Monday, June 30, 2014

But No, We're Not A Soccer Country At All

Your headline for today: "World Cup viewing party moved to Soldier Field". Because Grant Park turned out to not be big enough. Grant Park, for the record, was where Barack Obama declared victory in 2008.

This. This wasn't big enough.

Meanwhile in Dallas, AT&T Stadium will host a similar party.

I'll just leave you with that thought, Ann Coulter.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

How To Bite Another Human Being

1. Do not bite another human being.
2. Do not bite a second human being.
3. Do not bite a third human being either.
4. Do not bite your third human being after having previously vowed to restore your already-tattered reputation in the wake of biting your second human being.
5. If you must bite three human beings, do not bite them with cameras around.
6. In fact, make a strong effort not to bite a human being while one of the focal points of one of the world's largest cultural events.
7. If you have been accused of biting another human being on camera during one of the world's largest cultural events, it does you no good to deny it.
8. When people lose their balance, they do not use their teeth as a stabilization device, especially not in conjunction with human flesh that is not their own. Do not act like you don't know this.
9. Before biting a human being, take regard for how others, such as the teammates on your soccer team, might be affected by your actions.

Bye, Uruguay. No Maracanazo for you this time.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why Belgium Suddenly Sucks

The United States is to face Belgium in the round of 16, and as per tradition in matches like this, it means some trash talk has to be dug up about Belgium so that it can be used during the game. Standard procedure, really; fans go looking for any instance of past or present animosity, be it from war, diplomacy, pop culture or anywhere else.

The problem is that... it's Belgium. Belgium doesn't really have much animosity to mine except that it's The Boring One. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports is left to use that as the trash talk, before wildly flailing for waffle and Jean-Claude Van Damme gags and trying to very loudly ignore the fact that Audrey Hepburn is also Belgian.

And he leaves on the table the person I'd use as ammunition: Leopold II, the king who decided he wanted part of Africa and had what became DR Congo violently ransacked for personal wealth, a ransacking which in all likelihood spawned a domino effect causing much of the other violence in central Africa that you see to this day.

They have a Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, which up until last December made so much of an effort to put a happy face on how Belgium- well, Leopold, really- 'brought civilization' to Africa that it just started making everyone uncomfortable. It's currently undergoing a three-year renovation to turn it into a museum that's more honest about what actually went down.

This World Cup, DR Congo went down in a group stage qualifier that involved Cameroon, Libya and Togo. On Tuesday, I believe that Belgium will go down in a knockout round that involves the United States.

Friday, June 27, 2014

TED Talk, Rapid-Fire Book Club Edition

It seems that one of my book club regulars, A.J. Jacobs, is at it again. I'm sure I'll be finding this in his next book, and I'm sure I'll be grabbing it the instant I see it, which for A.J. is not exactly unusual. He showed up at TED to talk about The Year Of Living Biblically, and he showed up again to discuss his experiences regarding Drop Dead Healthy.

Well, A.J.'s back for a third go-around on stage, focusing on family trees. Very big family trees. Family trees that go back so many generations that they eventually encompass everyone on Earth (and you stopped after how many generations on I'll let him explain, as he did in March in Whistler, British Columbia.

He also wishes to invite you to New York next summer.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Not-Very-Rapid-At-All Book Club, Rejected Ninja Turtle Edition

This was a book I actually picked up prior to the World Cup at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which should go towards explaining the delay in talking about it. But then, this time I've actually been able to complete the book before I mention it. Which by now seems like a pretty good way to go; the original intent was that listing off what I've been buying lately gives you a better insight into how I think. Well, it's been four years now, and that ought to be pretty well established by this point. So we might as well focus more on actually reviewing these things.

The book is 'Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists' by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg. Amore is the head of security at Boston's chief art museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and his chief task since joining the museum in 2005 has been to try and recover 13 works of art that were stolen from it in 1990, works that have yet to be recovered. Three of those works are by Rembrandt, and this is the crux of the book: Rembrandt is an unusually popular target for art theft, which the book details through the stories of previous Rembrandt heists. Mashberg is an investigative reporter on the art beat working with Amore, who can be found milling about for various publications; right now it looks like he's with the New York Times.

More importantly, you find out what kind of people steal art, how, and how- or if- it was recovered. That's what you need to be here for. If you want a Rembrandt biography, I didn't see an overly large amount of time spent on that; it mainly came up only to note the significance of a particular stolen piece. The most important factors as to why Rembrandt is the one getting stolen all the time comes down to two very simple factors:

*First, Rembrandt pumped out a lot of art. The guy was a factory. It's noted in the introduction that there are thousands of works of his out there, likely somewhere between 2,000-2,500, and there are thousands more that may or may not have been his, as Rembrandt did some etching work and it's not certain in some cases if a piece is an original or if it came off an etching plate, or even if the work was actually done by one of his apprentices. Grand total, there are as many as 6,000 pieces that MIGHT be his. What this means is that it's pretty easy to find a Rembrandt near you; most every art museum of note or semi-note has managed to snag at least one. That said, he is a dead artist, and dead artists aren't making any new stuff, so there is a rarity aspect even with him.
*Second, Rembrandt is really famous. Famous artists get swiped more often because the thieves more easily recognize them as valuable. The thinking is, they swipe a Rembrandt and someone's sure to line up to buy it and then they're set for life. Art directors often comment on this right after a heist when they make note of what the thief would have taken if they knew what it was they were taking.

They think this because most art thieves are stupid like that. There's a myth that art thieves grab a work and then take it away and admire it privately forever. That does not happen. At all. And Amore and Mashberg go out of their way to show this again and again and again some more. Uber-rich collectors, as it's explained, actually appreciate their art, and want to show it off as a status symbol. And they're going to buy their art legitimately, because why in the hell would they needlessly get themselves mixed up in that business? A stolen piece, particularly by someone as known as Rembrandt, quickly becomes too hot to sell at any price to anyone; after all, every piece is unique. You might be able to pass along ill-gotten money, but not if the cops made note of the serial numbers of the bills beforehand. Art is mostly all serial numbers. You know what the Mona Lisa looks like, and you know Mona Lisas are in short supply these days.

The people who steal art typically don't realize this until it's too late; more often than not they're low-level career criminals who think of an art museum as little more than a bank where it's a million times easier to grab the money (as museums are loathe to place their art behind physical barriers, leaving patrons less able to observe a work's little quirks). Most heists are not these cat-burglar gymnast acts over laser beams followed by the liberal use of various whiz-bang gizmos. No, no.

Your average heist consists of marching right through the front door, walking straight up to the art, grabbing it off the wall wholesale and walking back out the front door with it. Maybe you have to subdue a guard or flash a gun in front of any tourists who happen to be inside. That's it. That's how easy and brazen it generally is. Your average thief also has no clue how to actually handle the art they have on hand; while museums go all out to baby their pieces and make sure they retain as much of their look as possible from the time they were created (pieces are often rotated in and out of display to the public just because the atmosphere itself can mess with the work's integrity over time), thieves often just chuck a work under their bed or in an attic or leave it in a barn for authorities to recover.

And that's if you're lucky. Sometimes they go in the river. Or get cut out of their frames and stuffed in a tube during the heist; heavily damaging them right then and there. Or get burned when their demanded ransom isn't paid, ransoms that are sometimes more than the museum actually has to hand over even if they were inclined to do so, which they sometimes are and sometimes aren't. How much they have is reflected in the reward they offer for its return. Or- and this is part of the reason works remain stolen for so long- if they don't get the ransom and can't find a buyer, they might just keep it.

I've seen a somewhat mixed bag on how the play-by-play on each of the heists was conveyed; some think of it as compelling and fast-paced, while other reviewers found the telling on the dry side. Personally, I'm closer to the former; I could see how someone would get a dry read out of it, but to me it was just easy to follow along. I could see what was there, how the area was laid out, the action going on during the heist and the investigation and hopefully recovery process.

If you're actually looking to see the works mentioned, you'll come up disappointed; the gallery they usually put in the middle of these nonfiction titles is very thin, only 8 pages, especially considering this is a book about art. I think it should have been at least doubled. It's moderate consolation that at the back, there's a list of Rembrandts known to be stolen from 1920 up to the 2011 copyright (key phrase 'known to be'; a lot of the time thefts aren't publicized).

It's not a perfect outing; there is a missed step or two. But it's a nice introduction into the art-theft world; a good first book but definitely not a last word.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

So About That Higgs Boson Thingie

I believe you recall that the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012 by CERN; the so-called 'God particle', the discovery of which would go a long way towards explaining the Big Bang and, thus, how we got here. The search for it was the reason we have the Large Hadron Collider.

Well, if a new study, co-authored by Robert Hogan at King's College in London, holds up against scrutiny, we kind of... well... shouldn't be here. He'll present his findings further on Tuesday- today, technically-  but in layman's terms, what ought to have happened is that, microseconds after the Big Bang, the universe should have expanded so fast that it disrupted enough of the area around it to cause quantum fluctuation and make the Bang collapse right back in on itself. Obviously, there is some sort of explanation as to why that didn't happen, up to and including the study being in error somehow, and obviously the next step is to go figure out what that reason is.

There is also some other Higgs news, although I will in no way claim to be versed enough in the language to be able to intelligently explain what's going on. But although I urge you to just click ahead to Ian O'Neill's writeup at Discovery News, I still need to make some attempt at an overview. As I read this, it looks to be saying that the Higgs boson has until now just been... a boson, one of the two types of particles in quantum mechanics. A boson that decays into other bosons. What's just happened is that a Higgs boson has decayed into the other type of particle, known as a fermion. This does not, though, qualify as a 'discovery' that they can announce and be all proud of, because the experimental significance isn't yet high enough; that is, they're not sure enough that they saw what they think they saw. To qualify, you need 5 sigma worth of standard deviation, and right now they're sitting at 3.8 sigma.

What does that mean? Quite frankly, I can't parse it out for the life of me, but I'm sure someone out there who knows more about quantum mechanics than I do can help me out on it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dear Germany

In the 1982 World Cup, West Germany and Austria had a situation on their hands. They were in Group 2- groups had numbers instead of letters back then- alongside Chile and Algeria. Unlike today, in 1982 the last games of group matches were not played simultaneously, and Chile and Algeria had already played the previous day, with Algeria winning 3-2 and eliminating Chile. The way the points had fallen, the situation for Austria and West Germany was thus:

*If Austria won or tied, they would advance alongside Algeria.
*If West Germany won by three or more goals, they would advance alongside Algeria.
*If West Germany won by one or two goals, Austria and West Germany would advance together.

In the 10th minute, Horst Hrubrech of West Germany opened the scoring. He also closed the scoring. With West Germany up by one, both teams were assured of advancement. It would mean Austria would lose out on first place in the group- and, as it turned out, place them in a second-round group with France and Northern Ireland instead of England and host Spain, which West Germany got- but they didn't mind, and really, they might have actually preferred. So the last 80 minutes of the game were completely and deliberately uneventful.

Well, they were on the field, anyway. Off the field, everyone that wasn't the Austrian or West German players were disgusted. The West German commentator just stopped commentating. The Austrian commentator told viewers to change the channel. The poor bastards from Algeria who happened to be in the stands started waving Spanish pesetas, claiming match-fixing. Which of course it was, but given that the two were, at the end of the day, still working towards the end goal of advancing in the Cup and merely looking at the standings instead of the scoreboard, no action was taken against them by FIFA. FIFA did, however, mandate that the last matches of group stages would take place alongside each other, so that teams wouldn't have enough information going into the match to game a particular mutually-beneficial result. (The Algerian team, meanwhile, was philosophical about the incident, saying that at least they'd played with honor while Austria and West Germany disgraced themselves.)

Enter the 2014 World Cup, Group G. After two games apiece, the standings are such: Germany and the United States have 4 points each, with Germany three goals better on goal differential. Portugal and Ghana have 1 point each, with Ghana three goals better on goal differential (and two back on the United States).

Portugal faces Ghana, while Germany plays the United States. Should Portugal and Ghana draw, they eliminate each other, as 2 points isn't enough; for either to have any chance, they must defeat the other, and then win by enough goals to make up any differential that might separate them from the loser of United States/Germany.

But suppose the United States and Germany don't produce a loser. Should they draw, they'll have 5 points each, putting them both through and handing Germany the group win. This kind of sinister information is exactly the kind of thing that simultaneous group games was created to keep teams from finding out- even now, if one game ends before the other due to stoppage time, and the current scores will put the later finishers through, odds are the later finishers will immediately lose interest in doing anything else that day. The only reason this didn't become the fate of the Brazil/Portugal match in South Africa's Group G was that the group winner had the luxury of avoiding presumed-and-actual group winner Spain in the round of 16 and getting Switzerland or Chile instead (Chile, as it turned out). It was still a scoreless draw and they lost interest in the last few minutes, but they at least cared enough to foul each other 29 times and rack up seven yellow cards.

The winner of Group G this year will, presumably, merely avoid facing Belgium in the round of 16, with the runner-up getting Algeria, Russia or South Korea (right now Algeria leads the three). Belgium isn't nearly as scary, having struggled to get wins against Algeria and Russia.

If you, Germany, are willing to potentially have to explain yourselves to a doubly-irate Algeria in the round of 16, I think we'd be fine with playing Belgium, even if we did lose to them 4-2 in Cleveland last year (four days before beating you 4-3 in Washington DC). And even if the last time we played South Korea was on February 1, where we beat them 2-0 in Carson, CA; we last played Russia in Krasnodar in 2012, tying 2-2; and we've only played Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, beating them 1-0. Long story short, recent results against Group H say we're better off trying to beat you, but Belgium looks at least beatable enough to us that we've got a lot of fans here saying we should go ahead, pull the old Algerian Shuffle, and just be happy we're advancing at all.

Now, I realize we're not exactly a popular soccer team outside our own country, never mind within it. According to a New York Times survey, we're one of if not the most hated team in the field. In fact, America is the most hated team in the field even when you're asking Americans. So okay, we're the heel. Guess what? We play heel well around here.

Let me show you American-style entertainment.

The guy driving the beer truck and spraying down the owner of the company? That's the good guy.

We may have to have some explaining to do to the soccer-is-boring crowd around here as to why this match is deliberately boring, but we'll get over it. As long as we advance- the end goal, after all- and give the crowd a more entertaining showing against Belgium. Germany, you don't have to score, you don't have to do a thing to win the group, at least not this time. You've proven you're willing. Is it honorable? Hell no. Distasteful to be sure, and American honor says never back down from a fight. And I'm sure we'll have a nice long debate about how to approach the game; I can see it's already starting. Not for no reason; aside from honor, a win would still improve our situation past what a draw would provide. I suppose it may come down to how you want to approach the match; whether you're happy with the current standings or whether you're looking to potentially take someone else into the next round instead of us. In which case, I think we'd be happy to go after you in kind; we're not ones to half-ass a game anyway and of course you'd never say you'd do that during a pregame press conference. But given the circumstances...

...we may have to sleep on it. What are you looking to do?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

About Manaus

The United States next plays against Portugal in the city of Manaus (I believe that we will win; I believe that we will win), almost certainly the most exotic city ever to host World Cup action. The chief competitors, as far as I'm concerned: 1934 and 1990's Florence, Italy; 1962's Arica, Chile; 1974's West Berlin, Germany, 2002's Seogwipo on Jeju Island, South Korea and Sapporo, Japan, and 2010's Polokwane, South Africa, none of which hold a candle to Manaus in the exotica department. We won't be seeing any more of them after the group stage, and in fact we'll only be seeing them once more period, when Honduras plays Switzerland.

Since we're heading into the Amazon, it might be a nice idea to send you into the place... although I suppose it's a matter of whether you'd rather check out the city or the jungle surrounding it. For those of you seeking the rainforest, we head some considerable distance west of (and therefore upstream from) Manaus for this 2011 documentary from Australia's SBS, called The Tribe In The Picture.

For those of you that want to go into the city, let's talk about how Manaus got to be the city it was: namely, the rubber trade. It's no longer the rubber capital it once was, and there's a reason for that. New Atlantis, in its series Amazonia: Last Call- which you can see via that link, and I recommend it if you have time- will explain what happened, and what effect it's had in the long term, in this episode of the series, 'Amazonia Biopiracy'. Biopiracy here means stealing seeds and shipping them abroad to grow your own plants, thereby cutting the original supplier out of the process. Said supplier zealously guards the seeds, because only one viable set needs to get out and be successfully planted for the world to come crashing down. Of course, you can do this with anything biological.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Casa Jimmy

If you've been enjoying the World Cup- and really, you ought to be; it's been awesome so far- I feel the responsible thing to do would be to maybe leave our hosts a little tip. I figure that even though this Cup is going along the same lines as all the other World Cups and Olympics- where despite all the talk about infrastructure and facilities and a fresh start for the disadvantaged citizens in the community, in the end those disadvantaged are simply nudged, pushed, or violently driven away to make way for the stadiums- we can at least do a little bit of actual good while we're still focused on Brazil. Clean up after ourselves, if you will.

So I went and looked for a charity that would serve that purpose, and I think I've got a pretty good one in Task Brasil, which seeks to help out children in Rio favelas forced out onto the street for whatever reason. They were able to purchase land for a house in 1997 due to a donation from Jimmy Page (he of Led Zeppelin), and since then they've been able to take in children to place in that house, aptly named Casa Jimmy. It's very possible that they'll have children at their doorstep, and whom they're otherwise helping out, that have been displaced by us foreign tourist louts. So it might be worth your time to take the money you were going to spend on some sort of soccer merchandise and put it into Casa Jimmy's mailbox instead. If you were to want to actually sponsor a child, that runs $20 a month.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Serving Suggestion

I don't know if you personally are knowledgeable of this, but being in retail as a method of actually generating income, I have come across the occasional customer that doesn't. So in my capacity as a marketing major, here is today's lesson on what you're looking for at the grocery store.

Let's begin with something I really probably shouldn't have to point out: the image on the box is not necessarily the image you see in the box. You've seen this way too many times with breakfast cereals:

You can pretty easily tell that the phrase 'part of this complete breakfast' gets tossed around a ton in that video. The cereal is there, and it's almost certainly a junky sugary one, but it's flanked by toast and milk and orange juice, all of which are significantly healthier and make for the complete part of the complete breakfast. The cereal might have fruit in it too, strawberries or bananas or something, and is probably half-drowned in milk. It's PART of the complete breakfast. The complete breakfast has the product in the box in there somewhere.

But then, that one's pretty well known. The one I see people missing at work is along the same lines: "serving suggestion". It's a TV Trope and everything, but let's cover it here anyway.

The term 'serving suggestion' isn't a phrase the FDA requires anyone to use. However, they do have a rule saying you can't be misleading about what's in the container. As the base product might not be all that appetizing- thus the fact that 'food stylist' is a job, one in which it's not exactly uncommon to use inedible ingredients if that's what will make a food look better- it's often felt that the product needs to be gussied up somehow, but it would be misleading not to say that the product was altered in some way, thus, the phrase 'serving suggestion'.

Here's one immediately apparent example, Vitakrone Meat Salad. You don't see the 'serving suggestion' phrase in the picture, but here's another where you can see it; it just got cropped out.

What you'll have on the container is a dish in which the product is supposed to play some part or other. The product is in there somewhere, but it's obscured by other ingredients, sometimes to the point where you can't even really see the product. This can actually be pretty helpful if the product is flour or sugar or baking soda or cake mix or something like that; maybe they'll even toss in a recipe on the box (including the product, of course). But it's the more subtle cases, things like macaroni and cheese or a canned chow mein, where the 'serving suggestion' mark can cause all sorts of trouble. In order to figure out what parts of the 'serving suggestion' are the actual product, you'll probably have to read the ingredient label and check to see what parts of the shown meal aren't listed- as I have had to do for a customer before they noticed there weren't, say, any green beans included.

That's when this gets to be a dangerous game: when there are only a couple extra ingredients and it's still at least resembling the product inside, but isn't exactly the product. The task becomes figuring out which is which. People can realize that a bag of baking soda doesn't have cookies inside. But they might not notice an extra ingredient or two got tossed into the Hamburger Helper. Doesn't matter. Once that phrase is on the label, you can do just about whatever you want so long as you include the product somewhere in the mess.

After all, you're just suggesting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Big, Big, Way Too Big City

Today, an organization called Smart Growth America released a report by Christopher B. Leinberger and Patrick Lynch of George Washington University. The report ranked the 30 largest metro areas in America by 'walkability', meaning how easy it is to walk around the urban area as defined by the location and size of various types of key locations within those metros, and then again by how easy they project it to be in the future based on current trends. Ranked in the top three are Washington DC, New York and Boston; the bottom three are Tampa, Phoenix and Orlando. I'm not exactly inclined to disagree with these.

As for the future rankings, the same three cities lead, but there's a change in the bottom three, showing San Diego, Kansas City and San Antonio instead. Tampa had moved up to 10th, Phoenix to 12th and Orlando to 18th.

But let's talk about Los Angeles, going from 18th in the current rankings to 11th in the future rankings. The LA Times seems optimistic about the study and talking about how bright the future is for the city. They focus on tearing down and rebuilding their rail transit system, and consolidating certain parts of the metro. But I'm not sure if the rankings are too high.

Los Angeles needs a lot of consolidation. A lot. You can get from Santa Monica to Dana Point to San Bernardino without leaving Los Angeles. Hell, in Katy Perry's song California Gurls, Snoop Dogg consecutively identifies Venice Beach and Palm Springs, two places that are 122 miles and over a 2-hour drive apart, as part of Los Angeles. Just a massive, massive chunk of land. I don't care what you do, that is not a walking environment. This is a city in which, when you go there on vacation, you will be told not to attempt to see the entire city. You will be told, as I was when I first visited for a week, to pick a section of the city, see that, and then go back another time to see another part. In a total of two weeks there as a tourist, I have yet to venture south of LAX, or east of Little Tokyo.

Quite frankly, for LA to get to walking size, there's more than one outlying area that will need to be more or less emptied out and shunted toward the coast. Even within the 'main' part of the metro, getting from one hotspot to another involves a decent-sized drive. Santa Monica to Hollywood, to downtown, to Culver City, and then back to Santa Monica is a hellacious undertaking. As I noted, you can have an entire vacation without ever leaving that area, and you will still be doing a lot of driving.

And this is a place where Smart Growth America essentially dodges the issue. In another report earlier this month, they measure sprawl in 221 metro areas throughout the country, and they scored Los Angeles, Anaheim, and the Inland Empire- the part with San Bernardino in it- as three different metro areas, and scored Anaheim 10th, Los Angeles 21st and the Inland Empire 215th. I think this merely highlights the issue. Los Angeles is so big and sprawling they had to split it into three metro areas. An urban rail system isn't going to solve that.

 To make LA more walkable, what you need to do is get a time machine and build it more compact in the first place. I don't know how you intend to get, say, Pasadena any closer to Venice Beach. But any compacting that can be done is always welcome.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Breaking Large Machines On Purpose

Folks, this is what it comes down to when you spend all night whooping up the United States getting three points against Ghana and eventually realize, oh crap, you haven't put anything up yet.

You get appliance horror shows. Well, perhaps I could give you something of interest- an actual study done on what happens when you chuck Lego bricks into the washing machine- but really let's just break stuff and go to bed.

So let's chuck some hunks of metal in that puppy and make an unbalanced load.

Or shall we break an old box TV?

Maybe a hard drive?

A speaker, perhaps? (Skip to 5:30 if you just want to get to the action.)

One more before bed. How about a coffee machine?

In conclusion, do not invite me over to your house.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Far-From-Modest Proposal; Really, I've Lost My Mind Here

Aside from rooting for the United States, a subplot of the World Cup for we in the US is the fate of Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras, the other nations in the field from CONCACAF, the North American confederation. UEFA, the European confederation- and FIFA is located in Europe- and its constituent fans have been seething for six months running that this year's tournament just isn't complete without the presence of Sweden, whom Portugal had to beat in a playoff in order to make the field, and that other continents are just plain weaker than they are, so why should Europe feel satisfied with a mere 13 slots? Why not take a spot away from, oh, say, CONCACAF, and give it to UEFA? And why didn't Turkey get to qualify either?

Never mind that two of the other European playoffs were Greece vs. Romania and Iceland vs. Croatia, and the meeting of Sweden and Portugal was merely luck of the draw. And never mind that Turkey came in fourth in their six-team qualifying group. (The Netherlands won the group and qualified, Romania came in second to go to the playoff with Greece, and after them were Hungary, Turkey, Estonia and Andorra.) They are European and therefore automatically better than everybody else and Europe shouldn't have to be bothered with little frivolous details like proving it every once in a while.

So the onus has been on CONCACAF to perform. Luckily for them, so far that hasn't been too much of a problem. While Honduras lost today 3-0 to France, Mexico has beaten Cameroon 1-0, and Costa Rica shocked everybody by defeating Uruguay 3-1, with the United States opening against Ghana tomorrow. (Later on, Mexico will be playing Croatia, Costa Rica will be playing England and Italy, Honduras will play Switzerland, and the United States will play Portugal and Germany. So there will be plenty of chances for UEFA to back up their talk as we progress.)

But I've been thinking. If they want CONCACAF to earn their keep, I'm cool with that... as long as they earn theirs too.

You know what I like seeing? The intercontinental qualifiers at the tail end. It's a nice way of making the continents prove just how much space in the World Cup they actually deserve. But why did we only have two this time out... and why did neither of them happen to involve UEFA? Why not put EVERY spot, save for the host spot, up for grabs?

Here's how I envision this, and how it would work in practice using the results of 2014 qualifying.

*You set aside the host spot... so Brazil is still in.
*62 spots are fought for within the continents, and those are what's allocated to everyone.
*The teams, once determined, are ranked according to their FIFA ranking (since, according to regulations, we have to use it for anything we want to rank). The top 31 are seeded; the bottom 31 are unseeded.
*We have a blind draw and pair them off, with the provision that a continent can't play itself. Each pair plays a two-legged tie, and the 31 winners go to the World Cup.

As for the allocations, let's go with, say:
UEFA (Europe) (2014 allotment: 13 spots): 27 spots, meaning the top three teams from each of their nine qualifying groups. In 2014 qualifying, these 27 would have been: Belgium, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Netherlands, Romania, Hungary, Switzerland, Iceland, Slovenia, Russia, Portugal, Israel, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Greece, Slovakia, England, Ukraine, Montenegro, Spain, France and Finland.
COMNEBOL (South America) (4.5 spots, minus Brazil): 7 spots. I'd give more, but they have to have someone get knocked out in qualifying. So this would be Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru. (Bolivia and Paraguay, nothing that can be done for you. Don't bring up the rear next time.)
AFC (Asia) (4.5 spots): 9 spots. These would have been Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Japan, Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq. Well, Iraq would have had a playoff with Lebanon, but Iraq had a better goal differential, so I'll give it to them.
CONCACAF (North America) (3.5 spots): 6 spots, so the entire Hexagonal: United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Jamaica.
CAF (Africa) (5 spots): 11 spots. So that would be the entire contents of their final-round playoffs: Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia... and one spot left, which I'll hand to the best runner-up from their previous-round group stage, which I have as South Africa on having more goals scored than Zambia.
OFC (Oceania) (0.5 spots): 2 spots. I figure we go this big and are playing off anyway, they can have a second spot to play with; for 2014, it would have been New Caledonia.

The November 2013 rankings came eight days after the close of qualifying. So we'll use them. The 31 'seeded' teams for this would be: Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Portugal, Uruguay, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, England, United States, Chile, Croatia, Cote d'Ivoire, Ukraine, France, Mexico, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Russia, Ecuador, Ghana, Denmark, Algeria, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Serbia, Costa Rica, Romania.

The unseeded teams, therefore: Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Slovakia, Montenegro, Finland, Venezuela, Peru, Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Japan, Australia, Jordan, Oman, Iraq, Honduras, Panama,
Jamaica, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia, South Africa, New Zealand, New Caledonia.

Let us pair them off via, and note the four playoffs that don't involve Europe with asterisks...

Italy vs. Tunisia
Croatia vs. Ethiopia
Ghana vs. Austria
Algeria vs. Iceland
Sweden vs. Iran
Ecuador vs. Hungary
Serbia vs. Nigeria
Spain vs. South Africa
England vs. Burkina Faso
United States vs. South Korea *
Colombia vs. Jordan *
Czech Republic vs. Venezuela
Switzerland vs. Uzbekistan
Argentina vs. Panama *
Mexico vs. Iraq *
France vs. Qatar
Belgium vs. Japan
Cote d'Ivoire vs. Finland
Greece vs. Cameroon
Netherlands vs. Egypt
Germany vs. Peru
Uruguay vs. Montenegro
Slovenia vs. Senegal
Denmark vs. Australia
Romania vs. New Caledonia
Ukraine vs. Oman
Russia vs. Honduras
Bosnia/Herzegovina vs. Jamaica
Costa Rica vs. Israel
Chile vs. Slovakia
Portugal vs. New Zealand

Well, I can't say I'm happy with the US drawing South Korea in this scenario, but there you go. Proof I didn't game it or anything. All the winners of those pairs go to Brazil; all the losers go home. The end.

Germany would be able to waltz into the World Cup as usual. All they'd have to do is dispatch Peru, and in they go. Argentina would be able to go in just as soon as they sweep aside Panama. England could claim their spot just as soon as they knock out Burkina Faso. (Of course, if they can't... well, they should have. Too bad, so sad, try again in four years.)

The lower-profile continents want their quadrennial shot at Europe and South America. Europe wants more World Cup slots. Well, here you go. Everybody gets a shot at what they want. Theoretically, if Europe sweeps the playoff round, they could reduce the rest of the world to a measly four non-host spots and they're probably crowing about how, see, we told you so. On the other hand, they could themselves be theoretically be wiped out completely, without any presence in the World Cup at all, should they prove to have written checks with their mouths that their butts can't cash. Either way, your continental allotment, to a gigantic degree, is decided on the pitch and not in a conference room in Switzerland. The OFC would have no real reason to complain anymore, either: sure, they have to fight for all their spots in playoffs as before, but now everyone else does too. And they get to send an extra team and not have to wait around for New Zealand to claim the half-spot again, so they come out ahead in the deal.

Does the World Cup get deprived of a big-name team? It always does. The soccer world keeps spinning. Qualifying isn't supposed to be easy. Spain/South Africa's fairly marquee, the US and South Korea, Belgium/Japan. And someone along the way will likely get stunned and marched out by an underdog, but then, that's part of the fun (unless you're the victim).

Also? This will make FIFA gobs and gobs of money via ticket sales to these playoff games. If we're losing too many earlier qualifiers and the money attached to those, heck, make them four-legged ties instead of two. Lengthen the earlier rounds so there's a more thorough process to pick the playoff participants (and some continents will need to revamp, let's be clear about that).

Tell me why this isn't the best idea in the world. Seriously, tell me. I'm probably missing something here.

Clicking On This Will Change Your Life Forever, Click Now, I Have Candy

I'm sure we're all familiar with the Onion. (Well... some of us aren't. But those people are to be mocked.) I am equally sure you're all familiar with the phenomenon of clickbait: articles that are designed to get you to click- and drive up ad revenue- by any means necessary. Content is dumbed down, often made into a list even if it doesn't have to be a list. The headline- the all-important headline- screams out to you. Literally, at least as literally as can be done without any actual sound. You are straight-up, openly, brazenly begged, ordered, coerced, frightened, titillated, whatever emotion has to be wrung out of you, whatever gets you to click that link.

I'm not quite sure how ridiculous the appeals can be made, but The Onion appears willing to try and find out through a new venture of theirs- sitting right next to the link for the AV Club- called ClickHole. Launched on Thursday, the mission statement of ClickHole is "All web content deserves to go viral." As they elaborate, "We strive to make sure that all of our content panders to and misleads our readers just enough to make it go viral. You see, we don’t think anything on the internet should ever have to settle for mere tens of thousands of pageviews. We believe that each and every article—whether about pop culture, politics, internet trends, or social justice—should be clicked on and shared by hundreds of millions of internet users before they can even comprehend what they just read."

Early offerings: "6 Heads You Never Realized Were Also On Mount Rushmore", "10 Hilarious Chairs That Think They're People", "You Won't Believe How Cheap This Stock Video Of A Woman Sitting On A Swing Was", and "It's Time To Publicly Execute Ronald McDonald", and "Meet The Most Powerful Man You've Never Heard Of". That last one comes with a picture of- and, after you click, turns out to be about- Barack Obama.

While I'm supportive of poking some holes in the practice, I'm not sure how to take the fact that space is set aside just below every article and just above links to other ClickHole articles (I speak here of the 'Lesser News From The Web' section) for real, non-satire clickbait. ("See which fashion trends have run their course and need to disappear... and FAST." "Amazing, Hard-to-Believe, Perfectly Timed Pictures... Taken at Just the Right Moment!") This may be ClickHole's biggest challenge, in fact. Whatever they come up with, it's going to have to be more obviously wacky than the actual stuff that is, fittingly, no more than one click away.

Of course, if there's one thing the Onion is good at, it's managing to be somehow wackier than reality.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Bring In The Noise

As I noted the other day, Brazil is not entirely enamored with the World Cup. Protests, as warned, have come right on schedule, clashing with authorities, constructing roadblocks and overturning police cars, and authorities have as well, bearing tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets. Some have opted to turn off the television, with one citizen profiled by USA Today opting to read her children stories about revolution and show them videos of favelas like she used to live in instead. Some are in fact rooting for Brazil to lose, to rival Uruguay in the quarterfinals if possible, just so that the people who are closely following will be enraged enough to join them in the streets, as there's a worry that the nation may be too protested out to do much PR damage right as it's needed the most.

However, for now at least, enough of the country is enamored that Sao Paulo resident Claus Wahlers took the following video showing what his neighborhood sounded like during the opening match in that city, in which the hosts dispatched Croatia 3-1. What you're going to be seeing is the neighborhood immediately before and following each of Brazil's goals.

Another thing I want you to look at are the roads. Sao Paulo's traffic problems are so bad that not only did Belgium have to cancel a closed-door practice match with the United States due to it, some of the richer residents resort to taking a helicopter to work just because it's less of a hassle. In this video? Empty.

One wonders what will happen should the lose-to-Uruguay scenario come to pass. When it happened in 1950 in the Maracana, you could hear a pin drop.

Though maybe they don't even make it that far. Defending champion Spain's 5-1 loss to the Netherlands today makes it quite possible that they might end up second place in Group B, and thus, in position to play presumed-Group-A-winner Brazil in the round of 16. Chile is also in Group B, and is another possibility to be Brazil's opponent, after having kicked off their campaign with a 3-1 victory over Australia. How would a loss in that round go over?

And how many of us want to find out?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Cup Commences

I believe.

I believe that.

I believe that we.

I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win.

Yes, it's that time again. Brazil and Croatia are officially just hours away from kicking off the World Cup and all of the social protests related to it, which I'm sure we'll be seeing as the tournament progresses, especially should Brazil get eliminated at some point before the final. So to get those interested in the actual soccer pumped up, I went and found a video of what the creator believes to be the top 100 World Cup goals from the first tournament in 1930 (though really since 1954, the earliest tournament included in the countdown; odds are he just didn't have video from anything earlier) up to 2002. (As for 2006 and 2010, all the goals for those Cups can be found at their respective links.)

Good luck to everyone. Especially the people of Brazil who aren't soccer fans, or at least aren't World Cup 2014 fans.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Which Silly Things Get More Hits

Given that everyone on the Internet, at least the ones that follow American politics, is in utter shock over the fact that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has been defeated in his primary by David Brat, thereby becoming the first person in that position ever to be defeated for re-election, much less in a primary (the position, while informal for a decade or two prior, was formally created in 1899, so anyone saying 'first ever' and 'first since 1899' is essentially saying the same thing)... it's been a topsy-turvy night for those of us suddenly taking an interest in Craigslist.

But this is going to be getting absolute holy-shit WTF saturation coverage all over the place in the coming days at bare minimum. So as per our mandate, let's go find something else.

Here's a blog run by a British maphead named Kenneth Field. He does some really rather intriguing work over at his site, Cartonerd. However, in the eternal plight of most online creators, he's getting a wave of attention for one of his sillier works, just recently posted. Namely, where the Proclaimers might end up if, per the song, they walked 500 miles, and then walked 500 more, given that they live on the British Isles, which are, well, isles. He then followed it up with a look into, as the U2 song goes, where the streets in fact have no name, at least in the continental United States. (I feel you, Kenneth. Look over at my most-read list to the right and you'll see 'Government Cheese' up top.)

So in deference to Kenneth, let me go find a couple of his other posts that catch my eye:

*Kenneth on the uselessness of those world maps that show Twitter activity over the course of a day or so.
*Kenneth calling out a particularly horrible map showing fan support for an NBA playoff series between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers... both of whom wear red. (Kenneth is not a basketball fan.)
*Kenneth on the double-edged sword of a map having tons of data: sometimes the map has so much data that it gets in the way of itself.
*Kenneth on going too far with making subway maps of everything... in this case, the periodic table.

A Story I'd Really Like to Stop Seeing

The world's oldest man has died. The now-former titleholder, Alexander Imich of New York City, died at age 111 on Sunday.

Now, let us not denigrate the achievement of living that long. It's a heck of an accomplishment, and I certainly wish condolences to Imich's survivors. But I'm fairly certain that it's not a thing that needs to be bellowed to the heavens every time it happens, as has been the case for a long time now. The thing is that it happens so danged often. Imich held the title for only two months after Arturo Licata of Italy, well, vacated the position, and Licata had held it only since September of last year after the death of Salustiano Sanchez-Blanquez of New York, who himself only lasted three months as the oldest after the death of Jiroemon Kimura of Japan (who managed to set the all-time men's record by making it to 116). And we haven't even gotten into the matter of the overall record, which usually is held by a woman- currently 116-year-old Misao Okawa of Japan. The men's record now passes to Sakari Momoi of Japan, who's just one day younger than Imich.

I'll save you further chronology and point you to Wikipedia.

This is just not a record you hold for very long. Since 1955, as far back as they're able to see a recordholder, only three people have lasted as long as three years as the overall oldest, while 21 of them have lasted fewer than 180 days. At the risk of sounding obvious, in order to become the world's oldest person, you first have to live long enough for everyone on the planet older than you to die. By the time you hit that point, you don't really have much time left on the clock to enjoy being the oldest, and there's a good chance you're not enjoying it at all. Not only has literally everyone you grew up around died, here comes the media all of a sudden to revel in how so very old you are and how soon you'll probably be joining them, at which point, well, you get major news organizations to write your obituary, which is nice, but your life and all you've seen and endured over the years- and you've seen a lot- is reduced to this lighthearted piece chucked at the end of a broadcast.


These people aren't interested in your story. Not really. They're interested in your record, and the second you die, off they go to pre-obituary the next name on the list. Who are they? What of their lives? Who cares? They have the high score! Even if they really don't because some countries don't keep track of ages that well, leaving people to just tack on however many years they want to represent how much they think they've seen in life, the better to stake a claim as tribal elder! All you have to do is claim your age as higher than all-time verified record holder Jeanne Calment's 122 and someone's bound to do a story on you!

I claim to be 34,972 years old. CNN exclusive, please.

Obituaries, when the families don't write their own (and most of the time they do), are often assigned to greenhorn writers just starting out in the journalism industry. The veterans who work the obituary beat for a living are few. But anyone on the beat quickly learns to make each and every obit special. Often they work directly with the families. Rookie or veteran, they all know one thing at all times: they had better get it right. Tasked with summing up a person's life, and knowing it will be printed shortly after the subject's death, they know they only have one chance to sum up the person's life properly. There is no chance to make a correction later, and if they get into that kind of position, they will- WILL- have an angry, grieving family to explain it to afterwards. And they don't really get to cherry-pick who they write about, saving themselves for the more interesting or prominent life stories. They have to write about everyone the families don't handle. Everyone. And they have to care. You can't do that kind of thing and not care.

If the AP and the BBC and the Independent and WGN and the Atlantic and the like are running stories about our global elders without even bothering to get their ages verified first, just for the sake of recording a high score or even claimed high score, how much do they really care about the person's life?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sausage The-Opposite-Of-A-Party

I think it's Sporcle day. And I think, therefore I am, thus because I'm deliberately misunderstanding what that phrase means, I am Sporcle day.

I am 260 male first names (never mind the 262 that it initially says), along with a short description of the people, and last names, that those first names go with. You will have 20 minutes to match as many as you can; the mark I've set for you to beat is 187.

Go fill me in. ...wait, that has vastly different connotations.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I Am Not Your Schwarzenegger Line Monkey

The prison in Orgainville, Quebec, just hours ago has had its day broken up in the most dramatic of fashions: a prisoner escape. Given that the whole point behind prisons is to not allow the prisoners to leave unauthorized, this is always going to send everyone on immediate high alert.

Especially when it's done via helicopter. Helicopters are how you know the escapees mean business. Three inmates, 55-year-old Serge Pomerleau, 35-year-old Yves Denis, and 55-year-old Denis Lefebvre, were choppered out by an unidentified pilot believed to be alone in the entry.

The reason I bring this up is that these three are two helicopter escapes short of the record. There is, believe it or not, a Wikipedia page listing off helicopter-assisted prison escapes. It even has its own wonderful, glorious set of icons denoting whether the escape was successful: a circled green helicopter if they made it; a circled-and-X'ed-out red helicopter if they didn't. From this, you can see that, all-time, there have been 30 successes- including this one- and 11 failures.

Three attempts involved the same man, Pascal Payet of France, who was originally in for the 1997 murder of a guard during an attack on an armored car. Twice, Payet was the escapee, in 2001 and 2007, and in 2003- still on the run from his 2001 escape- he organized another chopper evacuation of three more inmates. Prior to his 2007 escape- which happened on Bastille Day mind you- Payet, due to the startling reputation he'd built up by now, had been shifted from prison to prison, never spending more than six months in one at a time. Since that failed to work, nowadays the guards just flat-out won't tell anyone which one he's in.

Whichever one he's in, it's probably underground somewhere.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Gay Marriage Legal In Wisconsin

...seriously. You need more of a writeup after that? Let's not bury the lede here with unnecessary exposition. Gay marriage is legal in Wisconsin. It's legal. Legal legal legal and the marriages have already started. (They've always 'already started', as in any given state or country that legalizes it, it's inevitable that there are at least a couple dozen couples ready to throw on halfway-decent clothes and sprint out the door to the courthouse the second they get the news, quick, before someone tries to appeal it.)

Just sad we weren't closer to the head of the line. Congratulations.

There's A Pun On A Cooking Show's Name Here Somewhere; I Just Can't Find It

I'll be short with it tonight and send you to Fast Company, where the Rube Goldberg principle has been applied to cooking dinner online via coming called Collaborative Cooking. You have several different chefs, you have a machine loaded with 35 ingredients, and you have a computer that takes every order any of the chefs give it and moves the machine so that the ingredients are mechanically maneuvered into a pot that is, itself, remotely heated, in a slow-cooking process estimated to take 10-20 hours.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

I Don't Usually Talk About Justin Bieber Here...

...but ohhhhhhhhhhhhh dear.

Let us note that at age 13, Bieber was this sweet-looking kid out of Ontario, his mom was posting pictures of him singing to YouTube. Then music exec Scooter Braun found him. Over the years, I've gotten rather used to the idea of fame just completely going to his head and getting in with the wrong crowd and corrupting Selena Gomez and being increasingly likely at any given moment to do any given thing. Chucking watermelons off a highway overpass, perhaps, or walking into a police station blindfolded and swinging a bat as if attempting to hit a pinata.

Well, it seems he was liable to do these things from the very start, as we have a video surfacing of him, at age 14, taking his song One Less Lonely Girl and altering the lyrics to discuss such topics as joining the KKK, killing black people, and using the N word. The altered title became 'One Less Lonely [N-word]'.

This goes along with another such video from age 15.

Now, as bad as that is, and as unlikely as it sounds with Bieber, there actually seem to be some mitigating circumstances here. According to what Bieber's team told TMZ, they wanted this video out, as Bieber was not the only person that knew of the video- the reason he could do something like this and still be in good with the hip-hop community is that years ago, he realized, at least on this particular front, what an absolute goddamned idiot he was, fessed up to Usher and Will Smith about the videos, and Usher responded by hustling him into a room and showing him videos of what racism really meant and what weight those words carried to people like him.

Others that knew of the video had been trying to blackmail him to keep it out of the press, and as David Letterman demonstrated in 2009, the best, if not most uncomfortable, way to get yourself out from under a blackmail attempt is to fess up to whatever it is you did, ratting on the blackmailer in the process and nullifying their power over you from then on. And so that's what Bieber did: fess up.

Of course, fessing up only works if what you're fessing up to is something your career could actually survive. Sometimes the blackmailed information truly is fatal to your career or even your freedom, even if blackmail is the method used to convey it. And it's unclear as to whether this is survivable. Racist statements are right now just about the single most damaging thing someone could be busted on. No matter how much you have in life, it is being shown right now that an ill-timed racist remark can take it all away. And Bieber, already vulnerable via the natural forces of the music industry waiting to shove him aside for the next big thing, has much to take away.

I suppose the only thing to do is wait and see.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

I Can Tell By The Pixels, I've Seen A Lot Of Exit Visas In My Time

[Slightly edited for clarity.]

You have a lot of official papers and cards and documents in your life, but some are more critical to your life than others, and most will have a time when you really need them. This is why identity theft is so damaging. A library card would suck to lose at the wrong time, but it's nothing that can't be replaced. A discount card at the grocery store, oh well. Your credit card, your driver's license, your Social Security card, though? Those are the documents that cause panic when you even so much as forget what room you left them in before you head out the door.

Your passport is also one of these documents. Mere possession of one marks a person in society's eyes as somehow more cultured than someone without. It's a status symbol, regardless of how common or uncommon it is in a society. Unless you're actually traveling, it's rather benign, but when you are abroad or attempting to get there, it is the single most important document you have. It determines whether you get to travel at all, or even more importantly, whether you get to go home. A handful of Amazing Race teams have been disqualified because they'd lost theirs, and you can't continue a race around the world if you can't leave the country you're in. Some more oppressive nations over the years have required passports to travel within the nation- South Africa, the Confederacy, modern-day Russia (a holdover from the Soviet Union), a form of it today in China.

Got all that? Got how important that passport is?

Now let's discuss this. Do not get used to this picture; we'll be tearing it to shreds very shortly.

(source: Weibo, via Telegraph)

According to the story- and please take that qualifier into account; we'll be coming back to it in a moment-a Chinese tourist to South Korea, who you may note looks to have had his name scribbled out, allowed his 4-year-old son to do this to his passport. Both his main face and the blue silhouette face have had their eyes drawn over; they have beards now and new hairstyles and there's a new person in the middle alongside what I'm going to take to be a teddy bear. There's a flower or perhaps more, a birdie, I... think those are clouds? Whatever all of it is, it takes the place of things such as faces and text to the point where customs officials would not accept it as a valid passport anymore and barred the man and his son from leaving South Korea.

At least, this is the story. The story, upon closer examination, falls apart. The source of the photo is Weibo, but the story was originally reported by Xinhua, which is state-run by China, and as such there are people calling BS on it right from the get-go, which is a very wise thing to do in general. All the marks that would easily identify who this is have been obliterated, although that by itself isn't necessarily a disqualifier. The name of the man has alternately been reported as Chen and Zhang. That's much more concerning. Kotaku, though, examining the scribbles, brings the hammer down. They note that a 4-year-old would probably have smudged somewhere (it's laminated), or had lines of varying thickness. They also probably couldn't draw a flower like the one in the lower-right; the lines are too good and the turns too tight. To them, this looks more like an MS Paint scribble... that is also flat like an MS Paint surface, unlike the photo itself, which is on an angle. And also there's one point- you see that one part in the upper right, looks like a gun barrel maybe? Not all of that is actual passport. Some of that is the surface the passport was laid on, and the 'pen' marks jut off the passport and onto the surface.

The conclusion: someone has almost certainly made stuff up for a laugh.

The moral of the story is supposed to be to take extra special care of your passport. And surely that's a fine moral. But as far as that care goes, perhaps the better moral is to just make sure you don't lose it entirely. The intended moral of not letting your 4-year-old near it? Well, people who would have a passport already probably are smart enough to avoid that.

Monday, June 2, 2014

You Spin Me Right Round

Any thermometer you've likely got around the house is, if you're old-school, filled with mercury, which of course expands and contracts depending on the temperature. If you're old-school. Mercury also has the little sniggling problem of being toxic, which has led various countries to either recommend you use something else or outright restrict or ban their use. Galinistan- an alloy of tin, gallium and indium- is a popular alternative, as is going digital, relying on the heat sensitivity of platinum to give the reading.

Or you could use light, if you are a laboratory with grant money. A team at the University of Adelaide in Australia has created a light-based thermometer capable of accuracy to within 30 billionths of a degree, which downright obliterates the previous accuracy record of being within 100 billionths (also by a light-based thermometer), which, yes, there are thermometers that accurate too.

The way this works is, there's a crystal shaped like a disk, and red and green light is sent spinning around that disk. Light, as far as we know anyway, can't go faster than the speed of light- 186,282 miles per second. However, it can go slower. Much slower. Light only goes the speed of light in a vacuum, and Earth is decidedly not a vacuum. In 1999, a team at Harvard managed to slow light down to 38 mph when shining it through sodium cooled almost to absolute zero. In 2001, they got it to a standstill by shining it through rubidium gas. That's the principle being used here: the crystal will be the conductor of heat, and however fast the red and green light is spinning around it, and the difference between the two, more to the point (light changes speed depending on its color; this is long-story-short how a prism works), tells the temperature.

Don't count on buying one of these soon, of course; they're only talking medical and business applications right now.

The source study can be found here.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Your Huddled Masses

In 1993, Malchior Ndayaye, Burundi's first democratically-elected president, was assassinated. He was a member of the Hutu tribe; his assailants were of the rival Tutsis. This was the catalyst for some of the most unspeakable horrors in recent human history. Hutus committed genocide in both Burundi and Rwanda, Rwanda's further sparked in 1994 by their president dying in a plane crash along with Ndayaye's successor, but while the Rwandan genocide would peter out later that year as remaining Tutsis fled the country, there weren't many safe places to run. Some ran to Tanzania. DR Congo has never been an ideal option, but some ran there. And some ran straight into another mouth of hell in Burundi, where a civil war raged until 2005. In the process, Tanzania took in hundreds of thousands, millions possibly, of refugees, refugees they didn't particularly want, and as a result, the border between Burundi and Tanzania has been somewhat carefully monitored, or at least as close as it's going to get.

Well, this too shall pass. In 2011, Tanzania and Burundi signed a bilateral agreement to loosen their border somewhat, pledging to create a one-stop crossing in order to ease the transit of people and goods. That crossing is getting close to being done; they're hoping to open it on June 7. In addition, Tanzania's Ministry of Home Affairs is all but rubber-stamping the refugees officially into the country to stay. 227,500 refugees still in the country in two camps were given the option in 2010 to either seek citizenship or head home. 172,405 of them opted to stay. According to Tanzania's Daily News, 162,156 of them have been granted it.

I'd say congratulations to them, but I don't think that's quite the word for it.