Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Holy Shit, Operation Ajax!

Remember that whole Cold War thing I mentioned? I'm sure you're already aware, but it wasn't all rockets and intimidating explosions. Aside from a few disastrous proxy wars, most of it involved an extended "Who's the Sneakiest Backstabbing Asshole" contest, and boy did everyone try hard to win!

America's favorite method of sneaky backstabbing was "regime change," which is a euphemism for "overriding the will of the people with money and power." The first time America employed this was in Iran in 1953. They called it Operation Ajax. It all started when Iran decided to take control of its own oil reserves under the leadership of its massively popular leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Until that point, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (known today as British Petroleum, or BP, or "The Oil Spill Guys") pretty much did whatever they wanted with Iran's oil and shared almost none of the profits.

Not pictured: Throngs

I don't know if you've noticed, but when people are cut off from their oil supply, they tend to do some pretty drastic things. Realizing this, Mosaddegh offered Britain a fair deal - keep their company in Iran, keep getting oil, but split the profits 50/50. Winston Churchill turned up his nose with all the British haughtiness and snobbery he could muster and said to the U.S., "Remember how you owe us a favor for supporting your dalliance in Korea? Also, OH NO COMMUNISM! SOMEBODY HELP!"

It being the 1950s, when someone cried Red, the U.S. did not mess around. The Dulles brothers, two of the biggest sons of bitches of the entire Cold War (who also happened to be the Secretary of State and head of the CIA), came up with a plan to resolve the situation. That plan involved paying off high-ranking officials, fascists, and street thugs to stage a completely fictitious popular revolt. I'm not using hyperbole, here. The CIA literally preferred fascists to having their allies share oil profits. The result: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was given dictatorial powers (so long as his actions pleased the U.S. and U.K.) and Mohammad Mosaddegh was sent to prison for three years, then lived the rest of his life under house arrest.

The people of Iran were furious, and everyone was well aware that Western powers had been responsible for the overthrow of one of the most beloved Persian leaders of all time. Operation Ajax was considered a success...for about 26 years. In 1979, another uprising took place in Iran that you may be more familiar with. While the uprising was aimed at Reza Shah, it was fueled by a burning hatred for the West. The West made it possible for the Shah to be in his position, so the West took most of the blame. When the dust settled, Ayatollah Khomeini had secured his place as Supreme Leader of Iran.

If the U.S. and U.K. had shown any respect for the democratic process in Iran , would the 1979 Revolution have ended with a democracy in power? Maybe, maybe not. One thing is certain, though: Iran and the U.S. would almost definitely not be puffing out their chests and talking about nuclear weapons and closing the Strait of Hormuz today if the U.S. hadn't unilaterally destroyed a democratically elected government almost 60 years ago.

Holy shit. Now I'm depressed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Holy Shit, Dogs!

I grew up in a household that had, at one point, 4 cats. We had a dog once, but she had major health problems that resulted in big bald patches, not much energy, and a short life. For those reasons, I've always thought of a cat as a much more suitable companion than a dog. It turns out my domestic animal worldview was lacking an important piece of information, which is that holy shit, dogs are awesome.
Awesome Dog
Exhibit A

It's not that dogs are smarter or nicer. It's that dogs and humans go way back. So far back, in fact, that we've adapted to communicate with each other. A study of animal interactions with humans (specifically dogs and chimps) showed how water, as it turns out, is sometimes thicker than blood. Keep in mind, chimpanzees are widely regarded as one of the most intelligent species on the planet. Genetically, they are nearly human themselves.

Here's how the study went down: researches would show the animal a treat, then hide it under one of several upturned cups. They would then point to where the treat was. Chimps, for all their intelligence and genetic similarity to us, just don't understand what the hell we're doing when we're putting our fingers out there like that. "Maybe he touched some poo and would like me to smell it," they wonder, sniffing cautiously at the outstretched digit.

Chimp Finger
Big deal, mine always smells like that.
Dogs, despite being decidedly non-primate, know exactly what we mean when we point somewhere. They follow the cues and get their treat right away. And pointing isn't the only thing they understand. They innately understand human behavior in the same way we do.

When you first meet someone, your eyes usually drift slightly to the left. It's a subconscious behavior, and it helps you to read emotions - that half of your face is more emotive. The only time we ever do that is when we're looking at another person's face, and no other animal does the same with each other. Guess what happens when researches flash images of human faces to dogs? Even though they don't have the same emotive asymmetry, dogs viewing human faces will almost always tilt their eyes to the left.

It doesn't seem like much, but think of the implications. It happens too often to be a coincidence, and no other animal does it. The unavoidable conclusion is that dogs can almost definitely read and understand human emotions. They can tell at a glance how we're feeling and adjust their behavior as a result. Crazy, right? It gets better.

That understanding goes both ways. Humans, especially dog owners, can actually, certifiably, understand what dogs are saying. To prove this, researches recorded dogs in various situations - being taunted with a toy, barking at a squirrel, needing to go outside, being reunited with a loved one after a long absence - and played their vocalizations for people who were familiar with dogs. The people listening were able to describe almost exactly what was happening to the dogs.

After learning all of this, I had to rethink the camp I had chosen. Don't get me wrong, cats are terrific. They're playful, sometimes cuddly, and always good for popularity on the Internet. But dogs are integrally linked to the development of humanity. They aren't our closest genetic relatives by far, but no other species is so closely connected to our own experience. More than anything else on Earth, dogs understand us.

Holy shit.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Holy Shit, A New Monkey!

I don't think you understand, I FUCKING LOVE MONKEYS. To avoid gushing, I'll just let the link do the talking this time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Holy Shit, Tsar Bomba!

For the fifty thousand or so years that modern humans have been around, we've been constantly developing technology, from stone to bronze to iron to steel to electronics, and so on. One of our favorite avenues of technology, as a species, involves utterly ruining the days of people we don't like. In the 20th Century, we perfected the technology of day-ruining with the advent of nuclear weapons.


With the onset of the Cold War, the United States and Russia decided it would be a good idea to start a gigantic pissing match to see who could build the biggest nuclear phallic symbol. This contest peaked in the early 1960s, just before the public finally said, "Jesus, guys! You wanna maybe calm down with the radiation-spewing explosions for a minute?" By that time, both countries had achieved astounding and stupidly dangerous results.

America's test series was code-named Operation Castle, and is the source of most nuclear blast footage and photography that we have. The pinnacle of the series was an explosion designated Castle Bravo. Detonated at Bikini Atoll in 1954, Castle Bravo produced a 15 megaton explosion. That's the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT. This blast was, in fact, much bigger than anticipated, and the fallout gave thousands of nearby residents radiation sickness.

Oh. Our bad.

The Soviet Union, not to be outdone, developed Tsar Bomba. Tsar Bomba, or "Emperor Bomb," is the single most powerful device ever developed by humanity. It was detonated at a remote location in the Arctic Circle in 1961, and resulted in a mind-blowing 50 megaton explosion, more than three times as powerful as the largest U.S. nuclear test. When it was dropped, the explosive fireball measured five miles in diameter, and very nearly engulfed the bomber that had dropped the payload.

Even more impressive was the mushroom cloud, which reached a peak height of about thirty-five goddamn miles. To give you a sense of scale, Mount Everest, the highest point on the entire planet, is a comparatively paltry five and a half miles above sea level. Tsar Bomba's mushroom cloud was over six times higher than Mount freaking Everest. Just let that sink in. The gravity of that fact. We, as a species, created an instrument of destruction that utterly dwarfed the highest mountain on the planet.

Said instrument.

Holy Shit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Holy Shit, Ghosts!

Where do ghost stories come from if logic and a heap of scientific evidence tells us that ghosts can't possibly exist? If we rule out the conjurers and mediums who swindle people with parlor tricks, we still have stories of people sitting in their houses at night when a cold feeling of dread sweeps over them and they catch a glimpse of something that just shouldn't be.

Do you know what else causes a cold feeling of dread? Carbon monoxide. You know, the stuff in car exhaust and natural gas leaks that can easily kill you? Apparently, lower doses of CO start the process by giving you the willies. You get nauseous and your body essentially senses that something is amiss. Unfortunately, many people assume their bodies are telling them supernatural secrets, when all it's really trying to say is, "Change the batteries in the CO detectors, dumbass!"
CO2 Detectors are Ghostbusters
"Sooner would be better!"

Does that seem like a bit of a tenuous connection? How about this: later stages of carbon monoxide poisoning introduce awesome new symptoms like headaches, respiratory arrest, and visual or auditory hallucinations. Also death. That's an important one.

So to recap: people who report ghost sightings very commonly report feeling a sense of dread, then later seeing a terrifying apparition. Both of these events, in the correct chronological order, are symptoms of CO poisoning.  Don't think I'm making this up, either. It's nothing new. Scientists and skeptics have been suggesting this explanation for ghost stories since 1921. The explanation just doesn't spread as easily as a ghost story would, because chemistry is boring and hard while ghosts are scary and awesome.

The second, and infinitely more terrifying (though less lethal) explanation, is your brain turning on you due to miscommunication. One common type of ghost sighting involves waking up utterly unable to move and sensing (or seeing) a dangerous presence in the room. This is a common enough story to have myths based on it.

The reason it happens? Well, basically, you woke up wrong. When you wake up at exactly the wrong part of a REM cycle, there's a chance that the part of your brain responsible for waking up your consciousness will partially function, while the part responsible for waking your motor functions will be caught unawares. Since your consciousness is only kind of awake, you still half-dream -- and since your brain is programmed to be alert to danger when you're vulnerable, your half-dreams tend to be nightmares.

The worst part? Being partly conscious can convince you, even after you're fully awake, that the whole experience was 100% real. So for the rest of your life, you could remember very clearly being visited by this:

Sleep Paralysis
Oh hi.

Holy shit.