Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Holy Shit, Ancient Graffiti!

Graffiti, right? What a symbol of the decadence of modern times. Vandalizing the pristine walls of our cities with crudely drawn filth, for the most part. If only we looked to our precursors, from the days when respect for elders, institutions, and architecture were commonplace. What would we find if we looked to the glory days of, say, the Roman Empire?
Roman Graffiti

As it turns out, nostalgia isn't the best lens through which to look at history. Graffiti is nothing new, and the citizens of the Roman Empire were among the worst offenders we know of. That's not to say they were actually the worst offenders. We just know more about it. Because one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of the ancient world was a boon to Classicists and historians.

Still from Pompeii: The Last Day
Way to take one for the team, guys.

When Mt. Vesuvius blew its literal top and buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and several other towns in superheated pyroclastic rock, the towns (and in many cases, the people) were preserved in pristine condition. That left us with walls containing a ton of unfaded graffiti.

Graffiti, the stuff that we sigh and shake our heads at today, ended up being one of the most important primary resources we have about life in Ancient Rome. It's an honest, uncensored glimpse of how literate Pompeiians interacted with each other. What official history book could ever give us that?
Romulus and Remus with the Capitoline Wolf
To be honest, any history that begins with infants suckling a wolf's teat should be taken with a grain of salt.

So what was Latin graffiti like? Let's just say it was colorful. Here are a few examples:
  • LUCIUS PINXIT - "Lucius wrote this." It's like they saw what tagging would be in 2000 years and decided to out-mundane us.
  • APOLLINARIS, MEDICUS TITI IMPERATORIS HIC CACAVIT BENE - "Apollinaris, doctor of Emperor Titus, took a good shit here."
  • VIRGULA TERTIO SU: INDECENS ES. - "Virgula to Teritus: You are a nasty boy." Saucy.
  • SUSPIRIUM PUELLAM CELADUS THRAEX - "Celadus makes the girls moan."
The moral of the story here is that there are hooligans in every culture throughout history, even revered cultures with gravitas and a rich legacy like Rome. That's not a bad thing, either, because it has the potential to preserve a culture much more honestly than official records might. While we're on the subject, though, let's not get too hung up on the gravitas of a culture that produced this:
Mercure from Pompeii
I mean...I know he's a god and all, but...come on.

That's the kind of thing high society commissioned in Pompeii. Someone got paid to paint comically oversized dongs on other people's walls.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Holy Shit, The Girl in the Closet!


Once upon a time in 2008, a Japanese man was troubled. I'm sure he wasn't the only one, but his reason for being troubled was somewhat unique. See, he had gone grocery shopping not long ago, and suddenly he found he was missing food that he knew he should have had. Feeling dumbfounded and a little bit peckish, he decided to set up security cameras to find out how presumably wild animals were getting into his home.
"Why you gotta make a thing of this?"

Now, I want you to imagine this is you. You know food is going missing, so you set up security cameras. You leave the house, locking all the doors and windows behind you. When you come back, you decide to check the footage, just in case. Nothing happens. Nothing continues to happen. Then, out of nowhere, a woman shows up in the kitchen on screen and starts rummaging through the fridge. She takes out some food then goes back to wherever she's hiding.

And it occurs to you after seeing the video that she's there right now.
Scared pup
This would be roughly my face

Being reasonable and terrified, the concerned homeowner immediately called the police, who came right away and searched the house. After an extensive search, they found the woman buried deep in a closet with some food and a small mattress. She was immediately arrested and removed. When questioned, she said she just didn't have anywhere else to go.

It's sad, I know, and you want to feel bad for the homeless woman, but put yourself in the man's position here. Your food goes missing, and when you take steps to find out why it turns out there's a homeless person in your house right now without your knowledge.

One more thing. Before her discovery, the woman had been living secretly in the closet for over two months.

Holy shit. Have fun sleeping tonight.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Holy Shit, the Internet!

Take a step back and think about the damn Internet. Just think about it. Because holy shit, right? You're sitting at a computer (or standing with a phone) and reading my thoughts, and you can do that even if you're thousands of miles away.

Carl Sagan once said "Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic." Books carry ideas through time. The Internet carries ideas through space, and it does so almost instantaneously.
Incidentally, by invoking his assessment I'm proving it right

I mean, my god, look at Twitter. Go there, type "monkey" in the search bar, and you'll see what people all over the world are saying about monkeys. Go to YouTube and you'll find eight years of video uploaded every day. From everywhere. Go to Amazon and you can have almost anything delivered to your doorstep within a few days (or one day if you don't mind paying extra). Go to Wikipedia and you'll find what basically amounts to the sum total of human knowledge.

The fact that we have Wi-Fi and data plans on phones just makes the Internet even more astounding. In the late 1970s, Science fiction/comedy writer Douglas Adams began writing stories about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The eponymous guide is an electronic book that contains all the most important knowledge of the Galaxy. It's portable and accessible anytime, anywhere.
And it has this in big, friendly letters on the cover.

With Wi-Fi and smart phones coupled with Wikipedia, we have that now. Even better, we have an interactive version of it. We have forums where you can ask someone on the other side of the world to clarify something confusing, and the device you use to make that connection fits in your goddamn pocket. Can we shut up about flying cars and agree that this is the future? Because we have, in many ways surpassed 20th Century science fiction.

I'll leave you with Isaac Asimov. In 1991, he saw the potential of computer networking, and in an interview he talked at length about its potential for use in education:

What he's talking about is the Internet. He nailed it twenty-two years ago. You might say he didn't expect people to be wasting time with things like My Little Pony fan fiction, but I think he covered that pretty well when he said, "However silly it might seem to someone else, that's what you're interested in." That's the Internet for you. For better or worse, it's the epitome of democratic education.

And it's my link to everyone from friends in San Francisco and strangers in Japan.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Holy Shit, Robert Ballard!

Robert Ballard

In the summer of 1985, Robert Ballard set off on an expedition to find the wreckage of the RMS Titanic. Using side-scan sonar to map the ocean floor, his team noticed some irregular terrain which, upon further inspection, turned out to be debris from the infamous shipwreck. The following year, he returned with DSV Alvin (the same Alvin that explored the Marianas Trench) and got a detailed photographic record of the site.
Titanic Wreckage
Old age and the weight of the entire goddamn ocean have not been kind to her.

Here's the thing, though: part of that first paragraph is not, strictly speaking, true. Robert Ballard did not, in fact, set off on an expedition to find the wreckage of the RMS Titanic. That was his cover story. In reality, he was working as a US naval intelligence officer and searching for the wreckage of two nuclear powered submarines.

To be fair, Ballard himself really was in it for the Titanic. The Navy was his benefactor, and they set the priorities. Priority one was the missing potential doomsday devices, and priority two was the monument to man's hubris and graveyard of the humble peasants and crew who paid the price for it. Seriously, though. Take a look at the numbers.
Deaths on the Titanic
No no no, rich women and children first!

Ballard's mission was a success, and he had 12 days leftover to actually look for the Titanic. Against the odds, he found it. The Navy, as it turns out, was less than pleased with the latter success. When the discovery came out, Robert Ballard was an instant celebrity. That meant a lot of attention on something they'd rather keep on the DL. Whatever choice words they shared in private, they let Ballard go ahead and take his discovery public.
Sketch of Kate Winslet Naked
Which ultimately led to James Cameron drawing Kate Winslet naked and blaming it on Leonardo DiCaprio

Now we have artifacts, films, books, and a much better understanding of the design flaws that let a sideswiping iceberg sink the unsinkable. And it's all thanks to two more tragic and terrifying shipwrecks in the same area. Shipwrecks that may or may not have poisoned nearby ocean depths with radiation. That part's not unclassified yet.

Holy shit.