Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Holy Shit, Krampus!

Krampus stealing children

Do you ever feel like there's something missing in the way we teach our children how to celebrate Christmas? We tell them that, if they behave and stop looking through daddy's browser history, Santa Claus will come to town and give them toys and presents. If not, they get a lump of coal.
Censor Bar
And some light trauma.

I mean, either way they're getting something, right? And let's be honest, a lump of coal ain't half bad. Just wait until they learn you can set it on fire. That's gonna lead to some entertainment. And possibly tragedy.

The story is incomplete. The good news is that the rest of the story is already out there. In Europe. Alpine Europe. You know, like Bavaria, Austria, and Croatia. They have a figure who works with Santa Claus, taking up the much needed role of the menacing bad cop. And if history has taught us anything, it's that Austria knows how to produce menacing figures.

This particular menace is known as Krampus, and is utterly terrifying.

Terrifying Krampus Mask
Light trauma is for pansies.

In contrast to Santa Claus, Krampus visits the home of naughty children to bring them no gifts but torment and suffering to match their misdeeds. The more you learn about him the more you wonder how anyone in Alpine Europe makes it to adulthood without deep psychological scarring.

First of all, Krampus brings a birch switch with him to whip the mildly naughty kids into shape. Corporal punishment. That's not so bad, right? And it's not! At least, not until you learn that the birch is a common phallic symbol in folklore. So in a subtle way, our story begins as a cautionary tale about a demon who will straight up dickwhip your children if they talk back to you.
Krampus costume
While making that face.

That's just the kind-of-naughty kids. If you were really bad, your Christmas treat was to be picked up by Krampus' freakishly long, eldritch tongue, slapped into a basket, and carried off either to his lair or to Hell itself, where undisclosed horrors would be visited upon you in retribution for the grief you've caused your parents.
Krampus greeting card
Gosh, Timmy, we'd love to help, but you've been kind of a dick this year...

In case you're wondering (a) where those horrifying real-life images came from and (b) whether this custom of arcane yuletide terror is a mere cautionary tale, I can answer both of those questions at once. Every year, as part of the Christmas Season, young men in Alpine countries dress up as Krampus for a festival that consists mainly of said men scaring the shit out of every child they can find.

So the next time you find that your little boy or girl is unresponsive to the idea that Santa won't bring them exactly what they want if they continue being awful, consider sweetening the pot with a casual mention that the fury of a horned, cloven-hoofed, long-tongued demon is the alternative.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

And holy shit.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holy Shit, Oil!

Oil Well


That's right, oil. Black gold. Texas tea. A number of other metaphors, not all of which are featured in the introduction of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies
Though I don't personally see the use in a Clampett-less oil metaphor.

More specifically, petroleum, which is one of those pesky words that mix their etymological roots. It comes from the Greek word petra (stone) and the the Latin word oleum (oil). At least it's not as bad as the scientific name for swordfish (Xiphias gladius. Greek and Latin for sword sword. Come on, science. It's like you're not even trying.)

More to the point, petroleum has been a part of human society for at least 4,000 years, when it was used in its semi-solid state (asphalt) to build the walls and towers of Babylon. In 1847, oil got its big break, like a young, diamond-in-the-rough musician impressing a talent agent at a dive bar with her moxie and soothing, soulful voice. Except instead of a talent agent, it was a Glaswegian chemist named James Young.

James Young
With a remarkably bitchin' dwarf beard.

And instead of moxie and vocals, it was petroleum's ability to turn into kerosene that piqued Young's interest. From there, it was a meteoric rise to world superstardom. Especially when gasoline was invented a few decades later.

Suddenly, petroleum became one of the most vital natural resources of all time. Like all precious resources, it moved nations to violence. Ever wonder why Japan was being such a dick in 1941 with the whole surprise attack thing? Well, the U.S. wasn't too happy about their expansion, so we cut off their supply of sweet, sweet oil.

Around the same time, Hitler went on an ill-fated vacation into Russia. He talked a big talk about living space and the evils of Communism and Slavic people, but I'm pretty sure those plump Caucasus Oil Fields had something to do with it as well.

Oh, and hey, remember how the U.S. has been involved to some extent in every major conflict of the Middle East for the past century or so? I wonder what that could be all about. Well, it starts with a dinosaur and a bunch of rock (nature's extremely slow juicer)...
Orange Juice
Mmm. Fossily.

Except WAIT.


It doesn't.

There's been an abundance of dead dinosaur jokes concerning oil lately, and I want to dispel that myth here and now. It's important to remember that just because everything we know about dinosaurs was gleaned from fossils doesn't mean that all fossils are dinosaurs. It especially doesn't mean that "fossil fuels" are dinosaurs.

The weird thing is, fossil fuels are organic matter. Petroleum is essentially made of algae and bacteria, buried under sedimentary rock and heated over millions of years by geothermal energy. The millions of years thing is a problem. In 1965, new oil discovery reached its peak. In the 1980s, oil production began to outpace oil discovery. By many estimates, peak oil has either already occurred or is expected in the very near future.
Peak Oil
It's not gonna go back up.

That's a very, very bad thing. I mean, on the plus side we'd have to worry about climate change a little bit less. On the downside, though...we'd pretty much be looking at a thorough, worldwide economic collapse. Petroleum is in everything. On top of being the linchpin of the transportation industry, it is a key ingredient in plastic. Try to go a single day without using something that is plastic. If you're reading this on a computer, you probably already failed that challenge. If you're reading it on something that is not a computer, I'll probably have an idea for my next topic.

With that in mind, it might be time to consider investing a little bit more in alternative energy. Because oil, a foundational pillar of the global economy, is starting to crack.

Unless, that is, we can replicate a process that takes millions of years and do it in a few minutes. Which is apparently not out of the question.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holy Shit, D. B. Cooper!

Dan Cooper (sketch)

On November 24, 1971, 36 passengers and 6 crew members of an airliner found their afternoon flight interrupted by an inconvenient but exceedingly polite passenger who identified himself as Dan Cooper.

Cooper, after enjoying a cigarette and bourbon, passed a note to one of the attractive young flight attendants. When she took it, she looked at him, deduced that he was a lonely businessman looking for some company, and dropped it into her purse without looking at it.
Check yes or no
Kind of like this, but a little more sordid

Cooper spoke up and told her she might want to consider how she was handling the message. So she took it out and read it, and to her surprise it was not a charming message, nor was it a phone number. It was a friendly notification that the man in the seat had a bomb and was hijacking the plane, and would she please sit down next to him and act natural. She complied, and he laid out his demands. The plane was to land, and he was to be given $200,000 and a ride to Mexico City, stopping for fuel in Reno.
Plane refueling
Deftly setting me up for the line, "I fueled a plane in Reno just to watch it fly."

The strange part about this is that, outside of his original threat, Dan Cooper never showed even the slightest inclination toward violence. He was thoughtful, polite, and apparently concerned for the well-being of all the people he was threatening to blow up. He allowed all the passengers and most of the crew (including the one he initially told about the bomb) to leave the plane when it landed.

Then he got his money and a parachute. When the plane took off again, he opened the back door and, apparently, jumped out. When the plane landed in Reno, he was long gone. To this day, nobody knows whether his insane get rich quick scheme succeeded. Conditions were dark and rainy, far from ideal for a safe jump.

The investigation that followed the incident started with a suspect named D. B. Cooper - a long shot, as police were pretty damn sure he wouldn't have used his real name. He was quickly ruled out, but that didn't stop the media from calling the hijacker by the name D. B. Cooper for the rest of eternity.

In 1980, a breakthrough (almost) occurred. An eight-year-old kid, in the process of helping his vacationing family to build a fire near the Columbia River, found three deteriorating wads of cash. The family turned in the fat stacks to the proper authorities, who positively identified them as money paid in ransom to Dan Cooper. One of the stacks was missing a few bills, and the nature of their deterioration indicated that they had been deposited by one of the river's tributaries, making it nearly impossible to determine where they had actually fallen into the water.
Dolla dolla bills, y'all
Fat Stacks

Since 1980, there have been no major developments. If you happen upon any old currency from around 1971, you can actually find out in an online database whether you're holding a piece of airline history. It hasn't happened yet, so don't get too excited. On the other hand, do. Because despite being what we would invariably refer to today as a terrorist, Dan Cooper was so mysterious and well-mannered that small towns in Washington hold festivals in his honor.

It just goes to show you that a little politeness is all you really need to forgive things like air piracy and threatening to blow up a plane full of people.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Holy Shit, Gut Feelings!

Vagus Nerve

If you're like just about anyone in the world, you're pretty sure you've got a handle on the whole "intuition" thing. You can think logically about your conundrums until the cows come home, but when it really comes down to it, you have to go with your gut. It never seems to let you down.

Okay, now I want you to strap yourself in. We're going for a ride through Wild Speculation Based on Recent Research Land, and the turbulence can get a little bit rough. There are basically two points that you need to take out of this that will completely blow your mind. Or gut. Hopefully just your mind.
Thing you use to shit in
This is as far as I'm going with that joke.

Number one: when you get a "gut feeling," it may actually originate in your gut. As in, you are literally thinking with your stomach and basing your major life decisions on how it's making you feel.

Number two (and this one's the kicker): it may not actually be you doing the thinking. In fact, in a very real way it's not thinking at all, but a general optimism or pessimism, and it's all thanks to these fellas:
Aren't they just charming?

Well, not specifically those guys, but microbiotic organisms that reside in our tummies. Recent research suggests (not conclusively, but suggestively. Like your friend's mom making a few uncomfortably familiar remarks while he's in the bathroom so you're not sure if she's just being friendly or...anyway) that there may be a causal link between the types of bacteria in your gut and how you respond to stressful situations.

So far, all the hard evidence we have relates to mice. Scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario took a group of mice, studied their behaviors, and looked at their poo to see what type of bacteria was there. Because the life of a scientist is a life of glamour.
Men of Science, 1807
It's not all posing for group pencil and wash portraits

Then they started feeding probiotics and antibiotics to different mice and observing how they reacted to the changes. What they found was that, as the tiny ecosystem of their digestive track changed, so did the behavior of each specimen. Aggressive mice attained a Lebowski-esque state of calm, and lazy hippie mice began wailing and gnashing their teeth at the murine condition, taking out their newfound existential distress on their neighbors.

The reason for the connection seems to be a single nerve, shared by mice and humans, called the vagus nerve. It connects with both the stomach and the brain, and when its connection is lost, so is the influence of microbes on mouse behavior.

The implications of this research, if it turns out to be applicable to humans, could be staggering. Mental illnesses ranging from autism to bipolar disorder (and remember, speculation) could be reined in by the research that's currently looking into your stomach. It may actually turn out that the secret to living a calm, happy, and fulfilling life is contained within this:
Bowl of Yogurt
Plus it helps Jamie Lee Curtis to poop regularly. So that's nice.
Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Holy Shit, the Ship of Theseus!

The Lenormant Relief
Many rhetorical questions do little to excite my imagination. When someone asks me what the sound of one-handed clapping is, I show them. It makes a sound. That's silly. When I'm asked whether a tree falling in the woods without anyone around to hear it make a noise, the answer is perfectly obvious to me. It's not space. There's oxygen. So yes, of course it does. That's a rather self-centered question to ask, Mr. Pretentious Philosophy Major.

I know that I'm not really addressing the point of the questions, but they just don't make me stop and think as much as they're supposed to. Not when there's actually a fairly logical answer. But there is one hypothetical that always gets into my head and crosses a few wires. They call it the Ship of Theseus.

Here's how the scenario goes according to Plutarch, who is the earliest source we have of the issue:

"The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."
He had a way with words. Not a way to make them interesting, just...a way.

In simpler terms, and in the form of a question (since I established the implicit promise of a question back in the first paragraph): If you repair a ship by replacing rotted timbers little by little, at which point (if any) can you say it is no longer the same ship? Thomas Hobbes sweetened the pot a few centuries later by adding this sub-question: If you make a new ship with the remnants of the wood as you make the repairs, which ship (if either) could truly be called the original?

I believe the technical term for the result of thinking about this question is "a mindfuck." You may already be seeing why this crawls into my head and embeds itself so thoroughly. I'm sure many of you terrific, intelligent, and downright handsome readers have heard at some point that the cells comprising the human body are completely replaced every 7-10 years. That's not exactly true of all our cells, but it's true of a lot of them.

So at which point do our bodies (or at least much of our bodies) become not our original bodies? I mean...when you're born, you look really goddamn different from when you turn ten. You have the same memories and experience, but most of your body is completely new. When you're twenty, the same thing happens. Your body is more or less completely new.
Without absorbing even a little bit of the Time Vortex.

I don't even know where to go from here. Defining an object is hard enough with the Ship of Theseus paradox. Defining ourselves, though?
Head Explode.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Holy Shit, Donkey Kong!

Nintendo Logo

In 1981, Nintendo was known primarily as a toy company that produced trading cards in Japan. In fact, they were barely known at all in the West. They began producing arcade games in the '70s, but they enjoyed limited success until Shigeru Miyamoto burst onto the scene.
Shigeru Miyamoto
He and Gaben are the patron saints of gaming nowadays.

Shigeru Miyamoto created Donkey Kong, and from there went on to become the single most influential figure in console gaming history. Donkey Kong started as a licensed Popeye game, but the licensing situation didn't work out. So the team had to come up with new characters. They called the hero "Mr. Video," a name which would change to Jumpman shortly afterward. When the Nintendo of America team was confronted with an angry landlord demanding their late rent, they averted his wrath by telling him they'd name their new hero after him. The landlord, Mario Segale, agreed to back down.
That name should be familiar to you.

The villain, they decided, would be a King Kong knockoff named Donkey Kong. The name basically came from a linguistic misunderstanding. "Donkey" is an obscure, archaic slang term for a stupid or foolish person. Miyamoto found that definition, coupled it with a word he understood to mean "giant ape," and called it a day. The American team thought it was hilarious, and the name stuck.

You know who didn't think it was hilarious? Universal Studios. As they understood it, they owned the rights to King Kong ever since they fought a court battle over the issue in 1975, and Nintendo was using a blatant knock-off character to reap enormous profits without paying them one red cent. Or even yen.

King Kong
I'd like to believe this is the face the studio heads made.

So they took this little toy company to court. It had all the workings of a classic David and Goliath battle. There is speculation that Universal's legal department figured Nintendo would just settle to avoid a costly battle, but Nintendo's legal team had done its research pretty well. When they got to court, they made an elegantly simple argument.

King Kong is in the public domain. And what's more, Universal knew full well that he was. That's why they won the right to make a movie about him in the '70s. The judge ruled in favor of Nintendo, citing the ridiculousness of suing over a public domain character and the fact that Donkey Kong was different enough not to be confused with King Kong anyway.
Donkey Kong ending
I mean, the building he climbed wasn't even finished!

This was a massive, pivotal moment for Nintendo. It came on the heels of a massive crash in the home video game market, and it gave Nintendo the confidence to start pushing for a revival of the console. The very next year, the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in America, and the console market has enjoyed increasing success ever since.

If it weren't for a linguistic quirk and a frivolous lawsuit, Donkey Kong would not have served as the springboard that relaunched the game industry. We have this abused, rampaging, kidnapping ape to thank for everything from Super Mario Brothers to Pokémon, and maybe a lot more.

Holy Shit.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Holy Shit, Eyam!


Remember the plague?

Well, the village of Eyam certainly does.

Eyam is a small village in central England with a population of around 1,000. It is best known for one of the boldest and most suicidal efforts to stop the Plague in British history. In 1665, a tailor in Eyam received a package of cloth from London that was full of Plague-infested fleas. Within a week, he was dead and the disease was spreading throughout the village. When residents began to consider fleeing to neighboring towns, the local rectors stepped in and asked everyone to voluntarily brave the horrific tempest of the plague and close themselves off from the outside world.
Yao Meme
How I would've reacted.

The town agreed. A system was established where merchants and couriers would drop supplies off at The Coolstone outside of town. Money for the shipment would be left there soaked in vinegar, which was believed to prevent infection. It may have actually been true - the acetic acid in vinegar does function as an antibacterial agent.
Malt vinegar and french fries
I'm sorry if the smell of my PLAGUE-PROOF FRIES bothers you.

Aside from that indirect exchange, Eyam ceased all contact with the outside world. The plague tore the village apart for fourteen months. Deaths were constant and well-documented. Families were asked to bury their own dead for fear of quickening the spread of the plague, and in one case that caused a woman to bury her husband and all six of her children over the span of eight days. Incredibly, she survived the pestilence, never even becoming ill.

After fourteen months, it became clear that the plague had run its course in Eyam, and the village opened its borders once again. When the plague hit, the population of Eyam was 350. When the quarantine ended, there were only 83 people left. Almost 80% of the people of Eyam died within about a year. There are debates over whether the decision even did any good to stem the tide of the plague, but I think we should just let them have that one. Give them an A for effort, if nothing else.
You tried.
Good hustle, you guys. I'm proud of you.

It's not every day that 350 people will accept horrific disease and almost certain death because it might help a bunch of people they probably don't even know. But that's exactly what happened in Eyam.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Holy Shit, the Svalbard Seed Vault!

It's seeds. In Svalbard.
One day, something terrible is going to happen to the Earth. I mean, the Earth will be alright. In most apocalyptic scenarios, the Earth will do just fine. That's not what people are really worried about when they say we need to save the planet.

No, what they mean is that we need to save ourselves. In a big ecological disaster, the crops we grow are going to become incredibly scarce. Maybe even extinct. That's problematic if you're a fan of eating. Even if you're strictly carnivorous, your food is not. I don't know why I feel the need to clarify this, but without crops, humanity is just...super dead.
Disco is Dead.

Luckily, we have a contingency plan. Yeah. That's not just something from disaster movies. There is a very real, very functional contingency plan with an out-of-the-way, isolated, 11th hour savior station and everything. It's called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and it is aptly named.

Svalbard Seed Vault.
Because it's in Svalbard, is a global initiative, has seeds, and is a vault. It's that simple, yes.
Funded by various world governments and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is humanity's insurance policy. It's the destination for real life post-apocalyptic scientists/farmers who want to save the world.

I'm gonna be honest. I want to make fun of this concept. I want to make light of it. At first glance, it's so bizarre that this place exists. At second glance, it's even more bizarre that it has funding.

But you know what? I can't. It's goddamn terrific that we, as a species, are planning so far ahead as to stuff a bunch of biodiversity into nature's refrigerator. All I can do is share it and reassure you that, should you find yourself starving due to a meteor, nuclear war, or massive blight, there's a little beacon of hope in one of the coldest places on Earth.
Northern Lights in Svalbard

A place where you are legally required to carry a hunting rifle outside of towns so that you can defend yourself from polar bears, sure, but it's there. And one day, it may save the world.

And yes, I'm serious about the polar bear gun thing.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Holy Shit, Gatsby!

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is the greatest work of one of the greatest authors in American history. If you haven't read it yet, you probably slacked off a lot in high school. Go read it now. I'll wait. This post will still be here when you're done.

Have you read it yet? Okay, good. Maybe you can help me out with this. I recently learned of a theory put forward by literary scholars that has proven unexpectedly resilient to scrutiny. Jay Gatsby, the theory goes, is a light-skinned black man who is passing for white.
Fry from Futurama
Yes. Serious.

Now, bear with me. I know that seems like a huge leap, but the progenitors of the theory have some pretty compelling evidence. First of all, it's clear that Gatsby is something of an outsider in New York's high society. This is usually chalked up to his being "new money," and therefore shunned by the blue-blooded aristocrats. That's perfectly reasonable, but there's more.

Gatsby's estate is on "more than 40 acres" of land. That's a curiously specific way to describe a non-specific measurement. Especially considering the "40 acres and a mule" concept after the civil war, which described what freed slaves generally felt was a suitable (and frankly generous) reparation for their decades of free labor. If the theory holds true, Fitzgerald is coyly alluding to the fact that Gatsby got what he deserved and then some.
Beacon Towers
That's one hell of a mule there, Jay.

It still feels like a stretch, doesn't it? Even after you realize that Gatsby is described as "tan-skinned." It's still a bit much. Even after you realize that Fitzgerald doesn't shy away from depicting racial tension in any way, so it's not like issues of race are nonexistent in the book. In fact, they always seem to be lurking in the subtext. But here's a passage that will give you something to think about:

"...a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry. 'Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge,' I thought; 'anything at all....' Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder."

Upon seeing three black people in a limo, the narrator thinks to himself that they are a sign of the times, just like Gatsby. There's a pretty strong suggestion here that when he says "anything can happen," he's talking about the success that a person of color can achieve. Why, on that thought, would he immediately think of Gatsby?

Because Gatsby represents the very same social upheaval.

I'd like to hear some more thoughts on this. It's been boggling my mind for a while now, and if anyone can find more evidence to prove (or disprove) the theory, I'm all ears. Because this is a very new idea that suddenly seems as plain as Nebraska now that I'm thinking about it.
Nebraska is Boring.
And Nebraska is pretty damn plain.

And it completely changes the way I see one of the most iconic characters of American literature.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Holy Shit, the Platypus!

Australia was an afterthought of creation, and was thus designed in an alcoholic frenzy.

It was really only a matter of time before I got around to this one. Platypodes (that's the Greek plural form. There is no correct plural form. Look it up.) are what happened when nature had a few extra animal parts lying around and was drunk. They have the bill of a duck (hence the colloquial name), the feet of an otter, the tail of a beaver, and the good sense to live in Australia, home of the weird-ass animals of the world. It's also one of the five species of mammal that lays eggs.

That's something that really shouldn't be possible. Egg-laying is traditionally one of the red flags that say "NOT MAMMAL" in large, imposing letters. However, since the Platypus and its cousins have hair, produce milk, and generally play ball with the rest of the criteria, scientists decided to give them a pass.
It's the only way to play.
Similar to how we sometimes allow this to be called a sport.

That's despite the Platypus flaunting its cloaca around the neighborhood. Where most mammals have various orifices for having a wee, a poo, or a baby, the Platypus streamlined the process into a single cloaca. I assume the main advantage of this technique is that it inspires a great deal of sympathy in other species for Platypus. "I'm not eating that thing," says the Rakali. "He's got it rough enough already with that cloaca business. No wonder they lay eggs."

At times, sympathy is not enough, and the Platypus is threatened. At other times, a human will spot a goofy specimen, and upon seeing its wittle beak and lovey-dovey eyes, will attempt to cuddle it. In both cases, the interlopers are in for one of the shittiest days of their lives. Because those cute little otter feet that Mr. Platypus boasts are good for both swimming and administering an excruciatingly painful venom.

Platypus Foot
Counter-intuitively, this should strike fear into your heart.

Platypus venom is known for two things: not killing you and making you wish it would. When a human is stung by the Platypus' spur, the area around the sting almost immediately swells, and the swelling rapidly spreads. Instead of wrecking shit in your body and causing pain as a result, Platypus venom goes straight to the pain receptors in your brain and manually flips your pain switch. Because it takes such a direct route, traditional opiate analgesics like morphine do literally nothing for you.
Menacing Platypus
And he stares at you mercilessly all the while.

After a few days, the pain fades away. By which I mean it is replaced by hypersensitivity to any other pain. As in, "The wound feels better but every time you stub your toe you'll be fairly convinced that it needs to be amputated." While there are no deaths on record from Platypus venom, it may be one of the meanest venoms that nature has ever produced.

The Platypus is weird. Weird as hell. So weird, in fact, that when sketches of it first reached Europe, it was almost universally dismissed as a hoax. When a pelt arrived in England, scientists were still skeptical. Some even demanded to examine the body so they could find the stitches they just knew were holding that goddamn beak in place. Eventually, they had to admit that such a thing could possibly exist.
Platypus Sketch
Truly, the Bigfoot of the Nineteenth Century. Except real.

And if you ever see one in the wild, then for god's sake, don't touch it. You will know the deepest depths of pain if it's in a foul mood.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Holy Shit, Emperor Norton!

Emperor Norton I
Joshua Abraham Norton was an English-born, South African-raised immigrant to the United States. He gained citizenship and took up residence in San Francisco, where he made a terrible decision to invest in a rice shipment with his inherited fortune. After the price of rice plummeted, he lost all his properties and declared bankruptcy.

Norton challenged the company with which he invested, claiming that they misled him about the quality of the rice. The California Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him, creating a deep-seated dissatisfaction within the fiery passion-pit of his belly. Like so many Facebook users today, Joshua Norton decided to express his displeasure with empty spectacles.

Lensless Glasses
Which are a thing, I guess.

At least we hope that was his idea, because it would be a little bit disturbing if he actually believed that he could legitimately declare himself "Emperor of these United States."

Like so many modern-day secessionist petitioners (and unlike the very real secessionist Confederacy that began two years later), Norton expressed his political dissent with a powerful act of almost whimsical ignorance. The strange part, though, is that it sort of caught on.

Norton went around to all the local newspapers in San Francisco to hand deliver a letter, which read:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity. 

—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

The papers printed it, because why wouldn't you? No one had done anything so ridiculous before, and readers were eating that shit up.

Emperor Norton didn't just declare his reign and then let it go, either. He issued edicts ranging from abolishing both Congress and the Democratic and Republican parties to the criminalization of the colloquial San Francisco name, "Frisco." He even decided on a whim to add "Protector of Mexico" to his title.

"Miracles" by Insane Clown Posse
It was here. This is where you heard the word "Frisco." From ICP. I'm sorry.

It got to the point where, despite being destitute, Emperor Norton was treated like royalty. Literally. He had an entourage. People paid deference to him. And not just people: high-end restaurants set tables aside for him on permanent reserve. They put plaques on his table to commemorate his visits. Theaters could guarantee improved ticket sales simply by reserving a balcony seat for the Emperor. He issued currency, and local businesses honored it. I mean...what?

Here's what's really crazy: he wouldn't have made that bad of an emperor, all things considered. Some of his proclamations were incredibly visionary and insightful. There are factions to this day who want to rename the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to the Emperor Norton Bridge, because it was his idea first. The most they've accomplished so far is a plaque commemorating his role in the inception of the bridge.

Emperor Norton plaque
Pictured: An actual goddamn plaque on an actual goddamn bridge.

During a riot against Chinese immigrants, Norton stepped out into the street, blocking the rioters from their prey, and recited the Lord's Prayer over and over again until the rioters realized that murdering people because of their race is kind of uncool and decided to go home. Around that same time he demanded that the international community establish a League of Nations similar to the actual League of Nations that would be created about 30 years later. Part of that decree called for an end to all hostilities between religions. We still haven't nailed that one down yet.

In January of 1880, Emperor Joshua Norton I collapsed in the street and died before an ambulance could reach him. The next day, San Francisco was in mourning. Obituaries solemnly expressed their grief. Plans for his funeral were modest at best, but the city's populace stepped in and produced a lavish ceremony worthy of his title. It is estimated that about 30,000 people, about 13% of the population of San Francisco at the time, attended.

From the ashes of financial ruin and political outrage, Joshua Norton rose to the honorary status of United States Emperor. He is unique in American History for that. Others have imitated him, but never with anywhere near his success. He was penniless, almost a vagrant, and simultaneously, he was royalty.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Holy Shit, Hot Coffee!

When you read the words "frivolous lawsuit," there are two cases that will immediately leap to your mind. In both examples, you're probably wrong.

First, there's the one your cousin told you about, where the guy sued a homeowner for injuries sustained while attempting to rob his home. This one is easy. It's a damn lie, is all. No such case exists, and any similar ones were either dismissed out of hand or easily won by the defense.

The case your cousin was thinking about was actually a fictional one from the movie Liar, Liar, in which Jim Carrey's secretary relates the legend as though it were a fact to underscore the film's underlying thesis that lawyers are sometimes assholes.

Liar Liar
Who's the liar liar now, Greta?

The second is the one where a lady sued McDonald's for a bunch of money and won because she spilled hot coffee on herself and got burned. That one is true. You just haven't heard the full story.

The story you usually hear -- the one that begs us all to consider tort reform -- is that some lady tried to drive around town while holding hot coffee in her lap and, surprise, she got some superficial burns. Because of some ambulance chasing hack of a lawyer (the story continues), she got a huge payout based on the lack of warning labels, and that's why we need warning labels for obviously dangerous things.

Caution: Sharp Edges
When will the government learn?

The first and possibly most important bullshit stain on that story is the extent of the injuries. We aren't talking superficial burns that she whined about and wore extra bandages to milk in court. Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old plaintiff in the case, suffered severe, third-degree burns on 6 percent of her skin. She had lesser burns on 16% of her skin. Keep in mind that a third-degree burn less than one percent of your skin will send your ass straight to intensive care.

 If that's not enough, the most severe burns were on her knees, thighs, buttocks, and groin. If you named all the worst places on your body to get third-degree burns, a couple of those are bound to be in the top 5.

Kelso Burn
Number one, of course, is the ego.

 Liebeck spent 8 days in the hospital for skin grafts and follow-up care, during which she lost 20% of her body weight, ending up at a morbidly lean 83 pounds. After that, she spent two years receiving medical treatment related to the incident.

There is no justifiable description of this case that could suggest she was milking the injuries. They were honestly horrific, and you're lucky I'm in too good a mood to dig up the images of them.

Because it's cute.
Very, very lucky.

The second blow to the already fragile "frivolous lawsuit" characterization is the fact that Liebeck wasn't driving. She wasn't even in her own car. She was with her grandson, who had pulled over so she could put cream and sugar into her coffee. The car had no cup holders, which is how she ended up holding the cup in the worst possible spilling position.

Finally, the things that ultimately made McDonald's liable in the incident were the fact that the corporate policy on coffee was to keep it at a scorching 190 °F -- a temperature that will cause third-degree burns within 2 seconds of contact -- and the fact that the cup designs were flimsy and prone to lid malfunction. In fact, this was not the first burn-related lawsuit McDonald's had faced. They settled all the previous ones out of court.

Old McDonald's coffee cup
At least they encouraged a modicum of environmental consciousness.

The company's defense was that customers were expected to order coffee from the drive-thru and let it cool while they traveled, drinking it once they arrived at their destination. It would have been a compelling argument if their own research hadn't revealed that almost all drive-thru customers started drinking their coffee immediately after buying it. The fact that the company openly admitted that they didn't share the extent of the burn risk with their customers certainly didn't help. Nor did the fact that they had already turned down a settlement offer for $20,000 in medical costs.

So Stella Liebeck won. The jury slapped McDonald's with a multimillion dollar fine to cover both Liebeck's medical expenses and punitive damages. The judge lowered the payout, and McDonald's decided not to appeal when they were able to negotiate a settlement for an undisclosed sum less than $600,000.

There are examples of people abusing the legal system, but this wasn't one of them. Even if the case would have been struck down on appeal, it wasn't nearly as black-and-white as the legends make it out to be.

Also, most of the time people try to abuse the legal system for financial gain, their cases are dismissed before reaching a trial. And when they're not, they're usually shot down in court. Because for all its faults, the legal system actually kind of works.

Holy shit.