Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Big Brother 15 Is Filled With Terrible People

For those of you who don't watch Big Brother, and this is the first season I've been following for years, you may be wondering just what kind of behavior has been causing it to garner so much controversy this season and cost two contestants their jobs as well as a potential third.

This video was made on July 17 and doesn't cover the last two weeks. But it should provide a starter's guide as to just what everyone, including host Julie Chen, is angry about. It also shows that it isn't just limited to the three previously-mentioned contestants but is instead pervasive throughout the house.

Warning: very very nasty hateful words ahead. Viewer discretion strongly advised.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hunting For Peace (And Also Gathering)

When images of war become particularly graphic and heartbreaking, it is inevitable that someone, somewhere, will begin to decry not just the perpetrators of the imagery in question, but in fact humanity itself. They will cry out to anyone who will listen, demanding to know what supreme deity would allow such madness to take place among their people, or alternatively, how we as a species could possibly stand by and let such madness to continue. Bonus points if they acknowledge any violence on the other side of the conflict as well. But inevitably, no matter how many times this cycle repeats itself, no matter how many calls for peace, in the end every cycle is met with a grudging or even jaded acknowledgement that violence is just what humanity does. It's nature. It's evolution. It may even be cited as a potential reason why aliens haven't shown up to say hi yet.

Douglas Fry and Patrick Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Finland beg to differ. As they theorize in a study (behind a paywall) they got published in Science magazine, humanity, while certainly not peaceful by nature, does not have warlike tendencies hardwired into it. Instead, that aspect of humanity came about as a side effect of the trappings of civilization. There was a lack of evidence of war that they noticed in archaeological studies of the hunter-gatherer era, so that gave them the idea to check 21 hunter-gatherer tribes that have survived to the present day. As far as they were concerned, 20 of them did not express warlike tendencies; the outlier is the Tiwi people, living on the Tiwi islands off Australia's northern coast. For the rest, instances of violence were limited to person-on-person violence or revenge killings in response to a previous killing, neither of which they considered to be war. Among the contributing factors was small groups and low population density, which would cause a group to be more likely to run than fight. Only 15% of lethal events happened across societal lines (mostly from the Tiwi).

Now, I like the effort here, I like the message. But I disagree with it. We will leave aside the rebuttal that other studies (there are other studies) have in fact shown more warlike tendencies among hunter-gatherers and focus on what we have before us.

First, and this has been addressed in existing peer critiques, but Fry and Soderberg focused only on the oldest-existing records for each tribe they examined. Specifically, they selected their tribes for study from something called the Ethnographic Atlas, created in the 1960's, and picked the tribes listed purely as hunter-gatherers around that time. To examine them, they used data running back to, in some cases, the 17th century. This runs into a lesser version of the same problem that forced them to examine modern tribes in the first place instead of pre-civilization tribes: lack of information. As historical records reach further into the past, they get more and more murky, and more and more of our information about the past is based on glorified guesswork that we then have to go revise when new information is discovered. Maybe those old hunter-gatherer tribes were warlike. It's been tens of thousands of years. That's plenty of time for evidence to vanish.

My other problems aren't in the gathering but rather in the bookkeeping. 'Only' 15% isn't a very good number to be saying 'only about. One tribe out of the 21 did in fact express warlike tendencies. I don't think that can be ignored or dismissed, as the Los Angeles Times writeup tries to do at one point by rerunning the numbers after the Tiwi are removed. Wars get all the press in the news, but look around. Look at a map. Take any two random neighbors. Odds are, those neighbors aren't at war. They may not be best of friends, but they're not at war. Australia and Indonesia aren't at war. Jamaica isn't at war with Cuba. Italy isn't at war with Switzerland. Russia isn't at war with Mongolia. Ecuador isn't at war with Peru. Namibia is not at war with Zambia. And so on and so forth. And the vast majority of nations don't have civil wars going on either. I don't have a statistic for it so I can only estimate, but 1 out of 21 doesn't seem, to my ear, like it's that out of whack with the global numbers. If the studied tribes were getting proportional attention to nation-states, the Tiwi would dominate headlines. You'd hear about Tiwi this, Tiwi that all the time in the news, day in day out, and not hear all that much about the other 20.

And there's also the fact to consider that revenge killings (counted in the approximately one-third of killings involving one group against another, though with the paywall in place I don't know the exact proportion) were not counted as warlike. In and of themselves, they may not be war, but they can very quickly start them. Countless wars over the course of history have begun that way; blood feuds that have metastasized into large-scale conflicts. The process is very simple. A person from Tribe A commits an act against Tribe B that Tribe B feels is punishable by death. They therefore kill the member of Tribe A. The rest of Tribe A, not sharing Tribe B's view, decides that someone from Tribe B, possibly the tribe member that performed the execution, needs to die in revenge. So they do that. But in Tribe B's mind, this second killing is unwarranted. After they killed the offending member of Tribe A, the matter in their minds was over. Now they have a killing that must be met with revenge. A cycle of killing thus begins, as Tribe A and Tribe B do not agree on which are original killings and which are revenge killings meant to even things up, and if someone along the way does any extracurricular killing along the way, the feud can easily escalate and become a war. This is essentially how the Hatfield/McCoy feud played out, with the original act of outrage being a dispute over the ownership of a pig. (Wikipedia cites an earlier spark, a McCoy fighting for the Union in the Civil War, but this was locally regarded as bringing it upon yourself. Because Appalachia.)

For a more modern example, simply type 'israel palestine revenge' into Google, scroll down the results, and note how often each side is vowing revenge against the other. Through the first 20 results for me, the sides seeking revenge are: Palestine, Israel, Israel, Israel, Israel, Palestine, Israel, Palestine, Palestine, Palestine, Israel, Palestine, Israel, Palestine, Israel, and the remainder is either 'neither' or, much more commonly, 'both'.

The Hatfield/McCoy feud remains a 'feud' in the vernacular sense because there simply weren't the numbers to bring it up to the status of war. Clans and tribes worldwide, civilized or not, engage in blood-feud practices to this day. Fry and Soderberg note that small populations limit warlike tendencies, but they said it was because the hunter-gatherers were more likely to just run. Even if they didn't run, the populations are small enough that we wouldn't call it war anyway. Fry and Soderberg don't. We'd call it a feud or vendetta or some other word. We imagine wars to be conducted on a wide scale, encompassing many, many people. We don't imagine them as endless revenge cycles becoming indiscriminate killings between smaller clans, even though the behavior patterns can be very much the same.

It seems like a very... government-like description of the situation, missing the forest for the trees and getting lost in semantics. The presence of the Tiwi shows that a hunter-gatherer tribe can be warlike even by Fry and Soderberg's definition. A less restrictive definition will show that, while war may not be the common word, the seeds to lead there, at least to the extent the size of the group permits, are very much present.

I would love for them to be right. I would love to be able to come here and say that we as a species can be naturally peaceful, even if the actions required to be that way involve something as unrealistic and drastic as tearing down civilization and going back to hunter-gatherer ways.

But I don't think they have it right.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Video Games Warp The Mind After All

Here is the game in question.

And in real life, what is currently estimated as $136 million in jewels was stolen from Cannes, 34 miles away. Again. Some more.

Your lesson for today: when in Cannes, maybe just stick to snazzy clothes.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Welcome To Cooperstown

Today, the Hall of Fame inducts Jacob Ruppert, best known as the man who bought Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, and who built Yankee Stadium to house him. The Hall inducts Frank O'Day, an umpire who kept his integrity in an era when it was embarrassingly easy to bribe and pressure the ump to favor the home team; O'Day was the umpire who ruled Fred Merkle out in 1908. The Hall inducts Deacon White, who recorded the first hit in professional baseball history- it was a double- and who caught 458 games barehanded, and without chest protector or facemask. His 2,067 hits should be coupled with the fact that, in 1871, his first year as a pro, his Cleveland Forest Citys team only played 29 games, and in his last season, 1890, his Buffalo Bisons played 122 (seasons didn't crest the 100-game mark until 1884, by which time White had switched to third base). These days, White would almost certainly have gotten over 3,000.

Let's not worry about who isn't getting inducted. Let's not even say their names. No person is bigger than the game. Let's celebrate those who are.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

I Was Told There Would Be No Map

I'm going to give you a map. On that map, draw an outline of the Midwest.

That's the question being posed to you at this site, which is conducting a survey on what people consider to be the makeup of the region. As it turns out, people have very different ideas on what the Midwest looks like. As Bill Rankin could already tell you; earlier this year he overlaid 100 maps of the 'Midwest' constructed by various organizations that he found on Google and found not a single place that was unanimously declared Midwestern. He took two of the maps he found and displayed them as showing mutually-exclusive Midwests; about the only thing they agreed on was that Wisconsin and Illinois were NOT Midwestern. Newfoundland showed up in someone's Midwest. New York showed up. Idaho showed up. Alberta showed up. New Mexico showed up. The Florida Panhandle showed up. South Carolina did not show up, but Georgia and North Carolina did.

I am now intensely curious as to who out there is going 'well, what's wrong with that?' to anything I just said.

Friday, July 26, 2013

You Were Getting Very Shocky

Last month saw the release of a videogame called Remember Me. You play a woman named Nilin as she traipses around "Neo-Paris" in the year 2084, by which time, according to the game, social media has spread to people's memory banks, and pretty much everybody has a little thingie attached to the back of their heads where they can access them all. They have the ability to digitize memories, and so people trade them amongst each other, buy nice ones, and have bad ones removed, all by a large corporation that then stores and tracks all those memories.

What could possibly go wrong.

Well, let's go over it. Nilin has a move where she can put her palm up to someone's little memory thingie and overload their brain with so many memories that they experience a blowout. She, and really quite a few people in the game, have the ability to steal someone's memories. Or she can do one better and 'remix' a memory, altering details in a memory so that someone remembers something completely differently to the point where someone can be left remembering how they killed a loved one who is in fact perfectly healthy. People can get addicted to memory rejiggering and apparently if you do that, you end up becoming a subhuman zombielike person. As you do. And there's always the option of just planting voices in a dude's head.

This is set in 2084. But here, in 2013, a team led by Susumu Tonagawa at MIT has managed to implant a false memory in a mouse.The purpose for this is to try and figure out why people, unassisted by anything that might make them a videogame character, develop false memories of their own. The report in Science magazine will run you $20 to read, but here's what was going on. There's a process called optogenetics that basically means fiddling around with the makeup of individual brain cells. They took a protein called channelrhodopsin, which triggers in response to blue light, and set it so that the mice produced it in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that registers memories. The mice were put in what we'll call Chamber 1 and left to run around and get themselves a memory of it. The next day, the mice were put in Chamber 2, and given an electric shock under blue light, activating memories of Chamber 1 while adding the memory of the shock. The day after that, they were put back in Chamber 1 to see if the shock would be (falsely) associated with Chamber 1. It was, as the mice froze up in fear of Chamber 1.

Tonagawa called it 'incepting'. Okay, fine, Inception is a good pop-culture analogy too, but I've already brought up overloading a guy's brain with false memories until it blows out, and I'd like to keep going with that. Needless to say, scientists immediately started worrying about the potential applications and ethical concerns even though we're still only at making mice scared of a particular place for no good reason.

Scientists are our bestest friends and have never done any bad thing and I remember promising to give them my money and my pants. Susumu Tonagawa is and has always been a living god.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Random News Generator- American Samoa

American Samoa, in case you've forgotten or weren't clued in by the name, is an American territory. Sends someone to Congress and everything, albeit in a nonvoting role. As such, it is dependent on Congressional action to get itself funded and budgeted. Which lately has become a problem, because when Congress opted to let the sequester happen- the across-the-board budget cuts- that meant American Samoa had its budget cut along with everybody else. On Tuesday, the Samoan government submitted a budget of $456 million, down close to $40 million and 8% from last year. Some of the cuts were able to come from phasing out earthquake and tsunami recovery residual expenditures from 2009, but then it had to start getting painful.

The LBJ Medical Center in Pago Pago, the only full-fledged hospital in American Samoa, and which regularly relies on donations and subsidies, will be getting $6 million in local and Congressional subsidies to beef up the $44 million budget it'll have to work with, but it's not enough to keep six managerial positions from being eliminated. Two elementary schools are merging with an eye on merging others as well (at the same time that teachers are beginning to be required to have bachelor's degrees). A government plane has been converted to commercial ownership by Inter Island Air. Because it's expensive to import food from mainland regions, citizens turn to low-cost fast food, which in turn has triggered a staggering 75% obesity rate, which in turn has caused Samoa Air, based in Apia in the other Samoa but which serves American Samoa, to start charging passengers by the pound.

Samoans could use some pounds. Because they're not getting the dollars.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You Know, We Just Put A Pool In The River A Few Days Ago

The Detroit River, separating Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, averages about 2,400 feet in width (731 meters). Not an overly taxing distance, if you were to decide to for some reason swim it. Maybe exhausting to the average person who doesn't swim much, but if you do any regular swimming at all, you'll be fine.

However, it is a rather bad idea to swim in the Detroit River. Let me explain why. First, the river is extensively used as a shipping channel servicing not only Detroit and Windsor, but it connects Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, the latter of which is sandwiched between Erie and Huron. Other open-water swims are used by ships as well, they all are, but in the case of, say, the English Channel, there's room for everyone. A boat, a ferry, they can give you a wide berth if you're going to swim it, and generally when someone tries it, there's enough advance notice to all involved that they know you're out there. And there's almost certainly going to be a support boat chugging alongside them in case the swimmer can't make it across. In the Detroit River, there's no room to get out of the way. If you're in a boat's way, you're in their way. And a cargo ship is not a swimmer support boat. It is a cargo ship. A swimmer's going to lose that battle every time.

Second, the current in the river is about 1.5 times average velocity. That means, odds of bodkins, the river runs faster than your normal river. Doesn't matter how short the width is; if it sweeps you way off course, you're in trouble.

Third, swimming in a shipping channel is slightly illegal.

Fourth, they don't like it when you cross an international border in the process of doing something that you decided to do after... let's see here... "a night of drinking." It's never a good idea to swim across an international border while drunk. It is also never a good idea to do so twice. Boats and helicopters may be deployed to fish you out. The operators of those boats and helicopters will be unhappy.

Please do not make them unhappy.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

No, We're Not Totally Screwed As A Species Yet

Considering the kind of summer we've been seeing, you may look at the news, you may see the world tearing itself to ribbons and coming to verbal and physical blows with each other over anything and everything, and you may watch the world devolving into chaotic entropy more and more with every passing day, and you may decide, you may have already decided in fact, to just give up. To say, 'screw it, let it all burn, I don't even care anymore'.

Maybe this will help. Maybe if we had an example of people actually coming together and getting something seemingly impossible done.

Dateline, a train platform in Saitama, Japan. A woman in her 30's fell between the (stopped) train and the boarding platform. The train weighs 32 tons. It is rush hour. How do you get her out? Apparently, you get her out by being one of 40 passengers who lined up against the train and shoved it to one side until the crew can retrieve her. They were able to do this because the train was built to be able to lean to one side as a shock absorber.

The train was only eight minutes late. After being shoved aside by 40 people in the middle of rush hour.

Of course, perhaps it's a way of payback. For reference, this is what normally happens on a Japanese train at rush hour:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Insert Joke Here About Jimmy Hoffa In The Deep End

One thing not all that many people do these days is go swimming in the river. It happens, to be sure, but the river is generally mucky and nasty and it's much cleaner to go swim in a pool and besides the pool might have a waterslide! There is a Kickstarter campaign, though, recently successfully funded, that seeks to fix that issue. The campaign, which raised $273,114 from a $250K ask, will be looking to place a floating pool in the East River in New York City. The pool will be fed by water pumped in from the river, which will go through a seven-step filtration system to remove all the nasties before the water makes it to swimmers. ETA is the summer of 2016. The first step, though, is testing the materials and filters in the river; they'll be doing that next month.

Do remember: when they get the pool in, please don't make them filter the water a second time before putting it back in the river.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Silly Questions We Have No Answer For

In hindsight, it's something that maybe the Mythbusters could have thought to do, but HowStuffWorks has decided to tackle the issue of the courtesy flush. You know. That time when you take an extra flush because you have befouled the bathroom more than usual.

The thing they found was that they didn't really find anything. Nobody's taken the time to find out whether it actually helps remove the odor (however many noses say it does), or whether it gets outweighed by the flush spraying bacteria all over the area (as toilets do), or the water used by a second flush removes any potential benefit, or how clogged the bowl is when the courtesy flush is done. Nobody's gone and looked. Of course, that may be a good thing, because it's not a particularly high agenda item. But you'd think something so colloquially ingrained would have been checked out by someone by now. HowStuffWorks is left shrugging its shoulders and giving the most weight to the water used by the extra flush, which doesn't really answer the question.

Again, it sounds like a job for the Mythbusters. No, we're not learning much here today, but we are at least learning what we don't know.

Friday, July 19, 2013

In Which Your Job Sucks More Than Usual

There's a BBC program, it hasn't made the crossover to BBC America, called 'Toughest Place To Be A...' In it, British workers are tasked with doing the jobs they normally do, but doing them in a rather more extreme environment than in the United Kingdom.

The episode which we'll feature here is 'Toughest Place To Be A Ferryman'. That place: Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Since they're all online and there aren't too many of them, let's quickly go over the others. If you see something that piques your interest, either outright or more than the one I've picked out, you know what to do:

*In which a paramedic is sent to Guatemala City.
*In which a bus driver is sent to Manila, Philippines.
*In which a midwife is sent to Monrovia, Liberia.
*In which a garbage collector is sent to Jakarta, Indonesia.
*In which a fisherman is sent to Mania, Sierra Leone.
*In which a train driver is sent to Cerro de Pasco, Peru.
*In which a miner is sent to Mongolia.
*In which a nurse is sent to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
*In which a taxi driver is sent to Mumbai, India.
*In which a farmer is sent to Kenya.
*In which a firefighter is sent to the Brazilian rainforest.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Rolling Stone commonly mixes political commentary- quite good commentary, I believe- alongside its regular beat of the music industry. Normally, the musical articles occupy the cover, but for the newest issue, the August issue, Rolling Stone opted to allow politics to have the cover instead.

It was not a wise decision. The article they chose for the cover, written by Janet Reitman, concerns the process by which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving we-have-to-say-the-word-alleged Boston Marathon bomber, became the kind of person that would do such a thing. To give it the cover spot, Rolling Stone chose to use a headshot of Tsarnaev. Now, if one wanted to give that story the cover, the headshot was really the only way you could logically go. He's the subject of the article, after all; any other choice of photo would be misleading as to the content. But giving him a cover photo, no matter the context, gives him a cover shot in a major magazine, and a rather flattering shot at that. And that is how Rolling Stone came to catch fire for their decision, leading to protests and calls for boycotts of the magazine in response to what is seen as an immortalization of the culprit. (This is not Rolling Stone's first ride at this particular rodeo; in 1970, they put Charles Manson on the cover, for a story that was also about the culprit as opposed to the victims, and got a similar response.)

Now, the primary response has not been all that well thought out. One of the many mock-up alternate covers circulating on social media, reflecting the opinion of outraged respondents, reads 'Boston Strong' and provides headshots of the victims instead. To provide a cover like that, or any of the related covers, as sympathetic as it might be, would be wildly misleading and actually irresponsible from a journalistic standpoint. As good as the intentions are, the article is not about the victims at all. It it about the perpetrator and the process that turned him into one. Making a cover depicting the victim in an article that is not about the victim is the response of someone who has not read the article and has no intention to read it.

A much better decision, a simpler decision, and one nobody seems to be considering, is that perhaps this should not have been the cover story to begin with. This is a music magazine, after all, and usually puts music on the cover. There's no reason that could not have been done here as well regardless of the relative importance of the stories. The cover lists off articles about Willie Nelson and Jay-Z and Robin Thicke. They could have gotten the cover shot. There is no reasonable way, I think, to get away from using the article that is entirely about Tsarnaev as the cover story without putting Tsarnaev on the cover. But Tsarnaev should not have the cover. Therefore, as highly as the article must have been thought of to merit a cover, it should not have gotten further than a spot on the sideline. Had Robin Thicke gotten the cover, and the Tsarnaev article been advertised on the side of the cover, none of this controversy happens. Rolling Stone might be briefly mocked for putting Robin Thicke on the cover of anything, but that'd be the limit of it.

A response to the immortalization point is that Tsarnaev's image has already been used extensively, and that therefore there is no further harm in using it for the cover. I reject this argument, and here's why. This same argument, or something similar to it, is used commonly to justify covering stories that don't need to be covered nearly to the extent that they are, or something that is barely newsworthy in the first place if it's even worth covering at all. The defense is to hide amongst the masses; to say that the coverage, in essence, justifies further coverage. Everyone else is reporting it, and that makes it newsworthy or okay to report yourself. This is the kind of thought process that brought us the 2000 election coverage fiasco, that often brings us saturation coverage of what is normally nothing more than tabloid fodder, and that brings us countless instances of innocent people wrongly accused of crimes and convicted in the court of public opinion before the facts are in. Just that kind of thing happened, actually, early on in the bombing coverage, when at least four different people were wrongly accused of the attack, most notably missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who was found dead on April 23 near Providence, Rhode Island. Coverage need not justify further coverage. It is on the shoulders of each and every person who considers reporting a given story to determine for themselves whether they personally have some value to add to the coverage, or whether their information is as accurate as it can possibly be. If an image is in poor taste, you always have the option of not running that image, no matter how many others have run it already.

The cycle can always stop with you.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Welcome Back To The The Big Show

Keith Olbermann is one of the more reliably incendiary broadcasters in journalism, not just on-screen but off it as well. He is notable for tense, pointed and heated bouts of commentary filled with righteous fury. He is also notable for pointing that fury at his bosses to the point where they become unable to deal with him. He left ESPN in 1997 because of what was referred to as "emotionally charged circumstances", and proceeded to burn bridges at Fox Sports Net in 2001, MSNBC in 2003, MSNBC again in 2011, and Current TV in 2012. It was my figuring that his Current TV gig was in a last-chance capacity; if he couldn't make it work there, nobody else on television would touch him.

Once again, my predictions have gone sour. Olbermann, inexplicably, has been welcomed back by ESPN. This return, however, comes with strings attached. Olbermann is a sportscaster as well as a normal journalist, and as ESPN is a sports network, he'll be able to do that. But that's all he'll be able to do. As a condition of the deal he's signing that gives him a one-hour program on ESPN2, Olbermann is expressly forbidden from discussing politics. Bristol has seen quite enough of what happens when he's given that particular length of rope.

The natural follow-up question to anyone that follows Olbermann closely enough is, will he actually abide by the agreement. A sub-question is, can he. Sports and politics have a way of intermingling, as we've explored here before. How does Olbermann talk sports without permitting politics to eventually invade? It's possible. Most of the network manages just fine on most days. I imagine, though, that if a particular topic comes up that is politically charged, Olbermann simply won't be permitted to bring it up and will be told to stick to highlights and silliness, something closer to SportsNation than SportsCenter.

I give him three months before he blows it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Protip for Bookwriters

When you've just gotten done having a hand in something that is causing public outrage to the point of rioting in the streets, that is not the best time to announce your new book deal. Someone still trying to get over the event may decide to make your book deal go away.

This is one of the six people that was deciding the Trayvon Martin case, folks. Just immediately went off and tried to get herself a book deal.

Monday, July 15, 2013

This Is Not A Saturday Night Live Sketch

Who needs a new chair? Maybe you. Maybe the chair you have sucks. Maybe your chair's busted, maybe it's uncomfortable. You need a new chair. And you need it to be perfect, considering how much time you'll be in it.

(insert black-and-white footage of haggard housewife using chair as a hat before throwing arms up and sighing in exasperation)

Have I got a deal for you.

Introducing the Do Hit Chair, by Droog. Designed by artist Martin van der Poll, when you order the Do Hit Chair, you are shipped a steel cube and a sledgehammer. All you do is bash the shit out of the cube until it looks like the chair you've always wanted! Make a chair! A loveseat! A couch! Manage to crack the steel somehow and you have a recliner! The possibilities are endless! It's the beanbag Thor would have used!

It's so simple!

The Do Hit Chair can be molded by van der Poll for $16,560. But why pay thousands of dollars to a professional? You can take the sledgehammer into your own hands, and have your Do Hit Chair YOUR way, for only $10,235! And don't worry about shipping; it's absolutely FREE! (Please allow 16 weeks for delivery.)

As of March, the price of hot rolled coil steel was $665 per ton.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gay Marriage Wasn't The Finish Line

So gay marriage has been upheld at the Supreme Court level and what's left is to just bring the states along one-by-one. That battle's being won. Gays can serve openly in the military as well. And a ministry that once offered to cure gays of that condition has announced it will shut down. All great steps toward sexual equality.

Now meet what might be the next battlefront. Gay blood donation. (WARNING: Link goes to video that automatically activates and depicts icky icky surgery video.)

The FDA, as their current rules state, do not allow gays to donate blood. Specifically, the ban targets men who have sex with men, as the FDA considers them to be at higher risk of contracting HIV. Women are also banned if within the last 12 months they have had sex with a man who at any point since 1977 has had sex with a man (which brings bisexuals into play as well). On Friday, gays nationwide took part in what they called the National Gay Blood Drive, in which they would first get themselves tested for HIV. If it came up positive, well, that raises a whole host of other concerns, but good to find out, isn't it? If it came up negative, though, they would then go to a blood drive, get themselves rejected, and in so doing get some paperwork that they could then show off to the media along with the paperwork that showed them as testing negative for HIV. (To offset their inability to donate, they've asked straight allies to donate on their behalf.)

This came into being in 1983, right when we were first really learning about AIDS/HIV. That was five years before HIV-positive Greg Louganis dove in the Olympics with a cut on his head that he had gotten during competition. Everyone was worried about his blood infecting everyone else who used the pool, even though in reality, the virus would have been killed by the chlorine in the pool, and unless the other person had an open wound themselves, they wouldn't have needed to worry anyway because their skin would have kept the HIV from getting in. You children of the 90's out there, you remember this whole period, right? How after Magic Johnson admitted his affliction in 1991, they got us all to watch those videos in school that said things that now sound patronizingly quaint, like 'You can't get AIDS from holding hands' and 'you can't transmit AIDS at a drinking fountain'? We've gotten much more educated about the disease since then, but the ban has remained in place. In June, the AMA voted to start opposing it.

For what it's worth, according to the FDA, in 2010, 61% of all new HIV infections did in fact come from men having sex with other men. So even a switch to monitoring HIV risk factors instead of straight sexual orientation, the stated goal of the National Gay Blood Drive, would target that behavior. But organizer Ryan James Yezak noted the policies of Canada and the United Kingdom, which permit donation after abstaining for a certain length of time (5 years for Canada, 1 year for the UK, and even the 1-year restriction is under fire for not taking into account additional behaviors).

Momentum is on the side of Yezak and the LGBT movement, but we'll see how long it takes to get what they're after.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

You Remember That Throwaway Action Movie, 'The International'?

I say it's TED talk day. Which means you say it's TED talk day too, because I control your mouth. Yes, I do. Stop using your mouth for non-me things.

Today's talk comes from Charmian Gooch, co-founder of the NGO Global Witness, speaking in Edinburgh in June. The topic is global corruption, how many dictators worldwide can't enrich themselves alone, and therefore, who's helping them get that way.

You will be very, very familiar with who Gooch fingers. But stick around for the how-to guide.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Things Done In Order To Win A Radio Contest

Radio stations will commonly hold contests in which the object is to do something really really foolish. Sometimes the foolish thing will be conceived by the station, sometimes you have to come up with it yourself and the object is to do the most foolish thing.

There's really no other way to lead into this, although the Los Angeles Daily News- as reprinted here by the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in 1991- squeezed several column inches and two articles back-to-back out of elaborating on it. But I'm not going to ramble on about it. We'll just leave it at the fact that every act you are about to read was done in the name of pleasing radio station DJ's.

We'll start with what was noted in that pair of articles. And realize that this does not pretend to even be close to a complete list. It's just what was found over the course of a couple hours.

*Filling a pool with chocolate pudding and then getting in while in a bikini.
*Being doused in green honey and then rolling around in a pile of dollar bills.
*Standing on the seat of a speeding motorcycle, crashing into a used car, and going through football goalposts before landing on a pile of mattresses.
*Dunking your head in a pile of manure, rooting around for an apple, and then eating the apple.
*Laying down on a bed of lettuce between two halves of a 6-foot French roll and allowing the DJ's to pour mayo, ketchup, mustard, olives, pickles and onions on you before rolling the whole thing up in plastic wrap.
*Broadcasting the sound of a mother sticking her daughter's head in the toilet and flushing.
*Having your daughter pour the ingredients of a hot fudge sundae on your head, eating five goldfish, and naming the members of New Kids on the Block.
*Conceiving a child before other listeners do.
*Getting a genital piercing.
*Wearing a beard made out of the pubic hair of station staff for a week.
*Eating the staff's toenails.
*Spending 24 hours inside a port-a-potty. (These last four were all part of the same contest as 'qualifiers'.)
*Drinking a cup of your own urine.
*Cutting the roof off your car and then filling the car with Jell-O and whipped cream.
*Sitting on a block of dry ice
*Spending three weeks in jail.
*Sending the station nude photos of yourself.
*Updating a radio-station billboard wearing nothing but green and purple paint.
*Putting on a ski mask and telling people to get inside of a truck.
*Having the word 'MINI' tattooed on your genitals.
*Marrying someone you've never met.
*Announcing your intent to divorce your spouse on the air to get the station to pay for it.
*Telling your husband, on the air, falsely, that your child isn't his and then trying to get him to say he still loves you. (This was for tickets to see Kanye West.)
*Lying about being raped.
*Drinking two gallons of water in a contest to see who can drink the most without going to the bathroom. And then dying from it. (The station had thought this one out so poorly, had been given so many warnings from onlookers and listeners, and the other contestants were looking ill enough after their attempts with the DJ's responding only with wisecracks, that this person's family later was awarded $16 million by a jury.)

We are not counting things that the DJ's themselves have done, although let's take the time to mention that sometimes the foolishness is completely on their end to the point of cruelty. For example, the time that a station was offering "100 grand" and then gave a winner the candy bar. Or the time that a station in Perth, Australia reunited long-lost relatives... and then immediately made them answer three questions, and if they didn't get them all right, they sent the long-lost relatives straight back to the airport. And the time DJ's in Sydney prank-called a nurse at the hospital servicing Kate Middleton, got her to divulge information concerning her pregnancy, and laughed and laughed while the nurse, upon realizing what happened, was driven to suicide.

Remember, folks, talk to your kids. Warn them of the dangers of getting involved with radio DJ's. If you see someone suspected of radio DJ'ing, notify the proper authorities immediately.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Random News Generator- Poland

The news at the top of the Polish news feed concerns the unveiling of a memorial commemorating the Volyn massacre in World War 2 (Volyn is an oblast in Ukraine, their name for an administrative subdivision). The unveiling marks the 70th anniversary. The Volyn massacre, for anyone that needs a summary, took place in a period spanning 1943-1945, peaking when Ukrainian colonel Dmytro Klyachkivsky ordered the death of every male Pole between the ages of 16 and 60. The resulting massacre ignored the 'adult male' provision completely and just went after any Pole it could find, as well as any Ukrainian who tried to hide Poles or simply wasn't fast enough getting away from them. July 11, 1943- the anniversary marked- is thought to be the single worst day of the massacre, with some 10,000 Poles being killed on that day alone. Not only that, but the Ukranian forces also took measures to remove all traces of Polish presence from the land taken, burning villages and even orchards and abandoned settlements to the ground. The Poles eventually resisted after the massacre spread to the neighboring oblast of Galicia, where they had a stronger, more armed presence, with casualties increased because the Germans were arming both sides and setting them against each other as much as possible. The fighting slowed down and eventually petered out after Russian forces arrived and took the land for the Soviet Union; Klyachivsky was killed in action fighting them in 1945.

That's the 99-cent version, anyway. Accounts vary widely on how many people ultimately died, although the BBC's quoted number of 100,000 is a fairly representative figure on the Polish side. The Ukrainian dead are thought to number somewhere between 10-20,000.

Ever since Poland and Ukraine reconciled their differences, the main matter of discussion has been largely whether to call it ethnic cleansing or genocide. Pretty academic difference.

Meanwhile, in more modern concerns, oil companies have been eyeing Poland as a location where they can open up fracking operations. They have been, anyway. There have been two issues, though: the oil companies are complaining of red tape and regulations keeping them from operating the way they'd been hoping to, and the fracking wells they have been drilling have repeatedly come up dry to the point where they're about ready to give up and leave if they don't hit paydirt fast. Some, such as Exxon, Marathon and Talisman, already have.

Which would be just fine with a lot of Polish residents, who like most everyone else living near potential fracking sites aren't keen on the idea of oil companies drilling right under their house and making their tap water catch on fire. The consequences here are that they continue to get a lot of their oil from Russia, but that's a price they're willing to pay.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Where The Hell Did This Game Come From?

Where do your video games come from? Well, mostly, the United States, Japan and Europe (e.g. Angry Birds, which came out of Finland). There's a little more to it as far as big-time titles go- EA and Ubisoft have studios in Canada; South Korea and China often insert themselves into proceedings. Things go a lot deeper than that, though, which is great, because every nation puts their own little local flavor into the games they make, making for an overall richer and more diverse environment. Wikipedia's directory of video games by country of development turns up names such as Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, even Pakistan, Iran and amazingly Syria, which qualified for the directory when it turned out a 2003 title called Under Ash, which was about all they managed to get to shelves before unrest and economic sanctions imposed on Syria in 2004 by the Bush administration forced game development back into nonexistence. (You might have been seeing more out of Brazil, and the industry is very interested in breaking in there with gamers just as interested in receiving them, but games there are classified the same as online gambling, and as such are taxed at an astonishing 120 percent, making the industry and even retailing American and Japanese games largely nonviable for anyone but pirates. If you're interested, a deeper look at Brazilian gaming is here.)

The directory, being Wikipedia, is not exhaustive. Other Middle Eastern nations have seen attempts to develop video games, and you can read more about that in this article by Andrew Groen, then of Ars Technica and now of the Penny Arcade Report. Under Ash in particular ought to be noted, as it's a title designed to illustrate the futility of armed conflict: you start out as a Palestinian character throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, it is extremely easy to get killed, and you don't get any sort of a victory-style ending after the last level.

Pakistan, if you're wondering, put out a cricket game. The Iranian government has sunk money into game creation, though more as a tool in the national culture war than anything else. North Korea also made a game touting itself, but being North Korea, it is absolutely terrible.

But then there's Africa. Being politically unstable is one thing, but being just plain lacking in infrastructure is another thing entirely. There is, however, a budding game industry in Africa, and it's centered in Kenya. Richard Moss of Polygon has a feature piece on just what it has taken to make game development a possible career path. The games are basic and rough- one early title, Ma3Racer, focusing on a mode of public transport notorious for reckless driving called a matatu, plays more like a Tiger Electronics handheld than anything else- but the mere fact that the games were bring created at all was a good first step. The next step, fully acknowledged by the local developers, is to get to the point where they're globally competitive.

When they get to that point, hopefully they'll have more to compete with than the US, Canada, Europe and eastern Asia.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

You Expected Better From Florida?

You know, we've been over this before. Writing legislation is the primary task of a legislator. It is literally the job description. While we argue- and do we ever argue- about what the content of that legislation should include, I think we can all agree that legislators ought to know what is in the legislation. Especially if they are the people that wrote it. What we went over last time, specifically, was the consequences of writing legislation that is too brief and straightforward to do what it needs to do, but that is just one branch of a more fundamental miscue: just plain bad writing. Whatever someone writes into a bill, we expect them to know what they're writing into a bill. We are not talking here about 'this bill will cause businesses to ship jobs to China', although that level of foresight would be nice. That's looking at the 'effect' side of cause-and-effect. We're talking about cause. We're talking about creating laws that you did not intend to create.

Florida may have just made one such piece of legislation when they wrote and passed a bill that was intended to ban slot machines and Internet cafes in an attempt to shut down online gambling, which raises its own set of questions, but let's focus here. Here is what they defined as a slot machine:

any machine or device or system or network of devices that is adapted for use in such a way that, upon activation, which may be achieved by, but is not limited to, the insertion of any piece of money, coin, account number, code, or other object or information, such device or system is directly or indirectly caused to operate or may be operated and if the user, whether by application of skill or by reason of any element of chance or any other outcome unpredictable by the user.

Which describes anything on which you can access the Internet. And just about any game into which you input information before playing, which means, among other things, I believe they've just banned World of Warcraft, which requires a subscription to play, requires you to tell it whose account you're using to operate it, and relies on both skill and chance (e.g. loot drops).

If you're reading this from Florida: what are you doing? Reading things on the Internet like a common criminal. You scofflaw, you.

One of the Internet cafe operators who had to shut down their business, Consuelo Zapata, is challenging the legislation in court, claiming the bill was passed "in a frenzy fueled by distorted judgment in the wake of a scandal that included the lieutenant governor's resignation." In the process, Zapata and attorney Alan Dershowitz have argued a constitutional violation of free speech and due process, as well as being too broad and vague to actually be able to enforce.

Let's put it this way: if it was enforceable, it would be illegal for, oh, say, the Tampa Bay Times to go online and post a writeup.

Monday, July 8, 2013

You Better Trade, Baby, Trade, Faster Than My Server

Do you remember the 'flash crash' back in 2010? On May 6, the Dow Jones, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, suddenly went down about 1,000 points and recovered those losses about 20 minutes later. The market took a huge hit in credibility. People knew that the market could go down that far in a couple days. They weren't ready, or willing, to accept that it could happen in minutes or even seconds. When the inevitable investigation concluded, it found that the cause of the crash was an algorithmic trade, specifically a trade made by mutual-fund group Waddell and Reed unloading $4.1 billion in e-mini futures.

Algorithmic trading is, quite simply, when the computers do the trading with pre-programmed trading instructions. Computers do trading really really quickly. How quickly? A single share of stock can change hands hundreds of times per second. Places known as high-frequency trading firms specialize in this, and in so doing have taken criticism for undermining market stability. When Waddell and Reed made their trade, it triggered other trading orders throughout the market, the wave took place almost instantaneously, and it got so bad the New York Stock Exchange temporarily halted trading to figure out what the hell was going on.

Knowing this, one thing that has particularly rankled observers is that the high-frequency firms, who can make, again, hundreds of trades of a single share of stock per second, have been getting the results of consumer surveys two seconds prior to the rest of the market, as reported in March by the Wall Street Journal. Thomson Reuters, who provides this data, has been made to understand by the office of the New York Attorney General how spectacularly bad of an idea this is, and will stop doing it while a probe is opened.

So now all you have to do is beat the computer that can trade at bewildering speeds in a straight race, as opposed to starting out behind it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Warning: Slideshows

Denizens of the Internet hate slideshows. They don't want to click through 100 different pages to get information that could, technically, be placed on one. It's often done just to drive up page views and ad rates, readers know that, and readers hate it.

I have a use for them, though: Sporcle quizzes. Yep, it's Sporcle day.

Here's what's going to happen. You're going to be shown one national flag. You are to identify that flag. Then a second flag will be provided to you, and you will be shown only one flag at a time in rapid-fire fashion. You are to then identify that second flag. A third flag will then be added, then a fourth, and on like that until you are trying to pick out the newest flag in a rapid-fire 20-flag slideshow. You will have three minutes to complete the task; I finished with 52 seconds left on the clock.

If you don't want a rapid-fire slideshow, you might also try this quiz. Here you'll be given maps of unusual or disputed borders and you have to identify the countries they belong to; you'll have nine minutes to get through 15 of them.

Or this slideshow of maps of American wars; this is five minutes for 12 wars.

Friday, July 5, 2013


You have all but certainly, at some point, run into the crazed-car-salesman trope. That trope was introduced by 'Madman Muntz', a car salesman based out of Los Angeles who went against the prevailing wisdom of the World War 2 era that car salesmen should come off as cool and level-headed. So it's been around a while.

The man we're focusing on today, though, is Crazy Eddie, aka Eddie Antar, whom New Yorkers might remember. Who was Crazy Eddie? Let's put it this way: this link goes to a site called the 'Con Artist Hall of Infamy'. So that's a promising start to things.

Crazy Eddie wasn't a car salesman, though; he focused on electronics stores. He grew his original store out of Brooklyn into an empire by offering low prices on electronics. The prices were so low they were insane. In fact, the prices were so low they were illegal: fair trade laws required electronics to be sold at prices set by the manufacturer, and Antar regarded those laws as quaint. Customers, caring more than anything about the price to them, flocked to Crazy Eddie. Business grew. New Yorkers saw this kind of thing throughout the 1970's and 80's:

The thing was, offering things at a discount means you make less money. Cut prices too low and you won't have enough left to survive on. Antar had a solution for that, as later told by cousin Sam when he spilled the beans in an effort to atone for his role: tax evasion. Employees were paid under the table to avoid payroll taxes. Any time a customer paid in cash- and back then they paid in cash a lot- Eddie just pocketed the sales tax. There was also the endemic practice of fleecing customers at every opportunity. According to Sam, bait-and-switching was done to customers on an epic scale, setting three different employees on someone to try to pressure them into purchasing something higher-margin than what they came in for, before relenting. When possible, returned merchandise was sold as new instead of used.

Crazy Eddie's got big enough to where, in 1980, the Antars decided they wanted to go public. Going public meant access to more money faster, and access to bigger and better methods of fraud, but it also meant auditors get to have a look at you. Eddie had a solution for this kind of thing: make stuff up. Stack up some empty boxes, have someone climb a ladder and shout out whatever numbers she felt like. In the process, the auditors themselves, young and inexperienced, were placated mainly through being made to feel big and important. They never noticed a thing. They also didn't notice the profit skimming and tax fraud, as Crazy Eddie's also gradually reduced the occurrences of that, not only so that it wouldn't be noticed but also so as to make it look like profits were increasing. When the auditors came along, everyone was being paid on the books.)

So Crazy Eddie's went public in 1984, went big, and the Antars made a whole bunch of money. But the auditors had to be continually kept away, or at least distracted. Sam's role here was to make the year-end audits go as slowly as possible; the auditors had eight weeks to do their thing, and Sam's task was to waste as much of that time as he could so the auditors were forced to skip over as much as possible. This was accomplished through sending in the younger, cuter employees to flirt with the age-20-something single guys doing the auditing. Naturally, the auditors' penises overruled their brains every time.

Auditing the quarterlies? Yeah, that didn't happen.

In the meantime, the Antars had dual citizenship in Israel. They would strap cash to their bodies, travel frequently to Israel, unload it from there into various foreign shell companies they had created, and those shells would then funnel the money to Panama and then, around audit time, into company bank accounts, where the money would be recorded as revenue. This, and other schemes, worked so well that in 1986, auditors actually accused them of understating profits, not overstating them, figuring they were being overly cautious in their accounting practices. Needless to say, the Antars were very sweet to them for paying them the compliment.

In 1987, though, the business environment had changed. Crazy Eddie's was, at least to appearances, doing so well that other electronics companies were taking on their rock-bottom-prices mentality. Crazy Eddie's was no longer the only discount game in town. Customers were starting to be lured away, and Crazy Eddie's posted its first loss. Now the strategies for making a good company look great gave way to strategies to make a bad company look good, and the strategies were undercut by family drama, which I think will be best conveyed at Sam's website (most of the story is), but we'll try here. Eddie controlled two-thirds of the company, but Sam M. Antar, Eddie's dad, was supposed to be family patriarch. After Crazy Eddie's took off, he wasn't patriarch anymore. The family was split on who to support, and things came to a head on New Year's Eve 1983, when Sam M., suspecting Eddie of having an affair, sent daughter Ellen and daughter-in-law Robin to catch Eddie in the act. They caught him. Eddie vowed revenge, as opposed to something truly crazy like, say, being faithful to his wife in the future. Things simmered down for the moment, as ultimately everyone was still making money, but when the money stopped flowing in, the fight began anew. It came down to raw control, and Eddie had it, meaning the anti-Eddie side of the family was driven out through resignations and firings after a failed hostile takeover. Two of the faction, Arnold Spindler and Abe Grinberg, responded by alerting the feds to some very interesting information. Granted immunity from prosecution, they went right to work taking revenge on Eddie's revenge.

Behind Eddie's back, the investigators found about $40 million in nonexistent inventory. The FBI got to Sam first. Sam talked. Eddie, in 1990, fled for Israel, where he was captured two years later. Crazy Eddie's would go into receivership, and the receivers needed until March 2012 to finally be satisfied that they'd found all the money they were going to find.

Why? Why did all this happen? There was no why, according to Sam in a 2006 interview with Herb Greenberg of MarketWatch. Crazy Eddie's didn't need to do any of this. It was legitimately profitable and stable, at least until 1987. It was fraud for the sake of fraud, and the threat of prison didn't even compute. It is not that it was not thought of as credible. It was not thought of at all, for better or worse, as if one was asking a goldfish to contemplate Mars.

"We committed crime simply because we could. Criminologists like to analyze white collar crime in terms of the 'fraud triangle' -- incentive, opportunity, and rationalization. We had no rationalization. Simply put the incentive and opportunity was there, but the morality and excuses were lacking. We never had one conversation about morality during the 18 years that the fraud was going on.
White collar criminals do not think in terms of risk of a long prison sentence but instead think in terms of a successful execution -- no different than a project. No crimes in progress, or any enlightening moments, will benefit from a white collar criminal reading a newspaper, watching television, or reading a blog about the long sentences given to a felon like Bernie Ebbers.
We were uncovered only because of family infighting that resulted in the government being tipped off about the fraud (the government had started its investigation before we lost control in a hostile takeover). Most frauds are not uncovered by government audits, external or internal auditors, but rather because either they implode or the co-conspirators turn on each other."

In 2007, as something of a postscript, Sam and Eddie met for the first time in 20 years on CNBC's Business Nation. (Sam M. had died in 2005.) Sam wasted no time.

Five years later, Eddie went to Russia Today, a place I'd normally never source because I'm concerned about that organization being too much of a mouthpiece for the Russian government. But since Eddie speaks for himself here, I'll let it go. While he and Sam are antagonistic towards each other, on the larger point of white-collar criminal philosophy, they concur. Eddie warned that it's easier to do what he did now than it was when he actually did it.

In my day, I knew auditors were stupid.  I knew auditors were incompetent.  But I always thought that if they saw something wrong, they would do the right thing.  Today, you don't have to worry about them doing something wrong, because they're going to do the wrong thing.  They've gone from being enablers, they've gone from being duped, to being actual co-conspirators, in many cases, co-conspirators to financial statement manipulation.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Fourth, On The Fourth


There is a coordinated protest going on today, July 4th, across a lot of major sites on the Internet, as organized by the Internet Defense League, an organization I'd have a banner set up for here if not for the fact that I am spectacularly incompetent at coding so that link will have to do. They are working with another group, Restore The Fourth, to protest the NSA spying program, PRISM, as implemented by Bush 43 in 2007 and leaked by Edward Snowden about a month ago. (Snowden, for his part, is at last guess still in an airport in Moscow seeking a nation that will take him in asylum. He's having a rough go of it, rough enough that a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales from Moscow was forced to land in Austria on suspicions that the plane might have Snowden on it. Morales is pissed.)

As part of the protest- as well as a number of rallies you'll be seeing throughout the day in various US cities- participating websites will be reposting the text of the Fourth Amendment (hence the name Restore The Fourth). So as to do my bit, here it is.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How Many Times Do You Have To Be Told

When you're on a reality show, people can see you being a douchebag. They will remember how much of a douchebag you were. In the case of Big Brother, which uses live feeds, people, such as your employer, can take action against your douchebagginess while you're still in the house.


UPDATE: Why did I have to edit this to include an additional contestant? Why? Why did you make me do that?!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Nudity Is Still An Option

Time to go to the Journeyman Pictures well again. Among their most recent offerings is a report from ABC Australia's program Four Corners. I don't know how long it's been since you got a good look at footage out of a sweatshop, but I wager there are some of you out there that haven't in a while if at all. So here is a 45-minute report on conditions in sweatshop-industry mainstay Bangladesh.

Do mind the warning at the outset warning about disturbing imagery.

Don't get too cocky about it being Bangladesh, though. As recently as last year, fashion designer Alexander Wang was hit with a lawsuit from a worker at his factory in New York alleging sweatshop conditions (the lawsuit was dismissed after an undisclosed settlement). But you don't have to go looking for headline stories to find them. The Government Accountability Office defines a sweatshop as any workplace that violates both of the following:

A) Health and/or safety laws.
B) Wage and/or child labor laws.

The Department of Labor made a major domestic crackdown on the practice in the 1990's, with one of the major headlines going to a sweatshop in Los Angeles employing Thai immigrants. After that, most sweatshops migrated overseas where there are fewer labor laws, but they do still exist in America. Immigrants, legal or not, are the usual targets of sweatshops in the US. They're new to the country, they don't know anyone, they have the fewest connections, they don't know the laws, they'll take any job to get themselves on their feet, they don't know who to trust but need to trust someone, which all makes them easy to exploit. It will usually be the fashion industry doing it, and most often it will be taking place in major ports of entry like New York or Los Angeles.

So it may be worth thinking twice before getting excited about that Made In The USA label.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Davy Jones' Locker Not Found Yet

It isn't a practical thing to send anything down to the ocean floor to specifically look for garbage down there. The depths are too great, as would the expenses. But we know for a fact that, over the years, we have dumped an amazing amount of crap into the ocean and then walked away whistling all out-of-sight-out-of-mind. The problem is we don't know just how much.

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California knew one way you could look down there, though. Just use the footage from the expeditions that have been down to the ocean floor already. They're just one aquarium, based in Monterey, and so they just focused on Monterey Canyon, which sits between Monterey and Santa Cruz, but they had 22 years of footage to go off of, ranging from January 1989-January 2011. That was about 18,000 hours of footage, and from that, they noted (this is a link to the actual study) 1,537 bits of trash. 33% of the trash was plastic (and 54% of that  was plastic bags), and 23% was metal (of which 67% were cans). 14% was rope. After that was unidentified debris (7%; anything that didn't fit into the other categories, like mop heads, wound up here, as well as anything they couldn't figure out what it was), glass (6%), fishing debris (5%), paper (4%), other fabric (3%), rubber (2%), clothing (1%), and sub-1% amounts of manufactured wood, abandoned research equipment, ship wreckage, military, concrete and batteries. At shallower depths, a lot of it was rope and fishing debris; plastic and metal tumbled down to the bottom of canyon slopes and peaked at the mid-range depths, and things got less identifiable (or less categorizable), wound up at deeper depths.

1,537 pieces of garbage may not sound like a lot, but then, remember that they were taking footage from expeditions that weren't even looking for it, that they didn't have the technology to get down to the depths with the bulk of the trash until about halfway through the time period, and it was nowhere close to a complete scan; they only had footage from 0.24% of the survey area. A straight extrapolation- not going to give an accurate figure, but it's worth giving a ballpark idea- would make it 640,417 bits of trash over the entire Monterey Canyon region. To say nothing, of course, of all the undersea regions on Earth that aren't Monterey Canyon.

Here's a video if you need a visual.

Also, note that the trash on the seabed will keep for longer than it would on the ground. The water is cold, there's not much sunlight, and there's not much oxygen, meaning bacteria that would break it down won't grow as well. Once a piece of trash gets colonized, it's best off staying down there- think of all those shipwrecks that get overgrown with barnacles and coral and such- but the best solution is to not let it get down there in the first place.

In conclusion, do be mindful of your crap. If a storm drain says it drains to the lake or the ocean, this is what happens to it.