Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Holy Shit, The Christmas Truce!

Christmas Truce Memorial
World War I was a massive, bloody, world-changing conflict that completely devastated Europe. It had been several decades since a general war was fought between major powers. Most recent conflicts had been invasions by well-armed imperialists against native tribes, unorganized and severely under-equipped. The natives would charge at machine guns with spears and swords to find themselves easily cut down before they had a chance to strike a single blow. Europeans got overconfident with their constant victories.

When the Great War erupted, they suddenly found themselves fighting other Europeans who used the same defensive tactics. For the first time, the imperialist troops were finding themselves charging into machine gun fire and being cut down so rapidly they couldn't make any progress. Neither side had thought seriously about how to undermine defensive machine gun tactics, so the war quickly devolved into a nearly eternal stalemate.
Way to carve up the countryside, guys.

By the end of 1914, trench warfare was firmly established. Two sides would constantly stare at each other over a distance as short as a few dozen yards, taking pot shots and occasionally going over the top in a vain assault that, even when successful, would just leave them staring down the subsequent chunk of No-Man's Land. Bitter at seeing their lives so callously thrown away, many soldiers started resenting their commanding officers and sympathizing with the grunts on the other side. They became less zealous in their marksmanship and adopted a "Live and Let Live" philosophy.
Christmas Truce
"Sorry about all that 'shooting at you' stuff..."

That philosophy peaked in popularity around Christmastime. On Christmas Eve in 1914, German soldiers in Belgium started decorating their trenches with candles and loudly singing Christmas carols. British soldiers across the way noticed and started singing their own carols. Before long, the two sides were shouting Christmas greetings to one another. Finally, one or two brave soldiers went over the top - not to charge, but to say hello. Others followed, and the two opposing sides of the bloodiest war Europe had ever seen started exchanging gifts, recovering their dead together, sharing drinks, and playing games.
No Man's Land
Not exactly a Winter Wonderland, but it'll do.

In some places, the unofficial truce lasted through the night and bombardments continued the next day. In others, it lasted all the way through the New Year. The following years made similar truces difficult. High Command (as well as some key historical figures) strongly disapproved of such fraternization. They ramped up dehumanizing propaganda to discourage it. That and the bitter losses both sides suffered at the hands of attrition and chemical warfare were enough to stamp out a lot of the good will the soldiers of both sides felt for one another.

Dehumanizing Propaganda
Would you kiss that under the mistletoe?
Still, in some places the tradition lived on. There was at least one region of the front that had an open exchange of gifts and friendship in 1916. From that point on, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve just to piss people off enough to keep them from being friendly. Soldiers were rotated more frequently as well, so they couldn't become familiar with the enemy. Because heaven forbid humanity should overcome the government's thirst for blood.
Anti-Christmas General
"Bah! Humbug!"
The Great War caused more devastation than anyone could have guessed. It was part one of the deadliest and most bitter conflict in history. And yet, in the midst of it, the people at the bottom rung realized that they were all just soldiers trying to survive. In the middle of a terrible war, they all came together to celebrate life.

Holy shit.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Holy Shit, We're Alive!

How come the world isn't ending?

Because Mayans didn't have the clairvoyance to predict the end times.

And because even if they did have the power, they didn't use it to predict the end of the world. Just the end of the calendar. Kind of like how the end of our calendar is coming up in a week and a half. On neither occasion is the world going to end.

Just thought we should all be aware.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holy Shit, Tolkien!

I went to see The Hobbit this weekend, and it reminded me of just how god damn amazing J. R. R. Tolkien was. Yeah. This is gonna be one of those.

But seriously, holy shit Tolkien was incredible. He's generally remembered (and rightly so) for his fantasy fiction, which pretty much single-handedly defined the genre as we know it. I could focus entirely on that accomplishment and feel completely satisfied with this post, but it wouldn't do the man justice.

First of all, he didn't just write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He wrote a world into existence. He started developing the mythology of his fantasy world in 1917, and The Hobbit wasn't published until 1937. That means he took a good twenty years just to build the world's culture and history. In fact, The Hobbit was sort of an afterthought to his world-building. What he really wanted to do was create a pantheon and accompanying canon of lore that would fit what he saw as a void where British mythology should be.
Tolkien's Arda
Not one inch of this map is filler, and you probably only knew about the little chunk in the middle of the Eastern Continent.

I'm worried that's not going to sink in properly. Let me put it this way: folklore is created by entire cultures over many generations. It has to be that way, because it has to tap into the collective cultural psyche in a way that can only be accomplished through the combined efforts of a civilization. Then along comes Tolkien, who just does it all by himself. You could argue that he never finished, but he got pretty god damn far.
His son picked up where he left off

He had a creation myth, a Creator, a pantheon of demigods, a Destroyer with a cadre of demon servants, a vast array of stories from the dawn of time to the departure of magic from the world, and even a way to connect his mythology to reality. He put himself in the role of a translator (a role with which he was intimately familiar, as he fluently spoke somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 languages) who discovered a lost chapter of human history.
Red Book of Westmarch
Fans later physically created the lost chapter for themselves

I can objectively say, given the utterly insane amount of detail that went into his work, that Tolkien's writing makes modern world-building efforts, from J. K. Rowling to George R. R. Martin, look like an infant got a hold of a small box of Legos and just barely managed to not choke on them. That's not to say they aren't tremendously talented writers -- it's just that Tolkien set the world-building bar somewhere in the upper atmosphere.

Despite his extraordinary dedication to his writing and his fantasy world, Tolkien also found the time to be an active and respected member of society. He was married at 21 and passionately loved his wife throughout their 50 years of marriage. He had four children and showed incredible devotion to them, inventing characters like Tom Bombadil for their sake and painstakingly writing and illustrating letters to them from Father Christmas.

Oh, and remember when you read Beowulf in high school? Or maybe you saw the movie a few years ago? If it weren't for Tolkien's seminal essay on the subject, you would almost definitely have never read or seen it. Critics at the time saw Beowulf as a way to gain insights about Anglo-Saxon history. It was not good for that, so they were generally dismissive. Tolkien proved them wrong by striding confidently to a podium and reciting the opening verse in a booming voice, the way it was intended to be heard. A hush fell on the audience, and it suddenly became clear that Beowulf was a beautiful piece of dramatic poetry, not a history book.
Beowulf and Dragon
"Thanks, Tolkien!"

J. R. R. Tolkien, an upright family man, invented a genre, changed the course of an academic discipline, learned 35 languages (not counting the ones he invented), and personally created a uniquely British mythology.
J. R. R. Tolkien
"No big deal."

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holy Shit, Tsutomu Yamaguchi!

Tsutomu Yamaguchi

Let me tell you the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi. Mr. Yamaguchi was a 29-year-old designer for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 1945 when he took a three month Summer business trip. To Hiroshima. You may recognize that as a pretty nasty place to be in the Summer of 1945.

On August 6th, the day he was supposed to leave the city, Tsutomu was on his way to the train station when he realized he had forgotten his travel papers. So he went back into the city to get them (ruh roh). As he was approaching his office, he heard the sound of a single American B-29 bomber and saw two small parachutes descending from the sky. Then he saw a flash that left him temporarily blind and heard an enormous explosion that ruptured both of his eardrums.
Hiroshima ground level
Like this, but at half the distance.

Yes, that bomber was the Enola Gay (snort), and those two small parachutes softened the descent of the atomic bomb known as Little Boy - the first to ever be used against people. Yamaguchi was roughly 3km away from Ground Zero. He survived with severe burns and crawled to a bomb shelter, where he was treated. The next day, he found his colleagues and got the hell out of the fiery inferno of a city, making his way back to the comfort of his home.

In Nagasaki.
Statue of Facepalming
"God damn it."

Two days later, Yamaguchi was back at work. His supervisor asked him to describe the explosion and -- I'm not making this up -- in the middle of his description, he would have been able to point toward a window and say, "Actually, it looked exactly like that."
Once again, like this but much closer.

For at that very moment the slightly lesser known bomber Bockscar dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb on the poor guy's home city. The kicker? Tsutomu Yamaguchi's workplace was 3km from ground zero. Again.

This time he suffered no new injuries, but his old ones got infected when medical supplies became scarce. Still, he survived. When I say "survived," I mean damn did he give death the finger. He went bald temporarily and was constantly bandaged for several years, but for the most part he lived a healthy, productive life. A life full of activism for nuclear disarmament, because Jesus, why wouldn't it be?

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the man who survived the only two atomic attacks in history, lived to be 93 freaking years old. He died of stomach cancer in January 2010, almost 65 years after he was double-nuked.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Holy Shit, Black Holes!

Black Hole Dilation
Somewhere out in the inconceivable vastness of space, there are regions that were once incredibly massive stars which have now collapsed upon themselves. The result is a chunk of mass so incredibly dense that its gravitational field lets nothing escape. Not even light, and light is pretty damn fast, as you may well know. When mass gets that compacted, space and time get warped and deformed around it, which causes what we call a black hole.

When I say compacted, I mean really, ridiculously, unbelievably compacted. To the point where a black hole the size of a marble would have more mass than the entire Earth. Despite that, there are actually micro black holes that are so imperceptibly small that they have about the same mass as a flea's egg. On the other hand, there are black holes in that same category that have approximately the same mass as the moon. Is that sinking in? The smallest category of black holes range in mass from about the same as a flea's egg to about the same as the freaking moon.
At black hole density, this would sink to the core of the Earth and cause very bad things.

The next category up contains stellar black holes, which get up to about the size of Manhattan and have about ten times the mass of the sun. After that comes intermediate-mass black holes, which is where it starts getting harder to fathom. These get up to the size of the Earth and have the mass of one thousand suns.

Then we get into the last category. The supermassive black holes. These puppies are some of the biggest things in the known universe. They can reach up to 10 Astronomical Units in size. That's 10 times the distance between the Earth and the sun, which is about 93 million miles. Times ten. At that size, their mass could be the same as one billion suns. Supermassive black holes are, therefore, rather aptly named. Scientists believe that they exist at the center of every galaxy in the universe, which means we are currently orbiting a star which is itself orbiting an incredibly enormous distortion in space and time.
Milky Way Galaxy
The bright spot in the center is light being warped and consumed

One more thing, and I think you know what it is. It's the burning question that always creeps up from the back of your mind when you think about black holes. What happens when you go into one? The answer, mostly, is that we don't know. What we do know, however, is what it would look like to observers.

So let's say your friend is in a spaceship headed toward a black hole, toward the point of no return known as the event horizon. As the ship gets closer, it seems to slow down - time is dilated in such a way that anything close to the event horizon appears to be moving slower and slower, until finally the movement is so small that it can't be seen. Eventually, it stops. As far as you're concerned, your friend is frozen in time forever. But that's just you. Your buddy will experience whatever there is to experience in the black hole. Probably death, I'm sure, but as it happens, time around him will pass. Infinitely.

Holy shit. That might be a little too heavy, so here's a puppy:
Wittol Pup

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Holy Shit, MKUltra!

MKUltra Document

Conspiracy theories are fun, right? Either you feel like part of the clever crowd and say things like "Wake up, sheeple!" a lot, or you get to poke fun at people who can't seem to wrap their heads around the fact that sometimes, things are exactly what they seem. There's something in it for everyone.

Then there are the times when shady, conspiratorial stuff gets all out of hand and, I don't know, real. Then it gets scary. And what better setting for scary conspiratorial stuff than the Cold War? That's when the CIA did its very shadiest shit. Like Project MKUltra.

Project MKUltra officially started in 1953, and was essentially a U.S. research program trying to find out how to destroy free will. Because yay democracy, right? A little counter-intuitive, but hey, the plan was to use it on communists (mostly). The project was an offshoot of Operation Paperclip, the American effort to disguise Nazi scientists, give them new identities, and make them work for Uncle Sam while facing no justice of any sort.
Accessories to mass murder.

Some of these scientists spent time studying torture and mind control (you'll never guess where), so the CIA took them aside and said, "Hey, you did all this work on subverting the concept of humanity, it'd be a shame to make it go to waste," and started up MKUltra.There are two schools of thought about the ultimate goal of the project. Some historians believe it was intended to brainwash people into assassination and espionage. Others believe that the first explanation was encouraged by the CIA so the public would overlook the whole torture thing, and the purpose was simply to develop new interrogation techniques. Either way, it was all about controlling the human mind.

There were many volunteers who participated in the project. They were studied, interrogated, drugged, deprived of sleep, and generally treated like shit. There were others who participated, too. Non-volunteers. They went through the same treatment, but they had no idea what the hell was going on.

The most famous participant was Frank Olson, a biological weapons specialist who, after being drugged with LSD and interrogated, began to rethink his line of work. He expressed a desire to leave his job, and one week later he took a brief and lethal trip to the streets of Manhattan from a tenth story window. His death was officially declared a suicide, and that's a reasonable explanation. I'm sure you can think of other explanations of your own that are just as reasonable.
Here's a helpful hint.

MKUltra ended in 1973, and the CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all related files destroyed. Two years later, the Church Committee, one of the biggest party poopers in clandestine history, opened an investigation into illegal intelligence operations by the CIA. Because Helms had most of the data destroyed, the testimony and surviving documents did little more than bring the project into the public light. I hope you didn't come to this blog looking for justice.

So during the Cold War, not only did the CIA unilaterally depose democratic leaders, they also invested heavily (in real life) in developing mind control.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holy Shit, Geologic Time!

Geologic Time Spiral

The Earth is old. Very old. About 4.54 billion years old. That's 4,540,000,000. The number of years the Earth has been around is about an inch long on my screen. It can be hard to grasp just how very, very old the Earth is, so geologists developed what they call the Geologic Time Scale, or Deep Time, which is like a calendar with much bigger intervals.It measures time between major periods of the Earth's formative years. It starts off in the Precambrian Period, which is literally 86% of our planet's history, and we know little to nothing about it. The Earth went from a ball of molten rock to a life-sustaining planet with its very own moon in the roughly four billion years of the Precambrian.

It's subdivided, of course, and we do know some of the history. We know, for example, that the earliest evidence of primordial life crops up in the fossil record around 4 billion years ago, and the oldest definitive proof of said primordial life comes from about 3.6 billion years ago. We know that photosynthetic organisms started producing oxygen (you know, that stuff we breathe?) in large amounts about 3.5 billion years ago, which eventually caused an ecological catastrophe when it changed the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. More on that in a later post, because damn.
Then this thing happened on our planet.

The Precambrian Era ended, appropriately enough, with the Cambrian Explosion, in which animals suddenly evolved out of nowhere and started taking over the food chain. And inventing the food chain, because it really wasn't much of a thing yet. From there, stuff happened. A lot of stuff, but I'm not here to give you a rundown of everything that has ever happened on Earth. I'm here to give you a sense of perspective.

To that end, let's imagine that everything that has ever happened, happened within one year. The formation of the Earth happened at midnight on January 1. Today, at this moment, it is midnight on January 1 of the following year. On this scale:
  • The earliest stages of life didn't come around until February 25th. 
  • Oxygen appeared in the atmosphere on June 13th, almost halfway through the year. 
  • Animals didn't come around until November 15th. 
  • Dinosaurs appeared on December 9th and were completely snuffed out by December 24th after only two weeks of existence, if you don't account for different species. Which is irresponsible.

As for humans? We just showed up four minutes ago as a species, and for most of that time we've been sitting around and scratching out heads. It wasn't until four seconds ago that anyone figured out we could write something. On the grand scale of geologic time, all of human history has been recorded in the last four seconds.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Holy Shit, Sleep!

Sleeping Child

My other project has me missing out on a lot of sleep lately, which reminded me of something: sleep is weird as hell. Really, really weird. Have you ever just sat and thought about what sleep is, exactly? Your conscious mind just straight up stops working for eight hours (or less, if you're in the middle of writing a novel). We're used to it because it's been a fact of life for as long as we remember, but when you try to imagine it from an outside perspective, it gets downright terrifying. Dreaming makes it even more bizarre, but the incomparable Randall Munroe of xkcd already succinctly described that in his comic on the matter.

"But Mr. Blog," you might say, "surely sleep is just a mechanism that can help us preserve energy or get us to hide at night from predators or something." Yeah, maybe, but you're probably wrong. In fact, sleep only slows down metabolism by about 5-10% on average, and you could probably swing that just by watching infomercials all night. In fact, you can often preserve metabolic energy more efficiently by just sitting still than by sleeping, with the added benefit (in case of predators) that you wouldn't be unconscious and possibly snoring loudly.

But then there's the part where we would die without sleep. Don't be too afraid of that, though. You're body literally will not allow you to stay awake long enough to kill yourself. It forces itself to shut down momentarily in a process called microsleep, which occurs completely without warning when you suffer from extreme sleep deprivation. Your body takes over and forces you to sleep for about 1-30 seconds out of the blue. You'll still be miserable (and probably hallucinating), but you'll be alive. I'll let you work out the major disadvantages of the process for yourself.
Give up? It's a car accident.
Here's a hint, though.
One important caveat: Fatal Familial Insomnia, or as I call it, "Evolution gone terrifyingly wrong." This disease started some time in the 18th Century because of a bizarre mutation of a very specific protein. The mutation was passed on, because up until they reach the age of about 50, people who have FFI show no symptoms whatsoever. Then it kicks in, and sleep just stops. For no apparent reason, FFI sufferers stop sleeping entirely. They get exhausted. They start hallucinating. They eventually lose all capacity for reason and act like they're sleepwalking all the time. Finally, after about 18 months, they die. Every time.
What Causes Fatal Familial Insomnia
It's that protein, if you're interested.
There is no cure, and sedatives not only don't help, they sometimes make it worse. The only good news is that there are only about 40 families that carry the genes with this mutation, and only about 100 specific people. The bad news? Since it typically makes itself known after child-bearing years, it's probably not going to stop spreading. I don't know about you, but I physically shudder on behalf of future generations every time I think about that.

So to sum up: sleep is an almost completely unexplained phenomenon, and we don't know why the hell we do it, but without it, we die a prolonged, horrible death.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Holy Shit, Partisanship!

2012 Electoral Map

I'm going to be a bit brief in the next couple of entries because I have another project going on at the moment that's taking up a lot of my time. With the election over, I thought it might be a good time to start talking politics. Because that's the twisted logic according to which my brain operates.

Specifically, I want to talk about divisive partisanship. I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone claiming that we live in the most divisive political climate in American History. They say this with a straight face. My response, invariably, is a boisterous and confident "NUH UH!"

Let's take a quick look at the historical facts, starting with the race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. Two great men, right? What a world to live in, where you have a choice between two of the greatest politicians in American history. Surely such a race was civil and based on the facts and issues, and people knew they were in good hands no matter what, right?

Hell-to-the-No. It was just as bitter as any election you remember. According to one newspaper friendly to John Adams:

"If Thomas Jefferson wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, and children writhing on a pike?"
Jefferson Monument
And then we built this.
I mean, Damn! At least Fox News just calls people pinheads and socialists. It's actually very encouraging to know that news media outlets will not make claims like this anymore, because it's dumb as Hell.

Exhibit B:  May 20th, 1856. Senator Charles Sumner gives a speech on the Senate floor full of fiery invective against slavery and southern leadership. He said of one of his esteemed colleagues, "He has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot Slavery." Fellow Senator Preston Brooks took particular offense to his language and spoke up about it two days later. With his cane.
Southern Chivalry

He literally beat Senator Sumner half to death until his cane broke from the force of the blows. That's some good old fashioned politics right there.

Speaking of slavery and the mid-1800s...
That Civil War Thing
This was a thing that happened in America
Have people really forgotten that we had a goddamn Civil War based on partisan politics? Because that happened, and it was decidedly more violent than any so-called "blast" politicians throw around at each other today.

Finally, I just want to point out that it's been about thirty-five years since the last time there was a politically-motivated assassination attempt on a politician in the U.S. I'm not counting that business with Reagan because "impressing Jodie Foster" isn't exactly a political movement. Oh, and it's also been a while since people were literally murdered for trying to register voters.

So when you see the terrible divisiveness that is rife in American politics today, please keep in mind that, in general, this is an improvement over the past. A vast improvement.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Holy Shit, Aliens!

A while back, I mentioned my favorite folk singer - specifically, how he opened my eyes to supervolcanoes. This same gentleman tells a story on one of his albums about a friend of his named (not making this up) Vlad the Astrophysicist. Here's the full version:

The gist of it is that he asks his astrophysicist friend if there are aliens somewhere in the universe and, if so, why haven't they contacted us? The answer is, in essence, a poetic take on the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation takes the unknowable trillions of stars in the unknowable vastness of the Universe and tells us that, given the observable portion of those stars that have planets capable of supporting life, we can assume that other civilizations must exist, and estimate how many there are.

Of course, when you're dealing with something unknowable, the best you can do to solve the equation is estimate, and estimates so far for the Drake Equation have suggested that there are between 1,000 and 100,000 civilizations somewhere out in the Universe. That's a huge variation, but something is almost definitely out there.

The problem is that the universe is big, and there's an excessively slim chance that any two cultures on such a massive stage will ever meet each other. So, as Vlad pointed out, we seem to be more or less on our own.

But then there's the Wow! Signal.

The Wow! Signal
No, seriously, WOW!
The Wow! Signal was picked up by the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and yes, that's a thing) Project in 1977. It's a 72-second radio burst that came from somewhere other than Earth, and that fact alone is a smack straight to the gob. The listener on deck agreed, and unintentionally named the signal by writing "Wow!" on the printout he made of the event.

Sadly, when the excitement wore off, the stuffy and rational types wrote off the Wow! Signal, saying that if it were aliens, we'd be able to hear it again in the same spot. Case disappointingly closed.

Or not, according to a recent theory that the Wow! signal may have been specifically targeting other civilizations. In other words, this wasn't us listening in on someone's radio chatter, it was their civilization shooting off a message with someone like us in mind. We should know, we've done the same thing. We tossed a brief message off into space where we thought there might potentially be life, and we haven't repeated it.
The Arecibo Message
That's our message to aliens. Yeah. Straightforward, right?
Consider that for a second. First Contact is a concept that could potentially alter humanity's view of itself and its place in the galaxy. It could be the biggest discovery of all time. And it may have already happened.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Holy Shit, The Plague!

The Triumph of Death

I sometimes like to think of history as a hulking behemoth lumbering forward without altering his course or taking much notice of his surroundings. Every once in awhile, an event will come along and punch history directly in his smug little face, laying him flat and leaving him bewildered and unsure of where to go. One such event was an occasion we like to call the Black Death, which was every bit as fun as its name suggests.

The Black Death is known today as the Bubonic Plague and is caused by a pesky bacterium named Yersinia pestis. It probably originated in China, where it casually murdered about 25 million people. At the time, that was a whopping 30% of China's population, and this tenacious little fella was just getting started. Through the Silk Road, which was a terrific avenue for trading items like silk, spices, and deadly bacteria, the Plague spread to Eastern Europe, where some friendly fleas pulled over and gave it a lift. The fleas hopped aboard rats, who hopped aboard merchant vessels, which set sail for Sicily.
Oriental Rat Flea
Look at his face. He knows what he's doing.
Once the Plague hit, Europe was utterly at its mercy. Today we freak the hell out when we hear about a new type of flu that causes mild discomfort and possibly serious illness if you're very young or very old. Swine flu, for example, has a mortality rate of under 10% and it scared the collective bejesus out of the world. Without any method of treatment available, the Bubonic Plague had a mortality rate of 90%. That's an apocalypse-grade mortality rate given how quickly it spread. How did it get around so fast? The lack of sanitation was the biggest factor, but it was partially due to the unfortunate truth that, in the immortal words of Kay from Men in Black, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."

It being close to Halloween, we're seeing a lot of symbolic black cats around. Black cats are considered bad luck today. Way back in the day, people were much more committed to that superstition. As a result, black cats were frequently slaughtered for no goddamn reason. I'm sure you can see where this is going. The cat murder rate went up when the Plague hit and people drew an asinine link between black cats and Black Death. It would have a nice ring of poetic justice to it if it weren't so horrifying. With a reduced cat population, the rat population skyrocketed, and with them came pure, unadulterated death.
His name is Albert
Seriously though, this scares you?
 Within four years of its arrival, the Black Death cut the population of Europe in half. I could stop right there, because holy shit, 50% of Europe straight up died. Throughout its initial course, the plague killed 100 million people worldwide. Keep in mind that we have an absurdly high population count right now. Back then, 100 million people was roughly 1/4th of humanity, for god's sake.
Plague Victims
This kind of death was not what you'd call "dignified," either.
So how, aside from just flat out killing folks, did the Black Death punch history directly in the face? Well, when the people of Europe turned to their political and spiritual leaders for some idea of what the hell was going on with all the death, the response was a dumbfounded, slack-jawed, "Uh...Jews?"

Sadly, that excuse often worked. People believed God was angry, and when God was angry it was usually assumed that the reason was a lack of healthy anti-Semitic violence, so they went ahead and killed a bunch of Jews. Imagine their confusion when a good old fashioned Jew-killing somehow didn't stem the tide. So they went back to their political and spiritual leaders and said, "Seriously, guys, what the hell?!"
Burning Jews Alive. Seriously.
For years, there was no further response, because no one had any way to answer the question. The church, the nobility, and the institution of monarchy took an enormous beating when it became clear that they didn't actually have as buddy-buddy a relationship with heaven as they claimed. The resulting loss of faith, coupled with the sudden depletion of peasant workers, meant that it was time for some major overhauls in how things were run.

Peasants, finding themselves in a unique position where they were in higher demand, petitioned for -- and were often granted -- higher wages, less outright abuse, and the right to leave their jobs without being arrested (because yes, that was a thing that happened). In many cases, the peasants got so fed up they outright revolted. It was the beginning of a power shift that would ultimately tear down the institution of Feudalism and plant the seeds of Capitalism.

For the church, the consequences were equally severe. Their moral authority was damaged almost irreparably. There were already voices of dissent criticizing the corrupt excesses of the Vatican, and this plague was evidence enough that God was pissed off. That dissent would continue to spread at a much faster rate until finally, when conditions were right, a German monk nailed some papers to a door and kicked off the Reformation, in which almost half of Europe took one last look at Catholicism and said, "No, thank you."
Who's up for some horrific holy wars?

Here's the part that really boggles the hell out of my mind: this obscene body count and massive social upheaval was all caused by something so tiny that it was never observed and wouldn't even be discovered until 1894, about 500 years after the fact.
Yersinia pestis
The Microscopic Destroyer of Worlds

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Holy Shit, Cannae!

Battle of Cannae
Who was the greatest military commander in human history? It's not a totally fair question since human history is a really long time and the whole Shoulders of Giants thing makes it hard to compare today's military mind's to yesterday's, but there still seems to be one name that constantly creeps up: Hannibal Barca. You know, the one who "crossed the Alps on elephants" (though there weren't actually that many of them, and almost all of them died in the journey). When you look at his record, he's a damn good candidate for the honor.

Hannibal Barca
Here he is turning a symbol of Roman authority on its head. I wonder if that's a metaphor.
 Of particular concern is his victory at the Battle of Cannae, where he faced an army double the size of his own, consisting of the most powerful heavy infantry in the world, on unfamiliar lands - and utterly crushed them. Let me set the scene.

Rome and Carthage were locked in a nasty feud for control of the Mediterranean. Hannibal, the top general of Carthage, was coming off of a pretty sweet victory at Lake Trasimene, where he had ambushed and routed a Roman army led by one of the two Consuls, the chief executives of Rome. Rome was laying low for a year, opting to avoid large confrontations and instead picking off Hannibal's army little bits at a time. The people of Rome were unhappy with that strategy. They wanted a big, juicy victory they could sing songs about. The government responded by raising an enormous army of around 90,000, under the joint command of the two new Consuls.

Cannae itself was a critical supply depot, and Hannibal kicked off the festivities by snatching it right out of Roman hands. The Consuls were a bit cross about that, so they decided it was time to lay the smack down on this Carthaginian asshole. Everything looked awesome for Rome up until the day of the battle.

Hannibal was a genius with preparation, and was always able to finagle himself into the right environmental position to get an advantage. On this day, he managed to find a spot where the wind and sun were at his back - which meant the sun and dust would go straight into Roman eyes. That was step one.

Step two was his cavalry. Numidians were, at the time, the very best horsemen in the Mediterranean, and they were on Hannibal's side. They were one of his key strengths, and were guaranteed to chase off the Roman cavalry.

Step three was the feet on the ground, and this is where he showed his masterstroke. Roman infantry typically put their strongest units in the center, where they could punch a hole straight through the enemy line. Hannibal responded by putting his weakest units in the center, but stacking it heavily.  The result was like a big, umbrella-shaped cushion. When something strong hit the center, the shape would bulge at the sides. And that's exactly what happened.
Cannae Formation
Ha! This is gonna be awesome.
 When the Romans hit the center of Hannibal's formation, it looked to them like they were winning hard. Everyone was retreating in front of them, so they just kept pushing. What they couldn't see (remember that dust and sun from earlier?) was that the enemy to the left and right was pushing forward just as much as them. Before long, Hannibal's army inverted its shape and wrapped halfway around the Romans.
Cannae Action

That's when the cavalry came back.
The wildebeasts are the Numidians
Oh ff...
 By the time the Numidian horses charged almost literally up the asses of their army, the Romans were shitting themselves in panic. Never before in recorded history had an army been so thoroughly surrounded on the field, and no matter where they looked, there was no escape. Morale might be the single most important element of any battle, and despite being a bigger force and having stronger soldiers in general, this encirclement sent Roman morale into a free fall.

By the time the dust had cleared, up to 75,000 Roman soldiers were dead, and up to 10,000 were prisoners. Hannibal's losses were somewhere around 5,000. It was one of the most crushing and humiliating defeats of all time, and it very nearly caused the collapse of Rome. Luckily for classicists, Hannibal didn't really have the means to capture cities, so he was unable to press his advantage. Eventually, Rome rebuilt and eked out a major victory against Hannibal that led to Carthage's surrender under grossly unfair conditions.

The Battle of Cannae is remembered today largely because holy shit, how did he pull that off? Specifically, because military academies ask that very question (albeit phrased more politely) to all potential officers.

If you're curious about what happened next, the name Hannibal became synonymous with "boogie man" in Roman culture, and Carthage was so intensely reviled that Cato the Elder, a prominent statesman, ended every single speech he gave, no matter what the topic, with the phrase, "Furthermore, I am of the opinion that Carthage should be destroyed."

Holy shit.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Holy Shit, Stem Cell Babies!

Stem Cell Colony

Stem cells are a scientific miracle. They are cells that can become any cell you want them to be. You take a stem cell and tell it, "Hey! Be a kidney!" and it can grow a goddamn kidney. I could stop there, because holy shit we can grow body parts from single cells, but there's much, much more.

The reason conservative folks have a raging hatred for stem cell research is that until recently, embryonic stem cells were the only ones that could be used to make miracles happen. Embryonic stem cells typically come from abortions, which is a rather unpopular process in many political circles. That's all changing now because of the 2012 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine. These guys have proven that you can do a lot of the same blowing of minds (and saving of lives) by using adult stem cells. So get ready for some enormous medical advances in the next few years.

Again, I could stop there, but it gets even wilder.

The part that sticks out to me - the part that brings the loudest "Holy shit!" from the depths of my boggled mind - is the part where scientists might eventually be able to hand craft goddamn babies from stem cells. Wait! don't say it yet, I'm not done!

Japanese scientists have successfully created both sperm cells and egg cells from non-embryonic stem cells in mice. Both genders of mice. BOTH GENDERS OF MICE. Let that sink in.

This is largely speculation at this point, but it's speculation that is rapidly moving into the realm of plausibility. Do you know what the implications of this are?

 Well...yeah...but also:

The Gay Book
It may be a while before we know how well this is going to work, but no matter what happens...STEM CELLS. Holy shit.