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