Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mail Carrier Drops Off More Than A Package On Customer's Lawn

There is no way to say this delicately: A U.S. postal worker has been suspended from his mail carrying job after defecating on the lawn of a resident on his route. This is where all the jokes about dropping off packages and such come into play.
Shoulda worked for UPS: what can brown do for you?

CNN (via KLTV)reports on the poo-happy mailman, who was spotted near a neighbor's garage, dropping trou, by Don Derfler in Oregon while he was home with his son last week.

"I thought he had a bunch of packages for us," he said, adding, "He started pulling his pants down and started defecating and at that point I grabbed my camera and started to take pictures."

The postal service has responded, saying the carrier has been suspended.

"We're taking this very seriously and I really want to apologize to our customers and to the public at large for the years I've worked for the postal service I've never heard of an incident like this and I hope I never do again," said a rep.

One neighbor understands that when you gotta go, you gotta go, but that using private property as an outhouse is not the way to handle the situation.

"Nature calls at inopportune times..sometimes but geez go back to your rig and find a gas station or someone who will let you use their bathroom."

Postal inspectors may have already cleaned up the evidence according to another neighbor, who confronted several men in suits.  I know if I was professionally cleaning up postal excrement, I'd be wearing my finest suit!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, Universe!

Or, at least, happy birthday according to seventeenth century astronomer Johannes Kepler.
Make a wish!
Kepler, born Dec. 27, 1571, was a German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer, and became a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution.  Perhaps best known for his laws of planetary motion, Kepler's work laid the foundation for Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation.

While at the University of Tubingen, Kepler studied both the Ptolemaic system (geocentric) and the Copernican system (heliocentric) of planetary motion, becoming a Copernican.  As a student, Kepler defended heliocentrism from both a theoretical and theological perspective, maintaining that the Sun was the principal source of motive power in the universe.
That is one powerful beard!
Following his studies, Kepler became a professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Graz, in Austria, at the age of 23.  He later went on to work with Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, and although Tycho guarded his data closely, he was impressed by Kepler's theoretical ideas, and eventually allowed him more access to his data and his observatory.  When Tycho unexpectedly died the next year, Kepler inherited Tycho's extensive collection of astronomy data, as well as the post of imperial mathematician for Holy Roman emperor Rudolph II. 

While at this post, Kepler became exceedingly productive.  Kepler learned of the work of Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, who had discovered mountains and craters on the moon as well as four moons of Jupiter with a telescope he had invented.  Kepler later corresponded with Galileo, obtaining a telescope of his own and improving upon the design.  Somewhere along the way, Kepler found the time to publish his three laws of planetary motion, as well as several scientific works and validation of Galileo's works.  Among his studies and calculations, Kepler came up with a calculation for the beginning of the universe: April 27, 4977 BC.

I honestly have no idea what was taken into consideration for this computation, but Kepler did not employ any calculating assistants (back then, you hired your calculators, rather than buying them from Texas Instruments), so for having to do the math all by himself, he didn't do too badly.  Granted, the universe really is something like 13.75 billion years old, but he's only off by 214,843,750%!

So sit right back, universe, and grab yourself a slice of cake.  You've got to have a birthday sometime, why not today?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When The Economy Gets Worse, People Shake Babies More

When the going gets tough, the weak get going on their babies. A new study finds a rise in "shaken baby syndrome" correlates with economic downturns. At one hospital, the number of babies that were hospitalized for what is known as "non-accidental head trauma" doubled during th recession.

After reviewing the hospital records, researchers found that 43 cases of non-accidental head trauma (NAHT) happened during the 31 months between December 2007 to June 2010. During the 72 months before the recession, there were 50 cases. While the number of cases was larger, the earlier period covered more than double the number of months.

There were also significantly more injuries during the recession, which lead to more deaths and severe brain injury. "We really weren't expecting to see such a big increase," one of the researchers told HealthDay. "It was pretty startling for all of us."

The study's results were along the lines of another similar survey of four urban children's hospitals in Pittsburgh.

No matter the cause or level of frustration, nothing justifies it being taken out on a baby. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has information on preventing child abuse.

How long do you think it will be before poor economies are outlawed, to prevent such child abuse?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How do you turn 5 cents into 17 cents?

Let Social Security do it!

The first Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes were collected beginning in January 1937.  However, under the 1935 Social Security Act, monthly benefits would not begin until 1942 (which was later amended to begin in 1940).  So, from 1937 until 1940, Social Security paid benefits in the form of a single lump-sum payment, which was to provide some "payback" to those who contributed to the program but would not participate long enough to be vested for monthly benefits.

This guy knew when to cash in!
According to, the earliest reported applicant for a lump-sum benefit was a retired Cleveland motorman named Ernest Ackerman, who retired one day after the Social Security program began.  During his one day of participation in the program, a nickel was withheld from Ackerman's pay for Social Security, and upon retiring, he received a lump-sum payment of seventeen cents.

It's the first of the month, so cash your checks and get up
As mentioned earlier, monthly Social Security benefit payments began in January 1940.  Who received the first monthly retirement check?  Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont, a legal secretary who retired in November 1939.  Her first check was issued on January 31, 1940, when she was 65 years old.  She lived to the age of 100, dying in 1975.  For the three years she worked under the Social Security program, the accumulated FICA taxes on her salary totaled $24.75.  Her initial monthly check was $22.54, and she went on to collect a total of $22,888.92 in Social Security benefits.

So now we have all of these politicians in Washington DC complaining about the deficit and the national debt, and how Social Security is a drain on the system, and that we need to fix it.  NONSENSE, I say!!  If anything, we need the government to start paying into the Social Security system!  If Ernest Ackerman can turn his 5 cents into 17 (that's a 340% increase!!), why can't the government do the same?  Better yet, if the feds pay into the system long enough to start collecting monthly benefits, maybe they can capitalize like Ida May Fuller, who saw her investment return at 92,480%!!!  What did that take, three years?

Here's an idea, Mr. President - if our national debt is $14 trillion, all we need to invest in Social Security over the next three years is $15,135,135,136.00, and then we can just sit back and watch the checks come in and take care of the debt!

That's just 36 easy monthly payments of $420,420,420!

But wait, that's not all!  If you call right now, The Billy Blog will throw in this tub of Oxi Clean at no extra charge!
Billy Mays, why did you have to die so soon?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

. . .the right of the people to keep and bear Arms. . .

It seems that over a week has passed since the Ragin' Man in Cajun Land asked (and then provided his answer to) the question "what does the 2nd Amendment really say?" Please, take a minute, check it out, maybe let him know what you think.  And, for those of you who haven't been paying attention, the Second Amendment, in its entirety, states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Well, Ragin' Man, here's my two cents: I’m jealous that you covered this topic in detail before I have. This is one that has been on my back burner for awhile, because it is a topic dear to me, and most people have kneejerk reactions that either miss the point or just cater to whatever side they support.

I would disagree with you, however, on a few important points –

If anything, a simple understanding of the Bill of Rights holds it to be a guideline of protections afforded to the states and the people from the power of the federal government (which is why it ends with the “catchall” Tenth Amendment - "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."), and the question that D.C. v. Heller was specifically pertaining to is whether in federal enclaves (in this case, the District of Columbia), does the (federal) government (the ban was passed by the Council of the District of Columbia, but as a federal district, is subject to the control of Congress) have the ability to restrict ownership of an entire class of firearm that is commonly used for traditionally lawful purposes? The answer is no. It’s definitely splitting hairs (but isn’t that really what the Supreme Court is for? If the answer was blatantly obvious, it wouldn’t have made it that far), but the federal government (under the guise of the DC Council) prohibiting personal firearm ownership is exactly what the Second Amendment exists to prevent.

Now, the extension of this decision to the state and/or local level may be a little more applicable toward your “free state”/”well regulated militia” argument. Two years after your boy Antonin Scalia affirmed Barack Obama’s right to keep a pistol in his nightstand in the White House, the question arose in McDonald v. Chicago, does Obama have the right to keep a pistol in his home in Chicago? While the original text of the Second Amendment regards the “well regulated militia” of the “free State,” does this mean that the state, then, would have the power to restrict or prohibit certain firearm ownership of an entire class of firearm that is commonly used for traditionally lawful purposes? Well, yes, that could be one way to look at it. So why does the court’s decision in McDonald v. Chicago say otherwise? Did they forget to eat their Wheaties that day? No, the Fourteenth Amendment opens the way for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights to apply to the states as well as the federal government. For example, the First Amendment states that ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,“ but the Fourteenth Amendment is understood to prevent the state of Illinois from requiring its citizens to practice Scientology. Likewise, other rights, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, that are “fundamental” by being “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” or “deeply rooted in our nation’s history and traditions,” are protected from state and local infringement, as well as federal infringement. I would argue that along with the freedom of speech and religion, the right and the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government, whether it is federal, state, or local, is one of the most basic and deeply rooted American traditions.

I think that it is important to understand the use of the term “well regulated” does not necessarily mean subject to the regulations of the state, but rather well trained, disciplined, and/or equipped. In fact, in the Heller decision, the Supreme Court indicated that “the adjective ‘well-regulated’ implies nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training.” If anything, I would say that rather than telling me what weapons I can’t own, the Constitution says that the State should provide me with a weapon, and regularly train me in its use! Now that’s a welfare State I can respect! Also, in Federalist No. 29, author Alexander Hamilton expounds a bit on the use of the term “regulated” in regards to military preparedness and effectiveness, rather than simply meaning subject to regulation.

Before you think I overlooked one of your points, I did see your reference to the prefatory clause ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State"), and while it does announce background and a purpose, it doesn't actually limit the scope of the operative clause ("the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed").

Additionally, every other time “right of the people” is mentioned in the Bill of Rights, the phrase is understood to be referring to an absolute individual right, as opposed to a collective right (think of the people as opposed to the people of the militia). For example, the Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” I think it is safe to assume that “the people” the Fourth Amendment refers to is everybody, not just a specific class of people, say non-Italians (we need to watch out for the mafia!) or non-Catholics (the papacy is a front for a criminal empire!). Likewise, the First Amendment protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” and no matter how abhorrent any particular group’s message might be, no one person or group is entitled to any more or any less than an absolute right to peaceable assembly. So, I would say that not only are the people of the militia protected in their right to keep and bear arms, all of the people are.

In fact, I think that the one true area that can be called into question is the term “Arms.” The people are secure in their right to keep and bear arms. Sweet. What exactly does this mean? That, to me, is the crux of the debate (or at least, should be the crux of the debate). If a well-regulated militia, being of vital importance to the security of a free state, is so important that the people are secure in their right to bear arms, and the militia exists as a sort of “emergency reserve” for the Army, doesn’t logic dictate that the people should have (and presumably be proficient with) the arms of the day? No, this doesn’t mean that Granny needs a grenade launcher, or that your auntie needs an atom bomb.  But don't you think that individual weapons carried by soldiers or officers would fall in that realm?

And last, you start off by saying that the right wing of the country has been moving to abolish the reading of the Second Amendment.  I imagine that it has to do with your view on the interpretation of what a "well regulated Militia" means.  Obviously, if I haven't dissuaded you from that interpretation, not only were you not listening to me hard enough, but I probably haven't also dissuaded you from your view of the right wing conspiracy to alter the reading of the Second Amendment.  So, since I know you detest hypocrisy to the very fiber of your being, I ask you this - don't you find it interesting with the traditional left wing/right wing divide that the left wing isn't trying to expand the protection of the right to bear arms?  After all, if the government says I can't wear blue on Tuesdays, I call the ACLU because it violates my freedom of expression.  If the government doesn't let me be Mormon, I call the ACLU because it violates my freedom of religion.  If the police search my house with no cause and find my stash of meth and haul me off to jail, I call the ACLU because it violates my right against unreasonable search and seizure.  Hell, I'm pretty sure that if General Martin Dempsey knocked on my door and told me he was gonna be staying with me for a while, I could probably get help from the ACLU because it violates my Third Amendment right against the quartering of soldiers.  (and yes, I know that the ACLU isn't the standard bearer for the left, but you get my point)  But when I, a law abiding citizen, am prohibited from purchasing or merely owning an entire class of firearm, and I call up the ACLU, what happens?  They give me the finger.  Why is that the one they take a pass on?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Applebee's served this baby a margarita in a sippy cup

Image courtesy of WJBK (myFox Detroit)

Last Friday at an Applebee's in Michigan, Taylor Dill-Reese ordered an apple juice for her 15-month-old son.

After a few swigs from his sippy cup, the boy started behaving oddly: "He was saying 'hi' and 'bye' to the walls," Dill-Reese said, "He eventually laid his head down on the table and we thought maybe he was just sleepy."

Dill-Reese tasted the drink and realized it contained an alcoholic margarita mix.

The toddler was rushed to the hospital where he registered a .10 blood alcohol level.

The mom says a manager apologized to the family but didn't know what else to do. Thankfully the child is okay after being checked out at the hospital. Applebee's issued a statement calling the incident "unacceptable" and promised to work with local authorities and even conduct their own investigation.

Promises to get to the bottom of things

This is just hilarious to me! My question is, which bartender has been covertly drinking margaritas out of children's cups? Looks like your bulletproof cover has been blown! Seriously, though, a kid blowing .10; that is just priceless. Go Applebee's!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Meet the newest contributor to The Billy Blog

 My name is Sheamus

OK, so he certainly hasn't written any posts yet, but he most certainly has been interfering with my efforts to do so, what with walking on my laptop (maybe he is trying to contribute!) and trying to bite my hands while I type.  He fits in nicely with his brothers,
and Peyton.
Here you can see their relative sizes.

Sheamus was a homeless bum when he came to us, and his cuteness definitely landed him a spot here.  I've read hypotheses that the cuteness of infant mammals helps to ensure that mothers will take care of their offspring, and I can see anecdotal evidence for that, but in this case, it got him a warm bed and some chow. 

Here's one of my favorite pictures:

Thanks for taking the time to meet the staff!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quick and healthy Spanish rice!

Looking for an easy side dish?  Looking for something healthy?  Looking for something "authentic" Mexican but bastardized beyond belief?  Look no further!

(One caveat - this recipe may be a little "busy" for some, but I like a wide variety of flavors in my dishes, and seized this opportunity to clear out the pantry.  Omit ingredients as desired.  You should probably keep rice in the dish, though)

I'll try this with a new format, too - mostly illustrated.  This recipe made me six very hearty portions, so it could easily be served as 8 or 10 side dishes:

Heat & oil pan

 Add diced onion, salt & pepper
Make way for seeded & diced jalapenos!
 Now a diced green pepper
Festive spices - I added toasted cumin and garlic
 Frozen corn and rinsed canned black beans
 I use brown minute rice - this is approximately 3 cups of dry rice.  You can use regular rice, just be sure to pay attention to the instructions for cooking the rice!  Also, hold back on just a little bit of the chicken stock (recommended) or water for cooking the rice, because:
 You'll add salsa.  I started with 1/2 of a 16 oz jar, but I wound up having to use the whole thing.
Stir, cover and simmer until the rice is done and water is absorbed.  If you cook like I did here, you might want to check and make sure you have enough water, so you don't wind up with a pan full of scorched rice.  I decided I didn't have enough tomato-y goodness, so:
 I added a can of diced tomatoes in tomato sauce, stirred, and
Be sure to enjoy with
Grill-roasted veggies and. . .
 Chipotle & pineapple marinated chicken!
For those who need amounts of ingredients - this recipe included:
1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion
4 jalapenos 
1 green pepper
salt & pepper
maybe a teaspoon or two of cumin & granulated garlic
1 can black beans
1 cup frozen corn
3 cups minute rice
water according to rice instructions (minus a little bit)
1 - 16 oz jar of salsa
1 can of diced tomatoes

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of mankind's first steps into space

 Vostok 1 Mission Insignia

Vostok 1 was the first known spaceflight in the Vostok program and the first known human spaceflight in history. (Vostok is Russian for “Orient” or “East”; I presume it was so named because spacecraft are launched on an easterly trajectory to harness the rotational force of the Earth)  The Vostok 3KA spacecraft was launched on April 12, 1961.  The flight took Yuri Gagarin, a cosmonaut from the Soviet Union, into space, marking the first time that a human entered outer space, as well as the first orbital flight of a manned vehicle.  Vostok 1 was launched by the Soviet space program, and was designed by Soviet engineers guided by Sergei Korolyev under military supervision of Kerim Kerimov and others.
 In case you forgot who the Soviet Union was.

The spaceflight consisted of a single orbit of the Earth.  According to official records, the spaceflight took 108 minutes from launch to landing.  As planned, Gagarin landed separately from his spacecraft, having ejected with a parachute 7 km (23,000 ft) above ground.  Due to the secrecy surrounding the Soviet space program at the time, many details of the spaceflight only came to light years later, and several details in the original press releases turned out to be false.

 Yuri, Yuri, you're the cosmonaut for me

27 year-old Yuri Gagarin was the only crew member of Vostok 1.  The Vostok spacecraft were designed to carry a single cosmonaut.  The primary and secondary backup cosmonauts for the mission were Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov.  The assignments were formally made on April 8, four days before the mission, but Gagarin had been a favorite among the cosmonaut candidates for at least several months.

Unlike later Vostok missions, there were no dedicated tracking ships available to receive signals from the spacecraft.  Instead, they relied on the network of ground stations, also called Command Points, to communicate with the spacecraft; all of these Command Points were located within the Soviet Union.  This meant that communication with the craft was not always clear, and telemetry data were not immediately available.  Also, because of weight constraints, there was no backup retrorocket engine.  The spacecraft carried 10 days of provisions to allow for survival and natural decay of the orbit in the event the retrorockets failed. 

The entire mission would be controlled by either automatic systems, or by ground control.  This was because medical staff and spacecraft engineers were unsure how a human might react to weightlessness, and therefore it was decided to lock the pilot's manual controls.  In an unusual move, a code to unlock the controls was placed in an onboard envelope, for Gagarin's use in case of emergency.  But, prior to the flight, one of the mission controllers told Gagarin the code anyway.
 Strap a rocket on this badboy, and you're ready for launch!  
(pretty much literally)

On the morning of April 11, 1961, the Vostok-K rocket, together with the attached Vostok 3KA spacecraft, were transported several miles to the launch pad, in a horizontal position.  Once they arrived at the launch pad, Sergei Korolyev inspected the rocket and spacecraft for problems, and without finding any, the rocket was raised into the upright position.  At 10am (Moscow time), Gagarin and Titov were given a final review of the flight plan.  They were informed that launch was scheduled to occur at 9:07am Moscow time.  This time was chosen so that when the spacecraft started to fly over Africa, which was when the retrorockets would need to fire for reentry, the solar illumination would be ideal for the orientation system's sensors.

At 5:30 a.m. Moscow time, on the morning of April 12, 1961, both Gagarin and his backup Titov were woken.  They were given breakfast, and assisted into their spacesuits.  One of the onlookers in the dressing room semi-jokingly suggested that upon landing in his futuristic outfit Gagarin could be mistaken for the pilot of an American spy plane like the one that had been shot down over USSR in the previous year.  The idea was taken seriously and officials made the urgent decision to paint C C C P (USSR) on the front of Gagarin's helmet in big red letters.  A number of photos showing Gagarin in his helmet before and after the letters were painted confirm the aucenticity of the story.  One life-support engineer known for his calligraphic writing quickly accomplished the improvised task.  Gagarin reportedly pleaded with the "artist" to be careful not to drop red paint on his nose.  After transport to the launch pad, Gagarin entered the Vostok 1 spacecraft, and at 07:10 local time (04:10 UTC), the radio communication system was turned on.  Once Gagarin was in the Vostok 1 spacecraft, his picture appeared on television screens in the launch control room from an onboard camera.  Launch would not occur for another two hours, and during the time Gagarin chatted with the mission's main CapCom (the flight control “capsule communicator"), as well as Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, Nikolai Kamanin, and a few others.  Following a series of tests and checks, about forty minutes after Gagarin entered the spacecraft, its hatch was closed.  It was soon discovered that the seal was not complete, so technicians spent nearly an hour removing all the screws and sealing the hatch again. 

During this time Gagarin requested some music to be played over the radio.  Sergei Korolyev was very nervous in the lead up to the launch; he experienced chest pains, and took a pill to calm his heart.  Gagarin, on the other hand, was described as calm; about half an hour before launch his pulse was recorded at 64 beats per minute.  Gagarin's launch vehicle blasted off into the cloudless blue sky almost as scheduled, just a fraction of a second before 09:07 Moscow Time.  Several thousands of military officers, soldiers, technicians and engineers spread over various facilities of the top-secret test range later known as Baikonur witnessed the roaring vehicle rising over the steppe and heading eastward.

 Orbital path of Vostok 1

Fortunately for Gagarin, his liftoff and the ride to orbit went smoothly. Inside the spacecraft, Gagarin felt how the heavy pressure of g-loads pressed him into the seat, stiffening his legs, arms and face and making it difficult to talk.  One minute after launch the acceleration had reached 3-4 g and Gagarin's pulse rose from a regular 64 to 150.  According to Korolyev, around 13 minutes after launch, he had confirmation that the first man from Earth had reached the Earth's orbit.  The question remained, though, of what kind of orbit it was.

For decades, countless books repeated each other, claiming that Gagarin's launch was flawless.  Only by the end of the 20th century did the truth start to emerge.  Later calculations showed that Gagarin's orbit was 327 kilometers above the Earth's surface at its highest point (apogee), instead of the planned 230 kilometers.  Overshooting its apogee by almost 100 kilometers posed multiple and potentially deadly problems.  Since Vostok had no backup braking engine, its planned orbit was calculated to be low enough to allow the rarified air at that altitude to slow down the spacecraft so that it could reenter the atmosphere and land 5-7 days after launch without any additional thrust.  In preparation for the possibility that the sole retrorocket could fail, Vostok carried enough air, food and other vital consumables on board for a 10-day flight.  However, Gagarin's actual orbit would need more than two weeks (possibly as many as 30 days) to decay and allow the return to Earth.  Therefore, if the first cosmonaut's braking engine failed, he would be doomed to a slow death in orbit.  Even if everything else went as planned, the higher-than-normal orbit could still affect the flight.  Immediately after the separation from the third stage of the launch vehicle, a special timer called PVU Granit was activated onboard Vostok, counting down toward the firing of the braking engine.  Probably as a result of the higher (and consequently longer) orbit, the timer was now programmed to start the deorbiting maneuver slightly ahead of the correct point.  In turn, the premature reentry would shift Gagarin's touchdown point forward, short of its target.

While over the tip of South America, as Vostok was near the highest point of its orbit, Gagarin noticed improvement in communications via short-wave radio.  Unknown to him, at 09:53, transmitters of the Vesna short wave station in Khabarovsk had been activated on explicit orders from General Kamanin with the goal of finally assuring Gagarin that his spacecraft was in the planned orbit and that the flight was proceeding normally.  It is still unclear if this misleading message was a ploy to give Gagarin a psychological boost or the result of a blissful ignorance on the part of mission managers.  Also, at 10:02, Moscow radio finally made the long-awaited announcement about the flight.  Given the original intention to announce the launch within 20 minutes after the fact, it is still unknown whether the delay was the result of red tape or due to scrambling to confirm orbital parameters.

As the sun appeared over the horizon for Gagarin, the flight control system obtained an exact reference for the orientation of the spacecraft for landing.  Gagarin felt the spacecraft pitching and yawing, as the attitude control system was "catching" the sun into the main sensor.  Vostok was then ready for the deorbiting maneuver.  Everything looked good until the conclusion of the 40-second burn of the braking engine, initiated successfully at 10:25 Moscow Time.  Gagarin was expecting the separation of his reentry capsule from the instrument module to take place 10-12 seconds after the deorbiting burn (which would have been just as the craft began to pass over Africa); however, it did not take place.  In the meantime, the spacecraft continued tumbling wildly, as it approached denser layers of the atmosphere.  Despite this situation, Gagarin believed everything was on track for a safe landing, and when the separation finally did take place ten minutes later, the spacecraft was over the Mediterranean Sea.

For decades, the very fact, not to mention the cause, of the whole incident with the separation of the capsule and its instrument module remained unknown to the general public.  Even after Gagarin's mission report was published, at least one participant of the events denied any problems during the reentry and tried to explain the situation by Gagarin's confusion about the real time of the separation.  As it turned out, a single valve within the braking engine failed to shut completely at the beginning of the engine burn, letting some fuel leak out and avoid the combustion chamber.  As a result, the engine "ran out of gas" and shut down around a second earlier than scheduled.  The aborted maneuver slowed the spacecraft by 132 meters per second instead of the programmed 136 meters per second.  Even though it was enough to push the spacecraft off its orbit toward reentry, it was apparently not enough for the "punctual" flight control system to generate the nominal command to cut off the engine.  In the absence of a proper cutoff command, the propellant lines of the engine remained open, after it ran out of fuel and stalled.  As a result, the pressurization gas and remaining oxidizer continued escaping through the main nozzle and steering thrusters, causing the spacecraft to spin wildly.  Although the engine was later cut off by a timer, the lack of delivered thrust also caused the flight control system to scrub the primary sequence for the separation between the reentry vehicle and the instrument module.  Fortunately, the separation did take place some 10 minutes later, (around 10:35 Moscow time), supposedly, as a result of an emergency command.

As the spacecraft plunged into the atmosphere, Gagarin saw a bright crimson glow appear behind his windows.  It was accompanied by the crackling noise of thermal protection layers burning in the heat of atmospheric reentry.  Gagarin estimated that at their peak g-forces exceeded 10:
"There was a moment, about 2-3 seconds, when data on the control gauges started looking blurry.  It was starting turning gray in my eyes.  I braced and composed myself.  It helped, everything kind of returned to its place."
Potentially much more troubling and unexpected than g-loads was the burning smell in the cabin.  Fortunately, it was very slight and short-lived, according to Gagarin's recollections after the flight.

As G-forces subsided and the capsule continued descending safely, Gagarin prepared to eject from his craft.  At an altitude of seven kilometers, the main hatch of the capsule was jettisoned and seconds later, the pilot ejected.  The main parachute deployed successfully, however the backup chute came out later as well and, after some delay, deployed.  As a result, Gagarin landed under two parachutes.  For six minutes during the parachute descent Gagarin struggled to open a valve for breathing atmospheric air.  The device stuck below his external orange layer and he had to use a mirror to pull the valve.

Both he and the spacecraft landed via parachute 26 km (16 mi) south west of Engels, in the Saratov region.  A farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute.  Gagarin later recalled, "When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear.  I told them, don't be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!"

Officially the U.S. congratulated the Soviet Union on its accomplishments.

The Soviet press later reported that minutes before boarding the spacecraft Gagarin made a speech: "Dear friends, you who are close to me, and you whom I do not know, fellow Russians, and people of all countries and all continents: In a few minutes a powerful space vehicle will carry me into the distant realm of space.  What can I tell you in these last minutes before the launch?  My whole life appears to me as one beautiful moment.  All that I previously lived through and did, was lived through and done for the sake of this moment." He actually recorded the speech—prepared by anonymous speechwriters—in Moscow.

Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (the world governing body for air sports and aeronautics and astronautics world records) rules in 1961 required that a pilot must land with the spacecraft to be considered an official spaceflight for the FAI record books.  At the time, the Soviet Union insisted that Gagarin had landed with the Vostok; the government forced the cosmonaut to lie in press conferences, and the FAI certified the flight.  The Soviet Union admitted in 1971 that Gagarin had ejected and landed separately from the Vostok descent module.  (cheating bastards)

 If you were the first person in space, this could have been yours.
The craft landing site is now a monument park.  The central feature in the park is a 25 meter tall monument that consists of a silver metallic rocket ship rising on a curved metallic column of flame, from a wedge shaped, white stone base.  In front of this is a 3 meter tall, white stone statue of Yuri Gagarin, wearing a spacesuit, and with one arm raised in greeting and the other holding a space helmet.

Not bad for a bunch of communists! 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Taxes are due in one week!

Don’t forget, if you live in the US, the income tax filing deadline this year is April 18, which is one week from today!  And no, I’m not playing a prank on you, trying to get you to file your taxes late; I know that tax day is usually April 15, but I’m being serious!  The deadline this year is April 18.  *Honest!*

 Do NOT mess with these bitches

Why the change for this year only?  (read: The Billy Blog will not be held responsible for you thinking you will be able to file your taxes on April 18 every year)

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed approximately 3100 slaves in the District of Columbia nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued (which, of course, didn’t actually free any slaves in the Union slave states, but declared the permanent freedom of slaves in all areas of the Confederacy that had not returned to Union control).  One interesting note about the Compensated Emancipation Act, which paid an average of about $300 to slave owners for each of the freed slaves, is that it is the only instance in the US in which the federal government provided direct compensation to slave owners for the forced emancipation of slaves.

In commemoration of the Compensated Emancipation Act, on January 4, 2005, Mayor Anthony Williams signed legislation making Emancipation Day an official public holiday in the District of Columbia.  While Emancipation Day is celebrated on April 16, by law when April 16 falls on a Saturday, it is observed the previous Friday.  And by law, District of Columbia holidays impact tax deadlines in the same fashion as federal holidays, so, all taxpayers will have an extra three days to file.  I know a lot of you are going to use every last extra minute to put off those taxes even longer!  Just make sure the envelope is postmarked by the 18th
 This postmark is not dated, so if the IRS didn't
receive your taxes prior to the deadline,
you'd owe your ass!
even if you were in North Borneo.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The *shocking* truth of inward reflection

People say they won’t shock others for cash, but they do it anyway:

When faced with a thorny moral dilemma, what people say they would do and what people actually do are two very different things, a new study finds. In a hypothetical scenario, most people said they would never subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money. But for people given a real-world choice, the sparks flew.

 Would you shock someone else for money?

The results, presented April 4 at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, serve as a reminder that hypothetical scenarios don’t capture the complexities of real decisions.

Morality studies in the lab almost always rely on asking participants to imagine how they’d behave in a certain situation, study coauthor Oriel FeldmanHall of Cambridge University said in her presentation. But these imagined situations are missing teeth: “Whatever you choose, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

But in FeldmanHall’s study, things actually happened. “There are real shocks and real money on the table,” she said. Subjects lying in an MRI scanner were given a choice: Either administer a painful electric shock to a person in another room and make one British pound (a little over a dollar and a half), or spare the other person the shock and forgo the money. Shocks were priced in a graded manner, so that the subject would earn less money for a light shock, and earn the whole pound for a severe shock. This same choice was given 20 times, and the person in the brain scanner could see a video of either the shockee’s hand jerk or both the hand jerk and the face grimace. (Although these shocks were real, they were pre-recorded.)

When researchers gave a separate group of people a purely hypothetical choice, about 64 percent said they wouldn’t ever deliver a shock — even a mild one — for money. Overall, people hypothetically judging what their actions would be netted only about four pounds on average.

But when there was cold, hard money involved, the data changed - a lot. A whopping 96 percent of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash. “Three times as much money was kept in the real task,” FeldmanHall said. When participants saw only the hand of the person jerk as it got shocked, they chose to walk away with an “astonishing” 15.77 pounds on average out of a possible 20-pound windfall. The number dipped when participants saw both the hand and the face of the person receiving the shock: In these cases, people made off with an average of 11.55 pounds.

People grappling with the real moral dilemma — as opposed to people who had to choose in a hypothetical situation — had heightened activity in parts of the insula, a brain center thought to be involved in emotion, the study shows. FeldmanHall said that insula activity might represent a sort of visceral tension that’s going on in the body as a person pits the desire for money against the desire to not hurt someone. These visceral conflicts within a person seem to be missing in experiments with no real stakes, she said.

“My initial response is it’s a really Milgram-esque experiment, harkening back to where people are induced to do something bad to someone else,” said cognitive neuroscientist Tor Wager of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Stanley Milgram, a Stanford psychologist, famously compelled college students to administer painful electrical shocks to others.

Even though the findings are “a little bit chilling,” Wager says, “it’s important to know.” These kinds of studies can help scientists figure out how the brain dictates moral behavior. “There’s a real neuroscientific interest now in understanding the basis of compassion,” Wager says. “That’s something we are just starting to address scientifically, but it’s a critical frontier because it has such an impact on human life.”

I love this study both for what it represents and what it purports to represent.  On some scale, it indicates that humans are comfortable causing pain and suffering to other humans (provided there is a payout), but let’s be realistic – any of the test subjects would know that the shock recipients had agreed to be shocked, and it would only be a temporary and non-life threatening pain.  I feel that the study, as presented, wants the viewer to subconsciously extend the scale of the experiment, and assume that this means that most people have no problem hurting others as long as financial gain is possible – and while I do not doubt that there exist people of this sort, I think one has to ignore a host of other factors to draw that conclusion.  What really interests me about this study is not that people will shock others for profit, but that there is such a large difference between those who will shock others for profit, and those who admit it.

Now I’m not a heartless bastard (although some who responded to this post disagree), but I’m pretty sure that I’ll shock you for a pound.  Heck, I’ll shock you for a dollar.  But I’ll admit to it.  Why will so many administer the shock (96%) and yet so few (36%) admit to it?  Probably societal norms.  It’s probably also for the same reason that you can’t really play poker for no stakes – if you don’t have any vested interest in the game, someone will probably just go all in on the first hand and try to double up, because he's not taking it seriously.  If he stands to lose money, though, he will (or should; if someone’s just stupid or sucks at poker, I can’t help that) play in a more responsible manner.  Likewise, without a vested (read: financial) interest in self reflection, of course 2/3 of the people will say that they won’t shock someone.  They don’t want the interviewer to think poorly of them (for violating our societal norms), but more importantly, they don’t want to face their true inner demons

Without the opportunity of financial gain to force a true reflection of one’s values, most of those surveyed say they won’t shock others because they don’t want to be someone who would shock others for money.  I’m certain that many of them might even believe it, because they don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that they might be someone who would shock another person for fun and profit (well, actually just profit; if they would do it for fun, I’m sure they would readily admit to it).  But when faced with that forced reflection (for the opportunity to profit), people have no problem accepting the truth, and then shocking the crap out of people.  I would have loved to see exit interviews.


And that, to me, is what is most interesting about this study – I think it shows that ~60% of people will lie to you, but for the low, low price of 20 pounds, the truth can be bought.  Who needs waterboarding???

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Are you a bank robber? Kindly get shot in the face and die, please.

This has been consuming my thoughts for most of the day today:

(from -- Three people were shot and taken to the hospital after police exchanged gunfire with bank robbery suspects in north St. Louis. 
Police received reports of a hold-up at the Pulaski Bank in the 3700 block of South Grand around 9:21 a.m. on Thursday. According to police, two suspects in construction vests entered the bank and demanded cash. Witnesses tell St. Louis police that one of the suspects fired a gunshot in the air. Witnesses also say that one of the suspects had what appeared to be a hand grenade. No one in the bank was injured.

After getting the cash, the suspects took off. Moments later, police spotted a green Dodge Dakota pick-up truck with the suspects inside and attempted to pull the vehicle over. The suspects sped away and police followed.
The suspects lead police through downtown St. Louis and into north St. Louis. As police were following the vehicle, the suspects fired multiple shots at the officers. Authorities say the officers had to swerve repeatedly to avoid the gunfire.
At the intersection of Marcus and Lexington, the suspects tried to turn and hit another vehicle. That caused a chain-reaction crash with two police vehicles involved in the pursuit. Police say the suspects then opened fire on the officers. The officers returned fire.
One of the suspects, a 57-year-old man, was shot twice in the head and once in each wrist and ankle. He was taken to a local hospital where he is listed in serious condition.
The other suspect, a 49-year-old man, was shot in the hand, buttocks and ankle. He was also grazed in the ear. He is hospitalized in fair condition.
A police officer was also grazed in the leg by a bullet. The officer 42 years old and has been on the St. Louis police force for 12 ½ years. He was taken to Barnes Hospital where he was treated and released.

Now this captivates me for quite a few reasons - First, I work in a bank.  I live with the daily possibility of some douchebag(s) trying to rob the place.  Consequently, I happen to have a very low opinion of anyone who would commit such an act.  Second, I used to work for Pulaski Bank, and I know some of the people who were directly affected by the acts of these asswipes.  In fact, the wife used to work at that very branch.  Thankfully, she has moved on to a different one.  Third, I happen to be a very big proponent of the right to bear arms.  Of course, with that right comes great responsibility, and anyone who abuses that right at the expense of others has committed a grave transgression.

As an amateur detective, the emerging details of today's robbery reminded me of a similar robbery just over one week ago (on 3/29, to be exact).  A different Pulaski Bank branch was robbed by two men wearing construction vests (Coincidence?  I think not.).  Courtesy of BanditTracker St. Louis, you can see these pieces of crap in action:

 These pictures are from the 3/29 robbery, taken from BanditTracker St. Louis

Now that's a scary situation, because some animal has decided that he wants money, and he has no problem pointing a gun at you because you are no longer a person, but you (as a bank teller) have become just some obstacle between him and what he wants.  How far of a stretch is it for him to start shooting?  After the news today, apparently not far at all.

I like to consider myself a reasonable, thoughtful Christian man with a sound moral backing and a healthy respect for life, but as the story unfolded and reports came out that one suspect was shot in the head and the other shot in the hand, I said to myself, "that sucks that only one of them got shot in the head."  The (alleged) robber that got shot in the head was listed in grave condition earlier today, and I honestly couldn't care if he died or not.

Why did I become so callous to other humans?  That was an odd realization for me, and I had to ponder it for a little bit.  I guess I have no sympathy for someone who puts his desire for money (or anything else) in front of the lives of others just living their lives.  I've also been a little peeved lately with the media of St. Louis, because bank robberies have become a bit more frequent in the last few years, and it always seems like the robberies get the front page, but when the bad guys get caught (and yes, they almost always get caught), it's a tiny blurb in the back.  I kind of like the message of, "hey, when you rob a bank, you could get shot in the face and die, just like this guy."  It's a very compelling story to me.

Also, on a somewhat related note, check out that BanditTracker website.  See if you recognize anyone.  If you do, it could lead to a $1000 payout!

So there you have it - I am very thankful that only one good guy was hurt, and apparently that is a (comparatively) minor injury.  I'm very glad that nobody was hurt inside of the bank.  I hope everyone who had to deal with this situation can get past the trauma and whatever else psychologically damaging that has happened, and I hope (naively optimistically) nobody has to face such a situation again.  Finally, if you're a bank robber, kindly get shot in the face, you worthless scum.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Job Interview Craziness

With about five candidates for every job opening these days, some responsible for hiring decisions have resorted to desperate measures in their efforts to narrow the field. Researchers at career site culled through tens of thousands of queries reported by job seekers who had done their best to come up with answers on the spot, and selected the oddest interview questions of the past 15 months.

Luckily for beleaguered candidates, the interviewers seemed in most cases to be more interested in how people responded -- that is, in hearing their thought process, and seeing how well they kept their cool -- than in receiving a "correct" response. A sampling of Glassdoor's list, and where the question was asked:

"Given the numbers 1 to 1,000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number, if you are given the hint 'higher' or 'lower' for each guess you make?" -- Facebook

"Using a scale of 1 to 10, rate yourself on how weird you are." -- Capital One 

"Explain quantum electrodynamics in two minutes, starting now." -- Intel

"How many balloons would fit in this room?" -- PricewaterhouseCoopers

"If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?" -- Goldman Sachs

"You have a bouquet of flowers. All but two are roses, all but two are daisies, and all but two are tulips. How many flowers do you have?" -- Epic Systems

"What is the philosophy of martial arts?" -- Aflac

"Explain to me what has happened in this country during the last 10 years." -- Boston Consulting

"If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?" -- AT&T

"How do you weigh an elephant without using a scale?" -- IBM

"If you had 5,623 participants in a tournament, how many games would need to be played to determine the winner?" -- Amazon

"How many bricks are there in Shanghai? Consider only residential buildings." --Deloitte Consulting

"You have five bottles of pills. One bottle has 9 gram pills, the others have 10 gram pills. You have a scale that can be used only once. How can you find out which bottle contains the 9 gram pills?" --eBay

"What is your fastball?" -- Ernst & Young

"How would you market ping pong balls if ping pong itself became obsolete? List many ways, then pick one and go into detail." -- Microsoft

"How many smartphones are there in New York City?" -- Google

"You are in charge of 20 people. Organize them to figure out how many bicycles were sold in your area last year." -- Schlumberger

"Why do you think only a small percentage of the population makes over $125,000 a year?" -- New York Life

"You have three boxes. One contains only apples, one contains only oranges, and one contains both apples and oranges. The boxes have been incorrectly labeled so that no label accurately identifies the contents of any of the boxes. Opening just one box, and without looking inside, you take out one piece of fruit. By looking at the fruit, how can you immediately label all of the boxes correctly?" -- Apple

"How many ball bearings, each one inch in diameter, can fit inside a 747 aircraft?" -- SAIC 

Now I've spent a little bit of time trying to solve some of the logic puzzles and math estimation questions, but again, I really think that most of these are more to see how an interview candidate can deal with something way out of left field.  Have any of you ever been faced with ridiculous interview situations?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Secret History of Super Mario Brothers 2

In order to live up to the eclectic nature of The Billy Blog, I now offer you the answer to a question you probably never would have asked yourself - how did Super Mario Bros. 2 come to be such a different style of game than its smash hit predecessor, Super Mario Bros.?

Does this artwork look familiar?
Original case artwork for Nintendo's 1987 game Doki Doki Panic

Super Mario Bros. 2’s long, strange trip to the top of the charts in 1988 began with a prototype video game that failed miserably.

The 8-bit classic, which became a massive hit for the Nintendo Entertainment System, grew out of a mock-up of a vertically scrolling, two-player, cooperative-action game,
Super Mario Bros. 2 director Kensuke Tanabe said in an interview at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

The prototype, worked up by SRD, a company that programmed many of Nintendo’s early games, was intended to show how a Mario-style game might work if the players climbed up platforms vertically instead of walking horizontally, said Tanabe.

“The idea was that you would have people vertically ascending, and you would have items and blocks that you could pile up to go higher, or you could grab your friend that you were playing with and throw them to try and continue to ascend,” Tanabe said. Unfortunately, “the vertical-scrolling gimmick wasn’t enough to get us interesting gameplay.”

The rapid-prototype development process on display here informs Nintendo’s design philosophy to this day. The company doesn’t begin development with characters and worlds: It starts by making sure the game boasts a fun and compelling game mechanic. If it’s not perfect, Nintendo has no qualms about throwing it out.

Soon after he was hired by Nintendo in the mid-’80s, Tanabe sat down with his boss, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, to look at this prototype together.

“The game was mocked up (so that) when the player climbed about two-thirds of the way up the screen, it would scroll so that the player was pushed further down,” Tanabe said.

The game-design team led by Miyamoto was tasked with coming up with a game that used this trick of programming. But Tanabe and Miyamoto weren’t too hot on the concept.

While the prototype featured two players jumping, stacking up blocks to climb higher, and throwing each other around, the technical limitations of the primitive NES made it difficult to build a polished game out of this complex action. And playing it with just one person wasn’t very fun.

“Miyamoto looked at it and said, ‘Maybe we need to change this up,’” Tanabe recalled. He suggested that Tanabe add in traditional side-scrolling gameplay and “make something a little bit more Mario-like.”

“As long as it’s fun, anything goes,” Tanabe remembers Miyamoto saying.

You may already know the rest of the story. The Mario sequel was originally released in Japan as Doki Doki Panic, starring a wholly different cast of characters. The game released in Japan as
Super Mario Bros. 2 was a totally different game, a set of super-difficult new levels built with the original game’s engine and graphics.

That title wasn’t released outside Japan. Instead, Nintendo used Doki Doki Panic, swapping the game’s characters out for the Mario cast. This was the game that Western audiences knew as Super Mario Bros. 2.

Doki Doki Panic (left) featured a cast of Arabian Nights-like characters and 
different enemies than Super Mario Bros. 2 (right)

Since it was developed by the Mario team, Doki Doki Panic’s colorful world, catchy music and gorgeous artwork fit in well with Nintendo’s star characters. But some purists felt the gameplay wasn’t what they wanted out of Mario: They were used to stomping on enemies to flatten them, not picking them up and throwing them around, a small but fundamental change that gave Mario 2 a significantly different feel.

Although the initial concept for the game had been scrapped, the development of that original two-player cooperative prototype inspired all the innovative gameplay of Super Mario Bros. 2, Tanabe said.

“Picking up blocks was the same thing as pulling out vegetables from the ground,” he said. By the same token, picking up the other player and throwing him turned into picking up enemy characters.

Doki Doki Panic was actually part of a deal with the Fuji corporation, in which Nintendo would produce a tie-in videogame for a media-technology expo called Yume Kōjō, or “Dream Factory.” The mascot characters invented for this expo were the stars of the game.

“I remember being pulled over to
Fuji Television one day, being handed a sheet with game characters on it and being told, ‘I want you to make a game with this,’” Tanabe said.

Released in 1987, Doki Doki Panic was one of the biggest hits on Nintendo’s
Disk System, a floppy drive that worked with the Japanese version of the NES. Since this hardware was not released in America, many Disk System games were ported to standard game cartridges for U.S. release.

“Because we had to make this change, we had the opportunity to change other things” about the game, said Tanabe. “We knew these Fuji TV characters wouldn’t be popular in America, but what would be attractive in America would be the Mario characters.”

Tanabe’s team made many
improvements to the original for its American debut, adding more enemy characters, throwing in some visual nods to the Mario games and greatly enhancing the animation and sound effects.

Because one of Mario’s most notable features at the time was his ability to grow and shrink when he ate magic mushrooms, this was added to the game. But the implementation was not without its issues.

“When the characters got shrunk down to a smaller version of themselves, it was easy to sneak through parts of the level that you weren’t supposed to go through, so we made their heads bigger so they would get caught on those things,” Tanabe said.

The enhancements to Super Mario Bros. 2 were so great that the game was eventually brought back to Japan, retitled Super Mario USA.