Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holy Shit, the Walk to Canossa!

Walk to Canossa

Once upon a time, there was a Holy Roman Emperor named Henry IV. He wasn't a big fan of the Catholic Church having control over his business. In particular, he wanted to be able to assign his loyal subordinates as bishops within the Empire. Pope Gregory VII felt differently about the matter.

This all more came to a head when the two of them assigned separate candidates for the same position. Fuming, the Pope decided to push the big red button. The one marked "excommunicate." He notified Henry that he had exactly one year to prove that he's stopped being a dick about this whole investiture thing.
Pope Gregory VII
All while giving the "Oh no you didn't" finger wag
This being the year 1076, being excommunicated was a much bigger deal than it is today. Especially for a Holy Roman Emperor. His right to rule was, in the public perception, a divine mandate from god. To have God's corporeal press secretary declare him unfit to be a member of the church was a huge blow to his authority. Rebellion sprouted up across the Empire. Rebellion that had been growing underground among the aristocracy for some time...but now it had a religious excuse, so it burst to the surface.

So Henry had to do something. In the Winter of 1077, he got an entourage together in Speyer and headed South, away from Germany and across the Alps toward Canossa. Legend has it that he made the journey barefoot, wearing a cilice, braving frigid temperatures, snow, and ice the whole way. When he arrived, he found that the Pope ordered the gates closed. So he knelt in the snow.
Speyer to Canossa
And after the whole "uphill both ways" journey, too.
A blizzard raged outside, and Henry IV stayed. He ate nothing and wore little to ward off the snow. For three full days, he stayed outside the gate silently begging the church for forgiveness. It became clear to Gregory that to refuse Henry reconciliation with the church after that would be impossible. So he invited the Emperor inside, where they shared Communion.
Henry IV at Canossa
I mean, how could you not?
The Pope still didn't support Henry as Emperor, but the effects of the Walk to Canossa were long-term and far-reaching. During the Protestant Reformation, Henry's Walk was a rallying symbol for Protestants in Germany, who decided that their nation's rulers (and their nation itself) should never again have to face such humiliating submission to foreign powers, especially the Church. This same language was used by Adolf Hitler in his rise to power, against both the imagined conspiracy of the Jews and against government officials when the Nazi Party was banned.

Even today, people of many countries refer to a humiliating apology as their "Walk to Canossa." Just goes to show that a little hiking can do a lot for history and colloquial language.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holy Shit, NORAD!

Sears ad that got NORAD to track Santa

I've had this one in mind all year, specifically for today. Then NPR went ahead and did a story on it last week. Thanks, NPR. Thanks a lot.

For the uncultured rabble who don't follow NPR, I guess I can still give it a go. Around this time of the year in 1955, a local branch of Sears in Colorado Springs put an ad in the papers. The ad promised kids that they could get a hold of Santa Claus himself by calling a certain phone number. There was a bit of a typo, and when little Timmy picked up the phone on Christmas Eve to talk to Santa, a gruff military voice was on the other line. That gruff military voice belonged to a confused staffer of CONAD, which would be reorganized a few years later into NORAD. Nobody without security clearance was supposed to have that number.

You know NORAD, right? It's the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Aside from being terrible with acronyms, it serves the purpose of keeping unwanted visitors out of North American airspace. Unwanted visitors like Air Force planes that belong to nations who dislike America and Canada. Unwanted visitors like nuclear weapons.
Nuclear explosion
Which is pretty high on my list of things I don't want in my airspace.
It's obviously pretty nice to have them around. You would expect them to be a no-nonsense outfit. Strictly business, right? Well, for the most part, they are. The officer in charge that night, Colonel Harry Shoup, had a soft spot for good little American boys and girls. Since the cat was pretty much out of the bag where the phone number was concerned, he issued a standing order: When a staffer answers the phone to hear a child asking about Santa Claus, they are to perform their regular duty and track the flying object in U.S. airspace. That is to say, our nation's first line of air defenses was ordered to track Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and share his location with the children.
NORAD Tracking Santa
Military Decorum.

The feeling in general about this incident within the armed forces was that it was adorable. Adorable, and a perfect opportunity for good publicity. What better way to connect with the people they protect than to indulge in their most innocent fantasies? So it became a Thing with a capital T. Every year since 1955, CONAD -- and then NORAD -- has tracked Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and shared his location with inquiring children. It's all on a volunteer basis now, and there's a hotline and website and everything.

Because who says the people who watch the skies for nuclear missiles can't also get into the Christmas spirit?
NORAD Tracks Santa logo
Even if they could do better with the logo...
Holy shit.

Also, happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holy Shit, Hessy Taft!

Hessy Levinsons Taft

The baby above is Hessy Taft. Cute little bugger, isn't she?

Well, the Nazis certainly thought so. In 1935, the Nazi magazine Sonne ins Haus (The Sun in the House) had their own version of the "cutest baby contest" that magazines often have. Except they called theirs "The Most Beautiful Aryan Baby" contest. The chief judge was none other than Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbles.
Joseph Goebbles
A considerably less handsome specimen.
Baby Hessy was taken to a photographer when she was a mere six months old. Without telling the parents, the photographer submitted the picture to the magazine, confident that he had found the prettiest baby in all the Third Reich. Goebbles agreed with him, and soon little Hessy's face was on the cover of the Nazi Magazine and plastered all over shop windows, magazine ads, and postcards throughout Germany.

You may already see where this is going. See, Taft is actually Hessy's married name. She was born Hessy Levinsons, and despite being renowned as a beautiful Aryan baby, she was, in fact, quite Jewish. The photographer explained to the family that he was ordered to submit his 10 favorite baby pictures to the contest, and he submitted the one he thought was most beautiful partly because he wanted to make the Nazi philosophy look ridiculous.
Which, as you might imagine, was not as easy back then.
Luckily for the Levinsons, the Nazi Party never realized they picked a Jewish baby as an example of what all good Aryan babies should look like. Even luckier, they escaped Germany after Hessy's father was captured by the Gestapo then released thanks to a good word from a Nazi he knew.

The cover photo of Hessy Taft is one of the most delicious pieces of irony I've ever seen. The Nazis were so authoritative, so certain of the pseudoscience behind their horrific racism...and yet here they were, failing at so basic a test of said pseudoscience as picking out a non-Jewish baby as a mascot.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holy Shit, the Gombe War!

Jane Goodall's feeding station
As wars go, the Gombe War was fairly small in scale. Combatants numbered in the dozens, battles were sparse, and casualties came to a grand total of 11.What's really remarkable about the Gombe War wasn't so much how it was fought as who fought it. Because who fought it were these guys:
Gombe Chimpanzees
Not specifically these two. I mean, one of them is a baby.
Chimpanzees. The full name of the conflict is the Gombe Chimpanzee War. The factions involved were once part of a larger community of chimpanzees. They were known as the Kasakela and Kahama groups, and they inhabited the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Pretty much everything we know about this war comes from a single source, and she's always been one of my personal heroes: Jane Goodall, the famous ethologist, animal rights activist, and all-around awesome chimp lady.
Jane Goodall
Hearing her greet a crowd by howling like a chimpanzee was a formative moment for me.
She started noticing a rift in the chimpanzee community, which appeared to be driving the two sub-groups into different areas of the Park. One January day in 1974, the rift tore into open violence. A gang of six Kasakela chimpanzees surrounded a lone Kahama, brutally attacking and killing him. Over the next four years, the two groups were constantly at odds. Open conflict was relatively rare, but by June of 1978 every single Kahama chimpanzee had been slain. Only one Kasakela died.

For Jane Goodall, this was one of the most horrific - and most important - events she witnessed in her time with the chimpanzees. She describes devastating nightmares that plagued her later in life, where she would relive the experience of seeing creatures she knew to be gentle in the midst of tearing one another limb from limb, literally drinking the blood of their fallen enemies. Enemies that had once been like family to them.
For some reason this picture is suddenly chilling.
But it was important for the same reason it was important when she first witnessed chimpanzees using tools. Because chimpanzees are animals, and the suggestion that animals could engage in organized hostility - warfare - was so far-fetched at the time that many in the scientific community doubted her reports and wrote them off as anthropomorphizing nonsense. Further study with more rigorous methods have only underscored Goodall's work, though.

So we just have to face the fact that we don't get to be the only ones who go to war.


Holy shit.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Holy Shit, Deir el-Medina!

Deir el-Medina Site

You won't find much in the way of functioning society at Deir el-Medina these days. It's just Northwest of the city of Luxor, next to the famous Valley of the Kings, just past the area where the Nile makes the ground fertile. What you will find, though, is plenty of evidence that people used to live there.

Deil el-Medina was a workers' village in New Kingdom Era Egypt. In case that doesn't mean anything to you, let me point out that the New Kingdom Era was 1550 and 1077 BC. Which is a hella long time ago.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
As old to Cleopatra as Cleopatra is us. Seriously.

It's placement was no accident. The workers who lived there were tasked with building the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. Thanks to painstaking excavations of the site during the 1920s, it's one of the clearest windows we have into the ancient Egyptian world.

Crucially, the surviving documents from the village were not preserved for posterity's sake, but rather by happenstance. That means that instead of self-aggrandizing tales of historical significance, Deir el-Medina gives us a glimpse into the ordinary daily life of the Ancient Egyptian worker.

We know, for example, that the village was what we might consider "middle class," and that the laborers there were mostly skilled tradesmen.We know that people worshiped both the "official" gods and their own "personal" gods, and that was pretty much okay with the authorities. We know that they practiced an eight day work week followed by a two day weekend. We know that they were allowed days off for both illness and hangovers. During their time off, some workers would build their own tombs - since, you know...they were pretty good at it.
Deir el-Medina worker's tomb
"Sick tomb, bro! Can't wait to see you in it!"

Maybe the most interesting thing we know about Deir el-Medina, though, is something that occurred during the reign of Ramesses III. Things weren't so hot for the Egyptian Empire at the time. In fact, the economic turmoil the Empire was embroiled in during that era was a significant factor in the overall decline of Egypt's influence.

What this meant for Deir el-Medina was that their wages and rations were late. This was a big no-no. A religious no-no, in fact. So, for the first (known) time in history, the workers went on strike. They refused to do any more work until the Pharaoh or Vizier came to speak with them about their wages and rations. Eventually, the authorities relented, but the process played out several times before it became clear that the workers were holding a winning hand.

That, as far as we know, is the origin of organized labor. In Egypt, over 3,000 years ago.

Holy Shit.