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.