Dave Barry's Insane City is a tremendously fun novel that romps through a Miami full of grifters, pimps, thugs, sweet-hearted beachbunnies, honorable men with pythons, seductive women with spiked drinks who'll rob you blind, dope-sniffing dogs and the cops who handle them, and a girl-crazed orangutan.
Enter Seth Weinstein, who is about to marry Tina, a woman beyond his wildest dreams: beautiful, rich, brilliant, principled -- the daughter of a powerful, uptight billionaire, who has been brought up to seize her goals and never back down. Which is a far cry from Seth, who is a loser who tweets about feminine hygiene products for a marketing company that pays him to astroturf unintentionally humorous consumer packaged goods.
Seth, Tina, and their friends and family descend upon Miami for the wedding. But a comedy of errors, each more improbable than the last, soon has Seth in custody of a refugee from Haiti and her two small children, as well as an angry stripper and her muscle, and the aforementioned man-with-python and sweet-hearted beachbunny. It's a long story, but at least he's doing better than his groomsmen, who have been robbed of everything (including, for one gentleman, all his clothes including his underwear) and dumped on Miami beach.
Though the characters here are stock figures from central casting, the plot is an insane, glorious hairball of best-laid-plans gone wrong, a cross between Fawlty Towers and Weekend at Bernies, building to a crescendo that had me literally hooting with laughter on an airplane. Dave Barry is a funny man. Take the murder-mystery plot out of a great Carl Hiaasen novel, turn the weirdness and absurdity up to 11, and you've got Insane City.
Last week, Mark told you about a giant eyeball that washed up on the beach in Florida. Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released their preliminary analysis of who that eyeball once belonged to and how it likely ended up becoming the temporary toast of the Internet.
The Deep Sea News blog called it last week, but the official word from the experts is that this was the eye of a swordfish. The distinction is based on the size, the color, and the fact that there are bits of bone present around the edges (something you wouldn't see attached to a giant squid eye).
How do you get a swordfish eye without a swordfish attached? Simple: It's swordfish season. In the press release, Joan Herrera, curator of collections at the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said that, "Based on straight-line cuts visible around the eye, we believe it was removed by a fisherman and discarded."
But before we pack this mystery away, I think you should take one more close look at the giant eyeball, because it offers a great view a really interesting feature of fish eye anatomy. Fish eyes are similar to those of land-dwelling vertebrates. But there are some key differences. In particular, the shape of the lens...
Read the rest
This past weekend, I accompanied Miles O'Brien to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Space Center. In attendance were present and past KSC directors, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, astronauts and space heroes of all eras—from Thomas Stafford to Cady Coleman—and many of the so-called "pad rats" who built spacecraft from the Apollo era through the Shuttle era. Miles delivered an amazing speech dedicated to those pad rats.
Debbie Cook was in for only 7 weeks in 2007, but her experience was brutal. She testified that Miscavige had two hulking guards climb into her office through a window as she was talking to him on the phone. "Goodbye" he told her as she was hauled off to the gulag. Like Rinder, she described a place where dozens of men and women were confined to what had been a set of offices. Cook testified that the place was ant-infested, and during one two-week stretch in the summer with temperatures over 100 degrees, Miscavige had the air conditioning turned off as punishment. Food was brought up in a vat riding on a golf cart. Cook described it as a barely edible "slop" that was fed to them morning, noon, and night. Longtime residents of the Hole began to look gaunt.
They had to find places on the floor or on desks to sleep at night. Rinder said there were so many of them they slept only inches from each other, and having to get up in the middle of the night was a nightmare of stepping over sleeping figures in the dark.
In the morning, they were marched out of the offices and through a tunnel under Gilman Springs Road to a large building with communal showers. They were then marched back to the Hole, and during the day would be compelled to take part in mass confessions.
During these, Rinder says people he had considered friends would put on a show for the officials overseeing them, trying to outdo each other with vile accusations against each other. Cook testified that Miscavige wanted Marc Yager and Guillaume Lesevre, two of his longest-serving and highest-ranking officials, to confess to having a homosexual affair. The men were beaten until they made some forced admissions. When Cook objected to what was happening, she herself was made to stand in a trash can for twelve hours while insults were hurled at her, she was called a lesbian, and water was dumped on her head.
This surveillance video clip shows 71-year-old Samuel Williams thwarting an armed robbery at an internet cafe in Marion, Florida on Friday, July 13, 2012. Williams, a licensed gun owner, may now become the poster child for those who support "concealed carry" rights in the state.
Williams was present when two masked thugs walked into the Palms Internet Cafe in Marion County, Florida. One of the men was brandishing a gun while the other had a bat. They started ordering patrons around and one smashes a computer screen. That's when Williams took action.
Williams was seated toward the back of the cafe dressed in a white shirt, shorts and baseball cap. One of the masked men, identified as Duwayne Henderson, 19 [at left in photo], comes in pointing a handgun at customers. The second man, Davis Dawkins, 19 [at right in photo], is seen swinging a bat at something off screen, which was later identified as a $1,200 computer screen.
As Henderson turns his back, Williams pulls out a .380-caliber semi-automatic handgun, stands from his chair, takes two steps, nearly drops to one knee, and fires two shots at Henderson, who bolts for the front door. Williams takes several more steps toward the door and continues firing as Henderson and Dawkins fall over one another trying to exit the building. The two eventually run off screen.
Florida governor Rick Scott has ordered a high-velocity purge of the state's voter-rolls, using secret criteria to target 180,000 Floridians and requiring them to prove their citizenship in 30 days or lose the right to vote. Democrats and activist groups claim that this violates federal laws. For 91-year-old WWII vet Bill Internicola, it's an insult. Greg Allen reports on NPR's Morning Edition:
"To me, it's like an insult," he says. "They sent me a form to fill out. And I filled out the form and I sent it back to them with a copy of my discharge paper and a copy of my tour of duty in the ETO, which is the European Theater of Operations."
Internicola's was one of more than 180,000 names Florida's secretary of state identified from motor vehicle records as possible noncitizens. Several weeks ago, the secretary's office sent county elections supervisors a first batch of some 2,600 names. County officials, who are also preparing for the state's August primary, started sending out letters to suspected noncitizens, saying they had 30 days to prove their citizenship or be removed from the voting rolls.
Twin brothers Chris and Jeff George ran "pill mills" in South Florida that helped people get bogus scrips for painkillers. They made so much cash doing this that their employees actually burned the $1 bills because they took up too much space and were too much trouble to deposit. The crooked docs who worked with them were issued rubber stamps for signing scrips so that they wouldn't get hand-cramps.
The deluge of cash became a problem. Employees could be heard on the wiretaps complaining about cash drawers being stuffed to the top. It wasn’t worth keeping dollar bills, so those were separated and then burned by the barrel. Bigger bills were stuffed into garbage bags, then hauled to a bank. Chris George’s wife, Dianna, accepted the chore of making these rather suspicious deposits, although not without grousing that she’d become her husband’s “money mule.”
Other cash-filled bags went to the home of the Georges’ mother, Denice Haggerty, who stacked it in safes in her attic. At one point, says a friend of the Georges, there were 14 safes in the attic, each containing $1 million. Haggerty, who divorced John George in 1988, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
The cash piled up despite the brothers’ free-spending ways. Jeff George bought a monster truck, multiple Lamborghinis and a Mercedes Saks 5th Avenue Edition. There were only five of those cars made, and George liked his so much that when he totaled it, he bought himself another, according to a friend.
Jeff George assembled a small navy, including a 36-foot racing vessel, a 39-foot sports boat and two yachts, 38 and 55 feet in length. He also bought the shopping plaza housing his favorite strip club. The purchases were a convenient way to launder money, according to the indictment.
Cocoa Beach is a Florida town where the economy was for decades buoyed by the NASA Space Shuttle program. Astronauts, aerospace contractors, service workers, and their families all made their way to communities like this one along the "space coast," near Kennedy Space Center.
I traveled to Cocoa Beach a few times last year with Miles O'Brien, Kate Tobin, and the SpaceFlightNow crew, for the final shuttle launches. Press and fans swooped in around those launches like migratory birds. Everyone in town—donut shops, cigar stores, restaurants, strip bars, and, of course, hotels—everyone depended on the space industry for their livelihoods.
But now, the shuttle program is gone. Property values and many of those small locally-owned businesses have tanked. It's a huge bummer. There are big-picture ways to tell this story, but sometimes, smaller stories tell it best.
So here's one: the owner of a garish, hot pink motel along the Cocoa Beach strip called Fawlty Towers (after the excellent British comedy series starring John Cleese) is relaunching the joint as a nudist resort.
Florida students and their teachers are held to account based the scores on the high-stakes FCAT tests. School funding is partially contingent on test performance. Robert Krampf, a Florida science educator, has been reviewing the test-prep materials given to teachers in order to refine his own curriculum and prepare his students.
However, the test-prep materials were very poor. They consist of multiple-choice questions with more than one correct answer. For example: "This sample question offers the following observations, and asks which is scientifically testable: 1 The petals of red roses are softer than the petals of yellow roses; 2 The song of a mockingbird is prettier than the song of a cardinal; 3 Orange blossoms give off a sweeter smell than gardenia flowers; 4 Sunflowers with larger petals attract more bees than sunflowers with smaller petals."
The curriculum guide says that the correct answer is 4, but 1 and 3 are also correct. Krampf asked FLDOE's Test Development Center for clarification, and the Center told him that although the question had three answers, only one was "correct" in the context of the curriculum -- that is, students would only have learned about testing 1, and not about the chemistry needed to test 3, or the observational methodologies to test 4. This is just dumb. It means that the test doesn't distinguish between students who misunderstand the curriculum, students who are making guesses, and students who have progressed beyond the curriculum. In other words, the test can't tell you anything useful about the students' understanding or the teachers' methodology.
The question about isn't an isolated example, apparently. Krampf reports finding many examples like this from all parts of the test, some of which weren't just bad test-design, but factually incorrect; for example, the test defines a "predator" as "An organism that obtains nutrients from other organisms." As Krampf points out, "By that definition, cows are predators because they obtain nutrients from plants. The plants are predators too, since they obtain nutrients from decaying remains of other organisms."
I wonder how many students got "wrong" answers on the FCAT because their teachers taught them too much. How many "F" schools would have higher grades if those scientifically correct "wrong" answers were counted as correct answers. How many "B" schools would get the extra funding that "A" schools get, if those scientifically correct "wrong" answers were counted as correct answers?
We may never know the answers to those questions. The Test Item Specifications are the guidelines that are used to write the test questions. If the Science FCAT test is reviewed by the same Content Advisory Committee that reviewed the Test Item Specifications, then it probably has similar errors. But as much as I would LOVE to check the accuracy of the questions from the actual Science FCAT, I can't. Teachers, scientists, and the general public are not allowed to see actual test questions, even after the tests have been graded and the penalties for those grades have been imposed.
Standardized testing is usually a mess. High-stakes standardized testing is usually a bigger mess. But even by those standards, the FCAT science tests are a disaster, and the lack of transparency and accountability in them means that they're doomed to fail Florida's students for a long time to come.
NPR's Planet Money profiles Willow Tufano, a 14-year-old Florida girl who saved thousands of dollars by harvesting furniture from foreclosed houses and selling it on eBay. She's just bought half interest in a house that went for $100,000 at the peak of the bubble. Her mom owns the other half, and the house went for $12,000. They rent it out for $700 a month now. Chana Joffe-Walt writes,
One day, Willow's mom, Shannon, saw a two-bedroom, concrete-block home on auction for $12,000 — down from $100,000 at the peak of the bubble. Shannon was telling her husband about the house, when Willow piped up.
"I was like, 'What if I bought a house? That would be crazy,' " Willow says...
As I was working on this story, I kept thinking that when a 14-year-old kid can buy a house, the market must have hit bottom. I kept saying this to Willow, and she'd sort of vaguely nod.
But it's hard for Willow to see herself as symbolic of anything. To a 14-year-old kid in Florida, the housing collapse is basically the only world she's known. It's the landscape. It's a Craigslist hobby.
(Image: Chana Joffe-Walt)
If you're on parole, don't steal a judge's office-door nameplate (If you do, don't pose with it on Facebook)
21-year-old Steven Mulhall cut a Spicolian caper when he stole the nameplate off a judge's courthouse office-door, then posed with it for a photo, which his romantic ladyfriend posted to Facebook. It was discovered by a law enforcement professional, who took the fellow into custody.
Adding to the stupidity quotient, Mulhall did this while already on parole for theft. "The nameplate is [worth] only $40, not that big of a crime, but what an idiot," said Sheriff Al Lamberti. "Here he is flaunting it on Facebook. He violated the terms of his parole by stealing, from a judge no less. He's got multiple convictions for petty theft, so now this is a felony." Lamberti said the plate would be "returned to the rightful owner," who, again, is a judge.
Carlos Miller, an accredited photojournalist covering the Occupy Miami eviction, was arrested by Miami-Dade police, who deleted several videos from his camera before they returned it to him. Miller recovered some of the deleted files and has posted them to YouTube. They support his version of the events of that night, in which he was subject to arbitrary arrest. The deletion of a journalist's arrest-video seems a move calculated to obscure guilt on the part of the police.
So now the next step is taking my camera to a professional recovery service with a forensics specialists who will not only retrieve the entire deleted footage without interruptions, but would also determine the exact time the footage was deleted
That will determined that the footage was deleted while I was in custody and the camera was in their possession, leaving them no defense for blatantly violating my Constitutional rights.
I also plan on obtaining the footage recorded by the Miami police officer as well as the footage recorded by the television news cameraman.
And, of course, I plan on filing an internal affairs complaint against Perez as well as a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice for deleting my footage.
Rick Roach, a highly educated, multi-term member of Florida's District 3 school board, took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (a mandatory standarized test that largely determines a student's final educational certifications) and failed miserably. He's gone public with his conclusion that the test "has no accountability."
I'm sympathetic to his arguments on the reading sections -- students are questioned on an unfamiliar passage and are asked to pick the most correct answer from several largely correct answers, and receive no points for a partially correct response -- but less sympathetic to his reaction to the mathematics section. He argues that higher mathematics aren't "what kids need" in the "real world" and should not be on the test. I'd be happy to abolish the test altogether, but not higher mathematics instruction.
I struggled with higher math (flunked calculus twice before passing) but I'm glad it was part of my education. Mathematical literacy is critical to participating in a society where complex policy decisions from the "War on Terror" to questions of public health (such as vaccination) and other critical issues that directly effect the day-to-day lives of average people, and these policy decisions are often contested on the basis of warring mathematical conclusions.
“I won’t beat around the bush. The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a ‘D,’ and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.
“It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities....
“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”
Lee sez, "The next generation of robots will be in homes, offices and hospitals, not to mention driving cars, flying around as drones, and, yes, working as prison wardens. Robots will be programmed to learn, and will exhibit emergent behavior not necessarily contemplated by their designers. What happens when good robots do bad things? Who is responsible? And what ethical and legal constraints should be considered at the design stage so that the robotics industry does not become the next full employment opportunity for lawyers? What kinds of public policies should we put in place to encourage the smart deployment of robots, striking the right balance between encouraging innovation and safety? These are the kinds of questions to be examined at We Robot, "an inaugural conference on law and policy relating to robotics" at the University of Miami School of Law on April 21 & 22, 2012. The We Robot call for papers, and a parallel call for live-from-the-frontlines-of-design reports from robot-makers, is open for initial expressions of interest until Jan. 12, 2012.
Topics of interest for the scholarly paper portion of the conference include but are not limited to:
* Effect of robotics on the workplace, e.g. small businesses, hospitals, and other contexts where robots and humans work side-by-side.
* Regulatory and licensing issues raised by robots in the home, the office, in public spaces (e.g. roads), and in specialized environments such as hospitals.
* Design of legal rules that will strike the right balance between encouraging innovation and safety, particularly in the context of autonomous robots.
* Issues of legal or moral responsibility, e.g. relating to autonomous robots or robots capable of exhibiting emergent behavior.
* Issues relating to robotic prosthetics (e.g. access equity issues, liability for actions activated by conscious or unconscious mental commands).
* Relevant differences between virtual and physical robots.
We Robot 2012: Setting the Agenda (Thanks, Lee!)