L’Eggo My Lego

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

In L’Eggo My Lego, Maureen Martin shares the kind of story that would be ludicrously implausible as fiction — but it’s true, and the people involved are proud of their actions:

Some Seattle school children are being told to be skeptical of private property rights. This lesson is being taught by banning Legos.

A ban was initiated at the Hilltop Children’s Center in Seattle. According to an article in the winter 2006-07 issue of “Rethinking Schools” magazine, the teachers at the private school wanted their students to learn that private property ownership is evil.

According to the article, the students had been building an elaborate “Legotown,” but it was accidentally demolished. The teachers decided its destruction was an opportunity to explore “the inequities of private ownership.” According to the teachers, “Our intention was to promote a contrasting set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing, and full democratic participation.”

The children were allegedly incorporating into Legotown “their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys.” These assumptions “mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive.”

They claimed as their role shaping the children’s “social and political understandings of ownership and economic equity … from a perspective of social justice.”

So they first explored with the children the issue of ownership. Not all of the students shared the teachers’ anathema to private property ownership. “If I buy it, I own it,” one child is quoted saying. The teachers then explored with the students concepts of fairness, equity, power, and other issues over a period of several months.

At the end of that time, Legos returned to the classroom after the children agreed to several guiding principles framed by the teachers, including that “All structures are public structures” and “All structures will be standard sizes.”

Why do pilots say "roger" on the radio?

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Why do pilots say “roger” on the radio?:

Pilots and other military types say “roger” to acknowledge receipt of a message or instructions. “Roger” at one time was the phonetic designation for the letter R, which in turn stood for “received.” Why not just say “received”? From a safety perspective, it makes sense to use standardized language, particularly when dealing with international operations. An American pilot may not understand German, but they both understand aviation terminology. The International Civil Aviation Organization oversees this standardization and disseminates it accordingly.

The use of “roger” isn’t all that old. In the military’s phonetic alphabet, “roger” didn’t become the designation for R until 1927. (Previously the designation had been “rush.”) The first citation given by the Oxford English Dictionary for “roger” in the sense of “received” dates from 1941, coinciding with U.S. entry into WWII. The term made the big time in 1943, when the Army Signal Corps incorporated it into one of its procedural manuals.

In 1957 “roger” was replaced by “romeo,” the current designation, but by then “roger” = “received” was so entrenched that the brass knew better than to try and change it.

Uncomfortable Questions: Was the Death Star Attack an Inside Job?

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Uncomfortable Questions: Was the Death Star Attack an Inside Job?:

We’ve all heard the “official conspiracy theory” of the Death Star attack. We all know about Luke Skywalker and his ragtag bunch of rebels, how they mounted a foolhardy attack on the most powerful, well-defended battle station ever built. And we’ve all seen the video over, and over, and over, of the one-in-a-million shot that resulted in a massive chain reaction that not just damaged, but completely obliterated that massive technological wonder.

Like many Americans, I was fed this story when I was growing up. But as I watched the video, I began to realize that all was not as it seemed. And the more I questioned the official story, the deeper into the rabbit hole I went.

Read the rest for the amusing bits.

Seeing things at Disney before they got rid of Eisner

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

In Seeing things at Disney before they got rid of Eisner, Art De Vany shares a piece he wrote after Disney’s Treasure Planet failed to meet forecasts:

Where Disney went wrong is in having too much faith in their financial analysts. No one knows what a movie will gross. My research (Hollywood Economics: Chaos in the Film Industry) shows (and every movie fan knows) that motion picture revenues are not forecastable; the forecast error is infinite. There is no correlation between opening revenues and total revenues for any movies that are successful. Opening revenue is only a good predictor of total revenue for movies that die in their second or third week. All successful Disney movies (most of the animated ones are) enjoy long runs so that opening revenues become a small portion of their total revenue. And, all successful movies reach a point (about four or five weeks into the run) where they separate rapidly from the pack. This bifurcation point in the mapping is a signature of chaos in the non-linear dynamics of motion picture revenues.

Given how little information is contained in a movie’s opening, the weight studios place on it is troubling, particularly at Disney which is a studio where film revenues depend on long runs.

(Emphasis mine.)

He-Man Opening Monologue

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

When I cited a recent article on rediscovering He-Man, I assumed that the text of the He-Man Opening Monologue would be all over the Net, but it was surprisingly hard to find. Even the ludicrously complete Wikipedia entry didn’t have it:

I am Adam, prince of Eternia and defender of the secrets of Castle Grayskull.

This is Cringer, my fearless friend.

Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said, “By the power of Grayskull! I have the power!

Cringer became the mighty Battle Cat, and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe!

Only three others share this secret — our friends, the Sorceress, Man-at-Arms, and Orko. Together we defend Castle Greyskull from the evil forces of Skeletor.

Petrol lit with a cigarette? Only in the movies

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

Petrol lit with a cigarette? Only in the movies:

From Hitchcock’s The Birds to The Usual Suspects, it has been one of the staple cliches of Hollywood: the cigarette butt tumbling in slow motion into a pool of petrol unleashing a conflagration.

But if you find yourself tied up and doused in petrol don’t worry if all your assailant has is a lighted cigarette: scientists have proved you won’t end up as a human fireball.

“On the face of it it’s a pretty simple problem,” said Richard Tontarski, an expert in forensic fire at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. Cigarettes burn at around 700C (1,292F) and the ignition temperature of petrol is 246C. “But it just isn’t that simple,” he said.

He began looking into the problem because arson suspects frequently claim a petrol fire was started by accident. “The person claims, ‘I accidentally threw gasoline on my girlfriend, she was smoking and she burst into flames’,” he said.

To find out whether this was possible, he and colleagues experimented. They dropped burning cigarettes into trays of petrol. They sprayed a fine mist of petrol at a lighted cigarette. They even used a vacuum device to produce the higher temperature (900-950C) of a cigarette being sucked. In more than 2,000 attempts the petrol did not ignite.

Dr Tontarski can only speculate why. The layer of ash on the tobacco, perhaps, or the petrol vapour convected away from the hottest part of the cigarette.

New York Comic Con 2007:

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

I wasn’t at New York Comic Con 2007, but Stephen Colbert was, and he showed off the new Tek Jansen comic:

Stephen Colbert shows off Tek Jansen, an upcoming comic based on one of his characters’ characters, at New York Comic Con 2007. Here, he gives our photographer his “Comic Book Friend” pose, based on an inside joke from The Colbert Report.

Want to stop disease from spreading? Open a window

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

Want to stop disease from spreading? Open a window:

Preventing the spread of disease in a hospital may be as simple as opening a window, an international team of researchers reported on Monday.

The low-tech solution could help prevent the spread of airborne infections such as tuberculosis — and ironically, old-fashioned hospitals with high ceilings and big windows may offer the best design for this, they reported.

They worked better than modern “negative pressure” rooms, with expensive design aimed at pumping out infected air, the researchers report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine.

Where Daft Punk got their samples from

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Watch and learn where Daft Punk got their samples from:

Here’s where the samples on some of my favourite Daft Punk tracks came from. It’s all legit, paid in full, above board. Still strange to hear, though.

The samples were spotted by ishkur.com and the music was collected by palmsout.

Death and the salesmen

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Death and the salesmen looks at how changes in longevity are leading to new financial instruments — but longevity and finance go way, way back together:

The uncertainty about life span has existed since the start of modern finance. The very first time that the British state issued a bond — back in the 17th century to fund a war against France — it did so using a longevity gamble. Tucked in a glass case in the corridors of the Debt Management Office, the branch of the British government that sells national bonds, stacks of old leather files detail these bonds, known as “tontines” after a Lorenzo Tonti, a Neapolitan economist who first devised the scheme. “These were the first government bonds issued anywhere in the world,” says a senior DMO official, who has spent hours reading these dusty files, with all the passion of an amateur historian.

By modern standards, the structure of these tontines was macabre. The government raised money by selling a bond, and then paid bondholders a lump sum each year, divided among the investor pool. So far, this looks similar to how modern bonds work. However, there was a crucial catch: tontines had to be held by a single, named investor — and these instruments expired when that person died. So bond payments were divided each year among the remaining tontine holders, ceasing when the last tontine holder died. Whoever lived longest collected most money — subsidised by the dead.

The government issued the first tontine in 1693, and it proved so popular that they were soon being sold across Europe. Geneva had a particularly lively tontine market. However, as the tontines piled up, they became more controversial. One problem was that they provided an incentive for murder or fraud. And while historians have not found any tangible cases of this happening, the theme permeated 18th- and 19th-century literature and lore — even providing the plot for Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box.

A second, more important, problem was that the government kept getting its estimates of longevity wrong. When it sold the first issue of tontines in 1693, it apparently expected tontine holders to live just a few decades. That seemed a reasonable bet at the time, and the dusty leather-bound files show that the early tontine holders included men and women of all ages. But by the middle of the 18th century, investors had become more canny, with the record showing most tontines being bought in the name of girls, usually around five years old. That was because girls lived longer than boys, and because there was a high level of infant mortality until about age four.

This produced great results for the tontine holders, some of whom kept collecting money until their nineties. But it was disastrous for government finances. And eventually, the tontine scheme became so costly that the government abandoned it.

In the 19th century, the word tontine vanished from popular use. But the issue of longevity and mortality risk did not die away. Nor did some of the principles behind the first tontines. They resurfaced in the new concept of life insurance, which paid out a lump sum when policyholders died.

Your real tax rate: 40%

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

You may be aware of your income-tax bracket, but your real tax rate is 40%, regardless of your income:

In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Boston University economists Laurence J. Kotlikoff and David Rapson have found that our all-in marginal tax rate is 40%, give or take a bit. Yes, you read that right: 40%.

Most workers will pay about that much on each dollar of income when all taxes — federal and state income taxes, sales taxes, taxes for benefit programs, etc. — are considered.

As a consequence, a 30-year-old couple earning only $20,000 a year has a marginal tax rate of 42.5%, while a 45-year-old couple earning $500,000 pays at 43.2%. There are some exceptions: A 30-year-old couple earning $50,000 a year, for instance, pays 24.4%, and a 60-year-old couple making $150,000 a year faces a tax rate of 47.7%.

The average marginal tax rate on incomes between $20,000 and $500,000 is 40.3%, the median tax rate is 41.8%, and the standard deviation of all of those rates is 5.3 percentage points. Basically, most of us pay about 40%, plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.

Drug may treat mental symptoms of Down syndrome

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Drug may treat mental symptoms of Down syndrome:

An old drug once used to study epilepsy can help improve learning in mice with a form of Down syndrome and also might help people, U.S. researchers said on Sunday.

The beneficial effects the drug, called pentylenetetrazole, or PTZ, continued for two weeks after treatment. This suggests the drug, like some other psychiatric drugs, can make long-term changes in the brain.

The secrets of Sid Meier

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Dan Drezner shares some of the secrets of Sid Meier gleaned from The Weekly Standard‘s latest cover story:

Meier cites the strategy board game Risk as one of his major influences. “Conquer the world. All those cool pieces. You felt like you were king. It gave you a lot of power.” What about the game Diplomacy? “You had to have friends to play Diplomacy so that kind of left me out.”….

This surprised me a bit:

When Meier is not playing and testing his products, he spends his time with his wife and 16-year-old son (with whom he enjoys other videogames, like Guitar Hero). He plays keyboards and jams with a band consisting of members from his local church. The band’s name is Faith Unlimited. The church he and his wife attend is Lutheran.

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay. The same goes for choosing nuclear power or heading a government that isn’t democratic–you could opt to run a fascist or Communist regime, though these choices all have consequences. (Your citizens may be less happy, but also less prone to rioting thanks to your secret police force.)

Nevertheless, Meier’s faith puts him at odds with other game-design geniuses like John Carmack, John Romero, and Will Wright, who are all avowed atheists (and Meier is, incidentally, the only one from this group to have graduated from college). To be sure, Meier has the utmost respect for them and their pioneering work. But it is yet another factor that sets him apart.

Rediscovering He-Man

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Sam Anderson discusses Rediscovering He-Man:

The best part about rewatching He-Man, after the initial nostalgia-burst, was tracking the show’s hilarious accidental homo-eroticism — an aspect I missed completely as a first-grader.

In the ever-growing lineup of “outed” classic superheroes, He-Man might be the easiest target of all. It’s almost too easy: Prince Adam, He-Man’s alter ego, is a ripped Nordic pageboy with blinding teeth and sharply waxed eyebrows who spends lazy afternoons pampering his timid pet cat; he wears lavender stretch pants, furry purple Ugg boots, and a sleeveless pink blouse that clings like saran wrap to his pecs.

To become He-Man, Adam harnesses what he calls “fabulous secret powers”: His clothes fall off, his voice drops a full octave, his skin turns from vanilla to nut brown, his giant sword starts gushing energy, and he adopts a name so absurdly masculine it’s redundant.

Next, he typically runs around seizing space-wands with glowing knobs and fabulously straddling giant rockets. He hangs out with people called Fisto and Ram Man, and they all exchange wink-wink nudge-nudge dialogue: “I’d like to hear more about this hooded seed-man of yours!” “I feel the bony finger of Skeletor!” “Your assistance is required on Snake Mountain!”

Once you start thinking along these lines, it’s impossible to stop. (Clearly, others have had the same idea.) It’s a prime example of how easily an extreme fantasy of masculinity can circle back to become its opposite.

Blood brothers

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Jonathan Green spends time with Germany’s blood brothers, the members of its still active fencing fraternities, where they duel with live blades:

Drawn mostly from the German upper classes, the men wear uniforms denoting their allegiance to a fraternity. They live together, eat together, drink together, sing songs about honour, women and Germany. And they fight together. Despite the risk of permanent disfigurement, the rewards are great, they say.

The duel is a highly specialized affair:

The duel I am watching takes place at the house of a rival fraternity, the Brunsviga Corps. Strapped tightly on to the sweating faces of the two fighters are black steel goggles, with discoloured, steel-mesh lenses, modelled on 200-year-old designs. A steel guard covers the length of the nose.Wound tightly around the neck, guarding the carotid artery, is a thick cotton bandage. Each man wears a chain mail shirt weighing about 7kg (15 pounds) and chain mail gloves under leather gauntlets on their right hands. The right arm is reinforced with a leather padded arm guard.

All this is intended as protection from the schlager, a sword based on the rapier and sabre. Modelled on a traditional European duelling weapon, it is 86cm long and weighs only 360 grams. With this sword the fighters will attempt to slash, cut or whip anything above their opponents’ eyeline line — skull, forehead and ears are all fair game.


Clumsily, a wooden box is brought for the shorter man to stand on so he can fight his opponent on a level. They place their feet square on, a sword’s length apart.

Only the right arm moves during a fight. To the left of each fighter is a figure in a fencing mask wearing a black padded apron. He too wears chain mail and clutches a schlager. He is the duellist’s “second” and will protect his fighter in the instance of foul play. To hit below the eyeline is to fight “deep” — the equivalent of punching below the belt as a boxer, but to do that here means not only disqualification and shame but a scar and injury for life.

On the fighter’s right is another ally, also wearing a neck brace and a butcher’s steel-mesh glove. In his hand is a yellow cloth soaked in surgical spirit. After each round — which comprises four blade movements — he cleans the sword with surgical spirit to minimise the risk of infection. He also looks for nicks in the blade — a blemish may create a jagged cut that is harder to stitch.

For centuries, a scar has been a sign of good breeding in Germany, and the mensur was seen as a way to test and build character.