Wallpaper of the Week: Plastic Army Men

May 1, 2009


FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — No moving parts. No interchangeable weapons. No transforming. No bright colors. No battle damage chests. No remote controls.

Army men were just solid-stamped molded plastic. And that left the door open for so much creativity.

My family didn’t have much money when I was young, so shelling out $60 for an Optimus Prime or even $7 for a G.I. Joe was pretty much out of the question. But grabbing a 30-piece army men set off the grocery store rack for $2 every once in a while was well within the budget, and it was enough to keep a five-year-old amused for hours.


My army men waged thousands of campaigns. The sandbox became the desert theatre. The tall grass became the African front. The loamy dirt beneath the trees became home to jungle warfare.

The brave soldiers of Jason’s Army also lived and died to protect countless staircases, book shelves, and wooden block forts.

After some digging around, I discovered the toys I loved so much were the Vietnam-era M-16 Infantry line made by Tim Mee. They were actually the last run before the company cut production.


Mine had all the classic members of the corps: Crouched machine-gunner, pistol-wielding commander, flame-thrower, bazooka-guy, radio guy, minesweeper, crawling soldier, the soldier swinging his bayonet overhead, the soldier waving his troops forward with machine gun in hand, the mortar launcher.

Once in a while, the army men would come bundled with half-tracks, tanks, jeeps, and emplacements.

Some folks have since created a papercraft world and a tabletop game around those little plastic dudes. Combat Storm looks incredibly interesting, not to mention visually appealing:

If you want to be cheap, though, you could always take the tack my little brother and I once did: Use army men as chess pieces. Bayonet guys make great pawns. Bazooka guys make excellent rooks. Flamethrowers work just fine as bishops.

Mortars make sense as knights. Machine-gunners are the logical queens, and the pistol-wielding commander is the only choice for king that makes sense.


Read This: The Forever Formula

June 22, 2008

FROM JASON’S RECENT AMAZON ORDER — Extending the human lifespan sounds like a great achievement, right? A friend of ours recently linked to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about Resveratrol, a drug that significantly prolongs life and eases old-age ailments.

The write-up also hinted that pharmaceutical researchers are on the cusp — as early as two generations away — from making drugs that will push the average life expectancy to 100, or maybe 120, or even higher.

I was immediately reminded of a book titled The Forever Formula, written in 1979 by Frank Bonham. I had to read it again, and Amazon shipped me a copy. Typically labelled juvenile fiction, you could easily breeze through it in four hours.

The novel is set in 2164 and is seen mostly through the eyes of 17-year-old Evan Clark, brought forward in time from 1984 through suspended animation. When he wakes, he learns his father created a drug called Rejuvenal that allows people to live to 250 years old.

But the Rejuvenal treatments have exacted a horrible toll. Most other nations have banned the drug, but the United States gave rise to a Senior Party controlled by the superannuated. The birth rate has fallen, the elderly have stripped most young people of habeas corpus, and the oldest are dying of terminal boredom — a mysterious geriatric disease called the Logardo epidemic.

In a world where 80 is the new 21, overpopulation is a cancer that eats away at the young. Only the truly elderly are allowed to live under plastic domes and breathe purified air. They have the best food. They play croquet, attend eternal gin parties, squabble with their equally old neighbors.

And worst of all, Rejuvenal has warped their bodies, draining skin of its firmness and color. It leaves users with gelatinous, see-through skin stretched over clearly-visible muscle and sinew. The side-effect is called Guppyism.

Meanwhile, with the elderly sapping the best resources, the young live in the moldering wrecks of cities, their air drained of oxygen because ocean plankton are all but extinct. Roaches and rats overrun everything outside the domes and voraciously attack people. Impoverished vendors sell oxygen on the streets and the government has planted miles of cloned tree farms.

In real life, the idea of overpopulation is a ludicrous one because there is so much landmass in the world completely uninhabited. Right now, more than half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the East or West coasts.

But as Scott Rubin of Geeknights is so fond of pointing out, the problem isn’t so much overcrowding as it is a) finding ways to distribute food from rural farms to urban population centers, and b) dealing with the byproducts of those centers.

Let’s spin some numbers. The global population in 1950 was about 2.5 billion, and today it’s reached 6.7 billion. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts there will be 7.9 billion people by 2025 and 9.3 billion by 2050.

The US is growing at a faster rate than any other industrialized nation. The country has swelled by about 100 million people in the past 41 years and US census experts estimated that the population hit 300 million in October 2006. If it continues to accelerate at a steady rate, it will top 400 million sometime around 2040.

But let’s say the average lifespan did, as Bonham worries, go from 75 to 250 years. Those numbers would exceed the already-burdened curve we have now between supply of essentials and demand for the same. Things get even worse in The Forever Formula when Evan learns the American president, Charlie Fallon, wants to scan his brain for the recipe of another drug Evan’s father was working on — one that would make Man immortal.

A group called the Juvenile Underground decides that such a formula would mean Seniors would establish a permanent slave underclass among the young and consume all the country’s remaining resources. They help Evan escape his hospital cell and go on the run.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, other than to say it comes close to being great, except for a deus ex machina that leads to a (for some) happy ending. It’s all a little too convenient, and manages to candy-coat some pretty grisly deaths. I think Bonham would have been better served penning the last few chapters bluntly and bloodily.

Pew report shows Republicans are fleeing sinking ship

April 3, 2008


Click to embiggen.

FROM JASON’S BALLOT CARD — After several posts about my indecision, I don’t think I told you all that I voted for Obama in the Ohio primary last month. I was pretty proud. In my pokings around the Intarweb this week, I’m discovering just how not-unique that makes me.

For years, I’ve self-identified as a Republican because I believe markets should be free, government should be small, and that defense should be strong. I’ve disavowed myself in the last few years because under Republican leadership markets have been controlled, government has grown at its fastest rate in 30 years, and we’ve waged another offensive (and expensive) war.

And that’s not even taking into account my distaste for the Republicans’ continuing retreat into the folds of homophobia, xenophobia, and religious zeal.

I’m not the only one drifting. The Pew Research Center released a study March 20 saying that since 2004, six percent fewer people are calling themselves Republicans. And since the start of 2008, 36 percent of those surveyed say they are Democrats while 27 percent say they are Republicans. That’s a 16-year low for the Grand Ol’ Party.

Even swing voters aren’t swinging so far to the right anymore. Four years ago, a roughly equal number of undecideds were leaning toward each party. Now, though, the Dems hold a 14-point advantage among swing voters, Pew said (51 percent are leaning toward voting Democrat while 37 percent are learning toward Republican).

The numbers are pretty clear: In battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — where margins were extremely close in the 2004 presidential vote — electors now favor Democrats by enough to be declared blue states in November.

That means the Democratic nominee (it will be Obama) will become president.

Does being the economic superpower excuse American self-interest?

March 14, 2008

Click to embiggen.

FROM JASON’S SHREDDED NATIONALISM — This depiction of the US appeared a while ago on the Strange Maps blog, but I colored it in Photoshop and I feel that gives me the right to resurrect it. The map labels states with the names of nations that have similar economic output and I find it fascinating.

Not long ago, a Canadian friend of mine referenced this map and asked whether the data excuses Americans for “being so self-interested… It certainly explains a bit, and makes the rest of us feel a bit small,” he wrote. I’ve been beating that question around in my mind for the past three days and doing stupid amounts of research to satisfy my curiosity.

Let’s deal with the premise first. Americans are self-interested. I’ve complained before about Americans’ xenophobia and ignorance of geography. A survey by the Rand Corporation shows only 14 percent of respondents could give a rough estimate of the global population (about 6 billion people at the time). Only 6 in 10 Americans ages 18 to 24 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, a 2006 study by National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs found.

The Pew Research Center said last year that 68 percent of Americans know the US has a trade deficit, but only 32 percent knew that Sunni was a branch of Islam. The best educated Americans got their primary news from The Daily Show, that report said. Another non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, found that most Americans did not know who Yasser Arafat was, and the Harris Poll Group had 57 percent of respondents say they “dislike learning about political issues in other countries.”

Still not convinced? Watch Rick Mercer have his way with clueless Americans (including then-governor Mike Huckabee) on Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes:

So back to my Canadian friend’s question — is that American ignorance justified by our economic superiority? Call it childish if you must, but Andre the Giant’s line from The Princess Bride kept ringing in my head as I thought about it: “It’s not my fault I’m the biggest and strongest. I don’t even exercise.”

We are the biggest and strongest, at least as an individual nation. Take a look at Gross Domestic Product information for some of the most advanced countries via the CIA World Factbook:

GDP by purchasing power
US – $13.86 trillion
China – $7.43 trillion
Japan – $4.35 trillion
Germany – $2.83 trillion
United Kingdom – $2.15 trillion
France – $2.07 trillion
Italy – $1.8 trillion
Russia – $2.08 trillion
India – $2.97 trillion
Canada – $1.27 trillion
Australia – $766.8 billion
GDP per capita
US – $46,000
China – $5,300
Japan – $33,800
Germany – $34,400
United Kingdom – $35,300
France – $33,800
Italy – $31,000
Russia – $14,600
India – $2,700
Canada – $38,200
Australia – $37,500

To be fair, the US is outclassed in terms of per capita GDP by Luxembourg, Qatar, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore — but that gets into some tricky statistical business.

The US continues to dominate as a production powerhouse, and as a single nation it is the superpower. But the European Union with its 27 member nations has already surpassed the US in cooperative production with a combined GDP of $14.45 trillion in 2007. No wonder the Euro is devaluing the dollar so efficiently. So far, we’ve managed to stay ahead by translating technological advances into corporate productivity, the New York Times argues.

No throne is ever 100 percent secure for life, and this is why the pesistent American attitude of unalterable, isolationist superiority and willful disregard of world affairs has me worried. True, the US continues to profit from huge consumption spending but high trade deficits and federal debt are perched to trump that and destroy our meager 2 percent annual growth rate.

That’s why the value of the US dollar is falling so quickly — and why it should be. One of the things that truly irks me about my fellow Americans is an attitude that the US deserves by the sheer force of its reputation to retain its position as the sole, indefatigable superpower. But as other nations reach post-industrial status, there will have to be a major shift in global economic balance.

Take a quiz

It’s intended for children, but I’m curious how well the blogosphere will perform: Try the GeoNet Game.

Democrats: Why do you really back your candidate?

January 9, 2008

dems.pngFROM JASON’S OWN PRIVATE SWITZERLAND —So coming off his stunning 8-point win in Iowa, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama let opponent Hillary Clinton slip by Tuesday with a 3-percent lead in New Hampshire — surprising all of us.

Clinton has come to be viewed, even among the anti-Bush-ite youth voters, somewhat of a frumpy, cold, clumsy pariah on the campaign trail. Her demeanor and years of being viewed as her husband’s taskmistress have set even the energized youth voters distinctly against her.

The exit polling shows what I think is so damned interesting.

MSNBC’s statistics throughout the day screamed exactly why Hillary was able to slide by Obama — the two have mirror-opposite support bases within the party. Clinton’s percentage of votes by age breakdown only escalated among older and older voters, while the stats showed Obama getting an inversely proportional response among younger and younger brackets.

And we all know who turns out in bigger droves when the polls open — the old fogeys.

There are a couple of things that bother me about this Democratic showdown (forget the Republicans for now. They’re not going to take the White House this term anyway, thanks to 8 years of sabotage by GWB).

The first is that 2008 will be as much about which type of “minority” (even though women actually outnumber men by about 2 percent of the population in the U.S.) is selected as about any issue. Look at how the masses are categorizing the two Dem front-runners. Will this be the year that we have our first black president, or the year that we have our first female president?

It irks me. Having darker skin or breasts isn’t going to help either Obama or Clinton do a better job in office. These two factors should be non-issues, especially when we have such larger ones to consider — inflation, the bankruptcy crisis, the health care coverage hole, rampant immigration without naturalization keeping pace, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, non-renewable energy. Yet we have people lining up to support one or the other candidate based on obscure racial or gender guilt, and that doesn’t help anyone.

It is interesting to note, however, from a strictly historical perspective that the U.S. embraced African American voting rights before it did the suffrage movement. It will be a fun academic exercise to see whether the same priority/coincidence follows true here.

The second thing that bothers me about this election is the unbounded enthusiasm that the 18-32 (or so) voters have for Obama. Sure, he’s charismatic. I like him. I would gladly toss back a couple of beers with him. But it seems that his gravitas is based more on his attitude, cultured speaking, and early grassroots web campaign than on — once again — any issue(s). Frankly, I don’t think a lot of casual supporters really understand his platform (or the reasons behind their distaste of Clinton’s, either).

Let’s take a look at Clinton and Obama and see exactly what they believe.

Here is a break-down of Obama’s stances:

– Pro-choice
– Voted against the flag-burning ban
– Wants to include sexual orientation in anti-descrimination laws
– Supports charter schools and privatization
– Wants to invest in alternative energy research
– Insists on placing human rights mandates on China to continue trade
– Recognizes morality is the issue with gun violence
– Made several smart Medicare expansion votes
– Voted against extending Patriot Act’s wire-tapping provision
– Supports better equipment for troops
– Anti-war
– Opposes federal spending reductions
– Supports affirmative action
– Voted against CAFTA
– Supports strong gun control measures
– Pro-universal health care
– Voted to re-authorize Patriot Act
– Pro-minimum wage increases
– Pro-Christian; supports “call to evangelize in politics”
– Voted for giving illegal aliens health and social security coverage (without citizenship)
– Voted against repealing death tax
– Wants to expand welfare state
– Opposes gay marriage, but supports civil unions
– Sympathy for drug use
– Wants free public college for B-average students and above

Now here is a similar list of Clinton’s planks:

– Pro-choice
– Supports stem cell research
– Calls for tax cuts and balanced budget
– Pushing for Privacy Bill of Rights
– Voted against flag-burning ban
– Voted to expand cell phone wiretapping
– Supports requiring DNA testing for all federal executions
– Pro-charter schools
– Pro-Kyoto Treaty
– Pro-campaign finance reform
– Opposes e-mail tax
– Criticizes Iraq war management; supports phased withdrawal
– Anti-school vouchers
– Believes media (television and video games) causes violence
– Anti-privatization
– Calls for increasing strength and size of government
– Pro-universal health care
– Voted against medical lawsuit reform
– Voted to renew the Patriot Act
– Wants to give illegal alients social security benefits
– Supports minimum wage increases
– Opposes tax reform
– Supports creation of special “drug courts”
– Wants to force oil companies to fund energy research
– Supports Star Wars-esque missile defense
– Still refuses to apologize for Iraq vote, but admitted in April that it was a mistake
– Touts values-based welfare entitlements

I guess my point is this: I don’t think it’s any more acceptable for the American political left to have a blind devotion to a candidate than I think it’s okay for the American right. The Christian fundamentalist movement gets a lot of negative heat (and rightfully so) for latching on to ultra-conservative dogma; I think those of us measuring the Democrats this season should be held to the same standards.

We have to choose based on qualification and platform, not the better dresser, the better personality, or the candidate that late-night hosts steer us toward.

NOTE: I already linked to it, but I feel obliged to mention that the sourcing for these platforms comes from OnTheIssues.org, a trusted non-partisan vote-tracking and statement-tracking political analysis group.

ANDREW’S EDIT: I recommend my goto site for political analysis Opencongress.org