Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Meanwhile In Racism

I think we've just about all heard of the Donald Sterling matter by now, where racist comments revealed to be said by him resulted in an outcry that culminated in NBA commissioner Adam Silver banning him for life from any involvement with the NBA or the Los Angeles Clippers beyond writing checks and moving to get the other owners to force him to sell the franchise. The sheer force of the movement against Sterling has caused ESPN analyst Bomani Jones, who has been getting on Sterling for years for matters far more serious than basketball- Sterling is what is best described as a slumlord who has allowed that racism to permeate every facet of that aspect of his life- to berate those who have ignored, excused or even enabled Sterling's behavior until now, when bashing him is easy and addresses a scandal instead of anything of actual substance.

But that is so well-known now that there's not too much I can add to it, though I will pass you along to Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post, who tells about an even worse owner in Europe, Gigi Becali of Romanian soccer club Steuea Bucharest. So let's just use it as a springboard to go after something else. Let us therefore go to Germany, where a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA ($5 paywall) has analyzed residual anti-Semitic sentiments, which, regrettably, are still present in small quantities in Germany even today. What was found was that those sentiments are stronger in places where the Nazi Party gained above-average support way back in 1928, being about 7% more likely to feel that Jews should not have the same rights as other Germans.

Compare to a much more quick-and-dirty version of what Nate Silver and Allison McCann of FiveThirtyEight attempted today regarding anti-black sentiments by whites in America, specifically trying to determine whether one party had more racists in it than the other. Though they noted that racism is a fairly difficult thing to test for, from the info provided, they found a gap with the Republicans on the wrong end of it consistently over the years; however, the Democrats didn't exactly get away clean, and the gap isn't as large as you might have predicted going in. So while the GOP is arguing from an absolute position of weakness, the Dems shouldn't be going around acting blameless.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, the Council of Europe visited 16 prisoner-detention facilities in that country in April 2013, and just released a report leveling accusations of not only racism, but abuse and overcrowding. These are matters more or less dismissed as a matter of course in America, but remember that in Europe, particularly western and northern Europe, prisons are far more geared towards rehabilitation as opposed to punishment and are generally less macho in demeanor. The race on the receiving end in Hungary is the Romani- which, as you probably know, are better known historically as 'gypsies', which is a derogatory term towards them, and who have long had to deal with stereotypes about the race which, if you're familiar with gypsies as portrayed in pop culture, you already know. They are the most widely maligned race in modern-day Europe, partly due to the fact that they don't really have a country known as theirs. Hungary and Romania are the most prominent historical homelands, and they're the eighth-largest demographic group in Romania, but in any country they're largely just regarded as 'immigrants' and treated like garbage.

In fact, in 2010, the government of Romania, citing an effort to avoid confusion, attempted to forcibly change the very name of the Romani to the Tigan, a word that comes from the Greek for 'untouchable'. You can imagine how well that went over.

At least there's someone now who properly deserves that label.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Hobby

Flipping the clues in Jeopardy around so that they're presented in proper conversational order.

"Who's Dwight D. Eisenhower?"
"First awarded in 1958, an amateur golf trophy is named for this U.S. president."
" know, you could have just said 'president'."

"What was the Battle of the Bulge?"
"You've beaten the Germans in this battle, their last offensive in the west during WWII, and the Ardennes is now yours to keep."
"What in the actual fuck was that about."

"What's a mosquito?"
"These insects, like the Anopheles variety, use a tubelike proboscis to inject saliva & draw up blood."
"You could stop being so pretentious, you realize."

"What is syrup?"
"It comes in maple, raspberry and cough varieties and is no fun to step in."
"That didn't even make sense."

"Who was Hercules?"
"The Golden Apples of the Hesperides."
"I'm pretty sure that's not right." 

"What's a racecar?"
"On May 30, 2010. Dario Franchitti claimed a big victory in one."
"That was not helpful."

"What is North Carolina?"
"The state of Not Racial Horn."
"...are you having a stroke?"

"Hey, what's a French press?"
"Your barista knows it's also called a cafetiere or a plunge-filter."
"I don't think you could have come up with a more asshole response if you tried."

"What is a fork?"
"As John McCain lagged in fund-raising in 2007, an ex-supporter said in a Texas paper, "stick" this "in him, he's done."
"...but what IS it?"
" Stick this point where a river divides into branches in him, he's done."
"Usually, Europeans keep this in the left hand after cutting meat and Americans do not."
"If you don't tell me what a goddamn fork is right now, I will run you through like a dead samurai."
"Traditionally in Japan, these implements are used by suicidal samurai, but not at the table."
"[stab stab stab stab]"

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Primer On Trusting North Korea's Word


Got all that? Should I repeat it, just to make sure it sinks in?

People, you ought to know by now that North Korea regularly, pathologically engages in dispensing huge, heaping helpings of propaganda. You know that. I know you know that. You know you know that. It's one of the major things anyone knows about the country. And yet every time they say something, every time they make any kind of claim whatsoever about any topic in the whole wide world, I see people take it at face value. Face freaking value. They'll take a Westerner, make a completely BS claim about what caused the person to fall into their hands, and there are people who buy the claim without one single second of 'wait a minute, how do we know that's true?' and launch immediately into snarking on how stupid the Westerner is.

The current situation is no different. What is being claimed by North Korea is that an American, Matthew Todd Miller, tore up his visa a couple weeks ago while arriving for a tourist trip there and wanted to remain in North Korea, claiming asylum.

Here is what we actually know:

1. North Korea has detained Michael Todd Miller.

That's it. That is literally it. Everything else is questionable and taking anything past that at face value is reckless at best. If you want to read into propaganda, and what North Korea's words actually mean- a far more sensible game- you might also infer one additional thing:

2. North Korea has no inclination to release Michael Todd Miller anytime soon, if at all, and wants everyone to know it.

Now, is it possible that Miller really did opt to go live in North Korea? Incredibly, yes it is. There is the odd case across the years of Americans defecting to North Korea. But they are few and far between, and most of those cases happened at the close of the Korean War. Only five people- maybe six, depending on who you believe- have done so in the years following that, and four of them happened in the first few years after, one of which was an active-duty soldier deserting to avoid potentially having to fight in Vietnam. (Shockingly, that turned out to be a bad idea. He did eventually get back out, but the US refused to take him back and dishonorably discharged him. He now lives in Japan.) The last documented case of this happening was Joseph White in 1982, who lasted two whole years in North Korea before dying of, well, "drowning", at least according to the letter North Korea sent his family, who never received his body.

1982 was 32 years ago. The much more likely case is that while under Kim Jong Il, North Korea showed a willingness to release their American captives, Kim Jong Un is far more willing to just keep them forever, and is simply presenting a story that allows North Korea to do so.

More likely. That means not certain. Don't go jumping to conclusions.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Watch Me

The Internet is constantly adding content, at a far faster rate than it can ever hope to be consumed by the masses. But you would imagine that, eventually, everything will get stumbled upon by someone or other. One person. My pageviews are awful, but at least I manage to get a handful of them.

Some content, however, is not so lucky. The occasional YouTube video, for instance, strikes out and doesn't get a single viewer.

You can help that change. I present to you PetitTube. It's a site that randomly pulls YouTube videos for you to watch, one right after the other, with the stipulation that every video given to you is one that has to that point never been viewed by anyone.

But honestly, most of what you'll see there quite frankly deserves to stay in the unwatched bin. Much of it is local ads and abortive clips of someone playing a videogame. A better bet, one virtually guaranteed to be seen in any article mentioning PetitTube and we're not going to be any different here, might be an equivalent site covering Spotify named Forgotify, and here the selection is far better.

Given Spotify's audience, it'll be a lot of older tracks found on here. Case in point, the first track I got was a portion of a Danish opera.

The next four tracks after that:

Not my favorite track in the world.

...errrrr, okay.

Seriously? Handel? Zero listens? You're kidding, right?

That's Volare, Billboard's #1 single for 1958 and inaugural Grammy winner for Song of the Year in 1959, when the organizers were trying to strike a blow against that devil music from Elvis Presley, the runaway top seller of that year.

So you very well may run up against someone or something you actually recognize, and scratch your head as to how it hasn't been listened to yet. Start fixing that, will you?

Today's Thing Not Worth Stealing

If you're like me, you collected baseball cards back in the 80's and 90's. You probably thought they'd be worth something someday, 'someday' being pretty vaguely defined. The thing is, though, as the people on Pawn Stars have to explain to a customer every once in a while, something made explicitly to be 'collectible' probably isn't. It's not impressive or valuable to have a collector's item if millions of other people have it too. The collectibility starts when the supply stops. While not everything rare is collectible, rarity is a big part of the value. Your cards won't start being worth anything until a whole lot of the other collectors lose track of their cards. The value, whatever it is, is going to go to the last collectors standing, however long it takes for things to get to that point. The 80's and 90's baseball cards are so widespread that it's going to take a long, long, very long time for us to know who the last collectors standing are.

The soccer equivalent of baseball cards is sticker albums, with Panini serving as the equivalent to Topps (the last cardmaker standing after the likes of Fleer and Donruss and Upper Deck crashed out when the card market did). As one might expect, with the World Cup looming, Panini has made a set of stickers highlighting the teams involved, and as one might further expect, they have made tons and tons of them so everybody in the world can get their hands on this hot rare item don't be the one to miss out on that complete set.

Which means it may not be the smartest criminal maneuver to steal 300,000 stickers that don't even put a dent in the supply given to Rio de Janeiro alone. The Mirror points out that, given that an album takes 639 stickers to fill, 300,000 stickers would only load up 469 albums to completion. Assuming you even got the stickers distributed perfectly and you didn't have too many of one and not enough of the next, which, hahahahaha, yeah, sure, good luck with that.

8 million albums are expected to be sold in Brazil. Let me do the math here... Brazil's population is 198.7 million... Rio's is 6.32 million... divide Rio's by Brazil's and that means Rio has 3.18% of the population... times 8 million... presuming I did this right, and presuming proportional distribution of albums around the country, that should give Rio 254,454 albums. The thieves stole enough stickers to fill 639 of them, or .25% of the albums in town.

That's some fine thieving work there, guys. Got yourself some darned rare product there.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Quickie TED Talk

TED talk night. I'm busy in a discussion about writing technique on the Penny Arcade boards, so you get stuck with a TED talk. Here's Norman Spack in Brookline, Massachusetts last November.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Stupid With Honors

A college diploma isn't a perfect indicator of intelligence, at least according to my own personal belief. There are some graduates of big-name colleges who basically got in on the family name and just wait for the world to come to them. There are people who got in on an athletic scholarship and had a simple path laid out for them so they would be eligible to play. Conversely, there are small-college graduates that bust their butt harder than any Ivy Leaguer, and there are people who drop out- or never even go to college at all- not because college was too difficult but rather because they've progressed far enough already and had enough early success in their chosen life path that college would actually be a hindrance, the class and homework time taking unacceptably large chunks of time away from their job.

But what I am concurring with is that a degree is a reasonably reliable certification that you've at least done something to earn it, that you've done your share of scratching and clawing in order to get your hands on a sheepskin. That is, of course, assuming that you actually attended that college. Honorary diplomas are another matter entirely, and treated as such. While theoretically a college would hand an honorary diploma to someone otherwise unconnected to the college that has accomplished something in their life that has done the college proud anyway- discovered something, invented something, rose to a certain position, something or other that's very meritorious- in practice, sometimes they get handed to whoever it is that showed up to give the commencement speech, or somebody who has met the high academic standards of giving the college ginormous sums of money. You will note an example of this kind of degree on The Colbert Report, via Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA. Colbert has an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois... a byproduct of being their 2006 commencement speaker. (It is considered bad form to actually call yourself by the doctorate you're given with an honorary degree.)

For a more extreme example, though, let us examine Elena Ceausescu, wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae, who ruled from 1965 until their overthrow in 1989. Elena was born in 1919 to a rural peasant family, barely finished elementary school, got a laboratory post solely due to her brother already working there (it wasn't a very good lab), and was in the middle of bouncing around low-level jobs when Nicolae rose to power. She was the Romanian equivalent of someone in America who'd dropped out of the Mississippi K-12 system, got a poor homeschooling, and wound up working at half the businesses in town for about two weeks each. That changed, on paper at least, when Nicolae took over, and Elena suddenly got delusions of grandeur that Nicolae was happy to feed into. It will sometimes happen that dictators, or the immediate family members of same, will bulk up their personal title to outrageous ends.

Elena was no different. In her case, she started racking up academic titles, on the theory that maybe that would change her image for the better. She took some night classes, eventually being expelled for cheating, but wheedled a doctorate out of it anyway due to the time-tested tactic of locking the doors to the oral examination room, giving potential witnesses the wrong time for the exam, and having Elena send her thesis defense on tape so she didn't have to actually show up.

She took every opportunity to add another accolade to her collection, which included not merely honorary degrees- something that was demanded of every foreign nation she visited as a condition of her deigning to show up- but also an assortment of other titles and positions, and even citations on genuine scientific literature that, in reality, she almost assuredly couldn't even read, her thesis paper among them. On her 60th birthday, a two-day celebration was held in which she was bestowed a variety of titles such as "Prestigious Contribution to the Evolution of Romanian Science, to the Cause for Peace and International Cooperation" and "Leading Fighter of the Party for the Glorious Destiny of Romania".

The United States was not immune from this, though steps were taken to limit the damage. When Elena arrived in the US in 1978, as per her way, she demanded a degree from not just a university, but specifically a university located in Washington DC. That, she was told, she wasn't going to get. She was made an offer, but it was an honorary membership in the Illinois State Academy of Science. They were the only ones in the country willing to go through with it; nobody else would even recognize her. Elena wasn't happy, and not just because she couldn't even pronounce "Illinois". Her response was, "Come off it! You can't sell me the idea that Mr. Peanut [then-President Jimmy Carter] can give me an Illiwhatsis diploma but not any from Washington. I will not go to Iiillllliiii whatever it is. I will not!"

She went to Illiwhateveritis. She could take that or she could take nothing. She was similarly rebuffed in the United Kingdom earlier in the decade when, instead of the Oxford and Cambridge degrees she wanted (as well a a Fellowship of the Royal Society), she instead had to settle for Central London Polytechnic and the Royal Institute of Chemistry. The countries willing to give her the degrees she was originally requesting tended to be the nations Romania was politically aligned with in the first place.

This obsession with academic credentials extended even to the, let's be honest here, kangaroo court that served as a pretext to Nicolae and Elena's execution in the 1989 revolution. According to A Treasury of Deception by Michael Farquhar, when the most serious charges of genocide and corruption and living in gross inequality to the rest of the nation were read to the Ceausescus, they weren't even responded to, but when the prosecution went after Elena's academic titles, that's when they got frisky. One utterance of "the so-called academician Elena Ceausescu" was enough to set her off. "So-called! So-called! Now they have even taken away our titles!" Nicolae protested, "Her academic papers were published abroad!", to which the prosecutor asked, yeah, I'm so sure, who was your ghostwriter. Elena exploded again. "Such impudence! I am a member and chairwoman of the Academy of Sciences. You cannot talk to me in such a way!"

Elena was failing the final test of her life. They're about to take you out back and put a bullet in your head, thereby, among other things, putting an abrupt end to your days in the Academy of Sciences, and there isn't a whole hell of a lot you can do about it. Oh, yes, they CAN talk to you in such a way.

You'd almost have to be a job-hopping rural peasant that barely graduated elementary school not to realize that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Chicken Teriyaki Edition

Today was another day of running Dad up for treatment, and on the way home we stopped for lunch at East Towne Mall in Madison. As per my usual routine when there, chicken teriyaki at Sarku Japan was had, and since Barnes and Noble was right across from the food court, hey, why not.

Two books later, we have the following additions to my reading list:

*Carmichael, Mary; Hattikudur, Mangesh; Pearson, Will- Mental Floss: In The Beginning
*Mass, AJ- Yes, It's Hot In Here: Adventures in the Weird, Woolly World of Sports Mascots

The former is a book of origins of various things, and Mental Floss really hasn't steered me wrong yet. The latter's title is pretty self-explanatory, what with Mr. Met right there with his back to the cover.

He is likely ashamed at the fact that he is a Met. And the fact that he is a soul born with a gigantic baseball for a head that the Mets cruelly parade around as some sort of circus freak for cheap amusement. His brain is made of rolled-up twine. Doctors have yet to find a cure.

I don't know where exactly I'm going with this.

Monday, April 21, 2014

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Switch

It's one of those 'cancer' days on my end, specifically one in which I am quickly going mad, in more than one sense of the word, regarding attempting to get my family leave application approved by the company Walmart uses for worker claims, Sedgwick. (Link provided to their homepage in case you've never heard of them.) Suffice to say I have had to jump through more hoops with Sedgwick than your average dog show, and I've already had them deny one claim on me when my knees started popping and cracking (they claimed that my doctor, who had diagnosed osteoarthritis, aka something you normally get in your 50's or 60's as opposed to your 20's, had not specified enough types of treatment of the condition), meaning I'm already rather distrustful of them.

If you would like to experience madness like mine, here is an article about how 51% of Americans are either 'not too confident' or 'not at all confident' that the Big Bang is a thing that happened. You will also see 42% say the same about evolution, 37% about global warming, 36% express doubt that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, 15% express distrust of childhood vaccines, 8% doubt that DNA is a thing, and 4% of people that are skeptical that smoking causes cancer.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Majoring In Supervillainy

There are people in Central Florida and the University of Arizona that want to make a laser beam that they can shoot into the clouds and cause lightning.

These are only early-stage plans, but nonetheless, let us either stop them with egregious amounts of violence, or, failing that, let us pay them vast tribute so that they might spare us.

Friday, April 18, 2014



16 facts about Peeps!

...but Peeps!

Look! Peeps!

Noooooo don't be mean to the Peeeeeeeeeps

you mean man you made the Peeps sad and deflated and oh no


...I apologize. Anytime Peeps show up in a store I go a little Peep-crazy. At least you learned how many Peeps it would take to stop a bullet?

The Only Time Montreal and Riga Finished 1-2 In Anything

Monopoly boards are myriad, but at the end of the day, the classic Atlantic City streets are the ones everyone concentrates on. This doesn't stop Parker Brothers- and these days Hasbro- from continuing to tweak the board in any number of ways, endlessly trying to fix what, fundamentally, is a pretty damned broken game that is most commonly played in ways that break it even further.

Perhaps no Monopoly board, though, was broken in quite such a spectacular fashion as that of Here and Now: The World Edition, released in 2008. The idea from Hasbro was to create a board in which people purchased major world cities, about the most you could crank up the stakes of real estate commerce while still remaining on Earth. The obvious problem, though, was what cities go where. And more importantly, who gets on the board at all, and who gets the honor of being the Park Place and Boardwalk equivalents, which of course everyone is going to be looking for.

Hasbro's solution was to let the fans decide it for themselves. They opened 20 of the 22 spaces up to a battery of select cities, with the public asked to determine who should get on the board. The final rankings in that vote would determine who got in and who got placed where. The final two spots- the Mediterranean and Baltic equivalents- were decided via write-in votes, with the spaces going to the top two cities not among the main battery.

Of course, everyone, including probably Hasbro, expected the likes of New York, London, Paris and Tokyo to be battling it out at the top, and the board overall to be a fairly good representation of global eminence among world cities. So imagine the surprise when the coveted Boardwalk space went to none other than Montreal, Canada, and when Park Place was awarded to Riga, Latvia, which caught attention for being on the board at all, much less in the dark blues. And the rest of the board looked no more sane. The full list of the cities in the main battery read, in rank order:

Dark blues: Montreal, Riga
Greens: Cape Town, Belgrade, Paris
Yellows: Jerusalem, Hong Kong, Beijing
Reds: London, New York, Sydney
Oranges: Vancouver, Shanghai, Rome
Light purples: Toronto, Kiev, Istanbul
Light blues: Athens, Barcelona, Tokyo

Far from competing for the top spots, Tokyo had barely made it onto the board at all, having to settle for Oriental Avenue and being happy just to be included. South America completely struck out. The reds looked far more glamorous than the dark blues-- but then, at least people actually land on the reds more often. They fared better than the cities in the main battery that missed out, all of which had to be satisfied with a graphic for each of them on the interior of the board:

Amsterdam, Berlin, Bogota, Boston, Bratislava, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Caracas, Cardiff, Chicago, Copenhagen, Dubai, Dublin, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, Las Vegas, Lisbon, Ljubljana, Los Angeles, Lyon, Madrid, Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai, Munich, Oslo, Prague, Queenstown (New Zealand), Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Seoul, Singapore, Sofia, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Tallinn, Vienna, Vilnius, Warsaw, Washington DC, Zagreb, Zurich.

The last city out, for the record, was Queenstown. Because of course it was. New Zealand voters basically just used it as a substitute for Auckland, which wasn't in the main battery.

As for the dark purples, the wild cards, being forced to go outside the main battery, there are still a lot of fine options. My two picks might have been San Francisco and Nairobi. But there's also Auckland, as well as Denver, Dallas, Miami, Ottawa, Kingston, Quito, Sao Paulo, Accra, Lagos, Tunis, Johannesburg, Marseilles, Monaco, Milan, Florence, Vatican City, Bern, Stuttgart, Tehran, New Delhi, Kathmandu, Kyoto, Osaka, Sapporo, Taipei, Manila, Bangkok, Melbourne, Papeete. You can probably come up with some others.

And to be fair, one of those places, Taipei, did claim Baltic Avenue. But then there's the matter of Mediterranean. The problem- which Hasbro openly advertised as not a bug but a feature- was that any city, ANY city, could take those wild card spots. The top 20 nominees got a spot on a playoff ballot.

Gdynia, Poland decided that it wanted to be Any City. So did Adelaide, Auckland, Bern, Brisbane, Cancun, Chennai (India), Cork (Ireland), Izmir (Turkey), Johannesburg, Lviv (Ukraine), Novi Sad (Serbia), Quebec, San Francisco, Szczecin (Poland), Tamworth (England), Volendam (Netherlands), Waterford (Ireland), and Winnipeg, the other 18 cities on the ballot that Gdynia wound up defeating. And so a place that isn't even the largest town in its own metropolitan area- Gdynia is the St. Paul to Gdansk's Minneapolis; the Long Beach to its Los Angeles, the 12th largest city in Poland to Gdansk's 6th (and Szczecin's 7th) and what are any of them doing in this discussion anyway when #2 is Krakow and what business does IT have being in this discussion either- made it onto the board to the widespread derision of every city on the planet that thought it had more business being on the board than Gdynia did, which turned out to be one hell of a lot of cities, particularly San Francisco, because seriously? (I don't have the final results past that, but with one day to go in the balloting, San Francisco was actually polling all the way back in 7th, with Szczecin sitting in 3rd.)

And that's to say nothing of the cities in the main battery that missed out. If you lived in Los Angeles, and you were told that San Francisco got into a board celebrating the world's most famous cities and you didn't, you'd be a bit bitter, because San Francisco's your rival, but if the board looked otherwise pretty reasonable, you could get past it. If you're told that Gdynia, Poland got in and you didn't, you are going to laugh and laugh and dismiss the entire project as a victim of Internet derp. It's bad enough getting relegated to the yellows on the earlier edition specific to the United States, but at least there Hasbro pre-selected the cities and guaranteed you a spot. Plus LAX scored the spot reserved for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

And that's basically what happened. Hasbro was left with a board that couldn't really be taken seriously, even after putting up with a controversy in which, in response to political pressure from Palestine, they removed the national identifier 'Israel' from Jerusalem's entry on the ballot, a move that just ended up making Israel angry too. It was doomed to be simply one more board in a long line of niche projects, shuffling off store shelves far more quietly than it arrived.

Maybe they just should have picked the cities themselves.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oh, Craptcha

Surely, you have at some point or other run into a Captcha image, the distorted word (or other alphanumeric combination) that's meant to be a guard against bots gaining access to somewhere. The idea, of course, is that while these distortions are no problem for a human to decipher (though I've had occasions where I've had to refresh quite a few times before I got something readable enough to confidently punch in), a computer has trouble reading anything even slightly altered, and thus could be stopped just by putting a little bend in the letters and running a line through them, or photocopying a word out of a book or a house number from Google Street View, or something like that. In the process, as people enter in what the book or the house number is saying, that actually helps computers record the contents of those books or images.

There's just one small issue with this, which has just been realized by Google: if you tell a computer what enough distorted images are saying, eventually the computer will become able to read them itself, and then the game is up. Google has created a program that has shown itself capable of 90% accuracy when presented with a Street View house number, and 99.8% accuracy when given "the hardest category" (PDF) of distorted text. This opens up a big ol' security flaw, and Lord knows we've about heard enough of online security risks lately, what with Heartbleed and all.

This is not to say Captcha is going away. Google believes it can patch up the way it works so as to better thwart a bot, which to a degree one would think comes down to taking the images it did miss and doing more of that, but because the percentage is just so high, product manager Vinay Shet is also hinting that it may be less text-based altogether in the future. Perhaps audio makes more of an appearance.

Which will work fine, until Siri learns to actually understand human speech. Then the mental arms race will begin again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

That's It, Twitter Is Over

Okay, folks, what's Rule #1 about being in an airport? The very first task anyone in the facility knows by heart to fulfill?

That's right. 'Don't make a bomb joke'. Over and above those tiny little details like actually getting on your plane. Even more imperative than that is to not make any wisecracks about bombs or terror threats or anything of the sort. Don't even say the word 'bomb'. Don't even allude to the word 'bomb'. Because if you can't follow that simple rule, the airport people are not going to be happy with you. Aside from things like being interrogated and going to jail, you will miss your plane.

This rule does not stop applying if you are not at the airport. The airport people will also be angry if you merely tweet a bomb joke at them. You might have heard about the case of a 14-year-old girl from Rotterdam, Netherlands identifying herself on Twitter as Sarah (but who will officially be going unidentified due to her age). She tweeted to American Airlines in a joking manner that she was actually a guy named Ibrahim, was a member of Al Qaeda, and would be doing something "really big" on June 1st. She was then shocked- shocked!- when American Airlines tweeted back that they are going to be involving the authorities. And sure enough, Sarah was arrested in Rotterdam this morning and her Twitter account has been suspended and her address already claimed by someone else.

That would have been bad enough. But then came the copycats. In response to this chain of events, what the Washington Post counts as "at least a dozen other people" have made joke bomb threats of their own to American Airlines. I fully expect at least some of these people to also be arrested, if not all of them. Because as we have already established, airlines do not screw around with this. At all. It is standard operating procedure to treat each and every one of the threats they get deadly seriously, because they are sure as hell not about to let a plane get blown up and then try to explain their inaction to grieving families and a grieving nation afterward by going 'well, we thought it was a joke, so we didn't follow up on it'. No no. Not going to happen. You joke about a bomb in front of airport types, you go to jail. The end. They don't give a damn if you're joking.

May we consider this a lesson not to blindly follow everything that looks like it could be turned into a meme? Consider first whether it should.

Jesus Christ. You'd think we wouldn't have to go over this.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Again? Really? We're Doing This Again?

Yes. Yes, we're doing this again. The first two times we've covered this are evidently not enough. You had to know that the Mayan calendar was not going to be the end of the end-of-the-world predictions, but given that we have a blood moon on the horizon- that is just a fancy word for a total lunar eclipse, which will be visible tonight, weather permitting (and here it is not permitting)- that is apparently the signal to drag someone out of the woodwork to predict the End Times. Especially since tonight's eclipse will be the first of a relatively rapid string of four, each occurring at about a six-month interval.

Tonight's Rapture Whack-A-Mole contestant is John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. This is his second end-of-the-world prediction, which is popularly known as 'one more than you ought to need if you actually have any idea what you're talking about'. Hagee was one of those touting the Mayan-doomsday prediction, and with the world having selfishly refused to explode into a million tiny bits, Hagee is using the eclipses as his rationale to try again. He predicts a window between now and October of next year.

Hagee put a book out in October about this, I should note. I refuse to link to it. Or mention the name of the book. Maybe its sales suck. Also, Cornerstone is a megachurch. That also seems relevant somehow.

In any case, go outside and look at the pretty moon and ignore the whackadoodle making hay of it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

From The Department Of Nope

Lacking very much time tonight, as I have a short turnaround between shifts at work, I suppose I'll have to satisfy myself by noting the world's latest bout of extreme-sports lunacy: Two-time Everest summitteer Joby Ogwyn, wearing a wingsuit, will be flinging himself off the summit of Mount Everest on May 11, weather permitting. The Discovery Channel will be airing... this... at 9 PM Eastern.

Amazingly, Red Bull appears to have nothing to do with this.

Ogwyn will be aiming for the base camp. Of course, what he's aiming for and what Everest's weather will actually be steering him towards might be two entirely different things. Base camp is situated on a relatively large plateau, so it's not as if he's trying to hit the head of a pin. The problem is really more a matter of will he make it that far without the wind slamming him down into a semi-random part of the mountain where there's every chance he'd end up tumbling down to who knows where. Also, if he has to bail out for some reason, the crow's-flight path from summit to base camp will have him riding a ridge that serves as the border between Nepal and China. If he for whatever reason lands on the Chinese side, that's a whole different set of problems.

Also, there is the tiny little matter of getting up there in the first place. He will not be flown to the summit; he'll have to climb it again to qualify for the jump. And he has one failed attempt alongside his two summits, so him getting up there at all is no guarantee. And when he jumps, he'll be doing so having just climbed Mount Everest immediately beforehand.

Not for a billion-dollar bracket.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sporcle Wind Sprints

I think it's Sporcle day. Do you think it's Sporcle day? I don't give a damn, because I say it's Sporcle day.

I am presenting you with an empty list of 197 countries. In order to fill it in, you are to tell me a principal language of each of those countries.

There are three minutes on the clock. It was enough for me to score a solid 190.

Or for you math folks out there, I have a challenge for you too: I'd like you to fill in 11 rows of Pascal's Triangle. You will have 90 seconds.

Random News Generator- Kazakhstan

Russia, as you know, is focused on Ukraine, and just how many chunks of it Vladimir Putin can carve out and put into Russia. Sitting due east of Ukraine, across southern Russia proper, you have Kazakhstan. The thought amongst observers is that any section of any former Soviet nation that has a significant ethnic Russian population ought to be worried that they might be next, but that isn't Kazakhstan's only concern right now. The country has a significant oil export business, hampered by Western sanctions against Russia. It's not so much who Kazakhstan is selling to as much as it's about the fact that in order to actually export the oil, it has to run through Russian pipelines controlled by Russian companies and get blended with Russian oil before it reaches the Black Sea.

The oil has to go through somewhere... and the second-best option for Kazakhstan happens to be Iran, an option they are currently considering.

Action by Russia against them, though, is enough of a concern that they're running security drills to be on the safe side. They've also rushed a new law into force, which allows the government to block or shut off a means of electronic communication without a warrant. The government already had this ability; what has changed is they no longer need a warrant to do it. What has also changed is that media reporters are now required to supply government officials with copies of their reports 24 hours prior to broadcast, which gives the government a full day to decide, nope, we don't want this going out and you have to shut down now. The intended purpose here, at least publicly anyway, is to nip any Putin-inspired pro-Russian separatist, independence or annexation talk in the bud before talk turns to action. (Of course, this doesn't prevent in-person gatherings.) Other, similarly reactionary laws are in the pipeline.

How much they'll actually be needed, what effect they'll have, and whether they'll be relaxed or repealed once the danger has passed, remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

IDK Whr Plane Is BRB 4 Frthr News PLZ RT

I have gone on record as saying that I don't concern myself overly much with the exact method of reporting someone does, caring more about its execution. I think there are two rules any journalist must follow:

1. Provide the best understanding of your given topic that you can possibly provide on that day.
2. Under no circumstances should you leave your audience dumber than when they started.

Past that, I leave it up to the individual. There are so many ways to achieve these ends for any given story that I consider journalism to be something of an art form. Rachel Maddow, Nate Silver and Stephen Colbert will report the same story in wildly different fashions, even though all three would be likely to do a good job with it.

There are, however, limits, and CNN, I think, has found one. They've just announced the launch of CNN Digital Studios, intended to provide news more likely to be shared through social media. Among their products will be 'Your 15 Second Morning', a newscast lasting a maximum of 15 seconds intended to be shared via Twitter.

I see no good coming of this. As I just said, reporting is something that can be done in limitless ways. So why artificially impose a limit, and a severe limit at that? You've seen Twitter. Everyone knows of their 140-character limit. Sometimes the message you wish to convey simply requires more than 140 characters to express. When that occasion arises, there are two things one can do: use additional tweets (which defeats the point of the character limit), or truncate the message. To do the latter, you'll start hunting for spare letters or words to cut from the tweet, often to the point where the tweet ends up looking like a text-messaged mess. If you're not willing to do that, you have to start cutting content so that the tweet remains readable. And when content is cut, misunderstandings of the message can easily result, thereby violating Prime Directive #2. Vine videos, limited to six seconds, can see the same thing happen, with videos typically degenerating into a series of rapid-fire jump cuts.

15 seconds isn't going to be much more useful than 6. CNN is going to have to cut useful information out of their reports in order to be able to give them within 15 seconds.

Granted, that presumes that useful information exists in the first place. Another of the announced projects: "Crossfire Reloaded".

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Traffic Light Has A 3-Star Wanted Level

Traffic lights. Ah, the humble traffic light, something something awards-show pablum about traffic lights or some kind of crap. Let's just get to it.

The traffic light was first introduced in London on December 10, 1868. The reason for its invention came down to, well, traffic. There was getting to be a lot of it in London, and they weren't waiting for the car to be invented to clog up the streets. Carriage drivers were having trouble yielding to each other, and to help them out, a man named John Peake Knight invented a device to regulate things.

It was not electric-powered, though. That wouldn't come until a light in Cleveland in 1914. This one was manually operated by a police officer on site, who would manipulate a movable arm in the manner of semaphore signals to denote what a carriage should do. If the arm was down, that meant go. If it was at a 45-degree angle, it meant caution. If it was horizontal, it meant stop. At night, gaslit lamps would be lit to serve as a further aid. Red still meant stop, but originally, green meant caution.

The light was put at Bridge Street and Great George Street, near the Houses of Parliament. That'd be right about here. All it was really supposed to do was help the members of Parliament cross the street. In that task, for the first couple weeks, it worked out well enough.

And then on the following January 2, the traffic light exploded. A gas leak caused one of the lanterns to blow up, with the traffic cop obligingly underneath. The cop at the least got his face burned half off, and at the worst died (the records aren't completely clear on that). The traffic light came down real quick after that, and its replacement wouldn't be built until 1929.

By then, they were fairly sure lightbulbs wouldn't randomly explode.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Seriously, Connecticut Has Plenty Of Food

Congratulations to the national champion Connecticut Huskies, who just defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 60-54.

Now could someone please get around to giving them food? You'd think you wouldn't have to ask, but, welcome to the NCAA.

Mickey Rooney, 1920-2014

It's just come over the wires that actor Mickey Rooney has died at age 93.

The number of people who have been alive long enough to remember Rooney's star-making series, when he was a teenager playing the role of Andy Hardy, is rapidly dwindling; Rooney was one of the last refugees of the silent film era; their confirmed number now drops to a mere 13, five of which are Our Gang alumni. If you don't remember him from much else in particular (though he was in Breakfast at Tiffany's, his otherwise biggest movie credit), that's because Rooney was among the many, many child stars through the years who had a rough professional transition into adulthood, especially because by the time he was largely done playing Andy Hardy- and entertaining troops overseas in World War 2- he had gotten somewhat typecast, with his small size kept him out of a lot of adult roles. He more or less bounced around from guest appearance to guest appearance, suffering bankruptcy in 1962, until he managed to largely transition to TV. His most notable appearance there was as horse trainer Henry Dailey in the three-season Adventures of the Black Stallion. He never really stopped working entirely, though, as he was taking bit part after guest appearance right up until his final illness.

I am not old enough to remember any of these (technically I am old enough for the latter, but it was a Canadian series and I wouldn't have watched it anyway). I unfortunately only remember Rooney as a go-to 'short old guy' joke in animated series, such as being cast as Fallout Boy in an episode of The Simpsons. Or this:

So while I may not have the greatest eulogy in the world to give you, Mickey, you're going to be missed by a lot of people who do have them.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Yet Another Awful Thing Connected To Columbus

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In order for him to sail the ocean blue, he had to get funding from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He got permission to travel in January and left on August 3.

What happened between those two points? The Alhambra Decree, issued on March 31, which formally expelled Jews from Spain. They either had to convert to Christianity or, in modern parlance, GTFO. Spain was not the first country in Europe to do so, nor were they the last. Jews who left were not permitted to take gold or silver with them, and anyone found to be hiding a Jew had all their property confiscated. Rumors went around that some Jews had swallowed gold and jewelry in order to smuggle it out, and as a result they tended to get shanked mid-flee so as to get at the gold. (The ones who converted ended up getting persecuted anyway.)

The Columbus money didn't quite come from them, but it did come from a couple Jewish financiers who freely coughed up the cash: Louis de Santangel, Gabriel Sanchez and rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel. Columbus set sail the day after the deadline came for Jews to get out of Spain or be executed.

Meanwhile, in 2014, a proposal is on the table in the Spanish legislature to reinstate that citizenship. The Alhambra Decree was formally revoked in 1968, in one of those instances where someone has long since stopped doing a terrible thing but doesn't get around to doing the paperwork until a long time afterwards. This is just going further down that road. Citizenship would be extended to any descendant of the expelled Jews, known as Sephardic Jews, whether they actually live in Spain or not. There would be an application process, but it's advertised as being fairly easy to get through.

Of course, there's a pragmatic aspect to the whole thing as well: with Spain's economy still straggling, calling in hundreds of thousands of people, millions perhaps, and offering them citizenship out of the blue would provide a nice bump to the talent pool. Although on the other hand, that fact may keep some potential beneficiaries away.

But even if there is a pragmatic motive to it, it's still a nice move. Now if they could just do the same for the Muslims (aka Moriscos), who were booted out in precisely the same fashion in 1609, have yet to get similar recourse, and who would very much like said recourse since we're on the subject and everything, that'd be spectacular.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

How To Paint Your Face In Another Ethnicity's Color

1. Do not paint your face in another ethnicity's color.
2. That does not merely mean no blackface. It also means no redface, translating to Native Americans. Or yellow or white or brown or whatever the color is.
3. Do not use sports as an excuse. People dress up in lots of ridiculous costumes for the sake of sports. People even paint their faces. Painting your face in your team colors is perfectly acceptable, even if those colors just so happen to be black, red, brown, etc. But there are many ways to paint your face that do not evoke images of your idea of someone's skintone.
4. If you must paint your face in the color of another ethnicity, stop and think about how an actual member of that ethnicity might react if they see you in said painted face.
5. If you cannot think about that, don't worry. Someone might actually come along and demonstrate.
6. They will not be happy.
7. They will not want to shake your hand.
8. There will, though, be about half a dozen people wanting to record your reaction for posterity and also laughs.
9. Do not wear said facepaint when a protest against the team logo is underway nearby.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Previously On...

I presume you're familiar with the name Philo T. Farnsworth, credited as the inventor of television. And he is the first person to put all the components together in a neat little box. However, Farnsworth was not the first to get off a broadcast. He got it off on September 7, 1927, in his laboratory in San Francisco. We shall call that the 'mark to beat'.

Meet John Logie Baird of the United Kingdom. Baird was the first to get off a broadcast of images changing fast enough to give the illusion of motion. The threshold for that is defined as 12 images per second. He had five in his first attempt on October 2, 1925, which isn't enough to qualify. What did qualify was his demonstration in his London laboratory in front of a reporter from The Times and members of the Royal Institution on January 27, 1926, when he made it to 12.5 images per second.

I'll let Baird describe it to you.

What was the first image? Someone related to Baird, of course: his business partner, Oliver Hutchinson.


That is not what you'd call the best image of Oliver. But it's what Baird's creation was able to convey. A modern TV, as you may know, gets its image from a little dot making its way across the screen, left to right, top to bottom (assuming progressive scan; there's also interlaced scan, which means the dot does the odd-numbered rows first and then the even-numbered rows). If you hear '1080p', that means there's one dot covering 1,080 rows worth of little tiny pixels, in order, in one lap of the screen. In progressive scan, the dot does 60 laps per second; in interlaced scan, it does 30 laps due to going top-to-bottom twice per frame. Here's 1080p slowed down.

Baird's design had only 30 lines, and instead of rows, they were columns, with the dot going from bottom to top. And it wasn't a dot so much as a series of... how should I put it... high-speed Viewmasters? I want to say?

If you'd like to see what that looks like, here's a broadcast using a Baird television from 1930, a play called 'The Man With The Flower in His Mouth'.

Remember, back then, this was revolutionary. Though I don't think it'll play well on Hulu these days.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dammit, People

So I warned you about not falling for April Fool's gags, right? Be extra super careful before believing a story written on April Fool's Day?

Meet Mireya Mayor, a primatologist doing work for Nat Geo Wild (and former cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins). Here's Mireya discussing her autobiography, Pink Boots and a Machete.

For April Fool's Day, Mayor lended her image to ZOZI, a website selling trips and travel gear. What went up was an offer for gorilla-riding tours of "Downtown" (the pictures depicted New York), led by her. Ha ha, very funny.

Later that day, the following post went up on Mireya's Facebook wall:

This is an actual letter I received from someone regarding my OBVIOUSLY AN APRIL FOOL's JOKE regarding piggyback riding on a gorilla around NYC.

"I have raised gorillas, chimps and orangs and I'm totally appalled at what I saw in the ZOZI travel newsletter...are you kidding me? Do you really use actual gorillas for touring? What a complete betrayal of what you're supposed to be about. Shame on you."
It wouldn't be April Fool's Day without a fool, would it?