Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Holy Shit, Mister Splashy Pants!

Mister Splashy Pants Icon

Let me tell you the story of a humpback whale.
Humpback whales singing
That's one right there.

Humpback whales are massive, beautiful creatures that sing a complex, twenty-minute-long-on-average song under the sea. They average around 50 goddamn feet long and weigh around 80,000 pounds, which is about the weight of something that will crush the life out of you. Like two semis stacked on top of each other.

They're also a favorite target of whalers, who hunted them right to the brink of extinction. 90% of humpback whales were wiped out in the 20th century, and the world didn't get its collective shit together enough to slow down the population's decline until 1966. Nowadays, Japan still seems to have a soft spot for humpback whale meat, and that makes a lot of people (and presumably whales) very unhappy.
Whale and calf killed by whalers
I hope you weren't planning to not be depressed today.

Case in point, Greenpeace. Being self-proclaimed tree-huggers, Greenpeace puts a lot of effort into shedding light on the whaling industry. Most of that effort is directed squarely at the tree-hugging choir and consequently gets precisely fuck-all accomplished. That was the direction one of their most successful campaigns was heading before the Internet stepped in and hijacked it.

In an effort to stop a specific whaling expedition, Greenpeace started tracking a specific humpback whale's movements and decided that it needed a name to humanize it. Names make us much more inclined to feel empathy for something. There was some debate over what to call the great mass of blubber, so Greenpeace took to the Web and held a poll.

Most of the names to choose from were predictably bland and intended to rope in the same diversity-loving, tree-hugging, hippie-dippie crowd that always supports Greenpeace movements: Aiko, Libertad, Aurora, etc. Very beatiful, very meaningful, and very likely to make anyone who isn't actively involved in the Green Party snort condescendingly.

But then there was Mister Splashy Pants. It was a joke entry in the poll, because surely no one would bestow a pedestrian name like Mister Splashy Pants upon a majestic creature like a humpback whale.
Apparently they were new to the Internet.

The Internet thought otherwise, and Mister Splashy Pants emerged as the victor in a landslide, garnering almost 70% of the votes. You see, some social media sites like 4chan, Reddit, Facebook, and BoingBoing got wind of the poll and decided to make a farce of the whole thing. Greenpeace was on the verge of putting the kibosh on the whole process, but when Mister Splashy Pants rose to 80% of the vote, they relented.

Mister Splashy Pants made headlines. People loved him. People who couldn't give two shits about whaling. Everyone. Because who names a whale Mister Splashy Pants? That's the dumbest, most awesome thing ever, right? Hell yes it is.

In fact, it was so ridiculous, and so awesome, that when Greenpeace got on board with the idea and started selling official Mister Splashy Pants merchandise with the slogan "Save Mister Splashy Pants" plastered all over it, people bought it. And people agreed. We loved Mister Splashy Pants, and we didn't want some asshole whalers murdering him.
Save Mr. Splashy Pants
I mean, look at him! What'd he ever do to you?

What could have been a fringe movement of zealous and well-meaning environmentalists became a massive outpouring of public support. Greenpeace's total loss of control of their marketing got the whaling expedition cancelled. What started almost as a way to make fun of Greenpeace ended up giving them one of the most profound victories in the history of their organization.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Holy Shit, Chemosynthesis!

Venenivibrio stagnispumantis

There are two basic elements that every ecosystem needs (sort of): water and light. Water is the obvious one because, as my high school biology teacher put it, "Life is juicy." Light is the other one, and it's the foundation of the food chain. Plants use light to sustain themselves, herbivores eat plants, carnivores eat herbivores, and humanity makes everything its bitch.
Food Chain from The Simpsons
Om nom nom

But like I said: sort of.

Let's talk about the ocean floor for a second. For almost all of human history, we've had no idea whatsoever what the hell was down there (other than water). It was, we assumed, dark, flat, and utterly devoid of life. After all, light only penetrates about 3,500 feet down, and the ocean floor is around ten times deeper than that at best.
Deep sea chart
Light reaches the second line, or "almost nothing."

Then in 1977, scientists sent DSV Alvin, a deep sea diving vessel, to the bottom of the Marianas Trench to see what was up down there. Instead of finding an area devoid of life, they found a flourishing ecosystem, filled to the brim with never-before-seen creatures.
Deep sea tube worms
Oh hi! Make yourself at home.

To be fair, researches probably wouldn't have gotten the grant money to explore the ocean floor if they hadn't already predicted that deep sea life was possible. At that point, plate tectonics was finally thoroughly accepted by the scientific community. That means scientists were aware that the ocean floor actually had some pretty bitching terrain. Of particular interest: deep sea hydrothermal vents.
Deep sea hydrothermal vents
It's like the Earth let one rip and it never stopped.

Vents on the ocean floor that leak extreme heat from underneath the Earth's crust. The theory was that light is only one form of energy, so who's to say heat can't also sustain life? In its trip to the ocean floor, Alvin proved this theory of chemosynthesis (as opposed to photosynthesis) to be right on the money. Instead of plants, there were bacteria and terrifying animals that used heat to sustain themselves.

But wait, there's more! I didn't just choose this topic arbitrarily. Chemosynthesis is considered one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time. Life on Earth began in the oceans. Chemosynthesis may have actually been the original pillar of the worldwide ecosystem.

If you find the origin of life dull, then first of all, shame on you. What the hell impresses you if not the origin of life as we know it? That's some fascinating shit. But second, how about this: If life as we know it can exist without light, then it can exist anywhere with liquid water and heat. Like, say, another planet.
Or moon.

Liquid water, as it turns out, is not super rare. In fact, ever since chemosynthesis was discovered, potential xenobiologists have been giving Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, the "come hither" look. It is downright reasonable to assume that under the thick layers of ice on Europa, there are thermal vents creating a gourmet primordial bisque. If that's the case, it's downright reasonable to assume there may be extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

Holy shit.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Happy Pi Day!

I'll make this quick.

Congratulations. You now know what Pi is.

Holy shit. That's way easier than it sounds.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Holy Shit, Brown Sugar!

Brown Sugar

Continuing on the earlier rock star theme, I'd like to address a song this week. A Rolling Stones song, and a popular one, to boot. Brown Sugar. It's not what anyone would call innocuous, and it's pretty clear to anyone who pays rudimentary attention to the chorus that it's a racy kind of anthem. But it's more than that. So much more.
Mick Jagger is an asshole.
Come to think of it, nothing about this man is innocuous
When Mick Jagger wrote Brown Sugar, he was in the midst of a secret affair with fellow singer Marsha Hunt. Predictably, the song was written partially about her. The raciness that most people pick up on when casually listening tends to be the part where it refers to an interracial relationship.
Yes, that is Marsha Hunt. No, I'm not giving you a better picture.
But wait, there's more! When Mick Jagger decided to go taboo with a song, he went over the moon taboo. The song is about an interracial relationship, but the first verse is about a "relationship" in the very loosest definition of the term. In this case, one party's ownership of the other adds a very interesting dynamic to the situation.
Slave auction house
Yup. We're going there.
Because yeah, Brown Sugar is totally about a slave owner raping his possibly underage newly acquired slave. And I'm not joking at all. Just listen to the first verse of the song.

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver know he's doing alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Brown sugar, how come you taste so good?
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should
Slave ship plans
So that happened.

That's the first verse. He just jumped right in with the slave rape, and that's the part that really baffles me. I know this song, and I've known it since I was a child. I saw it in a commercial long ago. I listened to it with my parents. I never had even a passing suspicion that Brown Sugar was about anything but poking fun at taboos and rocking pretty hard.

There's no greater testament to the caliber of song The Rolling Stones had on their hands with this one. They made a song so compelling, a hook so powerful, that they could rub the audience's faces in underage slave rape and none would be the wiser.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Holy Shit, Van Halen!


There are people who take fame in stride with grace and humility. Then there were the rock stars of the '70s and '80s, who evidently took fame as free license to take a figurative shit on anyone they met. The rock star prima donna is one of the most enduring archetypes of the 20th Century, and it's almost for good reason.


If we're going to address rock star douchebaggery, we can't very well ignore Van Halen and their bowl of M&Ms. The band had a standard contract that they would send to all of the venues they planned to play. One of the riders stated in no uncertain detail that the backstage area must have a bowl of M&Ms, and every brown piece must be removed.
Van Halen Greatest
That's probably not even the album name. They're just that full of themselves.

If these demands were not met, the band had a legal right (one they always exercised) to force the venue to redo the entire setup process. What a bunch of assholes, right?

Ha ha, NOPE!

As it turns out, the whole brown M&M legend was both real and a legitimately good idea. Van Halen's live shows were filled to the brim with technical equipment, and things could go farther south than the Falklands if their instructions weren't followed to the letter. Sometimes it's hard to tell if your equipment is properly serviced and set up, and when that happens -- or rather, when that happened -- stuff broke, and their roadies got electrocuted.
Electric Chair
There, but for the grace of a candy shell, go I.

So they came up with the brown M&M rule. If the bowl was there and the brown M&Ms were removed, the band and crew could rest easy knowing that everything was set up properly. If anything was even slightly amiss with their backstage refreshments, on the other hand, they could call out their hosts. They earned themselves a reputation for snobbery, but it's fair to say they also earned their loyal crew a night of not dying in a freak accident.
Brown M&Ms
The thin brown line

In the world of rock and roll, brown M&Ms (or more accurately, a lack thereof) saved lives.

Holy shit.