Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Holy Shit, the Great War!

World War I
One hundred years and two days ago, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after a series of political machinations that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Due to a tangled web of alliances and escalations, this declaration of war was followed by at least half a dozen others in less than a week. The next four years tore Continental Europe apart, both figuratively and literally.
Beaumont-Hamel Newfounland Memorial
This is Beaumont-Hamel after almost a century of healing.

World War I isn't as sexy as its sequel. It's much messier. There's not a clear "bad guy" to hate. I mean, if you're looking for a villain, you're not going to do much better than friggin' Hitler. No such luck in The Great War. The villain there was the war itself. The trenches. The ineffectual artillery barrages and futile charges into certain death. The gas.
Mustard Gas Burns know...fuck that noise.

All told, nearly 18 million men, women, and children died as a direct result of the war. That's close to 2% of the population of the participating countries. Some fared worse than others. Serbia may have lost as much as 18% of their population, which...Jesus, can you imagine what that would do to your country? That's not to mention the specific battles like the Battle of the Somme, where the first day of the fighting cost 20,000 allied lives and resulted in a single mile change in the battle lines.

It was horrific, to say the least. And a lot of people will tell you it started because of a sandwich. Because several assassination attempts failed on the day Franz Ferdinand's death set the wheels in motion, and Gavrilo Princip happened to sit down and ruminate on the day's events with a sandwich from a deli that happened to be exactly where the Archduke's car would stop after the driver got turned around. Rest assured, though, that the sandwich had nothing to do with it.

It wasn't a coincidence. Princip went there not to ruminate, but because he suspected that the motorcade would come that way. Aside from that, the bare fact is (and I can't believe I find it necessary to explain this) sandwiches don't cause world wars. Not even a little bit. World Wars are caused by tangled webs of diplomacy, mass escalation at crises, and overconfident world leaders whose only experience with war is in fighting a vastly technologically inferior foe.
Cecil Rhodes
Which was this whole other thing

If it wasn't Franz Ferdinand, it probably would have been someone else. Germany, France, England, Russia, and Austria-Hungary were positively itching for a fight. Germany was once the voice of reason. Otto von Bismark kept the whole thing together more or less by sheer force of will for quite some time. But then he was sacked, and the world began its inexorable march toward a preview of Armageddon. And no, I don't mean the campy oil industry wet dream film.

After the Great War came and went, nothing would ever be the same. My pet example of the effects of World War I is Dadaism. The avant-garde art movement was born of a complete rejection of everything in civilization up to that point, because that's what got us into this mess. Realism, reason, and logic were thrown out the window, and artists embraced the absurd. Because when you're dealing with constant explosions, fruitless sacrifices, and gas that melts your face and lungs, what else are you going to embrace?

Holy shit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Holy Shit, Minecraft!


That guy up there is Markus Persson, better known by his alias, "Notch." In May of 2009, Notch went to the forums of TIGSource, a meeting place for indie game developers and players. He'd been working on a new concept, inspired by Dwarf Fortress and Infiniminer, and he had a working build ready for feedback. It was rudimentary at best -- you had an infinite number of blocks and a small area to work in, and the point was to just...go to town building whatever you wanted.
Minecraft Classic

But goddamn, was that promising. People got excited. They built statues, pixel art, the U.S.S. friggin' Enterprise, and whatever else came to mind. When they built something, they became proud and shared it with their friends. Word started to spread. This early version of Notch's vision came to be known as Minecraft Classic. Within a year, Indev (short for "in development") followed, bringing with it key features that would catapult Minecraft into the legendary role it plays today.
Minecraft 3x3 Crafting Grid
Like mining. And crafting.

I first learned of Minecraft around this time. I saw an introductory video from YouTube gamer SeaNanners, wherein he showcased the early crafting process. First, he punched a tree to get a log. Then, he used the crafting menu to turn the log into planks, which he used to build a crafting table. This gave him a 3x3 grid rather than a 2x2 grid. Then, he turned some of the planks into sticks, formed tools in the grid with sticks and planks, and I gasped aloud. The implications of this system were immediately apparent to me, and I purchased the game the moment the video ended.
Shut up and take my money
Artist's rendition

What Minecraft offers is nearly infinite creativity with a side of adventure. There are monsters, and you can deal with them by creating, not just taking what the developer gives you and clicking until they die. You build your base. You build your weapons. You build your armor. You mine your own resources. It's the purest form of a video game sandbox that has ever been. Word of the game spread like wildfire as players shared their creations and experiences.
Minecraft penises
Which, let's be honest, were inevitably phallic in nature.

Meanwhile, Notch quit his day job and formed a company called Mojang. Continued success meant he could hire more programmers to add features and hammer out bugs. Groundbreaking success meant he could hand over the reins to said programmers and start working on other projects.

When I say "groundbreaking," I want you to understand just how much I mean it. As of this month, Minecraft is the single best selling PC game of all time. It sold more than the notoriously addictive World of Warcraft. More than Starcraft, which launched an entirely new genre of spectator sports. Across all platforms, Minecraft (so far) is the third best selling video game of all time. It's behind Wii Sports (whose numbers aren't going anywhere anymore) and freaking Tetris. It's sold more copies that Super goddamn Mario Brothers, which was bundled with the NES (the system that singlehandedly pulled the game industry out of the abyss).
Minecraft pixel art
Nintendo's role is not lost on Minecrafters

Thanks to Minecraft, YouTube went from a hub of cat videos to a hub of Let's Play videos about Minecraft. It launched incredibly successful careers for people who now spend their days recording and editing their own gameplay videos. It is impossible to overstate just how monumentally Minecraft altered the gaming landscape. And it all started with just...a guy. For fun.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Holy Shit, the Oxygen Catastrophe


Let's say your an obligate anaerobic organism, and it's roughly two and a half billion years ago. You're hanging out on Earth, and you've pretty much got the whole place on a string. The world is your oyster (except those don't exist yet, so the world is your...I don't know, other, smaller type of obligate anaerobe).

One day, a new guy shows up. Or several million new guys, because they're bacteria and they come in large groups. These new guys, the cyanobacteria, are pretty different. They go through this whole process of photosynthesis and end up producing oxygen, and it's kind of weird. You're not a fan. In fact, the stuff is toxic to you.
Rusting iron bolt
More like toxygen, amirite? Guys? Hehe. Classic.

Luckily for you, dissolved iron and organic matter ends up capturing most of the oxygen, so you continue on your merry way for another 200 million years or so. At that point, the oxygen sinks become fully saturated. That means oxygen starts becoming a part of the atmosphere. For you and all your friends, that's a bad thing. A very, very bad thing.

The "anaerobic" part of "obligate anaerobic" means "without air/oxygen." The "obligate" part means oxygen will straight murder you. Which is exactly what happened. The same event that started Earth's atmosphere down the path toward being breathable also caused one of the largest mass extinctions of all time. It was essentially an apocalypse. The only survivors were the culprits -- who passed on the trait of photosynthesis to future generations -- and a few varieties of anaerobic bacteria that could tolerate the new atmosphere.

Oxygen was basically the Cthluhu of the obligate anaerobic world.

To get an idea of just how big the Oxygen Catastrophe was (and yes, that is an official name for it), just imagine the same thing happening today. Instead of oxygen, imagine it's an element that humans can't breathe. One that might cause dangerous fluctuations in the living conditions on Earth for the majority of its species. Something like, I don't know, carbon dioxide.

Oh, wait...
Global Climate Change
Well this isn't totally comforting.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Holy Shit, Poison Ivy!

Poison Ivy rash
This weekend, I was mowing the lawn when I spotted a bushel of trifoliate weeds. Remembering the old adage, "Leaves of three, let it be (unless it's under your backyard tree)," I sprang into action. With gloved hands, I yanked the whole damn thing out of the ground, roots and all. Then I put it into a plastic bag and tossed it into the trash.

Alas, one of the leaflets brushed against my hand, spreading the urushiol onto the bare skin there. Then I wiped the sweat from my brow with the same spot on my arm. Now my arm has an infuriatingly itchy rash, my eyes are swollen and bumpy, my heart is a pit of black rage, and every fiber of my being is screaming in hatred of Toxicodendron radicans, more commonly known as poison ivy.
Poison Ivy
Or "Satan's Salad"

So we're going to talk about this little son-of-a-bitch weed. First and foremost, how it works. Poison ivy is one of many plants that produces urushiol, an oily substance that 85% of human immune systems treat like Genghis freaking Khan. If you're allergic, like most people are, your body will throw everything it has at the urushiol, and that's why I hate botanical world right now.

Once your dumbass pores absorb the oil (probably because you took a hot shower, which opens them), you are very unlikely to be contagious. The blisters are full of water and pus, but not poison ivy juice. Any clothing you have that came into contact with it, on the other hand, is highly contagious and should be washed as soon as possible. Or burned in a cathartic bonfire. Or nuked from orbit. Your choice, really.

From there, depending on the severity, you either wait it out, take some antihistamines, apply some itch cream, or take steroids to unleash the hidden powers of your manly immune system or something (citation needed). I'm on the steroids route.

Artist's rendition

Now here's the weird stuff. You knew it was coming. First of all, humans are the only animal we know of that is allergic to poison ivy. Even chimps, who share a ludicrous amount of DNA with us, are completely immune.

In fact, one of the preferred (or at least entertaining) methods of getting rid of an infestation is your yard is to hire a goat. They love the stuff. They'll eat it all up for you without getting so much as a stomachache.
Goat eye
I knew there was a reason I don't trust them. I could see it in their eldritch eyes.

The other big weird point: urushiol is not restricted to poison ivy. Of course, most people know that poison oak and poison sumac work the same way. That's true enough. There's also a tree found in Asia called the Asian lacquer tree that has it. The Japanese call it the urushi. I respect you enough as a reader to assume you can make that connection. That's not too weird, though, is it? You were expecting more.

I guess I'll have to throw in some mangoes.
Mango Tree
I'm generous like that

Mango leaves and stems (and possibly also skins) have the same allergenic compound as poison ivy, and are, in fact, the number one cause of plant-based rashes in places where mangoes are cultivated, like Hawaii.

The moral of this story is fuck mangoes, fuck urushiol, and most of all, fuck poison ivy.

So holy shit, or whatever. I'm gonna go take some more Benadryl.