Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Holy Shit, Memory (and Photography)!

Taking a picture with a phone

I think we can all agree that memory is weird. So weird, in fact, that I'm only going to focus on one aspect of memory in this post. It's a newly discovered thing that Neo-Luddites (now there's an oxymoron) have been bemoaning ever since cameras came with phones.

Pictures. That is, the incessant picture-taking of the kids-these-days generation. The kids these days traditionally respond by claiming that taking pictures helps them remember important events. "But sight is only one sense," the Neo-Luddites retort, "and you're so focused on taking pictures you forget to use the rest of your senses, or even actually see what you're recording."

"Pish-posh," say the youths, and they skateboard away full of mirth and truancy or whatever. I'm not really young anymore, I don't know.

This came up when I googled "kids these days," so I guess it's possible that they've switched to unicycles

Well, the Neo-Luddites have new ammunition in their constant struggle against new and exciting things. Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University, decided to find out whether of not they have a point through the clever use of science. It turns out they do.

Henkel sent a bunch of college students into an art museum and told them to photograph some pieces but just look at others. When they were quizzed later on, they were significantly more likely to remember small details if they hadn't taken a photo. Which means our brains really do subconsciously use photos as a memory crutch.
eggs frying
It's like that old drug PSA, but way less serious. And Rachel Leigh Cook isn't going to destroy your kitchen over it.

Before you Neo-Luddite readers get too excited, you should know that the rule is not absolute. When instructed to take photographs of specific details instead of an object as a whole, their memory was just fine. And that's not just on the detail they zoomed in on - zooming in on one detail made them as likely to remember all the details as students who took no pictures.

So next time you want to savor a moment, either savor it without the use of a camera or savor a few very specific details of it when you take a picture. Because otherwise your memory will partially shut down like the lazy young whippersnapper it is.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Holy Shit, HIV.

The second I wrote the title of this post, I realized that I didn't want to make this topic funny. I can write about all kinds of promising research into a cure for HIV/AIDS. I can write about how much progress has been made in removing the stigma from both the virus and the gay community. But instead, I'll just tell you to look at this graph:

That's what HIV/AIDS has done to sub-Saharan Africa. It's effects, particularly in the late '80s, were downright apocalyptic. Young people are most susceptible. In the coldest possible terms, that means countries with major AIDS epidemics are deprived of a taxable work force. Which means they just can't afford to fix the problem.

Progress has been made, but we're a long, long way from recovering fully as a species from what HIV/AIDS has wrought. To this day, there are countries where one in four people are HIV positive. I honestly don't have the stomach to say much more than that. Maybe I'll revisit more specific elements later.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Holy Shit, Flamethrowers!

Flamethrower in Vietnam
According to George Carlin “The very existence of flamethrowers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, 'You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I'm just not close enough to get the job done.'” If you don't count the Byzantine Empire (and who does these days?), that someone was probably Richard Fiedler.

Fiedler submitted his designs for a man-portable horrific weapon that spits goddamn fire at people to the German army in 1901, and he called it the Flammenwerfer. What with being German and all. It was first used in combat in World War I, where it was used to cleverly employ man's subtle fear of dying horribly in a fiery inferno, making soldiers run out into the open. That was not such a good thing to do in Trench Warfare.
No Man's Land
They didn't call it "No Man's Land" because it was a ladies-only club.

They were used much more extensively in World War II, where both the Axis and the Allies learned that throwing fire into a building was actually a really handy trick for murdering everything inside. The U.S. found them particularly useful in the Pacific Theater, where they could belch the white hot fury of Hades into caves and thick vegetation, burning down the later and sucking all the oxygen out of the former. The only drawback was a mild concern that the person carrying the weapon was essentially an incendiary bomb at all times.

Man on fire
Which I guess is a pretty big deal to some people

As of 1978, the U.S. military stopped all use of flamethrowers in combat. It turns out they're not actually all that effective on the battlefield. At least, not effective enough to justify the public relations problem that results from causing horrific, burning, largely indiscriminate death. Not to worry, though! The flamethrower has more uses!

We'll start with the positive one. Remember how Smokey Bear was wrong about forest fires? Well, it turns out that the best way to do a controlled burn and prevent out-of-control wildfires involves flamethrowers. Neat, huh? It gets better!
Controlled Burn
Better than public works projects? Impossible!

In the good old United States of America, flamethrowers are almost completely unregulated on a federal level! In many states, you can either purchase or build your own flamethrower and use it for whatever purpose you want! Other than killing folks. We do have laws for that. But if you think a flamethrower is necessary for your personal protection against home invaders, you are within your rights to have one under your pillow. Criminals will regret ever breaking into your house. And your house will probably burn to the ground.

But that's nothing compared to what I see as the pinnacle of flame propelling technology. In South Africa, starting in 1998, car-mounted flamethrowers were available as a defensive measure against car jacking. Someone trying to break into your car? No problem! Set them on fire!
Car-mounted flamthrower
I'm not seeing any way this could go horribly wrong.

They've since discontinued that particular product line, so now South Africans have to settle for personal pocket flamethrowers for self defense. Which are available in stores. Over the counter.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Holy Shit, the Birthday Song!

The traditional English birthday greeting

This is my 100th post on this here blog. To celebrate, I'd like to lead a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to You." But I can't. And it's not because a blog is an inanimate series of 1s and 0s hosted on a data server and transferred via a series of tubes to your monitor. Nor is it because a chorus requires people to be in the same room, and Internet communication requires no such thing.

Picasso's "Old Guitarist"
That would affect the logistics a little bit, though. And make it lonelier.

It's because "Happy Birthday to You" is copyrighted, and it has been since 1935. If you've ever wondered why family restaurants all have their own terrible, awkward birthday songs, this is why. Warner/Chappell Music owns the rights to the song, and they absolutely insist that anyone who sings it in a way that can be construed as "for profit" must send them a generous royalty check. Almost like a...birthday present?


This is one of those things you're going to start noticing all the time now that you know it. Whenever it's someone's birthday in a film or on television, they'll typically either cut the song off after a few words so that they can claim fair use, invent their own song a la family restaurants, or resort to the archaic but public domain "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

Don't worry, there's hope. Warner/Chappell Music is facing a class-action lawsuit that, if the plaintiffs prevail, will set "Happy Birthday to You" squarely in the public domain beside its older, British-er companion. Until then, you might want to avoid singing it unless most of the people around you are family or friends. Because they absolutely will sue your pants off. And why wouldn't they? The company rakes in $5,000 per day just by enforcing their copyright.

Holy shit.