Friday, October 31, 2014

Today's Thing You Wouldn't Think Would Have To Come Out Of Your Mouth

'Hey, NASA? I know you're all excited about studying asteroids and stuff, but maybe trying to snag one out of midair and hauling it home may not be the best idea you've ever had.'

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fred At TED

Tis time for a TED talk, I believe. On this occasion, with Africa struggling with ebola, and places outside Africa seemingly using it as racism fuel, perhaps we ought to focus there.

You'll be hearing from Fred Swaniker, from Ghana, who spoke in Rio earlier this month. Swaniker is the founder and head of the African Leadership Academy.And as such, his talk concerns just that: how leadership in Africa can go wrong, and how it can go right.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Too Much Man On The Field

So you may notice I've been absent the past couple days. There is a reason for that: I had to swap computers. Over the weekend, my old computer crashed. Just straight crashed. Blue screen, please back up your files before you have to give the hard drive a total factory reset, that whole deal. And as it was getting old as it was, I opted to go out and just get a new one and transfer the files there.

Which I messed up because it meant having to wrestle with Windows 8 and the multicolored boxes for the first time, and it wasn't totally clear as to how to complete the file transfer. In the end I just had to hand it over to a local tech-support guy who actually knew what he was doing, and that took a couple days. But I'm back now, set up on the new one, and away we go again.

Well, I'm set up except for needing to re-buy Microsoft Office because it didn't come with the new computer, and putting all my bookmarks back because those didn't transfer. But anyway.

Today I bring up that old-but-seldom-mentioned proposal to fix many of the world's problems, namely, population control. In its more benign forms, this takes the form of suggesting mothers have fewer children or maybe even forgo having children; in its more sinister forms, it involves killing people until there isn't a problem anymore (never mind the other problems that would pop up). It's controversial at best, ghoulish at worst... but the thing that largely wasn't up for debate was that... well, yeah, you'd grudgingly have to agree that this would in fact bring down the demand on resources.

About that.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences (the original is behind a $10 paywall) is of the mind that even if you did that, it wouldn't much matter. As the summary of the study states, even if, in the middle of the century, you had 2 billion deaths within a five-year window- 2 billion, a number probably beyond anyone's ability to even comprehend- you'd still have 8.5 billion people on the planet come the year 2100. They extrapolated the two World Wars onto our current global population and it barely did a thing.

The population's about 7.125 billion now, for reference. A global one-child policy would put us anywhere between 5-10 billion (and we were fretting about this back at 5 billion, which we hit in 1987).

We hit 3 billion in 1959. You know 1959, right? That's the year Alaska and Hawaii entered the Union, Fidel Castro took over Cuba, Barbie and the Twilight Zone debuted, the Dalai Lama got asylum in India. Keith Olbermann was born in 1959, John McEnroe, Kevin Spacey, Simon Cowell, Weird Al Yankovic, Rahm Emanuel. If you're into gaming, that's when Nobuo Uematsu and Peter Molyneux were born too. All of those folks were born in a time when there were less than half the people on this planet that there are now. And there isn't really a short-term way to solve that anymore that doesn't involve something that would cause... well over 2 billion deaths, really. The point is that given the rate we reproduce at, we're going to find ourselves back at this point sooner or later unless we figure out something more sustainable and hopefully less omnicidal.

What is the suggestion? Short-term, there isn't one "short of extreme and rapid reductions in female fertility". We won't see anything come of anything we do in our lifetime, so just deal with it. The solution presented is much better family planning. Like, a whole hell of a lot better than we're doing. More birth control (by any and all means), more opting out of having children (maybe look more into adopting or just going without), whatever provides the end result of fewer babies. If we don't, well, the Earth isn't getting any richer in resources and someone's going to get squeezed out of partaking.

Is it a fun thing to say? Or think about? Oh heck no. Is it something people are going to consent to if they don't want to? Absolutely not, but that's the issue here. Earth doesn't care. Earth will give people whatever resources can be gathered, and no more, and if there are so many people using so many resources that the supply runs dry, well, Earth doesn't care. Nature is beautiful, but nature can also exact inhumanly brutal consequences for failing to properly mind it. There are families on this planet where one mouth too many can very easily condemn everyone to a slowly starving existence.

It's no fun to consider, but at least in certain parts of the world, what's fun isn't really the operative consideration. You do what the planet says you can do, or you pay whatever price it decides to exact from you.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Krog Street Tunnel

Every major city has its own tiny little nubbins of local flavor, the kind of things the locals love and the non-locals have very possibly, even probably, never heard of. Madison has things like Owen Conservation Park or Lake Wingra, Milwaukee has the Milwaukee Public Market or the Gertie the Duck statue. In Atlanta, one of those things is the Krog Street Tunnel, linking the neighborhoods of Cabbagetown and Inman Park on Atlanta's east side. The tunnel is completely, continually, constantly painted and repainted with the work of local graffiti artists. There's a tumblr based on this, The Daily Krog. Because that's how often the painting is happening.

But as I type this, there isn't much art there at all. Not because the city cracked down or anything. The artists did it themselves. You see, there's a masquerade ball, the Krog Masquerade. It was scheduled for Saturday, in the tunnel. They had to get a permit first, though, and the artists- and locals aligned with them- argued that the art they put up is supposed to be publicly enjoyed, as opposed to being a backdrop for a private event that makes money for someone else and doesn't give them a cut for their work. (And closes off the bike routes allowing access to the tunnel in the meantime.)

So on Wednesday, after it became clear the masquerade ball would get its permit anyway despite all the complaints, dozens of artists and activists showed up at the tunnel and painted the entire thing grey. The organizers seem unconcerned- they argue that as a portion of the proceeds are going to the Georgia Lawyers for the Arts, their conscience is clear (never mind that the Georgia Lawyers for the Arts are not the actual artists, which is kind of the point of the protest), and that they can just pay some other artists to repaint the tunnel by Saturday night. And indeed, some people are already repainting, though right now it doesn't look much different from any other graffiti-laden surface because there's so much surface to cover.

In the case of art, ultimately, the artist is king. Unless they have been paid for the work and relinquish their rights to that work in the process, it is, at the end of the day, their work, to release into the world- and yes, take out of the world as well- as they see fit. Whatever ground rules the artists set for themselves, so long as they're legal, are the ones that ought to be respected. The understood agreement among Krog Street Tunnel artists is that you can come and paint whatever you want, it is intended to be publicly and freely available at all times, and that at any time someone else can and will come and paint over what you did with art of their own.

Sure. It is technically city property, and the city can do with it what they will. But if the organizers had really understood what the point was behind their intended backdrop, they'd maybe have picked a different backdrop, maybe near the tunnel but not actually in it. But this is what they did, and what is likely to be a shadow of the tunnel's true nature is what they get.

Or maybe they do get the true nature of the tunnel. People have seen canvases that are only one solid color and wondered if it's art. But if that one solid color is meant as a statement of protest, as this grey is, if that color has emotion and purpose behind it, of course it's art. And if the masquerade ball can't see that, even as it's being explained to them... they're not very good patrons of the arts, are they?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Little Tip For Taylor Swift Fans

Hi, fellow Swifties. yes, I am going to be buying 1989 this coming Monday like the rest of you (save for those of you who already preordered). I am excited for that as well. But I have one little piece of advice, since some of you are kind of upset right now over this.

When buying music on iTunes- and this applies to those of you who are fans of other artists too, so listen up- it may pay off to run a quick check, maybe at the running time of the track, perhaps, or playing the preview sample, to make sure the track you're buying isn't, oh, say, 8 seconds of white noise that Taylor released by accident. The fact that enough of you bought it to send it to #1 on the Canadian iTunes charts (at $1.29 Canadian a pop), says... something. I'm not really sure what.

Time and the Atlantic have had quite a bit of fun trying to find out, though.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


It's rather taken for granted that the NFL isn't merely regarded as something that people want to watch, in spite of all its myriad problems and issues (and with Michael Sam having been cut from the Cowboys' practice squad today, go ahead and add that). It is regarded, rather, as something people have to watch. They have no choice but to watch or else they'll miss out, and not be part of the one conversation everyone will be having the next day, and you don't want that, do you? So you better watch.

No matter what.

And I see that in my life. I've stopped watching college football, but as Wisconsin is heavily, heavily behind the Badgers, people just start talking about the game to me at work even after having told them several times that I don't watch anymore. They still, even after having that explicitly explained to them, just assume that I've seen the Badger game anyway. Because what Wisconsinite isn't watching the Badgers? That's just silly. The Packers are no different, and as I not only root for the Packers but have bought a share of stock (for my dad), I CAN be expected to have seen the game. Or listened to it on the radio, at least, because there is one at work and it always gets tuned to Packer and Badger games (and the Brewers, when possible).

But a funny thing happened this season. My hours at work this year shifted to the least hospitable possible for a football fan. I start at 11 AM, before the noontime kickoff of the early games, and get out at 8 PM, around the second quarter of any night games. Furthermore, my off days are Tuesday and Wednesday, the two days of the week when there is no football anywhere. No high school, no college, no pro. It is now going into Week 9, and I have not seen a single day game this season. I have not seen any game this season played out start-to-finish. I have not, because work says so. You'd think I'd be going crazy right now. I'm missing out on all the football, after all.

That doesn't seem to be happening so far, though. I haven't been making any real sort of outsized effort to take in football this season. Not highlights, not even really the game portions I am able to see (unless the Packers happen to be involved). I am very nearly at a cold-turkey state. And I'm okay with that. I am fine with largely skipping a season and, in the meantime, taking the time to reassess where, precisely, football stands with me. With the actual games, and the perpetual hype attached to them, out of the picture, I can see the scandals, the misplaced priorities, the inherent violence of the sport, and ask myself, really ask myself, how much I want to still associate myself with it all. How much the games, as games, really truly mean to me when I take a step back from them.

And I'm increasingly asking myself if the answer is the one Roger Goodell would want to hear.

The Super Bowl is still going to be watched. That's a family thing that I can recall us having gathered around for since Super Bowl XXIX (49ers over Chargers), and 20 years later I don't see that changing. But if it turns out in the long run that I really don't need that much football in my life anymore, I'm seeing that that's okay. Missing out need not drive you nuts. There are other sports out there, and there's other aspects of life out there.

And then I need to figure out if the fact that my relationship with soccer, which will remain unchanged and undying either way, makes my relationship with football look hypocritical. Because soccer's problems make football's problems look like the kiddie pool.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why You No Eat Food

Apparently I'm now making my post titles based on creepypasta or something.

I mentioned in the actually-regularly-scheduled post last night, the one about cleaning up India, that, well, India needs cleaning up. Because there's a bunch of garbage laying around.

One thing I suppose I ought to add to that chat about garbage is where, precisely, the garbage comes from in the first place. There's an environmental think tank in Washington called the World Resources Institute; having never heard of them, I took a quick check of them to make sure I wasn't getting into anything overly partisan or agenda-pushing (beyond the obvious, being an environmental think tank and all), and they appear to check out. Plus they're affiliated with the UN, so that helps. So here goes.

As WRI's Brian Lipinski blogged this past Thursday, the exact makeup of garbage depends on what part of the world you live in. They focused in on food waste; food that could have been eaten but for whatever reason was not. They also zeroed in on the year 2009 for their analysis. This PDF file provides all the gory details, but the takeaway Lipinski provided was this: the less developed the region, the earlier in the process from production to consumption that the loss is likely to occur.

If you are in sub-Saharan Africa, things are likely to go wrong in the production stage (39% of region waste) or handling and storage (37% of region waste). South and southeast Asia is almost the same way (32% in production, 37% in handling/storage). Production here means food lost in the actual act of farming it- crops that got torn up during harvesting, crops thrown away for not being good enough to send to market, that kind of thing. Handling and storage includes livestock that gets slaughtered wrong or isn't deemed healthy enough to slaughter for food, grain that goes bad in the silos, etc.

A comparatively small amount of loss happens in processing and packaging, with no region jumping out to an overly big 'lead' there (though a combined North America/Oceania region leads at 9%). This would be any food that gets damaged or lost in the process of stuffing it into a container for you to buy. Livestock trimmings that don't ultimately make it under the shrink wrap, anything the canning/bottling/boxing machines mangle or don't manage to get into a can/bottle/box.

Latin America (17%) and North Africa/West and Central Asia (18%) are the worst at the next step, distribution and market. This covers food that gets to the store, but never gets into a shopping cart. Expired food, stuff the customers knock off the shelf and break, anything the store rejects for not being salable.

And then you find industrialized Asia (46%), Europe (52%), and North America/Oceania (61%) with their big issue being the final step, consumption. That covers all the food that makes it into your house, but not into your belly.

If you'll look at Table 3 on Page 10 of the PDF file, you'll see various suggestions to reduce waste at each of the five stages.

"Reduce portion sizes" leaps out in the consumption section.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Calm Down About Ebola, Please

(Did I never hit send on this? Huh. Well, fixing that now.)

So, it looks like there are a ton of people scared about ebola. And let's be clear, ebola is an awful, terrible thing to actually get. And if you are in Africa, it is a very real threat, as you surely do not need me to tell you from here in North America.

But if you ARE in North America, or Europe, or anywhere developed, the threat of getting ebola is far, far less than some of you are afraid of. The healthcare systems, whatever their cost, are just plain better than Africa's. Far better. Only a few people in the US have actually been infected, with one death at this point. A tragic loss that death is, but only one. The thing is, ebola kills very quickly, and because it kills quickly, it doesn't get very much time to infect new victims. And it takes more than your average flu or cold to actually infect someone, though the two infect at roughly the same rate: the seasonal flu sufferer infects about 1.2-1.5 new people on average; an ebola sufferer infects 1.5-2 people on average. (Chicken pox does 3-17 people.)

National Geographic has a handy FAQ for you. Read it, and then calm down, okay? This is pretty much confined to the hospital system, and only a few specific hospitals, and the people most likely to get infected are the doctors putting their butts on the front lines to treat this. You just walking around will be fine. Relax.

Someone Please Clean India

If you've ever visited India- I haven't- you will know that the country is home to some of the more visually and culturally spectacular places you can witness on this planet. You will also see things that are not quite so spectacular: breathtaking levels of poverty, a caste system that officially is being softened but in practice is only sporadically ignored and remains deeply ingrained, horrific human-rights abuses (particularly towards women), and the most visually obvious, jaw-dropping piles of filth. Garbage strewn about, walls urinated on.

Now let's be clear here. Generating the waste isn't the issue; in fact, waste-generation is very much a problem concentrated in developed nations, cities in particular. India is nowhere near the top in that respect (though they are climbing the rankings). The problem is throwing that trash away so that it can be dealt with. Having ways to deal with it once collected. This is where India fails miserably and they know it. And if they didn't know it, they found out when Bangalore garbage workers went on strike in 2012.

Noah M. Sachs of the Atlantic took a look around in June to provide a fuller assessment of the situation. It's worth a read.

There have been periodic attempts to clean up the place, but obviously, as of yet, none have really worked. Current prime minister Narenda Modi is setting off on another one, the $10 billion Clean India campaign, and at least at first, all castes look to be on board. The higher castes, who have the money, want to be able to look at a prettier country. The lower castes, who don't have the money, have more pragmatic concerns: garbage breeds disease, and if an epidemic of something breaks out, it's going to be the ones who can't afford health care that are going to die first.

When a problem is as major and pandemic as this one is, you tend to see some very oddball fixes pop up, because clearly the so-called 'normal' methods aren't working, and people are willing to try just about anything if it works. Which is why ceramic tiles of religious images have been placed on various city walls around the country. The theory goes, if your god is staring right at you, maybe that will get you to think twice before you pee on the wall he's on.

And out-of-box thinking may be necessary, because a lot of the problem is that the basic infrastructure isn't in place to take care of the garbage, and even if it was, many Indian citizens just plain don't give a hoot about garbage after it gets out of their house, which is typically kept clean. It will go on the street, in front of the neighbors, and they will consider it as no longer their problem. In order to spruce up the country, India must first spruce up people's attitudes. If everyone is on board, like they claim they are, then it can be more about simple infrastructure.

Are they?

Friday, October 17, 2014

I Am Not Singing That Tom Lehrer Song

I just picked up the latest Bathroom Reader. The main one. It's titled Canoramic this year. And in one of the factoids at the bottom- they call them running feet- it said that if you soak a bone in hydrochloric acid overnight, by morning you'll be able to tie it into a knot.

Of course I went about searching for a video, but, alas, I've yet to track one down. But all is not lost. In the process, what I DID manage to find is a YouTube channel called Periodic Videos, run by the University of Nottingham. They, as you might expect, play around with the periodic table a lot... including the bit from them I got linked to that led me to them. In lieu of bone, here is a cheeseburger.

The thing I'd really like to link you to, though, is the playlist they have set up which provides a profile of every individual element in the table. I wouldn't suggest trying to bingewatch the whole set; they're not the most exciting folks on the planet to watch and trying to get too far in might cause you to glaze over a bit and start letting info go in one ear and out the other. Short bursts might be best, no more than you feel you can handle at a time. Or just handpick the elements you aren't familiar with.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Surprisingly Not Idiotic

So there's a show on GSN that premiered not too long ago. It's called Idiotest. The basic idea is this: you are given a visual puzzle, and asked to touch where on the screen the correct answer is (and it is guaranteed to be there somewhere). The trick is, the correct answer is rarely the obvious answer. Often, the picture you're given will appear to show four possible options, but the actual correct answer isn't any of them and is off to the side somewhere.

A sample episode should get the idea across about as well as it's going to get across.

Getting a question wrong will, of course, make you look like an idiot. That's what the questions are all designed to do. And eventually you will, because there's a time limit to answer, so you can't take too long. (Although host Ben Glieb has all the questions asked to him beforehand, so he can explain the answers on the show, and usually he does well.) But I think the format is rather instructive. It will drill some concepts into you that you can take outside of the show, silly as it is. (And oh is it silly.) What does a show like Idiotest drill into you?

*First, observation, obviously. That's the whole object. Idiotest is an observation test. Even though answering quickly makes you eligible for more money, it also makes you more likely to rush yourself and answer something obvious-looking without noticing the true answer. Slow down a bit. Actually take in what's in front of you without making a knee-jerk response. Or else you will look like an idiot. (And even one of the side answers may not be correct, because even though it's more valid than any of the obvious answers, there's an even better answer somewhere else.)

*Second, the importance of reading instructions as they are written. Many of the questions involve subtle spelling changes in one of the question words. For instance, in the above episode, one question asks you to 'touch the opposite of not aloud'. An inattentive scan of the question might misread that as 'opposite of not allowed', and the options available clearly anticipate such a thing, as well as any potential problems with double negatives, with 'prohibited' and 'permitted' both on the board. But of course, the question is talking about 'aloud' as in noise, and 'quiet is there as well. (The contestants almost immediately touched 'prohibited', wrong in both respects, and immediately realized their mistake... but the trick of the game is that realizing your mistake a half-second too late is still realizing it too late. Should have looked a little more closely.)

But you can bypass all of this by simply figuring out that the opposite of 'not X' is, well, X. And so what you're supposed to do is touch 'aloud'.

*Third, learning from your mistakes. Again, every single question will be walked through whether the contestant is right or wrong. Because someone at home is surely wrong. And Ben will take great care, and glee, to explain to you the exact magnitude of your wrongness... as you see a couple times in the episode. That kind of negative reinforcement is pretty quickly going to get you trying to adopt the habits that will make you not be wrong anymore.

And hopefully, after the show's over, those same habits will cross over into other parts of your life.

There's an election in a couple weeks. Lot of people making knee-jerk reactions to a lot of things. Lot of people not taking time to read things carefully. Lot of people making mistakes and failing to learn from them.

Don't be an idiot in the voting booth.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Money: It's Worth Money

So I've been poking around this chart provided by NPR. What it is, is a modification of the mainstay cost-of-living index. Those are the things where you see how much it would cost you to live in certain cities. The problem with them, though, is that they don't take into account how much money you get back by working in those cities, or what you might be likely to buy in those cities. And of course annual salaries of those cities don't help either. What you really want is something that will tell you how expensive it's actually going to feel living there. How well off will you be in that town when all is said and done.

The NPR chart does that for 356 American cities classified as metropolitan areas (out of a possible 381), because the Bureau of Economic Activity has also done that, calling it Real Personal Income (RPI). It puts up some scattered notables in dark text- biggest jumps from perception to reality, the most major cities, and the top and bottom of the list- according to median salary and the purchasing power in that town of that salary. The highest RPI belongs to Rochester, Minnesota (instead of highest-incomed Washington DC, dragged into fifth place); the lowest to Bloomington, Indiana (which is also lowest in median salary).

If you're in France, though, your money appears to be worth... 140 characters. Group BPCE is set to allow its customers (with cellphone numbers and French bank accounts) to link their Twitter accounts to the bank's money transfer service. What you'd do is tweet the transfer service, the Twitter account of the recipient, the amount to be sent and then #envoyer (French for send). Now, you're only going to be able to transfer up to 500 euros that way, so it's not like someone can get drunk and tweet away half a million bucks on a misclick, but this can still go very wrong. Probably it will for someone out there.

People do drunk tweet, after all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Please Remit One TED To Brazil

TED day. Or TED night. It is evening in this place of current darkness and you get a TED talk.

Earlier this month in Rio, economist Dilip Ratha hit the stage to chat about remittances. You know all those immigrants that enter a country, earn some money working and then send a chunk of it home, maybe send for the rest of the family? That's a remittance, and as Ratha will explain, remittances make a rather substantial portion of the world go round. If you're not familiar with them, I suggest you get familiar.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Problems With Stealing A Train

The source story today comes from the Gillette News Record in Wyoming, where Derek Skyler Brux, 22, was charged with the following three crimes: reckless endangering; felony destruction of property; and felony destruction, obstruction or removal of railroad track or fixtures. According to the allegations, he racked up these charges when, after an altercation with his employer, Rail Link, he stole a train and took it for a joyride. Eventually, he left the train yard, went onto the main tracks, and eventually, inevitably, plowed into something. There are no reported injuries, somehow.

When you steal a lot of things- which you should not do, by the way- the intent is usually to either keep it or sell it. Certainly you don't intend to get apprehended.

So how, exactly, is this going to happen with a train? There are a couple major sticking points regarding train theft:

1. Trains are sort of stuck on rails. There aren't very many places you can take a train. At least not safely. The more wheels and more weight a vehicle has, the rougher the ride it's going to have. The whole reason a train is on rails in the first place is that that's the only way the train is going to work as intended: dictate a smooth, gentle track that the train can follow to the fraction of an inch. You don't get to take the train off-road. So there aren't many places you can run, except further down the track. You will, eventually, get caught (and Brux did, during a footchase afterward).

2. Trains are big. They're hard to hide. Shouldn't have to elaborate on that.

3. Let us say, for a moment, that you are in the process of stealing a train, and you are running from the authorities in said train. You spot another train up ahead. Good luck with that (see also: rails).

4. Brux did, in fact, see another train up ahead. What was his response? According to the affidavit:
“I wanted to see what it was like to hit something, so I hit at it.” With a TRAIN. (At under 10 mph, but still.) And then he backed up and hit the train a second time. With a train.

It is regarded as inadvisable by the management of this blog to crash into a train with a second, stolen train just to see what it's like to do so. On top of all of these other things.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Oh, Shi, He's On The Loose

I presume at some point you've heard of the sentence "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo". It uses the various meanings of the word 'buffalo'- the animal, the city, and the action of bullying- to create a grammatically valid, if nonsensical-sounding, sentence. It, along with its cousin "James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher", are presented as examples of how utterly weird the English language is. And this is not in argument. English is a strange frickin' language.

But have you heard about the Chinese poem that pulls the same stunt?

You see, Chinese, as anyone who's ever attempted to learn it could tell you, contains a lot of homophones. There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, but a lot of those characters, when spoken, sound alike. In modern pinyin, this site figures there are only 413 syllables in common use. They are spelled differently, they're said in different tones and stresses, but they're all the same syllable. There are enough of them that it is possible not just to write a sentence that uses only one of those syllables, but an entire story. A story that, when translated to something that isn't Chinese, loses the syllable but makes it, well, legible.

There are several versions of Chinese- the modern Mandarin, the more historic Classical- and most such pieces are done using Classical, but we won't really get into that.

In 'Lion-Eating Poet In The Stone Den', the one I'm able to find actually properly translated to English as opposed to leaving you to the vagaries of Google Translate, the Chinese syllable is 'shi'. If you were speaking Chinese, you would be saying shi over and over to express this, but since we're writing in English, here's what you get:

In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

Er, okay, poem. Shi Shi is an idiot who can't tell stone from flesh as well as being unable to tell how commerce works. Because I don't see anything in here about him paying for the lions or getting permission to shoot them, which, by the way, this man is also heavily armed and dangerous. Approach with caution.

One wonders what he thinks the walls of his den are made of. On second thought, no, don't wonder that, aack, I'll be up all night now.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How Do I Hold The Slide Rule Up To The Monitor?

I hope you're aware enough to be able to question the veracity of the occasional viral video that comes along. Someone does something completely crazy for the camera and you wonder whether it's real or not. Of course, when you do that, it's probably a simple approach. You probably discard a video by saying something like 'Oh come on now.' The sniff test, basically.

Rhett Allain of Wired, though, has a slightly more complicated approach. An approach that, according to him, he gave a lecture at Vanderbilt about, so you can tell right there that you are not getting out of this without a slightly sprained cranium.

I'd be a little longer about this, but I have some soccer-podcast setup talk to go over. So it's just a quickie today. (Setup has gone a teeeeeensy bit longer than I anticipated.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How To Post Nude Pictures Of Celebrities

1. Do not post nude pictures of celebrities., there aren't like 8 or 9 steps after this in which we delve into ever more ludicrous depths of spectacular idiocy. I am of course referring to the scandal from August in which people who shall not be named got their hands on nude photos of celebrities who shall (mostly) not be named and then everybody had a big debate over whether to look at them or not, a time during which people went and looked at them. For educational reasons, I'm so sure.

You want some more steps? Fine. Here's a Step 2 and Step 3 for you.

2. If you see a link pointing to nude pictures of celebrities, do not click on it.
3. This does not only apply to celebrities. This applies to anyone who has not explicitly consented to you viewing them in the nude.

One of the celebrities in question, Jennifer Lawrence, the only one we'll name here- someone not exactly known for holding her tongue- spoke to Vanity Fair in an interview where she called the posting of the photos a "sex crime". And I'd be inclined to agree with her. No. There may have been no physical contact or penetration involved. That does not mean that Jennifer- or any of the others victimized by this- did not have their privacy or their bodies violated. Because they did. They did not consent to you seeing them nude. I'm sure that some people out there would not particularly mind having nude photos of themselves sent out over the Internet, but the vast majority of us would. And just because they exist doesn't mean the person they're of wants everybody to see them. (And even if you do have such photos, as Erika Moen of the NSFW comic Oh Joy Sex Toy notes, that doesn't mean they're yours to do with as you wish. If the person they're of ever asks you to get rid of them, don't ask questions. Just get rid of them. Immediately.)

Nude pictures and kitty pictures are not to be handled the same way around these parts. Got that?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

It's Nobel Prize Week

So as always, get ready for the annual debate over the utility of the Nobel Peace Prize, but they announce only one prize a day, and they've fallen into a semi-predictable pattern that, at least this year, is playing out normally: Physiology/Medicine leads off, followed by Physics, Chemistry, Literature, then Peace on Friday, with Economics having to wait until the following Monday.

A lot of the time the scientific Nobels end up going to people who've discovered something that can be put to rapid use in the real world, or has been already. And that's what usually makes up the list of scientific Nobel also-rans... hi there, National Geographic. And that's what the Nobel people are always under pressure to hand prizes to. This year, though, they didn't do that. Instead, they opted for a discovery in search of an application. The 2014 laureates are John O'Keefe of the US/UK, and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser of Norway, for their discovery of brain cells that help people navigate their environment. The New York Times writeup by Lawrence K. Altman has a handy chart to help you picture what exactly that means. It's certainly better than just saying 'inner GPS' like way too many people are doing in their own summaries of the awarding.

Also, before you get too excited in the runup to Friday, the nominations lists always have some fairly kooky names on them. Don't read anything into the wackier names you see tossed around. Nominations can come from a lot of different places; the Nobel people send out thousands of nomination forms per year. Per category in most cases. From those forms, 278 nominees were put up in the Peace category alone. The full list is by regulation sealed for 50 years, but a partial list has been compiled here. A Russian activist group calling itself the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World managed to get on the nomination list and they put up Vladimir Putin.

You can nominate anyone but yourself. Anyone. ANYONE. As in, in 1939 a member of Sweden's parliament thought it was a good idea to nominate Hitler, who was so not-peaceful that the Nobel committee didn't hand out a Peace Prize to anyone that year, and couldn't hand out any Nobels at all for the next three years because they were too busy running from Hitler. (The nominee later withdrew his nomination on February 1, 1939, two days after Hitler gave a speech in front of the Reichstag warning of the "annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." Presumably, the sounds of slapping filled the halls of Swedish parliament on January 31.)

There are no runners-up. You either win the Nobel or you don't. So don't read into how 'close' someone gets to winning or who the frontrunners are. Just don't. You're going to drive yourself nuts and it's not going to help. Suffice to say the Nobel committees have just about all the options they could want and then some. We'll just have to see what they do with those options.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Aaron Makes Feeble Attempts To Explain Particle Physics

This is another one of those instances where I don't quite get what's going on, but I know enough to realize it's something I maybe ought to pass along.

Are you familiar with the basic idea behind matter and antimatter? The most recent question on Randall Munroe's comic What If? deals with that, so it may have been on your mind lately. The idea, if you know nothing else about it, is that we're all made of matter, and there's antimatter scattered in bits and pieces around the universe, and when matter and antimatter meet, they destroy each other. Okay, well, 'destroyed' isn't the word that gets used in that situation. The word you're supposed to use is 'annihilated', which is science-speak for ultra super duper destroyed. There is just plain nothing left afterwards, except for some gamma radiation.

So they don't get along. However, back in 1937, a scientist named Ettore Majorana theorized that a particle existed, somewhere, somehow, that could take on the properties of both matter and antimatter without going Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie. This particle would eventually become known, fittingly, as a Majorana fermion. Now all that was left to do was go find it.

77 years later, a team at Princeton thinks they've found it. Reading the process for doing so, I quickly run into explanations that get over my head (and the $20 paywall for the original doesn't help), but it appears to involve a magnetic wire made of iron and a lead surface in a superconductor (which has no magnetic field). There's a string of electrons, most of which pair up so that there's one electron and one anti-electron, except for one guy at the end that can't get a dance partner and winds up exhibiting qualities of both. That's your Majorana fermion, or at least, that's what Princeton thinks is a Majorana fermion.

I am probably mangling this. Please click the links so you can see how much I'm leaving out and how much of an idiot I must look like right now.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Olympic 2022 Preview: Dear God, Save Us All

Oslo, Norway has effectively pulled out of bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics after the Norwegian government refused to foot the stated $5 billion bill the IOC was asking of it.

From this action, the 2022 Winter Olympics, seven and a half years before Opening Ceremony, were doomed to near-certain failure, and the IOC, given their fiery protest of Oslo's withdrawl, appear to know it. Oslo joins a multitude of cities that got cold feet at some point. The withdrawl of Lviv, Ukraine is more than understandable given the circumstances in Ukraine right now, but Krakow, Poland, Stockholm, Sweden, St. Moritz/Davos, Switzerland and Munich, Germany all cited the potential cost in their own reasons for backing off. All would have been at least serviceable hosts, excellent even. But none want to pony up after seeing Sochi brazenly playing out all their worst fears, grossly overspending without a care in the world and leaving buildings half-finished even as the athletes were in town, let alone whatever would happen afterward. Nobody wants to spend like Sochi, and nobody wants to look like Sochi.

Nobody except the only two cities left in the running, and everybody including the IOC knows neither of them is all that great an option: Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Beijing, despite having hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, not only left a lot of white elephants laying around- particularly the main stadium (which they propose to press back into service for the ceremonies along with several of the other 2008 venues)- but Beijing isn't really known as a winter town. A more northern city, Harbin maybe, and then we'd be talking. Beijing? Eeeeeeeehhhhhhhh. Things could get very slushy, and as much as China is able to control politically, they are the world's single biggest contributor to global warming (the United States being second), and they're not going to be able to do much about it if the snow they lay down decides it wants to start melting during competition and eating skiers alive.

And then there's Almaty, which when the IOC sent a team through to assess it, determined could maybe be a reasonably competent host (they hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games and barely missed the shortlist for the 2014 Olympics), or maybe go full-on Borat on everyone. They can't quite tell, which usually means drop the city like a hot rock, but that's a luxury you only really have when you have more than two options. (Oslo had passed with flying colors, of course.)

It is not much more democratic than China, with current president Nursultan Nazarbayev winning his most recent election in 2011 with a not-suspicious-at-all-nosiree 95% of the vote, and a couple months later holding a legislative election in which his party got an equally-not-suspicious-at-all 81% of the vote and two parties that are basically yes-men for the main party got 7% each, which just so happens to be the exact amount required for a party to gain seats in parliament. Most of the candidates critical of the government got straight-up disqualified before the election. The 2011 election was preceded by a Kazakh language test which Nazarbayev of course passed (never mind his downright mangling of the candidates' oath), and which a smattering of no-name opponents passed, including one who didn't even speak Kazakh and one who later admitted to voting for Nazarbayev. All of the actually serious opponents failed the language test.

One of these two places will host the 2022 Winter Olympics for no other reason than all the good hosts dropped out because it got too expensive for them. So someone will host that will get the money from... somewhere. Somewhere that it would probably be a health hazard to inquire about, especially if you happen to be that somewhere.

Of course, there's little to be done about it now than to try and pick between them. If forced to select- and it looks like we now are- I guess I would have to go with Almaty, for two simple reasons, neither of which has much to do with preparedness to host. The first is geography, namely the movement of the Olympic hosting duties. 2018 is set for South Korea; 2020 is set for Japan. A third straight Olympics in the Far East doesn't seem too appealing. But that's a small issue.

Sochi raised the far bigger issue towards the end of the Olympics. The Olympics, as I have repeatedly and incessantly stated, are intended to be an island of peace. It's supposed to be a time when the world stops for a couple weeks and just watches sports together and has a grand old time. Russia didn't even do it themselves. Russian military action in Crimea began the same day as the Closing Ceremony, February 23, with a revolution in Ukraine being sparked several days prior and ending in the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, leading some Ukrainian athletes to leave Sochi early. Moving the same day as the Closing Ceremony, Vladimir Putin cashed in on what Russians, at least, believed to be a successful Olympics regardless of what the rest of the world thought of them. It was also, if meant that way, a thumb to the nose of the IOC, as if to say 'what are you gonna do now, take away the Olympics?'

In your news feed right now, you ought to be seeing the continuing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. By 2022, this immediate matter will certainly have long since been settled one way or another, but it raises the point that China has more than one geopolitical ambition within and beyond its mainland. Hong Kong. Tibet. The Uyghurs. The Siachen Glacier. A set of islands in the East China Sea whose names depend on what country you're asking. Whatever it is North Korea will be up to around that time. It doesn't look like they acted on any of these ambitions in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Olympics, but that doesn't mean China wouldn't do so in 2022.

Kazakhstan, as far as I can tell, has no such current ambitions, nor are they really in a position to act on any they may have. I would personally feel far safer, watching the news in the weeks following, knowing Kazakhstan was the one playing off of Olympic afterglow instead of China.

So... Almaty 2022. I guess. I think.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Three Football Players Died This Week

The three, all of which died as the result of in-game injuries:

*Tom Cutinella, 16 years old, guard/linebacker, Elwood, NY.
*Demario Harris Jr., 17 years old, cornerback, Troy, AL.
*Isaiah Langston, 17 years old, linebacker, Rolesville, NC.

I'm not going to elaborate on that. Just gonna let you chew on it.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The First Crossword (Kinda Sucked)

Sporcle time.

On December 21, 1913, a man named Arthur Wynne created what's recognized as the world's first crossword puzzle, running in the New York World. It was an evolution of word squares, in which the same words are created going across and down. Sooner or later someone was going to look at one and go 'wait, what if we made them different words?' Minds were promptly blown.

Presented to you is Wynne's inaugural puzzle and 10 minutes in which to complete it, which should be enough given that Sporcle will tell you when you have a right answer and you don't need to go erasing anything. I suppose there's a chance someone reading this has already done it at some point, in which case I say: holy Moses, weren't some of those clues just the most straight-up bullshit? I suppose you have to start somewhere with these things, but clues based on basically the writer's opinion ("What we all should be")? Two clues with the same answer (you go do the puzzle and see which one that is)?

If you have done the inaugural one, perhaps you'd like to do the commemorative 100th-anniversary puzzle Google ran last December. This one actually follows modern crossword conventions.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Walruses Are Quasi-Adorable Too

One of the most highly-cited aspects of global warming is melting sea ice in the Arctic- which rises sea levels, which drowns a bunch of coastal cities. The animals living in the Arctic don't really notice the sinking cities because they would be too busy noticing the lack of sea ice in their own backyard, which they partially live on. Usually it's the polar bears that get spotlighted here, but there are other species as well... species such as walruses.

35,000 of which have made their way onto shore 5 miles north of Point Lay, Alaska, all clumped together in one mass. They were spotted by the NOAA, who does an annual aerial survey of the marine mammals in the region. 35,000 is the most they've ever seen onshore, and they weren't really seeing it at all prior to 2007. (This concerns the Alaskan side of the Chukchi Sea, separating the northern sections of Kanchatka and Alaska. The NOAA, being an American government agency, isn't surveying the Russian half, but the World Wildlife Fund is giving it a look of their own and saying matters aren't any better there either.) And with numbers that large, the fear is that a stampede will occur if they're spooked by anything, trampling the younger walrus in the process. As a result, flights over the area are being rerouted and local bush pilots are being asked to steer clear.

Walruses don't just live on sea ice part of the year, that's where they give birth. A walrus born on sea ice is a walrus not getting run over because while they still bunch up, there's plenty of ice around... until there isn't. And a walrus spends about two-thirds of its life in the ocean, but it can't swim forever and must eventually find ice... or land. A diving session for food will only last 2-10 minutes, meaning straying out to deeper water is eventually going to end very badly if the ice recedes too far. The walruses know this, and as we're seeing here, they'll eventually pick land over ice resting on sufficiently deep water.

And no, your presence as a gawking tourist is not welcomed. That will also spook the walruses. Just... just stay home and cut the carbon emissions, okay?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Tetris Movie. I'm Not Kidding.

If you are any kind of a long-term gamer, chances are you are intimately, painfully familiar with the history of videogame movies. Not movies that became videogames, but videogames that were turned into movies. It is a long, strange, strange, did-I-mention-strange lineage of mostly unwatchable material. No such movie has yet to climb above the 44% "achieved" on Rotten Tomatoes by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in 2001 (it takes 60% to qualify as Fresh). In contrast, eight different films have dropped into single digits.

Along the way, it's become something of a running gag among gamers to imagine how much worse it could get. Inevitably, the conversation-stopper is the imagining of the worst, most ludicrous and obviously unworkable concept for a movie the game industry can possibly offer: Tetris. Blocks falling into a grid and they disappear when you make a line. Go ahead, Hollywood. Just try it.

Someone in Hollywood wants to try it. Threshold Entertainment, who has already inflicted the Mortal Kombat movies upon an unsuspecting public, has taken up the franchise, which currently has no directors or cast. They intend to make it live-action. They intend to make, according to Threshold CEO Larry Kasanoff, "a very big, epic sci-fi movie. This isn’t a movie with a bunch of lines running around the page. We’re not giving feet to the geometric shapes.”

No, Larry, but we've joked about you using the blocks as building-demolishing projectiles. For over a decade now.

This is not to say this movie will see completion. Movies die all the time somewhere between rights-buying and commercial release. But the fact that a Hollywood studio has already spent money because someone thought a Tetris movie was a good idea and all those gamers yukking it up about the concept are actually going to line up to see a real-life movie... Kasanoff, this is going to be a very expensive lesson for you.