Monday, September 29, 2014

Old Man River, Get Off My Lawn

I did not think I was going to actually find a professional research paper on this, but I will happily take it. If you look at a map, a lot of the political borders you see- state lines, national borders- are human-made. The straight lines, the zig-zagging from land grabs and ethnic separations. But other borders are purely geographical: the ridge of a mountain range, following a river, or the coastline (or middle) of a particular body of water.

This generally works pretty well, because nobody's expecting a mountain to move itself anytime soon. But rivers do move. Have you ever sent a little stream of water from a faucet down a flat surface, maybe a pan? You ever see streams of rain dance around on your windshield? Rivers do that, just a lot more slowly because they have all that dirt to dig through. They'll make little burrows into a patch of ground somewhere and go thataway instead of (or in addition to) the thisaway they'd been going beforehand. Older rivers will show this because they'll have a ton of little islands showing the places where the river changed direction over the years.

This happens on a timescale short enough to where, if you live on a border designated by a river, it is entirely possible that one day you will wake up one day to find yourself on the other side of the border. Because the border follows the river. As NPR illustrates, one place that has seen a particularly large amount of grief over this is the Rio Grande, separating El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The river's changed course multiple times since the Civil War, and at one point in the 1960's caused a forced relocation of the residents of a region called the Chamizal, which was occupied by El Paso residents but which the river said was now part of Ciudad Juarez.

The river has since been encased in concrete. Not that everybody thinks that'll be a permanent solution.

Internally within the United States, this comes up once in a while, but the stakes aren't quite that high. The borders between Texas and Oklahoma, and between Georgia and Tennessee, have had this come up in recent years, but when it's between states, it can often be more about the pride of having the land than any kind of thing they plan to do with it.

And as John W. Donaldson of Durham University in the UK notes (there's that paper I mentioned!), there are rivers in other countries too, and their moving is often going to make for a national border dispute. Some settle the dispute by arranging to lock in one particular line as the boundary and no longer caring what the river thinks of it. But as this might reduce one nation's access to water, that's not always the solution sought. It depends on what's more valued, the land or the water. It can end in some agreement or other, it can end in arbitration by the International Court of Justice, or it can just simply not end at all and spur bouts of occasional violence between the locals.

Not that the river cares.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ferguson. Again. (sigh)

Here is what we know:

*An officer has been shot somewhere in the general vicinity of Ferguson, MO. The officer was shot in the arm and is expected to recover.
*Residents of Ferguson and the area police departments are at each other's throats again in response to said shooting.

Here is what we don't know, given the Twitter feed I've been following:

*Whether that officer was actually in Ferguson or not. Some accounts are placing the shooting in nearby Dellwood.
*Whether the officer is male or female.
*Whether the shooting had anything to do with the whole Michael Brown affair; some accounts place it as part of an unrelated burglary attempt.
*Whether the suspect is alive or dead. The Ferguson PD says the suspect- a black male, of course- is alive and still at large as of this writing. The protestors on scene are after all that has led up to now disinclined to believe a single word out of the Ferguson PD's mouth and are proceeding as if the suspect is dead.
*Whether or not additional shots have been fired.

The situation is ongoing as we speak. Lot of misinformation and disinformation flying around.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Islamic Art Update: North America Now Has Some

Back in July, I made a note of my then-recent visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and more specifically, the overwhelming tendency towards American and Western European art, largely and sometimes completely to the exclusion of wide swaths of the rest of the planet. Oceania and the Middle East, at least the day I was there, were utterly absent any representation. I figure most category-unspecific art museums are similar: concentrate on domestic art and the 'classical' artists out of Europe, bonus points if it's someone people know, and kind of just... forget about the rest of the world. All the world creates art, but only certain parts of the world see their art fawned over in great numbers.

I bring this up because Toronto is doing something about that. The Aga Khan Museum opened on September 18, North America's first museum dedicated specifically to Islamic art. (I wouldn't click on the links in that Al Jazeera article. For some reason they made them all links usable only by employees of Al Jazeera.) There is, of course, an Islamic community in Toronto or else it wouldn't have been placed there, but there is, as you might expect, a large selection from the Arab world proper, and that is the focus. The collection shown on the official website displays works from Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Morocco, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Syria and Yemen (none of them contemporary).

Seriously. There wasn't a single Islamic-specific art museum on the entire continent until now.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Just In Case You Forgot

There was another police/protestor clash in Ferguson today- Thursday, rather, since it's after midnight and technically Friday now. There was also one on Tuesday.

So that isn't over. It's just happening without swarms of media around now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Things Learned On The Playground

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez crashed off Prince William Sound in Alaska. The environmental effects of that crash still linger today; most of the wildlife populations monitored for damage in the aftermath have yet to recover and some look like they never will. Much of the oil is still there continuing to pollute the sound.

And also to this day, Exxon is still in court disputing their legal financial liability, even after the US Supreme Court weighed in in 2008.

It appears that the prospect of an oil company fighting to avoid having to pay out money for damage caused by an oil spill is not unique to Exxon, because BP is putting itself in the same category with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. In 2012, BP did agree to pay out damages to people affected by the spill, but it didn't cover fines from the Clean Water Act that at the time the New York Times article we're linking to was written were pegged at around $21 billion, which BP opted to keep fighting. Total exposure at one point was estimated at about $40 billion, but as the settlement damages were uncapped, that wasn't a hard and fast number.

That total liability appears now to be nearing $50 billion and climbing, and not only is BP still fighting those, in order to get their overall payouts down, they attempted to reclaim some of the money already paid out in the settlement between August 2012 and October 2013, after judge Carl Barbier found the formula to calculate payments was incorrect and altered it accordingly in June. The problem for BP is that when the claimants agreed to drop their suits, they themselves agreed that no future court action could alter those payouts. BP could dispute future payments, but money already paid out is paid out. And that is what's now coming back to bite them, as Barbier is back at the gavel to say, in essence, no backsies.

If ExxonMobill's example is any indication, though, BP will be attempting to get those backsies one way or another for decades to come. And when they finally let the matter drop, the oil will still be sitting on the Golf Coast.

Mario Was A Leisure Jogger

Staying on the whole premise of Desert Bus- you play a video game in marathon form for charity- let's go back to one of the early legends of the game industry, Super Mario Bros. 1. You know, 8 worlds, 4 stages, 7 times you're told the princess is in another castle. It's long been established as a classically frustrating 'how many more castles do I have to bust into' gaming gag.

But how much running around is Mario actually doing? That's the question Nick Greene of Mental Floss was asked by a reader, and so he set out to determine exactly how far Mario travels in the game. As it turns out, it isn't very far at all. Scaling Mario to the environment and an average human build in his basic, pre-mushroom phase (which, well, okay, if you say so), and taking into account his stance, Nick measured out the total area of the maps Mario traverses and determined that he travels 17,835 feet from 1-1 giddy-up to 8-4 woah, which translates to only 3.4 miles, or 5.4 kilometers. If you toss in bonus areas, up it to 3.7 miles.

As he alludes to, this is a good way to think about that 5K color run you've been planning.

Or Desert Bus, which features a route of 360 miles, which Mario could complete by saving the princess 105.88 times. (That 106th princess might be a tad disappointed.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Things You Can't Import Into Countries

I'm going to credit a stray Twitter rant from Tally Heilke (@tallystreasury; I linked to her site once here and here it is again) for what's about to happen here. See, around this point of the year, Tally gets wrapped up in preparation for the annual run of Desert Bus For Hope, the 8th annual edition of which commences November 14th at noon Central (10 AM Pacific, given that it is conducted in Victoria, British Columbia). She is the prizes and sponsorship coordinator, handling the myriad objects that come in to be auctioned off and used for giveaways (think raffles) during Desert Bus, many of which she has solicited herself through a "Craft-Along", in which people apply (to her) for the right to make crafts projects to be used to raise money. And it also requires juggling all the various sponsors of the event, many of which generate their own items to be given out.

This all requires a workload ranging from crippling to apocalyptic. You will note that in the list of the 16 main Desert Bus crew members, Tally is one of only five given an e-mail address to handle, and the only one to be handling two of them. (Most of those people will be actually driving the eponymous bus during the telethon, taking a 12-hour shift apiece. For the last two runs, Tally has been one of them.)

A fair-sized chunk of this work requires heavy use of the Canadian mail system, Canada Post. This, I wager, is how she found herself shuffling through Canada Post's directory of instructions for shipping to international locations. Specifically, she found herself fascinated by the kinds of items various places prohibit the import of through the mail. (The American equivalent directory is here.)

Soon I did too. Damn it, Tally.

As she noted, "There must be sensible and/or historical reasons behind most of these, but without context some are very strange." She noted ice as an example, which among other places is banned from being imported into Afghanistan, Albania, Antigua and Barbuda, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Croatia, Ethiopia, Fiji, Liberia, Moldova, Mongolia, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Russia, Serbia, Seychelles, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I never found the reason myself (it'll drive me nuts not knowing), nor did I manage to find most of the others. Context-free is how they'll have to remain. But that having been said, and noting that there are absolutely things I've missed along the way (and also noting that we are not looking at restricted items but only ones that are banned outright):

*Canada bans margarine or butter substitutes. They also ban beekeeping apparatuses- a lot of countries are concerned enough about bees and bee paraphernalia to ban its import; considering the threat of killer bees and invasive species, nothing really unusual there- but Canada Post specifies that it's used beekeeping tools that are banned.
*Being American, I might not note anything unusual in the American list, but Tally, being Canadian, latched onto "knife, gaff, or any other sharp instrument attached, designed, or intended to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture" and "written, printed or graphic matter advertising or promoting animals for use in animal fighting ventures in any way." She knows why- boo to dogfighting and cockfighting and whatnot- but it struck her as odd that we'd go so far out of our way to specify that.
*France, in the same way, got my attention for banning the mailing in of "dura mater (the tough fibrous membrane covering the brain and the spinal cord and lining the inner surface of the skull)".
*Serbia bans "diplomatic mail". Which is a thing that carries legal protections from being tampered with, diplomatic immunity in fact, even if sometimes that protection gets abused by someone using it to smuggle drugs (and oh yes that happens). You open that stuff and whatever country owned it will be instantly pissed off, such as here, when the United Kingdom was angered at one of their pieces of mail being opened by Spanish police at the border with Gibraltar. And it's right here in Canada Post writing that you can't mail it to Serbia.
*Austria, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain ban "Rubber erasers that are similar in appearance to food products that are easily ingested".
*Belgium bans you from mailing in chain letters. People still do those outside of Facebook?
*Many countries, most in fact, make some sort of restriction on mailing in currency, or checks, or other kinds of financial instruments such as credit cards or even lottery tickets. Mongolia, meanwhile, just goes ahead and bans "pulp of wood". Which basically means anything made of paper.
*Russia bans the import of birth, death or wedding certificates. (Among soooooooo many other things. For instance, you may not send information about subsoils to someone for personal use.)
*Kenya bans the import of maps. Peru scales it back to "cartographic or geographic items misrepresenting Peru and its borders" (which makes slightly more sense as countries do tend to get rather uptight about what land they consider to be theirs and bristle when someone else begs to differ).
*Peru also bans "drinks manufactured under the brand name "Pisco".
*Brazil bans mailing in writing material. So you can write the letter, but don't you dare include the pen.
*Namibia bans the import of sports equipment.
*Mexico bans the mailing in of massage appliances. ...yes. That's what they're used for. Massages. Sure.
*Please do not mail piranhas to Brunei.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Horrifying Canadian Driving

My original plan was to use the website of the Canadian postal system, Canada Post, to help construct today's post. In fact, it's rather essential that I have it.

Unfortunately, it will be down for maintenance all night. So instead, you get the host of the series Canada's Worst Driver, Andrew Younghusband. Canada's Worst Driver, for you non-Canadians, is basically the most high-profile traffic safety video there is. You get a group of terrible drivers, nominated by friends and family who have to deal with their driving, and they surrender their licenses temporarily to undergo 'rehabilitation'- aka, the show. The goal is to improve your driving enough, via the challenges the show provides, to get your license back and 'graduate' out of the game. You want off the show as quickly as possible. One person graduates every episode (save the first episode), or at least they're supposed to; episodes will come up where nobody graduates. Eventually, one person is left to be saddled with the title of Canada's Worst Driver, much to their chagrin.

And yes, there is a traffic cop on call, and yes, he has contacted the local police of drivers who commit or admit to outright illegal activity. Television tends to prove a rather powerful shaming factor for many of the drivers, who (usually) treat their presence with the utmost seriousness, however much the show pokes fun.

And fun is poked. A sample episode, Season 9, episode 5, is part of the all-star season (oh, yes, they managed one), you will note the starring role of Kevin Simmons, "winner" of Season 8 (and who would eventually claim the title of Worst Driver Ever). Part 1 is here, Part 2, and Part 3. You will also note the exasperation of the host and judges that shows that they are also taking this seriously at the end of the day.

So in between that, Younghusband hosts a spinoff called Don't Drive Here!, in which he attempts to gain a local license in some of the world's worst driving cities. In the same episode I provide you, he's in Lima, Peru. (It's kind of hard to find full episodes in English.) So have fun with that while I wait for Canada Post to get out of maintenance.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scotland Stays United (Barely)

Multiple sources- BBC, Guardian, Sky News- are calling the Scottish independence referendum for the pro-union side. The independence movement has formally conceded defeat. And the appropriate congratulations to those who came out on top. But this may not be it. The numbers are close enough- you can see them here; they're still coming in as I type this- that the matter may not be settled for good. The independence movement has managed to get close enough to 50%+1 that failure by the rest of the United Kingdom to cater more to their needs may very well result in them having another go at it before too long.

And one of the key issues of the campaign concerns just that. There's a proposal on the table in Parliament to only permit English members of Parliament to vote on matters that solely concern England- an arrangement that doesn't exist for the non-England parts of the UK, making those parts, Scotland in particular, rather unhappy. If you're in the UK right now, someone is probably talking about it on the news as we speak, under the tagline 'English votes for English laws'. If that goes ahead, we may be back here soon.

So, stay tuned to that story.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vote, Scotland

I usually only do this for election days relevant to Wisconsin, but I'm going to make an exception. Scotland, I know you're well aware of the stakes in your independence referendum today. I know that you're aware that this is literally the most important thing you will ever vote on in your entire life. I am also going to decline to take a side in your vote. It's your home, it's your call.

But I do notice that the turnout in Scotland has gotten down to US levels since the millennium. That's not good. So let me just give you whatever little nudge I can give to you to get to the polls. I know the vote's gotten uncomfortably close for all involved and the polls may be a bit off. It may not come down to a single vote, that old chestnut of democracy, but it's not going to be a blowout. Your side needs you at the polls today. Get the hell out there and take your future in your own hands. This is a one-shot deal. Now or never. You don't get to reverse the decision in a couple years.

Get out of the house and move. Your. Asses.

Well, The Consequences Aren't Zero

Through all of its myriad scandals and general uncomfortableness, it's been taken for granted that, at least in the short term, the NFL is an unassailable juggernaut. It's not going anywhere, any damage done to it will be maybe a decade down the road or something. Take your pick. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald, Greg Hardy, the Redskins name, the rumors that the league went around calling teams and asking them to consider signing Michael Sam to avoid the optics of him not having a job (denied by Jerry Jones), add them to the ongoing matters concerning 18-game seasons and continuous courting of London and concussions and former players shooting themselves in the chest so their brains can be studied for signs of deterioration (see also: Junior Seau), and even residual feelings from recent matters such as Bountygate and the suicide of Jovan Belcher. I may have missed something. I probably did.

(scans Google News) Oh, hey, Reggie Bush too. Why not?

In the end, the theory going is that the NFL simply has too powerful a grip on our collective consciousness. Too many people feel they not only want to watch, but have to watch, and as long as people care enough to watch, that's what the NFL wants. Eyeballs and money. And we are going to give it to them, disgusted as we are. The ratings are bearing it out. Maybe in a decade we'll stop. Maybe.

The NFL's sponsors, though, seem to be drawing the line right here, right now. The first appears to have been Radisson, sponsor of the Minnesota Vikings... well, at least they were until yesterday, when they pulled their sponsorship regarding the Adrian Peterson scandal. Although others have not followed them out completely, others are signaling their respective warning shots or scaling back in relevant ways. And they're not small sponsors either: Anheuser-Busch, Wheaties, Nike. Sponsors that always put themselves on any big-ticket sport they possibly can and sign big contracts to get their name associated with sports. These are not sponsors a major sports league wants to anger in any way, shape or form.

If anything results in the eventual ouster of Roger Goodell as NFL commissioner, as much as you'd like to think it's due to the moral degrade of everything associated with the NFL, it will in fact probably be a sponsor exodus. Time will tell if that in fact happens, but I don't think it'll be too long before we know if it does.

Monday, September 15, 2014

More Geography Quizzes, More I Say

As we have long since established, I am a sucker for map-based quiz shenanigans, and Google has come at me with the latest personal timesuck, Smarty Pins. Which has been around for a couple months now but it's new to me dammit.

The game works like this: you'll be asked a question that asks you to point out somewhere on a map. It's not going to be the straight 'point to Paris' stuff either; you'll be asked questions in which you first have to figure out that the answer is Paris, and then mark it off. You have 1,000 miles to play with, and you're minorly assisted by the fact that Google will zoom into the general region of the correct answer to start you off. For each question, you lose the amount of miles you're off. If you get close (or nail it completely), and answer within 15 seconds, you will get a couple miles back; however many of those 15 seconds are left get added to your bank. The goal is to survive as many questions as you can before your miles run out. After those 15 seconds, you'll get a hint.

Now, these questions generally aren't all that difficult, but they're enough to get you to bleed miles. I've played twice and both times got to 19 questions. Not the toughest quiz in the world, but then, I like them with some kick to them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Puppy Power Outage

In the event that the NFL is still even a thing you're comfortable following by February, you'll probably be well aware that the de facto main competition to the Super Bowl every year has, because our gods are strange, become the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. The Puppy Bowl, of course, features various adorable critters frolicking in a play area designed to look like a football field. They're all technically up for adoption, but they're all long gone and in homes by airdate.

But that is roundabout where that kind of thing remains, actually, as a one-off program. Puppies and kitties running around being cute is typically the realm of the Internet. You don't really see much in the way of television being made of it past short little clips. But that doesn't mean someone hasn't tried. Meet the Puppy Channel.

During the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, retired ad executive Dan FitzSimmons went channel surfing around what was then a much smaller cable lineup than today when the trial would get too boring. It was a long trial; that would happen now and again. All he found, though, were soap operas (which the O.J. trial had yet to all but kill but was about to), game shows (which were in the last days of having a network home, to my eternal dismay because yay for game shows), talk shows and reruns (which are talk shows and reruns). He didn't like any of these options, and the moment stayed with him. As he would explain through his daughter Molly on NPR's This American Life in 2010- or rather as , he found himself hoping for "a parking place on television. If you don't want to watch something that is there, you could have the TV set on, and it'd be playing something that didn't bother you, and would hold the place until your favorite show or what you chose to watch."

You might say 'well, just turn it off then'. That really doesn't work. I run into the same problem a lot, often when I'm writing these, right now in fact. Turning the TV off just irritates. The image of the blank, black screen is in and of itself distracting and annoying to me. Even if the TV is on mute, I just for whatever reason need something going in the peripheral vision, and I'd like it to be something I can unmute and get to watching when I'm done or taking a break. So an inoffensive channel has its uses. For this to happen, Dan decided to start his own cable network. With blackjack, and hookers... well, no, with puppies. Just puppies. He had seen a group of puppies up for adoption and noticed the crowd that had gathered around them, and decided that's what he'd go with.

That was literally it as far as programming. 24 hours of puppy footage. No shows, at least in the way that we think of shows with timeslots. No commercials. No human voices (aside from Dan's, occasionally singing about puppies for station ID purposes). Just endless footage of puppy frolicking with instrumental music in the background. That was to be the entire channel. Take one of those 10-hour YouTube videos, fill it with the aforementioned, set it on loop, and that was what Dan wanted.

Though there was a 1-hour pilot video. You can buy it for $20 on the network's spiritual successor,

So how in the world was this supposed to make money without commercials? Dan's idea was a combination of fees collected from the cable operators and product placement- clips in which the puppies would play with sponsor products. And the focus groups hired gave encouraging word; 41% of test viewers preferred it to CNBC, for instance. So in 1997, the Puppy Channel launched, with Dan knowing the standards for success in the cable world were comparatively tiny.

He didn't make it to 'tiny'. He only got a couple providers interested in carrying it. Everyone else, the larger providers, never got on board. A channel of just puppies? No human voices? Why in Creation are we making room on our satellite to carry that? And while the focus groups said they'd watch it, the cable providers were the ones that had the decision on whether to make it available to watch at all. Today, in 2014, maybe he could get away with it, but in the late 1990's, cable wasn't big enough yet. There were still only so many channels you could put out there, and Dan's wasn't one of them. So after four years, the Puppy Channel went off the air in 2001, a victim of the dotcom crash.

But as I said, it lives on in dotcom form. And the pilot is still there, waiting for a cable provider... that has a lot more potentially inoffensive options to offer viewers these days. At least there's the Internet.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014

How To Rob A Home

1. Do not rob a home.
2. If you must rob a home, remember that time is of the essence. One must get in and out of the house quickly, because there's little knowing when someone might return to the house. In the Discovery Channel series It Takes A Thief, which ran for two seasons from 2005-07, cohost and designated burglar Jon Douglas Rainey was usually able to break in, ransack that episode's target building (typically someone's house), and get out inside of 15 minutes.
3. Therefore, do not dally inside the house.
4. Get out of the house.
5. Do not lay down on the homeowner's bed.
6. Do not fall asleep on the aforementioned bed.
7. Do not lay the goods you were in the middle of stealing next to you as you go to bed.
8. Wake the fuck up, stupid; the cleaning lady just showed up.
9. Do not sleep through the cleaning lady calling the cops.
10. Do not also sleep through the cops arriving at the house.
11. Do not also sleep through the cops taking photos of you, still snoozing next to the goods.
12. Well, at that point it really doesn't matter what you do, does it? I mean, the cops are right there ready to arrest you the second you finally roll your butt out of bed, assuming they even wait for that to happen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

This Seems Like A Stupidly Low Prize

The Palo Alto Longevity Prize is one of your X-Prize-style competitions, and I'm always a big fan of these. Take a big scientific question, stick a cash prize next to the solution and tell anyone who's interested and thinks they're good enough to go chase it. And the questions don't get all that much bigger than this: ending the aging process. It just launched today, calling for registration to enter the competition.

There are actually two prizes on offer, each offering half the prize money. According to the official website, the first prize will go to "the first team to demonstrate that it can restore homeostatic capacity (using heart rate variability as the surrogate measure) of an aging reference mammal to that of a young adult." AKA, restoring the youth of a mammal. The second prize will go to "the first team that can extend the lifespan of its reference mammal by 50% of acceptable published norms. Demonstration must use an approach that restores homeostatic capacity to increase lifespan." The global average for humans in 2010 was 70 years in 2012, according to the WHO, so if you're picking humans as your 'reference mammal', to win the money you'd have to run that average up by 35 more years, creating a 105-year global life expectancy. That's for everybody from Japan to Afghanistan.

The goal is fine, if you opt to ignore the overpopulation concerns. The prize money on offer, though: $1 million. Total.

For reference, 39 days on an island voting off a peer group also wins you $1 million, as does sitting in a chair and correctly answering 15 trivia questions, or any number of other game show and reality show feats past, present and future. In fact, as far as X-Prize-style competitions go, $1 million is barely enough to ante up to the bar. To stay with the game show analogy, this is kind of like offering $10,000 as the top prize. Enough to not feel completely chintzy, but there are all sorts of shows able to do better than that.

To illustrate what I'm talking about here, look at the bona fide X-Prize competitions and the money they're putting up. $10 million cash pools that litter the site. $10 million for private space travel. $10 million to build a tricorder. $10 million for 100 mpg cars. A $10 million prize for cracking 100 human genomes for under $10,000 per genome was cancelled when the organizers found that companies were routinely cracking them in a few days for under half that amount and the prize wasn't actually serving as much of an incentive. Lower down the scale, it's $2.25 million for digital healthcare. $2 million for work on ocean acidification. $1.4 million for cleaning up oil spills. The top prize on the site is $20 million, which is being put up for a robot that can go to the moon, move 500 meters once there, and send back HDTV broadcasts.

$1 million no longer looks like that big a prize, and it's being put towards the biggest question of the lot. But money never really was fair like that.

Monday, September 8, 2014

And Afterwards, The Kid Can Get A Bath

I think it's try-this-at-home science experiment day. Today, we'll look at an experiment that shows off the principle of convection, in which heat transfers through the mass motion of something fluid, which of course means water but can also mean air. It's how hurricanes get to forming, among a lot of other things.

It's very simple; all you need is some warm water dyed one color and cold water (or ice cubes) dyed another color. I've seen some videos also use a tub filled with lukewarm water to initially separate the two, but the video I'm going with doesn't do that. So you really can't get much safer to try at home than this; the only real risk is spilling the tub and you can just go outside to do it if you're scared of that.

The Worms Are Coming From Inside The House

Tonight I supply you with a very particular collection of maps, each sharing one trait: they all display a collection of cyberattacks happening at that moment. I might have opted to compare, contrast, pick the 'best' one and point you specifically there, but what appears to happen with these things is that each map takes a different subset of the attacks going on at any given moment. Some of them come from security companies trying to drum up business (because OMG the attacks are everywhere you need to be safe BUY OUR STUFF NOW), and they only show what they personally are picking up. Usually, it's the map's home base getting the bulk of the attacks. What I suggest, if this is a thing you want to look at, is to take all the maps as pieces of a larger puzzle.

*Kaspersky has this map, showing Russia as the most infected country, but then, Kaspersky is based in Russia.
*Norse, meanwhile, shows the United States as by a million miles the most infected, with St. Louis and San Francisco in particular getting a pounding, but then, Norse is based in San Mateo, California.
*Google, also based in California, also shows the US as the biggest target.
*Akamai, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, again has the US as the big target and California in particular.
*Ditto for FireEye of Milpitas, California, but on their map South Korea takes almost as big a hit as the US does.
*Here's a map from the IT Security Research Group. The fact that the group's website URL ends in .de, hinting to their origins in Aachen, Germany, should tell you how much Germany gets tagged in their map.
*While on the map F-Secure, home base Finland may not be the most targeted, they do get an outsized share of the attention, and Europe in general takes the bulk of the damage. Depending on when you drop by, Finland may in fact be getting the most attacks.

Deutsche Telekom bucks the trend with their daily summary, being based in Germany but showing Germany only in roundabout 3rd-5th on a daily basis. They usually have Russia leading the attack list.

Other maps available that are a little more ambiguous in giving up that kind of information:
*Trend Micro (headquarters in Japan)
*Arbor Networks (headquarters in Burlington, Massachusetts)
*Team Cymru (based in Orlando, Florida)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Were You Using Twitpic?

Not anymore you're not. Founded in 2008, Twitpic is a service that allows you to share photos on Twitter- a service Twitter takes care of pretty well on its own, but hey, there you go. It was plugging along just fine, until now, as Twitter has notified the Twitpic people that they want Twitpic to abandon their trademark, acquired in 2009, or risk legal action. While Twitpic disputes the merit of that, as they lack the financial resources to have that fight, they'll be shutting down entirely on the 25th. As a small measure of consolation, they'll be making an export feature so that people can get their stuff off the service while it's still live.

So, fair warning. You've got three weeks.

Friday, September 5, 2014


I do not mean to unduly excite you, and please remember all the caveats about an original study and all that jazz. So stay very very calm when I tell you that scientists appear to have created telepathy in a lab holy crap.

The source study is here, if you're up for the reading, but what's happened in essence is a guy in India got hooked up to some electrodes and he thought of two words- 'hola' and 'ciao', expressed as their binary-code equivalents in zeroes and ones. Three subjects in France had the output from that hookup implanted into their brains via transcranial magnetic stimulation were then tasked with replicating those binary sequences, which, of course, they did successfully with no further stimulation or else I wouldn't be bringing it up.

You'll note that 'hola' and 'ciao' are neither Hindi or French.

The writeup in Gizmag, done by Ben Coxworth, recalls a study done last year at the University of Washington- also reported by Coxworth- in which a man was able to mentally move another person's hand through a Skype connection (and a bunch of electrodes). So this isn't the first study related to this kind of thing, and while we need to study this more, holy jebus the excitement.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

This Was Not Unexpected

The Department of Justice is going to be opening a full-scale civil rights investigation into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department over the past several years. Other police departments in St. Louis County are also being considered for similar investigations.

Given the events leading up to that announcement, I'm not really sure what more I need to add to that. By now you should know precisely what the next several paragraphs in a story like this would contain, particularly from me, so I'm just going to save you the trouble.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Brain Loch

There are, in North American sports, a number of contenders for the biggest collapse of all time. Greg Norman at the 1986 Masters, the 2011 Red Sox (or Braves), the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, the Houston Oilers in the 1993 Wild Card round, the Detroit Red Wings in the 1942 Stanley Cup finals, Lindsay Jacobellis in the 2006 Winter Olympics. There are options.

In British sports, though, while you'll find some people arguing for Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open, there's really only one choice: Devon Loch.

What the Kentucky Derby is to the United States, the Grand National is to the United Kingdom. If you don't watch horse racing the entire rest of the year, you at least tune in for the Grand National. And every year, you're going to see an oftentimes unsettling show. The Grand National, if you've never heard of it, is a steeplechase, with horses jumping a series of 30 obstacles along the way. The obstacles are not, well, the only obstacle, as horses regularly miss these jumps, or refuse to attempt them, and often shed their jockeys trying. This leads to 'loose horses' running the remainder of the course themselves, getting in the way of horses still in the race (a horse must cross the finish line with its jockey). And, of course, a horse might just go down and stay down, giving the others something extra to avoid. The Aintree course near Liverpool, where the race is held, commonly sees horse fatalities due to the course's difficulty, and the Grand National itself has seen 11 horses die since 2000, which despite occasional efforts to make the course safer is about the normal rate.

A fairly typical race, the 1997 edition (which saw two fatalities), can be seen here. (More recent races have embedding disabled, but here's this year's.

So, that established, on to Devon Loch. Owned by Queen Elizabeth I, Devon Loch raced in the 1956 Grand National. Those of you in the UK know this clip well. But I'm not writing this from the UK. (Note: that clip has a bit of a time disparity between action and narration.)

Armorial III led most of the race until going down at the 26th jump, allowing Devon Loch to take the lead. Devon Loch held off E.S.B. and Gental Moya until about 40 yards from the line, and then...

For whatever reason, Devon Loch belly-flopped onto the dirt, allowing E.S.B. to take the win. The horse was fine, but failed to finish. The going theories are that Devon Loch either got confused by a shadow being thrown by an adjacent jump (that's only contended with on Lap 1) or by the roar of the crowd that was anticipating a win by the Queen's horse. (The Queen's opinion: "Oh, that's racing.") Either way, even for a horse that's pretty dumb.

Of course, the horse has the excuse of being a horse. When a human does it...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Annnnnd They're Off

If you've ever been to Death Valley, you might have stopped by a place called Racetrack Playa. It's a dried-up lake famous for the rocks that have, for some mysterious reason, been moving around the lake bed, leaving trails in their wake. Some move further than others, some move in different directions than others, some change direction, but they move.

I bring this up because we now have an explanation as to why. The first thing to note is that just because Death Valley is notoriously hot doesn't mean it's always hot there all the time. Deserts, in fact, have wildly shifting temperatures. A key function of water is that it moderates temperatures; it takes longer than air to heat up and longer than air to cool back down. The abundance of it makes life possible not just because you can drink it, but also that it spreads out heat evenly enough that temperatures don't get too extreme.

Which means Death Valley, a desert, can get cold as well. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have any water. It does rain once in a while, and a thin layer of water does show up on the playa from time to time as a result. When the area gets cold enough at night, it changes into a very thin layer of ice... that the rocks are laying on top of. In the morning, the temperature heats up, the ice cracks, and when the wind picks up (it doesn't take much), the ice hydroplanes and pushes against the rocks, driving them down the playa and leaving tracks in the mud.

And nobody is visiting under those conditions.

Credit cousins Richard and Jim Norris, who've been on the case since 2011 and managed to finally crack the code last winter, on December 20, when for the first time they happened to be around to see it in person. Or, well, blame them maybe, if you're one of those people that really kind of hoped the mystery never got solved because it was more fun that way.

Maybe Skip Bali This Year

Bali is an Indonesian tourist hotspot. Trips there might pop up once in a while as a game show prize (or quite often if you happen to be reading this in Australia). Which is fine and all. But here's the thing about tourists: they leave trash laying around. In better-heeled countries this can be handled, the United States, France, Japan and such, but Indonesia isn't nearly as rich. The World Bank, for means of comparison, shows the United States with a per-capita GDP of $53,143 in 2013. France is $41,421. Sweden is $58,164. Surrounding them in the rankings are the other usual Western suspects.

Indonesia? $3,475. There's a lot of infrastructural issues and a lot of impoverished folks. Trash gets put on the backburner... and it builds up. And the conflict between revenue-generating tourism and land-depleting trash has kicked up friction. I toss you to this report from David O'Shea of Australia's SBS Dateline.