Monday, March 30, 2009

And this is how we died.

Three years ago, I began keeping track of numbers. I heard the price of gold one day and found it unbelievably high. It has only gone up since then. I followed silver and crude oil, the dollar and foreign currencies, their climbs and plummets, all of them completely detached from reality as far as I could see. I had no money of my own to invest, nor any idea of what would be the best bet. I just knew something was very wrong.

I wasn’t looking at the right numbers. Until just a few months ago, I never heard mention in all my reading of the thing that would kill us.

A trillion is a very big number. Only physicists, mathematicians and astronomers should have to give a fig about a one followed by twelve zeroes. A light year is about six trillion miles, or nine and a half trillion kilometers. Not a scale for the good and simple people of earth, only for those of us counting the atoms and molecules, or calculating strange probabilities, or looking at the stars.

In all the world, all the wealth of all the nations is roughly fifty six trillion dollars. One dollar for every mile in ten light years.

Here is the number I didn’t know about, the one I didn’t see. Here is the size of the credit default swap market. Early this century, we could measure the size of this market in billions of dollars, the kind of numbers that are thrown around every day.

There are now over sixty four trillion dollars in this market. More than all the money in the world.

Some say these markets are hard to understand. They aren’t. It’s just a casino. A very big one. The main thing people bet on is who is going to pay their bills, and who isn’t.

How can a market have more money than the wealth of all nations combined? It’s very simple. It’s a magic casino. The casino will sell you a dollar’s worth of chips for three cents. If you can make an even money bet and win, and you will get your three cents back and a real dollar more.

What did I tell you? It’s magic.

What if you lose your bet? Then the casino wants the extra ninety seven cents you neglected to give them earlier. Or maybe less if you were able to make other bets to cover the one that went bad.

And this is how we died. A casino that dwarfed the world economy started filling up with losers. Where did they get the money? From your bank accounts, from your 401K accounts, from pensions and insurance companies and the investments of anyone who did anything more risky than keep their cash under their mattresses, or spend their paychecks on food, shelter and clothing.

Can’t we just close the casino down? Maybe not. It’s a very big house of cards. Are you sure which way it will fall?

No you’re not. No one is.

The graph above is the progress chart of the real war of terror. The terrorists won.

Besides keeping track of the numbers, I also started paying attention to the deniers. Much like tobacco companies years ago denied the link between cigarettes and disease, there were paid shills telling us there is no link between what humans do and the degradation of the environment, or the changing climate. Last year, the shill industry turned its energy to denying that we were in a recession, spewing the same sort of venom on those who said the economy was in free fall as it had on people discussing climate change.

Here’s the thing. The shills are just suckers. The people with the money know how deep the shit is, and they are doing everything they can to steal anything that isn’t nailed down or surrounded by armed guards. They do not give a rat’s ass if the shills die with the rest of us. They just want a diversion to continue looting the treasury.

Thirteen years ago on a rainy winter’s night, I was there in Oakland when one of America’s greatest living poets sang a song titled The Earth Died Screaming. This is a recording from that evening. I was there with my good friends the Dresbachs.

The Dresbachs are good people as well as good friends. They have a loving God they can pray to. That is one of the many luxuries I now do without. Like many of the things I have given up, I no longer think it does much good.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Barack-etology: Second weekend update

President Obama's bracket got busted up some this weekend, but he can still pin his hopes on North Carolina next weekend.

Sweet 16: He had the chance to win all eight games, but only correctly predicted five.

Elite 8: Because of early failed predictions, Obama could only win three out of four, but his generally conservative picks only came true once. He picked against first seeded Connecticut, who won, and with all the other first seeds, only getting a winner with North Carolina. This gives him 750 points, and puts him below the middle, at 46.83%.

If Carolina wins the in the semifinals, he will gain ground on about 60% of the field. Assume he is ahead of about 30% already and another 10% of them cannot be reached. The game he has no chance to win, Michigan State vs. Villanova, is only useful for about 10% of the remaining field one way or another. Carolina winning the whole thing could put him in the top 80% or so, But I would be surprised if he ends up in the top 90%.

Still, I'm rooting for him, even if he hasn't fired Tim Geithner yet.

Extreme Ice on Nova

If you missed the Nova episode this week, Extreme Ice, you can watch it on streaming video over at the website. Of course, it's PBS so the whole "check your local listings" thing is still in full effect. It will be repeated ad infinitum. For any climate change deniers who might wander by my blog, and I know there's at least one, you will not enjoy this show, because it isn't fair and balanced about the shrinking ice sheet in Greenland.

Damn PBS libtard commies.

If I may bring up my odd fetish for The Big Girls in a completely inappropriate setting, the way My People feel about giant women is a metaphor for how people feel about nature itself. The natural world is both compellingly beautiful and mind numbingly terrifying, often at the exact same instant. I have lived most of my life in a place with the mildest "seasons" imaginable, but the pictures of icescapes are some of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen in my life. I was having lunch with a friend yesterday who has been to Antartica, and he has never felt anything in his life like being in a boat looking up at a 500 foot tall ice cliff, hearing sounds like thunder made by parts of that sheet in the distance cracking and falling into the indescribably blue sea.

In this show about Greenland, there are pictures of one of the fjords where icebergs are born, but more compelling still is the real time disappearance of a meltwater lake. Through satellite photos, it has been well documented that meltwater lakes vanish in the space of 24 hours on occasion, but no one had seen this happen up close. The makers of this documentary did catch such an event on film, where a lake of water the size of Manhattan and 50 feet deep disappeared before their eyes. Relatively narrow tubes form in the ice that send the water from the top of the ice sheet to presumably the bottom, where it acts like a lubricant making the entire ice sheet slide faster into the sea. The picture of the top of this waterfall, taller by far than Angel Falls in Venezuela but existing for only a few hours, is spectacularly beautiful, but I also got the feeling that I was glad the photographer was there and I wasn't. Where the shot was taken from, the chances of things going very badly very fast were very real. This guy was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to document this, but there was also more than a little luck that he and his camera made it back to civilization so we could watch this in the comfort of our homes.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

It's the euphemist-iest!

CNN's Ed Henry asked a long, rambling, nearly incoherent question at the Obama press conference this week, starting with a question about why Obama and Geithner were so slow to express outrage over the AIG bonuses, and then moving on to a question about how Obama's budget will increase the deficit. Obama gave a long and detailed answer to the question about the deficit, focusing on how rising health costs must be brought under control, both for the benefit of the private sector as well as the public sector.

Henry pounced after Obama was finished because Obama did not answer the first part of the question, which was both unrelated to the second part and really unimportant. Why was Obama so slow to jump on the outrage bandwagon, unlike speedy Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general of New York?

Obama's reply here was much shorter. "It took a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak."

Oooooh.... snap!

There is some debate over whether this insult was aimed at Andrew Cuomo for speaking too early on this, the previous administration for speaking without knowing, or at Ed Henry for being an idiot. My vote is that it hit all of them, but Henry took the brunt.

Henry wrote on his blog that he got the better of Obama. He is nearly alone in this assessment.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post was on Keith Olbermann's Countdown program, and when asked about Henry's view that he won the confrontation, made a comparison to someone being dunked on, the ball hitting him in the face on the way down, then getting up and acknowledging the cheers of the crowd.

"Dude, the guy just made you his... companion."

I love this. The colloquial use of the technical phrase for female dog can mean either "nasty person, usually female" or "companion". I would like to see the word "companion" used more widely to clear up this ambiguity. Please work it into your conversation at your soonest convenience.

Thank you for your kind attention... companions!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Random 10, 3/27

Allamana Desmond Dekker
Don't Ask Me Why Eurthymics
More Than Rain Tom Waits
Lost Ones Lauryn Hill
Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair Nina Simone
Jana Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares
It Never Was You Teresa Stratas
In Every Dream Home Joe Jackson
Turtle Dove Raphael Boguslav
A.1. On The Juke Box Dave Edmunds

Not a lot of love from the You Tubes this morning as I brought in my Random 10. That's to be expected with some of the obscure artists here, and even some not obscure people are singing songs that aren't their best known work. The surprise find was Jana, from a Eurotrash disco re-mix album of the Bulgarian Female Vocal Choir.

Hunting for the song Turtle Dove on YouTube only brought up the Ralph Vaughn Williams version. Ray Boguslav plays an older folk song of the same name.

I spotlight Tom Waits and his advice about your bad days. Don't plant your bad days, they can turn into a bad year. Choke your bad days. They're your days. Choke 'em!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

And lo, unto the seventh generation...

According to Wikipedia, we are now in the seventh generation of video game consoles. I worked in the industry from the second generation to the fifth. Let's take a look at the biggest winner in each generation and some of the successful also-ran platforms.

1st generation: 1972-1977
Magnavox Odyssey

This was the best selling console, but no one will say how much it sold. Someone had to take those bold first steps, and Magnavox was the first out of the gate. I never played it, and as far as I can tell, the controller had two knobs on either side of a box you held.

Magnavox had a patent on moving things around on a video screen with a controller, and the most money they made was suing manufacturers of later generation systems. I don't know if the patent has run out or they are still glomming onto profits in the seventh generation, but I know for a fact they nailed the companies in the second generation at the very least.

Atari also had a first generation machine, not pictured here, that let you play Pong.

(Picture from the collection of the Electronic Entertainment Museum.)

2nd generation: 1976-1984
Atari 2600 (30 million sold)

The first superstar. The one button joystick, the one button paddle to play Pong and Breakout. This little puppy ruled the roost for nearly ten years, and the competition lagged far behind. There was a time when Atari was a false generic. People would call any video game "an Atari", even though in the arcade, Atari had many successful competitors, including Namco, Williams and Nintendo.

2nd generation also-rans
Mattel Intellivision (3 million units sold) Colecovision (6 million units sold)

You might recall that the Intellivision screens looked better than the Atari 2600. Mattel made commercials highlighting this fact featuring... George Plimpton. (What, Bennett Cerf wasn't available?) The advertising didn't help much. There were more games, and in my opinion more good games, on the Atari 2600. Intellivision was soon eclipsed by the last of the 2nd generation platforms, Colecovision, which had much prettier games than either Atari or Mattel.

Did you know that Coleco is short for Connecticut Leather Company? Before the video game craze, Coleco's flagship product were above-ground swimming pools made of leather.

3rd generation: 1983-1992
Nintendo Entertainment System (60 million units sold)

Here is the future. Instead of a joystick, a cross with four directions. Two buttons instead of one. Select and start buttons on the controllers instead of the on the console. Nintendo had much better hardware than Atari, which is to be expected in a platform that is released six years later, and they had star franchises in Donkey Kong and the Mario Brothers. Sega would introduce the Sega Master, which sold a respectable 13 million units, but just as Atari dominated the second generation, Nintendo dominated the third. Atari kept trying, releasing the Atari 7800. None of their platforms would get close to the success of the 2600, while the new platforms from Japan would eclipse the Atari sales number completely.

4th generation: 1987-1996
Super Nintendo (49 million units sold)

So much for the two button future. Now it's a cross and four buttons. Note that the Super Nintendo sold less units that the original Nintendo, though it was clearly a success. Part of this might be because it was released a mere four years after the original Nintendo, and users were loyal to the older hardware. Super Nintendo also had a strong second place competitor, and at the end of the 4th generation, people were saving their pennies to buy the much anticipated 5th generation.

4th generation also-rans
Sega Genesis (29 million units sold)

Part of the erosion of sales for Nintendo was the rise of Sega, with their star Sonic the Hedgehog. Genesis games were good at going really fast, and they pushed this as their competitive advantage. They didn't knock Nintendo off the throne, but they were the first second place platform to have more than half the sales of the top dog. The third place platform, not pictured here, was NEC TurboGrafx, which sold 10 million units.

4th generation hand helds
Game Boy (119 million units sold)

Here it is, Nintendo's great leap forward. They would face a very serious competitor in the 5th generation home platforms, but in the 4th generation they produced the first successful hand held video game and carved a niche they dominate to this day. I don't think I owned a Game Boy, but I did have access to one. I was crazy for Tetris and Golf.

5th generation: 1993-2002
Sony PlayStation (102 million units sold)

What could scare dominant Nintendo? Only Sony, Japan's home electronics giant. The Sony PlayStation was highly anticipated, and by all accounts a great success. The controller didn't go with more buttons, but with a shape much easier to hold in two hands. Strong graphics, strong gameplay and the Sony brand name. Video games were here to stay without a doubt.

5th generation also rans
Nintendo 64 (33 million units sold)

To my mind, anything that sold more units over its lifetime than the Atari 2600 is hard to call a failure, but this was certainly a step down for Nintendo. Notice that their controller looks like a "me too, but with more buttons!" version of the PlayStation controller. The Sega Saturn sold 17 million units, not bad but not great, and two American competitors, the 3D0 and Atari Jaguar, died miserable deaths due to the good hardware, not enough software problem.

6th Generation: 1998-2006
Sony PlayStation 2 (140 million units sold)

The roost. Sony rules it. Note the return of the joystick, in fact, double mounted joysticks. Still, the shape of the controller now seems etched in stone.

6th generation also-rans
Microsoft Xbox (24 million units sold) Nintendo GameCube (22 million units sold)

So who could scare Sony? Not Microsoft, at least not with their first attempt at game hardware. The Xbox was able to knock Nintendo out of second place, but now, Xbox and GameCube were competitors to PS2 the way Mattel and Colecovision were competitors to Atari, competitors in loosest definition of the term. It's Sony's world, others just live in it. Sega, the perennial bridesmaid, released the Dreamcast, not pictured here, which sold 11 million units.

6th generation hand helds
Game Boy Advance and Game Boy SP (124 million units sold)

Nintendo does find some solace in the complete dominance of the hand held market. These little things guarantee profits for years to come. They also guarantee that a generation of young people are going to need reading glasses before the age of 30 due to eye strain.

7th Generation: 2005-present
Nintendo Wii (45 million units sold)

Remember what I wrote about controller shape being etched in stone? Remember what I wrote about it being Sony's world?


While the 7th generation is not yet over, Nintendo pulls off the first major comeback in the history of home video games. Worst to first in one generation by changing what a controller looks like.

7th generation also-rans
Microsoft Xbox 360 (29 million units sold) PlayStation 3 (21 million units sold)

Again, not all precincts have reported, but right now Xbox still holds a lead ove the PS3. Xbox 360 was released a year earlier, so the Sony machine may pass the Microsoft hardware eventually. Wii was released at the same holiday season as PS3, so it will take a miracle for either of these to catch it.

7th generation hand-helds
Nintendo DS (96 million units sold)

What I said about reading glasses before the age of 30? Nintendo's tinier screen is trying to push that down to 25.

7th generation hand held also-rans
PlayStation Portable (50 million units sold)

Here's something new. A viable second place competitor to the dominant hand held platform, someone to compete seriously with Nintendo in the market they have dominated completely for twenty years, crushing all previous competitors. (Oh, Atari Lynx, we hardly knew ye.) For the young people today who have never known a world without video games, this is clearly not a fad, but an important part of life, just as TV was to my generation.

Personally, I got into teaching as penance for being part of the early generation of workers in the field, but I still enjoy a video game break now and then. Bubble Spinner (no link provided, too evil) can still suck away a half hour of my life or more if I don't keep a close eye on the clock.

Oh, all right, just one more game.

The silly little letters are back.

A few weeks ago, blog buddy Lisa over at That's Why stated a distaste for having to type in word verification, so I decided to turn it off over here at Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do. Late this evening, I got a comment on a post over a month old that looks like it was put in by a spam bot, and I saw two comments from another blog I have commented on that I'm sure are spam.

Three in one evening, though only one on my blog, makes me think the problem is enough to bring back the silly little letters. Sorry for the inconvenience. Unlike my blog idol Princess Sparkle Pony, I do not mind people commenting on unusual word verifications.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Puzzling evidence.

Okay, Matty Boy, you claim to be a heterosexual male, right? And more than that, aren't you supposed to be a bachelor as well? Can you reconcile these claims with the fact that you recently rented the Sex and the City movie?

Hypothetical question asker, I understand your confusion as readily as I detect your snide subtext.

Lemme 'splain.

I watched Sex and the City regularly back in those heady days when I could afford cable with HBO. As I recall, I watched a few HBO shows on the same night, but it wasn't just clicker fatigue. Kristin Davis (Charlotte) looks my first girlfriend in college. Cynthia Nixon (Miranda) is a cute redhead, and I have a weakness for cute redheads. Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie) was in Square Pegs, and a kid named Merritt Butrick, also on the show, was a classmate of my younger sisters, Jenny and Karlacita! Sadly, Merritt died from complications from AIDS about twenty years ago.

The less said about Kim Cattrall (Samantha), the better.

So I rented this thing out of nostalgia mixed with ennui, but about less than an hour into viewing, revulsion easily overwhelmed the weaker emotions. The production values in the film are waay better than those on the TV show, and this was actually a problem. With the better looking sets and locations, it became very obvious what completely repulsive people the women really are. There is no human feeling for another person coming from these women, just wave after nauseating wave of selfishness.

Part of my revulsion definitely stems from seeing this movie about opulence in 2009, when it is clear we are facing an economic crisis at least as bad as anything in my lifetime, and may turn out to be as bad as anything in my dad's lifetime. Had I seen the film when it opened in May 2008, when some people could still deny there was a recession with a straight face, I might not have felt so creepy seeing Carrie leeching off the success of the financially suspect Mr. Big (Chris Noth), or the opulence of Samantha's and Charlotte's lives, or the incredible lack of caring shown by career girl Miranda. But today, a kind of bad bubblegum movie feels absolutely toxic.

So yes, I watched it and no girlfriend forced me to do so, which brings my sexual orientation into question.

But in defense of my not very useful heterosexuality, I did turn it off in disgust.

And in tribute to the title of the post and to prove my aging nerd street credibility, I give you the song Puzzling Evidence from David Byrne's move True Stories.

Wednesday Math, Vol. 65: Heron's Formula

Physically, no geometric shape is simpler than a triangle. Three points in space connected by three straight lines, which must be all included on some plane in space. Triangles also have a lot of useful physical properties, most notably that they are naturally rigid constructions.

Mathematically, the simplest shapes around are rectangles. If I tell you the lengths of the sides of a rectangle, let's call them h and w for height and width, the perimeter is 2h + 2w and the area is hw. If I tell you the lengths of the sides of a triangle, call them a, b and c, the perimeter is easy, a + b + c, but what about the area? You might remember from your last geometry class all those years ago that the area of a triangle is 1/2(height x base), but I haven't told you the height, and any of the three sides can fairly be used as the base. I have drawn a triangle with side lengths 6, 5 and 5 here, and since the side of length 6 is horizontal, it's natural to think of it as the base, but it's not illegal to use any of the others as the base. The problem here is that the height is unknown, no matter what side we use as the base. Is there an easy solution?

Glad you asked, hypothetical question asker. There is a formula, but many high school geometry classes do not include it, because it's nowhere near as "easy" a formula as 1/2 (height x base). This is Heron's Formula, named for Heron of Alexandria who published his work in 60 A.D. The symbol s stands for the semi-perimeter, s = 1/2(a + b + c). While it looks messy and it is possible the answer will be a square root, and therefore not a rational number, let's plug in the numbers we have from the triangle at the top to see how it works.

p = 5 + 5 + 6 = 16
s = 16/2 = 8
Area = sqrt[8(8 - 5)(8 - 5)(8 - 6)] = sqrt [ 8 x 3 x 3 x 2] = sqrt [144] = 12.

This triangle has a nice whole number value for its area. That's because the height is 4 and this isosceles triangle is actually two right triangles with sides 3, 4, and 5 glued together. In a right triangle, the two short sides can be used as the height and base. Other triangles, even isosceles triangles, won't necessarily have numbers that work out so cleanly.

If you click on the link to Heron's Formula at Wikipedia, you can see the proof of why the formula works. The proof is definitely not as easy as the proof of 1/2(height x base), and the formula is more work than plugging into 1/2(height x base), but it's not that much work, and it gives us options for understanding triangles that are defined by the side lengths.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Flags and them wacky internets!

Yay, Flags of Many Lands™! Yay, Grenada!

I'm sure every American remembers exactly where they were when those poor American medical students landed safely back in the U.S.A. after they were saved from certain destruction in Grenada by St. Ronald Reagan.

Or not. Whatever.

So what brings the first visitor to this humble blog from this island paradise?

Well, hypothetical question asker, it's a story from Them Wacky Internets that I don't have a complete answer to, but here's what I do know.

Last Thursday, traffic on my blog went crazy go nuts. More than twice as many people showed up last Thursday as showed up on Wednesday, and the traffic on Friday was also well above normal.

Sitemeter's entry page info showed me that people were going to a particular month's archives, which isn't that specific, of course. But the referral info was clear. Massive numbers of people from all over the world were coming to my blog looking for one particular picture from June 2007, when this blog had just started.

Last Thursday and Friday, way too many people had a burning desire to find out about tuataras. My best guess is there was some trivia contest somewhere that sent people on this chase for info about these weird little critters from the same place you find kiwis and Xena, Warrior Princess.

I have no idea if what I had on that blog post was any help to anyone, but a heck of a lot of people stopped by.

And now someone from Grenada, looking for the same stuff, only five days late.

I guess that's what they call Island Time.

Two new shows I like.

NBC has a new series that started two weeks ago called Kings. All I have seen about it in the news is that ratings have been disappointing. This is too bad, because the writing, acting and premise are very strong.

The premise is both audacious and simple. Take the books of Samuel from the Old Testament and re-interpret them in a modern day setting. King Saul has been re-named Silas, and he rules a powerful nation named Gilboa. He became king of all the land after years of war for unification. His country is prosperous, but not at peace. War is still raging against Gilboa's implacable neighbor Gath. The Gath army has nearly indestructible tanks called Goliaths, but one of these tanks is destroyed by a single soldier named David Shepard, who rescues a group of hostages, including the king's son. The young hero is brought to the capital city of Shiloh, where he becomes involved in palace intrigues.

The first two episodes have been strongly written, and the producers scored a brilliant victory by hiring Ian McShane to play Silas. Very few people reading First and Second Samuel come away thinking, "Boy, I wish we got more scenes with that guy Saul. What a dynamo!" In this show, King Silas is a great character, and not unlike HBO's Rome, therein lies a problem. Rome had Ciaran Hinds brilliantly playing Julius Caesar, but you knew they were going to have to kill him off eventually. Likewise, for David to become king, Silas will have to be moved out of the way, probably by death. So far, David is just a pretty and naive young man, and not Silas' match in any way, shape or form.

There is some hope McShane won't be rubbed out. In the second episode, Silas speaks of a king he killed in the war of unification, but later in the episode we see that Silas had put his former rival under house arrest. This gave us a scene between McShane and Brian Cox, another actor this show is lucky to have under contract. McShane and Cox worked together previously on the small screen in the last season of the late and lamented Deadwood on HBO. It's great to see them playing off each other in a well written scene again.

NBC is not Fox, and so they may give this show which is struggling for ratings a chance. I certainly hope so, but they have had a problem with serious shows in the recent past. While cotton candy shows like Chuck and Heroes can find an audience on NBC, they failed with Aaron Sorkin's most recent and more ambitious show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a few years back. It had its flaws, one of them being Matthew Perry, but it deserved a better fate than it got.

Another new series that has been on a few weeks longer is Joss Whedon's latest creation Dollhouse. As usual, Whedon's cast is full of the beautiful young people. The guy in the t-shirt in Tahmoh Penikett, who plays the FBI agent trying find the whereabouts of a missing girl, played by Eliza Dushku, the cute little thing over on the right. The not quite so young, not quite so pretty guy in the middle is Whedon.

Dushku's character Echo is missing because she has become a doll. In Dollhouse, the premise is that a technology to erase people's memory exists. These erased people can be given other personalities with specific skill sets. This means the show is going to rely on the acting skills of the actors playing the dolls, most especially Dushku, who will have to play a completely different character every episode. So far, Dushku, who was the rogue vampire slayer Faith in Whedon's earlier shows Buffy and Angel, is doing better than I expected. My expectations were low because much of her career she has been type cast as the good looking tough chick, and she has been able to stretch beyond that in the series.

This show has been on since February, but you can catch up with past episodes on Hulu. Last week's episode added several twists and turns, and besides the FBI agent trying to uncover the secret of the place where people are turned into cyphers, there is also the as of yet unrevealed Big Bad named Alpha, a former doll who recovered his memory and went rogue.

For my money, it's better than Heroes, but I gave up on that show relatively quickly, though it is doing very well. I may still be a nerd, but now that I am past fifty, I no longer have my finger on the pulse of my younger nerdy brethren.

Of course, now that I'm a blogger, I hold incredible sway over the two or three dozen people who wait breathlessly for whatever pronouncements I make each day.

Go, my minions! Watch Dollhouse! Watch Kings! Your blogger overlord commands you!

(Damn I forgot the first rule of being an evil overlord. Minions hate being called minions.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

The fail whale crashes the Twittersphere

Thanks to commenter BobManDo for a link to this cartoon about Twitter from a new show on Current called Super News. It says nearly everything I wanted to say, and it's actually funny, which scores many points with me.

I was whining about what was wrong with Twitter for me and some specific creepiness. This is much more about the completely wrong gestalt of Twitter. Enjoy.

The race is on!

The Obama administration is taking its own sweet time keeping the most important campaign promise: getting the girls a puppy.

Because one of the girls has allergies, they have decided to get a Portuguese Water Dog, pictured here. Because the breed is half dog and half muppet, the fur is hypoallergenic. (Part of the last sentence is not actually true.)

The girls want to name the dog either Frank or Moose. Ms. Obama doesn't think those are proper dog names, but I strongly disagree. Any size dog can be called Moose, and as long as you don't already have a child or close family friend named Frank, any dog will be happy to be called Frank.

The question is: Which will be the first to make it to Washington? The Obama dog or Senator Al Franken.

Remember: This is an exhibition, not a competition. Please no wagering.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Barack-etology: First weekend update

As you may have heard, Barack Hussein Obama went on ESPN this week and filled out a bracket in the NCAA basketball tournament. He is the first president ever to do this. This may be part of a charm offensive, scoring points with the people who think (for reasons that escape me) they would like to have a president with whom they could be comfortable sharing a beer. While I don't put that motive past him, given how much the man likes nuance, I think a major reason is that he actually is a basketball fan.

Filling out brackets, known facetiously as bracketology, has only been a popular pastime since the field expanded to 64 teams back in the mid eighties. This means Reagan, Bush the Elder, Clinton or Bush the Lesser could have been the first guy to throw his hat in this particular arena. Though Reagan started as a sports announcer at games he couldn't see, and Bush the Elder was a collegiate star, and Bush the Lesser owned a major league baseball team, assuming the Texas Rangers count as a major league team, I don't think any of them are quite the sports fan that Obama is. If the bracket had existed and ESPN had existed during his presidency, I think the guy who would have done this first would have been Nixon. He was a crazy serious sports fan.

So enough about the change. Is it change we can believe in?

The answer after the first two rounds is... yes and no. Or more accurately, no and yes.

First round games, Thursday and Friday: This is why the no comes first. Obama's first round picks sucked eggs. He was both too timid and just flat out wrong. As bad as Paul Krugman will slam Obama's economic plan, I will slam his first round picks even harder. More than that, reality kicked his ass as well. He got 19 of 32 right, which on the ESPN bracket challenge put him in the bottom 5% of the country.


In the first round, it's not like every game is a 50%-50% tossup. When the first seed plays the sixteenth seed, assume the first seed will win. The only time a 16th beat a 1st was in the women's tournament, and just to add further insult to the injury and insult that such a loss entails, it was 16th seed Harvard beating 1st seed Stanford.

In Oakland, California, about thirty miles from their campus in Palo Alto.


Here's how the Handicapper In Chief did in the first round, collected by seeding level.

1st vs. 16th: 4-0
2nd vs. 15th: 4-0
3rd vs. 14th: 4-0
4th vs. 13th: 3-1
5th vs. 12th: 1-3
6th vs. 11th: 1-3
7th vs. 10th: 2-2
8th vs. 9th: 0-4

He got 15 of his 19 wins by agreeing with the selection committee on the easy games, which is also called drawing in chalk. Where I come from, men are not proud of the wins they get drawing in chalk in the first round. The 8th vs. 9th match-ups are the hardest to pick, but even a blind squirrel should get one out of four. The president whiffed, and that's a large reason he sat in the 4th percentile at the end of the first round.

He went with a theory, what I like to call East Coast Bias. He assumed the Pacific 10 teams would suck. He had a reason. The teams lost a lot of good players to the pros after last season. But instead of losing 5 out of 6 games in the first round as Obama predicted, the Pac-10 won 5 out of 6 games, and the worst team, 12th seeded Arizona, actually won in the second round as well, and this year they are the only team that counts as a Cinderella in the Sweet 16.

He's toast, right? Not necessarily.

Second round games, Saturday and Sunday: Because the teams you pick in the second round to win have to be teams you picked in the first round to win, and because he had 13 losses in the first round, there turned out to be a couple games where Obama could not win in the sixteen games played in the second round.

And I mean a couple as in two. If everything went perfect, he could only win 14 of 16 games.

In the second round, Barack Hussein Obama won 14 of 16 games.

Dude. Was. On. Fire.

And in the ESPN way of counting things, these games count double, so he jumped from the 4th percentile at the end of round one to the 53rd percentile at the end of round two.

More than that, there's the idea of a Bracket Buster, when a team you expect will get to the fourth round or fifth round on even the final sixth round loses early, and then there are a whole bunch of games you can't possibly win.

Obama has no busted brackets. It's possible he could win all eight of the eight games in the next round, which is a very nice position to be in. A lot of the 47% of Americans who are ahead of him in the tournament wish they were in such a good position.

Will he win the whole thing? Damned unlikely. There has to be someone in the two million people ahead of him who agrees with his picks the rest of the way and didn't stink up the joint in the first round. But if he gets lucky, and especially if North Carolina wins the whole thing as he as predicted, he could go from the bottom 5% at the end of the first week to the top 5% at the end of the whole she-bang.

Stay tuned.

The Golden Age of Giant Woman Movies

Many of my readers, even many of My People who share Our Agenda, may be unaware there ever was a Golden Age of Giant Woman Movies. This is not surprising. This Golden Age does not match the glory of Ancient Greece or even the splendor of Florence under the rule of the Medici family. The age is pretty short and not all that golden. But in the space of eight years, 1958 to 1965, there were six films starring or featuring giant women, and there were also some shrunken or tiny man movies thrown in for good measure, though I will not mention them in this post. Sadly for My People and Our Agenda, this was not the start of a trend, and movies with giant female characters after 1965 became very rare indeed.

The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) It's hard to start a good Golden Age with such a bad movie, and even most of My People agree, this was a bad movie. It's very short but it feels longer than it is, because you wait around forever through a bad soap opera to get to the scenes where a giant Allison Hayes trashes a tiny town looking for her cheating little pipsqueak of a husband. The special effects are beyond awful, but if there is anything in this quickly and poorly made movie that can be called "interesting", it's interesting that Miss Hayes plays the giantess scenes nearly silently. You can hear her voice some times when she is off screen, but when on screen, she has this impassive look on her face you see here. She shows almost no emotion, but it feels like contempt and disdain for the tiny little mice that look like humans scurrying around beneath her.

The Thirty Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959) This film is famous only as an answer to a trivia question. What movie did Lou Costello make without Bud Abbott? He made this in 1959, two years after splitting with Abbott, when tax problems made Costello desperate for money.

Lou plays Artie Pinsetter, a junk collector who hopes to become a famous inventor. His girlfriend Dorothy Provine is turned into a giant, and he still wants to marry her. Good on ya, Artie!

For My People, the problem is that Ms. Provine spends most of the movie whining about being big. She has a short rampage scene where she lords it over the little people in the town where she lives, but most of the rest of the movie her character is just mopey, and that kind of spoils the mood.

The best known of the rest of the cast are Gale Gordon, playing a pompous windbag, and Charles Lane, playing a miserly curmudgeon. In other words, Gordon and Lane played the roles they played for their entire careers.

Costello died the same year the movie was released and never reconciled with his longtime partner Bud Abbott.

The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) It's a bit of a stretch calling this a giant woman movie, but I include it and a later entry on the list because of the work of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen. Compared to special effects today, stuff from the sixties looks incredibly fake and cheesy, but back in the day, Harryhausen did effects work that was much better than most of his competitors. He is most famous for his stop action animation work, but he also did a lot of work with special effects shots that included giants and little people interacting.

The three worlds mentioned in the title are Gulliver's own world in England, tiny Lilliput and gigantic Brobdingnag. Most of the scenes with Gulliver and a giant are opposite Sherry Alberoni as Glumdalclitch, who was just a kid when this was made. I may be a weirdo, but I'm not actually into giant jail bait. There is a scene with Gulliver and the Queen, but this movie is the only one on the list where the giantesses are not played by fabulous babes.

Later in the 1960s, Sherry Alberoni had a regular role on Family Affair as oldest sister Cissy's friend Sharon.

The Temptation of Doctor Antonio from Boccaccio '70 (1962) The movie was originally supposed to be a collection of four short films about sex and money, directed by four different Italian directors. The problem was that Federico Fellini didn't keep his segment that short, so one of the four was dropped from the version shown in movie houses. It has been restored on the version of the film you can now get on DVD.

Long story short. A prudish man who lives in Rome is offended by a billboard put across from his apartment, with a voluptuous Anita Ekberg lounging on a huge white sofa in an ad for milk. She escapes from the poster as a giantess and torments the little fellow throughout the streets of Rome.

The special effects here are fairly good, and Miss Ekberg has a much sexier attitude than all of her gigantic predecessors. This easily has the best production values of all the films on the list and the most competent director. It was also the movie Matty Boy first saw, probably at the age of eight or nine on TV, where he realized that the idea of giant women gave him funny feelings down there.

Okay, too much information. Sorry.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Like Three Worlds of Gulliver, this movie has special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Also like Three Worlds, it's a bit of a stretch to put this film on a list of giant woman movies. In the earlier film, there are no giant fabulous babes. In this one, Honor Blackman as the goddess Hera is clearly a giant fabulous babe, but she only has one short scene with tiny Jason visiting Mount Olympus. When I was a kid, this was the only giantess movie I actually saw on the big screen. Everything else was on TV years after it was released.

Village of the Giants (1965) Here it is, the swan song for giant woman movies. It's a monster movie, it's a beach party movie, it's two great tastes that go great together. The two actors from the film that were best known at the time were probably Tommy Kirk and Johnny Crawford. The two best known names today are Beau Bridges and Ron Howard. But if you have seen the movie or the trailer or the poster, you will know that the film really starred Joy Harmon and Her Very Large Breasts.

I wrote a post back in 2007 that if she were magically transported from her heyday to present day Hollywood, Joy Harmon would be derided as being too fat. I have never, ever heard one of My People, or any heterosexual male, for that matter, say that Joy Harmon was too fat. She had a face that was like Julie Christie's, big eyes and a wide mouth, but she wasn't as talented an actress. Like many starlets, she was used as scenery, and I for one certainly admired the view.

Special effects are better today, but no one is making movies about giant women anymore. The most My People get are videos, and while some of them are pretty good, I would like to see a real giant woman movie on the big screen.

C'mon, Hollywood! Throw us a bone. We are an incredibly loyal audience and relatively easily amused.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Killing Twitter by Hand

I decided tonight at long last to completely shut down my Twitter account, due to a few stories in the news.

I signed in to my account, clicked on the remove account button, but got a little pop-up window saying how the system was just way too hectic and couldn't grant my request right now.

I realize my mom and dad are reading this blog, but I am going to break my no swearing rule and call bullshit on this crap piece of software.

A few months back, I put up a message about the TV show Mad Men. Soon after, I found that I was being followed by peggyolson and bettydraper. Not the actresses Elizabeth Moss and January Jones, but the characters, whose lives are currently on the show are taking place in a fictionalized version of 1962, a secretary turned copywriter and a bored and unhappy housewife. At the time I considered this creepy and decided not to follow them back, and I hoped that if this was being done as some sort of guerilla marketing for the show, that the people spending time putting messages on the Twitter site claiming to be characters from the show were at least getting paid.

Now comes the news that Keith Olbermann is on Twitter, and he has many followers, as one might expect of a celebrity.

Except he's not on Twitter. Someone has set up a false account with his name and picture. He's asked Twitter to shut the account down and they have refused.

It just make sense. Since people can post as fictional characters from TV shows, why shouldn't they be allowed to pretend they are celebrities? If people are silly enough to think they are actually following a celebrity, it's their own damn fault for being so naive, right?

Since I couldn't just close my account, instead I sent a last message, stopped following everyone on my list and blocked everyone following me. If Twitter sends a message to any of my blog buddies about this, and as I recall that includes FranIAm, Lisa and Mathman, Spotchy, CDP and the author of The OtherWhirled, I hope you see this blog post and understand I mean no offense.

I just hate Twitter, not any of y'all.

Good news and bad news from the neighborhood.

The recent economic downturn has impacted me a little bit, but nothing I can't survive. I have other friends who are experiencing difficulties, and there are stories from blog buddies who have hit some tough patches, like Lisa and Mathman down in Georgia, but I don't have much personal contract with the "OMG, it's a freaking disaster!" side of the economy right now.

On the bright side, I'd like to give a shout out to my neighbor Segway of Oakland. I thought it was a little funny when I moved in over a year ago that I was one block away from their store front, but just recently the company invested in a brand new truck, their website appears to be updated regularly and the guy running the place is making a go of it. Yay, small business!

But then there's the bad news. On Sunday, the Parkway Theater will be showing its last movies. I love the Parkway. I saw movies I liked there, I saw movies I hated there, but I always liked going to the Parkway. Since I've moved into the neighborhood, the Parkway has been the most common way for me to get together with my adorable niece Holly and her fiance Cleavon. The ticket prices have been kept low and the food choices, like sandwiches, pizza, buffalo wings and honest to goodness nachos (not movie theater nachos) were always tasty. If you got there early, you and your friends could sit on a couch, have some simple, satisfying food and some beer or wine, and enjoy a movie in a civilized manner. Even if you didn't get a couch, there were comfy chairs and tables to place your food and drinks. It was really a great place for movies.

My favorite night this year at the Parkway was watching the election results there with my high school buddy Steve Lilley. Admission was free, but of course we both got something to eat. That was their business model. Not much to get in the door, but once you're in, you can get something to eat and drink you couldn't get at any other theater.

The Parkway has been a big part of the neighborhood, and losing them is going to be a blow, not just to Holly and Cleavon and me, but to the East Lakeside district and to Oakland in general. I wish the owners all the best with their second theater (now their only theater), the Cerritos up in El Cerrito, a suburb north of Berkeley.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Great minds think alike. Not so great minds work alike... and poorly.

At a talk in Canada, George W. Bush said this about the book he will write for Random House.

"I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened."

Some have wondered if this was a Freudian slip, mistaking authoritative for authoritarian. It wasn't. It was just a dumb guy with a limited vocabulary trying to show off and failing.

The writers on The Sopranos had the gangsters make these kinds of mistakes a lot. Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti had their share of such flubs, but some of the most memorable came from Paulie Walnuts, a character who is more or less George W. Bush's intellectual equal. When Tony tells Paulie that the guy Paulie and Christopher are trying to kill was from the Russian Interior Ministry and had killed sixteen Chechens, Paulie hangs up the phone and tells Christopher, "This guy killed sixteen Czechoslavakians. He was an interior decorator." When Tony reads The Prince and The Art of War, Paulie also makes a show of quoting "Prince Matchabelli" and "Sun Ta-Sue".

On The Sopranos, it was funnier than it was creepy. In real life, vice versa.

Random 10, 3/20

Lie Still Little Bottle They Might Be Giants
Win Or Lose Lew Lewis & Reformer
Knock Knock P.D.Q. Bach
If 6 Was 9 Jimi Hendrix Experience
Don't Do It (Baby Don't You Do It) The Band
Soul For Hire Elvis Costello
Hang On St. Christopher Tom Waits
Taxman The Beatles
Everybody Loves a Winner William Bell
Lobachevsky Tom Lehrer

Several artists from last week come back for another song, including They Might Be Giants, P.D.Q. Bach, Elvis Costello, The Band and Tom Waits. That leaves half the ten open for some artists we haven't heard from for a while, including Lew Lewis & Reformer, a band who recorded for Stiff Records, and William Bell, a hitmaker for Stax/Volt little remembered today. The Band mainly recorded their own tunes, and some from their friend Bob Dylan, but Baby Don't You Do It is a cover of a Marvin Gaye song.

I'll highlight George Harrison's Taxman, in honor of the charade we are watching from Capitol Hill, where the Democrats can look tough by passing an unconstitutional bill that tries to get the money back from AIG, but really only succeeds in making noise.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Whatever happened to Virtual Reality?

Remember Virtual Reality? We were all going to be wearing helmets that encased us in a computer generated world that would seem oh so real to us?

Why didn't that work out?

Well, hypothetical question asker, I just happen to have some inside info on a small part of that debacle.

I was working at a small video game design company in the early 90s, and we had a contract to make a fly-around-and-shoot-stuff game for the Sega VR, a mock-up of the final helmet is pictured here. The hardware was just a standard video game console and two tiny TV screens, one in front of each eye. Your TV updates the screen 60 times a second, which is called 60 Hertz in the business. Since the helmet had two screens, it would interlace this update, left-right-left-right, so each of the little screens was only updating 30 times a second, or 30 Hertz.

The problem is this. 30 Hertz hurts. The human eye can't really detect that updates of something going at 60 Hertz are really sixty still pictures mimicking movement, but up close, it can see the flicker at 30 Hertz if the viewer is concentrating hard enough. (Movies are updating at 24 Hertz, but the distance from the screen makes the flicker virtually undetectable.) When we were designing the thing, we worked on a regular TV screen and had no access to the VR helmet, which was in prototype at another facility. The beta testers of the actual product were some of Sega's most important clients, and the stories I heard were that wearing the helmet for about five minutes induced throbbing headaches or violent nausea. The flicker coupled with a lag in the update of the screens when your head would move made the experience sickening. Some other VR attempts used much more powerful hardware than Sega's model, but all the stories I've heard were that virtual reality was virtually 100% certain to make the user lose his lunch.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Who doesn't like a good Group of Death?

The World Baseball Classic is in full swing again. It's a little odd to call it a "classic" when this is only the second time the tournament has been played, but I for one really like the format. Sixteen national teams from around the world meet, split into four groups. Eight teams survive to a semifinal round, then four to a final round, and two play for the grand final.

The first time it was played in 2006, the United States did not make it to the final four. They finished third in their semifinal group, losing out to Korea and Japan. That was a Group of Death, three good teams vying for only two spots.

This year, Japan and Korea find themselves in another Group of Death, with the third good team being the Cubans. In 2006, Japan beat Cuba in the grand final to become champions. Tonight, Japan and Cuba meet again, but this time the loser goes home, unable to even qualify for the Final Four. Korea is already in. This will be a calamity for one of these two nations, places where baseball (or more precisely, yakyuu or béisbol) is really a national obsession and not just called the national pastime by people clinging on to a fading past.

The game won't start until 11:00 pm for folks on the East Coast, but here on the West Coast, it starts at a pleasant 8:00, so I know what I'll be watching tonight. Since Cuba are technically the underdogs, I'll be rooting for them. Moreover, they have this outfielder named Frederich Cepeda, a switch hitter batting .600 over five games with 3 home runs. This guy is scary good.

Wednesday Math, Vol. 64: Statistical correlation and Earl Bleeping Weaver

Baseball season is almost upon us, so this week's math post will combine math and baseball. Some people have said that baseball is merely an excuse to collect data and anecdotes. I think there's a little more to the game than that, but I do love the data and the anecdotes, and will be relying on both in this post.

The Society of American Baseball Research, or SABR for short, loves to collect and sift through the data produced by the national pastime. Many years ago, I was reading Bill James, probably the most famous member of the society, and he said that the formula above had a very strong correlation. If you take the runs scored by a team and square them and do the same with the runs allowed, runs scored squared divided by the sum of the squares of runs scored and runs allowed is usually very close to the winning percentage of the team for a season. The reason for general correlation is obvious, since you win games by scoring runs and lose games by giving runs up, but why you should have to square the totals before adding them is not as clear. Could the correlation be better if we raised the number to the power of 1.8 or 2.1? Nobody knows for sure.

The same methods for predicting winning percentages using points scored and points allowed in other sports are not as good at predicting. In football, there are too few games. In basketball, they score too many points per game. Maybe another power might work better in basketball.

While the formula is a good enough predictor, Bill James noted that one manager consistently, year in and year out, outperformed the predictions, and that was Earl Bleeping Weaver. (His nickname was not Bleeping, but my mom reads the blog, so I expect my readers will figure out the correct nickname without too much prodding. As Earl Bleeping Weaver would say, get a bleeping clue.) Whatever record the formula would predict, the Baltimore Orioles under the guidance of Earl Bleeping Weaver would win five or eight or ten games more than the prediction. No other manager outperformed the prediction as well or as often as Earl Bleeping Weaver.

I do not know if Weaver ever knew about this statistic. I'm sure if he did, Earl Bleeping Weaver would have had something to say about it, and it likely would have included profanity. Some people include profanity in their conversation for emphasis. In the case of Earl Bleeping Weaver, it appears to have been more like a respiratory function, nearly essential to his survival.

Whatever secrets he knew about baseball, Weaver kept his cards close to his bleeping vest. "Success in baseball is pitching, defense and bleeping three run homers." he was quoted as saying. We mere mortals are left to ponder the depth of Weaver's bleeping wisdom from such small pearls as these.

Not everyone appreciated Weaver's bleeping colorful language, not that Weaver gave a bloop what other people thought. When he was managing, born again Christianity was making its way into baseball clubhouses, with the devout holding prayer meetings and proselytizing where they could. One of the Christians quietly confronted the manager about his bleeping use of profanity one day.

Devout Christian Ballplayer: Skip, don't you want me to walk in the ways of the Lord?
Earl Bleeping Weaver: I want you to walk with the bleeping bases loaded!

Here endeth the bleeping lesson.