Friday, August 24, 2012

Holy Shit, Caligula!

Stop right there! I know what you're thinking. "Oh, Caligula, that crazy Roman Emperor. This one's gonna be all about how insane he was." Perish the thought, my history buff friend, for I have come not to rehash old oddities, but to make you honest-to-god mutter, "Holy shit." That's why I'm here to tell you that Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, or "Little Boot" to his friends, was likely not insane, and was, in fact, merely a colossal douchebag.

The reports of Caligula's madness are entertaining enough, but they all have one pretty important explanation: Caligula was the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated after the fall of the Republic. He was assassinated by a conspiracy that consisted of a very large portion of Roman nobility. While he was vastly popular amongst the plebeians, who do you think had more sway over written history: the illiterate underclasses or the elite, educated folks in power?

A lot of this shows through the accounts of insanity that Roman historians gave us. One of the most popular stories is of how Caligula said he was going to make his favorite horse a consul. Pretty crazy, right? Silly Little Boot. Horses can't even talk, much less become lawmakers! Why don't you sit quietly in the corner while grownups work with the government?

That sort of attitude is a bit misguided. Caligula probably did promise to make his horse a consul, but it wasn't because he thought the horse would actually be good at it. In fact, he was well aware that a horse would make a terrible legislator. That's the point. He was making a statement, telling the Senate, "I'm so much more important than you, I could put my big dumb horse in a higher office than any of you. So suck it."

Most of the other rumors are what you would expect from a posthumous defamation campaign: sexual depravity, murder, etc. If you look at some of the things that actually got done under his reign, though, the insanity thing starts to lose even more traction. He created new aqueducts to improve the flow of water in Rome. He published public funds, creating unprecedented financial transparency for the Roman government. He brought back democratic elections. One of his political enemies (you know, the ones who called him crazy) said that giving the vote to the lower classes "delighted the rabble, but grieved the sensible."

Now, don't get me wrong, it certainly wasn't all peachy roses under Caligula. He also spent vast sums of money on extravagant personal construction projects. When people spoke out against him, he often circumvented the whole "democracy" thing and just had them put to death. When they got mad at him, he told them they were all dumber and less important than his horse. So that's pretty mean.

Still, the thing that's important to remember is that Rome actually did pretty well under Caligula. When you compare him to some of the other Emperors and statesmen of the era, he really wasn't that bad, and he very likely wasn't actually insane. He was just kind of a jerk. As it turns out, being kind of a jerk can make you seem like a demon-spawned lunatic if the right sources survive the march of time.

The thing that really blows my mind, though, is how trusting we are of the source. The same people who called our own system of government insensible compared to an oligarchy are the ones who called Mr. Boot insane, and we just said, "Okay." Holy shit. That's messed up.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Holy Shit, Alvin York!

Let's say you're a small town guy with very little education but a lot of experience hunting since you had to forgo school to help feed your family. Let's also say you spent much of your youth drinking and fighting before having an epiphany and becoming a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. Finally, let's say you feel compelled to enlist in the army despite your pacifism, because the biggest and most terrible war the world has ever seen is currently raging overseas. That would put you in the position of Alvin York, an American soldier in World War I.

York struggled with the divide between what he saw as his duty to fight and his spiritual responsibility to protect the sanctity of life. Eventually, his superior officers, some of them devout Christians themselves, convinced him that God wanted him to fight for his country. I don't know if you've noticed, but the belief that God himself is egging you on makes even the humblest of people into dangerous sons of bitches. Alvin York is the epitome of this phenomenon.

On October 8, 1918, York's battalion was ordered to attack a German position near Chatel-Chéhéry, France. The assault, it turned out, was ill-conceived. It left York and 7 survivors of his battalion right smack in the middle of a killing field surrounded by hundreds of Germans and plenty of mounted machine guns. Most people in this sort of situation would throw up the white flag, but Alvin "God Wants Me to Kill Folk" York just hit the dirt, chewed a handful of nails, and whipped out his rifle.
Alvin York where the shit went down
Alvin York where the shit went down

Those early years of hunting experience paid off, as pretty much every single shot he fired hit its mark. After he ran out of ammo, half a dozen Germans found him and charged with bayonets. He yawned, pulled out his pistol, and capped every single one of them before they could even get close. The German commander noticed where all of his losses were coming from and fired every damn bullet he had on him directly at York. Every shot missed. He looked around, saw how many of his men were dying because of this one bumpkin, and quite understandably decided to announce that he'd had enough, and would York please stop killing his men so that they could surrender and cower in a prison instead, because Jesus Christ, man.

Alvin, being a reasonable Rambo (and pretty much out of ammo), said okey dokes and proceeded to march back to camp with 7 allies and one hundred and thirty two freaking prisoners. When the head honcho at camp asked him how many Germans he had captured, York said, "Honest, Lieutenant, I don't know."

Just so you don't go thinking because you haven't heard of him he didn't get his due, Alvin York was granted just about every highest military medal and honor that all of the allied nations had to offer, and in 1941 a movie about his ridiculously super-human badassery was released. How they haven't thought to remake it since then is beyond me. Maybe it's just too unbelievable that one pacifist can kick the asses of about 150 soldiers more or less on his own. Because seriously, holy shit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Holy Shit, Meteors!

My wife and I spent several hours late Saturday night/early Sunday morning watching the Perseid meteor shower in our backyard. It got me thinking, "Holy shit, we're seeing chunks of rocks from SPACE, burning up to dust in our atmosphere. I mentioned the mind-boggling vastness of space before. It's really, really, really big. And yet, once a year, because the Swift-Tuttle Comet leaves behind a huge cloud of dust where the Earth goes, we get a reliable view of stuff burning up in our atmosphere. And that's just one of several annual meteor showers.

As it turns out, given how much empty space there is in the universe, there's also a shitload of debris. You can tell by looking at the moon. All those little dents you can see in the surface are from meteor strikes. Over the past few billion years, our neighbor has gathered quite a few of them. "But wait," said the rhetorical device, "If the moon gets hit so often, why don't we?" Well, Mr. Device, there are two answers to your question.

The first answer is that there are many much bigger objects with stronger gravitational pulls in the solar system that attract meteors that may otherwise hit us. Jupiter is the main one. I think we should take time every once in a while to thank Jupiter for that, because we'd probably be pretty dead if it didn't take one for the team so often. The moon helps, too, since it's so close. So thanks, Moon. Way to have your head in the game.

The second answer, though, is that we do get hit by meteors all the time. It's just harder to tell. There are craters caused by meteorites all over the planet, some of them huge. The big ones usually happen out of sight. An unexplained explosion the size of an atomic bomb in Tunguska in 1927 is attributed to a meteor or comet strike.

The small ones, though: all the time. We usually don't notice, but sometimes we do. Sometimes they hit someone's house. If you ever see a strange looking dark rock that's much heavier than other rocks of the same size, put a magnet up to it. If it sticks, you can say to yourself, "Self, this rock came from goddamn space."

Holy shit.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Holy shit, Google!

So, Google. Right? Holy shit. They started off as a goofy sounding, puny little search engine, and now they more or less own the Internet. They're a huge, monolithic company with a motto of "Don't be evil," and they really do follow through on it. Usually - we all know there are some times when they get all up in our business, but I'm honestly okay with it considering how much they offer in exchange. I get free email, online storage, top-of-the-line search algorithms, and a kickass web browser, they get to show me unassuming ads that are relevant to my interests.

Most recently, Google took a look at our piss-poor broadband infrastructure (we rank 26th in the world for Internet speed) and said "Fuck that noise, let's fix it." Then they hauled ass to Kansas City and started offering mind-bogglingly cheap, really-damn-high-speed Internet access. Google is becoming an ISP. So far it's only a test market, but with what they're offering, I can't see them not expanding. Here are the details:

TV + Internet
Gigabit internet (!!!!) and Google HD TV + 1 TB Google Drive (!!!!) + free Nexus 7 tablet
$300 construction fee (waived with 2 year contract)
Gigabit internet + 1 TB Google Drive
$300 construction fee (waived with 1 year contract)
Free Internet
$Free (for at least 7 years)
Up to 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload
$300 construction fee (one time or $25/mo for a year)

Yeah, you read that last part right. Pay $300 up front and you get FREE GODDAMN INTERNET FOR SEVEN YEARS. I'm sure they'll jack up the price after that, but jacking up the price from FREE FOR THE LAST SEVEN YEARS is understandable.

I really have to hand it to Google. Sometimes, they'll do something to make me doubt their resolve to the motto, but free Internet? All in an effort to fix our terrible infrastructure?

Holy shit.