Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Holy Shit, The Great Mississippi Flood!

1927 Flood in New Iberia

Remember when Katrina hit New Orleans, and everyone talked about how it was the biggest natural, social, economic, and political disaster to ever be caused by the weather?

Well, it wasn't.

George Bush does not care about black people.
It didn't even end this guy's career.

That dubious honor belongs to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

The Great Flood actually had its origins in 1926, when an unusually high volume of summer rain started testing the capacity of levees all along the Mississippi. By September, tributaries in Iowa and Kansas were ready to burst from their cages. By Christmas, the water level of the tributary Cumberland River had already reached 56.2 feet in Nashville, a record that still hasn't been topped.

2010 Nashville Flood
Not even during this monstrosity

Finally, in the Spring of 1927, the levees started to break in earnest. 27,000 square miles of land along the river was devastated by the ensuing floods. That's almost the size of South Carolina. The flood hit areas of Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.

The damage clocked in at over $400 million, and 246 people lost their lives. In some areas, the flooding carried the force and twice the water volume of Niagara Falls. At its widest extent, the Mississippi grew to a staggering 60 miles, which is more than twice the size of the freaking Amazon at its greatest extent. During the wet season.

1927 Mississippi Flood map
Take a close look at the map. It's big.

Politically speaking, the hardest hit area was New Orleans. State officials in Louisiana made some difficult and terrible decisions to protect the city. Decisions that involved literally blowing up nearby levees and intentionally flooding the Parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Then it got even messier.

Dynamiting the Caernarvon Levee

The people of St. Bernard and Plaquemines were understandably a little miffed about having their homes destroyed by elected officials. That annoyance would later turn to downright anger when it turned out that the effort was entirely unnecessary anyway, and New Orleans had already been spared. Natural breaches in other levees relieved pressure on the levees around New Orleans, so their involuntary sacrifice was in vain.

Then it gets even messier.

At the time, most citizens of St. Bernard and Plaquemines were focusing on the whole "not drowning" part of daily life rather than the "whose fault is this" part. The government was happy to help with that, so long as you were white. If you were black, you had to wait your turn. Then you had to spend some time in a refugee camp with the kind of hospitality you would expect from House Frey.

Walder Frey

Then you would never, ever receive a dime of promised federal aid. And you'd be forced at gunpoint to rebuild levees. For some reason, "forced to work" and "not receiving a dime" sounds familiar in this context.

It was kind of shitty.

So the Republican Party sprang into action. They were in power at the time, and then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover had his eye on the White House for 1928. By promising a major effort for reform and the introduction of civil rights legislation, he was able to keep the story somewhat sub rosa. After he was elected, he weaseled his way out of it and started the grand tradition of the Republican Party losing the black vote -- a tradition which continues to this day.

The aftermath of the flood in the black community is also considered one of the main catalysts for the Great Migration, which eventually saw over 6 million black people pack up their shit and get the hell out of Dixie. It was one of the biggest internal demographic shifts in U.S. History, and it was more or less caused by the rain.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Holy Shit, the Cadaver Synod!

Pope Formosus

Pope Stephen VI had a problem. Well, his sponsors had a problem. Stephen's predecessor (not his immediate predecessor, who had a William Henry Harrison-like truncated reign) was both fairly popular and not a huge fan of the current Holy Roman Emperor. Pope Formosus, in his time, actually invited rivals of the Emperor to invade Italy and seize Rome for themselves.

As you might imagine, this made the folks in charge (House Spoleto) a little bit unhappy. Having reaffirmed their claim on Rome by giving up any claim to the rest of Italy, they were finally in a position where they could get back at Formosus. Unfortunately for them, he had died in 896, and it was 897. They wanted to hold a trial and strip him of his title, but he was already dead. What were the Spoletos to do?

If you answered, "Dig up the old Pope's remains, dress him up in his old vestments, and put him on trial anyway," congratulations! You're just as batshit insane as old Pope Steve and company, who did exactly that.
The Cadaver Synod
Clint Eastwood later performed a misunderstood stage adaptation of the event at the Republican National Convention.

It's hard not to think that the whole ordeal happened just to give me the surreal pleasure of writing these words: Pope Stephen dug up Pope Formosus' body and had it placed on the witness chair. He asked the corpse such leading questions as, "When you were bishop of Porto, why did you usurp the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition?" A deacon loyal to the (living) Pope provided the departed Pope's answers, which were presumably something like, "Probably because I'm such a dick."

The ghost of Formosus was found guilty of perjury, moving his bishopric office (which was super bad in canon law), and holding a bishopric before being ordained. His body was ceremoniously stripped of vestments, three fingers of his right hand were removed (the ones used for blessing), and all acts and ordinations he performed were declared null and void. He was then buried in a graveyard for foreigners. Stephen's faction wasn't satisfied with that, so they dug him back up a short while later and haphazardly tossed him into the Tiber River.
Tiber River
Which they presumably then charged with murder.

Unluckily for Stephen, people in the late 9th Century weren't actually all that stupid. They saw the farcical trial for what it was: petty papal politics. They also saw it as horrifically disrespectful of the dead. Not just any dead, either. The dead Pope. God's literal voice on Earth, according to Catholic doctrine. Treating any body with callous disrespect would have been bad. Treating a pope's body led directly to uprising.

Rumors abounded that the body of Formosus washed up on the shores of the Tiber and began performing miracles. Despite having been dead for some time, the Cadaver Synod made him a martyr. A few months later, an uprising led to Pope Stephen VI being deposed, imprisoned, and later strangled to death in jail. Further trials featuring dead bodies were banned in what I hope was called the "Oh My God, I Can't Believe We Have to Specify This" Edict.
Sinéad O'Connor on SNL
"It's Like Having to Specify That You Shouldn't Rape Altar Boys."

Formosus was post-posthumously acquitted and reburied at St. Peter's Basilica, and the results of the trial were declared dumb as hell and thus void. In 904, Pope Sergius III, who served as a judge at the Synod, more or less said "Nuh uh." While he didn't bother digging up the corpse again, he declared the original trial's result to be legitimate, requiring all the clergy ordained by Formosus to go through the process again.

That was pretty much the end of it. A bit of a compromise. A tit for tat, with the tit being "Everyone has to say I was right all along" and the tat being "I won't subject a corpse to another line of questioning."

Holy shit.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Holy Shit, Rommel!

Erwin Rommel

If I asked you to pick a group of people that you could safely say were the worst people of all time, you would probably give me a funny look and start feeling vaguely uncomfortable. You know, the way you feel in front of your grandma just before you tell your friends you're sorry and she's from a different time. Eventually, after all the confusion was cleared up, we'd settle on the goddamn Nazis. Because fuck those guys, right?

At this point, I'd inject a little more awkwardness into the situation by telling you that one of the most virtuous heroes of World War II was, in fact, a high-ranking Nazi officer.

Erwin Rommel was a Field Marshal and commander of the Afrika Korps, Nazi Germany's colonial occupation of the rest of Europe's colonial occupations of North Africa. Despite belonging to the most comically (and tragically) evil political group of the 21st Century, the Afrika Korps is distinguished by the fact that they were the only division of the Nazi military to not be accused of war crimes.

Rommel and his Staff in North Africa
Way to not be evil, guys. Seriously, well done.

That was pretty much Rommel's doing. In addition to being acknowledged by both Axis and Allied leaders as one of the most brilliant strategic minds of the war, Rommel's humanitarianism in the face of brutal, horrific conflict and genocide is legendary. During the capture of France, Rommel received orders directly from goddamn Hitler to deport the Jewish population of the country and execute all Jewish prisoners, and Rommel just straight up ignored him.

If you paid any attention whatsoever in history class, you know that most people couldn't get away with ignoring the Führer. What's more, he wrote letters to high command protesting the treatment of Jews in the Third Reich. You know, the same Reich that gave the whole "Holocaust" thing the green light. He also wrote letters protesting atrocities committed by the German Army, even seeking permission to punish the 2nd SS Panzer division for massacring a French town. Hitler told him it was none of his business, and historians tend to believe Rommel was lucky his head was still attached after that letter reached Berlin. Hitler wasn't exactly known for being reasonable.

Bodies at Bergen Belsen
Not pictured: Reason.

He didn't really change his tone. When he was ordered to beef up the security of the Atlantic Wall, he did so using French labor. That was normal, except the part where he absolutely insisted that the workers get paid.

Rommel was most well known for his steadfast (though ultimately doomed) defense of North Africa, for which he earned the nickname "Desert Fox." In addition to personally leading the charge in the hottest (as in violence, not temperature) parts of the battlefield and receiving multiple wounds as a result, he established his relationship in North Africa as one of the most anachronistically chivalrous military leaders in the world.
Rommel getting his car unstuck
He was also handy to have around in case of a flat

At one point, he and his staff found themselves suddenly deep behind enemy lines. They came upon a New Zealand Army field hospital, where any rational person would stay out of sight until they could get the hell out of dodge. Instead, he approached the hospital and made light conversation, asking how the soldiers and doctors were faring.

Caught off guard by the surreal nature of the situation, the British and Kiwis told Rommel that things were okay, they guessed, but they could sure use some bandages and medicine. Rommel said he'd see what he could do and drove off unmolested. A few days later, he came back with medical supplies and just gave them away.

Rommel grinning
Because otherwise they'd just go to Nazis. Like him.

Toward the end of his defensive campaign in Africa, Rommel started noticing some disturbing trends in the communications he shared with Hitler. As it turned out, Hitler didn't assign all that much value on human life, so whenever Rommel would suggest a course of action that favored small losses over tactical gains, he would be rebuffed. The relationship between the two would sour pretty severely when Hitler ordered him to hold his ground on numerous occasions in utterly hopeless battles, causing a tremendous loss of life just to stem the inevitable tide for a few extra hours.

Ultimately, Rommel's loss of respect for history's favorite villain would be his undoing. He got involved in a conspiracy that planned to make a very strong case for Hitler's removal. The planned argument was, "We just blew Hitler up with a briefcase bomb, so he's probably not capable of leading this country anymore. Also, we already took control of the military anyway. QED." The subconscious fidgeting of the officer sitting next to Hitler foiled the plot. He kicked the briefcase under the table, which deflected the blast just enough to avoid killing the Führer.

Hitler's near explosion experience
Personally, I blame Tom Cruise

In the aftermath, almost 5,000 people were killed by the Gestapo for taking part in the failed coup. Not Rommel, though. Rommel was universally praised as a hero by the German people, to such a great extent that Hitler feared they might rise up in support of the conspiracy just because he was involved. Instead of outing him and executing him, Hitler gave Rommel the option to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule in exchange for a guarantee that his family would remain unharmed. Rommel agreed, then Hitler gave him an official state funeral, claiming that he died of old war wounds.

Rommel's funeral
Making someone praise you right after you try to blow them up is really a form of winning.

During the war, Winston Churchill called Erwin Rommel a "daring and skillful opponent." The British Parliament very nearly censured him for praising the enemy, but after the war it became clear that Erwin Rommel was a man well worth praising. Despite being a high ranking Nazi, he was one of the most effective advocates for human rights throughout the war.

Holy shit.

Edit: The guy was still a Nazi. Keep that in mind.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Holy Shit, Pluto!

Artist's conception of Pluto

Sit down. Look at me. Are you looking? Okay, now listen closely. I know it hurts, I know it betrays the memory of your favorite third grade acrostic, and I know you don't want to hear it, but Pluto is not a planet. It never was. The mistake was calling it a planet in the first place.

It's nothing personal. It's not like we like Pluto any less for being a dwarf planet. Some of my best friends are dwarf planets! It's just that the evidence is all there in support of Pluto's demotion, and the only compelling argument to the contrary is basically just nostalgia.

American Mullet
And what has nostalgia brought us?

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, a 23-year-old astronomer from Kansas. Given his youth, he was assigned the arduous task of taking pictures of the sky every two weeks and comparing the two to see if anything had moved. Shortly after he began his work, something moved, and that something was Pluto.
Clyde Tombaugh
Ladies love the 'scope

Initially, astronomers thought that Pluto was around the size of Earth. Since that time, estimates have been repeatedly revised downwards. The most recent evidence puts the size at about .6% of Earth. That's "zero point six percent," not "six percent." It's really damn small, is what I'm getting at. It's small enough that its satellites have a sufficient gravitational pull to make Pluto sort of revolve around itself.

Pluto revolving around itself
Pluto...wat are you doing?

Don't worry, though, I'm not just picking on the little guy. That's not the only reason Pluto was begging for the boot. After all, if I learned anything from Star Wars it's that size matters not. Orbit does, though, and Pluto's orbit...well...

Pluto's weird-ass orbit
Go home, Pluto, you're drunk

Yeah. Pluto's not really being a team player in that regard. It's orbit has more in common with a comet than a planet. In fact, it even weaves its way in and out of Neptune's orbit at different times. Planets don't get all up in one another's grill like that. That's Planetary Etiquette 101. You orbit like a planet and you own the neighborhood. Pluto does neither.

Pluto getting all up in Neptune's business

What really did Pluto in was the fact that we found other objects like it in the Kuiper Belt. The final nail in the coffin was the discovery of Eris. Until that point, the tentative agreement among astronomers was that as long as all those Kuiper Belt objects were smaller than Pluto, we'll keep telling ourselves that it's a planet. Then Eris came along, and it had more mass. By 27%, too, so it's not even close.

If that's not enough to sway you, let me ask you this: Are you upset that Ceres is not a planet? How about Pallas? Juno? Vesta? Are you willing to fight for their inclusion in the planet club? Because they were demoted, too. When they were first discovered, all four of them were considered planets. Then astronomers realized that they were all on the same orbit, and they shared it with a bunch of debris. So they were demoted, and we started calling them asteroids (although some asteroids have actually been promoted to dwarf planet status now).

Inner Solar System
You can sort of see why we had to be a bit more specific with the "planet" title here.

There are basically two ways of taking this information in. The first is to rage against the astronomers. You grew up thinking Pluto was a planet, so a planet it is and that's that. There's no better way to label that reaction than to call it anti-science. The point of any scientific pursuit is to be willing to challenge previous discoveries. To deny new discoveries because they conflict with your feelings is to deny critical thinking.

The other way to look at it (while still maintaining your love for old Pluto) is to realize that Pluto wasn't the last discovered planet, but the first acknowledged dwarf planet. Being the first, Pluto gets a whole range of benefits, not least of which is the fact that a whole class of dwarf planets are now named plutoids. This isn't the story of Harry Pluto being bullied and shunned by the muggle astronomers, this is Harry Pluto finding his Hogwarts.
Harry Pluto
And yes, I did go there

Don't cry for Pluto. Give it a pat on the back and a congratulations. While you're at it, keep your eyes peeled. Next summer, for the first time, we'll have actual pictures of Pluto. The New Horizons robotic spacecraft is scheduled to get there sometime in July.

Before you dismiss this whole thing as a silly and pointless argument, give it some real thought. How we categorize the universe will inform how well we understand it. If we get it wrong just because we're used to the wrong answer, we'll never understand the way the universe works, and it'll be our own fault. Denying the recategorization of Pluto is denying critical thinking. It's the same frame of mind that gets people to think vaccines cause autism, which leads to children dying of preventable diseases.

This stuff matters.

Holy shit.