I think they'll be Brazil's rooting interest in the group. Greece is just too out of sorts to qualify out of any group they're in. Colombia drew cities more towards the south- Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Cuiaba- and that diminishes their home-continent edge. Had they gotten the northern cities the US got, had they been assigned to trek to Manaus, they'd be a lot closer to home soil. (But then, the only seeded team assigned to Manaus is Switzerland, so they didn't have too much hope of that going in.) You could put any of the non-Greek teams in any order you want and I'd call it reasonable. I had to work out scorelines to get it sorted out and I have Colombia getting 9 points, and Cote d'Ivoire advancing by one goal over Japan.

GROUP D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy): Well, first off, Costa Rica's completely hosed. There isn't a point in sight for them. They are goal-differential fodder for the other three. England is reportedly firing up their 1966 glory machine even given who they've been given. I don't have them even making it out of the group. In good times, they're a quarterfinal side. This is not good times. Uruguay, meanwhile, has the same basic issue Colombia has: their game against England may be in Sao Paulo, but their other two games are in Fortaleza and Natal, taking them far from the Uruguayan border, and their ideal city of Porto Alegre was only available to one seeded team as well, in this case Argentina. It shouldn't exactly stop them, but it may help cost first place in the group, which I have going to Italy.

GROUP E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras): Ecuador's another team that might have benefited from going to Manaus, but a Brasilia/Curitiba/Rio itinerary certainly is a decent consolation prize. France was in Porto Alegre in June against Brazil, though they lost 3-0. This time they play Honduras there. Ecuador played Honduras last month in Texas; they drew 2-2. Honduras, for their money, is looking to start taking points off people. They won't take enough to advance, but the draw's friendly enough for them to hope to get something, and if it's going to happen, it'll probably be against overrated Switzerland in Manaus. Ecuador/France in the Maracana will likely be for control of the group, and Ecuador's been on that particular stage a lot more than France has. Ecuador wins the group, France in second.

GROUP F (Argentina, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria): Argentina sleepwalks to 9 points. There is nothing in this group that is even in their league. The only hope of them dropping points is them sending out a B team against Nigeria after already having qualified by bludgeoning Bosnia/Herzegovina and Iran. Even then, if Nigeria threatens to get a result, the A team will get subbed in. And with the game in Porto Alegre, enough Argentinian fans will have come over the border for them not to want to go easy on whoever it is on the other side of the pitch. As for the second spot, Bosnia/Nigeria is the fight for runner-up; their game is in Cuiaba. Nigeria is also on pretty good terms with Brazil, and I see them as Brazil's preferred rooting interest. It should push them over the top against Bosnia.

GROUP G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States): Well, no sleepwalking here. The US is going to come out guns blazing against Ghana, knowing the history, and with half a year to prep for it, I don't think Ghana wins this time. Meanwhile, Germany, the clear class of the group, will be challenged at every turn, but ultimately they'll have a minimum of 7 points by the end of it. Portugal's trek to Manaus is from Salvador, an even longer trek than the US's flight from Natal, but American athletes are more used to long travel days than Portuguese athletes, potentially triggering Portugal's traditional choke job as well as the fact that everybody knows Cristiano Ronaldo's getting the ball all game and if you stop him, you essentially stop Portugal, a fact the US can exploit. (The most major piece of silverware Portugal has is this, the SkyDome Cup in 1995.) The Germans may be more inclined to rest their key players upon having already qualified, especially given easy Group H draws in the Round of 16, and if they drop points, it'll be there, as the US will have no such inclinations and in fact will likely be scrambling to win the second spot over Portugal, who will have just had a second long bit of travel of their own to Brasilia to play a Ghana team that by now is playing for pride. I think the US claims second in the group, with Portugal once again wondering WTF just happened.

GROUP H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea): Belgium gets Belo Horizonte, Rio, Sao Paulo. Probably the kindest travel schedule possible and one you'd think Brazil would have reserved for themselves instead of the Sao Paulo/Fortaleza/Brasilia schedule they actually gave themselves. Algeria's got some historical demons they've yet to exorcise, but ever since the 1982 incident they've been pretty listless at the Cup and I don't see it changing here. South Korea and Russia played on neutral ground last month in Dubai; Russia won 2-1. It really could go either way when they meet again in Round 1 in Cuiaba; I have South Korea turning the tables and claiming second in the group.

Brazil/Spain, Belo Horizonte: This could be a final, but someone goes out here and will be pissed at having done so. Spain will be that pissed nation. The Spain match will end with probably nobody happy, actually: Brazil will be under immense pressure to advance despite the fact that the reigning champs are sitting across from them, with pressure added because of the next match down. I have it going down to a penalty shootout, and the Brazilian team will not be happy to have barely escaped.
Colombia/Uruguay, Rio: This'll be a rough one, probably an ugly one. The home fans will take Colombia here, because for God's sake, it's Uruguay... in the World Cup... at the Maracana. And even though Brazil's fans are concentrating on Belo Horizonte the same day, this is where the expectations start to weigh on them, as this bit of history starts to worm into the home heads. Uruguay, meanwhile, will be fired up for any Maracana game they get, for the same reasons (and they don't have one in their group).
Ecuador/Nigeria, Brasilia: The Brazil/Nigeria lovefest ends right here, and though it's another close one, Ecuador advances.
Germany/South Korea, Porto Alegre: Germany. Next.
Netherlands/Mexico, Fortaleza: Netherlands. Next.
Italy/Cote d'Ivoire, Recife: Italy. Next.
Argentina/France, Sao Paulo: Argentina. Next. Boy, this is easy!
Belgium/United States, Salvador: Okay, this one actually requires some thinking. Belgium is scary in the first place, they've had an easy group, they've had a plum travel arrangement, while the US comes in happy to have survived this long. It's a possible trap game for the Americans, but then, the US isn't going to walk through hell only to let themselves go out to a place they've made waffle and Jean-Claude Van Damme jokes about for years. They'd never hear the end of it. It's going to be another penalty shootout, with the US's superior goalkeeping seeing them through.

Brazil/Uruguay, Fortaleza: And this? This is Brazil's Ghana. This is where the pressure becomes so large on the Brazilians as to cripple them and take their home-field advantage away. 1950 is going to loom large, and every single player on the Brazilian team knows what became of the 1950 squad. They last met in the Confederations Cup, and Brazil won 2-1 in Belo Horizonte, but this is a whole different animal than that. Brazil will not be Brazil. Brazil is going to come out playing to not lose. Which is different than playing to win, which Uruguay will be doing. Brazil goes out, and then goes into hiding, and economic protests start to mar the remainder of the Cup if they haven't already. What else is there to cheer about, after all?
Ecuador/Germany, Rio: Maybe in the group stage, Ecuador stands a shot. In the quarters, Germany all the way.
Netherlands/Italy, Salvador: Tough one to call. Probably one of the best games of the Cup here. I'll take the Netherlands, who I think has more left in the gas tank than Italy does.
Argentina/United States, Brasilia: Well, no shame for the Americans in going out to Lionel Messi. No Houdini tricks this time.

Uruguay/Germany, Belo Horizonte: Uruguay is now playing with house money. They've already won. Germany, not having already won, comes out with more of an edge.
Netherlands/Argentina, Sao Paulo: This would be their fifth World Cup meeting: Netherlands won in 1974, Argentina won the 1978 final, Netherlands won in 1998, they drew in 2006. 1978 happens to be the only one of the four to occur in South America. Argentina advances.

Uruguay/Netherlands, Brasilia: Seriously, who gives a damn. Netherlands if we have to pick one.

Germany/Argentina, Rio: The shock having begun to wore off and transforming to anger, the part of Brazil not having turned their attention to the economy lines up behind Germany to at least avoid Argentina walking off with the trophy. But then, Argentina's brought their folks over too, and they're going to be a whole lot louder. And at the end of the day, even though Germany is 4-1-1 against Argentina at the World Cup, home-continent advantage is just too strong to overcome. Once again, Argentina's only win came in the venue closest to their 2014 venue- it was the 1986 final in Mexico, the only one of the set in the Americas. In South America, all-time, Argentina has 2 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss. Make it 3. Argentina 3, Germany 2.

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela

We all kind of knew it was coming- Mandela was, after all, 95, and bedridden for much of the year- but it doesn't make his loss any easier to take. Heads of state the world over, when they take office, in the back of their minds all dream of leaving this Earth in as exalted a state as Mandela, a state where the world simply... stops. A state where the world remembers their struggles, their rise, the profound ways in which they changed their nation and the world. A state in which respect for the dead is truly honored to its core-- there is always someone willing to remind the world of whatever failings a head of state may have had, but in their case few dare try and those that do are instantly pilloried. A state where one of the first reactions of mourners is not to cry, but to exchange bits and pieces of the wisdom they had imparted throughout their life. Rarely, very rarely, do any of the thousands of these world leaders reach such a state. Nelson Mandela did, and deservedly so.

We're all gonna miss you.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How To Steal Cobalt-60

I know we just did one of these, but mother of God, folks. I can't pass this one up.

1. You'd think this would go without saying, but don't freaking steal cobalt-60.
2. In fact, make a dedicated effort not to steal anything whose name is an element on the periodic table followed by a number. Anything referred to in that manner is going to be bad, bad, bad.
3. Nor should you steal anything that is described as having a half-life.
4. If you are not sure what might be in the truck you are carjacking, ask yourself, 'could this truck possibly contain cobalt-60?' If you think the answer might be yes, don't steal the truck.
5. If confronted with a container of cobalt-60, for the love of all that's holy don't open the container you fool.
6. Cobalt-60 in particular is, aside from its intended purpose as use in medical equipment, is suitable to be the 'dirty' part of a 'dirty bomb', that is, it is the thing you would use in a dirty bomb to render an area uninhabitable. Not that anyone has actually built anything like that, but if they did, cobalt-60 would be a go-to material.
7. That is to say, exposure to cobalt-60 is going to kill you, and it will do so very quickly, though not so quickly that there won't be a period of mind-bendingly painful agony between Point A and Point B. Think maybe a couple days.
8. If you have lost enough of your mind to steal cobalt-60, expect every policeman in the whole wide country to stop at absolutely nothing to get it back (see steps 5 and 6). There's a nonzero chance that international authorities might wish to join them.
9. In fact, do not think 'get away from the cops'. Think 'get away from the military'. You do not have four wanted stars in Grand Theft Auto with cobalt-60 in your possession. You don't have five. You, my friend, have topped out at six stars. In fact, you may have managed to recode the game and given yourself a seventh or eighth.
10. However, do not expect the police to be particularly interested in catching you. This is not because they don't want you caught. In fact, they would like to see you punished very badly, even if they're satisfied that all you really wanted in the first place was the truck. The thing is, because cobalt-60 is ridiculously lethal, the police are going to figure that the problem is just going to take care of itself and the cobalt-60 is going to do a whole lot more thorough job on you than they ever could, and if you're going to be dying horribly soon anyway with no way to help you survive, much less recover to a healthy enough state to go to jail, it's probably not worth bothering. In fact, by the time they get around to holding the press conference, you might already be dead.
11. Besides, even if you do futilely manage to get yourself to a hospital in the vain hope that they might be able to do something, it's not exactly hard to keep an eye out for anyone checking into a hospital for radiation poisoning. That's a tad bit rarer than a broken leg or a case of the flu.
12. I'd say make the most of the time you've got left, but you'll be spending most of it screaming and crying.