Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Holy Shit, Richard Parker!

Illustration from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
In 1838, Edgar Allen Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In doing so, he set off a strange sequence of events that freaks out literary snobs and nautical enthusiasts alike. The events are centered around a character named Richard Parker.

In the novel, several sailors are left adrift at sea after a terrible storm incapacitates their ship. It's more complicated than that, but that's the important part. After a few spots of false hope, one of the sailors -- a man named Richard Parker -- suggests that, in order for any of them to survive, one of them will need to be killed and cannibalized. They draw straws, and Richard Parker is the unlucky victim.
A Fishing Pole
Tragically, he only remembered his sweet fishing pole after they set upon him with knives

A few years earlier, a similar situation had played out in reality. A ship called the Frances Spaight sank in the north Atlantic, and the survivors practiced cannibalism when it became clear that they would starve otherwise. Given how close the event was to when Poe was writing, there's a decent chance he found some morbid inspiration in reality. Here's where it starts to get a little bit weird.

In 1846, eight years after Poe's novel, another Frances Spaight sank. One of the victims of this shipwreck was a man named Richard Parker. That's enough to be a little odd, but it's not quite freaky. Not yet. Not until 1884, when another ship went down (not a Frances Spaight this time), and a 17-year-old cabin boy named Richard Parker was counted among the survivors.

I mean, I say survivors. But he only lived through the initial disaster. It was decided, like in the book, that one of them had to become food for the others. And, like the book, that one turned out to be Richard Parker. As a sidenote, this case ended up setting a legal precedent that murder is super not okay, even if you're murdering someone out of desperation for food.
Jeffrey Dahmer
It's even less defensible if you're just kind of hungry. And violently psychotic.

I guess the moral of this whole story is that, if your name is Richard Parker and you're about to set sail on a ship called the Frances Spaight, you are woefully uninformed and will surely be eaten by your fellow sailors. Of course, Yann Martel didn't see it that way. In an effort to speak out for the Richard Parkers of the world who had been victims of the sea, he named the tiger in Life of Pi after them all. Spoiler alert, it turns out the tiger may have actually been a metaphor for the main character eating one of the other survivors of a shipwreck.
Bengal Tiger swimming
I'm sorry, what was that about drawing straws?

Vengeance, right?

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Holy Shit, the Voynich Manuscript!

Voynich Manuscript

In 1912, Wilfrid Michael Voynich was visiting Italy and stopped by the Jesuit-owned Villa Mondragone. Desperate for funds, the Jesuits were surreptitiously selling off some of the supposedly rare and fantastical items in their collections. Voynich, being a bibliophile, opted to purchase a bizarre illustrated codex written in a script he didn't recognize.

In almost every situation that starts like this, it would turn out that the codex was an elaborate ruse. A hoax put together for attention or, in this case, money. Once carbon dating and academic scrutiny stepped in, it would be proven to be a recent creation, and the Voynich would go home with that burning humiliation you get when you fall for a scam.
Nigerian Flag
What kind of world is this where you can't trust Nigerian royalty anymore?

This was not every situation, though. Everyone from codebreakers to archivists to historians looked at the Voynich Manuscript and were completely baffled. Carbon dating puts its creation somewhere around the early 1400s, so if it's a hoax, it's really goddamn old one. And it's one that involved a downright grueling amount of work.

The language and script of the manuscript are completely unknown but there are patterns to it that suggest its not just gibberish. Professional speculation suggests that it's written in some sort of code, but no one has any idea how to break it. When I say "no one," I mean, "the top codebreakers working for the war effort in both world wars tried and failed to figure it out."
Alan Turing
Though in Britain's case they were busy destroying their greatest code breakers' lives at the time

The illustrations don't really seem to help all that much. The one thing they do is tell us that the manuscript is divided into six parts based on the thematic imagery: herbal, astronomical, biological, pharmaceutical, and recipes. Aside from that, the pictures are completely unhelpful in identifying the purpose of the book

Today, the Voynich Manuscript resides in the Yale University Library's rare books collection. In the interest of serving the public with healthy portions of cryptographic mystery, said library has made the whole thing available in a free, online, high-resolution digital copy. So have at it.

In case you were wondering, Voynich was far from the first collector to investigate his eponymous manuscript. Starting in the 1600s, there is a spotty record of several people who ended up with the book in their possession. They were as clueless about its contents as we are today, if their letters are to be believed.
Gaston and Belle from Beauty and the Beast
Artist's rendition

What we have here is a genuine history mystery. A book with an unknown script and language, strange illustrations, and a certificate of authenticity from the ever skeptical scientific community. My favorite theory about its purpose came from xkcd, but we may never know what its contents really mean.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Holy Shit, Shakespeare!

So William Shakespeare was this guy who wrote a lot. You may have heard of him if you've ever taken an English class. Or are in any way culturally literate. Or if you've just had one or two conversations. He comes up sometimes.

I could talk about how Shakespeare was the most influential writer of all time. I could talk about how he coined thousands of words and phrases that we still use today. I could talk about how there is almost literally no work of fiction written in English (or possibly other languages) since the Elizabethan Era that is not, in some way, informed and inspired by Shakespeare. But that's not my style.
People's Daily Newspaper Building
I prefer a subtle approach to comedy.

Nah, I'm gonna talk about genitals. Because that's the way the Bard would have wanted it. He was, after all, a product of his time. And his time was bawdy. They don't tell you that in school because it's uncomfortable to acknowledge, but as Terry Pratchett put it, "Elizabethans had so many words for the female genitals that it is quite hard to speak a sentence of modern English without inadvertently mentioning at least three of them."

Take, for example, the word "nothing." Because Elizabethans apparently had the anatomical knowledge of a 12-year-old boy, "nothing" became slang for "the nothing that is between a woman's legs." Which means that Much Ado about Nothing may as well be called Much Ado about Beatrice's Vagina.

And don't think it's limited to the comedies. Take a look at this scene from Hamlet, possibly the most famous tragedy ever written (the relevant part starts at about 4:56):

If you missed that, here's a transcript:
Tenth Doctor Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Tenth Doctor Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap.
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Tenth Doctor Hamlet: Did you think I meant cunt...ry matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Tenth Doctor Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between maid's legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Tenth Doctor Hamlet: Nothing.
Ophelia: You are merry, my lord?
You get the idea. Or maybe you don't. Hamlet is basically being a frat boy. Everything Ophelia says, he twists it around and makes it about her genitals. And David Tennant's delivery on the "country matters" line might be the least subtle that it's ever been. I leave Ophelia's "merry" line in the transcript there because that's part of the fun. "Merry" is an Elizabethan slang term for "horny." Hamlet harps on her privates over and over, and she responds by more or less saying, "Jesus, somebody's frisky today."
Shakespeare Collection
That's his merry face.

So don't think of Shakespeare the way you've been taught. I'd wager that you could find similar scenes in all of his plays. I'd do it now, but nobody's gonna stick around that long. Maybe I'll make a series out of Shakespeare's dirty jokes. The man's plays were performed in a brothel. I mean, honestly, how prim and proper could he be?

And yes, that is true. The Rose was both a brothel and a theatre.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Holy Shit, the Toba Catastrophe!

I believe we've established by now that supervolcanic eruptions would suck harder than the vacuum of space. In case you needed a little extra evidence of that, let's take a look at the eruption of the Lake Toba supervolcano. It happened around 70,000 years ago, and was terrifying.

The Toba Supervolcano Eruption may have been the single largest volcanic event in the known history of the planet. It spewed so much ash into the air that all of South Asia was covered with about six inches of it. Six inches of ash. Over an entire sub-continent. That's about 800 cubic kilometers of volcano vomit.
Volcano Vomit
Why, yes, I am an adult. Why do you ask?

Even bigger were the long term effects. All that ash and sulphur dioxide is not so great for the global climate, as it turns out. There is some debate on the issue, but it has been suggested that the Earth's most recent ice age was either ushered in by, or a direct result of the Toba Catastrophe. For six years after the eruption, the planet was consumed by a volcanic winter. The following 1,000 years were a period of global cooling.
Which was just murder for the poor tauntauns

Right now, some of you are thinking, "Hey neat! A solution to global warming! Maybe a supervolcano eruption wouldn't be so bad after all!"

To you I say, "Nay." For there is a minor detail I left out before. Human beings were around before the Toba eruption. Afterward (or so goes the theory), we very, very nearly weren't. By some accounts, humanity sank into a genetic bottleneck in the aftermath of Toba. In fact, the human population of Earth may have dropped to around 10,000 people. By comparison, there are seven billion people today. That difference in population is literally too large to meaningfully display on a computer monitor.

10,000 is about one person per twenty square miles. It's not enough people to make up a city in some parts of the world. You'll find significantly more people per day in any one of the parks of Disney World than there were people in existence after the Toba Event.
Splash Mountain
And the rides in the apocalypse weren't nearly as fun.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Holy Shit, Ayapaneco!

Rosetta Stone

Ayapaneco is a language native to the village of Ayapa in Tobasco, Mexico. It's not doing too hot right now. In fact, it's one of a growing number of languages in danger of extinction.

This happens all the time. Local dialects and whole languages sometimes have very few speakers. All it takes is a few deaths to make an entire dictionary of unique words, an entire canon of grammatical rules and nuances to completely disappear from the Earth and become lost to history. And I don't mean "nobody speaks Latin but hardcore Catholics and nerds" lost. I mean "nobody in the world can ever know what these words ever sounded like or meant anymore" lost.
Gavroche from Les Misérables
Way deader than Gavroche

There are movements to keep this kind of thing from happening. Linguists are dispatched to remote areas where endangered languages are spoken, where they rudely shove a microphone into the faces of the locals until they have enough audio from interviews and eavesdropping to compose a decent primer. With Ayapaneco, the efforts of linguists have been stunted by a unique issue.

The language became endangered because Mexico made it mandatory for schools to teach Spanish. It's not a bad idea, per se. It's a lot easier to conduct any type of business if there's not a ludicrously obscure language barrier between you and your neighbor. The downside, though, is that some of the vibrant culture, customs, and even words of small, rural areas are fading away. The other downside is that it implicitly treats other languages as inferior to the European one that was imposed on the area in an unabashedly imperialistic way several centuries ago, but we won't get into that right now.
Hernan Cortez
Long story short, this guy was a dick

The biggest obstacle for preserving Ayapaneco (the aforementioned unique issue) is this: There are exactly two people in the entire world who can fluently speak Ayapaneco. Both are well into their 70s and both live in the village of Ayapa. But they don't talk to each other. Because they don't like each other.

It's not totally clear why, and it seems that they just have clashing personalities. Despite being literally the last two people on Earth who can talk to one another in their native language, they choose not to. Because "Eh, fuck that guy." I don't know about you, but this whole situation makes me a little depressed. A once vibrant, ancient language exists only in two minds. If they want to have the kind of conversations they had in their youths, they have only each other to talk to. And they won't. And because of that, it's probably going to be too difficult for linguists to get a handle on their endangered mother tongue and keep it from dying with them.

An apathetic grudge will probably soon be the undoing of an entire language.

Holy shit.

Oh, and happy new year.