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The whimsical names which paint companies give various designer shades and hues are a big part (well…at least a part) of the fun of painting. It has always made me happy to go into a Home Depot and peruse the rainbow arrays of eye-popping paint chips and look at the weird names. Imagine the thought process that lead to “Peppermint Penguin,” “Rutebaga Parade,” “Clontarf,” “Curlicue,” or “Bitter Gravy” (indeed my friend’s Arastu’s house is this last color, for some reason).

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But now, in an attempt to steal this joy from broke poets and stoned marketers, computer scientist (?) Janelle Shane has created a rudimentary algorithm to design colors and name them. Looking at the experiment as described on Ars Technica makes me think that either Ms. Shane is a poor computer scientist, there are aspects of the “experiment” which were not described, or this was a publicity stunt (or maybe all of the above).

But who cares? Even if the computer made a lot of boring gray and beige colors and did not seem to learn anything, it produced some amazingly poetic and hilarious names like “Stargoon,” Dorkwood, “Gray Pubic,” and Burble Simp *which is actually an ok color—if you are a crustacean living in 1978. Maybe Ms. Shane was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps her experiment did not determine if machines can be aesthetes (the results are uncertain unless you are an empty souled entity designing a new ecru for cubicles). The real question is whether machines can be hilarious and the answer is a definite yes. It’s even better if they don’t get the joke, but just sit there in their “Snowbonk” colored housing wondering why everyone is laughing.
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The Wichita State University muscle-bound bundle of wheat

The Wichita State University muscle-bound bundle of wheat

It seems like it has been a particularly long week, so how about we unwind for the weekend with some humorously bad mascots.  Ferrebeekeeper already presented a post on farmer mascots (of which there were a surfeit in this great breadbasket land of ours).  Today we concentrate instead on characters who literally are agricultural products: these mascots are just straight up agricultural commodities.  This seems like a weak concept for a dancin’ frolickin’ becostumed embodiment of team spirit, yet, once again, the rich imagination of bored small-town teams does not disappoint.   Check out these strange beings:

Captain Cornelius of ISU

Captain Cornelius of ISU

Bennie the Bean, the mascot for the Indiana Soybean Alliance

Bennie the Bean, the mascot for the Indiana Soybean Alliance

Custom Handmade Chinese Cabbage Mascot (in case you want to advocate Bok Choy)

Custom Handmade Chinese Cabbage Mascot (in case you want to advocate Bok Choy)

This sunflower mascot is from a hospice...so I have no idea what to make of that :(

This sunflower mascot is from a hospice…so I have no idea what to make of that…

The famous Idaho potato

The famous Idaho potato

The Delta State University Fighting Okra is naturally from Mississippi

The Delta State University Fighting Okra is naturally from Mississippi

The Hillsboro Hops

The Hillsboro Hops

This angry ear of corn is from Concordia College in Minnesota

This angry ear of corn is from Concordia College in Minnesota

Most of the rice mascots I found were...problematic, but, since it is my favorite staple food, here is the Miami Rice Pudding Mascot (?)

Most of the rice mascots I found were racially problematic, but, since it is my favorite staple food, here is the Miami Rice Pudding Mascot (?)

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts doesn't actually have any sports teams, but they do have a Fighting Pickle.

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts doesn’t actually have any sports teams, but they do have a Fighting Pickle.

Yeesh, those are some rough symbols to rally around.  I’ll do some hard thinking this weekend and see you back here on Monday.  In the meantime here is an anonymous corn to see you off.

[Presented without comment]

[Presented without further comment]

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Wake up, soccer fans! Today I will celebrate the 2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Championship which is currently being played in Brazil. Well actually I was going to write about this year’s world cup tournament, but nothing interesting has happened so far except for that Uruguayan player who repeatedly bites people (and apparently he has already been captured, sedated, and returned to his native habitat without further human injuries).

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Since nothing exciting has happened in this tournament, I will write about the previous World Cup Soccer Championship Tournament which took place in South Africa in 2010. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything that happened on the pitch in South Africa. Clearly I was otherwise preoccupied…plus I am an American and we are famously obdurate in our inability to understand soccer (also we already have several dozen better sports to follow). Only two aspects of those matches stick in my memory: 1) the fearsome buzz of the vuvuzela, AKA “the devil stick”, a horrid musical instrument which first arrived on Earth inside a radioactive comet (probably because humankind failed to win a cosmic moral bet); and 2) Paul the octopus, a magical cephalopod who could predict soccer matches with greater accuracy than any of the world’s human pundits, psychics, and bookies.

The vuvuzela being played by a lesser demon...

The vuvuzela being played by a lesser demon…

I believe that in-depth writing about the vuvuzela is now prohibited by international treaty, and I have nothing comprehensible to say about soccer (which seems to be a sort of agonizingly slow hockey with arcane kabuki-like dramatic conventions), but I would like to take a moment to eulogize Paul, who was not just a remarkable octopus but also a first-rate showman. Like soccer, Paul originated in England. In 2008, he hatched from an egg at the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth, England. Paul soon moved to Oberhausen, Germany, which, Wikipedia informs us, is an anchor point on the European Route of Industrial Heritage. Paul was a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), a species known for intelligence, lively personality, tool-use, and acute senses. His oracular abilities soon became apparent during the UEFA Euro 2008 tournament. Before each match, Paul’s keepers would offer him two identical seafood treats in bags or boxes which were identical except for national flags of soccer playing nations. Whichever bag Paul chose to eat from first was reckoned to be his choice for match winner.

Paul chooses between Spain and Germany

Paul chooses between Spain and Germany

Paul was a German Octopus and initially he only voiced his opinion concerning German matches. He distinguished himself by correctly choosing the outcome of 4 out of 6 of Germany’s matches. But 2008 was only a lead-up to his remarkable World Cup predictions. During the 2010 World Cup, Paul correctly predicted every match which he was consulted about. This resulted in unprecedented world popularity (and infamy) for the tiny sea creature. Fans of the losing teams threatened Paul’s life, (which ultimately lead the Spanish Prime Minister to offer him state protection). The president of Iran denounced Paul as a symbol of Western Imperial corruption. The German press speculated that 2008 Paul had died and been replaced with a savvier octopus in 2010. PETA demanded that he be released to the wild (which would certainly have spelled the end of the aging tank-raised celebrity mollusk).

Paul chooses the winners of this World Cup from the great hereafter

Paul chooses the winners of this World Cup from the great hereafter

Sadly, Paul passed away on October 10th, 2010 at the age of two and a half (ripe old age for a cephalopod). He was memorialized with a statue and the very funny Google doodle seen above. Paul’s life illustrates that through PR savvy and complete random chance anyone or anything can become an International celebrity (although skeptical marine biologists note that Common Octopuses betray a preference for bright surfaces and horizontal lines—so those national flags may have played a bigger role than thought). Since I failed to blog about him in 2010, I thought I would take this opportunity to eulogize the most famous octopus in the world of sports (which is saying something, considering the role of Al the Octopus in hockey). His tragic passing marks the last time soccer (which is also known as “football”) was enjoyable…although maybe somebody will find a cuttlefish who can correctly calculate penalty kicks or a whelk that can play the Croatian national anthem…

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia

Estonian mythology all seems strangely familiar and yet jarringly bizarre—like songs you hear in dreams or children’s books read in unknown languages.  The stories have Greek parallels (and owe much to Finnish mythology) but the narrative is off-putting. A cunning blacksmith makes a beautiful woman out of gold but is unable to give her a soul or a mind. Beings from the land of the dead come back through a sacred grove to seduce maidens in the evening. Forests grow tired of human greed and get up and move away.

duAtfTO

Perhaps the most familiar-yet-strange figure in Estonian myth is Vanatühi, the god of the underworld.  Vanatühi means “old empty one” and the deity is famed for being stupid–nearly to the point of being inert.  Whereas other underworld gods are always up to some malevolent scheme, Vanatühi is a big dumb farmer with crude ogre features.  Because of his stupidity, Vanatühi is always being outwitted by Kaval Ants (“Crafty Hans”), the cunning trickster of Estonian myth (who usually starts out as a farmhand working for Vanatühi.

Vanatühi has two mythological items of great power, the stranger of which is küüntest kübar, a magical crown made of fingernails (yuck!) which renders the wearer invisible.  The other mystical item he has is a whistle which he stole from Pikne, the god of lightning, however the whistle never seems to come into play.  Maybe Vanatühi swallowed it?

Pshh ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist's conception)

Pshh…ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist’s conception)

According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out.  The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire.  Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.

Super bitchin' Mayan Calendar

Super bitchin’ Mesoamerican Calendar

All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun.  The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans.  Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job.   Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology.  To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below.  After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces.  The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.

I really love this picture

I really love this picture

This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed.  So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba.  These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):

Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly.  They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.

Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning

Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;

Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.

Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.

Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld.  They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).

The Lords of Xibalba

The Lords of Xibalba

Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision).  I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.

Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque).   I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest.  If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie "The Fountain"

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie “The Fountain”

Happy solstice!

When I was younger and happier I worked as a drudge in an Investment Bank.  Actually, remove the happiness from that first sentence—the place was one of the most toxic & unpleasant environments ever.  Nobody there was happy.  The bank sucked away human life force…and so I destroyed it from within!  It’s gone now.  You’re welcome, world.

That all sounds pretty bad-ass, but unfortunately this story reads less like a John Grisham thriller and more like a Russian folktale about a slow witted bumpkin who kills a sorcerer by accident.  Although I worked at the investment bank, I was in no way an investment banker (thank goodness).  The bankers and analysts were all stressed-out type-A personalities who spent 14-18 hours a day currying favor and staring at columns of numbers.  A great many of them were hooked on amphetamines or other drugs.

I worked as a temp in the legal department where my job was to redline legal documents–a sort of grown-up “spot-the-difference” puzzle where one compares two nearly identical legal documents to see if the opposing bank has treacherously slipped new provisions into the contract (legal jobs tend to involve this kind of drudgery).  I also helped update and distribute officers and directors lists—a task which was especially onerous since the officers and directors changed with blinding speed.  Also the bank was really dozens of different legal entities and shell-corporations, each of which had its own board and officers all of whom overlapped considerably.  I completed these monotonous tasks in a freezing cold plastic workstation visible to everyone from all sides. My only joy was to surreptitiously cut arctic animals out of post-it notes with a pair of office scissors.  I had an entire Siberian ecosystem by the time I left.

The bank was on a 30somethingeth floor of a dull 80’s skyscraper in midtown.  The bankers were forever trying to modify the office to suit the whim of the latest leaders (who were always changing—see above), so what should have been a simple series of embedded corridors was instead a shifting warren of slate-green upholstery, sharp glass edges, faux mahogany, injured egos, and construction detritus.  The only constant (other than cold and fear) was an arrhythmic grandfather clock, which wheezed away the interminable hours.  Once I was sent to deliver a document to an obscure department on the far side of the bank.  On the way back, I got lost in a newly created hallway swathed with plastic sheets and plywood.  As I scurried along the passage I heard loud impatient footsteps behind me.  I turned and was horrified to see the president of the bank, a cold bossy woman, walking immediately behind me.  Why was she walking so fast?  How could I escape her? Then it occurred to me: there should be a doorway to the kitchen/breakroom ahead. I flung open the door to escape, but the president had ceased her rapid walking and was staring directly at me, her mouth hanging open in an “O” of surprise. With a touch of élan, I opened the door wider in order to let her pass (I was surprised she knew about the shortcut through the kitchen) and then I noticed the room beyond the door had pink tiles!  It was the women’s bathroom!  I screamed shrilly, dropped the door, and ran away down the hall.  It was not my best career moment… fortunately a new president was appointed shortly afterwards, and then another new president after him!

Anyway you want to hear about the destruction of the bank.

Above the little cubicle I was stuck in, there was a big air vent.  It roared incessantly all day, continuously delivering a stream of cold stale air on my shoulders.  One day, when the legal department was unexpectedly empty, I decided to try to do something about the vent.  Balancing precariously on top of my workspace I reached up into the evil grate and found a tiny rusted lever which would not budge, no matter how I pulled at it.  Desperate not to be caught, I swung my whole weight at the lever.  There was a rusty scream, a shower of dirty particles and a great dull “BOOM”.  I sprang down into my chair and looked busy, as martinets in pinstripes manifested from nowhere, but I heard an alveolar shift up inside the ducts of the skyscraper.   The hateful cold air was now directed somewhere else!

My moment of triumph it was short-lived.  The top boss of the legal department (famous for OCD & prickly disposition) came back to find that her fancy office was unbearably cold.  A normal person would have summoned the building engineers–who probably would have traced the problem back to the closed vent.  Fortunately that was not the way she did business.  Her first action was to have her paralegals find the contract with the building and flag the engineering/maintenance section.  Armed with contractual righteousness, she called the property firm and ordered them to raise the temperature on the floor by 15 degrees.

The legal department was on the cold dark side of the building.  The important bankers and financiers were portly men with window offices on the sunny side of the skyscraper.  While the rest of the bank suddenly became hot, their offices became ovens.  To lower the temperature, the bankers started working their way through successive levels of workmen, technicians, and engineers (I heard the angry conversations in the lobby) only to find that the temperature had already been changed by the legal department.  Both sides then began a violent squabble about the thermostat.

"...maybe I should go. You guys settle this on your own."

One day I just didn’t go back to the bank—in fact that was the only job I quit outright with no other prospects.  Later on I found out that, a few months after I left, the bank was gobbled up in its entirety by a huge New York capital management firm.  Perhaps it is wrong not to assume that some other factor was responsible for that place’s demise (its dysfunctional office culture or rapidly changing leadership, for example…or maybe the wave of banking mergers in the nineties) but I think anyone who has worked at an office where everyone is fighting about the temperature can correctly assign credit to me.

My first paying job in New York City was working as a temporary paralegal for a white-shoe law firm.  The gig only lasted a night–but that time was very instructive. I was called in because there was a task so boring that none of the extremely bored people who worked in that great temple to dullness wanted to undertake it.  I came in at 8:30 PM in the evening and worked straight for 13 hours–after which they called a Cadillac to take me home.

There was an immense stack of old-timey dot printed financial records (the ones that were attached to each other by perforated edges to form a continuous spooling sheet).  This huge primitive spreadsheet detailed all of the transactions made by a group of companies in all states, territories, and dependencies over all time.  My job was to go through everything and find each time a certain sequence of numbers came up.  I then noted down the relevant numbers that appeared beside the sacred sequence on a computer spreadsheet.

Welcome to New York!

The main difficulty to this task (other than not despairing at the absurdity of human endeavor) was to keep one’s place on endless nearly identical sheets of densely printed numbers.  I therefore asked for a ruler or a straight edge and was told I would be provided with one immediately.  An hour later, at 9:30 PM, an immense packing crate suitable for, say an industrial microwave, arrived, delivered by expensive private messengers.  I opened it and found the box was filled with packing peanuts.  In the very middle, nearly lost, were two 75 cent plastic rulers.

This was an important lesson about business in New York.  It doesn’t matter whether a job is done cleverly or efficiently or even well.  It only matters that it be done as quickly as possible in the most expensive way possible.  I have always remembered this when following the news of finance and legal affairs in the morning papers.

Basa in a Bucket

I have been writing a great deal about catfish–by which I mean any of the ray finned fish of the order Siluriforme.  There are literally thousands of individual species within this order—all united under the taxonomical rubric by certain shared features such as lack of scales, a well-developed Weberian apparatus, and a reduced gas bladder.  Unfortunately, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, only a tiny number of the Siluriformes are actually “catfish”.  What’s going on here?  Have I been lying to you about all of these fascinating catfish?

No.  Here is the ridiculous story of what happened.

During the 1990s, Vietnam began a widespread reform movement towards a market-driven economy.  The reforms were an instant and immense success:  the number of people living in poverty in Vietnam dropped from 70% of the population to 30% of the population.  Vietnam’s standard of living rose dramatically and the nations leaders began courting the United States as both a trade partner and an ally against the rising regional hegemony of China. One of Vietnam’s top exports was basa, freshwater catfish raised quickly and cheaply on fish farms along the tributary rivers of the Mekong. “Basa” can be used to describe several different catfish, usually Pangasius bocourti, Pangasius hypophthalmus, or Pangasius pangasius.  These fish are truly omnivorous and their ability to take sips of pure air means huge numbers can be raised in small spaces.

Pangasius

Vietnamese catfish exports to America exploded.  Thanks to cheap labor, inexpensive farm techniques (which probably involve a level of abuse to the Mekong river), and superior tasting flesh, basa quickly outcompeted channel catfish from the moribund catfish farms of the American South.

That’s when Catfish Farmers of America (an agricultural lobbying organization) lobbied Mississippi’s then Senator, Trent Lott, to act against the Vietnamese imports.  Lott duly appended a rider onto an important appropriations bill. This rider mandated that out of the thousands of catfish types, only the North American Ictaluridae could henceforth be called “catfish”. In the subsequent debate John McCain lashed out at this anti-free trade (and anti-ichthyology) legislation calling it, “a scurrilous campaign against foreign catfish for the most parochial reasons.” Senator Hutchinson of Arkansas, responded (and demonstrated a deplorable lack of taxonomical savvy) by stating that, “Vietnamese Basa is no more related to the Southern catfish than a cat is to a cow.”  [It is well known that cows are even toed ungulates and hence members of the order Artiodactyla, whereas cats are a member of an entirely different order of mammals, the Carnivora.  Both basa and chanel cats are in the same order of fish.].  Unfortunately the Senator’s failure to grasp biology was no bar to passing the anti-trade legislation and, in 2003, Congress passed laws preventing all non-Ictaluridae catfish from being labelled as catfish (as well as imposing additional tariffs on Vietnamese basa).

Say what you like about anti-trade agricultural lobbyists, but they have a neat logo and a great website.

There was a silver lining for Vietnamese fish exporters: basa is completely delicious and has continued to outsell “catfish”.  Indeed the Vietnamese began to rake in windfall profits because, despite punitive tariffs, their product was still cheaper than American catfish which soared in cost due to increased corn prices (corn, a catfish feedstock, became more expensive thanks to Congressionally mandated ethanol subsidies–but that is another story).  Also thanks to the noise and drama produced by Congress, basa acquired its own “brand recognition” and picked up a group of devoted consumers both here and abroad.

Pan-cooked Basa with Herbs

Indeed, when I buy catfish, I buy basa.  American catfish, particularly in the early days of aquiculture, could sometimes taste musty and dirty, whereas I have always found basa to have a clean, delicate flavor and wonderful light flaky texture.  After trying out a number of smear campaigns against basa (most of which ricocheted and cost consumer sentiment against all catfish) the Catfish Farmers of America have decided to rebrand their own product as “DELECATA™”.  This is (apparently) plain old channel catfish which has been rebranded and renamed.  To quote Saveur magazine,

Processed from larger fish, the custom-cut filets will be more than twice the size of regular catfish filets and sold at a higher price. ‘Let’s face it, catfish is not the best name, especially for people outside the South,’ says Jeremy Robbins, a marketer for the Catfish Institute, the industry group in charge of the makeover.

Astonishingly the Ramey Agency, a corporate consultant, worked for three years coming up with the DELECATA™ concept and was paid a substantial amount of money for doing so.  Having said this, DELECATA™  looks pretty tasty and will probably actually sell in a world filled with dim consumers willing to pay for organic potatoes.  I’ll happily try it if I win the lottery (or ever see it in a Brooklyn supermarket).

I guess we’ll see how DELECATA™ works out.  In the mean time the catfish wars continue.  Both American producers and Vietnamese producers are coming under the shadow of Chinese catfish exports.  China is enormous and, as anyone trying to do business anywhere knows, Chinese producers can undersell anyone (unless the products in question require extraordinary technological finesse).  The Chinese are capable of flooding the catfish market and crushing both Vietnamese and American producers.  An intriguing idea being floated by the Vietnamese catfish farmers is to create a super hybrid between the more humble species of Pangasius being farmed today and the Mekong’s elusive giant catfish (which is a close relative).   So it looks like giant mutant catfish lie in our near future.  In the mean time enjoy a plate of tasty catfish/basa/delacata/whatever.

A Pangasius Processing Line–Feeding the planet is ugly work

At the July 6th Premier of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” Nicholas Cage was asked the following question and gave the following answer (as reported by “New York” Magazine):

Q. You used to do quirky movies like Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas. Why the shift to the mainstream?

Cage. Part of the reason why I’m even here tonight is that I believe world peace begins at home. And if I can in my own little way contribute to that, if I can keep families smiling, that’s one less angry child that goes out in the world and makes a mistake like drugs or violence.

Nicholas Cage Quests for World Peace

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