Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Holy Shit, the Speed of Light!

If you know a little bit about physics, you know that the speed of light is around 300 million meters per second. If you know a bit more, you know that the exact figure is 299,792,498 meters per second. If you know just a bit more, you know that neither of those are necessarily true.

Here's the problem: "The Speed of Light" is a bit of a misnomer, which is probably one of the reasons scientists tend to just call it c. A more accurate definition of c would be "The Speed Limit of the Universe," because 299,792,498 meters per second is the fastest that any energy, matter, or information can possibly travel. It so happens that light is the only thing we know of that can reach that speed.
There are contenders, but we haven't quite gotten there yet.

What that doesn't mean, however, is that light always travels at c. In fact, light only travels at "light speed" in a vacuum. You'll note that the entirety of Earth is not, to our great benefit and relief, a vacuum. We have a whole atmosphere that lets us breathe and stuff.
That's not to say we don't have some perfectly nice vacuums on Earth

The effect of the atmosphere on light is relatively small. It shaves off about 90,000 meters per second from light speed, which is a drop in the bucket. "So what's the big deal," you might say, "that's more or less the same. What's the difference?" To which I'd respond, "Are you inside?"

Because if you are inside, the light you're seeing is traveling significantly slower. Even if it's natural light coming through a window. Glass alone will slow down light by almost a third. These are just natural processes that slow light down. If you put some effort into it, you can make light practically crawlPhysicists at Harvard University, led by Lene Hau, used a bizarre state of matter with densely packed, super-cold atoms to slow light to 17 meters per second. That's 38 miles per hour. That's like you're morning commute, if you don't take the highway. You could beat light to work, depending on the traffic.

A few years later, those same physicists succeeded in turning light into matter and making it just stop. They then revived it and started it moving again a short distance away. So, congratulations. Any time you move, you are travelling faster than light...given the right conditions.

Holy shit.

"Bolt200" by Jmex - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

"Робот пылесос Roomba 780" by Nohau - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

"Sacrumi". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia - No offense intended :-)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Holy Shit, James Harrison!

James Harrison with two babies

In 1951, a 14-year-old Australian kid named James Harrison underwent major chest surgery. There were no major complications, and he ended up fine, but it struck him as incredible that he required almost 3.5 gallons of donated blood in order to survive the ordeal. From that moment, he made a personal vow to donate as much blood as he possibly could once he had fully recovered. As soon as he turned 18, he started giving plasma every 2-3 weeks.

Which I guess was exhausting? This pictogram is weird.

Once he had one or two donations under his belt, there was an interesting development. It turns out James Harrison's blood contained an antibody called Rho(D) immune globulin. That probably doesn't mean much to you, but to OB/GYNs and medical researches, finding this antibody in someone who was vowing to donate as much blood as humanly possible was like planting a garden and finding El Dorado in your backyard as a result.
Muisca Raft Legend of El Dorado
I have a sudden urge to start November.

To understand why, you need to know a bit about blood types and pregnancy complications. If a pregnant woman has a negative blood type but the fetus is positive, the mother's blood often treats the baby as a disease. The medical term for that situation is Rhesus Disease, but it's also known as "Bad News Bears." In the best case scenario, the baby is born anemic. More often than not, it could cause miscarriage or stillbirth.

Rhesus Disease used to be one of the most common causes of pregnancy and birth complications. But then James Harrison came around. When his fancy-pants antibody is given to pregnant women, it essentially hides the part of the baby's blood that causes the mother's body to treat it as a parasite. Thousands of babies were born and lived because Harrison was constantly donating. It wasn't long before researches developed RhoGAM, which is essentially a vaccine that protects at-risk pregnancies from Rhesus Disease.

James Harrison is still around and donating, and he's become a major voice for blood donation. He currently holds the world record for lifetime blood donations -- which, by now, is well over 1,000. It's estimated that his blood has saved over 2.4 million babies.
Crying newborn.
Well that's just ungrateful.

I don't usually get personal on this blog, but in this case I'm going to make an exception. My daughter is quite possibly alive today because of James Harrison. Her blood type is Rh positive and her mother's is Rh negative. My daughter is easily the single best thing that's ever happened to me. She's brought immeasurable happiness into my life, and I owe that happiness, in part, to James Harrison.
My foot and my baby's foot
There is nothing like this.

Holy shit.

By the way, you ought to consider donating blood yourself. You've got a ton of it, and it's not like you're using it all. Might as well, right? The Red Cross is a good place to start, but a quick Google search for "donate blood" should show you what your options are.

James Harrison with two babies. Australian Red Cross.

"Muisca raft Legend of El Dorado Offerings of gold" by Andrew Bertram - World66. Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Commons

"Human-Male-White-Newborn-Baby-Crying" by Evan-Amos - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Holy Shit, the Battle of Hastings!

Harold's Death, Bayeux Tapestry

In January of 1066, the King of England, Edward the Confessor, died. He had become withdrawn and indecisive in his latter days, which led to three separate claims on the English throne: Harold Godwinson (who was crowned), Harald Hardrada of Norway, and William, the Duke of Normandy. All three had fairly legitimate claims to the throne, but Harold got to it first.

Not to be deterred, both Harald Hardrada and William assembled expeditionary forces and planned an invasion of England. Hardrada was faster (maybe because he was a Viking). With 300 ships and about 9,000 men, he landed in the north and quickly took the city of York. Unfortunately for him, he underestimated Godwinson's resolve.

Harold (with an O) raced north, gathering an army along the way, and caught Harald (with an A) unaware at Stamford Bridge in September. The element of surprise was present to the extent that about a third of the Norwegian army only showed up after the rest of them were in full rout. Of the 300 ships that came to England, only 24 returned to Norway, and none of them carried Hardrada.
Battle of Stamford Bridge, Peter Arbo
That's him in the blue. He just got a new neck piercing. Ill-advised, as it turns out.
Harold Godwinson felt pretty good about that victory. For all of three days. In his furious march north, he had brought with him most of the levies that were meant to defend the south from William, which meant that when William landed there was pretty much no opposition. He built a small wooden castle at Hastings and started raiding the surrounding countryside.

After a grueling march and gruesome battle, Harold once again drove his forces across the country to meet an invader. Many of the details are unclear, but it appears that he favored speed over replenishing his forces. By the time he reached Hastings, his men were exhausted and battle-weary, and Norman scouts had spotted them, eliminating the element of surprise.
And coffee wouldn't even reach England for another several centuries!
Even so, the battle was far from one-sided. The English set up defensively on a hill, and the Normans repeatedly failed to dislodge them. At some point, a rumor started that William had been killed. Norman soldiers began to panic and run, which was ironically the spark that led to their victory. Foreign butts were mighty tempting to English swords, so the warriors holding them started breaking formations to reach them.

When William turned out to be alive -- and noticing the buttstabby lack of discipline -- he started using fake routs to shake loose the shield walls. While this didn't get the English off the hill, it did get them to expose their flanks, to which the Normans applied a liberal amount of charging horse. Things cascaded from there. the cavalry charge opened a path toward the King and his retinue, which led to the King's death, which sent the English into a full panic and essentially ended the battle right then and there.
Cavalry Charge, Bayeux Tapestry
And look! There were only like six of them!
Two months later, the Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England and given the name William the Conqueror. There were a few years of resistance but after Hastings England simply couldn't muster the strength to shake off the Norman Invasion. The consequences were staggering. The English aristocracy was systematically and thoroughly wiped out, replaced by William's vassals. Massive waves of refugees left England and settled elsewhere in Europe.

Even the English language was effectively destroyed by the Norman invasion. The kings of England for centuries after the Norman invasion spoke an old form of French, which gradually merged with English into a new Anglo-Norman dialect. That brings me to one of my favorite little tidbits of tangentially related history: Richard the Lionheart, arguably the most iconic Medieval King of England, never learned English.
And he certainly never learned a Scottish accent.
The Battle of Hastings is one of those rare moments in history where a few small decisions have a clear and massive impact on the rest of history for centuries to come. It was the deciding battle in the last successful invasion of England, almost a thousand years ago. It entirely broke England, reshaping it into something completely different, which has not been done to such a violent and rapid extent since.

Holy shit.

"A small cup of coffee" by Julius Schorzman - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

"Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" by Warner Brothers. Licensed under Fair Use

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Holy Shit, Stuxnet!

Nuclear Centrifuges

In June of 2010, researchers at a cyber security firm in Belarus called VirusBlokAda discovered a troubling bit of malware with a mysterious purpose. It used USB drives to transmit itself, bypassing Internet security. This was nothing new, nor was it overly troubling.

What was both of those things was the fact that this new malware was using multiple zero-day exploits. That's what programmers call an exploitable bug that hasn't been discovered or patched yet. Which means a fully-patched, fully up-to-date operating system with cutting edge security would still be vulnerable to it.
So not like the malware you'd only find on grandma's computer
It takes an enormous amount of effort and resources to discover a zero-day exploit, largely because there are legions of hackers constantly working to do just that in the interest of proactively preventing security problems. This malware, which came to be known as Stuxnet, used four of them. No malware up to that point had ever managed such a feat.

Even more baffling, Stuxnet did not appear to cause any harm once it infected a new system. It just sat in wait until either it could infect a new computer or a specific piece of hardware was attached to it. By painstakingly reading through countless lines of code, security experts were able to determine that its target was specific PLC systems.
Siemens PLC
Which basically look like boxes of plastic with some wires and lights on them.
A PLC is used to automate industrial processes, which is where you might start to feel uneasy about this whole story. A bit more digging and the process of elimination revealed the bombshell. The PLCs that Stuxnet was intended to target were almost certainly used to regulate industrial centrifuges at a nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran.
The other ways in are well-guarded and way less subtle. So flash drive it is, I guess.
At this point, the perpetrator of the Stuxnet cyber attack has all but tacitly acknowledged its role. But I'll give you two guesses. Who would have a major interest in sabotaging a nuclear facility in Iran?
Flag of Israel
Certainly a motive there.
But who would have the resources to assemble the team of gifted programmers, industrial experts and spies necessary to pull off a feat like that?
Flag of the United States
Spoiler Alert: it was probably both.

And make no mistake. It worked. It's hard to say how well it worked since any official planning or execution documentation is certainly and highly classified, but thousands of Iranian centrifuges mysteriously failed before Stuxnet was discovered.

This is obviously a win for American espionage, but it has broader implications that are staggeringly bleak. At some point, this operation, (known as Operation Olympic Games), and by extension the United States government, determined that there were four vulnerabilities which could potentially lead to industrial sabotage. Maybe even to catastrophic attacks on infrastructure. And rather than take defensive measures to fix the problem, they used it against another nation.

The use of zero-day exploits by nation states is potentially a Pandora's Box on par with the use of weapons of mass destruction. Stuxnet opened the box.

Holy shit.

"Gas centrifuge cascade" by U.S. Department of Energy - Public Domain

"Bonzi buddy". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

"S7300" by Ulli1105 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons
"Natanz nuclear" by Hamed Saber - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Holy Shit, School Shootings!

Mass Shooting Timeline

Let me just say right off the bat that I agree, there is nothing funny or entertaining about school shootings. They are entirely tragic and horrific, and though I'm almost always going for entertainment on this blog, I called it "That's Interesting" and not "That's Entertaining" for a reason.

With that being said, recent research into the mentality of school shooters has opened up terrifying insights into why they're becoming more of a thing. Don't get me wrong. School shootings are not a completely new phenomenon. As long as there have been privately-owned guns, there have been those rare few who think it would be fun to use one in a place of learning.

But until fairly recently, the phenomenon was exceedingly rare. Thankfully, it still is relative to most other violent crime. But the numbers are starting to look disturbingly like rain in an oubliette. The water is rising and we haven't quite found a way to divert it yet.
It's a dungeon with a high hatch as the only entry point.

Very recently, a new explanation has emerged to explain why this rare tragedy is starting to look more like a trend, and it's terrifying. It has to do with riots.

Mark Granovetter, a sociologist who studied paradoxical human behaviors about 40 years ago, set out to explain why people who are otherwise rational and peaceful will participate in a riot. What he eventually determined was essentially peer pressure. Any social process, he argued, is driven by thresholds. A threshold in this case is the number of people doing something, whatever it is, that we need to see before we define it as an okay thing to do.

So how it works is that someone with a low threshold -- a particularly hotheaded person, or maybe just someone looking for an excuse to cause some damage -- starts wrecking something. Someone else with a threshold of 1 joins in, because as long as someone else is doing it, it's probably okay, right? Then a few more join, and a few more, and pretty soon there are decent people surrounded by destructive frenzy, and everyone temporarily becomes willing to redefine what is normal, what is acceptable. The more it happens, the more it becomes normal.
Stanley Cup Riot

If you're thinking ahead at all, a sinking dread may be creeping up on you. Because Malcolm Gladwell recently suggested that this same principle can be applied over a longer period of time to explain the school shooting epidemic. The trend started, he argues, back in 1999. With Columbine. The shooters in that case were textbook psychopaths, but the media frenzy around their messages and preparations started a threshold. Since that time, people who commit mass shootings at school have slowly begun trending away from violent mental illness.

This is the Columbine Memorial. I have no witty comments.

The more it happens the more it becomes normal. We can reassure ourselves with the knowledge that people generally don't like to hurt each other, but if Gladwell's hypothesis proves true then it's going to get worse before it gets better. As he puts it, "The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts."

Holy shit.

NOTE: I avoided using any mass shooter's name in this post because it may be a contributing factor to the normalization of mass violence.

Dalibor Tower Dungeon, Prague Castle by kitonlove. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

"Riot in Vancouver" by Elopde. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

"Columbinememorial" by Denverjeffrey. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Holy Shit, Fondue!


If you're a middle- to upper-class American yuppie (or are friends with one), or are just some other type of foodie I haven't met yet, you know all about fondue. It's a bucket of melted stuff that you dip other stuff into. Traditionally, it's meant to be melted cheese and bread. Either way, it's kind of ridiculous when you think about it.

Who decided that dipping bread into a communal bowl of viscous cheese was a delicacy? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for jazzing up any dish with some cheese. But how did this become fancy? The answer, shockingly, has to do with war, corruption, and a veritable cartel dedicated to Swiss cheese.
Thug Life Cow
As much as I'd like it to be, the cartel was not run by literal Swiss cows

And I'm not making any of that up. The cartel was called the Swiss Cheese Union. It was founded in 1914 by Swiss dairy farmers in order to control cheese production and prices. You may recognize this as the exact principle behind OPEC. As an added bonus, the Swiss Cheese Union also decided what cheeses dairy farmers were allowed to produce. Only Gruyere, Sbrinz and Emmental were allowed, and farmers needed a license to make and sell any of them or they risked being blacklisted.
And before you ask, yes. There were cheese rebels.

The cheese cartel gained significant prominence after World War I, owing largely to the fact that the infrastructure of other European nations had recently and literally been burned and blasted to bits. Which meant most cheese in Europe was coming out of more-neutral-than-beige Switzerland. That gave the Swiss Cheese Union an enormous amount of power, because it turns out people can get pretty serious about their cheese. With some bribes and favors, the Union was able to get a few politicians in their pockets, leading to huge subsidies for their industry.

Still, the cartel was unsatisfied. They had the supply side of the cheese market pretty much cornered, but their marketing arm decided they could do something about the demand side as well. Luckily, there was a regional dish in certain Alpine areas known as fondue that could literally have people eating bucket loads of their product. The Swiss Cheese Union successfully lobbied to have fondue made a national dish of Switzerland, and pounded the ever-loving cheese curds out of their marketing efforts. Your knowledge of fondue, whoever you are, is very likely a result of this marketing effort.
Fondue Pot
Pictured: Corruption.

Eventually, the people of Switzerland got wise to the corruption involved in the cheese cartel, largely because what government spends so much money on talking about fondue? Dirty laundry was aired, people were jailed, and by the 1990s the Swiss Cheese Union was a shadow of its former glory. By 1999, it was completely dissolved, and a new era of freedom dawned for Swiss dairy farmers. But the legacy of the Swiss Cheese Union lives on today in every pot of melted cheese you stick your comically long fork into.
Fondue Fork
I'm suspicious of dishes that require a unique utensil to be eaten.

So next time you visit your local quirky, atmospheric little hole-in-the-wall fondue place, just remember the enormous and corrupt cartel that brought it to your attention.

Holy shit.

"Swiss fondue 2" by JHG (Julien29) - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

"Mozzarella cheese" by Jon Sullivan - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

"Fondue2" by -jkb- Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons

"Fondue fork" by Vearthy - based on the shape in the PONS Picture Dictionary - Polish-German + free wood pattern from Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Holy Shit, Chloroform!

Despite being pretty much obsolete for its main intended use, chloroform maintains a solid foothold in our collective cultural awareness. And you know why. The trope of the chloroform-soaked rag has been so thoroughly woven into the fabric of crime fiction that it's the first thing we think of when we plan imagine a kidnapping.

What? There are perfectly legitimate reasons to wear a balaclava in late September.

In fact, it's such an integral trope that most of us will never even think about chloroform in any other context. Admit it, when you saw the title of this post you thought it was going to be all about kidnapping, didn't you? Well, you're not entirely wrong, but if you look closer at the history of chloroform, you'll find yourself in one of those situations where the rug gets pulled out from under you.

The problem with our kidnapping imagery is that chloroform doesn't work that way. Well it does, but not nearly that fast. You can rest easy with the knowledge that, were a criminal to approach you with a chloroform-soaked rag, he would have to hold it up to your face for five to ten solid minutes before you became unconscious.

Which means this scene is just starting to get awkward.

So where did the "Instant KO" myth come from? This guy:
Believe it or not, not a kidnapper.

That's Sir James Young Simpson, a Scottish obstetrician known for innovating new equipment and treatments to help advance the medical field. Simpson had a couple of colleagues over one day and decided to do a little experiment with some chloroform he happened to have. To make a long story short, the gathering ended up being a bit of a rager. His two human guinea pigs got first loopy, then giddy, then unconscious.

Simpson was thrilled with this discovery, and just three days later chloroform entered the medical scene as an anesthetic. His excitement at the relative speed with which his friends passed out led him to exaggerate a bit, which led the general public to believe that chloroform could cause instant sleepytimes. From there, writers (and disappointed criminals) took the ball and ran with it, and a trope was born.

As for its medical use, chloroform lost a bit of favor when it turned out that 1 in every 3,000 patients dosed with the drug ended up dead. Safer methods arose, especially nitrous oxide, and chloroform dropped out of the real world, taking refuge in fiction. Today, it's mostly used in chemistry labs or as a solvent.
Which is way less exciting.

So remember, if someone jumps from an alley and forces chloroform into your face, you're probably just going to end up a little frightened and a little high. At least from the drug, I make no further guarantees about the criminal.

Holy shit.

"Chickamauga 2009, Chloroform" by Kevin King - Flickr: Chickamauga 2009, Chloroform. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

"Balaclava 3 hole black" by Tobias "ToMar" Maier. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Still image from Charmed, S2E7: "Give Me a Sign"

"Simpson James Young signature picture" by Henry Laing Gordon - Frontispiece of Sir James Young Simpson and Chloroform (1811-1870). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

"Senior chemistry lab at Mother's International School, Delhi" by Prateek Karandikar - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Holy Shit, Special Order 191!

On September 13, 1862, Barton Mitchell was moseying around a hilltop when he came across an envelope. Inside were three cigars wrapped in a single piece of paper. "Lucky me," Barton presumably thought as he unwrapped his prize, perhaps assuming the paper was a birthday card or something.

But then he saw the writing. It wasn't a pithy, jejune greeting. It was a thoroughly detailed ten point list...of orders. Confederate orders. Not just any Confederate orders, either. They were explicit movement orders for every high-ranking officer in the Army of Northern Virginia. And Barton Mitchell just happened to be a Union soldier. Naturally, he slackened his jaw, allowing the cigar to fall dramatically to the grass. Probably.
The Scream
Artist's Rendition
Then he took the orders directly to his commanding officer, who sent it up the chain, person by person, until it reached Major General George B. McClellan, who practically jumped for joy and said, "Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home."

Two weeks later, largely thanks to the intelligence gleaned from Special Order 191, the Union won a strategic victory at the Battle of Antietam, which brought the Confederate offensive to a grinding halt and proved a significant enough turning point for Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation. While the war had always been about slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation stated without question that freeing slaves in Confederate territory was now a strategic goal of the Union.
Lincoln and McClellan
Along with posing in a most dignified manner.
Arguably, the Civil War could have gone differently if Barton Mitchell hadn't stumbled upon such a valuable piece of information. In fact, there's a lengthy series of alternate history novels that base their point of divergence on that very event. The tiniest mishaps, like using the wrong paper to wrap your cigars and then leaving them behind, can be what Gandalf called "the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains."
Gandalf from The Two Towers
He would actually fit in pretty well, given the facial hair.

Holy shit.

"LostOrdersCramptonsGap112611" by Wilson44691 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch

"Lincoln and McClellan 1862-10-03" by Alexander Gardner - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpb.04351.

The Two Towers still by New Line Cinema. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Holy Shit, Viktor Tsoi!

On August 15th, 1990, a man in Latvia died in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. Within hours, the story was all over the Russian media, and a message was spraypainted onto a Moscow wall in all black that simply read, "Viktor Tsoi died today." Soon after, a separate message appeared, insisting, "Tsoi Lives!" The second message became something of a rallying cry for the Soviet and post-Soviet rock scene in Eastern Europe. Because Viktor Tsoi and his band, Kino, were the most important musical pioneers in Soviet history.

Kino rose to fame at a time when it was suddenly possible to criticize the communist regime in the USSR. In the 1980s, Glasnost and Perestroika became a thing and censorship started to wane. Kino was at the forefront of the new wave of artistic freedom. They took their inspiration from Western bands like The Smiths, R.E.M., and The Cure. At the height of their popularity, they released an album called Gruppa Krovi, or "Blood Type." The title track goes like this:

The chorus roughly means, "My blood type is pinned on my sleeve, and my number and rank. Wish me luck in the battles to come. Wish for me not to lay dead in the grass. Wish me luck in the battle." It's a protest song about the war in Afghanistan.
The one where America was rooting for the Islamists
The band was just reaching its full potential when Viktor Tsoi died in the aforementioned car accident. Kino was in the midst of recording their highly anticipated eighth album. In fact, Tsoi was carrying a tape with him in the car that was the only copy of the recording of his vocal tracks for said album.

The crash was horrific. His car smashed into a bus and was all but disintegrated, and he died instantly. The tape not only survived, but it was entirely undamaged. Four months later, the album was released. Its cover was a mournful black with its title (KINO) in small white letters at the center. The name was quickly disregarded by fans, who dubbed it "The Black Album."
Where'd they get that idea?

The wall where "Tsoi Lives!" was written became a major cultural landmark in Moscow, and the phrase itself was repeated as something of a meme throughout Western Europe. It meat defiance in the face of grief. Rebellion in the face of loss. It was the new Russia. Or at least what the new Russia was supposed to be.
The Tsoi Wall
It's still there, too.

Holy shit.

"Victor Tsoi 1986 cropped" by Victor_Tsoi_1986.jpg: Igor Mukhinderivative work: Beaumain (talk) - Victor_Tsoi_1986.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

"Mortar attack on Shigal Tarna garrison, Kunar Province, 87" by Erwin Lux - Private collection; apparently a crop of this image at Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

"Кино, Черный альбом (Kino, Chyorny album) (1990)" by группа Кино - Чёрный альбом. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

"Tsoi Wall 02" by Superchilum - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Holy Shit, Jellyfish!


I mean...look at that thing. What? Whose idea was it to make a living creature of the oceans of this Earth look like that? Why would you do that, nature? What's the deal? What happened here? Just for a start: depending on the species, jellyfish bodies are between 95 and 98% water. Plain old water, plus two percent fleshy, translucent membrane.

They have no brains. No specialized digestive system. No blood. No nervous system. No vascular system. Just a one-size-fits-all cavity where food meanders its way in and is passively digested. The gastrovascular cavity is basically a hipster nonchalantly swaying to the music at a Death Cab for Cutie show, because they're not as hip and unknown as they used to be and it doesn't want to look too enthusiastic.
Ben Gibbard
"Yeah, Ben Gibbard is alright, I guess," he said, tears glistening on his cheeks as "Transatlanticism" reached its climax
The only thing jellyfish can consciously do (if you can even call it consciously, which you probably can't) is flex a single muscle that kind of, sort of, in a way, gives them control over their motion. Like spreading your arms and legs out to slightly alter your heading while you're falling from 20,000 feet without a parachute.

The way they reproduce is weird as hell, too. A bunch of them get together and basically make a big old cocktail of sperm and eggs, which eventually leads to mass fertilization. The eggs hatch into little larvae called planulae, which stick to a firm surface and grow into polyps. Polyps are essentially what you'd expect to get if you cross-bred a jellyfish with a sea anemone, and if there are any mad scientists reading this and thinking that sounds like a good idea, please don't. You are the most boring mad scientist in history. Stop it.
Jellyfish Reproduction Cycle
If this diagram shows up in your plot to take over the world, there are several somethings wrong with you.

So the polyp grows up a bit, and suddenly things take a turn. In many cases, the polyp will spontaneously just...clone itself. Because jellyfish are both sexually and asexually reproductive organisms. And then sometimes, just for kicks, a few polyps will decide they're not in a place right now where they can afford to live on their own, so they'll find some roommates and form a colony. Not to save on rent money, mind you. They share a goddamn stomach. Because of course they do.

Finally, they fly the coop to become an ephyra, which is more like what you imagine when you think of a jellyfish. Then it grows tentacles, and becomes a medusa. Then it haunts your nightmares and inspires Nintendo to design a creature that can literally suck your life force out of your upper torso.
If you played games in the '80s and '90s, you are now having PTSD-esque flashbacks.
Holy shit.

"Ben Gibbard 2" by Sharat Ganapati - originally posted to Flickr as Ben Gibbard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Holy Shit, Uhura!

The woman in the above photo is Nichelle Nichols, in character as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the set of Star Trek. It's easy to forget (which is encouraging to me) how groundbreaking this character was for American fiction, and particularly for network television. She debuted with series opening episode, "The Man Trap," which aired in 1966.

Uhura was Chief Communications Officer aboard the Enterprise. That makes her the fourth link in the chain of command. So,..a black woman, in 1966, held a position of considerable power in a network television show. That's a mere two years after the Civil Rights Act. Deep-seated institutional racism doesn't just taper off that quickly. Uhura wouldn't have existed if Gene Roddenberry hadn't held downright shockingly progressive views for a man of his generation from Texas.
Gene Roddenberry
You wouldn't have known it by his face.

As a matter of fact, Roddenberry's original pilot featured a female First Officer, who was the intensely logical and level-headed presence on the bridge. The female character. In 1965. It goes beyond that, even. He stubbornly refused to allow any reference to organized religion as a going concern on the show. While working on The Next Generation, he told writer/producer Ronald D. Moore that he believed Earth's religions would taper out by the 23rd Century, to be replaced by personal spirituality.

But back to Uhura. At the end of the first season, Nichelle Nichols considered leaving to pursue a career on Broadway. One weekend, she went to a Civil Rights and met a big fan of the show who changed her mind. You may have heard of him, because he was Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his Dream Speech
Yeah. That Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King told Nichols that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife allowed their kids to watch. He begged her not to leave, because he knew how important it was for black people in America, and in particular black women, to have a role model like Uhura. Someone who was not a servant of the heroes, but their peer. "Once that door is opened by someone," he said, "no one else can close it again.

So she stayed on for the duration of the series. It turns out, Dr. King was right on the money. Among those who called Nyota Uhura a major influence were Dr. Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, and Dr. Mae Jamison, the first black woman astronaut. Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan in The Next Generation, also looked up to Uhura. When she first saw Star Trek, she ran to her parents and shouted, "I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!"

People make a big deal out of Star Trek, and we like to call those people nerds. But you can't deny the impact. It goes beyond launching a renewed interest in science fiction (and science in general). Star Trek played a crucial role in tearing down racist and sexist taboos, and it did so deliberately. Because Uhura's name? Comes from the Swahili, uhuru. Which means "freedom."

Holy shit.

"Gene roddenberry 1976" by Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Holy Dog Shit!

In the Fall of 2000, a group of four buddies decided to make a quick buck by robbing an upscale house in Lakeville, Indiana. What they didn't realize (until they were spotted) was that the property wasn't quite abandoned. There were three construction workers in a barn on the property. The jig was pretty much up...or it would have been if one of the burglars hadn't decided to do what is customarily referred to in Hollywood as "tying up loose ends."
Loose Ends Hendrix Album
Picture unrelated.
So he shot all three of the witnesses in the head, killing them all. The four criminals were apprehended, and their conviction on armed robbery was more or less in the bag. The trickier part for investigators was figuring out which of the four were involved in the actual murder. Juries like to take that sort of thing into account when deciding whether individual members of a criminal conspiracy should be locked up without parole and whatnot.

One of the four was a 21-year-old youngster named Phillip Stroud. He solemnly swore to the police that he was a mere lookout. That he had never left the car. That his involvement was minimal, and he would never have wanted anyone killed. Investigators may have believed him if it weren't for his shoes. Or, to be more accurate, the thing they found on his shoes.
Guess what it was?

That thing was shit. Dog shit. The police sent a tiny scrape of dog shit from Stroud's shoes to a Veterinary Genetics Lab at UC Davis, which is a thing that exists in our world (thank god). They also sent a fresh poo from the dog who lived in the house where the whole thing went down. Turns out, they were a perfect match. And outside the crime scene, close enough to the barn for it to be suspicious, there was a nicely flattened turd that someone had stepped in.

Stepping in dog poo is enough to ruin anyone's day. For Phillip Stroud, stepping in dog poo led to his conviction, which led to his being sentenced to death. A few years later, the sentence was overturned and commuted to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. So if you're planning to murder anyone...well, first of all, don't. But watch for the telltale poo.

Holy shit.