Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Holy Shit, Krampus!

Krampus stealing children

Do you ever feel like there's something missing in the way we teach our children how to celebrate Christmas? We tell them that, if they behave and stop looking through daddy's browser history, Santa Claus will come to town and give them toys and presents. If not, they get a lump of coal.
Censor Bar
And some light trauma.

I mean, either way they're getting something, right? And let's be honest, a lump of coal ain't half bad. Just wait until they learn you can set it on fire. That's gonna lead to some entertainment. And possibly tragedy.

The story is incomplete. The good news is that the rest of the story is already out there. In Europe. Alpine Europe. You know, like Bavaria, Austria, and Croatia. They have a figure who works with Santa Claus, taking up the much needed role of the menacing bad cop. And if history has taught us anything, it's that Austria knows how to produce menacing figures.

This particular menace is known as Krampus, and is utterly terrifying.

Terrifying Krampus Mask
Light trauma is for pansies.

In contrast to Santa Claus, Krampus visits the home of naughty children to bring them no gifts but torment and suffering to match their misdeeds. The more you learn about him the more you wonder how anyone in Alpine Europe makes it to adulthood without deep psychological scarring.

First of all, Krampus brings a birch switch with him to whip the mildly naughty kids into shape. Corporal punishment. That's not so bad, right? And it's not! At least, not until you learn that the birch is a common phallic symbol in folklore. So in a subtle way, our story begins as a cautionary tale about a demon who will straight up dickwhip your children if they talk back to you.
Krampus costume
While making that face.

That's just the kind-of-naughty kids. If you were really bad, your Christmas treat was to be picked up by Krampus' freakishly long, eldritch tongue, slapped into a basket, and carried off either to his lair or to Hell itself, where undisclosed horrors would be visited upon you in retribution for the grief you've caused your parents.
Krampus greeting card
Gosh, Timmy, we'd love to help, but you've been kind of a dick this year...

In case you're wondering (a) where those horrifying real-life images came from and (b) whether this custom of arcane yuletide terror is a mere cautionary tale, I can answer both of those questions at once. Every year, as part of the Christmas Season, young men in Alpine countries dress up as Krampus for a festival that consists mainly of said men scaring the shit out of every child they can find.

So the next time you find that your little boy or girl is unresponsive to the idea that Santa won't bring them exactly what they want if they continue being awful, consider sweetening the pot with a casual mention that the fury of a horned, cloven-hoofed, long-tongued demon is the alternative.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

And holy shit.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holy Shit, Oil!

Oil Well


That's right, oil. Black gold. Texas tea. A number of other metaphors, not all of which are featured in the introduction of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies
Though I don't personally see the use in a Clampett-less oil metaphor.

More specifically, petroleum, which is one of those pesky words that mix their etymological roots. It comes from the Greek word petra (stone) and the the Latin word oleum (oil). At least it's not as bad as the scientific name for swordfish (Xiphias gladius. Greek and Latin for sword sword. Come on, science. It's like you're not even trying.)

More to the point, petroleum has been a part of human society for at least 4,000 years, when it was used in its semi-solid state (asphalt) to build the walls and towers of Babylon. In 1847, oil got its big break, like a young, diamond-in-the-rough musician impressing a talent agent at a dive bar with her moxie and soothing, soulful voice. Except instead of a talent agent, it was a Glaswegian chemist named James Young.

James Young
With a remarkably bitchin' dwarf beard.

And instead of moxie and vocals, it was petroleum's ability to turn into kerosene that piqued Young's interest. From there, it was a meteoric rise to world superstardom. Especially when gasoline was invented a few decades later.

Suddenly, petroleum became one of the most vital natural resources of all time. Like all precious resources, it moved nations to violence. Ever wonder why Japan was being such a dick in 1941 with the whole surprise attack thing? Well, the U.S. wasn't too happy about their expansion, so we cut off their supply of sweet, sweet oil.

Around the same time, Hitler went on an ill-fated vacation into Russia. He talked a big talk about living space and the evils of Communism and Slavic people, but I'm pretty sure those plump Caucasus Oil Fields had something to do with it as well.

Oh, and hey, remember how the U.S. has been involved to some extent in every major conflict of the Middle East for the past century or so? I wonder what that could be all about. Well, it starts with a dinosaur and a bunch of rock (nature's extremely slow juicer)...
Orange Juice
Mmm. Fossily.

Except WAIT.


It doesn't.

There's been an abundance of dead dinosaur jokes concerning oil lately, and I want to dispel that myth here and now. It's important to remember that just because everything we know about dinosaurs was gleaned from fossils doesn't mean that all fossils are dinosaurs. It especially doesn't mean that "fossil fuels" are dinosaurs.

The weird thing is, fossil fuels are organic matter. Petroleum is essentially made of algae and bacteria, buried under sedimentary rock and heated over millions of years by geothermal energy. The millions of years thing is a problem. In 1965, new oil discovery reached its peak. In the 1980s, oil production began to outpace oil discovery. By many estimates, peak oil has either already occurred or is expected in the very near future.
Peak Oil
It's not gonna go back up.

That's a very, very bad thing. I mean, on the plus side we'd have to worry about climate change a little bit less. On the downside, though...we'd pretty much be looking at a thorough, worldwide economic collapse. Petroleum is in everything. On top of being the linchpin of the transportation industry, it is a key ingredient in plastic. Try to go a single day without using something that is plastic. If you're reading this on a computer, you probably already failed that challenge. If you're reading it on something that is not a computer, I'll probably have an idea for my next topic.

With that in mind, it might be time to consider investing a little bit more in alternative energy. Because oil, a foundational pillar of the global economy, is starting to crack.

Unless, that is, we can replicate a process that takes millions of years and do it in a few minutes. Which is apparently not out of the question.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holy Shit, D. B. Cooper!

Dan Cooper (sketch)

On November 24, 1971, 36 passengers and 6 crew members of an airliner found their afternoon flight interrupted by an inconvenient but exceedingly polite passenger who identified himself as Dan Cooper.

Cooper, after enjoying a cigarette and bourbon, passed a note to one of the attractive young flight attendants. When she took it, she looked at him, deduced that he was a lonely businessman looking for some company, and dropped it into her purse without looking at it.
Check yes or no
Kind of like this, but a little more sordid

Cooper spoke up and told her she might want to consider how she was handling the message. So she took it out and read it, and to her surprise it was not a charming message, nor was it a phone number. It was a friendly notification that the man in the seat had a bomb and was hijacking the plane, and would she please sit down next to him and act natural. She complied, and he laid out his demands. The plane was to land, and he was to be given $200,000 and a ride to Mexico City, stopping for fuel in Reno.
Plane refueling
Deftly setting me up for the line, "I fueled a plane in Reno just to watch it fly."

The strange part about this is that, outside of his original threat, Dan Cooper never showed even the slightest inclination toward violence. He was thoughtful, polite, and apparently concerned for the well-being of all the people he was threatening to blow up. He allowed all the passengers and most of the crew (including the one he initially told about the bomb) to leave the plane when it landed.

Then he got his money and a parachute. When the plane took off again, he opened the back door and, apparently, jumped out. When the plane landed in Reno, he was long gone. To this day, nobody knows whether his insane get rich quick scheme succeeded. Conditions were dark and rainy, far from ideal for a safe jump.

The investigation that followed the incident started with a suspect named D. B. Cooper - a long shot, as police were pretty damn sure he wouldn't have used his real name. He was quickly ruled out, but that didn't stop the media from calling the hijacker by the name D. B. Cooper for the rest of eternity.

In 1980, a breakthrough (almost) occurred. An eight-year-old kid, in the process of helping his vacationing family to build a fire near the Columbia River, found three deteriorating wads of cash. The family turned in the fat stacks to the proper authorities, who positively identified them as money paid in ransom to Dan Cooper. One of the stacks was missing a few bills, and the nature of their deterioration indicated that they had been deposited by one of the river's tributaries, making it nearly impossible to determine where they had actually fallen into the water.
Dolla dolla bills, y'all
Fat Stacks

Since 1980, there have been no major developments. If you happen upon any old currency from around 1971, you can actually find out in an online database whether you're holding a piece of airline history. It hasn't happened yet, so don't get too excited. On the other hand, do. Because despite being what we would invariably refer to today as a terrorist, Dan Cooper was so mysterious and well-mannered that small towns in Washington hold festivals in his honor.

It just goes to show you that a little politeness is all you really need to forgive things like air piracy and threatening to blow up a plane full of people.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Holy Shit, Gut Feelings!

Vagus Nerve

If you're like just about anyone in the world, you're pretty sure you've got a handle on the whole "intuition" thing. You can think logically about your conundrums until the cows come home, but when it really comes down to it, you have to go with your gut. It never seems to let you down.

Okay, now I want you to strap yourself in. We're going for a ride through Wild Speculation Based on Recent Research Land, and the turbulence can get a little bit rough. There are basically two points that you need to take out of this that will completely blow your mind. Or gut. Hopefully just your mind.
Thing you use to shit in
This is as far as I'm going with that joke.

Number one: when you get a "gut feeling," it may actually originate in your gut. As in, you are literally thinking with your stomach and basing your major life decisions on how it's making you feel.

Number two (and this one's the kicker): it may not actually be you doing the thinking. In fact, in a very real way it's not thinking at all, but a general optimism or pessimism, and it's all thanks to these fellas:
Aren't they just charming?

Well, not specifically those guys, but microbiotic organisms that reside in our tummies. Recent research suggests (not conclusively, but suggestively. Like your friend's mom making a few uncomfortably familiar remarks while he's in the bathroom so you're not sure if she's just being friendly or...anyway) that there may be a causal link between the types of bacteria in your gut and how you respond to stressful situations.

So far, all the hard evidence we have relates to mice. Scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario took a group of mice, studied their behaviors, and looked at their poo to see what type of bacteria was there. Because the life of a scientist is a life of glamour.
Men of Science, 1807
It's not all posing for group pencil and wash portraits

Then they started feeding probiotics and antibiotics to different mice and observing how they reacted to the changes. What they found was that, as the tiny ecosystem of their digestive track changed, so did the behavior of each specimen. Aggressive mice attained a Lebowski-esque state of calm, and lazy hippie mice began wailing and gnashing their teeth at the murine condition, taking out their newfound existential distress on their neighbors.

The reason for the connection seems to be a single nerve, shared by mice and humans, called the vagus nerve. It connects with both the stomach and the brain, and when its connection is lost, so is the influence of microbes on mouse behavior.

The implications of this research, if it turns out to be applicable to humans, could be staggering. Mental illnesses ranging from autism to bipolar disorder (and remember, speculation) could be reined in by the research that's currently looking into your stomach. It may actually turn out that the secret to living a calm, happy, and fulfilling life is contained within this:
Bowl of Yogurt
Plus it helps Jamie Lee Curtis to poop regularly. So that's nice.
Holy shit.