Posts from July 2007.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back For Your Water

The other day I decide to make myself a nice, relaxing cup of tea. Crazy, I know. I’m spontaneous like that.

I filled a glass mug up with water, stuck it in the microwave for two minutes (my standard tea-making, water-hottening unit of time), and then busied myself with other tasks.

In response to the beeping sometime later, I walked over and opened the door to the over. I was surprised to see that the water was completely undisturbed, as if it had not been warmed at all. Thinking that perhaps I had accidentally set the microwave for “1:00″ instead of “2:00,” I reached out and tapped the side of the glass with my finger, to see how hot it was.

And then: FWOOOSH! The whole thing blew up.

Not the mug itself, just the contents. When jostled, the water went from looking like the placid surface of a calm lake to one filled with 4,000 piranhas and a cow. The water in the mug bubbled frenziedly for a fraction of a second, and then geysered upwards DIRECTLY INTO MY FACE OH GOD THE BURNING!!

Well, no. Actually, it mostly hit the ceiling of the microwave, though some slopped over onto my hand and a few drops assailed my cheekbones. Still, I did what any red-blooded American male would do in this situation: shrieked like a 11 year-old girl at a Fall Out Boy concert and flung myself backwards as if a rabid stoat had just attached itself to my windpipe.

As this took place, Squiggle was behind me, standing at his child-sized table and serenity coloring. I barreled backwards into him and we both crashed into the cupboards, our heads making cheerful coconut-clonking noises as they collided with wood, whereupon one or more of us burst into tears.

The Queen, meanwhile, was ten feet away, folding clothes on the kitchen table. She turned around when she heard me scream, missing the part where the scalding water flew directly into my eyebones and instead only seeing me do my impression of a bowling ball, with our toddler playing the role of Pin #6.

“Oh for Pete’s sake,” she said, surveying the aftermath. “What happened this time?”

Fortunately, I had an explanation at the ready. I knew exactly what had happened.

You see, a few years ago I took it upon myself to debunk every urban legend that I received via email, be it about Bill Gates and his plan to give $200 to every person who forwarded his message, the $250 Neiman-Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe, or the dying kid in Albuquerque wanted everyone to send him a postcard. As self-appointed killjoy, I would track down the appropriate page on Snopes, reply to all, and piss in the collective punch bowl (“Actually, signing this petition is a waste of your time. There is no such proposal to slash the funding of Sesame Street, as this URL makes clear …”)

But I was unable to refute one such email–about exploding, microwaved water–because, according to Snopes, it was true.

So while The Queen soothed Squiggle (“don’t cry, it was just one of your father’s … ‘episodes’ …”), I quickly pulled up the Snopes page on our laptop to justify my seemingly maniacal behavior. This is our Standard Crisis Operation Procedure, by the way: she looks after the well-being of our child, I frantically scramble to absolve myself of blame.

A few click-click-clicks from Snopes and I wound up on the University of Minnesota website, which had this to say about the phenomenon:

Overheating of water in a cup can result in superheated water (past its boiling temperature) without appearing to boil. Superheating occurs if water is heated in a container that does not assist the formation of bubbles, which is a visual sign of boiling. Glass containers are the most likely to superheat water because their surfaces have few or no defects. The presence of slight defects, dirt, or other impurities usually help the water boil because bubbles will form on these imperfections.

When I showed the exculpatory evidence to The Queen though, she zeroed in on this passage:

Water can "explode" ... However, it takes near perfect conditions to bring this about, and is not something the average hot beverage drinker who would otherwise now be eying his microwave with trepidation need fear. Odds are, you'll go through life without ever viewing this phenomenon first-hand.

“Hey, that’s terrific,” she said, turning to me. “You coulda won us the lottery. But nooooooooo, you gotta blow your one-chance-in-a-million luck on exploding water.”

Anyway, you’ll be glad to hear that the only lasting effects of The Incident were a small burn on my right hand, a few slight red marks on my face, and a crippling fear of tea. Thankfully, the greyhound has graciously offered to become my new soothing drink of choice.

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Certainties

  • Death
  • Taxes
  • If you look at one of those big, digital clocks on the side of banks–you know, the kind that alternate between the time and temperature?–it will be displaying whichever statistic you are not currently trying to ascertain.
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Libby’s Pardon

For the last few days, friends have been asking me what I think of the Libby pardon, and then sort of stepping back, wary but with looks amused anticipation on their faces, waiting for me to erupt in incensed indignation.

And they are invariably disappointed when I instead shrug and say, “I don’t see how Libby going to jail matters, one way or the other.”

Look people, here’s the deal. Libby is (or, rather, was) nothing more than one tentacle of the Cephalopod we know and loathe as Dick Cheney. Everything the guy did–from leaking Plame’s name to furiously trying to cover it up–was done either at the behest or to cover the ass of his Dark Master. To get all flushed and giddy of the prospect of Libby going to the pokey, while Cheney not only remains free but continue to pretty much run this joint, strikes me as the equivalent of throwing a single Sprite can into your recycling bin and declaring victory over global warming.

On the other hand, Bush’s pardon of Libby has a bunch of positive side-effects:

It further illustrates the stunning contempt this administration has for the rule of law. For those of us who have been paying attention, providing more evidence that this administration essentially considers itself unfettered by the checks and balances of the legislative and judicial branches is like carrying coals to Newcastle. But Libby’s pardon neatly encapsulates their monarchical arrogance into a single, easy-to-understand event, concise enough for a headline or a CNN crawler. No more trying to explain the intricacies of the US Attorney scandal and how it subtlety demonstrates the White House’s disregard for accountability; now you just say “Libby’s pardon” and people know exactly what you are talking about.

It negates the “Clinton factor.” Apologists for the White House love to talk about Bill Clinton, and how much worse he was than the current occupant of the oval office. Or, at least, they used to–before Bush managed to equal and surpass pretty much every wrongheaded decision and politically-motivated maneuver Slick Willy ever attempted in his eight years of office. Pretty much the only thing Clintonphobes could still cite as unambiguously worse about the previous administration was the use of pardons, thanks to Marc Rich’s Get Out Of Jail Free card. Now they don’t even have that anymore. (And, fun fact: after the Rich pardon, Clinton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times attempting to justify his decision; Bush, on the other hand, couldn’t even be bother do to his own clean-up, instead letting Tony Snow do the ‘splainin’. An op-ed, by the way, in which Snow mentions Clinton’s name as many times as he does that of his boss.)

It keeps the Plame scandal alive: You put a scapegoat in jail, and that’s pretty much the end of the story. Once Ken Lay was convicted, talk of his connections to the White House largely stopped. That’s a little thing called “closure,” and something–thanks to Bush’s decision–we do not yet have on the Plame Affair.

It draws attention to the absurdity of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements: People are outraged about the Libby pardon because Bush presumed to substitute his own judgment for that of the judge and jury. But the federal government does this all the time, with mandatory minimum sentencing laws. As recently as last month, Bush was “pushing legislation that would require prison time for nearly all criminals,” (“Nearly” because perjurers and personal buddies will still get a pass, I assume.) If Bush’s “judgment” in the Libby case rankles, ask yourself: if this really the guy you want setting sentencing requirements for all 50 states?

It strengthens the case for impeachment I have not yet boarded the I-Train–I don’t want to live in a nation where, every time we have a divided government, the legislative branch spends all of its time and energy trying to eviscerate the executive, which is what I fear will happens if the President is impeached two administrations in a row. But my reservations only extend to Bush. The trail of slime in the Libby case leads back to Cheney, and I’m all for getting that guy gone.

If our government is like a house, Bush would be inside trashing the joint: breaking lamps, pulling over bookshelves (easy enough, given the amount of books he likely keeps on them), yanking up the carpet, and so on. He’ll leave a mess, but the next inhabitant will be able to clean it up eventually. The stuff Cheney and Rove have done, though–be it the avocation of torture, the obsession with secrecy, or the stacking the judicial branch–is more akin to a toxic black mold, that sort that infests a house for generations, rendering the place unlivable.

I think Bush is pretty much done for, and impeaching him would serve little purpose; but Cheney is like a guy who has had “a few beers” and is roaming the countryside with a shotgun (if you can envision that farfetched scenario): the sooner he is disarmed, the better we’ll be. Or, as Hendrik Hertzberg put it in The New Yorker, Cheney is:

the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant President he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that can plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable “war on terror.”

Yes, exactly. If the Libby walking calls more attention to this fact, then his pardon is all right by me. And if his reprieve stokes the fires of Cheney disgruntlement (as it appears to have done; currently 54% [!!] of all adults favor Cheney’s impeachment) to such a degree that we actually throw the bum out, we’ll look back on this day fondly.

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Games: Twilight Struggle

Last year on the Fourth of July I wrote about US themed board games. Let’s make a tradition of it, what hey?

The board games I tend to highlight on this site are those I refer to as GGGs: Good Gateway Games (or, around the holiday season, Good Gift Games). In other words, games that are easy to teach and play, that can be completed in an hour or less, and are “fun on the first try,” suitable for casual get-togethers and people new to the board gaming hobby.

GGGs aren’t the only games I play, just the ones I tend to showcase here. In fact, my preferred titles often violate two or even all of the above guidelines, as my newest favorite game illustrates. Twilight Struggle has a bit of a learning curve, takes 3-4 hours to complete, and, while fun, requires multiple playings to fully appreciate.

So why mention it here? Simply because I can think of no other game I own that inspired me to research an entire field of academic subject. Power Grid didn’t get me interested in electricity production; I didn’t become obsessed with Swahili economics after playing Jambo; and despite dozens of games of No Thanks! I’ve felt no compulsion to improve upon my manners. And yet, since acquiring Twilight Struggle, I’ve read a book about the cold war (called, cleverly enough, The Cold War), watched a six-hour documentary on the clash between capitalism and socialism, and impressing people at cocktail parties* by causally opining about Charles de Gaulle’s effect on European history.

Twilight Struggle is for two players; one assumes the role of the United States, the other: USSR. The board shows a map of the world and the key nations for which the superpowers will be fighting. The game is played with a deck of 110 cards, each of which depicts a major event in the cold war. Most of these events are affiliated with one superpower or the other, though some are neutral. In addition to the event, every card also boasts an number of “operational points” from 0-4.

A game begins in 1945 and unfolds over 10 rounds, each of which represents 3-5 years of history. During a round, players alternate playing and resolving cards. When playing a neutral card, or one affiliated with his own superpower, a player has a choice: he may either trigger the event, or he may spend the operation points. Operation points can be used to increase your superpower’s influence over other nations, to reduce your opponent’s influence, or to foment coups (which, if successful, may both decrease your opponent’s influence in the target country and increase your own). When playing a card associated with your opponent (which you will do often, as the game forces you to play nearly all of the cards in your hand, whether you wish to or not), you get to use the operation points and your opponent gets to resolve the event. This nasty little twist means that you will sometimes find yourself playing cards that benefit your opponent more than yourself.

The goal of all this is control: control of key battleground nations, and of the six major regions of the world (Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa). When one of the periodic scoring phases is triggered, the superpower that controls more nations in the indicated region will rack up points.

Complicating matters is the threat of mutual assure destruction, which lurks in the background at all times and becomes especially worrisome as Defcon creeps toward 1. (If nuclear war breaks out during a player’s turn, he loses.) And China serves as a perpetual fly in the ointment of both superpowers, first aiding one of them, then immediately defecting to the other.

I’m not a huge fan or wargames–and Twilight Struggle, at its core, is not one. It differs from true war games in two ways. First, the two players never attack each other directly, instead jockeying for control of key areas of the map, and fighting proxy battles across the globe. It is not intended to be a simulation of the actual cold war. In fact, in the designer notes, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews openly admit that they goal was to create a game that adhered to the mythology of the cold war, if not the reality. To that end, the “domino theory”–of dubious validity in actual foreign policy–is crucial to success in this game, nations are little more than pawns for the superpowers, and investing time and energy into the “space race” reaps tangible benefits. Twilight Struggle depicts the cold war as it was envisioned by those who were fighting it, not as it now appears to us in retrospect.

I don’t play games as often as I used to, alas. So when I find myself with a free evening and an opponent, I consider the time valuable. I could easily play three different games in the time it takes for one bout of Twilight Struggle; that I choose the latter ought to tell you something about how much this game has grown on me.

* I don’t actually attend cocktail parties.**

** Or impress people

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Tilt

Squiggle was walking around the house yesterday, counting to himself. I realized he had reached the nineties and was curious to know what would happen, so I stopped to listen.

“ninety-six”

“ninety-seven”

“ninety-eight”

“ninety-nine”

Here he paused for a moment and thought. Then:

“Zero-zero!”

Oh, great. Kid’s got a rollover error.

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100 Words

The editors of the American Heritage dictionary recently compiled a list of “100 words they recommend every high school graduate should know.”

I always like to check out lists like this, and see how many of the entries I am already familiar with. The answer is, invariably, “nearly all of them.” Not because I have a stellar vocabulary, but because I cheat.

Not on purpose, of course. But, when performing this exercise, I’m always struck with “well that’s what I meant” syndrome. You know how it goes. You see the word, you say to yourself “that means X,” you check the definition, and when it turns out that it actually meant Y, you say, “ah, well, that’s I meant. And, jeeze, X and Y are practically the same thing … so, I’m going to give myself this one.” By the time I’m done, I have magnanimously “given” myself all of them, and have no idea how many I actually knew before I started.

So this time I tried something new: I wrote down my definitions first, and then compared them to the actual definitions afterwards. You can see the results in the comments.

If you’d like to do the same, here’s a little tool I wrote. First, select how many words from the American Heritage list you’d like to get tested on. (I wouldn’t recommend 100–that took me forever–but 23 is good.) You will then be given the opportunity to provide your definitions for each. You can then grade yourself, in comparison to the actual meanings. Lastly, the script will print out a final report, which you can then put in the comments of this psot on your own site. (Apparently Movable Type strips tables from comments, so posting ‘em here ain’t gonna work after all.)

By providing your own definitions first, you should get a somewhat more accurate picture of how many of the words you could truly use correctly in a sentence. But if you just want to grade yourself without providing your own definitions first, you can do that instead. Whatever. We aim to please.

How many words?

You can find my results here (but, if you intend to test yourself, don’t look until you have done so, as the definitions of the words appear on that page).

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