Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Holy Shit, Gatsby!

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is the greatest work of one of the greatest authors in American history. If you haven't read it yet, you probably slacked off a lot in high school. Go read it now. I'll wait. This post will still be here when you're done.

Have you read it yet? Okay, good. Maybe you can help me out with this. I recently learned of a theory put forward by literary scholars that has proven unexpectedly resilient to scrutiny. Jay Gatsby, the theory goes, is a light-skinned black man who is passing for white.
Fry from Futurama
Yes. Serious.

Now, bear with me. I know that seems like a huge leap, but the progenitors of the theory have some pretty compelling evidence. First of all, it's clear that Gatsby is something of an outsider in New York's high society. This is usually chalked up to his being "new money," and therefore shunned by the blue-blooded aristocrats. That's perfectly reasonable, but there's more.

Gatsby's estate is on "more than 40 acres" of land. That's a curiously specific way to describe a non-specific measurement. Especially considering the "40 acres and a mule" concept after the civil war, which described what freed slaves generally felt was a suitable (and frankly generous) reparation for their decades of free labor. If the theory holds true, Fitzgerald is coyly alluding to the fact that Gatsby got what he deserved and then some.
Beacon Towers
That's one hell of a mule there, Jay.

It still feels like a stretch, doesn't it? Even after you realize that Gatsby is described as "tan-skinned." It's still a bit much. Even after you realize that Fitzgerald doesn't shy away from depicting racial tension in any way, so it's not like issues of race are nonexistent in the book. In fact, they always seem to be lurking in the subtext. But here's a passage that will give you something to think about:

"...a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry. 'Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge,' I thought; 'anything at all....' Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder."

Upon seeing three black people in a limo, the narrator thinks to himself that they are a sign of the times, just like Gatsby. There's a pretty strong suggestion here that when he says "anything can happen," he's talking about the success that a person of color can achieve. Why, on that thought, would he immediately think of Gatsby?

Because Gatsby represents the very same social upheaval.

I'd like to hear some more thoughts on this. It's been boggling my mind for a while now, and if anyone can find more evidence to prove (or disprove) the theory, I'm all ears. Because this is a very new idea that suddenly seems as plain as Nebraska now that I'm thinking about it.
Nebraska is Boring.
And Nebraska is pretty damn plain.

And it completely changes the way I see one of the most iconic characters of American literature.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Holy Shit, the Platypus!

Australia was an afterthought of creation, and was thus designed in an alcoholic frenzy.

It was really only a matter of time before I got around to this one. Platypodes (that's the Greek plural form. There is no correct plural form. Look it up.) are what happened when nature had a few extra animal parts lying around and was drunk. They have the bill of a duck (hence the colloquial name), the feet of an otter, the tail of a beaver, and the good sense to live in Australia, home of the weird-ass animals of the world. It's also one of the five species of mammal that lays eggs.

That's something that really shouldn't be possible. Egg-laying is traditionally one of the red flags that say "NOT MAMMAL" in large, imposing letters. However, since the Platypus and its cousins have hair, produce milk, and generally play ball with the rest of the criteria, scientists decided to give them a pass.
It's the only way to play.
Similar to how we sometimes allow this to be called a sport.

That's despite the Platypus flaunting its cloaca around the neighborhood. Where most mammals have various orifices for having a wee, a poo, or a baby, the Platypus streamlined the process into a single cloaca. I assume the main advantage of this technique is that it inspires a great deal of sympathy in other species for Platypus. "I'm not eating that thing," says the Rakali. "He's got it rough enough already with that cloaca business. No wonder they lay eggs."

At times, sympathy is not enough, and the Platypus is threatened. At other times, a human will spot a goofy specimen, and upon seeing its wittle beak and lovey-dovey eyes, will attempt to cuddle it. In both cases, the interlopers are in for one of the shittiest days of their lives. Because those cute little otter feet that Mr. Platypus boasts are good for both swimming and administering an excruciatingly painful venom.

Platypus Foot
Counter-intuitively, this should strike fear into your heart.

Platypus venom is known for two things: not killing you and making you wish it would. When a human is stung by the Platypus' spur, the area around the sting almost immediately swells, and the swelling rapidly spreads. Instead of wrecking shit in your body and causing pain as a result, Platypus venom goes straight to the pain receptors in your brain and manually flips your pain switch. Because it takes such a direct route, traditional opiate analgesics like morphine do literally nothing for you.
Menacing Platypus
And he stares at you mercilessly all the while.

After a few days, the pain fades away. By which I mean it is replaced by hypersensitivity to any other pain. As in, "The wound feels better but every time you stub your toe you'll be fairly convinced that it needs to be amputated." While there are no deaths on record from Platypus venom, it may be one of the meanest venoms that nature has ever produced.

The Platypus is weird. Weird as hell. So weird, in fact, that when sketches of it first reached Europe, it was almost universally dismissed as a hoax. When a pelt arrived in England, scientists were still skeptical. Some even demanded to examine the body so they could find the stitches they just knew were holding that goddamn beak in place. Eventually, they had to admit that such a thing could possibly exist.
Platypus Sketch
Truly, the Bigfoot of the Nineteenth Century. Except real.

And if you ever see one in the wild, then for god's sake, don't touch it. You will know the deepest depths of pain if it's in a foul mood.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Holy Shit, Emperor Norton!

Emperor Norton I
Joshua Abraham Norton was an English-born, South African-raised immigrant to the United States. He gained citizenship and took up residence in San Francisco, where he made a terrible decision to invest in a rice shipment with his inherited fortune. After the price of rice plummeted, he lost all his properties and declared bankruptcy.

Norton challenged the company with which he invested, claiming that they misled him about the quality of the rice. The California Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him, creating a deep-seated dissatisfaction within the fiery passion-pit of his belly. Like so many Facebook users today, Joshua Norton decided to express his displeasure with empty spectacles.

Lensless Glasses
Which are a thing, I guess.

At least we hope that was his idea, because it would be a little bit disturbing if he actually believed that he could legitimately declare himself "Emperor of these United States."

Like so many modern-day secessionist petitioners (and unlike the very real secessionist Confederacy that began two years later), Norton expressed his political dissent with a powerful act of almost whimsical ignorance. The strange part, though, is that it sort of caught on.

Norton went around to all the local newspapers in San Francisco to hand deliver a letter, which read:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity. 

—NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

The papers printed it, because why wouldn't you? No one had done anything so ridiculous before, and readers were eating that shit up.

Emperor Norton didn't just declare his reign and then let it go, either. He issued edicts ranging from abolishing both Congress and the Democratic and Republican parties to the criminalization of the colloquial San Francisco name, "Frisco." He even decided on a whim to add "Protector of Mexico" to his title.

"Miracles" by Insane Clown Posse
It was here. This is where you heard the word "Frisco." From ICP. I'm sorry.

It got to the point where, despite being destitute, Emperor Norton was treated like royalty. Literally. He had an entourage. People paid deference to him. And not just people: high-end restaurants set tables aside for him on permanent reserve. They put plaques on his table to commemorate his visits. Theaters could guarantee improved ticket sales simply by reserving a balcony seat for the Emperor. He issued currency, and local businesses honored it. I mean...what?

Here's what's really crazy: he wouldn't have made that bad of an emperor, all things considered. Some of his proclamations were incredibly visionary and insightful. There are factions to this day who want to rename the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to the Emperor Norton Bridge, because it was his idea first. The most they've accomplished so far is a plaque commemorating his role in the inception of the bridge.

Emperor Norton plaque
Pictured: An actual goddamn plaque on an actual goddamn bridge.

During a riot against Chinese immigrants, Norton stepped out into the street, blocking the rioters from their prey, and recited the Lord's Prayer over and over again until the rioters realized that murdering people because of their race is kind of uncool and decided to go home. Around that same time he demanded that the international community establish a League of Nations similar to the actual League of Nations that would be created about 30 years later. Part of that decree called for an end to all hostilities between religions. We still haven't nailed that one down yet.

In January of 1880, Emperor Joshua Norton I collapsed in the street and died before an ambulance could reach him. The next day, San Francisco was in mourning. Obituaries solemnly expressed their grief. Plans for his funeral were modest at best, but the city's populace stepped in and produced a lavish ceremony worthy of his title. It is estimated that about 30,000 people, about 13% of the population of San Francisco at the time, attended.

From the ashes of financial ruin and political outrage, Joshua Norton rose to the honorary status of United States Emperor. He is unique in American History for that. Others have imitated him, but never with anywhere near his success. He was penniless, almost a vagrant, and simultaneously, he was royalty.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Holy Shit, Hot Coffee!

When you read the words "frivolous lawsuit," there are two cases that will immediately leap to your mind. In both examples, you're probably wrong.

First, there's the one your cousin told you about, where the guy sued a homeowner for injuries sustained while attempting to rob his home. This one is easy. It's a damn lie, is all. No such case exists, and any similar ones were either dismissed out of hand or easily won by the defense.

The case your cousin was thinking about was actually a fictional one from the movie Liar, Liar, in which Jim Carrey's secretary relates the legend as though it were a fact to underscore the film's underlying thesis that lawyers are sometimes assholes.

Liar Liar
Who's the liar liar now, Greta?

The second is the one where a lady sued McDonald's for a bunch of money and won because she spilled hot coffee on herself and got burned. That one is true. You just haven't heard the full story.

The story you usually hear -- the one that begs us all to consider tort reform -- is that some lady tried to drive around town while holding hot coffee in her lap and, surprise, she got some superficial burns. Because of some ambulance chasing hack of a lawyer (the story continues), she got a huge payout based on the lack of warning labels, and that's why we need warning labels for obviously dangerous things.

Caution: Sharp Edges
When will the government learn?

The first and possibly most important bullshit stain on that story is the extent of the injuries. We aren't talking superficial burns that she whined about and wore extra bandages to milk in court. Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old plaintiff in the case, suffered severe, third-degree burns on 6 percent of her skin. She had lesser burns on 16% of her skin. Keep in mind that a third-degree burn less than one percent of your skin will send your ass straight to intensive care.

 If that's not enough, the most severe burns were on her knees, thighs, buttocks, and groin. If you named all the worst places on your body to get third-degree burns, a couple of those are bound to be in the top 5.

Kelso Burn
Number one, of course, is the ego.

 Liebeck spent 8 days in the hospital for skin grafts and follow-up care, during which she lost 20% of her body weight, ending up at a morbidly lean 83 pounds. After that, she spent two years receiving medical treatment related to the incident.

There is no justifiable description of this case that could suggest she was milking the injuries. They were honestly horrific, and you're lucky I'm in too good a mood to dig up the images of them.

Because it's cute.
Very, very lucky.

The second blow to the already fragile "frivolous lawsuit" characterization is the fact that Liebeck wasn't driving. She wasn't even in her own car. She was with her grandson, who had pulled over so she could put cream and sugar into her coffee. The car had no cup holders, which is how she ended up holding the cup in the worst possible spilling position.

Finally, the things that ultimately made McDonald's liable in the incident were the fact that the corporate policy on coffee was to keep it at a scorching 190 °F -- a temperature that will cause third-degree burns within 2 seconds of contact -- and the fact that the cup designs were flimsy and prone to lid malfunction. In fact, this was not the first burn-related lawsuit McDonald's had faced. They settled all the previous ones out of court.

Old McDonald's coffee cup
At least they encouraged a modicum of environmental consciousness.

The company's defense was that customers were expected to order coffee from the drive-thru and let it cool while they traveled, drinking it once they arrived at their destination. It would have been a compelling argument if their own research hadn't revealed that almost all drive-thru customers started drinking their coffee immediately after buying it. The fact that the company openly admitted that they didn't share the extent of the burn risk with their customers certainly didn't help. Nor did the fact that they had already turned down a settlement offer for $20,000 in medical costs.

So Stella Liebeck won. The jury slapped McDonald's with a multimillion dollar fine to cover both Liebeck's medical expenses and punitive damages. The judge lowered the payout, and McDonald's decided not to appeal when they were able to negotiate a settlement for an undisclosed sum less than $600,000.

There are examples of people abusing the legal system, but this wasn't one of them. Even if the case would have been struck down on appeal, it wasn't nearly as black-and-white as the legends make it out to be.

Also, most of the time people try to abuse the legal system for financial gain, their cases are dismissed before reaching a trial. And when they're not, they're usually shot down in court. Because for all its faults, the legal system actually kind of works.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Holy Shit, Greek Fire!

Greek Fire in the Codex Skylitzes Matritensis

The popular interpretation of the Roman Empire falling around the middle of the Fifth Century is pretty wrong in a pretty big way. At that point, the Empire was divided into two major administrative regions. One was based in Ravenna (not even Rome!) and was down for the count by 476.

The other, based in Constantinople (not Istanbul) stuck around for another thousand years. It's known as the Byzantine Empire, and one of the reasons for its longevity was a little substance called Greek Fire, which was basically -- and maybe literally -- napalm.

Riverboat Napalm in Vietnam
You're familiar with that stuff.

Greek Fire was invented just in time to be used spectacularly in the First Arab Siege of Constantinople (not Istanbul). The city was surrounded, and the Umayyad Caliphate was feeling pretty confident that they were going to add a new member to their conquest club. For years, skirmishes were almost a daily occurrence. The Arab fleet sat in the Bosporus defying the Byzantines to come see what would happen if they tried to break out.

The Byzantine fleet started behaving strangely. In a time when naval warfare was all about smashing ships into each other as hard as you could, they were appearing in the harbor with strange siphons attached. When the two fleets finally met in a pitched battle in late 677 or early 678, the purpose of the siphons became devastatingly clear. 

Cheirosiph┼Źn from the Codex Vaticanus Graecus
This honestly looks like something I would have doodled in middle school

The Arabs got very literally hosed. With fire. Liquid fire. Liquid fire that burned with the fury of Achilles even on the surface of the ocean. The whole experience really put a damper on Umayyads' trip to Constantinople (not Istanbul), and they promptly left to write an unfavorable Yelp review.

Yelp Logo
"There were no mints on the pillow. In fact, there were no pillows. And they set fire to my person."

Forty years later, the Umayyad Caliphate returned to prove they hadn't learned their lesson. In what historians call one of the most important and decisive battles in history...the same thing happened again. The Second Arab Siege of Constantinople was routed by Greek Fire.

Greek Fire continued to give a ludicrously unfair advantage to the Byzantine navy until around the 13th Century. At that point, they may have lost access to the areas where ingredients for the substance could be found. We're not sure, because it was such a closely guarded secret that we don't really know what the hell Greek Fire was. The general consensus among scholars is that it was probably made with a form of petroleum and was sort of like napalm.

And that it would make for a bitchin' battle scene in a fantasy series.

What we do know is that Greek Fire was so powerful that it is credited with stopping the Arab conquest of Eastern Europe dead in its tracks.

Holy shit.