Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Holy Shit, Turkeys!


I'm gonna make this short because I have been distracted recently by the birth of my newest niece. That guy up above, as you probably know, is a Turkey. Despite being thoroughly American, he's named after Turkey the country. The reasoning behind this is that it sounds exotic, and the European explorers who found him may have still been under the impression that America was part of Asia.

Strangely enough, many other languages use country names for the turkey as well. In actual Turkey, they call it a "Hindi," suggesting that it's from India. That's surprisingly common. France, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, and several other countries also call it some variation of "India." In actual India, they call it a Peru.

In Cambodia, they call it a French Chicken. In Arabic, it's called either a Roman Chicken or an Ethiopian Chicken. In Malaysia, it's a Dutch Chicken.

Bottom line: Turkeys are weird, people's names for Turkeys are weirder, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Holy Shit, Senses!

Still Life by Pieter Claesz
Senses! Everyone knows we have five of them, right? Sight, Hearing, Taste, Touch, and Smell. We all learned that in Kindergarten, so why bother writing a whole blog post about it?

Well, one good reason is that we all learned wrong. There are more than five senses. I mean, it's not even close. There's not really a consensus on the exact number, either. The number doesn't really matter. Think of it like individual parts of your body. How do you define a "part?" Is your forearm a different "part" than your whole arm?
George Foreman Grill
And where does your Foreman come into play?
That's how it is with sense. You've got your traditional senses, which the Elizabethans called the "Five Wits" (incidentally, that's where the phrase "keep your wits about you" comes from). Then you have things like thermoception. That's your ability to detect temperature. You could argue that it's part of your sense of touch, but when you shiver, is it really a response to touching something cold?

Then there's proprioception. That's your sense of where your body is. It's another one that's either ignored or thrown in with touch. We can demonstrate the issue with that by performing a ten second experiment. Put your hand behind your head. You can't see it. You can't feel it. But you know where your hand is. You know what it's doing. That's your kinesthetic sense, otherwise known as "proprioception." It's what lets you touch your nose with your finger even when you close your eyes.
Field Sobriety Test most cases.
How about your sense of balance? Can't really call that one touch, can you? It's based in your inner ear, and I don't think anyone would argue that it's part of hearing, either. But you can stand on thin surface and innately know when you're beginning to tilt too far in any direction.

There are tons of sense that you use all the time without thinking about it. Knowing when you need to breathe, knowing when you need to empty your little bladder or evacuate your bowels, feeling the urge to vomit, and even recognizing the passage of time are all senses beyond the traditional five.

If that's not enough to get you excited, think of it this way: most people want to experience the world in ways they never could before. One way to do that is by consciously recognizing what our bodies are automatically doing for us. When you acknowledge that you know where your hand is because of a sense you never knew you had, you're paving a conscious road where there was once only a subconscious dirt path.
Road Roller
See, the road roller is a metaphor for thinking.
And isn't that cool?

Holy shit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Holy Shit, the Cuban Missile Crisis!

Kennedy and McNamara
About a year and half ago, I shared the story of Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet Air Defense officer who saved the world by neglecting his duty...because at that moment his duty was to start a nuclear war. It may or may not surprise you to learn that, in the almost half-century time period where there was a terrifying standoff between nuclear powers, that wasn't the only time someone almost pushed the big red button.

In fact, there was one situation that was arguably a closer brush with the proverbial Midnight. That one you probably remember reading about. It involved Cuba. And missiles. And a crisis.
U2 Spyplane photos of the Cuban Missiles
And aerial reconnaissance photos that mean nothing to the untrained eye

The Cuban Missile Crisis started because Fidel Castro was sick of the CIA trying to topple his fledgling Communist nation, and Nikita Kruschev wanted to make the U.S. sweat. See, the so-called "missile gap" was an actual thing. But it was a thing that almost comically favored America. The Soviet Union really didn't even have the capability to strike most of the United States from a distance, whereas the United States had both a wealth of ICBMs and missile sites in Turkey, close enough to nuke the baldness off of the Soviet Premier.

So Kruschev sent some nukes to Cuba. When the U.S. noticed, the world started to figuratively explode with the fear that it would soon literally explode. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously advised President Kennedy to invade Cuba. Let that sink in. Such a decision would absolutely, unequivocally guarantee that the U.S.S.R. would, at the very least, invade West Berlin. And that action would almost as certainly lead to a nuclear reprisal from NATO.
Reagan pointing at a nuclear explosion
Shit. Is. On. Fire.

In short, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were, with one voice, telling Kennedy that it was time to end the world. Kennedy thought maybe we should try a few other solutions first. The compromise was a naval "quarantine," which is like a blockade but you get to not use the word "blockade," because that's defined as an act of war by international law.

At some point, the ships of this blockade announced that they would be dropping practice depth charges on Soviet submarines. They weren't powerful enough to cause severe damage, but they would usually force a submarine to surface, negating its stealthy advantage. Somehow, the Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 didn't get the memo.
Message in a Bottle
I choose to believe it was the result of outdated communication methods.

When the depth charges hit, everyone aboard was under the impression that the Cuban Missile Crisis - and by extension, the Cold War - had just gone hot. That's where Vasili Arkhipov comes in. He was second-in-command on B-59, and he was one of three officers upon whose shoulders fell the decision of whether to fire a nuclear torpedo. The two other officers voted an emphatic "YES."

Arkhipov, thankfully, said "Well, I don't know." If he hadn't been a hero from a previous incident involving a nuclear accident at sea, his words may have been drowned out. But he stood his ground, and he had a reputation for being heard. B-59 surfaced, and Moscow informed them of the situation. The very next day, Kruschev announced that the missile sites were being removed, in exchange for assurances that the U.S. would not invade Cuba and, secretly, the removal of missile sites from Turkey.
I mean, where were we even keeping them?

It's easy to think of the Cold War as a distant memory now. As a foregone conclusion. But we should remind ourselves once in a while that there were multiple occasions where a single voice of reason made the difference between continued detente and global annihilation. The Cold War was a game of Russian Roulette, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we ever came to pulling the trigger at the wrong time.

Holy Shit.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Holy Shit, Onfim!

Onfim 199

Remember when you were a kid, and you would fidget in all your classes and make weird doodles in your notebooks? Maybe you even still do it. It's a pretty common form of expression, usually reserved for when you can only spare about half your attention.

Onfim was a kid from Novgorod, Russia who doodled a lot. By itself, that doesn't mean much. But when Onfim was a student, Novgorod wasn't in Russia. It was the administrative center of the Novgorod Republic, which hasn't existed since 1478.
Novgorod Republic
I mean it was practically the size of Continental Europe. How am I just now learning about it?

We know about Onfim because he wrote his notes (and the aforementioned doodles) on soft birch bark. Before paper became a really big thing, birch bark was often used for that purpose. It's hearty and water-resistant, which is great for preservation since water is the mortal enemy of history.
We'll beat you someday, water. You just wait.

Most of Onfim's writing involved practicing the Old Slavic alphabet and writing Psalms. The doodles, though, were likely not part of any assignment. He sketched portraits of himself, his friends, and his tutor. He drew fanciful monsters with arrows sticking out of them. He even drew pictures of knights in battle. I'm not sure which of those is the 13th Century equivalent of the Bond-Villain's-Underground-Bunker that every boy knows how to draw today, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.
Onfim's sketches
I'm sure I've done something similar to this with helicopters instead of horses.

The great thing about Onfim is that he puts a human face on history. Not just a human face, but a face we all know. Because everybody doodles in school, and thanks to Onfim we know that we share that subtle desire to express ourselves with our ancestors going back at least 800 years.

Holy Shit.