Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Holy Shit, Snipers!

M40 Sniper Rifle

Who's up for another story about violence? Don't lie. You're interest is piqued. Especially when you saw the word "sniper" in the title. The completely inaccurate ideal of the lone wolf sniper (they always, always travel with a spotter) is one of the most enduring images of jingoistic media, which is why every first-person shooter on the market devolves into half snipers and half people who know that snipers are a bunch of camping noobs who piss everyone off.
The old rage quit table flip
The real life consequences of rage quitting are considerably more severe than this, though.

That's really the point, though. Snipers are meant to demoralize, terrorize, and piss off the enemy. To do that, they have to sit perfectly still, do a shit-load of math (no seriously, they carry cheat sheets like you used to use to get through algebra tests), and perform unfathomable feats of marksmanship from incredible distance.
Sniper app
I was terrified to learn that there is, in fact, an app for that.

One such nefarious miracle worker was known as Carlos Hathcock. Known as The White Feather Sniper to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, Hatcock racked up a confirmed kill count of 93 over the course of the Vietnam War. That's 93 people he definitely killed and had confirmed by both his spotter and a third party officer. The actual number, as is usually the case, was probably much higher.
Carlos Hathcock
I have no words. Only lightly browned underwear.

Hathcock was most famous for a particular shot he made, though. Remember that part toward the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, when the hillbilly Christian sniper shoots the Nazi in the bell tower?
Oh, did I mention there would be violence?

It turns out that shot is difficult to make.

Really difficult.

Like, so close to impossible that there's no way in Hell anyone could ever do it.

Unless their name is Carlos Hathcock.

You see, the NVA were none too fond of Carlos, so they sent their own favorite sharpshooter with the considerably more dangerous sounding name of "Cobra" to forcibly remove him from service. Carlos and his spotter tracked Cobra down to a patch of jungle after he turned a few heads in the very unfortunately literal sense using the medium of high velocity bullets.

Hathcock saw a flash of light as he was scanning the vegetation and, on instinct, aimed for it and pulled the trigger. When they investigated the spot, they found Cobra lying dead with a bullet in his eye and a shattered scope on his rifle. There is only one way this could possibly happen: Cobra had literally been aiming directly at Hathcock, but didn't have the presence of mind to fire first. Hathcock's bullet went straight through the scope without ricocheting or bursting out of the sides. The shot would go down as one of the most famous in sniper history, which, yes, is a real thing.

Hathcock has nothing on Simo Häyhä, though. Simo Häyhä was a Finnish sniper in the Winter War (that little side story of WWII between Finland and the Soviet Union) whose full story I won't get into right now. Suffice it to say that Häyhä had 505 confirmed kills with a sniper rifle, in addition to at least 200 more with other weaponry. The man was an unstoppable killing machine who racked up more kills than any other sniper in history, and he did it all on Hard Mode by not even using a goddamned scope.
Simo Häyhä
"Those are too cumbersome!" he shouted, gleefully tearing another man's face apart.

I'm fairly certain Simo Häyhä was actually an avatar of death. He certainly seemed immortal. He survived ambushes, other snipers, artillery strikes, and even being shot in  the jaw with an explosive bullet that took half his face off. The lives he took certainly seemed to nourish him. Häyhä died at the comfortable old age of 92. Either he was working for the Grim Reaper or the Reaper knew better than to come within a mile of his presence while he was still in possession of his faculties.

Holy shit.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Holy Shit, An Off Week!

I hope you'll forgive me for taking a week off, but I've been dealing with this:
Black Mold in my goddamn wall
Which smells like SHIT.
 Which led to this:
Black mold in my FUCKING bathroom
The bags plug up a shit hole. Literally. Toilet is in the family room. Home ownership, right?
And also (eventually) this:
No more mold but Jesus Christ.
No more mold know...there used to be a floor here. And a laundry room.
But that's not even the best part. Wanna know the kicker? All of this miserable impromptu renovation can be traced back to a single, tiny spot. This asshole:
A pin prick on a half-inch segment of copper tube.
That's why I'm not researching anything this week. Because apparently, that little thirty-pixel dot (and yes, I checked) is all it takes to ruin your week. Or more.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Holy Shit, Stanislav Petrov!

Stanislav Petrov

Recognize the guy in the photo? It's unlikely that you do, but I'm not going to tell you not to feel bad about it. Because that man is Stanislav Petrov, and you very likely owe him your life.

The year was 1983, and the U.S. and Soviet Union were playing for keepsies. Their on-again-off-again relationship was decidedly in the off-again setting, and the U.S. said, "Hey, you know what would be a lot of fun in an atmosphere of extreme geopolitical tension and nuclear paranoia? A war game with unprecedented realism that makes it look like we're about to nuke the shit out of Russia!"
Ronald Reagan
Shit's on fire, yo.

The Soviet Union wasn't too fond of the idea. Especially since it kind of looked like their longtime rival was actually planning to rain hell fire onto their faces. They saw enormous forces massed on their borders. They saw fully armed nuclear bombers coming right to the edge of and sometimes slightly within their airspace before turning away. They saw unprecedented mobilization. And they started to flip a shit.

That's where Mr. Petrov comes in. Stanislav Petrov was an officer in the Soviet Air Defense Program in charge of monitoring their Early Warning System. On September 26, 1983, said system blipped. A blip on your "We're All Gonna Die" radar is literally the last thing you ever want to see in that situation. But there it was. A blip headed straight for the Motherland.
Radar screen

Stanislav the Manislav, being a reasonable man(islav), figured that a single blip could easily be a defect. "Something must be tripping up the system," he told himself. So he decided not to report it. As he came to that decision, four more blips appeared. So now there were five possible missiles headed into town to get rip-roaring, rowdy, know...nuclear.

At this point, Stanislav neglected his duty. He declined to report the attack. It was still a small number, and the reliability of the system had been questioned before, so he took it upon himself to not worry the top brass with it. It's a goddamn good thing, too, because the top brass had an itchy trigger finger and an unhealthy dose of panic at that moment. If they had any reason to believe the U.S. was launching a nuclear strike, they would not hesitate to end life on Earth.

Luckily, Mr. Petrov was 100% correct. Sunlight was in perfect alignment with a few high altitude clouds and the satellites used to track potential missiles, which caused the false alarm. After a brief moment of panic on November 9th, when Able Archer 83 simulated a movement to Defcon 1 (meaning imminent nuclear strike), NATO forces packed it all in and went back to their regularly scheduled mild panic.

As for Petrov, he was removed to a less sensitive position. A lateral move, you'll be happy to know. He was neither punished nor rewarded for his actions, but his direct superiors praised him and said that his actions were "correct."
Walter White Goddamn Right

Many years later, after the story was made public, Petrov was much more justly rewarded. The Association of World Citizens gave him their World Citizen Award. Twice. And a documentary was made about him, aptly titled The Man Who Saved the World.

Because he did that.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Holy Shit, Sparta!

Modern day Thermopylae

300, the graphic novel and subsequent film, gives you a basic outline of the Battle of Thermopylae. Persia comes marching across the Hellespont across pontoon bridges with their slaves, lesbians, mythical rhinoceroses and androgynous emperor all clamoring for an end to this new freedom thing the Greeks seem so keen on.
Xerxes in 300

King Leonidas takes 300 volunteers to Thermopylae against the traitorous pacifists' orders and dies heroically while inspiring all of Greece to stand up for good old-fashioned American Greek Freedom and fight the terrorists Persians until they go back to their desert hovels in shame. All the while Queen Cersei Gorgo is ranting about how freedom ain't free and stabbing liberals traitors in public.

Neat story.

But it's irredeemable bullshit.
Gay Panic in 300
You tried your best.

Let's start with the traitors.

In ancient Sparta, there was no such thing as a pacifist. We're talking about a culture that practiced wide spread infanticide if their babies didn't look like soldiers. If you weren't a brutally oppressed slave, you were born and bred to be a weapon of mass destruction. So no, there was no pacifist traitor arguing against going to war in Sparta. There was an actual religious festival that legally prevented all of Sparta from taking up arms, and the rest of the city-state was fully prepared to join the 300 (and several thousand other Greeks) after it was done.

Oh, I'm sorry, did you miss the part about slavery and oppression? Because boy oh boy, Sparta was awfully fond of that. There was a whole class of people in Sparta called Helots. Their entire purpose was to grovel at the Spartans' feet and do all the work of feeding and maintaining the city-state so that their masters had time to live and breathe combat. It's important to remember that there's more to freedom than "some people can vote."

But what about the villains?! The Persians! The terrible oriental threat to what we somehow justify calling "freedom," even though the most Democratic ones were the Athenians, derisively (and very ironically) referred to as "boy lovers" by Leonidas in 300 -- and even they weren't totally on board with letting the hoi polloi have a meaningful voice.

Well, the Persians...didn't really practice slavery. Not in the same way or nearly on the same scale as the Spartans. When they did, it's thought that their slaves were usually prisoners of war temporarily being used for labor, and they were treated like the Geneva Convention was a thing (which, you'll note, it wasn't).
Xerxes the Great
A bit weather-worn, but he looks like a nice enough fella.

So where did Frank Miller get the idea that the Greco-Persian Wars were a battle between Freedom and Evil? Take a wild guess. If you guessed, "Western historians wear our-ancestors-were-the-shit tinted glasses and Frank Miller is an off-the-deep-end Neo-Con," congratulations! You're capable of critical thought. Western Civilization has always been seen as a descendent of Greek Civilization, so of course our historians have traditionally considered them the good guys. And Frank Miller called the Occupy Wall Street movement "nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists," so you can make a pretty fair assumption about his political leanings.
George W. Bush saying Mission Accomplished
Please tell me you saw the parallels.

Making the Spartans into freedom fighters, though? That's just being lazy with your research.

Oh, hey, remember how I said it was ironic that Leonidas called Athens a city of "boy lovers?" You should, it was just about two paragraphs ago. Well, Sparta was one of the first Greek city-states to institutionalize Pederasty. Pederasty being a formal erotic relationship between a grown man and an adolescent boy. Yeah. Institutionalized pedophilia. That's what we're cheering for in 300.

I'll give Sparta one thing: they were the masters of wartime wit (and wartime in general, but bear with me here). Most of the badass one-liners in 300 come straight out of the history books, but my personal favorite happened much later. Alexander the Great's father, Philip II of Macedon, decided he wanted to round up the whole of Greece under his banner. He sent the following message to Sparta:

"You are advised to surrender immediately, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city."

Sparta's reply was typically laconic:

300 Last Stand
That's his "If" face.

Phillip left them the hell alone. His son, Alexander the Great, arguably the greatest conqueror the world has ever known?

Also left them alone. Apparently a single word was more than enough.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Holy Shit, Brood Parasites!

Brown-headed Cowbird

I was out in my backyard the other day when I heard an unfamiliar birdsong. Not a particularly rare one, but one I hadn't heard in my backyard before. It was this li'l fella:

I had to know what it was. Luckily, I got a good glimpse of him, and if you google "black bird with a brown head" he's the first three hundred results. Meet the conveniently named Brown-headed Cowbird, one of the biggest assholes of the avian world.

You see, the Brown-headed Cowbird is what ornithologists refer to as a brood parasite. Brood parasites are a bunch of lazy sons of bitches who can't be bothered to raise their own children. Instead, they lay their eggs in other species' nests. Like Phoebes.

Eastern Phoebe
She's lost a lot of weight since Friends

Imagine you're a pleasant little Eastern Phoebe, off hunting some insects or extra insulation for your freshly laid eggs. When you come back to your nest, you see that some nefarious Cowbird has surreptitiously placed her blatantly non-Phoebe egg in your very much Phoebe nest.
Phoebe nest with Cowbird egg
It's like they're not even trying to be subtle. (Spoiler Alert: They aren't)

You decide that enough is enough. You'll tolerate sharing the bird feeder with other species, but this is just insufferable. You nudge the damn thing over the edge of the nest and let it fall.

You've just made a terrible mistake. That's the avian equivalent of trying to abduct Michael Coreleone's children, and I mean that as literally as you can possibly mean a comparison between a Pacino character and a mid-sized bird.

What Cowbirds do in response is gleefully referred to as "mafia behavior." If a bird disposes of their free-as-in-kittens-not-as-in-beer eggs, the Cowbird will return to the nest and wreck the everloving shit out of it in furious vengeance.
Brown-headed Cowbird Courtship
It's a courtship dance, but I choose to think of it as him making an offer she can't refuse.
This behavior has been around for so long that smaller birds have adapted to it. Most of the time, if a Phoebe sees a suspicious egg in its nest, it'll gulp heavily and go about its business, raising the new chick as its own. Even though that often means the Phoebe's own offspring will be casually murdered by the much bigger and more demanding mafia bird baby.

All this comes down to one delightfully terrifying thought: Birds run protection rackets.

Holy shit.