Shitty-whipping in the news

Good friend, long-time Rambles reader, and former Minnesotan JMike emails with this message.

I grew up in Minnesota and learned a bunch of local-isms:

  • “ish” (general expression of disgust, see also “ishy”)
  • “doy” (local variation of “duh”, i.e. what is said to mock someone who is
    acting in a way the mocker associates with stupidity)

  • “skitch” (to grab onto the back bumper of a usually-unsuspecting car and
    ride along on packed-snow-covered streets)

But when my friends and drove over to Creek Valley elementary school (“Creek
Valley” being one of the few phrases where the typical Edina resident would
pronounce it “kreek” instead of “krick”) to drive circles in the
recent snowfall in their asphalt-covered portion of the playground, we
always referred to it as “doing donuts”. I’ve never heard of “whipping

Tipped off by JMike that maybe it was just a hack after all, I did a little research (okay, I typed the words “whipping shitties” into Google). I discovered, as is so disturbingly often the case in blogland, that everyone was saying the same thing as me. This page has been blogged a thousand times (of course!) and everyone seizes on this one phrase (of course!) and wonders aloud: can it be real? But entry number five on the Google list was this Best Cheap Thrill from the Twin Cities’ City Pages 1998 Best Of list. Read it and wonder no more, for the Minnesotans have spoken.

By the way, Google considerately and delicately inquired, was I perhaps actually looking for “whipping sites.” I was not. But thanks for asking.

You say “tomato,” and I say “whipping shitties”

Dialect maps have been a standard research tool for linguists and philologists for a long time, but it’s becoming much easier to compile them. Now you can build yourself a nice website and let other people do the work for you. Of course you need some people to visit your site, so it helps if you get the New York Times to write about it. Harvard Linguistics Professor Bert Vaux has built just such a site, loaded with questions that geographically pin you down as a speaker of English in North America, automatically mapping the result. These questions include the venerable Soda vs. pop? and more than a hundred others. It makes for fascinating browsing.

Some of the maps are disappointing because you expect to see a more dramatic demarcation. I expect, for example, waiting in line vs. waiting on line to show a big “waiting on line” region around New York City and New Jersey. It doesn’t.
Some of the maps are very satisfying. I live in the land of the rotary, and if you look at this map you’ll see exactly where that is: rotary vs. traffic circle. I was surprised how often New England was the strongly contrasting region (see the maps for Aunt Mary vs. Ahhnt Mary and sneakers vs. tennis shoes). This suggests that New England doesn’t mix much with the rest of the country.

Finally we come to doughnuts vs. whipping shitties (i.e. driving around in circles). This latter seems to be exclusive to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Can this be real, or is the good professor being hacked? Hmmmm…. you know, where I grew up we referred to flatulence as “looking for Mr. Goodbar” or “chatting with the Vice President.” If you “remember” this too, why don’t you join me in telling Professor Vaux? It could really put us on the map. Or we could just grab a beer and whip some shitties together.

I’ll close with a question of my own: have you ever referred to a wool hat as a toboggan? I did when I was growing up (North Carolina), but people in Massachusetts think this is a hilariously funny indication of mental deficiency.

Inspired by the Zire

I’m very happy with my nifty little
Palm Zire PDA. It cost me $90, and that’s only because I didn’ know about the Amazon promotion that gets it down to $75. The conventional wisdom in the reviews is that this is a good PDA for non-geek first-time PDA buyers. It’s cheap, lightweight, and unambitious. But it’s also exactly right for me. I’m a geek, but I’m tired of paying for fancy features I never use. Plus, my last two PDAs crapped out on me. The first, a Visor Edge from Handspring, had a nice design, but I expected it to last more than fourteen months (considering the price), and it didn’t. Then I got a Sony Clie, and that broke within a week of buying it, so I sent it back. Using the Clie for a week was enough to convince me I didn’t need the color screen, or the multimedia applications, or the memory stick socket. I don’t even need backlighting for the display. I just need a basic PDA, and the Zire is just the ticket.

The sun also sets

About this time every year, as the sun sets well before 4:30 PM (I live near Boston), I start to pine for the days to get longer again. Which is too bad, because they won’t actually get longer, as every school child knows, until after December 21st, or thereabouts. But I have an ace in my back pocket that most people don’t know about. The sun will start setting later as of about December 9th or so. How can this be, you ask, if the days are still getting shorter? The balance is maintained by the fact that the sunrise will continue happening later and later until January 3rd, leaving the solstice snug on December 21st. But since I never wake up early enough to see the sunrise, then I am free to celebrate my own little pagan happy dance on December 9th.

While poking around the Christmas sale goodies at the Sky & Telescope site, I came across a dandy online sky chart that let me verify the rough time of sunset for my hometown. I got curious to see what the exact time of the earliest sunset would be, and soon turned up at the US Naval Observatory’s site where I could generate the sunset table for a year. Sure enough, 4:12 PM on December 9th ought to just about do it.

If you’re interested in why the earliest sunset is not on the shortest day of the year, the short unsatisfying explanation is that the Earth’s orbit around the sun is a slight oval and not a perfect circle. The long unsatisfying answer is here: Sunrise And Sunset, Position of the Sun. Beware, the answer includes the phrases “obliquity of the ecliptic” and “non-zero eccentricity.” The long satisfying answer involves lots and lots of drawings of the three dimensional geometry of planets which I am too tired to provide.

It’s easy to paint a picture of our ancient forebears clad in animal skins, grunting and chanting through quaint solstice rituals because they were afraid the sun would disappear altogether. But the people who built Stonehenge, for example, were clever and knew their astronomy well. They weren’t afraid the sun would disappear. They were just depressed because it was so damn dark all the time. I bet they celebrated December 9th just like me. May it come soon.

Viagra: between the horned and the horny

What comes to mind when you see the phrase “Viagra helps save endangered species”? You may be picturing a toothless but newly inspired panda mounting his world-weary zoomate, thereby expanding rather than ex-panda-ing the population. But that’s not where this story is headed. Follow this logic: endangered species get slaughtered with horrific regularity because there is a market for them. Why is there a market? The single biggest reason is traditional medicine based on the ancient belief of sympathetic magic. Here is a quote from the Trade Environment Database at American University (TED): “In Chinese Traditional Medicine, animal parts are reputed to endow a man with the potency of the animal itself, or with the potency implied by the shape of the appendage.” Want to be as strong as a tiger? Eat some tiger bone. Order today, as supplies are limited!

Being as strong as a tiger is all well and good, but few medical treatments generate more interest than those that treat impotence, and this is where Viagra fits into the picture. Reasoning with the logic of sympathetic magic, tiger penis and rhino horn (hubba hubba!) are prescribed for impotence. And while they may provide an important placebo boost to the credulous afflicted, Viagra has the strength of modern biochemistry behind it. It works. The big question is: will demand for dead animal magic drop as Viagra sales in Asia rise? There are some indications that the answer may be yes. As reported in the Economist, “Frank von Hippel, of the University of Alaska, in Anchorage, and his brother Bill, of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, have shown that the trade in such exotica as seal penises is falling rapidly. They suspect, though they cannot yet prove, that this is because men with ‘vigour’ problems who once placed their faith in penis soup have found that Viagra works rather better.” This is a very appealing story, though it may be too late to help the vanishing tiger and rhino populations. And besides, as we read on the TED site, “Tiger bone is used to cure rheumatism, muscle pain and paralysis. Rhino horn is prescribed for delirium.” It might well be said that rhino horn causes delirium. The extinction of the animal might ultimately be the only real cure for the devotion to the potion.

Get those weights out of the basement!

The cosmological conundrum of the missing mass is one of the great riddles of modern science. Imagine watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in a movie. Then remove Fred from the movie frame by frame. What remains doesn’t make sense according to your intuition about how things should behave. You can tell that something is missing. Similarly, astrophysicists look at dancing galaxies and it just looks all wrong. Where is Fred? There are two guesses, both of which seem far-fetched at first viewing: lots of cold heavy dust that is mysteriously hard to see, or lots of zippy heavy particles that are mysteriously hard to see.

But there might be another answer. Perhaps the solution lies in your hometown, maybe even in your basement or under your sofa cushions. Americans for a Closed Universe is an organization that needs your help, because you or someone you know might have the vexatious missing mass and not even know it! Click to see how you can help.

Autism and vaccines

Vaccinations stop kids from getting sick, right? So more vaccines means more healthy kids, right? Maybe not. As the number of vaccines mandated for American children before age two climbs and climbs and climbs, we may well be playing a very dangerous game. As reported in the New York Times Magazine (The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory), even some influential vaccinologists are starting to worry about the effect of piling on multiple vaccines, in particular those that use a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal. This leads to a fascinating, subtle, and often barely civil debate on public health policy. Vaccines are most beneficial to a population when they are widely applied. So it’s important to prevent any hysterical minority from using voodoo science to frighten the masses into shunning vaccines. Authoritative government-sanctioned doctors get very good, in the public relations sense, at pooh-poohing people who question the value of vaccines. And yet…

And yet sometimes there are problems with vaccines worth calling into question. But doctors, like generals and stock brokers, are loathe to back down in public, since they realize how critical is the projection of total confidence to the success of their enterprise. When a doctor like Neal Halsey, who is profiled in the NY Times piece, publicly questions the safety of certain vaccines, he can be treated like a heretic. The word “science” is easily abused in a debate like this, but good science is hard to come by, hard even to define when the stakes are high and facts are needed quickly. Battle lines get drawn and sclerosis of reasoning sets in. It is a rare person who can move across a smoky battlefield and acknowledge that new information can lead to new conclusions. Dr. Halsey appears to be such a person. Here is an excerpt.

By the time the dust kicked up in that meeting had settled, Halsey would be forced to reckon with the hypothesis that thimerosal had damaged the brains of immunized infants and may have contributed to the unexplained explosion in the number of cases of autism being diagnosed in children. That Halsey was willing even to entertain this possibility enraged some of his fellow vaccinologists, who couldn’t fathom how a doctor who had spent so much energy dismantling the arguments of people who attacked vaccines could now be changing sides. But to Halsey’s mind, his actions were perfectly consistent: he was simply working from the data. And the numbers deeply troubled him.

Protein folding contest

Since this is my baby, I can’t possibly not link to it: We’re running another online MATLAB programming contest this week. It started last Wednesday and will end this Wednesday. There are a zillion programming contests out there, but this one is special because your answer is evaluated and posted in real time. It’s sort of like competitive open-source coding on steroids. I wrote a paper about it for a conference a while back, but we’ve also got a few short pieces out about this contest even while it’s running: a mid-contest analysis, and a short contest story by Matt that shows in a nutshell the dynamic that makes the contest so interesting.

The Show Me state sets us straight

Mikey O., denizen of Missouri and molecular biologist extraordinaire took issue with our most recent post. He writes:

Dearest Paracelsus,

I was reading through your weblog today with my wife and our au pair, and
was upset to see an erroneous message regarding the Isle of Capri in
Kansas. I would direct you to the Missouri Gaming Commissions regulations
on Riverboat Gambling:

That’s right, you read it correctly: Riverboat Gambling. The Isle of
Capri is a “Riverboat” insofar as it is built in a basin of water and
functions as a “permanently moored platform” according to the U.S. Coast
Guard. We Missouri people call them “boats in moats.”

Even before the Commission imposed the exchange limit, the “player’s
passes” were required as “tickets” for the “excursion”, and some of the
casinos actually had to move players through in timed shifts to give the
appearance of leaving the dock.

So the Isle of Capri is a boat after all, despite Nabeel’s statement to the contrary. I have heard of this faux-riverboat phenomenon, and I understand there are places in Louisiana where a puddle of greasy water around a shed will make a passable riverboat for gambling purposes. It’s charming to think that what I used to consider my house is actually an exotic (though navigationally-impaired) permanently moored platform… so long as the dew is on the grass.

Guest Rambles from Kansas City

My friend Nabeel works with money professionally, making software for financial types. So it’s no surprise that when he went to Kansas City on a business trip that he ended up in a casino. Casinos in Kansas City? you may ask. But keep in mind that, although gambling used to be considered a vice, we like it now. Plus, Kansas City is no stranger to gambling. It was a wild place back in the Depression, when Tom Pendergast single-handedly ran the whole debauch. Despite the Prohibition, there was no shortage of booze or gambling. Pendergast’s power was such that he was able to name his man for the Senate in 1934: a former Kansas City haberdasher named Harry Truman.

Anyway, I asked Nabeel to fill me in on the dang deal in Kansas City, and this is what he said.

There’s a lot to do in Kansas City. Well, not really. But now you can gamble. There are probably lots of stories about riverboat gambling, but that’s all long gone now. The casinos I saw were built on solid ground, no need to be on the water to gamble. There may be riverboat casinos left, but the Isle of Capri (where I went) was on dry land.

What makes them interesting, however, is one of their rules (I believe it’s a legal requirement for casinos in Kansas and Missouri). To enter the casino floor, you must get a player’s card for the casino. Why? Whenever you exchange real money for chips, they take your player’s card and swipe it through their machine, recording the amount you’re trying to get. You are limited to exchanging no more than $500 in 3 hours; they won’t let you exchange more than that. Essentially, this caps your losses.

This gives casinos in Kansas a totally different feel than anywhere else. There are no “high-rollers” areas — if you can’t get more than $500 cash in 3 hours, you really can’t bet too big. Most tables I saw were $5 tables. This simple policy really changes the feel of being in the casino; it’s a lot less stressful.

Of course, they still end up with your money :)