Saturday, August 30, 2014

I'd Like To Ask The Audience

Have you ever been in a situation where you're stuck on... something, doesn't matter what... to the point where you needed advice? Of course you have. We all have. We're human. We don't know everything. That's the credo around here, remember?

Let me reposition the question. Have you refrained from asking for that advice for fear of how stupid you'd look while asking? Again, I'm sure you have. I have. It's hard to swallow your pride and admit ignorance sometimes. You may also have gotten some general advice saying there's no such thing as a stupid question.

According to a new study [PDF] by Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino of Harvard, and Maurice Schweitzer of Wharton, you would do well to listen to that advice. (Yay, I don't have to warn you about some $30 paywall for once!) You are, according to the study, perceived as looking smarter, not dumber. This is something that the researchers noticed had not been covered very much: not the advice given but the act of asking itself.

The study was actually a set of five studies. The first was to prove the hypothesis in the first place, that people are actually afraid of looking dumb. People were asked to imagine a situation at work where they needed to ask help from a coworker, and asked to predict how they'd be looked at by doing so. Proving the hypothesis, respondents thought they'd look dumber.

The second study went about testing that, and there are a couple repetitions here in various permutations, but they all involve the basic setup of people being asked to 'partner' with what they thought was another subject but in fact was a computer controlled by the researchers. They would do brain teasers of various types depending on the specific test, and then their 'partner' would go, but before they did, the subject would either be asked, or not asked, for advice. Then, after the computer, well, gave the performance it was predetermined it would give, the subject would be asked to rate how intelligent they thought their 'partner' was.

The third study measured the difficulty of the task. It worked like Study 2, but in one permutation, subjects were asked to do simple match problems, like adding together 4-digit numbers. In another, they were given a harder task in which they were given a 3x3 grid of decimal numbers and asked to pick out which two of those nine numbers added up to 10. The fourth study was the same thing- using just the add-up-to-10 grid- but the 'partner' was allowed to ask either the subject or 'another participant in the lab'.

The fifth study was done online. After passing some reading and comprehension checks, subjects were asked some biographical information about themselves- where they lived and their competence level on a set of subjects. Then they were told someone else in an imaginary four-person group was asked to do a brain teaser that did not in fact exist. They were either told whether or not the 'partner' had asked them for advice or not- leaving ambiguous whether they'd asked someone else- and if they had, they were either asked about their best subject or their worst.

There are three basic things to note here:

1) People who ask about something difficult are seen as smarter than those who ask about something easy. Or rather, asking about something easy doesn't make you look dumber- you stay about neutral- but you look smarter when asking about something hard.
2) You look smarter to someone when you ask them personally for advice, though asking someone else doesn't actively hurt you. What's happening here is a variation on the concept- and this has been studied as well- that whatever you say about other people. that's how other people look at you. So when you ask someone for advice, what you're effectively saying is that you think they're smart enough to be able to supply that advice, and in return, you get thought of as smart enough to know to come to little old them.
3) You look smarter when you ask an expert than when you ask a non-expert. That's only natural; if you're going to get advice, ask someone who knows what they're doing. You are in fact looked at as dumber if you ask a non-expert, the only part of the study where this is the case, even by the person you're asking ('why would they ask me, I'm clueless'). So if you're going to ask someone, ask someone who knows what they're talking about.

Asking repeatedly was not tested for, so the annoyance factor is left on the table. But go ahead and ask if you don't know something. Just make sure you ask someone who might actually know the answer.

Still Sick

I guess I'm going to be giving you another video or two tonight, because I have to go chase down the lung I just coughed up. Come back, lung!

I'm picking from the HowStuffWorks suite of shows, specifically Stuff Mom Never Told You (hosted by Cristen Conger), and supplying you with two videos. The two get into the topic of hair length: namely, why it is, culturally in the West, supposed to be short hair for men and long hair for women. Something you've probably wondered about yet never cared enough to go look it up. Well, there you go. Have at it.

There's no embedding option here, so you'll just have to click over.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Future Of Tomorrow... Today!

Given that my head is currently full of phlegm and runny nose stuff and pills you take to cure runny nose stuff from happening, and that I am currently rapidly depleting the world's forests to blow runny nose stuff into the byproducts, I'm going to opt for a short, quickie post.

So I am going to inflict upon you some old retro prediction films. Enjoy.

Achoo. Achoo. Achoo. Achoo. Achoo. (Play that back at about the volume of a train crashing through a brick wall.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hello Kitty Is Not A Kitty

There's supposed to be a Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit's being put together by Christine Yano of the University of Hawaii. Naturally, because it's Hello Kitty, Yano went about constructing the text for the exhibits portraying her as the most iconic Japanese kitty that ever kittied.
This was both her first and second mistake, apparently, because Sanrio very firmly corrected her. Because there is something to correct about this matter.

Hello Kitty is not a kitty and isn't Japanese and her name isn't Hello Kitty. The big cat ears and whiskers and tail belong to a human girl named Kitty White, daughter of George and Mary White, who also look like kitties but are not actually kitties, living just outside of London, because Japanese women were on a British kick in the 70's when the character was created. Kitty owns a kitty named Charmmy Kitty who looks like Kitty, but Kitty but is not herself a kitty. The cartoon character walking upright all the time means something, dangit. It's important.

Her blood type is A.  If you're Japanese, real or fictional, you will have your blood type announced (positives and negatives are discounted, just A, B, AB or O). It's considered something of a personality test. Kind of like your horoscope, except blood type outranks horoscope in Japan. Type B's and especially AB's actually tend to get discriminated against.

Now, if you're a Hello Kitty fan, you possibly already know this. Possibly. There's a real good chance this is a revelation to you too. There are comments to both effects on Hello Kitty's official Facebook page, which I have copied and pasted verbatim:

Paige Haggard: "Is it weird I already knew all of this?? And she's is actually a human, not a cat. Her real name is kitty white...After a 3rd grader named that. But Sanrio says she is not a cat, but she has a cat. She's is a little girl. #HKfanatic #obsessed #loyal #sinceiwaslil"
Gemma Jerez: "Um I kinda knew that already. I don't get why some people are making a huge deal out of it. If you look at hello kitty, shes not a cat except for her face-hence the "kitty" her hands and feet dont look life paws. And she doesnt have a long tail like a cat. I dont care if she is a,cat or a girl. But the fact that she is a she and that shes cute is why I loved her since I was a kid."
Tina Buadaeng: "I'm obsessed with HK! she IS a cat!!!! Wiskers and Kerroppi not a frog because he isn't on all four legs and have little slits on his round nubby hands? NO. This sanrio claim is rediculous. P.s. a cat shouldn't have a pet cat.."
Rhian Hill: "she may not be a proper cat as she acts human as does her whole family, she also has her own proper pet cat. but she is a cat girl. like many anime have. half cat half girl. as are the rest of her friends. half human half animal. that doesn't mean she is not cat at all."
Lauren Theresa Ermilio: "Lol I really like that this is a legitimate discussion. Because we all know that anyone with a serious obsession (like I have and pretty much anyone who cared to comment on this probably shares with me) really doesn't care what she is because you love her no matter what. And yet I'm sucked in to this thread. For no reason. Go Sanrio."

So... cat, girl, catgirl, if you're hardcore enough, you don't care.

I am not hardcore enough, and therefore... oh, Japan.

The Against Chess Olympiad

In international competition, more than anything else, things always seem to get the weirdest when Israel is involved. Whether it's their doing or the doing of someone else, contingency plans and special arrangements always pop up out of the woodwork.

*In international soccer, Israel was moved from the Asian confederation, their natural location, to Oceania and then Europe because their neighbors in Asia refused to play them, nearly leading to Israel qualifying for the 1958 World Cup by default.
*Palestine has to play their home games in Qatar using expat players because Israel won't let their homegrown players out of the country to play games of their own (leading to Palestine having to forfeit a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Singapore after 18 players were refused permission to travel) and sometimes actively targets Palestinian soccer players in the broader conflict.
*In the Olympics, Iranian athletes will immediately withdraw from their events if they are placed against Israeli athletes (whatever their official excuse may be). And it isn't just the Olympics, and it isn't just Iran.
*Every four years, someone will pressure the IOC to hold a moment of silence for the Israeli team that was killed at Munich 1972 (which itself can be included here), and every four years the IOC will say no.
*The Maccabiah Games, an Olympic-style competition, are a thing that exists, open to Jewish athletes and Israelis regardless of religion, and is held every four years in Israel. (And every four years, Israel dominates the medal count.)
*I've already spoken at length about the Games of the New Emerging Forces, started in part to Israel being ejected from the Asian Games in Jakarta.

But this behavior isn't limited to purely athletic endeavors. Of all things, chess also has a competition for national teams, called the Chess Olympiad. There are doping tests and everything, and in 2004 they actually had an effect as two players from Bermuda and Papua New Guinea refused to submit to a test, which is counted as an automatic fail. As in any international competition, there is a host. This year's Chess Olympiad, held earlier this month, was hosted by Tromso, Norway. China won.

The way it works (at least in the 'open' section, the main event), is, every day of the competition, each four-man team is paired off against the members of another four-man team. (In 2014, there was also a deaf team, a blind team using Braiile to play, and a physically-disabled team.) The host gets to enter two teams and, if there's an odd number of teams, they get to enter a third as well. In each round, teams are paired off according to their points scored during the tournament (a team win is worth two points, a draw one point, a loss gets nothing), except in the first round, when they're paired off according to the ratings of their individual players. If by way of withdrawls they have an odd number of teams, the last-place team gets a bye, though no team can have more than one bye. The goal in each round is to pair teams as closely as possible in score (tied in match points whenever possible), except in the first round, when the ratings function as seeds. Teams must play new opponents in each round, so it can happen that mismatches wind up occurring.

The tl;dr version: Round 1 features the top teams engaging in a ritual slaughter of the dregs of the chess world; from that point on, winning puts you against better teams later on; losing gets you scheduled against worse teams. So as an example, the eventual champion Chinese (out of a field of 177), was scheduled to play the following over the course of the tournament to play, in order:

Guatemala (eventually finished 96th; China won 4-0)
Albania (60th; China won 3.5-1.5)
Hungary (2nd; China won 2.5-1.5)
Russia (4th; China tied 2-2)
Netherlands (12th; China tied 2-2)
Egypt (23rd; China won 3.5-0.5)
Serbia (16th; China won 3.5-0.5)
Azerbaijan (5th; China won 3-1)
Ukraine (6th; China tied 2-2)
France (13th; China won 2.5-1.5)
Poland (15th; China won 3-1)

So. Now that we're clear on how this works. In 1976, Haifa, Israel was selected to host. Until then, the tournament had used a format of preliminary round-robin groups and a final group, but with the number of entries growing by the year, the current format was in use starting in Haifa. Now, this was going to be Israel's second hosting gig- Tel Aviv hosted in 1964- so you'd think this wouldn't have caused much of a ruckus. But then, in 1964, Israel, because of the group-stage system, had been segregated from nations that would object to their participation. Israel had been grouped with Hungary, Sweden, Scotland, France, Ireland and Luxembourg. Iran was present, but grouped with the United States, Poland, England, Norway, Turkey and Portugal. And no other nation that had a particularly gigantic issue with Israel was in the field.

But by 1976, the Arab delegation was much larger. Two years earlier in Nice, France, the field showed not only Iran but Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, among others. This meant that there were more voices to raise objection to traveling to Israel to compete. And while Israel had been able to dodge playing Arab teams until then (with the exception of being grouped against Tunisia in the B final), with the new system, anyone could play anyone at any time.

So the Arab nations boycotted. And they took the Soviet Union with them, who also did not recognize Israel, as well as a lot of the Eastern Bloc and many Soviet allies. Given that the Eastern Bloc is the traditional geographical power bloc of chess, and given that the Soviet Union was the 12-time-defending champion, this was what you might call 'a total disaster'. The tournament went ahead, sure, but with a greatly reduced number of teams. 74 had competed in Nice; only 48 arrived in Haifa. With the Soviets out, as well as 1972 runner-up Yugoslavia, the United States- third in Nice- naturally wound up winning. Israel finished 6th.

The tournament was notable for heavy Israeli security presence swarming the grounds, just in case. The Israeli Olympic team had only been killed four years earlier, after all. They weren't taking any chances.

But there was another tournament. The boycotting nations weren't going to stand idly by and just let Israel... do things. They were going to host their own tournament. ...well, some of them were, anyway. The Soviets and the Eastern Bloc chess power base sat things out entirely, having little to prove, especially against the likes of the Arab nations, who are largely more than a little shaky in the global rankings.

Moammar Gadhafi offered up Tripoli as a host city for the alternative tournament. Not only did he offer the city, he organized the tournament himself. In pre-tournament literature, the purpose of the whole affair was not left to the imagination, as the event was titled the "Against Israel Olympiad", though it was later changed to the "Against Chess Olympiad".

Just imagine, for a moment, the mental gymnastics that have to take place before one gets around to deciding that naming an international chess competition the "Against Chess Olympiad" is a good idea. Especially considering that this is a tournament that is supposed to be hosting people who are smart enough that they are able to play high-level chess.

Politically heated as it may have been, your average person probably can't name any big-time chess players currently active, so it really wouldn't have mattered who attended. Tripoli certainly got It Didn't Matter to attend all right. Even though Gadhafi offered to pay full expenses of any attendees, not a single grandmaster showed up, which would cover something like the top thousand or so players in the world. The next level down is International Master, which covers the next couple thousand, and there was only a handful of them there. As such, things were bound to get a little screwy, and they did. They got so screwy that El Salvador of all people somehow walked off with the title, which even for this depleted field qualified as a huge upset.

Libya finished 24th in a field of 34. So there went that little bit of propaganda.

If you're wondering about whether there was some sort of revenge boycott, you wonder correctly. Though 'revenge' is a bit of a strong word, as the boycott was legitimately provoked. In 1986, hosting duties went to Dubai, who as you might expect took the opportunity to just eject Israel outright. The United States made a big show of threatening to boycott if Israel wasn't allowed back in, but seeing as the UAE wouldn't have been that broken up if the United States went away either, it didn't work. The Americans eventually backed down and sent a team, but much of Western Europe did not, and many top individual players didn't show up either. But the Soviets did show up, and that was really all that mattered, as they romped to what would be their fourth straight title in a streak that would eventually stretch to 12 as they eventually became Russia. (To recap that bit of history, from 1952-2002, the Soviets/Russians won 24 out of 26 tournaments, with one of the remaining two being a boycott... and the other a legitimate loss to Hungary in 1978.)

The hosting duties have steered clear of the Arab world ever since.

The next tournament in 2016 is slated for Baku, Azerbaijan. Immediately upon being awarded the hosting job, speculation turned to whether Armenia would attend... but that's a logistical international competitive nightmare all its own.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Stupid Laws That (Mostly) Aren't

All right. I think we're far enough removed from the peak of Ferguson that we can go ahead and do that strange-law article I had to shelf for a bit. Want to go ahead and do that, remembering that we have all rather forcefully seen what a 'stupid law' really looks like? You know, things like 'no bleeding on the uniforms of the officers in Ferguson, Missouri after they waltz into your cell and beat the crap out of you'? That is a truly stupid... ahem... 'law'.

But then there are the more innocuous-sounding ones, like you might have seen in a list of 'strange laws' somewhere years ago. The ones that sound like 'no hopping like a kangaroo in front of a car dealership'. And then you laughed. And so did I because I had a book or two full of them as a kid. We have a website for this kind of thing now because of course we do. In fact, here's another one. The phenomenon even has a Wikipedia page... which will once again take all the fun out of your life like a big old poopyhead. You know. On top of the Ferguson-level perspective we're talking here.

You see, when you see a lot of these stories of government absurdity... well, okay, often that assessment is precisely correct. Which, again, for the third time. But in OTHER cases, what happens is people go looking just a tad too far for it, and confirmation bias takes over. Something that looks merely odd at first glance is perceived to be dumb by someone convinced that the government can't do anything right at all, and it's reported as such. But it's not always quite that simple. There's always a reason somewhere. Sometimes, that reason is dumb, maybe even corrupt, but other times it's actually perfectly reasonable. Or it's a perfectly normal law that's just worded in a way to make it look strange. Or someone just made it up. Or the person just has a different definition of 'dumb' than other people.

That's what we'll do today. We'll look at some of these laws regarded as 'strange' or 'dumb' or whatever term you want to use, and we'll look at what ended up making that law come to pass. All the laws we're looking at come off the site, and we're only using ones for which they've actually managed to prove it by tracking it down in the lawbooks. (So no 'can't carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket'. Fake.)

LAW: In Pennsylvania, any motorist who sees a team of horses approaching must pull over, cover his car with something that blends into the countryside, and let the horses pass.
REALITY: This is an outdated law, coming from way back when cars were still a new thing. One day, Pennsylvania farmers, annoyed that these newfangled contraptions were scaring their horses, had three laws passed attempting to make it so utterly annoying to legally drive a car that people would just stop bothering, leaving the farmers in peace and quiet. They called themselves the Farmers' Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania. One of the others forced the driver to send up a rocket once every mile, and then wait ten minutes for the road to clear before proceeding. The third required the driver to also take their car apart and hide it in the bushes if they met a horse and it refused to pass the car. At least the first two were passed; I'm not sure on the horse-refusing-to-pass one. In any case, it was already too late. Nobody listened, they kept right on driving, and nobody ever got around to repealing the laws.

LAW: In Georgia, you can't give a goldfish to someone in order to entice them to enter a bingo game.
REALITY: This is an interpretation thing. The law as actually written: "No person in Athens-Clarke County shall give away any live animal, fish, reptile or bird as a prize for, or as an inducement to enter, any contest, game, or other competition, or as an inducement to enter a place of amusement, or offer such animal as an incentive to enter into any business agreement whereby the offer was for the purpose of attracting trade." This is something you could also use against, say, cockfighting or dogfighting, and the lawmakers just decided to shut down any possible combination of animal and contest.

LAW: In Prince William County, Virginia, it's illegal to cuss about someone.
REALITY: The full text this comes from shows this as little more than your basic disturbing-the-peace legislation. "If any person shall, in the presence or hearing of another, curse or abuse such other person, or use any violent abusive language to such person concerning himself or any of his relations, or otherwise use such language, under circumstances reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace, he shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor." Cursing's in there? You mean you can't even swear? IT'S GOVERNMENT RUN AMOK, I TELLS YA!

LAW: In Minnetonka, Minnesota, it's a misdemeanor to convince someone to enter a massage therapist business after 11 PM.
REALITY: ...let me put it this way. You ever hear of Jennifer Love Hewitt? You ever hear of The Client List? How about 'happy endings'? That's what this is about. If it's after 11 PM, and you are at a massage parlor, it probably isn't for the advertised purpose.


LAW: In Nashville, you must be at least 18 years old to play pinball.
REALITY: This may not make sense now- and Oakland, California just repealed an ordinance banning pinball outright on Friday- but if you were around back when pinball first came into being, you'd understand a lot better. You see, until 1947, pinball machines didn't have flippers. You simply launched the ball into play, and it would bounce around a bunch of pins- hence the name- and hopefully in the process the ball would careen into things that racked up points. And free games. And prizes. As a result, with no real skill involved, pinball machines were classified as gambling devices and regulated as such. Adding flippers did not immediately change the game. Not even close. New York City, for instance, banned pinball in 1942. Even after the flipper introduction five years later, it took until 1972, and a player named Roger Sharpe making a called skill shot inside of a courtroom, for that city's ban to be overturned. Some ordinances still haven't been repealed to this day, with Nashville's among them.

And there is every chance they're even still being enforced, like in Beacon, New York, where an arcade museum was forced to close in 2010 because it had pinball in it.


LAW: In Brookfield, Wisconsin, tattooing is illegal unless it's for medical purposes.
REALITY: Oh yes, tattoos can have medical purposes. This actually came up with my dad after the cancer hit. In order to attack the cancer, of course, the doctors needed to do chemo and radiation treatment. Prior to that, however, they needed to mark off where on the body they were aiming it, because this isn't something you want to do across the entire body and you certainly don't want to miss. So as to tell the doctors where they were aiming the radiation, Dad had to get a tattoo on the spot where the cancer was.

Note that I said 'was'. There's some fantastic news on that front that I haven't gotten around to mentioning here yet: he looks to be in remission. The radiation treatments shrunk the cancer to where they can't even see it anymore, and a follow-up visit as things stand looks to confirm that. There was to be preventative radiation up in his brain, as the exact type of cancer we're talking here- endocrine carcinoma high-grade- was known to migrate into the brain 90% of the time when originating in the lungs. But there were some studies done, or at least reported, between radiation and follow-up. When originating in the esophagus- as this cancer did- the chance of migrating to the brain was found to be only 6-9%. (Not that I have a clue where to link you online, so unfortunately you'll just have to take my word for it.) As his capillaries are already a bit fried, both from radiation and a since-kicked smoking habit, radiation up there is pegged as likely to do more harm than good. So after an MRI, we're looking at one visit every 6-9 months unless events develop.

We're not out of the woods yet, because cancer is a bastard like that. But we've found the old logging road that leads to the highway.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Good News/Bad News, Ferguson Edition

First, the good news. As I noted earlier in this whole sordid affair, President Obama announced that he would initiate a review of whether military-grade equipment really needs to be in the hands of local police departments. That initiation has now happened. Three main things are to be looked at: first, whether it's appropriate to give the equipment to the cops at all; second, whether the training the cops get with that equipment is sufficient to be able to properly use it; and third, whether there is sufficient federal oversight to ensure that it is in fact being properly used.

Now the bad news: none of this seems like it would deter the Ferguson PD at all. Slate put together a timeline on Thursday of the numerous missteps made in their handling of the Mike Brown case, starting with the shooting itself. Since then, yet another controversy has arisen. The crowdfunding site GoFundMe played host to a campaign raising funds to support Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mike Brown. Despite a firestorm of calls urging the campaign to be shut down, the only action GoFundMe took was to delete comments on the page. Eventually the campaign- which I refuse to link- was shut down, but the money was still collected: $234,910.

I remind you that Wilson is on paid leave as it is. He hasn't even been docked any salary, and he has now effectively been awarded a $234,910 bonus for killing Mike Brown. I don't even want to contemplate how many years' salary that is for him.

And as if that weren't enough, a second GoFundMe campaign has been launched with the same goal. It has raised an additional $102,646 as of this writing, meaning Darren Wilson has won over $337,000 for taking a human life. So far.

I'll wait for you to stop throwing up.

And this is where the misstep in question comes up: this second campaign is being officially organized by a nonprofit called Shield of Hope. The board of Shield of Hope- which shares an address with a chapter of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police- contains a man named Timothy Zoll, who is the public relations director for... the Ferguson PD. So, in effect, the Ferguson PD is playing a direct, hands-on role in making sure Darren Wilson is being handsomely rewarded on top of his normal salary for instigating a bona fide international incident.

You tell me how likely they are to have any interest in doing anything other than handing him back his badge and gun at the earliest opportunity, judicial process be damned. And encouraging him to use them.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Internal Programming Note

Okay, let's just rip the band-aid off: I'm putting up ads on the site. I know they're irritating, I know you're reaching for AdBlock right now, but I said way back at the start that this was a blog ultimately created with the intent of finding paying writing work. It's four and a half years later and I'm still here. So it's quite honestly long past time for me to just try and make money off the blog directly, and how do you do that? Ads, of course. (Though if you'd like to give me money for writing things, that would also be swell.)

So there are ads now. I'm trying for the least-obnoxious locations I can manage, and they actually won't officially 'go up' until Google detects a certain amount of pageviews (they won't tell me the number), but bar actually getting paid directly for writing specific pieces... just be sure to click on them for me.

If you see big blank spots, that's apparently where they're going to be.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Outrage Of A Totally Different Kind

Two consecutive nights of peace in Ferguson (although the grand jury of Darren Wilson looks to be the most brazen scam to get him off as quickly as possible- I mean, who the hell lets the defendant speak at a grand jury?)

So now it's time to be angry because the Build Team- Tory Belleici, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara- is leaving Mythbusters. (And pour one out for Scottie Chapman, too, having left a long time prior.) Their last episode was tonight; the show is reverting back to what it was at the beginning, with just Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.

I'll leave you in the same stunned silence I'm still in. Seriously? The whole Build Team?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sundown Towns

I am rather desperate to post something not relating to Ferguson at this point, but I don't think it's really safe to do so yet. Not for now.

So what I want to do today is go back to something I wrote way back in the halcyon days of 2010, when nickels were only a quarter each and fruit was so plentiful that it practically grew on trees. My post from October 15 of that year focused on the difficulty of travel for blacks in the earlier parts of the 20th century, and making note of a special book called the Green Book, passed around between black travelers noting safe places for them to go. This would be while those of us who are white were appearing in videos about how flying on an airplane was like this:

...yeah. Count how many parts of that video are never ever going to happen on your next flight. Here's a hint: just about all the parts.

But I also brought up, briefly, why a Green Book had to be passed around: because of the existence of 'sundown towns'. Rachel Maddow talked about them last week, and James Loewen (he of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, if you've ever read either of those) wrote a book about it. What 'sundown' meant was, if you were of the wrong race, and you were in town after sundown, you were liable to have anything happen to you up to and including your death. In some cases cities made the threat implicit and made life extremely uncomfortable for anyone of the wrong race who lived there anyway, through such methods as denying housing, making housing inordinately expensive, denying basic utilities, even denying police protection, until that person got the message and cleared out. Others went so far as to put up a billboard and straight-up assaulted and killed anyone they saw after dark. Some of these towns still engage in minority-unfriendly behavior to this day, although now it's more subtle.

Blacks weren't always the targeted race. Sometimes it was Hispanics, sometimes it was Asians (particularly in California gold country), sometimes it was Jews, sometimes it was just everybody that wasn't white. But blacks were far more often than not the target.

Where was this happening? All over the country. In my original 2010 post, I linked to a site showing a database of possible sundown towns. It's still active, and yes, Ferguson is in the database, listed with an asterisk denoting "Not a suspected sundown town but of interest for other reasons". Every state in the lower 48 is involved in some way. Many of the towns shown include evidence both hard and anecdotal, and if you have any stories of your own, you're encouraged to contribute. Even Watertown is in the database; although there is no hard evidence of sundown behavior, the census shows not a single black resident as late as 1940 (population 11,301), and only a single black as late as 1970 (population 15,683).

Wisconsin has a lot of entries, really. Loewen's main finding was that it wasn't just by coincidence that the Midwest (including his home state of Illinois) is heavily white; it was very often made that way on purpose. Even if a town wasn't actively excluding, it still could get into the realm of people just simply never having seen a black person before. Green Bay is in the database, with anecdotes revolving around- what else- the Packers, and either their being fairly late to the party in integrating the club or an assumption that anyone black must be involved with the team somehow because, well, why else would blacks be in Green Bay?

And don't think Green Bay is the only large-ish city in the database. Seattle has hard and documented evidence excluding Asians and Native Americans in the 1800's. San Jose had an anti-Chinese convention in 1886 and burned down their Chinatown the next year (none exists today). New York, Chicago and Salt Lake City get the 'other reasons' asterisk as it wasn't so much the cities as a whole but certain blocks and neighborhoods within them that had their problems.

Maddow brought this up because not only has the bulk of the violence in Ferguson- of which there hasn't been any today, thank goodness- and all the major police action occurred after dark, but there was an request by police to wrap up protesting for the day before dark. (That did not happen, and of course, things got violent.)

This is a thing we need to keep in mind as we, eventually, move forward from this, and work to root out where it still occurs. Sometimes, simply existing as a certain race in certain towns can be hazardous to your qualify of life, sometimes even your lifespan. Even today, even if it's not made explicit, hints can be routinely dropped.

Even if your race happens to be the majority in that town.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson By The Numbers

(Edited to include additional statistic.)

I know I've been absent here the past few days, and it shouldn't surprise you to note that I've been glued to Ferguson. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you'd see me rather active on those fronts as events have developed, leading up to today's deployment of the National Guard.

I'm not really sure what factoid you want me to throw out here that lays the situation out barer than it already is, but hey, let's just start and see if we find one.

*Michael Brown, according to an autopsy requisitioned by his family, was shot six times, resulting in his death. In 2013, the entire combined police force of England and Wales fired their guns three times (clarification: on three occasions, not necessarily firing only three bullets), killing none. In Iceland, police have killed one person in the entire history of their country.

*Back in 2001, when examining cities with populations of at least 10,000 people, Ferguson was one of only two cities in America with a majority black population and no blacks on the city council. The other was Riverdale, Georgia. Since then, Riverdale has converted to an all-black council. Ferguson has since gone to one out of six, representing a city that has risen to two-thirds black.

*The city of Ferguson has hired a public-relations firm. The firm is 100% staffed by whites.

*In 2012, at least 410 people were killed by American police action, but because reporting that is somehow a voluntary thing, the exact number is unknown but probably ranges around 1,000. Meanwhile in 2012, 543 people were killed by anyone in the entire nation of Canada.

*EDIT: In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,352 warrants, which translates to three warrants per household.

*In 2012, 15.0 police officers per 100,000 were killed on the job, according to the Department of Labor Statistics. 105 died in total, with 51 of them- 48.6%- dying as a result of "violence and other injuries by persons or animals". 48 died in "transportation incidents" (think traffic accidents). Four died from slips, trips and falls, and one died as the result of exposure to harmful substances. So if you're actually looking at the violence-at-the-hands-of-others part, you'd be looking at more like 7.3 deaths per 100,000.

Using the 15.0 number, you might compare it to the death rate of roofers (42.2); 'refuse and recyclable material collectors' (aka garbagemen) (32.3); farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers (22.8); taxi drivers and chauffeurs (16.2); landscaping services (15.0); and grounds maintenance workers (14.2).

The overall number for all self-employed workers is 12.8.

Going by the 7.3 number, shift your attention to electricians (8.9); 'painters, construction and maintenance' (8.0); 'nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing' (7.9); newspaper publishers (7.5); gasoline station workers (6.8); 'pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters' (6.6); and 'laborers and freight, stock and material movers, hand' (6.5).

*Number of times Amnesty International has deployed a human rights team in the United States prior to Ferguson: zero.

This is ostensibly about Michael Brown, but the matter of Michael Brown is no longer strictly necessary to hold the cause of Ferguson together. Even if it came out that he were really some tweaked-out thug beating the stuffing out of 18 people before he was taken down by Darren Wilson following a long struggle, that no longer matters. Too much more has happened since then that justifies its own outrage, independent of the Michael Brown matter. It didn't justify six gunshot wounds. It didn't justify tear gas, or sound cannons, or flashbang grenades, or armored vehicles, or riot gear, or curfews, and it especially did not justify the National Guard.

President Obama just spoke, and among his statements, he noted that he's going to start looking at how much of the resources allocated to local police forces are actually needed by them.

Back in April, Dodge County, Wisconsin, the county in which I live, got an armored vehicle. I would very much prefer for that not to be in Dodge County right now.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ferguson, Let's TED Talk

I'm not really sure how I want to respond to the events in Ferguson, Missouri over the past week or so. At least, I don't know how to respond that hasn't been said a thousand other places. That's a reason I try to stay away from major headlines; someone else has probably already said what I want to say better than how I plan to say it. And aside from that, it is a rapidly and continuously changing situation, often wildly. It has been a matter of police acting with apparent impunity; of race relations; of police brutality; of police militarization; of why the police have tools beyond those given to actual soldiers in actual warzones; of the wisdom of giving authorities tools beyond that which they need; of the freedoms of speech, press, peaceable assembly and redress of grievances; of the foolishness of escalation compared with de-escalation; of the utility of social media; of the chain of command; of just how much a policeman's word can be trusted when everyone is telling the same story but them; of the fact that people in the Gaza Strip felt the need to instruct people in Missouri on how to protect themselves from tear gas; of the shame and fear felt by so many that horrors such as those witnessed could occur in a country where they were raised to believe things like that did not happen, and that if it happened in Ferguson, could it happen to them?

I'm probably missing a couple. And it will take on more dimensions as we go.

But the all-encompassing matter has been one of power. The people that have it, the power that they are allowed, and what they do with that power towards- perhaps 'to' is the better word- the people that do not have it. And so I think the following TED talk is an apt one to listen to. It's by Eric Liu, who gave his talk last September in New York.

Many of us tune out of politics right now because we don't think those in power listen anyway. We don't think our vote is going to matter, or that it is even going to be counted, or that it will be listened to even if it is. We don't think those in power are doing anything with our concerns whatsoever. Perhaps these things are even true. Some of us envision an endless and hopeless dystopia perpetually around the corner, or that we are inexorably, unstoppably on our way towards one. We may envision that every bad thing that happens in the word is 'the new normal' and that everyone will do this latest horrible thing to everyone forever and that there is no way to ever resist. So people don't vote. People try to imagine that politics and power will just forget them if they don't engage.

The problem with that is that eventually, something like Ferguson happens. If you do not engage power, eventually it may engage you. Eventually, it may engage you to the point where you are forced into basic fight-or-flight. You may be rendered so utterly disenfranchised that the only way you have left to influence the process is with physical action, and you will have to simply hope someone else out there, someone who has more power than you, is able to help you, lest you be crushed. Lest power lob tear gas into your front lawn and allow it to seep through the walls of your home while you are inside it minding your own business or fearful of acting, thinking that power will just forget about you, and thinking it in vain.

There's an election in November. Maybe your vote won't be the one that swings the result. Maybe the winners won't be the ones you want, and maybe they'll just spend the next two years yelling at each other again. But there's a much higher chance that it will swing the result when you vote in the state and local elections, the ones that most directly exert power over your life. The ones that allocate budgets for things like the police and that determine how many toys they have access to. And even if it doesn't, you have the power to go inform your family, friends and acquaintances of who is being considered to be given power, the nature of that power, and what they may do with it. You have the power to petition, to donate your money and your time, to get in the field and take action to make things better. And if all else fails, you have the power to sound the alarm in whatever other social fashion you have available, alerting and perhaps recruiting those further afield to your cause, as the people of Ferguson have so ably demonstrated.

Your voice and your body are power, even if you have, or effectively have, no other formal power left. If you fail to exert them, you are as good as powerless.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Random News Generator- Northern Ireland

On September 18, Scotland will be holding a referendum on independence. As of right now, while there is a sizable contingent favoring it, there has yet to be a poll from any source showing the independence group in the lead. Roughly half of the electorate, maybe more, maybe less, is currently set to vote no, with the yeses ranging somewhere in the 35% range. And the numbers haven't really moved much. So, just to give you an idea of the odds here. Maybe there's still something that could push Scotland into independence territory over the next month, but I wouldn't think it likely.

That having been said, the other components of the British Isles are watching with great interest, just in case. Wales and Northern Ireland have their fair share of secessionists as well, and in the event that Scotland does declare independence, they're both very likely to launch campaigns of their own. In the event of Northern Ireland, such a campaign would involve Northern Ireland shifting over to join Regular Ireland. I believe you recall The Troubles, the period ranging from the 1960's up until 1998 when Ireland and Northern Ireland were constantly and violently at odds for both nationalistic and religious reasons.

But such a bid, according to polls, would go down in flames by spectacular margins if it were held right now. And there is plenty of the Northern Irish populace that dreads the unrest that might result from such a referendum's mere existence. Whatever Scotland does, there's no way Northern Ireland follows them out the door. So absent that, everyone is considering just what Scottish independence would mean to them: the ease or difficulty in opening up separate trade agreements (which they already have some experience with given Ireland's presence); the matter of subsidies from England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that would be altered by Scotland's absence; whether business opportunities would favor a newly-independent Scotland that might otherwise have opted for Northern Ireland. And there's the question of how much British Parliament would include Wales and Northern Ireland if they felt they were at risk of leaving as well.

But of course, all this only applies if Scotland votes that way. Or if they vote no, but the percentages are close enough to where the supporters are galvanized to try again, which is also being watched. There is no provision for a second attempt, but if the yeses happen to get into the mid-40's or something, they're probably going to push for a second vote, putting the entire UK on alert all over again. We'll have to wait and see what the number is.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Go Vote Today

It's primary day in Wisconsin (and Minnesota and Connecticut). You know what that means if you're a regular visitor. No content, just a message telling you to get off your butt and vote. Go. Move. Now.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Test-Tube Penguin

We have a test-tube penguin. Test-tube penguin, everybody. First test-tube penguin in the world, courtesy of Sea World. Everybody step up and see the test-tube penguin. Low low rates for large groups.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Imagine If They Chugged A Red Bull

I presume that, at some point, you've participated in the ongoing debate about some energy crisis or other. It would, of course, be about running out of a nonrenewable resource, usually coal or oil.

If you live in Australia, this debate looks far different than most countries' debates. Australians have been hitting the renewable energy market with such utter vigor- as of June, we're talking 3.5 gigawatts of solar power alone, mostly since 2010- that they're actually reporting an oversupply of energy, such that if they don't install one single thing that generates energy for the next decade, they'd still be fine. In South Australia- the one with Adelaide in it- their wind energy alone is sufficient to supply 43% of the state's needs. (To compare, the US Department of Energy has a website titled "20% Wind Energy By 2030", which represents a goal regarded by them as optimistic.)

So that's pretty great, actually... on the face of it. Economics, meanwhile, are proving to be a bit of an issue, as they haven't quite caught up to the reality on the ground. You have coal plants losing money or facing closure save for government subsidies, you have large electrical companies lobbying the Australian government to ease up on infrastructural goals- or even cancel them- because the glut of energy means they can't get as much money supplying it and grid usage is going down besides, and consumers are dually complaining that they're paying too much for something that is at an enormous surplus, and that the price is somehow still going up, which to them makes absolutely zero sense.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to get completely onto renewable energy, whatever intermediate targets you set for yourself along the way. You assure you don't run out, and as a bonus, you're not spewing carbon into the atmosphere at utterly untenable levels. Sometimes that, regrettably, requires breaking the occasional economic egg. If it didn't, we'd be a whole hell of a lot further along the path than we are now. This is the part that requires breaking the egg. If you're really showing commitment to the cause, that subsidized coal plant there just for the sake of jobs is going to have to go; you can do whatever's reasonably possible to retrain the employees. The electrical company is going to have to be told to take it on the chin, since as grid usage is going down, their services are needed less.

Besides, the surplus, which is unprecedented, may not be a thing that sticks around. We do keep using energy, after all. You don't want to give yourself a surplus situation and then ease up so much that you're back to a deficit before you know it. That would be the act of a fool.

But let's see how Australia acts.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Quick Note About Fireworks

We just now had our big fireworks display of the year in Watertown. Yes, the Fourth of July and all, I know, but in Watertown that's not the biggest fireworks show. The big one is now, a month later, at our annual local festival which, here, we call Riverfest. You probably have a similar festival in your hometown at some point during the summer; this one just happens to be ours.

Towards the end of the show, which I watched from my roof, I saw a dog, with some kind of metal jangling- might be a leash, might be an ID tag- scampering across the neighbor's yard, then under one of our cars, then across our yard, and then around the street corner. I went downstairs to see if I could retrieve him, but by the time I got to the front yard- as the grand finale was going off- the dog was long gone.

This is far from uncommon. Cats and dogs, dogs especially, have very sensitive hearing. This, while a benefit in other aspects of a dog's life, proves highly stressful during fireworks displays, which generate massive pulses of noise for the length of the show, which can typically run half an hour to an hour. As a result, some may break loose and go running, scared out of their wits.

If you have a dog and your town is about to have a fireworks show, it's a very good idea to take precautions to keep them calm or at least in your possession. If you're unsure as to what precautions, here's a handy checklist.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

How To Fly A Drone

1. ...well, okay, usually it's just a straight-up 'don't fly a drone', but I don't know that I'd go quite that far. Let's go with 'you probably don't need to be flying a drone'.
2. If you must fly a drone, be very very careful about where you fly it.
3. Do not fly your drone in a place where people are obviously going to get upset about it.
4. This is a lot of places.
5. Drones are not permitted, for example, in national parks.
6. So do not fly your drone in a national park.
7. When in a national park, do not do anything to damage the natural beauty of the setting. Doing so defeats the entire purpose of having a national park.
8. Upon acquiring your drone, read the manual. Learn to properly control your drone. Mechanical flying machines, as one might expect, are not much good when they're nose-first in the ground.
9. You're probably getting a good idea of the punchline by now, so: do not crash your drone into a Yellowstone hot spring. The park rangers will be quite miffed in between attempts to figure out how in the world they're going to get it out of there.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Can You Dig It, Sucka?

A museum, as you probably already know, doesn't display all the stuff it has on hand. It might like to, but it can't. There isn't nearly enough room. The museum only has so much space and they keep acquiring things that may or may not be display-worthy. Anything not on display goes into the archives, in back rooms and underground storage facilities that will often contain many times the amount of contents on display. That's where they maintain or restore it, that's where they research it, that's where they keep it when they're not taking a good look at it.

A lot of the time, an object in the archive has never really been looked at at all. The museum will take it after a comparatively cursory glance and store it, intending to get around to examining it more fully at some point down the line... and then it just sits there, sometimes for decades, without even having been cataloged. In Stealing Rembrandts, a book I reviewed back in June, at least some artwork is noted to have been stolen this way: if you're working in the archives, who's going to pursue you for stealing a piece of artwork when the museum never realized they had it in the first place?

On this page, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, you will see a recording of some of their photograph archives. As an instructional aid, I direct you to the listing for the Walter Rosenblum Collection. The Smithsonian states that they acquired it in 1976. They also state that they are "in the process" of cataloging it, now, 38 years later. Another collection, the Library of Congress Copyright Deposit Collection, was acquired in 1987 and hasn't been cataloged at all.

And so now you have some idea of how a 6,500-year-old human skeleton, originally excavated from Iraq around 1930, turned up suddenly on Tuesday in the archives of the Penn Museum, run by the University of Pennsylvania. The museum was working to digitize the findings of an expedition by Penn and the British Museum that began in 1922 and ran for 12 years. It arrived at Penn in 1931, and originally went unrecorded by them because first, they didn't have anyone at the time who knew much about skeletons, and second, there was a little something called the Great Depression that was preoccupying a lot of minds at the time. So the skeleton sat there... and sat there... and sat there.

Until looters ransacked the Baghdad museum in 2003. At that point, for reasons that I will remind you what country this excavation happened in, Penn decided to digitize their Iraqi artifacts. Along the way- right now being 'along the way', because even when you start these processes it takes years- they saw a letter dated 1931, saying they were going to receive a couple skeletons. Skeletons are more of a British Museum thing, so even then, most of the Penn staff figured the letter was a mistake and they were actually in London (or maybe even Baghdad)... but eh, might as well go rummaging through storage just in case. And lo and behold, there was a crate that nobody had cataloged and that, because it wasn't cataloged, nobody in the anthropology department had any good reason to open up until then.

Luckily, it was very well-preserved, in wax no less, so it had held up. Penn has no intent of returning the skeleton, partially because they have a lot of research to do on it (skeletons from the 5500-4000 BCE era are vanishingly rare, especially in as complete a set as this one), and partially because again, there's a reason they decided to digitize the Iraqi collection and that reason has yet to subside over a decade later.

In case you're curious, they're naming it Noah.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Just How Much Fame Are We Talking Here?

I had my suspicions about something like this, but it seemed rather instructional.

I'm going to put you in front of four Sporcle quizzes asking you to name the players inducted into the halls of fame for baseball, football, basketball and hockey. What I will also do is give you the average score for each achieved by previous takers.

MLB: 240 names (including this year's), 20 minutes. Average score: 53%. The most commonly-answered name was identified 95.3% of the time.
NFL: 250 names (including this year's), 18 minutes. Average score: 39%. The most commonly-answered name was identified 91.1% of the time.
NHL: 259 names (as of 2013), 20 minutes. Average score: 31%. The most commonly-answered name was identified 93.7% of the time.
NBA: 163 names (as of 2013), 14 minutes. Average score: 22%. The most commonly-answered name was identified 96.5% of the time.

When you hear a debate about Hall of Fame induction procedures, usually, almost inevitably, it will be baseball's that will draw fire, and for any number of things. Who's in. Who ought to be in. Who ought to be kicked out (even though that's only happened twice total in any of the halls, and both were because they directly threatened the hall itself: Gil Stein "turned down" induction to hockey's hall once it came out that he engineered his own induction, and Alan Eagleson was removed nine years after his induction for raiding the NHLPA pension, causing 19 other Hall of Famers to threaten to resign unless Eagleson was ousted.) How the vote should be held. How many people should be going in per year. How long it should be before someone goes in- immediately? After a short delay? When they're old and grey? Posthumously?

In fact, many view the Baseball Hall of Fame's procedures as so wrongheaded and mistaken that they regard the building as broken. That it doesn't matter anymore. Bill Simmons started down this road in 1998, when Don Sutton was voted in ahead of Jim Rice (who has since been elected himself), and said as far back as 2002, "none of us really care about the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the only people who do care -- ancient baseball writers -- will be dead soon, anyway. It's almost a lost cause. Almost." In 2007, when Mark McGwire entered the fray, he graduated all the way to 'lost cause', and on the back of anger that PED candidates won't be getting in anytime soon if ever, he no longer wishes to discuss it.

But look up there. Look at those scores. That's how much of each hall that the average person can name off the top of their head. What does that tell you? It tells you that for all its pains, people still care about baseball's hall more than the others. That the people that get through that mess and get themselves a plaque have- at least for the most part- well and truly earned immortality, which is the point of a hall of fame in the first place. In fact, they care angrily, will get into heated, impassioned arguments over players that need- need- to be inducted Right Now.

Meanwhile, football's Hall of Fame arguments, when they even happen, generally revolve around positional representation (who needs more of it), or more representation for the pre-Super Bowl era. Never less. It CAN'T be less, as the bylaws require 4-7 people to go in every year, and typically the classes trend towards seven. In fact, a secondary criticism is that seven is too small. But how well do all these people really register? Are they really all the best of the best after a certain point, or do the doors get thrown open a little too far? Football is by far the most popular sport in the country. Wouldn't you think the best would be more easily recognizable? (Or alternatively, has the NFL adopted so much of a 'now' mentality that everything that isn't 'now' is quickly devoured by time, leaving fans to forget, to be encouraged to forget, anything that isn't in front of them right at that moment?)

If you don't want to do the whole suite of quizzes, let me simply it for you: name the most recent class of each. Football just got done giving everybody their busts. I'm speaking generally, so your results may vary, but: there were seven people. How many can you name? And can you name any of basketball or hockey's? But naming baseball's class is probably no big deal.

Heck, do you know anything about how basketball or hockey induct their Hall of Famers, or hear anything about it save when a particularly no-brainer inductee gets in? Again, some of you might, but we're talking generally here. Football gets 'oh, hey, how nice for those guys.' Basketball and hockey get '...meh.'  The other three are not nothing, far from it. But baseball is the only one that gets all the press, all the debate, all the anguish.

But, as the numbers show, they also get the fame.

Monday, August 4, 2014

More Placeholder Stuff

Yep, more podcast feeling-out. Hopefully I don't completely run low on time-buying methods while we get stuff squared away, but it's becoming clear to me that once I get going on this, it's going to eat up a LOT of time on me.

So, the real-estate site Movoto has constructed a map of the richest person in each state. There are a couple things I want you to note from the map:

*Nobody on the map holds elective office, though just about everybody is politically active. Holders of high office are disproportionately wealthy, but when you get to be THAT rich, it tends to be counterproductive to hold down a seat.
*Tennessee is slightly inaccurate. It lists Thomas Frist Sr. He actually died in 1998. Thomas Frist Jr., however, is alive and well and very very rich, and is pretty obviously what the map means to say.
*If the name Frank VanderSloot (Idaho), a principal donor of the Mitt Romney campaign, is unfamiliar to you, well, suffice to say that Frank goes to fairly drastic lengths to keep it that way. It's worth getting to know him.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Podcasting Requires Lots Of Talking That Isn't Podcasted, You Know That?

Been spending the night making podcast-setup talk with my co-host, and at this point I think I can go ahead and say that's a solid on the co-host part. So I haven't had time to give you anything to do tonight.

So here is a tutorial on how to sew yourself a reversible hat, courtesy of Tally Heilke of the website Tally's Treasury. Tally does a lot of crafts projects- often commissions- and if you find you're enjoying yourself over there, she does have a Patreon account.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Chronicles In Unfortunately Timed Puff Pieces

On Wednesday, July 30, as you may or may not have heard, Argentina defaulted. The 99-cent version of what happened is this: in 2002, Argentina, well, also defaulted. Argentina set about offering bonds to victims of the 2002 default, some of which ended up being bought by New York hedge funds. In 2005, Argentina, short on money again, offered to restructure their bond payments with their newfound creditors (cutting about 65-70% off their payments); the hedge funds stayed pat. In 2010, Argentina again tried to restructure, and again, New York said no. Nearly everybody that wasn't the New York hedge funds said yes, so it's basically just the hedge funds holding things up when Argentina, who was by now deriding them as "vultures", comes up short on a payment. The hedge funds take them to court... a New York court. The court ruled that not only does Argentina have to pay the full amount, they also have to stop paying the restructured bonds until the hedge funds get paid. Argentinian law says that they can't do this, because the restructured bonds state that they can't offer the holdouts better terms without giving them to the restructured bonds too.

Which basically meant that obeying the court order means the restructured bonds become unrestructured and they have to make full payment to everyone all over again. Argentina does not have that kind of money (or at least they don't believe they have it). And so they defaulted all over again, meaning nobody gets any money at all. The judge, U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa, is angry at Argentina for defying his ruling and is ordering them back to the negotiating table with the hedge funds. Argentina has in no uncertain terms told Griesa where he can stick his ruling and any other words that might come out of his mouth in the future. So this is probably going to get worse before it gets better. I advise you to take writeups from the usual sources regarding this with a couple extra grains of salt over and above the usual, because remember, most American business media has feet on the ground in Wall Street, deals with New York traders every day, and in many cases the reporters' personal backgrounds have them going from Wall Street trading straight into journalism. So be really careful with anything beyond basic statements of fact.

That all having been noted... would someone please go over to Treehugger and tell Michael Graham Richard that Friday, August 1st, is literally the worst possible time to run an article with the title "Buenos Aires is doing a fantastic job of transforming itself into a more livable city!" First off, an exclamation point? Really? Second, you not only had two days after Argentina had already declared default to perhaps rethink not only that headline but also the possibility that the sparkly new bus system of theirs might be a thing they suddenly aren't going to have any money to maintain now that Argentina has defaulted, you also had the MONTHS leading up to the default to go 'now wait, this transformation isn't going to suddenly go poof or anything as the result of a default, right?' Maybe if they'd built a park or something, it'd be different. Parks are cheap. You leave stuff sit for long enough, parks more or less build themselves. Ask Detroit sometime. Buses are not parks. Buses stop when you stop spending money to pour fuel into them.

It's not totally fatal to your website's lifespan to just scrap a piece that turns out to be a supremely bad idea to run. You could have binned it and nobody would have noticed. But you didn't and now I'm here to yell at you. Think next time.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Frustration Edition

I've just completed the book Golazo!: The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup: The Complete History of How Soccer Shaped Latin America, by Andres Campomar. It came out in May, which means it came out prior to the World Cup. I bought it during, at Books and Company in Oconomowoc. As the full title indicates, Campomar explores the history of soccer in the region ranging from South America up towards Mexico, and how it interacted with life off the field. It needs to be noted, though, that South America gets the bulk of the attention; Mexico and especially Central America get rather light coverage. It also must be noted that, in the book, it's called 'football'; Campomar lives in London and didn't go through and change it to 'soccer' for the American edition.

That would be a minor issue. A much more major issue is that Campomar clearly assumes too much regarding what you already know going in. There are a lot of good stories crammed into the book. Quantity is not the concern here, though. The concern is quality. Campomar tells stories, and the flow through the narrative is fine and all, but there are critical points at which I found him to just plain whiff.

First off, I know some of these stories already, as does anyone with a decent amount of knowledge about the game. And using those known stories as a benchmark, some of his details are at the very least off and at most plain wrong. For example, take Andres Escobar, the unfortunate Colombian defenseman who scored an own goal against the United States in the 1994 World Cup, contributing heavily to Colombia's elimination, and was shot soon after outside a Medellin nightclub because of it. Every time I've heard the story, when the assassin fired, he punctuated each shot by yelling 'gol!', the Spanish word for goal. In Campomar's telling, though, the assassin yells 'autogol!', the Spanish word for 'own goal'. It's a small difference, but noticeable if you've always heard the story told one way. I'm not saying for sure he's wrong, but if you're going to go that far against conventional wisdom, it's customary to flag it as such. Say 'contrary to popular belief' or something like that.

In another instance, at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, a storyline going into the Cup revolved around host city Naples, which sits in Italy's south, lagging economically and in cultural reputation behind the north. It was also the then-club home of Diego Maradona of Argentina, who was playing for Napoli. Maradona attempted to fan the flames, urging Naples to back Argentina in the Cup instead of Italy. In the vast, vast majority of tellings I've seen- and the way Google autocompletes it if you type it in- Napoli fans responded to him with a banner reading (in Italian, of course), "Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland." Campomar, though, goes with a minority translation, "Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our country." Which I can this time tell you for sure is wrong, because here is the banner in question. The word in dispute is 'patria', at the end of the banner. Patria is Italian for homeland. The Italian word for country is paese.

Given that Campomar makes Spanish-to-English translations all over the book, this one sticks out.

However, a particularly galling incident comes when Campomar tells about the time when FIFA attempted to ban matches played above 2,500 meters altitude, a ruling that was essentially aimed at La Paz, Bolivia, aka Bolivia's capital city and the place they put most of their nice things. (High altitude means low oxygen means you tire out faster.) This was a campaign headed up by Brazil, and Brazil alone, as evidenced by the fact that when the ban was announced, nine of the ten members of COMNEBOL, South America's confederation, signed a declaration of support for Bolivia, saying that they would just ignore the ruling. The holdout? Brazil. Maradona, in fact, played an hour-long game in La Paz at age 47, saying that if he could do it at his age, so could players in their prime. He and a team of Argentinians played a team of Bolivians headed by Bolivian president Evo Morales. But in the book, Campomar barely mentions Brazil, pinning the whole brouhaha on Argentina. He mentions Morales playing a match, but not the one featuring Maradona: he picks one Morales played at Nevado Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia. (He also misses mentioning that Morales, who does in fact play soccer, scored the only goal of the game on Nevado Sajama.)

These were the stories I already knew about. What did he mess up in the stories I didn't know about?

This is the first problem. The second problem is with names. Specifically, Campomar doesn't like to use all of them. Or index them. Soccer is a vast, vast sport. There are legions of players who have made themselves noticable in some soccer story or other over the years, even if only as a footnote. It's a ridiculous ask of a hardcore fan to keep them all straight. It's downright sociopathic to ask it of a casual fan just wanting to learn some soccer history. The least you could do is give full names, first as well as last. Maybe describe who they are a bit. It was infuriating to go through this book and read story after story where Campomar would just toss out the last name of a player who was involved in some game or other and never mention their first name, who they were, or anything else about them... and then never bring them up again the entire rest of the book even in the index. If you're indexing names, these guys need to be in there too. If you're only mentioning them once, say their full name for God's sake.

One sample sentence from page 327, telling of a group-stage match in the 1974 World Cup between the Netherlands and Uruguay: "Pablo Forlan, a tall defender who played for Sao Paulo, should have been sent off for kicking Neeskens." Forlan's description is the kind of thing I'm looking for here. A basic description. That's all I ask. We have his body frame, his position, the club he was playing for. "Neeskens", though, is never mentioned again, in the book or in the index, which is why it took me way longer than it ever should have taken to look the anecdote up for reference here. "Neeskens" is Johan Neeskens, one of the greatest players the Netherlands has ever produced and Johan Cruyff's right-hand man on the Dutch squads of the 70's. Don't you think a guy like that deserves a first freaking name? There might be some people out there who don't know who Johan Neeskens is.

Let's not even get started on the fact that Brazilian players commonly go by only one name, which only serves to amplify the frustration when I couldn't stop wondering if the single name of the latest newly-mentioned Brazilian player unfamiliar to me was really a single name or if he had a first name and it was just left out.

I wanted to recommend Golazo!. I really did. But there's just way, way too much wrong here, things that could have been fixed if only Campomar had cared to do so. It would be nothing to add on a first name. It would be nothing to run Google Image Search and then Google Translate on one lousy word. It wouldn't be nothing, but it would be basic recordkeeping to track the names you're tossing out there. But as it stands in front of me, there are far better books out there to learn the history of the sport. You don't need to wrestle with this one.