Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Holy Shit, Rubber Duckies!

Rubber Ducky

I'm just going to come right out and say it: rubber duckies made one of the most important contributions in history to the study of ocean currents. Yes. Those rubber duckies. The little yellow ones that squeaked at you in the bathtub back in the days when running around the neighborhood in a diaper didn't get your name entered into any ominous registries.

US Department of Justice
No, I said I wanted to embrace my inner child!

Their celebrated contribution to oceanography began on January 10th, 1992, when a storm near the International Date Line in the southern Pacific Ocean caused several containers to unexpectedly part with the cargo ship carrying them. One of them belonged to The First Years, Inc., a toy company that manufactures the Friendly Floatees brand of rubber duckies.

In fact, that very container carried 28,000 floating toys, chief among which was the yellow rubber ducky. The container somehow opened, the cardboard boxes disintegrated in the salt water, and the 28,000 toys began an arduous journey all over the world.
Curtis Ebbesmeyer
Ha ha, Science!

That's where Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham come in. Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham are oceanographers, and in the early 1990s they were hard at work mapping out ocean currents. I don't know if you've ever tried mapping invisible movements under a cavernous body of water that covers 71% of the planet, but I imagine it's about as easy as painting an exact replica of the Sistine Chapel while wearing a blindfold and having never seen the original.
Sistine Chapel
Except bigger.

When Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham, with their comically complicated surnames, caught wind of the rubber ducky story, they sprang into action. If, by "action," you mean "they waited until someone mentioned finding a random rubber ducky on a beach somewhere." That very thing happened about ten months after the incident in Alaska.

For decades now, the two scientists have been working closely with beach-combing communities (which, apparently, is a thing) to find out where in the world these rubber duckies are going. They use the information to map out the incredibly diverse natural highway of the world's oceans. As recently as 2007, they've been turning up in places as far-flung from the original incident as Chile, New England, and even Western Europe.
Map of the Great Rubber Ducky Migration
Can we all agree that the ocean's currents should be called The Ducky Lines?

If you're ever walking on the beach and happen to come upon a sun-bleached rubber ducky or beaver, a blue turtle, or a green frog, chances are you're looking at something that traveled around the world and became one the most important toys in the history of climate science.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Holy Shit, the Guadalajara Explosions!

Guadalajara Explosions of 1992

On April 18, 1992, residents of the Analco district in Guadalajara, Mexico started complaining to their local government that the streets smelled funny. The next day, plumes of white smoke were spotted coming out of storm drains and sewers, and the smell got worse. Some people were understandably confused when they turned on their faucets and were greeted not with the water of life, but with gasoline.

This was a bad thing.

Jar of Gasoline
Albeit convenient if you didn't feel like driving out of your way, I guess.

City workers were dispatched to investigate, and they reported dangerous levels of gas fumes in the sewers. Probably not enough to cause any damage, they insisted. So the mayor advised everyone to go about their business while the city worked out a solution to the smell and the very obviously tainted water supply. Because that's no big deal, right? What's the worse that could happen?

If you answered, "The whole goddamn city could blow the hell up," congratulations! You understand basic safety rules concerning gasoline. The City of Guadalajara, sadly, did not. No one was evacuated before the gas lines below the Analco district violently exploded. 11 times.

Guadalajara street after explosions
One would have sufficed, I'm sure.

The explosions utterly destroyed five miles of streets and up to a billion dollars' worth of property. That's on top of the 252 deaths, 500 injuries, and 15,000 people rendered homeless by the damage.

So how did this happen? Aside from gross negligence in the face of increasingly worrisome signs of a gas leak, how did the damn leak get there in the first place? Well, if you've ever experienced a water leak in an older house with mixed metals in the plumbing, you may already know the reason.

The water pipes in Guadalajara were relatively new, and the city didn't want to spend too much money putting them in. They opted for zinc-coated iron for the material, not taking into account the fact that, in order to save money on excavation, the new pipes were being installed right next to steel gasoline pipes. When you stick those two metals together, science happens!

Corroded Pipe
The kind of science you don't want on your water pipes or (especially) gas pipes.

Specifically, a chemical reaction that results in corrosion which, when water is added to mix, leads to even more corrosion. I don't think I need to tell you (especially since you already know the result) why all this corrosion right next to a gas pipe is bad news bears.

The moral of the story here is that plumbing is complicated, and can blow up not just your house, but an entire city district.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Holy Shit, Mister Rogers!

Fred Rogers

If you read this blog regularly, you may have noticed my propensity to point out a hidden side of famous people and events that may forever change your perception of them. This entry is not an example of that. This entry is about Fred "Mister" Rogers, the kindest, gentlest, and most worthy person to have walked the Earth in recent (if not all of) history.

Mister Rogers was a teacher, a minister, a songwriter, an author, and most famously the host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, where he more or less single-handedly bestowed self-esteem upon millions of children over the show's 33-year run. He's the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Peabody Award, and honorary degrees from over 40 institutions. He did this all while remaining humble and down-to-earth, not because he made an effort but because he was always genuinely more interested in everyone else's stories.

But that's not even the impressive part.

Other people have earned honorary degrees and Peabodys and Medals of Freedom, and many of them maintained a healthy humility. What makes Fred Rogers unique is that as much as you dig, as far back into his history as you look, no matter how much you scrutinize, the man proved to be utterly incorrubtible. Every rumor to the contrary has proven to be categorically false.

Fred Rogers never served in the military and thus never racked up a large confirmed kill count. He  had no tattoos covering his arms - he simply liked wearing sweaters on television because his mother knitted them all for him. He was never accused or convicted of any crimes, and certainly not anything related to pedophilia. Even the famous image of him allegedly flipping off his audience was taken out of context. He was simply singing "Where is Thumbkin" with a group of kids.

Mister Rogers doing the Thumbkin song
I've got your Thumbkin right here.

You know what he did do, though? He saved public television. His testimony to a Senate committee on funding public television is widely regarded as the reason said committee decided to more than double PBS's share of the budget pie.

In case you think that was a fluke, The U.S. Supreme Court also cited his testimony on home video recording in their decision that ensured such things would always remain legal. So you have him to thank for your self-esteem, PBS, and your DVR.

It's Hilly's cat.'re welcome?

Outside of his political influence, he made a personal impact on just about everyone he ever met. That includes ivy-league educated gorillas. Well, at least one of them, but I'm not sure how many gorillas have gone to Stanford on a full ride scholarship. Koko the gorilla was a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and when he brought the show out to visit her she excitedly hugged him then started taking off his shoes like he did every day on the air.

Is that really so much to ask?
I can't really convey how happy this makes me in words

Gorillas weren't the only ones starstruck by his presence. When his car was stolen and he filed a police report, the story made headlines and within 48 hours, he found it returned to exactly the spot he had left it. In the dashboard was an apology note saying the thieves would never have taken the car if they'd known it belonged to him.

Finally (and maybe a bit less objectively), one of the most impressive ways Fred Rogers lived his life was how he handled his faith. He was a Presbyterian minister and was extraordinarily devout. He lived his life the way he believed he was meant to. An unfortunate side effect often found in that type of life is an intolerance for anyone who doesn't do likewise.

To this vice, as to all others, Mr. Rogers was immune. Fundamentalist ministers asked him to speak out against homosexuality, and his response was to say to both the ministers with rustled jimmies and the people who were the subjects of their ire, "God loves you just the way you are."

Fred Rogers was a man of enormous moral conviction, strength, and fathomless cultural power, and he used all of it not for personal gain, but to tell the world that no matter who they were, no matter what they've been through, no matter what they've done with their lives, someone out there loved them.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Holy Shit, Phossy Jaw!

Phossy Jaw

Did you know that lighters were invented before matches?

It's true! It makes sense when you think about it. Lighters are really no more than an advanced form of flint and tinder with a bit of flammable liquid added to the mix. Matches, on the other hand, are a fairly novel idea. They use a phosphorous coating and frictional heat to create a reaction that produces fire. Pretty neat, huh?

Nowadays, matches are usually tipped with either phosphorus sesquisulfide or red phosphorous. Back in the 19th Century, they used something else. Something called White Phosphorous. Does that name sound familiar? Well, brace your stomach, because here's why:


White Phosphorous bombing
Oh, so it's like a bomb or...

Israeli WP attacks on Gaza
Oh, that does look pretty terrifying, but...

White Phosphorus burns

White Phosphorous is known for it's use as a smoke-producing and incendiary weapon. Meaning it burns shit like hellfire. And it has a nasty tendency to cling stubbornly to human flesh. It can catch just about anything on fire, and being anywhere near it when it burns is guaranteed to ruin your whole goddamn day. It is nasty, it is violent, and it is a clear message from the gods to run in the opposite direction whenever you see it.

Jesus. Okay, Here's a couple of pictures to take our minds off of that gruesome display above:

Happy thoughts.

Happy Thoughts!

Young Brown Poodle

That feels better. Okay, so back to matches. White Phosphorus, in addition to being a key ingredient in the hellfire of Satan's own arsenal, produces a nasty vapor that you really shouldn't breathe in over a long period of time. When you do, as people in matchmaking factories were wont to do in the latter half of the 19th Century, you develop a condition known as Phossy Jaw.

[I considered putting another picture here, but I decided that I've put you through enough gore this week.]

Phossy jaw is also known as "Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw," and is pretty much exactly what it says on the package. For their service in the factories, Victorian-era matchmakers were rewarded with their very own glow-in-the-dark jaw bones! Pretty cool, sure, but said jaw bones were also malformed, abscessed, and smelled very literally like death

Loyal employees were also granted unending anguish as their jaws slowly decomposed on their living faces. Finally, they were given the option of either paying a fee they usually couldn't afford to have a Victorian-era doctor (yikes) remove parts of their jaw (double yikes), or they just plain died of organ failure.

In 1888, a big group of matchgirls collectively bargained their way into saying, "Fuck this shit," and went on strike. For their trouble, they got some awareness. That's it. Nothing concrete, people just started to openly acknowledge the fact that they were willfully imposing a horrifying disease upon thousands of people because they wanted a stick that could light itself on fire.

A lit match
Which, admittedly, is a little bit neat.

Three years later, the Salvation Army, to their credit, became the first match company to use the slightly less efficient (but infinitely safer) red phosphorous in their matchmaking process, and they paid better wages to boot.

The next few decades saw various countries banning the use of white phosphorus in match production and, in the case of the United States, placing a punitive tax on it that made it impractical. An international ban was put in place by Berne Convention in 1906. 

In 1898, Albright and Wilson patented a method of safely producing phosphorus sesquisulfide for the manufacture of matches. They sold the patent to the Diamond Match Company, to whom President William Howard Taft personally wrote a public letter begging them, for the good of humanity, to release the patent. They did, and match production became relatively safe for workers from that point on.
Diamond Match Headline
No, really. That happened.

Next time you light a match, consider all the abscessed, necrotic, excruciatingly painful jaws that litter the history of that flammable little wooden stick you hold.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Holy Shit, Independence Day!

Fireworks at the Washington Monument

July 4th is the day when Americans come together and, according to The Simpsons, "Celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it." We celebrate it on the 4th of July because we apparently don't really know what independence means.

Is it the moment the treaty is signed that ends the Revolution in our favor?
Signing of the Treaty of Paris, 1783
You can almost smell their haughty reluctance as they sign away the colonies.

Certainly not! That's September 3rd, 1783. That's a good seven years after we claim our country was born, and as far as we're concerned, September 3rd this year is just another Tuesday

Of course, we all know that July 4th, 1776 was when America voted for Independence. That's the moment, right? That's when we decided that this whole Revolutionary War was for keepsies, and screw the British. Because before that, many of the founding fathers actually wanted representation rather than full independence.

Well, not quite. I mean, that's all true, except that the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence on July 2nd (which is the date John Adams wanted as Independence Day). Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the document that would officially announce the decision, and on July 4th, he presented one of several drafts to the Congress, who chose it for its florid prose and its proclamation that all men were created equal.
Then everyone signed it and had a beer and shot fireworks.

HA! Right. First of all, they didn't finish signing it until November. Second, remember that thing called slavery? That was still around in America back then, and some people were mighty uncomfortable about that "equality" bit in the draft. So why did they unanimously vote to adopt it?

Because it was fucking hot outside, and there were so many goddamned flies and mosquitoes that everyone wanted to get this freedom thing over with and go home. So after much bickering about who gets what kind of freedom, the less progressive delegates finally just gave up and saved their racism for the Articles of Confederation and Constitution, where they would find a way to both legally define human beings as sub-human and count them as population for the purposes of representation.
Slaves Waiting for Sale
Which was just...super uncool.

But still. There it was.

Thomas Jefferson
This is a big deal.

 "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." One of the most important written phrases in the history of language, and certainly one of the defining phrases of the past 250 years. It's been used as a rallying cry for social progress by everyone from freedom fighters to the civil rights and gay rights movements.

It's an immortal declaration, and at it's core it means that nothing, not even the majority rule of a democracy, can take away your inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It means that no form of government has the right to take those things away from you, and if they try, "it is [your] right, it is [your] duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for [your] future security."

And but for the heat and some flies, it may have ended up in an abandoned draft.

Holy shit.