Sunday, November 15, 2009

False Friends

Swedish speakers leave the room, this is not for you.

Browsing through The Local, an English-language Swedish news site I ran across an article covering a viral video that provides a brief and humorous introduction to Swedish for English speakers. (Don't ask me why I was browsing a Swedish news site, it's just what I do, okay?)

Warning: the language is a little coarse, so if you are easily offended you probably shouldn't play it.

My favorite little phrase from the article is: It’s not the fart that kills, it’s the smäll. For those of you who don't speak Swedish (and that should be all of you because I sent the Swedish speakers out of the room), this is funny because it combines two Swedish/English false friends* to make a reasonably meaningful sentence. The word "fart" in Swedish means "speed", and "smäll" (pronounced like the English "smell"), means impact. So if you translate the words, the sentence becomes "It's not the speed that kills, it's the impact," which still makes sense. I think it's a nifty little double meaning for those in the know (which now includes you - welcome to the club).

Other Swedish/English false friends include:

bra - fine, well, good
ful - ugly
full - drunk
kissa - to pee
hamstring - hoarding

Notice how much funnier false friends are when they mistakenly include scatological and anatomically sensitive terms. Somehow it seems a part of us will always be stuck in third grade.

The BBC website has several false friend examples for English (if you can really call British English "English") and other languages. There are also several websites for false friends, just search for "false friend" plus the language pair you're looking for ("false friend English Spanish").

A classic for written French is chat, which means to talk in English, but means "cat" in French, and in spoken French the English word "shovel" can easily be confused with "cheval", the French word for horse. With a little work you can find French/English false friends that don't involve French animal names.

And for those of you who like word play, here is an old Two Ronnies sketch about learning Swedish, except that there's no Swedish involved and Corbett is dressed in German lederhosen.

 *a false friend is a word that sounds like a word in another language but has a different meaning. I thought that's what false cognates were, but in reading about such word pairs today I have become enlightened. Shame, really, because I always felt that saying "false cognate" made me look taller.

The Local
Transparent Language

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Promotion Fail

You make it all the way through Friday the 13th and then this crap happens.

"Mailorama va distribuer des dizaines de milliers d'Euros en cash dans les rues de Paris," claims the website - at least for the moment. For the monolithically English speaking, that roughly translates to "Mailorama will distribute tens of thousands of euros in cash in the streets of Paris." Didn't work out that way.

Mailorama, an email marketing website in France, set out to promote their service by having a drive-by-giveaway, tossing envelopes of cash to people from a van as it passed the Eiffel Tower. However when an unexpectedly large crowd estimated at 5000 showed up, blocking traffic and causing safety concerns, police and  Mailorama agreed to call off the publicity stunt.

The disappointed crowd overturned a car. At least 10 people were arrested.

The Mailorama fiasco is right up there with other great promotional disasters. My favorites are the (real) Disco Demolition night and the (fake) WKRP Thanksgiving Giveaway.

Disco Demolition night took place in Chicago in 1979. Disco music, the signature music of the 70's, had divided the nation into those who could do The Hustle and those who couldn't. A growing rejection of what had become the Disco norm was spawning the New Wave and Punk movements, and in Chicago a disc jockey expressed his disdain for Disco by destroying Disco records by any means possible. His claim to fame came when he was scheduled to blow up boxes of LPs between games of a Chicago White Sox double-header.

The White Sox were owned by Bill Veeck, a shameless promoter who had once sent midget Eddie Gaedel up to bat in a major league baseball game. For him the Disco Demolition night was a no-brainer.

The demolition took place, but then, as with the Mailorama crowd, the scene turned ugly with hundreds of people coming onto the field and starting a bonfire in center field. The second game of the double header was cancelled (the White Sox ultimately forfeited the game - the last time an American League game was forfeited).

Still, IMHO, the best promotion failure was from the fictional WKRP radio station from the TV series of the same name. If you know the story it needs no explanation, and if you haven't, well, I won't spoil it for you, just watch the clip (sorry, can't find an embeddable version).

CBS News

Friday, November 13, 2009

Not What They Seem

Austrian Times
Police close down the Alesso family bakery in Turin, Italy.
Two bakers in Turin, Italy have been arrested for selling cocaine hidden inside loaves of bread. Michelangelo Alesso, 51 and Alessandro Mancino, 22, have been arrested and their family bakery shut down. Alesso blamed the economy for their desperate measure: "I had no choice. No-one was buying special bread or cakes any more so we had to find something they would buy or we would be out of business."

Police became suspicious when the bakery line began to reach around the corner.

Austrian Times

Confiscated cigarettes with (bonus!) rabbit droppings in the Canary Islands.

Also, counterfeit cigarettes confiscated in the Canary Islands have been found to contain not only tobacco, but also rabbit feces.

Police and customs officials have arrested at least 12 people on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary islands with a population roughly the size of Oahu, Hawaii.  The rabbit feces were used to save on tobacco content. The police seized 1.5 million packs of cigarettes and over a million Euros in cash.

According to one customs official, "They stunk. They smell just as you'd imagine burning shit to smell."

Austrian Times (and again)
Daily Express
Tenerife Forum
Island Connections

NewsCorp v Google

Several news sources report that News Corp, run by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, may pull their stories from Google in a matter of months.

Most of those sources seem to be (or cite) articles published in News Corp properties.

I found those sources using a Google search.

For those of you who haven't been in touch with this issue, the general background goes something like this:

  1. Media sites are trying to make money on the web.
  2. Web revenue comes primarily from advertising.
  3. Google currently has the largest income from web advertising.
  4. Content providers (like News Corp), feel that Google (and other search engines) are unfairly using their content and want to them to pay for it.
  5. Google says, no, thanks, we don't want to pay.
So now News Corp is threatening to pull its news off of Google. They also have a self-imposed deadline to put all their sites behind paywalls by June 2010.

Ain't gonna happen.

The reason I am sure they won't pull their Google listings is because if they wanted to they could do it not in a few months, but today. Right now. In less time than it takes to read this article.

There is a convention used by all search engines to respect sites that don't want to be searched. You do it by adding a file (robots.txt) to your website. You want to stop all the search engines from searching your site? Put these two lines in robots.txt and it's done:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

If it's so simple then why doesn't News Corp do it?

They don't do it because they need Google more than Google needs them.

News Corp has a tremendous number of print holdings around the world, including The Times (London), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), The New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Of these four, all a completely free to read with the exception of the The Wall Street Journal.

Up to the 19th century, print media was a natural oligopoly on the news. If you lived somewhere most of your second-hand news came from the local papers. You didn't have a choice. You couldn't very well subscribe to the New York Times if you lived in Chicago. Because papers are regional by their very nature they are also limited in the number of potential subscribers. Subscriptions eventually topped out, but newspapers really turned into a business when they realized they could make more money by advertising than subscriptions. In fact, advertising revenue is the prime source of income for most newspapers today.

Don't agree? Do you get a local town or neighborhood weekly newspaper? Do you pay for it? I get one in delivered to my house every week for free. It's paid for by the advertising.

Even if you pay a fee for a daily paper it probably doesn't cover the cost of production and delivery.

Newspapers are not in the news business, they are in the advertising business. They make money by providing a service, and the service is providing eyeballs for advertising. News is what they use to attract the eyeballs.

When you look at newspapers as an advertising service you see why they feel threatened by Google (or any other search engine). Google provides the same type of service in that they connect eyeballs to advertising, and they do it at a far more massive scale than a print newspaper could ever achieve.

Newspapers are threatened by this and rationalize it by claiming it is unfair that Google makes money off of their news content.

They are wrong in two fundamental ways: first, the service Google provides is a service which is not provided by the newspapers, and second, individual news sites provide very little original content.

First, newspapers have gone online to attract more eyeballs, and Google's search engine increases those eyeballs.

Consider the dictionary. A dictionary has a phonetic pronunciation for the word which can be handy if you see a word written down but have never heard it spoken. However, if you need to know how to spell a word a dictionary is pretty useless. But what if someone created a dictionary sorted phonetically? Then you could take a spoken word and find the correct spelling (or spellings, when there are homonyms).

Google provides a service analogous for news sites analogous to the phonetically sorted dictionary. If someone just wants to see what the news is they can go directly to their news site of choice, but if they want news on a specific event then Google provides a mechanism to point their eyeballs at a relevant news site.

Google does not charge for providing this service. Google absorbs the technology costs for providing this service the same way newspapers absorb production and delivery costs, and both make their money back in advertising.

Now, some news sites do not need Google. They attract readers enough readers by reputation alone.

Of Alexa's top 100 global sites, only two are news sites: CNN and The New York Times. A search on "Fort Hood shootings", a fairly hot topic this week shows CNN at the top of the list, but the New York Times isn't even on the first page.

Though the NYT doesn't charge for an online subscription, it does require user registration. This means that if you're not registered you can't read the articles. Because not everyone is registered the links on the NYT are frustrating to pass around - a lot of people can't click through - so links to NYT articles don't get ranked as high on Google. The NYT has a strong reputation, they can get by without Google, but how many other news sites can do that?

The NYT is 97th on the list. CNN is 59th. I can't say how much larger the NYT audience would be if it's articles showed up on Google, but I don't see CNN rushing to put up a barrier between themselves and those eyeballs.

Google provides a service, and the market has deemed that service valuable enough that Google can support the costs of that service by advertising.

The second thing is content: news is, by its nature, a local event. An event may have worldwide implications, but the bottom line is that news is an event that occurred in some specific location. No newspaper can cover the entire world, so they take advantage of wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press as a source for non-local news stories. Many of these wire service news stories are replicated in newspapers around the world. Not just major stories, either.

Anyone who has read through my blog knows I like to pull up odd news stories, and I am amazed how difficult it is to find differing sources because so many of the stories are replicated word for word. While I often find out about a story from a source that uses the wire service, I also try to find the original story. The wire services almost never site the original source for the story (interesting double standard, but I digress), but Google often allows me to get back to the original sources.

(And before you go off on piracy and copyright tangents, note I am only talking about news sites that actually pay for the right to print the wire service articles, okay?)

Take a look at your local daily and see how many of the articles are wire service articles, especially in the front and sport sections. This does not mean that the newspaper is useless - far from it: using wire services is a cost-effective way to enhance news coverage. But the transition from print to online makes wire service stories significantly less valuable because you can find the same story in so many places. Local news makes a news site valuable. Interpreting the implications of a non-local event on the local area makes a news site valuable. Running a wire service story does not make a news site valuable; this is a fundamental difference between print and online news.

Running wire service articles doesn't hurt an online news site, but because the article is replicated all over the world, it doesn't make the site more valuable either. The valuable content is the original content, not the wire service articles.

Now, the internet has drastically changed the game over the last few years. A large portion of  newspaper advertising used to be for classified ads, but craigslist, ebay, and have (from the newspaper point of view) devastated that market. The eyeballs and the money associated with classified ads has left the newspaper coffers and will not be back.

The situation with Google is fundamentally different. Google does not remove money from online news sites. Online sites still have their own advertising. All Google does is drive more eyeballs to that advertising. And Google does it free of charge. And that is why News Corp will not pull themselves from Google.

What if News Corp does pull its sites from Google? Like I said, of Alexa's top 100 sites, none of them are News Corp properties. What do you think the impact on Google will be?

Murdoch understands all of this.

So I say it again: ain't gonna happen because if it were going to happen News Corp would already have done it.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Anteaters Ain't Aardvarks

Aardvarks never killed anybody. - The Goon Show
The aardvark is not the same animal as the anteater. - Sid
Anteater! Run for your lives! - Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief

Zoo de Florencio Varela
The Florencio Varela Zoo runs a conservation project for the giant anteater.
Schadenfreude reared its ugly head (and I believe "ugly head" is truly accurate here), when an Argentine zookeeper at the Zoo de Florencio Varela was killed by a giant anteater.

Related to the sloth (but not to the aardvark), the giant anteater is an endangered species native to South America. The Florencio Varela Zoo, located outside of Buenos Aires, is a part of an international cooperative conservation and breeding effort to save the animals.

The toothless animals grow to as much as 9 feet long and can weigh in excess of 100 pounds. Though generally not a danger to humans, when threatened or protecting their young they can attack with their large front claws.

The zookeeper, 19 year old Melissa Casco, died post-operatively after sustaining wounds to her legs and abdomen.

All Voices
Courier Mail
Zoo Chat
Zoo de Florencio Varela

Pole in the Highway

There is a utility pole in the middle of a six-lane highway in Zhengzhou, China.

Looking like something out of Brazil or The Hitchhiker's Guide, the utility pole used to stand by the side of the road, but sits in the middle of the recently widened thoroughfare.

Unfortunately, there is not enough money to bury the power lines, so the pole cannot be moved.

The pole remains unmarked, but there was enough money for road signs directing traffic forward (into the pole) at 50 mph.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who Are You?

Where there is demand can supply be far behind?

As fingerprint scanners replace traditional card readers for clocking in and out at companies in China, the motivation to get around the fingerprint ID has increased. A Chinese company (unnamed in the Croatian Times article), takes your fingerprints by mail and for about $15, will send you back a silica gel replica of your fingertips. Says customer Xiao Liu:

We're fined 20 GBP every time we're late and I used to ask a friend to punch me in until my bosses switched to fingerprints. Now I've just given some copies of my fingerprints to people on the early shift and I'm never late no matter what time I get up.

This opens the door to people actually stealing your fingerprints, just like in the movies. I suppose that if fingerprint theft became prevalent then another company would pop up offering some medical procedure to modify your prints. It's all about supply and demand.

And in Austria, funeral company Bestattung Wien now offers amulets containing fingerprints of the deceased in addition to more traditional offering like death masks and diamonds made from the ashes of the deceased.

Of course you can see the biometric issues popping up here: take fingerprints of the dead, send them to the Chinese company and voila, now they can continue to punch into their job (and draw a paycheck) long after a normal body would be retired, memorialized and buried. Good work if you can get it, I suppose.

Croatian Times (photo)
Austrian Times (photo)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Confounded by Meep

Once the sole property of animated roadrunners and scientific muppets, meep has entered the American vernacular.

I am always fascinated by the ways language changes over time, and I don't think any language is more malleable than English. Every generation comes up with its new slang, of course. Some of it sticks: cool has been around for a while now and doesn't show any signs of disappearing. Bling, rad, and gnarly, on the other hand, have not fared so well and are more tied to their times.

When I was growing up my brother and his friends were fond of the term moons. Initially it meant something like "a long time," a play on American Indian movie speech patterns like "I a have not seen your face in many moons." In time came to mean anything long or large or in vast quantities. "Moons good" would mean very good. The word had one universal meaning, but they co-opted the word and morphed it and used it in ways it hadn't been used before. It was a form of play, like hide-and-seek or soccer.

Although moons was never universally adopted by my generation, it was useful within that group because there was a general agreement on its meaning. It is that agreement between users that differentiates language from just so much grunting (or hand-waving, if you're an ASL speaker).

Meep entered the world under my radar (I'm still trying to get a handle on meh). It is still new enough that there is not a universal agreement as to its meaning. Judging from the Urban Dictionary entries the term started gaining traction in 2003.

The most popular entry in the Urban Dictionary defines it as:

The most versatile word in the English language, or in fact any language!
Can mean whatever you want it to mean, but the most popular uses are: 
  1. An exclamation akin to 'ouch' or 'uh oh..' 
  2. Filling in the blanks where other (rude) words would go. 
  3. A greeting! I personally say meep instead of Hello... 
  4. A random expression of happiness used to fill gaps in conversation. 
I only got wind of meep today when I followed a link to this article in The Salem News that said in part:
Danvers High parents recently got an automated call from the principal warning them that if students say or display the word "meep" at school, they could face suspension.

A pretty strong statement, in my opinion. Said the principal:
"It's really not about the word in particular," Murray said. "The reason for the message (was) a group of students were instructed to refrain from that language and other language in a particular part of the building."
"It has nothing to do with the word," [Principal] Murray said. "It has to do with the conduct of the students. We wouldn't just ban a word just to ban a word."
I thought the article was fairly interesting, but nothing to blog about, so I just posted a link to it on my Twitter account with the text "meep meep". It turned out to be the most popular link I've posted this month, and I was not the only one linking to the article, so I changed my mind: apparently it is interesting to some people.

And what about the kids at Danvers High?

Some Danvers High students said yesterday they were not sure what "meep" means.
"No one really knows," said sophomore Melanie Crane, who said some freshmen used the term, but she has not heard the term used herself.
Other students outside Danvers High who declined to give their names said they got the phone message from Murray saying they risked suspension if they uttered the word.
They said the term is meaningless, comes from the Muppet Beaker or is a sound Japanese anime characters make.
The kids are certainly wrong about one thing, the term is certainly not meaningless. It means something to them. It means something to their principal. That meaning is the essence of language.

I'm not sure how effective Principal Murray's actions will be in the long run. The largest of the three Facebook Meep groups has grown by more than 10% today. For those of a certain age the whole affair recalls the language humor in George Carlin's Seven Words[NSFW], Monty Python's Knights Who Say Ni, or Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry's Your Name Sir.

Meep is just a sound. We imbue that sound with meaning and make it a word. And in spite of what the Urban Dictionary says, meep is not even the most versatile four letter word in the English language[NSFW].

It will be interesting to see if meep becomes cool or fades into the groovy linguistic ether.

Urban Dictionary
The Salem News

Throwing Money at the Problem

Ran across this graphic today on the rate of return states get from the money they spend on education as measured by high school graduation rates. (Click through to see the a larger version.)

High school graduation is an important indicator of later financial success, with high school graduates earning $14,000 more annually than high school dropouts.

The first thing I noticed is that this is a really, really bad graphic representation of the data. What do you get from looking at this picture? Not much. There is no order, there is no representation of magnitude. Just not very effective, so I shoved the numbers from the graphic into a spreadsheet and got something a little more interesting.

Now in this graph you get a better feel for the data. The x-axis (on the bottom) is the amount each state spends per student, and the y-axis is the high school graduation rate.

You can click on the graph for a larger image - but the actual numbers are not particularly interesting. What is interesting is the randomness of the data. And why is randomness interesting? Because if spending more money on education was related to high school graduation rates you would expect the points to start in the lower left corner and move up to the upper right corner. The randomness of the points indicates the stunning lack of correlation between spending and graduation rates.

Those three points way out to the right are (from top to bottom), New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C. All three spend over $12,000 per child annually, but get extraordinarily different graduation results.

For those of you interested in geeky numbers, r-squared for a linear regression is 0.0373, and even for a six-degree polynomial regression (remember, there are only 51 points), the r-squared only gets to 0.2191. How low a correlation is that? If you try to correlate the first letter of the state (a pretty random value) with the graduation rate the linear r-squared is 0.0873, more than twice as high as the r-squared for dollars per student. That is a stunning lack of correlation.

Now, there are huge problems with compressing the entire education system down to two numbers. It ignores any quality factors like what the actual graduation requirements are (some states will have more demanding graduation requirements), and also what each state considers a student (are special education students included in both figures, or incarcerated youths, or students in private schools), so it's easy to quibble and get defensive on a case-by-case basis. You could also argue these figures should be weighted in importance based on population size (which these figures are not). No question that there are some apples and oranges comparisons.

What is clear in spite of those differences is that money alone does not fix the education system. Money, is probably not even the primary factor in educational success. Utah and Colorado have identical graduation rates, but Utah spends $2400 less per student. How does that happen? New York spends almost twice as much as Texas, but has a lower graduation rate. How does that happen?

Education is not a simple problem and, as this data shows, it does not have a simple answer, not even money.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Combat Barbie Revisited

Cat fight? Kat fight?  Must be something funny in there somewhere.

In any case, revisiting a story from September, Katrina Hodge (right), aka Combat Barbie, is temporarily taking leave of her duties as Lance Corporal to take over the duties of Miss England.

Rachel Christie (below), pentathlete, niece of Linford Christie, and original winner of the 2009 Miss England competition has resigned her title after being arrested (rather ironically, given Hodge's profession) for getting in a fight over a boy (David McIntosh, aka Tornado) with Miss Manchester (Sara Beverly Jones) in a previously-thought-to-be upscale British pub in Manchester.

Miss England put out this statement:
The Director of Miss England Ltd. Angie Beasley would like to announce that Lance Corporal Katrina Hodge is the new Miss England.
Katrina has been given leave from her duties as a soldier in the British Army to represent England in the Miss World Final to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday, 12th December, 2009.
Katrina was the first runner up in this year’s prestigious competition and has been awarded the title of Miss England, following the stepping down of the original title-holder, Rachel Christie.
Following her success in the Miss England competition, Katrina was selected by lingerie retailer La Senza to front their Armed Forces campaign.
There are quotes from all over, from Christie, from McIntosh, from Miss England, and La Senza is, of course, about to bust a bra strap, but nothing from Hodge. If anyone knows how she feels about taking over tiara drop me a line.

News:lite (photo)
The Sun (photo)
Miss England
Winnipeg Sun

Engineered Rabbit Penises

Malfeasant lotharios rejoice! Researches at Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine have engineered fully functional rabbit penises.

Led by Anthony Atala (pictured right - what you expected a picture of an engineered rabbit penis?), the team has engineered several organs by spraying cells onto a collagen structure, bathing them in growth-stimulating compounds, and cooking them at body temperature. The technique has worked well enough that lab-grown bladders have been implanted in humans.

The penis proved a more complicated challenge than the bladder, but the latest results have been successful enough that rabbits have been able to do what rabbits do best. After replacing the corpus cavernosa from several rabbits with lab-grown versions eight of the rabbits were able to do-the-deed, with four of them actually fathering baby bunnies.

No word on whether Dr. Atala's erectile achievement will be memorialized on the Wake Forest campus à la Mendeleev's periodic table.

ABC News
US News (photo)

Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear

The children's rhyme has come true for a pair of spectacled bears at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany. The rhyme was big when I used to watch Captain Kangaroo back in the day, but if you've forgotten, it goes something like this:
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. 
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy, was he?
Zookeepers are at a loss as to why Dolores (pictured right) and the other female spectacled bears, have lost all their hair. Normally the South American bears should be growing a thick coat of fur for the winter.

Zoo attendance has swelled like alums at a ten year high school reunion; apparently naked female bears attract as much attention as their human counterparts.

This animal nudity hearkens back to Ralph the penguin from the very second story on this blog. What are they doing to the animals on the right side of the Atlantic?

But really, how great is a story when you get to cite The Hair Centre: Hair Loss and Scalp Treatments as a source?

Daily Mail (photos)
The Hair Centre

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

American Gods

I now have autographed copies of the latest books by Hulk Hogan and John Irving, both of whom were at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park last night in a bizarre juxtaposition of crowds and personalities. Both of them draw a crowd of minions even on a suburban Tuesday night.

I arrived at Third Place Books around 4:15, and was fortunate to be there at all. I only found out about the events Monday evening. In a change of routine I haven't been taking the paper lately, but Monday night I picked up a copy of the Seattle Times on a whim. I noticed John Irving's familiar face in Mary Ann Gwinn's column - and when I read that Hulk Hogan was going to be there on the same day I was completely sold, even though it meant that I would not get to attend Steve Martin's banjo concert at Benaroya Hall (no, I am not kidding).

Hogan wasn't due to start signing until 5 o'clock, so I had some time. Third Place Books is on the upper level of this small, suburban mall on the northern tip of Lake Washington. Lake Forest Park has always been a town I drive through to get somewhere else: a bridge-less route into Seattle or a right turn on the way to a track meet in Shoreline. The mall is built on a grade. There are two levels that are largely independent; depending on the street you enter from you see what appear to be two different malls. There is a space an escalator ride up from Rite Aid that joins the two sections like the pin joining the two hands of a clock; that space is split roughly in half with the food court on one side and Third Place Books on the other. I slipped over to the food court and picked up a slice of pepperoni pizza and a cran-grape juice to steel myself for the evening.

I want to say that I am a huge John Irving fan. I read The World According to Garp when it first came out and immediately went back and read his first three books as well; The Water Method Man remains my favorite, though even I couldn't defend it as his best work. I've read each of the novels he's published since then, as well. He is one of two authors that I will buy simply because I see their book on the shelf (the other being Tom Robbins). As famous as Hogan is, I don't think I would have come for his book signing alone, but for Irving I would have.

I finished up my pizza and joined the Hogan line at about 4:30. It had grown by about half again, so there were maybe 30 or 40 people ahead of me. Hogan would be signing in the section where they buy back used books, a rectangular area largely cordoned off from the rest of the store by low stacks, but which allowed three or four hundred square feet of space for the signing and easy access in and out.

I warmed myself up for the evening by finishing up Neil Gaiman's American Gods. His story of ancient deities lost in America and struggling against up-and-coming deities like Technology and Media seemed like appropriate preparation.

I stood in line reading my copy of My Life Outside the Ring. I haven't read the whole thing yet and this isn't a book review, but his recent struggles with divorce, car crashes, and alienated family members struck a chord with me.

The queue continued to grow behind me, through the gardening section, past the bargain books, and all the way back into the children's section. Some people excused themselves through gaps in the line to get to the rest of the store surprised to see such a crowd at dinner time on a Tuesday night, but most were there for the signing and the length of the line seemed to justify their excitement at getting to meet such a celebrity.

The crowd itself ran more to tattoos than tweed, but it was not a rough crowd even by suburban Seattle standards. There were a few hardcores replete with bandanas and WWE t-shirts, and a couple of people looked like this was the first time they had actually bought a book, but there were also the Microsoft employees behind me talking about work. It was a cross-section of America, and could have taken place in Cedar Rapids as easily as Lake Forest Park.

Hogan was late. A voice came over the loudspeaker saying that he would be signing books only, no memorabilia or clothing, but that there would be people there to take pictures if you gave them your camera. Someone came through the line to see if anyone wanted to buy additional copies of the book for Hogan to sign. I continued to read.

He finally arrived about 5:30. I was expecting a big entrance through the front of the store, but it was very low key. I didn't even see him come in; he must have come through the used book buyback room. There were a couple of hoots when he came in, but the only reason I was sure he had arrived was because the line started to move forward.

The line moved apace, but not too quickly. Though I couldn't see him, it was clear he was taking the time to talk to each person. I got to the front after about 25 minutes.

If you want your celebrities larger than life then Hulk Hogan fits the bill. He claims to be 6' 7" (though other sources have him at 6' 4"), but it's not the height that catches your attention when he's sitting on the other side of the table, it's the width. The man is huge, and even at 56 years old your eyes are drawn to his leathery, don't-fuck-with-me arms. His voice is low and resonant, calm and relaxed.

Last night he seemed tired, but whether from the fatigue of touring or just worn out by life I couldn't tell you. Ahead of me in line was a high school girl and her mother. The mom was too intimidated to go up to the table. She stood three paces back while her daughter talked to Hogan. The mom said she was just there for her daughter, but she was nervous, almost dancing from one foot to the other. She was extremely self-conscious and couldn't figure out what to do with her hands. Completely star struck. Her daughter was much more relaxed. She talked about bowling with Hogan - I read enough of his book to know that he had bowled competitively when he was a kid - and they made a nice connection. He's good with people.

When it was my turn I walked up and shook hands with him. I think the oddest thing was that his hand didn't feel large, though I'm sure it swallowed mine completely. He isn't one of those insecure guys who have to prove their masculinity by pulverizing yours. His was a confident, practiced handshake.

I didn't really have anything to ask him, so I just winged it and asked him "Ginger or Mary Ann?" It was offbeat enough to get giggles from his entourage. He thought for a moment and said, "Well, knowing what I know now, Ginger," which immediately caused discussion among his handlers and after a couple of minutes he realized that the perky, low-maintenance one was Mary Ann, not Ginger. He apologized for the confusion. "I really didn't have my mind on Gilligan's Island at the time."

A few more pics and my time with Hulk Hogan was at an end. I made my way out of the signing area and over to the food court stage where John Irving would be interviewed. The line for Hulk Hogan still stretched back into the children's section.

"Food court stage" and "John Irving" are not phrases I ever thought about using together before last night. By the time I had gotten over there about 6 o'clock there were two or three hundred chairs lined up facing the stage. I was early enough that I got a seat in the second row and, more importantly, got a sturdy wooden chair instead of a flimsy plastic one.

The seats filled up slowly. At first groups were spreading themselves out at polite distances apart, going farther back than I would have. It was more important to them to have separation than it was to be close to the stage, but they needn't have bothered isolating themselves because by 7:15 it was SRO, all the spaces had filled in and people were standing around the sides and all the way at the back by the Kitto Japanese restaurant.

This was definitely a different crowd from Hulk Hogan's. Older, more staid, definitely on the tweed side of the tattoo-tweed spectrum. The chairs were more important to this crowd. Some people were writing in journals, but most were reading, reading and waiting.

Most people seemed to come in groups. There was a small book club in the row in front of me, a half-dozen women who were reading The Cider House Rules. One woman I talked to complained that she was having trouble getting going in the book. She was on chapter four and it still wasn't grabbing her. She had also read A Widow for One Year and a couple of old Tom Robbins books (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and Another Roadside Attraction), but wasn't a huge fan of Robbins, either.

Irving would be talking about his newest novel, Last Night In Twisted River. In contrast to Hogan, this would be in an interview format. There were two low-backed swiveling barstools, each with a matching high table suitable for a glass of water. Microphones would amplify the discussion. He would be interviewed by Mary Ann Gwinn of the Seattle Times (no relation to Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island).

I had brought my worn out, water-marked hard-back copy of The Water Method Man with me hoping to get it signed as well, but it was announced that Irving would not be signing and would not be available after the interview. We were also asked to limit photography to the first five minutes of the interview so that it wouldn't be overly distracting. We were given index cards to write questions on which he would answer at the end of the interview, time permitting. I had lots of questions, but they would involve follow up questions and wouldn't really work in the format, so I settled for the "Ginger or Mary Ann?" question for him as well.

The format was in stark contrast to Hogan's populist presentation. Granted, Irving drew a larger crowd than Hogan, but it wasn't that much larger. The presentation, though, was very different: more controlled, more broadcast, less spontaneous, less personal. As a novelist he was presenting himself as he would a novel. He looked at all the stories he had, selected the ones that were coherent and (to him) significant and presented them as a story. In contrast, Hogan was more like a video game, where the general gameplay is guided, but the specific events are less controlled.

Irving came on the stage at 7:30, as planned. It wasn't really an interview at all, it was John Irving presenting John Irving. Gwinn asked, I think, two questions in the hour and a half they were onstage. The rest was all Irving. It was very interesting, but his talk was as practiced as Hulk Hogan's handshake. Each man had his own way of presenting himself, a way he was comfortable with, a way he was good at.

Physically, Irving cannot compete with Hulk Hogan. He looks quite ordinary. His hair now far more salt than pepper, the vestiges of his wrestling days are past. He was dressed casually in jeans and a plaid button down shirt and looked like someone on his way to the hardware store or the local farmers market. If I had run into him on the street I probably wouldn't have recognized him.

The thing that struck me as odd, the thing I didn't expect, was how much his speech and cadence reminded me of Christopher Walken. If anyone ever films John Irving's biography, Walken must play the lead.

He started out by establishing his literary cred with a light-hearted story about annually exchanging stacks of fan mail with John Updike, fan mail which had been mistakenly sent to the wrong author. Updike would send the Irving fan-mail to Irving, and Irving would send the Updike fan-mail to Updike. Humorous to a certain crowd, and, fortunately, that was the crowd I was sitting in.

Irving then jumped into his new book and his writing process, a process which is integral to the book because Twisted River he imbues the main character, a writer, with aspects of his own process. The signature point of his process which he noticed only incidentally over the first few novels, was that he wrote the last sentence first. In each case the last sentence was written in its entirety and never changed. Once written, he could play the story backward and lay out a roadmap of the story back to where he felt the story began.

Twisted River is a story he's had in mind for twenty years. The reason it took so long for him to get into written was simply that he couldn't find the last sentence. Once he found the sentence, the actual writing of the book was (for him), blindingly fast. He had known the story for twenty years, after all.

The book that made him want to write? Great Expectations.

Best first chapter in the English language? The beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

They were canned answers, but they are clearly the questions he's been asked time and time again. Like a classic rock band that knows the five songs they have to play every set, Irving knows the questions he has to answer. Gwinn didn't seem too interested in interviewing him, she just sat back and listened like the rest of us. He didn't seem too interested in being interviewed. On the other hand, he was only scheduled for an hour and went on for a full hour and a half.

Even the index card audience questions at the end he answered with things he had said before and refined over time. Not surprisingly, in retrospect, he skipped over my Ginger v Mary Ann question, whether it was because he found it too frivolous or because he just didn't have a canned answer for it I will never know. Clearly Irving has a sense of humor, but he is not a back-row wit trading barbs with the teacher.

It was an evening of contrasting styles and personalities. Very interesting for me to see them both in the same place. Bigger than life in the abstract, professional, and good at what they do. These are both men with minions. Although they represent different sects, both of these men are American gods.

Wendy Manning from Third Place Books sent me these photos of Irving and Hogan together last night (that's Wendy in the middle on the right).

Third Place Books
Seattle Times
Benaroya Hall
Wikipedia (and again and again and again)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Rock Me Mendeleev

Nothing original here, at least not from me. This table can be found on the Wake Forest University campus. It was created by art students Nazila Alimohammadi and Anna Clark for a class project in 2003. Check out the Neatorama article for more details.

I like it.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The McFarthest Spot part 2

If you're in the United States it's pretty tough to get away from a McDonald's, but in Iceland it is the opposite problem, with all three of the country's McDonald's slated to close this weekend.

Iceland has suffered more than most countries from the financial crapout of the last couple of years with its three largest banks collapsing during the crisis. Iceland's external debt stands at about €50 billion, which is about six times the county's 2007 GDP.

Needless to say the banking failures have had an impact on prices. McDonald's requires that all the supplies (packaging, frozen burger patties, etc.) be imported to Iceland from Germany. The fall of the Icelandic krónur against the euro has made this arrangement financially untenable with costs doubling over the past year. A Big Mac in Reykjavik already sells for the equivalent of US$5.29, but Lyst Hr., the Icelandic franchise owner was looking at having to raise the price to the equivalent of $6.36. Switzerland and Norway currently share the dubious honor of having the highest priced Big Mac at $5.75.

For those of you who think that avoiding the Golden Arches is a good thing there are other countries that do not have any McDonald's, including Barbados and Bolivia.

Wikipedia (photo)

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Most Unproductive Day of the Year

The Daily Telegraph reports that today will be the most unproductive day of the year. Citing the British daylight savings change and the general dreariness of this time of year, an obviously scientific and statistically significant survey (where is the sarcasm tag when you need it?) of 2,000 workers taken by the Canary Islands tourism board said that 52% of those surveyed will struggle with their workload today, and 8% will call in sick to avoid the issue. Taken together these effects will result in a mind-numbing 50% drop in productivity this week.

In other news there are unsubstantiated and highly questionable rumors coming out of the southern hemisphere where the opposite effect is occurring, but with the same dire consequences. Reports out of Rio de Jeneiro indicate that people have suddenly increased their productivity. This has brought partying to a complete standstill, threatening to destroy the local economy. Said one club owner, "Everyone is working. No one is drinking. I will be ruined," adding, "The girl from Ipanema walked by but no one even noticed."

Telegraph (via Ananova)
Islas Canarias

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mathmagic Land

When I was in elementary school the things I looked forward to were recess and lunch (which was really just recess with food, and the food was optional). We filled our days playing Red Rover, Dodgeball, and Slaughter the Pig, which are all far too violent to be allowed on today's playgrounds.

Inside the classroom we maintained the high energy level, and I know we wore out our teachers from time to time. For some reason there is nothing like a dark room to slow down elementary school students (fear of ghosts, fear of sharp table corners, fear of accidentally touching a girl, who knows?), and our instructors clearly used that knowledge to their advantage. We didn't have computers, and televisions had to be wheeled in from the almost mythical A/V room. VCRs had not yet been invented, so the best you (and your teacher) could hope for was a film strip or maybe, just maybe and educational movie.

Filmstrips, for the uninitiated, were in fact, strips of 35mm film, like a whole roll of Kodachrome that had been developed but not cut into separate slides. These were fed into a projector and a searingly hot light would project the images onto a screen at the front of the room. Usually the strips came with an audio recording of some sort (tape? LP? memory fails me), that would narrate the film strip and beep on occasion indicating the film should be advanced to the next frame. It was always fun to prompt the camera operator (teacher or student) when the film got out of sync with the narration - extra points were awarded if you could imitate the beep well enough to prompt them to go to the next frame too soon. It was even more fun when the heat from the bulb melted the film.

The filmstrip experience was memorable, but the strips themselves failed to make a lasting impression. Not so with the educational films. And they really were films. They came on big old reels (sometimes more than one!). Nothing raised the excitement level in the classroom like metal film containers stacked on the teacher's desk.

Really, though, one film stood out from all the others. I anticipated its annual viewing with even more excitement than I had for The Wizard of Oz. The film was the Disney short, Donald in Mathmagic Land. It's Donald Duck! It's math! And - until the Disney lawyers get their copyright threats in order - you can find it on YouTube (in three parts). Sit back and enjoy!

Droppin Science (via MMD Newswire) (photo)

Don't Mess With the Bojan

It's not exactly Wallace and Gromit's A Grand Day Out - but it's close. Bojan Nemec of the Institut Jožef Stefan in Slovenia has created an autonomous skiing robot.

There have been skiing robots before, but this one is larger - Nemec's robot is large enough to use off-the-shelf skis.

A laptop controls the movements, using gyros for balance and a vision system for maneuvering around gates. It also has a GPS, but that is to measure speed, not for direction.

There are additional videos on the IEEE website.

IEEE Spectrum (via Neatorama)
Popcorn (photo)
Japan Times

RIP Vic MIzzy

The composer of the Addams Family TV show theme song has died. Vic Mizzy, passed away from heart failure in his Bel Air, California home last Saturday. He was 93.

Mizzy started writing songs in his early teens with his childhood buddy, Irving Taylor, with whom he won The Fred Allen Collegiate Amateur Hour (they got $100 and a week long booking at The Roxy), and continued to work with through the end of World War II. Mizzy continued to write popular songs until the early 60's when he started writing for TV, writing for such "memorable" shows as Kentucky Jones, and Hank.

Then in 1964 he wrote his signature piece, the theme song for the Addams Family television show. Because the production company wouldn't pay for singers, Mizzy sang the theme song himself, overdubbing three times to give the impression of multiple vocalists (long before those punk kids used overdubbing to create Sergeant Pepper).

The next year he went on to write Green Acres, another classic 60's tv theme.

Asked last year how he felt about being remembered for a single little ditty like the Addams Family out of decades worth of work, he replied, "That's why I'm living in Bel-Air: Two finger snaps and you live in Bel-Air."

Funeral services are today at 11:00, at Eden Memorial Park, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills, CA.

World News Australia
Los Angeles Times
Vic Mizzy (photo)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The McFarthest Spot

How far away can you get from a McDonald's in the lower 48? Go ahead, make your guess.

Stephen von Worley, a photographer out of Santa Cruz, California has produced an awesomely depressing display of the pervasiveness of McDonald's in the United States.

I tell you I've got to spend some more time on this guy's blog. He does a great job of helping you visualize concepts (like how far away you are from McDonald's).

His two most recent posts are "Of Mason and Dixon", where he compares online word usage between New England and the deep south, and "Storing Your Value", where he discusses the pros and cons of different ways to store US$1,000,000 in things like wheat (190,000 bushels), jerky (27 tons), and plutonium (1.3 inch sphere).

I gotta say, this is stuff that strikes my fancy and I'm going to have to do a little more exploring on his blog.

Oh, and if you're still curious, the farthest away you can get from one of the 13,000+ McDonald's in the continental United States is a little spot - what von Worley calls the McFarthest Spot - somewhere between Meadow and Glad Valley, South Dakota, a full 107 miles away from the nearest McDonald's (as the crow flies, but 145 miles away by car).

Weather Sealed (via Yahoo News Canada)


Two Japanese executives have been arrested for claiming their Chinese bamboo shoots were Japanese.

China is the largest exporter of bamboo shoots, and production is declining in Japan. However the Japanese shoots command a much higher price. Teruyoshi Kanbara and his brother Yoshiaki of Shinsei Foods in Anan, Tokushima Prefecture, are accused of selling at least 19 tons of falsely labelled shoots for ¥10 million in the second half of 2008. The 19 tons were part of 90 tons sold to two Japanese companies.

Bamboo shoots may either be fresh (pictured) or canned, with the canned being less expensive.The fresh shoots are seasonal, with the Japanese production season limited to March through July.

Bamboo shoots are used in many Asian dishes including chicken, smoky bacon and bamboo shoot stir-fry (mmmm: bacon). Other examples can be seen in the Iron Chef Japan Bamboo Shoot Battle episode.

The Japan Times
CQ University Centre for Plant and Water Science
Wikipedia (photo)
Daily Mail

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Entire Police Force Quits After Lottery Win

Those of you who need a job in these difficult economic times may want to consider becoming a police officer in Budaörs, Hungary where the entire police force of has resigned after winning Ft 2.2 billion (US$12.2 million), the 6th largest jackpot in Hungarian history. The drawing was held last Saturday and all 15 officers resigned en masse on Tuesday. Other officers from the region will be used to staff the force until additional full-time officers can be hired.


Car Lands on House Roof

In our first alcohol-was-involved story of the week, a "driver" (and we use the term loosely) managed to embed his car in the roof of a a house in Sydney, Australia.

The car left the road traveling at high speed, the vehicle mounted the curb, hit a concrete median strip, hit a traffic light pole, a metal street light, a traffic light box, and after hitting a mound of dirt the car became airborne for 10 to 15 meters before landing on the roof, narrowly missing the three month old child and her parents who were sleeping inside the house. The whole path of the crash covered about 90 meters, and debris was spread out over several houses, including a piece of the traffic light which was found 120 meters away.

The occupants of the car were freed after about an hour, and taken to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries. The occupants of the house were shaken, but unharmed.

Video news coverage can be found here and here.

Sources: (photo)
Street Corner
Daily Telegraph

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Legendary Finnish Bands on Stamps

All right, you philatelists, time to get out your checkbook 'cause there are some hot new stamps coming out in January!

England is issuing a set of stamps based on classic album covers (I would say "rock album covers", but Tubular Bells doesn't really qualify as "rock").

The Royal Mail began with extensive research of existing lists and "greatest album covers" polls, talked to music publications and graphic designers, and culled the list down to the top 10.

The list of legendary bands includes Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.

The set will be issued on January 7, 2010.

But wait, it just gets better!

Finland will also be releasing a set of music-based stamps on January 25th. These stamps celebrate such legendary 80's Finnish bands as Eppu NormaaliPopeda, and Maarit (who may be here, or may not be, it's not clear).

The stamps, designed by Klaus Welp, will be issued in a strict limited edition of 500,000 sheets, unless demand is great and more need to be printed.

Wales Online
Norvic Philatelics (photo)
YLE (photo)

Second Place Gets an AK-47

National Geographic magazine sponsors the National Geographic Bee each year here in the United States. This "entertaining and challenging test of geographic knowledge" is for students in 4th through 8th grade with representatives from each state going to the national competition in Washington, D. C. which is hosted by Jeopardy emcee Alex Trebek (who was, ironically, born in Canada).

My son, Sam, qualified for the Washington state competition in 2007, but had the unfortunate luck to be in the same group with Caitlin Snaring, the eventual national champion (the first female winner, and 5th winner from Washington state since the competition began in 1989 - it's something in the water). For her efforts Snaring was awarded a $25,000 college scholarship and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society.

This past Ramadan, while the residents of Istanbul, Turkey were celebrating by creating the world's longest Iftar table, folks in Kismayo, Somalia (a country with no functioning centralized government since 1991), had their own bee, a combination of questions about the Koran and Somali geography. However, instead of receiving a college scholarship, the winning team (from the city's Farjano district) was awarded a rifle, two grenades, a landmine and, most importantly, office supplies worth $1,000 (WTF???). The second place team was awarded an AK-47 and some bullets.

Said Sheikh Abdullahi Alhaq of Al-Shabab:
The reason the young men were rewarded with weapons is to encourage them to participate in the ongoing holy war against the enemies of Allah in Somalia.
That, my friends, is a different world from mine, and I hope it always will be.

20th Anniversary of The Big One

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a significant quake for two reasons: first, it was the day my daughter was born (Happy Birthday, Lainie!), and second it was during the World Series so there was gobs of national sports media coverage.

As tragic an event as it was, in the list of deadly United States earthquakes its death toll ranks only 6th for the 20th century. and worldwide there have been 8 deadlier quakes just since 1990. At 6.9 it was a serious earthquake, but not a whole lot stronger than the 6.8 Nisqually quake here in Seattle in 2001, though the Loma Prieta quake caused significantly more damage.

For San Franciscans this is a reason to party. The mayor's office has organized a weeks worth of events under the tagline The Big Rumble, events including:
  • Disaster Preparedness Information and Resources
  • Children's Activities
  • Giveaways
  • Entertainment
There is even a 30 page Block Party Host Toolkit for those who want to host their own shindig.

There is lots of great footage of quake coverage available on You Tube. This is nifty playlist compiling a lot of the coverage; my favorites are the ones closest to the time the quake occurred because they show the uncertainty of the whole situation at the time (and the occasional aftershock). Al Michaels saying "I'll tell you what, we're having an earth..." and then losing power is pretty dramatic.

Michaels had worked in the Bay Area before as a broadcaster for the San Francisco Giants (he and Lon Simmons were the best broadcast team ever), and this was not his first quake, but several of the sportscasters were from out of the area and it was their first time. I maintain to this day that Tim McCarver was a fine broadcaster before the quake, but since then...well, I leave you to make your own judgement. Here is video from one of the earthquake virgins.

But my favorite coverage was by Entertainment Tonight the next night, possibly because John Tesh did not utter the phrase "Belarusian Swan", not even once.

New York Times
The Big Rumble
Bay Area Earthquake Alliance
USGS (photo)