Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Presidential Transition

Bush and Obama in the Rose Garden
Like so many other American institutions, the time between the election of a President and their inauguration is another check on the system. While many Americans feel that the transition period is too long—Democrats especially—the period gives the incoming President the necessary time to choose their cabinet and get a feel for the role.

In the early days of the United States, the transition period was even longer. Presidents didn’t take office until March 4, in order to give the Electoral College the time to assemble and vote. In the era of the stagecoach, it could take months to cross the country.

In 1932, Inauguration Day was finally changed with the passage of the 20th Amendment. Now, the incoming President takes office on January 20th. But, don’t expect Inauguration Day to be moved up again anytime some.

Despite a few difficult periods—the Civil War and the Great Depression come to mind—Americans generally like the symbolic implications of the transition period. The period generally makes the government look stable and at times even lends itself to bipartisan activity.

> Continue Reading: The Presidential Transition

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Depictions of Toronto in Video Games

Toronto Video Games Half-Life 2 Mod City 7
Unfortunately, Toronto is rarely depicted in video games. For game designers, the city just doesn’t have the same global recognition as New York, the pizzazz of Paris, or the intrigue of Moscow. To the outside world, Toronto is a dull Canadian city. If you’ve been waiting to duke it out with mutants in a post apocalyptic Toronto, you’ll have to settle for Washington, D.C.

The most frequent depictions of Toronto come from hockey, baseball, and basketball games. If you want to catch a glimpse of the Air Canada Centre, play NHL 2K9 or NBA 09. You can also find the Rogers Centre (SkyDome!!) in MLB 09. You won’t see the rest of the city in these games, but you’ll get fair representation of two of Toronto’s iconic stadiums. In some older NHL titles you can even check out Maple Leaf Gardens. Though be prepared for some pretty awful renditions.

Here is an example of Maple Leaf Gardens from NHL 97 for the Super Nintendo. (You might have to use your imagination.)

In the 2004 Sony PlayStation 2 game, Syphon Filter: Omega Strain, there was originally a level featuring Toronto. In the level, Quebec separatists seized control of a Toronto Subway station. The objective of the level was to dislodge and kill the Quebecois terrorists.

The level was eventually removed from the final version of the game after criticisms were brought forth by the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission), the Quebec Government, and various Quebecois sovereigntists.

TTC officials were upset at the use of one of their subway stations as the site of terrorist attack. "The fact is someone is putting the Toronto subway as a terrorist site, that is a very dangerous thing to do," TTC spokesman Marilyn Bolton said in an interview.

The Quebec Government and various separatists groups were angry that the in game terrorist were clearly modeled on the FLQ (Front de liberation du Quebec). "It's difficult not to be made to feel like a target when you have a game inviting players to shoot at separatists," commented one Quebec separatist group.

If you’re looking to see Toronto in your favourite video game franchise, you’ll most likely have to download user created modifications.

To date, the best depiction of Toronto comes from the Half Life 2 modification: City 7. City 7 is a continuation of the adventures of Half Life 2’s main protagonist, Gordon Freeman. After a teleporting accident in Dr. Kleiner's lab, Gordon is forced to fight his way through a Combine dominated downtown Toronto. Some of the locales in the mod include: Dundas Square, the Eaton’s Centre, and the TTC.

The recreation of the TTC in this mod is by far the highlight.

Toronto Video Games Half-Life 2 Mod City 7Toronto Video Games Half-Life 2 Mod City 7
The mod was originally created as part of design project by 5 George Brown students. Unfortunately, plans to expand the mod seem to have evaporated as have all the links to the original project.

A few Sim City fanatics have also tried to recreate Toronto. Of particular note are the efforts of Aladone, who has even included a few Toronto landmarks in his Sim Toronto. The City Hall mod looks great.

Toronto SimCityToronto SimCity

> Continue Reading: Depictions of Toronto in Video Games

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The War in Afghanistan: Can it be Won?

US Troops In Afghanistan
No, or at least not in the way the U.S. wants to win it.

The War in Afghanistan is not going well. Conditions are as bad as, or worse, than they were in 2001 and as the civilian and military death tolls mount, the Taliban is growing stronger. So far this year, 154 Americans have died in Afghanistan. The most since Operation Enduring Freedom began.

Afghanistan is where Iraq was in 2004-2005. The insurgency is growing and things are about to get really bad, says one NATO commander in Kabul.

The outgoing Bush Administration and incoming Obama Administration seem to agree. Bush has added 3,500 soldiers to the Afghanistan mission, and it’s expected that Obama will add more. Obama has told the U.S. public and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan is a key priority.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan cannot be won. Establishing a working democracy in Afghanistan is an impossible task. The country has a rural economy, no infrastructure, and no cultural understanding of the Western-style institutions that are being thrust upon it.

But, despite these barriers, the West cannot abandon Afghanistan. If the West leaves, the Taliban will reassert itself and the country will again become a haven for terrorists. A Taliban controlled Afghanistan would also destabilize Pakistan. The only viable solution is to create a balance of power in the country between the central government, the warlords, Pakistan, and the Taliban. While this solution is hardly optimal, a stable balance of power would keep Afghanistan from destabilizing the rest of the region.

Any kind of balance will require negotiation with the Taliban, something U.S. and NATO officials have been reluctant to consider until recently. But, talking with the Taliban is easier said than done. The trick is to find and deal with the least ideologically intransigent members of the Taliban and break them away from the Islamist core. The Taliban is not a monolithic organization. It’s a grouping of tribes held together by violence and religion. Break away the weakest links and organization’s power will dwindle.

In any eventuality, the U.S. will likely be in Afghanistan for a long time to come. The Karzai government is going to need funding and military advisers to keep its enemies at bay. A balance of power might contain the violence, but it's unlikely to end.

> Continue Reading: The War in Afghanistan: Can it be Won?

Monday, November 24, 2008

24: Redemption Review

24 RedemptionTake that U.N.!

If there is one thing that I was able to take away from Jack Bauer’s latest adventure in 24: Redemption, it’s that U.N. peacekeepers are nothing but sniveling cowards.

The two hour made for tv movie primarily takes place in the fictional African nation of Sengala. On the same day the first female President of the United States takes office, Jack finds himself in the middle of a military coup. Apparently after Season 6, Jack found his way to Africa and is now working with a former army buddy to help run a school for Sangalanese children.

As the coup unfolds, Jack is forced to protect the Sangalanese school children from a vicious warlord who wants to enlist the children in his child army.

In standard 24 form, Jack becomes a one man army and easily shoots his way through the warlord’s forces.

Of course, it wouldn’t be 24 if Jack didn’t get captured and bloodied up. After watching Jack get tortured each and every season, I almost feel sorry for the poor sap in the movie who thinks he can get Jack to tell him the location of the school kids . Come on, searing his flesh with a burning hot machete? I saw Jack have his heart stopped in Season 2 and continue to kick ass. A little cauterized flesh isn’t going to get him to talk.

24: Redemption adheres to 24’s real time format, though it cheats a little more than usual and allows characters to cover staggering distances in mere minutes.

The movie is so-so. Decent action scenes are broken up by boring scenes in Washington. Overall, not Jack’s best outing, but an entertaining romp none-the-less.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the references to Rwanda. Even Kiefer Sutherland has indicated that the movie was inspired by the Rwandan Genocide.

“The truth is, one of the things that was said in the prequel, which I think has been a massive problem with how the Western World has dealt with Africa,” said Bauer in an interview. “No one can justify going there, because they have no viable reason -- meaning oil or money.”

The U.N. operative is perhaps the most visible critique of how Rwanda was handled by the international community (by which the producers mean Europe). The operative is depicted as an incompetent weasel (with a strong European accent). Everything the peacekeeper does is to save his hide. He doesn’t help Jack fight the warlords, but instead opts to hide with the children.

“Why don’t you go hide in the shelter with the rest of the children,” yells Jack as him as he refuses to fight.

He later abandons Jack and the children, to which Jack replies, “He wants to save himself. He knows the children will be targeted by the militias.”

In the end, the character eventually sells out Bauer and the children to save his life after being captured by soldiers.

In another scene, Jack confronts a child soldier with an AK-47. When Jack asks the child to lower the weapon, the kid responds, “Destroy the cockroaches.” As Paul Fahri writes in the Washington Post, Hotel Rwanda seems to have informed a lot of the story.

> Continue Reading: 24: Redemption Review

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Medieval Times Review

Medieval Times Toronto
Medieval Times is shallow entertainment at its finest. And that’s just the way it should be.

Medieval Times TorontoIn 1973, the first Medieval Times opened on the Spanish island of Majorca. Since then, the dinner attraction has spread across North America. Today, Medieval Times operates 8 castles across the continent.

Although Medieval Times is often advertised as an authentic medieval experience, the show has more in common with Disneyland than Medieval European history. If you’re looking for an educational experience, you’ve come to the wrong place. Go to a museum instead.

While it’s true that were knights in the 11th century and that kings occasionally hosted tournaments, they looked nothing like Medieval Times. What you’ll find at Medieval Times bears a stronger resemblance to the movie “A Knight’s Tale.”

Also, for health reasons, the food you find at Medieval Times is not an accurate representation of the food one would find at an 11th century medieval feast. Were Medieval Times to replicate 11th century food, the health inspector would probably have to close the place down for serving rotten meat and moldy bread.

Medieval Times TorontoNothing in the show should be taken seriously. The characters are loud and boisterous, the story is superficial, and the fighting can best be described as WWE with swords.

In true Disneyland fashion, everything at Medieval Times is for sale. Want a giant beer in plastic challis, a light up plastic sword, or a pretty pink princess hat? It’s all available at the Castle Gift Shop. In fact, when you first arrive you have to wait an hour in the shop before the show starts, which provides plenty of time to buy drinks and merchandise.

Despite the merchandising, the show is a lot of fun. The jousting and sword fights are exciting and the production values are quite high. Cheering your knight to victory is exhilarating, though it can be somewhat disappointing if your knight is one of the first to be eliminated. (Note to All: The Green Knight is evil and thus always defeated.)

> Continue Reading: Medieval Times Review

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What does GM’s imminent collapse mean for Ontario?

Junkyard Rusting Cars
Nothing good. The Ontario manufacturing section is already bleeding tens of thousands of jobs a month. If GM files for bankruptcy, it will cripple Southwestern Ontario.

Currently, the Ontario automotive sector accounts for 20% of the province’s manufacturing employment. Together, the big three, GM, Ford, and Chrysler, employ 181,000 people in Ontario. If these jobs are lost, cities like Oshawa, Windsor, and London are in big trouble. The auto industry is a lot more than just these jobs. Hundreds of thousands of people are also employed by parts manufacturers that serve the big automotive companies. If the big three go under, they will too.

Friday morning, mayors of 22 Ontario cities met to discuss the industry’s status.

“There is no time to wait,” said London Mayor Ann Marie DeCicco. “We have to move now to save jobs in the automotive industry, we need to fight for this. We have to be loud and if we do not do this now, it will be too late.”

At the meeting, the mayors agreed to jointly lobby the Ontario and Federal governments for an automotive bailout package.

“We are calling on the federal and provincial governments to do all in their power to get funding in place,” Peter White, chief executive of the London Economic Development Corp. “If the automakers go into bankruptcy, it will be catastrophic.”

If the big three collapse, the fallout will cascade throughout the Ontario economy. While no one has crunched the figures yet, estimates suggest that up to 400,000 jobs might be lost if the automotive sector goes under.

A collapse would also have a devastating effect on the Ontario government’s budget, and city budgets across the province. Without the automotive sector, tax incomes will plummet. To adjust, the province and cities will have to cut services, resulting in further job losses.

The big three’s problems are largely of their own making. Although it may seem pointless to give these failed companies money, the consequences of letting them fail are far too grave.

> Continue Reading: What does GM’s imminent collapse mean for Ontario?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lower Bay Station, What a Disappointment

Lower Bay Station TTC
I have to admit that I’m disappointed. When I looked up images of Lower Bay today, I expected to see a spooky old station with perhaps a dash of 19th century charm. In my mind I had conjured something reminiscent of the abandoned train station from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. (Yes, I’m well aware that Lower Bay was built in 1966.)

Unfortunately, for a brief moment, I let my imagination get the best of me and trump my natural inclinations as a historian. What a mistake. History is rarely as exciting as fantasy.

For those who are unaware, Lower Bay is an abandoned Toronto subway station. The station was used for only six months in 1966 before being mothballed. The station was originally part of an ‘interlining’ experiment that would allow riders to travel between the Bloor-Danforth and Yonge-Spandia subway lines without having to change trains.

The experiment was a huge failure. Delays on the integrated lines quickly cascaded, shutting down the entire system. Passengers were also befuddled by the system. Trains arriving at St. George or Bloor-Yonge were inconsistent. A westbound train at St. George Station might arrive on the top platform or the bottom platform, and passengers wouldn’t know until the train actually arrived. This led many passengers to wait on the staircase between the levels, so they could quickly check which trains were going where.

The signs in the older stations that indicate the final destination of the next train are a remnant of the experiment.

Although the station lies dormant, it still sees a fair amount of activity. The TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) uses the station to train new operators and the line itself is sometimes used to move equipment. The station is also used by tv and movie productions. Since the station is fully equipped and usually empty, it’s the perfect low cost substitution to building a set or shooting in a busy subway station. The TTC used to even have a pre-built New York Subway Station set, but it was eventually disposed of. Some of the movies filmed in Lower Bay include: Johnny Mnemonic, Darkman, Bulletproof, and Monk.

More recently, Microsoft used Lower Bay for its Gears of War 2 launch party. The lights were turned off and the station was decked out with fake flaming garbage cans and LG screens to preview the game.

Lower Bay Station TTC
Although intriguing, Lower Bay really isn’t that creepy. (Unless you fill it with flaming garbage cans and video game nerds.)

Lower Queen StationLower Queen Station is a little scarier. The station was originally designed as an underground street car stop in the 1950s, but was never finished. Between 1950 and 1980, the city debated creating an underground street car or subway line along Queen Street, but the proposals never made it past the planning stages.

Today, Lower Queen lies dormant beneath Queen Station. Rumour has it that a scene from one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies was filmed in the station because of its dark and rather sinister atmosphere.

> Continue Reading: Lower Bay Station, What a Disappointment

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Telltale Signs of Photo Manipulation

US Army General Ann Dunwoody Photo Manipulation
Earlier today, the Associated Press (AP) accused the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) of digitally altering a media release picture of US Army General Ann Dunwoody. In the manipulated image, the DOD altered the clarity, Dunwoody’s uniform, and the background. The DOD was aware of the changes made to the photograph, but stated that the doctored photo did not violate army media policy.

For AP, and many other news organizations, even slight changes to a photograph damage the credibility of the image. “…there's a zero-tolerance policy of adding or subtracting actual content from an image,” said Santiago Lyon, AP's director of photography. After flagging the altered photo, AP suspended the use of DOD images in its publications.

This issue raises an interesting question: How can you tell if an image has been digitally doctored?


Often, photo manipulation involves merging one image into another. One of the easiest ways to spot a fake image is to examine the lighting. While it isn’t always apparent to the naked eye, image specialists are able to measure the brightness and light orientation in order to determine whether or not an image is a fake. Take a look at this example from Scientific American.

Ducks and Police Photo Manipulation
The light direction of the police does not match that of the ducks.

The Eyes

Another way to spot photo manipulation is to look at the eyes of the people in the photograph. Light reflects off the eye in a particular way creating small white dots called specular highlights. If the location of these specular highlights is inconsistent, it suggests doctoring.


Cloning, or copying and pasting parts of image, is a popular method of photo manipulation. While it can be easy to spot bad clone jobs, it sometimes takes the power of a computer to scan an image for duplicated pixel regions.

Poor Fakes

While it’s hard spot good fakes, poor fakes usually have several telltale signs, such as inconsistent shadows, weird blurring, and unnecessary pixelization. (Pixelization is often used to high shoddy workmanship, like in this fake photo of a young John Kerry with Jane Fonda at anti Vietnam protest rally.)

John Kerry Jane Fonda Anti-Vietnam War Rally Fake Photo
For more information about digital forensics I recommend reading 5 Ways to Spot a Fake Photograph and How Experts Uncover Doctored Images.

> Continue Reading: The Telltale Signs of Photo Manipulation

Piracy in Somalia

Piracy in Somalia
The Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker, captured on Saturday, 450 miles off the coast of Kenya, is the largest vessel ever seized by Somali pirates. In fact, it’s the largest vessel ever seized by anyone.

Although piracy on the high seas may seem like a crime from another era, it’s still a big problem. Forget the romantic images of tall ships, parrots, eye patches, and everything else you’ve seen in the Pirates of the Caribbean, today’s pirates use machetes, machine guns, and motorboats. They also aren’t nearly as amusing as Johnny Depp. These men are as heavily armed as they are ruthless. But for many, piracy is less a criminal activity than a way of life.

Many young Somali men simply don’t know any better, says Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Kenyan Seafarers' Association in Mombasa. They have no education, money, or understanding of the rule of law, “someone gives [them] a gun and tells [them] to go and make a living…”

In Somalia, piracy and poverty are interlinked. Since 1991, Somalia hasn’t had a working central government and the resulting warfare and strife has left the region impoverished.

Commercial fisherman, particularly hard hit by illegal trawling operations off the coast, turned to piracy to support themselves and their families.

Today, piracy is one of the best paying jobs in Somalia.

“They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day,” says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in the Somali city of Garowe. “They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns. Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.”

In Eyl, the nexus of pirate activity in country, everyone wants a cut of the profits. According to BBC news, the average going rate for kidnapped sailors is anywhere between $300,000 and $1.5 million. This kind of cash means that hostages as usually well treated. But, more importantly, huge paydays hold the pirate gangs together.

In 2005, Somali pirates made over $30 million from ransom payments. This year profits are expected to be much higher.

These gangs aren’t just two bit operations either. The number of people who take part in the actual attack is small, but the operation itself can employ hundreds of people. The initial attack usually only requires 7-10 people. But afterward, upwards of 50 pirates stay on board the vessel.

According to BBC Somalia analyst Mohamed Mohamed, these are sophisticated operations. Ex-fishermen provide the brains. They know waters and how to pilot vessels once they’re captured. Ex-militiamen are the brawn. They know how to use weapons after years of training under tribal warlords. Ex-businessmen and technical experts work the logistics. They operate the satellite phones and GPS systems that coordinate gangs and locate targets. They also know how to wire money and can insure smooth ransom payments so that everyone gets paid.

As long as piracy remains more lucrative than work on land, Somali men are going to continue to take to the high seas in droves.

> Continue Reading: Piracy in Somalia

Monday, November 17, 2008

I hate Intrusive Web Ads

Intrusive Web AdsWe see ads everywhere. They’re on television, in magazines, on billboards, and all over the internet. We never get a break, except perhaps when we sleep.

As we spend more and more of our time on the internet, we subject ourselves to even more ads. But, while ads in conventional mediums have boundaries, internet ads do not.

Think about it. Magazines are full of ads, but they usually don’t interfere with the articles. Sure, an article might be broken up by several ads, especially if it’s a multi-page piece, but the ads don’t creep over and blot out the article itself. Television shows have commercials, product placement, and the occasional promo at the bottom of the screen, but the ads never obscure the show itself. While these kinds of advertisements might be annoying, they don’t really interfere with content.

Comparatively, internet ads are designed to be as intrusive as possible. How many times have you loaded up a website, only to see a giant flash ad covering the entire page? Try to scroll down, and the ad follows you. Want to close it? Good luck finding the tiny little red X. If you finally manage to click the X, the ad usually takes its sweet time to close.

The worst ads are those that activate when you accidentally move your mouse over them. Trying to quietly read an article in your cubical? Don’t want to disturb your co-workers? Not a chance, when the 007 theme blares out your speakers and Daniel Craig’s face pops up on your screen after you accidentally scrolled over that Quantum of Solace ad.

Some sites are a lot worse than others, but the worst offenders are often gaming sites. Gaming sites have a problem. Most of their tech savvy users have ad blockers. To compensate for this, the ad department frequently builds ads directly into the site. The result: some of the most intrusive and annoying ads on the internet.

The worst gaming site is probably IGN. IGN’s ads are gaudy, frustrating, loud, and laggy. The site already suffers from slow down issues due to its over abundance of useless features. The full page flash ads just make things that much worse.

Today, IGN featured a full page Shaun White Snowboarding ad. At first glance, the ad didn’t seem too intrusive. The main parts of the advertisement were in the proper ad boxes, at the top and right side of screen, and snow was falling lightly in the background of the entire page. The ad slowed the site down, but it didn’t obscure any actual material. However, when I tried clicking on a link to an article, I was taken to Ubisoft’s Shaun White Snowboarding page. A little confused, I tried another link and the same thing happened again. Going back to the main page, I took a closer look at the ad, and there in the top right hand corner was a tiny little red X. Apparently, to properly access the material at IGN, I needed to disable the snow in the background. How lame.

Gamespot and Gamespy are also guilty of using overly intrusive ads, but they aren’t nearly as bad as IGN.

Another culprit is Yahoo Games. Yahoo Games has several poorly implemented flash ads that can bring any scrabble session to a halt. The ads aren’t even particularly garish, but for some reason or other, most likely poor coding, these ads pack a wallop.

Obviously, warez, torrent, and porn sites probably have the most intrusive ads, but when you walk down the darkest corners of the internet you’re taking a risk.

I use the Firefox add-on Ad Block Plus, so I often don’t see many ads, unless they're built into the site. To experiment, I tried turning off Ad Block Plus and checking out a few of my favourite sites.

I accidentally moved my mouse over the banner at the top of the screen, and look what happened! The banner morphed into a giant annoying video ad.

Same thing, my mouse slipped over the banner ad and the pop-up expanded over the “Features” section. (Surprise, surprise, Rottentomatoes is part of the IGN network.)


Ad revenue keeps the web free, but do ads really need to be so intrusive? If ads were simple, and tasteful, I probably wouldn’t even need to use an ad blocker. Unfortunately, intrusive ads are also the most cost effective. The click-through rate on these types of ads are higher than conventional banner or skyscraper ads, often only because they trick people into clicking on them.

Worse, the current economic crisis is only going to make ads all the more intrusive. As ad revenue declines, advertisers are going to come up with sleazier methods to generate high click-through rates.

> Continue Reading: I hate Intrusive Web Ads

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Shrines Erected to Barack Obama

The election might be over, but millions of people in America and around the world are still infatuated with Barack Obama. During the campaign, Obama’s image was everywhere. Over the course of the campaign, Time Magazine featured Obama on its cover 11 times. By contrast, in 1992, Bill Clinton was on 7 covers, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was on 3 covers, and in 1960, and John F. Kennedy was only on 2 covers.

To say that the media has been obsessed with Barack Obama would be the understatement of the year, but it pales in comparison to the obsession of die-hard Obama fans. During the campaign, it sometimes felt as if he was the leader of some sort of crazy cult. I mean, how else could he get students to volunteer for hundreds of hours, unless he had some sort of cult-like psychological control?

Like the outrageous cults, the cult of Obama has many bizarre shrines. The first and most obvious shrine to Obama is his website, For the most part, the site is pretty similar to other campaign sites. What make the site different are its social networking tools and is just like Facebook, if Facebook were solely about discussing the enlightened ideas and actions of one person.

This isn’t to suggest that Obama’s supporters are mindless automatons, far from it. One of the largest social groups on was designed to protest Obama’s decision to vote in favour of legal immunity for the telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration’s wiretaps. The campaign let this group continue to grow and Obama eventually issued a statement to the group in which he justified his vote. Dissenting ideas within the social-online wing of Obama campaign were tolerated and even encouraged.

By now everyone has seen the Obama Girl music video at least a dozen times, so the video doesn’t warrant discussion. But, a Youtube search reveals that over 433,000 videos about Barack Obama have been posted to date. While not all of these are user creations, it’s still a heck of a lot of videos. In comparison, John McCain has 225,000 videos and Britney Spears only has 386,000 videos.

The web itself is full of Barack Obama fan pages. There’s even a geocitites website called “The Barack Obama Shrine,” which mixes weird religious undertones with an obsession for Barack Obama. There are even a bunch of foreign fan sites. Canadians for Obama? Check. Swedes for Obama? Check. British fan site? Check. Hundreds of international blogs rooting for Obama? Double check.

Although many of the shrines to Obama are digital, there are a lot of real shrines too. But, for some reason or other people seem to really like to construct images of Barack Obama out of sand.

In Barcelona, Spain, American artist Jorge Rodriguez Gerada finished constructing a massive sand portrait of Barack Obama on November 3rd. According to Gerada, “The outsize scale allows the artist to allude to the global impact on the eve of his election. It both embodies the immense sense of hope felt by Barack Obanma's [sic] supporters and raises a mirror to reflect the source of that hope.”

In India, World champion sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik commemorated Obama’s victory by building a sand sculpture of his face. “It's a great moment[.] I congratulate Mr. Obama and hope that he will change the global economy,” Pattnaik said

This was the second sculpture Pattnaik has built of Obama. The first one also included a sculpture of John McCain and Capitol Building. There are even a few ice sculptures, though they aren’t quite as impressive.

Even places with only a faint tie to Obama have been swept up in Obamamania. Obama, Japan, a former sleepy fishing town, has fully embraced Barack Obama, if only because of its name and to boost its tourist trade. On election night, hundreds of residents turned out at local bars in Obama t-shirts and headbands to cheer on their town’s namesake.

“We started this as a joke,” said Yasunori Maeno of the “Obama for Obama” campaign. “But as we came to know more about him … and his emphasis on community, the more we liked him. It is important to love the place you are from and to work to promote it.”

“Our town has a small population, and it's nice to see so many people visiting this town,” said Kimio Fujiwara, who heads the city's tourism board. “So we're grateful for Mr Obama and I wish him all the best.”

According to Reuters, Obama has known about the town for sometime. Once, on a visit to Japan, an immigration looking at his passport remarked, “I’m from Obama.”

In Kenya, the birthplace of Barack Obama’s father, Obama has become a figure of national pride. Framed pictures of Obama are sold at local stores, often on the same shelves as pictures of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

Obama paraphernalia is everywhere. Cars and buses have Obama bumper stickers, and Obama t-shirts are a common sight.

In Kogelo, Kenya, the home of Obama’s Kenyan family, the adoration of Obama is even more intense. Sacrifices are sometimes made in Obama’s honour at the local Kit Mikayi shrine.

It’s only matter of time before the honeymoon ends and Obama is subjected to the same criticisms that all American Presidents eventually have to endure. But, for the moment Obamamania is a fun ride that most of world seems content to enjoy.

> Continue Reading: The Shrines Erected to Barack Obama

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mauritania: The Country the World Forgot

Ask someone where Mauritania is and you’ll likely get a series of confused answers. Is it in South America? Asia perhaps? No wait, Africa! Or, is it Oceania?

More likely, this question will prompt another question: “What the heck is Mauritania?”

Mauritania is a Western African nation of approximately 3.1 million people. In 1960, the former colony received its independence from the French. Despite extensive iron ore gold deposits, Mauritania remains a desperately poor rural nation wracked by civil and political strife.

The majority of population relies on subsistence farming and the average Mauritanian makes only $2,334 a year.

On August 6, 2008, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, former head of the Presidential guard and chief of staff of the Mauritanian army, launched a successful coup-de-tat against Mauritanian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the first democratically elected president of Mauritania. On Thursday, Abdallahi was moved from the capital of Nouakchott to his hometown of Lemden. Although free to receive visitors, Abdallahi is not allowed to leave the town and is under the constant supervision of military guards.

Increased diplomatic pressure from the United States, the European Union, and the UN Security Council secured Abdallahi’s release. “The Security Council demands the immediate release of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and the restoration of the legitimate, constitutional, democratic institutions immediately,” said a statement issued by the Security Council in August. The U.S. and the EU have also suspended aid to the country have begun to freeze the government’s foreign assets.

On Friday, Abdallahi met with international journalists to discuss the situation. "I am constitutionally the president, democratically elected for five years," he told journalists. “I will act. I want to work with people in the country just as much as with foreign partners who support democracy.”

Although international governments responded quickly to condemn the coup, the coup has been insufficiently covered by the major news organizations. has not posted a single article about the coup. United Press International has written a pitifully small 87 word article about the event, but misspelled Abdallahi’s name. Reuters and BBC News have done a better job covering the event, but even their coverage feels short and inadequate.

Mauritania is relatively small and isolated, so it’s understandable that the major news organizations only have a few journalists in the country. But, tracking down information for this story seemed far more difficult than it should have been. While it’s unreasonable to expect journalists to cover every single event in detail, it often seems that it’s Africa that suffers the most from this lack of coverage. Everyday human rights abuses, famines, and wars in Africa go unreported.

Ultimately, we as Westerns are all to blame for the poor coverage. Our lack of interest in international crisis, particularly anything involving Africa, has caused news organizations to devote resources to other stories. I mean what's more important, a coup in an African country or CNN's most popular story of day: Second Life affair ends in divorce?

> Continue Reading: Mauritania: The Country the World Forgot

Friday, November 14, 2008

Debunking the Myths on how to Increase Blog Traffic

If you have a blog, sooner or later you are going to google seven words: “How Can I increase my blog traffic?,” or a similar phrase. It seems like almost everyone with a blog has a recommendation on how to increase traffic. For the most part, these strategies are ineffective at increasing long-term, or even short-term traffic. Here are three of the worst offenders.

Write Great Articles: Quality content will catch the reader’s eye and keep them coming back for more. Don't copy and paste from other sources. Post intelligent content that expresses your unique ideas.

Quality, intelligent, and unique are not the words that I would use to describe the internet. Some of the most successful websites simply leech off other lowbrow sites. No, the key to success is not great writing, but sensationalism.

Readers assign a level of quality to an article based on where it comes from. While different readers assess different sites in different ways, known quantities are usually more respected. If the New York Times writes an article on Obama, it’s probably more trustworthy than something from A known quantity doesn’t have to immediately sell an article. People trust the opinions of reputable establishments. Bloggers, especially new ones, don’t have that luxury.

The average internet browser decides on whether something is worthwhile in seconds. If you can’t immediately grab the reader’s attention, no one is going to read your posts. If you want to increase traffic you need to embrace sensationalism.

Here’s an example of a terrible title: “Obama meets with Clinton to discuss possible role in Administration”. How dull. Here’s a better title: “SECRET MEETING between Obama and Clinton: Is Hillary still grasping at the reins power?” The capitalized letters suggest that the article is of the utmost importance and by calling the meeting secret, the meeting gains a sinister edge. Also, the question plays up the stereotype of a power hungry Hillary Clinton without actually saying that she’s power hungry.

Remember, when writing a blog, the more sensational the better.

Use Social Networks: Submitting your blog posts to social networks like Digg, Technorati, Yahoo Buzz, Reddit, and can help boost traffic.

If you don’t already have a popular site, this is a waste of time. The only articles that make it to front pages of these sites come from well established blogs.

Think about it. Hundreds if not thousands of articles are submitted to these networks on an hourly basis. If you’re lucky your article might enjoy a few minutes on the upcoming page. But, unless you have a large reader base to bump the article’s rating, it’s going to sink into oblivion within a matter of minutes. Within those minutes, you might get one or two hits, but that hardly seems worth the effort.

Social networks like Facebook or a community forum are a little more valuable. People you know are more likely to read something written by you, but unless you know 10,000 people, posting your article on Facebook probably won’t increase long-term traffic.

Comment on other Blogs: Commenting on related blogs will help drive traffic to your site. Don’t just write anything though. Well crafted ideas and arguments are more likely to convince readers to check out your blog.

How likely is it that a reader will be so intrigued by your post that they will just have to check out your blog? Not very.

Most users don’t bother with comments. For arguments sake, let’s be generous and estimate that 1 out of every 100 users takes the time to read the comments. (I’m sure for some sites that this ratio is much higher and for others it’s much lower.)

Essentially, your post is an advertisement. You’re using another site to advertise the quality of your opinions. According to Google Adsense, 1% is a decent click through rate for a large website. So on average smart comments will net approximately 1% of 1% of users. Wow! That’s 1 out of 10,000 users.

If you become a popular figure on a large website you might be able to drive traffic to your blog, but this is a long-term time consuming process. Becoming a respected commentator on a large site is a difficult task and it’s not guaranteed to pay off.

These aren’t the only myths on how to increase blog traffic, but they are the most common ones. Although this post was mostly designed to be a sarcastic critique of the blogosphere, these tactics really aren’t all that useful. The internet is a competitive place. There really aren’t tricks or secrets for increasing traffic. More than anything else, traffic depends on luck. The right article, at the right time.

> Continue Reading: Debunking the Myths on how to Increase Blog Traffic

Thursday, November 13, 2008

When do I get my Jet Pack?

Jet Pack on City Street
As a child, I imagined that the not-too-distant-future would be a technical wonderland. Cars would be gone and jet packs would be plentiful. Interstellar travel would be as easy as taking the bus, and just as cheap. Quick and affordable knowledge enhancing mind rays would make tedious classrooms a thing of the past. And of course, all of this was to happen by the year 2000.

As I matured, reality kicked in and gave my fantasies the boot. But, like any other gadget-obsessed male (dork), I still wonder about my jet pack. So how far are we along, might there be a day on the horizon when personal jet packs become a reality?

Don’t hold your breath.

Jet packs are available, but they aren’t practical or affordable. The technology isn't there yet and unfortunately, humans just weren’t designed to fly around with a rocket strapped to their back for a sustained period of time. Damn you science fiction!

German Infantry Experimental Jet Pack World War IIOne of the first fictional depictions of a jet pack was on the cover of “Amazing Stories” in August 1928. Jet packs didn’t become a reality however, until the Second World War. Near the end of the War, German scientists began experimenting with small, wearable pulse tube jets. The first device, called the “Himmelst├╝rmer” (Skystormer) was designed to make calculated jumps of approximately 60m at an altitude of up to 15m. The “jump pack” was intended to allow German engineers to cross obstacles like barbed wire or mine fields. The device was never used in combat.

Bell Experimental Jet PackAt the end of the war, the device was handed over to an American scientist named Wendell Moore at Bell Aerosystems. After years of experiments, Bell developed the first successful jet pack in 1961. Named the “Rocket Belt,” Moore’s device only had a maximum hover time of 21 seconds, an altitude of 10m, and a range of 150m. While the device wowed spectators, the army was disappointed. The device required a ground team to service the belt before and after lift-off and each flight required 5 litres of hydrogen peroxide. Seeing no military application for Moore’s invention, the army canceled the program.

The jet packs that exist today are mostly based on Moore’s design. Although called a “rocket belt,” jet packs don’t use rockets. Their thrust is provided by hydrogen peroxide, which when mixed with nitrogen, creates the pressurized steam that propels the pack. Jet packs are also still bulky contraptions. The average jet pack weighs 125 lbs.

They aren’t easy to fly either. It’s like "trying to stand on a beach ball in a swimming pool," described Bill Suitor, a Bell Aerospace test pilot who famously piloted a jet pack during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games.

Today, several companies are working on various different types of jet packs, but most still rely on hydrogen peroxide for fuel.

Jet Pack Trek Aerospace Springtail Exoskeleton VehicleIn the last few years, Trek Aerospace has made some advances by going back to the drawing board. Instead of using a pack, Trek’s design is more like a large platform. With two ducted fans and a small engine, the “Springtail Exoskeleton Vehicle” weighs twice as much as hydrogen peroxide jet pack. However, the device can travel at 97 km/h for a distance of 117 km. Currently, there are no plans to make the device available to the public.

If you want to purchase a jet pack, Jet Pack International, offers the T-73 at the low cost of $2,000,000. The jet pack has an estimated flight time of 9 minutes and can reach a maximum height of 76m. Training is included in the sticker price.

> Continue Reading: When do I get my Jet Pack?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What’s More Environmentally Friendly – Mechanical or Wood Pencils?

Wood Pencils
It’s hard to say. It really depends on how prone a person is to losing things.

If you never lose anything, the choice is simple: go mechanical. Mechanical pencils made of plastic are usually composed of polystyrene, or a similar substance. The downside of these types of pencils is that they last a really long time. If you throw the pencil in the garbage, it’s never going to degrade. But, if you’re responsible with your office supplies, a single mechanical pencil might last years.

Energy costs and chemical byproducts are also a problem. The average mechanical pencil requires 22 grams of oil to make, 10 grams of oil for the plastic and 12 grams in terms of the energy costs. The chemical waste created by the manufacturing process can be difficult to dispose of.

Wood pencils require less energy to manufacture, but don’t last as long as their mechanical cousins. The trees necessary to make the pencils are technically a renewable resource, but how they’re harvested can have a big impact on the environment. The wooden pencils that are best for the environment are those that are made out of recycled material or with wood from lumber companies that try to minimize the impact of logging on the eco-system.

Unlike mechanical pencils, wooden pencils quickly degrade. However, the ‘lead’ in the average wooden pencil is much thicker than that of a mechanical pencil. And, the ‘lead’, which is made of graphite and clay, has environmental costs of its own.

Numerous pencil companies have jumped on the environmental bandwagon in recent years, but it can be hard to determine the produce with the smallest carbon footprint. A pencil might be made of recyclable materials, but if those materials were shipped from North America to China and then back to North America again, the oil costs are going to negate the energy saved by using recyclable material.

Ultimately, pencil production has a very small impact on the environment. Buying environmentally friendly pencils might make you feel better, but it doesn’t really make that much of a difference.

> Continue Reading: What’s More Environmentally Friendly – Mechanical or Wood Pencils?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How much does it Cost to Operate the White House?

The White House

That’s easy. The Congressional Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2008 indicates that the yearly operating expense of the White House was $12,814,000. Or, about $35,106 a day. These expenses include: “maintenance, repair and alteration, refurnishing, improvement, heating, and lighting, including electric power and fixtures, of the Executive Residence at the White House and official entertainment expenses of the President…”

If only the answer were that simple to procure.

The real answer is exceedingly complicated. In addition to the annual congressional budget for the operation of the White House, there are over 22 other budget accounts, in 13 different departments, that pay the expenses and salaries of the White House staff.

Defining what constitutes “The White House” is also difficult. In his book, To Serve the President, Bradley H. Patterson argues that there are 23 separate accounts that make up the costs of the White House. Some of these accounts include the President’s Salary, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Security Council, the Department of State, and so on. As Patterson notes, finding the real cost of the White House is almost impossible. The funding for these various White House functions are buried within numerous appropriation bills, some of which are classified.

However, Patterson provides a ball park figure by tallying the following expenses.

Total Cost of the Whole White House for Fiscal Year 2008
  1. Compensation of the president (including an expense allowance of $50,000): $ 450,000
  2. The Executive Residence operating expenses: $12,814,000
  3. The Executive Residence—repair and restoration: $1,600,000
  4. The vice president’s downtown office: $15,511,9603
  5. Residence of the vice president—operating expenses: $320,000
  6. The White House Office (including the Homeland Security Council): $53,656,000
  7. Office of Policy Development (the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council): $3,482,000
  8. National Security Council: $30,300,820
  9. One-eighth of the Office of Administration, for direct services to the president pursuant to Section 3(a) of Executive Order 12028: $11,468,125
  10. The president’s unanticipated needs: $1,000,000
  11. White House Center Service Delivery Team (in the GSA budget): $26,000,000
  12. U.S. Postal Service, White House branch: $726,000
  13. National Archives professional archival support of the White House: $1,000,000
  14. Value of gifts supplied by the Department of State for presentation to foreign leaders at White House official entertainment functions: $50,000
  15. White House Communications Agency (in the budget of the Defense Information Systems Agency): $173,900,000
  16. Air Force One (in U.S. Air Force budget) (classified) (Estimated cost: $200,000,000)
  17. Helicopter squadron HMX-One (in the Marine Corps budget; this is the fiscal year 2008 appropriation segment of a fifteen year-long procurement of twenty-eight new helicopters): $271,000,000
  18. Camp David (in the Navy/Seabees budget): $7,900,0005
  19. Salary costs for 2,300 employees in above units 15, 16, 17, and 18 (all in the budget of the Department of Defense): $151,800,000
  20. U.S. Secret Service (in the budget of the Department of Homeland Security) (21-26)
  21. Protection of persons and facilities: $689,535,000
  22. For protective intelligence activities: $57,704,000
  23. For handling “special security events,” such as the 2009 Inaugural: $1,000,000
  24. For screening of White House mail: $16,201,000
  25. Operations of the James J. Rowley Training Center: $51,954,000
  26. Improvements at the James J. Rowley Training Center: $3,725,000
  27. Commission on White House Fellowships (in the budget of the Office of Personnel Management): $850,000
  28. National Park Service White House Liaison Office, including the White House Visitor Center (in the budget of the National Park Service): $8,700,000
  29. Cost of detailees who work more than six months in a calendar year: $227,349
Total Cost of All White House Elements, for fiscal year 2008: $1,592,875,254

(This total does not include classified expenses or donations)

$1.5 billion is a lot of money. $4,364,041/day, to be precise. But keep in mind, this is for the Executive Office of the United States of America, which is more than just a building.

Image by Scott Ableman.

> Continue Reading: How much does it Cost to Operate the White House?

Ronald Reagan Didn’t Win the Cold War

As American myths go, there is none greater than that of President Ronald Reagan. Americans treasure Reagan’s image and hold his two terms as President in the highest regard. Republicans worship him as a god, and even the Democrats speak fondly of him. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” argued President-Elect Barack Obama in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal. “…he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

During his Presidency, Reagan made Americans feel good about their country and themselves. As a result, Americans, when polled, consistently place Reagan among the greatest Presidents in U.S. history. American historians do not share this view, and frequently rank Reagan as a mediocre or below average President.

Historians are highly critical of Reagan’s legacy. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished his image as a proponent of liberty and democracy and many historians feel that his program of deregulation weakened capitalism in America. Moreover, historians, unlike the average American, do not believe that Reagan single handedly ended the Cold War.

The best examples of the power of the Reagan were visible in 2004, after his death. The media coverage Reagan received was tremendously positive. Commentators, political pundits, and average Americans from across the political spectrum all credited Reagan with ending the Cold War.

The “Reagan Victory” theory goes like this. Reagan and his advisors understood the economic frailty of the Soviet Union, and thus sought to bankrupt the Soviet Union through extensive military spending. The Soviet Union was unable to keep pace with America’s spending and its weakened economy brought its political system to its knees.

This theory has several flaws. First, Reagan and his advisors never believed they could destroy the Soviet political system. In fact, they believed that the Soviet Union would be a permanent fixture of U.S. foreign policy. There was never any plan to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Reagan felt threatened by the Soviet military, as he believed it was stronger than America’s. “The truth of the matter is that the Soviet Union does have a definite margin of superiority,” argued Reagan in 1982, “enough so that there is risk and there is what I have called… ‘a window of vulnerability.’”

Second, the Soviet Union only adjusted its military spending during the Reagan years by 0.4% and this spending increase was planned ahead of time as a response to the military spending of the Carter Administration. If you want to argue that America outspent the Soviet Union, Carter's your man, not Reagan.

Finally, the “Reagan Victory” theory ignores the changes in his policies towards the Soviet Union. Reagan was only a hard-line anti-communist for the first few years of his presidency. The famous “Evil Empire” speech was from 1983. The rest of his Presidency was spent trying to reconcile with the Soviets.

Of all the 20th century Presidents, Reagan had the most summits with the Soviet Leadership. It was during these summits, particularly those on nuclear proliferation, that Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were able to form a relationship built on trust. Gorbachev believed Reagan when he said that he wanted to reduce nuclear arsenals and he believed that he could pursue Glasnost (political reforms) and Perestroika (economic reforms) in the Soviet Union with Reagan’s support. These reforms are what brought an end to the Cold War and eventually communism in the Soviet Union.

This was perhaps Reagan’s greatest legacy. Although Gorbachev was the principle player, Reagan’s conciliatory actions helped pave the way towards rapprochement. “Mikhail Gorbachev took the ball and ran with it,” argues Beth Fischer in Toeing the Hardline, “but it was Ronald Reagan who had put the ball in play.”

> Continue Reading: Ronald Reagan Didn’t Win the Cold War

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Wolverine and the X-Men Review

As a kid, I was a huge fan of the 1990s X-Men series, and I wasn’t alone. Everyone I knew ate, slept, and breathed the X-Men. In 1992, when the cartoon premiered, playing Ninja Turtles was quickly replaced with playing Mutant. Shooting lasers out of your eyes and making quip remarks was so much cooler than eating pizza and saying “Cowabunga!” The X-Men seemed to find their way into almost everything I did. I remember we had a drawing contest in grade three at my school. Almost every kid who entered submitted a drawing of one of the X-Men, including myself. Mutants, Sentinels, and Wolverine, that was what was cool.

While the 1990s X-Men series wasn’t perfect, it was an entertaining show that managed to balance great action scenes with a surprisingly deep plot, something you don’t always see in a kid’s show, especially since most kid’s shows are designed to sell action figures.

The voice acting in the show was spot on and even though the animation was often stiff and sloppy, the characters were well thought out and engaging. Besides the lackluster final season, my only real complaint was the sheer number of Wolverine centric episodes. Sure, Wolverine’s character and back-story were intriguing and Cathal J. Dodd’s gravelly voice made him sound badass, but a few more episodes that focused on some of the other characters would have been nice.

Since the 90s cartoon, the X-Men have gotten a lot more attention. To date, the X-Men have starred in three movies and the god-awful X-Men Evolution cartoon series. Unfortunately, Wolverine and the X-Men is in many ways a successor to X-Men Evolution. Though not a continuation, the show is produced by the same creative team.

Thankfully, the animation has received an upgrade from Evolution. Although it’s still anime, it’s a huge improvement. The characters in Wolverine are a lot more detailed and don’t look nearly as goofy as their Evolution counterparts.

Wolverine and the X-Men has an interesting premise. Professor Charles Xavier is gone, and Wolverine must lead the X-Men. In the opening sequence of the first episode, the X-Mansion is attacked and destroyed by an unknown force that leaves Jean Grey and Professor Charles Xavier missing. Overcome by grief, the X-Men disband.

A year later, the government controlled MRD (Mutant Response Division) begins detaining mutants and ordinary humans. From a dystopian future, Professor-X contacts Wolverine and instructs him to reassemble and lead the X-Men to stop the MRD the Sentinel Project.

This premise has two major problems. First, the show has trouble balancing Wolverine’s independence and leadership. Wolverine is, and always has been, a loner. Making him the leader could be interesting if the show properly explored how this conflicts with his nature. But, the show just sidesteps the issue. Wolverine issues orders and the X-Men blindly follow, with the occasional snide remarks from either Cyclops or Emma Frost.

Second, the whole Xavier contacting Wolverine from the future is a tad weird. In just about every episode so far, Xavier tells Wolverine to prevent some disaster. Xavier should be able to contact Wolverine at any time in the past, but always seem to contact him with only hours or days to spare.

Also problematic, is the fact that Xavier seems to know when the X-Men are successful. If he’s in the future, he shouldn’t be able to recognize any changes to the timeline, as he’s not actually outside of time. I would delve into this problem further, but the mechanics of time travel on tv are often headache inducing and not worth the trouble.

To date, most of the episodes have been underwhelming. The best parts of the series have dealt with the MRD and the Sentinel Project. The MRD with its blatant disregard for the civil rights of both humans and mutants is reminiscent of the highhanded anti-terror tactics of the Bush Administration. The scene in the opening credits where the MRD loads shackled mutants into an armored vehicle is particularly powerful, and it’s a shame that the show itself can’t channel the same emotions.

The non-MRD episodes have ranged from lackluster to downright awful.

Unlike X-Men Evolution, which was a dull and rather silly affair, this series has the potential to improve. Hopefully, the focus will tighten as the series progresses. While I don’t think the series can top the 90s cartoon, it still has the opportunity to carve a unique and entertaining niche for itself.

> Continue Reading: Wolverine and the X-Men Review