Friday, May 31, 2013

Random News Generator- Cape Verde

Cape Verde sits about 350 miles off the coast of Africa, due west of Senegal. Normally with a tiny island this would probably be another 'arrrrrggghhhh it's just tourism blather' complaining from me. Not here. NASA takes an interest in Cape Verde, because a lot of Atlantic hurricanes form around that area. They have a thing called the Hurricane and Severe Storms Sentinel- HS3 for short- which is an unmanned drone plane they've been sending over the Atlantic on a five-year mission to understand how hurricanes form and how their intensity changes relative to that region. Previous like-minded studies have been hampered by small sample size: there are only so many hurricanes that form in any one area in any one year.

Cape Verde is being considered as a target study area this year when HS3 is sent up in August, as it was when one of those previous studies occurred in 2006 and when Hurricane Nadine was examined last year, as well as a number of other studies over the years, as Cape Verde-type hurricanes, which typically form just south of Cape Verde, stemming from air pressure waves in the African savannah, can easily be the most destructive of the season because of how much distance they have to build up strength before hitting land. Among others, Hugo (1989), Janet (1955), Ivan (2004), Gilbert (1988), Andrew (1992), and the Galveston hurricanes of 1900 and 1915 (yes, there were two; the 1900 one is the one you're more familiar with) all were Cape Verde-types.

Cape Verde itself doesn't get anything more than the odd rainstorm out of them.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

This Is Your Fault, Internet

A cat video has now gotten a movie deal. I blame you. I blame all of you and you're not ashamed of yourself at all.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

This Shortcut Not Recommended

It's been 60 years now since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to summit Mount Everest. The climb is still challenging, and as we've noted previously, the mountain still can easily assert its authority as strongly as ever, but so many people flock to it these days, and mountaineering has advanced so far since the days of Hillary and Norgay, that Deseret News has called it "the world's largest traffic jam". 52% of the attempts on Everest made in 2012 were successful, compared with a mere 18% of successful attempts in 1990. A study reports that at least part of this is driven by a desire by each climber to get to the summit no matter what, even if another member of the party has died. In non-commercial expeditions, after a party member dies, about 37.8% of attempts are successful, but in commercial expeditions, 80.6% are. The explanation is that if there's some sort of glory on the line, climbers will just leave their partymates to rot, while non-commercial parties will turn back and at least try to mourn the fallen climber's death. NBC News tells the story of David Sharp, a solo climber who collapsed and died 300 meters from the summit in 2006, and who was passed without assistance by 40 other climbers who ignored his plight because, hey, the summit was only 300 meters away.

I didn't know the 52% stat last year, but it's certainly instructive now that I have it. It's just not a very impressive feat to summit Everest anymore. Be rich enough and not completely out of shape and you'll probably get up there now. It's at the point where it's news when an 81-year-old man decides to turn back. On one single day in 2012, about 230 people got to the peak. In one day. The biggest hazard is no longer making it up. The biggest hazard is waiting your turn in line in the death zone while the hundreds of people ahead of you take their turn at the summit. The second biggest hazard is all the garbage the climbers leave up there, including oxygen tanks, tents, the bodies of those that died on the way, and the- and I'm not making this phrase up- "pyramids of human excrement", which causes even more Everest expeditions that have the sole aim of cleaning up after everyone else.

If you want your Everest summit to gain any real attention these days, it has to stand out from the others somehow. It's not enough to simply summit. You have to be the oldest to summit- the 81-year-old man, Min Badahur Surchan, was attempting to reclaim the title of oldest summiter from 80-year-old Yuichiro Mura, who had made it up the previous week. (Reclaim. As in, Surchan had previously made it up at age 78 and was trying to do it again.) Or the youngest to summit. Or climb it while missing a limb, or climb it carrying a particular heavy thing.

Or you could make a world-record BASE jump off the damn thing, as Russian Valery Rozov recently did. That ought to get some airplay. (And to answer your question: yes, of course he was sponsored by Red Bull. As he was when he did the same thing off of Shivling, another Himalayan peak.)

If one wishes to make a truly impressive climb, there are other mountains far more challenging and far more deadly. The second-highest peak, K2, has killed 19.7% of climbers from 1990 to May 1012, when Mental Floss prepared a list of five mountains deadlier than Everest. (Everest's rate is about 5%.) And it's a lot less crowded- as of then, 230 people had summited K2, compared with the 3,500-and-climbing that have scrambled up Everest. The third-highest, Kangchenjunga, has killed 22% of climbers since the 1990's and permitted only 187 summits. Annapurna, tenth-highest, had been peaked by only 130 people, with a death rate similar to K2's (though people seem to prefer quoting Annapurna's all-time death rate instead, which gets up towards the 40% mark). The people climbing these peaks are not your adventure tourists with more money than sense. The people attempting K2 and Annapurna are the people who know exactly what they're doing and get clobbered by the mountain anyway.

I doubt there's a line for that. That's really for the best.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Note Regarding Ivory Soap

About an hour ago, if you follow me on Twitter (@aallermann), you may have seen a tweet from me that read:

"LOL! RT if you know people like the 5th mom in this #IvorySoap video: via @Ivory"

This is a markedly different tone of writing than anything I ever write. For one, I don't use LOL. Second, I have never asked anyone to retweet anything. Never done it once.

More importantly, at the time of the tweet, I did not have a window open to Twitter. I was watching the most recent episode of Strip Search. I am fairly positive that my account has been hacked. By Ivory. So that they could tweet an ad.

The subsequent posts, where I'm seen mentioning that "#ivorysoap got its name because it's made from elephant tusks. Poached fresh every morning!" and "Once, a crazed murderer broke into the #ivorysoap factory carrying several garbage bags. They never found the bodies of his victims."? Those WERE me.

I've just changed my Twitter password.

In conclusion, Ivory Soap has been found at several archeological sites in the Middle East, but every single time without exception, there has also been a pentagram and an intricately-carved sigil nearby, and the archaeologists frequently report hearing faint moans of agony that have given them nightmares for weeks afterward.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Brand New Way To Flunk The Spelling Bee

Tomorrow begins the 2013 National Spelling Bee. The televised portion- the part you're familiar with, where every speller takes a turn and it's single-elimination- that doesn't begin quite yet. That will come on Thursday. Tomorrow begins the three-day preliminaries, with a computer test of the 281 regional qualifiers

This year's roster is here. As usual, Wisconsin only sends a single speller; the qualifier through the Wisconsin State Journal acts as a de facto state championship. This year, the qualifier is Aisha Khan of Madison's Spring Harbor Middle School, one of the bee's usual glut of spellers with origins in India. India itself isn't sending anyone, but there are qualifiers from American Samoa, the Bahamas, Canada's two qualifiers, China's two qualifiers, "Europe" (who sends Anuk Dayaprema of Vicenza, Italy), Ghana, Guam, Jamaica, Japan, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and the US Virgin Islands. Anyone who speaks English is eligible.

The way the preliminaries work has changed this year. Last year, the Round 1 computerized test gave you 50 words to spell, of which only 25 were actually scored. This year, you're expected to start knowing definitions, so as to discourage rote learning. It's no longer enough to just be able to recite a bunch of letters; now you have to know what those letters mean as well. So in the test this year, you're first given 24 words to spell, of which 12 count. Then you are given 24 multiple-choice definition questions, of which, again, only 12 count. Each scored question answered correctly gets you one point. You are then given a single definition question which is scored as if it were in Round 2, and then another scored as Round 3. What that means is that those are worth three points apiece. Your optimal total here is 30 points.

The actual Round 2 and Round 3 take place on Wednesday: each of the 281 spellers gets up and spells one word per round, again each worth three points. These words all come from a booklet called Spell It! that Scripps-Howard has previously distributed. Miss your word in either round, and you get the bell and get the hook. This will be viewable on ESPN3, ESPN's online coverage, beginning at 8 AM Eastern.

After that's all accomplished, a maximum of 50 spellers advance. It's top 50 minus ties: if 49th, 50th and 51st have tied after the prelims, all three of them are bounced.

About two hours after the cut, the semifinals start with another computer test on Wednesday night. It works like the preliminaries, except the 12 nonscoring words and vocabulary definitions are removed, leaving 12 words and 12 definitions that are all scored at a point a pop. A Round 5 and Round 6 vocabulary question is added to the computer test, again worth three points each. On Thursday afternoon, starting at 2 PM Eastern on ESPN2, we go down the line on the microphone again for the Round 5 and Round 6 three-point words. And as always, miss a word on the microphone and you go home.

After that's done, the total scores from all six rounds are used to determine the finalists. The field is cut to a maximum of 12 and a minimum of 9. (If it happens that the field is going to be cut to a smaller field than that, the bee officials will get together and figure out if they can accommodate the next tier of spellers. If so, those spellers advance as well; if not, they just plow on shorthanded.)

From there, we finally get to the spelling gauntlet you know and love at 8 PM Eastern on ESPN.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How To Commit Burglary

1. Don't commit burglary.
2. If you must commit burglary, try to run a slim operation. Excess lines of communication should be cut.
3. If using accomplices, if your entire crew is with you, phones will be unnecessary for the task at hand. Don't carry a phone.
4. If you must carry a phone, turn it off until needed.
5. If you must have the phone on, use a keypad lock so that numbers are not accidentally dialed.
6. Do not carry the phone in a place where a number can be accidentally dialed with your butt.
7. Do make sure that any number accidentally dialed is not 911.
8. If you think 911 may have been dialed, get rid of the phone quickly.
9. Do not allow the 911 dispatcher to listen to the duration of the crime.
10. Yes, even if it also involves drugs.

BONUS TIP: If there's a murder that you may have committed, don't butt-dial 911 for that either.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wibbly-Wobbly, Printy-Winty Stuff

I think it's time for a TED talk. (The UEFA Champions League final's about to kick off. You might need a halftime show.)

So 3D printers are becoming a thing now. Awesome. Let's start talking 4D printers then. By this, we're talking objects that can assemble and reassemble themselves. Skylar Tibbits will explain that one, or at least, he already did, in February in Long Beach.

Friday, May 24, 2013

It Doesn't Make A Great Jingle

There are, as you know, some pieces of information in the world that you know are out there, but which you know to be a secret. Some are very important, say, the nuclear launch codes. Others are... rather less so, such as who Carly Simon wrote 'You're So Vain' about.

Another one of those secrets is the identity of KFC's 11 herbs and spices. The thing is, though, the answer to that particular secret is right in front of you every time you buy the chicken. The herbs and spices have been given to you, just mixed up. You can taste them and everything. And if you can taste them, you can start to sort them out. One of Hell's Kitchen's recurring challenges is called 'Taste It, Then Make It': Gordon Ramsay gives you a dish, and your task is to figure out the ingredients and recreate it. A related challenge gives you a dish with a large number of ingredients, and you're asked to list the ingredients. There's no reason that can't be done here as well. KFC, however, has every incentive not to give it up. After all, it's a valuable trade secret. If it gets out, there's nothing to stop any and all competitors from making their own variations and cutting into KFC's business. In fact, when KFC gets outside contractors to make the seasoning, they use at least two different companies and gives each only half the recipe so that neither knows all of it.

However, one man, a few years ago, is considered to have successfully reverse-engineered the recipe. Ron Douglas of Glen Cove, New York, in 2009, first tried to weedle it out of the KFC employees. They, however, don't know it themselves; the seasoning comes prepackaged. So then he set out to make it himself. He admits that he wasn't able to make an exact match, and that doing so is likely impossible without a pressure fryer that KFC has and you don't. However, he thinks he has the recipe.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Douglas considers the key spice, out of the 11, to be Accent. You know that better as MSG. The other 10 spices, as per his figuring: chili powder, dried basil, dried marjoram, garlic powder, ground oregano, ground sage, onion salt, paprika, pepper and salt. He figures two tablespoons of Accent and salt; everything else is one tablespoon. The Guardian went and crowdsourced a non-MSG recipe; that can be seen in the link in this paragraph.

There is no real way to know for sure whether this recipe is correct, and KFC sure isn't talking. But it would be one more reason the 11 herbs and spices are secret: one of them is embarrassing.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Who The Hell Are The Hazara?

A lot of ethnic and religious groups have been persecuted in some way over the years. ...well, really, very nearly every group has gotten it at one point or another in one place or another. But some get persecuted more than others. On Tuesday- while I was getting myself back to Wisconsin- Jeffrey Stern of The Atlantic provided a look into life as a member of the Hazara people, whom he pegs as one of the most persecuted groups on Earth.

Following his walkthrough, it's hard to disagree with the assessment. Originally based out of Mongolia, the Hazara, who now modernly consider Afghanistan their homeland (with a sizable community in Quetta, Pakistan), have repeatedly been on the wrong end of the various conflicts of the Middle East over the years, singled out for not looking like everyone else (because they look Mongolian, which isn't part of the Middle East at all), repeatedly chased out of their homes and the countries where they've made camp, scattered to the four winds, and a splinter group has now found itself trapped in Syria, where they're getting shelled by both sides of the ongoing civil war for supposedly supporting the other side. Those attempting to get out of the region entirely are typically aiming for Australia or Europe... but they have to get there first, often in leaky boats. And they have to actually be declared legal, or refugees seeking asylum, which in Australia is far from a certain proposition. About 90% make the trek as illegal immigrants, but given that there's every risk of getting killed waiting to cross legally and that there's little difference in one's safety either way, whether they're legal or not is the least of their concerns. The choice between illegal and alive, and legal and dead, isn't really a choice at all.

If that last part reminds anyone of Ciudad Juarez, even though this is more targeted and more widespread, I wouldn't blame you. Quetta, a border town near Afghanistan, effectively works the same way.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Extra Baggage Edition

I suppose, after a week away in Los Angeles, that the first thing I do upon my return should be to update the Rapid-Fire Book Club and note for posterity the books that have been brought back to Wisconsin.

Turns out this is a large task. Last time I was in LA, I brought back six books. This time it was eight. I lose control of myself just a little bit in LA bookstores, it turns out.

There was also an ESPN Magazine to read on the plane down (the books that were supposed to last me until then kind of.... didn't), but come on, we're not counting that.

So let's get to steppin' here.

*Doyle, John- The World Is A Ball: The Joy, Madness, and Meaning of Soccer
*Holkins, Jerry, and Krahulik, Mike- Magical Kids In Danger (Penny Arcade's 8th collection of old strips)
*Jackson, Joe- The Thief At The End Of The World: Rubber, Power and the Seeds of Empire
*Martin, Demetri- Point Your Face At This
*Needham, Hal- Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life
*Rajesh, Monisha- Around India In 80 Trains
*Rose, David- Sexually, I'm More Of A Switzerland: More Personal Ads from the London Review of Books
*Ward, Geoffrey C.- A Disposition To Be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Internal Programming Note

This is probably the last you're going to hear from me here for probably the next week, as tomorrow morning I fly into Los Angeles and my computer access will be nonexistent or near-nonexistent. I return home on the 21st. So set your calendar for that.

(You're not setting your calendar for that.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wasn't This A Failed NBC Reality Show Once?

So this game is awesome. If you have me friended on Facebook, you've already seen this, but I have a quiz for you and it has nothing to do with Sporcle this time.

The game is called GeoGuessr. You are dropped in a random location on Google Street. You are permitted to walk around to get a better gauge of your location, but no zooming out of street view. You are provided with a world map, and your task is to pinpoint, on that map, where exactly you've been dropped. The closer you get, the more points you score. One game lasts five rounds.

Nothing is technically stopping you from using Google in another tab to assist you, but it wouldn't be sporting, now, would it?

If you top 15,000 points, you did all right; if you top 20,000, you kicked butt.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

It Can Be Done

I believe it's a good idea to give kudos to Guatemala today. Really, it ought to have been done on Friday, but we're here now. On Friday, Guatemala became the first nation ever to successfully prosecute a former head of state for genocide via their own judicial system. The recipient of the verdict, Efrain Rios Montt, was found guilty for his role in the genocide of Guatemala's Mayan population during the his rule from 1982-83, pas part of the larger Guatemalan Civil War. Rigoberta Menchu won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in alerting the larger world to what was going on. In 1999, Menchu filed suit in Spain because she didn't think Guatemala could prosecute this themselves. Most agreed with her, including Spain. Montt was sentenced to 80 years, most of which is rather academic given that he's 86 years old.

Needless to say, Montt is appealing.

For the record, let's go have a look at what the United States thought of it at the time. 1982-83 would correspond to the Reagan administration, so... let's see.... oh dear, did we ever back the wrong pony on this one.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Crazy As A-B-C

Last night, if you tuned into Kitchen Nightmares, you would have seen Gordon Ramsay, as he's fond of saying, do something he's never, ever done before: refuse to save a restaurant. It is not the first time he's walked away- in the British version of the show, he did so to the Walnut Tree Inn- but he had already helped them once, and walked out on a revisit. This is the first time Ramsay has refused to help at all.

The offending restaurant- which for some quite frankly deluded reason thinks the firestorm from the episode is good publicity- is Amy's Baking Company in Scottsdale, Arizona. if you go to the restaurant's Facebook page, you will find that owners Amy and Samy issued a statement which, as  I happened to personally note, was released during the airing of the  episode, I think during the first half. Just in time for enraged viewers to descend upon it. In the episode, it is discovered that the owners had run through over 100 different employees over the previous year; tips intended for the servers instead went into the pockets of the owners; the one server they had at the time of filming was fired for asking a simple question that the editors were happy to replay just in case any viewers doubted who was in the wrong; and all the woes of the restaurant were blamed on people on the Internet who were out to get them.

In the statement released, the owners deny taking the tips, even though one of them, Samy, had admitted on camera, to Ramsay, that they did. The commenters not only quite vehemently begged to differ, but viewers ended up so outraged that some went and did some more thorough digging into Amy's past, which tends to only happen for the really abhorrent reality-show personalities. This dig turned up (PDF) a prior conviction for using someone else's Social Security number to obtain a $15,000 line of credit.

If you'd like to see for yourself how things went down, I can't guarantee that by the time you click they'll still be up as Fox tends to lock down YouTube clips in the early goings after original airing, but I've got an active set here and here.

Despite any protestations that Amy and Samy- Amy in particular- might make, Amy's Baking Company is almost certainly not going to survive having Gordon Ramsay go on television and tell the world that their restaurant isn't worth trying to save. In fact, I have it as the most spectacular torpedoing of a professional career that I have ever seen on a reality show. And as we've noted here before, personal and professional lives are very easy to go down in flames via the medium if one is not careful.

Which leads me into what I consider to be another top contender. The one previously noted was a personal flameout; this is probably the biggest professional flameout after Amy's Baking Company.

In 2007, NBC aired a show called Phenomenon. It was essentially a talent-search competition for mentalists. The show rounded up ten of them; the audience would whittle them down as audiences do, winner got $250,000. The winner of the show's only season was a guy named Mike Super, but that isn't what we're here for.

We're here for a man named Jim Callahan. In episode 2 of the 5-episode run, Callahan, a self-proclaimed paranormalist, performed a trick where he summoned the spirit of author Raymond Hill (I'm not sure who he is either) in order to identify an object inside a case. One of the show's two judges, Uri Geller (you know him as the guy who made spoon-bending famous), enjoyed the trick.

The other judge was Criss Angel.

In the magician's community, there have long been two major camps: those who will claim that every trick is real or at least go along with those that do, and those who are open about the fact that tricks are just that- tricks- and take glee in exposing those in the other camp. Geller is in the former camp. Angel is in the latter camp. Prior to the premiere, Angel had gone on Larry King to promote the show and his own show, Mindfreak, and said the following:

"No one has the ability, that I'm aware of, to do anything supernatural, psychic, talk to the dead. And that was what I said I was going to do with "Phenomenon." If somebody goes on that show and claims to have supernatural psychic ability, I'm going to bust them live and on television. That's what Houdini did for more than half of his life, because those people prey on the vulnerable... Uri -- we had a conversation, because I told him that if he did make that claim, I would have to do the same thing."

Geller shouldn't have needed Criss Angel to tell him. James Randi had made a cottage industry out of regularly tormenting him, with an entire book devoted to debunking him written in 1982, and a few months prior to the show, The Sun- which let's note is a tabloid who we'd normally never link to here- went through 30 years worth of sporting predictions Geller had made and found them to be so bad that they titled the article "The Curse Of Uri Geller". The message was clear, though: Angel was ready in case anyone was stupid enough to try and claim they were somehow supernatural.

So when Callahan was revealed to be stupid enough- and Geller duly played along- Angel pounced.

Angel's offer was the same offer that James Randi had made for years to anyone who could prove paranormal abilities under scientific conditions. Callahan never guessed. He was promptly voted out. Geller never guessed either, but amazingly, there are those that say he ought to be awarded the million dollars anyway.

First off, let's say that Angel opened one envelope and said the other would be revealed on the season premiere of Mindfreak; however, it was not for whatever reason and the contents of the second envelope remain a mystery. The one he did open read '911', with Angel giving the reasoning that, if someone on 9-10 had been able to predict 9/11, maybe it could have been stopped.

Why would someone claim that Geller deserved the money? I could only find clips of the opening that related to that topic. I'll decline to link to it directly, but here you go. The reasoning was that, while Geller refused to answer directly, he launched into a diatribe with Angel in which he mentioned a 9, and later on a 1, and later on another 1. He may not have said them consecutively, and he was throwing around other numbers too, but he said a 9, a 1 and a 1 in the correct order at some point, so give him the money.

No, really. They're serious. Stop laughing. Even if I'm laughing too.

Callahan, for his part, to this day refuses to cede ground, telling his side of the story with the page title 'He Really Did It'. He went on to be challenged to perform a 'remote viewing' test- in which something's written in a box, the box is closed, and the test is to tell what's been written- and hemmed and hawed about it so long and moved so many goalposts that the challenge was rescinded. This is pretty much his going reputation.

Wonder if he saw that coming when he got into the magic business.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Red Alert

Ever since we landed on the moon, the next logical step for the space-inclined has been landing on Mars, and ideally, colonizing same. There have been two major sticking points, though, and we're not even counting the whole water issue:

1. Getting someone there in one piece.
2. What to do when it's time to leave.

The moon is 238,900 miles from Earth. Mars' orbit will never bring it closer than 33.9 million miles away, and in 2003, its distance of 34.8 million was the closest it had been in 50,000 years. Nobody's figured out any way to bring back anyone or anything that's been sent that far. The usual procedure is to just not bring anything back at all.

Which makes it rather problematic for a government to send someone to colonize Mars. They'd be sending someone to another planet knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will die on that planet. First off, could a government bring itself to knowingly do that. Second off, who'd even sign up for such a thing.

The answer to the first question appears to be to take it out of the hands of governments and see a private organization, nonprofit Mars One, step in. Someone who's willing to take the weight of such a mission on their shoulders. As for who would volunteer... apparently 78,000 people so far. Almost certainly more by this posting, though I couldn't hunt down a counter on the official website. Mars One intends to take four people on the first mission.

The one big problem here- my big gripe- is that no matter how many people you attract to this, you ultimately need the most competent people possible. And this isn't entirely going to be in the hands of experts. After preliminary screening, the plan is to send 20-40 candidates per applicant nation to a TV round where the audience votes on who moves on, and after final training, after which they expect to have six groups of four that they intend to send to Mars,, the audience is supposed to vote on which group goes first. The first group is the toughest one. The other groups will have the advantage of building off what has been established by previous groups. You need the most competent of the groups to be the first one to make the trip. Not the most popular.

I'm not disparaging the applicants themselves here. One can't tell whether they're all exactly clear on what they're signing up for, but it takes some serious balls just to put your name in the hopper. My hope is that Mars One does what's best for them.

Well, after deciding to send them on a one-way trip to Mars, in any case.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Irony for $200, Alex

'This authoritarian country's state-run television network recently used a clip from Jon Stewart of satire-news program The Daily Show to criticize the government of the United States, evoking wishes from their own countrymen that they had a Jon Stewart to call their own.'

What is China?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Are You Using Bitcoins?

If you aren't and are wondering what bitcoins are, well, they're this online currency some people use. Not backed by a bank or a government or anything; it relies on cryptography to work. You earn bitcoins by going out and getting a miner. Long story short, it looks for suitable cryptographic hashes, of which there are only so many, and the only real way to find them is to dive in and look until you find some. As time progresses, there are fewer and fewer new hashes to find, and eventually they'll run out. (For a more detailed answer, go here and click on 'What exactly is Mining?')

If you are using them, first off, dude, WTF. (That 'not backed by bank or government' thing is kind of deliberate.) Because there's no bank or government banking, there's no real protection from wild, uncontrolled price swings for no good reason or even malevolent reasons. You're about as protected as you were when people traded in Beanie Babies and you know how that went. And I come to you today to note that just because it's not regulated now, that doesn't mean it won't or can't be... or that the idea of same is not currently being considered by Bart Chilton of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. This is just speculation for now, as a bunch of formal steps plus consent from the others on the commission need to be lined up, but it is on Chilton's mind.

That's right: commodity. There is no physical bitcoin, and because there isn't, bitcoins, as Chilton sees it, are not a cash market and therefore fall within the CFTC's scope of operation, same as gold, silver, oil, cattle, corn and frozen concentrated orange juice. Yes, Trading Places wasn't lying to you. That is a real commodity. It's fungible, meaning any given source of oranges is close enough in property to any other given source of oranges to end up in any given carton of orange juice together. Oil's the same- Venezuelan oil, Saudi oil and Kuwaiti oil is probably all in your gas tank right now. And that describes bitcoins as well; all bitcoins are alike.

This isn't even math we can use for anything else, for Pete's sake.

Few outside the bitcoin market would argue that the market looks a bit like the Wild West. It may soon get a sheriff.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Silence Of Interest

I'm personally not one for procedural dramas. So if you're like me, you may need a bit of a primer on the show Person of Interest. Basically, there's this guy who built a machine which is linked up to just about everything that is hooked up in any way whatsoever to any kind of surveillance device or what we've taken to calling the 'cloud'- the whole entire electronic network centered around the Internet. It watches everyone, all the time, fulfilling every Big Brother fear you ever had. Every so often, it'll spit out someone's Social Security number, corresponding to someone the machine deems likely to be involved soon in a crime- victim, perpetrator, machine won't say- and this guy and another guy he wrangled go off to Fight Crime while at the same time trying not to freak everyone way the hell out, which usually involves a lot of trying to keep people from knowing the machine exists.

That doesn't always work. In the show, one person who learned of it, Alicia Corwin, noted that after she left government work, she moved to Green Bank, West Virginia, explaining that it was because Green Bank has no cell phones or wireless Internet.

That's today's subject: such a place is designed to exist. Green Bank is home to the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. It, and the Sugar Grove Research Facility (also in West Virginia; the NSA has a telescope there as well), are center to a 13,000 square mile region known as the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, largely encompassing southeastern West Virginia and northwestern Virginia. The FCC created it in 1958 to protect the telescopes. In order for the telescopes to work properly, there must be a minimum of radio interference. Any electronic device that could get picked up by the telescopes is restricted. Cell phones are permitted inside some of the area, but as you get particularly close to the telescopes, they can't be used either. Some exceptions are permitted, but those trend towards the public-safety end of the spectrum, such as weather radios and first responders.

What the zone also does is provide an unintentional refuge for people who believe they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). The mere existence of EHS is disputed- some people think that some radio frequencies can make you sick; the general scientific community think those people are simply convincing themselves that they do and display and/or develop symptoms in sympathy to it. But whether or not it's a real thing, the end result is the same: those people move to Green Bank to get away from the radio waves and complain very very loudly about any offending device anyone brings near them.

Broadcast TV is generally awful inside the area, so you pretty much need cable and satellite. That way you'll have something to watch besides Person Of Interest.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Your Science Teacher Was Maybe Possibly Wrong

Among the science you likely got taught in school regarding earthquakes is that one is formed when parts of the earth's crust run up against each other and bend and bend until eventually they snap back to their original shape. The snapback is the earthquake. We've been operating under that theory since the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

Scientists at Cornell University would like to dispute that. A team led by Richard Allmendinger recently traveled to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where cracks left over from earthquakes are particularly well-preserved, and noticed permanent deformations. It turns out they're not the first to actually notice- the Polytechnic University of Catalonia detected permanent deformation in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, and the Boxing Day Earthquake off the coast of Indonesia was observed as such by Italy's Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia in 2005 as well- so while you personally may be slightly late to the party, that's fine, because it meant there was time for supporting evidence to come forward.

What this means is that, if that's in fact the way things shake out, the already-murky field of earthquake modeling is going to get a little murkier, as it would mean the models currently in place to try to predict earthquakes are all off and need to recalibrate to account for permanent deformation. But hey, it'll be more accurate afterwards.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Reading Between The Words

We're going to play a word game today. In today's Sporcle quiz, you're going to be given a pair of words in the Scrabble dictionary (4th edition, if that matters to you) that have a single word between them (plurals and verb tenses are disallowed). Your task is to provide that word. You're given 26 pairs, one per letter of the alphabet; you have 8 minutes.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Strip Search: The Home Game

Let us begin by saying I am not an artist in any sense of the word. I'm a writer.  However, Strip Search, Penny Arcade's talent-search competition for webcomic artists- which if you haven't started watching, go get caught up now starting with Episode 1- seems to have had something of a Bob Ross-style effect on a lot of its viewers. They just want to go out and draw something afterwards.

Apparently including me.

One of the chief vehicles driving that is the seemingly-simple, easy-to-play-along nature of the elimination challenge, which fans have deemed the 'Thunderdome'. In the Thunderdome, the two artists placed up for elimination each draw one crumpled-up piece of paper from the "Wastebasket of Broken Dreams". They then uncrumple the papers to reveal two topics, and then have 90 minutes to create a comic strip combining those topics.

This is amazingly easy to emulate. You can just write down a bunch of topics, fill a little wastebasket with them, pull two out and set a 90-minute timer... which can be found here. Or better yet, skip the wastebasket and just pause the elimination episode when the two topics are revealed to the contestants. That's the approach I've just taken.


The official Strip Search website has taken to recognizing some of the better home-game strips as submitted via the #ElimComic hashtag on Twitter. In the previous round, given the topics 'mermaid' and 'ukelele', someone actually managed to sew a comic. With a sewing machine. And felt. When someone throws down that kind of gauntlet, you gotta pick it up, right? This can't be that hard to attempt, right?


So I tried my hand at it this morning. The topics presented to the viewers here were 'mystery' and 'naughty'. Topics I'm not entirely a fan of, but all right, let's see what we can do with this.

My attempt, too large to fit in the space provided here, can be seen at this link. Please once again note that I am a writer, not an artist, and I was pretty much limited to an MS Paint disasterpiece as the medium.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

November Fools' Day

There's a reason I don't participate in April Fools' Day. I brought it up last year. It's because I'm trying to be trusted. That's a core task of a journalist, to get people to trust you. If you don't have trust, you have nothing. Participating in April Fools' Day just undermines that trust. 'Hey, everyone, you really shouldn't have trusted me yesterday; it was April Fools' Day.' Okay, just today? Are there other days when I shouldn't trust you too?

The saving grace, of course, is that by now people know April Fools' is coming, so they know to be on guard. But what about when the media fools them and it's not April Fools' Day? Perhaps, say, November?

On November 9, 1874, a lengthy piece ran on the front page of the New York Herald, claiming that animals had broken loose from the Central Park Zoo and had begun rampaging throughout New York. The full text of the article can be seen here.

The headline ran 13 levels deep (headlines were multilevel back in those days). 49 were reported dead in the opening paragraph with 200 injured, with the death toll expected to rise. A proclamation from the mayor's office was reported asking people to remain indoors until the National Guard had cleared the town of the 12 animals still at large. After explaining the origin of the escape- a visitor poking a rhinoceros with his cane and the rhino busting out of the cage to get at him, followed by the rhino going around to the other cages to free other animals- the author of the article, Joseph Clarke (assigned the task by editor Thomas Connery) went on to give an eyewitness account of people being trampled, gored, slammed against cage walls, torn to pieces and otherwise horribly mutilated by rampaging animals. He told of some of the animals fighting each other. He told of a tiger charging at him. He told of how many of them were being brought down by anyone who had a big enough gun on hand. On and on he went, complete with a partial list of the names of the dead.

Until the very last paragraph. After over 10,000 words recounting the horrors of the day- MS Word has everything prior to the last paragraph clocking in at 10,158- the reader would see the following:

Of course the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true. Not a single act or incident described has taken place. It is a huge hoax, a wild romance, or whatever other epithet of utter untrustworthiness our readers may choose to apply to it. It is simply a fancy picture which crowded upon the mind of the writer a few days ago while he was gazing through the iron bars of the cages of the wild animals in the menagerie at Central Park. Yet as each of its horrid but perfectly natural sequences impressed themselves upon his mind, the question presented itself, How is New York prepared to meet such a catastrophe? How easily could it occur any day of the week? How much, let the citizens ponder, depends upon the indiscretion of even one of the keepers? A little oversight, a trifling imprudence might lead to the actual happening of all, and even worse than has been pictured. From causes quite as insignificant the greatest calamities of history have sprung. Horror, devastation and widespread slaughter of human beings have had small mishaps for parent time and again.

That's right. 10,000 words of death, destruction and horror were followed by a 'never mind' and a warning to maybe consider upgrading the zoo a bit to keep this kind of thing from happening.

If anyone made it all the way through the article to read that part, history does not record their name. In fact, odds are many people never got past the 13-level headline. Which is par for the course. That's why in journalism classes, you're generally taught to put the most critical parts of a story right at the top of the article: to have the best chance of someone actually seeing them. That's known as the lede. Often, people never read past the headline. I'm no different; in the course of finding something worth writing about here, I sift through a lot of articles and many of them aren't read any further than the headline. I see a headline, decide to pass on it, and move on to the next headline. I don't have time in the day to read all those articles to completion, much less read them all and then write my own on top of it. (Non-indicative headlines like I typically use here help combat that a bit; if you skip out after one of my headlines, you haven't really been mislead on anything since I haven't really told you anything yet. I try and write so that you're driven to read as much as possible.)

Besides, this is the kind of article you tend to drop in the middle in a blind panic to do something about it or quit in nauseous exhaustion. There's no reason to suggest that the rest of the article is anything but horror on top of horror. What is this, April Fools' Day? Of course not. It's November. Besides, as Russell Puntenney of Cracked pointed out, 10,000 words is a bit far to go with it if it's just a hoax.

So New York freaked out. Anyone who didn't freak out, or was nearing the end of the article and thereby the truth, had only to look outside to see cleared streets, armed vigilantes and terrified parents rushing to school to grab their kids and get them home to prepare for the onslaught of escaped animals in order to determine that something was in fact going on. The fact that no actual animals were around was not picked up by anyone for a while- after all, it's Manhattan and there are 12 of them; they could easily be somewhere else But Coming Very Soon. The other newspapers in New York were completely taken in as well; World reporter George W. Hosmer showed up in his newsroom with a revolver in each hand exclaiming, "Well, here I am." General John A. Dix never made it to the part of the article where he personally shot a Bengal tiger, and set out with a rifle himself... thereby fulfilling the article's proclamations enough for anyone who did get that far to believe it.

Herald owner James Gordon Bennett, meanwhile, spent the day in bed along with a lot of the city.

Good idea. Because when people inevitably figured out what had actually happened, papers nationwide wanted his head. The New York Times, while conceding that the cages in the zoo could in fact stand to be upgraded, called the Herald's way of going about saying that "intensely stupid and unfeeling". Some readers even marched down to the district attorney's office to see if some sort of charges could be pressed against the paper (the answer, as it turned out, was no). The Plainfield Times (NJ), according to the book The Martians Have Landed! by Robert Bartholomew and Ben Radford, reported that one of their local residents actually did die, of a heart attack while reading the article.

The Herald ultimately weathered the storm of public discontent (and distressingly easily so). It's thought that there were later unrelated consequences to the hoax, namely a Thomas Nast cartoon from November 7, 1874 marking the original depiction of the Republican elephant. That's wrong. First off, the Herald hoax was published two days later on the 9th, and second, the Nast cartoon was backdated from October. Though once Nast's lead time caught up to it, Nast proceeded to merrily rake the Herald over the coals for months afterward.

Right along with everyone else.

The Central Park Zoo received its first permanent building in 1875.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Rapid-Fire Book Club, This Ought To Hold Me Until LA Edition

I leave for Los Angeles in two weeks. I've gone out and grabbed two books which I hope will last me until I touch down at LAX, after which I can reload. One was picked up at Boswell Book Company, the other at this little place at the Shops of Grand Avenue mall titled 'BOOKS'. Which is really all you need to do to get me in the door anyway.

Purchased this time:

*Powell, Robert Andrew- This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation And Soccer in Ciudad Juarez
*Trav S.D.- No Applause- Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous