Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Holy Shit, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

I was, maybe, a bit too kind to Erwin Rommel when I wrote about him. He did some great deeds for a Nazi, but in the end he was, after all, a Nazi. Maybe he wasn't a model citizen in the modern, not-complicit-in-a-brutal-dictatorship sense of the word.

If you want an example of what a bold and decent person does against the rise of National Socialism, maybe a better choice would be Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Lettow-Vorbeck was a hero to the German people after World War I. He led the only successful invasion of Imperial British soil during that conflict, and he did so by waging what has been described as the greatest guerrilla operation in history.
Gorilla Operation
There are other contenders.

He led about 14,000 men in East Africa on a campaign that was meant solely to divert as much resources as possible away from the Allies on the Western Front. That way, he reasoned, the folks in the thick of the war could get the important fighting done. There was essentially no hope of success, and Lettow-Vorbeck proved it by surrendering entirely undefeated under orders from high command after the Armistice.

While he was in command, more than half of his men were native Africans. He lived in a different time -- when the White Man's Burden was considered progressive -- and yet, he showed a remarkable amount of tolerance and even respect for other races. He spoke fluent Swahili and named black soldiers as officers, a rarity at the time. When questioned, he firmly stated, "We are all Africans here."
Book of Mormon
A bunch of white kids would say the same thing years later in the Book of Mormon. The musical. Not the book.

After the war, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck became involved in politics. He is chiefly known today as a vehement opponent of Adolf Hitler during his rise to power. He was one of Hitler's chief adversaries, and when the Führer offered him an ambassadorship as an olive branch in 1938, rumor has it that his response was, "Go fuck yourself." Imagine saying that to Hitler near the peak of his power. Even better, Lettow-Vorbeck's nephew was asked about the incident decades later, he said, "I don't think he put it that politely."
Andy from Parks and Rec
And everybody was like "OOOOOH YOU GOT SERVED MEIN FÜHRER!"

Pretty cool guy, right? Well, here's the thing: the guy was a major warhawk. He disobeyed direct orders by the governor of German East Africa in order to engage the British. The governor wanted to remain neutral in the war, because he rightly feared that war would destroy any positive change Germany brought to the region in favor of starvation and violence. That's exactly what happened, and Lettow-Vorbeck shrugged it off as an unfortunate fact of war. Add to that the fact that he regularly (albeit strategically) denied food to civilians so that his army could stay in the fight and he doesn't seem all that terrific.

That's the problem with heroes. They're all so human, and they all have to live in the real world.

Still, he told Hitler to go fuck himself. Major props for that one, right?

Holy shit.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Holy Shit, the New Coke!

New Coke can

Let's say you're a soft drink manufacturer. In fact, you're the biggest soft drink manufacturer in the world. You're on top of the world for almost a century, keeping a huge majority of the market for yourself. Life is good. Then suddenly, one of your chief rivals decides to try a new markeitng thing and actually prove that people prefer Pepsi to your smelly old Coke in blind taste tests.

That's the position in which the Coca-Cola company found themselves in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pepsi had introduced the "Pepsi Challenge," where random people would participate in blind taste tests and regularly choose Pepsi over Coke. It was a devastating blow to morale at poor, folksy old Coca-Cola, and the sales figures weren't helping. Between 1940 and 1980, Coca-Cola's market share dropped from a comfortable 60% to a terrifying 24%.

Coca-Cola is doing pretty well for themselves
Pictured is (one of the buildings at) their rickety old mom-and-pop multinational corporate headquarters

So they sprang into action. The President of Coca-Cola and the VP of Marketing developed a radical rebranding strategy that would involve not only introducing a new, sweeter version of the famous beverage, but discontinuing the original. Enormous amounts of money went into meticulously crafting the new formula and taste testing it against both Pepsi and the old Coke. They called it Project Kansas.

Kansas being boring
If there's a better name for a project that would ultimately fail to excite anyone in a positive way, I haven't heard it.

And it won. Big time. It was poised to be the new favorite drink of the entire world. In 1985, they gave the green light. All at once, Coca-Cola stopped selling their old drink and launched the New Coke. If you or anyone you know was alive and cognizant during the 1980s, you know what happened next: a complete, unmitigated, cluster-fucking disaster.
Hindenburg disaster
Coca-Cola, April of 1985

It's not that people didn't like the taste of the New Coke. Research showed they liked it better than anything. It just wasn't Coke, dammit. There were some initial successes, but the backlash was outrageous. Coca-Cola's hotline saw a 200% increase in calls, almost all of which were people talking about the old formula as though their favorite uncle had just died. Some were depressed. Some were angry. Some even threatened to sue. After three months of this, the company finally decided to relent. They announced that the classic recipe would be making a triumphant return. The news was so celebrated that it was brought up on the floor of the in-session United States Senate.
Ted "I don't know how filibusters work" Cruz
And that was the last time anyone did something pointless, misguided, and stupid on the Senate Floor

Here's the part where I prove myself wrong. I called the disaster "unmitigated," but the re-release of the original recipe was actually a massive mitigation. People were so relieved to have their familiar product back that Coca-Cola surged ahead in the market once again. After a few months (and, notably, the release of Cherry Coke), Coca-Cola enjoyed twice the sales as Pepsi.

Little by little, the company put New Coke behind them. Sales in the United States were discontinued shortly after Coca-Cola Classic came back. A few years later, the New Coke was more or less gone. Finally, in 2009, the "Classic" label was removed, and the last vestige of the massive failure turned enormous success was gone.

To sum up: Pepsi, to most people, simply tastes better than Coke. But taste is almost insignificant compared to the power of familiarity and nostalgia.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Shit, the Frank Slide!

Frank just after the slide

The town of Frank in Alberta, Canada was founded in 1901 as part of the ever-growing network of railroad towns in the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian Pacific Railway, coupled with a nearby coal mine, made it a lucrative option for anyone who wanted to And food. Those things were pretty important back then, as they are today.
Although this was always an option. (I went pretty obscure on that joke)

This particular frontier town was located in the shadow of Turtle Mountain. I say was not only because the town was eventually moved, but also because so did the goddamn mountain. Very quickly, in fact. In less than two minutes in 1903, more than 90 million tons of the mountain moved...right on top of poor Frank. The event is known as the Frank Slide, and it was one of the costliest and deadliest landslides in recorded history.

In the months leading up to the Slide, coal miners reported seeing unusual fissures in the mines. The limestone inside the mountain was cracked, and the fissures allowed water through to further erode the rock, which led to a dangerously top-heavy mountain. Stir in a bunch of mining activities and you've got yourself a disaster brewing. It got to the point where the coal was practically mining itself when the mountain finally collapsed.
Minecraft Coal
Everyone agreed that it kind of took some of the reward out of the whole process

Somewhere around 600 people lived in Frank at the time of the landslide, and of them somewhere between 70 and 90 were killed. We don't know for sure, because only 18 bodies were ever found, and 6 of those were discovered years later by a crew building a road in what was probably the most terrifying manual labor they would ever perform. The actual number is probably a lot higher - there were about 50 people camping near the base of the mountain hoping to find work in the mines who weren't listed among the population of the town.

In the aftermath of the Slide, Sid Choquette got to thinking. Being a brakeman for the Canadian Pacific Railway, he had a pretty good idea of the train schedule. Checking his pocket watch and twirling his handlebar moustache worriedly (I assume), he realized that the Spokane Flyer a passenger train goddamn full of people, was overdue to arrive and had no way of knowing what had happened in Frank. The rails that were supposed to speed it along were, at this point, hindered by a two mile long pile of rubble. This is what can be referred to in layman's terms as really shitty conditions for a train ride.
Sabin suplexing a train.
The only worse conditions would be "anywhere near Sabin."

So, ignoring the rubble and choking cloud of dust, Choquette ran over a mile without stopping and got the message to the approaching at literally the last possible second. His actions saved the lives of everyone on board the train, and the Canadian Pacific Railroad was so grateful they gave him...a kindly worded letter. And $25.
1898 Canadian dollar

You can see the results of the Frank Slide to this day:
Frank Slide Remains
That's mountain guts. That's what you're looking at. The guts of a mountain.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Holy Shit, Damascus Steel!

Damascus Steel
Remember how the Byzantines basically invented napalm about a thousand years ago? Probably not, so follow the link and read about it. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Cookie Monster waiting
Take your time.

Pretty cool, huh? So, you know the part where we still don't quite know what Greek Fire was since it was a closely guarded military secret? That's sort of the same deal with Damascus steel.

Damascus steel swords were made primarily in the Middle East. Funnily enough, they did not originate in Damascus. Their name is the result of someone mishearing the word "damask," a type of weaving pattern that the metal's texture resembled.
Damascus steel dagger
Except, you know...stabbier

They were made from wootz steel out of India, and through some miraculous forging process they became incredibly sharp, as flexible as a yogi, and harder than mithril. Legend has it that a Damascus steel sword could cut a feather from the air then slice through armor like a hot machete through lightly curdled milk without losing any of its sharpness.

Around the mid-1700s, the rise of gunpowder and lengthy disruptions in trade from India eventually led to the loss of the swordsmithing techniques required to forge Damascus steel. They became a thing of legend. Then science happened.
Carbon Nanotubes
Pictured: Science. And it keeps changing directions. Watch. It'll freak you out.

While the technique for making it was lost, there were still some extant blades that historians and scientists could study. These have wielded some pretty interesting results, chief among which is that Damascus steel was reinforced by carbon nanotubes. Those weren't actually discovered, by the earliest reckoning, until 1952. It wasn't until the 1990s that we started making practical things out of them.

What I'm saying here is that as far back as 2000 years ago swordsmiths in the Middle East were literally (though probably unwittingly) using nanotechnology.

Holy Shit.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Holy Wombat Shit!

I'm going to make this exceptionally brief, for brevity is the soul of not-feeling-like-taking-the-effort-to-write-out-a-whole-blog-post-right-this-secondness. This is a wombat.
Vombatus ursinus
Yes you are, you cute little marsupial!

Yes. He is the cutest little doofus you can imagine. Now, here's his poo:
Wombat poop.
The logical next step.

It's square. It is a square poo. Wombats poop squares.

Why? Because the distinct shape helps to mark their territory, like a building block.

And it helps them identify potential mates, like that video you found in your uncle's special box when your parents weren't looking.

So, to recap: Wombats are adorable, but they're into square scat porn.

Holy cubic Shit.