Dept. of Wacky Chemistry

NYT: A Tiny Fruit That Tricks The Tongue:

CARRIE DASHOW dropped a large dollop of lemon sorbet into a glass of Guinness, stirred, drank and proclaimed that it tasted like a “chocolate shake.”

Nearby, Yuka Yoneda tilted her head back as her boyfriend, Albert Yuen, drizzled Tabasco sauce onto her tongue. She swallowed and considered the flavor: “Doughnut glaze, hot doughnut glaze!”

They were among 40 or so people who were tasting under the influence of a small red berry called miracle fruit at a rooftop party in Long Island City, Queens, last Friday night. The berry rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so, rendering lemons as sweet as candy.

The “magic” substance in the berries is a protein called — we’re not making this up — “miraculin”, which we think is hilarious. Get us some.

Just go read it

What Every American Should Know About the Middle East. Some highlights:

  • It’s not a homogeneous region; sectarian and ethnic divisions abound. Sunni are not Shia; Arabs are not Persians.
  • Iraq is predominately Arab and Shia, but Saddam and his ruling party were from the Sunni minority.
  • Iran is NOT Arab and is almost exclusively Shia.
  • Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan are Sunni and Arab

Special bonus fact that makes the invasion of Iraq even more obviously stupid: Al Qaeda is a Sunni group.

MLB: Still douchebags

They’re suing Chicago little leagues for using team names in common with MLB teams. Not logos; just the names; MLB is insisting they own the idea of a baseball team named, for example, the Giants, or Tigers, and that in order to use those names the little leagues must buy their uniforms from MLB’s much more expensive provider. Gee, thanks.

Fortunately, Techdirt and Stephen Colbert are on the case.

Creepiest Thing EVAR

Apparently, the oldest mamallian cell line is a transmissable canine tumor spread sexually. Yup: this means it’s an immortal, cancerous STD. Yikes.

Unlike most other contagious cancers such as cervical cancer in humans, CTVT isn’t spread by a virus but (as recently proved) by cancerous cells themselves. Genetic analysis suggests the tumor originated in an individual wolf or domesticated dog, probably in east Asia, between 200 and 2,500 years ago. This long-dead canid’s much-mutated cells are still alive and being passed along during coitus (or sometimes through casual contact) centuries later, making it the longest-lived mammalian cell line known.

Longer form review of Crystal Skull

Spielberg, apparently jealous of the way in which his buddy Lucas was able to completely destroy a film legacy with three new films, does his level best to shit all over Indy in a single, derivative, bloating, and limping sequel comprised largely of elements stolen from the X-Files, the 2nd Mummy film, and misplaced fifties nostalgia. For the most part, he succeeds.

Stay away.

Juking the Stats

There’s a new educational notion floating around called “Minimum 50 grading,” the gist of which is that any numerical grade lower than a 50 is “rounded up” to 50. This is so stupid it makes my head hurt; John Gruber has more. From the story:

“It’s a classic mathematical dilemma: that the students have a six times greater chance of getting an F,” says Douglas Reeves, founder of The Leadership and Learning Center, a Colorado-based educational think tank who has written on the topic. “The statistical tweak of saying the F is now 50 instead of zero is a tiny part of how we can have better grading practices to encourage student performance.”

But opponents say the larger gap between D and F exists because passing requires a minimum competency of understanding at least 60% of the material. Handing out more credit than a student has earned is grade inflation, says Ed Fields, founder of HotChalk.com, a site for teachers and parents: “I certainly don’t want to teach my children that no effort is going to get them half the way there.”

Reeves, as Gruber points out, is either incredibly stupid or incredibly craven here, especially with his line about students having a “six times greater chance of getting an F.” Um, no. Grades aren’t random; they reflect classroom work, pedagogy, and effort. Students are not six times more likely to get an F than some other grade (obviously! in a class with 10 students passing, do 60 students fail, on average?).

I’m not insane. I understand that, with sufficiently low grades, a student may be doomed to failure by mid-semester. But a grade is supposed to show, roughly speaking, percentage mastery of the subject. What sort of lesson are we teaching if showing up, literally, guarantees half credit? The only reason for policies like this seems to be improving passing rates — but, like the post title says, it’s not real. It’s juking the stats — a methodological hip-check to the pinball machine of education that results in shiny numbers with no corresponding increase in actual education.

You’ve got to be kidding me

WordPress author Matt Mullenweg is apparently an enormous idiot, as he just lost nearly of TWENTY THOUSAND BUCKS worth of camera equipment when it was stolen from his checked baggage. His list:

  • Nikon D3 (Amazon: about $5K)
  • Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF (Amazon: about $1K)
  • Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED (Amazon: about $2100)
  • Leica M8 (Amazon: about $5400)
  • Leica 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux (B&H: about $6K)
  • Cards, cases, etc.

Quickie total: $19,500. In his luggage. My first thought was “Wow, writing free software must pay really well, Matt.” My second was “holy crap, that’s the dumbest move I’ve heard of in weeks.” Checking valuables was a stupid idea pre-9/11; it’s grounds for a mini-Darwin award now. Maybe next time, Matt will check some bearer bonds or untraceable gold bullion; I’m sure those will be just as safe.

It occurs to me that perhaps the trusting attitude revealed here is one reason WordPress has such a terrible security reputation; clearly, Mullenweg places abundant trust in untrustworthy institutions. Perhaps his code behaves likewise. It is my sincere hope that his post — helpfully titled “Don’t Check Your Valuables” — is the first in a series dedicated to informing his readers when he encounters these sorts of life-lessons. I eagerly await follow-ups like “Don’t Buy A Car That’s On Fire” and “That Man In Nigeria Won’t Really Send You Any Money.”

This is how we see if Mohney still reads Heathen

Pajiba:

And as it all that weren’t enough, news also came down this week that Nicolas Cage will star in a remake of Bad Lieutenant (holy shit) directed by Werner Herzog (holy shit). Pressman Film Corp. will produce the updated edition of its original, which was directed by Abel Ferrara and starred Harvey Keitel as the titular bad lieutenant. Who knows what direction Herzog will take the picture; maybe he’ll have Cage ride around L.A. on a grizzly bear.

Wow. Just wow.

Rafe Colburn says it best: Tobacco companies more evil than you thought:

Tobacco companies found themselves facing the need to argue that some of the scientific evidence used to support laws banning smoking in public places is “junk science“, but quickly realized that a campaign focused on tobacco-related research would be dismissed as transparently self-serving. So they instead spent their money to a create propaganda campaign that attacked scientific research on many fronts, including research that supported smoking bans. The end result? The execrable Web site JunkScience.com. I’m sure John Stossel fits in here somewhere as well.

Granted, this isn’t exactly NEWS

Susan Jacobs: The Dumbing of America.

This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and winding road to the White House. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an “elitist,” one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just “folks,” a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980. (Just imagine: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . and that government of the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth.”) Such exaltations of ordinariness are among the distinguishing traits of anti-intellectualism in any era.

The classic work on this subject by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” was published in early 1963, between the anti-communist crusades of the McCarthy era and the social convulsions of the late 1960s. Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as a basically cyclical phenomenon that often manifested itself as the dark side of the country’s democratic impulses in religion and education. But today’s brand of anti-intellectualism is less a cycle than a flood. If Hofstadter (who died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54) had lived long enough to write a modern-day sequel, he would have found that our era of 24/7 infotainment has outstripped his most apocalyptic predictions about the future of American culture.

Dept. of Smackdowns

Check this out; Chris Matthews lays a serious ass-whuppin’ on right-wingnut radio goon Kevin James. At issue? James was all about calling Obama an appeaser in the tradition of Chamberlain, but it turns out James really has no idea what ol’ Neville actually did. Chris notices this, and does not let up. It’s beautiful.

This is really long, but really good

Go here to read the whole thing, which includes some biz theory discussions of supplier power, adding value, commoditization of businesses, and related topics, but the money shot is the last line:

Why do I love Apple? They intend to make money because of my desires, not despite them.

Contrast ATT and Apple. AT&T wants to tie you to their network, and wants to make money from you at every turn. They’ll gladly fuck you over for an extra $30 a month, secure in the knowledge that you’re in a contract. Apple, on the other hand, damn near has a cult of motivated users who are actual FANS of the brand. This is why.

One of these options is a good business model. Guess which one.

What the Networks Want

This week, it appears that NBC has actually used the Broadcast Flag to prevent the recording of certain episodes of their programming. Fortunately, the only system that paid any attention was (wait for it) Windows Vista Media Center, but you can see where this is going. If the content dorks get their way, the networks will be able to prevent recording of their programs on a whim, ending the whole practice of time-shifting or saving favorite shows just because they would rather charge you every time you lay eyes on their (usually execrable) shows.

Vote with your dollars people. Don’t buy equipment that you don’t own and control. A computer that runs Vista clearly thinks it’s more beholden to NBC than to you.

Remember: DRM isn’t about fighting piracy. It’s about the ability to strictly control how we consume content. Users who are interested in pirating TV shows and movies aren’t going to do so with a DVR or buy them through PPV. They’ve already skipped the middle-man and gone straight to BitTorrent with its decent-quality, commercial-less, and DRM-free offerings. Boneheaded mistakes like the one apparently made by NBC and Microsoft Monday night will only serve to make alternative means of obtaining content more attractive.

Well, that’s a relief.

The Vatican’s astronomer has stated that it’s okay to believe in aliens.

We can’t decide what’s more ridiculous: that the Vatican, with its science-hostile history, has an astronomer, or that there are people in the world who felt relief that their faith in little green men wasn’t at odds with their desire to be good little Catholics.

Today’s Offensive Link

Heathen Brothers, do you hunger for some way to gauge you wife’s quality? Look no further.

However, if you decide to share this find with your beloved, we recommend that you do so only after enjoying as much sex as you’re likely to want until roughly 2010.

Dept. of GAAAH

ManBabies. SFW; it’s just photoshop swaps of heads between dads and babies, but that sentence in now way communicates precisely how weird and creepy the results are.

Dept. of Ongoing Bush Fuckery

We just got a push-poll call from Health & Human Services clearly intended to scare us into supporting abstinence-based sex education. “We want to know what you think about teens having SEX!”

Microsoft FAIL

MS’s Xbox.com web site shunts me off to the Japanese version when I visit using Opera, presumably because of a flaw in their stupid browser-sniffing script. oops.

Return to the King

When I was in junior high and high school, twenty-odd years ago — and let me tell you, they were very odd years, yuk yuk yuk — I read everything Stephen King had written. I started with an “oops” book club edition of Christine my mother had lying around the house, but before long I’d devoured many, many more, from both his by-then back catalog plus every new one to come down the pike until I finished high school or thereabouts, and stopped — briefly — until his magnum opus popped up again, in new and improved and expanded form, in 1990. (I’d read the original ’78 text before, on the suggestion of a friend from church (no, really), and was blown away.) Here was King working at a fundamentally different level than he’d ever shown before, or since in standalone work. I heard him say once, on a talk show, that “half these things sound like jokes until I get a’hold of ‘em,” and that’s true — Hello! Haunted Plymouth, anyone? — but there’s nothing at all funny or even particularly abstract (at least in post-9/11 America) about the premise of The Stand. Here was a work head and shoulders over the rest of his output, and King’s own commentary about his fans suggests I’m not alone in this assessment. It’s an achievement of a novel that has been criminally overlooked outside genre circles these last 30 years. Even a weak TV miniseries conveys at least a minor part of it scope (aided, no doubt, by strong casting — it featured Gary Sinese, Rob Lowe, Ruby Dee, Miguel Ferrer, and a then-unknown Jamie Sheridan).

For whatever reason, though, I never touched King’s next major effort, his Dark Tower cycle. Perhaps this was partly because I didn’t think it could be worth my time — my tastes changed in college, and became less willing to entertain what, by the mid 90s, had become somewhat formulaic output from King. Having written and revisited The Stand, and made many millions besides (who knew Rowling would eventually eclipse him, with a little help from exchange rates?), what motivation did he have to produce more demanding work? Perhaps, too, it was an early manifestation of something I joked about here only last year, when Robert Jordan shuffled off this mortal coil without completing his 12-volume Wheel of Time cycle: don’t start reading a series until you know the author will live long enough to finish it. So for whatever reason, I quit reading King, and never touched his own song of Roland. (I was very nearly, and tragically, vindicated; King finished the Tower only after his roadside brush with death).

So I left it alone until two weeks ago. I have a weakness for plot-driven fiction on the road, and God knows I’ve been on the road this spring. Figuring it’d be worth at least a couple hours — and knowing that King had, finally, finished the series in 2004 — I picked up the first volume of the Dark Tower (The Gunslinger)on the Saturday before a 4+ hour flight to Seattle the next day. My flight’s arrival into SeaTac was delayed just enough to prevent me from hitting a Barnes & Noble upon my arrival, which vexed me greatly, as I’d consumed the first book whole and was desperate for more. After my first day on site with the client, I drove to the nearest bookstore and picked up the next two (The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands). As I write this, I’ve just finished #3, and will crack #4 before I rest my noggin tonight.

Let me say this, less than halfway through this seven book series: It makes The Stand look like illiterate pulp. King is working on a whole different level, and is clearly maturing and gaining expertise as he goes along. The new, expanded editions include a forward explaining this from King’s point of view; the first bits were written very early on (initial stories were published in ’78, and written even earlier), but he only came back to the cycle relatively late in his career (book 3 didn’t show up until 1991).

It is in this third book that he really hits his stride. Book one sets the stage, and establishes important facts about the Gunslinger (Roland of Gilead) and his world. Book two establishes the relationship, sort of, between Roland’s world and ours, and the peril that faces both. Only in book three do we see where King may go, and what parts of our shared literary tradition as well as his own not-inconsequential mythos he incorporates, and in the best possible ways. Consider this passage, from late in book three (I don’t think this is spoiler-y; most King fans know what little is revealed here):

“Call me Fannin,” the grinning apparition said. “Richard Fannin. That’s not exactly right, but I reckon it’s close enough for government work.” He held out a hand whose palm was utterly devoid of lines. “What do you say, pard? Shake the hand that shook the world?”

Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name. The name’s not the same, but the initials sort of, oh, I dunno, STAND out, don’t you think?

Granted, the reintroduction of a popular (and clearly eternal) villain isn’t always a good thing, but the themes King builds on, and the ways he builds them, make the Dark Tower — at least so far — the most thrilling work I’ve read in some time. King is working on levels both literal and postmodern; he transposes elements of traditional fantasy into a modern (or, again, postmodern) setting without becoming contrived or cute, and he does so while maintaining his own inimitable, compelling, and compulsively readable voice. If you thought The Stand hinted that King possessed gears he wasn’t using in his more traditional horror output, The Dark Tower is your clearly affirmative answer. A professor of mine, in ’90 or ’91, suggested the epic was a dead form; a student colleague offered that “Stephen King thinks he’s writing one.” For my money, he was right.

Granted, it’s a daunting idea for some to consider the sheer volume of pages involved here, I admit. Make no mistake; he’s working like Tolkein did. The gap from one book to the next is like the gap between chapters in a regular story. It’s a seven volume novel, and dwarfs his previous efforts; my paperback of The Waste Lands alone runs to 588 pages. However, if there were ever a story you wished wouldn’t end, you’ll understand why, not even midway through, Chief Heathen is thrilled with the idea that he’s got four books to go.

As St. Webb might say, my friends, pick up on it.