Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Holy Shit, Bioluminescence

Am I crazy, or is it ridiculous that we take things like bioluminescence for granted? That is to say, "Holy shit, living things create light."

Take fireflies, for example. Just look at this picture:
I don't see your ass glowing
Dozens of insects are flying around a forest there, looking for a mate based on which one glows in the dark the best. Just read that sentence a few times to yourself, and keep looking at the damn picture. It frustrates me that everyone in the world doesn't freak the hell out and shout gleefully about the fact that these insects exist, and they're not especially rare.

They're not even alone. They're one of many species that can produce cold light because of a chemical reaction that occurs in their bodies. Since this topic leaves me completely awed and dumbfounded, let me just spend the rest of my time sharing some ridiculous living light with you:
This is glowing fungus, and you're awake and reading this true fact.
I don't want to alarm you, but this is a deep sea fish with a natural goddamn flashlight attached to his face.
That's a wave. Some algae is making it glow. In real life.
So can we all please agree that bioluminescence is eerie, beautiful, and weird as hell? Because look at those pictures.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Holy Shit, Carrots!


That's right, carrots. Didn't think they were too interesting, did you? As it turns out, they kind of are.

First of all, I should tell you that your vision of the standard, archetypal, original carrot is wholly inaccurate. Because you're thinking of an orange carrot, and orange carrots have only been around since the 17th Century, when they were developed as a political statement.

You read that right. They didn't have TV back then, so when they wanted to wow someone with propaganda, they had to pull out all the stops and start screwing with genetics. In this case, horticulturalists loyal to William of Orange, who had led the Dutch in kicking off a successful but eighty freaking year long war for independence.
William of Orange
Peace whenever we get around to it!
In celebration of their good friend Billy Orange, Dutch farmers tampered with carrot breeding until they managed to make a strain of orange carrots. Then they kept at it like they were on a mission from God, apparently. Nowadays non-orange carrots are considered such a strange novelty that people eye them suspiciously more often than they eat them (though that could be because they don't like vegetables).

Years later, carrots would be partially responsible for the Royal Air Force's victory in the Battle of Britain during World War II. I'm not even joking. Don't give me that look.
Skeptical Baby
It makes you look like this

See, the British had finally perfected radar and started using it as an early warning system for bombing raids. They'd send their pilots out to intercept bombers earlier than should have been possible, and the pilots were able to zero in on German planes fairly easily despite it being really goddamn dark out. It was enough to make a Nazi suspicious.

So, the British government created an urban legend. They released false information saying that they had discovered extraordinary benefits that a diet rich in carrots would provide to your eyes, and specifically to your night vision. They claimed, outrageously, that carrots could make you see in the dark!
RAF Lookout
It wasn't that big of a stretch - carrots have vitamin A, which helps to maintain (but not improve) eyesight. It was just big enough to cover the truth while fooling the Germans. And the British. And the Americans. In fact, it continues fooling everyone today.

Not bad for a vegetable, right? Carrots became orange for strictly political purposes several hundred years ago, and they remain orange to this day. Around fifty years ago, they were said to improve night vision - a rumor started for strictly military purposes which remains common knowledge today.

A rumor which may have helped the Allies win World War II.
Orange Carrots
You're welcome.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Holy Shit, Henry Tandey!

Henry Tandey
Henry Tandey was an Englishman in his early twenties in 1914. As you may recall, being such an age in such a year was bad news bears in a big way. Tandey didn't mind. In fact, he volunteered for combat. He remained a lowly private for most of the war, because he preferred collecting trinkets to rising in the ranks. Trinkets like the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award in the British armed forces. He was the most decorated English Private (heh) in the First World War.

Not too exciting yet, right? Don't worry, we're getting there.

In October of 1914, Tandey was stationed in Marcoing, France. After a bout of the nasty sort of fighting The Great War is known for, a young German soldier stumbled directly into Tandey's line of fire. The poor guy was exhausted. He saw an enemy soldier staring down a rifle at him, frowned, and resigned himself to death. He didn't even reach for his weapon because he knew he wouldn't get to it in time. Tandey pitied the guy, and his pity moved him to lower his rifle.
Mr. T
Pictured: Pity
With a nod of thanks, the young German soldier wandered away. Then he took over his country and murdered six million Jews. Because the tired German soldier Henry Tandey had just spared was none other than Lance Corporal Adolf motherfucking Hitler, the Bastard from Baunau.
Adolf Hitler
Yeah, that Adolf Hitler
Since Tandey went on to become a hero and win Britain's highest honor, Hitler was able to recognize his face in a newspaper article.

Later on, when Hitler and Neville Chamberlain were shooting the shit in Berghof after deciding that Czechoslovakia should be annexed by Germany (a decision made without the consent of Czechoslovakia), the Führer asked the Prime Minister if he could deliver a message of thanks to Henry Tandey, the man who spared his life. Chamberlain, ever the appeaser, agreed.

Imagine, with the benefit of hindsight, getting that call. Imagine the head of your government calling you up and saying, "Hey, you know the greatest threat to international peace in the world? You know, the one who's on the cusp of committing the most infamous case of mass murder the world has ever known? Yeah. He says thanks. For not stopping him earlier."

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Holy Shit, Streetcars!

Defunct Streetcars

If you're roughly my age and you have similar taste, it's possible that you grew up loving the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In it, hard-boiled, noir-style private investigator Eddie Valiant gets caught up in a conspiracy by the evil Judge Doom and his associates to buy up all the public transportation of Los Angeles and demolish Toon Town to make way for interstate highways and create a massive demand for cars. Also, there's a cartoon rabbit.

Funny thing is, that actually happened. In real life.
Eddie and Roger Rabbit
Not this part. The conspiracy part.
From the late 1930s into the '50s, several companies with a vested interest in the rise of automobiles, led by General Motors, started buying up streetcar companies in major cities across America. Once acquired, the streetcars were systematically dismantled and then either replaced with good old combustible engine buses or left to languish, leaving locals in dire need of a new means of transportation.
Old car
Pictured: A new means of transportation
After public transportation languished, cars took off and the conspiring companies made a mint. Before we all grab our pitchforks, though, there are a couple of important caveats. Most importantly: most streetcar systems were dying already. The Great Depression, poor labor relations, urban sprawl, and poor planning were already taking their toll on the industry. When the conspirators swept in to deliver the killing blow, it was almost a coup de grâce. Almost.

Second, several companies and individuals were actually convicted and fined for their roles in the scandal. Justice was done. Partially. Kind of. In fact, they were convicted on about half of the charges. And one of the chief conspirators, H.C. Grossman, treasurer of GM, was fined a grand total of one goddamn dollar. So maybe justice was done in a sort of "playfully shoving your buddy a little" kind of way.
Judge Doom
I choose to believe this is how Grossman celebrated his good fortune.

Despite those caveats, the fact remains that an honest-to-god conspiracy of nefarious capitalists bought out a popular service and, despite being in a position to rescue it, decided instead to drive it into the ground in favor of a less-environmentally friendly, more expensive (to consumers), and more profitable (for them) route.

Today, public transportation in America is about as popular and widespread as the Charleston is in modern night clubs. That's largely thanks to the exact conspiracy that drives the plot of 1980s children's movie.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Holy Shit, Frog Hibernation!

One of the most important things I've learned in life is that frogs are goddamn awesome. All frogs are, and they all have their own reasons to be.
"Similarity to Jabba the Hutt" is one such reason.
Right now I'd like to focus on our friend Wood Frog at the top of this post. Their claim to goddamn awesomeness is found in their hibernation habits. Yes, that's right. They are at their most awesome when they are least active. How can that be?

Because they live in cold weather, that's why. Really cold weather. They don't burrow like a cowardto escape the cold, and being amphibians, they're rather fond of water (which I hear tell is pretty bad for you when you are both drenched in it and experiencing below-freezing temperatures).

These clever little fellas have found a way around suffering hypothermia like mere humans. Their bodies fortify their tissue with urea and glucose and then they...pretty much just fall asleep. And freeze. Solid.
Just part of the scenery
When the weather starts being reasonable again, they thaw out and start hopping around like nothing happened. What you and I call "hypothermia," these frogs call "nap time." You know all those movies where people survive long distance space travel through cryogenic stasis?
You know, like roughly half of science fiction?
That's a fantasy technology for us right now. One we've been dreaming about for at least a century, probably more. Wood frogs have been literally doing that in their sleep for thousands of years.

Holy shit.