Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Holy Shit, Shanties!

Have you ever seen a wild goose sailing on the ocean?
Wild Goose
Who hasn't these days?
If you answered "Ranzo, Ranzo Ray," (or some variation) you're probably very much familiar with sea shanties. Because that is one. And you're weird.

Sea shanties emerged around the 19th Century as a specific type of work song (though some theorize this was when they were revived from obscurity, not born). They were chiefly an English language phenomenon inspired in large part by African work songs. Just let that sink in for a second, considering the nature of the relationship between Europeans and Africans back then.
Inspection of a Slave
Oh, right. The travesties.

They existed because work on a sailing ship is difficult, laborious, repetitive, and requires a high degree of coordination. For example, to set sail on a square-rigged ship, you first need to hoist the yards. That requires a number of people pulling on ropes and pulleys in unison. All it takes is one or two people pulling at the wrong time to get the whole thing out of whack, which could delay departure or even endanger the crew.
Yards of the USS Columbus.
Not like it's confusing to have the same word mean a measurement, field, and part of a sail.

The traditional solution would be to have someone count out, "One, two, three," and have everyone haul on three. That worked well enough, but it was no fun. A better way, certain enterprising sailors decided, was to have a sort of foreman/lead singer, the shantyman, sing out a line or two and have everyone else sing the chorus. For example, when hoisting the yard, the song would go:
Shantyman: Our boots and shoes are all in pawn
Crew: Go down, you blood red roses, go down
Shantyman: Its flaming drafty 'round Cape Horn
Crew: Go down, you blood red roses, go down
On every "Go down," the crew would haul in unison. For a great example of this exact situation, watch the 1956 film Moby Dick. If you're the impatient type, just watch the part below. If you're especially impatient, just go straight to the 1:04 mark. As a bonus, you get "Heave Away Me Johnny" right afterward.

All the classic shanties were associated with certain types of work. "Drunken Sailor," the one you definitely know, was for continuous hauling work. Songs with longer verses would be used for raising the anchor, which involved circling around the capstan over and over to wind the rope. Some songs had extremely specific meanings.

"Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her" was a pump shanty used for the last pump of a voyage -- thus, "Now those pumps are all pumped dry and it's time for us to leave her" means the water is all pumped back into the sea, and the sailors are free to disembark. There's a terrific note of ironic nostalgia in that one. It's about a voyage where everything was as bad as it can be on a sailing ship, but the minor key suggests that everyone is still sad to leave the awful ship behind.
Music can make any ship the Millennium Falcon

Well, the shanties may actually have something to do with that. Recent studies suggest that singing in unison with a group of other people actually makes everyone's hearts literally beat in unison. That sort of connection can't not be powerful, and it may help to explain the cohesiveness of a sailing crew and the pervasiveness of work songs throughout history. That's pure speculation, but it's not that far of a leap.

But that brings us to a problem. Where are our work songs today? When we do menial tasks with other people, we sit in relative silence. We chat sometimes. We even listen to music. But we don't have that quasi-mystical connection that songs can provide. Veteran sailors bemoaned the loss of the sea shanty with the rise of the steam engine, but what if it goes deeper than that? What if we're losing something critical to our innate understanding of the human condition by segregating music from everyday life?

I, for one, will be busy learning all the call-and-response work songs I can manage from now on. When my kids get to an age where putting them to work is reasonable (I'm thinking six months or so), they'll be singing bawdy songs all the while. According to science, that will bring us closer together.
Hauling a Halyard

Holy shit.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Holy Shit, Delta 32!

Because of the ribbon. And sexual transmission. That was an awful joke.

C-C Chemokine Receptor Type 5, or CCR5, is a protein in your white blood cells. We don't know its exact function, but we're pretty sure it interacts with T cells, and it may play a key role in inflammations that result from infection. All in all, it's a pretty standard white blood cell protein. That's what HIV counts on.

Some forms of HIV use CCR5 as their point of entry into your immune system. When that happens, shit gets bad. That's why most early drugs given to HIV positive people target CCR5. It's more or less the main point of entry for the AIDS virus.
Helm's Deep Grate
It's like that drainage grate at Helm's Deep. Only, you know, AIDS.

Now let's take a quick two and a half thousand year trip to the past and take a look at Ancient Athens. In 430 BC, the second year of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was struck with a massive, horrific plague that wiped out a fourth of its population. It was at this point in human history when CCR5 started to change. Medicine back then consisted mainly of blood-letting, the type of thing that lands you in a psyche ward nowadays. Back then you paid people to do it to you.

As a result, natural selection weeded out a lot of people via disease. Many survived, of course. Some of them had a bizarre natural resistance, which we now call CCR5-Δ32, or Delta 32. It's a gene mutation. A tiny variation in your genetic makeup that essentially deletes a certain segment of the CCR5 protein. As smallpox and various other diseases spread across Europe, the Delta 32 mutation became more common in the survivors, conferring various immunities to a lucky minority.
Anneken Hendriks the Anabaptist
Alas, this did not include immunity to ludicrous superstitious violence.

Today, Delta 32 is found in about 10-15% of European-descended humans. The segment of CCR5 that it deletes turns out to be a chief cause of all kinds of problems. That includes the aforementioned HIV. I suppose you can see what I'm getting at. If you are of European descent, there is as much as a 15% chance that you are, if not immune, then highly resistant to the AIDS virus.

That's evolution at work. Think of the untold thousands of people who had to die so that this mutation could become as prevalent as it is. Think of how many people would have to suffer today for it to become a common feature in human beings. This relatively new strength, like all the strengths we enjoy as a species, came at a massive cost over thousands of years.

Luckily, we've gotten pretty good at tinkering with evolution since then. Rather than opening our veins and hoping all the sick pours out with our blood, we use real science to develop real medicine that really works. And the discovery of the Delta 32 mutation is a boon for medicine. We don't know how, and we don't know for sure it'll work, but it's very possible that this natural resistance might hold the key to curing HIV, a disease that only twenty years ago was synonymous with a death sentence.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Holy Shit, Blackbeard!


Edward Teach was a mean fellow. Born in Bristol (probably) and forged in the fires of Queen Anne's War, he took to the sea as an apprentice to Benjamin Hornigold when the war ended. Hornigold, at the time, was a notorious pirate. Teach would strike out on his own after Hornigold's retirement, and the New World would shudder at the mere mention of his nickname: Blackbeard.

Blackbeard captured a frigate, equipped her with 40 guns, named her Queen Anne's Revenge, and set to work crafting an alliance of pirates. With a veritable army behind him, he accomplished remarkable feats of bold buccaneering, including the blockade and capture of Charleston, South Carolina. He made a fortune by ransoming the entire population, then settled down nearby.

Teach was a skilled propagandist. He cultivated his image as a pirate boogeyman so that violence was rarely necessary. He wore his famous beard as thick as a wolf's fur and curled it up around his ears, inviting victims to compare him to a savage beast. Whenever he boarded ships or spoke to captives, he tied cannon fuses to his hat and lit them, creating a terrifying image of shadow and smoke that would make a Balrog feel right at home.
Dude, sweet hat.

At this point, the British offered a general pardon to all pirates if they would only please knock it off, for god's sake. Blackbeard graciously accepted, then almost immediately took to the seas again for more sweet, sweet booty.

At that point, the Governor of Virginia got a little bit pissed off. He made it his mission (or rather, the mission of his underlings) to track down that wascally piwate if it was the last thing he did. So he sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard after him. Through a secretive blockade and clever subterfuge, Maynard found Blackbeard on Ocracoke Island off the coast of North Carolina, relatively isolated, relatively drunk, and fully off guard.

Despite being outnumbered, drunk, and caught unawares, Teach managed to get to one of his ships and fire off a well-timed broadside that instantly shredded one third of Maynard's men and put one of his three ships out of commission. Confident in his impending victory, Blackbeard had his men grapple Maynard's ship and board it. This was exactly what Maynard wanted.
You just activated my trap card
Careful, Teach! Maynard's been playing Yu-Gi-Oh since it launched!

The moment the pirates were aboard, Maynard's sailors burst from the hold and attacked. The pirates, still lightly buzzed, were taken by surprise and immediately lost the initiative. Somewhere between ten and twelve pirates were killed. Although Maynard lost almost as many men, the battle was over when Blackbeard died. Of course, the reason Maynard lost almost as many men was that Blackbeard just would not die. The two of them locked together in combat, and Blackbeard utterly wrecked Maynard's shit, breaking his sword and moving in for the kill just before another sailor slashed his neck and stopped him.

It took as many as five gunshots and twenty sword slashes to bring that beast of a man down. When he fell, his men quickly surrendered. Maynard cut off Teach's head and attached it to the front of his ship so that the whole sailing world would know who was going to collect Blackbeard's bounty.
Blackbeard's Head
Which was kind of a dick move, if we're being honest

His death, of course, did little to diminish his legend. The man with the wild beard and fiery cap took more mortal wounds than a bear before he fell. For that and for all his misadventures, when we think "pirate" we think "Blackbeard."

You know, until Johnny Depp ruined it.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Holy Shit, Derinkuyu!

Derinkuyu Underground City passage

Derinkuyu is a town and district in Central Anatolia, Turkey. The district overall has a population of just over 20,000. It wouldn't be a particularly remarkable place, except there's something underneath it that attracts some attention. Something about 60 meters beneath the surface.

Football Field
Or, in American units of measurement, a little over half a football field underground

It's another city. Not one that was buried underneath constant construction like you'd find in London or Rome. A city that was designed and built under the surface. That's not entirely unique, but given the fact that it was built in the Eighth Century B.C. and is the largest underground city ever built, it's pretty goddamn spectacular.

The Derinkuyu Underground City could house the entire modern population of the District of Derinkuyu. If it wanted to. It's pretty much over being populated by now and has moved on to be a sort of retro-touristy kind of place. It's something of a hipster in that way. But you wouldn't understand, it's pretty underground.

Derinkuyu Underground City

The city had room for over 20,000 people, as well as grain stores to feed them all and housing for livestock. There were market districts, warehouses, stables, and more carved into the rock under Derinkuyu. There were even heavy stone doors that could block passages in case of invasions.

It was probably built by the Phrygians, but it's been used and even expanded since then by various Persian, Greek, and Turkic cultures as a dwelling place or a refuge. Today, it's a tourist attraction. If you're ever in Central Anatolia (and really, why wouldn't you be?), you can check it out yourself.

Now, I'm not going to say the Phrygians only found the city and it was originally constructed by dwarves fleeing from Durin's Bane in Khazad-dûm...but I'm not going to say that wasn't the case either. Because I like to keep some hope alive.

Gates of Moria
The entrance probably looks like this. I hope.

Either way, it's a massive, sprawling city that is completely invisible if you look at it like any normal person would. And that's pretty damn cool.

Holy shit.