May 16, 2014
We’ve returned with your regularly scheduled programming…Things in history that mankind is resurrecting because the time is right again.
The Age of Sail
In the days before the industrial revolution, sail ships dominated international trade and naval mastkicking. Enormous Spanish galleons carried gold, rum, and tobacco from the Caribbean, while more efficient ships like the Dutch fluyt gave their merchants a competitive edge in the global economy. As years progressed rigging became ludicrously elaborate to make full use of the wind’s power until the um, wind shifted in favor of coal-powered ships. From there on out it was fossil fuels for life baby. Ok, and maybe a little nuclear power here and there.
But some things never change. Companies still want to get a competitive edge and have returned to sails to provide it because, like everything else, oil is expensive and finite. Several steps have already been made to supplement ships like having kites help tug them along.
March 21, 2014
I’ve written here before about how nobody in history is really ahead of their time because ideas in the past must be looked at in their own context, and it’s utterly impossible to separate those ideas from the culture of their generation. However, that doesn’t mean that things that were totally popular in their own time can’t find new uses in the future, so here’s 8 things from history that are making a comeback.
Airships once held the future for aviation. People thought these behemoths would litter cityscapes like floating urban sky-whales. That’s why skyscrapers like the Empire State Building were designed with docking ports for zeppelins and why Lakehurst, New Jersey used to be a city people have heard of. Then several different high profile disasters put an end to all those dirigible dreams, condemning blimps to cameos at football games and supporting fringe GOP candidates. First the Akron, the US Navy’s signature airship, went down off New Jersey killing all aboard, then the airship that went to look for survivors of the Akron went down, then the Akron’s sister airship crashed, and finally, after the US had all but given up on the ships, the Germans sent the Hindenburg over to get everyone excited again. That didn’t work too well.
With that the era of airships ended and planes took over forever…or did they? Several companies, both in the US and Germany are not only bringing zeppelins back, but hailing them as the future of transportation. And it’s not just corporate spokespeople hyping their product, truthful folks also see promise in bringing the ships back. They’ve pointed to several advantages they have over planes, like transporting cargo without the need for infrastructure like runways, doing it at a much cheaper fuel cost, and able to take off and land almost anywhere. The only problem appears to be the dwindling global helium supply, which the ships require in massive amounts. And yes, they look all cool and futuristic because steampunk stopped being cool in 2009.
February 5, 2014
An easy way to measure the relevance of questions is to quickly check in with Google’s autocomplete for a reading of the public consciousness. A search for “Were the founding fathers…” quickly leads to “Christian” as the top choice, followed by “democratic reformers,” “deists,” and “liberals.” It turns out the second choice of “democratic reformers” ranks so high because it’s the title of a chapter in a history textbook, which also might point to how kids do their homework these days. Nonetheless, two of the top three questions were about the Founding Fathers’ religion, apparently a lot of people want an answer to what seems like a fairly simple question.
It’s not. Continue reading
December 17, 2013
I just discovered the insanely addictive Google-maps-based game Geoguessr. If you’re not familiar with it, the game picks out a random Google street view location and you have to figure out where you are. It’s essentially a role-playing game where you pretend you blacked-out and/or were kidnapped by Carmen Sandiego, and woke up in a strange place on Earth. The closer you guess to the correct location, the more points you get. Sometimes you get placed on a busy interstate and can easily figure out your position, other times you’re on a desolate highway or on a small winding forest road which looks like it could be anywhere in the world. These 6 simple hints will allow you to zero-in on your location quickly, or at least ensure that you’re not guessing the wrong hemisphere.
1. Google Street View’s Range
Despite Google’s seemingly endless panopticonic abilities, they still have only mapped a small portion of the world’s streets. This information is by far the most important thing to know as it literally cuts your guessing options in half. It also explains why you’ll get a ton of locations in Brazil, the US, and Canada as opposed to other places in the Americas. Check out this map.
Think you might be in an African country? Bam! This map narrows your choices to about 3. Just placing your guess within South Africa will guarantee you about 2000 points. Continue reading
November 18, 2013
About half way through season 3 of AMC’s hit zombie show, The Walking Dead, I wrote a post asking whether the show was running into some serious racial problems in how they portrayed the black characters. Comparing the TV show with Kirkman’s comic, my main argument was essentially that the writers and producers made some rather questionable and outright unnecessary choices for the characters. Tyreese from the comics was replaced by either meek T-Dog or white Daryl/Shane, Michonne was re-written as a Zulu warrior, and the show seemed to have a quota for the number of black characters allowed, killing off one to immediately make room for another.
It’s now a year later and we’re nearly halfway through another season; it’s also a good time to revisit the question for several reasons. First, the racial component of the show has changed considerably. In my last post I lamented the omission of Tyreese, who has now appeared as a major character along with a bunch of other black characters, none of which appear to be red shirts. Second, we’re at a point in the season where the show has temporarily leveled off and has shifted its focus back on the governor plotline, so unlike the last post, I don’t expect the writers to completely undo one of my points in the coming episodes. Third, this blog sees a spike in traffic every Sunday because of the first post, and I’d rather not disappoint all of those coming here with some outdated nonsense. Oh, and at this point I should also mention that SPOILERS for the comic (and maybe the show) will follow.
November 4, 2013
We live in a world that loves conspiracies, not that a world has ever existed without conspiracies. But in an increasingly information-based society, conspiracy theories provide people with a supposed access to inside and privileged information. Most times these theories are limited to governments and secret societies but sometimes they drift into the world of pop culture where they transcend basic gossip and become much more hilariously involved. While political conspiracy theories tend to focus on shadowy organizations and complex plots, those surrounding celebrities are more visceral and interest-driven. They show that a conspiratorial world view is not necessarily political but just has to focus on a world hidden from view.
September 19, 2013
Let’s face the facts – plagiarism is rampant on the internet. Things are so easily reproducible and audiences so numerous that people can pretty much get away with copying things whenever and wherever they want. Plagiarism is also nothing new, it’s been around for millennia. Yet whereas before it was essentially taken for granted or existed in a totally different cultural context, nowadays it takes on a whole new and much more destructive force.
A couple hundred years ago content creators and writers existed almost exclusively as members of the upper class – people of their own means that could afford to spend their days on creative pursuits. The poor and proletariat were confined to their farms or factories and the middle class just plain ol’ didn’t exist. Presently, writing is a profession like any other. People compete to have their work published, to get their ideas to the public, and to garner an audience. And the vast majority of these people are not independently wealthy. As the internet more and more becomes the medium for this type of work, it also exposes anything published more easily to theft and to those who would take advantage of someone else’s idea to call their own.
This emerging dynamic is what makes this new type of plagiarism so problematic. There is now even a new strain of thought that everything on the internet is in the public domain and that nobody really owns any idea out there. Early in 2013 some obviously talented, yet unfortunately misguided individual got a brief moment of fame by posting a hilarious parody of chef Guy Fieri’s menu, only to have his reputation shattered when it was discovered that he had stolen all his jokes from other Twitter users. However, many also defended him, using some populist conception of fair use, and of course bringing out the tired old line that “all comedians steal.” This belief is so rampant among audiences that Patton Oswalt finally felt he had to say something and went on a totally-justified rampage against those stealing his jokes.
That brings us to Cracked.com, one of the largest comedy sites on the internet, and therefore used to people lifting all sorts of content from them. And guess what? They don’t take too kindly to it. Furthermore they don’t take too kindly to plagiarism in any form. First off, the site relies on submissions from their audience – sure they have some regular columnists and full-time funnynauts, but on any given day at least half of their content is from the average Joe (full disclosure – this average Joe included). Because of this, and probably also because they’re not run by total assholes, they have a very strict plagiarism policy where if you’re caught doing it you will be banned. It’s the internet so you can always come back under a different name, but then that involves trying to publish your work (or I guess someone else’s work) under an alias, which might work great if you’re Stephen King, but notsomuch if you’re just some random writer.
September 14, 2013
My horoscopes today have promised me a strong ability to communicate with others so I decided to write this post. About 25-30% of people in the US believe in astrology while millions more don’t really accept it yet still love reading about horoscopes or people’s signs. Astrology is particularly popular with women and men are often encouraged to learn and talk about signs as easy pickup lines. Despite its popularity, astrology is roundly condemned in the world of science by such skeptics as Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette ( Teller is also probably against it, but I heard Penn cut out his tongue). While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the orbit of Mercury is dictating my happiness on a day-to-day basis, astrology’s fundamental conclusion may be more scientific than many skeptics may want to acknowledge.
What is Astrology?
I should start by asking what exactly is the theory of astrology and whether it can be broken down into levels of interpretation. At its most literal, saying that the movements of distant planets and stars correlate with events in people’s lives on Earth, astrology might as well be a Nigerian prince. There is absolutely no evidence nor plausible scientific explanation for this type of silly action at a distance. In other words, daily horoscopes are a ridiculous thing to believe in and studies have shown this over and over. However, what about an interpretation that says astrology that links personality with a particular constellation in the night sky? If you take that to mean that constellations influence your personality then of course, it’s just as ridiculous as the literal interpretation – your sign does not dictate your personality unless you let it. Yet if we abstract it even further and simply say that astrological signs correlate with different personalities then the bullshit starts to peel away.
A Scientific Foundation for Astrological Beliefs
If we define astrology as the classification and grouping of different people by when they were born using markers in the sky, then a strong scientific case emerges. Consider this: different astrological symbols are essentially just markers for the time of the year. A scientific explanation rests on the fact that astrological signs might as well just serve as labels for time spans on the calendar while removing any causality from the heavens as well as any direct impact of daily events. Someone remarking about the compatibility between Cancers and Virgos might actually have a point as it can correlate to personality differences from different seasonal births rather than with patterns in the sky. In any region of the world, astrological symbols will correlate with different seasons which bring different climates and weather. This in turn influences daily aspects of life, like what foods are available, how much sunlight there is, and how much sleep people get. Scientific studies in turn show that these factors translate into differences during pregnancy for the mother, and during the formative years after the baby is born. Astrology may be seen as taking the simple question of how the time of year that someone is born affects their personality – a perfectly valid scientific question. And indeed science has provided some answers already. A study published 2 years ago notes a “seasonal imprinting” on our biological clocks that can account for personality differences between individuals. While it does not dictate a person’s emotional state or personality traits, there is a significant correlation between seasonal birth and someone’s mental and physical health. For instance, those born in the winter months are more prone to psychological disorders like schizophrenia.
If astrology is re-interpreted as correlating personality with seasons, by way of constellations in the sky, then I see no reason to call it unfounded. However, the mystic methodology that bloomed from this basic understanding is certainly unscientific and unfounded. Stars and planets have no determinative effect on our daily lives on this planet and anyone preaching such a message is either a fool or a charlatan. Yet often pseudoscientific enterprises are based on some basic truth and in this case maybe some relationships simply are probablistically doomed from the start based on which season they were born.
August 15, 2013
There are certain technologies that have been around for ages which with people consistently and cyclically fall in and out of love. When 3D came out in the early 1950’s audiences were enthusiastic and entertained, but then people stopped caring and complained that untrained film operators made it “hard on the eyes.” 3D didn’t end there of course. There was another revival in the 1960’s, the 1980’s and in the past 5 years when studios released a whole slew of movies purposely filmed for 3D, the most prominent being the colorful blue-cat epic, Avatar. But now, like in the past, audiences for 3D films are in decline.
Other technologies also seem to follow this same trajectory. The idea of the flying car has been around longer than anyone has been alive yet every decade or so there’s a resurgence of interest with promises of progress. The more it’s discussed however, the more it goes from dreams of bypassing gridlock singing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to outright pessimism over the mountain of safety, logistical, and cost issues involved in actually pursuing it. Subliminal advertising also comes around every couple of decades to capture the imagination yet inevitably goes away when scientists remind everyone that it’s not real (that hasn’t stopped people proposing laws against it). And now we have the idea of the Pebble, an incredibly successful Kickstarter project that’s thriving off this cyclical interest.
The Pebble. What’s not to love?
July 4, 2013
This week marks both the annual celebration of American Independence, the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president, Morsi, and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a pivotal point in the US Civil War. While unrelated on the surface, all three are landmarks in building a nation and while we’ve yet to see the outcome of Egypt’s struggle with democracy, the other two certainly have appeared fruitful. Today the US is a thriving democracy with a strong economy. Meanwhile, many commentators have placed Egypt in another group – the failed Arab Spring.
Altogether, five nations have seen protests resulting in massive political upheaval with demonstrations in Tunisa, Yemen, and Egypt bringing in new leaders, and armed revolts in Lybia and Syria leading to both democracy and an uncertain ongoing civil war respectively. The outcomes of these revolutions has been highly criticized by many on both the left and the right who claim that the costs of such revolutions will outweigh any benefits as the economies of Egypt and Lybia are in turmoil and most of Syria is still a warzone with no end in sight. Often onlookers will remark, either cynically or racially, that Arab countries are not ready for democracy and that they lack the institutions or culture to support it. This critique was formerly lobbed at the US when it tried to impose democracy on Iraq after overthrowing Saddam’s regime with a lead story from The Economist labeling it “Democracy at Gunpoint.” However, liberals will be quick to remark that the Arab Spring is different in that democracy imposed lacks the ummm…democracy that a spontaneous self-propelled revolution inspires. Still there are those who point to every short-coming of these revolutions as evidence that they have already failed after only 2 years. These people have either forgotten their own history of the American Revolution or have gotten so used to instant gratification that they accept nothing less. Did the American Revolution look any better after 2 years? after 10? From where we are now the revolution looks like a beacon of success but what was it really like in those years following independence? Here are some things to keep in mind.
May 27, 2013
This Memorial Day Weekend I sat down to watch the old and new versions of Red Dawn by accident. The original movie happened to be on TV and after watching my patriotism simply crescendoed into looking up the new one on YouTube where I found several full length versions. This was my first red flag. Disregarding the possibility that the movie was so bad and such a flop that the studio didn’t even bother policing its copyrights, I pressed on to see how this new film handled contemporary politics, much like the first one had. What I found was that things appear to have gotten worse.
April 26, 2013
History’s hit new show “Vikings” has drawn a fair amount of praise from critics who have hailed it as the next “Game of Thrones” and the show that will rescue the network formerly known as The History Channel from its “Ancient Aliens” past. The show follows the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary 8th century Viking who carved out a small kingdom for himself. “Vikings” has been renewed for a second season, and its unclear whether they’ll stay with Ragnar or jump ahead to show Viking quests to Iceland, Greenland, and beyond. Personally, I’d love to see them tackle the attempt by some eastern Vikings to sack Constantinople, but that will probably have to wait for season 67 at this rate. Either way, despite the praise from critics and viewers, the show has come under fire from historians. Often the criticism focuses on how the Vikings are dressed, whether Iceland Spar was really used , or what type of government they had. All these concerns are fine for the nit-picking historian, yet they omit quite possibly the most egregious error – that the Viking world had no knowledge of the British Isles or anything outside the Baltic.
April 18, 2013
This is something I’ve been pondering for some time. I started writing this piece a couple months ago but stopped because it didn’t seem that relevant and I didn’t really care too much. Now I think it’s different. First and foremost is the emergence of the so-called drone memos and the Rand Paul filibuster follow-up which has served to expose some serious hypocrisy in both political parties. The other is the increased (and perhaps overuse) of the term “false equivalency” by the left. There’s no question that the media tends to “report the debate” and often gives an impression of equivalency, but understanding the structures of both parties might better help to explain why such a false equivalency might exist.
Since emerging as a term in 1992, “RINO” or “Republican in name only” has become increasingly common in right-wing political discourse. With the emergence of the Tea Party and the recent rejection of their candidates in the last election, the term has become even more meaningful as a troubled party tries to redefine itself. Politicians or pundits often get called RINO’s if their positions don’t live up to the hardline stance of the party. Any Republican compromising with Democrats is now viewed as a RINO by many on the right.
RINO vs. Blue Dog
On the other side, you have the term “Blue Dog Democrat” to denote Democrats that lean conservative. Continue reading
April 9, 2013
File this under the category of what’s mildly annoying me this week, or annoying me enough to write about it here.
Whenever someone mentions that the US is a democracy, even in passing, someone will undoubtedly chime in with, “the US is a republic, not a democracy,” as if that somehow negates everything previously said.
How people got this notion remains a mystery. I first recall one of my high school history teachers telling me it, and I’m undoubtedly guilty of repeating the statement as a teenager. Anyway, (before I start discussing my teenage years) it appears that people see a republic and a democracy as two distinct forms of government. Democracies supposedly elect everyone directly while republics elect representatives to vote in their place. By these definitions America is a republic – too bad these definitions are wrong. Continue reading
April 2, 2013
In my last post I talked about how to really win an argument with creationists. Not to leave anyone out I’ll talk more casually about how to win an argument with an evolutionist. Let’s say you’re a young earth creationist.
You find yourself on the internet and you’re feeling adventurous enough to trade-in your allowed daily hour of GodTube for its more risque older sister YouTube. You check out the latest hit from the album “Death Metal and Resurrection” from Knights of Bethlehem when you notice a recommended video titled “How to win an argument with an atheist.” You click on it and it’s just a guy with a terribly-accented drawl making fun of creationists. This now has you belligerently enraged with love for Jesus and you decide to pick a fight in the comments. You begin by citing the Bible and that’s where you immediately lose. This tragic situation happens every day. Continue reading