Monday, March 31, 2014

April Fool's Vote

Today, I appear to need to adhere to two traditions.

First, Tuesday is spring election day in Wisconsin, which means I don't give you anything here except an exhortation to go vote.

Except for the adherence to the second tradition, which is to note that Tuesday is also April Fool's Day, and to make sure you're a little extra careful reading stories online. I don't take part in April Fool's Day, as I consider it irresponsible to deliberately try to mislead people when you're trying to inform them the rest of the year.

Go vote, folks.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

No, I Don't Wanna

Headline, from the Smithsonian's website: "You Can Watch the First Ever Operation To Transplant A 3D-Printed Skull Into a Person's Head".

Okay, see, here's the thing. As a kid, I remember doing rounds of channel-surfing, back in the days before channel listings were loaded right into the TV and you didn't have to channel-surf anymore. This was also back when TLC was still actually living up to its name as The Learning Channel. I'd be going along, just flipping through channels, nope, nope, nope, nope, and then I'd get up to TLC, and there was every chance they'd be showing something like open heart surgery. I am a wuss when it comes to these things. A total wuss. I cannot look at my own arm when I'm giving blood. I winced the last time I got a tetanus shot because I remember hearing everywhere how painful it was and it was a decade since the last one and so I'd forgotten that a tetanus shot is actually just a little prick that you barely feel. So I went all screamy and icky and GET IT OFF CHANGE IT.

So yes. Yes, I can watch it. But no, I don't want to. I also didn't particularly need to hear that the operation came about because the patient's regular skull was thickening and putting pressure on her brain. I will satisfy myself with the fact that the operation, taking place in the Netherlands, was a success.
You Can Watch the First Ever Operation to Transplant a 3D-Printed Skull Into a Person's Head

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You Can Watch the First Ever Operation to Transplant a 3D-Printed Skull Into a Person's Head

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

Saturday, March 29, 2014

People Wonder Strange Things

I present tonight one of the strangest questions I have seen in quite some time, analyzed far more than it probably should have been by Casey Johnston of Ars Technica. I'm sure you're familiar with the old saw that you shouldn't pee in the pool because they treated it with some dye and everyone would know it was you, and you've already figured out that that's a load of hooey.

But could peeing in the pool kill you?

Honestly. Someone asked about this. Casey's surprised too.

As evidenced by the lack of news reports you can recall of anyone ever dying from pool pee, under anything resembling normal circumstances the answer is no. Peeing in a lake enough might, potentially, if you wait long enough, end up causing algae blooms that starve the lake of oxygen and kill some fish, but you personally will be fine. In order for you to die in a chlorinated Olympic-size pool, you have to drastically solve for the values of 'chlorine' and 'pee'. First, you have to concentrate the pee about as far as it can be concentrated in a human- "as if for every glass of water you should be drinking, you ate a few strips of beef jerky instead", as Casey puts it. You also need three million people to have to go like a racehorse and do all their peeing for the day in the pool, to the point where there is a second pool's worth of urine in the pool in addition to the water. Then you need to get a pool that is two parts water/pee to one part chlorine, which by itself would kill you a lot more horribly than the pee would. If you can get all that to happen, maybe perhaps the pee will get you before the chlorine does.

So, if that's how you want to spend your weekend.

Friday, March 28, 2014

He Can Also Maybe Draw A Turtle Or Pirate If It's Paint-By-Numbers

We do not in the least condone plagiarism around here. Don't think that's what this is. Think of it as more a comparison to see how you stack up. I will reprint, in its entirety, a term paper written for finals at the University of North Carolina in a course on African-American Studies. Repeat, this is for finals. The end of the course. The endpoint of everything that was learned in the class. I want you to see if you can write a paper superior to the following, which I will tell you received an A-minus. It is presented without the alteration of a single keystroke (save for the indent, which I had to jury-rig because I can't get the Tab button to behave).

              On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. "Let me have those seats" said the driver. She didn't get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. " I'm going to have you arrested," said the driver. "You may do that," Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them " why do you all push us around?" The police officer replied and said " I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest.

Did I mention the class never actually met? And that the writer of this paper happened to be on the football team? Those seem like important details.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cable News

At least a couple times here, I've mentioned undersea telecommunications cables. Those are, if you don't know or haven't been paying attention, the thing that permits digital data, such as the Internet, to work across continents. Virtually all overseas communication relies on them, and most countries with a sizable population have not just one or two but several different cables running to them so that if one is cut for whatever reason, they're not going to suffer a total blackout. (By 'most', we are of course referring to 'the countries that can afford to pony up for those cables; the poorer countries have fewer connections and are more vulnerable to an outage.) They're roundabout three inches in diameter on average, and laid using special ships designed to steadily ease it overboard as they cross from one land base to the other. There are also ships designed to find and repair damaged cables when that need arises.

But odds are you probably don't know where those cables exactly, well, are. Today I fix that. This link goes to an interactive map showing all undersea cables currently in operation, and where each of them link up, as well as when it was laid and, in case it means anything to you, who owns it.

They may appear to resemble the tangled mess behind your desk (or at least under mine), but that's just the scale talking.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Let's Eat Nuclear Tonight

One of the largest concerns with nuclear power, going right next to the concern that some of it could go Chernobyl/Fukushima/Maralinga and render chunks of the planet uninhabitable for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, is what exactly you do with nuclear waste once the plant is done with it. Because again, that stuff has a ludicrously long half-life. The waste has to go somewhere, and wherever that somewhere is will likely be rendered about as desirable to live in as the aforementioned. And that's about that. It's not like you can speed up the decay process.

Or perhaps you can. Meet californium, an otherwise obscure little element that's among the upper reaches of the periodic table, where the boxes are filled with elements that have comically short half-lives measured in microscopic fractions of a second and which can only be popped into existence a couple particles at a time because of it, because nothing past uranium (element 92) occurs naturally. Californium is element 98, with half lives that aren't so small that you can't actually do anything with it. Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt of Florida State seems to have found something to do with it. While it isn't cheap by any stretch of the imagination- a mere five milligrams of californium, supplied by Oak Ridge, required an expenditure of $1.4 million- what was found was that californium was able to bond with atom compounds that contain boron (such as plutonium borides or uranium borides), thereby altering their makeup, as well as separate their components. It also showed to be highly resistant to radiation.

What does that mean? It means you might be able to use californium to store and break down radioactive waste, making it able to be recycled. Though, again, this is going to be expensive as hell, maybe prohibitively so, to carry out on any kind of scale, it's absolutely going to be worth looking further into.

The source report is here, and boy am I glad someone else was able to translate the details for me, not merely because of the $32 paywall but also because the text that is available is pretty darned impenetrable to me.

By the way, I cannot resist the following: in the period from 2010-12, Florida State's football program spent an average of $64.8 million per year. Revenue was $113.4 million per year, meaning the football program brought in $37.8 million per year for the university... which would be enough for 135 milligrams of californium.

The BS Filter

Okay, so shortly before my... family unpleasantness, I issued a retraction on a story regarding Lindsay Lohan's guest appearance on 2 Broke Girls. The story I was going off of was total bullshit, from a site known to those familiar with it to be total bullshit. Therein lied the problem: I wasn't familiar with the site.

This basic point- not knowing the site, or at least, not knowing the creator of the content offhand- is very common when we read something online. And even when you do know the creator, often you won't even get that far. Nobody will. It's literally impossible to do. The responsibility and expectation of a journalist is to read and comprehend the data they're going off of before they put out their own work. Though, really, the expectation is to read and comprehend, well, all the news they see. That's their job, after all. That's what they're paid to do. But there is a limit. There are only so many articles you're able to read, only so many you're able to independently verify, and the latter is going to be a smaller number than the former. And news comes in at a much higher rate than you're going to ever be able to read it, even if your mantle is buckling under the weight of Peabodies and Pulitzers.

Let me show you. Go to Google News. Go down the front page, just the front page. Don't click on anything. Just scroll down and count up how many articles you see. I have a couple custom categories on mine, so my number may be different from yours, but I came out at 69 individual links to articles. Some of them, to be fair, are going to separate accounts of the same news item, but then, if you're going to be verifying a story, odds are you're going to want to click on all of them anyway. Are you going to be clicking on 69 news links a day? Plus whatever else might be hiding behind the front page that would be deemed worthy of relaying? Plus whatever else Google News doesn't catch at all? Of course you aren't. The headline of a story stands a good chance of being all you see of it.

But you're still getting information regardless. Even just following headlines gives at least a tiny bit of information, and that tiny bit of information is likely how you take in a lot of the news you read, whether you realize you're doing it or not. Even if you haven't been following, for instance, the search for the missing plane, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, when you see headlines that tell of expanded search zones that range from Kazakhstan to Australia, you're going to get the idea just from that that the search isn't going well, because searching for a downed plane generally doesn't require anywhere near that kind of range.

The question then becomes: what to do with this information. Believing all of it blindly, clearly, is going to lead you down some very bad roads. But neither you nor anyone else has the kind of time it would take to manually separate fact from fiction. How do you proceed? How do you get on with your life as best you can?

What you do is you set up a bullshit filter (BS filter from here on in). You give yourself a set of guidelines to follow that helps you begin the process of deciding what to believe and what not to believe, and save the more labor-intensive checking for things you're less sure about one way or the other. You give increased weight to content from some sources, and decreased weight to content from others. Particularly untrustworthy sources can get automatically dismissed. Information that fits your current worldview gets more weight than information that doesn't, and stories can be flagged based on a particular part that sticks out or contradicting a previous story you've seen.

However, discarding that which does not fit your personal conventional wisdom can cause a lot of problems. If circumstances have in fact changed, you can get caught off guard. The practice can lead to a lot of echo-chambering, as taken too far, you might only believe news you agree with anyway. And you're susceptible to getting taken in by rumors that continue down the path of current conventional wisdom. This last one is what ultimately got me regarding Lohan.

Eventually, you are going to run into issues with whatever BS filter parameters you've set up. While close examination of more news can be done, it can't be done for everything. All you can do is continue to refine your filter. The difference sometimes between a professional journalist and a non-journalist can be little more than the refinement of the filter, but even a pro can be taken in sometimes. You want to check everything in a story, but some of the information might seem trivial to review every time you write a story. You wouldn't feel the need to keep looking up the capital of France, for instance; you should just straight-up know that it's Paris. The problem becomes, what in the story you're doing do you feel confident enough in knowing that you're just going to put it down? And at what point do you conclude that your information is correct enough to publish? Sooner or later, you must stop researching. You have to eventually say 'okay, this all looks right', or else you'll never run the story. Even that which you've researched will eventually be put through your BS filter, or else you would be researching your research, and then researching your researched research, and so on and so forth forever.

Though this is the best way to fix a BS filter, at least from a journalist's perspective: be more careful. Take the extra bit of time, make extra sure your information is correct. This is one of the key advantages a collective group- e.g. a newsroom- has over an individual: teamwork. They can have more eyeballs on more stories. More to the point, they can have more eyeballs on each individual story. More eyeballs means more BS filters that a story has to go through, and more layers of research, and more opportunities to find and flag anything in a story that smells fishy. When you have that many layers of vetting going on, it should usually be enough to get everything right, though as we know, it often isn't. Deadlines, pageviews, personal agendas and the pursuit of glory can do funny things to a story, even without the possibility that everyone's BS filters failed at the same time.

What can you do other than that? If you're not a journalist and just need to better tell fact from fiction? It's an unsatisfying answer, probably, but it comes down to simply continuing to refine your filter. Learning is a lifelong process. You're never going to get it totally right, but you can always work to get just that little bit better for next time.

I don't mean to be making excuses, though I could see how this could come off as such; if so, I apologize as it's not my intent. My intent is to try to understand just where I messed up and gauge the potential for such a mistake to happen again down the road. Will I make a mistake again? Unfortunately, eventually, of course I will. We all will. We're human. All I can do is be as careful as I can, continue to calibrate my own BS filter, and just generally learn from the mistakes I do make so I can, if not eliminate, at least minimize the likelihood of making mistakes in the future. And if and when I do mess up, it's on me to fix the mistake as quickly and as loudly as I can; we've all heard the old saying about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.

That's a very important part of being less stupid: knowing how and where you need to do so.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

How To Draw A Lot Of Attention To Your Attempt At Censorship

1. Be the local printer of the International New York Times (for those that aren't caught up, that's what the International Herald Tribune is called now).
2. Specifically, be the local printer in Pakistan, the Express Tribune.
3. Notice a story on that day's front page entitled 'What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden', detailing the government's relationship with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and alleging that the government took steps to actually hide Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. You can see it here.
4. Freak the hell out.
5. Delete the whole entire thing and leave a gigantic white space that takes up half the front page just sitting there.
6. Distribute paper to readers who aren't so stupid that they're not going to think there used to be an article of some sort sitting there.
7. Watch as readers go off to find out what it is that got deleted. This is easy these days. There's Twitter and everything.
8. Oh, yes, and don't tell the New York Times that you have done so, leading them to run an article in which they detail the other things local printers have stripped from their paper and note that this is not the first time you have done this.

Back To Business

I do want to keep some semblance of normal service around here. I have no idea in the world what an update schedule is going to look like, at least in the near future. I know that every time I've said that previously, I've somehow managed to keep schedule, but helping a loved one fight cancer is quite a bit bigger task than the other potential pitfalls in front of me up to now.

That noted, it's not really my intention to turn this into a cancer blog, so while I'll make note of any major developments, I'm going to try to get back to regular programming.

But, not really up for making anything major right now, so... TED's in session right now. Have a TED talk from, well, last year's TED. Here's Daniel Reisel.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Update To The Update

Good news (solve for 'good'). The PET scan on Dad is done, and the cancer has not spread anywhere that we don't already know it to be. Well, barring an MRI tomorrow that would reveal anything monumentally awful up in the brain. That means there's a chance at actually beating this. Not managing it; beating it.

The first round of chemo, as already stated, was today, and it was noted that he'll be at his weakest about 10 days after the start of chemo... which just about coincides with the birth of our nephew, slated for April 1st. Who he won't really be able to hold without a bunch of protective gear for fear of contaminating the baby. But we'll make it work somehow.

Also Wisconsin spring elections are April 1st. Hoo boy, that's going to be a crazy day. Especially since that requires me to vote in Watertown, it will also be a day of radiation therapy in Madison (to Watertown's west), and the baby will be born in Oconomowoc (to Watertown's east).

Am I frightened? Of course I am. I'm sure everybody is around here. We've all broken down at least a couple times each already. That having been established? We have a path. We have a way out, as long as we all bust our respective butts. Nothing to do but get to work.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Well, that CT scan didn't go well. I didn't catch the exact form of cancer Dad has, but it's a particularly aggressive type found only in 1% of cases (I never caught the exact name), and it has already spread from the esophagus to the lymph nodes. This means surgery is, at least currently, not an option. The cancer would have to be shrunk to the point where it can be handled through surgery. In order to do this, he'll be on a steady diet of chemo and radiation treatment. First will be a PET scan tomorrow morning in order to determine the exact size of the cancer and if it's anywhere else they haven't seen it yet, so we'll know if it can be shrunk down and surgeried out. Then comes the first round of chemo; that will be done in three-day stretches every three weeks. Starting next week will be the radiation treatment; this will be done daily for the next several weeks from Monday-Friday. It's going to out and out kick Dad's ass in the process.

The good news- funny how low the bar gets set for 'good news' in these circumstances- is that according to both the doctors at the VA hospital and my main soccer-book partner, Paul Song (a radiation oncologist by day), chemo and radiation do work rather well for cancer of this type. So the ballgame isn't over yet.

We need to score a bunch of runs in the late innings. But the game's not over.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

It's Been A Rough Couple Days

The last couple days have been... draining. Hence the lack of updates the past two days.

This weekend, my dad, Richard, started feeling kind of funny, began having trouble swallowing, and he began having black stool. He'd had no previous symptoms of anything. Since we're covered at the VA hospital in Madison due to Dad being a Vietnam veteran, and because that hospital is physically connected to the UW-Madison hospital and is just generally worlds ahead of the hospital here in Watertown, it was decided to go there to see what was up.

What was up turned out to be internal bleeding in the lower section of the esophagus. What then was up was a biopsy, and that returned a diagnosis of cancer. It's been a rather shocking and emotional few days all around, with a lot of shuttling between Watertown and Madison so far and much more on the way.

Cancer of the esophagus was what killed my half-brother Jason some 15 years ago. The difference, though, was that Jason, being mentally retarded, was unable to communicate his difficulties to those at his nursing home until he began vomiting, and by the time they realized what was going on, it was too late to do anything. Dad was able to say something, so let's hope that gives us a much better shot at beating this.

The VA hospital does not have an oncology department; however, the UW hospital not only does have one, it's ranked in the top 50 nationally by US News and World Report (specifically, 47th), which means my dad's in just about the best hands he could possibly be in in this part of the country, and they are already treating him in vast numbers. A PET/CT scan is scheduled for tomorrow morning to determine exactly what type of cancer we're dealing with, as well as its stage; assuming that doesn't render a Stage 4 result (and let's hope that doesn't happen), an ultrasound will be next in order to determine whether surgery can be performed to cut the cancer out and stretch the stomach up to make up the gap. No matter what, we know there's going to be some chemo happening. If it is Stage 4, well, all you can do then is the chemo to keep it at bay as long as you can. If it's anything less, we've got all sorts of fighting ahead of us (well, we do either way, but it would be the kind of fighting that involves trying to remove the cancer as opposed to just managing its spread).

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law has a baby coming, with a due date of April 1. Cancer never comes at a convenient time, but this timing is particularly havoc-creating.

So, any support you could give my dad right now would be greatly, greatly appreciated.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

There Will Be Math; You Have Been Told

Today, I have a very simple game that came across my Facebook wall. The game is called 2048.

What you'll have before you is a 4x4 grid, in which two of the boxes are filled with a number. The number will be a multiple of 2 (probably both 2's, though possibly there'll be a 4 in there). When you press one of the arrow keys on your keyboard, the numbers will slide as far as they can go in that direction, and then another number will appear in an empty box- again, probably a 2, more rarely a 4, never any higher.

Your task is to keep the grid clear by slamming identical numbers into each other. When you do, the two numbers will merge. The stated goal is to get to where you have a 2048 on the board (although you can keep going after that), which will require you to make a 2, then a 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 and then the 2048. This will require you to fill the board up quite a bit before you can even begin to go for it. On my first and so far only playthrough, I only made it up to getting the 512 onto the grid.

An alternative way to play is to go until you can't anymore and simply add up the values of the boxes you have when you run out of room. In which case, I got 898 on my first go.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Retraction From Parallel Social-Media Me

So.... I messed up. Not here. Here I am perfect and sweet and gumdrop lollipops except when I am not. Over on my Facebook account is where I messed up.

This morning on Facebook, I shared this account of a taping of the sitcom 2 Broke Girls, given by someone claiming to have been in the audience that night. In the account, the taping happened to be the one in which Lindsay Lohan was guest-starring. The story tells of a complete and utter trainwreck, as just about anyone who's followed Lohan's career trajectory since Mean Girls would fully expect to hear about, me included. There are tales of 45 minutes to get one scene done, a take aborted because Lindsay's phone went off, lines being shortened until Lindsay could spit them out, her being unable to speak properly because of a combination of smoking and Botox, people leaving the taping to the point where not only cupcakes but also money was being offered to those willing to remain, and silence meeting Lindsay at the end while all the other actors got applause. All things that you'd generally expect to see in a Lindsay Lohan story these days.

The story's so detailed, all in all, and of the type where you wouldn't expect any bigger-name source to give a firsthand account anyway (the major outlets would usually be too concerned with spoilers and probably under NDA's in any case), that I ended up taking it at face value and passed it along. Then I went to work and more or less forgot about it.

Come the end of work, I go on Twitter, and what should greet me but a tweet from Kat Dennings, one of the lead actresses on 2 Broke Girls. The horse's mouth. The tweet read, "This article is complete bullshit. Lindsay was prepared, sweet to everyone, & professional. Not nice to spread lies." It was followed by a link to an article whose thread led back to the aforementioned story. (UPDATE: Five minutes later, costar Beth Behrs concurred with Dennings.)

I was until this point unfamiliar with the blogger, going by "Entertainment Lawyer", Enty for short, or his blog, Crazy Days And Nights. If I had been familiar, I would have known not to pass it along. Because the blog was exposed back in 2012- on April Fools Day, ironically- as a complete and total pile of crap by, and I'm not proud to admit I got outjournoed by them, the New York Post, which proceeded to pick apart some of Enty's recent claims of the day with tweezers after a (false) claim that one of the commenters on the blog was Robert Downey Jr. writing under a pseudonym, and added that Enty, while he is a lawyer in Los Angeles, is not an entertainment lawyer but rather one that deals with wills and probate.

Not hard to tell whose word is more trustworthy here. I wish I'd have known that sooner. I'd essentially passed along a story from a lesser-known journalistic equivalent of the National Enquirer. And I cannot let that blunder go unfixed.

As a side note, I probably should also have seen a red flag go up when the story got around to the part about people leaving the taping early, and throughout the taping. You are generally not allowed to leave a taping of a TV show early unless there's an emergency, as, among other factors, leaving can disrupt the taping.

So, my apologies to Kat, Beth and, more importantly, Lindsay Lohan. If the taping went well, maybe that's a sign that this latest of 'last chances' Lohan's working on is finally the one that's actually taking, in which case, the best of luck.

Fish And Hell's Kitchen Stink After Three Days

Hell's Kitchen, a show that I would call a guilty pleasure except I'm not ashamed at all (it's only a guilty pleasure if you don't want to admit that you watch it), premiered Season 12 tonight. So I figure today, we should do some food instruction so that you do not let your skills lapse to the point where you are selected to compete on Hell's Kitchen.


what did i just watch. i just wanted food on the nice camera and that happened. now the camera is smiling and dancing. hepl.

Welp, I guess we might as well find a how-to-make-sushi video to go along with... that. Since there's a whole mess of different kinds of sushi, it probably wouldn't pay to pick a video for one specific type, so I'm picking out a more general how-to which you could then probably alter to taste yourself. You get the basics down of the overall process and customization shouldn't be too tough from there.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Code Red

NASA tracks asteroids as part of its everyday duties, with, among other things, an aim at determining which ones stand even the slightest chance of hitting Earth, how much of a chance, and the ETA just in case they do. The problem is, when an asteroid does whizz by Earth, odds are good that it's actually an asteroid NASA hadn't even picked up. It kind of wrecks everything to smithereens when the asteroids you most need to know about are the ones you can't pick up with your current methods.

So NASA, somewhat lacking for a solution, has decided to go the X-prize route. They're putting up a bounty for a way to better detect the close-range asteroids in what they're calling the Asteroid Grand Challenge. The first phase of the challenge, Asteroid Data Hunter, kicks off on Monday and runs through August, split up into a series of sub-challenges. Here, what's being sought is an improved algorithm to sort through the images in ground-based telescopes and better find any asteroids that may be lurking in those images. To do this, you are going to need to know some coding; specifically, you'll need to be a member of TopCoder.

The opening challenge, which will close on April 2nd, will consist of NASA providing 180GB worth of data, and you are to write code that can reject false positives from a list of asteroid detections stemming from that data. Manage this better than anyone else, and you'll win $1,275; 2nd place will get $638. If it's particularly reliable, there's a $255 bonus on offer as well. The total purse for the entire contest is $35,000.

Alternatively, the contest could end when an asteroid the size of Cleveland smacks into us out of nowhere. So you may want to be quick with that coding.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

This Post Has Been Flagged

As you might be aware, a number of countries have the Union Jack in their flag in whole or in part, a symbol of being part of the British Commonwealth at one time or another. Currently, this includes Anguilla, Australia, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Montserrat, New Zealand, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuvalu, and of course, the United Kingdom itself.

More countries used to include the Union Jack as well, but over time removed the Jack for a flag that is completely their own. This list includes Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, Gambia, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Malta, Mauritius, Myanmar, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, the United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

New Zealand, though the likelihood is iffy, is being placed in the position to be the next country to make the switch. Prime minister John Key has expressed a desire for a referendum on changing the national flag; he prefers something more akin to what the All Blacks, the national rugby team, use: a silver fern on a black field, though he's open to something else if that's what ends up being wanted.  But it's unclear as to whether it is. A recent poll showed 72% of the public being happy with the current flag and 28% in favor of a change, though whether that translates into what they'd do with an actual ballot in front of them is something of an unknown. In any case, with regular elections coming up, the original thought was to run the referendum alongside the elections, but with the numbers only at 28% in favor, that's been scrapped in favor of holding the referendum afterward.

There's also a secondary reason in play for postponing the vote: the flag has history behind it. People have saluted that flag, died for it. There's a day, ANZAC Day, observed on April 25 in both Australia and New Zealand, that serves as their bi-national equivalent of Veterans' Day. The first ANZAC Day was in 1915. The elections are scheduled for September 30. Nobody particularly feels like hauling down the current flag for the last time on the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day, which might happen depending on when they decide on the new flag.

But, of course, that pales in comparison to the prospect of getting voted out of office over it.

Why Did You People Still Think Planet X Existed, I Mean Honestly

Planet X is an idea that's been around a long, long, very long time. It once referred to the idea that a planet existed somewhere beyond Neptune, and then after Pluto was discovered, some people decided that Pluto wasn't Planet X and it had to be out past that too. Though really, it basically refers to any sufficiently mysterious planet we haven't found yet. Another historical bugaboo came from before the beyond-Neptune theory, when 'Vulcan' was thought to be circling around somewhere between Mercury and the sun. Those of you who've watched enough Looney Tunes will recognize the term used in a certain cartoon from 1953:

For current purposes, Planet X, which I actually had thought we'd more or less abolished as a concept by now, refers to the outside-Pluto definition, and more specifically refers to a theory that once in a while, a rogue planet, also sometimes called Nemesis, comes along on an orbit that causes a mass-extinction event on Earth.

Well, long story short, you can relax about the hypothetical star that's going to doom us all if it actually exists, because it doesn't. NASA conducted a sweep of pretty much the entire cosmos that they're currently capable of sweeping, and there's no Planet X anywhere on their radar. Although they did find 3,525 new stars and brown dwarfs sitting within 500 light years of the sun, so it's far from a waste of time.

Seriously, though. People were still doing the Planet X thing? And taking it seriously? Wow.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Things I Don't Intend To Do When I Get My Kickstarter Going

I'm still in setup mode for my soccer-book Kickstarter; I'm currently working out details of what I'm trying to do with the artist I'm lining up to do my cover. I'm not exactly that artist's only project right now, so it's taking a little bit to get that squared away.

This noted, one of the many potential obstacles of a Kickstarter is, ironically, being too successful. When you put the ask number out there, the goal is to ask for an amount that you think will cover all your expenses, hopefully giving yourself enough leeway in anticipation of some difficulty or other that you didn't see coming beforehand (protip: this will happen somewhere along the way). The thing is, though, when you do that, you calibrate for an amount meant to cover expenses at the level right at the ask number. More money sounds like it's just icing on the cake, right? Big bucks means big success?

Not necessarily. More money means that more people need to be shipped backer rewards, thus upping your costs accordingly. Problems can arise when the creator fails to account for the increased scale and their costs rise faster than their pledges. Or, alternatively, when they find that the rewards and stretch goals they've reached have ended up handing them an amount of work that they can't actually cope with. (This is something I'm specifically trying to calibrate... just in case.)

John Campbell, creator of the webcomic Pictures For Sad Children, got off the Kickstarter for his first book, eponymously titled, without any real issues. The second book, Sad Pictures For Children, was launched similarly, with an ask number of $8,000. He ended up with $51,615, in a campaign ending on May 26, 2012. Which, again, you'd think would be awesome.

But the project turned out not to scale up like he'd hoped. Printing what wound up being 2,000 (hardcover) books ran him $30,000 of that amount, which right there is getting up towards four times the original ask number. An additional amount- don't know how much- was spent on finding enough dead wasps to encase in plastic and affix inside the back covers of each of the books (the identities of the stretch goals have been removed from the campaign page, but I'd think that would have been one of them).

Three backers went in at the $100 level (it was limited to those three), which I think I ought to single out. It read: "a signed/drawn in copy of "sad pictures for children" and i will take a homeless person to eat somewhere and ask them about their life. i will then give them $100, and make a comic about them or about the experience. Then I will send you the original pages of the comic." Which is nice and altruistic and all, in the abstract quite noble, but from a purely project perspective, that was a poor decision. The money you get is supposed to at minimum entirely cover the costs of the project. The money you get at any given backer tier has to not only cover everything you give away at that level, but the remainder is to be applied towards the main project as well. Preferably, you want your rewards to be high-margin: that is, you want to be spending a tiny amount of money relative to the reward level. Autographing the product is a very high-margin option; it costs you literally nothing to grab a pen or a marker and write your name on the product. All the money at that tier can thus be directly applied to the main project. It's a popular option for reward tiers.

When your $100 reward tier starts with you handing the entire $100 to someone, no matter their lot in life, and then using the $0 you have left to make a fresh piece of work, in addition to the main project... that is not only low-margin, you are putting yourself in the hole with everyone who takes that reward tier.

As for the high-margin autograph reward, Campbell didn't really apply it to his benefit at all. All tiers that included a copy of the book automatically came with it autographed. For the autograph to help his cause, it would need to have been applied as an amplifier higher up the ladder. Pledge $X, you get a book; pledge $X+Y, I'll autograph it for you too. (He did, though, opt to make a little drawing in the book as an amplifier, so he did that right at least.)

A 200-page hardcover book, with color sections and a dead wasp, is going to run into money, as I've found out just fiddling around with cost calculators. Color in particular is going to drive up your costs like crazy. Hardcover is going to drive up your costs like crazy. It all eventually caught up to Campbell. With about 75% of the rewards sent out, he ran out of money.

The backers still without their rewards- which happened to be his biggest backers- started getting antsy. They wanted to know what was going on and where their books were- understandable, as they had the most money tied up in this, with the backer tiers ranging up to $1,000. There was radio silence since an update on December 12, 2013.

A week and a half ago on February 27, 21 months after the original end of the campaign, Campbell told them where their books were.

They were in hell. He had set them on fire. He had zero intention of sending any more out. Only 750-800 of the books had gone out, with about 150 more being returned due to shipping errors or wrong/outdated addresses. 127 of the books, one for each message he had gotten asking where the remaining books were, had been burned, along with a statement that one additional book would be burned for every attempt to contact him on the matter until they were all gone. The backers at $75 and above were told to go screw themselves.

That's the short version. The long version... let's put it this way; Campbell wrote the long version. It is barely coherent in places and can only be described as a complete mental breakdown. Campbell did not merely want nothing more to do with the project, or the comic strip itself (which he has now removed from the Internet entirely, ending a run that started in 2007). He wanted nothing more to do with money as a concept. He wanted someone to help him just cover his basic living needs with no expectation of a reward of any kind.

After reading the message, while there was predictably some amount of anger and resignation in the comments section, there has actually been a significant sense of sympathy. These guys just watched a man have a nervous breakdown. To hell with the book; this is still an artist they respected enough to back in the first place. There were multiple calls to seek help, a Buddhist or two who sympathized with the rejection of money.

The problems at this point, though, are threefold:

1) According to the rules of Kickstarter (which due to enforceability is less a rule and more of a severe social obligation), the creator must refund the money of any backer whose reward he cannot or will not fulfill. And Campbell has stated in no uncertain terms, just go ahead and try to get that money out of him at this point.
2) Kickstarter does not permit 'fund-my-life' campaigns.
3) Campbell appears to have no intention of so much as logging onto Kickstarter ever again, let alone start another campaign.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Time Goes By So Slowly For Those Who Wait

Daylight Savings is tonight (those of you running or along the route of the LA Marathon tomorrow, plan accordingly), and since those American readers will be losing an hour, I'll only take six minutes of your time.

A Sporcle quiz ought to do the trick. All I need from you is the most populous city in each time zone. There aren't any cities on the list that are so obscure that nobody's ever going to get them. Some are hard as hell, but not unfairly difficult, so if you're enough of a geography buff, all the cities are rattling around in your head somewhere.

Now get to bed.

Where The Prosecutor Is The Frazzled One

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, despite a high-minded ideal of attempting to bring dictators and those responsible for crimes against humanity on a grand scale, doesn't have the greatest reputation. It's not often that they're ever able to actually score a conviction. Not every nation buys into it, and those that don't are just as outside the court's jurisdiction as Boss Hogg is the second the General Lee crosses the county line... which allows the superpowers and those from many of the world's most brutal regimes convenient cover.  The cases they've officially investigated, never mind any convictions, are exclusively African, leading to resentment from Africa that they're being picked on. (If you're thinking of Slobodan Milosevic dying prior to a verdict during his tribunal, that was not the ICC. That was a separate tribunal set up specifically for crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, something done in the same general vein as the Nuremburg Trials. That tribunal is still open.)

And they've only scored two actual convictions... one of which just came down, on Germain Katanga, a warlord out of DR Congo, regarding an attack on the village of Bogoro in February 2003, where Katanga was found to have played a significant role in acquiring guns for a coalition of the Lendu and Ngiti tribes so as to more easily massacre the 200-some Hema residents; Bogoro is in a diamond-heavy region. Katanga was, however, acquitted of direct participation, as well as sexual charges that were also brought against him, to the chagrin of several Bogoro residents who distinctly remember having been raped and in at least one case made a sex slave by someone back in 2003.

Even the conviction they did get wasn't unanimous; the court uses a three-judge system and the conviction was a 2-1 decision, with Bruno Cotte (France) and Fatoumata Dembele Diarra (Mali) voting to convict, and
Christine Van den Wyngaert (Belgium) dissenting on the basis that the charges against Katanga were changed mid-trial (the trial began with him being tried as main perpetrator, and later downgraded to him being tried as a co-conspirator) and that he wasn't given sufficient opportunity to defend himself from the new charges.

Katanga, after he's sentenced next month, would not necessarily be actually serving his sentence in The Hague. The detention facility there is only meant for those whose trial process is still ongoing. The actual facility they do their time in is subject to an agreement between the court and the country in question, which doesn't necessarily mean they get shipped home. The other person convicted, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, also of DR Congo, is in fact in The Hague. One of those convicted in a tribunal, though, Charles Taylor of Liberia, is serving his 50-year sentence (in his case, effectively life) in the United Kingdom; the identity of the exact prison he's in has not been made public. This is over Taylor's request to serve the sentence in Rwanda.

We'll soon see who's willing to take Katanga.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Somehow, This Is Cartman's Fault

If you happen to be here from Germany, you're already well aware of this, but after the whole World War 2 unpleasantness, the one thing that above all else they do not want to see over there is anything Nazi-related. Nor do they want to see anything that might lead to anything Nazi-related. The Nazis themselves are banned. It's illegal to deny the Holocaust happened in not only Germany but a number of other nations around Europe. There is a whole section of German law dealing with just how illegal it is to have any Nazi stuff laying around whatsoever, and they enforce it to the point where in 2007, it had to be clarified by their supreme court that it is in fact okay to display a crossed-out Nazi swastika as an anti-Nazi measure even though it has a swastika in it. There is an exception where you can have one if you're using it in the media for an artistic, scientific or educational purpose, places where not having one would simply be ridiculous, though the value of 'artistic' is subject to review. (Also, devotees of Jainism are permitted the reverse swastika as in their case it's a symbol of peace, and German authorities trust them pretty well not to go smashing anything up.)

So we're clear. We're clear? Everyone good and read up on TV Tropes?

Well, not entirely. The game South Park: The Stick Of Truth, just launched in North America without incident, happens to have some Nazi symbols in it, due to the appearance of Nazi zombies in the game. Because it's South Park and of course it does. Three days after the North American launch, it was supposed to launch in Germany and Austria, and in order to-- you're already cringing, aren't you? Or laughing. One of the two.

Yep, they forgot to take the swastikas out. Well, not so much 'forgot' as 'they missed one when they thought they'd got them all'. A new release date has yet to be announced.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Questionably-Advised Venture Into Winter Edition

Given that I had a $40 giftcard for Barnes and Noble from Christmas that I had yet to burn up, I opted to drive into Madison today to duly light it on fire. This required venturing out into the outside world, which contains all of the snow. Being where all of the snow is is bad, kiddies. Never do it. Especially don't do it when all the salt is also out there.

The giftcard was good enough to bring me three books:

*Fawcett, Bill- How To Lose A War At Sea: Foolish Plans and Great Naval Blunders
*Jennings, Ken- Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids
*Turner, Jack- Spice: The History of a Temptation

Ken Jennings is getting to be quite the prolific writer. Not that I have the slightest problem with that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beautful Oceanside Yuma

At one of my home boards, Penny Arcade, you'll find a thread called the 'Cool Stuff From History Thread', started last July. In this thread, PA forumers are invited to try and one-up each other with the most interesting anecdotes from history that they can come up with. They are very, very good at this game.

How good? Within two pages of the thread's commencement, forumers provided:

*Excerpts from a manual given to British servicemen preparing to occupy Germany in 1944.
*The cultural significance of Pacific ocean currents shipwrecking boats set adrift, up to and including three Japanese fishermen who in 1832 broke through Japan's then-closed borders completely by accident and wound up in Washington State.
*Evidence that even though the New World was famously handed smallpox blankets by the Europeans, the the New World had something of their own to give: syphilis, which went back to Europe with Columbus.
*An ammunition carrier for Poland in World War 2, who also happened to be a bear.
*Parachutes for supply drops in the Spanish Civil War, that also happened to be live turkeys.
*Color-coded war plans drawn up by the United States after World War 1 to deal with a wide variety of potential hostile forces, some much more likely than others. War Plan Black was for war with Germany, War Plan Orange dealt with Japan, War Plan Indigo was just in case Iceland wanted to start something, War Plan Red was for war with Great Britain (and various shades of red were assigned to various British colonies; Canada got crimson). The basic strategy for World War 2 ended up stemming from one of the plans assuming a war on multiple fronts, called Rainbow 5; and Herbert Hoover's attack on the Bonus Army in 1932, led by Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, came out of the plan for domestic unrest, War Plan White.

The thread is now 63 pages, and one of the better more recent entries in the thread is by forumer 'Knuckle Dragger', who on page 60 tells the story of the various attempts to irrigate the Salton Sink, an area in southeastern California stretching from Palm Springs to Yuma, Arizona to the border town of Mexicali, centering on the Salton Sea. Knuckle Dragger's story tells about how the Salton Sea was created. Geologically, the entire sink was flooded by runoff from the Colorado River, which eventually put enough silt into the area to block any further flow. The Salton Sea, long story short because I wish to send you to Knuckle Dragger's writeup, was created when various businessmen looking to irrigate the region attempted to build canals. The water in the canals thereby bypassed the silt... and then the canals... and nearly flooded the entire sink all over again. The Salton Sea is made up of the water that remained after railroad magnate Edward Harriman spent vast amounts of money to get levees built that would drive the water back.

In later decades, to keep that from happening again, the Hoover Dam was built.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Well, I Could Have Told You That

It seems that some news outlets, no less established than CNN and the BBC, have taken it upon themselves to report that being angry puts you at greater risk for a heart attack or a stroke. This is because someone at Harvard took it upon himself to research the effect of anger on your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke, something that you'd think we've pretty well internalized by now, though since the research was on pinning down some numbers- think a five-fold risk increase of a heart attack and a three-fold increase of a stroke over the two hours following an outburst- I won't really gig the researcher too much due to that.

Really, though. Honestly. There was an episode of King of the Hill about this, back in 2002. King of the Hill was not exactly a show known for depicting, or attracting, the highest common denominator as an audience. This is something everyone just ought to know.

So let's see what else we have in the news...

*Hamid Karzai is... angry with the US government.
*Alan Pardew, manager of Newcastle United, is ordered to take an anger management class.
*Another study noting how angrily ranting online doesn't actually manage your anger.
*Everybody's angry at Vladimir Putin for reasons you really shouldn't have to be told.
*Everybody else is angry at British betting firm Paddy Power over an ad promoting their offering betting on the outcome of the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius of South Africa.
*A group of cyclists in Cape Town reached through the window of some delivery driver and just started beating the crap out of him and hitting him with pepper spray.

...okay, maybe this is a good time to talk about anger causing heart attacks. Breathe, people. Deep breathing. Count to ten or something.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bad Ideas For Class Field Trips

'12 Years A Slave' is considered the overwhelming frontrunner to take Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Let us say, perhaps, that you have seen this movie. Let us further say, perhaps, that you would like to visit one of the plantations in person, so that you may learn more about the institution of slavery right from the horses' mouth.

Let us say you are sorely mistaken as to what you're going to be seeing at that plantation. As Lisa Hix of Collectors Weekly explains in a very in-depth article which you should be clicking on right now instead of listening to me prattle on, many of the Southern plantations open to visitors are run by the descendants of the people who actually ran the plantations in antebellum days. Which sounds like a nice link to the past, but think about whose side of the story that means you're getting. You will be hard-pressed to find a plantation in which the slaves were not, to hear the owners tell it, happy to be enslaved (as invariably, the plantation owner was 'one of the nicer slaveowners'; you will never once find a plantation run by an owner that is admitted to being the slightest bit mean). You will in fact be hard-pressed to find any exhibit featuring life as a slave, especially not any of the implements used to keep the slaves in line, and if you do, it will be only a tiny, microscopic cameo compared with the rest of the tour. You will sometimes not even see the word 'slave' at all, with some plantations preferring the word 'servant'.

What you will see instead is stuff. Lots of stuff. Architecture. Fine china. Antiques. Grand pianos. Nice stuff the plantation owners had in their mansions. All the stuff that completely misses the point of why the building is historically important. Stuff that in reality a slave was ordered to polish up and/or beaten on the accusation that they were trying to steal it. Stuff that a lot of the slaves never even got to see because they spent all day in the cotton fields and in some beat-up shack that served as their home (which has typically long since been torn down so as not to draw attention away from the stuff, and if it's been kept around, it's presented as an example of how the slaves chose to live, which, no no no no no no no no no).

This is considered an improvement from years past, when the plantations didn't mention it nearly as much.

Again, do go ahead and click through to Hix's article.