Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Holy Shit, the Ship of Theseus!

The Lenormant Relief
Many rhetorical questions do little to excite my imagination. When someone asks me what the sound of one-handed clapping is, I show them. It makes a sound. That's silly. When I'm asked whether a tree falling in the woods without anyone around to hear it make a noise, the answer is perfectly obvious to me. It's not space. There's oxygen. So yes, of course it does. That's a rather self-centered question to ask, Mr. Pretentious Philosophy Major.

I know that I'm not really addressing the point of the questions, but they just don't make me stop and think as much as they're supposed to. Not when there's actually a fairly logical answer. But there is one hypothetical that always gets into my head and crosses a few wires. They call it the Ship of Theseus.

Here's how the scenario goes according to Plutarch, who is the earliest source we have of the issue:

"The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."
He had a way with words. Not a way to make them interesting, just...a way.

In simpler terms, and in the form of a question (since I established the implicit promise of a question back in the first paragraph): If you repair a ship by replacing rotted timbers little by little, at which point (if any) can you say it is no longer the same ship? Thomas Hobbes sweetened the pot a few centuries later by adding this sub-question: If you make a new ship with the remnants of the wood as you make the repairs, which ship (if either) could truly be called the original?

I believe the technical term for the result of thinking about this question is "a mindfuck." You may already be seeing why this crawls into my head and embeds itself so thoroughly. I'm sure many of you terrific, intelligent, and downright handsome readers have heard at some point that the cells comprising the human body are completely replaced every 7-10 years. That's not exactly true of all our cells, but it's true of a lot of them.

So at which point do our bodies (or at least much of our bodies) become not our original bodies? I mean...when you're born, you look really goddamn different from when you turn ten. You have the same memories and experience, but most of your body is completely new. When you're twenty, the same thing happens. Your body is more or less completely new.
Without absorbing even a little bit of the Time Vortex.

I don't even know where to go from here. Defining an object is hard enough with the Ship of Theseus paradox. Defining ourselves, though?
Head Explode.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Holy Shit, Donkey Kong!

Nintendo Logo

In 1981, Nintendo was known primarily as a toy company that produced trading cards in Japan. In fact, they were barely known at all in the West. They began producing arcade games in the '70s, but they enjoyed limited success until Shigeru Miyamoto burst onto the scene.
Shigeru Miyamoto
He and Gaben are the patron saints of gaming nowadays.

Shigeru Miyamoto created Donkey Kong, and from there went on to become the single most influential figure in console gaming history. Donkey Kong started as a licensed Popeye game, but the licensing situation didn't work out. So the team had to come up with new characters. They called the hero "Mr. Video," a name which would change to Jumpman shortly afterward. When the Nintendo of America team was confronted with an angry landlord demanding their late rent, they averted his wrath by telling him they'd name their new hero after him. The landlord, Mario Segale, agreed to back down.
That name should be familiar to you.

The villain, they decided, would be a King Kong knockoff named Donkey Kong. The name basically came from a linguistic misunderstanding. "Donkey" is an obscure, archaic slang term for a stupid or foolish person. Miyamoto found that definition, coupled it with a word he understood to mean "giant ape," and called it a day. The American team thought it was hilarious, and the name stuck.

You know who didn't think it was hilarious? Universal Studios. As they understood it, they owned the rights to King Kong ever since they fought a court battle over the issue in 1975, and Nintendo was using a blatant knock-off character to reap enormous profits without paying them one red cent. Or even yen.

King Kong
I'd like to believe this is the face the studio heads made.

So they took this little toy company to court. It had all the workings of a classic David and Goliath battle. There is speculation that Universal's legal department figured Nintendo would just settle to avoid a costly battle, but Nintendo's legal team had done its research pretty well. When they got to court, they made an elegantly simple argument.

King Kong is in the public domain. And what's more, Universal knew full well that he was. That's why they won the right to make a movie about him in the '70s. The judge ruled in favor of Nintendo, citing the ridiculousness of suing over a public domain character and the fact that Donkey Kong was different enough not to be confused with King Kong anyway.
Donkey Kong ending
I mean, the building he climbed wasn't even finished!

This was a massive, pivotal moment for Nintendo. It came on the heels of a massive crash in the home video game market, and it gave Nintendo the confidence to start pushing for a revival of the console. The very next year, the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in America, and the console market has enjoyed increasing success ever since.

If it weren't for a linguistic quirk and a frivolous lawsuit, Donkey Kong would not have served as the springboard that relaunched the game industry. We have this abused, rampaging, kidnapping ape to thank for everything from Super Mario Brothers to Pokémon, and maybe a lot more.

Holy Shit.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Holy Shit, Eyam!


Remember the plague?

Well, the village of Eyam certainly does.

Eyam is a small village in central England with a population of around 1,000. It is best known for one of the boldest and most suicidal efforts to stop the Plague in British history. In 1665, a tailor in Eyam received a package of cloth from London that was full of Plague-infested fleas. Within a week, he was dead and the disease was spreading throughout the village. When residents began to consider fleeing to neighboring towns, the local rectors stepped in and asked everyone to voluntarily brave the horrific tempest of the plague and close themselves off from the outside world.
Yao Meme
How I would've reacted.

The town agreed. A system was established where merchants and couriers would drop supplies off at The Coolstone outside of town. Money for the shipment would be left there soaked in vinegar, which was believed to prevent infection. It may have actually been true - the acetic acid in vinegar does function as an antibacterial agent.
Malt vinegar and french fries
I'm sorry if the smell of my PLAGUE-PROOF FRIES bothers you.

Aside from that indirect exchange, Eyam ceased all contact with the outside world. The plague tore the village apart for fourteen months. Deaths were constant and well-documented. Families were asked to bury their own dead for fear of quickening the spread of the plague, and in one case that caused a woman to bury her husband and all six of her children over the span of eight days. Incredibly, she survived the pestilence, never even becoming ill.

After fourteen months, it became clear that the plague had run its course in Eyam, and the village opened its borders once again. When the plague hit, the population of Eyam was 350. When the quarantine ended, there were only 83 people left. Almost 80% of the people of Eyam died within about a year. There are debates over whether the decision even did any good to stem the tide of the plague, but I think we should just let them have that one. Give them an A for effort, if nothing else.
You tried.
Good hustle, you guys. I'm proud of you.

It's not every day that 350 people will accept horrific disease and almost certain death because it might help a bunch of people they probably don't even know. But that's exactly what happened in Eyam.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Holy Shit, the Svalbard Seed Vault!

It's seeds. In Svalbard.
One day, something terrible is going to happen to the Earth. I mean, the Earth will be alright. In most apocalyptic scenarios, the Earth will do just fine. That's not what people are really worried about when they say we need to save the planet.

No, what they mean is that we need to save ourselves. In a big ecological disaster, the crops we grow are going to become incredibly scarce. Maybe even extinct. That's problematic if you're a fan of eating. Even if you're strictly carnivorous, your food is not. I don't know why I feel the need to clarify this, but without crops, humanity is just...super dead.
Disco is Dead.

Luckily, we have a contingency plan. Yeah. That's not just something from disaster movies. There is a very real, very functional contingency plan with an out-of-the-way, isolated, 11th hour savior station and everything. It's called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and it is aptly named.

Svalbard Seed Vault.
Because it's in Svalbard, is a global initiative, has seeds, and is a vault. It's that simple, yes.
Funded by various world governments and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is humanity's insurance policy. It's the destination for real life post-apocalyptic scientists/farmers who want to save the world.

I'm gonna be honest. I want to make fun of this concept. I want to make light of it. At first glance, it's so bizarre that this place exists. At second glance, it's even more bizarre that it has funding.

But you know what? I can't. It's goddamn terrific that we, as a species, are planning so far ahead as to stuff a bunch of biodiversity into nature's refrigerator. All I can do is share it and reassure you that, should you find yourself starving due to a meteor, nuclear war, or massive blight, there's a little beacon of hope in one of the coldest places on Earth.
Northern Lights in Svalbard

A place where you are legally required to carry a hunting rifle outside of towns so that you can defend yourself from polar bears, sure, but it's there. And one day, it may save the world.

And yes, I'm serious about the polar bear gun thing.

Holy shit.