Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Holy Shit, Smokey Bear!

Original Smokey Bear Poster

"Only you can prevent forest fires!"

You're familiar with that phrase, right? Of course you are. In fact, 95% of adults in the United States recognize that phrase and know where it comes from. It's Smokey Bear's trademark rallying cry.

Smokey Bear was created in 1944 by the U.S. Forest Service to cut back on forest fires while most able-bodied potential firefighters were otherwise occupied. A few years earlier, Japan had actually staged an air raid in Oregon in order to make a wildfire happen. Fortunately, the pilots goofed up, dropped their incendiary bombs from the wrong altitude, and made it pretty easy for the local rangers to keep the situation under control.

It sure as hell got the country worried, though. First of all, Japan pulled off the first ever air raid on the continental United States. I mean...shit, right?

Wild forest fire
Not what you'd call an ideal situation

Secondly, the fire issue was brought to the forefront. Since there wasn't enough manpower to fight a full-blown wildfire, something had to be done to prevent them. Someone had to step up and make sure that the potential catastrophe of an unopposed wall of hellfire would never come to pass. Who do you suppose that someone was?

Only you
I'll give you two guesses.

Yeah. You. But Smokey Bear was the one to bring the message.

Named after "Smokey" Joe Martin, a New York City firefighter who suffered severe burns and blindness while rescuing fire victims, Smokey Bear became the face of fire safety in the wilderness. His legacy is one of the most successful (if ever so slightly misguided) PR campaigns in American history.

It probably helped that a real bear was given the name "Smokey" after being rescued from a tree during a wildfire. He was only a cub at the time, and he suffered severe burns to his wittle pawsies, which made the nation coo in solemn empathy. After his rescue, he was moved to the National Zoo, where he lived out his remaining 26 years in peace and comfort.

The real Smokey Bear
They even gave him a honey tree, and they left out the bees!

Are you wondering about that "misguided" parenthetical a few paragraphs back? Don't worry, I'm getting to that.

The thing about forest fires is that they've been happening since long before human beings existed. Conditions get dry sometimes, and lightning causes sparks, and those things together can result in quite the conflagration. Some forests have adapted to fire so thoroughly that their trees can't reproduce without it. Closed-cone pine forests require intense heat for their cones to open and release seeds.

Bishop pine cones
Playing hard to get, eh?

Brush fires in other forests serve the important and obvious purpose of clearing out the brush. Brush is basically kindling. With small and regular brush fires, the kindling never bunches up to the dangerous levels necessary for catastrophic wildfires.

With that it mind, there's a bit of a conundrum with a famous anthropomorphic bear telling everyone to prevent forest fire, seemingly at all costs and with no exceptions. His message worked so well, in fact, that some forests have gone without fire for far too long. Local governments, made up of people who took Smokey's word as gospel, prevented the kind of fires that their forests desperately needed. That's part of the reason there are so many disastrous fires in the West in recent years.

Nowadays we have controlled burns to try to keep that shit from getting out of hand, and Smokey has lightened up a bit as a result. Instead of asking us to prevent all forest fires, he now specifies wildfires as the ones we want to avoid. And we do it, too. We prevent human-caused wildfires. We have fire safety drilled into our heads because a cute little bear told us to.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Holy Shit, the Green Revolution!


When you think of a revolution, your mind will probably mosey its way into a battlefield, full of glory, gore, and lives laid down willingly for the righteous cause. This is not that kind of revolution. In fact, the Green Revolution was the exact opposite. It was centered not around death, but life.

The Green Revolution is most notable, for preventing hundreds of millions of deaths by starvation. It all started in the mid-1940s with an agronomist named Norman Borlaug. While many young American men were overseas causing brown stains in the pants of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese high command, Borlaug was receiving a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology and Genetics. When he finished, he took a research position in Mexico and started tinkering with wheat genes.

Norman Borlaug
That's his tinkering face.

After a few years, Borlaug had developed a new and dwarfish type of wheat. It was short and resistant to many diseases, so it ended up being a boon to Mexican agriculture. Seeing how well it was working, he figured, "What the hell? Let's keep this going."

That was one of the most important "What the hell"s in human history, made no less important by the fact that I just put the words in his mouth and he probably never said it like that. According to Malthusian population projections, the world - and India in particular - was due for a massive starvation epidemic around the 1980s.

Crowds in India
Because there's a friggin' lot of people there

Norman Borlaug came along with his dwarf wheat (and later dwarf rice), and suddenly there was Everywhere. The problem in India was that rice has a hard time growing high up on hills, because it has a tendency to blow over and break. The reduced height of Borlaug's crops, coupled with the resistance to blight, meant that new acreage could be opened up to farmland. Lots of it.

And open up it did. Between 1950 and 1984, the duration of the Green Revolution, world grain production exploded by over 250%. Instead of a catastrophic population collapse, the world's population grew by four billion. Four billion more people were born than died in a time that was supposed to be marked by fear, famine, and death.

Wheat yield growth over 50 years
Suck it, hunger.

You can argue that the Green Revolution only delayed the inevitable, perhaps even increasing the already horrific burden that the unsustainable human population places on the Earth, and you'd probably have a pretty good point. But it's hard to look at a man who won a Nobel Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for pretty much single-handedly saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation as anything but a goddamn hero.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Holy Shit, Moon Landings!

Let me just get this out of the way right off the bat: we put human beings into a small capsule attached to several enormous machines that create aimed and sustained explosions which carried them off of the goddamn planet all the way to the goddamn moon, both of which are in constant motion. They landed and walked on the surface of the moon, then came back home and survived re-entry. We did this six times, and for some reason we haven't even really tried to do it again in over 40 years.

The moon.
Look at her face. She misses us.

Holy shit.

There is no part of the concept of people walking the surface of the moon that is not profoundly incredible. Literally incredible to a lot of people. Otherwise we wouldn't have the conspiracy theories about it being a hoax. Which are just plain wrong.

Apollo 11, the first manned spacecraft to bring human beings to the moon, had less computing power than a modern graphing calculator. It traveled through 238,900 miles of pure nothing to deposit people onto the lunar surface. Imagine what we could do with the power we have today?

An iPod
Astronauts could pipe in some tunes!

And have you paid attention to rockets? Do you know what they are? They're pretty much the same thing as missiles. NASA managed to point one of those things at a moving target (albeit a big and predictable one) with enough accuracy and controlled chaos that they could not only fling astronauts to the moon, but do it safely.

Damn it.
Don't make a fart joke, don't make a fart joke, don't make a fart joke...

Neil Armstrong stepped out of the landing module and he was, by most definitions, an alien. Then he flubbed his line (no really, it was supposed to be "one small step for a man," which makes more sense), planted a flag too close to the landing site, picked up some rocks, and went back to Earth. And they made it. Safely. After knocking over the flag during takeoff. Don't worry, even the ones that weren't knocked over have been bleached white by the untempered radiation of the sun by now.

The real kicker for me, though, is the fact that the United States, the only country to have ever put human beings onto the surface of another celestial body, did so six times within a three year period, then never did it again. The entire time we were at it, the public, half awed by the monumental accomplishment they were witnessing, were clamoring about "more important problems back home." You hear the same argument today.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
How is this not worthy of attention?

To which I like to say, "Are you fucking kidding me? Look at that shit. Look at what we did, America. Jesus. The moon. We went there." Saying that we shouldn't try exploring space until we've solved all of the problems on Earth is like saying you shouldn't try to get a job until you've figured out how to stop needing to eat. It's pure bullshit.

And seriously, look at that. It's a man on the moon.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Holy Shit, Tommy Westphall!

Tommy Westphall

What if I told you that almost all of your favorite television shows and most of your least favorite ones take place in the mind of an autistic teenager? I suspect you'd call bullshit and tell me that's just lazy writing. It sort of is, which the "in his head all along" plot twist isn't used very often anymore.

But when St. Elsewhere ended its six year run in 1988, it was groundbreaking. The whole series, as it turned out, was a day dream of Tommy Westphall, the autistic son of one of the main characters. Instead of everything taking place in a hospital, we find out that it was actually in a construction worker's apartment, in his son's mysterious imagination.

Here's where it gets weird. Weirder.

Fourteen years after the series ended, a writer named Dwayne McDuffie publicly wondered what the implications of that bizarro ending where for the greater TV universe. Any show worth its salt, after all, has a crossover with another show worth a comparable amount of salt.

The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones
Ever think about the troubling socioeconomic implications of this?

St. Elsewhere had one of these with Homicide: Life on the Street. Two doctors from the former appeared in episodes of the latter. McDuffie's theory holds that this crossover means both shows are figments of Tommy Westphall's imagination. Do you know what other shows had crossovers with Homicide?

Lots of them.

Law & Order
Like this one.

Homicide turns out to be something of a nexus for little Tommy's mind. Through it, literally hundreds of other television shows are connected in degrees that would make Kevin Bacon blush. According to one of the St. Elsewhere writers, "Someone did the math once... and something like 90 percent of all television took place in Tommy Westphall's mind. God love him."

Here's my personal favorite: through Homicide, Tommy imagined The X-Files, which leads to Veronica Mars, then Lost, Diagnosis: Murder, Mission: Impossible, The Jeffersons, The Fresh Prince of Bel goddamn Air, Diff'rent Strokes, the legendarily bad Hello, Larry, then Hi Honey, I'm Home, The Brady Bunch (!!!), Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Hogan's Heroes, and finally....

The Bat Symbol
Booya. Or bat-ya. Whatever.

Fucking BATMAN.

That's right. Batman. The Dark Knight was invented by an autistic kid staring at a snow globe.

Holy Shit.